serious slapstick

Curated with a text by Laurel Woodcock

Slapstick comedy consists of carefully choreographed physical stunts that are exaggerated portrayals of our often-awkward negotiations through the physical and psychological hurdles of everyday life. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin meandered through the industrial era; Jacques Tati stumbled his way through modernism, bumping into glass partitions and Eames ottomans along the way. Lucille Ball performed countless oddball attempts to escape the confines of domesticity in middle class, post-war North America.

In my mind, there has always been an odd connection between the social and political concerns of slapstick and Conceptual art; they share a performative spirit, similar interest in the everyday, aspects of endurance, and an investigation of non-verbal language as well as the structures of visual language and language per se.

Many of the artists included in this screening perform physical and verbal stunts, some in direct reference to slapstick. They focus on everyday actions while reflecting on current conditions, amplified through framing, focus, action, inaction, endurance, blunders, silence, singing, Heavy Metal, and persistence when faced with occasional defeat. They tragicomically deflect the phenomenological and psychological conundrums of the new millennium while negotiating the legacy of Conceptual art.

While influenced and indebted to tactics of slapstick and Conceptual practices these projects are not simple iterations of either. They complicate matters in dialectical ways. Some rewrite happenstance with punk and pop attenuation, others subtly accentuate sentiment. Tactics of taxonomy and repetition are restaged as one-time only events. All act as connective tissue between irony and empathy.

In AC/DC Back in Black Kelly Mark’s cat, Rooney, displays no physical reaction what-so-ever to the Heavy Metal blasting from two speakers on either side of his catnap on the couch. Absurd and strenuous non-verbal actions find strange comfort in Logue’s Why Always Instead of Just Sometimes, and non-action puts potential tragedy on pause in Hannah’s The Hole Story.

Obsessive thoughts are filtered through lyrics in Nemerofsky Ramsay’s aptly titled subtitle – where the recurring chorus of a pop tune translates his own compulsive thoughts about love, while feeding his fixation. The motivation of Phillips protagonist in “It’s about how people judge appearance.” is intentionally perplexing.

Trapped within the phenomenological confines of infant trolleys, Moumblow’s twins in Giddy, convey objective response on par with affective behavior. Scripted ventriloquism finds corporeal companionship in Neil Goldberg’s My parents read dreams I’ve had about them, where dreams, shot documentary interview-style connect two generations. Are You The Favorite Person Of Anybody? the collaborative effort of Miguel Arteta and Miranda July empathically has us reflect on how we touch the lives of others – or if we do.

In Ladder Climb and 24LBS, Sasaki conflates the social concerns of his slapstick predecessors with inflections of endurance performance reminiscent of the 1970’s, all wrapped up with physical actions usually reserved for cartoon characters. Suspension of disbelief is challenged on more levels than Bart Simpson can count on one hand.

Cockburn’s voice over monologue in Nocturnal Doubling has an odd calming effect, even though the fictional premise has the world doubling in size. Whereas Reinke’s signature voiceover in Falling has us consider scatological chaos on the set of Avonlea.

Like the highlighter felt tip pen in Soto’s Important, these works emphasize that we should take it all in, the good the bad and the ugly. Everyday actions are significant, words, silence, actions, and reactions, even non-action, have haptic resonance. We’re all trying to hold up our tiny portions of the world and the ways we affect it and are affected by it. Borsato’s father in Wondering How Long He Can Keep Up the World, like many of the protagonists in this series, is sweating, falling, pausing, laughing and arguing. His effort is contagious and entertaining.

serious slapstick – playlist

Why Always Instead of Just Sometimes (excerpt) (2005) 3:00 minutes
Dierdre Logue (Canada)
An excerpt from a series of 12 short works that record accomplishments without impact, small feats of moderate strength and moments of mild impudence. They are reflections on aging, breaking down and reparation. They are works that describe our need for intimacy and our fears of exposure. They are always, when we really wish they were just sometimes.

Ladder Climb (2006) 1:50 minutes.
Jon Sasaki (Canada)
The artists’ fairly unsuccessful attempts at climbing an unsupported ladder are recorded in front of the Better Living Centre on the CNE grounds in Toronto. Deceptively humourous, there is also the risk of potential injury. Sasaki plans on re-staging the feat once a year, in hopes of enhancing his performance. This self-scripted challenge is strangely akin to competitive sports. The hurdles of the art world are metaphorically staged on the grounds of a Casino and Sportszone.

24lbs (2006) 1:54 minutes
Jon Sasaki (Canada)
That cartoon coyote used to make it look so easy. The artist holds a 24lb anvil over the balcony of his high-rise apartment building with one hand. A hybrid homage to endurance performance of the 1970’s crossed with the slapstick violence of cartoons of the same period. However, the final fade out happens before any potentially injurious results occur, the artist is still shakily holding the anvil as the screen goes black. There are no wounds à la Chris Burden, nor the anticipation of animated heroics.

My Parents Read Dreams I’ve Had About Them (1998) 9:00 minutes
Neil Goldberg (U.S.)
Two Long Island parents recite their son’s dreams about death, babies, Jerry Lewis and more, with humorous and tender results.

AC/DC Back in Black (From the music video series) (2002) 1:10 minutes
Kelly Mark (Canada)
Kelly Mark’s cat couldn’t care less about the squeals of heavy metal. The cat’s complete disinterest suggests disdain for the industry, naptime is much more important.

Subtitled (2004) 2:00 minutes
Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay (Canada, Berlin)
I just can’t get you out of my head, boy, your lovin’ is all I think about.

The Hole Story (2004) 2:10 minutes
Adad Hannah (Canada)
Scheduled approximately in the middle of this screening, The Hole Story acts as our proxy intermission, a pause. Hannah is well known for his staged stills, video works where the subjects are instructed to hold their pose as best they can. Subtle stutters, sways, blinks and breaths are always detectable – vital signs evident even when the image is on hold.

“It’s about how people judge appearance.” (2000) 1:00 minute
Paulette Phillips (Canada)
A woman bangs her head against a brick wall, recovers and walks away.

Giddy (2006) 2:30 minutes
Monique Moumblow (Canada)
The camera frames infant twins, settled into contraptions designed to help toddlers learn to stand and walk. Their individual gestures and attempts at maneuvering access have very different results –in reaction to one another, their surroundings and the mechanism holding them upright.

Falling (from The Hundred Videos) 2:28
Steve Reinke (Canada, U.S.)
At a total length close to five hours, Reinke’s series of short works is a witty, sometimes dark index of post-modern fears and desires. Openly gay, brainy yet dumb, and often irreverent. Falling features Reinke’s well-known dry, deadpan voice over, negotiating the murky terrain between mainstream television and conceptual art.

Are You The Favorite Person Of Anybody? (2005) 3:57 minutes
Directed by MIGUEL ARTETA (U.S.)
Written by Miranda July (U.S.)
Miranda July is known for her sweetly oddball films, performances and collaborative web project ‘Learning to Love You More’*, that take on the emotions of living. Here, Miguel Arteta directs her simple yet poignant short story featuring John C. Reilly, Mike White, Miranda July and Cuy Chavez. Reilly’s character conducts a deceptively simple survey, that you inevitably find yourself taking part in.

*Learning to Love You More is both a web site and series of non-web presentations comprised of work made by the general public in response to assignments given by artists Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher.”:

Nocturnal Doubling (2004) 4:07
Daniel Cockburn (Canada)
If the universe doubled in size, would anybody know? One person does. This is his story. The video was created for a project orchestrated by Friends of Rage Productions; a one-word theme (“Giants”) was drawn from a hat, and participants were given 30 minutes to write, 60 minutes immediately after to shoot, and a 24-hour period later on to edit. The nocturnal-doubling concept is based on a thought-experiment by Henri Poincaré.

Wondering How Long He Can Keep Up the World (excerpt) (2005) 5:00
Diane Borsato (Canada)
The artist came across a soccer ball designed to look like a globe. Her father, an avid soccer player and fan was asked to perform for a video – to see how long he could keep the ball up in the air by “juggling” it with his knees, feet and head. In the video father and daughter are heard negotiating everything from the terms of performance art to international relations. In this short excerpt from the one-shot 46 minute collaboration Borsato pushes her father relentlessly to continue “keeping up the world”, until he quits, exhausted and dripping with sweat.

Important 1:20 (Canada)
Diane Soto
In this one-shot video, a highlighter felt tip pen takes it all in.

Total running time 48:00