Tuesday, August 6, 2013

( )ound, Performance by Coman Poon

Interview and introduction by Kate Barry

On June 29, I had the pleasure of performing alongside Toronto artist Coman Poon during the Proud Voices festival, Glad Day Bookshop and Toronto PRIDE 2013. In Poon’s 45-minute performance art piece, titled ( )ound, he was dressed in white underwear and he carried around his neck a white cloth bag full of white power. During the performance he slowly walked toward and around his lover, Brian Smith, who was located underneath a metal bed. While he walked Poon covered his feet and the feet of audience members in the white powder. When he reached the bed, he laid down on the bare metal frame while Smith lay beneath him. For the duration of the performance, the audience heard faint noises in the background that sounded like various conversations and some low-fi music. The noise came from a soundscape that accompanied the performance and installation. This haunting performance piece evoked, for me, deep feelings of entrapment as well as profound feelings of compassion. Poon’s performance brings to mind what Chicano performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña describes as boundary crossing or border crossing. Poon’s performance crossed a range of locals and identities including the bedroom and the prison as well as sexuality and race. ( )ound  addressed the experience of some queer persons of colour and it considered GBLTQ issues on a global scale. In the following interview with Poon he states “Like many queer folk of colour, whether I am conscious of it or not, I am and have been imprisoned even though I have not been in a physical jail per se.” He speaks to the fact that people are jailed, raped or beaten for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. As the below interview illustrates, Poon’s research extended to include the United States of America’s Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), a system of incarceration and punishment that exploits prisoners. Similar to the work of Gómez-Peña, Poon’s work is critical of systems of power as well it is critical of mainstream society’s compliancy toward these abuses of power. Poon’s performance ( )ound is successful because it is concerned with human rights issues that go beyond the four white walls of the performance space.

Interview with Coman Poon by Kate Barry

July 2013

KB: What does the title of your performance ( )ound refer to?

CP: Discovering/being locked up in the space of the ‘in-between.’ Bound. Found. Ground. Sound. Wound. These were just a few obvious English words that could emerge from this alphabetical glyph but ( )ound also has a conceptual intent.

I titled the performance/installation ( )ound in the hope that it opens up in the audience the permission “to not know” as well as an invitation to insert or allow their own subjectivity to direct their experience...whether through the visual, embodied, sonic, tactile and/or an olfactory experience.

( )ound, performance by Coman Poon. Photo credit Henry Chan

KB: In your performance I related with feelings of restriction. I felt a great concern for the other performer (Brian Smith) who was taped to the floor. As an audience member I became invested in the performance because I was concerned for Brian’s safety. This experience reinforced for me the larger idea that as citizens we have a responsibility toward prison’s rights and the abuses that occur in the so-called “justice system.” As a queer woman I am able to relate to, or develop compassion toward, people who experience human rights abuse because women and lesbians have not always been considered real citizens. For example, our foremother's had to fight for the right to vote, and more recently we fought for the human right to marriage. 

On a technical note, can you tell me about the soundscape used during your performance?

CP: The ambient soundtrack is found sound from a tour through Seductions (a four-story mega sex store directly across from Glad Day’s event space). During my opening stance I inserted myself in one window of the performance space, beside me was a second window that looks onto an advertisement for Seductions. At the beginning of the performance I mimic the Seductions’ mannequins that sell sexy underwear and the male models on posters. The 30-minute soundtrack includes traces of a conversation with a saleswoman about the various sexy men's underwear that I tried on. The final 5 minutes of the recording is of the nighttime streetscape of Yonge Street, between Seductions and the Glad Day Bookshop. It is part of my strategy to bring inside the outside world as a subtle, everyday sonic anchor and a disruptor of the liminal, or in-between space, of the performance and the city street.

KB: In a subtle way the sound added a lot to the performance. I had no idea what I was listening to, however I found myself trying to figure out what the sounds were as they seemed vaguely familiar.

For your next question I am wondering, where does your interest in queer politics and its relationship with prisoner rights stem from?

CP: Like many queer folk of colour, whether I am conscious of it or not, I am and have been imprisoned even though I have not been in a physical jail per se. I have a natural empathy for those who have been incarcerated and feel strongly that the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) should be dismantled.

While living in Chicago in 2008, I became aware of the existence of Tamms, which housed a Supermax 'correctional' facility where prisoners had been held in solitary confinement for up to a decade. This prison had no yard and no cafeteria much less classrooms or a chapel. This prison did not allow phone calls, any communal activity or visitors and was designed with the tactic of sensory and social deprivation. So called ‘disruptive prisoners’ were sent there to 'break them'. Many were subsequently left at Tamms for years and years, without an appeal.

In the shadow of global controversy over solitary confinement and torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, Tamms Ten Year campaign was launched to raise awareness about this blatant violation of human rights in southern Illinois. At the time, I was part of TRADESHOW, a month-long art-activist initiative in Chicago's East Pilsen neighbourhood that featured devised performances, multidisciplinary installation, talks and community-engaged 'anti-sweatshops' to raise awareness around the intersection between history, labour and social and political injustice.

In the United States and increasingly in Canada, the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems is referred to as the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). As artist-activists, it became an ambition of the TRADESHOW participants that the dots connect between labour rights and prisoners' rights.

Lately, I have been interested in the Roman notion of homo sacer, which is a banned person living outside of Roman law, that is deprived of all rights. He or she is vulnerable to being killed (without the killer being classified as a murderer). This is considered sacred; by this pre-Christian idea of 'sacred', I mean 'set apart' which can also include being sacred or accursed. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben talks about this in terms of someone being reduced to "bare life". Look at what is happening in Russian to queers today and what oppressed (and continues to oppress) African-Americans/African-Canadians, Mexican and Indigenous peoples in North America. You see that these groups share in common the experience of being defined outside the boundaries of humanity.

My initial impulse was to explore the connection and tension between the prison and the metaphor of the 'closet'. To do this, I combined images and rituals to engage the audience on a symbolic level. The installation component of ( )ound consisted of a seating arrangement that faced the installation and centered around the lone figure of a male (Brian Smith) who laid bound to the ground by duct tape echoing the rainbow flag. Smith is situated beneath a raised white metal bunk bed evocative of the ones associated with prison beds. There is no mattress above but rather a set of stark lights that draw a grid pattern of shadows over him. This installation set the foundation for the ritual / performance experience.
( )ound, performance by Coman Poon. Photo credit Henry Chan

KB:You mentioned the role of TRADESHOW in the development of 
( )ound, but I also see a clear connection with artist and political activist Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Can you describe, if any, the influence he has had?

CP: As a writer and a performance artist, Guillermo is a trailblazing artist-activist I hold in high admiration. After many years of crossing paths in Chicago and Toronto specifically, I was at last able to work with him during the Winter Intensive hosted by La Pocha Nostra in Tucson this past February (2013). During this two-week period, a group of international artists, academics and activists gathered to participate as well as to witness the US military’s Operation Streamline firsthand.

For those who are not aware of what the USA military’s Operation Streamline is, a fact sheet put out by Cultureofcruelty.org will be illuminating. I offer the following excerpt from this website because it touches the heart of what radicalized my training and artistic-activist experience with Guillermo Gómez-Peña and La Pocha Nostra.

"By leveling criminal charges for violations of civil immigration law, Operation Streamline has funneled hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants directly from Border Patrol custody into the federal prison system. After sentencing, Operation Streamline defendants are placed in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which increasingly holds immigrant prisoners in for-profit prisons and detention centers run by prison firms like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. Consequently, Operation Streamline has played a key role in the expansion of private prisons, including injecting more than $1.2 billion into the largely for-profit detention system in Texas. Thus, Operation Streamline has not only forced immigrants into dangerous and utterly unaccountable private prisons, but has helped reinforce an industry with a direct financial stake in driving the criminalization and incarceration of immigrants."

I was aware that Operation Streamline is the end result of the border policing and public arrests made under Arizona SB 1070, but witnessing these 'coached' admissions of guilt had the duo impact of implicating us as helpless while tearing us apart emotionally. We were being held in complete silence by the strict rules of conduct in the court of law. In the context of my performance and installation, I was interested in attempting to translate this experience for the audience.

The humiliation of Mexician and Indigenous detainees was a judicial 'show', with men shackled at their wrists and ankles and chained. In place where their families (often living on both sides of the United States-Mexico borders) would have sat were a scattering of public defenders and on this occasion I refer to, 25 artists-activists-witnesses from around the world. Convicted of federal crimes in order to leverage the waiving of heavy state fines, these economic migrants of the globalized world were humiliated and exiled. I did not know it at the time but these men, along with prisoners at Guantanamo, were the USA equivalent of the Roman notion of homo sacer: outside of being human.  

( )ound, performance by Coman Poon. Photo credit Henry Chan