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Timeline of performance art
PAUL COUILLARD

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Paul Couillard made his first performance "The Lovers" on March 1st, 1985, at SAW Gallery, Ottawa, Canada.

An interview with Paul Couillard.

Malgorzata Kazmierczak: I read your essay in Total Art Journal, where you say that your motive to take up performance art was purely personal and that it saved your life. Could you tell the story to our readers?

Paul Couillard: In 1984 I was working as a civil servant in Ottawa, Canada's capital city. Of course I was aware of Orwell's book, and I felt some discomforting similarities with my own job, which was to answer complaint letters directed to the president of Canada Post Corporation. My success was measured not in whether people's problems were solved or not, but in how many letters could be answered each day. Then a machine fitted with a mechanical template would sign the president's name using a pen - either with a formal or more personalized signature, depending on the recipient; the letter would go out, and the file would be closed. This was a quite illuminating if somewhat depressing lesson for me in the workings of bureaucracy. Anyway, I felt like my soul was dying, even though I was making an excellent salary and was being groomed for higher positions. I could not find any meaning in this life, and I was on a very negative emotional and psychological track. If things continued for me in this manner, I am quite certain I would have killed someone, most likely myself, but possibly another human being. I knew this was a very unhealthy way to think, but I did not know how to alleviate my inner desolation.

A friend invited me to attend an event at a local artist-run centre, SAW Gallery. It was a performance by Rachel Rosenthal of Gaia, Mon Amour. In this work, humans are likened to parasites of the earth, but unsuccessful ones because we are killing our host. The work also suggests that, having unlocked the secrets of the atom, our only hope for survival is to discover a kind of wisdom that we have shown very little promise of attaining: with such fearsome power comes an equally fearsome responsibility. I was deeply moved by this work - by its message, of course, but also by the performance itself: the virtuosity of Rachel's voice, her fluidity of movement, her ability to shift roles, the clarity of the script, and the conviction of her presence, so vulnerable and impassioned. I felt the full power of her formal skills and talent, but I was more profoundly moved by the real, breathing person who also revealed herself within that tour-de-force performance. I felt something real, something human, and most importantly, something meaningful.

When the piece ended, everyone else got up out of their chairs, and the gallery returned to its ordinary being, a plain white room filled with folding chairs and a pile of rubble in front of one of its white walls. I sat there alone for several minutes, on one of those folding chairs, stunned, utterly transformed in my view of the world, even if the objects themselves were no different. And then I thought, "I guess this what I have to do to heal myself." I stopped eating meat, I quit my government job, I approached the gallery director and asked to make a performance, and I began a conscious process of making a life for myself, of understanding something about my own sense of 'responsibility'.

M.K.: As I understand your first inspiration was a theatrical piece of Rachel Rosenthal, yet your performances are more visual than theatrical, can you explain your way as a performance artist from what you call your "calling" to your performance art career? How did it happen that being inspired by a theatrical piece you did not become involved in theatre but in performance?

P.C.: Experiencing Rachel's work opened my life to a new way of seeing and being in the world. I should perhaps say that is was not the first event called "performance art" that I had ever seen. I had been to another event at the same place, SAW Gallery, where several local artists had presented actions. The only one I still remember was by a man who spent quite a while vacuuming a rug in a very unremarkable fashion. At the time I had no way of appreciating the motivations for undertaking such an action; it was memorable to me only for its sheer opacity as a gesture. How could such an action possibly be framed as a public event? What could possibly be interesting about watching such a thing? Several decades later, my personal history since that time - and indeed time itself, the fact that I can still remember specific details of this seemingly mundane experience - have charged the action with meaning for me in ways that were entirely unimaginable to me at the time, and I would wager also unknowable for the artist himself (who, if I am not mistaken, is now a real estate agent). Certainly when I saw that work, I could not imagine the possibility of vacuuming a rug in front of people as a significant gesture. But when I saw Rachel, I was open enough to imagine using all of the force of one's being to call others to take responsibility for what we are doing individually and collectively to our world.

What I knew then was writing, so I began by creating works that began as written scripts. We grow up being taught particular kinds of narrative - storytelling, theatre, television - and so I had some idea how to turn myself into a character, how to play with speech, how to say things in a persuasive fashion and also how to play with alliteration, with repetition, with stammers and silence, but always with the language in the forefront. Language, I knew, was powerful: it could persuade us to think in particular ways. It seemed a very efficient shorthand for getting at feelings and ideas, and I think I felt more confident in my abilities to shape language than in any other elements of theatricality. But I did not want to rely on language alone. It was important to me that something be shared together, at the same time between the doer and the watcher. I believed there was something essential in the sensuality of existence. I was also interested in technology, and my early works were full of video and recorded audio elements, computer controlled lighting effects, even holography. Because of the installation components, most of these works were done in galleries, but I also did a few things in black box theatres as well. After a few years, however, I found that organizing the technology was consuming all of my time and energy, and not enough effort was going into the 'live' aspects of the work. I wanted to pare the experience back to the minimum, to find out what could happen when there was just me and a light bulb with the audience.

Around the same time (1991) I was invited by Tari Ito to perform in Japan. This was incredibly exciting, since I had never been beyond the borders of Canada and the United States, but also a huge challenge. I was used to communicating through language, and I had no idea what to do in front of an audience that did not speak English. That was when I began to think about how I might make works without relying on words. The festival that Tari had invited me to was in a small village called Tajima, at the site of a copper mine. There I found a man-made waterfall, and I had the idea to string a rope across the top and to hit the water with the rope, disturbing its flow as it tumbled over the side and making patterns that were visible in the water as it fell. The audience watched from a spot below the waterfall, perhaps half a kilometre away, so it was easier for them to see the wave patterns than to see me manipulating the rope. I was just a speck in the distance. This seemed an amazing metaphor for my situation: distanced, almost invisible, but able to make signals that were recognizable if not entirely intelligible. That was the beginning of my evolution away from a reliance on language and pre-scripted narrative.

M.K.: Where does your fascination with Grotowski come from? Two years ago there was a controversial exhibition in Zacheta in Warsaw entitled "Grotowski - Performer". Would you agree with the title?

P.C.: In 1993 I began working with Linda Putnam, a U.S. actor and theatre teacher who worked with Grotowski and Ryszard Cieslak when they were in New York. She teaches what I suspect is her own form of the work, through a series of curricula that focus on understanding body impulses, learning how to project images out from the body, improvising sound and movement, and using internal sources for self-scripting. Linda tends to work mainly with independent artists across several performing arts disciplines (not only actors, but also dancers, musicians and visual artists). Although I was not interested in acting per se, I was dissatisfied with my sense of presence in my own performances. I wanted to increase my range of expressivity, feel less self conscious when doing actions in front of people, and find ways to be 'in the moment,' as it were. Linda helped me with all of this and more. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from her was a way of understanding my own resistances. In the work as she teaches it, emotions that well up - frustration, anger, self-disgust, sullenness - need not be read in the obvious, soap-opera-ish way that we tend to understand events; for example, "I am frustrated because I don't understand this. I am angry because I did this wrong." This way of thinking is generally not helpful for working through whatever seems frustrating or enraging. Rather, these intense emotions are gateways to knowledge. What is it that frustration has to tell you about what you are trying to express? What does rage know of this experience? Looked at this way, these devastating and paralyzing emotions suddenly become sources, resources that can teach you a great deal about whatever it is you are trying to achieve or express. Once I began to understand them in this way, my emotions were no longer my enemies. I wasn't crazy for feeling things so intensely, and what I felt was not simply inappropriate. Instead of judging myself for having the audacity to feel rage, for example, when I live such a privileged existence compared to so many, never having had to live through war or famine - or berating myself for being overwhelmed by sadness at the death of so many friends, colleagues and even lovers in the midst of the AIDS crisis when perhaps a good dose of rage might have provoked a more effective resistance - I could instead ask myself, "What is it that rage has to tell me about this privileged existence? Why is it that this emotion is so ready to step forward and let me know that it has something to say about what is happening here?"

How this really works is very difficult to really capture in a written text. My understanding of and faith in this work comes directly from my experience in the workroom - "on the mat," as Linda would say - and in truth, when I read Towards a Poor Theatre, before doing any of this training, I could not make much sense of it. But through doing the work, through very direct and precise interventions at specific moments during the training process, I discovered a very rich way of working with my body that has never failed to astonish and nurture me and that I have never yet managed to deplete. I think it is important to understand that the kinds of theatrical training that concerned Grotowski were generally passed on through oral traditions, from one generation of performers to the next. They cannot adequately be expressed through writing or even language. They must be discovered in the body of the performer, and they impart a knowledge that cannot be divorced from the movement and sensation that engenders it.

I should note here that I do not consider myself an actor. This was a training I found incredibly valuable for exploring my own questions about how to feel myself as being 'present' to the moment and to understand how to follow my internal impulses in service of the external situation. There are many roads to such understandings - meditation, for example - and this is not necessarily even an important value for every kind of performance. But it has been very useful for me to do the kind of work that interests me. It was also a very useful training in terms of my collaboration with my partner, Ed Johnson. This training provided a basis for the common vocabulary that we use in building works together.

M.K.: I understand your first performances were spoken? What made you switch to more visual or at least - non-spoken performances?

P.C.: Language is an incredible achievement. It has an undeniable efficiency and flexibility, as evidenced by this very text. I find it incredibly seductive, inspiring, powerful. Words can certainly make me cry. And they absolutely have the power to make us experience things in particular ways, and thereby change the nature of experience itself. We tend to take words as thought itself, and this can lead us to forget that thought is also founded on movement, on sensation, on non-linguistic experience. These other parts of experience I believe are also important, and I want to find the freedom that dances somehow between words, sensations, movement. I think perhaps we rely too much on words as the truth of our existence, and it is a time in human existence where it might be useful to pay more attention to the truths that cannot be expressed through words. Thus I chose to considerably scale back my use of language in performance. I would say that my works are more sensible than strictly visual. Smell, sound, touch are often key elements as much as what is seen, as is movement. By that I don't just mean my own gestures, but the way the audience moves: the distance they take from the action, how high or low, how active or still, the muscular engagement of their bodies in relation to the work, the rhythm of their breath...

It is true that I often make works that are designated as 'silent', which often ends up meaning 'without words'. I also often speak when I perform, and I title the performances with words. But I no longer write speeches or scripts and then perform them. I no longer approach a work as a closed narrative, with a rigidly determined rhythm. I now see narrative as something that happens after the performance. I do not tell a story. Instead I initiate an action, or create an image (and by this I do not necessarily mean only a visual image; it could engage sound, smell, rhythm, distance) that may perhaps become a story, later on. Telling a story is not really what I do. A story is a document - albeit a very powerful one - of something that happens after I start to do what I do. The stories are what happen in the bodies of the audience members.

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