absolution letters

remember how we wrote love on her arms

Scotiabank Toronto Nuit Blanche 2011

Catherine Zagar


Scotiabank Nuit Blanche 2011 starts in Toronto on Saturday, October 1 at 6:59PM and continues until Sunrise.

In support of mental health and women’s health awareness in Toronto this year, there will be an impromptu artist-audience reading of fifty confessional poems, each in the form of an anonymous letter, meant to open up our intense relationship with self-blame, guilt, and the stigmata of self-absolving practices. Simultaneously beginning at 6:59pm and every 14 minutes until sunrise, each time-stamped letter will also appear digitally so audiences can follow the performance online. By sunrise, the letters will be removed from their point of origin at the Church of the Holy Trinity, scattered into the city by anonymous readers, and vanished from the digital face of this site—to say, their physical and psychical weight mirrored, acknowledged, and taken away.

Absolution Letters is both an arrangement and a series of actions, a text and a performance.

It is meant to identify the centre of a world in which we come to blame ourselves for things we cannot control, and like an automatic response, we must be guilty in order to grieve, and we must express that guilt to seek release from it. Sometimes, the search to understand loss becomes a self-absolving and self-absorbing practice, transformed for example into self-harm, self-starvation, and self-suppression. Absolution Letters means that it is not only acceptable, but appropriate, that we express personal loss and the desire for confession and absolution in the open, in free and safe space, and ask for constructive understanding from those around us. 


anyway, it is fear that drives us, that brings us close to tears and if I could be tearless like a poem we might still be afraid and we might still fall only to fall apart facing each other because memory cannot soothe, because memory is alive and fiery and frightening the way its fingers coil around the things we have been in that light, that kindness that lives every morning in a cup of Whittard tea or a spoonful of sugar, or that lives every evening in the last book she was reading in that dim light that we cannot speak of even though it is so frighteningly alive in the colour of her old rooms, so frighteningly alike the things we cannot keep.



But I am your keeper, and I hold your face away from rain.

ab·so·lu·tion /noun/ 1 a formal release from guilt, obligation, or punishment.
2 an ecclesiastical declaration of forgiveness of sins or of the remission of penance. 3 forgiveness. [Latin absolutio -onis (as absolve)]

An hour before sunset, the installation begins to take its form: 50 letters sealed into parchment-coloured envelopes hand-cut from cardstock (because of a conversation in which white envelopes were too cleanly representative of theme, and too lightweight to the touch to represent tension) each 5.5″x4.25,” hang in two sets of five rows facing each other. Each envelope is near-identical: a QR code square, and hand-written in red ink, a time-stamp between 6:59pm on October 1 and 7:16am on October 2, and a different lyrical line meant to be identified by different viewers. Sequence and repetition create an expectation for the envelope’s intimate contents.

I’m a confidant liar.

As the sun sets, the clear wire that dips with the physical weight of the letters becomes invisible, the form of an insistent possibility of psychical weightlessness, an ability to float freely. A single light that later becomes an impromptu stage, draws viewers down a path that foregrounds bodily experience before we identify the textual and digital reach of the installation. We form a new environment from a space that exists, bounded in the physical by the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Trinity Square Labyrinth, and bounded digitally and temporally by the QR code and the timed expression of the artists’ letters.

I know something about you that you don’t want me to know.

The contents of the letters are stream of consciousness confessional poems (written by a number of artists about their struggles not only with personal loss, grief, and self-blame, but with the stigmata of self-absolving, and often self-damaging, rituals) placed also into repetitive visual and literary form: each one echoes the others in line spacing and full justification, and by avoiding end punctuation (for example, periods) in favour of commas and conjunctions. Speakers arise from the letters in a combination of first, second, and third person, identifying the self-as-audience, but importantly the empathetic audience-as-self.

In order to maintain an appropriate relationship among the texts and the elements of the installation, I edited the final contents of each letter to interact with form, to effect physical and psychical movement. The digital copy of each letter, programmed to become visible according to its time-stamp, retains the same textual characteristics: line spacing and full justification. Symmetry soothes as much as it enforces meaning and motive. Self and audience gratification in the sequence from body to text to digital—reception to understanding to empathy.

Before any performances begin, the installation creates meaning by suspending and patterning confessional texts simultaneously in two different, and very exposed environments: a real and a digital space. It begins with a sequence of bodily engagements, a strategy to gain identificatory response and constructive understanding (empathy) from the self and/as audience. Overnight, the boundaries between the separate texts, between the media through which they are presented, between the spaces that surround the installation, and between internal ideas and external acts of absolution, become the motive for expressing personal loss. From here we re-form discourses surrounding the social structures of guilt and absolution—towards safe and healthy practices of grieving and living beyond.

she should have told you what she hoped for, and anyway it is too late to take turn yourself back, light a candle the night the electricity burned out and say, over a spoonful of tea and sugar and the last book she was reading, that she should never be ashamed, that you were never ashamed of her perfection and when she woke up alone in another city, wordlessly she became bones because she thought she could do no more beautifully and now she is starved thin, blank as a dark sky, cut open to be purified because she could not love herself gracefully.


I want to become you and know what it is that you gave.

At 6:59pm on October 1, seeing no better stage than the light in the centre of the installation, I climb up and deliver the first letter, the first intimate time-sensitive content, the first of what becomes a series of other artists, and then the audience, acting out their anonymous writers, who look and read no differently than each other. Then, any letter is delivered to anyone with a smart device, in the neat symmetrical square of QR code. So afterwards, any voice can deliver any confession, any expression of loss and struggle, any expectation of understanding. I read only loud enough to be heard inside the installation.