Tavi Weisz, I Left, Ottawa, 2015

Witnessing

Judith Parker

Notes on the Prima performance art series
EBA’s 23rd Open House, October 29th and 30th, 2015

Performances by Hélène Lefebvre, Julie Fiala, Karina Bergmans, steven girard, and Tavi Weisz

Organized by Hélène Lefebvre

During EBA’s 2015 annual studio Open House, five performance art works intervened in the normal flow of this well attended community event. In the sprawling two-story artist’s co-op, performances took place in unusual spaces throughout the building including a narrow corridor, outside the entrance, a back staircase, in studios and hallways, and an area near the bar. Broadly speaking the interventions addressed issues of societal-witnessing, though each artist enacted a very different role.

Hélène Lefebvre, Mobilus in mobile III, Ottawa, 2015.  Photo: Robert CrossOn the first night of EBA’s Open House festivities amid the raucous DJ music, the social who’s-whoing and booze-enhanced chatter, a petite but unmistakable black figure holding two long neon-yellow tubes to her eyes moved silently through the building. Sensing her way slowly around the studios, artists, visitors and art, Hélène Lefebvre was muted and insect-like — her external vision was limited by two styrofoam antenna that reached to the floor, ostensibly detecting her surroundings. For two hours Lefebvre’s soundless presence was non-verbal and without eye-contact as she witnessed our casual art-viewing activities in her alter-human mode. Communicating on a sensorial plane, Lefebvre discreetly acknowledged others by stopping or slowing. Her presence summoned a counter awareness in those who witnessed her, shifting them to internal reflection and created a calm foil to all the ambient buzz and chat. Unexpected and unexplained, she slowed us down, caused us to wonder, ponder, reflect upon our own actions, and opened our imaginations to unlimited possibilities. Lefebvre’s work Mobilus in mobile III was its 3rd iteration and the first time it was performed in Ottawa.

Julie Fiala, Smell, Touch, Sound, Ottawa, 2015. Photo: Robert Cross

The second night of EBA’s Open House was quieter – no DJ.  Four shorter performances each lasting around 10-15 minutes were presented by Fiala, based in Calgary, girard based in Montreal, and locals Bergmans and Weisz who are associated with the EBA co-op.  

Julie Fiala positioned herself outside the entrance on the threshold of the artist’s studio building and balanced precariously on a handrail that faced the street. On this dark and bitterly cold autumn night, her piece Smell, Touch, Sound was enacted in vignettes that occupied spaces beyond the building including the stair handrail, the tarmac and sunken steps closer to the road — all serendipitously illuminated by the flashing yellow lights of a security guard’s car, parked unusually close. The tone of Fiala’s enactment was waif-like and raw with emotion, but her actions were defiant and determined. Witnessing her performance of vulnerability was disconcerting — she removed her clothing including padded jacket, shoes, socks, jeans, sweater and shirt for extended periods. Seeing her clothing and other props/items scattered across the ground like abandoned objects presented issues of homelessness. During her actions, Fiala erratically and beautifully sang phrases from popular songs - “Like a bird on a wire,” “Vous êtes formidable, … formidable,” “Catch me if I’m falling,” “Hold on, hold on.” Fiala’s lament to love, loss, suffering and resistance was both elegiac and agonizing.

Karina Bergmans, Ghost: a haunting, Ottawa, 2015. Photo: Jason DerikozisInside a corridor next to the upper studios, a dishevelled, pale-faced ghoul with black ’n red eyes emerged clad in a white blouse, skirt and shoes. Ghost: a haunting by Karina Bergmans traced a zombie-like phantom who slid along the walls and occasionally removed a heavy industrial chain from around her waist to restlessly scrub the floor. White-faced she entered the old stairwell in the building’s rear which has remained unrenovated since its former use as a bread factory. Then, horrifyingly she slithered head first, silently with outstretched arms, down the stairs and arrived in a crumpled heap on the landing, continuing perilously to the stairwell’s bottom. Who was she? Had she been pushed? Was no one concerned with her death? Had she been a factory worker? Why had she emerged to be witnessed by the art crowd? Disconcertingly, both she and the onlookers remained wordless. Bergmans’ performance summoned an image of a victim of violence that was a sinister reminder about women who suffer helplessly at the hands of others.

steven girard, Don’t Take Any Notice, Political #1, Ottawa, 2015. Photo: Robert Crosssteven girard proclaimed his ritual commitment; “I, steven girard, refuse to cut my hair, … my beard, … my nails. I, steven girard, refuse to take a shower or other acts of personal hygiene ... for 10 weeks. I, steven girard, under the guise of these changes … will use this new aspect of my identity for the duration of the 10 weeks of this [ongoing] performance.” Then, vigorously twisting his body girard flailed his arms against himself and entered his selected space — a narrow, low ceiled, darkened corridor. Walking slowly, blood started to drip from one of his fingers onto the floor — however the instigation of this action was concealed. Other actions included holding an elastic band taught against his throat, making sounds of difficulty breathing, covering his face with a sheet of white paper held by an elastic (to me, symbolic of removing his individual identity, and of atrocities committed in the name of law and justice), drinking a bottle of red liquid in one breath through a hole in the paper, pulling his t-shirt over his head and then vomiting the blood-like contents onto the floor. Witnessing these enactments we were forcefully reminded of the systemic, hidden, illegal, inhuman treatment that too many people suffer. The acts of self-inflicted physical pain and endurance were girard’s gestures of solidarity with human beings who experience institutional violence and injury from the hands of others. girard’s performance Don’t Take Any Notice, was the third part of his ten week performance Political #1.

Tavi Weisz, I Left, Ottawa, 2015. Photo: Robert CrossTavi Weisz, dressed in white workman’s clothes, stood in front of a large wall illuminated by an equally large projected image in an area near the bar. The image depicted Weisz as an adult lying in a child’s inflatable wading pool wearing swimming shorts, his neck and head supported, or strangled, by a ridiculous plastic green frog pillow. The sound of a boisterous rock concert was heard along with an appreciative crowd, but the voice of the band’s singer was missing, creating a sonic void. It is significant to know that Weisz grew-up in two European communist countries (Romania and Hungary) where rock music was banned as degenerate, although smuggled music was secretly listened to as an act of freedom. Weisz commenced; he inflated a child’s wading pool, stood in it, daubed and then poured black paint on his face, chest and legs with a paint brush (he also makes paintings). Then with vigorous gestures Weisz painted I left in graffiti-like action, splattering the wall with black liquid. Moving faster and faster, Weisz buried these words with exuberant brush marks and undulating finger lines, almost concealing the projected photo and the connection to the past. Finally, he lay down in the child’s pool, deflated it, wrapped it around himself and rolled away. I Left was cathartic and intense.

The Prima performances were a bold and memorable addition to EBA’s 23rd annual invitation to the public; they opened new windows on art-making for those who witnessed them.

-- Judith Parker is an Ottawa-based art historian, writer and curator.

Photo captions:

  1. Hélène Lefebvre, Mobilus in mobile III, Ottawa, 2015.  Photo: Robert Cross
  2. Julie Fiala, Smell, Touch, Sound, Ottawa, 2015. Photo: Robert Cross
  3. Karina Bergmans, Ghost: a haunting, Ottawa, 2015. Photo: Jason Derikozis
  4. steven girard, Don’t Take Any Notice, Political #1, Ottawa, 2015. Photo: Robert Cross
  5. Tavi Weisz, I Left, Ottawa, 2015. Photo: Robert Cross