By BARRY N. NEUMAN, JULY 2018
Long before Janus Metz’s film, “Borg vs. McEnroe,” had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September and its New York premiere at the IFC Center in April, Canadian artists Tibi Neuspiel and Geoffrey Pugen repeatedly re-enacted Wimbledon’s most celebrated championship tie-break at Toronto’s annual, citywide, all-night, performance art festival, Nuit Blanche, in 2011. Gallery exhibitions, paying tribute to the competitive conclusion of this tennis match between Björn Borg and John McEnroe, were presented at Neubacher Shor, Toronto, in 2012, and at Mulherin New York, in 2015.
Earlier this season, Messrs. Neuspiel and Pugen agreed to respectively confer by e-mail and telephone with this writer about “The Tie-break,” a rare and outstanding convergence between sport and art. What follows is a composite of these dialogues.
BARRY N. NEUMAN: What inspired the two of you to produce a work about the 1980 Wimbledon tie-break between Björn Borg and John McEnroe? When (in your respective artistic developments) did the idea first occur to the two of you, and what year did that occur? How did you decide to express the idea as a performance piece and one that would be repeatedly performed over an interval of 12 hours?
TIBI NEUSPIEL: We wanted to create a performance which would challenge us to the edge of our abilities, as well as be peculiar to perform in the dead of night in freezing temperatures at a main intersection in a large metropolis. We performed “The Tie-break” in 2011 at an annual, all-night, art event, called Nuit Blanche, on a specially installed tennis court in the center of Toronto’s financial district.
The desire to submit a proposal to the curators first struck us in late 2010 when we were reflecting on the potential of Nuit Blanche but lamenting some of its shortcomings. Namely we felt that the works we had seen didn’t take into account the peculiarity of the event itself or involve enough risk to warrant the attention of an audience on that night in particular as opposed to any other day that one could go to a gallery and look at art. The ability to repeat the performance for 12 hours meant we could consider each performance as an attempt to recreate the sporting event as closely as possible, knowing full well that even after 10 months or so of practice and rehearsals it would never be possible to account for all of the variables, let alone for the bouncing of a ball off of a slightly uneven, temporary tennis court.
Geoff and I shared a mutual love of tennis. I played some junior tournaments until the age of 12, and I had then recently picked it up again when we had the idea for the project. I think, like many ideas, the concept can arise very quickly and almost without warning if you are open to saying yes. We knew we wanted to make something together, and, within a few minutes of talking, we pretty much had the whole idea mapped out. We were both familiar with the story of the match and the fourth-set tie-break in particular. It also helped that we looked somewhat like Borg and McEnroe and that Geoff was such a skilled player. I, however, needed to train almost daily for nine months.
In February 2011, we got the definitive go-ahead from Nicholas Brown, the curator with whom we were working. From then and through the start of spring, I was outside, shoveling and salting a tennis court, so I could practice and have some hope of getting decent enough to not have it be a complete disaster.
Geoffrey Pugen: Tibi and I met through the Toronto art scene, and we had a common interest in tennis. We decided to hit some balls for fun around 2010, and, while I was playing him, I thought he looked and played like Björn Borg. We then talked more about tennis and art, and I told him I grew up with a competitive tennis background and that I’d played for the University of Southern California. One of my favorite players and influences growing up was McEnroe and that 1980 match. As the conversation continued, we discovered that our backgrounds - Tibi being a master of fabrication and sculpture and my being interested in video and performance - would be the perfect match. So, we decided to pitch the idea to Nuit Blanche, in Toronto, as a re-enactment of the famous 1980 Wimbledon finals match.
The idea of performing it 12 times was an extreme challenge for me. I think art and sport have a lot of similarities in terms of competition, practice, and endurance. Consequently, this goal presented a unique problem, which was solved by each of us training like athletes for the event and creating a code to remember how the points were played out.
BNN: About the performance, the two of you touched upon much that characterizes a modern-day sports event: the live television broadcast, the film documentary, the players proceeding through the clubhouse to the tennis court, the interviews with the players, the courtside announcer-commentator and the umpire (played, respectively, by actor Robert Latimer-Cornell and actress Rebecca Auerbach), the match itself, and the players' behaviors. Can you speak about the highlights of the preparation of the work, your evaluation of how it was executed, and how the live audience related to the work and its being a long, overnight event?
GP: A lot of the work was to get into top physical condition. I wanted to play with the same racquet McEnroe played with. So, I had to get accustomed to that, but, most importantly, I wanted to mimic the movements, behaviors, and strokes of McEnroe in the performance. The hour event included a 10-minute training video of Tibi and I as McEnroe and Borg, shot on Super 8 and VHS. We wanted to get a similar effect of the era. You can view it online at https://vimeo.com/tiebreak/nuitblanchefilm .
Then, we would enter the court and begin the warm-up that was commentated upon live, appropriating and altering the original BBC footage. The match lasted around 26 minutes. The highlights of the match for me was when the crowd suspended their disbelief and started screaming, heckling, and just being wild. I think the match gave people permission to actually speak out, express, and root for their favorite player. Usually in a tennis match, there is no such heckling yelling, etc., allowed. I got into fights with the empire over line calls, and I would address the hecklers directly on, as McEnroe would - frustrated, enraged, comedic, and, other times, sarcastic.
TTN: Temperamentally, I had already the more stoic disposition of the two of us, so inhabiting the famously calm Björn Borg wasn’t a stretch. It was an interesting experience to spend the better part of a year deferring all judgment to the character. I’m not a religious person, but, in that instance, I saw the appeal of deferring to a higher power; my mantra became, “What Would Borg Do?” In that sense, we were fully invested.
The making of the documentary allowed us to create a back story for the characters, which was less important in terms of accuracy and more important for creating a mood that we could inhabit and finding ways of interpreting the athletes. For instance, we created scenarios in which McEnroe practices by hitting balls against the graffiti-covered wall of a gritty New York City underpass, and Borg does chin-ups from a tree somewhere in a remote part of Sweden. Ultimately, we wanted to be more than impersonators. We wanted to meld their personas with our own.
Externally, the costumes in which we performed were important for creating a sense of authenticity. We spared no expense to get the external appearances as perfectly as possible. This meant that we were essentially playing tennis with irreplaceable collectors’ items. Indeed, that was our real hair. I even dyed my eyebrows! Probably no one in the audience would have known if we had cut corners, but we felt it was important to put our absolute best effort into every detail we could control. That was important because, in a sense, the whole exercise was both impossible and absurd. I feel that in comedy it’s best when comedians don’t laugh at their own jokes.
The crowd was consistently a few hundred people for the 12 hours, mostly watching one performance. From what I gather, some audience members stuck around for three or more of the performance cycles, which would have given them an insight into the level of or lack of control we could have with such an undertaking. As the night went on, the audiences got increasingly rowdy and participatory; we very much enjoyed that. Also, the level of heckling and live feedback surpassed our expectations, which for me at least was easy to deal with by referring back to my calming mantra; “What Would Borg Do?”
BNN: Ultimately, video works (including one that's available as a DVD), sculpture, photographs, and installation works were produced and exhibited in gallery spaces. How did you approach the conception and production of each work and of the exhibitions? Some of the works seem to comment on various cultural spheres: sports in general, tennis in particular, these particular athletes, advertising, and marketing. (And the art world, itself, perhaps?). The physics of the sport seem to be of interest to you (e.g., a suspended tennis ball, casting a shadow on the ground in one photograph). Satirical ways and authentically aesthetic ways of interpreting tennis (e.g., the quadrangular wooden frame with tennis racquet string, the net crossing the gallery space, etc.) seem to be of interest to you, as well. How did you approach the creation and presentation of the individual works and of the exhibitions themselves? To what extent was this project conceived and produced to exist as a media entity that would endure beyond the actual performance and the related gallery exhibitions?
TTN: Professional sports exist in some sense as a platform for advertising. For better or worse, branding and marketing made up part of the story.
Early on in the project, we made a series of promotional videos for “The Tie-break” performance, some of which took the form of faux-ads we did in character (e.g., Björn Borg in a Saab commercial). We also made some sculptural pieces, such as, a Wheaties Box featuring us in character. These pieces were at first our attempt to set the mood for the performance, and add to the backstory, but we eventually found ourselves with enough material to mount a gallery show, featuring all of the ephemera. I’ve long been interested in installation techniques, employed for promotional purposes, such as one might find at an event to promote some over-priced sneaker or even a display at a grocery store. There’s something about the techniques used to get you to stop and notice something that I appreciate even if they’re being used for nefarious purposes. Much of that aesthetic appreciation drove the choices made for the gallery installations, as well as subsequent Neuspiel and Pugen collaborative performances/installations (i.e., “Hurdles,”2012/13, and “Drills, 2015).
GP: We thought the polarity of Borg and McEnroe (a.k.a., “Fire and Ice”) was a great starting point to create tension with both the performance and the installations we created afterwards. That tension manifested as several allegorical relationships between rich versus poor, mindfulness versus entitled/bratty, calm versus rage, social norm vs counterculture, etc. The match was performed at Commerce Court, between four major Canadian banks, in downtown Toronto
Usually with performance art there is no documentation, but we were interested in creating paraphernalia around the sports spectacle, simulating the commercialization of sports/spectacles. We first started with a fake Wheaties serial box with us on the cover. This expanded into photography, painting, and strung stretchers - some of my favorite works in the shows. Tibi and I would take a stretcher and work together on stringing it, in the same way Borg and McEnroe had become friends off the court. I think this gesture of stringing and the tension involved in stringing was an interesting metaphor.
BNN: What's coming up for each of you next?
TTN: I have been working on a coding project involving creating mathematical models of risk and probability.
GP: I am currently working on a docu-fiction video project for the Canada Council and continuing my body of work on wellness, called, “Four Winds.” WM
All works courtesy of Tibi Neuspiel and Geoffrey Pugen.
Video documentation of “The Tie-break,” https://vimeo.com/tiebreak/videos
Tibi Neuspiel, http://www.tibitibi.com
Geoffrey Pugen, http://www.geoffreypugen.com
Barry N. Neuman was previously the New York editor of the online edition and an associate editor of the hard copy edition of “Boiler,” Milan. Works of his published in “Boiler” include interviews with Matthew Antezzo, Carles Congost, Christian Flamm, Graham Little, Victor Rodriguez, Francis Ruyter, and Gordon Terry. He has additionally guest-curated group exhibitions at Team Gallery, New York, and La Panadería, Mexico City. Mr. Neuman received a M. A. in visual arts administration from New York University and a B. A. in biological sciences from the State University Of New York At Binghamton.
Photograph by Lance Evans
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