Right now in Turkey things are happening. Right now, enough is enough. Protests in Istanbul have quickly morphed into full-blown civil unrest throughout the country. Sadly, the tyranny of an unjust and uncaring government is not unique to its citizens. In the last week, a relatively small protest by 300 or so female environmentalists has – much like the recent Idle No More movement in Canada that was activated by three female First Nations leaders – spontaneously united the entire country in a common goal. The protest is no longer isolated to one group’s agenda (likely never the intention), and a million small personal decisions have come together into a collective decision to make change.
I’ve been talking a lot with people the last few days about my fascination with how artists make the myriad of decisions that, collectively gathered, will become the art. All these decisions, large, medium and small, everything that informs the initial impulse right down to the smallest detail that will determine the specific materials, affect how the work is viewed by the audience or understood in general. As performance artists we do this intuitively, but when asked about this process specifically, it might be difficult to trace the steps. How did I get from point A to point B? I think that in performance art, sometimes discounted as the art form that “anyone can do”, this decision-making process is even more mysterious, personal (and therefore interpersonal), nuanced, endless. Why this location, why this exact spot on the floor, why these shoes (why no shoes), why this weight of cloth, why this gesture?
I skip the video screening down the street from the gallery, opting instead to make myself a nuisance and watch the preparations for Şükran Moral’s performance in the gallery. In the transition time between presentations, there are volunteers and techs hurriedly moving throughout the space. Ladders are being put up, lights are being adjusted just so, temporary walls are being repositioned. In the last moments as the audience waits outside before being invited back into the space, even more decisions are being made on the spot. A longer string is being attached to the black cloth that is suspended from the ceiling, the piano is being moved a few inches to the left, Joseph Ravens is being coached through Şükran’s interpreter on various pronunciations in the introduction letter – a message from the artist – that he will read at the beginning of the performance. Ryan Noble is also in the gallery, waiting. He is standing (I think to myself, perhaps oddly?) rather erect, and stoic amidst the mayhem. I notice that he is wearing all black clothing and a pair of gloves with the fingers cut off, his hair pulled back in a smooth ponytail. He looks a bit like the security at a fancy club with the seriousness of a border guard, and is more than a bit unapproachable and intimidating (which if you’ve met Ryan seems instantly out of character). He strikes me as someone preparing for something, so I him if he is implicated in the performance we are about to see, and he replies, “Yes. Are you?”
Suddenly everything is ready, all of the decisions are made, and I watch as Ryan handcuffs the artist, wraps a long heavy length of chain link around the artist’s waist, and taking a few steps backwards, pulls the chain taunt. The artist is bare foot, wearing a long sleeve black dress. She stands braced against the chains, holding her hands out in front of her body. The audience enters the space and hug themselves along the walls (as all audiences do), making a large circle around this scene. The artist, bound and restrained, is facing a starkly lit grand piano.
She struggles against the chains, attempting to touch the piano, reaching out for the keys, trying desperately to move towards the stool and sit. But it’s impossible. The chains dig into her waist, sometimes causing her to cough and double over. Each time it seems she just might make it, nearly there, the man in black pulls her backwards, touches her shoulder, pushing her to the ground and forcing her to start again. This action is repeated over and over, and the artist makes no progress, and is forced to start over, to exert herself and her will repeatedly against the chains that bind her. Finally, after more than twenty painful minutes, she’s done it. She manages to drag herself to the bench at the piano, and the man in black has no choice but to let her sit.
A few moments pass, and I wonder if she is going to play the piano. What piece of music has been composed for a handcuffed musician? Instead, someone from the audience gets up from their spot sitting cross legged on the floor, approaches the piano, steps close to the artist sitting with her fists hovering over the keys, leans in, and unceremoniously spits on her. A moment passes, and someone else from the audience follows suit. One after the other, men and woman of all ages, step out of the shadows, approach the artist and spit on her body. Someone takes a swig of beer as they are walking over, and fountains it in an arch into the artist’s hair. Someone tries to cover the artist with a jacket to protect her. Someone spits on their own hand instead, and rubs it on the artist’s foot. Someone else gently holds the artist’s hand while spitting on her shoulder, a kind gesture juxtaposed with a rude one. This small gesture, expressing both empathy and acquiescence, makes the biggest impact on me. I wonder if both things are possible at the same time. I wonder if this combination has gotten us into this mess in the first place? When is enough, enough?
The performance ends when the black cloth suspended from the ceiling is released and the man in black reaches down and covers the artist and the piano with it.
After the performance at the festival bar, I ask a few people who participated in the performance why they decided to do so, and most respond that they did it because they wanted to respect the artist’s wishes. Participating in the performance contributes to the artist’s desired outcome for the performance (one of the many decisions she would have made about its ending), but it also forces the audience to be complicit in creating a metaphor to describe behaviors that given the choice, we would collectively reject.
A message from Şükran Moral:
At this moment in time there’s an ever-growing civil protest in my homeland. I mention this with pride. This brewing revolution, portrayed by some as an environmentalist get-together is in fact triggered by the government’s position against secular democracy and it’s insistence on oppressive policies.
The public has chosen to stand against this, united as one with no regard as to which political party they support or groups they identify with in society. Protests which started in Taksim Square’s Gezi Park spread all across the nation within a few days. But their police force has chosen to attack protestors looking after their democratic rights.
I condemn this cruelty as a citizen and an artist of Turkey.
I had prepared this performance prior to the revolution. “The Lynching of an Artist”
In 2010 for doing a piece called Amemus I was about to be subjected to this lynching. Governments hired columnists wrote against me, declaring the work immoral, spit worthy. Subsequently I received death threats and was forced to stay abroad for over a year.
In the last few years, the pressures on artists and intellectuals have increased tremendously. Also hurting me deeply, world-renowned pianist Fazil Say was charged for a year-long sentence simply fore retweeting a verse by poet Omar Hayyam, who lived a thousand years ago.
These are the inspirations behind the piece and I will perform it for the time here.
My request is you all taking part.
I know your role is not at all nice, but it’s simply for the sake of art.
Life itself is far more ruthless than this.
Do not forget. Only a fascist mind can conceive of “spitting” at the arts and the artist.
I dedicate this performance to my public putting their lives at risk, resisting the violence coming full force.
Damn Fascism, Long Live Art.
“For all these reasons, please spit on the artist when she sits at the piano.”
Photo by Elliott Sang
Shannon Cochrane is a Toronto-based performance artist, and cultural producer. She is the Artistic and Administrative Director of FADO Performance Art Centre (www.performanceart.ca). Established in 1993, FADO is an artist-run centre that presents, champions and disseminates the work of Canadian and International performance artists year-round. Shannon is also a founder, co-curator, and organizer of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art (www.7a-11d.ca). Run by a collective of performance artists, 7a*11d was established in 1997, and presents an international festival every two years. The tenth 7a*11d festival will take place in October 2014.