A conversation between Bonella Holloway and Kamil Guenatri
Artist Kamil Guenatri and his assistant Bonella Holloway sat in Guenatri’s flat in Toulouse on a Thursday morning. They recently returned from London, where Kamil performed his piece “10-14”, with Bonella’s contribution at the Tempting Failure Performance Art and Noise Art Festival this past July. The multiple levels of their relationship, artistic, professional and personal, become apparent through a dialogue on Kamil’s vision of performance art, his artistic process, his disability, and ham.
Bonella: Do you think that the bottom line of performance art is a body functioning in a space?
Kamil: In my works, space is a recurrent notion, and I think that it’s more or less unavoidable as soon as you’re confronting an audience: it happens within a space. It’s even more apparent in my case, because my work is often installation based. The body becomes an installation, the installation is built with the body itself. The sculptural body. My face is no longer a face, it becomes a surface in the space, that undergoes a series of modifications. When I try to imagine a performance in a specific location, the space is the starting point of the performance.
There’s also another aspect, the use of the body, the outskirts of the body, as a space in and of itself, and here space is not physical, but corporal. And on a more abstract level, I work with invisible space— how to create an emotion or something that cannot necessarily be seen, but that is communicated through the audience’s presence: as an exchange.
So for me there are three types of spaces: physical, corporal and invisible. And I work with all three, or one and the other…often all three.
B: The body in a space, do you necessarily mean your own body that has a different mobility to others? Do you base your research on the function of your personal body?
K: People often say, the body is subject, it’s kind of acknowledged by the majority. In my case, because my body is immobile, I can’t say that my body is subject. When I present myself I’m Kamil, with my experience, so the subject “Kamil Guenatri” is put forward, transmitted, seen and felt, so it is the subject. But again with the sculptural aspect: when I imagine a performance, for me my body is an object, definitely an object. It’s separate members, and I integrate these objects as you’d integrate elements to an installation. Being immobile allows me to represent my body as an object. And being object suggests being manipulated. It is moved in the space, modified, displaced, transformed. And that’s where my assistants play their part.
B: I’ll get back to the assistants later, but first can we talk about objects, the other objects you use? How did this corpus of objects develop throughout your practice? Are the objects symbolic?
K: To explain this part I need to explain my work process. It’s not always the same recipe, but something keeps coming back and persists. It often starts off with an image, a mental image. This image is me, or a part of my body, or another body, not mine, a male body. And the body is doing something.
B: Do you mean your collaborations?
K: No, a body.
B: Your male body?
K: No. No. It’s um… It’s not an ideal, it’s not me in a body that I’m not, I don’t see it as a fantasy, I feel that… When I’m in a performance festival, 90% of the artists that I’ll see are able-bodied. So my imagery of performance art is normative. If I saw a lot of disabled people doing performance art, my imagery would be different. So it’s this undone image of me, willy-nilly, it’s a silhouette. I don’t care so much about this silhouette, what interests me is what he’s doing. The action becomes obsessional, the image keeps coming back. In these actions there’s a recurring language of objects. Objects that communicate amongst themselves. They’re symbolic, or visual, but inspired by my obsessions, and by my culture of performance art. I’m soaked in lots of other performance art, that I reuse, with my own curbs.
They’re part of my imagination, and the more I use them they tire, and new images appear and so on.
B: A form of vocabulary?
K: Yes, I think if you take each individual performance you could add them up to find a whole meaning.
B: More than a guideline, a big continuity of smaller fragments.
K: Yes, an ongoing process. That I often bypass, towards new researches. Intellectual counts, not just inspiration. A bit of both, but conducted.
B: So the objects and images are recurrent, with the use of your body used as a patterns that are repeated, and what we mentioned earlier, your assistants. Have you always embraced the idea of integrating your assistants with their specific part in your performances, or to begin with was this more of a constraint than anything else?
K: Well, back to this image, there’s a point where I say to myself, “shit this is too complicated”, I can’t do this alone. And just like in my day to day life, I have assistants that are there to compensate my disability and to help me. If a lightbulb needs changing, my assistant does it for me. As I’m in the field of contemporary performance that incites us, as artists, to not dissociate what we live and what we show, it seems legitimate that my assistants do this artistic work for the images to exist. My potential is my own, my assistant’s, my wheelchair’s and everything that surrounds me in my daily life.
B: During the conference at Tempting Failure, you mentioned that the way each performance develops depends partly on the assistant that you’re working with. This was the first time I recognized this idea, I hadn’t taken into account the importance you gave, not just to your assistant, but to which assistant you chose for a specific performance.
I saw a reflection of my own work in your last performance [‘10-14’ (2016)], in which I assisted you. When you’re developing a particular performance, do you chose who you’re going to do it with, or is it simply that through working with this or that assistant, the ideas and personality of whoever it is permeates your work as a form of exchange?
K: I don’t guide the process in that direction. I don’t take on the role of a stage director, who knows his actors and digs into their personality. On the other hand, I have a group of assistants that work 24 hours. With these six assistants, I follow my schedule as a performance artist, and if a performance is on a Saturday, then I’ll think ahead, and two months beforehand tell whoever’s working that day, “We’re going to perform together!” From there on, I know who’ll be doing it. It’s a compromise between what’s easiest for me, and optimizing my relationship with my assistants.
In your case it was very obvious, because you also make performance art and in our practices have lots of things in common: food, sound, in your readymade approach, that’s simple and shows things as they are. So in the case of our work together it’s blatant. We almost don’t need to think it over. And so, coming back to the example of TF, because you make music and that, I wanted to give it a go too, I figured it was a good opportunity. It would have been a shame to not do it, so there’s this image to begin with, and I find it interesting to give it different forms. The shape it’ll take with Bonnie, with Camille… it’s like a series of paintings, it’s never exactly the same. The factor that changes is how the assistant and I collaborate.
With other assistants, take Audrey for example, who is very—like in her video work: it’s very refined and thorough. Subconsciously, the images we make together resemble her artistic architecture.
B: Right, in the performance that you did with her at the Cave Poésie [“10-14”, (2015)], despite there being similar gestures to the ones from the performance in London, it was definitely more meticulous, precise and methodic, in the way she moves. And it’s not just her personality, I think it’s in your relationship.
In the exchange in the month before the performance, when the process is already developing, without its audience, do you feel that these factors are already taken into account? Or do they just happen, as an unplanned result?
K: I don’t foresee everything. Perhaps that’s the part that just happens autonomously—there’s always a part that just happens. Especially because you’re integrated to my daily life. You’re impregnated by me outside of the performance and I know you outside of this context too.
I’m trying to be more and more attentive to it. There’s the visual design—I have an image, I want to make it. This is a really important factor. But it’s not just this, there’s another design. The design of the experience.
It can become visible, but it’s something that is conveyed, communicated. It’s what can be perceived in what’s there. I try to use my own experience as much as I can in my performances, but with the assistant’s presence, it’s my experience, his experience and what we do together during the performance. And this I don’t try to control.
B: That’s the part that neither you, your assistant, nor the audience can control. The part that escapes control.
K: So what interests me, is to see how this turns out, the result. It feeds my imagination for the next performance, and the leftovers are visible. It takes shape.
B: This tension, the exchange that takes place between you and me in your performance, is something that, when we’re at your house and doing the gestures of your daily routine, doesn’t exist, because they’re actions that we do repeatedly, carefully, but in front of an audience there was such a tension between us, which is obviously intangible, can be seen quite clearly. At least, I’ve experienced it as a spectator at other performances of yours. What is strange, and different from when I’m doing my own performances, whether they’re collaborative or not, is that my tension is related to my own self-awareness, and the image I’m conveying. At TF, my experience was completely different to this. Being your assistant allowed me to have absolutely no awareness of the audience, of my image in front of them, of how they could perceive my presence—I was scared, playing the performer’s part, but because of taking care of you, doing the same habitual actions from our daily life, which have become movements that demand worry and care. The particular tension of being over aware of your well-being, not the “Kamil’s performance needs to go right”, but “is Kamil, the everyday Kamil, OK”. And this is why I find it so interesting that you use daily actions, because I keep the mindset from our everyday.
K: It’s more difficult to repeat a daily action in a performance, than the daily action itself on a daily basis, even for me.
Sometimes I think to myself, hang on, you’re getting stressed out about doing three times a day. I know exactly what you mean, you couldn’t see the audience.
B: No, not at all.
K: I could definitely see them. For me if you couldn’t see them you weren’t acting, you were really living what you were doing. It was sincere.
B: I didn’t feel like I was acting. Although it can probably come off as dramatic, I don’t feel that there’s pathos of anything theatrical about it, because it’s very real, even when I bind your face with blue thread – which we don’t do on a daily basis – it’s done simply. Drama free.
K: And this is where I don’t agree with some peoples idea of performance art. For me performance art, and this is how I intend it, is something that’s action inspired and so I can’t dramatize or stage it, this seems ridiculous to me. I think it’s a pity regarding history of art and performance art to go back to that. Been there, done that, get over it. What I do belongs to a family of performers, quite a big family, and that’s how they work, through actions.
B: Let’s get back to objects. Does the ham for example, in the performance ‘10-14’, signify something specific?
K: Firstly, like all objects, it’s an image. I’ve never performed in Paris, I’ve never tried to, maybe one day I will. One day I was with friends, joking about “parisienism” and “provincialism”. You know, provincials, and all the losers from the south. And I said that the first performance I would do in Paris would have a ham suspended in the air that I would cover in olive oil and herbs de Provence. That’s it. To awaken something sensorial , and the image stuck. In the meantime I developed the ideas, but when TF took place, and I’d seen the space already, I said to myself, why wait for Paris, let’s do it here. And you know the rest. We tried oil and realized it wasn’t all that interesting, the image unraveled, and got mashed up with my current research. I attempt to keep a certain relevance with my general process and the image transforms, it’s fed by all sorts of things that bounce off different factors that are important to me. Collaboration, the space, the images…
B: That’s another point we have in common in our work, the starting point is often a trivial joke or funny idea in a conversation.
K: Yeah, and this is one of the rare ideas that isn’t a mental image, it’s a social image.
B: Social, yes, but the audience wanted to see it as something more… spiritual or pathetic. As if the ham were an image of your inert body, upon which you transfer you t-shirt and your tattoo.
K: What interests me in this is the poetry. Jesus, Mary and a ham, I think it’s great, we really killed…God. God is dead.
B: I find that people want to see a more serious and intellectual side, the intense polysemy in your work, rather than the black humour, your cynical view of society, that reflects your perception of society in relation to the fact you’re in a wheelchair.
K: I’m a minority, I have an outside view on all this. It’s evidently critical, and feeds my work. And it is serious, I want it to be serious. But I try to keep a distance with the whole thing. For me performance art is a form of ritual. And once you have a ritual then you’re talking about what’s sacred. I put humour into sacred, it’s important, just to make it profane—
B: —to desacralize it, all the while using sacred codes, or pagan more like, because your work tends to connote satanic rituals…
K: I’m very influenced by the history of rituals and people. I make no difference between contemporary performance art and ancient rituals. There are such blatant common points between the two. I get somewhat trapped by my influences.
B: A trap?
K: No, but a reflection of my mystical influences, I REVENDIQUE myself as mystical on some levels, so the “invisible” and these things we can’t perceive or explain fascinate me. I find it interesting to dig into these ideas, but which a certain distance, so that it’s funny and sarcastic. It’s art, not a religion.
B: One last point, that fact that you’re part of a ‘minority’, when people see what you do, they tend to say that you’re talking about your disability. For me this is similar to the way people will undermine that a film about a homosexual is therefore a film on homosexuality, or that a woman’s work of art would be about her condition as a woman, or that a Muslim’s work is necessarily about their condition as a Muslim. What annoys me in this is that if you’re not an able-bodied white atheist man—
K: …the alleged silhouette—
B: …then we are ‘conditioned’ and that our condition would therefore overwrite any other subject and become our work. Are you simply talking from your experience, as a human being, or is disability a central subject in your art?
K: It’s my point of view, that’s undeniable. On the other hand, my point of view crosses others, but like all disabled person… My condition, is being in Occident, on a wheelchair, and occidentals in wheelchairs have more or less the same conditioning as I do, with their personal experience on top. My opinion integrates a global opinion. Disability in a common vision, is directly related to sorrow and pity – and that’s something I really can’t change! My body is a body of suffering in its representation, so whatever I do, that’ll always be stuck to me, because that’s what people think. So that is something I’m talking about, but I’m trying to demolish the very idea, with my images. It’s a form of bad faith, to demolish people’s perception of disability, it’s negative philosophy, a reaction, to stir their conscience. That’s the whole point of art in general, this transformation in the conscience of the onlooker, to displace their perspective. That’s my aim when I look at a work of art, I want something to change within me.
B: And in of itself, you can’t not talk about it.
K: My basic concept is exactly that, my body just as it is.