Like tulips and yard sales, a sure sign of spring in Ottawa is the return of Chinatown Remixed. Once a year artists and performers descend on Somerset Street West for a day of festivities followed by a month of visual art exhibits in businesses along the street. The festival, which has a family focus during the day and a more adult-friendly evening component, has always attracted a strong showing of queer artists and performers. Rae Spoon played outside the Shanghai in 2013, and over the years Remixed has featured the work of queer photographers, DJs and textile artists. It’s a festival that keeps people coming back, and this year two queer artists are returning with new work.
Gabe Thirlwall is known in Ottawa for her Political Circus body of work, which has included everything from silkscreened finger puppets to playing cards of Chinese Canadians in politics. Originally from Toronto, Thirlwall moved to Ottawa with her partner eight years ago and began looking for a creative outlet. “I like the idea [that] an artist reflects their environment, and here we are in Ottawa. What better thing to do than to do something that is political and playful?” Thirlwall takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to political commentary. “The secret hope of The Political Circus is to get people more engaged in Canadian politics and perhaps put our democracy back on track. But I do it through pure silliness,” she says.
At the end of the summer, Thirlwall and her family will be moving back to Toronto. “I wanted to relate sort of our own departure to famous political departures and be very silly about it,” she says. She plans to create a series of layered textile prints featuring Dimitri Soudas, Belinda Stronach and Nigel Wright by screenprinting on different coloured textiles and then cutting them apart to assemble portraits.
Though she’s looking forward to returning to Toronto, Thirlwall says she will miss the community she’s been a part of in Ottawa, as well as her proximity to entertaining Canadian politicians. She plans to continue The Political Circus following her move, but likely with a more municipal and provincial focus reflective of Toronto’s political climate. Interestingly, she says she will likely avoid or take a very careful approach to work about infamous Toronto mayor Rob Ford. “I have very strong opinions about harm reduction and about addiction, and I don’t think it’s funny,” she says. “I’m not comfortable making jokes about people who are struggling with addiction.”
This will be Thirlwall’s third year participating in Chinatown Remixed. She says she likes the festival because it gives her an opportunity to make work that isn’t sales-driven (she sells her finger puppets and textiles at craft sales around the city and also maintains an Etsy shop). “The only point is to engage people,” she says. “I really enjoy the freedom that that gives me because it’s not about production. It’s about concept.”
“I love Chinatown Remixed because it brings together the neighbourhood, it brings together different cultures and different traditions, and that’s really important . . . If there was one Ottawa show I would come back for, either to be part of or to attend, that would be the one.”
Performance artist Matt Miwa will also return to Remixed this year with an expansion of his 2013 piece, Kim Cattrall Comes from Hell, which saw him walking a tightrope wearing a mini skirt and heels. He’s bringing Kim back again this year for a piece entitled Kim Cattrall Comes Back from Hell. Taking inspiration from Japanese Noh theatre, this time Miwa will cross a bridge as Kim, committing seppuku (a form of ritualistic suicide by disembowelment) when he reaches the other end. Miwa arrived at performance art through his love of theatre and was also very involved in gymnastics when he was growing up. His work combines physicality with a theatrical influence.
“For me, I think the only rule of performance art is that the audience has to want to watch you, like not take their eyes off you the whole time,” he says. Cattrall has a special draw for him as an actress; he describes her as “one of the most wonderful bad actresses out there.
“She can sell anything she’s doing, but she’s never natural; you can always see her acting through her character,” he says. “I always imagine her stressed out and tired by making art and by acting. This is what I will be channelling through my performance, that stress, compounded by Kim’s desire for art making and her particular sensibility when it comes to beauty, sexuality, femininity.” Miwa says he imagines Kim being more comfortable in hell, which he envisions as a realm where art is able to flow effortlessly from people’s bodies. She must return to the land of the living, however, to deliver her performances.
The piece also has a strong Japanese influence; in Noh theatre, masked characters always cross over a bridge when entering and exiting the stage. Kim’s journey across the bridge will see her graduating from a ninja to a samurai, taking on the persona of Amy Winehouse before committing seppuku in order to return to hell. Miwa says he uses the guises of different female entertainers to explore how femininity and persona are performed. “I usually take a scene from a movie or an interview that they do . . . and I just kind of inhabit that, the actress,” he says. “It has something to do with female wisdom, and that’s kind of how I present myself. The mask I wear, I guess, for performance art.”
“I want the audience to be interested in me negotiating between the acting, between the character, between the person, and between myself,” he says. “I love performing [at Chinatown Remixed] because I always feel welcome at this festival . . . it’s a great start to the summer for me.”