Interview with NMC Artist in Residence, Lisa Lipton

February 17, 2017

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.

Juliette Jagger: 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.

Lisa Lipton: 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.

JJ: 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.

LL: 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.

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

LL: 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?

JJ: 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?

LL: 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.

JJ: 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.

LL:  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.

JJ: 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?

LL: 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.

JJ: 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?

LL: 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.

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

LL: 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.

JJ: This seems strange to say, but were you relieved when you finally changed your name back again?

LL: Yeah, definitely. I felt like I closed the chapter on such a huge period of time. There were so many people involved in that project and so much happens when you are charging at the world like that. When you are pushing full-force trying to make all of these magical things happen, at some point, you really need to step back a bit, hibernate, and see what all of that energy does once it’s unleashed into the world.

JJ: When did you officially complete the project?

LL: Well, basically I pitched the project as an exhibition all over Canada and The Southern Alberta Art Gallery was very interested right away. At the time I said, “Okay, well, there is also a major performance that goes with this project. The most ideal situation would be for you to give me a solo exhibition and then let me conduct a performance and premiere screening in a theatre context. I’ll need this much money to do it, this is how big it is, and these are the locations.” They said, “Okay, it’s our 40th anniversary so we’d like to bring you in, put you up for two months and you can develop the entire vision.” It was pretty incredible. I basically locked into exactly what I was hoping for with the conclusion of the narrative.

Then, on October 1, 2016, I opened my show alongside an exhibition by Janet Cardiff––who is an amazing Canadian artist––and created a multi-location performance in Lethbridge, AB, which became the official release of the feature film. The work also appeared in the gallery with all of the chapters [The Impossible Blue Rose is a chapter-based film] alongside other visual components—sculpture, costuming, and installation. My drum kit, which I had taken with me on the road, was also exhibited in the show. The drum kit is now locked into the project and film. It is now a sculptural testament to the journey and an undeniable energy in that it radiates in the room with the work.

What I wanted the viewers and the audience present that day to understand was the importance of performance within my practice, especially because the film was rooted in my understanding of the language of performance art. I wanted people to be able to go to the gallery after the screening and reconsider the work within a different context, as an art piece. 

JJ: By its nature, performance art is incredibly fleeting. Ideally, each piece is everything it can be in the moment it exists in and then suddenly it doesn’t exist anymore.

LL: I know. My works are usually one-night performances and then they’re over. It’s crazy for anyone to work on a project for such an insane amount of time and then basically, whoever chooses to attend, sees it. At the same time, because it is performance art, people aren’t necessarily paying when they do see it. You’re usually funded by a city or a gallery brings you in to create a performance piece—an open invitation to the public. You aren’t really making any money off of the work. You just cross you fingers and hope that a lot of people come out. Sometimes a thousand or more people will see one piece. Other times you’ll work on something just as hard and only a hundred people will attend. It is completely unpredictable.

A couple of people have said to me, “That’s your legacy Lisa!” And I just think, well that’s a positive way to think about it because this kind of work can drive a person crazy. [Laughs] In saying that, it also forces you to let go and move on to whatever is next pretty quickly.

JJ: Now that you’ve stepped away from the project and it’s finally done, is it at all like you thought it would be?

LL: I watch the film now and I think about how it was made so unconventionally, in terms of the last chapter and how the narrative plays out. That chapter alone is about an hour and twenty minutes long, and it’s very slow and sometimes awkward to watch. It makes me feel uncomfortable at times and yet there are a lot of beautiful moments in it. Honestly, it was the most I could possibly give at that point, but I am proud of it and that I was able to put it together––it really feels exactly like where Frankie was [psychologically] at the end of the story.

I’m hopeful that the project will have more of a life. A portion of the exhibition is in a gallery in Montreal [Diagonale Gallerie] right now which is great, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the point again (performance wise) where it will feel how it felt when I first released it in Lethbridge––that was the pinnacle of everything happening in real time and only the people in the theatre saw the true or real ending.

JJ: What are you currently working on?

LL: Right now I’m working on a script that I’m writing for a sci-fi radio drama and making soundscapes, and I’m perfectly content with those mediums. [Laughs] Don’t get my wrong, I’m continuously frustrated by the politics of being in art, and I get all twisted up trying to figure out where I fit and dealing with rejection, but I guess that’s a forever battle. I think most artists can look each other in the eye and see how beaten up the other really is if they’ve been in the art world long enough. [Laughs] At the end of the day though, I know I’m happiest when I’m making art.

JJ: What motivates you as an artist?

LL: I think I’m motivated by pretty simple things like conversations or, like most artists, when I’m alone and just watching and allowing myself that clear space for ideas to move and unfold. In terms of my performance work specifically, I think I’m most motivated by different cliques of society, different qualities of people and practices and seeing things that tend not to work together exist in the same space. I try to challenge expectations of the audience, to put them in situations to see what happens and to watch the energy change.

Also, and this is probably because I’ve worked in performance so long now, but I’m continuously motivated by creating moments that are strange and real, yet somewhat fictionalized at the same time.

JJ: Talk a bit about what you’ll be working on during your residency with the National Music Centre and what you’re hoping to accomplish?

LL: I’ll be working on a project called, Dénoue-TRON, which is an extension of a previous video and performance-based project I completed with a collaborator, Carl Spencer, entitled, Agonist.

This time I’ll be diving into the National Music Centre’s drum archive and working with MIDI-controlled elements to trigger various sounds coming from different drum machines and sampling some of those sounds as well.

My goal is to create a 10 to 15-minute long soundtrack working with the drum machines and with the idea that somewhere down the road, I’ll be able to use the soundtrack as a part of a future performance.

A lot of the drum machines I’ve selected from the NMC’s archive are from the 80s and 90s, so I will be thinking about those eras and riffing on associative sounds, but also following a narrative structure that is similar to literature in that the soundtrack will have an exposition, a rising action, a climax, a falling action and so on.

The interesting thing about this residency is that I don’t really mess around with drum machines that much. Being that drumming hasn’t always been my primary focus and that I’m not solely a musician, it’s going to be a challenge for me to learn on these amazing machines. Even though I’m working on sounds and thinking about sounds every single day, part of me is still terrified because I trust myself in so many other mediums but this one makes me sweat just a little bit more.

You can catch Lisa’s public workshop at Studio Bell on February 24, from 1:00 – 2:00 pm. Click here for more details.

About the Author

Juliette Jagger

Juliette Jagger is a Canadian music journalist. Her byline has appeared in such media outlets as The Huffington Post, Noisey, and This Week In Palestine. She currently is an editor here at Amplify, and is the creator of NMC’s ongoing interview series Origin Stories, which uncovers the stories behind hit songs. She is also associate editor of US-based outlet CelebrityAccess.

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