Bruce Barber, Stuart Brisley, Elizabeth Chitty, Sonia Knox, Marcel Odenbach, Martha Rosler

19 July 1982 - 9 August 1982
Opening Reception 19 July 1982 8pm

International Performance Art Series:

Agit Prop

“Performance art is by its nature ephemeral. Each piece of work is a process in time which can never be precisely recaptured, this being a quality which performance art shares with other events on the stage and on the concert platform.” Stuart Hood.

In collaboration with the Walter Phillips Gallery of the Banff School of Fine Arts, MERCER UNION is pleased to present AGIT PROP, six Monday and Wednesday evenings of performance art in its ongoing schedule of summer performances. AGIT. PROP in Toronto will offer selected works by distinguished international performance artists Bruce Barber (Canada), Stuart Brisley (Britain), Sonia Knox (Britain), Marcel Odenbach (Germany), Elizabeth Chitty (Canada), and Martha Rosler (United States). The performances will take place at the gallery beginning at 9 p.m.

Each artist pursues a unique concept or method of working inherent to his/her work, giving an overview of performance art in general. From Barber’s allowing the audience to become active participants to Knox’s integration of the action of making video; from Odenbach’ s juxtapositioning of the TV series Dallas against the meditative rubbing of the rim of wine glass, to Chitty’s mixture of History, Colour TV and You; from Brisley’s protest against rigid interpretations of behaviour to Rosler’s play of graffiti against cultural images of power and wealth – the series offers a wide variety of artist response to the medium of performance art.

The artist-run space, Mercer Union, remains committed to offering its audience a diverse program of international scope in the arts with an emphasis on work that has not been widely represented in Toronto. A board of 12 artists and a director select, organize, promote and present not only exhibitions of more progressive forms of painting and sculpture today, but also productions of media art which include singularly or combinations of performance art, video, dance, and music.

AGIT PROP: International Performance Art Series 1982 invites the general public and students, as well as those who are actively involved in performance art, visual art or music. This series provides these international performance artists with the opportunity to present their work, and to be exposed to the work of their contemporaries, in a cultural exchange.

VITAL SPEECH/AGIT-LECTURE (duration: 45 minutes approximately)


This work will be presented in the form of an agitational lecture which should reverse the usual lecture form where the fetishization of knowledge is a priori in the construction and maintenance of passive and alienated consumption. The philosopher Santayana described “a lecture (theatre) as a fine form of mismatch. The lecturer races forward on horseback while the audience plods ahead on foot.”

The intention of the ‘Agit-lecture’ is not to fetishize knowledge or package it for consumption but to allow the audience of potential consumers to become active participants in the critical construction of their knowledge – to become the producers of their understanding and collaborators in the active construction of meaning. In this sense it is the place of the lecturer to be ‘plodding ahead’ on foot, or better for all to join the cavalry and thus eliminate the mismatch formed between production and consumption.

The intention is not to produce propaganda, but the more urgent need at this time which is to demystify and deconstruct forms of contemporary propaganda contained in forms of popular culture, advertising, newspapers and news magazines as well as those examples of ‘live’ political rhetoric that we are subjected to on a daily basis. The examples used in this Agit-lecture are from the copy writing desks of corporate advertisers. A relatively new form of advertising – the so called Corporate Advocacy Advertisement – reveals clearly the alliances between Corporate interests and the State; alliances which previously were hidden to maintain the ‘neutrality’ of big business in the affairs of Government.

The example illustrated, UNITED TECHNOLOGIES “WRONG ROUTE TO PEACE”, was published in the Atlantic magazine, Vol. 249, No. 3, March 1982. UNITED TECHNOLOGIES frequently places such advertisements in the Atlantic and other liberal/conservative magazines with wide circulation in North America and Europe. The purpose of this advertisement is to allay the fears of the American public to the growing anti-nuclear movement in Western European member countries of the NATO alliance.

The section beginning “The Soviet’s opportunism…” (second column) is a ‘paraphrasing’ of a section from a speech delivered by a hawkish Democratic U.S. Senator, Henry M. Jackson, in 1971. Titled “The Strategic Balance. The Future of Freedom”, the speech was published in the journal Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol . 42, 1970-71, p.484. Senator Jackson’s version reads:

“I have likened the Soviet Union in its foreign policy to a burglar walking down a hotel corridor trying the door handles. When he finds one unlocked – in he goes.”




“The Georgiana Collection” (duration: 1 hour to 5 hours)


Georgiana is the name of an unremarkable street in N.W. inner London. It travels from west to east, bounded at each end by major one way roads carrying traffic to the south, to the centre, and is intersected towards its eastern end by a major one way road carrying traffic from south to north. The larger western section is bordered with late Victorian terraced houses owned by the local borough council. It is a low income area and reflects all the con-commitant aspects of institutional neglect and negligence.

The eastern section is unpopulated with the exception of a small building. In this part of the street, institutional neglect and resulting decay have reached such proportions that only the dossers (vagrants), alcoholics, and the seemingly socially incompetent inhabit and the huge industrial wasteland borders on, that wasteland stretching away to the east and the south, to the railway lines and the rail terminals.

The Georgiana Collection is a construction of images and texts which seeks to comment upon the efficacy of misrule. The lord of misrule governs.


I do not rehearse at all. I surmise that my work is probably more European in its characteristics, but it appears to elude precise categorization (at least to me). I make preparations leading to the realization of a work in a given time and place; i.e., the work is dependent upon the particular circumstances in which it takes place, the day time, the night time, etc., and on the kind or a kind of context that I choose to give it, or inadvertently give it. The context in this case has something to do with Georgiana St., London, N.W. And then it has as much to do with people by the way they see themselves when approaching the work. It is as much to do with their notion of, say, performance in particular, or art in general.


History, Colour T.V. & You (duration: 29 minutes)


HISTORY – Any act of communication necessarily implies a common point of contact or recognizable, familiar information, which presupposes a past. History often conveys great emotion and drama while maintaining the detached, objective perspective of fact. It is a paradoxical model of information presented as impartial and concrete reality, yet filled with immeasurable emotion, whether or not the historian approaches it directly as such, and further made more ambiguous by the often indiscernible subjective interpretation of the historian. History, a representation of the past, is used in this performance as a metaphor for communication.

“I can only tell you what you already know. History is all there is to know. There’s nothing else to talk about, there’s nothing else to say except what’s known. History is the only thing to know.”

COLOUR T.V.- “I dreamed I saw a blinding light that showed me History; but when the picture changed I saw it only was T.V.”

In the performance, T.V. is a device of communication referred to both abstractly and existing literally since pre-recorded video is central to the piece. Initially, the videotape is of empty, non-informational images – blank tape, colour bars. Later, the videotape takes on an interactive roll with the live performers, conversation taking place between her and her videotape image. She often interfaces herself between the video projector and the screen. While a video game plays, she watches slides of T.V. sets.

YOU – Hard facts and communication devices can leave emotions out in the cold. An emotional transference takes place when on the bidding of her video tape image, the performer goes over to watch T.V., and basking in the white glow, the T.V. is personified by a recorded text that instills the electronics of the T.V. with sexual implication. After a mock fall, the performer gets more emotional in a seductive shadow dance and sings a love song to the audience. The audience is You, and the relationship between performer (me) and You can be viewed as one of seduction, with non exclusive definition representing communications encompassing logic, intellect, emotion, sexuality and other variables.

“History? It makes me sad. Colour T.V.? It makes me cry. And You?”

P.S. for AGIT.PROP/PERFORMANCE IN BANFF – An historically accurate definition of agit-prop bears little specific relationship to my work but it is interesting to entertain the notion of agit-prop as it relates to performance today. Notions of avant garde theory such as the importance and influence of aesthetic innovation and conviction in it as a symptom and even cause of change in the broader social context, contrast with the position that a popularist aesthetic of easily accessible information presented in familiar formats is the most direct and clear way to effect social change. I belong much more to the former way of thinking, and the latter seems to me to be antithetical to a basically political principle of change, representing content in an historically redundant form.

Performance is an interesting language not least for the reason of its position of tension within this aesthetic confrontation. It is a relatively recent phenomenon but simultaneously has relationship with the visual and performing arts. It did not suddenly appear with the wholly radical, unprefaced property sometimes assigned to it, and yet often addresses a specificity of cultural communication that is not perceived as accessible.

My work has often contained what I view as political issues – sexuality, media, authoritarianism – but I have rarely presented them with overt and explicit literalness. (Of course, the degree of explication varies, both within the work and with the expectation of the spectator; to clarify, I would mention as explicit forms: documentary, propaganda, folk forms, and traditional media in which the content and form have sufficiently diffused our culture as to seem ordinary.) In my work, I strive to develop my aesthetic concerns within the context of contemporary communications, and develop a mutual integrity and interdependence between the chosen content and form.


Moving On (duration: 30 – 45 minutes)


The performance will take place within the camera scan; it will work as a performance on its own, but each movement and sound will be aware of the frame of the video screen. The idea is to make a performance and a video tape at the same time. Both are different interpretations of the material used – things in the performance that are microscopic can become macroscopic on the screen. A performance both for an audience and for the camera. A direct experience distanced by the camera and in that letting loose, a whole series of new ideas.


very simple

very quick a movement

a gesture

moving over a surface

a cliche

a quick jingle

a movie clip

an ad.

I am aware in my work that structuring is there, it exists somewhere, but freeing myself of the knowledge of it is part of my work. Using technology as freely as an object.

The making of a tape and the video camera become as natural within a performance as making a performance can become to a video camera.

the sensuality of technology

the stilted movement of live performance the fusion of the two.


Watchwords of the Eighties (duration: 30 minutes)


This performance draws upon elements of popular culture and street culture, both politicized and not politically invested. It plays graffiti and street writing against mass-culture images of power and wealth. It plays activism and insurgency against mass-media accounts of global social and military policy. It uses the images and sounds of street demonstrations (as well as some attempts at their repression by the state), speeches, and marches as well as sounds of popular musical forms. It also uses images of the popular portable cassette players and radios, which ironically serve to dissipate and fragment the regional and street cultures – if any still exist – of those who use them.

The musical genre it plays off of is rap song, a form used mostly by black singers in the United States, a rapid disco monologue that is often a complaint about some common problem of daily life. The performer, who carries a giant parody of the street tape recorder, suggests several different types of street figure, from street kid to Latin American guerrilla to disco dancer. The work is meant to suggest that there is a choice of responses to the direction of society by the State. It is also intended as an expression of solidarity with Latin America, a current focus of repressive military activity. The final song is an improvised chant in a form known as repentista – a rough equivalent of a rap song, but couched positively rather than negatively by a famous Cuban singer in his seventies who affirms his people’s will to continue in the face of the threat of renewed U.S. militarism. His spunk presents a fine model for a renewed spirit of activism.


Watchwords of the Eighties

This is a work of the present: about the Right’s taking power in the United States, marking a change in the world order having enormous though varying effects on people’s lives virtually everywhere. The weight of shored-up privilege of an ever-smaller U.S. elite will fall most heavily on the “Third World” and on the poorest at home – but we all will feel it.

It seems particularly important now for a critical art to take shape, now that irrationalism is being deployed to regain control over national life and class divisions are being accentuated. New regimes promise to make everything right by sweeping away what came before, and the Rightist regime that swept in on a minority of possible votes is attempting to sweep away the social gains of the sixties, fought for and won inch by inch:

of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, native Americans and other national minorities

of women of gays and lesbians

of working people

of students and young people

of the poor, the elderly, the socially and physically handicapped, including veterans of left intellectuals and professionals

of community activists of antiwar, antimilitarist, and anti nuclear activists

of artists and others doing cultural work

for citizenship rights and personal rights, for self-control and privacy

for reasonable pay, job security, and occupational health and safety

for corporate accountability and the valuing of people over profits

for good and secure housing and enough food to eat

for freedom of expression and nurturing and representative culture

for good and humane education for ecologically sound and humanly safe practices for buyers’ protections

for a movement away from war and away from support

for repressive governments

In the mid-70’s Cold War academician Samual P. Huntington announced that the United States was suffering from TOO MUCH DEMOCRACY. On the cusp of the 80’s people are giving up their democratic rights under pressure of economic warfare. You white collar, professional, and business people constituting most of our audience, reconsider your allegiances! Are you satisfied to accept the new watchwords QUALITY (= elite, expensive, conservative cultural products) and ELEGANCE (= unblushing ostentation for the limousine class) over your own more humane values, such as tolerance and compassion, or a just and dignified life? On the cusp of the 80’s, the Cold War dark ages will not be reimposed without enormous cost.


“Every step could be the wrong to take” (duration: 30 minutes)


The piece consists of two elements. In the first part, the audience is confronted, by means of the original serial “Dallas”, with a mode of appearance as an expression of socio-political consciousness and conduct. The serial by far excels the citation as a medial use.

Its counterpart is presented in the form of a performance. The action is the generation of a tone by a circular gliding of my finger on the rim of a glass. Through the meditative action and the sensibility of the object, the brutal banality of the serial “Dallas” is opposed by an imaginary and poetic picture. This is, at first, merely an encounter, but through the monotony of the permanent tone, it climaxes to the pure presence of my action alone.


Where did on the eve of finishing the Chinese Wall go. The masons?

Within my work I don’t want to find new iconographical elements and their structures. Instead, I use images and symbols which are already there and put them into a new context. In this way, history, from global history down to my personal history, is for me like a kaleidoscope, in which every new fact constantly changes in value, assuming a new relationship with its environment and with other elements. I live with a kind of history which for me – in relation to my changing personality, my thoughts, realities, every day life – is always a new experience, changing in me and with me. Thus I try to survive with cultural ballast in an everyday world lacking culture.

With my ‘pictures’, I try to restructure this cultural ballast. By using a personal way of acting and experiencing, I try to bring history into my everyday life, to make it a tool. By way of traditional images, I try to bring in other systems of symbols and values to represent the past by the present, by myself.

This I conceive as a kind of political work, because I resist the traditional norms and connections, the realities and the obvious facts of the ruling authorities, be they political and economic forces or scientific ones.

“Art to survive? In order not to die. I have the privilege of constantly driving myself to the brink. If I stop doing that, if I attempt to instruct, or to use art to finance my life, all is lost. If I live on an intermediate niveau, i.e., not badly and not well, I simply lose awareness of the fact that I exist.” (Th. Brasch)


Performance artist establishes following
Christopher Hume
Toronto Star, July 1982

Despite rumors to the contrary, art and politics make cozy bedfellows. They can be seen in their most contemporary incarnation for the next three weeks at Mercer Union’s AgitProp International Performance Art Series.

The series began this week with events by two leading performance artists. Most recent was Stuart Brisley’s The Georgiana Collection on Wednesday night. The crowd of about 100 did not leave shouting slogans demanding immediate changes in our system of government, but it did perhaps have an opportunity to see what life is like for the inhabitants of London’s Skid Row. Whether political enlightenment follows such awareness remains doubtful.

Brisley is a soft-spoken British artist who began his career as a painter and sculptor. Somewhere along the line, he abandoned his fine art pursuits to devote his energies to performance art. Although he is well known throughout Britain and Europe, Brisley has yet to establish a following in North America. This, however, is changing. Earlier in the year he was invited to participate in The Banff Centre’s first-ever performance art series. The work he staged at Mercer Union was – with minor alterations – the same one he prepared in Alberta.

Call it agitprop or call it performance art, the actual event consisted of a slide show, a prose poem, and Brisley himself enacting the role of a man in agony (or at least that’s what it looked like).

Throughout the performance the sounds of the street were picked up loud and clear by a microphone dangling out the window. This was a particularly effective touch that added an air of gritty realism.

While a tape of Brisley’s soliloquy was played, the artist performed his grisly role behind a glass wall. After lathering himself in soap, he rubbed his head and face against the glass in what looked like an attempt to break through. Continually contorted in pain, Brisley seemed to be trying to sum up in his movements the anguish and hopelessness that comes with poverty and neglect.

“I am very much opposed to the political system in Britain,” he said, “and I try to point out shining examples of its failure to facilitate an acceptable style of life.” But he also said, “I can only draw people’s attention to these things, after that I’m not responsible.” Hardly the words of a rabid agitpropagandist.

The Mercer Union series continues until Aug. 9 with Marcel Odenbach, Elizabeth Chitty, Sonia Knox and Martha Rosler.