Q&A: Lisa Lipton

Performance art does not concern itself with percolating and dripping into a time beyond the moment it exists in because it is, in essence, brief and fleeting. If you happen to be present as a performance unfolds you are, by proximity, a part of what shapes it. Conversely, if you are somewhere else, the world just continues turning.

For performance artist, multi-disciplinary visual artist, multi-instrumentalist (violist, pianist, guitarist, drummer), and director, Lisa Lipton, this is a sentiment that has long informed the heart of her work. Crossing mediums and genres from film and mixed media installation to performance, theatre, and music, Lipton’s projects are largely plugged into a desire to facilitate collaborative social interactions that blur reality and prompt an overlap with elemental fiction.

Her feature film, THE IMPOSSIBLE BLUE ROSE, which premiered at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery and in association with MS:T Performative Arts Festival last October and is currently being housed at Diagonale Gallerie in Montreal through the winter of 2017, is perhaps best described as the true embodiment of both Aristotle’s position that art imitates life and Oscar Wilde’s position that life imitates art.

The chapter-based project, which intimately documents a period of three-and-half years spent on the road travelling unchartered territory across North America and living every single day as her alter ego, a drummer named Frankie, should give you an idea of how wholly committed Lipton is to her practice.

Ultimately, the film, which was meant to be a completely open-ended exploration of self, became steeped in both heartbreak and deliverance as the staged components of Lipton’s performance inevitably began to butt up against the unscripted aspects of her daily life.

Over the course of the past ten years, Lipton has exhibited her work on both a national and international level, most notably within Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Windsor (AGW), Winnipeg, New York, Detroit, Texas, North Carolina, Berlin and Amsterdam, as well as taking part in a residency at the Banff Centre. Most recently she served as the Shortlist representative for the Maritime Provinces within the Sobey Art Awards (2015), in addition to being Longlisted for the prize herself in 2012, 2013, and 2016.

Lipton is currently set to take over Studio Bell on February 19 to begin work on a new drum-based project she has titled, Dénoue-TRON.

You are primarily recognized as a performance artist, but you’re also a multi-disciplinary visual artist, director, and multi-instrumentalist. Talk about what sparked your passion for the arts and set you on-course to where you are now.

Well, I took art in high school but wasn’t a top student. I didn’t really consider becoming an artist as a possible career path. When I left high school I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I started out studying philosophy. After my first year of university in liberal arts I decided to take a drawing class through Extended Studies at NSCAD. On the recommendation of my instructor, I ended up applying to NSCAD University and got in.

At the time, I was interested in more traditional approaches to visual arts. My practice was focused on painting, drawing, and sculpture. I was also illustrating for The Coast, which is an independent, weekly paper out of Halifax, and noodling around with the guitar. I played piano when I was younger, so I was into music during that time, but by no means would I have called myself a musician.

When I finished my undergraduate studies I took a year off to figure out what was next. I opted to do my Masters at the University of Windsor. It was during that period that I took a performance art workshop with two famous Canadian performance artists, Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan. I became obsessed and fascinated with the energy that came out during that class. It sparked an excitement and desire to watch other people perform. That’s when I said, “Okay, this could be something.”

At that point I wrote a couple of my own performances pieces, one of which was my Master’s thesis. In my last year of study in Windsor I began to combine everything, many mediums that I had been working with up to that point. And that’s how it all happened.

It’s funny because I ran into an old friend in the fall and we got to talking. I said, “I never really knew I was going to become an artist.” And she said, “Oh whatever! Everybody knew you were going to be an artist.” [Laughs] I guess I was busy thinking about other things when I was in high school––being an artist was definitely not something I planned.

It seems as though everything you now incorporate into your projects and performances are all bits and pieces of things you’ve collected along the way.

Yeah definitely. When I left university, I put painting down for a while. Drawing and illustrations were fizzling out as well. I started knitting and making knitted sculptures. I became interested in many mediums that were disassociated with all of my formal studies. I chose to pick up whatever became a point of interest. If there was something I wanted to explore, I would try it. I would incorporate it into my practice.

I definitely have my nose in a lot of different mediums but when I started creating large scale performance works I couldn’t hire out for all the aspects of what needed to be done. I had to learn how to do those things myself. Over the course of the past 10 years, so many people have volunteered and helped me out in different ways, but essentially I’ve had to learn to do a bit everything.

That’s so indicative of the time we live in isn’t it?

Totally. And it’s funny because I’m at this point now where I’m beginning to question the nature of being a multi-disciplinary artist. At times, it’s been problematic for applications or trying get funding because people want to know, “Where do you actually fit in?” This frustrates me incredibly, but how do you change your way of working when it’s what you know? How do you try and lock into one medium when you feel equalized in many of them?

Do you feel most comfortable in any one particular genre or medium or are your projects sort of made complete by the inclusion of all of them?

That’s a good question. I think what comes easiest to me––though not necessarily what I think I’m the best at––is drawing, in that by conventional means, yes, I can draw realistically, but that’s a very traditional perspective. What I think I’m best at is putting things together. I’m good at being a manager of ideas, which is why I can create these large-scale works and build things that have diverse elements. Organizing all of those ideas into a complete vision is where I really thrive.

I imagine that there is something very satisfying about combining all of the various components that a vision requires and then seeing it through to fruition.

Pulling it off is incredibly satisfying. I try to follow through with strong ideas or visions that comes into my head no matter how impossible they may seem.

Lets talk about the process of creating your first feature film, THE IMPOSSIBLE BLUE ROSE. You actually spent almost three-and-a-half-years on the road travelling North America and living everyday as your alter ego, a drummer named Frankie. As such, the film became a document of her life. That’s an incredibly loaded performance piece; perhaps you can unpack that a bit and explain how it all came to together?

When I left to go on that trip, I didn’t have a specific destination in mind. I had become friends with the editor of Tom Tom Magazine and she invited to speak on this panel at MoMA in New York. When that happened, I just thought, “Okay! That’s location number one. I’m going to leave. I’m doing this.”

Prior to that I was working on a drumming project and had participated in numerous residencies across Canada that involved researching various aspects of drumming. I was really trying to understand the cultural implications of drumming and what it means to be a drummer not playing in a rock band. When I finished the project I felt like, “You know what? I’m not finished with my research.” I still wanted to know more about drummers and how we connect, so I interviewed a whole bunch of them while I was on the road.

When I crossed into the States, I felt as though I no longer wanted to have a past associated with my previous person or projects. I wanted to embody a new identity, one who was travelling and working on a new project. I decided to start introducing myself solely as Frankie.

I was also interested how it would affect the ways in which I defined myself. Did I want to become known as a drummer more than a visual artist? At that point, probably. I was drumming all the time and it was such a huge part of my life, but it was also an opportunity to introduce this other personality to the world.

Also, I was testing myself in a way and trying to find out if I associated as Frankie, how that would change my person. I think we were still essentially the same creature; it was just that as Frankie I could take risks in terms of approaching people and going wherever I wanted no matter what the repercussions were. As Frankie I was also free from people being able to look me up online as Lisa Lipton. I wanted to be this mysterious entity––someone who was making this mysterious thing, and even though she didn’t quite know what it was, she was honing in on it, having faith in her practice to see where it would take her.

In hindsight, it was hard––it was a really intense project, holy shit! [Laughs] A lot of things happened and I liked being her, but I also knew she had to die with the film because of who I had become.

During that time, everything was expressed through the voice of Frankie. I said a lot of jerky things that I wouldn’t necessarily say if I knew it was going to be associated with my own name. [Laughs] I don’t know, Frankie created this strange divide between past and present, but truthfully, being her was absolutely liberating. I guess there is more to a name than I could have ever recognized.

It seems like you changed a lot from the moment you became Frankie up until the moment you felt it was time to once again become Lisa. Can you elaborate on that?

The funny thing about that whole journey is that real life things always find their way in. I was beaten up. For as strong as I thought Frankie was, I wasn’t immune from the real world (Lisa’s world) and its effects on me.

When my Dad died, I was completely broken by the loss and I had also been in a car accident, which was fucking crazy––a near death experience for sure––so that really threw me. During the second half of the film, I had a few very heartbreaking experiences and I felt down on my luck. Also during that time, my knees got all fucked up. I couldn’t drum as much as I wanted to so I was very much like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! What’s going on here?”

My body was exhausted, my mind was exhausted, and ultimately I just needed to stop. It’s hard to live a project full-time and really embody that to the point where anything you do can become part of the content. You’re literally analyzing every single day and you’re all wrapped up in the writing process, which is exciting but after a while it becomes completely draining.

Do you remember knowing that the project was nearing its end?

Yeah, towards the end of it all I remember feeling as though I was barely there––I didn’t know how I was going to finish the film. I felt like, “I don’t know if I have enough in me to do this.” I felt like shit, I was completely depressed and then some. [Laughs]

As soon as I documented the last shot of the film, I changed my name back to Lisa Lipton on Facebook and just said, “Okay, this is it. The story is over. I now have to move on.” I was outputting so much emotionally during that time and I had made myself incredibly vulnerable. I knew I couldn’t be her anymore. At that point, I knew that I needed to take what was done and fit it into a nice little package. I needed to get back to Lisa.

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