Lebensraum/Lifespace – Spectacle of Noise

  • World Premiere from the Governor General Award-Winning Artist Istvan Kantor Monty Cantsin? Amen! (In Person)
  • Saturday, June 12, 9 pm
  • @ MOCCA’s New Location!, 952 Queen St. West

Part of Summer 2004

World Premiere from the Governor General Award-Winning Artist Istvan Kantor Monty Cantsin? Amen! (In Person)
Saturday, June 12, 9 pm
@ MOCCA’s New Location!, 952 Queen St. West
A co-presentation with Charles Street Video, InterAccess, Vtape, Trinity Square Video, FADO, 7a*11d and MOCCA

Toronto’s media and performing arts community is celebrating the official sanction of Istvan Kantor for his excessive exploration of the body, technology and avant-garde theories; and his aggressive accumulation of performances, videos, robotics and music. His invitation to multimedia rebellion has been officially reified by the Governor General herself.

Kantor’s most recent video Lebensraum/Lifespace – Spectacle of Noise (72:00 min., 2004) is a tale of totalitarian control and neoist resistance. Lebensraum or ‘living space’ was a concept used by the Nazis to justify invading other countries to obtain more open land. Through RST Robotic Surveillance Transmission, the nebulous Rentagon invades the minds and bodies of the robotarians to gain greater processing power. In a futile attempt to expel as well as process the information overload, the population is transfixed in convulsive seizure reactions. A lone yogaborg of TRS Transmission Research Society strives to unravel the techno-web of this somatic colonization.

Utilizing approximately 20,000 rendered effects, Lebensraum/Lifespace – Spectacle of Noise is the culmination of Kantor’s digital processing extremes and Machine Sex Action. It is a shuddering, colour-coded allegory about the colonization of our lives by the all-pervasive entertainment/communication grid. It poses the question, are we being reduced to biological machinery units by global ideological transmission devices and kinetic control systems or are we still free thinkers?

“Six o’clock, Anywhere, Any year. An image which recurs in Lebensraum/Lifespace – Spectacle of Noise: hopeless revolutionary and outcast yogaborg Istvan Kantor, otherwise known as Monty Cantsin, is alone, naked, blood- and filth-smeared at a dump, a pyramid of decaying refuse rising behind him. His posture is battered and exhausted, but still belligerent. Dumps are the ultimate anti-monuments, altars of destruction and possibility, altars of collective memory, overrun by rats and screaming gulls and feral children. Everything is there, accumulated, intermingled, confused: the ruins of ancient cities, the ruins of museums, rubble from 1956 Budapest, busts of dictators, pieces of mail from Montreal in 1979, vials of blood, syringes, broken furniture, film stock, filing cabinets, clocks, computers, megaphones, manifestos. Dumps are post-technological, self-annihilated machines, their decay ecstatic and utopian. There is no hierarchy; there is no beginning and no end.

From the time of his immigration to Canada from Hungary in 1977, Istvan Kantor has created a body of work remarkable for its demonic energy, its subversive vision, and its encompassing range. He has explored mail art, music, kinetic sculpture, multi-media installation and, most prominently, performance art and video. He founded an indefinable and conspiratorial movement he called neoism. The intent of Kantor’s work has always been to disrupt closed systems of power, political and aesthetic, to lay bare the ways in which technology transforms human bodies and minds into elements of a vast robotic machine, and to confront today’s deadening systems of technological control. The concept that most broadly governs Kantor’s vision is ‘accumulation.’ ‘In the land of accumulation all activity remains activated, causing continuous interventions, overlapping structures, sudden changes, global explosions, turmoil, tumult, turbulence, everything happens at once and simultaneously,’ Kantor writes. ‘It’s accumulation that makes the earth shake at six o’clock and demolishes the difference between art and life, labour and leisure.’

Kantor’s early neoist apartment festivals in Montreal were week-long, live-in collective events which included smashing furniture, performances, irruptions of music and meals cooked from a mixture of the participants’ own blood. These festivals dissolved the dichotomy between art and life and created a private zone of freedom apart from the poisoned public sphere. By the early 1980s, blood became increasingly important in Kantor’s work. In Restriction 1 (1980), he suspended himself naked from a gallery wall, filled his mouth with his own blood, and assumed the lotus position. In Liaison Inter-Urbain (1980), he dug a shallow grave, inserted a vial of his blood into his anus, and contorted himself upside-down so that the blood flowed into his mouth. For the legendary surprise blood painting gifts at the Museum of Modern Art (New York, 1988) and the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa, 1991), Kantor, decked out in ludicrous, pseudo-fascist garb, splattered an ‘X’ of his blood onto walls, then incanted a militant text donating the blood painting to the museums’ permanent collections. Whereas Vienna Actionists used animal blood and organs in their performances to enact cathartic rituals, Kantor’s use of blood is literal and personal. More than feces or sperm, blood is the spurting, contagious prima materia of life. The actions which comprise what Kantor calls Blood Campaign also set in motion the apparati of power: the outraged museum guards, the disgusted audience, the police and the criminal charges are all as much a part of the art as the unsettling blood itself.

Toronto, Ontario, 2003. Wearing a cheap grey business suit and thin tie, Istvan Kantor stands in front of a stack of tarnished brass platters set on a plush black cloth, a single votive candle burning on top. He ceremoniously gathers the tasseled cloth’s four corners up over the smoking candle until it bursts into flame. Then, in a single, violent gesture, at once impudent and gleeful, he scuttles the platters across the floor. The platters may have the melancholy of discarded heirlooms, but Kantor’s decisive rite is in no way nostalgic: it is an iconoclastic prayer to destruction, an affirmation of disorder and noise. In the late 1980s, Kantor lived amidst the vibrant underground art and music scene of New York City’s Lower East Side. He was associated with The Rivington School’s junk sculpture artists, and also explored noise music using megaphones. If Kantor’s early kinetic junk sculptures, crudely assembled from scrap collected on the streets and in dumps, are expressions of the accumulation of urban detritus, then the obscene squealing sounds he elicits from the megaphone, preferred amplifier of riot police and revolutionaries alike, embodies the agitated voice of the streets. The videos from Kantor’s experiments with the megaphone, like Escape From Freedom (1991), Jericho (1991), and Barricades (1992), combine an assault of shrill megaphone noise, Kantor’s violent, mocking, shamanic performance style, and the visual propaganda of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Nerve-wracking noise, like the reclamation of junk, is a gesture against the mechanical forces of repression whose principal instrument of manipulation is technology.

Kantor’s work with junk sculpture and noise music anticipated his pivotal undertaking of the 1990s, The File Cabinet Project. Initiated in Toronto in 1993, The File Cabinet Project (1999) exploits the physical, sonic and metaphoric potential of this ordinary, yet monumental, type of office furniture. Positioned at arm’s length from the office worker, big metal filing cabinets store documents which are printed out from or scanned into computers, and therefore they, like the office workers who constantly open and shut their drawers, are integral elements in a bureaucratic machine that transmits globally across cyberspace. In works like The File Cabinet Project and Intercourse (2000), filing cabinets, rigged to hydraulic pumps and interactively looped via computer to the actions of the viewers, loudly bang open and shut, while on a video screen Kantor, naked and connected to a tangle of wires, convulses to the rhythm of the cabinets. These pieces propose a circuit between the robotic filing cabinets, the digital circulation of information, and the human body, now electrically plugged into the system. By contrast, recent live performances by Kantor’s MachineSexActionGroup complicate this stark vision. The Great Robotic Machinery Rebellion (2003), for instance, opens with performers waving red banners as though part of a revolutionary guard, and behind, 3-D images of the 0s and 1s of binary computer code scroll past. Soon everyone is stripped, attached to computer keyboards and wires, and in orgiastic seizures on the floor. The robotic information system has begun to annihilate itself, and the bodies, filing cabinets, and computers – fleshy, metallic, electrical – are wheeling out of control. These performances enact Wilhelm Reich’s conception of orgasm as moving from mechanical tension to electrical discharge; but for both Reich and Kantor, orgasm and pleasure are radical forces, obliterating the hierarchies of the technologized body.

Kantor’s recent video work exhibits deepening sophistication and nuance. In The Trinity Session (2001), exterior shots of bleak industrial waste are jarringly intercut with images of naked performers, ensnared in wires and computer keyboards, motherboards attached to their faces, in a violent, hypersexual frenzy. They thrash, they masturbate, they grind against each other and they spew foam to the staccato sound of rapid-fire typing. The erotic energy is manic and destructive, pushing the information system itself toward orgasmic breakdown. Kantor’s most recent video, the feature-length Lebensraum/Lifespace – Spectacle of Noise (2004), may also be his most accomplished. There is diaristic footage of East Toronto in slanting snow, appropriated newsreels of swarming marchers on the streets of Budapest in 1956, and images of Kantor, stripped to the waist, bloody rag around his head, warming himself at a heating duct. Set in the imaginary Capital City, Kantor is seen furiously banging out messages or wielding his video camera, collaborating with spasmodic half-human sex robots to defend his living space against Robotic Surveillance Transmission. The video is saturated with references to Dziga Vertov’s The Man With The Movie Camera, allusions at once ironical and melancholic: Vertov’s great film was, after all, a rhapsody to the Russian revolution and the liberating power of technology. Unlike The Trinity Session, Lebensraum/Lifespace has a wide and even chilliastic historical purview, spanning Budapest in 1956, New York in the 1980s and Toronto in the 21st century. If in the end both the spectacle and the insurrection are inner, it is because the disastrous power of techno-logy has itself been internalized. Robotic machinery has become so grafted onto everyday life it is impossible to know where the human ends and the technological begins.

Budapest, Hungary, 1956. At the height of the brutal Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution, Istvan Kantor’s grandfather made him a toy gun out of scrap wood. The six-year-old future artist and neoist agitator then dashed out onto the rubble-strewn streets and pointed his toy gun at oncoming Soviet tanks. The tanks immediately menaced his family’s apartment building. According to Kantor, this was his first authentic work of art, and the tanks, the smashed carts and burned-out cars, the shattered windows and bullet-riddled buildings are the primal scene – frightening, ecstatic – from which his art emerged. This is surely an appropriate place for Kantor’s work to simultaneously begin and end, for despite its often apocalyptic tone, it is never nihilistic: on the contrary, Kantor insists on the primacy of rebellion, and intimates the possibility of total freedom. ‘There is only accumulation. It is always six o’clock.’” (Daniel Baird)

Daniel Baird is art editor of The Brooklyn Rail, a New York-based magazine about the arts, politics and culture.