A young woman slams her naked body furiously against a wall, again, again, and again, so brutally that I have to remind myself to breathe.
Only moments before, I’d carefully sidestepped her as she lay on the floor, unclothed, motionless, and with her eyes shut. I filed into the studio along with the rest of the audience and in her silence and anonymity, the woman was reduced to an obstacle in our path, occupying our peripheral vision, sensed rather than seen.
This evening’s ‘unplugged’ version of Unrelated, a 60-minute-long, site-specific live art collaboration between the Canadian choreographer and artist, Daina Ashbee, and performers, Areli Moran and Paige Culley, is part of the international festival, SACRED: Homelands, curated by Nikki Milican and hosted by Toynbee Studios.
Finding themselves without the comforting provision of seating, people crouch or stand awkwardly around the room. With bags, coats and scarves, territories of personal space are marked out, in stark contrast to the woman who can claim none of her own and is bare except for her tattoos. As the room hushes and attention turns to her, I notice that some of the audience sit cross-legged by her side or even at her feet facing between her legs. Others, like myself, consciously or otherwise, have chosen to view her from a little farther away. I can make out the charcoal smudge of a hip bone, a breast, the faint lines of a limb, dark indentations of a rib cage. Her face is contorted by black hair and shadows. Without a gaze to return ours, this dispassionate observation from afar creates an intimate yet coldly impersonal encounter.
There is no distinction between us and the women we’re watching now. With no safe place from which to observe, I wonder if what I am experiencing is purely mine and mine alone.
She stirs and raises her hip from the ground to twist over onto all fours, and then begins to ratchet back and forth. Accompanied by an industrial sounding groan, any sensual pleasure in looking turns swiftly to unease. The noise worsens with every persistent jolt onto her hands. I see her face clearly now. She is wincing and wild-eyed, shaking her head and muttering half-words that escape between gasps for air. Groups of people next to her disperse as she shudders forwards and into the crowd. Then she begins to hurl the whole of her weight into the wall, obsessively, as if overcome by a force too powerful to bear.
When she unfurls from a crumpled heap, a second woman walks into the centre of the room to undress. She looks out into the audience with a listlessness that puts me on edge. The pain of the first woman, though of an indeterminable nature, was explicit and confrontingly visceral. This new wounded stare is chilling. Her oblivious manner has her gliding into people unless they shift out of the way in time. There is no distinction between us and the women we’re watching now. With no safe place from which to observe, I wonder if what I am experiencing is purely mine and mine alone. I feel my muscles ache, tensed in grim anticipation and a gnawing concern for what I think I have just seen.
Throughout the performance, we are obliged to determine a relationship between the two young women from the vignette-like actions they perform, mostly independently, occasionally in graceful tandem, but never in complete isolation from each other. Ashbee’s choreography takes an intuitive approach and what occurs this evening is previously unrehearsed, making what happens between the performers and the audience less a spectacle and more an experiment in affect. During another part, the first woman restlessly braids her hair, while the other pushes and drags a clothes rail around in a kinetic display of dependency, as if it is sticky or cumbersome, despite the fact it runs smoothly on its wheels. She covers her face with a white pelt, one of the pieces of cloth and fur hanging from the rail, and extends her hands outwards, in a beseeching gesture, making eye contact with members of the audience. When she settles on someone, she invites her to lay the piece of fur across her face, covering her eyes. While nothing appears to console the seething rage of the first woman, this tender act of vulnerability is the closest we have to resolution in Unrelated.
These interactions appear to balance what would otherwise be a harrowing sixty minutes, but create an atmosphere of disquieting ambiguity. Just as the audience is never sure what to expect while the women roam the perimeters of the room, a question mark of doubt lingers over whether it’s possible to precisely name what we’ve become witness to. Ashbee’s slightly reserved contributions in the post-performance Q&A confirm this: some stories are too difficult or too private for casual expression in the singular narrative of the personal voice, or even to verbalise at all.
Most durational works of live art require a degree of stamina from the audience as well as from the performer, but this version of Unrelated was particularly emotionally demanding.
Making mention of her Cree Métis family background, for which the loss of culture, identity and language is a deeply troubling inheritance, Ashbee speaks about displays of abuse and violence as an avalanche of smaller transgressions, hidden from view and buried by dominant histories. Ashbee explains that ideas for Unrelated had incubated and taken initial shape from old journal entries made some time ago. Documenting her frustrations, sadness and anger around mass farming, climate change, habitat destruction, and more personal challenges such as anorexia, these writings as a younger woman had gifted her with a chance to reflect upon patterns and cycles that exist in relationships within herself and with others.
Some truths did come to the fore in a year of lost bearings. After decades of ignoring astonishingly high rates of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and the personal appeals by loved ones to bring perpetrators to justice, the Canadian government announced in September that it would finally launch an official inquiry into these unresolved cases. This followed a report by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada last year on the state-sponsored, church-run Indian Residential Schools, the boarding-school-style institutions which existed across Canada to assimilate native children, to ‘take the Indian out of the child’. Thousands of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children died in the ‘care’ of the IRS, and many more were physically and sexually abused between the late 1800s right through to the mid 1990s. After collecting more than 6,200 statements from survivors of the schools, TRCC declared that the “legacy of unresolved trauma passed from generation to generation” had cast “a profound effect on the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians”.
On another night, the choreography of Unrelated may have evolved differently, altering the dynamic between the performers and the tension of the piece. Most durational works of live art require a degree of stamina from the audience as well as from the performer, but this version of Unrelated was particularly emotionally demanding. I noticed a couple in the audience leave mid-performance, apologetic but overwhelmed. Remembering the hot shame in the strong urge to leave, I reread my notes from the performance. These were depictions of physical acts of violence, the sort of actual blows to the body that draw blood, break bone, and bruise the skin outside of cartoons. I was surprised to see that in writing this piece from memory I’d left out so many of the more distressing sequences – hair crammed into her mouth, choking, upper cuts to the chin – destroying the evidence of that hour by literally having written them out as if they didn’t happen.
Unrelated is a work for which there’s no need to pierce skin and spill guts in order to explore the limits and possibilities of pain. Like a psychodrama behind closed doors, terrifying in its everydayness but concealed by fairytales of how things are supposed to be, a belief that we are better than this. Disbelief and doubt are cauterising blind spots against the reality of others’ suffering but also of our own; trusting in what we see and what to believe is an unsettling choice. In Unrelated, worn out from rage, there’s no other resolution from a pain so immense and debilitating than to appreciate the beauty of acceptance and transformative potential after such trauma, to pause and be still before beginning again.
Image credit: Daina Ashbee, Unrelated, performed by Areli Moran and Paige Culley. Photo by Sarah-Marie