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