21 February 2012: Presentation by Eirini Papakonstantinou on the Thessaloniki Performance Festival at Lydia Chatziiakovou’s house
At the last meeting, artist Foteini Kalle’s thought-provoking presentation regarding her workshop with La Pocha Nostra seemed to unsettle, for many of us present, our understanding and expectations of performance art, raising a number of questions around the medium and its culture of liveness, which prompted us to organize another meeting around the subject. For me, the conversation crystallized a disquieting, and up until then, unarticulated apprehension regarding performance. Following the unmitigated success of Marina Abramovic’s recent solo exhibition “The Artist is Present” (2010) at MoMA New York, I suspected (albeit based on a limited knowledge of the medium and its history) that performance might rest, more than ever, on an idea of authentic presence, unavoidably slipping in and out of spectacle. Like others, I sensed that the medium’s agitating capacities, rooted in an encounter marked by unformatted spontaneous experience, might all too easily feed into our mainstream lifestyle culture.
In order to further explore some of these questions and issues, we invited Eirini Papakonstantinou, who initiated and curated the 1st and 2nd editions of the Thessaloniki Performance Festival, as part of the parallel programme for the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art. Eirini’s presentation of the Festival touched upon its origins and evolution, outlining its structures and motivations while providing us with concrete examples to nourish our debate.
Following her Masters degree in Museum Studies with a focus on Curating Performance Art, Eirini explained how she envisioned the Festival as a platform that would not only present the works of Greek and international artists, but would also create a local audience for performance art by promoting greater awareness of the medium among a wider public. In this way, she specified that since its inception, the Festival always included a programme of forums, tributes and master classes alongside live performances, as a means of generating cognizance and appreciation for the medium and its history, in an approach that she described as “creating a local context for performance”.
Eirini explained how the various tributes to historical figures associated with performance art, including ORLAN, Karavela, Chondros & Katsiani and Theodoros, served as tools to introduce and emphasize performance’s historical background, thus enabling the public to discover an extended and diverse range of disciplines and practices. In a similar way, she clarified how the Festival’s master classes and workshops were not only addressed to art students, performers and professionals, but were rather opened to the general public, encouraging a wider audience to embrace these practices. At the same time, Eirini also stressed her belief in performance’s unpredictability – its element of surprise – often deliberately withholding information in the accompanying material as a means of inciting the public to formulate its own interpretation.
Following her introduction of the Festival and its significance for her practice as an art historian and curator, questions quickly fused regarding the particular selection of artists and the notion of “creating a context for performance”, picking up where the previous meeting had left off, with participants eager to better understand the contemporary forms and stakes of performance art. Eirini explained that the works included in the Festival were not chosen around a particular theme or subject, but rather out of personal interest and a perceived urgency in relation to current issues and events. As for “creating a context”, she clarified that this primarily involved staging much of the performances in the public sphere as opposed to institutional spaces, as a means of engaging a wider audience by contrast to the traditional museum-going spectator, in line with the Festival’s educational mission. She thus described the Festival as a celebration of the city that also aimed to generate a quality of unexpectedness, rupturing the monotony and normative interrelations proper to everyday life.
From there, the discussion turned to examining this quality of the unexpected – of singularity within the everyday – which did not seem, to some, to fully account for performance’s particular function and significance, given the commonplace nature of surprises within our daily existence. One participant proposed that beyond this quality of “extra-ordinariness”, performance might establish a particular pact with the culture in which it is staged, as well as the audience present, drawing an analogy of sorts with the pact that live theatre entertains with the play’s original text. In this way, she suggested that this break with banality coalesces in a recognizable pattern or image, which establishes just such a pact with the performance’s immediate cultural context.
This idea led us to reexamine our previous discussion of “true” presence versus narcissistic posturing (the calculated and interested spotlight characteristic of lifestyle culture) through the idea of gravity, following a lengthy discussion of performance works by Georgia Sagri and Tris Vonna-Mitchell among others. By contrast to dance, which generally seeks to break with gravity by creating the illusion of suspended bodies, performance suddenly emerged as a practice firmly rooted in the gravity of the human condition: gravity here understood as a cost to self, a cost to the ego, thwarting the cheap sensational theatrics of effect and affect. It appeared as a practice that enacts a transgression that bears a price, thus differing in all ways from the transgression of the rebel– the ultimate Individual – by being located instead in bodily expenditure perhaps even harm, or in the threat to one’s reputation, or in the suppression of self in favor of the text. Though the discussion left many unanswered questions, in many ways it redeemed for me Abramovic’s work and renewed my own understanding and appreciation of performance art by enabling me to move beyond the troubling idea of authentic presence.
Stephanie (in collaboration with Eirini Papakonstantinou)
We wish to thank Eirini Papakonstantinou for generously agreeing to present the Thessaloniki Performance Festival as part of our initiative and look forward to the next edition of this important event.