by carl wilson

Istvan Kantor's Transmission Machine:
Message (Redundantly) Received

Istvan Kantor was formerly known as Monty Cantsin, although of course he wasn't the only artist to use that Neoist multiple identity, just the only one who angrily claimed to be the "real" Monty Cantsin, which is a fine showcase of Kantor's persistent deafness to his own contradictions. I went to see his latest work, a showcase called Transmission Machine last night at the Theatre Centre in Toronto as part of the Free Fall performance-art festival, and I think my arm candy (as she likes me to call her) put it best when she said afterwards, "Why does the theatre of the oppressed always have to be so oppressive?"

[ continued after the jump ... ]

Kantor's got a reactor's worth of energy - constantly on the move except when doing a headstand on a long stainless-steel sink, burning off excess calories by trashing furniture seemingly at random. By any means necessary he'll make sure you can't ignore him, which explains why he's forever splattering his blood on valuable paintings in museums and galleries and, everywhere else, setting shit on fire. (His bio for Free Fall points out that he is probably the sole person ever simultaneously banned from the AGO and Sneaky Dee's.) As he must be in his mid-50s or so, the vigour is impressive, but all that drive is directed down the "shock art" dead end of masculinist modernism, with self-glorifying-martyr crap fully intact.

My favourite section of the show was the opening monologue, in which Kantor narrated his life story - that he came from Budapest, but before that he was a "monolith that was really a filing cabinet" (using a black cabinet on stage to illustrate this creation myth) as well as Wilhelm Reich and other historical figures - and reached the point of describing the past 60 years as an era of "mental gentrification" in which "broadcast imperialism" has forced all other elements of life to the margins in favour of the "shiny" - the remaking of reality on the model of the television screen, for example in the AGO's current renovation with a new titanium facade courtesy of Frank Gehry and Damien Hirst's $100-million diamond-encrusted skull.

And then Kantor went on a spree of very shiny fire-setting and giant-video-screen projections (okay, he does throw paint on the video screens at the end), with a crew of videographers and photographers following him around the stage documenting the performance and not inserting "broadcast imperialism" between us and him. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that this was intentional, which is generous considering what followed.

What followed was sound and fury and the fumes of burning gas, giving us three kinds of headaches, as Kantor tried to analogize broadcast imperialism and neighbourhood gentrification in Toronto, in speech and video (a hokey bunch of actors playing "developers" stalking Kantor's neighbourhood) and song (a ditty called "I love the stench"). He set himself up as a paragon of "the poor," falling into the usual but nevertheless irksome pattern of blithely equating the voluntary poverty of the artist with the unchosen poverty of poor people. And what's to be done? Well, "revolution," though by the time he's tangled his red flag (literally) around his head three or four times, you get that he knows the non-ness of this answer, but he sticks to it because it sounds exciting despite its void credibility (which you'd think someone from Budapest might have realized quicker). Along the way he elaborately, through video images, compared gentrification both to torture with electrification and, here it comes, to Nazi genocide. (Good ol' reductio ad Hitler, or Hitler ex machima if you prefer.)

The show ended with Kantor inviting members of the audience to come up on stage with him as "revolutionaries" and the others to make a "ratatat-tat" machine-gun sound, "executing" them. It was kinda fun, as goofy group-participation exercises are, even when they're a dispiriting wallow in futility.

That moment at least had some gentle conviviality to it, as opposed to the ego-on-performance-art-cliche-amphetamines of the previous hour. More than the shallow analysis, what's maddening is, given the anti-sociality of the problem he's addressing, the unexamined way in which he tries to attack it with more anti-sociality. Cute as the "stench" song was, praising the noise, pollution and violence poor people are forced to live with "because it keeps the developers away" is revolting, and it only keeps the developers away till there's a buck to be made - as is the case currently in Kantor's nabe of "dirty Bloor West," which is where the art galleries fleeing high rent on Queen West are about to relocate.

The real-estate regime - which Kantor, with 1980s-punk-zine panache, dubbed "the Rentagon" - goes unchecked because there's no public will to develop neighbourhoods any other way. Private interests are quite willing to bulldoze their way through social and architectural dysfunction, since that all makes land and buildings cheap enough to turn a tidy profit. Meanwhile government and political formations aggressively neglect those areas. The Rentagon would be undermined by efforts to bring healthy development to people and places that need it while preserving affordable housing (ideally owned by the residents) and services - efforts not sexy and politically profitable enough to be worth the bother.

By mirroring the black-and-white view that places and cultures must by nature be either unlivable shitholes or yuppie palisades in the rhetoric and symbolism of his show - it's either Hitler or revolution, it's either quiescence or red flags and fire and furniture-smashing - Kantor is just re-enacting the logic of gentrification, not to mention repeating 20th-century avant-gardism as farce.

That's always been my reaction to his stuff, but last night I at least appreciated some of his countervailing eccentric charm. It was much better when he was dancing around and singing a kooky, Cabaret-style song about the cities he lived in before "a beautiful prophetess" lured him to Toronto and the subsequent birth of his kids, or showing off his admirable upper-body strength and balancing skills doing headstands. Because when he tries out the acrobatics of thinking, Kantor just crashes jarringly onto the audience's last nerve.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, March 15 at 8:44 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)



Though I haven't seen his performance at the Theatre Centre, Istvan standing on his head in the National Gallery and later singing a traditional Hungarian folk song in front of the Governor General (and her worried security monkeys), was quite inspiring to me in this land of the bland where people cling to their apathy and their Diana Krall, Michael Bublé, k.d.lang...

Posted by mdtoronto on March 20, 2008 12:50 AM



Moreover, can we instigate a greater furor of commentors accusing Carl of being a yuppie, preferably in this (narcissist/nostalgia) vein?

Posted by Matt Collins on March 19, 2008 6:10 PM



Also curious: which galleries are fleeing Queen West for Bloor? I am obviously out of the loop...

Posted by Jason on March 19, 2008 12:48 PM



kantor is so boring.

"shock" art is the laziest and easiest way to provoke a reaction. it's also a form of bafflegab to bamboozle people and obfuscate the dearth of good/new ideas in the work. ("shock" art--always in quotes, involves things like bodily fluids, sex, violence, some form of "wanton" destruction, an object rotting, and often, things in bums.)

no kantor work/performance has inspired a new idea, emotion, or insight or perspective on my world. (And judging by the reactions of others observing his performances-- eye rolls, smirks, uninterrupted conversations, etc--many others feel the same.) it also unfortunately seems to be from the "look-at-me" ego-driven school of art. yawn.

great post and analysis.

Posted by Sean on March 19, 2008 10:03 AM



I know you don't take requests, but I'm intrigued by your distinction between "the voluntary poverty of the artist [and] the unchosen poverty of poor people", and would love to see a whole post exploring it. It's come up here before, but it never gets unpacked.

Posted by Mike W. on March 18, 2008 4:58 PM



I'm sure a number of gentrified culture trubadours are engaged. Like straight out of college, even. I'm not sure the neoists should be bandying about judgements about people's marital status.

Posted by Matt Collins on March 17, 2008 8:24 PM



Thanks, Jason, but don't mind the comments - everyone's got friends to defend them, and Kantor is completely defensible. He's got wit and guts and talent. I just don't like what he does with 'em.

Posted by zoilus on March 17, 2008 8:12 PM



What is up with these comments? This was a terrific post, Carl. Really top-drawer analysis.

Posted by Jason on March 17, 2008 6:59 PM



aren't you the idiot who is a celine dion convert? need i say more.....?

Posted by sandy baron on March 17, 2008 6:34 PM



I just realized that my drunken post made no sense, as the mentality I was trying to mock is the opposite of what I wrote: that "owning is better than renting."

Then I read that poem...

Reminds me of something someone once said: being insulted by certain people should be taken as a compliment!

Posted by malstain on March 17, 2008 12:36 PM



typically ignorant yuppie comments of an
unengaged gentrified culture trubadour
always out of breath while seeking
for famous last words,
always wanting to be on the top
while fucking to win,
always trying to be
smarter than others like bad breath
politicians in the elevator,
and always serving the dictatorship
of the media, the police, the liberals, the museums,
the banks, the developers, the executioners
and the global lies of democracy,
long live failed revolutions!,


Posted by amen! on March 17, 2008 12:28 PM



Let me guess,

Next you are going to stand in front of a Jackson Pollack and say a four year old can do that.

Posted by Sophia on March 17, 2008 6:47 AM



Agreed, heartily. My candy man was quite taken with Kantor's bureau-smashing tantrum last year at the Brampton Indie Arts Fest. But having had intermittent exposure to Kantor's kindergarteny social commentary over the last 15+ years, I'm surprised at how little it evolves. Glad to hear he's getting a sense of humour.

(Also, I spied him at the parent-teacher barbecue last fall.)

Posted by spitz on March 16, 2008 11:47 AM



Everything I've seen of Istvan Kantor's art seems like it was made by a thirteen-year-old. In 1978.

I don't mean that in a good way.

Posted by John on March 16, 2008 12:20 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson