Mona Lisa Effect, Georgia Sagri, Kunsthalle Basel, 2014
Open letter: #metoo and Troubleyn/Jan Fabre
By (former) employees and apprentices at Troubleyn
In the interest of the audience and the wish to inform future generations of performing artists, we, former employees and interns who have worked with Jan Fabre in the context of Troubleyn vzw, have come together to share our experiences and to raise our voices in the context of #metoo and its associated social shifts.
This collective response is prompted by statements made by Jan Fabre during an interview with the public broadcast station VRT on Wednesday the 27th of June 2018. In the interview, Fabre shares his thoughts concerning the results of a survey on sexual harassment commissioned by the Flemish Minister of Culture, Sven Gatz.
The starting point for the interview is the headline “1 out of 4 women in the cultural sector experienced sexual harassment in the past year”. On camera for the interview, Fabre responds with surprise and disbelief when these numbers are presented. He says that he is supportive of the actions and measures taken by the Ministry of Culture, but adds that “there is also something dangerous about this. Because, the relationship, the secret bond between director/choreographer and actor/dancer…. you will in fact also destroy and harm it incredibly”.
To illustrate his statement, Fabre gives us insight into the daily life of the company: “For example, very recently, I made a performance called Belgium Rules. It was a homage to Rubens, Félicien Rops, Paul Delvaux, René Magritte. And suddenly I had to go and explain to the young actresses and female dancers that those artists were not sexists!”
Then, Fabre mentions another situation in which he was screaming through the microphone at one of the performers on stage, insisting that she needed to work out because she had “become too fat again”. Later, an assistant informed him that such comments might be hurtful. Fabre reassures the interviewer that his comments are “always fair” but observes people to be more sensitive these days. “A year ago,” he concludes, “all of this was not a problem”.
To outsiders these statements might sound trivial or matters of artistic freedom, but some of us were present at both of the moments Fabre describes and can attest to several inaccuracies in his account. The conversation on sexism in Belgium Rules was related to a written critique in Etcetera magazine that questioned Fabre’s staging of a series of art historical images, not the work of the late Belgian artists. The questions were directed at Fabre, not at Rubens.
The situation in which Fabre publically drew attention to a dancer’s weight was witnessed by some of us and involved a long and painful humiliation game in which Fabre insinuated that she must be pregnant. This bullying went on until the performer started crying.
This last situation is not trivial. Nor is it an isolated incident. It does not surprise us. It is just one example of the many confusing psychological games that one might encounter when working with Fabre. Humiliation is daily bread in and around the rehearsal space of Troubleyn. Women’s bodies in particular are the target of painful, often bluntly sexist criticism – regardless of their actual physical condition.
One day, he puts a performer on a pedestal; the next day, he systematically breaks him/her down, often scapegoating one person and stirring tensions in the group. Because Fabre’s moods are unpredictable and he is in charge of the space he creates as director, his behaviors make a tense environment in which everyone is at least implicitly encouraged to please the director on a regular basis.
Fabre’s position of power in the company is subtly reinforced through assigning nicknames to his performers. Some of these are supposed to flatter. Others are undeniably racist and denigrating. In the VRT-interview, Fabre says: “Of course! I think that all forms of life must be respected, also women”. Yet, in the presence of all the performers, he said to one woman “You are beautiful, but you don’t have a brain, like a chicken without a head”.
Or what “mutual respect” is Fabre talking about when he shouts at one of the non-European interns that if she didn’t perform better, he would send her back to her country?
Some might argue that this is part of an artistic strategy – that to achieve his desired results, Fabre feels he needs to push his performers past their limits. To this we would like to respond that the physical and/or emotional price is always paid by the performer, never by the company or the people in charge.
Fabre’s shifting attitudes and volatile behaviour have affected the self-esteem and self-worth of many employees. Many of us needed to seek psychological help after leaving the company and have described our experiences as having left traumatic scars on our being. One performer concluded: “He calls us ‘warriors of beauty’, but you end up feeling like a beaten dog.”
Perhaps some might continue to insist that pain simply ‘belongs’ to certain artistic practices – a price to be paid for the making of ‘good art’. But picking on performers’ vulnerabilities is just the prelude to a darker, hidden business in Troubleyn. In the VRT interview, Fabre claims that in the 40 years he’s been working with his company, there have never been problems with sexual harassment. This is a lie. He is openly deflecting attention away from his own alleged acts of harassment.
As recently as the spring of 2018, one of the company’s performers resigned, citing reasons including sexual harassment. In written correspondence with the company, the performer explicitly states: “the impact of a disrespectful and painful #metoo experience affected me in my work and my inner freedom”. For her, the work became “no longer a blissful challenge and opportunity, but a manipulative battle and fight”.
Shortly after, a colleague who had witnessed two other performers leave the company for similar reasons resigned as well. Just last month, two more colleagues left. None of them wished to silently subject themselves to this environment any more. Altogether, this amounts to a total of six resignations in just the past two years – all of which either involve or protest against cases of sexual harassment, now often referred to as ‘#metoo’.
So, what does a #metoo experience mean in the context of Troubleyn?
Harassment, sexism and misogyny mean exactly what they have always meant. Through sharing and reflecting on our collected experiences and testimonies – one of which dates back 20 years – we have come to understand that Troubleyn company members have been navigating unprofessional and inappropriate relationship practices in the workplace for decades. This is not a new generation being more ‘sensitive’. Nor is it “a problem that started a year ago”.
One performer who worked with Fabre fifteen years ago states: “Already then it came down to the proposition: ‘No sex, no solo’. When I told people in my environment about my experience, they just shrugged their shoulders as if it was part of the job.”
Our collected experiences and testimonies are often so consistent with one another that Fabre’s behaviour shows clear patterns. For example, testimonies from eight different performers reveal that Fabre has an ongoing, semi-secret photography practice. For these so-called side projects, he frequently invites performers to his home under the premise of making visual art, and then turns the situation into an opportunity where he can approach the performer sexually.
One performer describes such a situation: “After at least one year in the company, Fabre asked me to do a project on the side that was paid under the table, and which I was told not to mention to anyone. This project was to be photographed by him in a situation that I still feel ashamed of talking about today. In this very uncomfortable, supposed working situation, I was offered alcohol and later drugs to feel more free (this is the only time in my life that I have taken drugs). This then led to Fabre asking me for more.”
These semi-secret photography projects and the exchange of sex for advancement have become a hidden currency in the company – granting the performer access to solos and/or future job opportunities based on their response to Fabre’s advances. When performers have rejected these advances and tried to maintain a respectful, professional relationship, their decisions were met with various degrees of subtle and less subtle forms of punishment, including stalking, verbal humiliation, aggression and manipulation.
Sometimes, performers are offered large sums of money – ostensibly as a fee for their participation in these private photoshoots. This itself is provocative if we take into account the low official wage of Troubleyn and the lack of payment for many interns.
One performer gives this description: “After the photo shoot and after having rejected his approaches, I felt horrible and I was upset. Fabre didn’t understand it and he told me I should not make a big deal out of it. I wanted to give him back the money, but he refused. He told me he made a lot more money selling these pictures, so that money was my share. He asked me if the reason I wanted to give the money back was because I felt like ‘a whore’.”
“A week later, he invited me for a fancy dinner and offered me a solo. In the following weeks, at odd times, Fabre kept on calling me, ordering me to buy sexy underwear and high heels for further photo shoots. I refused, but I felt I paid a price for it. Difficult episodes followed.”
“During rehearsals he would cut down my role and I would lose my parts to another dancer. I cannot be sure that this had anything to do with the photo shoot, but something shifted in his behaviour after. Once I didn’t follow his directions fast enough so he came to the stage, yelling with his fist in the air as if he was about to hit me. He said: ‘If it wasn’t the premiere, I would have taken you off my stage’. He continued to offer me photo shoots, which I always refused, and kept on mentioning the solo.”
Knowing that Troubleyn is structured according to a strict hierarchical logic, these punishments often go unnoticed during rehearsals because new performers in general are treated ‘harder’. Interns and performers who have lower positions in the Fabrean hierarchy are expected to withstand the humiliation, harassment and punishment just like their senior colleagues did in the past. This might be seen as a way of proving oneself, but it is, in fact, a way of collectively perpetuating a cycle of abuse in which one unwillingly becomes complicit.
To Fabre and his defenders, these situations might be understood as the expression of artistic freedom and – as such – a human right. It might be justified with the logic that employees should just leave the company if they disagree with certain modes of working that break ‘conventional’ rules.
But artistic workplaces are bound by regulations, just like other workplaces. When we asked the union to check Troubleyn’s own work policies (in Dutch ‘Arbeidsregelement’), we discovered that Art. 46 states that no act of violence, bullying, or sexual harassment during work is tolerated. (“Art. 46 Geen enkele daad die psychologische risico’s inhoudt met inbegrip van daden van geweld, pesterijen of ongewenst seksueel gedrag op het werk mag worden toegelaten of getolereerd. Dit geldt voor werkgever en werknemer, maar ook voor derden die in contact komen met werknemers voor de uitvoering van hun werk.”)
Our accumulating testimonies thus beg the question: What function do these rules serve when many of the people working at Troubleyn do not seem to understand or acknowledge the harmful repercussions of Jan Fabre’s behaviour, or worse, when Fabre defends his own behaviour as “always fair”? How complicit – intentionally and otherwise – are other employees of the organization?
One might wonder why the testifying performers did not speak up sooner. It’s simple: Troubleyn is not a place where one has an open conversation. In Troubleyn, the performers are generally expected to stay quiet unless they have received permission to speak. Even then, many unspoken rules apply to what one truly can and cannot discuss. Also, being accepted as a member of the company comes down to a process of endurance: successfully emerging from a long and difficult audition process with hundreds of other performers competing for the same job makes you feel like a ‘chosen one’.
But even after being offered a job, you continue fighting for your place among ‘loyal’ people who have been working with Fabre for years. Quitting the job, however, means more than facing unemployment. Everyone in the field is aware of the extent to which it can ruin your reputation, ambitions, and career.
In spite of our best efforts to open an inclusive conversation about #metoo in Troubleyn, we have not succeeded. Either the conversation was avoided, or performers were immediately confronted with an ultimatum. One performer reports: “When some of us didn’t entirely agree when Fabre justified his action, we were right away told that in that case we were ‘free to leave’. The young performers who decided to stay were then asked to write a letter to Troubleyn in which they were expected to explain why they wished to keep on working with Fabre, as if it was a matter of loyalty.”
From this, we have concluded that these issues will not be solved from within company Troubleyn. We have asked for help from several organizations in the field, but no one seems to have the mandate to intervene in the situation at Troubleyn. With the help of the union, we sought legal advice but quickly realized that the judicial system is too slow.
How can we wait two or three more years for our voices to be heard and allow new colleagues to remain uninformed about what has happened in the past? We cannot stand silently by as the resignations of our colleagues accumulate, and we witness how Troubleyn twists and obscures our colleagues’ motivations for leaving the company.
Alongside what we’ve seen, heard, and/or endured, we want to acknowledge that many of us also have learned during our time at Troubleyn. However, at the same time, many of us have experienced sexism and abuse of power directly. Some of us have only been witness to these practices, but all of us demand that they stop.
When Fabre says that the ‘secret bond’ between director and performer is harmed when awareness around sexism and sexual harassment grows, we want to remind him that it is precisely the inability to create an open, aware and respectful work environment that poses a real threat to any artistic relationship.
Speaking up about the issues at Troubleyn is not an attack on ‘artistic freedom’, but rather an attempt to break open a very narrow understanding of what freedom is, or can be. (Freedom for whom? To do what?) In doing so, we want to raise some fundamental questions: What are we so desperately protecting and justifying in the name of art? Who do we protect, and why would we want to continue to follow this course?
The problem neither begins nor ends at the doorsteps of Troubleyn. First and foremost, this letter should be read as an attempt to end a culture of silence and to address toxic work environments in the artistic field at large. This letter is not a personal reckoning. By being transparent about our own experience of Fabre’s behavior, we hope to start a much-needed conversation in the field.
We all carry responsibilities.
Today, our responsibility is to speak up.
We ask the artistic community to support and invest in this conversation. We ask the board of Troubleyn to take their responsibility. We ask the government and their institutions to also consider their role in holding individuals and organizations accountable.
Together we will no longer support a culture of hypocrisy and denial in the name of art. Together we will work towards a more inclusive understanding of artistic freedom.
Today our voices matter. They will be heard.
We, (former) employees and apprentices at Troubleyn,
sign in solidarity and in support of all our colleagues,
Erna Ómarsdóttir, performer, 1998/99-2003
Geneviève Lagravière, performer, 2002-2004
Louise Peterhoff, performer, 2003
Maryam Hedayat, apprentice production, 2012
Merel Severs, 2012-2018
Nelle Hens, 2012-2015
Marleen Van uden, performer, 2016-2017
Tabitha Cholet, performer, 2016-2018
Anonymous performer, 2000-2001, male
Anonymous apprentice, 2001, female
Anonymous performer, 2001-2004, female
Anonymous performer, 2002-2003, female
Anonymous apprentice, 2003, non-binary
Anonymous employee, 6 years, female
Anonymous performer, 2004-2007, female
Anonymous performer, 2 years, female
Anonymous performer, 2014, female
Anonymous performer, 2 years, female
Anonymous performer, 6 years, male
Anonymous apprentice/performer, 2017-2018, female
Engagement and Acod Cultuur, the socialist union for cultural workers, have followed up the testimonies related to this letter. Acod assure their reliability, support the critique and guarantee the protection and support of the testifying artists.
The media is asked explicitly to handle the subject of this letter respectfully, including the identities of the signees and the position of Jan Fabre/Troubleyn. Images of the signees and Jan Fabre/Troubleyn can be used only when explicit permission is given by the individuals pictured.
By Henri Neuendorf for Contemporarycruising.com
Christian Jankowski Guest-Starred on a German Crime Drama and Declared It Art.
The Producers Say, No, It’s Just a TV Show
The artist appropriated the episode for his latest exhibition at Petzel Gallery in New York.
An exhibition at a Chelsea gallery has become a new battleground for an age-old question: Is an artist ever allowed to take another person’s work and re-present it as their own?
The question takes on new meaning in a dispute between the German artist Christian Jankowski and the producers of a German television show, who are displeased that Jankowski has presented an episode he appeared in as his own work in his latest solo show at New York’s Petzel Gallery (on view through August 3).
Last year, the producers of the popular television crime series Tatort—a kind of German CSI—dedicated a special episode to the Skulptur Projekte Münster, a sprawling sculpture exhibition that takes place in the German town of Münster every 10 years. Jankowski guest-stars as an eccentric artist and suspect in a grisly series of murders. There’s just one problem: Jankowski is presenting the episode in his latest exhibition as his own artwork, while the show’s producers don’t believe he has the right to do so.
A Sculpture-Park Crime Scene
Tatort (which means “crime scene” in German) holds a special place in German society. The long-running crime show has aired every Sunday evening since 1970; millions of Germans end their weekends with the show. Like the popular American procedural CSI, it follows a basic format: detectives investigate crimes in different German cities that are always resolved by the time the credits roll. In the Münster episode, a vigilante artist goes on a killing spree, using his victims as material for his sculptures.
Jankowski plays the character Jan Christowski, a minor supporting role (with a not-so-subtle twist on his real name). Additionally, a spokeswoman for Petzel says, “Christian provided some basic parameters around the… production. The screenwriters wrote the plot of Tatort themselves, but they were of course influenced by Christian.”
The Tatort episode featuring Jankowski was broadcast on the German TV station ARD in November 2017 and is presented in its entirety at Petzel’s Chelsea gallery, albeit with English subtitles. The video is being offered in an edition of five (plus two artist’s proofs) for €25,000 ($21,500) each, according to a gallery representative. At the time of writing, none had sold.
In an email, the German producers behind the show, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), told artnet News that they did not sanction Jankowski’s screening of the episode and appear to have been unaware that the artist had moved ahead with his plan to present the work as his own.
“I assume there is some sort of misunderstanding and that he only told you about his intentions, and for legal reasons did not follow through [with the screening],” a spokesperson for WDR writes. The producers maintain that they invited Jankowski to participate and that the episode, titled “Gott ist auch nur ein Mensch (Even God Is Only Human),” remains their property.
Whose Work Is It?
The producers’ comments, which at some points resemble a technical treatise on the nature of creation, underscore the elusive, slippery nature of conceptual art. “Although the Münster episode… includes Christian Jankowski’s work, it is not part of Mr. Jankowski’s work and cannot therefore be presented within an exhibition or solo show,” the spokesperson says. “In our view a screening would be misleading, perhaps even alienating.”
Jankowski presented a very different version of events in a conversation with artnet News. The artist says he is the one who conceived the idea for a special edition of the show set at Skulptur Projekte Münster. The collaborative production, he claims, was also intended to serve as his contribution to the exhibition. (Due to delays, the show ultimately did not air until November, a month after the show ended. Münster’s curator Kasper König did not respond to a request for comment.)
“From my perspective, it is my artwork because I came to them [WDR] with the idea,” Jankowski says. “I pitched that I would play as myself in the fictional story of Tatort taking place during the Sculpture Projects.”
Ahead of the screening at Petzel, the artist says he was in negotiations with WDR and was ready to pay for the rights to screen the film; he also claims his contract included a clause stating that he would receive five copies of the film provided the producers didn’t object. But 10 days before the opening on June 28, WDR recanted and suddenly barred him from showing the work. He says the bureaucratic structure of the publicly-owned station made it impossible to find a compromise, so he decided to proceed with his original plan.
Is It Art?
“I always said it was also an artwork,” Jankowski insists. “It is not only an artwork, but many different things. If I don’t place this in the art world then I wouldn’t be standing behind my work, and I decided I have to stand behind my work.”
The controversy has raised some thorny questions surrounding appropriation, authorship, and the relationship between the art world and entertainment. Can an artist claim a TV show he guest-starred in as his own work if he shows it in a gallery context? Can mainstream television ever be seen as art? And in an era of collaboration, can copyright rules truly determine who created a work?
“I’m quite aware that I like to operate on the boundaries, and I have nothing against the discussions about what is art or not,” Jankowski says. “All of my work is based on performance and there’s a notion of involving other authors; multiple authorships are the basis of my art.”
The artist emphasized that his role was far greater than simply appropriating a TV show he appeared in. “It’s more complex than that,” he insisted. “Of course I didn’t do it as an independent artwork in a studio where I’m god and can control the materials. I work with vast commercial, political, and religious structures in my work and this compromise between worlds defines the shape of my artworks.”
Sacred Naked Nature Girls
By Coco Fusco
By the time the Sacred Naked Nature Girls brought their all nude show to Highways in Santa Monica, they were wrapped in wild stories about how, in other locales, irate feminists and horny fellows had joined forces to recast their work as pornography. The gals wanted to censure them—the guys wanted to jack off in front of them as applause. I went to see what all the ruckus was about and witnessed a rare instance of decidedly female energies melded together in a serenely powerful force. New Age neo-primitivists scoot over—here’s another spin on the body and the sacred. Their nudity wasn’t there to shock or offend, it was symbolic of their collective will to break down the barriers of the social and turn emotional vulnerability and personal memory into poetry.
Sacred Naked Nature Girls’ performance piece grew out of improvisational techniques they developed to explore what they call “flesh memory.” An intentionally sketchy script gives free reign to their intuitive and spontaneous method. They work through their views of how women’s bodies are codified in our society, and their use of fantasy to respond to and subvert such strictures. Skits are thematically organized around the pleasures and dangers associated with women’s bodies; they deal with exhibitionism and camp, erotica and violence, interracial sex, and female centered reverence for the body. Their idea, as they themselves put it, is “to create dreamscapes, juxtaposing reality, sensory elements, fantasies, body journeys and unexpressed consciousness.”
For the most part from theatrical backgrounds, the group consists of: Laura Meyers, Danielle Brazell, Denise Uyehara, and Akilah Oliver.
Coco Fusco Had you ever performed naked before working with each other?
Akilah Oliver One of the techniques we developed was working from flesh memory.
Danielle Brazell When I started working with Akilah, I was able to find a magic and a spontaneity on stage that I had not felt in any other situation I had been in in the past.
CF How did you decide to work together?
DB Besides sleeping with each other? (laughter)
Denise Uyehara We had worked a couple of times in the studio and then decided to work out in nature. We went to Azuma Beach.
Laura Meyers We went over to an isolated area and spontaneously disrobed and went into the waves and started doing mirror exercises in pairs and then in a group in a circle. And it was very magical because it happened so spontaneously, suddenly we were nude and you couldn’t tell what year it was, what century. That was our first performance. When we turned around there was a smattering of people.
AO And a guy kayaking.
DB The men came up over the hill, appeared out of nowhere.
CF Let me get to the male reaction to your show that came out of these “flesh memories” because those reactions have, to an extent, transformed the work, or at least the original intent. What did you make of the reactions of some men, for instance the ones who wanted to masturbate in front of you, responding to you as if you weren’t there, as if the performance were a porn movie?
LM The development of the piece has been influenced by both male and female reactions.
DU Our experience in discussion is that we’re always drawn straight to the men’s reaction. I’d actually like to talk about what we do before we even thought about the male reaction, because so often when people see the end product they say, “How did you deal with those masturbators?”
LM Over the course of the performance we have learned how to take care of ourselves and how to deal with our audience.
DU One man came up to me after the first series of performances we did at Highways and said, “I’ve never seen a woman move before, I’ve never seen a woman squat or sweat.” He said, “I’ve made love to them, but I’ve made love to them in the dark. They’ve always been an object, this thing. For the first time in my life I’ve been able to see five women move in very beautiful ways, in very harsh ways … when you slap your body your body swells. Your body is an organism, you’re alive.”
CF Certain theories of performance maintain that there is a transformative process when a performance takes place in front of an audience. What about the women’s response to your work?
DU It has been very positive. Our piece has some pretty intense moments. We do a piece dealing with rape and rape fantasies. In the second set of performances we did a scene in total darkness. We wanted to create a safe place to empower the women in the audience to speak, to howl, scream, cry out if they wanted to. And the men would not let the women speak. We said we wanted to wait ‘til a woman spoke and there was some silence, and finally some women did.
LM The women were saying that it was not a safe place. And so we said, well come down on stage with us. There were 130 people crowded into a space seated for a hundred and it was 12:30 at night. The men started to get enraged. Four or five of the women came down to the stage. In Boulder there were a couple of women who left very upset after the rape/rape fantasy piece. We were coming in and opening wounds.
CF There are certain schools of feminism that say: Look, there’s no way to deal with sexuality and violent sexuality and violation that isn’t to a certain extent catering to the desire to see women be violated. Therefore, women who are feminists should not represent rape in their work. There are other positions which assert that sexuality is about acting out, it’s better for these things to happen in the realm of the imagination than for them to be suppressed which creates even more desire for them to happen in real life.
DU The rape story evolved out of group improvisations and the associations we each made listening to one another. Danielle was talking about a scenario—going to the beach on a beautiful day and her fear about being raped. And when she did act out the fear as an exercise—she’s talking and telling the story, I was amazed that certain key words she was saying brought up erotic pangs in me. That was very, very scary and made me feel guilty. And I said, let me try to do a simultaneous monologue with you about an erotic situation with similar key things going on. It’s a beautiful day, I go to the beach, and then a man takes me by surprise and instead of rape it’s more like a fuck and we have mad erotic passion. There’s this standard thing that rape is a violation and erotica is when you’re in control and you can do whatever the fuck you want because it’s your fantasy. Danielle was working on a place of fear in rape, while I went into heavy erotica and then pulled myself back and thought wait a minute, what am I doing? If I were raped, how would I ever be able to feel erotic again?
CF At one point I noticed that your bodies seemed synchronized as if to illustrate how fine the line is between pain and pleasure.
DB We both had to go to a place of fear to do that piece. As a performer I want to raise questions for you as an audience member. I want you to take a look inside yourself and find out what comes up for you, where you go, what incites anger, rage inside you, what memories do you have, where is your shame and where do you want to take that.
CF What do you mean by flesh memory? The concept appears to be crucial to this piece.
AO There is a text, a language, a mythology, a truth, a reality, an invented reality as well as a literal translation of everything that we’ve ever experienced and known, whether we know it directly or know it through some type of genetic memory, whether through osmosis or our environment. Our body holds its own truth and its own reality that may or may not correspond directly with what actually transpired in any given situation. We are trying to tap into the multiplicity of languages and realities that our flesh holds. Flesh memory is more than just memory, it’s the way we re-invent scenarios and worlds and languages and images to transcribe what we see, what we feel, what we think. It’s a language that’s activated in our bodies. Through the process of working improvisationally, that text can be gotten to, at least parts of it, and transcribed into a performance language.
CF So it’s not rooted in actual experiences?
AO Flesh memory holds actual experiences, it holds imaginary experiences, it holds memory that may or may not be a direct result of what we’ve lived.
CF What are your memories of your first reactions to having people masturbate as a response to the work?
DB Something that Akilah brought up is that in Sacred Naked Nature Girls we are in fact sex workers.
LM A friend who used to be a stripper was completely shocked that someone masturbated in our performances. At the Hollywood Tropicana club there are referees who tell the men to keep their hands off the girls. We were very naïve. I did go into denial about its impact on me, but after a while I realized that I was really pissed off.
DU Once someone tried to take our picture during the performance and I stopped the show and grabbed the camera. We were playing with how do you see, how do you see us, how do you see yourselves watching us, how do you see your next door neighbor watching us watching you. Our nudity was another way to express a naked reality.
CF We should talk about the sacred, and then about nudity and nakedness. I have a hard time with the New Age concept of the sacred. I hear the term used and experience a typical New Yorker reaction—aargh!
DU What is your idea of the New Age concept of sacred?
CF An animist kind of spirituality. There are moments in the piece when you’re treating each other’s bodies like totems, like fetishes, pouring things on them and finger painting on each other where I sensed you were moving in that direction.
DU When we say that we are all sacred.
CF Shades of neo-tribalism, right? But without scarification and body piercing.
AO I like to try to marry the sacred and the profane. What I call the profane is life with its ugliness, scars, all of that. There is a sacredness in the profane, a spirit in material, and they intermarry, they don’t separate from one another.
CF Why does that get represented in the piece as marking each other’s bodies?
LM It’s a scarification ritual. It’s a metaphor for what we’ve gone through in the performance. We’ve undertaken a journey, we’ve shown all of our wounds. Then we mark them because they are physically, absolutely beautiful. I have an intense attraction to scars, a physical scar on the face like that little mark you have is sexy, there’s something about life being lived.
CF Why are the sacred and the naked and the natural critical?
LM We instinctively know what’s important in our lives spiritually, but it takes time to sit and listen. Our process is that we sit and listen to each other and learn to trust, that’s where our magic comes from and that’s what’s most sacred. We go on stage as four very strong women, naked, all coming from very different experiences. What happens is not scripted and it will never happen exactly that way again.
CF It seems that the concept of the sacred is about looking for unity, looking for ties. There’s also a stress on difference in the work. As a group you represent four different ethnicities: Anglo, Jewish, Asian, and Black. You all make jokes about and deal with the racialized sexualization of women in the piece and talk about interracial relations between women and among women. One of you comments about not wanting to have a relationship with a white woman.
DU That was me. I’m serious about it but I also need to get some perspective and so my comment is supposed to be funny. I say, “Well I don’t date white women.” I’m playing tug-of-war with Laura …
LM And I ask you, “What’s more important, your political agenda or fucking?”
DU And I say, “Well, fucking, of course. And who was that Asian chick you were with?” While that’s happening Akilah and I are having another dialogue about wanting to touch and to kiss.
AO And to kiss again.
CF Akilah’s monologue was a moment in the piece when the exploration of racial mores was most apparent. Her experience of being a black woman on stage was being dealt with; more specifically what it means for a black woman to allow herself to be whipped on stage. It’s historical flesh memory and it’s a reference to slavery. It’s particularly dangerous territory for a black person to take on in performance. The violence of the history Akilah refers to is somewhat tempered by the fact that an Asian woman does the whipping.
AO This is what I call genetic memory, or cultural memory. I feel it really intensely. I feel slavery very intensely.
CF In your monologue you ask something about Harriet Tubman.
AO I ask, “Did Harriet Tubman ever fuck anybody or was she too busy?”
CF To me, that was the ultimate transgression. (laughter) It did stir an enormous emotional response, making me realize how I’ve been socialized to have a very limited idea of Harriet Tubman as a human being.
AO Often black women are not looked at as human beings, we’re mothers, martyrs, caretakers, sluts, we’re Harriet Tubmans, but we’re not human beings. That scene, like the rape/rape fantasy scene, crosses a lot of lines inside people’s heads.
CF What about the campy element of the piece?
DB Girls just want to have fun, Coco.
CF In the early ’80s that phrase stood for a reaction against a puritanical sort of feminism. It meant let’s stop rejecting our bodies. Let’s be sexual again. But to me the camp isn’t about you just wanting to have fun. It’s more about self consciousness, about ironic embarrassment about being naked on stage and feeling the inclination to act girly.
LM It’s part of my intent to open up and get away from these labels we put on ourselves. Each of us introduces ourselves as different people every night.
DU At first we called that section, “True Lies”. Originally it was an exercise in which we had to be someone who we were not. And then afterwards, we realized that we were inadvertently revealing things about ourselves. We do very eccentric things in that section. Though I’m naked on stage throughout the performance, I’ve managed to find a way to feel in control of how I’m presenting myself. There are times when I’m very conscious that I want people to look at me in a certain way and I hold my hands out and I stand there. Camp is about playing with all that.
CF Comments about your work often refer to the piece as an allusion to ’70s feminism, particularly because of your use of nudity. How do you respond to being interpreted as a return to the ’70s?
LM I’m ecstatic that this work would be seen in a political, historical performance context. I have studied what happened in the ’60s and ’70s with actions and happenings and performance art and I do feel like we evolve from that history. However, we have a different sense of the body.
DU We have the ability and privilege to do the work that we are doing today because of the ground breakers who came before us. In terms of our work, we didn’t sit down and study the ’70s and then come up with this group. There are cultural influences and experiences that have affected our art. I get tired of people who were performance artists in the ’70s coming up to me and saying, your work is what we were doing before. Recently I went to a performance art discussion in which the big names from the ’70s were speaking and it was all white people. That for me is somewhat alienating culturally. I went to an exhibition about the history of performance art which started with the French artists who had made a puppet show with shadow puppets that they got from the Javanese. (laughter)
CF The introduction of the non-Western through the concept of performance in art helped European artists to break rationalism and realism in theatre and the visual arts at the beginning of this century. As for the originators of these practices, according to many Europeans they, “didn’t know what they were doing.”
DU But they did. Every culture knows what’s sacred. We know. So I get really angry when people try to plant a little American flag and say, “But that was done before … “
CF The concern and fear of the loss of the body’s physicality is a ’90s thing. It has to do with our relationship to new technology. Performers are poking holes in themselves and sticking things into their bodies as ways to remind themselves that they’re physically alive. And another thing is the importance of the search for the sacred. Testing the body in the ’70s was largely done as a critique of the artist as a maker of objects for sale. Much of performance art now is about finding sacredness in a totally mechanistic and hyper-industrialized, hyper-technological world.
DB A world in which we don’t feel we have a lot of connection, a lot of culture, or a lot of history.
By Ellen Söderhult on Linda Blomqvist
To listen with all senses
In a piece of writing on listening, the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy asks what it means for a being to “be immersed entirely in listening, formed by listening or in listening, listening with all his being?” Later he continues: ”What secret is at stake when one truly listens, that is, when one tries to capture or surprise the sonority rather than the message?” […] “What does to be listening, to be all ears, as one would say “to be in the world”, mean? What does it mean to exist according to listening, for it and through it, what part of experience and truth is put into play?” Maybe The Sound by Linda Blomqvist together with Madeleine Lindh and Sandra Lolax could be considered a form of answer to Nancy’s questions. An answer in the sense of a response, an echo or a proposition. Or, it could be considered a different, embodied and materialized way of asking these questions.
The Sound in this way becomes a soft, calm, sincere and dedicated reminder of the differences between looking for something, and a state I would describe as, allowing oneself to listen with one’s whole body and all of its senses and all of its abilities to perceive. To be listening with one’s whole being.
The Sound makes space for a different world, where my eye doesn’t look for a narrative but rather rests from interpretation and the search for symbols or signs.
The piece makes space for other ways of relating to known materials and directs my attention to different qualities. Sound is foregrounded and the listening proposes a different way of seeing. Tonality, force, direction, weight and momentum become a form of starting point for experiencing the performance. The sound of something juicy, the sound of stone against stone and a soft foot reaching, falling towards and pushing against a hard floor. Sometimes the smell of a cigar pushes towards me, sometimes I long for more dances because it is so pleasurable to see shapes passing by. To watch the bodies, hard but rounded, spiraling skeletal bones giving direction to an arm, whilst strong leg muscles push against the floor, taking off for a jump. The danced phrases are executed and choreographed with precision and hold a feeling of dance being precious.
The Sound captures me in a pleasant experience in which I see dance as a form of sound. All my senses are listening for, and are sensitive to, the timbre, density and other such qualities that I, in the moment, don’t feel any need to name in order to experience, but relate to listening. When I listen to sound and music, the sounds surround my ears, I allow the impressions to hit me, the experience to enter my body through the eyes, skin and bones, as much as through understanding.
The movement material is carefully choreographed, as a well written piece of music; measured and complex (but not in order to live up to, or agree with predetermined ways of using dance). The Sound is a piece of dance art that shows how contemporary dance can be critical without being oppositional. It is not a counter move against technique, history and narrative but a serious proposition with weight, without irony and without anxiety over the low status of dance as an art form.
In that sense the piece is exactly a contemporary piece of dance, it develops or implicates, it continues, influences and takes part of an ongoing, collective innovation within the dance field, but simultaneously relates to the forces that are of our time. It simultaneously relates to what dance can be, or could be, it proposes a way to be with dance that is both anchored backwards and into a potential future. It negotiates dance into the present.
The shift of focus from understanding to listening is interesting in relation to ideas of the binary opposition of active and passive, as well as to definitions such as entertainment and art. Without judging either or, it would be interesting to consider how they respond to, or are responsive towards different needs, how they name and underline different aspects or functions? Such distinctions or reflections around what one is expected to be responsive towards, in what context, genre, style or form seems ideologically interesting in a capitalistic consumerism. This can be considered to promote recognition over reconsideration, understanding before perceiving, calming or entertaining before wondering, investigating or un-grounding.
In the same way that art and entertainment can exist within the same experience, genre or artistry, maybe the differences between listening and understanding are floating and overlapping. Or it is simply not the one or the other, but sometimes what a situation proposes us to be attentive towards? As Timothy Morten puts it, “allowing things to affect us is the minimum unit of acting”, proposing a shifted understanding of passive-active or actant-object. As I sit through the show, I think I notice the experience of having the material inform me, affect me and pass through me. Making a distinction between the binary couples none the less makes me aware of how my understanding of the world forms and informs my experience of it. It also reminds me of our inevitable participation in the world, as the future approaches and becomes present again and again.
The Sound activates my senses and makes conscious the activity or perceiving, in listening and in the steps between sensory input and understanding or meaning-making. It brings out how habit, expectation, recognition and mirroring are present in, and affects perception of the external world. In a way, it brings out our complicity and participation in that reality. That reality which we every day reconstitute through our convictions, habits, dreams, relations and material being. In that sense it is a subtle testimony of the arbitrary aspect of the notions of active and passive, as in the idea that the audience need to be activated. As a member of the audience I for sure felt very active. So active that I approximately 80 min later exited the theatre calm, tired and happy for having had the opportunity to be all ears and eyes for a while. Happy to have attended to the slightest change of direction or variation in tension in a hand movement whilst listening to the sound of hairspray or to the three voices joining in a song and to the feet and legs meeting and leaving the floor in a well coordinated big jump. There I was, feeling more like an alertly attentive body then a determined head, more ears and skin than brain. It was a beautiful experience to listen with the eyes and with the skin as well.
Castor Troy on Michael Koptev
The celebrity, which had already been recognized before the war as one of the main freaks of Luhansk, scandalous fashion and organizator of the sensational “shows of the extreme fashion” of the theatre “Orchid”, Michael Koptev visited Ukrainian capital on October 28.
Having lived for 25 years in Luhansk, I’ve heard a lot about his “fashion shows”, taken place in HC of railroad, seen some photos, but personally I prefered not to visit them. It was not because I didn’t want it, it was curious enough, but consciousness of Luhansk dweller had the associations with “total facepalm” in spite of a little number of prejudices.
A lot of people from Donbass, Crimea and other Ukraine had to build once again the paradigm of life values, once again to divide anger from kindness, reconstruct destiny. So, when I knew that legendary Mike Koptev, stayed to live in occupied by “LPR” Luhansk, is going to visit the capital, I decided that I must go on this event.
It took place in “School if Kiyv Bienalle” on Lviv square, where a few hundreds of spectators gathered. They wished to see this living legend by their own eyes. Koptev with some of his models were drunk enough, which was in the harmonic conception of the event.
As I could draw the conclusion, the main topics of the current performance were Christian faith and “folk”: there were domes with crosses on the backs of the models, symbols of redemption were dazzling on the wrists, backs and sometimes on the other parts of the bodies.
The mannequins in clothes and with haircuts, which could be called correctly torn for pieces came out on the podium under the dark and twilight music. Make-up was corresponding: deliberately careless strokes of lipstick, dark shadows and bright blush, plenty of dark shades. Facial expressions are stressed meaningless missing. Such appearance of the girls pushed me to compare all this show with Donbass, from where couturier with his retinue had come themselves.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack was becoming more horrible and “thrash”. Michael Koptev once again appeared on the stage first after the music pause, organized for models to re-dress in the new toilets. Michael was shirtless below, he had cossack cap on his head and his hand was gripping an opened bottle of vodka. The costumes of the mannequins became more bright and cheerful, bright shoes with high heels also appeared on them. Koptev had cheerful manner of behave too, he began to come closer to the spectators and tried to clink glasses with them by his bottle, if somebody was holding the plastic cup with coffee. The mannered young man with expressive make-up in tights and biker jacket also appeared on the stage. The crosses and domes became to appear less. Defile has been continuing under the grim cacophony with lots of mids. At the end of performance maestro himself and models were passing by the stage in the new toilets. Finally they dragged a huge, related somehow of thin branches cross. It was left in the center of the podium. The show seemed too extravagant for a lot of visitors with I talked later. But also there were such people who frankly wondered the show.
“Dear Kyiv people, I love all of you! The problem is that I love you more than you love me”, claimed protagonist from the stage at last. As for me, Michael Koptev has shown that he’s called the best trash-couture of Ukraine and all post-Soviet space by right. He squeezed the story last year and a half in hour and a half. It is the history of suffering, humiliation, violence and attempt to learn to live and rejoice once again, in spite of everything. At last I saw the redemptive nature of what is happening, which was symbolized by cross, woven from thin branches of human lives, our lives. He showed us ourselves under the samples from “Ave Maria” and monstrous guitar riffs, we were confused, lost and almost lost hope. All of us were equal. This artist saw happening in this way and he decided to shout about it in everyone’s hearing.
A lot of people with whom I discussed the creativity of Koptev said that they are not ready to accept it. Maybe we are not ready for a lot of things, maybe we were not ready in time?
But Koptev is asking questions: if love and joy are possible on the ruins? What is the limits of forgiveness and compassion? What is the price for redemption? And finally who will win – resentment, revenge and destruction, or perhaps an attempt to understand and forgive each other. Do we ready for such a questions? Do we ready to ask them to ourselves? The policy is absent in this play. There is nor Putin, nor Poroshenko, nor State Dept. with all its reptiloids. Koptev is interest only in people: those who are there and those who are here. Only people and their the price of their redemption, which has been already paid by somebody and somebody is only waiting for such reckoning. I’m not around agree with Koptev, but if I correctly understood what he wanted to say, I appreciate his point of view as an artist. The separate respect for him is that he came to us from the occupied Luhansk and really it is unknown how his fact of performance in the capital of Ukraine will be judged on his Motherland. The civil courage and bravery are needed for this, however also they needed to be openly gay and scandalous celebrity in the capital of “Lugansk republic”.
Katherine Chan on MascallDance Society’s new production “OW
“OW”: How does it feel and what does it look like?
Founder and Artistic Director of MascallDance Society, Jennifer Mascall has been an
investigator of movement for over 45 years. A conceptual creative, her choreography
resembles a creator designing a new world. When she manipulates space, the changes
affect the movement of bodies, which then influence sound. While attuned to bodily
movement, the artistic director also works consciously with the space in-between.
Approaching MascallDance’s 30th Anniversary, Mascall continues her investigation of
sound and dance with the new performance “OW”, premiering in July. Her inquisitive
career-long quest bleeds into this latest creation: “OW” anticipates a relentless search and
expansion of possibilities in the many worlds sound and movement could create together,
with each element examined in the choreography.
Joy Harris for Contemporarycruising.com
performance art VS performing arts
Performance art, as formalized by artists in New York City in the 1970’s, largely explored how the body, normally used as an instrument in canvas painting and sculpture, could be seen as a material, an instrument, and a work of art in and of itself. Its differences between the performing arts were subtle in many ways, especially when seen alongside choreographers and musicians who were working in NYC at the same time.
Composers Phillips Glass and John Cage were interested in a type of collaboration that fell outside typical compositional methods. Phillip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach,” a 5-hour opera, included installation, movers, musicians, and singers, was compositionally based on sketches and storyboards, and lacked narrative. Composer John Cage, who regularly wrote music for choreographers Merce Cunningham and David Tudor, taught an “Experimental Composition” class at the New School. These classes, which have been since considered “Happenings,” included performance artist Allan Kaprow and helped to influence Fluxus.
Performance artists were also trying to break free from traditional discipline and technique, but I believe their work was different than Rainer, Brown, Glass, and Cage. Performance artists were more concerned with exploration than they were a final dance or opera. Their final product was not something that could be replicated via dance notation or a score. It could not even be accurately documented through photography or video. It was an action that existed in a moment and then evaporated. It was a work of art – strictly in the present tense – that had not really existed before.
Performance art’s ephemerality was epitomized by Marina Abramovic’s “Seven Easy Pieces” at the Guggenheim New York City in 2005. Though the show recreated historic works by innovators like Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Valie Export, Gina Pane, and Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovic simply created a copy of something that was long past, thus losing its temporal and environmental context and ultimate poignancy. Instead of works being viewed in small, sparsely attended galleries, they were seen in a large institutionalized space. Instead of works being performed by all types of bodies, they were all seen on Abramovic’s. That is to say, though the actions could be mimicked, they could not exist in their true form again.
If the original choreography of the 19th century ballet “Swan Lake” by Marius Petipa and the score and libretto of 18th century opera “Orfeo and Euridice” by Christoph Gluck are still being used in existing theatres, then the difference between performance art and the performing arts is that works by Nauman, Beuys, and others cannot be recreated. And though you might consider them “lost,” because of this, their influence on contemporary artists is uncontestable. Valie Export, and “Tap and Touch Cinema,” for example, continues to influence artists who are concerned with voyeurism and participation.
As it has evolved, performance art continues to have a relationship with music, dance, and other performing arts. Artist and former dancer Tino Seghal finds movement indispensable to his works, as seen in “These Associations” performed at the Tate Modern in 2012. Janice Kerbel and her operatic work, “DOUG” was short-listed for the Turner Prize in 2015. But other artists, like Adrian Piper, do not use performing arts disciplines in her works at all. And yet, all can be considered performance artists. So, what does this mean?
Performance art has the capacity to include all types of collaborators, influencers, and technicians in order to create structured and/or improvisational works that have a unique temporal quality, one where specific actions are pushed into the world – seen or unseen – never to be experienced in the same way again. This is in contrast to the definability and recreation inherent in the performing arts. And though the two forms overlap in significant ways, it is important to consider them differently. When seeing performance art we must temper our expectations. We must embrace what might be seen as mistakes or foibles as evolutions of a process. We must reimagine the beautiful. We must connect what seems irreconcilable. This is what makes performance art both difficult and breathtaking, absurd and perfectly reasonable.
Helen Shaw On Performa 17, NEW YORK
As long as I’ve been going to Performa, I’ve been grumbling about Performa. The framing is usually impossibly broad, the quantity of work overwhelming, and the caliber so varied that the bad stuff can sometimes argue against the excitement of live performance. Yet the biennial is a major, influential event, and—in our Instagram-ready, market-oriented art environment—its shambolic quality can also be refreshing.
One performance, though, snapped the whole project into focus for me. Estonian artist Anu Vahtra’s Open House Closing was a short walking tour of SoHo’s cast-iron district that emphasized its many vacant buildings, their histories, and the forces that now keep them empty. Most of Vahtra’s tour was factual—she told us that one storefront, unoccupied for years, rents for $143,000 a month—though she sometimes slewed off into fantasy with arch descriptions of building trash and traffic cones as “installations.” Vahtra used a portable digital projector to cast archival images of the anarchic artistic haven of SoHo in the 1960s and ’70s. The creativity and fellowship that had flourished there is of course long gone. Money is hollowing the city out. So during Performa, every pop-up venue, every sidewalk crowded with audience members queuing for a performance, and even the roving Barbara Kruger bus could be considered a little DIY victory against the blandification of New York. The biennial seemed intent on reclaiming space: it sprawled across the city, spanning from its headquarters on Broadway to a skatepark in Brooklyn to a church in Harlem. A Barbara Kruger billboard stood over the High Line, and Zanele Muholi’s gorgeous black-and-white portraits, shown on digital screens, stared serenely down at Times Square.
Kruger was essentially Performa 17’s brander-in-chief. All the printed programs displayed her hallmark graphic style: white Futura type on a red field. The biennial’s headquarters (a temporary venue, housed in a SoHo storefont, that served as a meeting point, information booth, bookshop, and event site) had been painted red and white. Her signs were everywhere you turned. The High Line billboard read, know nothing. believe anything. forget everything. The Brooklyn skate park was plastered with signs that said things like, plenty should be enough. In what was billed as her first performance in years—Untitled (The Drop)—Kruger opened a pop-up store selling not only Kruger-stamped merch but also the experience of standing in line (price: $5). Yet there was something antithetical about Kruger’s central position in Performa. Her text artworks are defined by their immediacy. While they demand that the reader/viewer think (whose justice?), they don’t take more than that suspended moment to absorb. Duration, which is the meat of performance, isn’t part of them.
But, then, one of Goldberg’s most impressive strategies is to persuade non-performance-oriented artists to step into the medium. This lends the biennial its star power, but also some of its weird weightlessness, since pieces by these relative newcomers can seem callow. Kruger is a master of spectacular cool, yet the pop-up store was a pretty simple critique of the art-world directive to “sell, sell, sell,” and even its flirtation with hypocrisy lacked bite. Similarly, writer and photographer Teju Cole’s Black Paper fell precipitously into art-student cliché. For the performance, Cole tucked himself into a bed at the center of the cavernous BKLYN Studio at City Point and pretended to snooze under projections of his photographs on massive sixteen-foot-long panels, as if “dreaming” the images, which ticked by at a rhythm meant to evoke that of the human heart.
A main highlight of the works by more performance-savvy artists was Brian Belott’s People Pie Pool, which, steeped in the Dadaist spirit, boasted competing marching bands, massive destruction (some violins got it in the neck), a drolly hilarious “conversation” that consisted solely of bouncing golf balls, and a series of constantly interrupted professorial talks. The nonsense went on and on, and yet the noise and silliness was, paradoxically, soothing. In the gorgeous The Body Is a House, avant-cabaret star Narcissister danced a series of eerie burlesques while wearing her hallmark plastic mannequin-face mask. Indeed, choreography-minded artists handled the biennial’s interdisciplinary nature with the most grace. Kelly Nipper, for instance, presented a haunting work, Terre Mécanique, that she made in collaboration with the Self-Assembly Lab, the new technologies research institution at MIT. As dancers writhed in black balaclavas—one, wearing a black-crepe dress, spun and spun like Loie Fuller—a scientist presided over a gigantic witch’s cauldron full of pale green goo, into which a programmable needle-arm extruded liquid rubber that eventually hardened into a flexible net. The piece was clever but chilling: the dancers were ultimately less compelling than the bizarre machine, and the audience’s interest in their actions seemed to fade as they beheld the great god Technology.
In general, however, resisting the forces of dehumanization is what Performa does best. By the third week, the biennial’s headquarters was a homey mess. On the final Friday of the exhibition’s run, people hung out on its wide bleachers all afternoon, sometimes napping or checking phones. A Yoko Ono Wish Tree sat ignored in a corner. A talk in which a curator showed images of Performas past on her laptop slowed momentarily: “I’m just so tired!” she said, rubbing her face. One table was full of potluck dishes. While Performa 17’s haphazardness at times seemed wrongheaded—the curatorial gatekeeping was simply not strict enough—there was an argument hidden in the overabundance. The mess and the potluck spread and the repurposed storefronts and the badly organized lines of people formed their own logic. As Vahtra showed us in her walking tour, New York can be so empty. Performa fills it back up.
Sink by Keith Hennessy, San Francisco, 2017
Text by David E. Moreno
“Capitalism excels at innovation but fails at maintenance.”
There is something queer about “Sink”, a political purge in heels, a ritualized communal healing, a street-smart shamanic journey. Something remarkable about how its vague threads, three distinct segments, loosely join together as a substantial art-performance and theater experience.
The brilliance about veteran performance artist Hennessey is that he lacks pretention. He is as present and honest serving hot toddies as he is wearing a fur babushka and fur coat while chanting a lament for all the cities and places around the world that have been shot down by gun violence, “Paris, Orlando, New York, Istanbul, Las Vegas…” Effortlessly he moves half the audience on stage into life jackets, (a segment of an opera he is collaborating with artist/activist Ai Weiwei for a performance in Greece,) giving them the lyrics and tune they must sing to the audience still in bleachers. Before long the audience is singing, “Fuck you” back and forth as Hennessey conducts, telling us when to sing like hip-hop and when to embellish with operatic intensity. “Sink” is unsinkable, heavy in content and reality, buoyantly hopeful in its alchemy.
(“Sink” is one of four works linked through the project “freedom?” )
New Noveta BY SAIM DEMIRCAN
Could this viscerality, this hysteria, be political?
Sometimes I get fixated on a performance. Deep down I think it’s because I’m a fan of the live experience itself, and like any fan, I get riled by the object of my affection as much as I cherish it. I imagine this enthusiasm for ‘liveness’ derives from my teenage years spent going to gigs, being part of a shared social event, waiting to receive that adrenaline rush that occurs once the music starts.
To experience this exhilarating rush of excitement, laced with a palpable sense of fear, is something I’ve not felt at a live art event for a long time. In recent years much performance has shifted to the choreographic, favouring script and rehearsal over improvisation. New Noveta stands in stark contrast to this, and I’m keen to find out what lies behind this need for catharsis. Could this viscerality, this hysteria, be political? Is it a letting-go, a loss of self-control in opposition to the pressure of conformity – to capital? For now, I can’t wait until their next event.
Tino Sehgal at Foundation Beyeler
By Dorian Batycka
From May until November, the artist Tino Sehgal will be presenting a series of six artworks, what he calls “constructed situations,” at the Foundation Beyeler in the picturesque Swiss city of Basel. The starting point for the exhibition is a work acquired by the institution in 2015 entitled This You (2006), the only one of Sehgal’s works intended to be staged outdoors. The work consists of a single performer—or “interpreter” as Sehgal calls them—who confidently serenades passersby with a recognizable pop song, after which the interpreter announces the name of the artist and the title of the piece. This You is installed in the blossoming Berowerpark area on the museum’s grounds in the Basel suburb of Riehen, overlooking sweeping vistas of corn fields and vines covering the Tüllinger Hills. Above all, This You brings into focus the idea of the park as a place where social interaction takes place, the substance of which becomes a series of performative interactions expanding the traditional notion of an artwork beyond something immovable, silent or fixed.
Once inside the museum, purpose built by acclaimed architect Renzo Piano in 1997, one of Sehgal’s most intimate and sensuous works, Kiss (2002), is on display alongside a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi entitled L’Oiseau (1923/1947), a work selected from the Foundation Beyeler’s collection purposefully by Sehgal. Its placement alongside the Brancusi—a sculpture referencing movement—is both thoughtful and well placed. In Kiss, two performers are immersed in an ongoing frolic of blissful intimacy. The cavorting couple move in slow sequences—fully clothed fondling and petting each other intimately—seemingly unaware of those around them, thereby creating a discernible distance between them and the audience. Unlike most of Sehgal’s other works, such as the work installed outside, Kiss requires no audience input whatsoever, it’s completely self-contained, internally immersive, languid and erotic. I saw it as an homage not just to Brancusi but also to other artists from art history as well, notable among them Gustav Klimt, the Austrian Symbolist painter who became iconic for depicting the immersive language of embrace in a work on canvas bearing the same title.
The intricate choreography of Kiss thereby becomes like a garden of amorous relations in the museum. It’s one of Sehgal’s most pioneering works, rousing a libidinous sense of desire in the viewer, effectively transforming the Foundation Beyeler into a kind of temporary erogenous zone. Expressively, this quality—acute in Kiss more so than the artist’s other works—unleashes a seductive force into the Beyeler like a potently strong aphrodisiac. And it is in this context that the show—and Sehgal’s works in general—become genuinely experiential, transgressing the idea of spectatorship and the cult of the object as it has spread across centuries of art history.
Tino Sehgal continues at Foundation Beyeler (Baselstrasse 101, 4125 Basel, Switzerland) through November 12.
Editor’s note: The author’s lodging and travel expenses were paid for in-part by Foundation Beyeler arranged by Goldmann Public Relations.
INTERVIEW BY KATHY NOBLE
Creating fragmentary choreographies that take movement from everyday life, the British-Polish artist generates a non-normative space of intimate estrangement—a space of friendship, desire and queer alliance.
Did you train as an artist or a choreographer? How did that evolve?
I took part in a pilot project at the Universitat Der Kunste in Berlin, which was an experiment in working with an expanded choreographic practice. I was later invited to Beirut to participate in the Home Works Program at Ashkal Alwan; it was focused on performative practices that year, which really influenced my work. Now my practice is in both gallery and theatre contexts.
I was living on the seafront at the Corniche. It’s a favorite place for people to roller blade, so I began to do that. Alongside this, I was reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, which is very choreographic and speaks to the spatial arrangement of relations and the possibility of setting things, and each other, in motion. In the end, I developed a choreography for roller blades during which the performers would recite poetry to one another.
Was that the work you showed at the Swiss Institute?
Yes, although there have been several iterations. I often take mundane queer activities or social choreographies and develop a work from them. I work by finding affinities between things, materials that I place in dialogue with each other to produce a slippage. This also happens in collaboration with the performers—I’ll approach them with some materials and structures to which they in turn answer. I always observe the spaces in between, the relational and how that allows you to make a space together—a space of friendship, desire and queer alliance.
Who are the performers you work with? Are they dancers? Friends?
It’s a combination. I generally meet people through friends or chance encounters. Serendipity. In viewing the work, there is a sense of watching friends being together.
Are there particular artists or choreographers who have influenced you?
Aside from the explicit poetry references, Felix Gonzalez-Torres has influenced elements of this, such as “clocking” each other in Us Swerve, while Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993) influenced the gesture of painting nails blue.
Gonzalez-Torres dealt with potent ideas of queer activism in a very poetic and pleasurable way, breaking complex ideas down to simple, beautiful gestures. Your approach to these references feels akin to this.
Absolutely. I relate to his way of working by zooming in on and de-synchronising simple, found materials that manifest a certain affect and its politics. In my work these are gestures, movements and spoken word. This procedure can result in more minimal work, for example Federico (2015), which is an 8-minute choreography just for the hands, in which two performers touch each other’s fingers in various constellations. Or it can lead to more composite choreographies in which I stage a dialogue between various sources.
For example the work I presented in London for Block Universe was constructed around two sources. The first came from being in conversation with artist Andrew Hardwidge, who was also a performer in this work. He introduced me to an entry in Pascale’s Pensées, where the King dances to distract himself from sadness. Pascal was writing about Louis XIV, who set up dance as a discipline in the Western tradition. We put this in relation to Throbbing Gristle’s “Discipline.” Genesis P-Orridge’s raw, unruly wildness was relearned as a piece of choreography, thereby making a discipline out of it and working with that tautology and absurdity. I like things that reflect upon subjectivity and the medium of choreography itself—choreography in equal parts as discipline and as an escape from discipline.
How do you feel about the performances being translated to a gallery setting? There’s a kind of voyeurism that occurs, where one set of people is performing, another is looking, and there is no demarcation between stage and audience.
The voyeurism of witnessing intimacy is interesting to me. I’m interested in the audience “being with” an intimate situation, one that is not necessarily being performed for you, but is occurring in the same space. I am trying to bring attention to the materiality of movement, gesture and affect, which often occurs through repetition. It’s not about objectifying the performers, but trying to visualize the materiality of relations.
The emotional matter that occurs between the performers is the “object.” This “object” is the stuff that lives in-between the systems, structures and languages we use to communicate, which I guess you could describe as affects.
These affects are the materials of the work, while the choreographic montage is a catalyst for an experience. For my exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, I wanted to work with various modes of time, so the exhibition unfolds through “episodes” and “fugues.” The episodes will occur every two weeks, while between these are fugues, where we zoom in on specific moments from the previous episode and extend, re-distribute and diffract them. There will also be periods when the gallery is closed while we rehearse, so the space becomes a production house, too. It’s quite a complex structure, and everyone will have a different experience of the work.
What are the ideas behind the work?
The work is about the overlaps of desire, distraction and nothingness, whether it be the of“doing nothing” that happens in friendship and love, or the sense of nothingness that accompanies alienation and experiences of finitude, detachment, loss. It’s important for me that it’s always fragmentary, that there is resistance to complete representation. There is a group of eight performers who will appear in different constellations in each episode, using found social choreographies and cinematic, literary or dance and art historical references to create affinities across social practices, art forms and time. For example,“cutting shapes” from House music, or handshake choreography as a form of greeting between the performers. Throughout the work, there are different gestures of holding yourself—gestures that you use without thinking—for example, the way you’re folding your arms now and then touching your face—but which I’ll isolate and turn into a structured choreography.
The meaning of human gesture is fascinating to me. The structures and systems we exist in only allow us certain modes of behaving, which can feel very repressive. As much as you are dealing with a queer identity politic, there is also much that seems to address the broader structural systems we inhabit and the codes of behavior they enforce.
Yes, absolutely. I work with gestures and structures that are symptomatic. I choreograph ways of spending time together that are at once concrete and abstracted, so that they reflect on more base structures through which desire and subjectivity are mediated. I want to give space to the excesses and lacks in meaning. I don’t think the work is as much for a queer identity politic as for queer politics of dis-identification, which is about Othering, about being in the non-normative spaces of intimate estrangement.
It’s frustrating that these spaces are non-normative, seeing as they’re so often about relating to people freely. Of course, the concept of “freedom” has long been used to politically defend institutionalized misogyny, racism and homophobia. Especially now, everything that has lurked under the surface is leaking out, and so the spaces in which we relate to one another are becoming more binary, more polarized. There’s no space between the “normative” and the “non-normative.”
I think “non-normative” is exactly about spaces that don’t operate through exclusion, but rather create a vulnerable commons which resist structures of hegemony and exclusion. One of the main means of disciplining now is the production of subjectivity and particular kinds of relations. Affect is now capital. What I’m interested in is working out the paradoxes of that complexity. The question is, how does one make hopeful work now?
About Space Walk from Michele Rizzo with Emma Daniel & Valerio Sirna.
By Clara Amaral
I was thinking about the difference between adding a word before or after Space. For example: open space, closed space, middle space vs. Space walk. Obviously, it is possible to talk about walking a Space, but we never really say: —That Space there is really calling for a walk, I will go and walk it. Maybe the Space that is a field asks for a walk, or the Space that is a beautiful avenue asks for a walk; an anonymous space doesn’t ask for a walk. But if you ask me, that looks like the best space for going for a walk. To Space walk. And that would be the moment before the Space becomes something, before the Space becomes the highway, the beach, the football field or even the theatre space. The Space that shows and talks the invisible, the imagination, the potential.
While watching Space Walk from Michele Rizzo, I had to think, “how is it that a closed circuit becomes an open space?”
Visceral but lifeless: violence + the value of the image in Venice Biennale winner Anne Imhof’s Faust
by Hadden Manhattan
Anne Imhof the artist emerged in the libidinal shadows of the European financial project in Frankfurt. Before entering the city’s famed Städelschule art academy, her first improvised work happened in its red light district — a boxing match in a strip club. A band played. Noses were bloodied and broken.
The architectural history of the building has long proved challenging for exhibiting artists. Replete with square columns, it was designed by Ernst Haiger in 1938 under the Nazi regime. Imhof encloses the kitsch palatial structure with temporary steel security gates. A couple of Doberman Pinschers are being calmed down by their handler, a muzzled aggression that foreshadows the action inside.
As well as being the German word for ‘fist,’ the title is borrowed from Goethe’s restless protagonist who sells his soul to the devil, later inspiring the overture by 19th century composer Richard Wagner, whom Adolf Hitler famously admired. Can the latent allusions to fascism implicit within Imhof’s work maintain criticality, or do they encourage a dark public fascination with the totalitarian theatrics of power?
Within Haiger’s original knave-like interior, the artist has constructed a platform in toughened glass, a material motif of an investment bank. This architectural mise-en-abyme — sharp transparent geometries set within an austere neoclassical interior — offers a disturbing read of contemporary Germany. The nation’s dominance within today’s neoliberal framework was itself born from the uterine shell of an autocratic regime.
Around the space is a considered disarray of ambivalent objects — tubes, an electric guitar, concrete sinks, sodden towels — that evoke Imhof’s personal history working as a bouncer at Frankfurt’s legendary nightclub Robert Johnson. It’s the world of nocturnal violence with the lights turned on. Performers move languidly but with precision. Hands are on throats, tenderness contorts into aggression; simple gestures of walking are slowed down, glances become gazes. The dynamics of control pervade these actions. The micro-movements demonstrate how organic beings buckle under abstract powers and systems, evoking the current political tensions as right-wing ideologies start to take hold.