“Obieg” Magazine, 7/2014*
Zofia Cielątkowska:Tell me more about your project or rather presentation which we can see at the Jewish Museum. There are different stone pictures, a video in which you seem to be swallowing something and another video which is actually more difficult to describe. For the viewer who doesn’t know the context it might be a bit mysterious.
Luísa Nóbrega: During my residency in Warsaw, I did twelve “invisible actions” in different places somehow connected to the Jewish history, especially related to the Second World War period, when the ghetto still existed. The actions were invisible either because there were no witnesses at all, or, if there were witness, they were unaware of the exact nature of the actions and could not recognize them as artworks. On purpose, neither of those actions was fully documented – the registers were only partial, such as a video with so much light exposure that the viewer cannot really recognize the images; audio recordings; pictures in which the action itself is never depicted; fragments of text which are never descriptive, and so on. In none of the registers it is possible for anybody to be sure of what the action actually was, and I committed myself never to tell anyone about these actions, apart from the people that were directly involved in them.
I suppose you had to read and research about Polish-Jewish history during your residence. Was it already in a way your subject? Was there anything surprising, interesting or shocking you found?
From the moment I started, I knew already I wouldn’t be able, as it was a short residency, to get deeper into this Polish-Jewish history. So in this project, in a sense, more than taking a historic perspective as a departing point, I aimed to show the gaps between the information you could get and the singular experience of Jewish individuals during the ghetto period. I was in touch with the history of the Holocaust mainly through literature, as Paul Celan’s poetry left a strong impression on me, and also through books such as Primo Levi’s Is that a man? Even if I didn’t address this topic before, however, I’ve been dealing quite often with traumatic events in history of which I have not taken part of – I was always interested in the relationship between language and silence, and I think one of the things that allow one to refer to an event as traumatic is one’s inability to talk about it. Of course there were many shocking things I found at my research, even if I knew something about it already. The more you research, the more it becomes clear you inability to even figure out what would be to go through something like this. There is, for example, the system of trains leading to Treblinka death camp. I knew already that the transportation to the camps was more than abusive, and that many died on the way, before even arriving to the camp, spending hours and hours in an overcrowded wagon, without drinking water and without enough air to breathe. But I didn’t know that the system of transportation was awfully organized, and that quite often the trains coming from Warsaw would have to come back and forth, as the camp itself had no capacity for the large number of people they were bringing. Therefore, a journey which would take normally three hours would take days. So, at the one side you would have these terrible information, in which you see to what extents the individuals became nothing but a cargo, a certain amount of matter to be destroyed, and on the other side you have those really singular stories – like the one of a painter in the ghetto, a girl, who at some point put her paintings in a metal box and buried it, together with a letter to the ones who would find them in the future, apologizing for having to cut the borders of the paintings so that they could fit the box.
What we can see there is an effect of the action, effect of experience. I think that is the clue to understand those works. Works, which – even if it is not so evident – are related with history. But obviously not history as a set of facts and documents, but rather as a narration of different experiences. How do you see this in the context of your works?
When you work with performance art, you cannot escape thinking about documentation. As the performative actions are quite ephemeral, what remain of them are the registers, which are always partial. In most of the cases, I choose to document the performances in a quite plain way: choosing a single picture and a short text description. Many performance artists use the video as a preferred medium for documentation, but that is not my case. I work a lot with video, but usually I prefer to think about video as a different language. Both video and performance are time-based, but the time of the video is completely different from the time of the action. As I work mostly with large duration actions, there is almost always a dimension of each work which is invisible for the audience, even when I perform in public. How then to choose a medium of documentation which don’t give the illusion of depicting the action as a whole? How to make people aware of this gap? This was why working with text was often really important for me. Well, then we go back to the relation with history that you mentioned. We have access to history through selections of documents, through statistic numbers, through personal narrations, through literature and cinema. We try to build a narrative from these fragments – but there is always something, however, that we cannot grasp. Somehow when we get closer to history paradoxically we realize more and more how far we are from a throughout understanding. In this project, I wanted somehow to radicalize the gap between the actions and the registers, and present to the audience a series of inconclusive fragments.
At the meeting you said that you were working in the theatre as an actress. This kind of work, where you rehearse and rehearse in order to make a final think, was not satisfying to you. You said that the most interesting parts were happening at the rehearsals. Is it actually the reason why you started to think more about performance? Do you see any other similarities or contradiction on the line of visual arts and theatre?
Yes, in fact I think that even when I was working with theatre I was never really interested in fiction – or maybe I never really believed in this draw line separating fiction from reality. Reality always felt like fiction to me – so when I was playing theatre I was actually looking for something real that I could not find in the so called reality. Whenever I start talking about performance art during a lecture or a workshop I cannot start discussing it before making people realize how many performative acts we undergo in daily life. Daily life is full of codes. We know how to behave indoors and outdoors, we know how to behave in a nightclub, we know how to behave in a funeral. And still, there is always some degree of tension while performing these acts. In extreme situations like a war, the fragility of those codes becomes evident. At least in my case, I guess was never really comfortable in them, I always had this feeling of being a fake, of being about to get caught. I started playing theatre very young, and somehow theatre was a space where this tension between acting and being watched, the tension between the identity and the gesture, became evident – and could therefore be communicated somehow, could become something else, create movement, dynamics. This was why, from an early age, I was very much attracted and fascinated by the writings of Artaud and Grotowski. As I started studying acting at the university and afterwards started working with theatre professionally, however, I realized the theatre conventions did not really opened space for the kind of experimentation I wanted to make – at least, not that easily. Theatre language is still very much attached to a series of conventions – such as the duration of the performance, the separation between rehearsals and public presentations, the hierarchies between directors and actors, and so on. At some point, then, when I was in a deep crisis, I started to work in collaboration with a visual artist who was very much interested in theatre, and that gave fuel to my questionings – and then, to make a long story short, that was how I got to performance art. I came to realize that the visual art field was much more open to the kind of experiments I was interested in. What happened is that, for historical reasons, somehow visual art absorbed all kinds of hybrid, experimental procedures of other languages – sound, video, action, even writing. So I believe that the border between theatre and performance is a cultural, conventional one, not essential at all. There is no intrinsic reason for theatre to work as it works. And maybe the term visual arts is no longer accurate – and it is even funny that the exhibition space is still the centre of the contemporary art world, whereas there could be – and there are – many other forms of presentation.
Most of your performances are connected with either limiting your body (like when you put earplugs for six days) or pushing your body into limits (when you repeat the word “glory” until you fall, or when you are trying to break the glass). Obviously there is another level of meaning to all those afore mentioned actions, but I would like to ask you about the body. How you understand it in your work? Do you have any inspirations – in the visual arts or beyond?
It may sound strange, but I don’t believe the body to be one of the central issues in my work – I rarely think in those terms. Communication, voice, language, even perception, yes. Maybe because usually the notion of the body we have quite often makes us think of some kind of unity, or something raw or essential, a center where all our sensations gather. I guess that when we talk about the body we are usually talking about the image we have of the body – we try to make fixed something which is in fact very fragmented, unstable and complex. Often when we talk about the body we forget that we are dealing with a lot of ideas and conceptions applied to the body, cultural constructions – so ultimately we are dealing with language. Of course in many cases the ideas we have about the body doesn’t really fit the way we experience it – and then language collapses, even if for a few seconds. Maybe you could say that in my action I try to draw back to the point where the body becomes something we don’t know, haunted by strange voices, a dangerous place. Maybe I could say that working with resistance interest me as it creates situations of struggle and collapse in which you no longer know how your body works. In that sense, as well, I believe the way I deal with the body is different from the way most actors and dancers, for example, deal with it – I’m not trying to show something I can do with it, but rather exploring something I do not know. Lack of control, rather than control. Letting involuntary gestures come to the surface. But I wouldn’t say all this have to do with the body, only – there is a mental struggle, and not only a physical one.
There is also a language which is quite important to you; you did mansion Celan, poetry of Wisława Szymborska or poetry in more general sense etc. Can you tell me more how you see language or rather how you use it in your works?
I think this question is very much connected to the previous one. I think language is everywhere. I think it is quite performative in itself, it creates reality. It gives things stability, it gives each thing its on place. Still, this stability is not perfect – the relationship between language and things – as the relationship between the language and the body – is quite arbitrary. So, when we are speaking, we are always taking things for granted, generalizing. Language is a kind of a double edge sword – it allows us to deal with things that are distant, by creating distance, creating absence. You could make an analogy between language and a photographic camera, for instance – it is something that mediates in between you and things, even when it refers to things, it allows you to get hold of something, by setting it apart. I like to think of it as a technology – and, where there is technology, there are also failures, inaccuracies, noise, mistakes, imperfections. The reason why I like poetry so much is because it deals with language in its materiality, without connecting language to truth. It explores the noises, the inaccuracies, the defects, the misleading similarities. Something like using a machine for a purpose it was not intended to. Something like exploring intentionally the slips of the tongue. Using language to point to things that doesn’t fit in language, to point to things that are unspeakable. I polish poet I like very much, Anna Kamienska, says she writes poetry because she knows no better way of approaching silence. It sounds paradoxical, but the fact is that even when we are silent we are usually overwhelmed by language. In an essay by Susan Sontag I like very much The aesthetics of silence, she states how verborragic silent words can be. So yes, I think I am dealing with language all the time, even when I work with silence. Even if I am very much interested in working with the voice, apart from language – I often make explorations with guttural sounds, something in a region you cannot define, in between crying, moaning, screaming.
My relationship with literature was always really strong – I spent most of my teenage years alone reading and I started writing from an early age. So maybe you could say that literature was, and still is, my main influence. I still write a lot, mostly poetry. For a while, there was a separation between my work as an artist and my work as a writer – until a friend of mine called my attention to the fact that my actions were also literature. And then, as I started working a lot with video, I’ve been quite often exploring the recourse of the voiceover text, exploring the relationship between text and image. And two of my latest projects include a publication.
Then again you studied philosophy and at the meeting you said about your fascination of Hegel and a kind of this tension or struggle which we can find in the “Phenomenology of the Spirit”. I suppose you have also some other inspirations? What is the role of philosophy in your work.
Besides Hegel, my other strongest inspirations are Lacan and Wittgenstein. And lately, I’m reading Derrida a lot, as well. I think what all of them share in common is an interest in language, in the problematic relationship between language and things, and even in between language and language in itself. A czheck philosopher who lived in Brazil for many years, Willem Flusser, said his entire philosophy was born in the attempt to combine Hegel and Wittgenstein – and it is a quite complicated task, in fact. Wittgenstein is trying to make things plain, direct, clear – whereas Hegel is complicating and reversing things all the time. Even their style of writings is quite opposite, almost contradictory: Wittgenstein brings concrete examples, referring often to carpenter’s tools, while Hegel create neologisms and unclear, reversible concepts, making even concrete events quite abstract and unclear. But, in either of the cases, you cannot separate their writings from their thoughts. Hegel is reversing things all the time, attempting to create something out of nothing. Wittgenstein is pointing to the nothingness behind the words – trying to find silence – and in between he gets to this fantastic notion of word games – and urges the scientific community to take poetry seriously. Of course this is a rough simplification, but I like to have them both as references, one questioning the other, one betraying the other. As for Lacan, I am always drawn back to his division between the realms of Imaginary, Symbolic and Real – the dimension of the imaginary being the one we deal with in the so-called daily life, the drama we create by fixing some pieces in the tableau of the Symbolic – which is language in itself. But then we get to the Real: which is this dimension that remains outside language, but which often appears to us in a quite violent way in situations of surprise, frustration, collapse, failure. The real is what creates fractures in the tableau, which gives dynamics to something that we could regard as stable, which forces us to change. And finally, I like Derrida’s reflections on language, the way he approaches philosophy and literature, the liberties he takes while reading philosophical texts.
I guess my studies of philosophy were more important to my work than any of the art courses I’ve made – maybe you could say that my actions are also somehow dialetic exercises. And still, the relationship between theory and practice is not direct – is not that I create something to illustrate a concept, not at all – it is usually the other way round, theory helps me thinks backwards, help me finding different possibilities of understanding things I have done already.
What was the most surprising or interesting to you during your residence in Poland?
I think it was really interesting to make this project in Warsaw – which I think it is not an easy city to approach. At the beginning it was really hard – because it is absolutely difficult to make connections between the historical information you get and the place you are actually in. It is something in a sense similar to something I know from São Paulo, and which I also met while I was making a residency in Donetsk, in 2012: Warsaw is a place in which the architecture somehow erases memory. While looking for places where to make the actions, I soon realized that I would hardly find places that kept some signs of the past, but rather the contrary. I only started to understand Warsaw after I looked at a picture of the Ghetto area completely destroyed, in the end of the war – you could see nothing, not even ruins, no signs of life. And I could understand it a bit more as I realized that there was not exactly a throughout cleaning after the war – the basements of the houses of the ghetto are still under the earth, and once and then it is still possible to find some fragments of objects belonging to people living there. It was really strange, and not easy at all, to make this exercise of superposing maps, imagining a neighborhood buried under a neighborhood. There is always this gap between what you know and what you can see. In the end, it was also a project about forgetting, and not only about remembering.
What are you working on now?
Right now I am working on a publication connected to a project I did last year, in which I spent four months attending Pentecostal churches in Brazil on a daily basis and following their rules, and also preparing for a residency I will do in Brazil, starting in August. I will spend two months in silence living in the house where a Brazilian writer, Hilda Hilst, used to live, repeating the experiments she used to do with Eletronic Voice Phenomena, repeatedly recording the statics of the radio and trying to listen to voice messages amidst them. These kinds of experiments started in the beginning of the century, as many believed it was possible to communicate with the dead through technology, such as cassette tape recorder, radio and television. This is somehow a way to explore, in a different direction, the investigations concerning ventriloquism, which I started in 2012. I am very much interested in phenomena such as apophenia (finding significance in insignificant phenomena) and auditory pareidolia (interpreting random sounds as voices in one’s own language) – I think they have something to say about the way language itself works.
*The talk was published in “Obieg”; Element of invisibility – talk with Luísa Nóbrega, “Obieg”, 7/2014.