newspaper clipping

Under the sheets and in the flesh

By REBECCA CALDWELL, Globe and Mail, Saturday, September 21, 2002


With a look at the new surrealists,(1) The Globe and Mail presents the first in a weekly series on subcultures, celebrating the unsung and the unusual who exist outside the spotlight.

Bet you thought surrealism as an art movement was as worn out as that melting watch in the Dali painting. Or that the movement that radically altered 20th-century perceptions of art died when its founder and most vocal proponent, André Breton, went on to the great dreamscape in the sky in 1966.

Well, think again. Surrealism is alive and well in Toronto, and not just in the disproportionate number of light-bulb jokes on the Internet. Instead, the wild art has been experiencing a renaissance with a group of artists under the banner of Recordism.(2)

If you were walking by the Art Gallery of Ontario two weekends ago, you likely saw the Recordists in action. Or to be specific, completely still. The founders of the movement, William Davison and Sherri Lyn Higgins, staged a guerrilla performance of The Lovers, enacting tableaus inspired by René Magritte's painting of the same name, to a soundtrack piped out of a tape recorder hidden in a suitcase. Sounds pretty normal, except for the fact that, like Magritte's painting, the couple's heads were wrapped in sheets.(3)

Under the sheets and in the flesh, Davison and Higgins aren't morose, black-turtleneck-wearing intellectuals, spewing forth manifestoes between hefty draws on cigarettes. Nor do they answer the door in freaked-out fish costumes, or whatever you might expect practising surrealists to wear around the house (though Davison does have a giant mask shaped like a little boy's head that he occasionally wears during performances).(4) In their Ossington Avenue apartment, Davison and Higgins are reflective, showing amazement and wonder while discussing their work, which has become a way of life.

"Our most important goal is the liberation of the imagination," Davison says.(5) They reject the avant-garde for the para-garde, a term Davison whimsically coined to express a much more nebulous understanding of how ideas and art exist and function.(6)

Davison, 39, and Higgins, 35, moved to Toronto in 1989 from Truro, N.S.(7) Five years later, they took their movement to the world when they launched their Web-site -- the International Bureau of Recordist Information ( Working on the Web has introduced them to pockets of surrealists in the city and around the world. They've been able to stage shows abroad and invite artists to Toronto (a high point was bringing over a Swedish butoh dancer for a performance).(9)

Like their name suggests, Recordists are heavily interested in exploring how music and sound can express their philosophy.(10) "I've never heard it called a band before," Higgins says, laughing, when I ask her about Six Heads. Meeting monthly for jam and recording sessions, the Six Heads collective creates what is best described as ambient music.(11) Using a musical score that can be anything from a picture to simple marks on a page,(12) they mostly play instruments they make themselves out of found materials -- what the germ-phobic among us might consider garbage.

From a thumb piano made out of spikes discarded by street-cleaning machines to the Ossington Berimbau, a piece of a wooden crutch strung like a bow with a Folgers coffee can in its centre to improve resonance, everything and anything can make music in their hands.

Take the Nice Device. In an earlier life, it was an old-fashioned metal record holder; now it has been transformed into a sort of harp with the help of wire clippers. (Its cousin, the Not-So-Nice-Device, is a much scarier-looking version with jagged tines.)

"Some people consider this [surrealism] an old-fashioned art idea, and they'll dismiss it right away," says Higgins. "But it still has the ability to transform us individually."(13)


Following are additional notes and comments by Davison and Higgins (exclusive to this web version of the article):

1) Ms. Caldwell refers to us here as "the new surrealists". On the surface, this may seem the simplest way of describing Recordism, but in actuality it's a fairly dubious term and capable of generating numerous assumptions that are not at all correct. Although we understand why Ms. Caldwell might be tempted to use this term, it's not something we would use to describe ourselves and in fact, without making too much of a big deal out of it, we would prefer to discourage its use entirely. top

2) Is it true that every discussion of surrealism must mention Salvador Dali in the first sentence or no one will know what you're talking about? It does seem to be the case. Ms. Caldwell's opening paragraphs seem a bit flip but overall the article is surprisingly generous and positive. There are a couple of popular misconceptions that should be commented on here however. The first is the idea that surrealism is dead. Ms. Caldwell is aware of this assumption and plays on it. The other misconception is more insidious and Ms. Caldwell seems to be as much a victim of it as her readership likely is. The misconception is that surrealism is an art movement. Many surrealists have little or no interest in art or the art world so it is quite erroneous to think of surrealism as a style of art or as an art movement. Surrealism is best thought of as a philosophy which is applied broadly to all aspects of life including art, poetry, politics, various forms of inquiry, etc. top

3) A performance by Songs of the New Erotics. Click here for more information. top

4) The mask is from another Songs of the New Erotics performance entitled "The Anti-Child of Recordist Performance and a Lighted Cavern". More info here. top

5) See the "Melting Clock Interview" for basic info on Recordism. top

6) See the "Para-Gardist Picto-Manifesto". top

7) Sort of. Actually we moved to Toronto from Halifax, N.S. where we had been living and attending the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. But before that we did live in the small town of Truro, N.S. I was born in Truro and Sherri and I met there. Recordism itself had its genesis in Truro in 1984 and Sherri and I both belonged to an unusual Truro art collective called An Episode of Sparrows in the mid to late 80's. top

8) Actually, it's the International Bureau of Recordist Investigation, not "Information". The distinction is significant. Besides being a tongue in cheek reference to organizations like the F.B.I. (America's "Federal Bureau of Investigation") with all the absurd incongruities that brings to mind (bureacratic paper-shuffling, "cops and robbers" drama, forensics, and so on), the term "investigation" refers specifically to the basic tenets of Recordism which are based in an exploratory and investigative approach to artistic work as opposed to somewhat more common conceptions of artmaking as expressive and/or didactic. top

9) Visit the website of SU-EN Butoh Company. top

10) This statement unfortunately reinforces a common mistake. The terms "Recordism" and "Recordist", as used by practitioners of Recordism, do not refer to music and sound recording. They refer to an approach to artmaking that is founded in the use of chance and automatism (see the "Melting Clock Interview" for more info). A number of factors complicate this confusion however. The word "recordist" is an actual term, chiefly used in the U.K., which refers to a person who makes sound recordings, usually as a professional working in the film and television industry. In the written form of the words, we always capitalize "Recordism" and "Recordist" to help distinguish these terms from other similar terms. Professional sound recordists do not practice Recordism, they practice sound-recording. Of course, having said that, there's no reason why a "recordist" couldn't also be a "Recordist," in which case they would practice Recordism. In fact, if they combined their interest in Recordism with their interest in sound-recording, they could very well be "Recordist recordists"! This brings us to one of the other confusing factors surrounding the terms "Recordism" and "Recordist". Although Recordism focuses no more on music or sound work than it does on any other art form, the fact remains that many Recordists are interested in sound work and several prominent Recordist projects are in fact music projects. As a result, many people who become familiar with Recordist music projects such as Six Heads or Songs of the New Erotics, assume incorrectly that the terms "Recordism" and "Recordist" must refer to music and sound recording. top

11) More info on Six Heads here. top

12) Six Heads has never used graphic scores, or any other kind of score, and produces only freely improvised music. Our discussion with Ms. Caldwell on the subject of music was fairly broad and she may have become confused over some of the details regarding experimental techniques that we've used in various musical projects. top

13) This may actually be paraphrased although Sherri does recall saying something very similar. It should also be said here that we not only believe in surrealism's ability to transform us individually, but as well in its ability to transform society and life in general. top