Tuesday, September 28th, 2010 at 11:23 pm

Visualeyez 2010

Performance art has always seemed a bit elusive to me – more than anything else, it probably has to do with my lack of familiarity with the medium rather than the art itself.

So when I found out that the 11th annual Visualeyez Festival, put on by Latitude 53, had adopted a theme of food this year, I was excited. Nothing like a topic that I love to get me interested and more willing to take the leap into the unknown.

Unlike an art gallery, where the pieces are static and accessible, for the most part, during operational hours, and unlike the Fringe theatre festival, where every staged production is performed multiple times, the Visualeyez Festival is not only brief by comparison at six days in length, but also, performances of some works were only scheduled to take place once.

That said, on the day Communications Assistant Alaine Mackenzie invited me to the festival, I was able to get a taste of three very different interpretations of the theme (and still can partake in one piece not bound by time – by downloading an audio tour of the Sobeys Urban Fresh).

Alaine was also really excited about this year’s theme of food, and really thought the banner would help break down the barriers of those daunted by the idea of performance art. The gallery was quiet when I arrived, but by the time the afternoon’s main event was underway, the main space was nearly full.

First, she introduced me to Alison Reiko Loader and Kelly Andres, who described their project titled kinder/garden as a “food laboratory”. Different from most of the other performances, both were on-site tending to the lab every day, and made a point of changing the space daily.

Alison and Kelly are based in Montreal, where they applied for and received space at the Concordia University greenhouse. They used the greenhouse to explore the idea of manipulating life, including Alison’s creepy but fascinating project of force-growing vegetables into moulds that resembled fetuses.

Pickled tomato

Pickled fetus-moulded tomato and cross-sections

The installation also featured other “live” foods, including yogurt (packed in plastic containers resembling test tubes for patrons to take home), a “doughbie” (a loaf of bread in a baby sling), and bacteria cultures in Petri dishes. Kelly was even serving up wheatgrass martinis (wheatgrass pulp + sparkling mineral water). Alaine and I decided to indulge. More than tasting like grass, it smelled like grass, but it definitely seemed to cleanse on the way down.

Wheatgrass pulp

Kelly at work making our martinis

Alaine and me

Cheers!

Alison and Kelly were more than happy to talk about their project, and this struck me as the most exciting thing about performance art – the dialogue between the patron and the artist. Sure, some galleries host evenings with the artists, and some theatres offer talk backs with the actors, but here, the very point is the exchange itself.

Next, I chatted with Cindy Baker, the Festival Animator. Her role was to attend all of the performances and blog about it, in the hopes of generating buzz and documenting the festival itself. She has done a great job, filing several thoughtful posts a day. She did comment that for a festival about food, however, there wasn’t much food being served.

I also wandered into Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s rice painting set, called Hourglass. Cindy did an exceptional job elaborating on some of the themes of her piece, so much so that I feel like I don’t have anything to add. Except to say that while the task of attempting to fill the bowl with painted grains of rice was futile, I enjoyed the experience. I liked the fact that there were only two chairs (even though many more hands would have resulted in lighter work), and that I was able to connect with another person, even for a brief moment, by sharing in the same task.

Hourglass

Two patrons taking on the task

Though Food Wars was delayed a couple hours due to the sheer number of dishes the two artists were putting together, I have to say, the food was worth the wait. The performance was billed as an Iron Chef-esque showdown: “Armed with only amateur cooking skills and each family’s secret recipes, Mexican artist Manolo Lugo and Guatemalan born artist Naufús Ramirez-Figueroa cook up a storm to prove which nation has the best cuisine!” The intention was for patrons to sample food from both countries, and vote for their favourite.

Todd Janes

Latitude 53 Executive Director Todd Janes introduces the artists

Manolo and Naufús both did an exceptional job setting up their display tables, Manolo with a colourful fruit garnish and Naufús with an intense fondant-covered cake shaped like a Mayan pyramid (it was handy that a chef from Junction next door was in attendance, as she ended up helping Naufús with the fondant).

Preparing the cake

Dressing the Mayan cake

Guatemalan table

Naufús’s Guatemalan spread

From reading the description of the show, I did expect more exposition before the food free-for-all – someone in the audience had to prompt the artists for explanations of the dishes. Between the two, I thought Manolo did a better job, which was probably the main reason my vote went to him (because really, the food from both sides was equally good). An idea I was hoping they would explore further was substitutions in spite of their quest for “authenticity” – though some of the ingredients needed for their dishes were available to them here, Manolo expressed that he had to use similar but not the exact ingredients as specified in traditional recipes.

Mexican table

Manolo’s Mexican spread

Standout dishes for me included the Guatemalan stewed bananas in spicy chocolate mole, the Guatemalan cake (it was supposed to taste like Guatemalan egg nog, but I just thought it was delicious), Mexican stuffed poblanos with pecan sauce (the pomegranate seeds on top are such an inspired idea) and the Mexicn pibil chicken topped with pickled purple onions (you can check out the full menu here).

Mexican plate

Mexican plate

Guatemalan plate

Guatemalan plate (as you can tell, I reused the plate)

I think everyone was in a delirious food coma by the time I left, before the winner was declared (for the record, it was Mexico, though apparently some ballot box stuffing went down). And though a part of me still wanted more of a “performance” from Food Wars, between the food and the conversation, did it really matter?

Thanks again to Alaine for the invitation – I’m not sure I would have made it down to the festival without a push, and now that I’ve been to Visualeyez, I will likely return in the future.