Brooklyn Burns as Non Grata Comes to Last Frontier

Courtesy of Non Grata

Non Grata makes its annual visit to New York City with a performance this weekend on December 22nd at the Last Frontier NYC in Greenpoint. The Estonian performance art group has trail blazed through the United States touring across the country from Houston, to Miami Art Basel, to Virginia, and finally making a stop here in Brooklyn.

This interview was originally conducted and published by Jeff Rouner in the Houston Chronicle.

Non Grata discussion, questions answered collectively by Anonymous Boh, Devilgirl, Vlady Voz Tokk, and Joey Sledge

You’re over here now at a very volatile time in American politics. Has the current environment changed the way you perform? What HASN’T changed at all?

If you’re talking politics, the current environment always effects some change, but for ourselves, as Europeans, being in America effects our point of view and way of working. You see now many artists putting on a Trump mask and walking through the streets, carrying a sign “ Trump is an asshole”, and they think that they are also reflecting politics, but the actual world politics run much deeper. Trump is just a marionette of this.  Our performances always go much deeper than the surface, very deep into the root of the problem.  When our mini-society is there on the stage, all the politics are there: America is there, Europe is there, Africa is there, Asia is there.  All the different geographical, historical, sexual backgrounds are already there inside, so it reflects politics as just another aspect of our life, but it is not the most important thing in it.

Human life is much more important to take care of, than everyday politics.  Nowadays the world is so complicated, because there’s more then 8 billion people, and the human mind cannot really control it: whatever government is put there, always a certain percentage of people will not be satisfied with it.  You cannot really create a kind of government that pleases everyone, the politicians do what they can think of as best, but their IQ doesn’t let them do any more. This is what human government is these days.

We as artists, if we would go into politics, what would happen?  Who knows, maybe we would not be any better.  We have played in our performance this kind of game: pointing out roles to audience, now you are president of Russia, you are president of Austria, America, France, we are here, with other intelligent people, in this place, sharing the moment, and we want a better world.  And if you get this power tomorrow, how are you going to use it?  Are you really sure you can make the world a better place?

It is such a complicated system already, with all of the world’s logistics and the amount of people, it may not be possible anymore to control with human brain. We do not think in the same ways as we used to about societies and borders.

And what hasn’t changed at all, is what we do. We create spaces with site-specific actions.  We do not have planned actions, we are living in the moment, we are generating new ideas in an experimental space, getting close to people, asking uncomfortable questions, from them, from all society.  We realize that politics and such things are just games that people play without thinking about it.  People create trappings of society, agree on the rules, and then play along to occupy themselves. We play the same sort of games superficially in the performance, but human nature doesn’t really change, and so our performance approach doesn’t much either.  It’s always a direct reaction to whatever is around us, inside and outside.

What never changes is that we are always here, in this moment, in this place, all together.  Everything else moves and changes through time and space. Our discussions on tour get very intense sometimes. Because we have to get to know each other, so we can work as one body.  A group working as one organ is very powerful.  It’s not just that we come together and make good performances, you have to be close to each other, combining minds, bodies, and spirits together, to create something so powerful, its complete magic.  1 +1 + 1 + 1 is not four, in this way it is much more.

Photo: Michael O’Dwyer , Courtesy of Non Grata

You said you just got back from the Tijuana border, and everyone here is reeling from the images of what happened there. Can you tell me what you saw, what you did there, and how your performances can help in such a situation?

It feels like we’ve been following the track of many refugees, from the fire in California to people displaced in Central America, people who are lost, and it is rather important how you work with this idea of refugees. Performing near the border wall in Tijuana, we were not trying to resolve this problem through art, by raising questions and bringing attention to the pain points in societies.  Of course art doesn’t do it by itself, it is a tool,  we’re creating situations and energies that help resolve the people’s issues in the places we go. Our actions signify intentionality, and people’s attention follows the actions.

We’re representing a mini-society of the present moment with different symbols and personifications. All these characters: the cheese grater, the holy mother, the punk military warrior, the plastic dolls, the winged man, they are very direct and obvious. People, whatever backgrounds they are, can relate to them in the same way. We are all in a human grinder, just like everyone else.  Some people think they can avoid it, but it has sucking power like a vacuum cleaner.  There are many of these people kinds of people who are like refugees.

The refugees are probably told they can get to America, but they don’t even know that it does not work that way.  They are just pushed there, by some other people through social brainwash. A lot of these people are simply mislead, lead towards something that they’re not expecting and coming upon resistance.  They’re pawns in the game, which is this representation.

These kinds of things, when they happen, they raise the question to society; how to resolve this problem…?  We are here not to say that this is right or wrong.  Some say it’s wrong that these refugees arrive at the US border, another side says its wrong that they shoot them with tear gas.   They’re all bad solutions… But all these people are living  in their bubbles, those in the military, they’re brainwashed like in that Kubrick movie (Full Metal Jacket). But these people just ended up in these situations, without any real choice.

This is a world crisis, a lot of this is about human and natural resources, and many people don’t know how to resist, they don’t even see it for what is happening.

People in the US and Mexico coming out equally protesting for it and against it, but there is not just an actual shortage of places for them to live or work in, it’s a politically manufactured focal point to divide society.  And people have to stop looking at it this way. This situation exists on many levels,  but 90% of the crisis in the Americas, exists because of imperialistic policies.  They support these oppressive governments to exercise economic and political control and to exploit the resources but not support the people of the country.  That doesn’t work, you don’t have to do much but you have to take care of the people, and they didn’t.

Its possible north America will take this challenge, because they want more land.  They’re an imperialist country like Russia, France, Germany, they could take over the continent to the South Pole. And this is one solution, to be globally borderless. The rich countries are going to expand their territories, get more citizens, but at the same time they have to save them.

And the Panda bear represents Chinese cultural imperialism. What they do is send gift pandas all around the world, like to the San Diego zoo, DC, Memphis or Russia.  But the real panda policy is: ‘we give you a panda and you owe us something now’ What is not widely known is that not every panda is worth something on that market, some of them are quite worthless pandas, they’re not conforming.

They are also refugees, renegade pandas, who don’t want to be sold into the zoo system, they want to be free, so nobody wants them, because they’re not willing to be enslaved and eat bamboo all day long.   They can’t get over the border, have to live in the desert where pandas don’t belong. The panda is such a high commodity, but a renegade panda is worthless to the market.

 What is it about fire that makes it such a significant part of the show?

Just week ago an artist of Estonian origin in Los Angeles answered this same question: “Estonians, they are all about fire, it’s an Estonian cultural tradition, to keep the fire alive.”

But in the performance, physically its used as a symbol. We talk about the inner fire, the passion, these are characteristics within human beings.  Fire is also bringing people together and lights them up with excitement.  And sometimes it gets a little bit dangerous, a little bit too hot.  So it’s often a good symbol to use.

Sometimes we have too much inner fire, and that can start the outer fire.  That’s what our performances in Sacramento and Oakland were about: how to cool down the passion of the human being – their inner fire caused this huge fire across the west coast. Too much passion can be suffocating,  you couldn’t breathe the air from so much passion.

So we made a complete opposite action there, we were cooling down together with the audience, using water, wind and ice in a very interactive performance.  And next day in California it started to rain, and the fires began to die down.  This really worked because rain rituals have been done by humans through millennia.  What we do is the modern incarnation of this ritual, bringing the wind to blow it away, bringing the water.

Courtesy of Non Grata

Do audiences ever resist you and what do you do if yes?

Of course we have been through all that, we have been attacked by audiences, technicians, police, ambulance, and fire personnel, but these reactions are already written inside the performance, anyway.

The performance is not a rigid structure, you are performing in moment, people are engaged, and we never know how the piece will end.  Interactions are already incorporated into the performance, and it doesn’t matter.  This kind of performance is not about the artist, the point is to initiate a reaction and an interactive experience with the audience.  There’s no wrong reaction, but there’s no way out of it either.  So you can’t escape or control the performance, no matter how you react to it.  Whether you want to or not, all your reactions are there as another catalyst of the energy of the space and people. It is that way inevitable.

But how good a performance artist you are, will show in how you handle these situations.  The performance practice is there for a human being to develop themselves, and overcome stress blockages, when you never stress, you dissolve the problem.

Do you have any specific plans for New York, or will you just see what happens? Is there any artists in the group you specifically want to call attention to?

Non Grata is a group, we work spontaneously, we go into a space and work into that time/space container. Today it was refugees at the US/Mexico border – 5000 troops against 5000 refugees.  Tomorrow, who knows? We didn’t know one or two weeks before, that this would happen.  Somehow we’ve ended up in these hot zones, reacting to things, and every time there happens to be a critical situation that precedes or follows us to a specific place.  We need to see what happens in the world now and Houston will give us the energy and ideas on how to use and release it along with the audience.

Photo: Michael O’Dwyer , Courtesy of Non Grata

What can artists do with an audience that they can’t do without?

Audiences produce energy change.  When Non Grata first started, we made performances for 3 years and never went to festivals.  We started with these ghetto marathons where we closed ourselves into a space for one or two weeks, and no audience was let in.   We wanted to show that art is not entertainment, that art exists as creative processing in everyone of us, but we don’t do it because of an audience.

Today, in many occasions art is used as entertainment, but also now there is a questioning of everything, as art always needs to have.  Raise new questions, and strategies to solve world problems, but bring the absurd into it as well.  Because some of these absurd ideas, after 100 years are not absurd at all anymore.  A lot of scientists, artists, and philosophers have been killed because of being too artistic for their era.

What you can do with audience, as opposed to without, is this huge energy change?

You get your energy from the audience: how interested are they? how excited do they get?  where is their fire?  It is a very important thing to us.  Art is not some picture on the wall, it is a living thing, and we are the trigger to start the creative process in people’s heads.  It’s something you really cannot do without performance.

We don’t even care so much exactly what will happen in the performance act itself, we mainly want this energy change to happen.  When the action brings this mental space into reality, everybody gets the click, it’s like watching a movie so good, that you forget reality around you exists, and you lose yourself in the film, feeling like it is real life. Except this is actually is real life, and not a movie.  It actually trains you, trains the audience, to exist in a different way.

And when it comes to the point where the audience is not just accepting but feeling so much of the energy we give out, that they will actually decide to interact within it on their own.  Because we do often go up to the audience, attempt to pull them in, to interact with them directly and physically. When they feel that energy to be part of the action, it shows their acceptance of a true natural energy: not just seeing but feeling and wanting more.

Often we don’t really give them a choice, some people might resist in taking part, but we say: “ We need you for this… Will you take part… ?”  You ask them, and most of the time they do it, because they are already there, and it’s an unwritten contract that they sign in their minds that anything can happen, and they need to do it, to receive this experience.  And that’s what its all about: generating shifts in peoples minds and bodies, and shifting all our energies toward building something greater then ourselves.



Review – Katya Grokhovsky is a “Bad Bad Bad Woman”

Katya Grokhovsky, Bad Bad Bad Woman (2018). LiVEArt.US, Performing Accumulations. Queens Museum.
Photo: Kim Doan Quoc

By Kim Doan Quoc

On the first day of this second winter of April, I visited for the first time the Queens Museum. Passing by baseball cap sellers and the huge Unisphere enthroned in the park, I saw this Sunday the LiVEArt.US performance series, curated by Hector Canonge, at the 2nd floor of the museum. The present edition was about «Performing Accumulations».

I got there in order to see to Katya Grokhovsky’s performance «Bad Bad Bad Woman». Katya is a New York based artist, who was born in Ukraine and grew up in Australia. An artist on the rise, she just closed her personal exhibition «System Failure» at Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College. She is now involved in a semester long residency at the MAD Museum, where she will present a performance called the «Theater of the Mundane» on the 26th of April.

Lorene Bouboushian, The Land is a Pain Body (2018). LiVEArt.US, Performing Accumulations. Queens Museum.
Photo: Kim Doan Quoc

Lorene Bouboushian started the afternoon with her performance «The Land is a Pain Body», a curious work of voice practice. Going from statements about her own body’s aches and memories, she then invited the audience to contribute her body’s history. We built a pile of chairs on her laying body while she was singing out loud to us her feelings and willings. Going back and forth to the performance space, she offered the audience different ways to participate to her act until it stopped being responsive.

Kaia Gilje followed with an «Untitled» series of tasks and manipulations. She linked the inside space of the museum with the outside space of the park. Her performance transformed the large windows of the room into a showcase with a view on the park, making it her stage. In a mysterious and athletic demonstration, her body and gesture became our lens to realize the different scales of the spaces she interacted with.


Kaia Gilje, Untitled (2018). LiveArt.US, Performing Accumulations. Queens Museum.
Photo: Kim Doan Quoc

Katya Grokhovsky finished the performance event with her work «Bad Bad Bad Woman». Starting with her video piece «Bad Woman» projected in the background, the same character she created for the video entered the space. With a mask and leopard dress, she started to cut her clothes repeating untiringly to the audience:

I’m a genius. I want to be in history books.

As she was reciting this mantra, she unwrapped on the ground a large piece of fabric full of female artists names written by hand, collectively created from a former performance of hers, “Name a Female Artist” that she first performed at Soho20 Gallery in 2015. In front of the names of famous artists, Grokhovsky keeps on cutting her clothes, playing with the layers of fabric she had on her body.

Katya Grokhovsky, Bad Bad Bad Woman (2018). LiveArt.US, Performing Accumulations. Queens Museum.
Photo: Kim Doan Quoc

Under the mask of the character of the “Bad Woman”, she shaped her costume from a grandma styled leopard blouse to a colorful froufrou leg revealing dress. Along this ceremony, like a re-appropriation of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece where the artist is everything but vulnerable, she placed pieces from her outfit in the space around the artists names. Her stripped body and tatters of her dresses are offerings to female art history (if it has to be one separated from art history, mainly written by men) and maybe a way to a new installation piece.

Katya’s work is strong in that all her pieces make sense together. It seems that one piece is part the ongoing process of a larger scale of work. She says that “Bad Woman”, the character she performs is “alive” and has performed it for a bit more than a year now. She, “Bad Woman”, is alive throughout numerous performances and exhibitions that have happened lately.

On the edge of several mediums, Katya’s characters are art pieces on their own. Taking some from theater, she’s acting them during her performances and video art pieces. Her characters also have a strong visual persona. “Bad Woman” is a mask, a situation and a role-play, on the edge of visual arts, performance and theater.

Katya Grokhovsky, Bad Bad Bad Woman (2018). LiveArt.US, Performing Accumulations. Queens Museum.
Photo: Kim Doan Quoc

Talking about bridges between her visual art practice and her performance practice, the artist considers that her visual art work comes from her performances. She explains that her performances are part of her process to create visual installations. Showing the pieces of fabric among the female artists names, she describes the composition as a possible axis of research for a new visual art piece, made from objects created from multiple performance projects.

Grokhovsky’s work is a fine and colorful criticism of patriarchy and consumerism. The piece «Bad Bad Bad Woman» is part of the long term ongoing process of her very rich artwork about the subject, in between an homage to female artists history and the deconstruction of it.

After the performances, during the talk with Hector Canonge and the artists who presented their work, the question of the position of women artists in the art world came in the conversation. I have to underline here how satisfying it was to watch a performance event involving only artists who are women and the subject of the event is not about being a woman.

The conversation about being female in the art world ended on the statement that female artists are often exhibited on the subject on femininity and that an artist without precising their gender is quite often a white man. On the same level than black artists,  female artists are enclosed to show art work about their own «minority» when they are very unrepresented considering any other subject, as if they still had to justify why there are here, in the exhibition space.

From left to right: Katya Grokhovsky, Hector Canonge, Lorene Bouboushian, and Kaia Gilje speaking after their performances.
Photo: Kim Doan Quoc

Exploring Female Stereotypes: An Interview with Queendom’s Director Veronika Szabó, and its Performers

Borsos Luca, Julia Jakubowska, Kemény Rozália, Lakos Fanni, Lori Baldwin, Makra Viktória, Sarah Günther, Queendom (2017). Concept and direction by Veronika Szabó. Artus Studio, Budapest.
Photo: Laszlo Halasz, courtesy of Veronika Szabó

By Kim Doan Quoc

Queendom is a performance piece about woman archetypes. For about one hour and a half, the director Veronika Szabó and the performers drive the audience in a hilarious exploration of female stereotypes. From pageant beauty to motherhood, passing by the artist’s muse and the slut, Szabó and her team of performers make a lot of fun of women issues and it feels good to watch them doing it.

I talked with the crew when Lori Baldwin, fully performing her male character during the Drag King scene of the performance, wrote her phone number on my arm on stage. The team is built from talented and charismatic performers Borsos Luca, Julia Jakubowska, Kemény Rozália, Lakos Fanni, Lori Baldwin, Makra Viktória, Sarah Günther.

Veronika Szabó is a young Hungarian actor and director living in Budapest. I met her, Lori Baldwin, Luca Borsos and Sarah Günter in December after their first show in Artus Studio in Budapest. The show was full for 3 presentations.

Kim Doan Quoc: Can you introduce yourselves briefly? What do you do when you’re not performing Queendom and how performance art came to you?

Luca Borsos: I’m from Budapest. I studied performing arts in Madrid for 3 years and then came back to Hungary. Now I study in university to be a drama instructor. Nobody really knows what it means, but it’s something in between art management, theatre with children and drama pedagogy.

Lori Baldwin: I was put in theatre as a kid by my parents. In university, I found a lot of interest in the performance studies department. This other way of creating, which was based without a set script or the hierarchy between director and performers fascinated me. I ended up in Budapest four years ago from North Carolina, in the U.S. I have been working with my collaborator Luiza Moraes, who is a Brazilian contemporary dancer, on different performance projects. From there, a lot of different things came, there is Queendom, I also organize art and performance related events in Budapest, some other creation residency in Berlin.

Sarah Gunter: I grew up in a small city theater, in Bautzen in East Germany where my parents worked. The theatre was my everyday life. I was always around during the rehearsals and played a lot of children roles. I was always playing in three different theatre groups at school. I studied theatre sciences, in between performance and visual arts in Gießen. I had a guest semester in Budapest. There I started the project of the Air Factory in 2008, it was a big collaborative project. This is how I met Vera for the first time. Then I came back to Gießen to graduate with my diploma. During the diploma we founded a performance collective called Mobile Albania. We wanted to escape the institutions where you make theater for other theater artists and scientists. We went in the street to reach out to other people and make art with them, as site specific performances. Budapest was really inspiring so I came back after my diploma and worked in between the two countries. Here I found a community where you create free processes to work as a group. It traces a lot of questions about what is art and what is art in society, what is freedom through art? This how I came to Queendom.

Veronika Szabó: I also did theatre the whole time when I was a kid, but first I studied sociology after school. At that time, I felt that I need to understand the world. During university, I was interested in gender and queer studies. I wanted to write my thesis about the cultural history of masturbation when I realized I’d rather do things with people rather than only researching their thoughts. I also realized I miss playing. This is how I came back to theater in a more serious way. First I did a lot of community and participatory theatre projects, and then I started to perform again. I moved to London to study contemporary theatre making and performing. I also studied clowning there. When I moved back to Budapest after four years, I already had the idea of this show with a group of women. Joining a female ecofeminist punk band, Maria Inkoo also helped me to know what I was interested in. Since I moved back home, I’m swapping between performing, directing and community theater projects.

Borsos Luca, Julia Jakubowska, Kemény Rozália, Lakos Fanni, Lori Baldwin, Makra Viktória, and Sarah Günther, Queendom (2017). Concept and direction by Veronika Szabó. Artus Studio, Budapest.
Photo: Laszlo Halasz, courtesy of Veronika Szabó

Kim: How was the performance group formed?

Vera: The original idea was to have a group of eight very different women with different views of femininity to work together. I decided to make a casting, but I was a bit terrified. It was the first time I organized one and I usually don’t like these situations. I went to a lot of castings in London and I really hated them. I asked myself how to make it nice so I made it as a workshop with the few ideas that I had already in mind. I selected the group out of the fifteen people who came based on what they could bring to the show as individuals.

Lori: The workshop was really nice to experience. I felt really good going out of it, even I went in a bit skeptical at first. Did I feel myself enough of a woman to participate to a project that is only for women? But then we made the Drag King exercise and I felt way more comfortable.

Sarah: I personally didn’t feel it as a casting at all. I enjoyed the time we had there together and learned some new exercises. I didn’t feel like I applied to something.

Kim: Can you talk about the creative process you went through for this performance?

Vera: We started in April, it was really important for me to work free from the pressure of time. At first, we were just playing free and exploring things together and created a nice community. We had also ritual exercises so each member had to prepare a ritual for the group and we tried them all. We gained a lot of inspiration and strength as a group through these processes. We started the drag quite early, we took time to define each character for everybody in the group, to find these characters inside of ourselves. We worked a lot on how to enter the space, we made interviews of the drag characters, which was pretty fun to do. We also worked a lot on female stereotypes and to share how we all feel about them.

We also went to the countryside together, to Lake Balaton. We wanted to have this situation where we pretend to be the only ones left on earth and do whatever we want. We found our rehearsal space in a beautiful wineyard on the hills. It was all nature and this was the first time we got fully naked in front of each other’s and put together the painting scene.

Lori: It started when we started to sketch each other. We had this exercise to draw each other and that’s how we built the painting scene with all those classic modelling postures. We worked a lot about archetypes. We really chose each scene in function of the archetypes we felt the more sensitive to make them our own.

Luca: We gave time to everything. These months felt really good. I think everybody tried all the archetypes. We could think and decide which one was fitting the best to what we wanted. At first we didn’t specify who’s going to do what, we did everything together and for each other. We were always learning and searching from each other’s work for new things, that was very nice.

Lori: It was only in the last month that we really started to build a structure for the show. Maybe Vera had something in mind?

Vera: I had a structure in mind, and I also knew what the vibe of the show was going to be like. I thought about some scenes, but I wanted to see what the group would bring up in the few last weeks. We did a lot of massages also. It was a ritual as well that one person got a massage by all the other persons of the group, which took one hour every time! That hour was very rich, and important to feel safe and important to each other. 

Lori Baldwin, Borsos Luca, and Julia Jakubowska, Queendom (2017). Concept and direction by Veronika Szabó. Artus Studio, Budapest.
Photo: Laszlo Halasz, courtesy of Veronika Szabó

Kim: Vera, did you use a lot of community building tools to build the group? 

Vera: I think it was a new chapter for me. In a lot of my community projects I have worked always very collaboratively with the other creators. It was always based on the collective ideas and everything was thought together. This time I had a more precise idea about what I wanted to try, which was open of course, like a starting point. It is actually the first time I’m in the classical director role.. I can’t deny my community and collaborative devising approach, to me playing, having fun and trying new things together in a group without judgements are always important

Kim: Queendom is definitely a feel-good piece in my opinion, I didn’t stop laughing. How can humor come out to be the most accurate way to approach women issues for you?

Luca: We had fun; we laughed so much all along the process. We felt really safe together, we knew we couldn’t screw it up, so we took it far, knowing each other. We had some breakdowns of course but we always embraced our and each other states. Confidence allowed us to be funny I think.

Vera: For me humour is really important, for the most important things in my life. Since I did the clown course I was always amazed by how you don’t have to talk seriously about something to take it seriously. Sometimes you can reflect on serious things better with humour. Especially in this topic, I see some people going in with blood, fighting for opinions sometimes very similar but not being able to take distance from it. That’s why humour is wonderful for me, as a dialog opener.

Lori: Humour in this performance also appears because the situations we’re talking about are actually ridiculous. When you take them to their natural extreme, they’re absurd. A lot of the work we did on the archetypes and the drag is to push them to their full extreme. The absurdity of these extremes reflects on the absurdity of the reality. It’s funny because we live in a gender-constructed reality which is itself ridiculous on the basis. Somehow we found a way to unpack it. I’m really proud that we built a performance with a pretty sharp look on the situation with a lot of humour. Maybe it wasn’t so funny all the way for a member of the audience who is less open to these questions but there was always a moment when you find to laugh.

Kim: The choice of the archetypes was pretty sharp. How did you select them? 

Vera: Those we selected were the ones we hold the best and are provocative. We picked the ones we found the most recognizable.

Lori: I think also they were the ones that have the most stereotypical representation in the contemporary society. The beauty pageant queen, the mother, the lover, there is so much to put around these. There is a lot of information in the collective subconscious about these female roles. Versus the mystic or the virgin, which we worked with but it would have been a different piece in the end.

Sarah: The virgin was a bit there in the beauty queen.

Vera: As a personal point of view, they are the most upsetting ones for me also. I’m happier to be a mystic than a beauty pageant. I think it’s a lot more of pressure for people to take the queen role when the mystic is more fluid. The Beauty pageant queen is too much related to a specific idea of what are beautiful women. Mystic is more beyond gender. 

Borsos Luca, Julia Jakubowska, Kemény Rozália, Lakos Fanni, Lori Baldwin, Makra Viktória, and Sarah Günther, Queendom (2017). Concept and direction by Veronika Szabó. Artus Studio, Budapest.
Photo: Laszlo Halasz, courtesy of Veronika Szabó

Kim: Hungary is known to be quite of a conservative country. What does it mean to you to be feminist artists/activists in this particular context?

Vera: It’s not easy to be a feminist artist or person in this country. People are afraid of this word. Most of the people I know in theater, especially directors are mostly men. Now it’s changing a bit, there are a couple a female directors coming. Even people who think and work about feminist issues in theory have sometimes really sexist behaviours. It’s something you can notice on the street in everyday but also structure wise. We are in a process of changing though. I also feel that within the Hungarian feminist communities sometimes it is hard to open a free dialogue instead of attacking even each other.

Sarah: I don’t identify myself as a feminist. I’m not a -ist anyway. In our practice, we just try to create another space where things are working in balance. I wouldn’t say this context is proper to Hungary moreover, I don’t think things are better in West Germany for example. I’m not a person who likes to sit down and talk about values with people. I work with an old alcoholic guy. Sometimes he accepts that the females are the bosses, something changes maybe during the process of working together. It builds up another practice, it’s a potential for the future that we are trying on and on. We’re not preachers, we play with our boundaries and everybody then feels more free. It creates a space for freedom. I don’t think we have to compare Hungary with other countries. I also agree with Vera when she says the left wing feminists often miss the open dialogue, in West Germany as well.

Luca: I don’t know, after living in Spain, when I came back to Hungary I felt not so many things changed. The theater system is still centered on the director who is most of the time a male. With the theater community I was in touch with in Madrid, in the squats, the anarchist community involved a lot of different people with a lot of different issues in activism. When I came back I was craving to find such a group of people but didn’t manage to. I didn’t really apply to castings, as I knew it wouldn’t fit to what I expected as a theater group. It was actually a contact from Madrid who put me in touch with Lori who is American and Luiza, who is Brazilian, who organize “Slunt”, a performance event related to feminist and queer issues in Budapest. This is where I found the community who talks about these issues but they are all foreigner!

Lori: To me it was really exciting to find Vera’s project. I got involved in collective processes before as long as few month of research in more horizontal way of creating and I really missed that. Working as a duo with Luiza is great but I wanted to be part of a bigger group. I was also very happy to find access to a Hungarian production. I’m not really an actress or a dancer so there was not really a place for me to do what I wanted to, except with Luiza. It’s interesting that the collectivity comes up in the feminist question. To me they go very hand in hand. I do identify as a queer feminist, and I think collective organizing is part of that. To work with a deconstructed hierarchy was really interesting. Of course we agreed that Vera is the director and she came with a proposal, but I really felt respected as a collaborator and a co-creator, our input was really valuable. It really matched with how I want to participate to the world so it was really important to me. Towards being a feminist in Hungary, I really think it’s hard to be a queer person and a feminist anywhere. It’s just a different type of hard, but it would be difficult anywhere. It’s also valuable to want to make works to open the dialogue. This piece did that for the audience but also among us. We all come from different backgrounds thinking differently about life, gender and these roles. We disagreed and still disagree on some things and it’s all ok. Someone from the Gender Studies department in CEU University actually told me we “managed to do in one hour what (they’re) trying to do in two years writing a dissertation “. This is our work!

Vera: Sometimes I feel in creation that I’m trying to be too smart. I have my opinions about things in the world and somehow I’m challenging that during my creative practice.  I love Queendom because we managed to reach some instinct related way to say things about gender. I had some feedback from people who said they felt the piece with their body and I’m really happy that we reached another level than the intellectual one. When going to theater, I often find really nice shows but sometimes I really regret that a lot of pieces stay on the intellectual level and not bringing me a new perspective.

Sarah: It’s not interesting at all to involve too much institution.

Lori: Maybe part of it is because there is not so much text, it doesn’t get too heavy. There is some abstraction but we work with a lot recognizable images.

Sarah: It’s when the form is not just transcendental you can transmit something but it gets another quality that is just immanent in there. For me the painting scene, it happened with the strong static aesthetic quality somehow. There are different layers to read.

Queendom will be on stage again in Budapest on the 16th and 17th of February at MU Színház and on the 10th of March in Prague at Venuše ve Švehlovce.

Kim Doan Quoc is a French-born photographer, performer and video artist working between Budapest and New York. Her body of work consist in the contemplation of people regardless of their gender as sacred beings of our everyday spaces. Kim is an active VJ and has exhibited her work internationally in Bruxelles, Budapest, New York City and recently Paris.

Stitching Together Identity – An Interview with Anna Hafner

Anna-Hafner-Color Shaman- 2017-photo-Brad Walsh

Anna Hafner, Color Shaman (2017).
Photo: Brad Walsh, Courtesy of the artist.

By Daniella LaGaccia

IG: @lagaccia

What if you could take a needle and thread, stitching together the person you want to be?

Okay, so we all can’t be moon goddesses or crimson dragons, or can we? Meet Anna Hafner, a multidisciplinary artist based in Kingston, New York’s thriving art scene, whose elaborate costume and performance work brings the mythical to life.

Hafner, who currently works as a puppeteer and performer for the Arm of the Sea Theater, has spent the majority of her life making costumes. Starting as early as the as the age of 7, she has  been making costume work for 16 years. The materials she uses include a mix of new and found materials  including recycled fabrics, paint and paper mache—using traditional costume fabrication techniques to create the extraordinary from the everyday.

Her studio looks like a one person costume shop with paints, thread and needle at the ready. The mythical creatures that permeate through her work (a yellow boar, a vermilion dragon, a green rabbit, and aforesaid moon goddess) hang dormant on mannequins waiting to be animated. Elaborate illustrations of future projects decorate her wall, all of which look like they belong in Oberon’s Forrest waiting to be awakened from their midsummer night’s dream.

Moon Goddess

Anna Hafner, The High Priestess of the Winter Moon (2014). Costume.
Photo: Anjali Bermain, Courtesy of the artist

While the theme of Anna Hafner’s work is influenced by these fairy tales, the core of her work focuses on identity. She states that she doesn’t see these characters as separate from herself, but rather aspects of her self, and putting on a costume is chance for her to be more freely herself.  With the change of a costume,  she looks at how we present ourselves through the masks and costumes we all wear.

Daniella LaGaccia: You’re painting eyes onto fabric right now, would you consider yourself a multidisciplinary artist?

Anna Hafner: Multidisciplinary, yes. I’m ADD, I can’t stay in one place, but I do always come back to clothes. I like illustration and whimsy. I was always told that it’s bad to describe your work as whimsy, but I don’t really care.

D: Looking at your work, you do seem to go back to several themes. I would use words like enchanted or mythical to describe your illustrations and your costumes; they take the shape of mythical creatures or spirits. Why do you feel you’re drawn to these figures?

A: I think there’s a lot more in symbolism, in the language of symbolism that we are not taught in this culture that comes through to us in our art. I’m inspired by nature, and I grew up on fairy tales, that’s what I love, and that’s what drives my interests… I’m having a hard time describing it, all I want to call it is sacred signs and symbols. It all means something.

Anna-Hafner-Sketch- Vermillion-the-Dragon-2017

Anna Hafner, Vermilion the Dragon (2017). Sketch on paper. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

D: Yeah, it looks like there’s a lot of moon imagery in your work, a lot of crescent moon imagery and the stars and sky.

A: Well, the feminine is rising in society. The feminine rises in society because that’s what we need. There’s too much masculinity and we’ve overdosed on the patriarchy. Old feminine symbols evoke certain feelings and emotions, by using that in art, and if you’re smart enough to add that in a performance aspect that evokes further emotional response, you can change people’s actions.

That’s my belief. So, I feel like the moon is a necessary symbol in these times to put in front of people.

D: I’ve noticed that when you perform that you take on an identity like a character. Do you want to describe why you do that, or why that is incorporated into your work?

A: I think it goes back to the idea of performance as the art life, like Linda Montano’s performances of everyday life. So, I would say it’s taking a really simplistic aspect, like the last performance was about trash, and wanting to take the emotional aspect of being so angry at myself, the culture, the experiences of being raised within this wasteful madness, and having explosive emotional responses through performance with a little bit of butoh. I think that creates such drama and in contemporary performance is everywhere, aspects of butoh are everywhere. It’s a good dramatic tool in performance.

I wouldn’t say I think only in terms of performance. I think much more in terms of color and costume. But, performance is the experience to help yourself grow through ritual, through tackling your own emotions or what’s happening in society. To work through it consciously.

Anna-Hafner-photo- Eliot-o-clair-Vermillion-the-dragon (a private commissioned costume and performance) 2017

Anna Hafner, Vermilion the Dragon (2017). Costume.
Photo: Eliot O’Clair, courtesy of the artist

D: So, when you put on your costumes, do you take on aspects of these characters?

A: No, I think it’s more being truly myself when I put on costumes. It’s not playing pretend, but feeling really free. To some degree you do take on another aspect of a character, but I see it as another aspect of the self.

D: You said you respond more to costume and color. Can you explain that more?

A: I was luckily brought up with a lot of love and support in that aspect of my personality, and that’s what developed. It’s elevating yourself to another experience, and I think it’s beautiful.

D: What I like about using costumes is I feel like it gives you a license to do whatever you want.

A: Agreed! That’s why I like it too!

Anna-Hafner-The-Green-Bunny-created-2016, photo by the artist 2017

Anna Hafner, The Green Bunny (2016). Costume.
Photo: by the artist, Courtesy of the artist


D: Like, you’re not fixed to this one identity with a personal history. The same can be said with everyday clothing and makeup as well.

A: Exactly, because you’re not fixed to one identity. That’s why this is my practice, because being fixed to one identity can be depressing, it’s constrictive, it’s not expansive. It’s like putting on a mask or armor and you move away from the person you were imprinted to be through your parents. It’s freeing yourself. Being able to be free with your identity whether it’s through gender expression, through fashion, through how you live your life…

D: Yeah, we live in this world where you’re being constantly told who you are, what you can do, what your role in society is, or what you should be doing because you’re a certain sex or gender, or come from a certain background…

Ann-Hafner-Photo-Brad Walsh-Waste Witch (a performance) 2017

Anna Hafner, Waste Witch (2017). Performance. Kingston, New York.
Photo: Brad Walsh, Courtesy of the artist

A: When in reality, you have the ability to transcend all of that. The nature of the universe is change. We are afraid of change as if we are losing something, and it’s like, no, that’s the key to freedom.

D: We’ve been skirting around this idea, but how is exploring identity important to your work?

A: I think it’s central to my life experience, the experiences I have had with the people close to me, and then within my art work, identity is the core of my exploration. Like, even if I present as femme or this cis role, I feel like I have have put on different outfits, that is always how I feel, looking at how are people perceiving me this way. I started to care less or be a little more distant as I’ve gotten more into costumery. But identity is central, or at least it has been central. I feel it is starting to shift now because I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea that my identity is fluid, and I’m very happy with that.

Anna-Hafner-The Divine Feminine (a performance) 2016, photo Siobhan Schneidman

Anna Hafner, The Divine Feminine (2016). Performance. Kingston, New York.
Photo: Siobhan Schneidman, Courtesy of the artist

TranSfering Performance: An Interview with Suka Off


Suka Off performing in (2017), Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn, NY.
Photo: Samuel Cox, Courtesy of Suka Off

By Daniella LaGaccia

Polite and welcoming, Suka Off is a collective of two Poland-based artists featuring Sylvia Lajbig and Piotr Wegrzynski that has existed since 1995. Their work is atmospheric with a emphasis on aesthetics, and contains with elements of performance, installation, video art, and music. Common themes found in their work include the blurring of gender codes, sexuality, and communication, all of which has a strong influence from Greek mythology and science fiction films.

This interview took place on September 13th 2017, two days before their performance at Grace Exhibition Space. The pair was busy preparing for the show as we talked about the history of the collective, a major scandal that broke out in the Polish tabloid Fakt in the early 2000’s that threatened the group’s opportunities to perform in Poland, their ongoing project “tranSfera”, their views on the use of the body in performance, and more.

Daniella LaGaccia: Talk a little bit about the origins of Suka Off. Piotr, you started in 1995, and Sylvia, you joined in 2003. What were your beginnings like?

Sylvia Lajbig: Piotr started in high school with his girlfriend. His first performances were more like traditional theatre, and also at that time he began working with an alternative theatre company in Katowice, which was a good place to learn the technical background to theatre, like putting up the lights and how to build a story and so on.

Piotr Wegrzynski: It was like the second-generation after [Jerzy] Grotowski. It was the same techniques, like physical theatre.

S: But also drama, they used words… So this was one part of Piotr’s background, and the other one was he was going to our school, so he has a background in visual arts, sculpture, painting, all the classical visual arts. He always wanted to do performance, but from a visual background.

P: At the beginning it was more connected to classical Happenings like [Tadeusz] Kantor; it was something between performance and theatre. I don’t like this type of classical performance art; for me it was too boring for my aesthetics. Too poor for my aesthetics.

S: And Piotr always wanted to use good lighting and interesting costumes and objects, and traditional performance art was like one guy with no props, simple lights and nothing. It was not enough. Piotr was always interested in more visual rich images. As I said, he started with more traditional performances based on words, and in time, he developed his own visual language. He stopped using words, and at the time he and his girlfriend were making costumes, it was like a whole new universe that they built on stage.

And at that time [late 1990’s] it was very unusual for the Polish scene to do something with a sexual context, and they used PVC costumes, which at that time were tied to fetish theatre.

P: It was tied to the aesthetics of like a cheap sex shop. The PVC for some people was like latex.

Suka Off, Red Dragon (2009). Photo: Agnieszka Akula, Courtesy of Suka Off

S: People didn’t understand the differences. He did use sexual imagery, but science fiction was also a big inspiration, so the costumes were related to sci-fi movies, but people didn’t really see that.

P: So, we started to make performances in this area, because we thought maybe the audience is more open-minded, like the punks…

S: Not like the academy or the theatre, but the punks or people in sub-cultures.

P: And for the punks it was like, “Wow, nice violence, but finally, when we made things more sexual it became a problem because the punks, especially the women…feminists, some people wanted to fight with us. It wasn’t reality, but for some people it was too much.

S: In 2003, Piotr and his girlfriend split, and so it was a very difficult time for Suka Off. He didn’t know if he could still continue, but then he found me! And, it started a new chapter, because he didn’t want to repeat the old performances. Of course the aesthetics stayed the same, but we didn’t want to go into the past.

So, we started to develop new performances, and at the same time, I started to contact some fetish clubs in London and other European countries. Because we felt that finally we could finally do what we want without being criticized for too much sexuality, S&M and so on.

Suka Off performing in (2017), Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn, NY.
Photo: Samuel Cox, Courtesy of Suka Off

D: What was that response like?

S: At that time, Torture Garden was one of the most famous fetish clubs in the world, and it had a strong connection with the body modification and body arts scene. So, this club was never only about fetish or just a club you go to dance or go to fuck; it was always a place to see real art. That had Franco B, they had Ron Athey, the biggest names in body art history. For us it was a dream come true when we were invited, because for us it was a chance to be a part of this history.

The first two years were amazing, we could do anything we wanted, and the response from the audience was amazing; there were no limits in whatever we required. Whatever ideas we had, we could do everything.

Because we became quite popular and famous in the fetish scene in London, other clubs from other countries started to invite us. So, for a few years we were mainly touring fetish events. And of course we never stopped performing in galleries or theaters, and we understand that there are different audience expectations. We translated fetish performances into more theatrical performances by adding different elements. Like, at the fetish club, you have to do everything quick. It has to be dynamic, fast, narratives. In theatres or galleries you can go slower and add more details because people can have a look and focus on your actions. Like, a 15 minute fetish performance would become a 40 minute long theatre piece.

P: This was like 2005, but in 2006 in Poland, there was a big scandal about us. After that, we changed everything.

Suka Off, tranSfera (2010).
Photo: Manuel Vason, Courtesy of Suka Off

S: One guy, who ran a popular club in Poland invited us to perform at his place, but we didn’t know then that he wanted to use our performance as a way to raise a scandal against politicians, the mayor of Warsaw, the right wing party, it was supposed to be a big thing in the media.

P: The owner was really connected to LGBT, and he used us.

S: And he wanted to start a political career, and so he wanted some big events that would make his name more popular in the media, and that would be one of those events that would help his career.

We didn’t know about it, we just did our thing; it wasn’t very scandalous, but he invited some freelance photographers to take pictures, although no one was allowed to take pictures. And the freelance photographers sold the pictures to the shitiest tabloid [Fakt] magazine in Poland, and there was a huge article about our performance, like, we were pissing into each other’s’ mouth, and all the money comes from the government. But, the money that we got as very small, and the pissing never happened, they just manipulated the photo to have some yellow liquid in the pictures to look like piss.

After this, we were really afraid that we became a tool in somebody’s game, and suddenly all festivals and all galleries in Poland stopped inviting us. We couldn’t get grants or bookings, nothing. And, everyone was saying that we did this scandal on purpose to get famous, but why would we want to be famous like that? Everybody knows who you are, but nobody books you, nobody pays you money. Luckily we found opportunities abroad, and that helped us survive those difficult years.

Suka Off with Franco B, Black Dragon (2010).
Photo: Manuel Vason, Courtesy of Suka Off

D: I wanted to ask. I have a friend who is an artist from Poland, and I was kind of shocked to hear how conservative politically Poland is as a country. What does it mean to make the kind of work that you make in a politically conservative atmosphere?

S: First of all, people think that whenever you do something sexual, you do it to provoke people or to make some kind of scandal. For us, we never wanted to become famous as a scandalous group. We always wanted to make images that we find beautiful, because we don’t like the reality around us. We want to create an alternative reality which is beautiful. Some images may be violent or disturbing, but still there’s something very beautiful in the images.

P: It’s funny, in a country with a very strong Catholic culture, the violence is not the problem; the blood is not the problem. The problem is the sexuality. For me that’s wrong.

S: It was our decision, our choice to stay out of the theatrical and performance art society. We don’t apply for grants or anything like that. We have our home where we sit and create new work. We have the luck where we can find other places abroad and show our work, but although we live in Poland, we are completely outside of Poland.

Suka Off, tranSfera 4 (2010). Photo: Sylwester Galuszka, Courtesy of Suka Off

D: I saw that you have a project called “tranSfera” that began in 2007. What does this ongoing project entail?

S: It’s an ongoing project that talks about different things. One of the most important pieces in the cycle was inspired by the [Greek] tale of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis. It’s about this woman who falls in love with this beautiful boy. But he’s completely not interested in love and sexuality. So she prays to the gods, ‘please make us one, I want to be with this boy forever.’ The gods answer these prayers, and when the boy enters the tree where she lives, they joined bodies forever. That’s the story of how the first hermaphrodite was created.

In this performance, it’s about a woman and a man who are in a relationship, and they love each other, but there are some elements they will never share or understand about each other.

P: Of course, we don’t want to make some sort of political manifesto of how to be a heterosexual man or woman.

S: No, it’s about people in general, women and men. It’s about two people trying to connect to be one, but there is always something that they cannot share, so they are never really one.

D: A lot of your projects deal with sexuality and gender. On your website you speak about redefining gender and blurring sexual codes. Where does this interest in this subject come from?

P: I think modern heterosexual art is really poor. It’s just about naked bodies and nothing more. It’s a simple image and for me it is empty. It’s repeating these same images like, ‘Oh, I’ll show you my body and it’s something.’ For me it is nothing, it’s just a naked body.

The story for me is, where is this body for me in this time. Why are you naked? I don’t want to read about the concept, I want to see this concept on stage. Modern artists think that they should just read something like a manifesto and that’s it. I don’t want to read this bullshit. I want to see something strong and powerful. A naked body for me is not powerful; it’s just a naked body, it’s ordinary like a tomato.

Suka Off, tranSfera 5 (2013).
Photo: Courtesy of Suka Off

S: We know people in the performance art scene, and we know people who are very intellectual, but when they see a naked woman on stage, it’s just like ‘Oh, she has nice tits and ass’.

P: It’s important to use the body in a conscious way.

S: On the other hand, it’s one of the best compliments we can receive. Like, ‘Oh, it’s Suka Off, it’s going to be very sexual.’ But, when they see the naked bodies, they’re not sexual objects. They’re bodies in a certain situation, and people can go beyond tits and asses. They see certain emotions, or a certain thought or idea. Sometimes I just want to be a human on the stage. I don’t want to accentuate my sexuality.

P: Of course, it is only a concept. It’s the people on the side who decide who you are.

Review – Caitlin Baucom’s The Sickness at Superchief Gallery

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By Daniella LaGaccia

Styled as “a three day spell” Caitlin Baucom’s The Sickness, a mini-opera performance at Superchief Gallery in Ridgewood, New York, was at once dreamlike, surreal, etheral and disturbing. The performance was performed over three nights from July 20th to the 22nd, with each preceded by work music and performances by Gate.Net, Tara Joe Tashna, Fougere, Ziemba, and Unsay.

The performance space was sparsely set up with furniture but effectively gave the impression of a room left unkempt, however, dark blue, purple, and red lighting gave the room a foreboding atmosphere with surreal and violent imagery was placed throughout with objects like a severed hand holding a mirror, a bottle of liqueur and cigarettes, a blank oversized rag doll, two balloons in the shapes of the letters AH set against the wall, and lights strewn across the room.

Harpist Sharleen Chidiac set the tone of the performance where she sat in the space playing the harp as people found their seats. Baucom was in a crouched position with a long piece of rope tied to her hair that was tethered throughout the room; this is dark fairy tale.

Caitlin Baucom, The Sickness (2017). Superchief Gallery, Brooklyn, New York.
Photo: Megan Mack, Courtesy of Megan Mack

Music begins to play, and Baucom gets up, unties her hair, and begins to pace around the room, agitated with arms crossed. A song begins to fill the air:

“ah! hush /shower of sparks/ one for light/one for dark/one for silent/one for loud/one for lonely in a crowd/ one for loving/ one for hate/ one for coming/ too damn late/ one for nothing/ one for all/one for right before the fall…”

She picks up the rag doll and begins to wrestle with it, she entangling it, it entangling her, until she collapses on top of it. A storm can be heard within the music. Baucom picks up a mic and beings to sing:

“…she is always watching feed her eyes or there’s trouble/ she is always writing more and never saying anything/ tries to say things now instead/ the same unwritten troubles/ better off and vague/ best thing she never did/ believe that shit…“         

Caitlin Baucom, The Sickness (2017). Superchief Gallery, Brooklyn, New York.
Photo: Megan Mack, Courtesy of Megan Mack

Recorded music played in the background throughout the performance, and Baucom’s voice alternated between live performance and recorded audio with one seguing into the other. Like voices rushing in the back of the mind, it was often hard at times to make out all of the lyrics. At one particularly effective moment, Baucom picks up the mirror with the severed hand against her forehead with the mirror facing towards the audience, walking by them, and starts speaking a racing monologue about :

“…the truth of the matter and matter always lies and burns with the truth and the only solution is to live with the fire, hellllOOOOO?! it’s so fucking ObViOuS and just as important and every single organ is bursting each moment with every disaster that’s ever happened…”

Caitlin Baucom graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in  2012, and she said that she had been developing her work at spaces like Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery, and debuting her first 20 minute “opera” that fall at the Stockholm Fringe Festival. She stated that although her work had the support of gallerist Joseph Ravens, people were not receptive to her work.

“…I developed this way of working in Chicago,” she said in a message. “However, I found many people in Chicago at the time to be wary of work that was using music or ant kind of production, which not many people at that time.”

Ziemba, On the Density of Reflected Entities (2017). Superchief Gallery, Brooklyn, New York.
Photo: Megan Mack, Courtesy of Megan Mack

Baucom’s performance was preceded by a performative experience by Ziemba, who designed a white mountain scene in an adjacent room. Called On the Density of Reflected Entities, Ziemba created a space of self-care, using essential oils, minerals, and plants to make three “lakes” of incense. Some of the ingredients in the lakes included lavender, sand, rice, milk, benzoin resin, frankincense, hemlock spruces and more, giving each lake its own unique calming scent and texture.

Ziemba introduced her performance and asked several pre-selected participants (including Baucom herself) to bathe their feet and legs in one of the three lakes. The participants were told to see this as a moment to release or “wash away” a difficult memory or experience they were holding on to, and were asked to signify that release with a sound of exaltation.

After Baucom’s performance finished, Ziemba invited all guests to participate in this experience. It’s hard to separate the experience of these two performances because they segued into each other with Ziemba’s performance acting as bookends to Baucom’s nightmare. Both works, however complimented each other well even though they contrasted with each other in content and tone, with one being brightly lit and set up as a place of healing and the other being darkened and set up as a place of disturbance.

What REMAINS After the Performance? An Interview with Tif Robinette

Liping Ting, Airplay for Utopia – Poetry of Action, (2017) REMAINS at Fergus McCaffrey, New York, performance still.
Photo: Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

By Daniella LaGaccia

Editors Note: This interview occurred in early June 2017, before the July 6th opening of REMAINS at Fergus McCaffrey.

The show REMAINS opened July 6th at the Chelsea gallery Fergus McCaffrey, and featuring the live performances of Liping Ting, Hee Ran Lee, and Máiréad Delaney. A preview of the show, which was on June 3rd, featured a welcoming reception and a casual performance by Clifford Owens. Artists who will also be featured in the show include Daniel Neumann and Nigel Rolfe.

There’s a certain amount of surprise and satisfaction in being able to write that because there is a rarity in seeing this type of event programed, especially in commercial art spaces where live performance is typically kept at arms-length. With all of their experience combined, these artists have performed countlessly in the United States and abroad in various venues, spaces and festivals, large and small, that dedicate themselves to showcasing performance, but for some, if not all, this show will be the first time their work is put on display and for sale in a major Chelsea gallery.

The programing, which will run until August 11th, features a diverse group of artists, diverse in nationality, ethnicity, sex, age, practices, and even stages in their career. The show will feature multiple live performances from each of these artists throughout the month, and the gallery will continue to evolve, showcasing, as the name implies, the remains of the performances.

In an interview with Tif Robinette, exhibitions coordinator at Fergus McCaffrey and curator of REMAINS, we talk about the decisions that went into curating this significant show, programing a show in a Chelsea gallery space that is featuring live performance for the first time, as well as the relationship between the commercial art world and performance.

Begin talking about your experience curating performance. Have you ever curated a performance show at a major commercial art gallery or institution before?

I’ve always worked in the underground; I’ve always worked in small galleries and small intuitions, but never at a commercial gallery at this scale. Although, I am drawing from my experience from working with Máiréad [Delaney], Liping [Ting], Hee Ran [Lee], those three artists I have worked with before in past curatorial projects. So, I definitely am drawing from my experience from the past, and also my current curatorial projects that are also going on at the same time as this.

So, I’m drawing on that community, and I’m bringing some new people in that give more of a breadth, and a little of more well-known institutional names into the programing as well. Because I’m able to do this at a venue with a bit of a budget, I can bring people that I’ve never had access to before. Also, I’m able to support more financially the projects of artists that I have really enjoyed working with in the past.

Nigel Rolfe, Dust in Face (2008). Performance view from Dust in Face in Dublin, Ireland, (1980) Giclée print on archival paper, 19 5/8 x 19 5/8 inches (50 x 50 cm)
© The Artist, Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

How long have you been involved in performance? How long have you been curating performance in smaller venues?

Ten years. Maybe a bit more, but I would say seriously since my late teens I’ve been putting on straight shows, and then in college I put on and helped produce a lot of events that included dance, performance, instillation, visual art, as well as literary readings, that kind of thing. I would say in the last couple of years in New York, I’ve really taken off with being serious about curational projects that focus of community, because I think performance art lends itself to that of its breakdown between the spectator and the spectacle.

With that in mind, this venue is a really interesting place to produce that kind of work, very experimental in a way because Chelsea galleries tend to not show straight up performance art shows.

Why is this gallery specifically interesting? What features does it offer for showcasing performance?

Well, I think the space architecturally is very interesting. The artists have all responded well to both the challenges of the space being that it’s a more commercial space, and also, exciting opportunities that architectural features can give to their work. So, the work is very site specific for all of the artists. They’re specifically working and interested in certain spaces within the space and responding to those spaces with their conceptual work. That’s really exciting for the artists because once you’ve performed in a certain space or a certain venue a number of times, it gets a little dull and what you find appealing about the space or the architectural aspect you want to work with. Basically, walls, floors, ceilings, staircase, windows, pillars, all of those sites will be activated.

You’ve been planning this show for a while now. Were there any concerns from the gallery about presenting performance in this space?

I’ve kind of been given carte blanche, but because I’ve been working with performance artists for a long time and also, I am myself a performance artist, I know what kind of problems in terms of materials in a space can bring. Also, because all of these artists have been working for quite a while in performance, they are very serious, there’s an element of trust that goes back and forth between us that if there is something specific that they want to do, I’m going to do my best as the exhibitions coordinator. This is what I do regularly at the gallery, I’m in charge of all of the physical aspects of putting on a show: sourcing materials for artists and that kind of thing, as well as installation problems or production problems, or ways of hanging, ways of displaying work. I know the space quite well, from how much weight can go here and there, what the walls can support and other issues. So, I have been working with each artist trying to figure out the best way to display their work.

Are there any specific restrictions in the use of materials in the performances? I know— for example—that fire and liquids are frequently discouraged from being used in venues and spaces.

No, not really by the gallery, but since I know the space very well there are things where I’m like, ‘Okay, were not going to get paint on the floor, because then I will have to clean it up.’ *laughs*

But, there are going to be liquids there are going to be sparks. There’s always a certain risk when you have a live body in the space and an audience in the space; there’s an unpredictability about that. I think that’s been part of the reason why institutions and galleries that if they do represent any type of performance art, it’s very safe in the form of documentation or ephemera, or institutions tend to lean towards showing choreographed work. One thing about all of the work being made in this is that there is an element of a negation of rehearsal. Even if the artists have worked with specific materials in very similar veins of work, there’s always the possibility for innovation in the moment.  That can be very scary, because as curator, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with each piece, but there’s a contract of trust in between you and the audience.

Hee Ran Lee, 50 Bulbs (2017) REMAINS at Fergus McCaffrey, New York, performance still.
Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

Has Fergus McCaffrey ever programed live performance before?

It seems from the outside a new direction from the gallery, although the gallery has represented Gutai and Hi-Red Center artists from Japan for a very long time. But no, there have never been specific performances within the gallery.

What do feel are some of the goals of this exhibition? It’s quite unusual to have performance art programed in a Chelsea gallery, a commercial art space. What does that mean for performance where there’s perceived to be little monetary value in ephemeral art?

Yes and no. For instance, the Gutai artists we represent, for instance, [Kazuo] Shiraga, made performative work, the objects that were made in the process of his performances, the ephemera, are selling for millions of dollars now. And other performance artists in the past like Joseph Beuys whose performance based ephemera and editions and photographs, prints, and everything related to that, do have monetary value after the fact. There are performance artists who have done okay with related to their performance work being a sellable commodifiable thing.  And there’s other artists who have been selling plans to their work to institutions, so they can be re-performed at some point.

There are these tricky ways that performance artists, or galleries and institutions are trying to enter into the conversation of commodity in regarding a very anti-commodity discipline. It brings up some very interesting questions, but there are some very strong opinions in the performance art community that the type of work that we’re making should not be commodifable, that we’re making it directly against and in contrast to the problems of the art world, and the problems of commodity, and the problems of Capitalism. This is a view that some artists take who would not want to be in this environment making work.

Or whose work does not fit…

Yeah, does not fit, so one of those curatorial problems I think were part of my choice of which artists to put into the show. First of all, there were a bunch of artists who were on my master list who simply don’t make work that is completely ephemeral, there’s artists who are very anti-commodifaction of their practice in any way, and there is a short list of artists who I really respect their work who also make things within their practice that could be commodifiable in some way, whether it be prints, or works on paper, or artifacts, or other ephemera, more sculptural elements. I was interested in bringing those artists together and putting on a show where there could be works for sale within the show that being a part of the entire exhibition.

Clifford Owens, Photographs With an Audience (Miami) Topsy/Turvy (2011) Digital C-Print, Edition of 5, 30 x 40 inches (76.2 x 101.6 cm)
© The Artist, Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

You just touched on this, but you told me privately a little bit ago that you wanted to curate artists who contrasted with each other’s’ work. Máiréad Delany and Hee Ran Lee for example make very different work. Explain from a curatorial position, why you felt contrast was the decision to go for this show.

Well, there’s contrast in all of the artists’ conceptual underpinnings in their work, but all of the artists have things in common in relation to aesthetics. There’s threads of aesthetics that tie each persons’ work together in interesting ways, whether it be human and machine, from human and natural elements, human and unnatural elements, so from the outside it looks like a diverse group of people, but there are connections…

It literally is a diverse group of people!

It literally is a diverse group of people both in age, nationality, ethnicity… I didn’t want to make a show that looks samey. Like, oh, of course all of these people will be showed together because all of their aesthetics are exactly the same. I wanted to create a vibrancy of conversation that work in a very similar vein, but have conceptual underpinnings that tie them together, which I think the title REMAINS leads into, both what remains after a performance action is finished, what remains in the memory, and the physical remains of the body. Since all of them are very body based, all of them are bringing in their specific identities in to the show.

So, you didn’t dictate a specific theme for the show.

No, I gave the artists the parameters of the space; we’ve been talking about materiality and the body quite a bit. While these artists may look different from the outside, to me they hold together as a firm group. There’s no wild outsiders, aesthetically, like, oh someone is painting rainbows on the wall.

This brings up a good point; these are people who you know will produce good work.

Right, solid work, and people who will respond well to other work that is going on in the space: People with a lot of aesthetic intelligence and conceptual intelligence, enough to be able to pick up on little threads running through it. But, since none of this work has been made yet, I can talk all I want on how it’s going to be, but that’s part of the exciting thing, that I don’t know exactly what’s it’s going to be.

Máiréad Delaney, Breach (2017) REMAINS at Fergus McCaffrey, New York, performance still.
Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

What I find most interesting is that you curated very different people in terms of where they are in their career. An artist like Máiréad is still very much young in her career, while you also have Clifford Owens and Nigel Rolf, both of whom have a tremendous amount of experience and have very much established themselves as artists.

That’s something I thought about to in the curation, in having a range of ages, gender, nationality, ethnicities, so that my hope is that the younger artists like Hee Ran and Máiréad who make very strong work, show their work beside people who are career performance artists who have been doing this forever. And have been supported institutionally and books, things like that; I hope to have it sort of two ways: the younger artists being shown on par with older artists will give their work a…. respect for what they are doing…

They’re being talked about in the same conversation.

That’s a good way of putting it. And the older artists, artists like Nigel who have been working for a very long time, and who doesn’t often get shown in New York, really highlighting his career and practice as being extremely relevant, very fresh, very experimental, constantly pushing, and even though there are younger artists and older artists, all of them have this strive to keep pushing through their practice.

You were talking about this as we were walking through the gallery, but the show is called REMAINS, will there be remains from the performances that will stay within the gallery? And do you expect the artists to incorporate those remains within their performances as the show evolves?

So far that hasn’t been something that people have been necessarily interested in because of the diversity of materials and practices that people are really into. There really doesn’t seem to be a lot of collaboration or crossover, but I can’t say that it won’t happen because I don’t know that. But there hasn’t been a curatorial moving into that; I haven’t pushed that in any way.

Daniel Neumann, One Cycle Ahead (2015) Fridman Gallery, New York.
© The Artist; Photo: Juan Betancurth, Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey

When people think of performance art, names like Marina Abramović, or institutions like Performa usually come to mind to the average person. How do you think this show will help broaden how people see or talk about contemporary performance art?

For me, this is also a way of taking the performance artists who have been working primarily out of independent project spaces, sometimes institutionally, but institutions don’t really like us because we can’t give them video of exactly what we’re going to do…

There’s an interesting moment right now with the possibility of institutions and galleries presenting more dangerous work, work that’s harder to pin down as far as the many genres in performance art, and also I’ve been frustrated personally with the lack of what I view as important performance practice within Manhattan, period. When I go to events that are labeled performance art, most of the time with rare exceptions in the city, I end up going to avant-garde theater productions or contemporary performance dance which are very different disciplines than performance art that comes out of Fluxus, for instance. There are artists whose work comes out of the avant-garde, especially more Western Europe influences, and of-course, Japanese avant-garde influences, still making work practicing. We run all over the world going to performance art festivals, which is one of the few spaces where we can make work together that aligns with our practices. But, within Manhattan, not so much. I don’t see that experimentation happening here. I don’t see that dangerous element of innovation happening in the moment…

From a commercial standpoint… or institution…

Majorly from institutions as well. Performa sort of is a case in point for that. I really enjoy Performa events, but it doesn’t have the innovative dangerous underground flavor that I see in Brooklyn and beyond all over the world. I’m trying to bring a little bit of that excitement. People sometimes think that performance art is boring and dull, and stupid, and emperor’s new clothesy, but that’s how the way safe work is.

My Conversation with Andrea: An Interview with Andrea Kleine and Anya Liftig

Anya Liftig and Andrea Kleine, My Dinner with Andrea: the Piece Formally Known as Torture Playlist (2017). New York Live Arts.
Photo: Paul B. Goode, Courtesy of Andrea Kleine

By Daniella LaGaccia

I didn’t meet Andrea Kleine and Anya Liftig at a restaurant like the Café des Artistes in the Upper West Side, but we did find a nice coffee shop off the corner of Bryant Park. Pop music from the radio filled the room, dishes scrapped and the chatter of after work patrons bled into my recorder.

I interviewed both Andrea Kleine and Anya Liftig in May about their performance, My Dinner with Andrea: the Piece Formally Known as Torture Playlist last March at the New York Live Arts center. The performance had several stages, beginning in the lobby where musicians Michael Kammers, Bobby Privet, and Neal Kirkwood played the theme to Rawhide while the audience was still waiting to get into the theater. Alison Inglestorm then took the spotlight, repeating a dance routine to the pop song Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jense. Inglestorm led the audience in the theater, repeating the routine to the song, and then finally dropping to the floor in exhaustion. Anya Liftig begins to speak. She’s recount her life as a performance artist and walks to a table that has been set up in the center of the stage. Andrea Kleine meets her there, and then they begin to have a conversation about life, torture, high school plays, and Florida.

It should be noted that this interview references quotes from an interview Andrea Kleine and Anya Liftig published for Movement Research last March, and it references scenes and lines from the 1981 film, My Dinner with Andre. This interview also talks extensively about the “torture playlist”, songs used by the CIA to torture terrorist suspects. An article about the playlist can be found here.

Daniella LaGaccia: You said you were at an artist residency recently, what have you been up to?

Anya Liftig: I was at MacDowell [The MacDowell Colony] and that’s where I met Andrea and Bobby [Previte]. I was there trying to make video work and some 2D work, and blowing things up large. I was also doing collage work, not necessarily performance.

Andrea Kleine: I think it was 2013, and I was working on a novel there, but I think I already had that gig at The Chocolate Factory scheduled, I must of, so I had taken this long break from making performance work, and then I was sort of coming back to it. One thing I wanted to do with going back to performance, was that I didn’t want to work with anyone who I had worked with before in the past, so I kinda wanted to let that die, and just kind of bury it. I felt like if I worked with people that I worked with in the past , it would be too much about us as an ensemble or something, and I wasn’t interested in that. I guess I was sub-consciously looking for new collaborators.

DL: And you two have a history with working with each other right?

AL: After that, I didn’t know Andrea till I went to MacDowell, and we developed a history of working with each other since then. It seems like it was just yesterday, but it actually was four years ago.

AK: My Dinner with Andrea is the second.

D: So, 2013, 2014?

AK: In 2013 we did a piece at The Chocolate Factory that was called, Screening Room, or The Return of Andrea Kleine (As Revealed Through a Re-Enactment of a 1977 Television Program About a ‘Long and Baffling’ Film by Yvonne Rainer.) That whole thing was the title.

DL: That’s a good Fiona Apple album title.

*Everyone laughs*

AL: But, both of us had backgrounds in dance, training in dance and theater.

DL: Are you still working on your novel?

AK: That novel is now going to come out next year, so technically I am still working on it with the last edits.

Michael Kammers and Bobby Privet performing in the lobby. My Dinner with Andrea: the Piece Formally Known as Torture Playlist (2017). New York Live Arts.
Photo: Paul B. Goode, Courtesy of Andrea Kleine

DL: What’s your creative process for writing a novel?

AK: I think I work very intuitively. I look for things to become obsessed about, and then it sort of opens up. But I do think of novels very choreographically in terms of the structure. So, I’m probably less of a wordsmith type of novelist; I’m more interested in the structure of the story. But, I do think about it in terms of performance, in terms of an audience slash reader person reading through the book, like the experience of reading it.

DL: Yeah, I was going to ask, how would you compare the creative process of writing a novel compared to developing a performance piece?

Ak: Well, they’re very different in that I write a novel all by myself, which is fantastic because there is so much less project administration going on, and much less schedule wrangling, and having us meeting. I don’t know if it is less expensive, but it feels less expensive.

AL: It’s emotionally expensive right?… in a different way.

AK: In a way, but writing a novel for me takes some years, two to five years, so it’s a long time sitting for a project, where the work for a performance is very intense, very concentrated in a specific amount of time, and then it’s over, and then you have this sort of postpartum thing. For me the main difference is that in performance, you’re with the audience at the same time, so you’re giving and they’re receiving at the same time, and the with writing, I’m giving, centuries can go by, an then someone gets it all. There’s this huge chasm that’s kind of tragic in a way. In the performance the tragedy is it’s over.

DL: What I’m interested in My Dinner with Andrea is, how did this performance go from being about CIA torture prisons, to being about yourself trying to create that performance? It seems like a large shift in subject matter.

AK: I think part of it is a dodge. I think it was me dodging in a way, taking on that subject. I admit that part of it was a dodge, but I was interested in what the dodge was about. I was also interested in how we are all complicit in all these things going on, and how we all participate in torture. So, my goal was to not let myself off the hook for that, and I felt like taking on this big subject of the torture playlist, but I couldn’t be like, ‘Here’s the torture playlist, isn’t it so fucked up?’ Everyone would be like, ‘Yeah, it is fucked up, okay, see ya tomorrow.’ So, I felt there had to be more subtle incisions in order to open up and shift the prism.

DL: Well, then the performance could be about you dodging that subject, how do you feel about that?

AK: That I dodged it? I don’t know, it was sort of, did I dodge it, or did I take it on? I’d like to think that I did take it on, in that we made people laugh about animals being tortured, and then you realize you laughed about animals being tortured, would you laugh at people being tortured, have you been tortured, or have you tortured someone in some way? So, I don’t see it as an ironic piece. I actually do think I made a piece about  torture, but in order to do it, I sort of had to circumvent it and keep spiraling around the issue in making people laugh about it, and sort of making myself a bit ridiculous about it, and sort of pulling the time of the piece out, really stretching it out.

AL: I would like to chime in and say, what I thought was a very shrewd move was bringing the aesthetics of the theater and theatrical training and dance training and the dance world, and that an avant-garde audience is also complicit in a form of torture. It’s clearly different, but I thought that was a shrewd parallel.

Alison Inglestorm dancing to Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen during the second stage of the performance. My Dinner with Andrea: the Piece Formally Known as Torture Playlist (2017). New York Live Arts.
Photo: Paul B. Goode, Courtesy of Andrea Kleine

DL: Thinking about it now, the performance kind of has this idea that asks, instead of talking about torture head on, why do we end up avoiding these hard subjects?

AK: Well, something I was also thinking about was, is there a codified way of making activist work, of making political work, or are we just being complicit if we make politically relevant work and it has to be in this sort of way. I wasn’t interested in that.

In another conversation that we had, Anya said something like, ‘Sometimes I feel like dancers are politically averse in a way.’ And I was also thinking about that, and I was wondering if dance or performance, or choosing the life of a dancer or performance artist by itself is a radical act, an activist act. But, I was also thinking about what you [Anya Liftig] said about theatrical training and also about the David Foster Wallace essay, where he’s like, how do you do it? How do as a person actually throw a lobster into a pot of boiling water, and also, how do these soldiers and military people, how do they do it? How do they actually bring themselves to torture human beings? And then I was thinking of how I have tortured people, asking questions like, did I torture Alison Ingelstrom to do this very technically difficult, long, repetitive dance to this infectious pop song. I don’t know.

So, I was looking at all of these power dynamics, and sort of realizing that there was somewhere a kind of connection between soldiers who are able to torture people and how you were able to put a lobster in boiling water, or you were able to say, ‘Okay, let’s take that again from the top.’

DL: What I find interesting is that these songs like Rawhide, or Call Me Maybe, for us it’s considered pop culture, it’s seen as a source of pleasure and would not be considered torture. Like now in this restaurant, with music playing in the background, it’s just noise, but for someone who has a different religion, or if it is used in a specific way it can be experienced as torture.

AK: Yeah, the songs on the torture list from my understanding were in categories. One was purely volume and aggression, like loud heavy metal music, and in another category were songs that were sexually explicit, and were meant to hurt people from a certain religion. And then, there was this sort of rah rah America category like We are the Champions, and Neil Diamond’s Coming to America. And then there were these cruel earworm jokes like the MeowMix cat food commercial, and the Sesame Street theme song, and Prince’s Raspberry Beret, and there were things like Rawhide which I thought were just cruel because of the lyrics.

AL: Those are bizarre things from a pop culture standpoint right?

Anya Liftig and Andrea Kleine, My Dinner with Andrea: the Piece Formally Known as Torture Playlist (2017). New York Live Arts.
Photo: Paul B. Goode, Courtesy of Andrea Kleine

DL: I want to change the subject a little bit, and I want to talk about a quote from the film, My Dinner with Andre. It comes really early in the beginning, and I felt it was a key line that was significant to understand the nature of the film. William Shawn, who plays himself, recounts how he heard a story about his friend Andre Gregory, who one night broke down crying after hearing the line from the Ingmar Bergman film Autumn Sonata, “I could always live in my art and not in my life.”

Was that quote relevant in the development of this performance? Or, talk about how you think that quote relates to performance in general.

AL: I’m speaking now as an individual performer, and not part of Andrea’s ensemble, but I certainly think for me that’s very true. I think that making work can be a way of avoiding, a way of dealing with, a way of confronting what’s going on in one’s life. I feel very grateful for having discovered performance in the sense that it has made certain things in my life easier to confront. But, I think that living one’s life is hard, and living one’s art can be difficult, but I certainly think living one’s life is harder.

I think of it like Andrea’s notion of the forest, wanting to go running in the forest in terms of that being an expression of my artistic practice, and what I want to do. I want to go running in a way that I’m not capable in my regular life.

AK: Yeah, I have to agree with all of that! *laughs*.

On the flip side of that though, on actually making the piece My Dinner with Andrea, I was trying to figure out also, in some way how to make my life the art. And that was sort of my concept for writing the text.

AL: I want to add that it’s important to note that everything that was said was true. So that moment when I’m describing the lobster performance is one of those moments where there’s this catastrophic conflict between one’s art and one’s life.

Anya Liftig and Andrea Kleine,My Dinner with Andrea: the Piece Formally Known as Torture Playlist (2017). New York Live Arts.
Photo: Paul B. Goode, Courtesy of Andrea Kleine

DL: Okay, let’s get to that. In your conversation with each other in the performance, you talked a lot about how you waste time, your internet habits, and so on. What was it like examining yourself in that way in front of a larger audience in the context of a performance?

AK: In some way I was trying to bring my writing practice and performance practice together. And also, I was trying to some way mirror the film, and how he [Andre Gregory] sort of rambled through the film. It was very intimate in a way and revealing, but because I was performing it with this sort of filter of Andre Gregory, like I was still Andrea in the piece, but I was wearing a costume doing his voice, doing his vocal patterns, wearing that sweater which was really hard to find! That made it sort of easier. It felt like I was being a character, but everything I said was from myself. Which is interesting, because my concerns with theatrical performance are not actorly. I’m not interested in what is considered an actor’s concept of building a character. It’s much more connected to dance, it’s much more connected to choreography. The choreography is Andre Gregory, but the text is me.

DL: What about yourself?

AL:  Well, the main thing that I say was the lobster story.

DL: What about in the beginning when you talk about your life as a performance artist and selling things on Etsy?

AL: Oh, yeah, I forgot about the part that I talk about my life and the disasters *laughs*

For me actually the beginning was easier for me to say because I felt those were just facts about my life, and they were in plain view. The part about the lobster was much more of an interior dialogue. It was something where there is information where I said publicly about a lobster performance, but it’s not about that. For me that was an intimate thing to share, much more intimate than saying I’m divorced from a deadbeat etcetera etcetera.

DL: In an interview with Noah Baumbach, Andre Gregory said, “I definitely felt like I was playing someone” rather than himself in this performance, and in an interview with Gene Siskle and Roger Ebert, Shawn and Gregory said, “If we did this again, we would switch roles, just to prove we weren’t playing ourselves.”

Going back to this idea that you [Andrea] were playing Andrea through a filter of Andre Gregory, how much of yourself do you feel came through?

AK: I think the content was all myself, they were all true stories, I was trying to write this book where there was a sub-plot of these animal rights activists, and I was at this retreat in Florida where there were these animal sanctuaries there, but I couldn’t go. I’m actually a very shy performer. I don’t feel like I’m a natural performer in any way. Bobby Previte is a natural performer.

There’s a story that my friends make fun of me, because I has this residency once years ago; this theater company had a place and we were invited to go work on a project. I started to wonder about this woman who I went to junior high school with, and I did performing arts after school with, and is now a very famous Broadway star. But I started to think, ‘I wonder if she’s connected with them, and she’s having  gala benefit that we were all invited to, I wonder if she’ll be there? What if she came? I wouldn’t know what to do, I don’t know if I should pretend to be who I am or not.’ This is the line that my friends endlessly make fun of me about, pretending to be who I am.

But, I do all these things to actually convince myself that I can go on stage. And so, being the character Andre Gregory gives me this container to do all that. I’m also not that kind of talker that he is. He’s a famous talker. And it was really weird because someone emailed me afterwards, ‘Oh Andrea I forgot what a raconteur you are.’ I’m like, what the fuck are you talking about? *laughs* I’m very quiet person, I work at a library, I fall asleep at parties. So that part was rather challenging.

Anya Liftig, Andrea Kleine and Alison Inglestorm, My Dinner with Andrea: the Piece Formally Known as Torture Playlist(2017). New York Live Arts.
Photo: Paul B. Goode, Courtesy of Andrea Kleine

DL: Can you talk further about the rituals you go through before a performance?

AK: They’re not rituals like I have to stamp my foot three times before I walk on stage. The sweater was very important to me like I had to have that sweater. I went to so many thrift stores, and it was like what about this sweater, no… that’s too dark that’s too light, it has stripes, it doesn’t have buttons, it had to be the same sweater.

AL: But historically, like in Screening Room

AK: In Screening Room I played Yvonne Rainer and in that I had a wig. I had a lot more stage anxiety with that one, because I hadn’t performed my own work in over ten years. So, I had to be someone else to get back out there in a way. For Yvonne what got me through it was she was always in motion, she was always nodding her head, bouncing her knee up and down or rocking back and forth, and she always took a big breath before each sentence. So, I could inhabit those things. With Andre Gregory, he had such a particular voice, especially the way he said forest. It was sort of a New York accent from a different generation. It was the word forest that got me into that, like what is the forest and that sent me on that tangent, and that’s what also connected me to Florida, because what are other word like forest? My first line was ‘I was in Florida’, and that’s what kept me in it. There were these werid little nooks in the source material to get me through it.

DL: How about for you [Anya]? You’re mostly reacting to Andrea’s stories in the performance, but did you have any kind of preparation?

AK: A lot of my work is silent, and a lot of my work historically has been about facial movements or about facial gestures. So, I feel that is something I come to pretty naturally. In terms of preparing, it’s kind of interesting, because I wasn’t playing Wallace Shawn, but there is in the dynamic in between Andrea and I as friends, and the person who talks a lot is me. I tend to be a chatter box. So, it was actually nice to sit and listen and be quiet, and to bring that study and training of the face into this choreographic space.

DL: Going back to this idea of Shawn and Gregory switching roles, what do you think the results would be if you two switched roles in this performance?

AK: I think Anya had the more difficult part to be honest.

AL: What would happen? I would probably just go off and blabber on and on incoherently. Not that you were incoherent, but I would be incoherent, an not as interesting. *laughs*

What I really loved was listening to Andrea’s dialogue many many times, because I felt like every time I heard it, something else jumped out at me in terms of another connection. There was a serious of coincidence, like that fact that you’re from Richmond, and you knew this person. Like they’re so vague, but amazing synchronicities, and I was like, is it made up? It seemed so fantastical that it may have been made up.

DL: I wanted to get to this quote you said at the end of your interview with each other. When referring to Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, you stated, “For me when I was reading that, I had never written ‘memoir.’ I had never written about myself, but it seemed when she said that, it wasn’t that she was dishonest about it, but perhaps the story of one’s life is dishonest. It is actually just the way you remember it or the way you write it.”

Can you talk further about that? I took that as relating to performance where as an audience member you often take for granted that what you are seeing isn’t what is actually happening. Meaning, the audience applies meaning to the actions of a performer regardless if those meanings are true or not. Can a performer truly be honest?

AL: I think it can be a version of honesty. I think there is truth there, but what I was specifically talking about in that quote was, in terms of truth or veracity, I primarily worked without words for a very long time, because I felt I was trying to make a more open vessel for performance, and that words would be too specific or alienating in some way.

And, there has been some shift where I’ve been writing quite a bit for the past two years and discovering that the more specific I think the words are and the more specific the experience is, perhaps the more open it might be. I think one is always becoming on stage. To me that’s what’s exciting about performance as well as being a performer is I am discovering something and changing in front of people. That’s my ideal, where I am discovering something when other people are hopefully are, and that act of becoming is something that can be witnessed.

AK: I think the act of becoming and what you were trying to say in going back to that quote, is that, just practicing in the act of becoming on stage, there’s quite a lot of work that goes into that, work, and concepts, and practice. I think that was part of what Lucy Grealy was saying. I think people sometimes think that when you write a memoir or something autobiographical, it’s like opening the filing cabinet in your brain and you’re just transcribing a memory, when really, writing and artwork is far more involved and complex than that. There’s a memory you may have in your childhood, but what does it mean, and how do you re-inhabit it, and why would you re-inhabit it, what else is there?


Andrea Kleine, Anya Liftig and Alison Inglestorm, My Dinner with Andrea: the Piece Formally Known as Torture Playlist(2017). New York Live Arts.
Photo: Paul B. Goode, Courtesy of Andrea Kleine

DL: I brought this up because when watching My Dinner with Andrea, and going back to your lobster story, I recalled having previously heard a different version of that story, where someone took it and threw it in the sea. And so during the performance, I didn’t think you were telling a real story. That’s why I was so surprised to hear that it was in fact true. So, my misunderstanding led to me believing a truth that was not actually true.

AL: That’s interesting. The lobster performance where it was stolen and taken and released under the bed of stars into the sea—it directly led to this other iteration of the performance. Because the performance was interrupted I was asked to go through with the performance. And that was part of the second performance where I actually cooked the lobster and eat it, and that really had to happen in order to complete it. So there wouldn’t be one without the other.

DL: I want to talk about durational performances. Watching the movie My Dinner with Andre, it feels like a shaggy dog story, where it sounds like you’re hearing these profound ideas about life, but at the end there really isn’t a resolution. The subject of the movie is quite mundane: it’s two people talking over dinner. Andre Gregory in the film even makes the point of being tired of these mundane experiences in life, but as a viewer, this is itself a mundane experience.

How did bringing this long durational action add to this performance?

AK: That goes back to the idea of, can I make a piece about torture? And, of course one of the concepts of torture is a manipulation of time, and the person inflicting the torture has to make them feel like this is going to go on forever. So, I was interested in that with the long opening solo by Alison, and I was interested in the very long two-hour dinner conversation from the movie.

I thought it was interesting, because of course your fascinated by this eccentric character. The Wally character is like I’m just living this mundane life as a playwright, and Gregory is off going to beehives and to the Sahara [desert]. But, towards the end of the film Wally pushes back a bit, and Andre disavows things, and Wally asks ‘How can you disavow that?’ and they come back together and leave. Nothing is resolved and I love that because I hate conventional resolution, and nothing was resolved in My Dinner with Andrea, it just ended. I didn’t want one last speech; it was up to the audience to decide.

The ending was interesting being on stage because the light was these A Chorus Line finale footlights on steroids coming at the audience. It was blinding the audience, but from where we were on stage, it was lighting up the audience from our point of view. Then there was this saxophone solo that was in a way emotionally manipulative and nostalgic in a way, and things are crescendoing, and then we just leave, leaving the audience to subjectively sort out that material.

Becoming Constellation: An Interview with Benjamin Sebastian

Benjamin Sebastian, Becoming Constellation (2017).
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

By Daniella LaGaccia

I was first introduced to the performance work of Benjamin Sebastian during their stay in New York back in September, 2012. Visiting from London, Sebastian performed along with Bean and Poppy Jackson at Grace Exhibition Space for the “Alien(s) In New York” three-day guest curator performance series and later at Panoply Performance Laboratory. Sebastien would later write about this experience as well as Jackson’s WIN performance for this magazine. Benjamin Sebastian and Bean currently run ]performance s p a c e [ in Folkestone’s Creative Quarter.

Becoming Constellation (2017) is Sebastian’s new continuing performance project that looks at expanding definitions of queerness, or as it was stated in the press release, “what it feels like to live through queerness and make new worlds.” The project has ten collaborators from many different backgrounds, and includes, Keijaun Thomas, Dani D’Emilia, Bean, Alicia Radage, JD Meilling, Andre Braga Verissimo, Jade Montserrat, Esther Neff, Ryan Burke, and Fabiola Paz. The project held an exhibition at Space 7 Gallery last March in Folkestone, Kent, and will be opening a new exhibition this Friday at Lubomirov/Angus-Hughes Gallery in London from from May 26th to June 18th.

Daniella LaGaccia: You stated in your press release that “Queerness is not and can never be an identity. It is a current, or imperative.” Why do you feel that way? Why do you feel that queerness can never be an identity?

Benjamin Sebastian: For me, I guess it’s coming through my relation to queerness, which has always been both a bodily and conceptual frame. I get uncomfortable when through language we conflate the concept of queerness with the concept of being a LGBTQI+ identity. I think queerness is a strategy or a methodology or a conceptual and theoretical framework that can never actually be plastic or cement, and I feel because of that, it is not an identity-based notion.

Concepts of gay and lesbian and transsexuality and all of these, I feel that these are all identities that people have written themselves and anchored themselves in, but I feel there’s a dissonance within language that conflates queerness with identity when actually I’m trying to separate that and actually explode the concept of identity.

D: When did you start playing with this idea of queerness?

B: I started to figure this out when I as maybe in my early teens. I had gay older brothers and sisters, step-siblings. I started to notice how friends and family and society related to them, and I think at that young age, I really understood that I had something in common with them. But I didn’t think about it in terms of sexuality or gender, I just didn’t think like that at that age.

It’s a retrospective knowledge for me. I very much wanted children when I was a little little child, and I actually thought that I could become pregnant and give birth, but it wasn’t until my mum talked me through that and it was heartbreaking, I remember how devastated I was. I started to understand concepts of gender. I think from a very very young age there was this position of queerness or maybe I was living through queerness, but it’s only retrospectively that I’ve come to understand those things.

D: I can say from the perspective as someone who identifies as transgender that I sometimes have misgivings of having the LGBT or queer label placed on me, because it implies that I’m different or that I’m not normal, when I feel my sexuality and gender feels completely normal to me.

B: Me too, I find most labels in relation to identity politics somewhat problematic. At best, I’ve always had a strategic approach. I don’t identify in terms of gender or sexuality. I identify in terms of sex now, but that’s a new thing. I didn’t identify as a man until recently. For the last ten plus years, it’s been very clear in my mind for me personally moving through the world that anything in relation to identity, particularly mine and the people I want to commune with, needs to be strategic.

In one particular setting, I will adamantly and radically identify as a gay man. In other settings, I will use that identity position entirely. At other points, I will identify through language as non-binary or gender fluid, and I will shift amidst those things because one, I personally need to, because that’s how I am in the world, and secondly, it’s very much a political stance as well, because I think as soon as we reduce something to a parameter box, we’re losing something’s potential. I’m trying to explode that so we have the ultimate potential.

D: Let’s talk about queerness in relation to your project Becoming Constellation. For this project, do you necessarily have to be “queer” to participate in this project, or are there a number of varied people of different backgrounds or identities participating?

B: Again, we come back to this notion of what queer is or isn’t, or can or cannot be, and for me the whole stance is one cannot be queer, one can only live through queerness or engage in queered acts or relations. The people I’m collaborating with initially come from really broad demographic and positions in life. I feel that some of the collaborators may be seen from the outside as not queered or living through queerness, because one of the elements of their position in life is that they do sleep with the opposite sex or opposite gender.

So, for me queerness is not rooted in sex, gender or sexuality. It’s rooted in so many other nodes of being and existence such as class and race and ability. I’ve been working with people who identify themselves as living through queerness and may not identify as queer and particularly may not identify as a position within the LGBTQ+ community.

D: How did you initially get in contact with these collaborators? Did you have specific people in mind that you wanted to work with?

B: It was a bit of a tough one to come up with the initial test group. As soon as I realized that I needed to be working with other people, I was working with people from various positions in life to me, kind of making it sort of bureaucratic tick box list of oppression oppression states or oppression positions. I looked at the people I had met in life, and I knew it was going to be an intimate collaboration so it had people in different positions in being so that I had enough of a relationship to say, “Hey, I’m embarking on this thing that’s going to be quite intimate, would you like to do it with me? I don’t know how it’s going to go, and it’s also going to be challenging.” So, it’s a bit of a long process actually.

A couple of the people on my initial long list, I didn’t contact because I felt it would have just been difficult to get to know each other at the same time of doing this really intense and intimate collaborative work. So, everyone in the Human Constellation Group, I have met before or have had some sort of interaction with beforehand in various levels of friendship or peer network.

Dani d’Emilia, uteArus (2017). Collaborators were asked to donate artworks as part of their participation with Becoming Constellation (2017).
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: You said in our earlier talk that you wanted to make these connections and networks the work itself. You said, “nodes that make up the greater than the sum of its parts.” What do you mean by that?

B: I want to tell you this beautiful thing that has just happened. With all these collaborators we keep getting these really beautiful synchronicities and serendipitous overlaps and interlaps. So, one of the collaborators, Fabiola Paz, was born in Santiago, Chile. And, another one the collaborates, Alicia Radage, she has literally just turned up in Santiago, and Fabiola and I, eight hours away from having our sigil tattooed onto our bodies on the other side of the world. It’s a beautiful serendipitous thing. Little bits like this have happened throughout the project and I think that’s a poetic way of seeing this notion of it being nodes within a thing that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

But then also, there’s the very physical meaning to it. My body, my skin ends up holding space for all of the other collaborators, and so they extend beyond their bodily presence, but then, also, mine stands out into these other bodily spaces as well. Alicia and I were the first ones to come up with the sigil and have the first one done in the process. When I was being inked, it was overwhelming. I got tearful. In my mind, this concept was playing through, when one of cease to exist, we’re still being taken through life by the other with this mark on our body. This mark in time in us and of us.

Each collaborator was asked to design a sigil that was then tattooed on their body.
Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: It sounds like this project has the physical actions themselves, the sigils, the tattooing, but it also has these narratives that extend beyond these actions and are in consequence of it and become a part of the project as well.

B: Absolutely, the sigils, as they come into reality, I keep writing them down on a page next to each other every now and then, to take stock of them. It really is an alphabet, and it’s creating this alphabet that we have absolute ownership over. It’s bringing something into the world that wasn’t there prior. It is somehow a byproduct, this sort alphabet or new vernacular. It was always the idea to have these sigils to be a part of the collaborative work, but this whole sort of alphabet or document of these new languages is in its own right this thing that has spun off beside the whole project.

D: It’s creating this sort of human archive of this work.

B: Yes, absolutely.

D: You mentioned that when you first reached out to these participants you sent them questionnaires. Can you talk about some of the questions that were on these questionnaires?

B: For the idea of the questionnaire, I knew I always wanted to create new narratives, because this was about looking how narratives are produced. The questionnaire was like an ice breaker. One of the people in the project was the first person I met and had an enduring relationship with here in the UK. Some of us were very intimate. Others I’ve only met once before, or we’ve had some very interesting conversations at social events or we’ve collaborated in fleeting. There are varying degrees of intimacy. It was both an ice breaker, but at the same time all of the collaborators were aware that their answers from the questionnaire were going to be used to create a cut-up text-piece that will be somehow woven in the overall project.

The questions I was asking in the questionnaire alluded to identity, queerness, politics, and how people felt they were in the world. Some of the questions were as simple as, “Where are you local? What verbal language do you consider to be your primary mode of expression?,” and then, more sort of abstract questions like, “What does community mean to you?” The first question was, “How do you define queer?” or “What does queer mean to you?”

I wanted to have people give over some information of themselves, almost in the way of profiling. I wanted to have an element of the person of their identity in textual form. As well as their feelings and thinkings around of what queerness may or may not be.

Collaborators were asked to have nude portraits of themselves taken, that were then cut-up and reformed back together to create new portraits.
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: You said you were working with cut-up pictures as well?

B: Yes. The invitation to collaborate had four elements to it. It had the questionnaire; it had the invitation to collaborate on a photo montage portrait series, and then it was donating the three artworks, and then it was the production of the statement of intent which was the sigil and the tattoo.

So, the photo, it’s a very simple photograph. I asked the collaborators to take a full body frame against a background, it doesn’t really matter because it gets edited out. I just wanted to have us striped back to our flesh, and then the idea was that all of these photographs, rather than just be stark photographic portrait of each member, they then get grided up and interwoven into each other. You end up with all of these hybrid forms that look somehow post-human or post-gendered actually, because the way they’re sewn back to together, you lose a little bit from each grid. So, it’s sort of makes some of the forms where the body connect look amorphous.

D: It’s like it’s creating new ways of how the human body can look.

B: Yeah, in as much as the sigils have started to create this new symbolic vernacular or vocabulary, the body that the image montages are creating this other vocabulary or vernacular of what visual references of the human body look like. If you put two of the collaborators who have penises together, you get this amorphous penis; if you put two of the practitioners with vaginas together, you get this amorphous image of a vagina, and if you get half, you get this hermaphroditic form. It’s so interesting the way they actually form, because sometimes it looks like a hybrid, other times it actually looks like there’s nothing there at all, they’re asexual. The photos are similar to the sigils where it’s a vernacular, it’s a visual reference of what the body might potentially be.

The many sigils produced by collaborators for Becoming Constellation (2016).
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: One of the main parts of this project is that you’re working with sigil magic. What role does magic play in Becoming Constellation?

B: I’ve always really believed in magic. I don’t believe in it in terms of this sort of otherworldly ethereal thing like you wish and hope for the best. I believe in magic in the physical manipulation of elements around you to bring about desired change. So, sigil craft in particular is very much a manifesting type of spell craft. You focus on a statement of intent, you cast that out into the universe, and then you can’t just leave it to hope that it does it work. You then have to put in steps to bring about that desired change. For me, it’s like anything else. I’ve always been very visual in my thinking and my feeling— I’ve always wanted to try to have a very clear image of that thing. Maybe, it’s that I want to live in the UK, or it’s that I want to unpack what it is this body is perceiving. I visualize these things and I see these as almost stepping stones in time and space to get towards those positions, goals, things. So sigil craft is very much about that for me.

We…the collaborators and I create these statements of intent. One of them is “I am patient”, another one is “bridges over walls,” another one is “I am intimate and I am resilient.” So, it’s very much about casting these intents, and then really bringing them into our bodies and make them of ourselves through the tattooing, and as we move through the world, the physical activation of those intents. So this is magic, it’s the physical activation of this more ethereal sort of spell craft. And so, I was sort of exploding histories of sigil craft, so it’s like chaos magic, taking a bit of this, taking a bit of that, and creating something that’s more potent and useful now in contemporary settings.

D: I’ve always felt like writing is kind of like a form of magic. I love the idea that someone can write down their ideas 500 years ago and 500 years later, another person can look at those same words and interact with the thoughts of a writer who has long since died.

B: And you can create worlds; this is the big thing for me. We can create worlds, we can create universes, and this is what all art is for me. Something that we want to exist we can make. Of course there is limitations, but with the advances of science, these limitations get crossed off the list. I’ve always considered all creative practices, but most particularly writing as magic, absolutely.

D: How large do you want to make this project? Do you want to make this an ongoing project? Do you want to have a definite end? Or, is this something you want to have in your life continuing on creating constellations?

B: I’ve now understood that it’s ongoing. When I initially conceived of it, I thought it was sort of a white-meated curatorial collaborative project. It would have a start, it would have an end, and then there would be this sort of performative archive that is a thing that might have other lives. But it’s not like that at all. I’ve understood the project now as a methodology which is ongoing. It is very much something I now live with and it lives with me, and we live with it together! I think that’s a really beautiful thing, because my engagement with queerness is that it is entirely multiple. So, to in order to be true to the project itself, I think it has to be ever evolving…because that’s what queerness is. If it were to stop, it wouldn’t be true to form. So there may be fallow periods of inactivity, but it’s open ended.

As it grows, the visual references of the body vocabulary grow; the symbolic vernacular of sigils continue to grow; the visual archive continues to grow, and we create this ever expanding visual textual created narrative of what it means to live through queerness in the world. I now understand that that’s what the whole thing has been about.

Becoming Constellation (2017) installation. Space 7 Gallery, Folkestone, England.
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: There are a lot of visual elements to this project, sigils, tattoos, the cut-up text, and the photos of the collaborators… Will there be a physical archive or exhibition that people can interact with and look at to see how this project has evolved?

B: Yes, first off you have the bodies themselves. So you’ve got that, and it will always be a very physical fluid element to the archive. Quite often I get asked what my tattoos mean, and the majority of the marks on my body are from Becoming Constellation. I’ve had a few tattoos before the process, but it has been overtaken by this human constellation.

So there’s that element to it. Other physical elements, there will actually be at some point a digital aspect to this whole thing. I’m actually enrolled in a course at the moment at Central State Martin’s where I’m learning to use Autodesk Maya, a 3D animation program, and it’s part of the project. What I was hoping to do was create these digital avatars that eventually the photos will cover. The idea was that the photographic cut-ups will become the skins of these 3D animated avatars, so you wouldn’t just have the 2D image of these potentials of what the body may be, but you would have them wrapped around the newly-created digital forms also. I was hoping to have at least one or two avatars created by the end of this R & D funded process.

In time there will be that digital presence, and so the visual archive itself, houses all the donated works and each sigil is printed out on a nylon flag, so it has all the sigils on the flags, all the photographic bodies, the donated objects, so yes there is quite a substantial physical archive in the objects and the bodies themselves.

Fire And Prayer, Performance As Ritual in Miami

Sarah H. Paulson, with Samantha Gray and Travis Laplante, Fire in Fire: Prayers for the Ocean (2016). Miami Art Basel, Satellite Art Show 2.0, curated by Performance Is Alive.
Photo: Julio Tardaguila, Courtesy of Sarah H. Paulson

By Steven Butz

Nearing the end of the ever-frenzied 2016 Miami Basel art fair week, performance artist Sarah H. Paulson, accompanied by two other performers, Samantha Gray and composer Travis Laplante, created a three and a half hour event which, in essence, begged us to just stop. Stop the spending. Stop the Ubering. Stop the partying. Please.

Employing minimal staging and props, the most abundant of which were two very generous mounds of red and pink rose petals, one idea which couldn’t help but leap out, was “Stop and smell the roses”. This message, along with the work’s intended themes, could only reach a few audience members at a time in the small hotel room Paulson had adapted into another of her spare performance environments. There, incorporating one of her signature motifs of repetitive actions or activities, we see what takes on the definite appearance of a ceremony or more precisely, a ritual. The viewer can’t be sure what cultures or civilizations her rituals might be drawn from because there are no identifiable clues. It feels unfamiliar. Could they be religious in origin or cultural or sociopolitical? These repeated actions are uncomplicated, and overall quite simple. What remains constant in her more recent work, as she continued to do here, is the sense that what we are watching is not newly wrought, but ancient. That the gestures and actions Paulson enacts are ones she has carefully managed to unearth and recreate. Perhaps the artist herself is not fully understanding of their original meaning, but convinced of their validity and significance, she gives them new life and lets her audience parse out their meanings.

Sarah H. Paulson, with Samantha Gray and Travis Laplante, Fire in Fire: Prayers for the Ocean (2016). Miami Art Basel, Satellite Art Show 2.0, curated by Performance Is Alive.
Photo: Julio Tardaguila, Courtesy of Sarah H. Paulson

Paulson’s piece, titled “Fire in Fire: Prayers for the Ocean” was created at the invitation of Performance Is Alive at the Satellite Art Show 2.0. Though its mysterious ritualistic aspects adhere to her overall performative style, here she has chosen, partly given the venue and location or perhaps at the request of the presenters, to provide detailed program notes. These actively direct and focus her audience (many of whom are asked to briefly and individually participate) on the specific themes of this work.  It seems, as I recall, to differ from previous program notes, as rather too literally descriptive of her ideas, intentions and goals. The notes do perhaps help those entirely uninitiated with her work to watch with greater ease and certainly aids those too quickly passing through yet another art fair event to get the idea and take something away. The risk, however can be that such detailed program notes, narrow and prescribe the encounter by telling its audience members what they should be thinking about as they experience the performance. Once read, it can set unintended parameters around an individual’s interpretive encounter with the material and might undermine more elusive personal engagements. Rather than summarizing these programs notes, I have appended the four short paragraphs* at the end of this account.

Sarah H. Paulson, with Samantha Gray and Travis Laplante, Fire in Fire: Prayers for the Ocean (2016). Miami Art Basel, Satellite Art Show 2.0, curated by Performance Is Alive.
Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk, Courtesy of Sarah H. Paulson

Numerous, intermittent high points come with the repeated, brief participation of individual audience members in the ritual. They are called into the performance space and sit facing forward on a chair center stage reserved only for them. With outstretched palms, cleansed by Paulson with ocean water, these volunteers take on the role of willing supplicants, which concludes, after a few ceremonial aspects, with each given a small treasure of rose petals, resting on the moxa singed balsa wood square and wrapped in a square of white silk. It reminded me of a very small elegant hobo’s knapsack, missing only the little stick from which it would hang. There is a card tied to the small knotted silk parcel that instructs it to be taken to the ocean and that the rose petals be tossed into the waves. In effect, these volunteers cum performers are each asked to stop, in the midst of the tumult of the art fair’s hurry-it’s-your-last-chance-to-see-everything-day, to stop and become sacred messengers.

Another major component of the work was the performance of composer and saxophonist Travis Laplante, who is a respected artist in his own right and founder of the avant-garde saxophone quartet, Battle Trance. Laplante provides an ongoing improvisational accompaniment during the entire duration of the piece. In the time I spent at the performance, which was the last two and a half hours, the music was comprised of a broad and varied range of sounds, including suggestions of the urban commotion of Collins Avenue, right outside the hotel, to more frequent and wonderful descents into a long, lovely, foggy echoing of music emanating from a conch shell. Closing our eyes, we can imagine Laplante momentarily took one up to play, giving his sax a rest. In those moments, the nearby ocean became a full-throated presence in this little second floor hotel room.

Sarah H. Paulson, with Samantha Gray and Travis Laplante, Fire in Fire: Prayers for the Ocean (2016). Miami Art Basel, Satellite Art Show 2.0, curated by Performance Is Alive.
Photo: Julio Tardaguila, Courtesy of Sarah H. Paulson

When not interacting with an audience volunteer, which was Paulson’s major role, she, along with the other performer, were each kneeling in their respective mounds of rose petals and routinely scooping up armfuls and showering themselves with them. This action, one felt, could go on eternally, like the never-ending action of waves. Paulson and Gray were watery maidens in loving service, who never tired, never got distracted, and never doubted the significance of their task.

Sarah H. Paulson, The Reed Bed (2016). Grace Exhibition Space, Brooklyn, New York.
Photo: Rob Peyrebrune, Courtesy of Sarah H. Paulson

As in all of Paulson’s works, those conceived alone, such as this one and those conceived with sometimes collaborator, Holly Faurot, the audience is given permission to come and go during the always lengthy performances. As compared to her twelve hour performance of “The Reed Bed” at Grace Exhibition Space in Brooklyn in June, 2016, “Fire in Fire” was held, as previously noted, at a modest three and a half hours. There is a concept of endurance which plays into these works, both for the performers, who must fulfill the required scope of the piece, and also for the audience members. There are many who opt for a more swift, fleeting encounter, while some choose to stay and stay. Rewards can be had either way, but I have found the greater the endurance, the greater the rewards.

That afternoon after the performance, I found myself on the beach, tossing my rose petals into the waves. There is no way knowing how many of the performance volunteers chose to fulfill this mission to the Atlantic, only two blocks from that small hotel room, and it will forever remain the actual unseen conclusion to the performance.


*Program Notes from “Fire in Fire: Prayer for the Ocean” Dec. 4, 2016

Samantha Gray and Sarah H. Paulson bathe themselves in thousands of rose petals. Through their continuous immersion into piles of reds and pinks, accompanied by Travis Laplante’s masterful use of the saxophone to emit cascades of sound, each petal becomes a letter, a prayer, a love note, from the heart of the performer to the ocean.

Each year tons of people flock to Miami for Miami Art Week. It is a time of creativity, opulence, celebration, debauchery, activism, education, criticism, art, addiction, performance, traffic, waste, self-expression, business, music and more. It is a week that is full of both beauty and horror.

Fire in Fire” serves to remind viewers, the performers, and the artist alike, about the importance of place. The ocean is ceaseless, calling to us, singing, crashing, reaching, available, regardless of what stands on its shore, or is discarded into its waters. “Fire in Fire: Prayer for the Oceans” is but a breath, from the shore, in response to that constant call.

With the help of audience members, moxa (dried mugwort used in acupuncture) is burned through the center of silk handkerchiefs one after another. Rose petals are wrapped in the burnt handkerchiefs and given to individuals from the audience, with the agreement that they will release the petals into the ocean.