Sunday, October 2, 2011

John Shipman at Nuit Blanche

“…the intention was to select an imaginary lover’s sex and gender…”

Never before have I arrived at a subway station, turned around, and left because the lineup not only filled the staircase but exceeded single file. Until last night. Hordes of people squeezed into Kipling station, presumably to head to Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, the all-night art festival in Toronto. I don’t want to sound like an old fogey, but I have fond memories of walking through the drizzling rain with my sister in the first year of Nuit Blanche. Bumping into mutual acquaintances before all the hype, it felt, dare I say, magical? I would compare the next visit to my first experience at a music festival wherein I got caught in a Ministry mosh pit—I remember grasping for hands in the crowd of art lovers at the University of Toronto and feeling empathy for those afflicted by claustrophobia. That experience caused me to avoid attending last year, even though I was in a show at Red Head Gallery. This year, I decided to wise up and brave the crowds once again.

After failed attempt #1, my husband and I returned home and set out again at midnight with the requisite Laura Secord bar tucked in my purse. Arriving at a heritage church at about 12:45 am, I thought to myself wryly, “Well, I’ve never been to church this early on a Sunday.” I was too tired to laugh at my own joke, let alone share it with my husband. However, I was determined to catch this particular show. In St. Matthew’s United Church in Zone A, Toronto-based John Shipman exhibited Listening to Love: Next Time Can We Choose Our Gender? Incidentally, Shipman was part of a three-person installation last year in the same location. It it, the artists invited visitors to explore their own mortality through condolence books and CoffinPhones containing audio tracks of expressions of grief.

This year, the entrance contained artifacts from the so-called Museum of Gender Archeology. Mounted on a hut-like structure were vestiges of our gender binarism, like figurines with arms amputated by pink and blue razors (pink for girls and blue for boys, of course). In addition to these grim assemblages were signs of hope, like a tongue-in-cheek gadget called the ‘gender changer’ and an unaltered sign for a unisex bathroom, which are becoming mandated at more and more schools.

In the church proper, last year’s CoffinPhones were replaced by GendeRphones. I got myself situated and looked at the dials containing the bathroom pictograms for male/female and the letters XX and XY. I had to remind myself which gender is XX and which is XY. “Oh right,” I thought, “Henry VIII had no right to be upset with his wives for not giving him a son because it’s the man who contributes the determining chromosome.” (My father and high school biology teacher must have been rolling in his grave). Looking at the press release in retrospect, I realize that the intention was to select an imaginary lover’s sex and gender, which underscores society’s tendency to lump them together. Mistakenly, I saw it as an opportunity to select my own gender and my prospective lover’s gender. No matter. I think it engaged the same principles of fantasy and open-mindedness.

The digitized voice made endless loving statements in the same static voices library phone systems use, which turn my name into ‘Heether’. It was a quirky contrast to the sentiment of the expressions, especially “I hear your voice on my skin”. Some were clich├ęs, some were so poetic you can’t imagine anyone actually saying them, some were riddled with everyday references (I love kissing you when you’ve been drinking diet Coke) and others had contemporary references (I love how Facebook tells me we are in a relationship). Most were outpourings of love but some were invitations to love. In terms of the latter, I imagine I was not alone in having a hard time feeling an affinity with the disembodied digital voices. Thus, it was appropriate that business cards were inserted throughout the installation that quoted Marshall McLuhan: “When you are on the phone...you have no body.”

It was a challenge to hear the voices because of the music playing in the church. When there was a pause between songs, you could hear a trace of the female audio track overlapping the male audio track on the phone, and vice versa, offering a wonderful (if possibly unintentional) metaphor for the complexity of gender and love. I found myself wishing the music were off so I could enjoy this element. That impulse went away when Leonard Cohen’s incredible song, Hallejlujah, belted out over the speakers. For the duration of the song, I was overcome by hope for freedom in the realm of gender identity and knew it was worth it that I’d be crawling into bed at 2 am with my XY.