In the perpetual boom-and-bust rhythm that propels this province, Edmonton is, at present, realizing some long-awaited growth: transit expansions are open (delays and issues notwithstanding), and the new stadium has rapidly spidered itself over 104th Street as a growing framework of an arena to be. Downtown’s puffing up all around it to match, so it seems like a central vantage point—where Latitude 53, the artist-run centre, happens to situate itself—presently marks the ideal spot to take stock of changes in the city.
And from Latitude’s location, the ripples of expansion have been on Visualeyez curator Todd Janes’ mind since, at the very least, last year’s festival.
“I think of Edmonton often as an organic being of itself, a very complex, living thing,” he says. “I was thinking more about the expansion that was starting to happen. … There’s a lot of things growing here. And as the economy wanes and flows, it’s an interesting time, and we’re in a little bit of a downturn, but there’s still so much activity happening here.”
The idea of expanding—and its corresponding downturn, collapse—make up the thematic throughline of Visualeyez, Latitude 53’s annual performance art festival. Now in its 16th year, Visualeyez is dedicated to that curious, compelling area of the art world; for seven days, eight performance artists from across Canada are spending time in town with projects that in some way embody that thematic dichotomy.
In the mornings, the group gathers to discuss the projects (a gathering that’s open to visitors, too; “They’re really usually a magical time,” Janes says, “like the residency within the festival.”); Later in the day, the artists attend to their works, including the audience in big or small ways as they go. One of this year’s artists, Mathieu Leger, is planning a few walking tours of a city he doesn’t yet know, Janes notes, but leaving where he goes up to chance.
“He’s taking a map of the city, and [will be] striking through it, piercing [it], and when he opens the map, will be areas he wants to explore with his walks,” Janes says. “And people are invited to come along for those two- to three-hour walks as he explores the city.”
Others are offering more intimate experiences. Montréal artist Rachel Echenberg—who’s actually a Visualeyez alumnus, having been here for the festival’s 2002 edition—is trying to explore proximity, both between people and around them.
“The idea is that, there’s something that’s in perpetual movement, and it’s changing the space between people,” she says, over the phone from Montréal “When I talk about my work, I talk about it in terms of space, and spaces that could be considered social or political, as well as spaces that are more intimate, or personal. So you can move from a very large public context to a very intimate interior space with my work. That’s what often I’m attempting to do.”
Her 2015 Visualeyez entries involve balloons—of a far more substantial kind and size than the typical birthday and used-car-lot variety—being blown up collectively. Her trio of performances are titled Nine, Five and Three, respectively, with the titles corresponding to the number of people required to operate the balloon. Nine will be the largest version of the project she’s ever done. (She’s looking for iron-lunged participants willing to be involved too; those interested can put their names out there via the Visualeyez website.)
“People get pushed apart and the shape that it takes on becomes more visible; it becomes more interesting,” she explains. “It’s kind of comical, but very beautiful and elegant. It keeps changing.”
Put another way, it’s an experience that Echenberg and the others are offering audiences: something a little more direct and involving than, say, wandering a gallery of work by yourself. It’s the pursuit of those experiences that Echenberg finds intriguing about the form. While she’s worked in other mediums of art, all of her major projects are performative.
“I think, as a performance art watcher, and follower, I just think it’s really human,” she says. “It’s a place where you have to become very present. You have to observe the work as it’s happening, and perhaps think about it later. It gives you a lot to think about, and it transforms your point of view and your perspectives. Where you’re standing from, what body you’re standing in, how you approach the work with what kind of openness, will affect the way you understand it. That’s very human, and very present—and very direct. It has an ability to deal with the here and the now in a way that other work cannot.
“There’s a thrill and an excitement to that, every moment,” she continues. “Becoming aware of the choices one makes in each moment that become heightened in performance.”
A thinning divide between audience and performer is something Janes is seeing elsewhere in the art world, too—from people taking selfies with art to galleries actively asking you to hashtag your experiences while there—but, he notes, it seems particularly visible in projects like these.
“I think performance art is more porous around that, because very rarely is there a formal stage, a demarcation between audience and actor, audience and artist, and I think people are … for the most part appreciative of that,” he says. “Even when people are like, ‘What is happening? Or how am I engaging?’ There’s still a really strong, nuanced acceptance of, ‘I will be part of this.’
“Maybe there’s kind of a switch, where people realize at one moment they’re implicated in it,” he continues. “But then there’s a real sense of authorship, where they think, ‘I’m implicated in this—but how do I make it my own?’ And I think performance art allows that authority to be transferred a lot easier.”