Digging Up Ghosts at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Late in August, Ame Henderson traverses the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Walker Court below Frank Gehry’s spiral staircase. Her movements are careful, deliberate, but also free, as if there is a method to her madness that is only somewhat clear to both performer and spectator. She avoids stepping on the research – photos, letters, notes – that have been carefully arranged on the gallery floor. The men and women she’s rehearsing with do as well.

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A woman takes photos, documenting pieces of the entire situation as best she can, from as many different angles as she finds relevant. A man skirts the borders of the room with a video camera on his shoulder. Those who are physically involving themselves with the research, who appear to be working, step to a microphone now and then to explain what they’re seeing, thinking, discovering. The very nature of the piece, not quite alive or dead, simultaneously practice and act, has gallery visitors perplexed: do they interrupt it by walking through? Is it all right to interact with what’s going on? And what exactly is happening?

The AGO’s Artist-in-Residence is using her time with the gallery to dig up its old ghosts, to see what they can teach her, and us, about the memory and nature of the gallery’s live performance history.

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It’s now a couple weeks later, only two days after the second showing of rehearsal/performance, and Henderson is holed up in her research space in the basement of the AGO. The room, like her piece and the installation (a constantly updated, public rehearsal notebook that traces her ongoing research through a collection of strategies, ideas, and movements) that accompanies it, has the same note drawings, photos, and letters scattered around it, on desks and pinned to walls, some on the floor, a large whiteboard, and a small desk that she works at. If it looks confused or questionably arranged, it’s only because trying to understand it would be like looking into someone’s head and trying to figure out where their thoughts were going.

“Welcome to my brain,” Henderson, also the Artistic Director of Public Recordings, says with a laugh. “I’m not a visual artist, so one of my challenges was figuring out how to work in this context, like kind of conceptually but also spatially. So how do I use a room with a glass wall to do my work? And how do I present something in the gallery space that feels like something indicative of my work?”

The projects, and the nature of working this way, in this sort of space, not only provides outsiders a glimpse into how Henderson’s mind works, but has helped her see her own artistic machinery in new light.

“In kind of an exciting way it’s translated a little bit of how I think choreographically into this process with paper. So it’s organized. I mean choreography for me is just organizing and making decisions in time and space, so it allows for non-linear time and space. So I’m trying to move things around as it feels important – not because I want to make it interesting. It’s just the way I’m thinking, visually.” 

The nature of performance is to live and to die – there is a beginning, a middle, an end, creation and destruction. The rehearsal/performance introduces itself as more of a growing and changing concept: if the door is never really closed, the history of performance at the AGO is able to live on through constant remembering, enacting, re-enacting. Whereas individual lives, or specific performances, have end dates and times, Henderson’s piece allows for the idea that live performance at the gallery, as a history and future, is a constant, always in flux but never ending.

“It’s a proposal to look at the AGO’s institutional archive with the main strategy of rehearsal as my toolbox,” Henderson says. “What’s important about rehearsal to me is that it’s a process-based mode that isn’t kind of working towards maybe something finished but is really about labour and time spent, so if I use that to look at a historical record, then it feels like it necessarily means reworking, rethinking, and kind of reimagining that record, without having to come to any conclusions. Because if it never finalizes as a performance, then it can continue to be a thinking process.”

At the end of the piece, there is always a feedback portion, where everyone involved has a moment to talk about what they felt worked and didn’t work, what needed improving and what needs to be kept. It might seem strange that there would be an element like that in something that never fully materializes, but there is a reason for this, too.

“We did conceive of this idea that when we’re rehearsing, we’re rehearsing for the next rehearsal. So there is kind of the same imperative to move ahead with our research, as there is in any rehearsal process. We want to get somewhere at the end of [the previous showing], so that when we start again, then we’re starting with the findings of the day previous.”

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The piece has also created a dialogue between the creators of what Henderson is researching and herself, with some of them visiting the AGO to watch her use the records of their work and speak with her. Henderson says it allows them to “speak back to themselves,” to explore memory and history in a way that is not usually afforded to most people.

“We have to rethink what we mean when we talk about archiving or remembering. So the project is also kind of about that – making another proposal for how performance can be re-performed. If we have very little to go on and we change the status of the trace that we’re finding, how can reading the name of a performance be an enactment of that performance if that’s all we have? So I guess one of my questions is, what’s the very least that’s necessary to bring a performance back into its status as a performance?”

Henderson takes this even further, into ideas of the kinds of vessels that can be archived.

“A performer, in every moment, is kind of like the archive of a performance also, because it’s only though a performer’s body that the work is the work. A video of it is not the work; a photo of it is not the work. Those things might be helpful to finding it again, but they’re not the work.”

She mentions conversations she’s had with some of the performers she’s been researching, about pieces they made almost 40 years ago. “And they stand up,” she says, standing up and re-enacting the meetings, “and they’ll start moving. It’s completely amazing.”

“I’m really curious about how memory operates depending on what kind of performance it is,” Henderson says. “So I’ve been recording these interviews because I think they’re a really interesting record, and then they become part of what I consider to be the archive of these performances. So a first-person account of something is just as valid as something I’ve found in this archive.”

“And then all of these funny pieces, maybe, if we collect enough, can point to this ghost-y artwork in the middle,” she adds.

Because of the nature of memory and subjective personal experience, shared instances can become separate, massively different realities. Henderson mentions the Independent Choreographers Series, which happened in 1979, and that she’s spoken to some of the artists involved in it and those who saw the performances.

“Several people remember it, and they’ll remember it a little bit differently, including the choreographer. So what do we privilege the most?”

If there is something Henderson would like rehearsal/performance to achieve, it involves the way people perceived performance at the AGO in the past, but also in the present and the future.

“I’m curious about how things get remembered, and then how things getting remembered contributes to a current understanding to what an organization’s job is, or what art is in general. So I guess I just want performance to be included in what people think of as art, and what people think of as art at the AGO. It seems useful to bring to light that performance is something that has always happened here. I only started [researching as far back as] 1965 but there have been performances here since the gallery opened.”

Rehearsal/performance’s run will culminate in a 12-hour piece on Oct. 4 for Nuit Blanche at the AGO. She walks over to the spaces her and her peers will be using for it, not far from her office. They’ll be in the education commons, The Anne Tanenbaum Gallery School, and a number of other workspaces for the finale, using walkie-talkies and video feeds to communicate over the large body of space between them.

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Henderson looks out over the Gallery School, eyes shining, talking about the space’s time as a flexible space in the mid-‘70s and ‘80s, when it functioned as a room for all sorts of different live shows, including “many, many, many dance performances.”

“It’s all very serendipitous that I’m dealing with the auras of these past works spatially as well as conceptually,” she says.

Henderson understands well the juxtaposition of her piece in these spaces: rehearsal and performance, past and present, researching and honouring history while, in action, becoming a part of it.

Digging up old ghosts, remembering how and why they exist, and creating new ones.

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Article by: Matthew Williams

Photography by: Matthew Williams