Mar. 26, 2005. 09:45 AM
acts of weirdness
And then it happens. A beat rises, obliterating the white noise of the train's rumble. Music spills from a boom box, and instantly, a small troupe of dancers transforms the vacuum of morning rush hour into a makeshift, downscale version of Electric Circus, tailored for the bleary-eyed public transit set.
"We've called ourselves guerrilla dancers, dance terrorists, all those things," laughs Paige Gratland, who organized the events every Monday in February of last year. "But really, it's a kind of gift-giving. We just want people to go about their day with the feeling that something different happened today.... How often do you see people having fun on the subway?"
It was a riff on an idea that Gratland and her collaborator, Day Milman, had for Free Dance Lessons, where the pair would stage an impromptu dance party on the street, inviting anyone nearby to join in.
The intention, Gratland says, is obvious. "People on the street don't even want to look at each other, much less talk to each other," she says. "And that's not how I want to live my life. We're trying to create a public space where people can engage in a positive, meaningful way."
Gratland and Milman are not alone. You may have stumbled recently across neatly wallpapered bus shelters, perhaps being attended by a primly dressed man in a crinoline skirt, or a brightly coloured concrete pillar or bicycle standard. Trees, at times, have worn sweaters. Fire hydrants have been garlanded in cake icing. There have been knitted cosies for bike locks and public phone receivers, dress-up parties in Trinity Bellwoods Park, and a well-tended garden of ferns growing from the toilets and urinals of Metro Hall. Tiny gold trophies have been affixed around town, engraved with the slogan "Good For You.''
And that's just Toronto. In New York recently, visitors to a McDonald's washroom were greeted by a tuxedo-clad attendant. Last year, a life-sized game of Pac-Man occupied city streets there. In London, Scottish artist David Shrigley posted hand-scrawled signs, one on an expanse of lawn ("Imagine the green is red"), and in front of the Millennium Dome ("Ignore this building.") And the list goes on.
They are unannounced, unpredictable and ephemeral, occupying time and space in the public eye only for a brief moment before they disappear. Names have been put to them, from public intervention to performance art to installation to street theatre to happening. Some would consider them one and the same. Others would say labels don't matter. What does matter is that it's a creative act in The World Out There: The work doesn't find the audience, the audience finds it.
"I've done some of these kinds of projects in sanctified art spaces, like galleries, and it's always less successful," says Jillian McDonald, a Canadian performance artist in Brooklyn. "People who come to those kinds of spaces know what to expect. And I really love the delight that is possible for myself, as well as the audience when you're outside of that, in public, because anything can happen."
McDonald has tested her theory in public space many times. In her Candy for Strangers project, she handed out 500 sweets to subway passengers in New York ("They were gone in about 40 minutes; I thought people would be more suspicious," she said). Recently, McDonald, dressed in an evening gown, strolled through a society soirée with a tray of chocolates. When guests reached for one, she pulled away. "Sorry," she told them. "I'm not sharing."
In the prescribed routines of social space, it was a mental snag: Reactions ranged from the annoyed to the amused, but no one could be indifferent, and that was exactly the point.
"So many of our interactions in public are so mundane, from getting change to pushing past people on the subway," McDonald says. "It's when something becomes more than mundane that things get really interesting."
Tyler Clark Burke once paraded a troupe of papier-mâché zebras through the west end to an art opening for the Borden Street collective.
"People's interactions with them on the street was amazing," she said last year. "It made the opening an event."
Was it performance art? Who knows? But it was far from mundane. And maybe that's enough.
"I'm in favour of a really broad definition of performance art," says Dave Dyment, co-director of the Mercer Union art centre and board member of Toronto's 7a*11d, an annual performance art festival. "It can be something as simple as a little disruption, a bump in the everyday."
It is a wise strategy. As a form, it has ever been vaguely defined. Its informal beginnings are rooted in the Futurists and Dadaists, early 20th century art movements. The notion took root in North America in the 1930s with the composer John Cage, who was teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina alongside such artists as Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg.
By the 1950s, the notion of art had spilled out of gallery settings, morphing into vast, chaotic events called "happenings," orchestrated by artists including Claes Oldenburg and Alan Kaprow. Around the same time, artists such as Yves Klein were incorporating performance in their work — which for Klein meant smearing naked women with blue paint and dragging them across a canvas, accompanied by music he composed.
The happenings, which coincided nicely with the hippie generation, became a pop phenomenon, with decadent images of creative abandon the stuff of magazine features and coffee-table books.
But by the 1970s, around the time "performance art" was coined, the spirit of discovery had been replaced by the intense, and the shocking. In 1971, Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm with a .22 rifle in a gallery space. Later, he crucified himself against the hood of a Volkswagen. Vito Acconci would trail strangers for days at a time through the city, documenting their every move. By the 80s, the form had become notorious, capped off, perhaps, by Karen Finley, who gained notoriety in the alongside Robert Mapplethorpe for allegedly becoming intimate with yams in her performances.
The stigma persisted. "Even five years ago, most people would hear the term `performance art,' roll their eyes, and say, `Give me a break,'" Dyment says. This may not have been a bad thing. Dyment allows it left room for something new to grow..
"There are a generation of people now that don't have this reverence for the term," Dyment says. "Now, there's a huge element of crossover between performance art and prank, and I admire that, because artists and activists are the kind of people who can elevate prank beyond a juvenile gag."
Among them are interventionists like the Urban Beautification Brigade — the purveyors of bus-shelter décor — and the Civic Beautification Ensemble, who pretty up the bland bike standards and concrete pilings with brightly coloured paint. The CBE also convened the recent "Wintervention," which spawned the icing-laden fire hydrant, the tree sweaters and the cosies.
Performance art, activism, call it what you will — the blurred lines can be liberating, says Duncan Walker of the CBE.
"It's seen as something that crosses those boundaries, and I've always been interested in that," he says. Calling the work "colour therapy," the CBE traipsed wilfully across those boundaries, making a definition all the more unclear.
"We started out by spinning it as a way to promote civic involvement, but in a tongue-in-cheek way," says Walker, who, along with fellow CBE founders Redmond Wiesenberger and Jason Van Horne, offer Power Point presentations in their performances, .
"But we wanted to give the impression that something's at work here. Is it official or not? Are my tax dollars going to this? It starts a chain of unanswerable questions, and that's really interesting."
As performance art has shifted its focus outward, its intentions have shifted too. In 1999, Kym Pruesse, a professor at OCAD, published a slim volume called Accidental Audience, a catalogue of artist interventions for "off\site@toronto," a citywide project that included the trophies and the ferns in the toilet.
"There is something about its surprise and anonymity that I respond to," she wrote, "the feeling that the work is an unexpected gift."
Germaine Koh might not see her own public work as a gift, though humour is an element. Koh, an accomplished artist working in various media, is drawn increasingly to the public realm for her work.
"It's strange," she says. "I find myself being in the funny position of being an artist who shows in galleries but, in the name of directness, also losing interest in that, because it is so precious."
Last May, Koh and Jade Rude, another artist, met on a traffic island, ringed with chains, near Union Station. Slipping off their outerwear to reveal full boxing gear, including helmets and gloves, the pair sparred for three rounds as traffic snarled around them, before simply dressing and riding off on their bikes at the bell. The piece was called High Noon.
In Watch, Koh installed herself in a slender window gallery, less than a metre wide, on Queen St. W., impassively watching passers-by. Some tried to engage her. Others seemed embarrassed or shocked. Some laughed, some were outraged. Throughout, Koh sat quietly behind glass, not responding.
In both cases, Koh gave no indication that she was mounting an art project, nor had it been announced.
"I think I freaked some people out," she says. "But I'm not interested in somebody coming to the work with the question `is this art?' The more interesting question is simply, `What's going on here? Why is this person in the storefront, and do I need to call the cops?' They jump to the issues right away, rather than being able to push it aside into a definition that's more comfortable."
Others take it a step further. "We didn't start this thing saying we wanted to do a new kind of performance art," says Gratland. "It was born out of frustration: `I'm tired of being on the street and not being able to engage with people.' I wanted to bring energy and vitality to my daily life on the street. That's what it's about, not being performance artists."
It was also rooted in activism. "It's a democracy of choosing how you want to live your life, and how you want to interact with people. If you're not happy with something, put something forth to change it."
It's a choice that's still too rare, said Toronto Public Space Committee coordinator Dave Meslin.
"Any time you do anything in public space that goes beyond this monotonous habit of non-engagement is an intervention," he says. "It's a culture jam just to smile at someone, or make eye contact."
Over the past several years, Meslin has helped organize subway parties, where activists board a car during rush hour and decorate it with streamers and balloons, blaring music and engaging riders in social chit chat. He's also been involved with Reclaim the Streets, where a activists occupy a block of the city in much the same way, completely unannounced — until the police remove them, at least — and Critical Mass, a hundreds-strong monthly bike ride that clots traffic all over the city.
So is it art? "Anyone who chooses public space as a canvas is making an artistic statement as well as a political one," Meslin says.
But the category matters less than the libertation from routine they represent. "It should be an everyday, natural occurrence that we see performance on the street," he says. "It should be as common as the grass and the trees, that people feel free to turn the streets into an art gallery."