I recently had a conversation about revisiting past work — how, contrary to a common practice in the pantheon of performance art, I don’t shy from performing work over and over; sometimes with lengthy gaps in between, and others with more regularity.
During Buddies’ Emerging Creators’ Unit showcase this Queer Pride Festival, I’ll be performing a work that’s more or less become my namesake: The Apocalypse In Your Bedroom Tour, a live theatrical spectacle exploring queer identity and life’s purpose under the facade of a rock concert performed in one’s very bedroom.
Utilizing life-size projection, build-on-the-go set, and an album’s worth of original music, I enter hallucinatory imagery exploring poeticized tableaus of my life. Several characters externalize inner dialogues, including a housefly in a disheveled business suit, a maniacal receptionist, a genie of sorts, and even the moon, confronting my character with probing questions of what it means to “be”, and why to even bother?
This work was first developed as my thesis project at OCAD University in 2016/17, where it concluded its first run on my birthday during the 2017 Graduate Exhibition. Performing each evening in a reformed classroom, with the audience seated in school chairs, paralleled the anti-glamour depicted in my little show-that-could.
And could it did! In 2018 I was invited to bring it to the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance, trading the first year printmaking classroom for the likes of The Theatre Centre, and now endorsed by staples and forebearers of the Toronto Performance Art community.
I’ve since performed it at The Art Gallery of Hamilton in 2019, and Les Filles Electriques’ Festival Phenomena in Montreal last October.
In the early pandemic I was given project funding from the National Arts Centre for #CanadaPerforms to adapt “Apocalypse” into a live stream performance, rewriting the show in response to the uncertainty and grief imprisoning us in the spring of 2020; and taking place in my actual bedroom, of all places!
Through lockdowns, I adapted a stage-to-screen version for Workman Arts’ Rendezvous with Madness and LOMAA’s Queer Frontiers.
However, within its storied history I revisit this work each time. Tightening a bolt here. Reupholstering a scene there. Meeting the work where I’m at in the moment, and pulling out of it new ways of reinterpreting the work, and in turn, myself.
In some ways this can be straightforward and unpoetic, such as reshooting a scene with better equipment/costuming.
However, sometimes it means integrating new elements and layers to scenes that hadn’t existed prior.
During the most recent iteration in Montreal, a scene towards the beginning where I restlessly try to fall asleep borrows aspects developed from the COVID livestream; objects from my bedroom float in the abyss of forcefully shut eyes while a ghostly chant pleads with me “what do you long for?”.
For 7a*11d, a scene where I sit on a couch, beverage in hand, a deer in headlights completely out of place at a party, I superimposed on the gaudy and ornate furnishings of my Nonna’s “good living room”. Faux rococo couch in dandelion yellow lounges underneath “gold” framed print of French aristocracy playing chess. For Montreal, I added a new shot of the print from its current home: my bedroom. (It all comes full circle)
A scene towards the middle where the silhouettes of the 50s housewife archetype burn down the walls that have boxed them in is set to a song called “Orange You Glad”, which I developed into a music video last summer. In the music video, the floating head of a Cabaret-like emcee narrates, and for allowing the snake to eat its tail I’ve added his ghostly mug into the Apocalypse show for the same number.
A scene towards the end where I play the piano, flipping through pictures of my dad throughout his life is now populated with pictures of my mom as well, as these photos were previously lost; dug up in the aftermath of my Nonna’s passing in early 2020, and ending on photos of my brother and I as children.
Songs that were written for the show but didn’t quite make it were later added to underscore and transition moments and scenes to honour their contributions to my world-building process even if there wasn’t room proper for them to feature more prominently on their own right.
A new physical element introduced during the most recent performance was the use of an actual house lamp as practical light/stage prop amalgam. There are moments in the show that require lighting separate from the projection, and given my practice as a DIY literal one-person-show—often performing in non-traditional theatre space set ups—this gave me the freedom to explore stage lighting and lighting cues with control as the performer, while also blending into the conceptual aesthetics of the show.
It also helps tie in the illusion created by my block formations as they’re transformed into a bed, couch, and piano. Having the lamp curated in place extended the third space of augmented reality between the physical stage, the block formations, and the flat projected image they catch and recede into.
Revisiting a performance (and this many times, and over this many years no less) is not common practice in “performance art”. The ethos of flux and the ephemera of the moment, tenets of the school of performance art, can be argued in opposition to performing a work more than once. But I think ephemera isn’t lost in the opportunity of seeing (or performing) a live work more than once. The increments of chance and difference in the live moment will occur with certainty each time. And given my practice of reinterpretation of the work, almost a divination of the self, I ensure that each time the work is performed again there are elements that are gained, lost, transmuted, and changed.
A viewer who witnessed this work in any stage of its prior life won’t find its current form unrecognizable in narrative or visual. But, they will be presented with new fragments of the world and its lore, refined to brilliant sparkle, or introduced as raw ore in the process of being understood and polished.
And each time I dust this show off and look deep into the waters of its well, I wonder what unexpected echoes and reflections will be ready to greet me back.
Check out James’ piece at the Emerging Creators Unit showcase on June 17, alongside new works by Marium Masood and C4LDEIR4.
Featured image by Greg Wong.