RECENT STAGE WORKS (2000-PRESENT)
Dempsey and Millan continue their exploration of the power of stagecraft in darkened rooms.
What would a feminist superhero look like? Could she leap tall buildings in a single bound? Could she bend steel with her bare hands? What would her name be? And would anyone remember it? For a performance commissioned by MAWA's Art Building Community Symposium, Dempsey and Millan have created an aging superhero with unusual powers. She wrestles the notion of "super" to the ground! The spandex-clad hero presents a multi-media history of masked avengers and performs astonishing feats of bravery.
Duration: 40 minutes
First performed: 2008 (ongoing)
Video Clip 7.0 MB
Target Marketing is performed by Shawna Dempsey in a costume which emulates the human target silhouette used by pistol marksmen. The text juxtaposes a media phenomenon (increased violence shown on the news) with a discussion of brain function, punctuated by a series of potent contemporary symbols. The result is a meditation on the power of stories.
Duration: 30 min.
First performed: 2007 (ongoing)
Video Clip 7.0 MB
Looking Backward 3000
This is the first piece of Science Fiction performance from Dempsey and Millan. The last remaining speaker of Old English (not to be confused with Older English, the language of Chaucer) itemizes the reasons for the demise of global communication. In short: Where did language go? The professor gives an illustrated slide lecture which no one else can hear, in an archaic tongue she has taught herself from videos of “Dynasty” and “The Kathy and Regis Show”. However, in the tradition of utopic novels “Looking Back” and “Looking Back 2000” (from which the performance takes its name) not all is as bleak as it seems. Nostalgia is replacing cynicism, and people are learning to say, “I’m sorry.”
Duration: 15 minutes.
First Performed: 2000.
(Sound of a rocket launch.) “That is the sound inside each of us when we want to run away. Four billion people dreaming of packing a space suitcase and heading for the door. Fearing there’s no where left to go, and hoping there’s some reason to stay. Hoping, that as we reach the threshold, someone will touch our sleeve and say, “Please don’t go. Please.’”
REAL WORLD PERFORMANCES (1997-PRESENT)
Scentbar: Fragrances for Troubled Times
The perfumery, Scentbar, creates custom blended scents to reflect both the wearer and the modern world. The Scentbar frangrance launch party and subsequent “business hours” welcome the audience into a performance installation that provides a service (a personalized frangrance), and a sense of participation in an exclusive consumer-cultural experience. However, the comfort, cleanliness and luxury of the space and the service are undermined by the promotional video of malodourous disasters, and by the product itself, which draws upon ambivalent memory-evoking contemporary scents such as rental car and light industry. The individualized fragrances are developed by first asking the clients a variety of questions about their memories, hopes and dreams. Using the results of these questions, a technician then creates a formula to reflect the clients’ anxieties and desires. The perfumes are blended from an odour palette that includes ubiquitous, modern scents. Scentbar delivers truly one-of-a-kind fragrances in just 15 minutes.
Duraton: one evening to three weeks
First performed: 2003 (ongoing)
Lesbian National Parks & Services
Lesbian National Parks and Services was founded in 1997 to insert a lesbian presence into the landscape. In full uniform as Lesbian Rangers, Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan patrol parklands, challenging the general public’s ideas of tourism, recreation, and the “natural” environment. Equipped with informative brochures and well-researched knowledge, they are a visible homosexual presence in spaces where concepts of history and biology exclude all but a very few.
Location: Various, including Banff National Park (Canada), Sydney Gay/Lesbian Mardi Gras (Australia), and Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (USA).
Duration: tours-of-duty range form one evening to one month
First performed: 1997 (ongoing)
Grocery Store was a site specific performance installation and live-view web site developed by The Co-Op Collective: Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, jake moore and Zab. For three weeks in August 2002, it provided food and food for thought in downtown Winnipeg's Ace Art Gallery. The installation (a functioning food store staffed by Dempsey and Millan) sold over $5000 worth of food, essential provisions unavailable in Winnipeg's core. Radio ads, a circular advertising sale prices, and a mail-in-coupon campaign to the mayor requesting real-life downtown services expanded the discussion about the direction of urban revitalization in our city beyond the actual site.
Duration: 3 weeks
Performed: August 2002.
Video Clip 7.9 MB
TALES FOR A NEW WORLD (1997-2001)
Tales for A New World recreate the stories which form our North American mythology: yarns and fables belonging to cowboys, Indians, voyageurs, spinsters, and big city Horatio Algers. These are tales which have been glamourized by popular culture, and which exist in all of us in iconic proportions. Yet they are relatively young, pliable stories, no more than 200 years old. We bend them (rewrite them, make them up!) so they reflect a different perspective. By imposing an ironic lesbian and feminist reading/retelling upon these tales, we hope to illuminate our history and our present, and create more useful archetypes we can use as we, daily, create new worlds.
The Short Tales of Little Lezzie Borden
The Short Tales of Little Lizzie Borden is a piece that posits rage as a justifiable, indeed logical emotional response to contemporary world events. There are two components to this work, a printed text which is given to the audience to be read at their leisure, and a performance which examines a modern womans anger. The written narrative tells the story of the childhood of Victorian murderess, Lizzie Borden, who was accused of killing her parents. In contrast to the print works 19th century, poetic style, the live performance tells a tale of present-day kleptomania, grooming, and the rush to war. In an irony-laden tirade, Dempsey explains why she steals womens magazines. Performed with a live musical score by bassist Diane Kooch.
Duration: 5 minutes.
First performed: 2001.
This is not a weapon. This is not an axe. This is a hatchet.
Ah! A smaller, scaled down, more feminine, less effectual version
Not a tool, an accessory! And accessories create interest...
Lesbian Love Story of The Lone Ranger and Tonto
This performance is a testament to our collective North American history, the myths that that history has spawned, and the pointed ways some of us are, and are not, represented. It is also a metaphorical tale about the oppressive nature of conformity, and the creative, heroic ways people have circumvented it. Out of a male-dominant and racist Ranger/Tonto legend, the performance creates an alternative picture of other, less-often-heard realities. The piece uses the convention of storytelling to question the role of stories in creating the dominant cultures vision of North America, and the veracity of the stories themselves. Performed with a live musical score by Diane Kooch (bass).
Duration: 15 minutes.
First performed: 1997
What happens when the Lone Ranger takes off the mask? When the fabric slips and rips and shifts? What happens when the mask falls, leaving her naked between the bridge and the brow?
Performed with live musicians against a video backdrop of death-defying feats, this story-telling piece charts the intertwined lives of the headless woman and her sword-swallowing man. Behind the performer a woman vacuums across Niagara Falls on a tightrope, the bearded lady becomes buried in her facial hair, and a human cannonball never lands. Using metaphors of showmanship, The Headless Woman explores risk and danger; the complexity of desire; and the many parts (and absences) that make up ones identity. Music composed by Lori Freedman, and performed live by Freedman (bass clarinet) and Marilyn Lerner (piano).
Duration: 15 minutes.
Performed once, at The Western Front: 1998.
The romance of the headless woman and her sword-swallowing man began, like so many others, in a bar. He noticed her immediately: long legs, bare arms, the kind of torso that had once stopped traffic. And beyond that nothing. A certain je ne sais quoi where her head might have been. A clear view to the bartender stocking the icebox. Open space. The sword-swallowing man liked what he saw.
THE DRESS SERIES (1989-1996)
The Dress Series is a group of performances that explore the dress as the female ceremonial costume and icon of femininity. In these pieces cloth is replaced by unlikely materials, creating juxtaposition of meaning. All costumes were fabricated by Dempsey and Millan.
Tableau Vivant: Eaton's Catalogue 1976
Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 70s lacked art, Bible stories, and history as universal references. The tome that shaped our values most tangibly was the department store catalogue, a wish book of what we could have and who we could be once we got it. Gender was clearly defined, race was singular, and class was middle. In this performance we use the tableau form to enact a page from the Eaton's catalogue, the most-read book of our Canadian youth. We have paired women's formals (a look we have had difficulty successfully fitting into) with bathroom plumbing to invoke the endless bounty, cleanliness and hope that the catalogue implied. Three women stand in vacant stillness, water streaming from the spouts at their breasts. Commissioned by Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Centre.
Duration: The 15 minute performance is repeated twice an hour.
First Performed: 1998.
Object/Subject of Desire
The central visual element is a large, white paper ballgown, reminiscent of a debutante gown. The dress is both fragile and stiff, translucent yet unyielding, and noisily rustles as Dempsey moves. Within this costume the many complexities of desire are discussed, and the many ways desire can be negated. The purity and innocence of the dress, the open talk of "wanting", and the sweetness of the delivery together create an assumption that the object of affection is the traditional heterosexual partner. However the fourth, and final section of the piece explicitly reveals the carnality of the desire for another woman.
The Dress: Vellum, packing tape, Velcro.
Duration: 5 minutes.
First Performed: 1989. (Earlier version performed in 1987 before Dempsey began collaboration with Millan.)
I want you, to want me. I want you to want me, even though I don't really want you. I don't want you at all, but I want everyone else to. I want everyone else to want you, but I don't want you to want anyone else but me. All I want is your want.
The Thin Skin of Normal
An off-the-shoulder evening gown is the symbol for the sophisticated, proper lady. However this particular gown is created out of Saran Wrap, pierced with outward pointing, 4" roofing nails. The costume references that tome of enforced femininity, The Total Woman, which advised women of the seventies that to keep their marriage alive, they should greet their husbands at the door wearing only cling wrap. The long nails rupture both this concept and the surface of the garment, and inspire the text which angrily and ironically confronts the absurdity of gender role definitions.
The Dress: Cling wrap, roofing nails, packing tape, zipper.
Duration: 10 minutes.
First Performed: 1993.
2000 years of patriarchy havent dampened my sense of style.
When I get dressed in the morning, Im doing more than covering a little original sin.
The world-weary mother of God proffers wry advice and sage warnings from behind her stained glass dress. Fashioned like a two-dimensional carnival cutout with holes for her hands and head, the dress is a colourful and explicit rendering of the Virgin Marys familiar garment, with a special peek-a-boo panel of clear glass to reveal the root of the Madonnas fame: her 2000 year-old hymen. In her never-the-same-twice visitations, Mary comments on love, service, and the men in her life.
The Dress: Stained glass, leading, patina, oak, stain, hardware.
Duration: 20 minutes.
First performed: 1994. (Evolved from earlier piece The Plaster Virgin, 1992.)
When he comes to you on a dream-filled night, sends his angels to honk his horn at your door, dont be home.
This performance parallels the conformity of the 1950s with the rise of the New Right. The pro/antagonist defends herself against racial and economic difference by clothing herself in the domestic architecture of the times: the house-dress is her shimmering, clean fortress and her prison. Throughout the piece she reveals her fears (such as gravity, or the fear that parts of my dangerously sagging self might end up in bad neighborhoods) and her fantasies (border town romances, getting down with dirt, and the elimination of her family, so she will have time to devote herself more fully to being a homemaker). The wearable sculpture/costume has been exhibited at many art galleries and has been purchased by The Winnipeg Art Gallery as part of their permanent collection.
The Dress: Wood, laminate, chrome kitchen hardware, screws, cloth, Velcro.
Duration: 25 minutes.
First Performed: 1994.
Have you ever noticed that if you wash the floor in the morning, by nightfall it looks just the same as before you started? That you can do all of the dishes, and in a matter of hours someone has gone and dirtied them again? That children are little grime magnets, picking up all manner of stubborn stains and bringing them home again? Well, I've been thinking. If I could get rid of my family, it would effectively cut my work load by 60%.
Video Clip 6.3 MB
In this performance the treatment of the wedding gown, rendered in clear vinyl, changes its meaning to reference body bags and scientific specimens. Love and fashion, desire and denial are performed within its unforgiving walls.
The Dress: Clear vinyl, fishing line, buttons.
Duration: 20 minutes.
First Performed: 1996.
You have gone shopping with a friend, your sister or even your own mother, and been told, It's perfect. It's you. It's a knockout, only to find out later that it's a funeral, not a wedding. It's July, not December. Youre a nurse, not an aviator.
THE LESBIAN BODY (1993-1994):
The lesbian body is the site of both pleasure and victimization. We are defined by physical acts with other women: the desires of our bodies label us as homosexual. At the same time, fear of this so-called social deviance is played out on our flesh in a variety of ways, from censorship of gay imagery to gaybashing. It is this duality that we examine in this "body" of work.
Growing Up Suites I and II
All the mystery, discomfort, and delight found in that taboo subject - childhood sexuality - in two series of short tales about growing up lesbian. The performer travels from ages 5-15, experiencing lingerie ads and sleep-overs with equal parts wonder and confusion.
Duration: 10 minutes each.
First Performed: 1994 and 1994 respectively.
In 1968, in Scarborough, it was all I had. In 1968, in Scarborough, I was five. I hadn't heard of erotica or porn, I didn't know those words then. And though I know them now I really don't know the difference between the meaning of the two. I just know what turns me on: girls. Though what turned me on then was the Eatons catalogue.
These familiar characters examine the lessons and images from the stories, myths, and codes that have shaped us. It is our challenge to subvert their accepted meanings, and to re-tell them truly, from our experience.
Mermaid in Love
First produced with the assistance of the National Arts Centre Atelier, this performance uses perhaps the most feminised and commercialised female icon: the mermaid. Drawing on Kirk Douglas films, Girl Groups of the 60s, and the toxic history of the Love Canal, the performance posits an antidote to romanticism.
Duration: 40 minutes.
First performed: 1990.
You only exist in stories, make sure the stories have got it right.
This project began as a short performance piece in which the Medusa icon was reconceived as a successful, Margaret Thatcher-era business woman. It later became a longer, multi-media performance exploring modern female icons and questions of power (Who has power? Do I have power? Where can I get some?).
Short version 5 minutes.
Long version 40 minutes.
Short version 1992.
Long version 1993.
I know this might surprise you, but beneath this demure, feminine exterior lurks a dark side. An animal nature if you will that from time to time slips out. You can't tell by looking at me, but it's there. It's sneaky. It's sexy. And it wants to tell you about a weight loss programme that really works.
AGIT PROP ACTIONS (1992-PRESENT)
These performances leave the safety of art sanctioned spaces and are enacted in the public realm for a political purpose.
La Femme Fiscale
In cooperation with UNPAC (United Nations Platform for Action Committee), La Femme Fiscale raises issues of women and poverty. She appears at the Manitoba Provincial Legislature when the budget is read. Amidst a sea of dark suits, she discusses the importance of maintaining taxes and social services. Photographed here with Member of the Legislative Assembly, Rob Altemeyer.
Location: various locations including Provincial Legislature.
Performed: 2006 and 2007.
Golden Boy Awards
Awards to Manitoba politicians for unscrupulous activity. Recipients: City Councillor Al Golden and Provincial Minister Bonnie Mitchelson.
Location: City Council Chambers and Provincial Legislature.
Performed: 1992 and 1994.
Cigarette girl providing breath mints and safe sex information.
Location: Various public settings, including shopping malls, city streets and events.