Tuesday, 24 February 2009
A Conversation about 14 February
The final evening of the Performance Saga Festival was the culmination of a three day programme of screenings and performances curated by Katrin Grögel and Andrea Saemann. In the following conversation, the Open Dialogues: Performance Saga writers talked about the final evening’s performances amidst the context of the festival as a whole. The programme of the evening was as follows:
The evening began with the Performance Saga Interview with Alison Knowles, in which Knowles talked about her experiences as an artist, her outlook on life and her current interests.
Esther Ferrer performed a series of pieces- ‘Au Rythme du Temps’, ‘Traverser un Espace’ and ‘Theorie and Practique’. She used minimal props: a table, chairs, a blanket, a feather, and simple, precise movements, including walking across stage, lifting a leg, raising a hand, to convey complex meaning. She ended with a performance lecture in which she articulated the coming together of performance theory and practice in an unidentifiable, but strangely understandable, mock language.
Mirzlekid (Hansjörg Köfler) performed ‘Umkehrung des Hirschgeweihs’ outside in the Arsenic theatre car park, using his car, some wire, two customised typewriters, a pair of antlers and an icebox filled with snow. He drove the car over the typewriters and the keys produced words on paper creating a noisy, mechanical and fragile sculptural moment. The performance ended with the audience throwing snowballs at the car as Mirzlekid drove out of the car park.
Simone Rüssli’s ‘A l’âme en secret’ was a subtle work in which Rüssli interacted with objects in her performance space, including a camping stove, bottles of water and woollen blankets. Rüssli’s movements in the space – reading, walking, dancing, opening stage doors and windows, changing music on her ipod - were understated, located almost on the edge of performance.
Andrea Saemann's performance ‘Mit Primzahlen (avec des nombres premiers)’ was a powerful homage to Esther Ferrer, drawing on the theme of prime numbers. Read Beatrice Bucher-Mayor’s review of the work here: blogspot.com/2009/02/b-bucher-mayor-andrea-saemann-telephone.html
Performance Saga Interviews
Beatrice Bucher-Mayor: It was very interesting how those women [in the Performance Saga films] are totally different from one another.
Rachel Lois Clapham: their politics come from completely different places as well, don’t they? They’re all quite political but the difference between Martha Rosler, say, and Alison Knowles ... it manifests itself very differently in their work, even though it comes from, as you say, the same political – feminist- context of performance.
Mary Paterson: I think Alison Knowles and Carolee Schneemann was the biggest contrast. Because Alison Knowles is so ... everything about her life is so in tune. And Carolee Schneeman – she’s like chaos.
RLC: And although they’re both concerned with feminism, Carolee is much more about putting vulvas on stage, whereas Alison is very quietly getting on with her work, and it’s more about the domestic.
MP: But I wouldn’t say that Alison Knowles was particularly connected with feminism, apart from the accident of her place in history - apart from the fact that she was born in the 30s, and she was working in the 50s and 60s. You know, Carloee Schneeman was .. is.. very concerned with herself as a woman, and what that means, and Alison Knowles is very concerned with herself as a person, and with the world as a set of sensory experiences.
RLC: I suppose it’s just by her interest in very simple work, and not being very pushy about feminism - I mean cooking on stage has big implications for those kinds of narrative.
MP: It’s interesting hearing [all the Performance Saga interviewees] tell the story of their art during their lives. Because you get those moments when they refer to each other - the vantage point of history: you can look back and it all connects. I’m sure at the time it was much more chaotic than that. And when Joan Jonas, Alison Knowles & Carolee Schneemann - when they tell the stories of their careers, they all say that their work isn’t recognised, or hasn’t been recognised, or hasn’t given them the ability to make a living. They all say that at certain points there’s been that kind of fight, and it’s an interesting thing to see now - three women on this massive screen. They’re really iconic. Especially because every evening you see those introductions; last night, for the third time, you saw all those women saying, ‘I am Joan Jonas, I am VALIE EXPORT ..’. They become these icons over the course of the festival – as if they’re watching us.
RLC: That phrase Alison Knowles said ... I wrote it down: ‘Staying awake to new experiences and not thinking that anything that you do is any better than anything that anybody else does’.
No drama, no manipulation – Simone Rüssli
MP: I was thinking about that last night – the idea of the audience not being a consumer of some performative experience, but an equal partner in it; and how all of the performances last night seemed based on the idea that the performers are being themselves – they’re showing themselves to the audience, embodying themselves with the audience present. And that the audience shouldn’t be manipulated by them. I thought it might be interesting to think a little bit about what it does feel like to be an audience member, when you’re seeing that kind of performance, given that you’re not being manipulated by a dramatic experience. You’re not being made to feel like you’re identifying with the performers.MP: The intention, maybe 40 years ago, of the type of performance that the work in this festival references, was to be very everyday. But I wonder whether it’s become a kind of genre of its own, where the audience expects it to be a certain way, expects a non-event. [I wonder] whether it’s still a reflection or a continuation of the everyday, or whether it’s become a performance of the everyday.
RLC: You mean the look of it as well?
MP: I think that Simone Rüssli’s piece was like an act of trying to be everyday. And it was neither simple enough and meaningless enough to draw me in, nor did it have a strong narrative or metaphor or drama, that was engaging. It was sort of lost between the two. It was a kind of self-conscious non-event, I thought.
RLC: And you could intervene into that event, but it has to be very direct. Gaspard Buma intervened into Rüssli’s performance [by walking onto the stage and lying down, using a blanket as a pillow]; but he is used to being on stage [as a performer] and that perhaps isn’t so much a block for him. He sees something that he can take part in, and he thinks, ‘OK, I’m going to get off my chair, and I‘m going to go there.’ But actually the rest of the people in there, do have this, ‘I don’t feel able to participate ...’
BBM: And you are imprisoned ... you feel a lot of anger, boredom. You are just there, in prison. What can you do? Even though in performance sometimes, Esther Ferrer says in her interview that she doesn’t care what the audience thinks. But she does care! She has an audience! Yesterday evening, the first thing she did was to address the audience. The first thing Stuart Brisley did was address us. Deacon addresses us. A performer addresses an audience. And if there is no address, then we should all leave. Why should there be an audience?
Gérard Mayen: With Simone Rüssli .. for me there was a great moment when she opened the curtains, and we saw this wall, with these kinds of tags and graffiti, with the kind of light of the overnight. She put the room before this moment in darkness and then ...
BBM: Nice picture
GM: No, not a nice picture. Not at all. It’s a question of what art’s about, and what art brings into my life, I mean how art gives me all the day, everywhere, every time, with everybody, [the opportunity] to change my connection with the world. To be more creative, more sensitive, to fill the world with feminine creating, feminine interpretation. I am always reading the world, interpreting the situation, what is given to me. And at this moment, I saw this wall, which I have seen several times during the past days. ... And at this moment I saw the possibility of metamorphosis of the daily life, of the usual place, of normal space, my space of every day. Well, for me it was a great moment.
MP: And why do you think you saw that change? Was it the context that had been put in place by the performance?
GM: It is the act of the artist. She opens the curtain at this moment, having put the room in darkness, having left something very informal, very neutral, not dramatic. Yes, at this moment, she makes a beautiful image, but it’s not a picture: it’s the world. It’s my world.
Esther Ferrer - rigour and humour
Photo: Esther Ferrer (c) Petra Kohle + Nicolas Vermot Petit-Outhenin
MP: Before we get into all the performances, shall we begin by describing them? Would anyone like to describe Esther Ferrer?
GM: Me? Alors. There’s always the same problem – I cannot describe or give a description. I do not believe at all in the objective anonymity ...
MP: Of course, of course
GM: I can only describe how it goes with me. And so for me, I thought immediately that Esther Ferrer began during the Francism ...
MP: Of Franco?
GM: Of Franco’s power ... A dictator, very conservative; at this moment at the end of the 60s, absolutely blocked. And in Spain at this moment conceptual art was very subterranean, very deep, and I feel [it was] a very strong kind of inspiration. Because in this kind of dictatorial culture, it couldn’t be understood. Conceptual art was totally impossible to integrate. They could not desire it for a conservative form, nor an alternative form. It was something absolutely extraordinary, and I feel very strong this possibility to be in a completely other way of meaning, other way of thinking, of creating another world, almost a system – I don’t like the word – but another ... paradigm of the universe.
So, what we saw yesterday, the first performance was from the end of the 60s, and the second one was from the 70s, just after Franco’s death. And what I saw in these performances is how it is just concepts. The minimal possibility. It has not any dramatic meaning. I mean in Stuart Brisley even you can have a conversation about ritual, about death ... But [with Esther Ferrer’s work] it is just about how I can make the world function, how I can invent the possibility of combination. And in this moment, for me, I feel it so rigorous, but so open and open and open for me. So I can create my own function system, just like her. As a member of the audience I can absolutely be in her dream – another possibility. She gives me this; this opportunity of creating the world, of creating several worlds.
BBM: I want to react to something that you [GM] said – you said that too many things were said for you to understand. And I think that it is a good criterion to appreciate performance. I think it is very important that a performance leaves a place to the audience. It was a very good performance.
GM: In the series of walks Ferrer did, or in her ‘Theory and Practice’ lecture, we have the problem of what is the definition of humour. And how is humour freedom or not, subversion or not ... many things. But I’m so happy to have humour!
RLC: And [humour is] difficult to do as well. I think only the best performers can bring humour to their work in that way. Because it can go so horribly wrong.
MP: I think it’s a very generous sort of humour that she had. …Ferrer’s humour takes the audience with her; it’s the humour of things transforming.
GM: And let the audience create the humour, or not. It’s always very true. And very, very rigorous. Attention and function.
MP: I particularly liked the end, where she walked off with her hand under the blue sheet, so that she looked like she was about 6 foot tall – this tiny woman. It was wonderful because she had become - over the course of the performance – this kind of giant, who walked very tall, and with no self-consciousness. Like, ‘here I am’. And it was uplifting, as if she actually had the power to transform herself through, as Gerard was saying, a shift in a paradigm of everyday experience
That’s where the space for the audience comes in because then you feel like you also have that power.
RLC: The four words that I have [written down while watching Ferrer’s performance] are, ‘structure, precision, system and symmetry’. I suppose I’m always struck by how physical presence in a space can be so wildly different, through the simplest of things. Esther Ferrer managed to convey a whole system, a whole logic, a whole history to her own work in that space. So even though it might not mean anything explicitly, it was all there; it was all incredibly purposeful.
MP: But it didn’t seem like she was necessarily creating an alternative order; there wasn’t a strict structure to this thing. It was just, instead of ‘that’, ‘that’. It was small. It didn’t have a history.
GM: I would not use the word ‘system’.
BBM: It is a speech? Or a language?
RLC: Not of an existing, patriarchal system perhaps, something that is performance’s own system.
GM: It’s a variation in a system. It doesn’t create a system …
RLC: Maybe it comes from one … fragments from one.
GM: But there is another aspect, I am sure.... Esther Ferrer is really a strong force. She is explosive, she is powerful, a very strong presence. She is a ‘master’ …
RLC: She doesn’t need to do very much in performance, physically; because that force comes out of her skin.
BBM: She’s just completely there. And she knows why she’s there.
No reference, no history – Simone Rüssli, Mirzlekid
GM: When I spoke to Ferrer she said that the less referencing, homage, or communication with history of performance the better. Perhaps Rüssli took this thinking on board with L’ame en Secret.
MP: I think one of the hardest things about Simone’s performance was the impression of insecurity. For example, with the music she started and then she stopped, and it never quite built to an atmosphere.
GM: But for me it represents a kind of hippy way of life; farming life in the south of Spain, Tenerife, the Azores. It referenced foreigners, migrants into the Azores.
RLC: There were moments that were too significant to ignore but did not seem to correspond to any purpose; I was left thinking about non purpose, nothing, absence of presence. Nothing as an event. Nothing being a full experience in the way Agamben describes it. But it was frustrating - I was not sure why I was there. I suppose that is because I did not feel ‘entertained.’ I think this says more about me!
GM: I felt it was abundant. Nothing is always something.
Dr. Koffi Célestin-YAO: Yes, something happened. There was a presence, physically. She read Baudelaire, she shone light on the audience, she opened the door in the back of the stage, she opened the windows. It was original expression. We should take the work’s value on its own terms – the terms the work creates. When Gaspard [Buma] intervened and entered the stage, she didn’t react or panic. She continued performing. That was professional.
I felt integrated within the work, within its lack of spectacle. It has its own value. We cannot compare the work with what we have seen before – there is no comparison.
MP: I will describe the performance by Mirzlekid. We all went outside into the car-park. Mirzlekid was in his car with the music blaring. He came out of the car and put two typewriters onto a piece of wood, which formed a triangle. He laid two of these typewriter mechanisms behind the front two wheels of his car. He took out some antlers on pieces of fishing wire that were anchored in the boot of the car. He spent a very long time straightening out the wire, making sure it wasn’t twisted, holding the antlers to his face. He took the antlers to the top of a grass bank behind the car and left them there, weighted down to keep them standing up straight. Then, Mirzlekid got in his car and drove slowly backwards over the keys of the typewriter. At the same time as the car moved backwards the antlers fell off the bank. Mirzlekid took the paper out of the typewriter, walked up the grass bank and read the text the car had created. It was a line of ‘U’s: ” ÜÜÜÜ”. Mirzlekid put the text down on the ground. He got a box of snow from the boot and invited everyone to throw snowballs at the car as he drove away.
BBM: This was a work about the absurd.
Photo: Mirzlekid (c) Petra Kohle + Nicolas Vermot Petit-Outhenin
GM: It did not profess a link to anyone else in the festival.
MP: It was a concentrated action without any history or clear meaning.
GM: This is one of the definitions of performance....
KY: For me, it is about a concern with time. It was a 25 minute performance but it felt like two hours. It took all that time to unravel that wire; I thought that the time spent seemed very important in the performance. Time spent on the small things, it was very minimalist.
GM: For me Saemann’s work was the biggest moment of the festival, in terms of thinking about the third generation of performance artists, legacy, about history. The only question I had was about the way she had a long, insistent, strong [fixation] upon Ferrer herself. Perhaps it is the explicitness, directness, the close focus of what Saemann was doing, for instance, her mimicking Ferrer’s words in [the Performance Saga] interview.
KY: The repetition felt important in the work. Ferrer was on screen, in the room: she was repeated. The repetition of the numbers was also strong. She also talked of twin-ship - Ferrer herself is also a twin. In fact, I was confused when I first saw Ferrer at Arsenic Theatre and went to talk to her as I know her twin sister in Les Beaux Arts in Paris. I thought it was her!
It felt like [the performance] was about opposition, or the possibilities of two. Redundancy is perhaps better than repetition - the redundancy of one in the face of two. [It was] a private and personal conversation with Ferrer that Andrea shared with us, the audience; to share that privacy and intimacy is powerful.
RLC: I liked the almost overbearing personal focus and the intensity of Andrea’s performance. For me it created a real frisson between the two women in that space: a personal bond. Perhaps I just like to imagine it did that. But the strength of the work was the way Andrea was grappling with the distance between her and Ferrer. Andrea’s indulgence in her thoughts and feelings about it activated that space.