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Performance and participation

Viva! Art Action explores the collaborative nature of performance art

Set in a public bath house-turned-gallery, unconventional live art festival Viva! Art Action spanned five days. The programming of Viva! Art Action included workshops, conferences, art exhibits, and performance art. Artists dove into their performances in an empty swimming pool as the audience members crowded around its edges and sat on the floor of its ‘shallow end.’ The corroded tiles and rusted vents, while initially off-putting, added to the casual and down-to-earth atmosphere. After sharing a simple meal of pasta, beets, and salad in an old changing room, the audience was ready to settle down for something unexpected and unique.

Performance art uses the artist’s body as the medium, contesting the old yet still prevalent hierarchy in the art world which centers around expensive materials displayed in exclusive locations. “This interdisciplinary, or ‘undisciplined,’ lesser-known art form can be characterized by the essential physical presence of the artist during a performance, gesture, or public and participatory intervention; it is typically ephemeral and changeable, and unfolds in the ‘here and now,’” explains Viva! Art Action on its website. As unconventional as a bath house may be for an artistic performance, it was perfectly suited to an art form that aims to question the status quo. The festival was free, giving everyone the opportunity to consume culture the way museums, ballets, operas, and other pricey art venues do not. Not restricted to a purpose-built venue or specific artistic tools, live art is by its very nature more accessible to both viewers and performers.

The Viva! Art Action festival created an inclusive atmosphere centered on collaboration. Artists helped fellow artists set up their performances, preparing and dismantling each other’s acts. Audience members’ reactions and even participation in the performances were key to the artists’ success, making this festival an interactive event which implicated both artist and viewer in the creative process. Live art addresses social realities through this interactive aspect. The diversity of audience members’ backgrounds and experiences feeds into the performance itself. From toddlers accompanied by their young parents to the silver-haired members of the audience, everyone at the swimming pool had the opportunity to engage.

What was most striking about the show was the degree of spontaneity involved. Performance usually implies something rehearsed, pre-planned, and centred on the performer. Yet Viva! Art Action’s artists managed to integrate all the particulars into something impromptu and unique. Tomasz Szrama’s performance began by drawing the audience’s attention to the space itself. Walking into the pool with a bag of fruit, he dropped a single apple on the floor and watched it roll down the slope into the deep end. It was unclear at first whether this was intentional or not, but right after this apple landed at the bottom, he threw a few more fruit down to watch them roll. The apples, oranges, and grapefruit did while the bananas did not.

A series of fruit-related acts – including juicing a grapefruit with his head and squeezing oranges in his pant pockets – culminated in an outrageous feat. After having sawed off two legs of a table and hammering an apple to it, he asked audience members to hoist him up towards the ceiling by a rope-and-pulley system attached to his feet. With a level on the table and the apple in Szrama’s mouth, another audience member indicated how far Szrama was to be pulled upward until the table was perfectly flat. At 10 p.m., way past most of their bedtimes, even the youngest children were captivated by the strangeness and humour of Szrama’s work.

The “Tableau Noir” period, titled after the blackboard where people signed up to perform, followed the three scheduled performances. In this Tableau Noir, any and all audience members were invited to perform. One audience member’s show broached the theme of sport as performance with a hockey shoot-out. In a darker performance, a woman shattered a vase full of innocuous white flowers, and proceeded to use the shards to tear at her long black dress.

Still a relatively recent art form, performance art is avant-garde, and often elusive for many people. The very novelty of live art means it’s mostly free of any preconceived notions, yet also more difficult to approach for audience members not already familiarized with its tropes. While Viva! Art Action did take an important step toward inclusiveness by opening up the floor to audience members, those attracted to this type of art seem to be already part of the scene and generally familiar with its ideas. Within these constraints, Viva! Art Action did manage to blur the lines between artist and audience, encouraging collaboration between the two. As more people get a taste of live art, the participatory art form will only become more accessible and relevant.