Peripheral Blur
50 minutes mini-DV 1980


This performance documentation is an unedited, one camera, one shot production which shows Colin Campbell in a solo performance of Peripheral Blur.

“In this bravura solo performance, Colin Campbell appears, elegant as always, in long coat and hat and slowly, very slowly, disrobes, leaving the coat behind, taking off a wig and glasses. Long excerpts of what would become Dangling By Their Mouths issue from Campbell in monologue form, secreted now in the form of one character. He begins by packing for a trip, then decides he is missing “his background.” A series of slides show his domicile, a large loft above an Athlete’s Foot franchise on Yonge Street, downtown Toronto.

“This is my front yard. This is my background. This is where I fit in. This is where I work, eat, sleep, play, get drunk. I can be anonymous here. I live between a Burger King and a McDonald's, nourishment is just a step away in either direction. My cockroaches who live upstairs with me think they've landed in heaven. My street is high on tech, low on style, long on concrete, short on grass… you might say beyond the valley of the suburban dream. I'll show you.”

Before the cab arrives he fields a series of calls from jealous lovers, idle and not so idle gossips, then “lands” in Brussels. He describes his chance encounter with a woman who had recently lost her lover, an encounter which would be replayed in Dangling by Their Mouths in a café scene between Campbell (playing Anna) and John Greyson.

“Why do wear perfume? I only ask because... it reminds me of someone dear to me. I used to buy perfume for her."

When the lights come back up Colin has become Anna, and speaks with a faux French accent about flowers and cigarettes and the tolling bells of a nearby cathedral. He order wine and then has a conversation with a woman who talks over the loudspeakers (Kerri Kwinter). He refuses her invitation for a walk (“You ask too much.”) He has become the woman he encountered in Brussels, he delivers a stunning missive about men and sexuality, then describes helping her best friend while she lay dying. As a Marianna Faithful song plays he takes off his wig and dress and appears in a T-shirt, standing in a square of fluorescent lights.

“I'm not Anna. I don't feel guilt. I don't feel bad. It was just a peripheral blur.”

“The script (for Dangling by Their Mouths) comes from a piece that was actually a performance piece called Peripheral Blur where I was the sole performer. It was about a fifty minute performance and the other characters who existed in that performance came in on audiotape through speakers, but I never did Anna, the central character of the performance. She would have imaginary people sitting at a table with her and she would talk to them but they would never say anything back.” (Colin Campbell in ‘A Work in Progress: an Interview with Colin Campbell’ by Sue Ditta, Colin Campbell Media Works, ed. Bruce Ferguson, Winnipeg, Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1991)

Colin Campbell, Peripheral Blur, Factory Theatre Lab by Martha Fleming
(Originally published in: Vanguard, 1981)

Much as video artists have come to accept over the past few years their work’s implicit reference to television, performance artists are beginning to examine their medium’s relation to theatre. In light of this, it is significant that a well-established video artist recently presented his first performance in the context of a theatre workshop.

Colin Campbell, whose videotapes were included in this year’s Canadian representation at the Venice Biennale, has been working with video for ten years. In the past, his work has been labeled as divergently as “strictly narrative” and “post-conceptual romantic.” But with this, his first live performance, Campbell reveals himself to be a conservative and forceful moralist, whose guileless cameos of compromised lives are awkwardly moving.

Peripheral Blur is set in the spring of 1980. As the piece begins, Campbell is preparing for a trip to the Venice Biennale and the Basel Art Fair. He delivers a brilliant monologue about getting and having: “I’ve got my travel iron, I’ve got my adaptor for my travel iron, I’ve got my priorities organized…” He is ready to embark – as much on a trip through his one-man morality play as through Europe. The stage, the outlandish gear, and his carefully structured monologue all combine to establish Campbell’s theatrical persona. Performing behind the mask that theatre provides, Campbell defends himself beforehand against possible accusations of being subjective. Suspended in a no-man’s land between performance and theatre, Campbell sets out to be morally instructive. Before taking off into further characters, the persona Campbell, wishing to ground himself, says, “Wait. Something’s missing. My background. I forgot my background.”

A series of fictional phone calls, a number of projected slides and a few terse comments about the Toronto art scene serve as “background” for the audience. Campbell has begun a snakes-and-ladders game of narrative charades, whose structure is quite different from that of his recent video work. In fact, in this respect, it is much closer to his earlier videotapes, which relied on creating an ambience rather than on presenting events in a linear progression to tell a tale.

Over the loud speaker a voice announces, “Trans-Euro Lotto Arto – this year you may be it!” – the audience is whisked from Mainstreet Canada to the Brussels train station. In the same way in which Campbell, as a performance artist, has removed himself from his piece by adopting characterization – a formal device of theatre – he has managed also to suspend the persona he has created by making him a displaced person. Artist and character, person and persona, removed from their natural frames of reference, are excused from responsibility for their actions and yet are also rendered completely vulnerable to the projections of the audience.

To project desire-fulfilling elements or another individual, to succumb to those projections out of a desire to be loved, to project oneself in a public image, are the human failings Campbell wishes to expose.

When Campbell presents himself as a female character, he does not do so by taking on drag trappings. Campbell’s Anna, another in his growing dramatis personae, is more an acquisition than an emulation. Anna is an older European woman, who tells Campbell and the audience about her lost love. She recounts the cultural dichotomies (between herself and Campbell); they extend even to language. “I prefer not to speak German, the accent doesn’t suit me,” she tells us. Anna smokes American cigarettes in the morning, French in the afternoon. When she gets up to dance, it’s to disco. Within the work, Campbell’s foreign-ness to her makes him a prime vessel in which to infuse all that is missing in her own life. Disoriented, feeling fated in an alien environment, Campbell/”Campbell” succumbs to her projections.

At the end of the performance, the Anna figure and Campbell exchange two letters. In passing between the two characters on stage, these letters pass metaphorically as well as between two continents, two sexualities, two cultures, and startlingly, between two distinct levels of the performance itself. When Campbell gives himself a letter from the persona of Anna, he strips down the levels of character and for the first time becomes himself. His raw presence shifts the previous theatrics very definitely into performance. When Campbell reads his reply to Anna, he addresses more than his distance from her. Implicit in the act of reading the letter is an address to, and a disengagement from, the “play” he has just presented within his performance. His plea to Anna to cease her “peripheral blurring” of him is fed through an echo chamber which distorts it and reminds us that he is aware that the characters he has acquired in the course of the piece are examples of the kind of projection he supposedly wishes to escape.

There are moments in the piece when Campbell loses the delicate balance of characterization and presence which he sets up. When Anna lip-syncs to a popular tune, the action verges on camp. Campbell’s ingenuousness is not always unadorned. But his careful use of theatre is exemplified in the resonance of the actual in the projected and of the person in the persona.