susan gold / smith: Communication, Participation, and Play: the Performative Nature of Correspondance Art  


My paper will put together several thoughts and observations to reveal something about the nature of performative art and its influence and cultivation of culture and community.  

In the last few issues of Fuse Magazine there has been a dedicated editorial effort in exploring “community arts”. Articles from a variety of points of view set about to sort out meanings and operations of this diverse group of activities called “community arts”. 

In the article “Working Across Communities” – Melanie Fernandez, former Community Arts Officer at the Ontario Arts Council examines the complex of ideas that distinguish community arts from mainstream arts:

Examining power relationships, priorities, notions of professionalism, issues of difference, and motivations for practice.

In the same issue there is a published interview with Karl Beveridge, and Carol Condé, “From Conceptual to Community Art”. The working team of Karl Beveridge and Carole Conde are a model of artists seeking and finding similar values to their own in Labour Communities and working with people and peoples’ voices to create public art projects.

These “community arts” activities – as well as those central to CONCEPTUAL ART –

operate outside of the object driven market system of the art world which positions art as commodity. Their practices debunk the myth of hero genius and are based on other kinds of values. In community arts the investment shifts to social networks and shared communications.

Declan McGonagle’s article, “The Temple and the Forum together: Re-Configuring Community Arts”, expressed positive ways of making this connection:

He speaks directly about the difference between “real art” and “community art”, which he renames, “signature art” and “participatory art”.

He puts forward the idea that community arts have control of the means of production but not the means of distribution (galleries and theatres). 

These venues classify and confirm value and authority. These ideas echo Fernandez as she searches for a way to “legitimize” community arts for the granting agencies.

McDonagle advocates a participatory inclusive horizontal POROUS negotiable space

The NON artist becomes a participant – a shift from consumer to participant - creating multiple points of entry.

Everyone can contribute to MAKING MEANING in the art process and experience

(McGonagle does this in his curatorial practice by creative juxtapositions – forcing the viewer to think about the meaning of the juxtaposition. 

 I see this as a performative reading as I begin to draw the connection of community arts and conceptual arts to performative arts.

I have observed for some time that the artists driven projects in a community actually create culture. So I find these connected ideas of community-conceptual – performative helpful in understanding how that occurs.

Windsor Ontario is a community with no real art market and lots of trained informed artists -people trained to make things and think actively/ creatively and fundamentally about art and culture.

I am going to discuss several projects that are artist-driven coming from my experience in Windsor.

The first examples come from Windsor’s artist run centre Artcite:

The annual project Art Scene is a warehouse–all- are-welcome show.

In these projects even traditional art is pushed to the “conceptual” as the power of the venue affects the work significantly. (Whether an empty bank building, or a police station the power of the venue creates an installation out of any work whether intended or not.

This is a view of the first floor of the 2003 Art scene containing several installations which took place in a School becoming a Science Centre:

Artist and art teacher Suzanne Konyha’s installation in a classroom is a good example of community arts and mainstream art coming together in one of those porous relationships. Included in her classroom installation are her student decorated canoes along with the lesson plan and her drawing.

Another example also associated with Artcite is the theme exhibition, Making Time, developed with the Windsor Labour Arts Festival (Windsor’s Mayworks in February) This is part of an annual Festival which brings together local cultural organizations, community groups, unions, and educators in a series of events designed to focus public awareness on the relationship of cultural and labour issues. Performative events are very good at creating “porous” juxtapositions.

Some annual themes have included:
Art as work/ artists as workers – the rise in student part time employment– work and the body – (this year it is “invisible work”) “Time and Work” was the theme associated with this instalation – the gallery was filled with several participatory projects. People would don a t-shirt uniform, punch in and out on time cards – and work on projects in the gallery. In this slide you see the writers table. (They would be paid as per the hours they put in)

Other Windsor groups are using this model to form partnerships and work together on events and activities. Political and social justice connections. Environmental activism. Labour connections. Artists and art students are working in all these groups and bringing their “performative art” notions with them to create activities and forge alliances.

Smog Fest is a good example of partnerships with community organizations, environmentalists, political groups, students, and artists that engage the public through public gallery exhibitions, coffee house events, and parades in public places. Events are highly participatory and performed.

Activities from individual artists or groups of artists

Limited gallery venues in Windsor – artists seek out their own alternatives

An example is the Thematic Cabaret that the U of W grad students organized in 2005 in reaction to the seamier side of culture in Windsor. Several Cabarets have been put on since this successful event.

Including a Dada cabaret re-creating a historical event.

These “calls and projects” are culture creating in our community. Art that would not be made without the incentive of the community activity.  Community problem solving

Participation is a key here (which I am relating to performance)

I feel I must stress one element here – that of Art- run or artist created project – it seems to me that this is an important  element  and differentiates these projects from other “calls” and projects in the community. It removes the vertical staking of the modes and operations of the project.

Another group of activities that I will show you are – my own projects involving Mail art networking

Six years ago a Canadians Studies Conference held in Iceland, I displayed NOTES TO KANATA – a mail art project containing 500 messages from 200 artists from 27 countries.

Mail art is at its foundation direct communication among artists (no hierarchies, institutions, middle men, curators). Mailart occurs outside of the art market systems of exhibitions, critical commercial hierarchical art establishment. These communications are for the most part artist-driven No money changes hands.  No juries – all that is received is included.

Predominately it is Fluxus material in various forms that is passed around – it is often filled with irony and good will and good humour. It is a communication that values meaning and is based on trust.

The history of mail art connects the activity with conceptual and performance. Early 1900 Artistic experiments in mailart are found at the beginning of this century in Futurism and in Dada and also n the 50 and 60s in various Fluxus and performance art movements.

I am using Antonio Sassu’s mail art performance to link the common history of conceptual/performance and networking art forms. Happenings, Fluxus Art, notions of art w/o objects (conceptual art). In the 70s and 80s mailart activities developed hundreds of networks over the world. Networks continue to operate and expand providing artists with a cultural world wide strategy for sharing ideas and working directly with other artists.

Influence takes place among artists – through mimesis, reciprocity, and trading in a dynamic milieu -- re-issuing of meaning.  Collage and constructions made in the FLUX.  

I would like to draw another connection here betw: conceptual art – performance art – community arts

Ken Allen art historian from U of T – makes an excellent case for understanding Conceptual art as art that is art that embraces the lateral extensions of art

Conceptual art in its various practices is an Indicator of art – The object is not the ART

Conceptual art can include various lateral extensions including the 

systems that sustain distribution and the systems that sustain the work, including audience. It is art that deflects outward – a lateral gaze -

So in the mailart activity – art is in the mailing (mailart on mailart)

The object is not the art – but rather the whole process of direct communication.

There is a shift in value away from the object to the process of distribution and communication.

During the bombing in Yugoslavia around 1998 we decided to use the name and the historical legacy of Alfred NOBEL as a site for Peace activism / renewed armistice in another Mailart project – the NOBEL PEACE PROJECT. 

All the mail went through the NOBEL Post Office – a small village in Central Georgian Bay (on the road between Toronto and Sudbury. Nobel is the site of a former CIL plant creating munitions and explosives for WW I and World War II.  Armistice closed the plant and the Nobel Peace Project re – creates that armistice mentality.

Since 1998 Nobel Peace has created several exhibitions, has gone on the street as agitprops, has awarded the medal of dishonour to George W Bush for 3 years running and has created 16 editions of peace images.  

Most recently Nobel Peace organized a Flags of Peace Project.

Flags installed in Nobel. The effects of the environment (light and wind) on the flags highlighted the performative nature of an outdoor installation.

I brought the Flags of Peace with me to a Canadian studies conference in held in Turku Finland in August this summer.  Surrounded by the flags, Canadian poets read as one of scores of events that make up Turku’s lively Night of the Arts.    

Windsor is in its 12th year of a successful International Experimental Film and Video Festival called Media City. There is an installation art component. This festival brings an international community and there is a lot of cross over and mixing with local artists. It was a very exciting thing to see in Windsor – an extended community brings in different ideas and forms of networking.

I wanted to participate somehow – 

How could I join the conversation to reflect “the networking” activity that I saw as important to the Festival?

Created the pin “give away” (networking performed, experienced, and visualized)

There was a performance aspect to this project, wearing a concessionaire’s apron and giving the buttons away personally at each intermission of the festival.

First pin – recycled my 30 year accumulated slides of art work

Second pin – a rabbit drawing- dedicated to the multiple

Third pin – dedicated to Mailart as a parallel form of networking

This year’s pin – dedicated to the dominance and common EYE among us

Frog – pin give away spread to Nobel Peace Flag project

Trophy Room Pin (lower left) – opportunity to integrate some “alternative economics” with my solo traveling public gallery exhibition.

In conclusion:

Through my experience with conceptual art forms like mail art and other artist-run activity, I have an expanded idea of “performance art” and how it can engage community. Operating outside of the art market economy, it has the potential of creating the porous relationship that Declan McGonagle speaks about.

Performance art places value beyond the object and can lead us to expand our understanding of the nature of art and what art can be for the community.


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