The city of Guelph holds a very special place in my heart. Fondly, I think back on summer months that I spent there house-sitting, two weddings of friends I’ve known for over a decade, and one of the first times I sold some artwork at a Community Roots shop curated by a friend, Tracey Enns. I’ve had some fantastic times at the River Run Centre as well; two dance festivals I performed in, as well as a beautiful reception at one of the said weddings. The centre has a certain air of magic and appeal to it. The main hall is especially captivating with floor to ceiling windows looking out on to the Speed River.
This familiar setting offered a new and exciting objective: a chance to meet the Guelph Shebang artists who were in the final stages of their three-year process. It was also a chance for me as an artist to explore a brand new interactive video installation I had been developing over the last month.
In the spirit of re-visiting a place of such history, it was great to reconnect with Jenn E. Norton, with whom I went to high school. It’s been really inspiring to see her progression from painter to video and media artist. I remember her paintings having a richness for narrative and story-telling and her video: ‘Wee Requiem’ (2010) is a good example of her wit and curiosity about the world.
For the Guelph Shebang Jenn created several installations, the first titled ‘Arms Reach’: depicting a maze of tiny wooden rooms presented on MicroTiles (a type of screen made by Christie Digital). Each scene (or tile) is a gateway to the next and explores possibilities within the sensory properties of touch. Her installation was accompanied by a sound score by participating artist Bry Webb.
In addition to Arms Reach, Jenn created an interactive video installation ‘macro:micro’ that uses a reflective rectangular prism and combines its images with a live video feed. The installation is dually site specific as the reflective structure is located on the theatre’s ‘Bridge’ balcony and also on a large projection screen in the MainStage. Its playful M.O. combines audience and theatre; blending the two separate locations together where the spectator becomes the spectacle; and the audience member becomes the performer.
I also had the opportunity to meet Claire Tacon and observe her set up one of her installations: ‘3×6 Typewriters’ which is a joyful return to the analog bliss of eighteen handsome typewriters. Inside the gate of each typewriter is a card with words of wisdom or words all too worn. The viewer is asked to provide feedback to some of the best and worst advice submitted by community members in an earlier Shebang exercise last year. Some of the advice cards I read were fair grounds for rebuke, such as, “You are not as important as you think you are”, and others teased my imagination like: “The gills of fresh mushrooms are still attached”. I found myself anticipating some interesting responses at the main event.
Claire also created the ‘3×6 Chapbook’ where she chose six sentences as a starting point from the 1950s psych text: ‘Put Your Mother on the Ceiling’ and developed these prompts to create six distinct characters. The book’s pages are sliced into three sections acting as a flip book and encourages the reader to explore the flexibility of the narrative. Claire’s knack for picking up subtleness embodies something that is so innate and wholesome in her practice. I enjoyed her warmth and words.
Many elements of Claire’s Chapbook were folded into performances during the main event. Claire and Bry performed on stage reading sections aloud from her book. The stage was lit with two soft focused spots, one for each person. Behind them, a large projected live camera feed revealed a topical view of the lighted spots on the floor and we could see Claire and Bry circling around in their own individual ‘bubbles’. It was interesting when Bry and Claire eventually crossed over and zig-zagged between each other’s orbs as their spoken words overlapped one another.
Dance artist Megan O’Donnell also performed a series of movement phrases in response to the texts from the 3×6 chapbook, pairing them with the advice gathered in the first year of the Shebang. Again, we were given a bird’s-eye-view from the projected live camera feed, and the two spot-lights merged into one singular orb.
Ishra Blanco gave a stunning performance, interacting with Bry Webb’s ‘Strung Floor’. Bry had set up a series of feedback loops by placing guitars hooked up to amps in a circular pattern on the side hall’s performance space. The floor became a sensitive instrument, highly responsive to footsteps. Ishra’s practice in Flamenco dance combined with the sensitive electric guitars gave way to a highly electric performance and I was captivated by way she commanded music from guitars with the fabric of her traditional red dress adorned with ruffles.
Bry’s installation also became a fun and interactive playground where I witnessed people of all ages exploring the circle – dancing, jumping, running, and tip-toeing each produced different levels of sound and enjoyment.
One of the themes most tangible throughout the event played homage to the macro:micro and the thrill of discovery – as audience members were invited to explore the building and all of its hidden backstage wonders. Like the dressing rooms where Ishra and her belly-dancers prepared their costumes, or the orchestra pit, or high up in the wings of the theatre where one could see the massive pulleys and gurneys for the curtains and fly bars.
Janet Morton offered warmth with a series of lamps to help guide the way to all these hidden places. When I first met Janet she came up with a symbol for me. It was a circle with extending lines leading to other little circles and I couldn’t help feeling so welcomed by that. She created individual symbols for each of the artists. Janet has an incredibly contagious DIY spirit and enthusiasm.
Amadeo Ventura had all twelve of us on instruments and taught us several samba jams. I think what was so great about it was that it relieved some of the personal tension that goes along with trying to get your projects up and running and general anxiety about the upcoming show. I don’t consider myself a musical person, and I was completely amazed that we were playing complex patterns and so quickly. The feeling of connection became quite immediate through our percussive instruments and to experience a collaborative rhythm in this way. It was especially fun to play as an ensemble, as part of the closing ceremony for the Guelph Shebang. I’d like to also add that Amadeo is a beautiful piano player, and I hadn’t known this until I watched part of the show featuring a video of Amadeo playing while Bry accompanied him live on his guitar (video also by Jenn).
The installation I developed over the week was presented in one of the dressing rooms, next to Ishra’s: ‘Invoketress Dressing Room’ and also alongside a video installation created by Claire and Jenn. I found this to be a great opportunity to test out some ideas about the nature of interactive art. I’d like to borrow something that Bry Webb had said in a previous interview: “creating a space of democracy where others can create”, because I think he really nails what this process is about. Having the chance to theorize about how people might respond to the installation vs. the actual outcome was fun and interesting to think about. And, how ‘play’ makes its way into the folds of our every day life. I was surprised and delighted by all of the kids that showed up and had the installation doing incredible things that I hadn’t anticipated.
I did have some personal conversations with some of the artists, talking about how one’s ‘performer spirit’ shines through their medium, and whether or not he/she thinks that they are a performer. Many artists can identify with and put into practice the need for a prop or mask to get over their stage fright, come out of their shell or go deeper into their concepts and constructs. As someone who uses a medium to express myself, I don’t always feel comfortable being on stage but I guess part of me feels like a performer.
I also believe whether you’re an artist who needs collaborative process or one who prefers complete autonomy, they are two sides of the same coin. I think it’s important for artists to ask themselves if collaboration serves a purpose in their practice, whether it be reaching a shared goal, or to experience a common purpose, building consensus. The opposite is also important – whether it’s reaching for your personal goals within your practice, or actualizing/discovering its singular purpose (its intension). In this particular residency, I see both of these sides happening at once.
Since I’ve known Andrea Nann, instigator of The Whole Shebang, I’ve had the pleasure of participating in previous Shebangs. I think often about how the process allows for considerable crossover to take place and it invites you to participate in ways that get you out of your comfort zone, and I think that’s a unique place to be.
I’d like to thank Andrea and the Guelph Shebang artists for their welcoming spirit and for sharing their individual talents and insights. I left Guelph with a hope that the River Run Centre might adopt and maintain a lasting relationship with the artists, and to find new innovative ways to sustain the artistic community.