Surface and Skin: the pleasure of touch at CAFKA 2016

As the hot, muggy first days of summer make residents of Southern Ontario pay attention to the movement of air around their bodies, sweat trickling down their backs and sun toasting their skin, the Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener and Area Biennial (CAFKA) wraps up a month long series of public installations that similarly draw awareness to the experience of their bodies—this time in being with artworks that have suddenly taken over familiar spaces that they might ordinarily ignore.

I travelled to Kitchener to see CAFKA 2016 since it offered an interesting opportunity to think about public engagement and the importance of space in public exhibition practices. Although this blog post will focus on how a few particular artworks operated to engage a tactile relationship with spectators, I’m hoping to follow it up with another meditation on spectatorship and audience engagement, particularly in relation to the “Pub Crawl” event and other public outreach events that CAFKA has used to create dialogue.

Tour guide Stephen Lavigne kicking off the pub crawl in front of Jamelie Hassan’s “ﻚ [kaaf]” Image credit: Melanie Wilmink


One major issue with being an outsider that drops into Kitchener simply for this event is that I found it difficult to build a visual map of all the installation locations. Without local knowledge of the city, and the sort of embodied sense of navigation that residents of a space develop, I found it hard to connect each of the disparate works into a larger whole of the festival. If I had not attended CAFKA as part of the aforementioned tour group, I think I would have missed many, if not most, of the works in the biennial. Much of my time would have been taken up navigating from place to place (often needing to drive to find the next work), and likely missing the journey between points of interest in my desire to get to the next site. It would have become a (likely-frustrating) scavenger hunt. As it stands, I was only able to see the works from the tour, plus two installations in a small shop I had coincidentally frequented beforehand. Although I had enjoyed both “Machine Drawings” and “1-Bit Symphony” by Tristan Perich in Open Sesame (in the same square as many of the outdoor installations at CAFKA), for some reason I hadn’t connected that they were even part of CAFKA.

Although I can’t really speak for the local residents of CAFKA, it did seem to be a broader problem that the festival had to contend with. Many of the locals on the tour hadn’t seen any other works in the current edition, and had never attended previous iterations of CAFKA. Our tour group picked up several stragglers who would join us in looking at artworks that they seemingly hadn’t paid attention to before, and when my friend and I were re-visiting some pieces in the park the following day, we bumped into a couple who asked us to explain what we were doing in David Jensenius’s “Telephone Booth”.

Now don’t get me wrong, this disconnect between works and the larger festival is not necessarily a problem, and the fact that most people on the tour were unfamiliar with the festival is actually a really exciting indicator of the work reaching out to broad new audiences. I think that many festivals (certainly ones that I have worked on), often aim to create an overarching sense of connection between objects and sites to create a cohesive sense of the event’s branding, but it is extremely difficult to do over large distances and without clear visual sightlines and prompts. Even something like Nuit Blanche in Toronto struggles to connect its disparate sites, usually only succeeding in that the event occurs on so large a scale that it is physically impossible to see everything, and therefore viewers must just resign themselves to only seeing a portion of what is happening. So what if we were to throw out the assumption that all of the works in the event have to tie together under the larger festival umbrella?

There is something interesting about the idea of placing single works around a city, that are temporary in nature, but don’t necessarily speak clearly to one another. Instead, each work must hold its own during one-on-one encounters with minimal context. Here, the spectator must be drawn in quickly, and have their public guard broken down enough to initiate some sort of encounter, despite the fact that they have not sought out the work as part of a festival scavenger-hunt. They must be willing to tread into spaces that are not normally publicly accessible or welcoming, and open to experiencing familiar spaces in new ways.

The easiest way of encouraging this sort of openness within an artistic situation is often to rely on pure aesthetic spectacle. Of all the works that I saw at CAFKA 2016, “Wind Water Wave” by Mary Ma was the most successful at this. Tucked into a nondescript office space, “Wind Water Wave” was tricky to get to—the offices had minimal signage toward the work and still functioned normally during the day. The grey hallways were cold, neutral transit-ways between private spaces—barred by industrial doors and keycard entry locks. In one of these private spaces, Mary Ma’s piece was accessible for limited hours on weekday evenings and weekend afternoons.

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Upon walking into the space, the visitor is faced with a wall of curtain the flows down over top of several industrial fans, whirring away loudly. Edging around the side of the curtain reveals a large dark space, with the rest of the curtain spread out from wall to wall and flowing up and down in gentle waves with the pressure of the fans. Projected on top of this fabric is the sparkling waters of Lake Ontario, transforming the dark, generic office space into a tranquil, otherworldly waterscape. It was thrilling to see this work with a large group of other participants, since it was definitely designed as a crowd-pleaser. Aesthetically appealing and interactive—audiences were invited to crawl in under the waves—the work is meant to create a body-to-body relationship between the work and its viewers.

Our guide, Stephen Lavigne, talked briefly about the artist’s intentions for the work, as a kind of interactive landscape painting, or extension of the experience of Lake Ontario and gave some background on the Ma’s process for developing the project. I’ll admit, I’m not generally that interested in landscape painting as a genre, but “Wind Water Wave” did successfully create an experience of being by, in and under water, while drawing on an aesthetic of transcendent beauty, feelings of peacefulness, and the imaginative possibilities of texture that I associate with landscape painting. The movement of the fabric, with sparkling video projections create a sense of painterly movement, a motion that is at once realistically wave-like and gesturally human.

It is when spectatorial bodies get involved in this textural space that the project really comes to life. Standing to the side of the piece, one can see/feel the lumps of other spectators crawling on the floor underneath the fabric. I say see/feel, because it is less visual and more visceral when my brain and body recognizes that something is not right with the movement of the cloth. Lumps underneath that don’t fold or flow in the right way anymore, and I become aware of living, uncontrolled and unexpected organisms that exist just underneath the surface.

When I bend down to crawl under the edge of the flapping fabric, my hands and knees scrape along the coarse grey office carpeting—a stark contrast to the silky flow that I push against to work through to the centre of the artwork. Blinded one moment by a face-full of cloth, and then released into an air-pocket beneath the surface, it is almost like swimming. Blind and bleary eyed one moment. Clear and calm and breathing the next. It is really exciting to be in this space with a group of spectators, many of whom have fought their way underneath the fabric and now lie on their bellies, or crouch in small groups, enjoying the voids they have found. The roof of the fabric/ water now reads as underwater, with the sparkles hiding what lies above it. The pleasure of these hidden spaces is abundantly clear, with viewers rolling around on the floor (an unusual position for art-viewers), smiling, taking photos, chatting in pairs and small groups, or just lying back and enjoying the surroundings.

Pub Crawl group in Mary Ma’s “Wind Water Wave” Image credit: Melanie Wilmink

Interactive and immersive works like Mary Ma’s are often the most visibly successful—audiences love them, take selfies and spend time playing in the space. However, the hidden location of this particular piece, isn’t all that conducive to bringing in audiences who are not specifically seeking the work out. Situated in a more accessible venue, and less of an obviously technological spectacle, Akousmaflore’s “Scenocosme” stages its interactivity in the middle of the Kitchener City Hall Rotunda. Although also office space and designating a seat of power that is not always accessible to everyone, the Rotunda strikes a balance between public and private by staging art in the lobby of the building, which is generally open to visitors with business in City Hall. It is still less welcoming a public space than the fantastic open plaza outside of the building (which also hosted other artworks), but is clearly available for public access. In this space, “Scenocosme” is constructed from live hanging plants that are suspended from a small gazebo structure. When touched the plants create musical sounds, due to sensors react to electrostatic inputs from human skin touching the plant’s surfaces. The chirping plant noises give voice to an organism that humans often take for granted, since plants don’t move, shout or otherwise react to our presence in ways that we would recognize as sentient. Suddenly, the plants are no longer just objects in our space, but beings that co-own space, that speak and demand to be heard. The relationship between the human and plant bodies changes, shifting to a more equal footing.

Akousmaflore – “Scenocosme” Image credit: Melanie Wilmink

Similarly drawing attention to the presence of bodies that are ignored by humans, Dodolab’s “To the Synanthropes” shifts into an even more public location, while shrinking to an even smaller scale. Designed to address the synanthropes (or undomesticated animals that share human spaces), this work speaks directly to squirrels, rabbits, earthworms, pigeons and sparrows that live in Victoria Park. This time, placed in an extremely public location, Dodolab extends the idea of the art viewing public far beyond the usual bounds of privileged human viewers to include all of the critters that humans generally ignore (at best) or reject/ eject. Beyond the creatures who enjoy the art in their own manner, this project is interesting as an extension into a completely public space, but without any of the technological spectacle from the previously discussed works. Using materials such as grass, seeds, and radish sprouts, the medium of the texts inscribed around the park is ephemeral and easily missed. When our group stopped at one of the Dodolab works, it was difficult to tell what the artwork even was; it just looked like an open field at the park. It required close attention to discern that the grass at our feet was a slightly different colour and texture than the rest, and we had to work to figure out what the text was trying to convey.

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Here, although the work is as public as possible, there is very little context to help determine what is the work and how to make meaning out of it, other than seeking out further information from CAFKA. There is signage, but it is often easy to miss, and I don’t remember them having have descriptors for the work. Indeed, even the printed flyers offer only brief descriptions, so it is clear that CAFKA asks audiences to do significant work to develop understanding. In each of these works the viewer is asked to place themselves into a conversation with the work. The work is set up to rub up against the viewer’s body, literally—in each of these examples one must crawl, grab, or step into the work—and figuratively—viewers must do the work of active participation to develop understanding.

It is here that CAFKA’s commitment to public outreach and unique forms of dialogue creation becomes really important. The festival runs various tours, including bike, coffee, and pub crawls, which bring groups of viewers together to explore the work and discuss amongst one another. Although it is possible for single viewers to also have exciting experiences with individual works, it is likely that these group tours are key to connecting the disparate works in the festival and really driving conversation through the larger model of a temporary art event.

CAFKA closes on June 26 (today), but make sure to check out their website – or social media for more images and detail on the works.

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