A game of two cities

Vera Frenkel’s experimental exhibit, String Games, centres on a game of cat’s cradle in two different cities

The exhibit shows Frenkel’s diagrams that depict possible formations in cat’s cradle.
The exhibit shows Frenkel’s diagrams that depict possible formations in cat’s cradle.
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Thirty years before the advent of Skype and Twitter, Vera Frenkel’s String Games used technology to orchestrate a game of cat’s cradle played by teams in Toronto and Montreal.

The piece, seen as the anchor work of Frenkel’s career, was originally created in 1974 through the Bell Canada Teleconferencing Studios. In String Games, Frenkel formed two groups, mostly composed of other artists, and split them between the two cities.

The point of this experiment was to have the two cities acting as the hands in a version of the string game cat’s cradle, except there was no string. Each city had five players, with each of them bringing nine personal elements like a number or a sentence. These elements represented the string. Players would speak to each other making a web of personal connections — similar to the complex string network made in cat’s cradle.

The process was captured in videos and pictures, currently on display at the Agnes Etherington Arts Centre. Before the performance, teams rehearsed by playing cat’s cradle with a large amount of string, to learn the mechanics of the game.

Though the players practiced beforehand, the performance was improvised. The game takes on the spontaneity of the Happenings of the 1950s and 1960s — loosely-planned performance art.

Frenkel invited players to form their own variant of the game. By letting others lead, Frenkel removed her personal ideas of the game’s potential and allowed the performance to have the chaos of improvisation. It’s the freedom that makes String Games such an exciting possibility.

The work was performance-based, so the exhibition itself was very minimal. The walls are adorned with the rules and guidelines of the game. The collection was obtained by the Agnes Etherington four years ago, including the preparatory sketches and catalogue for the original performance.

The main focus of the exhibition is the two television screens placed next to each other. Each group is seated on one side of a long table as though for a teleconference. It’s very clear these people aren’t actors, but artists and friends, often laughing together at private jokes.

What sticks out about these videos is the lack of pretension. They’re shabby and unedited.

The exhibit illustrates a link between technology and art. It’s the 70s technology that allows the art to work. It’s the quality of the films that make them nostalgic.

Vera Frenkel’s String Games is at Agnes Etherington until Dec. 11.

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