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Yoshua Okón, Pulpo [Octopus], 2011. Projection vidéo à 2 canaux, son, 17 min 12 s, seaux, épreuve chromogène, 49, 53 cm x 33,02 cm. |
2-channel video projection,
17 min. 12 sec., buckets, chromogenic print, 49, 53 cm x 33,02 cm.
Avec l'aimable permission de l'artiste | Courtesy of the artist

Bertille Bak
Lisa Jackson
Yoshua Okón
Helen Reed
May Truong
Commissaire | Curator: Zoë Chan

From January 20th 2018 to March 17th 2018
Vies performatives

Opening, Saturday, January 20,_3 PM to 6 PM
Guided tour by Zoë Chan, 3:30 PM

Featuring recent video works by a selection of Canadian and international artists, Performing Lives explores—and bridges—the supposed gap between documentary and entertainment, information and spectacle, fact and fiction. Making references to and borrowing methods from TV, film, theatre, dance, and music, these videos represent various groups using strategies that venture beyond the expository approach characteristically associated with documentary cinema.

The expository approach indisputably plays a crucial role in informing the public, especially in the face of deceptive propaganda, the phenomenon of “fake news,” and the dissemination of other sorts of misinformation. In Performing Lives however, the featured videos eschew straightforward didacticism, instead embracing an array of performative strategies to draw in the viewer. They offer new awareness of and insight into the experiences, perspectives, and interests of groups whose collectively shared identities intersect with a multiplicity of factors—from ethnocultural origins and gender to leisure activities and life experiences: a Roma community living in the outskirts of Paris, Indigenous survivors of Canada’s residential school system, undocumented Guatemalan labourers in suburban Los Angeles, Twin Peaks fans, and young Asian-Canadian women.

In Recording Reality, Desiring the Real (2011), film studies scholar Elizabeth Cowie writes that in the world of cinema, there is often a perceived divide between information and spectacle—the former being associated with documentary and non-fiction and the latter with entertainment and fiction. This division is illusory, she argues: instead, these categories are inherently interconnected, as documentary is characterised by “a narrativizing of reality” that “engages us with the actions and feelings of social actors, like characters in fiction.” Cowie thus prefers to describe documentary as “embodied storytelling.”

Blurring the traditional binary categories of fiction vs non-fiction and their commonly associated attributes (lies vs truth, frivolity vs seriousness, etc.), Cowie’s definition of documentary offers a useful entry point into the hybridised narratives articulated in the videos comprising Performing Lives. Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic film The Outsiders, based on the popular young adult novel of alienated masculinity by S.E. Hinton, is re-cast with an all-female crew of Asian descent (May Troung, The Outsiders). The ongoing trauma of residential schools is played out in a hip-hop dance sequence inspired by zombie movies and the creepy music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller (Lisa Jackson, Savage).

Though less brashly “mashup” in their respective approaches, the other videos in Performing Lives place equal emphasis on storytelling through embodied performativity: Twin Peaks enthusiasts act out the roles of their favourite characters from David Lynch’s cult series in scenes written entirely by fellow fans (Helen Reed, Twin Twin Peaks); the day-to-day struggles of the inhabitants of a Roma camp are evoked in a series of folktale-like vignettes (Bertille Bak, Transports à dos d’hommes); a Home Depot parking lot in Los Angeles becomes the unlikely setting for displaced Mayan migrants performing choreographed movements that allude to Guatemala’s bloody civil war in which they fought (Yoshua Okón, Pulpo). While these videos display a range of production values ranging from the DIY aesthetics of community theatre to the professional polish of mainstream cinema, they share a focus on so-called real people— often amateur or untrained performers—who are intimately and intrinsically linked to the stories expressed.

Employing familiar performative conventions from a range of pop cultural platforms (musical numbers, dance sequences, role play, costume, and so on), these videos compel viewers to focus not only on the content of the stories but also on how their subjects actively embody their roles. Scholar Carrie Noland contends in Agency and Embodiment (2009) that “culture is both embodied and challenged through corporeal performance”; to study the body’s many gestures is to understand how “human beings are embodied within—and impress themselves on—their worlds.” In this way, the body is written on by socialising forces—but also has the agency to write its own story. Noland argues that we should consider “how the body might speak to us—not beyond but through cultural frames.” Working in this vein, the videos in Performing Lives share a discernable interest in highlighting the agency of the body within rather than despite the codified structures of dancing, singing, or acting. Asking what new understandings we can glean from the performing subjects, the exhibition offers viewers a window into the perspectives, subjectivities, and experiences of the groups depicted.

Bertille Bak, Transports à dos d’hommes, 2012
Video with sound (15 min)
Courtesy of the artist and Xippas Gallery, Paris

French artist Bertille Bak is known for her commitment to the collaborative process. She gathered footage for Transports à dos d’hommes after spending time living in a Roma camp on the outskirts of Paris. Bak and members of this Roma community have created a playful folktale that hints at the many challenges they face: ongoing demolition of their camps by French authorities, the possibility of expulsion from France, poverty, homelessness, and unemployment.

Lisa Jackson, Savage, 2009
Video with sound (6 min)
Courtesy of the artist, Vtape, and Moving Images Distribution

A striking mashup of historical drama, melodrama, musicals, hip-hop, and horror movies, Savage examines the profound trauma—but also the resilience—of Indigenous children removed from their families and placed in residential schools. Featuring no dialogue and two stunning musical sequences, it tells the story of a young girl (interpreted by Ta’Kaiya Blaney, a performer and activist from the Tla’Amin First Nation), who is taken away from her mother (movingly played by Skeena Reece, an artist of Tsimshian/Gitksan and Métis/Cree descent).

Yoshua Okón, Pulpo [Octopus], 2011
2-channel video projection (17 min 12 s)
Home Depot buckets
Courtesy of the artist

Pulpo features a group of Mayan men who fought in the Guatemalan Civil War of the 1990s. The video was shot in a Home Depot parking lot in Los Angeles where these men, now undocumented migrants, met daily to look for work. Reenactments of the American Civil War are typically played out by hobbyists who in fetishistic detail recreate historic battle scenes; in contrast, Pulpo evokes its subjects’ experiences through a performance of simple choreographed gestures, far from home, sans heroic spectacle.

Helen Reed, Twin Twin Peaks, 2010
Video with sound (18 min 34 s)
Production materials (posters, newsletters, photographs, call sheets, auditions video)
Courtesy of the artist

Entirely shot and interpreted by Twin Peaks enthusiasts on a minimal budget, Twin Twin Peaks is the realisation of a screenplay written by fans of the original series who were upset by its abrupt ending after its second season in 1991. Helen Reed highlights the creativity and esprit de corps of the writers, cast, and crew in this unpolished DIY passion project that melds aspects of TV, community theatre, and social practice.

May Truong, The Outsiders, 2016
Video, no sound (5 min)
Ink on paper
Courtesy of the artist

May Truong riffs on S.E. Hinton’s coming-of-age novel The Outsiders and Francis Ford Coppola’s film based on the book, as well as Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” (featured in the book and film). Replacing the white male protagonists with an all-female, Asian-Canadian cast selected from her own circle of friends, Truong composes brief vignettes that draw from the alienation experienced by the young anti-heroes of Hinton’s book.

Zoë Chan

Zoë Chan thanks the artists in Performing Lives, OPTICA, Vtape, Galerie Xippas, Antonio Loro for his editorial feedback, ICI (Independent Curators International), and the Canada Council for the Arts.



SIROIS-ROULEAU, Dominique. « Vies performatives, Optica, Montréal », Esse arts + opinions, no 93, Spring-Summer 2018, [p. 106].

EL-SHEIKH, Tammer. "Performing Lives at OPTICA", Akimbo-Akimblog, March 7, 2018.

«Vies performatives» : jeux de rôles à Optica, Le Devoir, February 3, 2018.

MOCKLER, Veronica Florence. Coverage of the exhibition "Vies Performatives" at OPTICA, contemporary art centre, Les Étangs d'Art, Radio CISM 89.3 FM, January 30, 2018.

ALLARD, Benjamin J. Couverture de l'exposition "Vies Performatives" à OPTICA, un centre d'art contemporain, Le Retour, Radio CIBL 101.5 FM, January 2018.

Canadian Art, "Must-Sees This Week: January 18 to 24, 2018", Canadian Art, January 18, 2018.

BEHA, Claire-Marine. « 11 expositions à découvrir en ce début d'année à Montréal», Le Baron, January 15, 2018.

Zoë Chan is an independent curator and critic. In her research, she has focused on youth and youth culture, food, documentary, and discourse around representation and identity. Her curatorial projects have been presented by Kamloops Art Gallery; MSVU Art Gallery, Halifax; Articule, Montréal; Foreman Art Gallery of Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke; and the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels). She has contributed to Canadian Art, C Magazine, esse arts + opinions, and Momus, among other publications. She is a two-time recipient of the Canada Council for the Arts' Project Grant to Curators and Critics, and in 2015, received its Joan Lowndes Award in recognition of excellence in critical and curatorial writing. She has a Master’s degree in art history from Concordia University. cargocollective.com/zoechan

Bertille Bak was born in 1983 in Arras, France. She lives and works in Paris. She studied at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and at Le Fresnoy - Studio national des arts contemporains in Tourcoing, France. Recent exhibitions include Boussa from the Netherlands, Artissima, Turin; Bertille Bak: Usine à divertissement, Plateau multimédia, FRAC Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Marseille; Complexe de Loisirs, Espace d'art Le Moulin de la Valette-du-Var; Bien arrivé. Temps splendide., Galerie Xippas, Geneva; Bertille Bak, A Frac Ouvert, FRAC Normandie Caen; Radice, The Apart, Rome; Bestiaire, Galerie Xippas, Paris; Le Tour de Babel, Grand Café, Saint Nazaire; Nettie Horn Gallery, London; Ô Quatrième, Les Églises, centre d’art contemporain de la Ville de Chelles, France; Urban Chronicle, Bielefelder Kunstverein; Circuits, Musée d'Art moderne de la ville de Paris; L’Institut des archives sauvages, Villa Arson, Nice; and Paroles des images, Palazzo Grassi, Venice. She is represented by Xippas Gallery in Paris. xippas.com

Named one of 10 to Watch by Playback Magazine in 2012, Lisa Jackson comes from a background in documentary, including the CTV "W5 Presents" 1-hour Reservation Soldiers and acclaimed short Suckerfish, and expanded into fiction with Savage, which won a 2010 Genie Award for Best Short Film. Jackson’s work has played at festivals internationally, including the Berlinale, SXSW, London BFI, HotDocs, and Edinburgh, as well as broadcast on CBC, CTV, TMN, Bravo!, Knowledge, SCN, and APTN. In 2013, she co-wrote an episode of the 1-hour teen supernatural series The Reckoner. Her short satire Intemperance premiered at imagineNATIVE as part of their Embargo Collective II commission project and she directed 21 drama segments for the 8-part docudrama series 1491, based on Charles C. Mann’s best-selling book. Jackson’s films have garnered numerous awards and in 2012 the ReelWorld Festival named her a « Trailblazer ». She is Anishinaabe, has a BFA in Film Production from Simon Fraser University, and has completed the Canadian Film Centre’s Directors’ Lab. She is the Director Mentor for the National Screen Institute's Aboriginal Documentary Training Program. lisajackson.ca

Yoshua Okón was born in Mexico City in 1970 where he currently lives. In 2002, he received an MFA from UCLA with a Fulbright scholarship. His solo shows exhibitions include: Yoshua Okón: Collateral, Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo MUAC, Mexico City; Salò Island, UC Irvine,Irvine; Piovra, Kaufmann Repetto, Milan; Poulpe, Mor Charpentier, Paris; Octopus, Cornerhouse, Manchester and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and SUBTITLE, Städtische Kunsthalle, Munich. His group exhibitions include: Manifesta 11, Zurich; Gwangju Biennale, Korea; Antes de la resaca, MUAC, Mexico City;Incongruous, Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne; The Mole ́s Horizon, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; Mercosur Biennial, Porto Alegre; Amateurs, CCA Wattis; San Francisco; Laughing in a Foreign Language, Hayward Gallery, London; Adaptive Behavior, New Museum, NY and Mexico City: an exhibition about the exchange rates between bodies and values, PS1, MoMA, NY, and Kunstwerke, Berlin. His work is included in the collections of Tate Modern, Hammer Museum, LACMA, Colección Jumex and MUAC, among others. yoshuaokon.com

Helen Reed is an artist based in Vancouver, Canada on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Her projects take shape as public installations, social situations, and events that circulate as photographs, videos, printed matter, and artists’ multiples. She has exhibited internationally, with work appearing in such venues as The Portland Art Museum (OR), The Dunlop Art Gallery (SK), Smack Mellon (NY), Art League (TX), Dalhousie University Art Gallery (NS), The Vancouver Art Gallery (BC), The Power Plant (ON), and Flat Time House’s first issue of noit (UK). She has a Master of Fine Arts in Art and Social Practice from Portland State University. reheardregalement.com

Based in Toronto, May Truong is a photographer and visual artist. Through her photograph and video work, she explores themes of gender, race, and belonging. Her work has been exhibited in group shows in Canada, USA, and Europe, and was most recently shown at Circa Projects in Hamilton, Ontario in 2016. Known for her dynamic portraits of musicians, artists, and other public personalities, Truong is the photo editor at PERFECTOMag.com, an online fashion and lifestyle magazine. Her photographs have been featured in Châtelaine, The Globe and Mail, Maclean's, Marie Claire, Reader’s Digest, Toronto Life, Vice Magazine and XXL Magazine, among others. maytruong.com