CHAINSAW as an ACTION: An Interview with Johanna Householder – Catherine Lavoie-Marcus

This interview is excerpted from the zine “Chainsaw: Theory and Practice” (2017) by Catherine Lavoie-Marcus (CLM) in complicity with non-disciplinary artist Johanna Householder (JH), published in the context of Viva! Art Action Festival in Montreal. Inspired by Householder’s performance work, the zine presents a few clues for a prolific counter-usage of the chainsaw. Deviating from its normal usage or used by its victims, the chainsaw becomes an undetermined method for slicing the master’s home, bad habits, bullshit, the historical framework, pride, and ‘the real’ (the most cruel).

Catherine Lavoie-Marcus: When did you use a chainsaw for the first time? 

Johanna Householder: I first really began to use a chainsaw not in performance but in teaching. Actually, I think that was because when I began teaching there were very few female trees. The landscape was crowded out by certain people who I felt did not deserve the kind of canonization that they had received as [founding] fathers of performance and conceptual art, and I was going to teach performance art without saying Vito Acconci. So I had to use a chainsaw to just “bzzzzzt”, cut that out, and Oppenheim and Nauman maybe less so. There was a kind of masculinity that I felt just simply superseded the work that women had been doing for a long time too, to recognize, to insert the physical presence of body, to foreground the importance of the rhythms and relationships embodied.

CLM: …

JH: I think I didn’t do what you wanted.

CLM: No, its perfect. Go on…

JH: Later, I was invited to be part of “Legs, Too”, which is a series that I think started here in Montréal [at Le Cercle Carré]. It was conceived as a kind of sequential performance art event in which there was a set period of time and a number of artists were invited, with the time was divided evenly between them. In the Toronto version there were about fifty people who signed up. I think it was an eight-hour time period, it was the anti-Nuit Blanche (we don’t really like Nuit Blanche in Toronto). So I think it was about eight hours and about fifty or sixty people, so everybody got eight minutes each. And the situation is such that it’s completely self-organizing after the very first organizational gesture of making a list of everybody and giving them their start time; then it’s just posted on the wall and everyone self-organizes.


So I was talking to a couple of my students, James and Chris, and we were sitting around joking about how to clear the space if somebody was still in the space and it was your time and you wanted them to get out, and the chainsaw came up as an idea. And when an idea like Chainsaw comes up it’s very hard to resist. Like, it was impossible for me to resist.

Now Chainsaw as an action:

I built a performance around the chainsaw and it seemed to intersect with something I had also been noticing: paper products, tissue in particular, have animals on their packaging. I was struck by these paper towels that had tigers on the packaging and Kleenex boxes that have birds and fish and this kind of disguising of the obliterated forest. So I was actually using the chainsaw to carve up some of these… I made some totemic trees out of stacks of paper towels and toilet paper and Kleenex boxes. I was able to chainsaw through those and that was kind of great because there were shreds everywhere and it looked like snow. I could put my head inside the packaging so that the tiger face would replace my face and I could roar like a tiger by using the sound of the chainsaw.


I was at a residency at [Jill and Hoke’s] farm in upstate New York, and they had a real chainsaw, a gasoline-powered chainsaw. (The thing with an electric chainsaw is that it is really easy to cut through the cord by mistake.) So Hoke had a gasoline-powered chainsaw, and he showed me how to use it (you know there is a choke and a ripcord to start it). So I had the bird mask and I had the chainsaw. People were gathered around the barn, and there were several acres surrounded by a perimeter of trees. I was interested in staying in the perimeter of the trees. And I guess the underlying thinking was “how would you feel if I cut your house down?”, so it was the bird using the chainsaw. I had my pocket full of sawdust and I would make a huge noise with the chainsaw and throw sawdust up in the air so from a distance it looked like I was actually cutting the logs… but it was raining or drizzling and the minute I put the mask on my glasses fogged up. I was wearing rubber boots and I was using a chainsaw and I couldn’t really see anything.


Training for using a chainsaw

SIZEUP: Supersize everything for an extra dollar.

FELLING: Cut. Anything.

FREEING: Free your natural voice. Also a method used for actors.

BUCKING: Move just like a horse that wants to get rid of the rider.

BRUSHING: Brush your hair out of the way using a hairbrush.

BINDS: Put things together.

SLASHING: Strike across the air with a sharp object.

Catherine Lavoie-Marcus is an interdisciplinary artist. Since 2008 she has presented her creations in theatres and artist-run centres in Quebec (Tangente, Studio 303, Usine C, Centre d’art Skol, Fonderie Darling, Viva! Art action) and has shared her personal and group research internationally (France, Spain, China). She publishes theoretical and critical reflections in the form of articles and essays in the Presses du réel, in Dance collection Danse Press/es and in the magazines Spirale, Jeu, and esse arts+opinions. Catherine is a permanent columnist for the publication esse art+opinions.

Johanna Householder has been making performances, video and other artwork in Canada since the late 70s. She was a member of the notorious feminist ensemble, The Clichettes, who performed under variable circumstances throughout the 1980s. While The Clichettes practiced their brand of pop culture détournment, Householder has maintained a unique performance practice, often collaborating with other artists. She is one of the founders of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art, held biannually in Toronto. She is keenly interested in the archival traces of performance, reperformance, and the effect that performance has in contemporary art and new media, and she writes, talks and performs on these subjects internationally. With Tanya Mars she has edited two books on performance art by Canadian women: Caught in the Act (2005) and More Caught in the Act (2016).