From spoken word to the speaking body

Sharpshooter (top five hits: lesson #2) VIVA! art action festival, 2013, Bain Saint-Michel, Montreal. Photo by Gerry Lauzon.

In the fall of 1994, I presented what I think of as my first spoken word performance. I wrote a series of nursery rhymes for adults and shared them as part of an informal gathering in a student-run space of my alma mater, Concordia University. I was rapidly embarking on what would become my spoken word career.

In a very short time, I found myself surrounded by like-minded Montreal writers who were equally called to bring their verse to life in front of an audience and be part of an embodied poetic experience that could provoke a multitude of sensations (beyond the intellect) for the collection of assembled bodies around us. An audience with whom they could immediately share their compositions – whether they were political rants, tribute pastiches, opaque stanzas or highly narrative anecdotes.

This was the mid-nineties and the scene had recently exploded with a fresh batch of young writers deeply influenced by DIY culture and a desire to upend the literary world as we knew it. Commingling with a previous generation of post-punk poets, several series sprung up almost overnight with Montreal unexpectedly becoming a kind of mecca for intrepid writers.
 
Having come from a theatre background – hence having already performed text in front of an audience – I wasn’t necessarily new to performing, but I was new to authoring and voicing a range of personal reflections before spectators. This practice of bringing myself (my questions, doubts, truths and taboos) into the work caused me no end of stress. Not that I didn’t feel panic before embarking on stage within a theatrical setting, but somehow owning both the performance and the words behind it had me shouldering a double responsibility: multiplying layers of exposure, both the words and my communication of them could potentially be rejected, and fear of such an outcome was enough to make me undergo severe anxiety before every presentation. Even if I had performed the piece already and knew that these sentences could reach the listener and touch the right nerve, somehow this never soothed me. Each time: a new beginning, a new trial, a new result. A new panic.
 
In the fall of 2004, I presented what I now think of as my last spoken word performance. I was invited to participate in a queer/feminist series at a local Montreal venue, the Pharmacie Esperanza. I had lately started working on a number of songs – coming to music and instrument-playing with absolutely no training. Keyboard in hand, I launched into my set and about halfway through my second number I made a terrifically embarrassing blunder. I fumbled over the chord progression, felt an instant paralysis kick in and stopped the song dead in its tracks. When I looked up from my keyboard I could feel the collective holding of breath: me, the audience, and the room went completely still. After staring at each other for what felt like several minutes I started to laugh, and finally said: “Wow! Now that didn’t go very well!” And in a single instant, a room full of tense bodies simultaneously exhaled, releasing a collective sigh of relief, softly laughing with me.
 
After the presentations ended, one of the audience members – a local musician and friend – came up to me and decided to share what happened for him. “Victoria,” he said. “That was spectacular. Probably the most excruciating mess-up I’ve seen on stage and the most entertaining. And maybe one of the best performances I’ve seen you do.”
 
So what was it that I did? I held space for what was happening in the face of challenge. And in the process offered everyone, myself included, a huge surprise. I exposed a crevice not usually seen in those spaces of the stage: I made fear appear and then transform. Welcoming imperfection and humanness, I carried on (albeit with a dose of deadpan humour). This was a turning point for me and the experience set off an unexpected chain reaction in my brain.
 
Beginning to more deeply reflect on my motivation for wanting to make performances and, in particular, pieces that might just fail, I found myself only being able to keep performing if I modified my methods, as well as the content and contexts. It wasn’t so much speaking that I was interested in but, rather, what happens in those spaces between words. As such, while very gradually moving away from performing on the stage, I also progressively distanced myself from the category of spoken word artist – not because I felt any disdain for the art form (something that did emerge for many others around the same time that I was slowly breaking out), but because I felt constrained by the label. If I wasn’t going to focus my performances on speaking, then what was I doing calling it spoken word?
 
Breaking away from the practice of spoken word I began to consider the concept of the speaking body (thank you karen elaine spencer for this term), a vibrational entity (another borrowed concept, this time from Coman Poon, which refers to what a body is and does in the context of live art practices) whose presence and performative actions propose a resonant, or even dissonant, experience with other bodies in the context of time-based artistic works.
 
No longer thinking of myself as a body that communicates solely through its mouth, I began to create performances as a way of experiencing the body’s actions, through connecting and negotiating with the public while engaging with the environments in which a performance takes place. I wanted to explore the broader category of performance – that vast experience of what it means to make and show live work and the relationship between performer and witness.
 
The speaking body – especially when it appears in female form – is a contested and contentious entity. Historically, and particularly within our patriarchal/late capitalist culture, women’s bodies have been considered property, to therefore be at the service of men and enslaved by capitalist ideals. When I found myself on stage, claiming space in a female container, I felt that I wanted to push a boundary of acceptable behaviour. Not so much through a display of the overwrought feminine (an exaggerated form of stereotypical femininities as provocatively enacted by both women and men through such expressions as drag, to name but one example) but through an engagement with the broken-down or malfunctioning act (the female body that refuses to conform to normative codes of social conduct while it appropriates another kind of stereotype – say, that of the hysterical or deranged woman).
 
Being clear with my words became secondary to deliberately creating situations in which my words would be sabotaged. I found myself insistently bringing the keyboard back to the stage and consistently not being able to carry out my songs. This was not an easy space to hold (but hold it I did) and its tenure became increasingly untenable. How many times would I be able to keep confronting a stone-cold audience response, whose expectations for a successful – or at least functioning – presentation kept being frustrated? While it was a beautiful experiment, it was equal parts painful; this was an open invitation to receive rejection by the barrelful. In a sense, this is how I drove myself away from the stage.
 
In essence, I made the stage an increasingly impossible place for me to be. But something intuitive was at work here and, in time, I understood that my most profound and revelatory moments occurred in those very episodes of failure – even if undertaking them was unconscious (not to mention difficult). On stage, in deliberately setting myself up to fall, an expanded space of fear, risk and vulnerability emerged. With my growing interest in dissolving boundaries between the space of the stage and the rest of life – and, by extension, moving further away from theatrical representation, this is what became compelling to me. This is when something profoundly real would emerge.
 
The real I was looking for then was not so much about the actual failure that would/could take place but of recognizing a deep desire to create artistic spaces and experiences that would insistently dissolve the boundary between art and life. To create spaces where we could connect through our very humanness. Making mistakes (whether intentionally or even accidentally) became one manifestation or provocation of that connection.
 
As a result – and because I wanted to keep performing – I found (or made) stages in a variety of situations that simultaneously – if not paradoxically – made me either more invisible or brought me into closer contact with the audience. I constructed actions in public places such as parks or sidewalks where my presence would more or less fade into the background of the landscape around me, while also creating pieces specifically to be experienced by one person at a time (here the audience is an integral part of the performance, whose participation completes the act).
 
In all cases the common factor was that the art-frame (or the frame of the stage) began to gradually disappear. With a more ambiguous performance context to work with, my performance actions could be equally ambiguous, straddling even more deliberately (and deliciously) the art/life divide. Bringing the speaking body (in the form of my feminine entity) into all kinds of performative situations, I could fully explore the complexities of fear, risk and vulnerability in a less spectacular way.
 
Without the stage and the construct of its attendant conventions to frame the experience, certain expectations could be eliminated and greater room made available to explore more nuanced aspects of the presence of the body in performance. (This includes a certain set of standards and a demonstration of certain kinds of skills: expertise in delivery, mastery of material operations, control of bodily responses, and a charismatic presence.)
 
In expanding the parameters of performance beyond the structure of traditional, frontal work that addresses the audience from the stage, I could reinvent my own set of rules – of conduct and contact – which not only considerably lessened the stress I had previously known, it also, in turn, made it more possible for me to find my own voice. Fear could somehow become more manageable if I chose to locate it in venues of my own making. Moving from spoken word into an expanded speaking body – a living, breathing entity that resonates in multiple ways across a multiplicity of stages, I have found a terrain as rich with performative potential as it is with (manageably terrifying) possibilities.
 
I see now, however, that I couldn’t be where I am or do what I do without having had that very precious, formative experience of performing my own words while being on stage. It was here that I first discovered the importance of vulnerability in the making of performance and where I felt such tangible fear.
 
When the fragility of my ego (via my spoken or strained words) became the focal point, I saw more distinctly how the stage put everything under a high-powered microscope that amplified the entire collective experience for both myself (as performer) and the audience, who shared my experiences with me. That refined vision contributed to a heightened sensitivity that could have only been experienced to this level of intensity from this specific vantage point. And it is that sensitivity that vibrates to the very core of the speaking body – a site of expandable, knowable and deliberate contention that can hold as many stages as it does words, mistakes, fear, space – and silence.
 

Working with live action, human interaction, video, film, photo, drawing, and writing while Victoria Stanton explores her art practice through a variety media, performance is the invariable core of her research. Stanton has presented her work in Canada, the U.S., Europe, Australia, Japan and Mexico. With texts published in Canadian and American anthologies and art/literary/lifestyle magazines, she is the co-author with Vincent Tinguely of Impure: Reinventing the Word (conundrum press, 2001) and is currently working on a new book with the TouVA Collective (Anne Bérubé, Sylvie Tourangeau and Stanton) on the question of ‘the performative’ in performance art. bankofvictoria.com