Les Fermières Obsédées

Happy F.O to you!

July 8 - 11, 2003



Summer has finally arrived in Halifax and along with the warm weather the tourists have arrived. Like the sunny days they appear suddenly, as if out of thin air. This past week downtown bustled with tourists and locals happy to exchange winter-wear for shorts and shorter tops. Strange amphibious tour buses—such as the Harbour Hopper and its imitators—roam the streets as well as the harbour. Crowds of tourists flock to the sidewalks and boardwalks seeking out Barret’s Privateers amongst the sailboats and crisp ocean air.

It’s not all picture perfect, as most of us know, real life is not a postcard. Behind the gloss of guided tours and maritime memorabilia real life goes on in Halifax, and so does art—including performance art. This past week tourists of a different sort arrived in Halifax.  A performance art troupe called Les Fermières Obsédées (which translates roughly into The Obsessed Farmwives), fed the local art crowd’s appetite for transgressive and eccentric behavior. Entertaining and baffling locals and tourists alike, Les Fermières Obsédées consist of Annie Baillargeon, Mélissa Charest, Eugénie Cliche and Catherine Plaisance who met while studying art at Laval University in Quebec City. They were brought to Halifax by eyelevelgallery, an artist-run centre located in the downtown area. The gallery has two large street-level display windows on Barrington St., flanking its entrance, which are used as an exhibition space called 24/7.  The windows often feature installation art and performances. From July 8-11 the windows were home to Les Fermières Obsédées.

The first performance on July 8 occurred at 5pm, coinciding with rush hour traffic. A large crowd of people waited at the bus stop next door to the gallery—a captive audience. Les Fermières set up an electric keyboard in the entrance to the gallery and lined up behind it wearing tussled wigs, white blouses stained with the detritus of past performances, gray pleated skirts, high heeled shoes, and deadpan expressions. As the cheesy synthesized music (Happy Birthday, a marching song, and a disco classic) began to play, Les Fermières stripped off and dropped their wigs, skirts, blouses and shoes, traded the articles of clothing, and re-dressed. Then three of the Fermiers walked backwards into the right window, while one walked forwards into the left window. The one on the left drew a circle with pink lipstick on the window, while the other three—their backs to the audience outside--outlined their collective shape in the window, also with lipstick. Then they walked back outside, three lying down while one threw a sponge laden with pink paint at the circle drawn on the window, missing the target but leaving an impressive splatter. They lined up again behind the keyboard, traded garments, and repeated. The performance went on like this for an hour, with subtle alterations and modifications to the basic structures: fists were slowly raised in power salutes; lipstick was applied in an overzealous manner on sneering mouths; the paint soaked sponge was squeezed over their heads or on their hearts; the clothing more rumpled and ill-fitting each time.

Performance art isn’t necessarily something one runs into everyday, so the reactions of the dozens of people waiting for the bus after a long day at work actually enhanced the performance. The calm, repeated movements, calculated motions and dressing and undressing of the Fermières attracted a large crowd that filled the sidewalk and spilled onto the rush hour traffic. Busses had to slow down and honk at the enraptured viewers in the street—luckily no one was clipped. Inside public transit and tour buses, necks craned; the shorter glances  perhaps missing the connections between the rituals from our everyday lives and the bizarre fiction played out right before our very eyes.

The afternoon of the 10th Les Fermières introduced a daring "starting block" (as in a sprinter) posture, which they took into the street, backing traffic up for blocks, but only for a few minutes.  Motorists were more perplexed than angered. A single cry of "artsy-fartsy" could be heard from a passing car. One woman left in a huff over what she called  "panty art” — an art movement which I had never heard of before, but I guess one learns something new everyday.

The final performance took place at noon on July 11, in Granville Square, home to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and numerous specialty shops, pubs and cafés. This performance incorporated almost life-size photocopies of each of Les Fermières, which they taped to the front and back of their bodies after the clothing was shed and re-assembled in a new manner: one wore all the blouses, one wore all the skirts, one wore all the wigs, and one wore all the shoes (taped to her legs, waist and shoulders). This particular action highlighted the tension of collective and individual quite nicely: while the shoe Fermière struggled with the packing tape, the other three stood by passively, offering no assistance. Collaboration came about only to fulfill the grand design of the collective. Short whistle blows indicated changes of position. The performance ended with Les Fermières shuffling blindly to and fro, prostrating themselves in front of a few shops and then down the street.

Les Fermières Obsédées have been performing as a collective since 2001. Through use of ritualized costume, tableaux vivante and extravagant props their performances enact and subvert the tensions inherent in the conflict between individual urges and the restraints of socially acceptable behaviours. Their use of repeated gestures, facial expression and obsessive body movements point out the complex array of choices we make—both conscious and unconscious—as we negotiate our identities through everyday life.

Reaction to most contemporary art is varied; not everyone feels that they understand it, and most of us have uttered the words "I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like."  When faced with contemporary performance art in the middle of the public sphere, watching the audience reactions can be almost as much fun as watching the performance itself. Tourists stop to take pictures. Locals scurry past in complete disregard, trying desperately not to notice.  Next time you see something a little out of the ordinary happening on your street, follow these words of advice: Stop. Look. Listen. It just might be performance art, and it probably won’t hurt you—or the tourists.

© chris lloyd 2003

originally published on cbc.ca artspots