Colin Campbell, “Peripheral Blur”

Factory Theatre Lab

Much as video artists have come to accept over the past few years their work’s implicit reference to television, performance artists are beginning to examine their medium’s relation to theater. In light of this, it is significant that a well-established video artist recently presented his first performance in the context of a theater workshop.

COLIN CAMPBELL, whose videotapes were included in this year’s Canadian representation at the Venice Biennale, has been working with video for ten years. In the past, his work has been labelled as divergently as “strictly narrative” and “post-conceptual romantic.” But with this, his first live performance, Campbell reveals himself to be a conservative and forceful moralist, whose guileless cameos of compromised lives are awkwardly moving.

“Peripheral Blur,” is set in the spring of 1980. As the piece begins, Campbell is preparing for a trip to the Venice Biennale and the Basel Art Fair. He delivers a brilliant monologue about getting and having: “I’ve got my travel iron, I’ve got my adaptor for my travel iron, I’ve got my priorities organized. . . .” He is ready to embark—as much on a trip through his one-man morality play as through Europe. The stage, the outlandish gear, and his carefully structured monologue all combine to establish Campbell’s theatrical persona. Performing behind the mask that theater provides, Campbell defends himself beforehand against possible accusations of being subjective. Suspended in a no-man’s-land between performance and theater, Campbell sets out to be morally instructive. Before taking off into further characters, the persona Campbell, wishing to ground himself, says, “Wait. Something’s missing. My background. I forgot my background.”

A series of fictional phone calls, a number of projected slides and a few terse comments about the Toronto art scene serve as “background” for the audience. Campbell has begun a snakes-and-ladders game of narrative charades, whose structure is quite different from that of his recent video work. In fact, in this respect, it is much closer to his early videotapes, which relied on creating an ambience rather than on presenting events in a linear progression to tell a tale.

Over the loud speaker a voice announces “Trans-Euro Lotto Arto—this year you may be it!”—the audience is whisked from Mainstreet Canada to the Brussels train station. In the same way in which Campbell, as a performance artist, has removed himself from his piece by adopting characterization—a formal device of theater—he has managed also to suspend the persona he has created by making him a displaced person. Artist and character, person and persona, removed from their natural frames of reference, are excused from responsibility for their actions and yet are also rendered completely vulnerable to the projections of the audience.

To project desire-fulfilling elements on another individual, to succumb to those projections out of a desire to be loved, to project oneself in a public image, are the human failings Campbell wishes to expose.

When Campbell presents himself as a female character, he does not do so by taking on drag trappings. Campbell’s Anna, another in his growing dramatis personae, is more an acquisition than an emulation. Anna is an older European woman, who tells Campbell and the audience about her lost love. She recounts the cultural dichotomies ( between herself and Campbell); they extend even to language: “I prefer not to speak German, the accent doesn’t suit me,” she tells us. Anna smokes American cigarettes in the morning, French in the afternoon. When she gets up to dance, it’s to disco. Within the work, Campbell’s foreign-ness to her makes him a prime vessel in which to infuse all that is missing in her own life. Disoriented, feeling fated in an alien environment, Campbell/“Campbell” succumbs to her projections.

At the end of the performance, the Anna figure and Campbell exchange two letters. In passing between the two characters on stage, these letters pass metaphorically as well as between two continents, two sexualities, two cultures and, startlingly, between two distinct levels of the performance itself. When Campbell gives himself a letter from the persona of Anna, he strips down the levels of character and for the first time becomes himself. His raw presence shifts the previous theatrics very definitely into performance. When Campbell reads his reply to Anna, he addresses more than his distance from her. Implicit in the act of reading the letter is an address to and a disengagement from the “play” he has just presented within his performance. His plea to Anna to cease her “peripheral blurring” of him is fed through an echo chamber which distorts it and reminds us that he is aware that the characters he has acquired in the course of the piece are examples of the kind of projection he supposedly wishes to escape.

There are moments in the piece when Campbell loses the delicate balance of characterization and presence which he sets up. When Anna lip-syncs to a popular tune, the action verges on camp. Campbell’s ingenuousness is not always unadorned. But his careful use of theater is exemplified in the resonance of the actual in the projected and of the person in the persona.

Martha Fleming