Istvan Kantor's Transmission Machine

If you've never heard of Annabel Chong before, you're just not up to date on your pornographic pop-culture. The famed wank-flick actress shot to stardom in 1995 when she set the world record for the largest gang bang ever recorded on film--having sex 251 times with 70 different men in the space of ten hours. She once said in an interview that sex was good enough it was worth dying for and Istvan Kantor starts his piece Transmission Machine which opened at The Theatre Centre on Thursday night, by quoting Chong, and equating sex with art; if sex is worth dying for then art is worth dying for.

I didn't really think much about sex when I was watching his piece. Instead, I kept thinking back to the panel on Digital Media at the Culture Congress. Not so much because Kantor uses video as a major part of his work, but because I think his piece answered some questions (albeit indirectly) that the panel didn't about how the presence of digital media in everyday life has prompted changes in the creation and dissemination of performance.

The biggest change I've observed in performance with the advent of digital media is that now artists need to have a website and DVD's of their work to send out to presenters. It's clear watching Kantor perform, that he's an artist who truly understands this. During the performance, I counted no less than three videographers and two photographers who spent the entire piece documenting everything he was doing. As I was watching him smash things, hang upside down, spray fake blood, and set shit on fire, I kept thinking "Wow! There are gonna be some great photos from this!" and in moments I felt like this was actually the ultimate objective of the performance.

Lest I be accused of slagging him, I should say I think Kantor is pretty fucking smart for doing this. Coming from the field of performance art, he understands something that theatre artists are just beginning to wrap their heads around; that an artist's work must exist digitally, if they want it to have a life outside that particular run. I have no doubt that when he publishes the photos on his website some of them will be quite arresting and will more than likely than to future performance opportunities for him.

Perhaps as a result of his extensive web-presence (just try Googling him) Kantor is one of those artists whose reputation truly precedes him. When my date for the evening found out what performance I was going to be taking him to he said "Istvan Kantor? I've heard about him. Fuck that! I'm gonna go see the puppet show instead." For someone who's never actually seen any of an artist's work to have that strong a reaction to it is telling. Both Kantor's politics and his aesthetic have the potential to rile people, though I feel like it's the people who are least likely to be riled (myself included) who were actual in attendance that evening.

As a starving artist searching for a new apartment, I certainly have an appreciation of how hard it can be to find affordable housing in this city. A quick glance around the audience told me I was surrounded by my contemporaries who no doubt have had similar experiences when trying to find accommodations. I understand what Kantor was trying to say by comparing the gentrification in parts of Toronto with the genocide perpetrated in Nazi Germany (though I don't necessarily agree) however I felt in the case of this performance he was truly (to invoke a perhaps, appropriately clichéd phrase) preaching to the converted. Though I understand the value in reiterating our politics to us, lest we forget the importance of our struggle, I also walked out of the performance believing nothing different than when I went in.

The highlight of the show was when he whipped out a child-sized pink keyboard to play us a song during a technical malfunction, while the crew got the DVD's in order. I really wish this had been planned (à la Marie Brassard in Jimmy) but according to my sources on the inside it was entirely unexpected. Being able to laugh at both himself and the occasional technical glitches in his work gave us a glimpse of the real human being that exists behind the mask we know as Istvan Kantor. For all the seriousness of the issues he was discussing, and even though he started the piece by telling us that art is worth dying for, his recognition, however unintentional, that ultimately art is just art was the piece's saving grace.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I have seen Kantor present in film festivals alongside pieces which were vastly different from his work. There, I found his work to be transformative and resonant. With Transmission Machine I really struggled to absorb the work. Mostly I felt like a spectator to a photo op of a peer or comrad. Bless the Theatre Centre for inviting Kantor into the space to make his work, I do believe he is a senior artist deserving of his slot in the Free Fall Festival. Bless them also for extending invitations to the arts community and having us as their guests. But on opening I couldn't help thinking, I wish this was less about head nodding and commiseration. I wish I believed someone would react so strongly they had to shout something or even walk out. That the "struggle to be heard" in the piece was real in the room. We were all quietly and respectfully listening with both ears because we are cultured to know, that's what you do in a Theatre. And it's precisely because I was in a Theatre "among friends" that the experience didn't have the tension and drama that I crave and perhaps ultimately required to fully receive Kantor's Transmisson.

I wonder if the art that comes from this performance, the photos, videos etc will provide some sort of cap to the experience. Probably. I'm sure there are images that I will see at some point from this show that will make me go- aha! Now that is the face of the artists stuggle. There- in that image is something- maybe an glimpse of Kantor's inspired suffering that in being sent out to the world serves to justify and validate what we artists do...

Thanks for posting about it Chris, it's good to talk.