Performatorium 2015 entitled Making It, Difficult presents work by artists whose work is both challenging and difficult to perform and watch - physically and mentally for the artist and visually/aesthetically/emotionally and perhaps ethically and politically for audience members. This edition of the festival addresses how art and live performance can be equally personal, cathartic, and exacting for creator and spectator alike.
In 2011, I had the privilege of attending SPILL: Festival of Performance in London, UK. It was Dominic Johnson, who had performed his stunning work Transmission for the performance component of Queer City Cinema in 2010 (curated by Michael Toppings), who recommended that I attend. There was an anticipation that came with being at a festival that presented work by artists, queer and otherwise, where risk, intimacy and, as I would discover, difficulty, were in full offering. Performances by Romeo Castellucci, The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein, Jamie Lewis Hadley, Martin O’Brien in particular were revelations – live art that was arduously demanding on the artists, challenging to the senses, at times vulgar, disquieting, uncomfortably intimate, and on occasion questionable due to ethical and political content. These were artists putting themselves in places of abject vulnerability, performing acts that were physically painful and emotionally bare, yet so committed and focused on creating an all-immersive experience that to look away, pinch your nose, cover your ears or, to leave, would have robbed me (and from all appearances, many others) of an experience that was too vital to miss. What pushes us away draws us in. Difficulty has the capacity to mesmerize.
As a curator, I was confronted with feelings of uncertainty, of apprehension and of second guessing myself. This was my difficulty - how would these works stand-up within the context of Performatorium and within Regina itself. As a queer and theme-based performance art festival, Performatorium comes with the task of seeking out and presenting works that speak to a general theme or focus. For the inaugural Performatorium in 2012, my objective was to provide a path that would allow for works that would not be too challenging but that would still provide a well textured offering of the curious, the adventurous, the playful, the conceptual and, of course, the diamond run performances – riskier, harder to navigate, full-on challenging. The result was the inclusion of Hadley’s edgy (literally and otherwise) performance in that first year of Performatorium whose theme addressed aspects of safety and risk using elements of winter as a metaphor for both comfort and distress. However successful and satisfying that this festival proved to be, I felt the need and responsibility, (especially after having witnessed Spill) to present work at a future Performatorium that would specifically address the theme of difficulty and to include artists that were driven by that very concept whether through content, the manner in which their work was executed, or both.
Considered one of the most influential and important contemporary performance artists especially in terms of what is called body art and extreme performance art, the work of Ron Athey was a main source of inspiration for this year’s festival. Ron Athey has been someone I have considered programming at Performatorium for some time, yet, admittedly, I had struggled to come to terms with his work specifically in regards to presenting it here in Regina – to find the means to present it in a proper context that would somehow provide guidance and accessibility, while still respecting the integrity of the work.
Making It, Difficult was a result of these considerations and, in part, a vehicule to contextualize Athey’s work and consequently, that of the other artists performing at this year’s Performatorium. A critical context like difficulty in performance proposes/offers a lens through which to experience these artists’ work and especially Athey’s, where his body - often pierced, cut, bloodied, naked, and presented in ritualised, ceremonious scenarios - provides visual cues for subject matter addressing, but not limited to, HIV-AIDS, mortality, iconography, sadomasochism, and queer sex(uality). Other subject matter being broached and confronted this year include the transgender body, trans-species relations, body intimacy, sacrifice, illness and subversive and transgressive images and scenarios.
Of course, as a queer festival, it makes sense to program these particular works at Performatorium as Queer artists, performance and otherwise, are not shy about confronting their audiences (and themselves) with images, ideas and concepts that challenge social and political norms and expectations (and the ‘art world’ status quo). As a result, we have historically been presented with difficult viewing experiences that have led to public moral crisis, ethical arguments, legal battles, threats and cuts to arts funding. Attention of another kind, thankfully, is also enacted through informed and insightful texts (see Jennifer Doyle’s essential reading – “Hold It Against Me - difficulty and emotion in contemporary art”) and contexts (festivals, symposiums, workshops, academic presentations) that provide the means for considering their meaning, the reasons for their difficultness, the risk, the poetics and personal investments made by the artists, the careful considerations of how the personal and the public collide and coalesce, and perhaps why difficulty is a necessary (and an even welcome) condition to the experiencing of these performances.
There is a faith in difficulty. Beyond the controversies, the public, social and political backlashes, the misunderstandings and the challenges in being presented, these artists know that their work are explicitly challenging, and work hard at making sure that it is recognized as such. They are acutely aware that their work may not be appreciated beyond literal and misinformed interpretations, know that they face resistance and are aware of the difficulty their work engenders. They possess a fully-immersive self-belief in what they do as artists - that their art is a necessity, is potent, important, and exists as a telling expression of the private and the public, of transphobia, homophobia, and body phobia, the graphically intimate, the dark and light, the absurd and subversive, the loud and abrasive, the pleasant and painful - creating new ways to show all of this (difficulty) to us, somehow, through the art of performance.
To see these performances is to experience these performances and with experience comes a vocabulary through which to communicate and share with one’s own thoughts, feelings and emotions, and with those of fellow viewers. I am thrilled to once again offer an opportunity to not only experience performance and to build vocabulary, but to also build an appreciation for art that is on the margins - provoking questions and inquiry, and providing Regina audiences with something interestingly difficult to talk about.
Artistic and Executive Director
Queer City Cinema Inc.
December - 2014