This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Edgy Women Festival, an annual interdisciplinary arts festival produced by Studio 303. For this year’s theme, ART/SPORTS/GENDER, I ventured off Belgo territory and found myself at the Chat Bleu Boxing Club on Beaubien, where Game On, the main event of the week-long festival, was about to kick off. It was a three-hour happening that featured participatory installations, short works and durational performances. In a sort of spectator-circuit-training fashion, the events took place consecutively in various areas of the spacious, hardwood floor gym, and like good sports fans, we followed the action. Sometimes, as was the case where the trio of bodybuilders offered free rides around the ring, some of us really joined the show.
The body-building pageant kicked off the night. The three athletes—two women and one very burly man—took their turns, taking the official poses designed to showcase the muscle, moving slowly for full effect. Knowing little about this culture, I was struck by how their smiles matched their bodies: disciplined and held in position.
Judith Depaule/Mabel Octobre took to the ring next, and with a steely glare and unwavering focus unfurled a slow and deliberate performance that moved between muscular athleticism and balletic grace. Her costume was fantastic: a cyborg-effect muscle suit made of balloons, including some to fully inflate a white conical bra. At one point she slowly peeled it off to reveal the much-smaller form beneath. It was like an awkward chrysalis opening, or the way Olympia might have done a striptease.
We shuffled over to the mats, where an unmistakably feline pair languidly stretched and coiled themselves in various poses in varying states of (un)dress: they appeared to be cat-models of a friperie, the proprietess attending to their styling.
Heather Cassils’ performance, Becoming an Image, took place in a completely blacked-out room within the weight room area. We filed into the darkness and were told by the helpful coordinator to keep to the perimeter “or you might get punched.” Suddenly, a flashbulb went off, illuminating the ferocious body of Cassils and a tall plinth of grey clay: the fight, between Cassils and this obdurate mass, had begun. It was incredible: the flashes, which coincided with the photographic camera, documenting these moments, caused intense afterimages, which danced away in our eyes in the darkness. Cassils would then appear on the other side with the next flash, and so it went. The incredible force and exertion was evidenced by the thuds of her fists and body against the clay and in her voice. By the end, the plinth was a low-lying, amorphous “sculpture,” riddled with the imprints and blows received. The strength of the work (to use an easy pun) was in its shock and bodily immersion of the spectator, but also the rich parade of allusions and issues it brought forth: suggesting certain paintings and sculptures from our art-historical past; bringing out questions of gender, violence and absorbed struggle; even the primordial weight of clay itself.
It might be purely circumstantial but I’ve managed to happen upon several works in various places in Montreal recently that explore the ideas of athletic women in staged scenarios of battle, contest, or demonstration of physicality. Obviously, the entire Edgy Women Festival, but also Hito Steyerl’s November, now showing at the SBC Gallery, which mixes the real-life heroism of Andrea Wolf with her martial arts movie character (and in a more subtle way, in moments of Harun Farocki’s Respite, in the same place); Alex Monteith’s Passing Manoeuvre with Two Motorcycles and 584 Vehicles, a double-channel video of two female motorcycle stunt drivers, currently part of Material Traces at Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery; and, only because I just watched it, Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. And having just celebrated International Women’s Day last week, it seems more fitting than ever—though the goal, really, is for a year-round awareness of women, sport and strength. Thanks for all your hard work ladies.