Soft Oscillations, Tiny Dances
Part of a conversation happened in Spring 2021 among Eva Neklyaeva, Lisa Gilardino and curators Silvia Bottiroli and Low Kee Hong, the latters working together towards a new project in Freespace — Hong Kong’s centre for contemporary performance. We invited them to talk about new curatorial methodologies they were testing together.
Eva: Could you describe what you are working on now?
Silvia: We are working together towards something that we are calling a platform, just for the lack of a better word, and not wanting to use a word like festival or programme. Although it will probably manifest itself in the form of a festival, the idea is to keep it open enough so we can make use of other forms of temporalities. But also, to occupy multiple spaces, physical and digital and multiple times, in the sense of moving towards something rather than knowing exactly what that is. We are working with three associated artists from the very beginning: Eisa Jockson, Silvia Calderoni and Geumhyung Jeong. In this way, we are trying to let this idea ripple with others, and be radically transformed by others.
Whereas we are not defining what it is that we are working towards, we are defining quite clearly what are the principles that lead us in a way. How rather than what, as a principle, has been pretty important to us from the very beginning. So, it has really started as a series of invitations that are multiplying: first Kee Hong in his position in West Kowloon inviting me to curate something together, and then us inviting these three artists and now expanding conversations to other local and international artists, and then hopefully also to other communities and organisations, both locally and internationally. So another principle is to try to find forms, how we can share power and agency differently than we normally do in our field.
Kee: We are questioning what it means to work within institutions, especially institutions that we are in a position to, perhaps, shape and reshape. We would like to rethink what are possible relationships between institutions, artists, curators and audiences. So we look at how we want to work, especially towards the futures that we don’t have an image of, as yet.
We have to work over distance and I wish I would be physically in the same room as Silvia, most of the time, but given the pandemic and all other reasons, we practice the rigour to acknowledge and to embrace this distance. However, the artists with whom we are having conversations now, have been already dealing with the question of distance long before.
Lisa: In the online talk you gave about the platform, you speak about gravity in relation to the past and how the notions of past, present and future are shifting at the moment. I am curious to know if this concept and practice of time, that has shifted a lot recently in common perception, had an impact on the dramaturgy of time that you’re thinking of for your project?
Kee: One of our first working principles is the notion of unfamiliarity, introduced by Silvia. In part because she was responding to her relationship to Hong Kong but also as a strategy to move away from any kind of existing structures of working, whether it’s a festival that’s usually focused on a particular time and space or the frame of a season within institutions.
For me, it’s a moment of liberation, where we are not bound by any particular set, but rather, letting the artists and the works define the kind of time and space that the work demands. So, already, in our conversations with artists, for example, it was less of “let’s look at this project at this time”, but rather, “what if the project can live a much longer timeframe?” And this goes back to the notion of collection by Walter Benjamin. Within the museums and the visual art world, an exhibition happens over an extended period of time, in comparison to how we look at live performance right now. So, we will also be borrowing from these kinds of structures to think about live performance that is beyond just the ephemeral. For example, what if a work can exist continually, repeatedly: every week, every month, every weekend, whatever? What if we think about these works as a part of a larger collection that we build? What if a work evolves across two to three years, rather than just one spot? So, I think this question of time, very quickly, allowed us to move beyond very lean definitions and to find other types of possible new approaches so that the experience in the end was placed very much in a much larger context.
Silvia: The whole conversation started with talking about the future. I recognise it in myself that I’ve been obsessed with the production of the future. And at some point, I felt the need to ground the thinking around the future into the present, as well as into the past, to avoid looking at the future as a form of escape, escapism or easy speculation. And I started being a bit afraid of speculation with no gravity. Of course, the pandemic was, in many ways, something that was really grounding as to the present, also in very painful ways. But in that sense, it also helped to embrace the idea of gravity and acknowledge that the production of the future is never disconnected from the reckoning with what is already there, with the past, in the present moment. Somehow to change the angle to the “what if” question, to make it less of a theoretical speculation and more of an organic process, of what can spring from what is already there.
Is how you frame what you do the only visible moment? Or how can we create visibility for the whole process, to include also the invisible part as part of the work that is not less important? So while we have postponed the start of the platform itself to next year, we are still occupying this year, as a time where things can start happening, really taking a lot of freedom in terms of temporalities and length, and duration, and how they encounter each other.
Kee: Our conversations with the artists have started to shift a lot, opening up new possibilities, different ways of looking at the temporal scape. Personally, I felt so liberated because day to day in my institution, every Tuesday, I’m in a venue booking meeting: we look at the schedule, who goes in when and what, and suddenly here I was able to think about this platform, without having to worry when I have the slot. And then we started exploring what if things can happen outside of the theatre and not just outdoors but into other realms, other sites that are not considered traditional for the live performance.
Lisa: Listening to you, I have a very strong feeling of the density of the project.
Eva: Let’s come back to Benjamin and his notion of collection. In his essay “Unpacking my Library” he speaks about the tension of ownership — actually it is a super fetishist piece of work. There is something in what is happening now, also with the formats that you have been describing, that gives me a feeling that the performative practice acquires a new type of materiality.
In performance, there is always this tension about, as you say, its ephemeral nature. It is almost like we are proud of this ephemerality, that this or that show can happen only here and now, only for these few people lucky to be in this space with us, and then it disappears. This makes it so special and fascinating — at the same time it keeps the performance an elitist practice. It has always been a limitation, keeping it from making a bigger impact. I’m not talking only about larger audiences or about the problem of reproductivity that we are really facing in a very painful way right now. I’m talking about the materiality, the weight, and also the perception of the performative practice in the art field and in society in general.
There’s something about these formats that are coming up, and what you say about thinking about the performative practice outside of the here and now, out of this connection to the specific space and specific moment that I think has a potentiality of really creating a new type of relationship with the audience, a new type of materiality, a new type of impact. I wonder if I feel that there is a larger shift going on, as you said, beyond pandemic, beyond just the response to the now, but a bigger shift in terms of practices, aesthetics with rationalities, values also.
Silvia: I really relate to what you are saying, this is also very much our question, as well. We are trying to observe a reality that we are so immersed in. I feel between two opposite forces at the moment. One is not wanting to give up on this special, unique moment of a live encounter with bodies. And that’s why we are resisting to just go digital, a choice that we made very clearly for this year. We look for ways to engage international artists in a local context beyond the digital form, at the same time not refusing that completely, as it is a medium that is now available. Still, on the one hand we’re wondering how to protect and enhance the transformative power live encounters with performative art works have; on the other hand how to, at least for myself, let go of some resistance I may have towards the digital or the idea of virtual globality. And really think more of the multiplicity of forms that are becoming available.
The way we experience physical presence has changed a lot. Our relation to distance is becoming more and more twofold. While being more distant from each other, we can work together in ways we would have never considered before. And when dealing with the project, where one of us is based in Hong Kong and the other four are based in other places, I was trying to rethink what it means to be active and participating in a context where you’re not living.
With the artists we are talking with, there is a very shared desire for sustaining a practice together for a time longer than usual. Nobody seems to be scared or disappointed by the idea that the process of the making will take time. The formats we are working with often need to transmit a practice to other people locally. For example, we’re working with the project Sparks by Francesca Grilli, which will require a lot of investment from Francesca and the team to happen. But that’s something all the artists we are talking with are considering. So, what I see is that longer term engagements can be possible. We are not interested in “parachute” artistic practices, but in something that establishes a deep engagement with the local context. How can you really land somewhere where you can’t travel?
I am thinking about the conversations we are having with artists, the kind of questions they ask, the kind of materials we are exchanging with them. This process is much deeper than inviting artists from a different context. And, in a way, that’s something I wish could stay beyond the pandemic: the ways we sustain relationships and have less projects going on at the same time. Maybe it is obvious but I feel we are all in a moment of uncertainty about what our practices are or what they can be. And this is very much shared.
I must say, I’m enjoying this kind of shared vulnerability, which is not a negative thing at all for me, it means the reality is not so stable anymore, rather it’s kind of oscillating softly. We are redefining things all the time and there is this kind of small, tiny dance that is happening between people and practices and is opening up small spaces in between practices in the way they relate to each other or to institutions, context, curators.
Kee: We have just finished one week of virtual residency within the LIFT Festival’s concept touring programme, with artists coming from many different contexts. Everyone was clearly insisting on the need to stop working in the way they were used to. The insistence was also related to the need to change the way of thinking the institutions have about presenting artists, because it’s clear that the existing structures are not sustainable. None of the institutions was able to deliver in the beginning of the pandemic. The feeling was like having your carpet ripped off from under you, and everybody was floundering around, not knowing what to do. But here we have an opportunity to insist on the way we want to work moving forward. And it was quite compelling to feel you are part of a larger community of people thinking in a similar fashion. Although the members may not articulate what it means exactly, you could feel a spirit of it moving towards something larger. There is a sense of movement — everybody is kind of floating into a movement towards something that we can’t quite say yet, but we feel like we’re moving towards there. The touring practice comes out of the late capitalist desire of how the work should travel. The word touring itself is so problematic now. And I am puzzled when I hear people say “I’m waiting for the pandemic to be over so I can go back touring again.” I don’t understand what that means, because there is no more going back. And then you witness institutions collapsing, because they are still insisting on working only in a certain way.
Silvia: We have been very busy with the question of the agency of the audience. For me it’s been also a learning process of understanding that the ultimate material of the performance is the spectator (which is of course nothing new). So many artists talked about it — I’m thinking about Romeo Castellucci, who said that the ultimate stage is the mind of the spectator. Theatre is a place where we can constantly change and shift position and question who is the most knowledgeable about the narrative that is being built. If you think of a traditional theatre play where somebody holds the narrative and somebody receives it. Or then if you think of fortune telling practices or even El Conde de Torrefiel with “Se respira en el jardín come en un bosque”, where you as individual spectator are the ultimate person who can give meaning to what it is. And still, it’s also not so much about owning completely that whole meaning because it is about you, but it is also about more than you. I find it interesting to center the spectator but also to acknowledge that the self is not necessary. I mean, self is multiple and the self is not necessarily centered. Centering and decentering, but still giving more weight to the spectator.
Eva: You’re talking about queering as a strategy. Could you give a few examples of how you actually do this in practice?
Kee: We’re borrowing this question from queer theories and queer communities, who assemble out of marginal conditions but also, at the same time, have to invent and reinvent ways of being, ways of being together. And ways of having the presence felt. So, in that sense, the examples we have been talking about for the last 15 minutes, these are examples of queering because, obviously, it is so not heteronormative what we’re trying to do, as it points to other kinds of intersectionalities, that must be central to how we do things because none of us operate within a singular identity. So, for example, rethinking temporality is already one way of queering manifestation. Existing in multiples at the same time is another kind of queering example.
Silvia: Another way we look at queering is in relation to the institution, how is it possible to queer and to queer use. I am using the concept that Sarah Ahmed proposes: to queer use an artistic institution. To work “undercover”: to relate to the set of purposes of an institution in order to achieve something else. I give you an example: as you might know, the West Kowloon cultural district has many buildings in a big area, among which there’s Freespace in the middle of a park, an environment the artistic institution has a desire to engage together with the outdoor part. I see a practice of queering in that: reading and understanding the aim the institution has for certain reasons and using it to start practices that actually aim at something else. What if it becomes a community garden project with Filipino workers, initiated by Eisa Jockson in relation to what is happening in certain villages across the Philippines at this moment, which could connect those communities.
So, in the end, what we are aiming towards is not so much occupying the public space with entertaining activities, but really starting deeper and long term processes where the arts can also become a smokescreen for other kinds of actions to happen. And I find it interesting, this work of constantly relating to the very legitimate set of objectives and aims of an artistic institution but somehow to hijack them gently towards something else. And I think overall that what we are at least aiming at in sharing this working space together and with the artists is really to question and deviate normal streams of power of decision making. What are our conditions, our working and living conditions? How many projects are we busy with in order to survive in the field? The answers to these questions are very different for some of us, so it’s also about resetting and refining conditions that can really allow for this sharing of power to take place. I think that’s very much a working question. I also feel it’s a question that we should repeat to ourselves more often. So what are the concrete practices? How does this feeling manifest itself and not just stays as an easy manifesto? At the same time I like that the answer is not something very visible but really woven into the practice: how we make every decision, how we try to resist certain dynamics and propose other ways to tackle that.
Lisa: This question about how we are doing things, as opposed to the focus on the content we work on, has been always crucial for me. It’s super urgent. And it is often related to vulnerability. Because working on these invisible patterns can sometimes bring frustration or even the feeling of failure. In my professional experience it has always been also a confrontation with the limits. And it’s important to share also this not so visible shift, so that it can be developed in a togetherness.
Eva: I have one last question, following the togetherness proposed by Lisa. Have you found some way to create moments of collectivity, togetherness and belonging, in everything that you’re doing right now?
Kee: It’s hard. Because we work in live performance that is about coming together, about physically coming together. The whole of last year, and for me even before the pandemic because of the protests, it was extremely, extremely excruciating to live through this moment where we were not able to do this. But I also feel that this is a moment where we can work on other ways of coming together, despite not being able to physically quite yet. And I think about the example of this very conversation, of being able to share the space and to articulate and to discuss something is a moment of coming together in solidarity, if you will. On the touring concept residency I was working with a pair of artists, one is Canadian, the other Scottish. The proposal is to revisit one of the very first projects of the Scottish artist that he made during his graduation, because the two of them met for the first time during the production of that work. The title of the piece is We Share Air. It speaks of the moment when we’re breathing the same air. Now, in the context of the pandemic, this is completely dangerous, the air that you breathe is considered dangerous. And so, how can we find other ways by which we can share air together?
Silvia: Maybe this is very obvious, but for me, it was extremely important that I could visit Hong Kong in October 2019. And stayed there and worked with other people for a week. It was also the moment when the protests were going on, quite intensely. And then it was about breathing a certain air. So, we went a couple of times to manifestations and visited some of the most iconic places. I still have vivid memories of being hosted very warmly by the organisation and working intensely together. So, not just visiting, but really working full days in the Theater Academy and then being out every night, joining places where people were gathering for very important purposes and sensing a little bit of that. That felt fundamental. It’s banal but it’s very physical: sometimes when you visit the place, it’s also about the food and the smells and how people behave in the public space. And a certain feeling of feeling at home in a way that was also a bit shocking for me, coming from Italy via the Netherlands at that moment and feeling that it was much more home in Hong Kong rather than Amsterdam. That invisible and yet very strong sense of movement that was there in the city in those days and nights and the constant tension that was there felt very important to experience.
It’s not so pleasant to be working only from across distances, when you are on and off all the time. You tune in, you enter a kind of flow, and then the meeting is over and you have to switch to another modality. And then you have to find that energy again. This feeling was very much shared also by the associated artists. We will attempt to have a shared residency, and this desire came also from them. We don’t know if we can really take it at this point but we are insisting on that, we feel we have to do that for the five of us, to live together for some days.
Lisa: When we were working on “Fionde” by Chiara Bersani, the first commission of Samara Editions, there was that moment just before the release. After many months of conversations about how to create a performance that travels without the artist, Chiara made a practice that you can experience on your own at home, or with someone else, or with someone else at a distance, or with a community. And so when the packaged boxes with “Fionde” were about to be shipped to Oslo for the premiere at Black Box Teater, and suddenly Chiara says “But guys, are we really not going to Oslo?” it was really touching for me — this resistance of bodies that still long to meet. On one side, it was like, okay, but what have we been talking about for the past three months? And on the other side very, very beautiful.
Eva: I want to say thank you all, this conversation was really precious.
Silvia: Yeah. Thank you so much for initiating.
Kee: Thank you so much again. Silvia, I will see you in the other zoom link.