Vancouver, Canada, multiple locations

Text by Harun Morrison

Push is an annual international festival of cross-disciplinary performance based in Vancouver. Running this year from 14 January – 2 February 2014, the festival also featured an exhibition and installation by two artists in residence. Rabih Mroué ‘Nothing to Lose’, which ran from January 10 – February 8 at Grunt Gallery, and Tim Etchell’s installation of neon texts , ‘Who Knows’, January 24 – 1 June at Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver.

* Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Push has grown to occupy a vital role in the city’s arts community and ecology. Not solely a context to present work, the festival offers a temporary, national and international platform for programmers, artists and audience to exchange questions, knowledge and ideas.

The festival’s abundance of contributing voices inevitably overlap, accentuate, negate, jostle, rile and reveal one another from work to work; in this plurality lay its richness. Each attendee’s journey through the programme (and the order in which works are seen) generate their own micro-narratives and logics.

Anniversaries encourage a concurrent looking forward and looking back. Deborah Pearson’s The Future Show, delineated the duality of this gesture. She read text written especially for this performance (as is the case with each iteration of The Future Show). The minimal staging: the author-performer, microphone, printed text and glass of water. . . mirrored the economy of words, which proffered, among many things, how we would eventually clap, the various offers of post-show drinks, a dialogue that Deborah and I would have later at the bar. The text extended further, beyond the future occurring immediately after her performance and the actions in that room, beyond Vancouver, beyond Canada, leaving assurance and uncertainty in its wake.

Are our futures are contingent on our origins? If anniversaries evoke meditations on our beginnings, then on what sliding-scale between intuition and conscious decision making did the festival present three works which staged ‘real-life’ pairs of mothers and sons? ‘Have I no Mouth’ by the Irish theatre company Brokentalkers, features Feidlim Cannon and his mother Ann, along with their real-life psychotherapist. ‘A Brimful of Asha’ by Torontonian company Why Not Theatre, has Ravi Jain jousting with his mother Asha; while ‘mothermothermother’ by Selfconscious, sees Michael Rubenfeld and his mother Mary Berchard, thrashing out their differences. The latter two in particular question how national identities and cultural tradition shape our outlooks on life. ‘A Brimful of Asha’ brings this to the fore with comedic effect in Ravi’s negotiations with his parents’ intent on imposing an arranged marriage. Among diasporic communities not only are there the intergenerational differences commonplace to all parent-child relationships, but the interplay of values of country of origin (that of the parent) and the one in which the child is raised, in this case Canada. Both Ravi Jain and Michael Rubenfeld, touch on how their respective Indian and Polish-Jewish heritages inform their familial relationships, microcosms of national discussion and debate.

These works are indicative of a persistent trend in contemporary theatre - the staging of the real. Programmed alongside each other they reveal the subtle differences in intent behind such projects. Is this the scripted, predetermined outcome of a rehearsed process? Is this a live, ongoing dialogue, that we are witness to, in this time and place, and continues when we are not present? Is it simply harder to discern the artifice here? What authority is being presumed in this staging of authenticity?

These questions have long plagued the documentary film. Robert Flaherty’s 1922, quasi-documentary, ‘Nanook of the North’ is a prime example. It purports to show daily life of an Inuit family, focusing on the hunter, Nanook. The festival’s screening of the film is as potent a gesture as the content itself. The original film score by Derek Charke was reworked to create an accompanying live concert, featuring vocals by renowned Inuk singer Tanya Tagaq, violinist Jesse Zubot and drummer Jean Martin. The film is both an archival cultural object of special historical and sociological value, but also a lens through which Canadians might reconsider the script of their own origin story and ‘Canadian-ness’. This act of re-looking at oneself, and calling into question one’s national identity is implicit in the film’s rescoring - an act of overwriting. A contemporary ear is brought to older imagery (both filmic and possibly subconscious cultural memory). Foregrounding Tagaq’s traditional throat singing technique literally gives voice to the subjects of the silent film, while the multicultural identities at play in, and performing, the score offers a repositioning of the relationship between Canada’s indigenous people and the dominant historical-narrative of its body politic.

The dynamism of Tagaq’s performance encapsulated the Dionysian spirit vital performance festivals evoke. This was embodied by two of Push’s dance-theatre works; ‘Usually Beauty Fails’ by Montreal’s Frédérick Gravel and ‘Inheritor Album’ by Vancouver based 605 Collective. The former whirled rock gig and dance together, the performers as likely to strum electric guitars and croon into microphones as slide, gyrate and hurl themselves across the sprung floor. Snatches of live text, like the ramblings of a frontman between songs, parodied the pretensions of hipster culture, contemporary dance fashion and political correctness, while knowingly adopting these poses the very next moment. 605 Collective’s ‘Inheritor Album’ was comprised of a series of stylistically interlocking vignettes to various droning, crackling electronic scores. The ensemble were a skulking pack, occasionally singling one of their number from the group. Performers were individuated only to be drawn back, returning to ever forming and crumbling structures or arcs of movement.

These visceral stage-works were counterpointed by a couple of works sited in Vancouver Public Library. ‘Human Library’, originally devised by Copenhagen based collective Stop the Violence, locally produced by Zee Zee Theatre; is a curated collection of ‘human books’. You sign out a book (i.e. person) under subjects such as DRAG QUEEN or CULTURAL PIRATE, instigating a one-on-one conversation with an individual who shares their lived experience. ‘The Quiet Volume’ by Ant Hampton & Tim Etchells ran in the same building. Guided by a series of audio instructions, you are led to a pre-prepared table with a stack of books, flicking from page to page across them in according to various spoken commands. This intertextual game generates new narratives, not only between the separate books, but with your co-reader too (through synchronous headphone instructions that choreograph movement). Both Human Library and The Quiet Volume undermine the authority of the printed word, akin to the works of Calvino and Borges, the agency of the ‘reader’ is taken further into ‘physical action with/through reading’. Libraries have long symbolized collective knowledge, these works function symbiotically within them, gnawing away at this symbolism while dependent on it. In exchange they expand the potential of what a library might be.

If Human Library and The Quiet Volume could be said to critique the notion of the book, then works by Mroué and texts by Etchells play out even broader epistemological concerns. In his exhibition ‘Nothing to Lose’ at Grunt Gallery, the Lebanese / Berlin based artist Rabih Mroué brings together a number of video works that repeatedly question the veracity of public media channels alongside fallibility of individual memory. Perhaps coursing through both is concern for the responsibility of remembering. Old House (2006) for example, features looped footage of a building collapsing under fire, resurrecting, then collapsing again, overlaid with the artist’s own musings on the nature of forgetting. Tim Etchell’s neon installation ‘Who Knows’ in the windows of Vancouver Contemporary Art Gallery continues this tango with uncertainty. A series of cryptic half formed phrases that variously instigate doubt and quizzicality encase the building. In one, YOU KNOW is written in green above THEY KNOW in red, do we both know? Or do we know they know? Or do we know different things? These punning fragments are knots that refuse to be untangled. This tone of open inquiry suffused the festival’s program and therefore its attendees.

It is fitting the festival opened in January, a month which takes its name from the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions. Appropriately for Push’s 10th anniversary this figure had two faces, allowing him looking back on the years past and the decades to come.

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