We use our skin to separate us from the world around us – or connect us. We use language in the same way. When we can’t understand one another’s language, we read each other’s bodies, or the tone of each other’s voices… we grasp for the familiar in the unfamiliar. We find access points and connect as best we can. Resilient creatures, when all else fails, we humans build our own language.
“I began in performance art because it gave me the complete freedom to say whatever I wanted, and say it however I wanted to say it,” said Reona Brass last night during the M:ST panel discussion entitled Performative Art and Documentation. “Language is a critical component to why I do performance art,” Brass said, telling us a story about her family, about residential schools and losing language, about how her grandmother had 8 children, and all of them but her father were stolen, ferried away from their families and towards a different sort of education. A generation later, she builds on the trauma of her aunts and uncles to create a performative language, one of barbed wire and plastic, of confrontation and escape. In a sense, she documents vicariously experiences of First Nations people, tied by blood and stories, a desire to educate and use her body to instigate thought, and who knows? Maybe even change.
“I am a robot, a zombie and a vampire,” said Istvan Kantor, referring, in his own language, to his performance art practice – one involving decadence and blood. Sitting beside Reona Brass on the Performative Art and Documentation panel, Kantor could not have been more dissimilar from Brass: narrow sunglasses, pinstriped suit, chrome-plated teeth, a red arm-band and carefully whisped white hair. As a man obviously dealing in visual language, his appearance must be mentioned – an artist steeped in spectacle. “I really like revolutions,” he said, “I like blood, I like fire… I’ve committed lots of crimes,” he grinned and let the crowd laugh. Kantor has been creating performance art for decades, and Brass credits him with her early inclination towards the medium. We the audience, privately pondering the two Performance Artists before us – an earnest educator and a pleasantly demented “subvertainer” – could only rectify these outward appearances through the language of their work.
“Life is Art,” said Brass; Kantor scrawled “Life = Art = Life” across the whiteboard. “As artists we’re trying to make connections between things for other people to see,” Brass said, and for a moment we connected the two artists in their desire to create new languages, channeled through their bodies and out into the space between us: between you and me.
Can we understand? This is our first language: the language of our bodies. Maybe we don’t need to understand perfectly.
“In the beginning I felt that language was coming through me,” said Brass, “often I didn’t understand what it meant.” She smiled reassuringly, “don’t worry if you don’t understand everything. Just trust it.” Istvan Kantor reiterated, “it’s very important to confuse,” after all, “clarity is boring.”