Features PerformanceQ&A and Interviews Published 16 October 2012

Emerging Artists, Rituals and Live Art

Looking back at performance space’s summer residency.

Diana Damian Martin

Over the course of August, Hackney Wick’s performance space brought thirteen international artists together in a communal process of living and working in the ex-industrial warehouse. As a process of mapping a range of contemporary live art practices in regards to social, political and time-based works, and in the particularity of its format, the residency provided a site where individual, collective, aesthetic and global performance practices informed each other, materialising in an inherent set of discourses on what constitutes contemporary live art in its variety of contexts. The residency concluded with a private view of works in progress at the end of August, showcasing a range of installation, participatory, body, video and sound-based works. I spoke to Assistant Director and live artist Benjamin Sebastian about the residency, as well as participating artists Season Butler (US/UK), Ian Whitford (UK) and Arianna Ferrari (IT). 

Intervention One: Curatorially speaking

Diana Damian: This is the first year performance space is hosting a summer residency with such a wide-range of artists, from Australia to Poland, from established to emerging. How does this fit into the remit and aims of the venue?

Benjamin Sebastian: I think rather than fit into the remit and aims of ]performance s p a c e [ this residency epitomizes what we do here, in so many ways; bridging geographies, ages, experience levels. We encourage as wide a dialogue as we can in relation to the production of time-based works within and around our community. The works in the residency challenge and explore issues of body politics, language, borders, failure and archives, amongst others.

Diana: What was your selection process, and how did the collective element of the residency shape the work?

Benjamin: The selection process was two-fold. As with our curatorial work, this project was about selecting work that affects us, informs our research dialogues and/or what we like. It was also about assembling a composition of complementary and abreactive works and artists that would both interrogate and accentuate one another. We wanted a good mix of people who would challenge and nurture the creative process in each other, a dynamic and productive group environment, not too easy or comfortable.

Diana: The residency is inherently a process in which you’re mapping a particular set of contemporary artists, their concerns and ways of working. What did you think emerged from this cross-section of contemporary artists? Any recurring themes, ways of working, or inspirations and references?

Benjamin: I like your imagery of mapping. Yes, it is. Through mapping I believe you are also archiving, creating language and space. I think this is important for an emerging generations and groups of artists. Body politics {incorporating identity & queer(ed) politics}, language, borders, failure and archives are recurrent themes. I see all of these as direct references to the historical lineage of performance art and body based activism. In my opinion, this crew were all very aware of their position within that continuum. It is apparent that inspiration was being drawn directly from those histories, as well as from local geographies, each other and a contemporary, socio-political situation.

Diana: As part of the residency, a different set of artists were be invited to an all-night research lab; the evening began with a text, essay or research topic discussed over dinner, and proceeded into an in-depth exploration of this topic which took different forms, from texts to performance. The documents were published on the digital site Connection/Time. Can you tell us a bit more about this process, and what emerged? How did this impact on the concerns of the works themselves?

Benjamin: Ritually Reading Research (RRR) – It’s where durational performance meets critical research and studio practice. We wanted to push the residents both critically and physically while allowing them to self govern as a group. Each Sunday we would nominate three residents to bring a text (broadly speaking; literature, film, visual art object etc) of their choosing to the table, so to speak. Then, every Tuesday at 8pm all residents would examine and unpack the texts, responding however they deemed appropriate over the ensuing 24 hours. At 8am the following morning, everyone would present their findings to each other and again, this would and did manifest itself in as diverse an array of formats as you can imagine, from film and performance to installation, sound and text. As for Connection / Time, this is a research and development project conceived by visual artist Paul Hurley and supported by Arts Council England. It explores the possibilities of live performance documentation through a series of ‘live art laboratories’. This is how we attempted to use the platform, somewhere between documentation/archive and live interface for geographically dislocated audiences.


Intervention Two: Pausing on practice

Arianna Ferrari’s work explores the sounding possibilities of the human body, which is often used as instrument. Ian Whitford’s work explores uncomfortable realities and failure, engaging with the mundane. Season Butler is reading a PhD in creative writing exploring the contemporary relevance of “savage” and “civilised”; her work is positioned at the meeting point between writing and performance.

Diana: What did you want to achieve over the course of your residency?

Ian Whitford: I wanted to achieve space and time away from my work as a graphic designer, an online business network manager and as the co director of an artist led space (Cornwall Autonomous Zone). In these roles I spend a lot of time online, using software and facilitating other people’s creative processes. I had an urgent need to experiment, to play and to allow all the experiences I had been unable to process over a long time to find their way out through me as actions, movements, and tasks, developing an associated set of props and an aesthetic.

Season Butler: I’ve been performing seriously for three years but it has always taken a back seat to other things. This summer I felt that I’d reached the stage where I wanted to professionalise my work and devout a concentrated period of time to interrogating my practice and making new work.

Diana: What was your working process and frame/s of reference?

Ian: My working process involved mundane actions such as cleaning the space, and these sincere actions quickly became replaced by pointless repetitive tasks such as sweeping the same piles of dust around and around the floor. Tidying up in the space made me reflect on the psychological factors driving that response and on my own family and work history within which fear, self esteem and work are inextricably linked. I really admire the Danish performance artist, filmmaker, photographer, and painter Peter Land. Land is known for video installations that depict the artist in absurd situations. His tragicomic compositions often investigate the sense of powerlessness and confusion one feels attempting to fit into society’s pre-determined roles.

Season: As a writer, I’m used to responding to briefs and working to deadlines. Knowing that there was a show at the end of the residency gave me something to set my sights on. Prompts from Benjamin and Bean got me started in directions I might not have taken otherwise. The feedback and guidance from the other artists in the space was invaluable, and our play-time doubled as making time. The weekly Ritually Reading and Researching sessions created a structured opportunity to frame my practice within critical discourse and introduced me to an array of new ideas and approaches.

Arianna Ferrari: My work is informed by Schaeffner’s theory on the origin of musical instrument; for him musical instruments are first of all “signs”, which refer to systems of thought, beliefs and technologies of the specific cultural context. Regarding the  project developed during the residency, it is also informed by some Stelarc’s writings. In particular  I was interested in his assertion that ever since we’ve evolved from hominids we’ve constructed  artifacts, amplifications of the body. This made me think that humans always tried to escape their own fragility through artifacts. In my practice I work on this: the “powerful fragility” of the amplified body. My body during  performances becomes a very loud machine but as the sound is so strong what is seen is irritated skin, bruises.

Diana: How did you develop the content of your piece?

Ian: This focus on cleaning and other mundane work was enhanced by the context of performance space itself. Being in an industrial unit made me reflect on all the time I have spent in similar environments as someone from a working class background. My work on a battery chicken farm, as a cleaner, a daffodil picker, a farm labourer, a removal man, a decorator, a kitchen porter, a chef, a factory worker. For me there was also something associated to this history which resulted in a frustrated or repressed anger, and a sense of vulnerability, low self esteem and humiliation which fed into the work I made. In the final performance my torso was dressed in a suit, but from the waist down I wore lacy black knickers, which I flashed every time I bent to sweep the yard. This reflected my sense of dislocation, of vulnerability and my desire to please.

Season: Both of the pieces I showed at the final show combined my existing interests with a provocation presented to me on the residency. The Pedant’s Dictionary is an installation composed, so far, of text, video and live performance. The live element led directly from an exercise set by Benjamin and Bean to help me through a creative block. The second piece was sparked by a gift; Benjamin left the paper dressed I used in the piece on the little camp bed I slept in that month. I put it on during one of our wine-fuelled play sessions and the piece came together very quickly.

Diana: Ian-you mention that repetition, duration and failure are important devices in your work. As key performance tools, how did you engage with these in the process of making your piece?

Ian: Working with sweeping, scrubbing, and sifting soil allowed me to find definite actions which I understood, which were familiar to me and which could be repeated indefinitely and this gave me some confidence to go deeper into the meaning of those actions and to develop their movement aspect, until a choreography of scrubbing, sweeping, drinking, saluting the audience and burying myself developed. The duration of the work allowed my anxiety to become less, and gave me time for the action to generate a response in my body, so that I could feel many of the associated emotions or states in this work, anger, shame, defiance, fear, and drunkenness and to keep going because that’s how I have always coped and there is a strength in enduring or duration which is reassuring. Failure is present as dysfunction, as a preoccupation with the trivial over the important, in the drinking and neurotic scrubbing with my face, and sweeping as substitutes for actually dealing with whatever the original cause of distress was.

Through performing using repetition, and duration, and dysfunctional behaviours I allowed myself to connect to an inner reality. Through performing fear and difficulties can be confronted on the performers own terms with the support of the audience who witness something for them, and who then share the burden of the making sense of what they have witnessed. There is also something powerful about trying to make a work of beauty, or of skill, or a work that is compelling as a way to win something back, or as a form of redemption.

Diana: Season, writing is an important element of your work, but in this case you explore designations of savage and civilized  Your piece involves a process of autobiographical mapping and template for forgery. Can you tell us a bit about your exploration of the impostor and how these performance terms shaped and dictated your work?

Season: Writing is an interesting discipline with regard to rules and structures. The most interesting writing uses these to fortify the effect of the words a writers uses, deviates from these in ways that surprise and delight, establishes new rules and structures or does some combination of these three things. My performance, maaitude (an entry in The Pedant’s Dictionary), took a fairytale and deconstructed it into its formal parts of speech – a highly technical, uptight act by a brainy grammarian. I tried to subvert this and balance the piece in the second element where I put the meaning back onto the form, but in random ways, using a method inspired by the writer Dorothea Brande’s concept of imitating. Where a verb appeared in the semantic map, I chose a verb at random from my pool of verbs. Odd combinations and totally unpredictable meanings emerged in a document that looked less like a book than a ransom note. A mastery of the formal combined with a trickster’s sense of mischief combined to make something which I hope was compelling and surprising.

My second performance, untitled, showed a figure dressed as a bride. I used white face paint applied in a thin, patchy manner to underline the fact that the designation “bride” was part of a formal tradition and identity not her own. Her dress was white but only covered half of her body – the savage peaking through the worn-out Victorian sensibility. The flowers she carried were long dead. She was an impostor and the audience could see this. The slow bridal march and the throwing of the sugar-salt-aspirin vessel the flowers sat in mimicked a Western wedding ceremony and provided a break (literally) within.

Diana: Ariana, your work is based around sound and performance, and very much using the body as a tool. What emerged for you from your piece Drum?

Ariana: ‘DRUM’ is  a practical investigation on what it is to be a machine, an object, an instrument. It was fundamental to be played by someone else who was in charge of every musical decision and a stranger to me (I met Jan Mertens, the drummer, three times before the performance). I needed complete detachment from him on a personal level on one side, but on the other I had to overcome the awkwardness of the situation, get rid of the feelings, of the psyche, of my humanity through the performance. I was also curious about how he could approach a “human drum”: if and how it was possible to overcome the emotional attachment to hitting a body: the repetitive rhythmic pattern and the long duration of the performance were crucial elements in order to achieve this. It has been a work on the overcoming of humanity, both for me and for Jan.

 For more information visit the Performance Space website.

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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