Meet Cindy Baker
This January, performance art arrives by taxi
by Evie Ruddy
Regina Gypsy: the Queer City Cab Company
On a sunny afternoon in 2001, Saskatoon-based artist Cindy Baker got into a seven-foot-tall Plexiglas box on wheels and went for a stroll. She pushed herself from her garage, just off Broadway, to the corner of 10th Street and Dufferin outside Amigos Cantina.
Two kids on bicycles rode up to her and started yelling that they were going to tip her over. Then a couple came out of Amigos and shouted at the kids to leave her alone. The kids sped away on their bikes, and the couple went back into the bar like nothing unusual was happening.
Baker laughs when she thinks of it now. "I was absolutely shocked at how they weren't even the least bit curious about what I was doing."
That was the first time Baker did performance art. Over the next several years, she performed Plexiglass Box a few dozen times in about 10 Canadian cities.
People's reactions were mixed. Some were confused and afraid, and wondered if Baker was ill. Others ignored her. Some went right up to the tiny speaker holes on the box and asked Baker what she was doing.
Baker's intent with Plexiglass Box was to comment on the art world.
"I always thought when people recognize something as art, they can parcel it off into their brains as 'Oh, that's art, I don't have to think about it anymore,'" says Baker. "I really wanted to start making work that people didn't recognize as art right away, and therefore they'd spend more time thinking about it."
But from her vantage point in the Plexiglas box, Baker quickly realized people were reading into it a statement about the body. It wasn't the bodies of the art-challenged viewers, it was her body.
Baker is fat.
"I realized I was going to have to do some reading and some thinking and some research," she recalls, "because fatness is a big part of what people were reading into [the project].
"And that's how I got started making this kind of work."
From this research came Personal Appearance - a project for which Baker designed a three-dimensional mascot based on a caricature of herself. The costume is about the size of a Mickey Mouse mascot at Disneyland and looks like Baker in cartoon form. It comes with a few pairs of eyeglasses, including cat eye, and a variety of brightly coloured dresses. The mouth is open and smiling and wearing red lipstick. The body is round and curvy.
"People see a mascot and they think, "Oh, it's soft and fluffy and cute, and it's meant to be hugged and interacted with," says Baker. "That way, I could get people to approach me physically and engage with it before they engage with the ideas that are behind it."
When she put the costume on, Baker was caught off guard by how many middle-aged men grabbed the mascot's breasts and tongue-kissed the mouth. "It was really disgusting, because my eyes are in the mouth," she says, laughing. Baker realized she'd created a hyper-sexualized cartoon character that people didn't see as human.
Groping aside, she noticed something else. The way people interacted with her as a cartoon was remarkably different from how people treated her out of the costume.
"In general, I found that people were extremely open and needed physical affection, wanted touch and play," she says. "And that made me think a lot about the fear people have of fat people and the fact that when I'm not in the mascot outfit, people don't want to engage with me physically. Fat people are seen in the world as sort of being contagious. People don't want to make eye contact with you."
Much of Baker's work concentrates on bodies in a playful way. She's trying to figure out where her own taboo body fits into society and how society wants it to fit in.
"I'm queer, so pull me out of the mainstream," she says. "And I'm fat, so pull me out of the pocket of gay people to 'fat gay people'. And maybe I'm kinky or maybe I'm of colour or maybe I have a disability, and each one of those things brings you out into a smaller group.
"But it also puts you within all sorts of different really diverse communities that have really interesting cultures and really interesting voices, and make you a more diverse and interesting person."
NO RISK, NO REWARD
Baker's approach is to study others by allowing them to study her. "My art doesn't exist except in the space between the audience and me," she says.
"The art is the moment where something exciting happens because it needs to be engaged."
Without this interaction, Baker says her art would be meaningless.
She brings this idea of street-level engagement - with a queer twist - to Regina in her latest project, Regina Gypsy: the Queer City Cab Company, which will see Baker's Chevy Impala transformed into an underground taxi service.
"It'll be decorated like a gypsy [caravan] smooshed together with a nightclub," she says.
Like her previous work, Baker will create a space that's not obviously art and that allows her to watch her audience - this time, through a rearview mirror. For two days, Baker will operate a 24-hour queer cab service. The performance is part of Queer City Cinema's Performatorium - a weekend festival of queer performance to be held in Regina Jan. 19-21.
"It's really cold in the middle of winter, our cities aren't built to be pedestrian friendly, and at the same time the spaces that are made for queer people are few and far between," Baker says. "So, I'm creating this inviting atmosphere that will happily take people to and from queer spaces."
Baker will be on call for festival-goers wanting a ride to and from the performance venues. Flowers and pompoms and gaudy decorations, like shiny bobbles will be plastered to the interior of her taxi.
In the back seat, passengers will have access to amenities like magazines, condoms and lube.
Baker's performance is inspired by queer-run cab companies in cities like London, New York and San Francisco. Back in the day, queers didn't have safe ways to get to and from nightclubs, explains Baker. But the cabs weren't just for transporting people to parties. The back seats of gypsy cabs also served as a safe space for gay men to have sex without the fear of getting bashed, Baker says.
Baker refers to her cab as a "permissive space." In other words, people riding in the back seat are welcome to do whatever they feel comfortable doing as long as it doesn't endanger anyone.
"I'm just a person driving the car, and people can participate as much or as little as they want to," says Baker. "So it's sort of a collaborative endeavor when they get in the taxi."
Baker says the project was inspired by risk - the risk queers take when they express affection in public, the risk Baker is taking by relying on the public to complete the project, and letting people take as much risk as they want in her back seat.
When Baker is at the wheel, anyone and (almost) anything goes. It's a cab you'll want to hail.