The Materiality of Gesture and Meeting
Text by Zofia Cielątkowska about PAO Festival 2018
What is performance?
The answer, as suggested by Kurt Johannessen in his artist talk, is situated between know and not-know, or to be more precise, in the constant movement between knowing and not-knowing. Performance, as a form based on presence and with the ambition of being present, must be sensitive and conscious of what constitutes the now. It has to continuously question its definition, which changes with time, as well as its terms and conditions.
“Performance uses performer’s body to pose a question about the inability to secure the relation between subjectivity and the body per se; performance uses the body to frame the lack of Being promised by and through the body – that which cannot appear without a supplement.”
And the supplement is in an incessant flux.
Performance art, born in the time of the social, political, and cultural revolution of the 1960s, was accepted as a medium of artistic expression at the end of the 1970s causing—before that time—a mystical conundrum for art writers. A moment in art history when conceptual art dominated, praising idea over product, was perfect to establish a form happening only once, impossible to repeat, existing in ephemerality, and yet with a very strong expression and message. What was even more important, and often overlooked by the critical discourse at the time: performance meant not only introducing presence into the place occupied by the art object, but also pushed the audience to be present, focused, and united in one space and time in the act of experiencing art. During more than fifty years of its history, performance has moved through many different phases. While in the beginning, the emphasis was put on the performer’s body and its meaning and subjectivity (Amelia Jones), later the body still played an important role, however, with the changing social and cultural contexts other elements gained significance: place, used objects, interaction with the audience, media, technology, and so on.
I started with a few words on the history, because the sixth edition of the Performance Art Oslo festival was happening under the slogan Parallel Times – Performance Now, creating a dialogue between the younger generation of performers and the artists already active since the 1970s and onwards. Performance Art Oslo (PAO) consisted of the curated program which involved artist talks, live performances and a video program. In the frame of PAO, there were also shown final presentations from Performance Art Studies (PAS). Tanja Thorjussen and Franzisca Siegrist, curators of PAO festival 2018, focused on various forms of influences on this specific form of art. What constitutes now for the contemporary performance?
If I would have to describe with one word only this year edition, I would probably write: a matter, a materiality. The materiality of performance art was accentuated on a variety of levels, evoking its visual roots, using sculpture, painting and drawing.
The matter and materiality
An object like a metal frame, looking like something out of a children’s playground, was placed in the centre of the gallery space. The collective of three performers—Vilde Løwenborg Blom performed with Sara Guldmyr and Finn Adrian Jorkjen—in white suits approached the construction with candylike, jelly-colored substances in their hands and started to wrap it around the metal frame. They had to move fast, as the runny material did not want to stay too long at the rigid frame. After a while of observing this Sisyphean task, it seemed like the performance would never end. However, a careful observer could notice that, with time, the substance hardened, and gradually, a swiftness of artists movements changed into the use of force. When finally the consistency of the material created a stable construction, the sculptors could leave the space, all tired and sweaty. The idea of this processual work was simultaneously simple and powerful. In a way, a similar process could be observed in the “wrestling painting” by Kachun Lay, performed with Daniel Pedersen, a professional wrestler. This time the centre of the gallery space was occupied by a ring: a red square on which two performers covered in white paint were actually fighting. Every time their bodies were falling down upon or touching the red canvas surface, the painting was gradually created, reminiscent of the Pollockian Performative gesture.
The materiality was also literarily mentioned in the video program: Megan Toye, in her curatorial statement accompanying movies from the Franklin Furnace Archive in New York, wrote that the screening came out of her interest in magnetic tape.
“I really wanted to bring the materiality of tape to the foreground and view these recordings not just as forms of documentation, but also as visual artefacts that exhibited interesting structural and formal qualities.”
Looking from the perspective of a contemporary viewer, who has gotten used to the smoothness and sharpness of the screen surface with its bright color palette, there is some kind of materiality in the imperfect frames, these dirty video pictures from the 1980s and 90s, and I’m thinking here of the technical details. And in terms of that particular point of view, one thing was particularly interesting to notice. All of the presented performances at the festival—regardless of the age of the performers—were happening in the reality in which development of technology surprisingly does not exist: there was no single performance using so-called media. Almost as if the parallel times were taken literary and one could easily imagine all of the works being presented back in the 1980s, at last from a technological point of view. If one looks at the content, it seems like the concept of engagement has changed enormously. Is it because, as PAO states: performance art is always created in relation to the present and in dialogue to the place and time, is the present so different?
Performance and engagement
In the video Extreme Woman (1987), Iris Rose says that, “demonstration involves more than just yelling, and that protest is when I say I don’t agree with this and that.” At the end of her politically troubling litany, “the bombing in Vietnam, the terror in Iran, the torture in South Africa,” Rose ends in the same breath, “but remember about double standards.” Some critics would say that the atmosphere of the early performances (1960s, 70s, and 80s), with its unique political and social engagement, is impossible to repeat nowadays. But aren’t there always issues and problems to be engaged in if one is attentive enough, or chooses to be an active observer of the reality? Maybe the contemporary performance is no longer a relevant form to talk about current problems, like the backlash of woman’s rights, climate change, and so on? Or, on the other hand, what form should it take if its aim is so ambitious? I leave these questions open. Some of the current issues were possible to trace in the works of Irma Optimist. Her artist talk related to the critical reflection on the condition of the planet and masculinity, which was an interesting combination. She presented, in a slightly ironic way, a detailed mathematical proof that the population indicator of the living planet index has dropped significantly. Irma’s performance was related to the refugee’s crisis, and made with the setup of a few objects: an old overhead projector showing a picture of the globe, big blue yarn, roses, and a small blackboard. In the accompanying video, with the sound of the sea in the background, Irma was writing single words on the blackboard, and then carefully wiping them out to make place for new words: stowaways, without papers, frozen to death. It was enough to get the message. But of course, politics or engagement doesn’t need to be shown directly. Sometimes the subtler messages are less noticeable, yet powerful.
A Matter – The Drawing, and The Gesture of Drawing
I have already mentioned fight painting, and this focus on painting and drawing was possible to trace in many other elements of the festival program. Firstly, the festival was documented in the drawing notes made by Irene León and Miguel Panadero, which was a very fresh and interesting idea giving the audience another perspective to look at the things being presented. Drawing lines were part of the piece by Hilmar Fredriksen, which was an earlier work re-enacted. Alastair MacLennan showed a ritualistic, very slow and careful process of painting with a black pigment. Pieces of papers were put on the floor and were painted simultaneously with his right and left hand; the last symbolic pair was painted only in the air as a hand gesture, leaving space for the imagination of the viewer. A drawing gesture in the air could also be found in the performance of Manuel Lopez, which focused more on the body and its presence, or, as he wrote on the window, which was steamed up from the outside: the here and now. Andrea van Gelder (PAS) also created space for the painting with an unusual material and rhythm; moving around in a peculiar skater costume, she attempted to paint, using whipped cream and a watering pot. Are gestures enough? What about the words?
Language, Letters, Words
In the video, Stockholm art fair – Marilyn (2004), Kjartan Slettemark—the key figure in festival’s video program—is blessing the audience, repeating the same text in various languages, taking on the role as a tour guide. This understanding of a language—where content is less important than the form—also appeared in the live performances. Hilmar Fredriksen was showing the audience different boards with letters, each of them accompanied by the relevant vocalizations: his performance reminded me of the Dada phonetic poems. This order was also reversed: in the performance of Ann Noël, it was the letter of the alphabet that sparked a word, a gesture and an anecdote. Her performance had a very clear structure: she was drawing lots with letters of the alphabet, showing the chosen ones to the public, and then either telling a short anecdote, story, joke, or a short performance. Her stage presence was something like a magician: there was a magic hat, playing cards, multiple magic objects, and tricks and miracles, combining to form stories of everyday life experiences, subtly relating to the personal stories. And then there was language in itself. In her artist talk, Lisa Tostmann read her notes, questions and reflections on contemporary performance to the audience. In contrast, during her performance she was almost entirely silent. And almost is also the key word here.
The Gestures, the Dance and the Body
Tostmann started her performance attaching two squeaking toy pigs to her feet. As she started to walk, the pigs whistled with every step she took. She got under one of the horizontal pillars and started to jump. With each jump, she was almost touching, if not almost smashing, her head against the pillar. This paradoxical combination of a funny noise and a risky movement provoked specific attention to her body, and to her head in particular. Was it a deconstruction of contemporary thinking? Or just playing with the attention of the viewer? In her work, Emily Promise Allison used two loudspeakers playing specific sounds to which she was responding. Watching Allison’s dance performance, I felt like putting together my own story as if it were possible to create the image-narration based on sounds and suggestions of movement. Was it a bit similar to the idea of l’audio-vision? And there was more from dance movements in the live performances of PAS participants. A kind of Butoh dance appeared in the performance of Gabriela MB, who performed with a package of cigarettes. Yağmur Taçar and Daniel Novick made an almost acrobatic combination of close-distant lovers on the pillars of the room. There were examples of carefully prepared costume design (Hanne B. Nystrøm appeared in a unique white-box outfit), disturbing set-ups (Marion Horney was playing the Swedish anthem on a piece of meat like on the violin), and quieter personal stories which required attention and silence (Ingrid In der Maur presented an honest personal talk). There were also pieces engaging the public: Yendini Yoo Cappelen asked select individuals for help to hold her plate with clothespins, which she was attaching to her face. Coming from this point I would like to pay more attention to the collective or common experience in the performance.
The Collectiveness, the Togetherness, and the Experience
During the PAO festival 2018, there was a very special reunion of Hilmar Fredriksen, Kurt Johannessen and Kjetil Skøien performing individually and yet at the same time together: the last time they performed together was before 1993. Their meeting was probably one of the most important elements of the festival. The power of this reunion came from—talking in Deleuzian terms—la difference: the same which is not the same. The artists were re-enacting their works from the past, which allowed the audience to see, through the lens of contemporary perception, the accumulated layers of time. What has changed? What is the same? In one of the works, the artist trio were liberating themselves from the cardboard boxes: from what, towards where and why? Looking at them I thought about distance in time O Gadji Beri Bimba, performed by Hugo Hugo Ball, and changing concepts and practicalities of everyday life and art. I’m returning to my reflection at the beginning of this article on being present and the presence of performance art.
The last piece of the PAO festival 2018, an improvised jam session performed by Helge Nicolai Bjørkø, led to a very spontaneous, if somewhat out of control, audience participation. Which was, in fact, not the audience, but the community. After an intense three days of watching, discussing, eating, and experiencing together, what happened was that closer connections and interactions came into being. And perhaps that is the most important thing about this form, or perhaps any form of art: the meeting, the exchange, and the experience. In the times of rush, a dying planet, virtuality, fake news, neoliberal instability, alienation, and you name it, the meeting becomes a real revolution. Wasn’t that always what performance was about?
 Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The politics of performance (New York: Routledge, 1993), 151-142.
 Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).