Colonial Relics and Performance Remnants
text by Stefan St. Laurent
Cruise ships taller than most buildings in downtown Saint John come in and out of the harbour, seriously altering the landscape in a matter of minutes. Saint John has always been in a state of being ‘discovered’ – in the past by Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq peoples, then by French and English settlers, then the Loyalists, and now by tourists. In October 2006, in the spirit of discovery and exploration, some of the world’s top risk-takers—performance artists—descended on the Port City to take part in Kitchen Party: the Art of Intervention – the first ever performance art festival of its kind in Southern New Brunswick. As proud Acadian originally from Moncton, and a collaborator in the project, I was invited to observe and document the unfolding of Kitchen Party.
Founded by the United Empire Loyalists in 1783, Saint John, Canada’s oldest incorporated city, was never truly a haven for Acadians even centuries after their mass expulsion. Historically at odds with each other, Moncton and Saint John haven’t bridged many gaps in recent years, and certainly not in the art world. Generally speaking, francophone communities in Canada don’t connect in any tangible way with each other, so hosting a kitchen party for mostly francophone artists from Moncton, Ottawa, and Québec in Saint John is a significant gesture.
As a result – like the colonial relics we can find in The New Brunswick Museum or Loyalist House – Saint John now possesses an archive of performance remnants: video, photography, ephemera, writing, of site-specific work by some of Canada’s leading interdisciplinary art practitioners. I wonder if hundreds of years from now the two disparate collections will entwine, giving researchers access to a more expansive view of history?
The first performance I witnessed in this festival was by my own twin brother. It felt both familiar and strange, being together again 20 years later in Saint John (a place we barely remembered from our youth). Covered in plastic bags from the discount super chain Giant Tiger, JasonSt–Laurent climbed up the slanted roof of City Hall to integrate himself in the public sculpture Progression (1972) by famed Acadian artist and active participant in the Acadian cultural movement, Claude Roussel. As part of his ongoing photo-based project, The Camouflage Series, Jason assimilates himself into public monuments – but never completely: We often see him dangling off one part of a giant public work, pathetically trying to hold on and fit in. A divisive modern sculpture loathed by many, I would hypothesize that the negative reaction to Progression might have had less to do with form than politics. By virtue of being Acadian and gay, Jason quietly commemorates those of us who are often made to feel invisible.
Performance artists are more often then not rejected and scoffed at for confronting the public with that which is marginalized or ignored. Moncton-based multidisciplinary artist Mathieu Léger was perhaps the most ostracized of all, performing in various locations during the popular gallery hop without proper invitations. Standing on a carpet demarcated with the words ‘liminal space’, flanking ‘loyal-ties’ Léger stood by the entrances of Uptown commercial galleries, engaging onlookers with an impassive attitude. This relational work brought to the forefront the dichotomy that has subsisted for hundreds of years between Anglophones (Loyalists) and Francophones (Acadians), and what was intended to be a genuine exchange between historical enemies quickly degenerated into new sets of dichotomies: artist and audience, insider and outsider, and performance artist and traditionalist.
The Third Space Gallery featured Saint John born artist Jesse McKee for his video-based performance Tache (Stain). McKee projected a video of his belly being shaved on a cube of lard, covering it later with black spray paint and then removing the opaque layer with his bare hands; his body once again revealed, but cast now on a gross surface carved by fingernails on fat. The stripping bare of skin from fat, a solid matter that softens and melts from human touch, is both literal and metaphorical. No matter how hard we try to peel away at surfaces, new ones continually form and shield the heart. He wiped his dirty hands on t-shirts containing another image of his chest, which he then savagely staple-gunned to the gallery walls.
The evening of gallery hopping ended with a big bang at Le Faubourg – a legendary place that started as the Bank of New Brunswick, later became a series of bars and now is a francophone music venue. You can’t imagine how excited I felt to realize how much things had changed in Saint John. The place was packed with half Acadian and half art world folk totally opening their hearts to performance art. When that happens, you know you are going to have fun…
The evening began with dynamic duo Geneviève et Matthieu, a couple who have been collaborating for many years on performances that blend French crooning, improvisation, outlandish fashion and minimalist pop – my brother and I were even invited to perform as background dancers, supplied with tight dresses and geometric forms. Selecting material from their appropriately titled new album Crions notre joie, G & M enamored the crowd with their raw energy, uplifting lyrics and positive attitude so refreshing in a music world more obsessed with tits and ass than real showmanship.
After a mesmerizing set of surreal sounds by Montreal’s infamous collective Women With Kitchen Appliances the grand finale featured local pop legend Gary Flanagan, who gave us a new wave, synth-pop performance that was indescribably good. The archetypal tecky nerd in his moment of glory on stage is slowly deconstructed into a smart, articulate and melodically inclined songwriter. Not one to qualify energetic musicians as performance artists, I feel conflicted when describing what he does. Flanagan appropriately sang his French hit ‘Métro Boulot Dodo’ with its cute French refrain, mistakes et al: “Métro, boulot, dodo – chaque jour, c’est le même chose”. It always breaks my heart to hear an Anglophone earnestly speak French, but I am most impressed by his potential to become a serious New Brunswick musical export.
The following day in a nice settler home, the Women With Kitchen Appliances carried on with their kitchen certification project, probing the entire room with sound receptors that were amplified live for the people who attended. The sounds produced from the triggering of various appliances and plumbing in the room were disconcerting. The WWKAs, dressed in mundane uniforms crossed between a maid and a shuttle crew member, did their best to reveal the dark underside of the kitchen space. Perfectly correlating with the theme of the kitchen party, WWKA’s performance was a beautiful way to end our affair.
And like the excesses of other kitchen parties—beer bottles full of cigarette butts, stale chips and broken guitar strings—Saint John is left with a pile of performance remnants – residues of history that may forever change the way I and others view the city in the future. Now, as the colonial relics of the past slowly go to wrack and ruin, they may bear less significance and offer up fresh new viewpoints.
Stefan St. Laurent
Colonial Relics and Performance Remnants