Visual Arts students work with famed performance artist

When it comes to international performance artists, it’s tough to top Cassils. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, several grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, a Creative Capital Grant, a United States Artists Fellowship, a California Community Foundation Visual Artist Fellowship and the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Visual Arts Fellowship — to name a few of their accolades — Cassils’ work uses their body in a sculptural fashion, integrating feminism, body art, and gay male aesthetics into remarkable public performances that leave a lasting impression.

Cassils poses as Visual Arts students prepare a clay block for the performance (UVic Photo Services)

A gender non-conforming and transmasculine artist originally from Montreal, the internationally renowned Cassils is now based in in Los Angeles and was recently the subject of this feature article in Canadian Art magazine. UVic and Victoria audiences were fortunate in March to have had the opportunity to witness their Becoming an Image performance and hear Cassils speak at a public talk as part of the Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects at Legacy Art Gallery Downtown.

Becoming an Image is a piece that works at the interstices of performance, photography and sculpture, and features the artist delivering a series of kicks and blows to a 2,000-pound clay block over the course of 30 minutes. Originally conceived as a site-specific work for the ONE Archives in Los Angeles — the oldest active LGBTQ archive in USA — it is performed entirely in the dark in a tightly controlled environment, lit only by a photographer’s flash. The March 7 performance in UVic’s Visual Arts building was only the 15th time it had been done since being created in 2012.

Four Visual Arts undergrad students — Carter Forman, Katrina Brushetta, Stephanie Hedler and Eloise Mason — were fortunate enough to spend a few days learning from and working directly with Cassils while shaping and preparing the clay block.

“Working with Cassils was an absolute treat,” says Brushetta, a fourth-year student from the Comox Valley. “Cassils is truly amazing person, full of so much knowledge and was always open to conversation.”


Cassils designed Becoming an Image to push their body to the extreme to evoke the struggle for self-defense and self-preservation against threats of violence and erasure. By performing in total darkness, the illumination from the camera’s flash serves to sear the scene into the viewer’s retina in a manner both haunting and beautiful.

Canadian Art describes Cassils as being “at the forefront of the struggle for trans rights in America” and notes that “their work depicts, emphasizes and aestheticizes the trans body.” After recently becoming a US citizen, Cassils says they “believe in the fierce spirit of resilience.”

“The performance wasn’t at all what I expected,” says Mason, a fourth-year student from Edmonton. “The anticipation was crazy, especially having to wait in the dark. It did make me pretty emotional at times, because I got to know Cassils a bit before . . . . there was this overwhelming amount of emotion being strewn across the room with everyone in awe.”

As one of the last artists to put the final touches on the sculpture just before the performance, Mason says the most striking part was knowing how hard the clay was. “To smooth out just a bump would take 20 minutes with a lot of pressure — and sometimes we would still be unsuccessful. It was extremely tiring and tough to manipulate the clay . . . to see Cassils destroy that sculpture in just 30 minutes says enough about the passion in their heart for what they were fighting for.”

“This experience was definitely something that I am thankful for and has inspired me to move into performance art in the future,” says Brushetta.

While the long-running Visiting Artist program is an important part of the Visual Arts department’s educational experience, it’s rare that students get such intimate hands-on time with an artist of Cassils’ stature.

“It definitely helped open my eyes more and helped me be more creative,” says Mason.

Brushetta agrees, noting that Cassils’ performance was “everything I had expected and more . . . I am honoured to have been a part of such a memorable experience.”

Cassils appearance at UVic was presented in collaboration with the Visual Arts department, Open Space and Legacy Art Gallery Downtown, with support from BC Arts CouncilCamosun College Visual ArtsUVic Libraries, and UVic’s Chair in Transgender Studies.

Cassils performance was part of the run-up to the third biennial Moving Trans History Forward conference, hosted by Transgender Studies from March 22 to 25. Approximately 300 people from the Americas, Europe and Asia converged on UVic for the conference, which also featured a keynote address celebrated Two-Spirit artist Kent Monkman, a Canadian of Cree and Irish ancestry whose work is displayed in numerous private and public collections including at the National Gallery of Canada.

Two MFA exhibits: one downtown, one crossing borders

Following a series of on-campus solo exhibitions in the Audain Gallery this spring, this year’s graduating MFA artists have taken their work downtown for their final public exhibit.

Titled In Toto, the annual Visual Arts MFA graduation exhibition runs May 4 to May 14 at 821 Fort Street, between Quadra and Blanshard, with a special opening reception at 7pm on Friday, May 4.

Update: the MFA show will now return for one day only, 11am-2pm Sunday, May 27, as part of the City of Victoria’s Fort Street Celebrations. The MFA show will be used as the venue for a public drop-in session discussing the use of vacant store fronts as art spaces. Live music & refreshments will also be on hand to celebrate the opening of the bike lanes,

Featuring the work of David Michael Peters, Marina DiMaio, Leah McInnis, Connor Charlesworth and Evelyn Sorochan-Ruland, In Toto offers 10 different pieces, ranging from painting and sculpture to installation and media works.

Interestingly, the same storefront was home to the HeARTspace exhibit in the fall 2017, a pop-up art gallery featuring the work of people who have died from overdoses, as well as tributes to them; that exhibit was organized by UVic interdisciplinary PhD candidate Marion Selfridge.

The free exhibit is open noon to 4pm daily.  

In addition to this exhibit, MFA candidate Marina DiMaio has also organized the second in the MFA Connect exhibit series. Running May 13-19 in the Audain Gallery in the Visual Arts building, this second iteration reconsiders the long-standing tradition of Mail Art through an entirely digital correspondence. This conception of MFA Connect integrates the work of six MFA students from Newcastle University in England and six UVic MFA students in a group show that will then travel to the Ex Libris Gallery in northeast England.

MFA Connect is like a conference for visual arts,” says DiMaio in this article about the inaugural MFA Connect exhibit in November 2017. “Other departments make these kind of ‘connections’ all the time, but when we get together we share a visual language. This is about challenging each other’s research, getting our research out into the world, creating our own opportunities, establishing communities, and continuing the larger conversation of the place of the visual arts in an academic institution.”

In addition to Marina DiMaio, MFA Connect also features work by UVic’s Connor Charlesworth, Leah McInnis, David Michael Peters, and Evelyn Sorochan-Ruland, plus Xristia Trutiak. Participating artists from Newcastle U include Shaney Barton, Elizabeth Green, Peter Hanmer, Paul Jex, Hania Klepacka and Gill Shreeve.

Could this be the beginning of ongoing creative alliances between Newcastle University and UVic? Only time—and inspiration—will tell.

Concert debuts results of Guggenheim Fellowship

It was big news last year when internationally acclaimed School of Music professor Dániel Péter Biró was named the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship — one of North America’s most prestigious awards. Biró’s intention was to use the one-year award (worth $50,000 US) to reflect on one of the most important issues of today: global migration. Now, audiences in select North American cities will have the opportunity of hearing the results when his large-scale musical composition Ethica is performed this month.

2017 Guggenheim Fellow Dániel Péter Biró (UVic Photo Services)

Based on Baruch Spinoza’s philosophical work of the same name, Ethica will debut at the Americas Society/Council for America in New York City on May 4, as performed by Schola Heidelberg and the ensemble aisthesis, featuring pianist Donald Berman and conductor Walter Nussbaum. Kirk McNally, the School of Music’s assistant professor of Music Technology, will also be collaborating in the performance of electroacoustic pieces in this concert.

Following the New York debut, Ethica will also have live performances in Winnipeg (May 6) and Vancouver (May 10-11), as well as here in Victoria Victoria (May 8-9). Click here for a complete schedule of events.

The Victoria performance is part of the 2018 SALT New Music Festival and Symposium, and the public is welcome to attend a free lecture and performance of Ethica at 7:30pm Wednesday, May 9 at Congregation Emanu-El (1461 Blanshard Streeet). Ethica will be performed by Biró, Klangforum Heidelberg and the ensemble aisthesis; they will also perform a work by the late Czech pianist and composer Gideon Klein, written in during his internment in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during WWII.

The KlangForum Heidelberg is where two very distinctive ensembles for contemporary and ancient music come together: the voices of the Schola Heidelberg and the instrumentalists of the ensemble aesthesis. Together, they have built an international following, thrilling audiences around the world with their innovative concert formats and injecting new life into the relationship between music and society.

A taste of SALT

KlangForum Heidelberg

While at the SALT Festival, Klangforum Heidelberg will also be presenting a reading session for young composers and an open rehearsal of works by Canadian composers including Claude Vivier, Philippe Leroux and Örjan Sandred, who will be in attendance.

Now in its seventh year, the SALT Festival is a series that reverberates far beyond Victoria’s shores. “People actually know about Victoria through our contemporary music scene,” Biró explained in this recent article. “I was in Vienna and just met someone by chance on the street and they said, ‘Oh, you run the SALT New Music Festival’ . . . . Victoria has always been known as kind of a weird place, a place for experimentation.”

These events are happening in collaboration with the SALT New Music Festival and Symposium, Open Space, the University of Manitoba and Vancouver New Music and made possible through support from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Canada Council for the Arts, the BC Arts Council and the Goethe Institute.

About Ethica

Biró’s composition Ethica is inspired by the time he spent as a visiting professor in the computing and information sciences department of Netherland’s Utrecht University in 2011, where he was living not far from Spinoza’s burial site in The Hague. While one of the greatest philosophers of the 17th century, Spinoza was banned from the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam because of his views — which, says Biró, proved too radical for the time.

Spinoza’s burial site in The Hague

“In his philosophical treatise Ethics, Spinoza attempted to present a new type of theology, one that was autonomous from organized religion, such as that of his own Portuguese Jewish community,” he explains. “[My] composition explores historical dichotomies between religious and secular thinking from the perspective of modern-day globalized existence.”

His Ethica cycle will be scored for voices, ensemble and electronics, and will also incorporate text from Spinoza’s philosophical work.

“Exploring concepts of ‘space and place,’ the composition will deal with questions of one’s place in the global world and how music informs and influences our perception of our place in this world,” he explains. “Looking at musical creation as an analogy to the movement of the immigrant — who discovers, remembers, forgets and rediscovers places on his voyage — the composition will investigate relationships to historical space, space of immigration and disembodied space.”

During the 2016/17 academic year, Biró was an artist-in-residence with UVic’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society; in 2015, he was made a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, and he was awarded a Fellowship at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in 2014; he has also received numerous other international prizes and commissions.

And, as a result of his Guggenheim Fellowship, Dániel Péter Biró was the only UVic professor —and the only arts researcher — included in the prestigious Universities Canada publication, Canadian Excellence, Global Recognition: Canada’s 2017 Winners of Major International Research Awards.