Don’t be so Hard on Steve, Steve

Presented, September 23, 2016 at the sixteen edition of Visualeyez 2016, Canada’s Annual Festival of Performance Art; Edmonton, Alberta. The theme of the festival explored Kindness, curated by Todd Janes.

The figure in this work is references images from advertising and explores personal and public spaces, identities, intimacies and desires. The impetus is to challenge the assertions of pop culture, consumerism and social to decorum through poetic means. I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with etiquette and have grappled with phrases like socially acceptable and inappropriate. My attitude can swing completely in the opposite direction when I become overly conscious about how I appear and what I should wear. All of my performance-based works that have delt with clothing have, in one way or another, dealt with this dilemma, either in metaphorical ways or by directly addressing issues such as the influence of mass media, trends, pride and labour. These performances contemplate some of the forces that shape the ways we act, perceive ourselves, and evaluate each other.

The following was orginally posted as a blog ( by Riva Symko on November 8th, 2016.

See Steve line up his driver on the green. See Steve hit the golf ball. See the ball
soar into the water hazard. See Steve berate himself: “Ack-gaaah! C’mon Steve!
It’s not that hard of a game! So embarrassing.” Next, as per standard commercial narrative, it is suggested that the protagonist’s dilemma – his frustration – his
self-chastisement – can be resolved via simple producer/consumer relations: if you can’t do it, buy it. And so as the scene pans out to show us Steve’s golf-mates awaiting their own moment on the green, the announcer chimes-in: “Go easy on Steve, Steve (– that was the club’s fault”, and the Golf Town logo flashes onto the screen beside the tag-line: “TRADE IN YOUR OLD CLUBS – TRY ALL THE NEW ONES”.

Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain

...Cut to Johannes Zits (as Steve) standing, shirtless, on a pile of laundry in front of an ironing board in the middle of Latitude 53’s main-space gallery. He picks out a brightly printed blue cotton button-up shirt from the pile under his feet, and inspects it closely. Pulling off an indistinguishable piece of lint, he stretches it over the end of the ironing board, adjusts the collar and the sleeves, and applies the iron. Back and forth, methodically pressing out the creases, he shifts the shirt inch-by-inch over the board. Tipping the iron back onto the board, Steve gives the shirt a crisp shake, slips his arms through it, and fastens each button from top to bottom. Adjusting his shoulders a few times, pulling the left sleeve over his watch, and fixing the collar, Steve turns around to face a large, full-length mirror set opposite the ironing board. He peers at himself, scowls slightly, turns to the right, adjusts his collar again, turns to the left, scowls again. He walks back to the pile of clothes, chooses another brightly printed (this time red) cotton button-up shirt, turns back to the mirror, and holds it in front of his torso.
Finding this shirt equally dissatisfying, Steve returns it to the laundry pile, walks around to the outer side of a folding table standing to the left of the ironing board, and plucks a book from an unkempt stack on its surface. The book is heavily tabbed and notated. Steve pages through it, scanning for something – a chapter, a passage, a quote? As he begins to read aloud, it becomes clear the book is a self-help guide, and what Steve is really looking for is some guidance, direction, resolution to his incessant need to iron out every imperfection (real or imagined): “Make good decisions...bad decisions come from not caring enough... don’t be careless.”

Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain

Despite the fact that Zits’ Steve is reading these passages aloud, there is nothing explicitly interactive about Don’t be so Hard. (Zits as) Steve does not even allow us (the viewers) the satisfaction of acknowledging we are watching him, thereby inadvertently alleviating the innate awkwardness of our espial. Rather, both Steve and Zits are fully engaged in the task at-hand: self-criticism via dressing, and undressing/clothing, and more clothing. Visitors drift in-and-out of the gallery, some lingering in the seats lining each side of Zits’ performance. We are rubberneckers here – as though we are watching Steve at home in his bedroom, or his laundry room – waiting in anticipation to see what’s going to happen? But nothing really does – the cycle of Steve’s self-doubt repeats and repeats for, in this iteration, a full three hours.

It could be argued that all performative art contains an element of voyeurism in the way it transports the viewer outside of the quotidian, and forces a complex power dynamic between the spectator’s sense of self in the surrounding space, and the performer’s body and actions in the same space. But Steve’s actions/Zits’ performance is a guilty voyeurism. We should probably help this guy out of his rut – we all know he won’t really find what he is looking for in that pile of laundry. If only we weren’t so paralyzed by our own self-dissatisfaction. If only we weren’t just as critical of ourselves. If only we weren’t stuck in this audience/performer interstice with Zits.

Photo by Paula Kirman.

At one point, Steve reaches into the pile of laundry for a second? third? fourth? pair of pants, pauses, then moves instead towards the table. This time, he retrieves a paper shopping bag with the American Eagle Outfitters logo emblazoned on the side. He pulls out yet another printed cotton button-up, inspects it closely, ponders the (still attached) price tag. He fishes the receipt out of the bag and holds it up to read and we can clearly understand that he still has the option of returning it. He appears to consider the shirt’s worth compared to his own worth, then slowly folds the shirt, and places it back into the bag.

In 1988, Stuart Ewen coined the term ‘commodity self’ in reference to what he observed as a new relationship between commodities (material objects carrying economic exchange value) and individuals. For Ewen, individuals living in Fordist North America during and after the 1920s began to recognize and form their sense of identity through the commodities they consumed.[1] This process of commodity-based identity formation has gradually intensified over the past five decades until today, when our sense of self is almost inseparable from the objects and services we buy. From this point of view, Steve is a physical manifestation of the commodity self described by Ewen – the ‘self’ Steve sees reflected in the mirror is contingent on the shirts and trousers he is trying on. Just like Golf Town can help their Steve become a better golfer with new clubs, Zits’ Steve cannot see passed his outfit to any other ‘self’.

Even I, as one of Zits’ viewers, can’t help wondering how Steve might look in the documentary stills of this performance – the ‘final product’ so-to-speak. Stacked in a grid, the photos of Steve pondering himself in the mirror could pass for one of VOGUE’s seasonal high-fashion runway collection reports.

For Ewen, the emergence of the commodity self was a direct result of corporate advertising’s ubiquitous extension into everyday life, and its promises of “freedom” and (American) “nationalism” for consumers.[2] Further to this, Jennifer Way has written that, today, individuals find their own value and meaning in the commodities they consume “by using them to establish, clarify, or change their identities and to communicate their identities as individuals and members of groups affiliated by ethnicity, nationality, region, religion, gender, sexuality, and generation.”[3] For example, Christians might purchase and wear gold crucifixion necklaces, business professionals connect to one another through their iPhone mobile devices, eco-conscious citizens drive hybrid vehicles, Steve visits Golf Town to improve his game, and Zits’ Steve likes to look good in a cotton button-up.

Steve is bound to his own indecisiveness, and stunted by an obsessive, performative quest for some ambiguously-defined perfection spurred on by the consumer cycle itself: need. buy to satisfy need. desire better. buy to satisfy desire. change one’s image/status/social group/etc. buy to reflect this. repeat. Steve tries to counter this by turning to self-help: “No more self-bullying about your appearance,” or, “You cannot earn worth through what you do”. But even the most sincere self-help is part of a larger industry – one that idealizes certain ‘types’ of behaviours, successes, lifestyles, and people as a very commercialized quest. Although this quest promises fulfillment, it also intentionally fails to deliver in order to guarantee itself capital perpetuity.

Photo by Paula Kirman.

Every so often over the course of his ceaseless task, Steve picks up a fresh piece of clothing from the pile, and one or two small stones fall from the folds and bounce conspicuously across the concrete floor. Steve bends and picks up each stone, rubbing them between his hands to warm what we learn are actually “healing crystals”. He walks to his inspiration wall and reads out-loud a passage pertaining to the particular type of crystal (for example: “topaz: success, optimism, reduces procrastination”). Then Steve places the crystal in his ears, or in his belly-button, periodically adjusting them while he irons. The crystals function as part of Steve’s self-helping, but they also happen to be his closest connection to the outside, natural elements.

Zits’ larger body of work demonstrates shares an ongoing interest in exploring the divisions between our bodies and our environments. For instance, his 2012 Re-Dressing Landscape (performed at StFX Gallery in Antigonish, Nova Scotia) attempted to extend the performer’s bodies into the local landscape in a stripped-down, skin-to-elements walk, crawl, writhe, and brush through the sand and rocks of Arisaig’s beach, the coastal grasses at Chez Deslauriers, and the softwood forest lining the Pomquet trails. Along the journey, the performers took notes, photos, and video, and collected natural materials (sand, rocks, grass, branches) which they later brought into the Gallery to make what curator, Tila Kellman described as “a second nature”.[4] The crystals featured in Don’t be so Hard function like a second nature for self-hood itself.

In previous performances, Zits was explicitly reconnecting what are otherwise culturally-reinforced disconnections between the body and the landscape. Our clothes provide a literal barrier between our individual bodies and the elements. But we also detach ourselves from nature in more concealed ways – by commercializing it for resource production, or romanticizing it for adventure and mythology. Ironically, these divisions have been both naturalized and politicized. For Zits, “Considering nature as a body and as an active participant, ensures that it can be neither construed as a passive prop or backdrop nor adored and fixed in the realm of the sublime.”[5] Similarly, Don’t be so Hard de-naturalizes the relationship between commerce and our sense-of-selves.

Photo by Paula Kirman.

As the evening wears on (pardon the pun), Zits’ face flushes – partially from the steam puffing and gurgling through the iron, partially from Steve’s unending dissatisfaction, and partially from the endurance of the performance itself. In fact, the entire gallery feels at least a degree or two warmer. “Learning how to be kind to yourself takes practice, motivation, and patience”, reads Steve as he continues to smoothe out the creases of self-doubt itself.

[1] Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1988). ↑
[2] Ewen, 30. Ewen places late nineteenth and twentieth-century American industrialization and commerce at the centre of his study. For him, the notion that individual progress and distinction can be obtained through consumption is the foundation of the ‘American Dream’, and even American democracy itself, 59. ↑
[3] Jennifer Way, “Commodity Self,” Visual Arts and Cultural Studies Section, Encyclopedia of Identity, 2 vols., ed. by Ronald L. Jackson II (SAGE Publications Inc.: SAGE Reference). Retrieved May 23 2013 from: ↑
[4] Tila Kellman as quoted in Richard MacKenzie, “Performance artist coming to Antigonish”, The Casket, August 15, 2012. ↑
[5] Johannes Zits, “Don’t be so Hard on Steve, Steve”,, September 2016. ↑