Paul Litherland: Act Action Art

by John K.Grande

Paul Litherland’s art making practice has involved a series of interactive, public and process-oriented explorations that involve communication. These actions have particularly addressed interactive processes and technologies, even signology, but always with a quirky, even humorous aspect that explains the human character of his art.

The discontinuity of history, as evidenced in the changing approach to space, to the public domain, and even to geo-specific cultures, has altered our understanding of the historical process. Not only do we live in a world increasingly ambiguous in terms of borders, of definitions of what identity and culture is or can be, but our interpretation of art has shifted to include visual and televisual processes that were considered informational or purely entertainment in the post-War era.

The early Body Contact (1995) photograms combined imagery with silhouettes of the human body. This series of images produced with the participation of Claudia Kappenberg brought together conventional photographs produced from negatives. These were combined with photograms of the human body or simple objects placed on the photo paper during exposure. Litherland’s photo effect recalled the surrealist experiment in film, photography and art, particularly Bunuel and Man Ray. There is a memory feel to these works.

More unusual, a project that took place between Sherbrooke and St-Viateur streets on Montreal’s Boulevard St-Laurent began a public art phase. Titled Hesitation (1996) the art project introduced “signs” (referred to as the collection) in locations where public signs are usually placed. Running the length of this popular shopping, food and entertainment street, Litherland’s signs evoked more personal, less easy to decode messages. As Litherland states: “Almost all signs are advertising or instructions. My signs are explorations of personal interactions, and uncertainty and interactions. I made these like parking signs because when they’re big, they start to look like Gap ads. Ultimately, I am asking what would the world look like without any fear.” 1

Already in this art project Litherland is communicating the difficulty of social interaction, the obstacle to clear communication. The photo images are mounted like traffic or parking signs on metal backings. Comparable to the Guerilla Girls street introduced public sign messages, Litherland’s accesses a public directly without any gallery or museological intervention. It likewise raised questions about the nature and ownership of public space, even the nature of symbolic message and sign systems in contemporary society whether commercial or public. Top down power relations are endlessly reinforced by this visual and authoritative re-ordering of our physical visual landscape, so much so that advertisers are now vying to own the skies above New York to advertise their wares! Contemporary anthropologist Marc Augé’s book Non-Places references the fact that many public places are effectively non-spaces where text and image govern our interpretations of meaning and purpose. As Augé states:

“Sometimes these are couched in more or less explicit codified ideograms on road signs, maps and tourist guides, sometimes in ordinary language. This establishes the traffic conditions of spaces in which individuals are supposed to interact only with texts, whose proponents are not individuals but ‘moral entities’ or institutions …” 2

The signs Paul Litherland has planted counter this inimical and depersonalized signology with unusual images… two men embracing, or a young black woman reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf, or a young white man reading a newspaper too blurry to recognize. In so doing, Paul Litherland challenges the public to re-organize their sense of what public is or could be, and of what a sign potentially is or could be (ie: not advertising, not order or municipal codes) so orchestrated has our urban and rural landscape become with visuals.

A particularly “risky” project involved free jumping with a parachute from a stationary building with a parachute, a practice known as Base-jumping. Enacted in Montreal this “dangerous” action place the artist on the borders of life and death. – in a zone of danger seldom associated with artistic practice. The usual comfortable atelier was exchanged for the atmosphere if wind, sky and air and a parachute for this ongoing collective project referred to as Forces of Attraction. The videotaped results of this jump – presents Litherland’s goggle-wearing face contorted and buffeted by the wind as he descends to earth. Estranged, unnatural are adjectives that could describe this action or psychic and physical tension.

While in Holland Litherland enacted Force of Attraction – Netherlands (2003), a video that captured the artist climbing a 90 meter antenna Base-jump from an antenna and then jumping into the void. The sound of a human heart accompanies this video – actualizing notions of the sublime and the beautiful in what is ultimately of bodily performance piece. In Canada Liquid Face (2003) was filmed during a jump. With a changing backdrop image of sky and clouds we see Litherland’s face in freefall at a speed of 200 km per hour. Out of place, and in space, Litherland’s Liquid Face expresses the extremes of the moment. As situational art it expresses aspects of the life and death question in a very visual and real sense. Base-jumping is one where death hangs as a potential threat but there is always euphoria that accompanies the extreme sensation of danger. When this action is given a new label as a visual art, one begins to question assumptions about what performance art is or could be. Paul Litherland’s Forces of Attraction and Liquid Face enactments are accompanied by a self-engendered surprise element – inherently theatrical – but read as art these events surpass the actual physical dangers that accompany this act – and set these art actions in the theatre of physics and life itself.

Babble (2001) involved a precise “system” of drumming that enabled the participant “artist” to actually “draw” imagery on a video screen. Working with Avatar in Quebec City, Litherland originated three computer programs that enabled him to apply drumming to communicate visually on a screen. One of Litherland’s programs controls the video, another controls text whereby words are communicated when the drums are hit. The third program enables writing in ASCII Code. ASCII is the eight-bit behind-the-scenes translator that sends a series of 0s and 1s to your computer when you hit the keyboard. Commenting on a similar 0 1 project at Galerie B-312, performed with a second drummer Alexander MacSween, Litherland states: “We wrote the scores, and I have almost learned the whole alphabet in ACSII code. A is 01000001 and a small a is 01100001, for instance. So the big and small letters are just one digit difference.”3 The actual number of taps, and designated drum, result in a different cue thus achieving a particular colour of pixel on the screen.

Robert Lepage engaged Paul Litherland to perform his project precisely because it utilizes two radically different media to communicate. A section of this piece used video clips of sign language to spell out the phrase “You are the only one who understands me”. The sign language in the piece was easily interpreted by deaf adults who visited the performance event. Able to read the sign language the deaf people who attended instinctively understood the way communication that was once verbal could be transferred into another media – the human hand. The sign language used by the deaf was comparable to Litherland’s transferal of physical drum beats into very visual video screen signology. Witnessed from a crowd the effect is like a kind of techno-poetry. Action leads to image and image or letter builds into greater syllables or phrases. This occurs over time during the event(s).

A minor offshoot of Paul Litherland’s interactive and public situational arts practise has been several sculpture projects that stand on their own as ironic, minimal gestures set amidst an overwhelming sea of contemporary art. At Galerie Clark in 1997, he presented sculptures of modernist and postModernist city skyscrapers in the exhibition Body Building. These munificent municipal works of art were edible, made of butter. Situated on an enlarged photo of an eye, they melted away over time. Among the 3-D recreations to be found there were Place Ville Marie, 1001 La Gauchetière, the IBM building, the Montreal Stock Exchange and even the Notre Dame Basilica. Up to a foot tall each made from a pound or two of butter, these were edible works you could “feast your eyes on.”

In 1998 as part of the Artifice event in Montreal, Paul Litherland exhibited Clear-Cut (1998) a cookie cutter like forest of trees man-made into a symbol of forest from reconstituted plywood (part of the Saint-Jean-Port-Joli sculpture series). The inverse process of representing what the wood came from is both ironic and had a message about loss of context and origin in a system based on over-production and mass consumption. At a sculpture symposium in Kerala, southern India (2002), Paul Litherland created a low-tech site specific sculpture innovated on the spot due to take advantage of local bronze casting facilities. For the Listener piece he created a series of ears. More ephemeral than many of the “modernist” sculpture works at the event, Litherland’s “ears” were affixed to the outer skin of trees. Ambiguous and yet referencing ancient wisdom.

For Galerie B-312’s tenth anniversary publication Arpenter l’Ile : Montréal Vue Singulières, 2004, Litherland created Hostile Takeover (2004) a work that documented the invasion of a natural space by a non-indigenous species of Japanese plant now common in North America. Referred to as Polygonum cuspidatum, and more commonly known as Mexican Bamboo or Japanese Knotweed, the plant’s growth in a seemingly innocuous and common place next to a snow fence was recorded in a series of photos. Gradually the entire fence is obscured by the plant. A tongue-in-cheek comment on take overs of the corporate, political and even natural kind Litherland’s project exposes the effects of recontextualization and trans-border change occurring in today’s (NWO) New World Order.

For the ASCII Fighter performance presented in Montreal in 2004, Paul Litherland has dealt with visible desire and the platitudes that accompany relationships. Sally Scott was already involved in boxing, being a club member. Litherland recruited her and the two trained as boxers to ready themselves for the “main event”. The referee was likewise non-stereotypical – a woman (his present-day companion Karen Trask). Boxing itself is an emphatic, very visibly violent sport and one that transfers audience desires and expectations onto the players or actors involved in this sport. Presenting the parable of a relationship within the constructed parameters of a boxing ring became even more ironic as the fighters were wired to a computer interface. This “wiring” enabled them to write text messages in text and video by punching each other. The audience witnessed spoken platitudes being expressed by Paul or Sally on two “his” and “her” video screens immediately behind the boxing ring. Real relationship and hypothetical relationship could be witnessed side by side. As an interactive project ASCII Fighter, which later had a re-enactment in Toronto, challenged the notion that art has to have an official designation, or a non-commercial space within which to occur, for its ambiguous location as a sports event opened up arts discourse to an audience not at all familiar with “contemporary arts practice” (remove!?). Every punch counts when you want to communicate to your loved one!

Our vision of what art is or can be is increasingly challenged by the situations and visual environmental contexts that art can now be situated, sited, enacted within. Part performance, part public poetry and above all with a situationist belief, Paul Litherland’s art is the endlessly shifting, blurring borders of both public and social space. His work reflects an ongoing engagement with artistic practice that evolves our sense of what public culture is or can be. His projects involves new technologies and cultural matrices that are in the process of hybridizing. In a sense, Litherland’s interactions – social and public – are intended to highlight the social mores that not only facilitate communication but likewise can obstruct our understanding of each other. As definitions of the social sphere evolve, they cause us to question the hierarchy of implicit meanings that are unspoken, and ever there. Litherland’s artistic practice is ultimately neither situationist nor performance oriented, for his acts, his actions and the events that surround them, take place outside the parameters of the cultural industry, where notions of what identity and culture can be, or will become, are largely standardized by the very structure and function of cultural industries per se. He breaks the mould, so to speak, and the mould is immaterial, because material culture in an era of hyper-production is itself an outmoded notion.

John K. Grande April, 2005


  1. Paul Litherland, personal notes
  2. Marc Augé, non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity (trans. John Howe) London: Verso, 1995, p. 96
  3. Paul Litherland, personal notes