Two women enter the space at the same time, one on my right via Skype, the other on my left in the flesh. A perfectly syncopated 2-hour duet begins with Jenn Goodwin at 86 Miller St in Toronto and Julie Laurin in a stark, industrial looking space at UQAM in Montreal.
First I want to talk about the similarities in this work—there are many—despite the fact that the performers had no contact with each other prior to this pairing and they come from different aesthetic backgrounds, Goodwin from a dance background and Laurin from the visual arts/sculpture.
Each performer works with one object—Laurin a broken shopping cart with its front end crushed in so that the wheels only allow it to move in a circle and only in one direction, and Goodwin a lightweight, medium-sized, navy blue, fleece blanket that just barely covers her body. These are very common objects and there is nothing particularly spectacular about them, yet they become the riveting centerpiece of the performances. One extraordinary aspect of each work is that the performers never let go of their objects. Their bodies are always in contact—touching them, clutching them—evoking both comfort and burden.
Two things that tie these works together are repetition and the domestic. The women brilliantly exploit their objects to create a range of states of being that we can all relate to, i.e. boredom, sense of duty, determination, anxiety, the relentlessness of domestic responsibility. Tension gradually builds over the 2 hours, and by the end we are exhausted.
It is challenging to keep track of Julie’s performance on Skype, as she slowly and deliberately pushes her shopping cart in a circle, because the monotony of the task suggests that nothing much will change and we make assumptions about what will happen. But that is a misperception, confirmed by a second viewing on Youtube. A lot happens, it just doesn’t happen quickly, but rather builds incrementally, logically toward some funny surprises as Laurin comes to terms with the futility and onerousness of her task.
Laurin creates a dystopic, almost prison-like environment through the repetitive action of walking in a circle, looking straight ahead, no deviation from the regimen, no looking left or right. The message is clear—do your job, get it done, no fooling around. The grating, creaky sound of the shopping cart wheels on the concrete floor and an industrial soundtrack of odd sounds reinforce the no-nonsense sensibility, and the video camera which is mounted high, is like a surveillance camera, reminding us that we are being watched, tested, evaluated on the success or failure of our actions. This is not an intimate, friendly scene, but rather one that compels us to check-in periodically to see if, indeed, The Woman is still standing, if she has endured.
Goodwin’s choreography in three parts begins with her slowly crawling into the space (which is littered with paper) hiding under her cozy blanket. Her big blonde hair peeks out from under the blanket, and we see her feet and ankles, her hands and arms. We don’t see her face. We never do. We never see her eyes or her mouth, forcing emotions to be conveyed via her body language and through her object—the blanket. It’s quiet, whooshing sounds are barely audible as she creeps into the room. We see that she is trying to get comfortable, stretching the blanket, curling up into a fetal position, stretching again, one foot inside the blanket, one arm outside, endless repositioning, constantly fidgeting, never still. It’s uncomfortable to watch someone trying to get comfortable and it’s also relatable. We recognize this “choreography,” sleepless nights, tossing and turning and we wonder, what is she worrying about? What is she hiding from? Her futile attempts to find stillness and peace become almost unbearable.
The near silence is broken by a disembodied voice (Kelly Mark) reading her list of things that she really should do: “I really should clean out my wallet. I really should pay back my student loan. I really should try and get my credit rating back. I really should plan ahead, I really should watch what I eat…” a bit of welcome comic relief, as we chuckle to ourselves and catalogue our own personal list of things we “really should do.” The “must do” litany feels both hopeful and hopeless, as Goodwin continues her struggle under the blanket and our empathy for her plight deepens. The blanket, it turns out, is both her friend and her enemy. It provides comfort but it isolates her from the world. I should note here that the papers on the floor are newspaper clippings that Goodwin collected and personal To Do lists. It was hoped that the audience would read these, and a few get passed around, but a well-behaved performance art audience is reluctant to interrupt. For me, the papers are unnecessary and, in fact, I think they are a bit of a visual distraction from the intensity and beauty of the mysterious moving body. But I digress.
Back at the shopping cart, Laurin’s original very regimented, up-right posture has begun to slump over the handle of the cart. The pushing seems still relatively easy, but a bit more laboured, after all hers is a young body, a strong body, robust. We have confidence that she will prevail and count on it as her surveilled, circuitous journey provides the drumbeat, the tempo, for the real life, blanketed body in the adjacent room. She walks. She is steady.
Suddenly there is music (Shandro Perri, Perigrine Falls, mixed by John Dinsmore) and Goodwin is on her feet. Blanket and hair still do their job and prevent us from bearing witness to her face, to her identity. Her body begins to move more quickly, more frenetically as she explores the room. Her gestures become almost animal-like at times, as she wields her hair in space. We watch expectantly during this next segment to see if she will let us in. Will she reveal? Will the blanket slip? Will she peek out at us? But she does not. She is successful at keeping us out, keeping the outside world at bay, her interior world protects her from the lists and she is all consumed with her self. As audience it is as though we are watching an exorcism and sometimes maybe we should just look away. As the music peaks, her movement becomes even more animated, and then, she’s back on the floor as the voice with the never-ending list of things to do once again fills the space, and we realize she’s about to do it all again. Just like life.
In the meantime, Laurin appears to have reached a limit. She stops the cart and awkwardly climbs into it. I do not know HOW she manages to do this without tipping over, without a big crash, but she manages. It is clearly difficult. We are on edge. Her grownup woman’s body barely fits into the cart. As she hugs her knees into her chest, head falling forward she looks like an oversized child, waiting. She no longer has to walk and push, but we see that even this passive position is not easy or comfortable, it is by no means rest. And it does not last for long, no longer than a few minutes, when the unexpected happens. A young man dressed in black enters the space and begins to push Julie in the cart continuing the cycle. They do not look at each other, they do not speak, he simply pushes as she stares ahead. She has relinquished control, but only for so long, as mysteriously as he appears, 15-20 minutes of pushing and he is gone, abandoning Laurin who at first tries to scoot the cart with her body from inside the basket, but then goes still.
Laurin unfolds her body and steps out of the cart. There are only a few minutes to go before the end of her travail as she takes stock of her object, pushing it one last time around the space until she stops. Laurin then inserts her body into the lower rack of the shopping cart, legs extended outward, toes pushing the cart forward ever so slightly and like a cyborg becomes one with her object. The beige body and the beige cart blend, as the cart becomes a backpack, the edges of the body entwined with the metal of the cart—Laurin on her knees, arms dangling from her sides, head facing the floor, she poses immobile for what seems like an eternity and transforms. She is sculpture.
These performances represent some firsts for these artists. It is Laurin’s first Skype performance and it is the first very long choreography for Goodwin, the original version being a 20-minute piece. Neither performer directly engages with their audience. Although Goodwin has the ability to hear people in space, I wonder how much of her attention she is able to give to audience, when so much of her time needs to be focused on not falling, not hitting posts or walls. And Laurin, what is the psychological impact of performing such a circuitous, repetitious action alone for hours with no audience energy to draw upon?
What I like about this work is that both artists give us many points of entry, creating images with their movement and sound that resonate for us all. You can see them both online at http://www.durationanddialogue.com/watchlive/