When you think of modern commercial flight, it's likely you think of cramped seats, bad food, delays, lost luggage and customer service that alternates between reluctant and hostile.
For their latest live, site-specific performance piece, Transport, Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan -- the Winnipeg-based duo behind such fearless and funny feminist performance and video works as Lesbian National Parks & Services, We're Talking Vulva, A Day in the Life of a Bull-Dyke (and the companion mock-Life magazine, In the Life) to name but a few -- wanted to evoke a different era of flight. A time when commercial aviation was regarded as the marvel that it is, as opposed to a hassle we take for granted.
In Transport, Dempsey and Millan transport audience members back to the 1970s aboard a vintage Vickers Viscount passenger jet at the Western Canadian Aviation Museum. The 45-minute performance -- which is "laced with disco, salted peanuts and transcendence" -- takes place on the plane. (The duo is no longer taking reservations, but those interested in seeing the show can fly stand-by.)
Airplanes were not an abiding interest for the artists, Dempsey says, but they had been thinking about them a lot more lately.
"The creative process is mysterious, even to those who engage in it," she says. "But all of our work begins with images. The first image was the idea of a plane parked in the downtown of a city. Airplanes in unusual situations. Airplane as object. We've been interested in flight in general -- and we got excited about the history of aviation."
In order to pull off their vision, though, they needed a real plane. "The idea decides what medium it sits in," Dempsey says. "When we thought of the airplane, the magic of it was experiencing it live. Seeing it in a video wouldn't have that impact."
As it turns out, the Western Canadian Aviation Museum has in its possession one of the finest Vickers Viscount jets (Viscount 757) in the country. It's still emblazoned with old-school Air Canada decals and colours.
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"They were very supportive of the idea," Dempsey says.
The British-made Vickers Viscount was the world's first turboprop airliner. It was introduced by Trans-Canada Airlines (which would become known as Air Canada in 1965) on April 1, 1955, on its Montreal-Winnipeg route. It remained in service until 1974. "It didn't fly too high, so the windows could be quite large," Dempsey says. "There's lots of leg room. It's a beautiful experience to be on that aircraft. And this was pre-in-flight entertainment, so looking out the window -- and talking to your fellow passengers -- was the entertainment. People dressed up. You were served good meals."
Dempsey and Millan were particularly inspired by flight in the 1970s.
"This was the era of Apollo. There was a lot of hopefulness at that time. It was before the age of AIDS. Disco culture was huge. Youth culture was all about dancing and taking drugs. There was a lot of possibility."
The downright cheery recent mid-season finale of Mad Men, which saw a country united by the televised Apollo 11 landing in July 1969, speaks to that last point about possibility; everyone had their eyes to the sky with a renewed optimism about the uncertain decade that lay ahead. Teenage Sally Draper is admonished by her father for calling the moon landing a waste of money: "Don't be so cynical." Even Don Draper is feeling optimistic in mid-1969.
The 1970s is also when feminism arrived in the cabins of commercial aircraft. Stewardesses -- maligned as mere sky waitresses and sex symbols -- demanded to be recognized for the skills they possessed, and flight attendants were born. Dempsey will be your flight attendant in Transport.
"When commercial flight first began, every stewardess, as they were called, had to be a registered nurse," she says. "It was an extremely skilled position. Then there was a shift; the requirements were basically to be young, slender, under 30 and unmarried. In 1970, there was a change to the under-30 rule, and it became more professionalized with the lifting of these restrictions."
Dempsey and Millan, who have been collaborating since 1989, work across disciplines to create whole worlds in which a viewer can get lost. Dempsey points to the Lesbian Rangers as an example. "It makes sense they'd have a field guide and a handbook and PSAs," she says. For Transport, the pair has created everything from in-flight safety cards to airsickness bags, and Dempsey will be decked out in an authentic vintage Air Canada uniform. "It's those details that draw you in," she says. (Oh, and yes -- there will be salted peanuts.)
Transport will no doubt evoke nostalgia for a bygone era, but Dempsey also hopes that audiences disembark from her flight with that feeling of hopefulness, that sense of possibility.
"When my grandmother died a few years ago, I was struck by the fact she was born before the invention of air travel," she says. "This quest for flight is embedded in our mythology, but we're actually doing it. We use it as a metaphor for the incredible potential of human innovation.
"There are lots of reasons to think we're going to hell in a handbasket, but we have these great big brains and opposable thumbs and we've used them to create the unimaginable."