When performance does matter: interview w/ Benjamin Sebastian

Kaunas (Lithuania) has quite a his­tory for appre­ci­at­ing per­form­ance arts, which is going way back for at least a couple of dec­ades. On 19–23 of July, the town had exper­i­enced some­thing what you could call a rebirth in this field here – per­form­ance fest­ival CREATurE Live Art, which brought together more than 20 artists from all over the world – from UK and Sweden to the USA, from Estonia to Australia, not to men­tion local Lithuanian jew­els. Unfortunately, I was able to attend only one day of the fest­ival, but even that was a hand­ful, since it got what any wan­nabe fancy art critic would need – con­cen­tra­tion in video screen­ings and per­form­ances, loads of fun in techno-operas and absurd oper­et­tas and, of course, hyp­nosis in dark ambi­ent con­certs. One part of the day was ded­ic­ated to dis­cus­sion between two NGO‘s, work­ing in cre­at­ive field – Art Container from Tallin, Estonia and ]per­form­ance s p a c e[ from London, UK. After it I talked a bit about per­form­ance art, both cre­at­ing it and man­aging it, with Benjamin Sebastian, assist­ant dir­ector of per­form­ance col­lect­ive & stu­dio ]per­form­ance s p a c e[. ]performance space[ is an artist led initiative from Hackney Wick, London, UK. It is both an artist studio and exhibition place for performances and live events. Benjamin also works as a curator and creates himself.

>> Hey, Benjamin. How do you see the scene of per­form­ance arts in UK? Could you com­pare it with Europe?

I think there is a very big dif­fer­ence between what hap­pens in London and what hap­pens in the rest of Europe. I think that what is hap­pen­ing in London is very much live-art, in the major­ity, which I see as a spe­cific, UK/London cent­ric genre, spe­cific­ally dif­fer­ent to what is hap­pen­ing in the rest of the Europe, which I see as more of a per­form­ance or action art. Having said that, I am not sure how help­ful it is to draw such lines when speak­ing of performance/time based work. I think, well, this is just my opin­ion, but what seems to be hap­pen­ing in London is much more the­at­rical – not all of it, but a lot of it. I think a lot of more exper­i­mental, process-based edgy work is again begin­ning to hap­pen­ing in London, which is why we are try­ing to bring people into ]per­form­ance s p a c e[, from as far afield as possible.

>>Is there any coun­try that would have a par­tic­u­larly big scene for per­form­ance arts?

No, I don‘t think there is. That‘s primar­ily because I think the nature of per­form­ance as a medium means it‘s nomadic, always mov­ing, always in flux. So I don‘t think there is any one coun­try with a lot of spaces, spe­cific to the medium, nor is it a case of ‘the best’ work hap­pen­ing in any one place – I feel most of the inter­est­ing artists are prob­ably mov­ing around, going from fest­ival to fest­ival, from space to space.

>>Do you think per­form­ance art should be reflect­ive to the soci­ety or more aes­thet­ical? Somehow it seems that usu­ally per­form­ance art is either a big „kaboom“, going with the blast, or when it comes to social con­text it is so con­cep­tual it hurts, and nobody actu­ally gets it — when there is some ran­dom item presen­ted on the floor and a big piece of paper explain­ing it. What’s your opinion on this?

I think it can be both; you can do both in the same work, and neither. Again, I can only speak per­son­ally, but I think a lot of per­form­ance art is prob­ably not socially engaged, although, by its very nature IS socially engaged — per­form­ance art is polit­ical, it’s a body; a body in a par­tic­u­lar time, in a par­tic­u­lar space, with other people. This to me is always going to be an emo­tional exper­i­ence, whether good or bad. Also, it feels to me that we think about things too much, and have stopped feel­ing things – feel­ings are import­ant too, change takes pas­sion. So even these high aes­thetic forms, like you said, that „kaboom“ as opposed to those writ­ings on the wall, even those can be quite pro­found for people, and socially engaged. (And in your opin­ion, should they be one way or another? — IK) It‘s not about „should“ for me. I’m not sure we have respons­ib­il­it­ies as artists. This is a very dif­fi­cult ques­tion for me, because I don‘t believe any per­son can say, „Artist should be some­thing“ or „Artist should not be some­thing“. I won‘t come into „should“ or „should not“ when talk­ing about social engage­ment and art. We all just have to make, think and feel.

>>You are a per­form­ance artist your­self. Could you describe what you do?

I‘m quite inter­ested in gender and in emo­tional intel­li­gence of bod­ies, in the polit­ical nature of them. I quite often blur lines between gender roles, expect­a­tions, I don‘t try to make my work polit­ical, but my work is polit­ical, because I‘m work­ing with the gendered body and try to unravel that a little bit. I try to raise-up emo­tional intel­li­gence, irra­tional nature of our bod­ies, to meet and chal­lenge intel­lec­tual intel­li­gence and the rational. (Do you seek har­mony between these things of more like dis­cuss the themes that interest you? — IK ) I seek har­mony between them as a per­son, but in my per­form­ance work I try and raise irra­tional and emo­tional above rational and intel­li­gent, because I think the intel­lec­tual intel­li­gence has more space in the soci­ety and the irra­tional and emo­tional have less space, so I try to make that space. I do seek bal­ance as an indi­vidual, but in my work I try to bring one above the other at the moment.

>>You also work as a cur­ator, as a man­ager for per­form­ance art events. Could you share some­thing about your exper­i­ence from this field?

I always work in col­lab­or­a­tion with other people, col­lab­or­at­ing is very import­ant to me — I think we need other people. Curating for me is like mak­ing an art object, the same as per­form­ance or paint­ing or sculp­ture – it‘s manip­u­lat­ing mater­i­als to bring together an event. It is as much a part of my prac­tice as mak­ing my actual solo per­form­ances, because it feeds my artistic interests, research and devel­op­ment. Recently I worked with a group of female artists based in Ireland and we pro­duced a live exhib­i­tion called LABOUR, which was look­ing at the female body and it‘s rela­tion­ship to labour within an Irish cul­tural con­text. This was incred­ible exper­i­ence. It was cur­ated by three women, Helena Walsh, Chrissie Cadmen & Amanda Coogan & I pro­duced the show. It was exhib­ited in London, England and North and South Ireland (Derry/Londonderry & Dublin). This was great, because a lot of the work looked incred­ibly con­ser­vat­ive, it looked as though there was a lot of female bod­ies doing very con­ser­vat­ive things, and it was cri­tiqued for this, and actu­ally the thing is, it was hold­ing a mir­ror to soci­ety, because there still are a lot of con­ser­vat­ive roles for women in an Irish con­text. I also col­lab­or­ate a lot with Bean, dir­ector of ]per­form­ance s p a c e[. Most recently we have pro­duced the event called „Trashing Performance Fringe“, which is a fringe event to a per­form­ance sym­posium in London, „Performance mat­ters“ . „Performance Matters“ was the theme for „Trashing Performance“, they were work­ing with high camp, absurd­ist & more the­at­rical aes­thet­ics — Bean and I wanted to work with much more exist­en­tial, viol­ent & dur­a­tional aes­thet­ics, so we were chal­len­ging the notion of what trash­ing per­form­ance could mean. Bean and I are also going to Grace Exhibition Space in Brooklyn, NY, at the end of this year. We are tak­ing over pro­gram­ing of this space (by their invit­a­tion) and we‘ll be cur­at­ing local New York artists and also bring­ing some artists from UK.

>>Could you tell me more about audi­ence in London? In the dis­cus­sion earlier today people were talk­ing that there must be a bal­ance between organ­iz­ing parties and art events, if the cul­tural organ­iz­a­tion wants to sup­port itself. I was won­der­ing, if there is enough audi­ence for more art related events when there are so many parties around?

Absolutely. The party and art events are very sep­ar­ate in London a lot of the time. I mean, they can mingle, but usu­ally they are quite sep­ar­ate. The London audi­ence is very know­ing, the major­ity – this is a sweep­ing state­ment, but for the sake of paint­ing an image – the major­ity of London‘s live art/performance audi­ence is very know­ing. They‘ve seen a lot of (UK based) work, you quite often see the same people at a lot of events – I def­in­itely believe it is a scene. This is what I was try­ing to say when talk­ing about what is hap­pen­ing in London in regard to the rest of Europe – I think that what‘s hap­pen­ing in the rest of Europe is also the scene – like myself and other per­form­ance artists travel around, we meet the same people in a lot of events, so I think it‘s a global scene, but I think it‘s a very intric­ately woven scene in London, that includes both audi­ences and artists.

>>In the dis­cus­sion you were talk­ing a lot about the prob­lems in fund­ing. If there is quite a big scene with a lot of events, how come it is so prob­lem­atic to sup­port its artists from, let‘s say, door money?

It‘s a good ques­tion. I‘m going to have to bring it to a per­sonal level again. ]per­form­ance s p a c e[ doesn‘t want to charge at all, because we want our events to be access­ible, we don‘t want people to not come because they can­not afford to. So we don‘t want to charge people to see the art­works. That‘s one reason. I think a lot of places do charge at the door, but per­form­ance art is still a fringe art­work, I mean, it‘s pub­licly known now, it‘s pub­licly vis­ible, but it‘s still much smal­ler than all the other fine art medi­ums. So, the audi­ence size is not incred­ibly large, so actu­ally if you did put a door charge, you‘re not going to make that much money, unless you‘ll make excess­ive amounts of events and pro­jects. But, primar­ily, I don‘t want people to have to pay for per­form­ance art to be able to see it because it‘s a pro­found life alter­ing exchange exper­i­ence. I think it is also very import­ant to state here that at the moment, the UK is under siege from a, well coali­tion, but not really – its Conservative – a Conservative gov­ern­ment who has slashed 1⁄3 of fund­ing for the Arts. It’s totally sav­age, unfair and so bru­tal. Couple this with a sat­ur­a­tion of artists, espe­cially in London and any fund­ing avail­able is just such a com­pet­it­ive affair. The only way I see for­ward are net­works sup­port­ing net­works, not ask­ing per­mis­sion, tak­ing and main­tain­ing space, with col­lect­ives. Occupy.

>>Thanks a lot!

Photo by Kristina Čyžiūtė

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One response to “When performance does matter: interview w/ Benjamin Sebastian

  1. Pingback: The scene, the sound and the visual: Interview with Daina Dieva | Circa Buffet·

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