Alice Vogler’s An Evening of Messages occupied a space at Rapid Pulse that was unlike any other work in the festival. She made neither a stand-alone performance with a set time (30 minutes in front of a seated audience, for example); or a durational work that the audience is meant to experience in whatever way they design. Instead Alice made four compact gestures, spread over the day from early afternoon to the end of the evening, that we might most readily recognize (in the language of performance) as an intervention, a public work, an audience participatory performance, and a material-based action.
After seeing each section of An Evening of Messages, I am convinced there is a specific geometry at work in her 4-action play. Action 1: arrows that indicate lines that direct us to objects on a specific plane; Action 2: a large piece of paper – a whole – is cut in half; and in Action 4, the final act, a constellation of light is mapped in space. But my theory is thrown by Action 3 until Alice tells me that the starting point for the entire performance quad is the same. And that starting point, of course, is a gesture. She shows me. She puts her hand on the table with the tips of her fingers close together touching the surface, and she slowly spreads her hand out until the palm is flat. From a single point, and expanding outwards. Four short geometries in an expanding universe.
What is also at play in experiencing An Evening of Messages is the element of anticipation. As Alice states in her on-line description of the work, “Anticipation changes how we deal with and experience the passing of time.” She’s right. Our experience of the work is altered by our own assumptions and expectations, “assuming or expecting an action, an occurrence, an outcome, a response, an experience, or an event.”
When I enter the HUB, what I expect to see is the panel discussion. However, the first thing I notice are white arrows on the floor of the space, pointing up the stairs and into the room. It’s hard not to follow them, to stand in the void on the floor just beyond these indicators. I am a bit late, so the discussion is already in full swing. Strangely, because I am also there to find Alice, it takes me a few minutes to spot her. She is on the raised part of the room, sitting on a low white stool in front a large white plinth. It’s as large as her seated body. She could be in the same position sitting inside the box. Her clothing is all white. She is holding a silver tray that has a pile of white paper arrows on it. Occasionally the artist leans over and puts the tray down on the floor or a nearby table, takes an arrow from the tray, and moves into the space. She peels the sticky back off of the arrow and sticks it to various objects in the room; the coffee maker (pointing towards the lid), the lens of the video projector (pointing towards the image being thrown on the wall), the lunch table (one on each side of a tray of sandwiches, pointing towards “eat me!”), on the sun visor of a baby carriage (pointing down, towards the sleeping baby). I notice she has even placed one of the arrows on the shoulder of Pate Conway, one of the artists on the panel. It points upwards, to the ceiling, or right through the roof to the sky.
Alice seems to be engaged in the panel, so I start to listen as well, trying to find a correlation between what the panelists are saying at any given time, and when Alice chooses to get up and place an arrow. I can’t find a connection, but it hardly matters. Instead her arrows become my panel conversation, acting as indicators, offering direction, suggestions, and possible outcomes. At one point the panelists have been asked to give a number on a scale of 1 to 10 to indicate how tightly (1) or loosely structured (10) their performances are. I find it ironic that in the midst of this didactic question, there is Alice with her arrows, moving through the space, marking out a structure in the midst of this rambling, and no one acknowledges her at all.
A day after Alice’s performance she tells me that her performance was an experiment, a new way of working for her. She typically makes durational performances that contain only one action. For her, An Evening of Messages, was a new way of dealing with time. That instead of making one long performance that lasts over 5 hours, for example, that she could take that same amount of time and structure it in a different way, spreading several actions throughout the space of 5 hours. I like this distinction, and how it plays with our expectations of durational work. It’s also very tricky. The game of hide and seek performance is on.
I miss Action 2 completely. I arrive to the fountain in the Polish triangle just as Alice is walking away. So instead of a first-hand experience, I get a description of this public work from the artist herself. This is, in its own way, a performance. Sitting in front of the white plinth on a low white stool, wearing all white clothing, the artist takes out a roll of white paper, and using a very large pair of scissors (sharp, dangerous and absurdly large, they couldn’t possibly have a real use outside of ribbon cutting ceremonies) and proceeds to cut the entire roll of paper in half. The paper pools around her body in rolling cursive piles. Her partner, the only other person I know who saw the action, describes it as a “paper fountain”.
Later in the evening, bookending the last performance in the evening, Alice makes her final two actions in her series. In Action 3, when the audience enters the gallery, Alice is sitting on her white plinth, just a little bit above our comfortable eye level. The light in the space is dim, and the single bare bulb she is sitting under casts a warm glow. The white stool is in front of the plinth. Alice is wearing all white, and around her neck tied to lengths of white string, are several dozen small clear plastic bags filled with water, each containing an indistinguishable small object. She is holding a small silver tray with a scalpel. She asks everyone to sit on the floor. Her demeanor is open and friendly. One by one she gestures for members of the audience to approach, and stand on the white stool. Once on the stool, you are positioned between her legs, close to her, looking at her directly. Despite the fact that you are doing this in front of a watching and listening audience, it feels private. She reveals to you the inside of her left arm, on which is inscribed in marker, four lines:
Teeth are the instruments
whereby their owner takes
possession of something and
She asks you to read them. Then she asks you to take the scalpel, cut open one of the plastic bags and take the object inside of it with you. When you cut open the bag, the water spills over Alice’s legs and runs down the plinth, on your feet, pooling on the floor. Inside each of the bags are the remains of teeth and bits of jawbone from the skeleton of a cow. It’s a bit gruesome. But it’s also a gift, and an unusual one at that. Back in our spots on the floor, we can’t help but whisper with each other and compare our prizes.
The audience enters the space, and it is dark. Dark enough that it takes a few seconds to get your bearings. We spread out and cover the walls. In the middle of the gallery is the white plinth. Alice is standing behind it, and breaking with convention, she is wearing all black. Once everyone is settled, and the space is still and quiet, the artist slowly starts to move around the plinth in a counter clockwise direction. After several revolutions she takes out a hand drill, and drills a small hole on one of the planes of the plinth, and a bright white light is revealed. It’s not what I expected, and it’s beautiful. Walking around the plinth, she stops only to drill holes, then another and another, each hole revealing more and more of the light emanating from the inside. From the solidness of the white cube, she has created a constellation of stars. When she is finished, she simply joins us in the audience, and we all sit together, looking at the small universe Alice has created. It’s a lovely moment, and the right message for the end of the evening.
Photo by Vela Phelan
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.