The Ecology of Experimental
Music Performance in Canada
The Ecology of Experimental
Music Performance in Canada

Laura Kavanaugh and Ian Birse

computers, electronics, and small objects

Removable Room, Ace Art Inc., May 11, 2007
Send and Receive, Winnipeg

Performance Practice in Removable Room1
By Ellen Waterman

Removable Room is one element within Ian Birse and Laura Kavanaugh’s Instant Places, a project they began in 2003 and which they describe as “an ongoing series of researches into Place as a field of possibilities from which singularities emerge, moment by moment.” ( The artists explain that:

"Instant" also points to the transformative power of the moment of performance, a time-world of infinitely short duration that may serve as an opening to motion at right angles to history and clock time. During performance we invite visitors to step with us into a space in which time is suspended. The immediacy of physical presence is vital: it is clear to us that the possible value of a performance lies in the consciousness of every person in the room. (

With this artists’ statement, Birse and Kavanaugh confirm both the social nature of performance (involving “every person in the room”) and the specificity of time and place that lends it “immediacy.” The following analysis of Removable Room draws both these threads together with a consideration of the role of technology in their work.

Birse and Kavanaugh took Removable Room across Canada in 2006 and 2007, creating and installing it in several cities. I experienced it at the 2007 Send and Receive Festival in Winnipeg, where I documented the performance and interviewed the artists. Birse and Kavanaugh arrived in Winnipeg a couple of weeks before the festival to begin their work, which initially involved walking the city, picking up odd bits of detritus and documenting their walks with sound recordings and photos. As they explained it to me, the “performance” begins at the moment they begin to interact with the environment. Kavanaugh told me that:

As soon as we arrive and start on a project, the attention and the focus that comes with that has a lot of the same kinds of intensities [of] marked-off performance time.... Also, we investigate: we walk around town, we take photos, we take sound samples, and it is inclusive of the performance aspect because when you're out trying to get strange photos and recording things, people are very aware around you. You become a performer in a sense, because you are very attentive to where you are directing your focus, but there's also, generally, "incidental audiences,” we call them. People are aware that you're up to something.2

Birse and Kavanaugh use the artefacts they collect to transform the performance space, in this case, the stairway, entrance and first room of Ace Art Gallery. Contact mikes, small objects, a resonant coat rack, and a tiny “room” (built around an inflatable wading pool they found in the space), “performed” along with constantly mutating photos and sound recordings controlled via Max/MSP and Jitter software.3Birse and Kavanaugh’s personal experience of Winnipeg was installed and created in this “removable room,” which they then presented during a three hour improvised performance.

Throughout their performance at the Send and Receive festival, Birse and Kavanaugh concentrated totally on their tasks, avoiding eye contact with each other and with the audience, and always moving with a ritualistic slowness. Birse, for example, told me that he refrained from taking off his sweater, even when he became too hot, because he didn’t want to distract the audience and disrupt the “through-line” of the performance. Such attention to body movement is all the more striking given the task oriented quality of the performance which consisted solely of keyboard and mouse movements, plus small manipulations of the various miked objects. Despite its non-matrixed quality, Kavanaugh described the performance as a strongly embodied experience. Speaking of a moment in the long performance when she simply ran out of ideas, she said: “Sometimes your body will start to do something that’s the right thing. And that’s the best....[Y]ou’re distracted, and then you just find that something’s happening and is making a sound, and you can go with that.”

The audience, in fact, had a great deal more freedom to move around the performance space than the performers. Because this version of Removable Room was effectively in the entrance way to the gallery (and served as an antechamber to the bar and reception area where people could buy tickets for other festival events), people either flowed through the performance, brought chairs in and sat awhile, or wandered around in the space; several people took video during the performance, not hesitating to go right up to the artists.

For Birse and Kavanaugh this fluid interaction is highly desirable, although they do also expect (and got, in this case) quiet attention, something their own ritualistic movements encourage. The audience may have been responding to the “micro” sound world of the performance, in which tiny movements of objects are amplified by contact microphones (tapping a thin wire on metal, or spontaneously scratching a tiny microphone directly on a wall). Even when digitally transformed and distributed in space, layered and looped, the sounds retain an intimate “whispered-in-your-ear” quality whose intelligibility requires close and active listening. It also seemed to me that the mainly Winnipeg audience members (Send and Receive is a small, local festival) were attentive to the morphing visual imagery that referenced the everyday life of their own city.

Interestingly, the transience of both Removable Room as an installation (it’s made entirely of found objects that are dismantled and discarded after the event), and of the audience, mirrors Birse and Kavanaugh’s own transience at the time I interviewed them. In order to have maximum flexibility to develop projects at remote locations, they had given up their home base in Edmonton in favour of a nomadic life style. And because they like to stay in the performance location for extended periods of time (several weeks at least), they would often try to sublet an apartment, or house sit; thus, their daily lives were also a process of creating “removable rooms” inside other people’s living spaces. As Kavanaugh put it: “Well, it’s economic and it is also related to the project...because Instant Places and Removable Room [are] about space and time and moving around and the impermanence of things and transience of things….”

Birse and Kavanaugh’s collaboration is founded on a hybridity of human and machine interaction, but they do not consider this to be a “neutral” or “cold” condition. Kavanaugh told me, “I don’t see [technology] as cold; it’s warm, it’s lovely, it’s designed by human beings....[I]t’s part of us you know. We’re not disconnected; it’s not this other thing over there.” Birse also pointed out that, along with their peripatetic lives and autonomy as independent artists, comes a particular socio-economic relationship with technology. In 2007 they were both still working with Mac G3 computers. Birse notes:

There’s a social, kind of political...aspect to know, there’s always this pull or this desire to work in higher-resolution formats, that it’s closer to reality. You see a nice high-resolution, crisp photo and you go: “wow, that looks great. I want to process video in that resolution, and now [there’s] high-def and I want to do that.” But the people who are working at that edge of technology are [usually] connected with an institution of some kind that has serious funding, and how does that affect your status as an artist in society, being independent, being a mobile kind of unit...?

As these comments demonstrate, for Birse and Kavanaugh, working with digital technology constitutes a form of social interaction, a politics that at the same time shapes their own relationship to society. Their emphasis is firmly on exploiting the available resources while maintaining the highest possible degree of autonomy: neither one wishes to be tied to an institution. Once a Removable Room has been disassembled, all that remains is a kind of digital shadow—an archive of Max patches, images, and sound files. The performative force of the work lies in the articulation of a particular social context that is nevertheless entirely ephemeral.

Many thanks to Ian Birse and Laura Kavanaugh for permission to post this video excerpt, and for their active participation in the development of the essay from which this excerpt is taken.



1. This description is excerpted from Waterman, Ellen. “Send and Receive: Technology, Embodiment, and the Social in Digital Audio/Visual Art.” The Art of Immersive Soundscapes, ed. Pauline Minevich, Ellen Waterman. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013.

2. Unless otherwise indicated, comments by Ian Birse and Laura Kavanaugh are from my interview with the artists in Winnipeg, May 11, 2007.

3. Max/MSP and Jitter are interactive programming environments commonly used to create and control audio and visual data in live digital performance.