Two for one at the Harrison retreat

Iris Taylor, 53, is blond and has an appalling sense of style. Kay Burns, 49, is a hip brunette. They’re friends. Both like walks.

Iris Taylor, 53, is blond and has an appalling sense of style.

Kay Burns, 49, is a hip brunette.

They’re friends.

Both like walks.

And both are members of the Flat Earth Society.

Beyond this, they have little in common.

Except, they’re the same person.

“Iris is my alter-ego,” said Burns who is the artist in residence at the Ted Harrison Artist Retreat until the end of June.

“She’s my alternative, performance persona.”

With a cropped blond wig, a bright flowered sweater and a clashing, ankle-length skirt, Taylor stands out.

A self-proclaimed eccentric, she is a vocal ethnographer and historian who firmly believes the world is flat.

And she restarted the Flat Earth Society to prove it.

Several years ago, Taylor came to Dawson City where she held a flat earth meeting and signed up nine new members.

“I was quite surprised with how keen the Dawsonites were,” she said.

“For such a small community, they sure were an enthusiastic bunch and, obviously, really open to some alternative thinking.

“So, the Yukon has definitely won a spot in my heart.”

It’s also part of Taylor’s family history.

“My great-great-grandmother was a prostitute and was up here during the Gold Rush,” she said.

Taylor has returned to the territory to visit Burns at the Harrison retreat.

“Kay started doing some art projects that interested me, so I sought her out to ask about some of her work, and we sort of became friends and hang out a fair bit,” said Taylor.

And, of course, Burns is a member of the Flat Earth Society too.

“If we were going to be friends and spend time together, she had to be a member,” said Taylor, who argues the notion of a flat earth raises larger sociological questions.

Metaphorically, the Flat Earth Society questions the barrage of information out there that doesn’t really relate to personal experience, she said.

“It’s always important that we question the media and the kind of information that’s being handed out to us, and certainly the common sense of our personal experience when we look out at the world, tells us it’s flat.”

After listening to one of Taylor’s lectures, Burns was convinced.

“Her lecture was completely well-founded, well-researched, and it made a lot of sense,” said Burns.

“I, also, am a great supporter of the idea of questioning all the information that we’re handed and expected to take for granted at face value without asking questions — that goes against my nature, which is why what the Flat Earth Society stands for is a really sound theory.”

In her work, Burns, like Taylor, pushes accepted boundaries and questions norms, toying with space, memory, sound and language.

In one of her previous installations, Burns had viewers stand on two black wooden boxes facing each other, with video cameras pointed at them. Any movement they made was sent through a computer program that translated it into various low rumbling sounds that sent vibrations through the boxes.

“So, when you raised or lowered an eyebrow, it came back as a vibration,” said Burns.

“It’s so hard to break out of our means of communication and this helped create a new form of it.”

Communication is a persistent theme in Burns work.

For a 10-artist show in Calgary, titled 1,000 Words, she created a random poem generator.

It’s easy to get a computer to spit out haphazard words or sentences, she said.

“So, I set up a series of possible sentence structures and the computer would insert words randomly from four different lists.”

The poetry generator also had an audio element, and arbitrary phonetic sounds accompanied the words.

“So, people would have to wrestle with what they were hearing and what they were reading,” said Burns.

“But language is so deeply embedded that people would begin to make sense of things that don’t make sense — the mind would make that leap.”

Burns also experiments with visual stimulants.

And in one of her pieces, viewers were able to guide a fugitive through different spaces using a computer program that would project the images onto a large screen, like a glorified video game.

As the images changed, the lighting in the room would shift, affecting the viewers’ environment and mood.

“It was as if you could stand in the image itself,” said Burns.

“I’ve done a lot of work over the years experimenting with memory, place and its relation to space.”

At the Harrison retreat, Burns is developing a new piece, a wooded walk where amblers wear FM transmitters and pick up various pockets of ambient sound and conversation as they wander along a remote trail.

Her alter ego shares this interest in walks.

Taylor has developed historical walking tours in Sackville, New Brunswick, and Calgary.

Unlike traditional touristy strolls, Taylor’s walks tell stories of the area’s history from the point of view of a local eccentric character she’s managed to unearth.

“This helps to depict an area more personally,” she said.

“People’s interest in wanting to attend these historical tours is finding out the larger picture by understanding the individual.”

Burns, following Taylor’s lead, is also working on some historical signposts that will be scattered over Calgary, following the journal entries of a fictional wander.

It’s not surprising these two women share some common creative themes.

After all, it’s hard to be two different people all the time.

To learn more about Iris Taylor, or to join the Flat Earth Society visit