about the performance art – our interview with VestAndPage

_VestAndPage.Portrait_Verena Stenke_Andrea Pagnes © Alexander Harbaugh.jpg VestAndPage Verena Stenke & Andrea Pagnes © Alexander Harbaugh, Istanbul 2016

In december we went to the Venice International Performance Art Week,  conceived and organized by VestAndPage.

Here is the interview that they granted us about the evolution of the performance and on the role that this form of art has today. We are very grateful to VestAndPage

Now in its fourth edition, the VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK has changed format. Before discussing the new path that the project has undertaken this year, it would be worthwhile to take stock –if possible– of the three previous project editions dedicated to the body: Hybrid Body – Poetic Body (2012); Ritual Body – Political Body (2014); and Fragile Body – Material Body (2016). Can we start by asking how you imagined this festival? Being artists yourselves, how did you plan to organise this great gathering? Have you been inspired by other pre-existing examples of art festivals of this kind?

Please allow us to start by saying that the VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK is not and never was a festival. “Festival” is a word-label that we don’t apply in this context. We consider it also quite obsolete when referred to performance art and our idea of it. Though the project is now periodic, it has very little to do with the terms “show” and “entertainment” that are proper to the definition of “festival.”

The VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK is a live art exhibition project that translates our precise vision regarding the phenomenology of performance art. It aims to examine and unfold performance art’s creative processes that –like all art– have essentially the purpose to raise reflections.

_VestAndPage_DYAD IX_Igor Chernyshov.jpg VestAndPage DYAD IX (Open-Closed) (2015) 15-hour durational performance at Solyanka Gallery, Moscow (RU) Photograph by Igor Chernyshov

The project has matured out of our previous curatorial experiences in the field of visual arts, and as a consequence of our participations in several international theatre and performance art events. Conceptually though, even if with cultural substance or a well-established tradition, many performance art events didn’t fully meet our expectations, being mostly containers of live works presented with the formula “one after the other” to meet the program schedule. This kind of bite-and-switch strategy can become detrimental to the quality of the single artistic proposals. It may also confuse the audience on the contents of the works, because too little time is left for reflection on the single performances.

When in summer 2011 we were asked to conceive a project dedicated specifically to performance art in Venice –the city where Andrea was born and raised– in a Renaissance palace, we knew that in order to mark a difference, we first of all had to respond to our main urgency: to ennoble the practice of performance art by relating it to the particularity of the context. We imagined the labyrinth of rooms of the building inhabited by artists in action, offering them the right time and space to dissect their creative processes, while responding to a precise curatorial concept.

The vision of the live art exhibition project –participatory and capable of transforming itself continuously due to the interventions of a “temporary artistic community” called to creatively inhabit a place– began gradually to take shape. Further, we wanted to give evidence of the conflictive nature of live performance documentation, looking for ways to keep content and substance unaltered, in the exhibition section.

In the previous three editions of the VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK you have posed crucial questions. If the human body is the materia prima (the raw material) of performance art, today it seems evident that the representation of the human body is subject to the impact and the effects of globalisation. Our bodies are hurled into mutation, driven by the market and technological opportunities. Does this ‘strange’ hybridisation influence the performance artist? How do performances change when the body changes?

The concept of the body formed the fundament of the “Trilogy of the Body” (the first three project editions, 2012-2016). The body as an indicator of form and substance in constant transformation, always at risk, brought to the limits, adaptable but fragile, subject to manipulation, conditioned by a variety of situations. The body as a carrier of meanings, the materia prima that in the here-and-now of the performance –just as in life– is the essential element impossible to avoid. A body that, despite all possible hybridizations of today, is poetic and genuine, since in performance art the body reveals itself substantially for what it is – a body, laid bare, a site in which not only reason resides, but also the emotional intelligence that responds to the infinite realities of a precise moment. A body that is the vessel of an authentic, immediate sense, an incubator of dreams and utopias, an expressive tool that pushes the artist to search for a new metaphysics as a revolutionary act (Camus).

Regarding the question of “how a performance changes when the body itself is modify by the market and technological opportunities,” the discourse becomes more complex. The body surely is subject to different types of mutations when new needs are emerging, even if the primary needs always remain the same. Here, however, rather than mutations in a strict sense, one could speak of the ability of adaptation. Every generation develops new questions to understand the world in which we live and consequently how to relate to it.

It might be true that bio-hackers, scientists, information technology enterprises, robotics and prosthetics engineering and food research companies are continually looking for new marketable applications of advanced technologies that are actively designed to help us meet our age-old transcendent desires and –debatably– to be stronger, smarter, more resistant, capable and beautiful, that is to cultivate new abilities that seem superpowers according to the standards of the past (i.e. to apply sophisticated electronic exoskeletons to the body, which in performance art have been already effectively used by Stelarc, or subcutaneous microchips for radio frequency identification, etc.).

However, this path of technological opportunities is not the only one to help us to evolve. Many existential questions that mankind has always posed itself still remain unsolved, and new ones emerge. Certainly artists who use current technologies propose new sets of artworks, precisely because some technological devices were not there before. But personally speaking, a sweating body –devoid of any high-tech paraphernalia– is still capable to capture our attention more than a mis-en-scene of any predominant technological appliance. As performers, we can say that when a body moves, the heart opens and the mind awakens. This doesn’t happen with a machine, unless the appliance is actually useful to the subject, as it is the case with certain diseases or disabilities.

VestAndPage_Panta Rhei_HeiJi Park.jpg VestAndPage Panta Rhei (Time) (2011) Performance at Seoul Art Centre (South Korea) Photograph by HeiJi Park

If we look at today’s larger reality, we can see that we are experiencing a time constellated by new anxieties, fears, mass hypnosis and madness caused by both those who manage technological opportunities and those who use them. It is as if we have bottled ourselves in a cul-de-sac and forgot how to get out of it. Yet, we’d need to continue to ask ourselves what is real and worth living for once all masks, filters and beliefs drop down, once we decide not to stay anymore nailed in front of a screen deceived to communicate with the other, and therefore being deceived of declaring or claiming our existence through the buttons of a keyboard or the virtual image of a camera.

Looking at the pioneers of performance art in the Seventies, their views into this abyss were more direct, and their re-examination of it was existentially stronger, more radical. Today Internet, social networks and smartphones soften our boundaries of anger, joy and feeling in general. They have reduced our ability to perceive. The physical body is so separated from the Self that it would be an illusion to believe that it is not. It would rather be useful to reflect upon and take a stand against the unbridled exploitation of resources and the economic depressions that cause mass migration; the imminent collapse of the systems; wars, genocides, destruction and social catastrophes such as hunger and the growing poverty. Perhaps it would be also appropriate to reflect on the fact that the technological opportunities serve much more those who produce and manage them than those who use them. For example that telematic surveillance systems do not cause as much damage to people’s privacy as they represent a consolidation of the exercise of the power of the few at the expense of many.

When we shortly move away from the hypnosis of everyday life, can we still feel astonishment and gratitude for all that which we are part of? When we realize that we are delivering too much to the machine, we notice that we do only cultivate mechanical and superficial attitudes, sometimes arrogant and despotic, which translate into the dispersion and cooling of relationships between the others and us. Do we realize that in doing so we move away from the beauty and intimacy we are all made of (and that still remain) despite the fact that we no longer recognize them? The culture of globalization and mass consumption is a mimetic variation of the same principle: the production of a myriad of useless things, conducted more and more through the automation that separates people and excludes them from work. This inevitably leads to the exhaustion of raw materials, increasing exponentially the amount of waste and consuming an enormous amount of energy. How can we not talk about this?

It is not necessary to change the system, but rather to try to change and improve ourselves, our way of life, without taking things for granted, but rewarding them constantly. We should tirelessly search for the truth that lies beyond the actual configuration of the things, aware of the fact that an absolute truth probably doesn’t exist. In short, we should listen more to our consciousness.

In the field of performance art, we don’t yet see how much technology could be usefully if applied in this sense. Likely, it arouses a certain wonder and often is an end to itself. Sometimes we have the sensation that the use of technology is to fill a gap or void of which the artist is unconsciously or consciously afraid, since s/he doesn’t know how to live within it. The creation of art –at least for us two as performance artists– derives from a compassionate relationship that we try to establish with the themes that we are facing, with the surrounding, with other artists and the public. It is a commitment that comes from the same source where technology (if applied), is one of the many potential materials and mediums. A cudgel is like a laser beam –the difference with regard to their function is only qualitative. How, when, why, and whether to use the one or the other, as Hans Jonas said, is essentially an ethical question that implies a higher sense of responsibility.

Marilyn Arsem Marking Time V 7 day/24 hour durational performance II Venice International Performance Art Week “Ritual Body – Political Body” Palazzo Mora, Venice, Italy December 14 –20, 2014 Photograph by Monika Sobczak

VestAndPage’s works and poetics often focus on the question of the Self, and on the possibilities of relationship between two or more individuals as dialectical opposition to the ego. Now, due to the increased flow of communication and information caused by the evolution of the Internet, and since our memories are constantly being shared on technological platforms, do you think that is it likely that the contemporary ego is weakened, and that the body is no longer a last frontier between politics, market, etc. and us?

This is difficult to say. What is most probably weakening due to the increase of information coming with the evolution of the network, is the perceptual ability that the individual has towards him/her Self (his/her essential being that distinguishes him/her from other individual). Our tireless use of the machine dissociates us from factual reality. Consequently, the capacity of introspection (or reflexive action) of a person to reconcile him/herself as an individual, separated from or in relation to the environment and other individuals is impoverished. To understand our very own self, the others and to read the reality becomes more difficult. Because of this, the ego, which is responsible for reality testing and to shape a sense of personal identity and self-esteem, may also be weakened. Confused in itself, it tries to find its raison d’être identifying itself with other egos, or in a collective but elusive virtual ego. Yet, once the person awakes and consciously reacts to those trends, the ego can re-emerge strengthened.

It depends on whether the person –let’s call this person: user– is able to carry out detachment and critical thinking to be immune to the seductions of the Net, and to make it truly useful –to him/her self and society. The evolution of the web allows an increasingly rapid exchange of data (which is useful if done with care), but also brings along an exponential amount of junk information, which conditions the form of communication between the users. In terms of memory, we should evaluate which ones are the memories –or rather the fragments of memory– and the validity, truthfulness and verifiability of these, that each person delivers and shares to the digital platforms. What is interesting to notice –and perhaps even depressing– in this time is the tendency to make assumptions, to interpret and judge people, facts and arguments while having insufficient knowledge about them, by only appealing to the information that confirm one’s own beliefs or pre-existing hypotheses. This type of cognitive impairment and systematic error of inductive reasoning is known in psychology as ‘confirmation bias’. People show this prejudice when they collect or recall information in a selective mode as a way of personal persuasion, or when information are interpreted in a distorted way. Looking at the comments of users who follow online news, the ‘confirmation bias’ effect is stronger in reaction to emotionally charged topics and deeply rooted beliefs. It thus becomes easier to manipulate the choices and decisions of users by those seeking to take consensus, profit or advantage. To seek confirmation in the network of our own convictions –which in turn often present themselves as pretentious or fictitious– entrenches our capacity for discernment. This carries the risk of paralysis of the self and the ego, without us realizing it.

To endorse false or biased information in order to support an existing position, to distort memories and facts, to persist in one’s beliefs even when clear evidence disavows them, as well as the customary dependence on the information encountered at the beginning of a series when typing a whatsoever term on the search bar – all these indicate a polarization of the ego’s attitude, the irrational effect of supremacy, and the illusory correlation that occurs when associations between situations and people are perceived mistakenly. The media and their financial backers have understood this well and continue to conduct experiments at will to manipulate political opinions and commercial choices of the users. In this dystopian scenario, the user passively surrenders to the information found in the network, which deceitful powerful of persuasion has replaced the old motto Cogito ergo sum with the new I click therefore I know.

To the last point of your question, that the body –our body– is no longer the last frontier to conquer between politics, the market and us, is all to be verified. Not long ago Grossmann stated that “with the body I understand,” while Camus said that “the only way to face a non-free world is to become so free that our very existence becomes an act of rebellion.” This would be enough to understand that our body –if we want– remains an inviolable frontier for the markets and for any political system. It is a question of choice; of how much are you willing to give up; or of how much are you willing to give of your life in defence of your ideals.

This year the VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK has been structured through one-week intensive workshops facilitated by important performance artists, with a presentation of the workshop results open to the public on the final three days. You have coordinated one of these workshops – can you tell us more about it?

For the “CO-CREATION LIVE FACTORY – Prologue 1” we selected 75 artists from 27 countries, divided equally into three thematic groups tutored by Marilyn Arsem –on the topic of ‘Time’– Andrigo & Aliprandi –on the ‘Perception of the Self’– and us on the ‘Poetics of Relations.’

(http: //www.veniceperformanceart. org / index.php? page = 403 & lang = en).

In the workshop process preceding the days open to the public, we have adopted specific exercises aimed to empower the artistic practice of each single participating artist, creating at the same time a protected territory where a temporary international community of artists could freely express current tensions and concerns in respect of each individuality and the various cultural backgrounds. In our research on the ‘Poetics of Relations’ –a poetics devoid of norms, objectives and methods, which is open, participatory and directly in contact with all that which is possible– we have been inspired by Édouard Glissant and his right to Opacity, that is the possibility of each individual to claim a plural and changeable identity, an essential condition for bringing out a new sense of collectivism.

VestAndPage Balada Corporal (2011) Performance at Homero Massera Gallery, Vitoria (BR) Photograph by Sergio Prucoli

History is constituted of a myriad of unattainable episodes and utopias, of movements of socio-cultural and political solidarity; revolutionary but civil, in the respect and confirmation of human rights and of the right to exist. We have invited the participating artists (most of them under the age of 30) to share and perform their experiences, those moments of their lives in which they have found themselves directly or intimately involved in processes of social, political and radical change; moments in which their imagination and determination turned into a possibility of establishing new social paradigms. Memories and conflicting interpretations aside (which always emerge in situations of cultural melting pots), we have triggered a process which can be considered an authentic cultural alternative to human activity, particularly in relation to education, culture, reading of history and political representation.

To do this, we have operated strongly dialectical.

‘Poetics of Relations’ has nothing to do with the creation of an ideology of perfection, of a collective ego version 2.0. It is rather a constant questioning on what constitutes identity, and when and how it enters into dialogue with other identities under the common need for and trust in change.

Identity is not determined; it is constantly changing. It is not merely something with which one is born, or which has been acquired by virtue of certain parameters – which in any case are always questionable. As we are able to shape the reality in which we live, we are also able to re-invent ourselves, regardless of age and context. In societies that are also subject to constant changes, we can consciously choose to adapt in such a way as not to be left behind, or we can choose to not adapt for that same reason. The transformation of one’s own identity can be expressed externally, making changes to one’s own style and to the body itself, but it is above all a diligent, gradual and silent process that takes place within us. Looking at the opportunities of technology, there are more and more sophisticated means that allow us to completely recreate ourselves as virtual alter egos.

Some changes don’t seem to depend on our own free choice. If we reflect for example on migration – and it is a duty to do so, today as ever– to choose new routes or to take on a new identity to be integrated into another culture, can make the difference between survival and death.

In the process of co-creation we have discussed with the participating artists which meanings do the changes of consciousness have, how they take place, and in which ways do they reveal themselves depending on the cultural context, as well as how each individual processes his/her own life experiences. How does the contemporary artist address the issue of the individual? How does a live artist respond to social distortions and radical global changes? Who am I, who do I want to be, who can I potentially be? These fundamental questions merged into the final public collective performance opera Come Home, ending spontaneously with the chorus “My freedom is your freedom.” http://www.veniceperformanceart.org/index.php?page=405&lang=en

After the conclusion of the “Trilogy of the Body,” why did you choose to undertake this new path in which contact, confrontation, exchange and mutual learning between the artists are the conceptual project core? Does CO-CREATION LIVE FACTORY – Prologue I have a defined curatorial line as did the previous editions? We ask you this because we perceive that this year the focus —prior to anything— is on the conception, examination and execution of the performative gesture as such, as well as on a community of artists who gather to create together.

We undertook this new direction firstly to avoid that the VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK could turn into another hypertrophic platform of contemporary art, as there are many already. Especially in a city like Venice, which is more a site of showcase for art than a hub for artistic and cultural production.

Secondly, in three editions we have presented the works of those performance artists that are most of interest to us, and of the masters and pioneers of performance art that most inspired us on our artistic journey. The time has come to consolidate, strengthen and amplify the concept of “temporary artistic community,” which is the foundation of the VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK since its conception. We aim to open more and more to the new generations, given that it is always difficult for young artists to find adequate spaces where they can develop, refine and present their work.

“Prologue 1” was therefore the start-up of a new project path called “CO-CREATION LIVE FACTORY,” which instead of being based on a classically intended curatorial line, it relies on the concept of “temporary artistic community” –a community that takes shape when a group of artists gather and meet to discuss and confront themselves creatively on issues that are crucial to our times.

What you have guessed is partly right. Here, the individual artist and the collective become themselves curators of their work, since the centrality is given above all to the performative gesture, to the understanding of its necessity, its conception, study and execution as such. Our contribution is therefore to provide the means to facilitate and empower the participating artists in this process, making them responsible for their own artistic choices. We encouraged the free and clear artistic expressions of their deepest urgencies —the utmost that they carry within themselves and feel the need to be communicated to an audience.


This does not mean that the role of the curator has been abandoned. The curator is always present, but acts through the same process of co-creation, grounding the performances in the process of making. Instead of giving directives, the curator here represents a source of inspiration and –in turn– must be inspired by the artists to stimulate a continuous vital dialogue.

Since some years and with a precise and increasingly important role, the young independent curator Francesca Carol Rolla has joined us in the organization. She has contributed with passion and dedication to the development of the VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK, as well as to the related Educational Learning Program that is presented every spring in the spaces of Live Arts Cultures Cultural Association at Forte Marghera. Organisationally speaking, ours is a horizontal distribution and sharing of roles and responsibilities. For example, Giovanni Dantomio and We Exhibit direct the exhibition setting design, Giorgio De Battisti (Venice Open Gates) takes care of the logistic aspects that are essential for the functionality of the project, as well as of the in-kind support of the various Venetian realities that sustain the project and therewith allow its feasibility.

In your texts and performances there is a tension to call for change, and to not passively accept a given reality. You search for possible ways that may set forth a transformation of reality.Your analysis of  Contemporaneity has often been intense and critical. It expresses your deepest social and aesthetic concerns, and gives a highly political value to the performative act. Is it still so today? And if yes, how?

It is even more important. After all– what motivates us to act, to perform, if not an attempt to keep intact that which we wish to defend and express? The performance artist has always risen against the dictates of traditional art, as well as against anachronisms and the soft spots of societies. The cultural industry produces variable discourses and practices where everything and everyone is manufactured, discarded and exiled if they are not approved by a regulatory capital metric. But there is more to it: performance artists –at least some– use their own bodies as expressive tools to also rebel against themselves in order to be able to show the fractures of contemporaneity. What we do is to question, subvert and transgress the precepts that a totalitarian and technocratic rationality tries to uphold and institutionalise, knowing that our ‘being in revolt’ cannot ignore the ephemeral here-and-now of one’s own life. All of this is political and poetic at the same time, because –from our perspective as artists– “the human rebellion ends in metaphysical revolution, progressing from appearances to acts.” (again Camus).

Today for example, the debate on gender and the often devastating effects of post-colonialism, transmit new meanings to the question of subjectivity, confirming or defying the obsolescence of ideas of identification, unity, otherness, wholeness, role, self-realization, and equality. The aim here is to indicate alternatives for moral, ethical, social, political and cultural choices, interpretations and evaluations. Indicating alternatives to an existing situation corresponds to the needs and emergencies that concern the very nature of being, and the structures of properties and power.

Finally, to determine new ways of exchanging on political and social issues that –to varying degrees– involve everyone everywhere, allows the transformation of individual relationships through socialization processes that –as i.e. in the gender debate– favour a new way of understanding that moves beyond dualism, monism and reductionism.




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