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.
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.
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.
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.