Performance Beyond the Flesh

“Performance Beyond the Flesh.” Unpublished (2017).

Jenn Norton and Steph Yates’ The Ether.

The New Flesh at the Music Gallery on January 21, 2017. Curated by Tasman Richardson.

Sherri Hay (New York), Bruno Ribeiro (Montreal), Jeremy Bailey (Toronto), Jenn Norton/Steph Yates (Guelph), Robin Kobrynski (Paris), Tasman Richardson (Toronto), Katie Switzer/Paul Moleiro (Toronto)

Performance Beyond the Flesh

The Canadian tax shelter has come and gone.1
Cable television has come and gone.
VIDEODROME has come and gone.
Long Live the New Flesh.

Tasman Richardson’s newest project The New Flesh re-imagines performance art in the digital age. Of course, this concept is not new. Performance artists have been integrating technology into their performances for decades. Similarly, expanded cinema is not a new concept. Richardson’s idea is slightly more complicated though; he is asking us to re-imagine expanded cinema in the context of performance art, raising the question:

“What does the soul without a body mean for performance?”

With The New Flesh, Richardson is suggesting that through these performances, the machine has replaced – or, at the very least, is a Mcluhanesque extension of – the flesh. Through this concept, Richardson is essentially replicating one of the standard readings of the narrative in David Cronenberg’s 1983 tax shelter masterpiece Videodrome, in addition to potentially providing us with one way of thinking through The New Flesh, namely, reading the evolution of this project beyond VIDEODROME, an annual audiovisual event co-founded by Richardson.

Videodrome presents a complex narrative involving an evil corporation (the Spectacular Optical Corporation) that produces a plotless, ultra-violent television show (Videodrome) containing malicious broadcast signals in order to give fatal brain tumours to “lowlifes” obsessed with extreme sex and violence. Through a series of plot twists, the main protagonist Max Renn (James Woods), who is mutating due to its signals, manages to weaken the Spectacular Optical Corporation; however, in order to completely defeat it, he is instructed via a television program that he must “leave the old flesh.” Renn complies declaring “Long Live the New Flesh” before killing himself. Like its television namesake,VIDEODROME was an experiment in excess, offering extreme sex and violence, in the form of synced audio/visual signals, to a crowd which included a blend of artstars, club kids, degenerates and scenesters. 

In contrast, as the name suggests, The New Flesh is an attempt to move beyond the relentless stream of sex & violence that VIDEODROME offered. The New Flesh is an attempt to re-imagine performance art beyond the body with each of the artists performing through technologies, acting as a caretaker to the machines, that is, the machine replaces the performer. The machine as body, the artist as soul. The night began with Robin Kobrynski’s Panopticon, a work where the camera is pointed at the audience transforming them from live flesh into a delayed, distorted video signal presented on screen. Although the artist was attempting to present an image that is critical of a culture that is often too willing to participate in self-monitoring, to me, in the context of The New Flesh, the worked read as an act of solidarity. That is, it wasn’t only the artists who were transformed into signal, but also the audience.  

Katie Switzer and Paul Moleiro’s Generate & Reflect, Tasman Richardson’s Hydra and Ouroborus duet and Bruno Ribeiro’s Afterglow all made use of more traditional expanded cinema techniques for their performances. Generate & Reflect used mirrors and glass to distort and move projected images around the room, an effect that was particularly affective in the sanctuary of the The Music Hall, a building that was once a church. Richardson’s performance made use of sophisticated video feedback and his signature Atari generated videos on CRTs. Both the video feedback signals and the radiation from the CRTs were used to generate the sound. Finally, Bruno Ribeiro’s (aka Nohista) Afterglow synched strobe-lights to audio samples to produce electronic music that had all the clubkids wishing that there was a dance floor.

Jenn Norton and Steph Yates’ The Ether and Jeremy Bailey’s Jeremy Bailey Next™ offered a critical response to the idea of The New Flesh as transcendence by playfully and humorously calling into question the limits of machine and signal based performance art. The Ether is a kinetic sculpture made out of generic household electronics and relay circuits that seemed on the brink of collapse. For the performance, the artists simply set the sculpture in motion and documented the output using a camera with all of the displays showing, like a live electronic version of Peter Fischli and David Weiss’ The Way Things Go (1987). Similarly, Jeremy Bailey Next™ is a digital version of Bailey uploaded to the internet, expect his new digital persona was trained to perform music autonomously through AI and a databased filled with Joy Division and Lady Gaga songs. The music itself was like an atonal version of Max Mathews’ Bicycle Built for Two (1961) accompanied by digitized versions of Bailey’s face and hands appearing on the screen.

Finally, the night ended with Sherri Hay’s Secret Chiefs of Noise, a work that used five projected lights to activate photosensors which corresponded to the five colours of auditory noise. The work is intended to be the audio equivalent of a system developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which is used to aid with astral clairvoyance. While listening to the work I swear I heard classical music, but I am unsure if this was due to radio interference within the signal, the artist, or my brain’s attempt to decipher the noise.

Overall the night was fun, strange and enjoyable, and is an example of the diverse range of time-based, audiovisual performance art being produced in Toronto and beyond.

  1. For a succinct description and timeline of the Canadian tax shelter years, see: Jonathan Culp, “Tax Shelter Cinema: A Canadian Chronology,” Cinertia (November 1, 2014). []
  2. On August 31, 2011, the Government of Canada and the CRTC mandated that over-the-air television transmission convert from analogue to digital. []
  3. For a history of VIDEODROME, see: Jim Goose, “Videodrome: A Lasting Legacy on Industrial Music & Outsider Art,” Post-Punk (August 14, 2015). []