Tough Guy Mountain’s first try at theatre takes on corporate culture
Iain Soder tends to explain his art in terms of things he’s interested in, rather than things he’s trying to convey.
He does so when discussing the corporate aesthetic that often dominates his work with art collective Tough Guy Mountain. It can be easy to interpret the group’s pervasive use of corporate themes as overtly critical, but that’s not necessarily the intent.
“The audience we tend to cater to is a left-leaning audience,” he says, “so people come into it with their own understanding of who the good guys and the bad guys are. But we try to be more interested in the differences and similarities between things like branding and artwork. They’re different on an organizational level as well as an aesthetic level.”
“We’re usually simplified as ‘corporate satire,’ like a less polished version of The Office,” he continues. “We’re trying to be a bit more sophisticated. I think corporate aesthetics and office aesthetics are things that people understand and enjoy playing with.”
Tough Guy Mountain is currently in the middle of its first theatrical run, at Summerworks in Toronto. Soder and TGM’s debut play — Tough Guy Mountain: the play — follows Intern Lisa as she navigates the corporate structure of a fictionalized Tough Guy Mountain, whose various executives and employees are played by actual members of the art collective. Tough Guy Mountain: the play, starring Tough Guy Mountain: the people, centring on Tough Guy Mountain: the corporation.
We’re usually simplified as corporate satire, like a less polished version of The Office
“We wrote and produced this play because of the audience interactions we were having with our installations,” Soder says. TGM’s works are often characterized by the way they blur the line between performance and installation. Last year, the group launched a mock research project aimed at parsing the logistics of purchasing the Art Gallery of Ontario. To do so, members of the collective actually went to the museum, armed with iPads suspended from their necks, and surveyed real patrons. Plus, Soder comes from a theatre background. “In terms of the subject matter and wanting to have a big, multimedia artwork, it’s coming form the same place” as previous works, he says.
“They’ve always had narrative undercurrents that don’t get to be communicated. How specifically can you tell a story with an installation? Not as much as you can with theatre.”
Soder says that the play’s focus on an unpaid intern — Lisa is the play’s protagonist, while the entire structure she attempts to navigate serves as her antagonist — is another attempt at recasting an aspect of the corporate world in a different light. “We’d like to become an aesthetic contributor to a subject matter,” he says. “We’re not writing essays about it; we’re making art and we’re doing it from a comedic perspective. We want to make these more marketable jokes about it.”
The process of moving from installation to stage hasn’t been without its pratfalls — Tough Guy Mountain: the play has received mixed reviews so far — but Soder says he isn’t particularly opposed to the idea of mounting another stage show, so much as he’s, well, interested in investigating more avenues of expression and interaction in his work. “We’re interested in the different ways you can portray subject matter to different audiences,” he says. “And in narrative long-form presentation. Theatre is just one way of doing that.”
A Corporate Wonderland: “Tough Guy Mountain” at SummerWorks
Tough Guy Mountain needs an overhaul in order to become the innovative company it wants to be. Self-titled, Tough Guy Mountain: A Play by Iain Soder is about a strange and eccentric branding company that manages premium quality brands for various companies. The audience follows Lisa’s (Jessica Brown’s) first day as an intern into an odd world of corporate power. Intern Lisa, as well as the audience, are thrown into a world that is strictly by the book… or so it seems.
The corporate ladder goes: Kyle Litecoin (Cale Weir) as CEO and occasional hologram, Queen Empress (Elizabeth Johnston) as head of fake accents, and Ivan Phone (Ian Soder) and Joan Popular (Jonathan Carroll) as the executive clowns of the company. Under that ladder running Intern Purgatory is the intern Phil (WIlliam James Kasurak) and multiple interns named Stan, all played by Sam Roberts. With perky smiles and secret corporate plans, everyone welcomes (and some of them loathe) Lisa’s first day.
This extra-dimensional office space showcases farcical qualities that makes the world of this play compelling at times. The company’s grand choreography that welcomes Lisa, Ivan and Joan’s debate on marrying an office lamp, and Cat Bluemke’s stone cold face while solo-dancing to Rory Maclellan’s deep synth tunes, are all examples of the off-the-wall nature of this production. The insightful text has great moments that really pushes Soder’s message: is art relevant? However, there are negatives that discombobulate the magical moments of this show.
Line deliveries from the cast diminish the quirkiness that lives at the core of this play; most actors stumble over Soder’s sophisticated lines during the high-paced moments of this show. A tiny projector screen with sponsor logos bouncing in the style of a screen saver attempts to create the environment of Tough Guy Mountain’s office space. Instead however of using projections to highlight the play’s action, these projections become repetitive and distracting from the brisk nature of the show.
Uncanny is the proper word to describe Iain Soder’s corporate wonderland; it alienates the audience in order to spark a conversation: do we need to re-brand the term “art” in order for it become more profitable, or do we simply need to change the way we think about art as being profitable? These are some great insights into the arts community, especially with the 2015 federal election coming up, but the production’s action has hiccups that prevents it from being a fully-fleshed out performance.
Coco Verissimo: Limiting, but important.
LL: So on that note, and for the “folks at home” who aren’t so familiar with your work, what exactly is the structure of Tough Guy Mountain? I know you have titles such as Executive, or Intern; how does that work, how do you bring new people to the Mountain?
IP: We do struggle sometimes running into the unique barrier of confusing our fictional company with our real company. Because we do have an organizational structure, in terms of how we produce work, how we promote work, how we work together, and then we also have a fiction that we’re always working on, where we play Executives and Interns, and Secretaries, and things like that. Sometimes we do honestly forget, and sometimes we’re treating our fake interns like real interns, or sometimes people are really trying hard to get promotions, to move from Intern to Executive…
Cathy Beige-Walker: And it happens, a beautiful story.
IP: A beautiful business story. So, I mean, I think that’s a pretty unique problem that we have to deal with.
LL: I find that very interesting—where is that line then?
JP: When we are performing, there are people who are labelled as Executives and Interns, but in reality, everyone is sort of engaged with the concept that we’re interested in.
IP: At least when we’re doing it well.
JP: Yeah. I guess the line exists where whoever wants to put in the work on our performances, or whatever, does. That’s sort of how the real business works, is we’re all interested in this similar aesthetic. And we all work together to execute that. And that aesthetic includes… I think performing these hierarchical roles is part of that aesthetic that we’re all interested in.
LL: And I mean, I would love to talk about that, and that kind of leads beautifully into my next question, which is, how would you define the Tough Guy Mountain aesthetic? Or I guess in different terms, what is your mandate, what’s the corporate policy, what exactly is it that you do?
IP: In our fictional company or our real company?
LL: Both. I’m so interested in this fictional company/real company divide.
IP: So our fictional company has billions and billions and billions of dollars in the bank.
LL: Right. Lots of things in the works, lots of feelers out there, doing a lot of things at once. Really impressive.
IP: Yes. We have a thousand interns, at least— we lose track of them.
JP: A really large headquarters.
IP: It’s almost as tall as the CN Tower but A LOT wider. And our fictional company is hired by the largest corporations in the world to invent their brands for them. So, essentially, we’re a hyper-version of a brand consultancy firm.
Not Post-Capitalist, Hyper Capitalist
Lindsay LeBlanc: How did you all start working together, and how did you conceive of Tough Guy Mountain? What about this subject matter and this format was appealing?
Ivan Phone: The subject matter sort of came over time. At least a couple of us used to work in theatre together in Halifax. I met [Joan] because I was directing a play and he auditioned for it. Well, no, I knew him before that, but I asked him to audition for that play, and that’s how we started working together—as well as [Alvin] and, actually, [Coco] back there. And right as I was finishing art school to move to Toronto, [Joan] was moving to Toronto to start art school, and we were roommates, so we moved at the same time. He was starting art school, and I was sort of in the same place, because I was trying to figure out what to do after art school in a new city, and so we decided we wanted to make a collective, and attach all of our past projects into some cohesive whole, because we didn’t really believe in the ability of an individual to promote themselves as an artist—or at least it wasn’t something that was of interest to us. We had a decent body of work between this small group of us, and if we all promoted it as our own, we’d come across like really impressive artists. We did a play called Ubu Enchained, which was about a rich, loaded, business-type persona but he was kind of heroic—
Joan Popular: It’s by Alfred Jarry; he birthed the avant-garde of the 20th century. It’s a good play.
IP: Yeah, Ubu Enchained was written in 1899 so [Jarry] was the definition of “turn of the century.” And then…I mean, when did we decide we wanted to make everything a business aesthetic?
JP: What came first was this desire to find new ways to engage with audiences, like when we were doing theatre in Halifax: in that Ubu play, [Ivan] sort of thought up a couple different ways to fuck with the formal expectations of the theatre, so for example, the audience wasn’t sitting, they had to move around the set pieces. And, later, we put on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar with just three of us, but did it outside and as minimally [as possible]—it was very much an abstraction of the musical, but the point was to figure out a new way to engage with an audience. So that came before our interest in a business aesthetic, but I think the business aesthetic developed out of wanting to group all of our work under one collective brand. We realized that what we were looking for was a brand, rather than just an individual with work. We wanted a brand to cram all these different aspects of all of our practices underneath, and I think branding just naturally leads to thinking about…
LL: Capitalist structures, and…
IP: We became obsessed with the structure of branding, and [Joan] was taking out books from the library about branding, and we were reading, and laughing, and learning a lot. And all of our ideas were spawned based on that. I mean, now, more and more spheres are talking about branding as being important. [Coco] is an actor and she has to define her brand all the time. But it’s definitely something that is corporate in nature.
LL: Exactly, that transitory space. There’s a precedent for this in projects like dis Magazine. Do you guys see dis as an influence, or, similarly, K-Hole? In the 90’s there was this uprising of these “corporate bodies” that I guess served as a critique or satire, I don’t know if satire is the right word, but at the same time emulated those structures. Do you see those groups as influences? What are your influences?
JP: We are super sympathetic to K-Hole, I think. Just in terms of tone, maybe tone in a very general sense, because they’re a lot better at it, they’re a lot better at this post-irony thing than we are. I think we have a bit more in terms of theatrical flourishes…
IP: Or we rely more on theatrical flourishes, where one of the nice things about K-Hole is when you’re reading their work, it makes you laugh, but they’re very much talking about real things. We’re talking about fictions.
LL: Well that’s an interesting distinction, for sure. So what about dis then? They have a bit more of a fictional element to what they do, in terms of branding and “corporate” structure, and not quite in the same way as K-Hole. How do you see your relationship to dis—or anything outside of art as well? I’m interested in knowing what you draw upon when conceiving your projects.
CB-W: Well, with the iPad dresses that we’re making currently, that was less drawing on, let’s say, a brand that already existed, but more so on a trend of wearable technology that’s existing post-art, which is flourishing at OCADU as well.
The dress is out.
LL: Oh wow.
JP: It’s performance wear.
CB-W: And it’s kind of hitting you over the head with its wearable technology.
LL: So I guess the divide, as you were saying, between TGM and dis, or TGM and K-Hole, is that performative aspect—because I’ve heard you bring up performance quite a bit, and don’t I see that as something dominant throughout the work that they do.
Alvin Label: This is also what we look like in them.
AL: It’s an important thing to see.
IP: We come from heavy performance backgrounds.
LL: Right, and I didn’t know that—that you all came from theatre backgrounds. I can see that now, it’s actually something that makes a lot of sense, because it’s true that performativity plays a big role in your work.
CV: The iPad dresses were also made for the e-go campaign, which has a huge performance element to it...
JP: In this fictional idea of ourselves, brands are this raw resource—they’re concept made real, concept materialized, or whatever. So in this fiction that we think about, and in the work that we’re making about it, the company exists in a dimension called the Brandscape, where brands, which just exist as concepts here, are materialized into raw resources that Tough Guy Mountain collects, processes, and sells to companies.
IP: So what they [the companies] do is they create their organizational company infrastructure, and position themselves to be able to accumulate capital, and then everything is completed by us bestowing upon them the magical item of a brand. And that’s when they become multi-national.
JP: It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg: what comes first, the brand or the content that the brand is containing?
LL: Do you make art or do you make something else?
JP: I think we’re definitely interested in aesthetics. That’s all a brand is—it’s a defined aesthetic. For example, Apple is an aesthetic that is defined in a number of ways, even through something like colour—it has a certain palette, lots of whites and greys—and it’s an aesthetic of gestures, if you’re talking about the swiping of a smartphone or an iPad, and it’s an aesthetic of ‘being’ as well. I think that a brand can be an aesthetic of being.
IP: I wouldn’t say this is the mandate but the way that our actual company produces art, and I would say that we work on art, is by examining the forms of things which are really successful in our society. I mean, corporations use brands and that’s gone really really well for them. When we did the show… building condominiums, the condominium industry, is successful in Toronto, people are making a lot of money building condos, so we’re just researching the formal elements of what that’s like, aesthetically, and then seeing if we can just capture some of that success.
JP: With condos, specifically, it is lifestyle branding, too. So again, it’s creating a general aesthetic for people to adhere to.
LL: Okay. Do you associate what you are doing, then, with post-Internet art as a larger framework?
IP: An inevitability.
LL: Maybe. Net art, I guess. I mean, I wouldn’t really consider what you guys do as “net art”—I would consider it post-Internet, and related to these hybrid forms between object and online. Online plays a big role in it all, but then the work gets disseminated from and beyond that.
IP: I would say, at the very least, we’re engaged by it—I mean, we read a lot about post-Internet art. Even in day-to-day social media doings… that’s something that is engrained in us.
JP: And I think a similarity exists in post-Internet art’s interest in the de-materialized object, and the act of de-materialization— even brand concepts, which by nature are de-materialized, moving between the material and the immaterial as well.
JP: Instead of letting the structure that you’re a part of position you—which is, I think, if you are an artist who’s playing the gallery system in the way that you have to if you want to be a professional artist nowadays— instead of letting the system define the role for you, by acknowledging the market forces at play, maybe you could say, or by acknowledging your place in capitalism, and I think a lot of art is resistant to that acknowledgment, by acknowledging that, it is a form of taking control of your position…
IP: And not just acknowledging but engaging with that.
JP: Yeah, actively defining the position that you’re in.
IP: I agree with what you said, on the one hand it’s not unprecedented for a collective under a brand to engage…I mean, Toronto’s own General Idea standing as the most clear cut example, and I would list them as an influence for sure, um… but you said something about circumventing the art market and then engaging with a mass market?
LL: Yeah, so, the art market is made up of this small population, what you could call the one percent, dominated by big shots in larger galleries, and collectors with stupid amounts of money who work for, I don’t know, meat companies. So what I mean when I say circumventing the art market in favour of the mass market is, instead of playing up to that one percent, you’re taking the other route, you make a brand, and a brand, inevitably, is intended to appeal to the masses.
IP: Exactly, yeah. [Coco], will you turn on my computer and open up Google and type the D key and it’ll go to [Google] Drive? There’s just this one quote from our—well, we’re trying to write a, well, we’re calling it our Mountaineers Brand Book, and just because you said we aren’t interested in making money—
LL: Well, I was interested if you are. That was actually more of a question: do you ever intend to make money off of what you’re doing?
IP: I’m hoping this will answer it. Prepared answer for this one. So if you could look up the Brand Book…
LL: Ahem. Not prepared enough.
IP: Yeah we should’ve had it loaded.
LL: I’m just kidding. You gave me wine, I’m happy.
IP: Joan or Coco, do you want to read it out?
Tough Guy Mountain is all about making money for ironic reasons, making money to be funny, making money as an institutional critique, making money for aesthetic purposes, making money to support ourselves, making money for the sake of accumulating wealth.
IP: So that’s the answer to whether we are eventually interested in making money.
JP: Yeah, we stress this aspect of Tough Guy Mountain where we call it a content-free brand, but we also sometimes make products that try to engage with new media in some sort of way, and we had this thing that we used the dresses for called e-go, the idea being that if you don’t want to go to an event or a party, someone in that dress will go for you, and then you will appear on that iPad and you attend the party virtually. But that’s actually something that I don’t…it’s sort of in conflict with our idea of being content-free…
IP: Well, we just say we are working towards the first content-free brand. And, I mean, a lot of our products aren’t actual “content.” E-go did not legitimately provide a service or an object to anyone.
JP: Yeah. And, I guess by executing these… you know how there’d be architects in the 20th century who were just theoretical architects? Like, de-constructivist architects made plans for buildings or whatever… We make plans for these products to further describe what our brand is—what sort of corporate entity we are.
LL: Well is it all to describe that brand or is it also a form of critique? Do you see what you’re doing as critique, and, if so, is it a critique of capitalist and neo-capitalist systems, is it a critique of the market, and the artist in the market… or is it something else entirely?
IP: Well… we don’t explicitly use the words critique, or satire, or lampoon. But it’s usually something that comes up whenever we’re talking to someone else about it. Recently we collaborated with Whippersnapper gallery and we were writing a grant with them, and they were trying to describe us, and they kept using those words. And we weren’t entirely comfortable with it, because I don’t think it necessarily defines what we’re doing. I think the critique or the satire is more inherent in the way the audience already views the subject matter. We’re doing a show about condos, and people already have pre-conceived notions about that.
JP: It’s really nothing new to critique condominium developments specifically or capitalism generally. There’s nothing new to say there, in terms of, like, “tellin’ it.” But if we can find some way, to, um, I think we’re more interested in showing…
IP: Like research investigation and then a demonstration of formal elements that have to do with these things. And then the critique will come from how people already perceive that subject matter. People always assume we’re just making fun of stuff, and that’s maybe the tone that comes across but that’s not necessarily our intention.
LL: I wouldn’t necessarily place you under the umbrella of satire. I don’t really like that word and I appreciate you don’t like critique either. I was reading an interesting article the other day about how these types of projects or groups are less about a critique and more about trying to evade the system. So by turning yourself into a brand, you are skirting around these big galleries and big collectors, and you’re capitalizing on a mass market. And that’s something that almost sucks you out of that art market portal and puts you in a different stream. That may be a little bit more on point with what you are doing, but I know you don’t necessarily aim to make money, right?
IP: Right, well it was this big trailer, or, what are those? Boxcars, I guess, and inside it they were ironing on t-shirts for anyone who bought Mountain Dew. But they also had this green screen in there that they weren’t using for anything, and a whole bunch of videos of people on snowboards and stuff like that, and the person out there on the street enlisting people to take advantage of this promotion. The way that we struggle with trying to emulate that form is that these companies pretty much build their performance on giving away a ton of free stuff.
LL: And you don’t have those resources.
IP: Right. So we have to come up with concepts to give people that they’ll want. We have to come up with a performance concept that they will be willing and able to engage with. Which is the challenge.
JP: In the case of the Condo show, it’s sort of a concept that is familiar to everyone, especially [those] living in Toronto. It’s almost an “in” joke or something in terms of condos—everyone gets it, why pointing out these banal facts of life is sort of funny. I think that works with an artsier crowd, but if you’re just talking to the public, you have to be a bit more general… Right now, we’re interested in coming up with viable performances that, like you were saying earlier, draw in the masses. The way that brands are constructed to have mass appeal, we want performances that are engaging in this massive way. Which I think is relevant in terms of corporate culture because that’s also how, in the day and age of this onslaught of imagery, all the time, from brands but also from your Facebook feed, and all the images you get off Instagram and Tumblr, brands are just sort of… it’s hard to make your voice heard. So Mountain Dew, and all the big brands, are looking for more intimate connections that are similar to theatrical performances. But mostly, like [Ivan] said, they just use their massive capital…
IP: I mean, don’t get me wrong, if we could lean on the crutch of building our performances around giving away free stuff that would ensure their success, that would be great, but since we can’t we do have the fun limitation of having to come up with better ideas. Because you can ensure your success by giving away free t-shirts at the end, or free product, but we don’t have the ability to do that so we have to think a lot more creatively, which is probably healthier for us in the long run.
JP: Another influence, that I think [Ivan] and I are both into, at least, if not other people, is Bertolt Brecht and the way he went about making theatre. He sort of always had this agenda of like, affecting… people not needing to have a specific background to be affected in the way he wanted them to be affected, the alienation effect worked regardless of whether you were a theatre buff or not—
IP: He wanted all his plays to be objective.
JP: Yeah, and in terms of audience engagement that’s something else we’re interested in. It’s ironic because we’re interested in doing it within a capitalist aesthetic rather than a Marxist aesthetic, but it’s definitely another inspiration. I think you’re right in saying there’s this desire for a mass audience. But it’s just a desire to make something that a massive amount of people can engage with.
IP: There’s quite a bit of 20th century theatre and performance art that experimented with audience engagement. And there was lots of writing about it. Not that it stopped entirely, but it definitely stopped to an extent in the theatre world. There are still lots of really interesting experimental theatre companies, who are interested in different ways to engage your audience, or activate your audience, or whatever terminology you’re using.
JP: And there’s also a lot of corporations that are interested in the exact same thing, from a very similar angle as well. Because of how hard it is to get one message out to a large amount of people, just because of how confused the channels of communication are now, corporations are more interested in these intimate audience engagements that are achievable through theatre. So I think that’s another point where the theatre/performance background coincides with the interest in branding—nowadays they have these eerily similar end games.
IP: *Creative marketing*
JP: We have this optimistic view that there’s a role for art to play in maybe what you could call neo-capitalism—in an “Information Society,” there’s a role for specifically conceptual art to play.
IP: And since people throw out the term information economy all the time, there’s this bubbling movement about the concept, and moving towards an information economy. Despite the fact that artists have such a small role to play in the current economy, they could position themselves to be in a stronger position in a new economy, the information economy.
LL: Very good. And, ok. This is a really cheap question… I’m not going to ask it.
IP: We love cheap.
CV: What are the affairs like at the office? … Without emotion.
IP: Now we’ll forever wonder what your cheap question was.
LL: Is Tough Guy Mountain for sale?
CV: Only if you have a real billion dollars.
LL: I like that.
CV: All the bases covered.
LL: Yeah, all the bases were covered, exactly. Where do I go from there? I got the Facebook invitation for VirtualSled, I didn’t get to go—I was at CONDOMAXIMUM. Did you want to talk a little bit about your work or the projects that you’re working on? I know you just showed me the dress…
JP: The performance wear.
LL: Yes, the performance wear.
IP: VirtualSled is done, now, right?
JP: Yeah VirtualSled is done. A lot of the things we do are ephemeral, and a lot of the things we do underscore technological absurdity, the absurd possibilities for technology. VirtualSled was a virtual version of a music festival. I guess in that case we were brand-mating ourselves with a music festival, and music festivals are this new kind of capitalist entity, and they’re capitalizing on um, uh…
LL: Anti-capitalism, basically.
JP: Sure, yeah.
LL: Or a community of people.
JP: Exactly. They’re a great way of making money off of these communities of musicians, so just even doing work in that field has interesting connotations. So that was one thing we were doing.
IP: And the project was just a 3-D room that you could move around in on your laptop. You download the software off the internet, it takes 30 seconds, and you’re able to move around a room with chairs and objects in it, and a stage with a band on it, and YouTube clips of the bands that are currently playing at Sled Island (a festival in Calgary).
LL: So it’s not just about your performance, but also, in some way, including the viewers. I do remember CONDOMAXIMUM being similar—I can’t imagine that project existing in a space that didn’t allow for a certain level of engagement, and obviously it demanded a certain level of engagement—is that a priority as well?
IP: Yeah. I mean, that goes back to what we were saying about our theatre projects before moving to Toronto, that’s always been our sensibility. Another project we’ve been working on, ongoing, for a while, is called Pop-Up Office. And we recently did it at a street festival, inside of, you know, a little tent, where we set up our cubicles, and all our performances in that were geared towards being uh, specific to… well, that’s part of the festival itself… but every performance we put in there was based on some kind of audience interaction or depended on it to a certain extent. For us, that was our first time engaging with a non-art crowd. It was just people who go to street festivals, so we really did not know what to expect.
LL: How did that go?
IP: We prepared thirteen performances with the idea of figuring out which ones would work.
JP: They were all little things, all of them involved some sort of audience participation, some were easier than others, but all-in-all it was definitely challenging to get people to engage…
IP: At the end of the night we only had four performances left, it went from thirteen down to four, and we made those decisions pretty quickly. Like, “Okay, this, this, and this aren’t going to work because of the crowd.” The festival also wasn’t necessarily set up specifically enough to suit our needs. We’re going to do another one and we think we’ll be a lot more ready for it. But I mean, we got it to the point where our performances were consistently being engaged with, enjoyably, by the goers of the street festival.
JP: Talking about influences, another big thing that we observe, and that inspires us in the ways we want to engage with audiences, is how corporations are engaging with audiences through these sort of spectacle events. For example, just recently, Mountain Dew set up this truck outside of a 7/11 nearby, and when you went to 7/11 and bought Mountain Dew, they had this sweet truck… I don’t know, I wasn’t there, you [Ivan] were there.