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Anatomy of a performance artist

 

To anyone who knew him or watched him, there was never any doubt that Keith Cole was born to perform. A trained dancer, Cole, like most dancers, resorted to other means to pay the rent. Whether it was going on stage in Pride Week as one the Cheap Queers or hosting events such as a burlesque night or a public debate, Cole, six-foot-four and often in highly mascara-ed drag, could be counted on to do something entertaining, outrageous or even instructive. His most remarkable performance was a run for mayor, complete with well attended rallies, in 2010: he placed eighth in a field of 80 candidates.

At a certain point, Cole, who holds a BFA from York University, decided to go back to school and in 2012 earned an MFA from OCAD University in performance art. His reasoning: “It seemed as if dance didn’t have any new ideas, theatre didn’t seem to be going anywhere and I thought, if you want to know where things are going, look at the visual arts.”

For his graduating project, Cole built a “big huge gay performance art vehicle,” from an abandoned wide-seat wheelchair he found, a platform with a sail fashioned from a shower curtain and a shopping cart. For six days, he pulled the contraption around Toronto, occasionally stopping to do a little tap dance on the platform that doubled as a bed when he pulled over to sleep at night. On the seventh day, Cole wheeled his vehicle into the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto and disassembled it. “I took it apart, so there was nothing left but a bit of detritus to sweep up. . . It was as if it had never existed,” he says.

In performances such as this one, Cole not only reinvented himself, but was re-fashioning performance art. In the 70s’ and 80s’ performance artists staged their work in art galleries or artist-run centres. And while the works of artists such as General Idea, Tanya Mars and Joanna Householder were often ephemeral, but documented, the context meant their work was treated as any other kind of visual art. And usually these performances were scripted.

At the juncture of old and new is FADO Performance Art Centre. Currently run by artistic and administrative director Shannon Cochrane, FADO has been the home for performance artists since 1993. Cochrane has provided support to Cole and collaborated with him on his book club project on the Jacqueline Susann novel Valley of the Dolls that concluded in January, with a mock graduation ceremony at 401 Richmond and a screening of the Valley of the Dolls movie.

Cochrane had announced she was interested in performance art projects that worked on the concept of a salon, an academic course or intellectually based club. This was made-to-measure for Cole, who as a sessional lecturer at York University and Seneca College, had been toying with the idea of teaching as performance. So he put up the idea of a book club that would run for five weeks. Participants got a free copy of the book, but were expected to read the entire novel, do homework and turn up for every session prepared to discuss topics outlined in the course syllabus. The whole thing worked even better than Cole had anticipated.

Inspired by the bedroom scenes in the Valley of the Dolls movie, Cole, who dressed the part of professor, held the book club sessions in a downtown hotel at Richmond and Spadina where people could sprawl on large king-size bed. Only one participant questioned the idea of reading “this shitty novel.” Cole was working off the legitimate notion of re-evaluating work in a new cultural context. “We just focused on the book. The book and the movie are quite different. The ending is completely different.  We would have sessions where we would talk about the nameless characters in the book,” or they would discuss the opinions of a bestselling book and popular movie as they are taken up by later generations of readers and viewers.

Cole’s master stroke was to persuade novelist and performer Kristyn Dunnion to pose as an academic giving the keynote address to the graduates. Posing the question, how many come from small towns? Dunnion delivered her lines: “We have this in common: aspiration, desperation, desire. We abandoned local expectation to enter into a magical place – urban, fictional, where we could become someone completely new. Or completely Gay. Just like us, the main characters come from shitty little towns to The Big City. So far, how is this different from our own stories?”

Following Dunnion’s speech, Cole, wearing a Harvard graduate’s majestic gown, handed out certificates to those who’d completed the course and then we watched Valley of the Dolls (1967), starring Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Sharon Tate and Susan Hayward. Even if you hadn’t sat in on the book club sessions there was much to appreciate in this finale.

In 2016, Art Gallery of Ontario curator Wanda Nanibush, invited Keith Cole to do a piece for her show, Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989, specifically to pay tribute to the work of the late David Buchan (1950-1993) who was a multi-media performance artist whose works often commented on advertising and pop culture. This was the opportunity Cole needed to do his Tom Thomson drowning piece. He’d originally planned to put it on in the city-run Owen Sound gallery that houses some Tom Thomson works. But when the curators there discovered Cole’s take on the mystery of Thomson’s death was that the artist was gay and perhaps killed by one of the many women who lusted after him, Cole’s proposal was dropped.

Now he had the Signe Eaton gallery at the AGO in which to give three five-and-a-half-hour-long performances, that consisted of Cole, wearing a wig he’d made himself out of colourful fishing line (Thomson was found with a line wrapped around his ankle) repeatedly dunking his head into a canoe filled with water, and tossing his fishing-line tresses back until all the water was out on the gallery floor.

For those following the storyline of performance art in Canada, this was full circle. Cole had brought his brand of performance art back to back to a visual arts space to be performed for an audience of visual artists and viewers.

With typical cheekiness, Cole titled the October 2016 performance, “#Hashtag Gallery Slut, A three-way performance . . . featuring The Spirit of Tom Thomson, The Spirit of David Buchan and Keith Cole.” The book that came out of this show will be launched on July 9th at the Gladstone Hotel. Who dares predict what Cole will show up in?

Photos clockwise from top left:  Keith Cole performance at the AGO; Cole does the spirit of Tom Thomson; Valley of the Dolls book club participant Ken Moffatt with Cole and Kristyn Dunnion; photography by Henry Chan

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