Passing the ‘Buck at Figment Toronto

Back in July I embarked on a top-secret project: my first ever conceptual, performance-driven piece.

Set in the context of the diverse arts festival, Figment (Toronto edition), Facebuck, as it was called, drew attention to data gathering operations and framed them as a modern form of portraiture.  Facebook, for instance, accumulates information on all of its users, and converts this into usable consumer profiles.  I and my partner, Jamie James – an irrepressible soul and triple threat with a background in theatre – aspired to do very much the same when we set out that day on Toronto Centre Island, disguised (loosely) as canvassers.

Getting our tickets for the ferry!

Envoys from the World Improvement Corporation, our mandate was to meet and greet any and all passersby, offering a “FREE PORTRAIT”.  We weren’t selling anything, but were only there to ask a series of open-ended questions.  The more information we were able to glean from this process, the more accurate the portrait our super-sophisticated computer program would be able to create back in the lab.

Finding volunteers proved more difficult that expected – which indicated to me that we were on the right track.  In addition to our dollar store lanyards, both of us had on the bold, hot pink tees we’d been given upon arrival at Figment.  Everybody associated with the festival was wearing them.  Lucky for us, by noon on its opening Saturday, volunteers were still setting up, spread out far and wide.  No one walking through the island’s paths put together that there was something cohesive going on.  Consequently, when we approached those pedestrians who’d more or less stumbled into our trap, they took one look at us and really assumed we were canvassers – thus avoiding us like the plague.

The strange thing, despite this being our original idea, was how often I felt like I was genuinely on the job!  I got so uncomfortable at times even though in on the joke that I started to avoid people.  It was a feeling that also obtained on our field research the week before, when we actively sought out canvassers in downtown T.O. to chat up.

Jamie James canvassing the area

The purpose of the piece (narrowly) transcended making a cheap statement, but was in essence largely about the human connection we did manage to affect around the rhetoric of the amazing things machines could do nowadays.  Our primary goal was to get to know people, and the starting questions we asked were a mere jumping-off point for a sort of therapeutic intervention, if you will.

About a day after our piece had concluded, Jamie was off to make his new home in Germany.  I later sent out boring, clip art graphs to those who had been promised a portrait as a glib and disappointing rejoinder to Facebook’s own tactics.  One reason it’s taken so long to inscribe this entry is the period of delay in getting these back to participants.

One of the very cool things that happened to Jamie and I that day was taking part in Montreal-based artist Patsy Van Roost‘s project, Kilometers of Care, which required us to sit down in this strange, handmade machine and write a message to someone.  (Given the tenor of the day, I chose Joseph Kosuth.)  Although fully aware of our tongue-in-cheekness, Patsy also played along and was interviewed for Facebuck, along with son, Brel.  I also met Vicki Clough, curator at Figment, and together we would host The Yellow Pages Project for Culture Days, in September.

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