Extraordinarily Everyday easy by Andrew James Paterson
My first encounter with Berenicci Hershorn as a performer was when she and her former performance/life partner Randy Gledhill used to present a soap opera parody homage As The World Burns as a component of VideoCabaret, back in 1977. I had met the couple socially and knew that they had clowning backgrounds; but I had never seen them perform. .
Randy and Bernice would present alternate scenes from As The World Burns. Randy’s episodes tended to take place outside; and Berenicci’s inside the house. The scenes I recall the most clearly are those that represent a quotidian domestic environment Berenicci vacuuming and ironing, and also painstakingly opening a letter.
When Berenicci ironed or vacuumed or performed similar functions (what indeed might have been the contents of that letter?); I was fascinated by her presence. She sustained my attention while performing mundane chores! I’ve often thought this ability marked a good actor in a soap opera or mainstream dramatic context ¾ the character could be talking to his or her spouse or sibling while conveying to the viewer that actually their thoughts were a million miles away. But of course the tasks are themselves performances.
A task is and is not synonymous with a ritual. “Ritual” implies ceremony ¾ something elevated or even mystical. Something not ordinary or of the everyday. But vacuuming and ironing and domestic behaviour are rituals. They are to be performed, and performed with an obsessive attention to detail. As The World Burns was in “real” time, as opposed to dramatic or edited or compressed time. This became most apparent during Berenicci’s segments, in which the tasks in effect became actions which had to be fervently pursued until completion.
Throughout the duo’s performances, videos and sculptural installations, verbal language was either absent or problematized as an ordering system needing to be scrambled but never reassembled in its familiar order. This suspicion of verbal language countered the performance and video tendencies of the late 70s and early 80s. “I was drawn by the artificiality, the stylization, the formula & the grid simplicity bound by strict rules the repetition and the gestural language and pretty much anything that could be conveyed without speech.” Randy and Berenicci did not move toward storytelling or narrative or even melodrama, despite their fondness for the New German Cinema of Fassbinder and others. As they moved away from the VideoCabaret late night format toward both location-based and gallery-hosted performance; their work became spectacle about spectacle.
The household chores performed by Berenicci in As The World Burns involved cleaning; cleaning is often synonymous with ordering. Berenicci’s and Randy’s performative career was characterized by a fascination with both order and disorder, and then history. Is history ordered ¾ in a linear sense? Not in the world of Randy and Berenicci it isn‘t. In numerous collaborative performances ¾ Code Red (1980), Catastrophe Theory (1983) and History itself ¾ the duo played with the ruins of civilizations. In History, performed in Vancouver in 1985, they “made history by setting the eight-foot high lettered word HISTORY free to float in Vancouver’s harbour. Here both history and verbal language were gleefully disassembled ¾ floating into Flux. History is not linear but episodic. Cause and effect become a game of chicken: which is which and which came first and maybe the second caused the first even though the second is definitely an effect.
Throughout Randy and Berenicci’s, and now solo performances, there has been a sense of something unaccountable and irrational upending linear assembled structures. In As The World Burns there were elements of suspense introduced into real-time actions and chores. Real-time performance can itself create suspense, especially when it is presented with an audience situation where the audience wants some sort of event to intervene. Patterns create anxiety as much as comfort.
Time tunnel forward to Xspace on Ossington Street during the 2010 edition of the 7a*11d Performance Art Festival. Berenicci Hershorn is performing in the basement of the gallery. Berenicci’s performance is durational. It is something that audiences check in on during the breaks between the main floor performances.
Berenicci is positioned in a clear plastic enclosure, repeating a cycle of five distinct actions. She retrieves a newspaper from a pile, folds it, and then places it in the centre of a table. She has red paint or some other substance (the colour of blood), which she pours out of a tin watering can. She folds the newspaper into a little packet. She ties the packet with twine and places it at the top of the table. Between each action, Berenicci cleans the space. The packets begin to accumulate. Meanwhile, there is s steaming kettle, lit by a miniature LED, and also a faint digital soundtrack. The odour from the kettle is pleasant; but the audio is not.
As the performance continues into its fourth and fifth hours, the performer’s smock becomes redder and redder and an enormous pile of ice to the left of the plastic enclosure begins to run. The ice and the kettle steam merge.This performance most certainly calls to mind a ritual or ceremony.
Berenicci is performing in her own universe with her chosen symbols and she is doing so with “fastidious and unremitting continuity.” The repetition is unnerving in its exactitude and concentration.
Three years later. Berenicci Hershorn performed in the University of Toronto’s iconic building Hart House. Her performance in this initially male-only edifice was titled Dropping Wineglass Falling Down. Berenicci’s performance was one in a series of site-specific performances curated by WIA (Woman in Action) Projects by Pam Patterson and Leena Raudvee called Babble(Babel); this series “was formulated to examine the nature of language and communication within a feminist framing to reference the immigrant experience of our female ancestors.”
“You climb the stone stairwell to the second floor and find your way down the hall to a small room. You enter by a door in the centre of the room; there are two large banks of gothic windows on the opposite wall. The room is dark, there are no lights on, and it’s an overcast day. I stand at a lectern in the centre of the room, two long tables stretch towards the doorway on either side of me…..
On the tables are several place settings, each contains a large empty bowl, a small bowl of salt, a candle, an onion, some matches and an egg. At another station, at the end of the table and apart from the place settings, there is a silver bucket full of water, a large knife, a stack of towels and a pile of soaps of various kinds in white and pink and red. The scent of these soaps overpowers the room."
In this performance, Hershorn spent two hours cutting ribbons out of a Thesaurus. This action was inspired by the artist’s memory of cutting paper into shapes and creating 3D art objects, realizing as a child that her temperament was that of an artist. But the source material is a Thesaurus. Here again, language is being eliminated. Language can be as much an impediment to memory as an aid. Language can block emotional recall ¾ the search to find an appropriate word can dilute emotional impulses rather than articulate them.
While Berenicci’s performance at Hart House fits comfortably within the series’ curatorial premise, this artist’s work is not easily categorized. Berenicci Hershorn is certainly present in whatever specific location, but she is simultaneously somewhere quite abstract and unidentifiable.
Berenicci’s performance at Hamilton Inc. will be titled “Here“. At Hamilton Artists’ Inc., Hershorn is again responding to site, but perhaps even less literally than with Hart House. The building now housing Hamilton Inc. was once a mens’ clothing store. Perhaps “you could draw parallels to the garment industry but there really aren't any although most of my elders did work in the garment industry (or as butchers)”. But of course art buildings have their own histories.
Berenicci Hershorn will be working with ten other performers. The engagement of performers or collaborators will be gender-mixed. This engagement of these performers is a shift in Hershorn’s solo practice. This is not a collaboration, as the performers will have a specific series of actions to perform - choreographed by Hershorn. Berenicci has two stipulations for these performers: don’t bail out and don‘t “go theatre”. There will not be one word during this performance.
Berenicci Hershorn’s performances are so often located in a Here that is both pre and post-language. When I hear “Here”, I think of something opposed to “there”? I think of Gertrude Stein. Is there a there there? Is there a here here? Can we locate here Here … in this space or in this environment or in this network or whatever?
Here refers to an infinite space, but it is a specific space so it must therefore be finite. Here is not there, it is here.
The performers will be unnaturally silent. At this stage, the audio component of Here has yet to be decided or determined.The artist describes an earlier version of Here in which she “had used some sound I’d recorded from a radio broadcast in the eighties … in Amsterdam … only to find out that what I actually was tuned into was the coded messages of the local police… ”. Is what might seem like a creative free zone actually under authoritarian surveillance; or is the language of surveillance being stripped of its codes and meanings?
The combination of the performers’ commitment to repetition of exact actions and the sound emanating from an undefined space makes for a para-normality. When I watch Berenicci Hershorn perform, I think about alchemy. The performer is making something, working with everyday materials, but something extraterrestrial is happening. Berenicci’s performances are simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, and also uncomfortable.
Berenicci Performer Essay Footnotes
# VideoCabaret was originally an inter-media performance organization encompassing video art, live theatre or performance, and live music by a band. The company was founded in 1976 by Marion or Marien Lewis, Michael Hollingsworth, and Deanne Taylor. They presented inter-media theatrical works by Hollingsworth and The Hummer Sisters, Now VideoCabaret operate primarily situated in the theatre world, with minimal if any use of video or live music.
# As a writer/performer in the VideoCabaret house band The Government, my colleague Robert Stewart and I accompanied As The World Burns as well as presentations by VideoCabaret founders The Hummer Sisters and Michael Hollingsworth.
# Some Answers and Some Links: e-mail correspondence with Berenicci Hershorn, March 26, 2014
# Ironically, Randy and Berenicci worked as bartenders during the Hummer Sisters performance prior to their own performances, in the basement of A Space at 85 St. Nicholas St. from 1977 into 1978.
# Natalie Loveless, Berenicci Hershorn, XSPACE, Saturday October 30, 2010, 7a*11d Festival Blog.
# Natalie Loveless, Berenicci Hershorn, XSPACE, Saturday October 30, 2010, 7a*11d Festival Blog
# Kate Barry, Performance Art 13, blog, Wed. Jan.1, 2014
# Kate Barry, Performance Art 13, blog, Wed. Jan.1, 2014
# Berenicci Hershorn interviewed by Kate Barry, Performance Art 13, blog, Wed. Jan.1,2014
# Bereniccio Hershorn, email, Thurs. April 9, 2014
# Berenicci Hershorn in conversation with Andrew Paterson, Tues. Mar.18, 2014.