I can’t write about the last performance I saw Sylvie Tourangeau do without acknowledging that I won’t really write about the performance she did. It’s not the detailed picture that interests me, nor is it (I believe) where the power of this work resides. It is in the invisibility of pre-performance research and the methodology that Tourangeau deploys. It is in the effects of the piece as a whole and the conversations I had with her after seeing it.

It’s not that individual actions don’t matter. But the occurrence of active witnessing, as highlighted by Tourangeau’s series of evocative offerings during VIVA! Art Action’s 2022 event, is what is at the heart of her performative proposal. This, and a recognition of the agency that abandoned spaces hold, too. Combined, what emerges is the notion of the “living archive”: where visible traces of a decades-long artistic trajectory (as embodied by Tourangeau) intersect with the social currency of a historical location to activate – and make circulate – the invisible spirit that inhabits and infuses the remaining skeleton of the performance’s setting.

The Space as Living Archive

KABANE77 (as it came to be known in the community) – once a twentieth-century industrial warehouse, located in Montréal – burned to the ground in 2018, leaving behind the metal ribcage of a very large architectural mammal. Still standing, this framework offers a liminal, transparent refuge where people walk dogs, hold improvised dance parties, organize art gatherings, have picnics, smoke pot, and generally hang. Without having officially prescribed uses, it constantly reinvents itself, becoming amenable to an assortment of actions. As the site of Tourangeau’s performance, she describes a palpable creative motivation that she perceives as embedded within the site’s remains. This (figurative and literal) foundation – like a cornerstone in sacred architecture – forms what she considers the site’s “vocation.” It is, she specifies, an “artistic vocation,” one that entices people to assemble in organized and informal ways. Its magnet-like appeal ineffably draws people in but also surfaces from its quality of “non-place.” Sitting both outside (exposed to the world) and yet inside (contained by the beams that make up former walls and ceiling), the notion of public space in Tourangeau’s performance therefore has several levels, an element that she very consciously raised in the unfolding of her piece. Having prepared on site for several days prior, she found it asserting its own personality and observed a sensorial pull – a compelling quality pulsing invisibly and unconsciously in the structure and even under the ground.

In a mode of active reception – and perception – Tourangeau connected with this unconscious part of the space as infusing its (artistic) foundation, and this, in turn, guided her choice of objects, actions – and entre-actions. Acknowledging the foundational elements of the space would then provide the foundational elements of her performance: the ashes (spread on the ground, then covering part of her body), metal shovels (carried in each hand and leading in direction), and a five-pound level (an inheritance from her father, balanced gingerly yet determinedly on her head). In a humble gesture of thoughtful (and thought-provoking) rebuilding, Tourangeau’s performance took us backward and forward in time, bringing another kind of life to the space, with her body becoming another kind of magnet – constantly connecting to, disconnecting from, and reconnecting to the structure to keep her balance, keeping her from toppling the level on her head, acting as a kind of mediator between the (former) building and the present-day audience.

Who Is Performing?

Reflecting on her role in the performance, on her presence, Tourangeau concedes that she continually stepped aside, effacing herself (so to speak) to let the actions that needed to appear take over. “Don’t believe for a second that I’m the only one who is going to perform today,” she disclaimed as she began to move about the open ground. In discussion afterward she explains, “I was completely in the collective experience with everyone contributing to this unfolding. And that included the space too.”

Taking time and listening, acknowledges Tourangeau, was particularly necessary for this piece. With so many community activities (informal, official, artistic) having previously reimagined this space, Tourangeau needed to insert deliberate pauses between actions in order for these (remnants) to circulate as well. Consequently, she would momentarily disappear. This listening-to, as an activation of her entre-actions, was about sending something out to the audience, then waiting. This waiting, as a space-between-actions, buttressed her erasure, again bringing focus back onto the space (its historical layers) and the audience’s awareness of their presence in it. These actions, and entre-actions, insists Tourangeau, are not for her. By extension, they are not given solely by her (either). Which begs the question: If it is not Tourangeau performing, then who?

Sylvie Tourangeau, Vastes petites manœuvres (2022). Performance. Viva ! Art Action, événement Hors les murs, Kabane 77. Photo : Manoushka Larouche

It is the space she occupies between the sky and ground; the foundation of the site and the frame of the structure – the emanation of the structure – with Tourangeau acting as a kind of mediator through which this structure could “speak.” It’s why she offered the bowl of ashes near the beginning of her performance: ritually commemorating the unfortunate fire, she opened a passage to receive any resonance that could echo back in present time. To be certain the echo is just that: a stirring that responds to a call (Tourangeau’s actions and entre-actions), but because it is fleeting it necessarily cannot be pinned down, as an effervescence that flows through the space. And this fleeting quality is what also supported her presence. It is, as Tourangeau describes, what prompted her to balance the level for several minutes on her head. For in her dual role as receptacle and mediator, this object – and its stabilizing capacity – served to both root (her body/presence-into-absence) and open (her consciousness/absence-into-presence). The weight connected her to the structure’s remains and the soil underneath at the same time.

The Performer as Living Archive

Sliding seamlessly between representation and non-representation, Tourangeau’s dual role as artist and facilitator also emerged as she playfully and graciously engaged the viewers around her. In shaping this piece, she favoured a forging of bridges: between her actions, and between her actions and the surrounding elements (the space, the people). This bringing together: of her many years of performance, of the ten participants she invited to carry out part of the action alongside her1 (dispersed and holding up small mirrors to receive the breath of individual attendees), of the larger group (as audience-turned-participants moving deliberately through the space with her), prompted an evolving intermingling of all our presences combined, with/in the (outdoor) space. From actively beholding Tourangeau’s repeated entre-actions, at once we became enfolded into the sequence, the audience-participants receiving a precise cue, with four key words: VIVRE/OFFRIR/PERDRE/CHANGER (to live, to give, to lose, to change). As we carried out the small choreography and intoned the list like a growing mantra, the full weight of our sounds surged – for each of us has undoubtedly lived, offered, lost, and changed so much (due to the effects of our collective COVID experience).

Sliding seamlessly between representation and non-representation, seeing Tourangeau at this juncture (in space/time, and on the continuum of her career), also had me contemplating the (performance) artist’s presence as a living archive. We’re here not to merely watch her do things, we’re here as witness to four decades of embodied research made manifest in the form that she’s offering. Encompassing the fruits of her practice as a (seasoned) performer, educator, curator, author, and mediator, the performance – a subtle yet majestic overview of her oeuvre – was also deeply imbued with her work around rituals in the everyday. And to partake in Tourangeau’s universe is to become part of what she has previously termed a communauté momentanée: an intentional assembly of coexisting citizens, coming together with individual (and collective) agency to nurture co-creation – with the artist, one another, and the surrounding environment. As such, in the slippage between actions, entre-actions, audience participation, and our active contribution to the history-in-the-making of this former industrial storehouse, the conjuncture of her proposition – with all the layers and years of practice – and the socio-political implications of our spatial occupation, amplified our “commoning.”

In exploring this notion in Spaces of Commoning: Artistic Research and the Utopia of the Everyday, Anette Baldauf and her colleagues take up “the commons” as a space that engenders “instant communities” but also as a practice that recognizes the necessity for negotiation – in particular in the cultivation of democratic citizen involvement within socially engaged artful undertakings. What is at stake for Tourangeau in her performative actions is precisely the space, and our engagement (with her work, and her work in the space); it is the continual negotiation of her presence such that our commoning may happen because she succeeds in effectively facilitating while also stepping out of the way: opening up a dialogue for us to receive from (and give to) the space too.

…Circulating around the cycle of Tourangeau’s words, with her performance guiding the flow of our interactions, we joyfully stepped variously in unison and in chaotic disarray, bumping into each other as we laughed and repeated the verbs at varying volumes and rhythms. Nearly colliding and regaining composure, our spontaneous negotiation, issuing from the effects of the performance (and from the dialogue that is her performance), called on us to find and share our “common ground,” effectively reminding us that to be together – especially now, after a long period of pandemic isolation – is the ultimate celebration.

1 The participants were Pierre Beaudoin, Anne Bérubé, Caroline Boileau, Danièle Bourque, Christine Brault, Danny Gaudreault, Roger Langevin, Hélène Lefebvre, Nicole Panneton, and Victoria Stanton.

The French translation of this article is also published in the 273 issue of Vie des arts – Winter 2024 and can be consulted here