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TIME TIME TIME Interview with Rebecca Belmore by Paul Couillard

FADO (Paul Couillard): Let's talk about manifesto, the performance you did last year for TIME TIME TIME. Could you start by describing the performance?

REBECCA BELMORE: The performance was in a storefront space on Queen West. I was seated at a table with a microphone, some paper, and a number of pencils. I proposed to sit there for twelve hours -- from sunup to sundown -- and to write as consistently as possible over that period of time, speaking whatever I wrote. I was trying to synch my voice with my hand, and the voice of my brain was involved, too. Speakers were mounted outside the space, amplifying my voice so that the audience could hear me.

FADO: When you started, what did you hope to write about?

REBECCA BELMORE: Well, I hoped I would write something great. But I don't think it was that great. That's OK: I knew it probably wouldn't be great writing, because I'm not a writer. For me it was the whole process... I was interested in the fantasy of being a writer. This was a way for me to come to terms with that, or at least exorcise the idea of myself as a writer in real time. At the same time, I am a visual artist and a performance artist and an installation artist, so I was interested in creating the image of myself as a writer. In terms of an aesthetic object or installation, I installed myself. I was dressed in white. The paper was white. The walls were white --

FADO: There was a white tablecloth --

REBECCA BELMORE: Yes, the table was white, all white on white. And over time, in the process of writing, my hand became covered with lead, because I was dragging it across the page. When I touched myself, my shirt would become covered with the graphite. In terms of drawing or marking as a process, over time I change. It's very subtle, but I like that aspect of it.

Also, I put a pencil sharpener in the bay window, which gave me a way to get out of my chair and approach the glass or the separation between myself and the outside. Over twelve hours, that was my only way to get away from my table and from the task of writing. I say 'task' because trying to write really was a task.

FADO: It's interesting that you describe the performance in terms of how you're marked by your own process. In a sense, the piece is about how you start out to make a mark, and then how you mark yourself through that process.

REBECCA BELMORE: Yes. Over the twelve hours, at times I would be into the writing, really focused on it. And then at other times, because I was really tired, I would end up getting frustrated. I would start to see myself in the space and describe the visual image I was projecting -- what I imagined I must look like. It was the idea of seeing yourself, of marking yourself in a visual sense. I found it a difficult performance to do. I'm accustomed to working 15 minutes or half an hour -- an hour, maximum.

FADO: To me it was an installation in which you were the main sculptural element.

REBECCA BELMORE: Through the process of making the work I realized that was exactly what I was doing. The space had white walls and all the symbols we associate with art; I liked being institutionalized, locked up in the gallery so to speak. Also, the fact that the space is across from a psychiatric hospital interested me. I would hear the audience talking outside, people's curiosity or dismissal -- "this is a piece of shit", or "who's paying for this", "how much is she getting paid", "taxpayers' dollars" and all of that -- so I had to confront that reality or aspect of being an artist, being questioned by the public about the validity of what I'm doing. "Is this art?"

FADO: Yes, that's a tendency in our culture. Before we even try to figure out for ourselves what we're seeing, the first thing we want to know is, "why is she doing that? Who's paying for that?"

REBECCA BELMORE: Absolutely. Being on display in that way -- being self-conscious and also through the process of the work revealing my inadequacy as a writer -- was very unsettling on a personal level. All artists are subject to self-questioning about whether we think it's good or not.

FADO: The artist's job is to go to that very vulnerable place. During the performance, it begs the question, "are you setting yourself up for failure?" Especially in a piece where you're so much on display. But at the end, we saw only the object you created. You took all of the pages, which were spread across the floor, and gathered them up. As an object it looked quite beautiful, a stack of vellum with the pencil shavings beside it. You presented it as an object in a way that frustrated any viewer expectation of wanting to actually read the words. As a visual artist, you can go through a process of vulnerability, but that's not necessarily what's exposed at the end of it. In the performance art process, the vulnerability is exactly what's there to be exposed.

REBECCA BELMORE: What is that, then? An 'operation' of the visual artist?

FADO: It sets up a lot of interesting questions about why artists do performance. I see manifesto as different from your other performance work. The previous works I've seen were responses to particular situations. They were short, to-the-point, and they weren't about you per se. Whereas manifesto was you going into very vulnerable territory and just allowing that to be.

REBECCA BELMORE: That's very true. It was such a personal place for me to do, and it's odd that I would make it stretch out over twelve hours. It was a self-examination, an interrogation of myself as a visual artist and as an installation artist. It was like a conversation between different aspects of my work, my different personalities and what they produce.

FADO: Do you think doing this piece has had any effect on you?

REBECCA BELMORE: After I did the piece, I just wanted to run away.

FADO: But you had set up the 'opening'.

REBECCA BELMORE: I know. I had to be a professional. The 'other' me stood up and said, "OK, this is my object. Could I have a bottle of beer?" What was the question?

FADO: Whether you felt any impact...

REBECCA BELMORE: I really couldn't talk about the work. Even when I went back up north to where I was living at the time, in Fort McMurray, talking to friends or my partner, I didn't really describe the piece. I just dropped it. This is the first time I've talked about it. Because it was so difficult and so personal, I think you had to be in the room. It was a private thing, even though it was public.

FADO: I was quite overwhelmed by how uncompromisingly honest the piece seemed. If you were going through a bad time, the audience knew it. And you knew it, too. So if the only thing in your head was what a horrible ordeal you were going through, you would write it down, and say it. "This is a piece of crap. I'm just fooling myself here."

REBECCA BELMORE: "This is stupid. Art is stupid."

FADO: You'd read over something you'd written ten minutes before and write, "that was just bullshit. It's a lie." And yet as an artist you were instinctively following the principles of transformation: always in motion, always going deeper, always testing the lie. Even though you went through very difficult moments, you wouldn't get stuck in one spot, or stop doing your task. Your frustration would be the catalyst that would send you off on the next --

REBECCA BELMORE: Rant...

FADO: -- point of inquiry. I found that really amazing.

REBECCA BELMORE: I remember it as coming at the problem, or that point, by switching directions. Going in circles, the confusion and the frustration: sometimes thinking I had a good idea and I was on my way, and then suddenly getting trapped again somewhere else. I think that says a lot about human beings and the way we operate.

FADO: I think that's how our minds develop things. It's certainly how art works for me, and it seems to be how other aspects of my life work as well.

REBECCA BELMORE: I enjoyed doing the piece a lot. I felt good about it in the end, but it was definitely a challenge.

FADO: Why did you choose the title manifesto?

REBECCA BELMORE: I guess I was hoping for clarity -- to clarify my own thinking and to have a better understanding of what it is that I'm trying to do.

FADO: Why is that important to you now as opposed to any other point in your career?

REBECCA BELMORE: I've been working for ten years, and I think it's a good time to take a break, to evaluate what's next. That's probably why I chose the title. I knew I had twelve hours to really think about it, so it made sense. And the idea of writing a manifesto was romantic. I always admire people who can write, people who keep notebooks and write ideas down. I never do that, so I wanted to see myself or imagine myself being that way, actually writing things down on paper.

FADO: Do you think there's an overriding theme or concern in your work? What do you think your work is about?

REBECCA BELMORE: Do you mean my performance work, or all of my work in general?

FADO: Let's start with you performance work.

REBECCA BELMORE: Well, recently I've been doing performances as a means of making a sculptural object. So there's some kind of conversation going on between different disciplines. And the performance work has a lot to do with my voice, or my reaction to specific situations -- for example, the piece I did at 7a*11d [International Performance Art Festival] in 1997, FOR DUDLEY.

[On September 6, 1995, Dudley George, a Chippewa from Stoney Point, was the first Indigenous person to be killed in a land rights dispute in Canada in the 20th Century.]

The energy within the piece has a lot to do with my own personal frustration, even though I project that it's the performance persona or the performance activity -- not me, Rebecca Belmore. My work is the voice that speaks on my behalf, it's my spokesperson. Basically, I try to be as honest as possible, and give myself a hard time. Much like I did in manifesto.

FADO: Do you feel that you beat yourself up a bit?

REBECCA BELMORE: Definitely. I'm very hard on myself.

FADO: Do you think that's a good thing?

REBECCA BELMORE: A lot of people say I shouldn't be so hard on myself, but I think it's healthy, as long as you know the level at which it makes sense. You shouldn't bury yourself.

FADO: You certainly shouldn't be any harder on an audience than you are on yourself. I don't mean forcing the audience to watch grisly things. I mean reminding people that there are things to question in daily life and society. We should be thinking about our place in the world and what we need to be doing. I think that's what we mean when we say "hard on ourselves" as opposed to whipping ourselves for sheer pleasure.

REBECCA BELMORE: In performance, it's very important to me to create a captivating visual image. I really like it when I am in a performance and I feel, "yes, this looks good, even though I can't see it." Then I feel that maybe I am being successful.

FADO: You have a romantic fascination with writing, but you speak in images.

REBECCA BELMORE: Absolutely.

FADO: Is the presence of the audience important for you in performance?

REBECCA BELMORE: It's becoming less important. manifesto was a good example of that. Even though my voice was out there, I had no idea how it sounded, whether you could hear it across the street. I didn't care. What I cared about was how it must look. I became totally messed up by the visual aspect of it.

FADO: Messed up?

REBECCA BELMORE: Obsessed with it, and getting stuck talking about it incessantly.

FADO: But you're still interested in performance despite this harrowing experience!

REBECCA BELMORE: I really like performance. But the more I do it, the more I need to do it on my own terms. I'm much more selective than I was, say, five years ago. I prefer to work outside of the museums and official galleries. Official gallery spaces are too problematic. I find them really disheartening. Performance is difficult for a general audience, and I think I'm more interested in the medium itself, not the audiences.

FADO: Galleries are set up to show static images. Their design is based around the idea of presenting an object that's frozen. That's their power in a way, so to put performance there creates a strange dynamic.

REBECCA BELMORE: I talk a lot at universities to art students here and in the US, and often -- especially if it's a First Nations group of students -- I like to do a performance for them to illustrate how I feel about the process of being an artist, what that means to me. Performance has become an effective speaking / teaching tool for me in talking with other artists and students. I've found a way to teach or to speak about art through performance.

FADO: Performance reveals in a way that just talking never would.

REBECCA BELMORE: Absolutely.

FADO: You mentioned that doing a twelve-hour piece was unusual for you. Do you have any thoughts about time and duration?

REBECCA BELMORE: In my installation work, time and duration is definitely part of the process. I've done works that are labour intensive, but usually it's a simple task that's tedious and takes a long time. I enjoy that. Had I chosen to do a more physical action -- putting things into a box for twelve hours --

FADO: Or sharpening pencils for twelve hours...

REBECCA BELMORE: -- that would have been a lot easier. The challenge of manifesto was having to think -- to get the thinking, the voice and the hand working together as honestly as possible, as directly as possible. The installation work, which has a time-duration quality to it, isn't the same. With a work using natural materials you think, "this work will only last for so long and I'm aware of that. I accept that. I accept time." Of course I feel a consciousness or a self-consciousness of time in the sense of living and dying.

FADO: Creating an installation that requires a lot of time or a repetitive action is different from doing something that you feel is visually powerful or expressive enough to be witnessed or viewed. In an installation, that work may be seen or unseen, depending on the eyes of the viewer.

REBECCA BELMORE: Or how much they're willing to think about it. With manifesto, if someone walked by and noticed me there, or listened for 30 seconds, I would hope that they would see an image, and maybe in the back of their mind they would think about writing. I suspect that a lot of people wish they could write better, mark their ideas and thoughts down more poetically, be more profound.

FADO: Language has become our most privileged tool of communication. Being a writer seems romantic because we think language is the most expressive form. It may not be true, but that's the myth we carry. We're speaking right now. We're not communicating by touching, or drawing pictures for each other, or making faces. We do some of that as well, but it's the transcript that's the acknowledged bottom line of how we can compact everything that's going on here into something meaningful.

REBECCA BELMORE: I wonder why? It's crazy.

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Rebecca Belmore's performance Manifesto was presented in Toronto as part of TIME TIME TIME, a 12-month series of durational performance art works by artists from the UK, US and Canada.

TIME TIME TIME presented works ranging from 12 hours to several days. Ritual, endurance, attention span, community-building, altering states of consciousness, boundaries between public and private, narrative, linearity and transformation were explored in the series by artists presenting their compelling, urgent visions of ourselves and our world at the end of the 20th Century.