By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Leavins tells this story in Cute With Chris: Live. It’s the story of the origins of his Internet experiment.
He stared at the photo for a long time, trying to imagine the life of the woman within it. He grew so attached to the story he was inventing, he couldn’t stomach the idea of the photo being relegated to the incinerator — and with it, his fiction, which surely had only the most precarious bearing on the reality of this woman’s life, and that of her dog. He observed a perplexed expression on the shopkeeper’s face when he bought the photo, an unspoken interrogation: Did you know this woman in the photo? Was she some relative? Why else would somebody purchase such a relic?
When he got home, he placed the photo on his mantel, as though the woman and her dog were members of his family. And in a way, they now were. The photograph’s new owner and the photographed woman were now inexplicably connected, the living and the dead, the present to the past. And when people would come to visit his home and they saw the photo on his mantel, his story — his fiction of the woman and her dog — grew increasingly elaborate, the story triggered by a visual image and now being expanded into a kind of folklore.
This is, after all, how we create history, when the memory of experience becomes a kind of snapshot, loosely tethered to reality. And this is the core of Leavins’ desire to create a project based on pet photos.
“When I look at a photo,” he explains as he sets up the video shoot in his apartment, “I want to know the life story of the owner and the pet, I’m fascinated by the relationship. I love the notion of my computer, my MacBook, being this seething digital archive of all these people’s lives and stories, and it just keeps growing and growing.”
One particularly striking image from Leavins’ live show comes from a screen on which he’s broadcasting computer projections, taken from his archive: one pet, a lingering snapshot, then another — a girl holding a dog, then another girl lying next to her kitten on a floor. A procession of people and the four-legged loves of their lives moves ever more quickly, until it becomes a blur, a cosmic swirl of affection between children and beasts, which spirals up and out into the sky. You can almost hear the cry of the children craving attention as much as they’re craving affection: Hi. This existed.
Franco Boni is artistic director of the Theatre Centre in Toronto and has been an ardent fan and patron of Leavins since 1997, when he first saw him on the stage in what used to be called “performance art” pieces. Boni was running a couple of festivals at the time and programmed Leavins’ work.
Boni cites two factors that combine to make Leavins so engaging: his timing and his real affection for a live audience. Because of Leavins’ sardonic attitude, Boni argues, his affection for the crowd “can be perceived as coming from a place that’s not genuine . . . but it is genuine. He really does want to make that connection with the audience and get to know his audience. It could easily be the opposite of that. I think part of my attraction to his work is his interest in connecting to an audience that would otherwise not tend to go to a live performance.”
Boni says he was particularly taken by the sight of a Cute With Chris: Live audience in Toronto in April 2008, and by how many of them had been drawn to the theater by the Web site.
“It struck me that the audience was there for him,” Boni recalls, “but they were also there for each other, to meet each other. That was kind of a remarkable moment, when I think of what live performance is. It’s precisely that: an audience gathering to see each other to be entertained and to be challenged, but mainly to be together in a room. It was quite an amazing moment.”
Still, Leavins says, he hasn’t yet cracked the code of using Web technology to connect people, to get the audience to really participate with him online. “Now they’re submitting their own pictures for the show, which I like,” Leavins explains. “And I can post them on my site and make them stars, or I do a video message from the stage, but my instincts tell me that there’s a way to go deeper with the form.”
“Dear Chris, I am an actor, too (a stage actor). I am thinking of starting an Internet show to spread my talents, but I worry it will affect the way I’m seen as a stage performer. Your show is charming but often strikes me as very amateur. Am I wrong to say there are huge differences between the Internet and the stage? I would like to be taken seriously as an actor.”