Critical Distance

Adhere and Deny’s Musical Chairs: Grant Guy
March 4, 1994 10pm

a response to the exhibition by Robert McKaskell

Performance Art? Event?
Entertainment? (Polite Words.)

Provocation? (Less polite.)

A boring display of ego?
(Downright rude.)

More than the above? Yes.
Less than the above? Yes.

Another dada dumb?


Here is what we saw. The setting: Rows of chairs facing a playing area. In the playing area, centered toward the back, a table with a chair (facing front) centered on it. Beside it, stage right, another chair. Musical Chairs I: A performer (Grant Guy, alias Dok Trinaire, dressed in a beret, red and white striped jersey, black, waist-length jacket, black trousers, red high tops), enters from the back of the stage and moves to stage right carrying a music stand, a violin bow, and dead chicken tied to a hundred foot length of yellow rope. The other end of the rope is tied around his waist. After pulling the length of rope through space he puts the dead chicken beside him on the floor and, with a baton, directs the audience’s attention.

Another performer (Jack Lauder, in conservative dress – grey suit, tie, black shoes) enters, carrying a chair and a cage with a dead chicken, a pruning saw in its back. He positions the chair to the right of stage centre, sits on it, fidgets, seems to wait for something.

Another performer (Sharon Alward, dressed in black) enters, carrying a skeleton of an umbrella, a dead chicken impaled on its shaft. She hesitates, then asks the seated performer “Can I have your chair?” “No,” he says. She exits, to return a few moments later with her own chair which she lines up beside his. She sits, settles into her chair. The other seated performer glances, then stares at her. She ignores him. Finally, he asks, somewhat tentatively, “Do you want to trade chairs?” They do. They wait.

Another performer (Alex Poruchnyk, somewhat more jauntily dressed, in tweed jacket and vest) enters. He drags his dead chicken, which is on a leash, along the floor, allowing it to pretend to urinate on one of the pillars in the space, while mimicking the look of a dog-walker who hopes he isn’t being seen but, in case he is, expresses an embarrassed apology for the animal’s behaviour. He approaches the seated performers. The dialogue is repeated. He leaves, returns with his own chair, settles, is asked to trade chairs by the performer with the caged dead chicken. Chairs are exchanged, and then the performer with the dead chicken on the umbrella asks him to trade chairs. They do. They wait. At some point during this sequence Dok walks to the stage centre and addresses the audience: “It’s as plain as a deep sea diver in the mouth of a shark. They are waiting Š for nothing.”

Another performer (Carole O’Brien, dressed in black) arrives. She carries a large old lamp shade, much of whose fabric has been torn off and in the middle of which a dead chicken is dangling. The dialogue and actions are repeated.

Dok again comes to stage centre and says “How about a little bit of music?” He attempts to play his dead chicken with the violin bow. Not getting a result, he turns to the seated performers and says, “Do you mind?” They leave with their dead chickens. All of this has taken some 12 minutes.

Musical Chairs II: This is a solo with audience participation. Dok again tries to play the chicken with the same (non)result. He holds it to his ear, plucks it, tries again. He asks a member of the audience to pluck it. (“Almost everyone has plucked a chicken,” he says.) Finally, he pulls the packaged innards from the chicken, tosses them away, bows the chicken again, declares “That’s better,” and throws the chicken away.

He then offers to entertain the audience by juggling the four vacated chairs. After a bit of business with trying to set the chairs up to begin juggling them, he decides one is not quite right and tosses it aside. He goes into the audience to find a replacement.

From this point on two different kinds of action take place. On the one hand, Dok gives the patter of a snake oil man, telling the audience “Friends you are all dying.” He goes on to explain the mystery of the table and the two chairs (remember? They’re at the back of the playing area) which he learned from “the new science of pataphysics”: it is a monument of man – a pinnacle of his distinctive ambition – and develops a description of everyone’s disease (liberalis cogitatio).

Meanwhile, he is barging through the audience searching for chairs, the juggler’s aggression contrasting the con man’s savvy. He pushes people from their chairs, tossing chairs (or asking the steadily diminishing number of seated people to pass them) to the front. People are offered a choice of a condom or a ju jube. He is, of course, still attached to the rope which becomes entangled around people and chairs.

At the end he convinces a member of the audience to ascend the chair on the table and, while attempting to have the audience recite with him the cure for the disease (“Remove the monster before the monster removes you”), he exits.

The work conjures up a litany of performance practice through this century. Pataphysics, as described by Alfred Jarry who introduced the concept through his Ubu plays, is “the science of imaginary solutions” which “will examine the laws of governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one.” His Ubu Roi, first produced in 1896, is often cited as a precursor of twentieth-century performance art. Musical Chairs also carries hints of the Italian Futurists, who used performance during the years before and during World War I to excite anarchic activity, and Dadas in Zurich in 1916 who used it to explore the boundaries of abstraction. Brecht’s theatre of alienation, Beckett’s existentialism, and the antics of the circus clown rare also referenced. More recently, in the Happenings of the early 1960’s the performers would often enter the space of the audience and engage it directly in the action.

To return to the beginning of this piece: performance art is a new term used to bracket events, entertainments, provocations, expressions of ego and a host of other activities that may or may not occur in public. Grant Guy uses the term dada dumb, a term that derives from the fortuitous juxtaposition of words by reviewer in Winnipeg newspaper some years ago, to describe his work. Let’s let him use it. And let’s check out his next extravaganza.


Robert McKaskell is a Professor of Art History at the University of Manitoba.