“Sharing an Empty Bed: An Interview with Robert Dayton.” White Hot Magazine (July 2018).
Robert Dayton is an interdisciplinary artist, comedian and writer whose practice also includes illustration and performance. Under the moniker of The Canadian Romantic – a glamorous figure who wears a shiny, green housecoat with maple syrup scented massage oil always close at hand – he has produced videos and live performances that read like SCTV skits with the pop culture sensibility of General Idea. The Canadian Romantic also exists as a doll and as a lenticular “winking eye” photo, both intended to keep you company on those cold and lonesome Canadian winter evenings.
Dayton is a member of Vancouver’s most daring and entertaining music projects, including song-and-dance duo Canned Hamm (with Stephen Hamm of The Evaporators and Slow) and July Fourth Toilet, a band that used performance art antics including theatrical themes and kooky costumes to create a form of controlled chaos which has left audience members talking about them with reverence almost twenty years later.
In this interview we discuss Dayton’s practice in relation to The Empty Bed, his newest book published through Toronto’s IMPULSE [b:]. The book is a humorous exploration into the loneliness, self-pity and self-destructive behavior that occurs due to intense heartbreak and longing that only a genuine romantic could deliver. The following is conversation that took place online and collaboratively edited into its present form.
Clint Enns: Is this your first book project?
Robert Dayton: Sorta, but not really. The Canadian Romantic by The Canadian Romantic was published in 2012 by Publication Studio Vancouver via PITT Projects [the publishing branch of Helen Pitts Gallery] due to the incredible Kay Higgins. My illustrations and writings have also appeared in numerous books, however, this is my first book that is over 100 pages.
CE: What attracted you to the graphic novel format?
RD: I don’t want to call it a “graphic novel.” I strongly consider my audience and do not want to keep anyone away by casually delineating with such terms. It’s a book! It’s a fucking book! This book wasn’t exactly embraced by the graphic novel community anyways, it may not fit their unspoken rules. That being said, I have been combining words and pictures since I was a kid and have always been drawn to comics by folks like American cartoonist Al Jaffee. His Mad Book Of Magic and Other Dirty Tricks was a mystic tome much like Carl Jung’s Red Book, the entwinement of words and pictures found in the work of William Blake or Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, an illustrated encyclopedia, written in cypher, about an imaginary world. The strange combination of words and pictures can create something mystical. I am not a purist, but such a hybrid often creates something pure to me.
I come from a zine background as well and have been greatly inspired by such things as Bananafish, Breakfast Without Meat, the mail order catalogues of Maura Doyle and Annie Dunning, and Art Hussy by Christine Corlett.
The illustrations and text provided me with an outlet for my heartbreak. I use a fountain pen that often draws from the well of the subconscious. The illustrations hopefully create a bond with the audience by entering into the realm of the symbolic while also directly addressing uncomfortable elements with humour. The handmade nature of text creates further intimacy. Perhaps it is the entertainer in me, but I want to create meaningful work that also affects the reader. I couldn’t imagine this particular book not being hand drawn and hand lettered. It would lose its intimacy. The Canadian Romantic is similar in that it creates a direct communication with the reader, however, with that book I was still playing a character. In this book, the facade is gone, allowing for further intimacy.
CE: The book explores serious topics such heartbreak and longing, but it is extremely funny. Is the humour the cathartic element, or is it another space in which intimacy is created? That is, the bond of laughter.
RD: Perhaps it is through humour that intimacy is created. Shared laughter is a sign of connection, of love. However, when I was creating the book it was often extremely painful. If it was cathartic, it was only after the fact. I didn’t want to paint a pretty picture of myself since I was striving for honesty. I often look terrible in the book! But if I removed that element then the book would not be trustworthy. If I didn’t include it then I would be oblivious to my mistakes and not able to get better. Hell, I am often oblivious about some things now…how revealing!
CE: Is the book art therapy or therapy as art?
RD: I hope that it will be of some benefit for people. I strive to discuss the unpleasant aspects of life that people rarely talk about. Since I am an over-sharer that produces large dollops of TMI [Too Much Information], I may be a perfect communicator for these types of hard truths.
CE: The book creates a delicate balance of TMI and revealing too much. Given that relationships involve two people, what were some of the ways you navigated revealing too much?
RD: I didn’t want it to be purely confessional or a pity party about how awful I am. I mean I strive to do good but often fuck up (and hopefully learn) along the way. I’m pretty sure I will keep making new mistakes. Relationships are hard. I imagine this is how others relate.
I also didn’t want to make it a memoir or a poison pen. It’s not about that. As for other people, I don’t know how much I can relay the other people’s experiences, I can only rely on my own which, yes, do involve other people: this is where it gets a bit dicey and where I have had to think it through, I hope that I have respectfully done the right thing. However, I never went through the kind of loss that my Mom went through, so I had to add her.
CE: The interview with your mother is quite incredible. It is the type of intimate, adult conversations we all wish we could have with our parents. What were her thoughts about it? Did you discuss the possibility of releasing it to the world with her?
RD: It’s a super heavy interview. My mother knew my intent. It’s a shame she won’t get to see it. I am lucky that I got to share other art projects with her. For instance, she got to see Canned Hamm play the same night that July Fourth Toilet’s costumes (designed by Jason McLean and others) and ephemera were part of an art show at The Western Front. I had to keep guiding her away from the video footage of my onstage nudity.
Honestly, I want to interview all of my loved ones. It’s kinda absurd, you are so close to someone but it takes this type of interview to really get the nitty gritty out. You know someone, but it requires difficult discussions to really know them. I mean the interview was towards the end of her life. I think that she was already on oxygen. There was the mother/son dynamic but it was also two loved ones talking intimately and candidly.
I wonder if she would have been as confessional ten years prior. We talk about the death of her husband, the man who raised me, the man who came into a troubled home of four boys. They truly loved each other, and they loved us and we loved them. And now she is gone as well…
CE: You can really feel the intimacy in the interview, but it also offers a counterbalance to the book with a different form of intimacy. Would it be possible to about talk about one more difficult subject, namely, addiction. Is it fair to ask if you are addicted to love and heartbreak?
RD: There are some reports that I conveniently cannot find or cite that state love can be an addiction, the same brain chemicals at work. I won’t deny that I am addicted to love and my addictions run very deep. I have to always work on it and be vigilant: this is only a relatively recent realization as a result of some more ‘painful’ growth. I am not addicted to heartbreak. As intense as it is, it’s much too painful. I often get locked in myself which may be due to addiction, but the heartbreak itself is real and not an addiction, perhaps it is an end result made all the more painful due to being addicted to someone and not having that fix anymore.
CE: Is The Canadian Romantic another way of dealing with heartbreak?
RD: His character most certainly stemmed from all of this heartbreak, as a way to make lonely people, including myself, feel more attractive. I am an avid collector of romantic poetry albums. I love how you would put them on and they talk directly to you in an attempt to make you feel romantic.
The name was a tip of my hat to Dan Bejar who wrote a song with his group Destroyer that was partly inspired by me called “Canadian Lover.” However, “romantic” seems far more appropriate and ineffable than “lover.”
CE: Is The Canadian Romantic an attempt to make performance art sexy again?
RD: No, there was definitely no grand over-arching attempt to do that at all. I suppose almost anything can be sexy if approached in such a way, but sexy is quite a subjective word. Performance art involves the body and there is a tendency to de-sexualize it. But hey, performance art wasn’t supposed to be monetized either. I sometimes find the fearlessness of certain performance art sexy, same with the duration and stamina. I find risk sexy. I am no stranger to public nudity but being “sexy” wasn’t always part of my rationale, however, different strokes for different folks.
CE: The Canadian Romantic attempts to teach you how to fall in love, does your book teach you how to fall out of love?
RD: That’s too reductive and all of said lessons are, of course, flawed. But, it is an attempt to learn from past mistakes and to learn to laugh at ourselves.
CE: How do you think The Canadian Romantic would respond to The Empty Bed?
RD: The Canadian Romantic would probably do a lot of nodding, maybe even some nodding off.
CE: Given that self-probing is one of the major impetuses for its creation, what do you feel you learned from writing this book?
RD: I am more cautious today. I don’t know if I learned this from writing this book or from personal experience which the book is based; however, the book certainly helped with the processing. Knowledge that I wish I hadn’t gained the hard way where people got hurt. My book now has more proper closure in that it is more open-ended. New mistakes are made, it never really ends. One always has to be vigilant and continue working. As part of the editing process I had to show The Empty Bed to a bunch of people who really helped with their input as I want to put positive things out in the world, I hope this is the case.