Art collective pays tribute to greats

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By Caroline Pelletier

The audience moves in and out of the Ryerson Theatre without regard for whether or not the performance has ended. Two men sit onstage playing chess. Every time they move a game piece, a set of sounds are emitted and images are projected onto several television screens.

The electronically-rigged chessboard was the centerpiece of this legendary experimental art performance, which took place 35 years ago. It as called Reunion and was a collaboration between the renowned French artist Marcel Duchamp, and the experimental American composer, John Cage.

Organized by Cage, the performance featured the works of several electronic composers, who donated sounds for the performance. The composition was created by the unpredictability of two minds playing chess.

To honour the event, a collective of Ryerson students, graduates and faculty will put on a performance influenced by Reunion, called It Was 35 Years Ago Today…

The new performance will take place on Wednesday, March 5 — 35 years to the day of the original performance.

The group, called “C(h)oral Reunion Collective,” is comprised of 14 artists who set out to not only commemorate the event but expand on its themes. “After 35 years, how do we think about art?” asks Edward Slopek, the artistic director for the show and an image arts professor at Ryerson.

He says artists such as Cage and Duchamp redefined “what people consider to be art. In Cage’s case, how we listen, compose, and how we define what music is, bringing in sounds that are other than harmonic.” Likewise, Duchamp revolutionized the “art object” — he is known for taking a urinal, naming it “Fountain” and calling it a work of art.

Don Gillies, a business administration faculty member, was the co-producer for the original event.

“Ryerson recognized the extreme rarity of two such eminent artists appearing together in Toronto and at Ryerson,” he says. “Toronto 35 years ago was less open to artistic experiment than it is today. For [Cage and Duchamp], accident and chance along with irony and cultural variation were all central to their work,” says Gillies.

The show was viewed by several hundred people who came and went during the performance. He says a group of seven people from New York chartered a plane to attend the event and that current Canadian Governor General Adrienne Clarkson was there,

It was 35 Years Ago Today… will be performed in three “movements”, lasting an hour, 30 minutes and 15 minutes respectively. The name “C(h)oral” was chosen because it is a play on words, says Slopek — coral being the traditional gift for a 35th anniversary, and choral because the performance deals with music and sound. Some artists in the collective knew nothing of Cage’s work, and others, such as faculty members, were a bit more knowledgeable.

“We came in without any idea of the final form,” says Slopek, who was the one to originally pitch the idea.

Erin MacKeen, a participant and grad student in the joint Ryerson and York University Communications and Culture program, will perform a piece with three other members of the collective. One member will be playing various silences from the beginnings and endings of records and mixing them, she says. Another person will control where these sounds are transmitted, from one of four main speakers in the space. She and another person will be interacting with the audience, playing a sound — either a car horn, a TTC subway chime, a dial-up modem or a crosswalk sound — and asking them how the sound makes them feel. Their responses will determine which speaker emits the sound.

The show is very interactive, with performers moving throughout the crows for its duration. “We’ve reconsidered what an auditorium is,” says Slopek. We’ve gone against accepting its frontal orientation, the fixation on the stage.”

MacKeen says the show is “mainly a celebration of both of these artists and their influence in terms of alternative music and art, and how influential they are.”

The event will also include an off-campus exhibition. It will consist of two parts — one being an archival look back at the original event, and the other comprised of works by artists from across the country influenced by Duchamp.

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