“Jess Dobkin's Wetrospective”
by Daniella Sanader
I have a certain image saved on my phone—you can find it if you scroll all the way up through 5,498 others (ugh, I know) on my camera roll, to the very beginning. It has survived the transfer from at least one older iPhone model, maybe two. Featured in the picture is a brown paper yard-waste bag crumpled in the foreground, the bag’s interior lined with a messy, rainbow array of tinsel. In the background, a wide ring of people can be seen sitting on the wood-panelled floor. They’re all looking to the left, transfixed by something occurring beyond the frame. My phone dates the photo as April 16, 2015, taken at exactly 7:32pm. At that moment, I was sitting among other audience members at Jess Dobkin’s durational performance How Many Performance Artists Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb (for Martha Wilson) (2015), presented for that year’s iteration of the Images Festival in Toronto. Moments before the photo was taken, Dobkin wore the yardwaste bag to cover her head, torso, and hips, before it was torn off to become (one piece of soon to be many) performance detritus on the floor.
I had forgotten about this little image until I was sitting in the cool darkness of the second room of the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) during the artist’s joyous and chaotic “Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective,” curated by Emelie Chhangur. The room was entirely devoted to the residues of that Light Bulb performance where Dobkin invited 100 other artists to document the liveness of her work across various media. There’s a vitrine along one wall that houses a selection of this documentation—cassettes and reels of film and video recordings, sketches and drawings, Polaroids, an Etch A Sketch, dance notation, poetry, and others. A giant projection takes up two adjacent walls, playing a Frankenstein rendition of Dobkin’s four-hour-long Light Bulb performance in real time, stitched together from multiple pieces of footage. From still images to grainy cell-phone footage to professional video, Dobkin’s Light Bulb is rebuilt from multiple vantage points—each imperfect and specific on its own, but accumulating to capture something integral about the performance itself. And, equally importantly, it builds a hazy portrait of the work’s audience: those of us who gathered to complete it, either through documenting the work or simply being present to witness it.
I’ve never felt it so palpably before, that this particular frame—an exhibition review, a predetermined word count, neat columns on a white page—could be so tiny, so ill-equipped to contain the immensity and generosity of an exhibition. Trying to synthesize the “Wetrospective” in writing, I feel this way now. Where do I even go from here? To the hot-pink porta-potties (or “latrine vitrines”) scattered under the disco lighting of the AGYU’s first gallery, each displaying the remains of Dobkin’s past performances—from costumes and props, to hand-drawn posters and other ephemera? To the pristine-white archival space at the back of the gallery, where visitors can peruse a range of neatly labelled boxes—“Parenting,” “Sketches,” “Woo,” “Ex-Girlfriends,” “Old Girlfriends,” etc.—housing material from Dobkin’s personal archive? To the accompanying augmented-reality app that animates these boxes (and a custom-designed tarot deck) with video and audio clips of past performances? I could step back even further, recounting the scope of Dobkin’s career performing in queer bars, artist-run spaces, theatre spaces, public spaces, both in Toronto and elsewhere, since the early aughts. On some level, it’s shocking to learn that this is her first solo exhibition in an institution of this scale (and a short one at that, on view for less than a month)—but as a performance artist who uses her work to explore queer forms of intimacy and the joyously abject nature of her own body, perhaps her prior institutional invisibility is less surprising. All I know is that even though we just met briefly for the first time as she toured visitors through the “Wetrospective,” I can now recognize that my life in Toronto (as an arts worker, as a queer person) has always held some version of Jess Dobkin in it, refracted obliquely across other relationships and experiences like more disco lighting.
This, more than anything, is what makes the “Wetrospective” so unruly, so blissfully impossible to pin down in this context. It’s at once a retrospective of an individual artist’s career, in the traditional sense, and a representation of a wider community of practice: collaborators, partners, lovers, friends, mentors, audiences, acquaintances, and all the rest. Many academic texts have been written about the conceptual challenges of engaging with performance documentation in curatorial and archival practices—how the lively present tense of performance is often historicized, made static and inert—but Dobkin’s “Wetrospective” seems to cheekily answer that question with some questions of its own. How is a performance nourished by the community it calls together? Beyond the gestures of a performing body, how can an exhibition (or an archive) hold this wider scope of liveness: these criss-crossing networks, collaborations, and intimacies built across decades of practice? In place of the standard introductory wall—announcing the singularities of title and artist in vinyl—Dobkin installed a giant, sprawling map with hundreds of scribbled names: project collaborators from 1992 to 2020 across Toronto, Montreal, New York, and other contexts. It’s decidedly messy and non-linear; names loosely congeal under the headlines of certain projects but also spill over into other categories, connected through emphatic arrows, squiggles, hearts, and dotted lines. It’s the recognition that any artist’s career is a complex network of interdependencies and forms of mutual support—the “Wetrospective’s” declarative “We.”
I’ve held on to that image in my camera roll for over six years, and I’m not totally sure why. As I’m working to finish this review, there’s a small, sentimental part of me that imagines the image was waiting for Dobkin’s archive to grow strong enough, lively enough, to be pulled into its orbit. In any case, it’s a fragment of a thing, barely able to hold the largeness of one moment in 2015. But within the maximalist generosity of Dobkin’s “Wetrospective”—within this dense constellation of moments shared between a performer and her audiences—there’s always more room. The white walls of the AGYU’s final gallery read “You’re Welcome” in giant pink lettering, and for this, for all that Dobkin has shared, I am thankful.