Monthly Archives: March 2012

On gravity and performance

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.

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“When you don’t have access to power, poetry replaces science and performance art becomes politics.” Guillermo Gómez-Peña*

26 January 2012: Presentation by artist and doctoral candidate Fotini Kalle on the performance workshop with La Pocha Nostra & Guillermo Gómez-Peña that she attended in San Francisco (Summer 2011) at Cinque Terre

Our series of three meetings around Performance was initiated after Fotini’s suggestion to present her experience with La Pocha Nostra. The discussion generated turned out to be very interesting and engaging – especially because it touched upon aspects relevant to both theory and practice.

For Guillermo Gómez-Peña and La Pocha Nostra, Performance is Activism. Their performances refer to issues such as racial and gender identity, physical and cultural borders, immigration, language… Teaching Performance thus becomes synonymous with teaching activism, therefore inherent to the group’s practice. In fact, Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes have recently published the ‘Pocha Nostra handbook’, titled “Exercises for Rebel Artists. Radical Performance Pedagogy”, a guide book for teachers and performers with a “focus on producing the kind of challenging performances, which transcend the boundaries of nation, gender and racial identity” (http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415549233/).

This being the focus of the 12-day workshop that Fotini attended, it certainly had an impact on the material generated by the participants. The workshop included daily improvisation exercises, individual and collective, which corresponded to recurring themes in La Pocha Nostra’s work, as well as to the main elements of their practice. Participants would start by exploring their body within space (the body as sculpture) and they would later engage in jam sessions – performative dialogues appropriately borrowing their name from music – where one initiated an action and the others would observe or intervene at any moment they felt appropriate or necessary, exploring the nature of performance as both a personal and interactive experience, without a definitive scenario, where co-performers or spectators have the right to intervene and shape the final outcome. Another point of investigation, the vocal aspect of performance and its vocabulary, was also explored through daily exercises on improvisational poetic/performance texts, that the participants were invited to experiment on. Finally, the use of props – which the participants were asked to bring with them from home – and music as tools, was also investigated. The workshop culminated in an event open to the public at the Performance Art Institute, during which participants realized individual and collective performances, which led to a jam session. This final event underlined the distinction between performances in a gallery/museum and public space, where interaction sometimes makes it hard to distinguish between performer and audience.

Since the participants’ improvised performances (and choice of props) were, understandably and unavoidably, largely affected by the themes recurrent in Pocha Nostra’s and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s practice, the resulting performances were seemingly uniform – which raised discussion on the true democratic nature of such workshops. However, the whole experience certainly gave participants the tools to explore their own vocabulary and develop their own performance persona, highlighting and promoting understanding on the value of Presence as a quality inherent to Performance.

Therefore, our discussion raised interesting questions around the function of Performance Art workshops and the extent to which it is possible to train performance artists.
– Is it possible for Performance Art –understood as a multi-media, activist and ultimately anarchist form of art – to be taught?
– According to which criteria do instructors make decisions on the steps of the training process and on the participants’ progress?
– How can we understand and identify the collective learning process? Can it be perceived as a finished work or as an open process: a preparatory stage for something else?
– How does a group of performance artists work together? Can it produce performances collectively when each of them needs to be individually “Present” – physically and mentally? Is a collective composition possible? Or do the performers simply collaborate on a continuous exchange of “Presences”?

Lydia

We warmly thank Fotini for sharing her experience with us and for providing photos of her performances during the workshop, as well as her input in the documentation of our discussion.

* From the artist’s Philosophical Tantrum, performed on 14 June 2011 in the framework of the New World Theater symposium at Hemispheric New York. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74ajLA7MFDw