A year-and-a-half ago, Liina Kuittinen and Tomasz Szrama asked me to perform in Tonight. The invitation letter they sent to me was black. It was a nightmare to print legibly, but I liked the difficulty. I liked everything about this, actually. Let me explain.
Good performance art is typically demanding in some way. Or at least it should be, because, in the experience of difficulty, posturing fails. As a result, the “live” occurs and intimacy can be established, which always allows for a more embodied experience of the work for artist and public alike. The visceral simply communicates meaning beyond the reach of the visual or the intellectual. It connects more deeply. While performance is not the only discipline in which you experience artwork before you see or understand it, it is the one in which this specific reordering of the senses dominates. Consequently, platforms that support encounters between performance art and the public are at their most effective when structured around an experiential, embodied, or visceral encounter before a visual or a cerebral one.
Tonight very concretely puts this into practice by situating the encounter between performance art and the public in the experience of exhaustion. It is difficult not to read this as an easy metaphor. Watching performance is always tiring. The discipline demands constant engagement from its public. You watch every moment pass. Like lying in bed awake all night, time operates under a different logic—acutely evocative and experiential, despite the paradox that characterizes it. Always overwhelmingly aroused or overwhelmingly bored. So, sleepless nights are very much like the experience of performance, and, in its form, the event cheekily underscores what we all know: by the end, you will be exhausted.
Occurring overnight on the island of Suomenlinna, Tonight proposes a demanding context in which to encounter art. To attend—as an audience member or as a participant—is to agree to self-imposed endurance and fatigue. An internalized body cycle is broken when night expands toward extinction instead of erasing itself through sleep. And, under this tension—tired—we slowly shatter. Fatigue breaks the body in a very real, experiential way. The emotional, the cognitive and the physical—none of you is spared. And it is in this crumbling state, excessively sensitive and uncomfortable, that your swelling exhaustion is punctuated, amplified, or relieved by performances. Eight actions presented over a period of six hours. Mine, referenced below in three parts, was the last one.
I came from Canada by plane, sitting next to a drunken man. He was nice and proved to be reassuring during the flight, particularly near the end when my glasses broke. However, he quickly disappeared upon arriving in Frankfurt, literally minutes after promising to help me find my connecting gate. I slowly pawed my way to my next plane, holding my glasses against my face. It was difficult and uncomfortable to see. I arrived in Helsinki already tired, and I lived like that for days.
Before leaving for Finland, I was warned about the darkness. I was told there would not be much daylight, or something like that. Indeed, it must have gotten to me, because for the duration of my stay I had insomnia—a heavy and disorienting kind. I slept in stretches no longer than three hours, usually less. I was confused and never knew what time it was. From the moment I arrived to the moment I left, I felt lost. Luckily, Suomenlinna proved to be a beautiful place to wander back and forth, at all hours, in the darkness.
While on the island, I was housed in a large studio with a second-floor attic apartment. It was more than comfortable, a romantic place to drink, read and lie awake in bed. Not long after arriving, someone told me that the place I was staying was haunted. I wasn’t surprised—not because of any real belief in the paranormal, but because everything I had encountered since arriving in Finland seemed somewhat haunted. This living space was no exception. A domesticated fortress stable-turned-studio was a convincing home for a ghost to inhabit. From that moment on, I was accompanied in my sleeplessness.
Beyond everything that the act of staying up all night connotes, it is the shared exhaustion itself that is the most striking aspect of Tonight. Here, artist, audience, organizer, everyone is fatigued. Individually, this produces a very specific state of bodily hyper-sensitivity, an emotional, cognitive and physical fragility that, when shared, creates an immediate, though difficult, intimacy. This connectedness is raw and uncomfortable, a state that is perhaps not coincidentally also somewhat ideal for the encounter or creation of performance work. Perhaps it’s because guards are down when people are worn out, but maybe also because being too sensitive bonds the public with the artist, who is already always too fragile when the distancing mechanism of representation is abandoned. Regardless of why, drained and vulnerable is a place where tangible moments can be experienced and meaning can be created. So, we consent to the difficulty proposed by Tonight. However, a clear result of the discomfort slowly building overnight, people leave quickly once they can again escape.
The imagined experience of being trapped on an island is part of a familiar North American pop-cultural index. In TV shows, on screensavers and in countless high school logic puzzles, people forced into proximity by surrounding water turn inward to confront each other, themselves, or their context. In philosophy this narrative also occurs, illustrated most ironically when a university art teacher of mine used the stranded island community as a metaphor to defend the importance of the artist in contemporary society. At the time, I was opposed to bringing the artist to the island. Pregnant women and doctors came first, which generally left little room for anyone else. But now—ten years later—here I was, an artist stranded, at least for the better part of a day, on an island.
Logically, to be on Suomenlinna without a boat is to be trapped. The ferry passes only every forty minutes to an hour between 6:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. the following morning. However, the daily life of residents normalizes the situation, and so, even at its worst, the manner in which you are trapped is no more than an inconvenience. Yet, despite the inescapable comfort provided by the surrounding community, the context proposed by Tonight still somehow manages to inform your experience of the event quite vividly. Being stranded for four hours between the last and first ferries is enough to trigger something, even though the restraint operates mostly on a conceptual or a poetic level rather than a real one. This is probably because the narrative of being stranded on an island is such a dramatized and evocative one. Linked equally to themes of innovative survival and unforeseen danger, utopic community (re)building and threatening solitude, it is a rich mine of references to tap into. Additionally, and perhaps more pragmatically, attending Tonight means that you have already resigned yourself to the experience of being stuck, since it is an interesting and relevant way to encounter performance, regardless of the lack of tangible risk.
Though perhaps unoriginal, the metaphor of the stranded island community remains a relevant way to think about viewing performance, because the narrative mirrors the power dynamics inherently contained in the experience of live art. While we could turn away or walk out, we almost always stay. Whether gripped by the artistic proposal or resigned to it, we are trapped. Only a dramatic gesture can provide escape. In parallel, while there are assuredly ways off Suomenlinna for those willing to make the effort, we collectively play out the narrative because pleasure and meaning can be found in it. Simultaneously constrained by the nature of the work and the limits of the land, it becomes evident that you are stranded on an island at every performance event.