Monday, June 14, 2004

Critical Art Ensemble Subpoenas - N. Post. June 12, 2004

A shorter version of this ran in the Post on Saturday. They cut the Halifax stuff for space reasons. But also because they are two separate stories anyway ....

The email buzz in recent weeks among artists and curators around the globe is the bizarre FBI investigation of University of Buffalo’s art professor Stephen Kurtz. Last month, Kurtz, 46, called paramedics when he found is wife had died suddenly in her sleep. While there, the medics found suspicious looking lab equipment and bacteria samples Kurtz had been using for some of his art exhibitions. The medics informed police who called the Joint Terrorism Task Force who then taped off Kurtz’s house and spent two days in protective suits searching his home.

As a member of the internationally renowned Critical Art Ensemble, a group that deals with the politics surrounding biotechnology, Kurtz’s house does apparently look a bit like an amateur laboratory. But it was quickly determined that nothing in the home could have hurt even a fly, and Kurtz’s wife died of natural causes. But the FBI hasn't ended the investigation, which is causing lots of art professionals to worry what this means for creative expression in the new post 9-11 era of paranoia. Kurtz and six other university colleagues have been given subpoenas to appear before a grand jury on June 15 on charges that are still not known.

What appears to keeping the investigation alive is Petri dishes filled with completely harmless bacteria and Kurtz’s "mobile DNA extraction laboratory," which is designed to test for contamination in store-bought food. It can detect if grains and organisms have been genetically modified. That's it.

"The whole thing is ridiculous," says Millie Chen, a former Toronto artist who now works with Kurtz at the university. "He’s very careful. Steve’s not inclined to just bumble his way into working with these materials. He works with professional scientists."

The only other minor brush with the law Kurtz has had before this, happened in Halifax two years ago. Students of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) had invited him to do a workshop where they came up with a pro-active environmental idea of posting "sorry" notices around the city -- as in, "Sorry" our harbour is so dirty, or "sorry" everyone, that this public sculpture shaped like a wave is so ugly. One sign, in the form of a small LED box, was installed on the Dartmouth ferry. A passenger spotted it and, fearing it might be a bomb, alerted the captain, who then unloaded the passengers and sailed the boat out to sea in the event of an explosion. The incident delayed ferry service for over four hours.

No matter what the outcome of the FBI investigation, Kurtz will be facing huge legal fees. Donation and petition information is online at CAE Defence Fund

Tanya Mars' Tyranny of Bliss -- N. Post, June 12, 2004

Due to my mother's 70th (!) birthday party on Saturday, I was unable to see this. Love to know how it turned out...

If you happen to be strolling along University Avenue this afternoon you may find yourself standing among a crowd watching a man drip gallons of manicure wax over a statuesque woman. Or you might spot a Mr. Right with a giant bouquet of roses chasing after a svelte blonde in a convertible, or a couple of men building a 12-foot long papier-mache missile a short distance from the U.S. Embassy.

These are just a few moments of dozens more that make up the one-day-only street event called Tyranny of Bliss, a performance about good and evil orchestrated by Tanya Mars who is one of Canada’s best known, respected and uncategorizeable performance artists. And who is also, perhaps, a little on the eccentric side.

"My daughter says, ‘Mom. You’re nuts’," blurts Mars with a big laugh and while sorting through a row of pink plastic bins filled with costumes, to-do lists, and props that will be used by 30 performers she has cast for her all-day sidewalk spectacle. The performance takes place at 14 designated sites, today only, between Adelaide Street and Queen’s Park. The starting point is at the legislative buildings.

Each of the 14 performances is a loose interpretation of one of the seven sins and seven virtues of ancient philosophies. Greed, for instance, is being staged at Queen’s Park. Truth is at the statue of Churchill near Osgoode Hall, and Tolerance is stationed at the U.S. Embassy, where two performers will push each other around all day long. Some performances will roam. Medieval horsemen, with cardboard horses strapped to their waists, will trot up and down University while clicking coconut halves together, stopping once in a while for a game of chess. (They represent Courage). If the rain holds out, the cast will perform for seven hours straight, making this also an exercise in endurance.

And that ain’t all. The main crux that holds this meandering minstrel show together is two roving limousines -- an evil black one and a virtuous white one -- which circle the route continuously, taking seven passengers at a time for a 30-minute tour. Inside each limo is a private performance. In the black limo a magician is performing tricks using money. In the white limo, Mars herself will be giving her account of what’s unfolding outside on the sidewalks while videos inside the limo, about purity and corruption, are in continual rotation.

It’s not easy to explain Tyranny of Bliss without getting lost in all the theatrical minutiae that’s gone into it. The project is both ingeniously complex while also being silly and nonsensical, which is a typical Mars formula, to throw together repetition-based artsy performance stuff with goofy cabaret. And, yes, there may be something of the performance-based films of Matthew Barney and his love for limousines in all of this, though Mars has been doing cross-media performances that are body-oriented and idea-laden quite a bit longer. And certainly budget differences are a completely other matter. Tyranny is costing $50,000 to produce, which is peanuts when you compare it to just one of Barney’s Cremaster productions (US$1.7million). But like Barney, visual spectacle is what's driving it. I haven’t seen it yet, but my sense is Tyranny of Bliss will be more pageantry than plot.

What underpins Tyranny of Bliss is the good and evil symbols that are both ancient and modern. Mars started reading books on the utopian and dystopian divide, including novels like Brave New World and Handmaid's Tale, after a trip to Sienna where she came across Ambrogio Lorenzetti's The Effects of Good and Bad Government, a medieval mural that famously depicts good government with angels flying about in white dresses, and bad government as a man with horns and a black hood.

The white and black limousines, Mars realized, were perfect symbollic updates to two sides of government, and they could float in and around various scenes of virtuousness and sin. Though Mars says she hasn’t made each performance a clear representation of good or evil. "We tend to interpret the virtues and sins one-dimensionally, but in fact they all conflate in to one another," she says, "I mean, what is the difference between greed and gluttony? Or envy and pride? There are small differences. People might take away something completely different than what I intend and that’s fine."

There is also no political agenda in the work. "I’m asking a lot questions because I think about good and evil all the time," she says, "Like I'm working harder than ever and making more money and have less. What is making me unhappy? And why are we all working 12 hour days? I’m not a socialist, I don’t buy into it. But I do think we are in a bad place, it just doesn’t look like a bad place because we’re distracted, because we need so much time to just maintain our lives. We’ve bought into luxurious things."

Tyranny of Bliss is like a return of Mars after a long break from big-size performances she so famously produced more than a decade ago and that always seemed larger in concept than they were in budget. In fact Mars’s DIY-style is what made her a dominate figure in the Canadian performance art scene during the 1980s when the art forum was at its height. Her best known work is the Pure series where she staged elaborate parodies on Freudian and Marxist feminist theory while dressed as Alice in Wonderland, Mae West and Queen Victoria. They were performances that broke down gender politics and taboos with humour. The Pure series did what the Vagina Monologues do now, observes Clive Robertson, a professor of performance studies at Queen’s University. They engaged the audience with laughs, and at that time feminists weren’t usually funny.

When the Power Plant staged the Pure trilogy in 1990 as one performance called Pure Hell, Robertson says it was amazing. It defined Mars as a singular type of artist; part non-linear conceptualist of the Alan Kaprow Happenings kind, and part rogue thespian who writes scripts, builds sets, and casts her friends in supporting roles. She is definitely 100-percent feminist and a gifted satirical performer of political and social issues.

Now 56, Mars is in top, big-production form once more. Tyranny of Bliss, a performance that has been five years in the making, is one of the most ambitious projects of her career. --CO

Tanya Mars’s Tyranny of Bliss is being performed today, 11am to 6pm. Limousines will be picking up passengers at the legislature building every 30 minutes. FADO