Performance Cartography of Mutations: Exhibition and Performance

Dancers Cartography of Mutations. Phi Centre.

By Laura Chen and Alexandra Montenegro Nodarse

Exhibition: Cosmology of Mutations

The body is commonly defined as the physical structure of the living, where organs intertwine with flesh and bones. But what if the body is more than a mere container of physical components? What if it is a somatheque, meaning the body (soma) is an archive (theque) of politics and culture? Curious? A visit to the PHI Centre – precisely for Annie Baillargeon’s installation – is now on your bucket list!

Drawing inspiration from Paul B. Preciado’s philosophical concept of a bodily archive, the artist Annie Baillargeon encapsulates bodies and states of joy in Cosmology of Mutations. The installation spans three projects, all of which are built upon previously held workshops between Baillargeon and participants.

At the centre of the installation stands a gigantic square-shaped projection with a 3×3 grid format where nine pre-recorded videos play in a loop. The projection depicts individuals who seem to be confined into small transparent boxes. Now, here is my interpretation of it. Picture a fractal-like symbolism. Boxes are containers – they are a physical structure containing beings, and therefore are rendered to a body and essentially, to a somatheque. Likewise, the individuals contained within the boxes transcend their physical forms, i.e., their bodies. They are an archive of experiences, feelings, and agency. Overall, the projections are whimsical and quite silly. The boxes are heavily decorated with LED lights blasting vibrant colours continuously, as several different figures make their appearance, each with a unique disposition.

Two additional projects on the sides complement this central projection installation. A screen shuffles concise texts on the topic of brilliance, which I believe relates to the exhibition’s name, precisely “Cosmology”. When we think of the universe’s origin or the Big Bang, we think of life, and we typically always associate life with brightness, with shimmer, with luminance… with brilliance.

In Cosmology of Mutations, the bigger picture to me is the idea that the human body is more than a group of content, an object subject to science. It is living and breathing: we must therefore see it with brilliance. The body is the very essence of the being, of its environment, of the time it is living in. It is a record of life.

Performance: Cartography of Mutations

Three dancers on a lit up podium
Cartography of Mutations.

Complementing the Cosmology exhibition, Cartography of Mutations took part on June 7. The event belongs to Van de Geer and Baillargeon’s artistic display and presents it through a live performance by the NU.E.S collective.

I entered and left the performance feeling confused, perplexed, uneasy, and perhaps shocked. It would be an understatement to say it was like nothing I had previously seen. In the past, I watched and interacted with bizarre, contemporary artworks in the form of dances, movies, and tableaux. Would this performance be a dance, a drama, or a cabaret? To classify it as modern or visionary, to classify it as anything would fail to encompass the meanings and connotations it portrayed. More than being a teaser or mere supplement to the Cartography exhibition, the interactions between the bodies portrayed rendered the presentation into a live artwork with living, breathing substance, where the actors acted as both objects and subjects to the artwork.

At the beginning of the performance, attendees were encouraged to “come closer.” This statement alone made me feel shy. The performance started from the moment we entered the venue, and there was no distance between observers and performers, which made me question how people interact with artworks in general. Is art something — or someone — meant to be gawked at, or is it, instead, the collective work of our eyes and ears as observers and critics? How much power belongs to the artist after producing an artwork that lives and moves freely on a canvas? Are we artists in our own right when we reassess, shape, and reevaluate the meanings perpetuated in paintings or photographs? Through individual artworks, art exists as a constant, ever-evolving cultural expression of the collective state of mind, a concept portrayed astutely through the actors’ close interactions with spectators.

Acting and crowd work used the whole of the environment. Every object, from shining blue orbs to fluorescent red lasers, seemingly out of place, carried importance in its use — interactions between light and shadow techniques allowed for the reflection of abstract shapes on walls and people. Actors were meticulous in their every move, making detailed facial expressions, smiling genuinely among themselves, making slow, careful movements with their hands or sticking out their tongues, or even making eye contact with curious spectators, looking straight into their eyes with piercing gazes. They often used their bodies as canvases, from the provocative clothing they used to how they interacted with one another through looks, positions, or physical touch. Their choreography was informal yet elaborate; they seemed at ease when all eyes were on them, on the two podiums placed for them to perform. What struck me the most about their routine — other than the wrinkles, tongues, and movements of their exaggerated facial expressions — was the actors’ easy-going, fun-loving nature. They seemed to be having fun as they delineated their bodies with the light from orbs and lasers.

Visitors were allowed to film and take pictures throughout the presentation, although only some courageous individuals took that step, perhaps out of respect for the performers and their bodies. At the end of the display, however, visitors who ventured to the podiums to see what the actors had left found an iPad with cameras filming the whole room from multiple angles. I was in shock: they were the ones watching us.

Perhaps this is where the theme of empowerment appears as most prevalent. After all, collaborating artists expressed joy through reflected and refracted colourful light delineated through their bodies in a sex-positive atmosphere. They also wished to establish queerness and sexuality by presenting bodies as all-encompassing, living, breathing archives imbued with socio-cultural and political connotations as the archetypes of individual lived experiences. The vécu becomes a somatic recollection in which existence is synonymous with knowledge. The final reveal, the reversal of the gaze, thus establishes a final feature of empowerment and reclamation of histories and identities: It situates artistic work outside the artist’s frame of control. An appropriate bodily metaphor to illustrate this concept would place art as a fertile proliferation of significance: creating art would be birthing and raising a human being, and we all carry responsibility in helping it think and grow to its full potential of meaning with our intellectual and cultural input as artists in our own right.

Cartography of Mutations took place June 7. Future related events include Becoming on June 15, Intergenerational Tea Dance on June 22, and Meet Joy and Glittering Gloss on June 28. The Cosmology of Mutations installation is at the Phi Centre (407 Saint Pierre Street) until July 3.