Legendary performance artist Keith Cole just closed two exhausting runs at the AGO in #HashTagGallery Slut which he describes as a threesome between himself David Buchan and Tom Thomson. It was as exhilarating as it was perplexing as gay porn star Ryan Russell periodically broke the canoe-based suicide to berate him. It was beautiful to watch their interplay, but also painful knowing that in many ways this performance is real. And not real.

hashtaggalleryslut-kevin-obyrneThe video (a homage to the Tom Thompson’s landscape) was cast over the 5,000 square foot room which added to the ever shifting effect. The room may have been huge, but it could barely contain the energy as Toronto Drag legend Maria Delmonte took to the room in a stunning red dress moving to a harrowing version of Everybody’s Girl. The room was transfixed.

maria-delmonteEnter Keith. He you ever seen someone try and drown themselves in a canoe? It’s deeply moving and there’s almost a soothing rhythm to it all. And then the energy in the the room shifts again. The lights crackle, Ryan shouts across the room “Wipe it up faggot!”

Will he really kill himself? Should someone intervene? What is he thinking right now?

(press play on the video below and listen while you read)

KEITH COLE: Eventually I became lonely, very lonely. Not sad. I just felt so alone. Which is weird because I am the centre of attention and everything is about me, but I felt completely isolated and alone. Probably a good thing as I was able to continue my task.

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I did get the feeling, and I knew this was going to happen, that people became uncomfortable – I cannot put my finger on it exactly but it was a feeling and it was real. I do think that some people (not all) started to worry for me and some people became bored. Some people (especially performance types) love a durational performance – so they were getting off on that I am sure. There is a huge load of feelings in the air and they are real. If you feel something it is real, I believe that fully.

I did get tired. I did get sad. I really got disorientated and I had no idea of time or where I was in the space. Everything became very confusing. Oddly, the only thing keeping me stable was Ryan Russell, and he was there to de-stabilize me but he kept me “sane.” I knew I needed someone in the piece to keep me on track and I am happy it was Ryan, his instincts worked and he looked great; sexy, tough, yet his instincts were sharp.

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RYAN RUSSELL:  The biggest shift was the massive and arbitrary breaks that were connected with my interventions. I was lost in the beautiful, meditative procession of Slut’s [Keith Cole’s] drowning. Right from the first splash of water I was fixated on its accumulation until it was too much by my inconsistent standard.

And then my mind shifted from observation to intervention. I sensed the audience’s confusion and varied reactions. Through the silence, my voice boomed, hissed and echoed which contrasted sharply with the wet splashing of Slut, which caused a level of shock in everyone.

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The next and final shift for me was when Slut became Keith and we were kind and human with each other again. Experiencing the immediate aftermath of Keith’s delirium from his immersions and subjugation was like cleaning up a boxer after a fight. In this messy and beautiful window the raging fight-night voice in my head clicked off and I felt a rush of gratitude to get to experience #HashTagGallerySlut from so many sides. And then I was FUCKING HUNGRY!

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DAVID BATEMAN: I entered with anticipation and high energy wondering what Keith was going to do. In fact a few people asked me just that question as well as they asked where he was. I suggested he might be hiding under the canoe. Then my energy shifted to absolute awe when Maria entered and did her beautiful performance. My energy was both mellow and excited during this portion as I watched the gorgeous Queen in red wandering through such a huge haunting space. The contrasting melodies that were frequently camp and high spirited made for a beautiful image of her circling the canoe and then Maria came toward me and was very gracious and I kissed her hand and it was magical.

When Keith came on it was the perfect counterpoint, one kind of drag replacing another – a kind of head dress canoe drag replacing classic drag queen presence. Then the energy moved even higher as the drowning began, it was like movements in an opera, both tragic and comic and then Ryan Russell with his hunky open shirted presence added a new unsettling and oddly enticing energy. At first sexual and contrasting to the large sedate public white walled space, and then he became menacing as he began to interact with Keith, and as Keith said to me, he “hassling” Keith at the side of the canoe as part of the iconoclastic narrative that runs through the show and then the final cycle of the repetition/endurance aspect of the performance began and lasted over an hour.

This is where the energy fluctuated, as it does in this kind of audience testing form of performance art and it is so important to the form. The performance ended with a back and forth interaction between Ryan and Keith that played itself out in an unsettling, harrowing, tragicomic way.

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screen-shot-2016-10-29-at-8-42-40-pmKeith Cole: #HashTagGallerySlut was a performance installation at the AGO. Part of Toronto Tributes and Tributaries. Featuring Maria Delmonte, Ryan Russel and video landscaping by Raymond Helkio.

Toronto Tributes and Tributaries: Amidst the social and political upheavals of their time, the generation of artists that emerged in Toronto during the 1970s and 1980s pushed the boundaries of conventional painting, sculpture and photography, exploring new ways of art making including video, installation and performance. Curated by Wanda Nanibush, assistant curator of Canadian and Indigenous art.

Read David Bateman’s review QUEERCLUTTER of #HashTagGallerySlut.

Photos by Raymond Helkio and Kevin O’Byrne. 

About the Author

Raymond Helkio is an author, director and award-winning filmmaker. As a graduate from the Ontario College of Art & Design he cofounded The Reading Salon and is a Canadian Ambassador for the Moral Courage Project. Find him on Facebook.