Resonance and Rebellion: In Conversation with Multi-Media Performance Artist Alexis O'Hara.
Though this quick gesture wasn't made as part of a performance, it's emblematic of the space O'Hara occupies as an interdisciplinary artist. Her work combines elements of cabaret, pop music, sound art, spoken-word, stand-up comedy, vocals and electronics, photography and installation. O'Hara has a dynamic, 20-year history of art making and performance. She has published a book of poetry and has released several solo albums of music. She is an outspoken and engaged mainstay on the Montreal arts scene, and her work has been presented at galleries, festivals and other events throughout Canada, in the U.S., in Europe and in Latin America.
Guizo LaNuit is a performance role O'Hara describes as "gender confusion cabaret" or "pathos, music and comedy." She began performing as Guizo in 2002. He is a charming trilingual persona who speaks and sings in English, French and Spanish, as well as in combinations of all three.
"It wasn't until around 2010 when Guizo became a going concern," she says. He sports a fantastic bouffant and talks inappropriately about sex, longing and desire. Yet it all seems apropos, like Guizo's devoted following. The trilingual aspect of O'Hara's performances lends itself to wordplay, and jokes marked by the coming together of mother tongues.
Collaboration with other artists is central to O'Hara's work. She co-founded GuiGi, the world's first drag king-drag queen medley band, along with transdisciplinary artist Stephen Lawson. Their first gig was in 2013 at a friend's retirement party. GuiGi features Guizo LaNuit on ukulele and vocals and Lawson, who performs as drag queen Gigi L'amour, on synths and vocals. Since their first gig, the duo has performed at Festival Phenomena, Electric Eclectics, the Hemispheric Institute's Encuentro and at countless cabarets.
In collaboration with Lawson, O'Hara has also performed as part of the "dreamy torch folk" group 10,000 Horses, a self-described "house band in the bar at the end of the world." 10,000 Horses' performances introduced audiences to another O'Hara persona, the singing, ukulele-playing Velvet Nite, as well as to Lawson's piano-playing Lady Night. The duo wears platinum wigs and matching outfits. O'Hara's rich voice articulates songs on the topic of being broken-hearted. The music is slow, intimate, ethereal and melancholic.
From 2009 to 2011, O'Hara toured her audio installation piece SQUEEEEQUE, the Improbable Igloo. The igloo, made from dozens of discarded speakers, was featured at many art galleries and festivals in Canada and in Europe.
Viewers climb inside the igloo and take hold of microphones suspended upside-down inside the cozy nest. They speak or sing into the mics and the sound is fed back into the speakers and creates a playful, shared, immersive vocal echo chamber, comprised of sound and voice. The visually and sonically striking work resonated with audiences. As a result, it became the first acquisition of the Haus der Elektronische Kunst's media art collection in 2011, when the Basel, Switzerland-based organization moved from being a festival presenter to becoming a media arts archive.
Collaboration was likewise a key part of SQUEEEEQUEs creation. "One of the best things I did in my entire career was to ask Steve Topping to help me conceive or produce my ideas surrounding the speaker box igloo," O'Hara explains. "The drawings that I had, going into it, were limited by my knowledge of construction.... But then, talking to someone who's actually a builder, [he] said, 'Oh, well, we can do it this way.' It would not have been what it is if were not for my collaboration with him."
It is not easy to categorize O'Hara's work from a conventional point of view. Is she a cabaret torch singer, experimental musician, comedian, or installation artist? Is she a performance artist or sound artist?
Of course, it is precisely this element that makes O'Hara's work appealing--plus, she's incredibly hilarious. O'Hara has been described as the Phyllis Diller of experimental music. "I'll take it!" is O'Hara's response. In terms of interdisciplinary art and performance art in Canada, she has been an innovator. How many artists can lay claim to having pioneered the specific art of live sound looping and electronic vocal processing, in combination with spoken word and comedy? Her contributions to spoken word and performance art were noted in the 2016 collection, More Caught in the Act: An Anthology of Performance Art by Canadian Women, in essays by T.L. Cowan and Christof Migone.
O'Hara grew up in Ottawa, where she started performing at an early age. "We had big family gatherings at Christmas and Easter, and I would organize shows. I would make my cousins do these performances, and I would write the scripts." Among her family members are two notable aunts, actor Catherine O'Hara and singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O'Hara.
Although the main musical and artistic instrument of choice for O'Hara is her voice, she's circumspect about how the sound of a woman's breath can become objectified in popular culture. "It [the sound of breath] is something that I've played with but [have] also moved back from, because I really work against my work being explicitly sexual. The sound of a woman's breath has been so sexualized, whether it's a simulated orgasm when you hear Yoko Ono on the Double Fantasy album [with John Lennon,] or the sounds in horror movies of a woman's fear and this heightened sexual tension around fear."
In other words, playing on stereotypical representations of what a woman's voice should or should not sound like is not in O'Hara's wheelhouse. She also says she wrestles with the subjectivity of her voice when it comes to issues of privilege. "My conflicts right now are related to... questioning the validity of my voice in this particular time and place. It's not that I think my voice isn't important--or that it's more or less important than anybody other's voice. But this idea of how to use the voice, this idea of how to use the breath, is a current challenge."
She questions how, as an artist, to situate her actions fully behind the words she speaks. "I can say I'm a feminist, but am I feminist for myself or am I a feminist for all women? That's a crucial thing. Sure, I can be a strong woman... but am I a strong feminist in the sense of [saying] 'Here, here's a spot for you?'"
One way O'Hara has worked to support aspiring female and female-identified artists is by leading arts workshops. One workshop is appropriately called Noise School for Feminists. She also teaches how to produce recorded sound from a technical standpoint. And she helps to demystify the sound creation process by working with field recordings (sound recorded outside of a studio) and teaching field techniques and audio editing.
Working with female and female-identified students is important. "People often talk about how women are competitive and how they don't support each other," she says. "I think that that's partly because the patriarchy has afforded us so few places at the table. I have a lot of hope for the new issues of the new generation, the post-gender world view and what that might mean."
O'Hara's career path has followed a DIY approach that has thrived not only on the strength of her voice and vision, but also on the belief that error can be a driving force in performances and in live improvisation. She uses her voice, not to step away from uncomfortable social conventions, but rather, to speak to them--provocatively, with satire and with salience.
This often creates tension in her work--a push and a pull that illuminates O'Hara's talent, proficiency and humour. It also allows vulnerability, empathy and pointed social critique to co-exist without weighing heavily. It's a disarming mixture that lets people in on the joke and consistently captivates O'Hara's audiences.
To find out more, go to www.dyslex6.com.
Caption: Alexis O'Hara uses her voice to speak to uncomfortable social conventions with satire and with salience. (Photo by Aaron Pollard)
Caption: Alexis O'Hara is an artist who makes audiences think as deeply as she makes them laugh. (Photo by Sigi Pablo)