Zeesy Powers dares to be truthful at tomorrow night’s Power Ball
My awkward teenage self would have killed to know what, exactly, people thought of me. What could I do to make myself more affable, more popular, more accepted, more…normal? If I couldn’t get the answers from one of my friends, I may have settled for the unfiltered opinion of Zeesy Powers.
Powers is one of the city’s most accomplished multimedia and performance artists, a self-professed dabbler in novelty and human power structures. She’s also one of the top stars of tomorrow night’s Power Ball, a big-ticket fundraiser for The Power Plant contemporary art gallery at Harbourfront Centre. As part of the theme 15 Minutes of Fame, Zeesy will be dishing out #realtalk to party guests in a live-action exhibit aptly-titled “I Will Tell You Exactly What I Think Of You.” It’s an act she’s developed over the years, since her early work at fairs dating back to 2005. The work had a following, but she felt that there was something lacking.
“I started doing these very cheap water colour portraits of people, which they really liked,” Ms. Powers told me over drinks at Parkdale’s Pharmacy Bar. “But I realized more and more that they were really about me showing my subjects what I thought of them. So — to get meta with it — I thought it would be really funny if I put up a sign saying ‘$5 and I will tell you what I think of you or you can get a portrait for $10!’”
As it turns out, what started as a laugh actually yanked real interest. “A lot of people actually went for the portrait. Of course, right? It’s a beautiful thing to take home!” says Ms. Powers. Soon after, she was invited to perform at other zine fairs and fests like SummerWorks and, most recently, at the Night Gallery in Los Angeles. Instead of taking money as a transaction, it’s performed as a talk show where it is the public exchange of words that makes the act an honest performance. “It seems like it’s a confessional, but it has nothing to do with the person on stage, but I’m the only person confessing.”
Some patrons come to Zeesy wanting validation, but “people hear what they want to hear. They want context for what they’re doing in their lives from an external source,” she explains. “People are a lot easier to read than they think they are. It’s a bit like going to see a psychic.” Power Ball partygoers will walk into a room symbolic of a studio set. It’s functioning, stripped to minimal components where a light is a light, a stool is a stool, and a camera is a camera. (“Because of that, you’re forced to focus on what’s happening between the participants.”) Like a real television taping, there will be a release form to sign explaining that the performance is for entertainment purposes only. (Again, think psychic friends hotline!) Names are optional and numbers can be used to protect identities since all recordings will be uploaded to her YouTube channel.
While sitting on stage, Ms. Powers will tell the lucky person exactly what she thinks them. “We’re shooting portrait style and projecting their face on a huge screen so they can watch their own reactions at the same time. I’m hoping their videos will be very beautiful,” she says in earnest, but Powers makes no apologies when assuring that her primary motivation is being blunt while unpacking the beings in the world around her. “These are not charitable acts, the service I’m providing is to myself.”
Can it backfire and ignite, say, tears? Well aside from a few episodes with drunken acquaintances in the past that just couldn’t handle the realness it’s been a relatively harmless act. (Tomorrow night’s performance will wrap at 11 p.m. so participants won’t be too tipsy.)
Powers isn’t afraid of a little risk though. In 2007, she performed the surreal “Three Minute Girlfriend” project. Flyers were posted seeking volunteers to be her three-minute partner in her quest to understand what relationships were truly about. “I was so curious back then for someone to tell me what a relationship was, but a three minute one is so counter to what a relationship is supposed to be since there’s absolutely no investment of time.” For the most part, participants kept it cordial with some handholding and cuddling, or just awkward conversation. How much can get done in such a short period of time? It’s not like anyone’s going to be dropping their pants and getting it all done in real life in three minutes either.
But then there were the breakups. “Like anything, when you put out something very raw and sincere into the world, it continued to have repercussions for years after, because it was a real relationship. And when you break up with a person, they don’t disappear; they’re still floating around in the world.”
This winter, beyond Power Ball, Zeesy Powers will debut a five-person sensual dance performance that will see visuals and symbols projected onto dancers bodies, and a collection of short stories.
“I make no illusions. My interests are largely self-focused, I’m trying to adjust to the larger world but the easiest way to do that is through the lens of myself. I’m probably not that unique, right?”
Zeesy Powers appears at Power Ball: 15 Minutes tomorrow, June 6 at The Power Plant, 231 Queens Quay West. Tickets start at $180, available online.
Jesse Ship is a Toronto-based writer. Follow him on Twitter at @jesse_ship.