Sirkku Ketola: The artistic process of performing Paula

Finnish artist Sirkku Ketola had her performance project A Body Called Paula at the NARS Foundation Gallery in Brooklyn in November. In Finnish the word paula means a ribbon, something to tie or to be enchanted with. It is also a synonym for a trap. Globally Paula is known as a female name, originating from the Greek word ‘Paulus’, which means small.

In her current project of ten years, Ketola creates an installation that mixes screenprinting with performance. Part installation, part performance, A Body Called Paula is a piece that develops over the days of the installation through long-duration printing sessions. The movements and their soundtrack create an enchanting, sensual machine with the main themes of time and temporality, pleasure, and the meditative process of working.

The narrative story behind the performance hunts beauty through the themes of light, passion, knowledge, reality, and depth, finally balanced out by darkness. What is the measure of time? Ornament is a universal form of visual art in every culture. The installation at NARS is part of Sirkku Ketola’s long-term project. For the duration of ten years ‘A Body Called Paula’ produces hand printed ornaments, or ribbons.


Paula prints by Sirkku Ketola.
Paula prints by Sirkku Ketola.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What comes to mind, when you think about your project Paula is that it is so clearly beyond the visual practice, or enhances the physicality of the practice. What is so intriguing is how you dive into the embodiment and stretching of the paper. Is it that the body becomes a continuation of the paper in the printing process, as if being one with the paper? What kind of metaphors would you like to highlight, or are being evoked in the process?

Sirkku Ketola: I guess I need touchable material to support thinking and understanding. In this case the handling of color and paper together with challenging technical crafting, tune us as one organism, where the tempo is being set in the cohesion of the qualities of the all included matters. The strength of the body, the sensitivity of the hands and the exactness of the eyes, are sensing constantly the fragility, stretching, moistening and drying of the paper, and the consistency and volume of the ink. The local, or should I say site-specific humidity and temperature effect strongly to the functioning of this paper/colour/body formed sensual machine. Also the instant substance of the body, the general vitality, the emotional ambiance, and for example the daytime, give all some special marks, first to the performance, and second to the visual appearance of the ribbon in progress. Imprint is different during mornings and evenings, also in the beginnings and the ends of the ribbons. I have chosen the long and fragile paper to be forced to lose control. The process is too tiring to hold on it. During the series of the performance the same paper roll goes by my hands 12 times so it is impossible to dominate the quality or the crossing effects of different layers. I just must be humble, and let the ribbon teach me. Maybe the greatest thing is that the ribbons still surprise me even though I’ve been working with the same materials for years. The major errors have been avoided, but the danger of errors are constantly present – everything can be irreversibly spoiled even in the last round of printing.

Sirkku Ketola performing Paula.
Sirkku Ketola performing Paula in Cable Factory, Helsinki, August 2017.

Sirkku Ketola: The ornament arises on paper in stages from light to darkness. The colours (yellow/magenta/cyan/black), except being common from every home printer symbolize light, passion, knowledge, reality, depth and darkness. Step by step these colour layers, as named the elements of beauty, while mixing and uniting approach the truth, the code of life or would I say the mystery.

The hand printed ornament reminds somehow of the DNA. Basically with the repetition of same patterns, the motif is being affected continuously by the changes of the circumstances. All the variations show together endless amount of visual possibilities and diversity. At the same moment the so-called mistakes come part of the entirety and open up routes for the new beginnings.

Today we talk a lot about unmaterialized art, light and it’s different digitalized reflections. I am blown away by it also, the transfer of energy from one equipment to another accomplishes wonderful outcomes. In my own work process the need of touch, the acception of the tardiness of the body as the part of the thinking self, in other words handling with hands, have so far helped me to the deeper knowledge. I choose to cherish this special bodily tempo – it might be good for human species. When one forces oneself to stop by the slow repetition, one might also have time to understand something essential.

Sirkku Ketola performing Paula in New York, November 2017.
Sirkku Ketola performing Paula in Helsinki, August 2017.

 

Sirkku Ketola: To be able to do the metamorphosis to become a sensual machine I had to create a role. My character Paula is simultaneously enraptured and trapped (in Finnish there is a sentence with both meanings, derived from the word ‘paula’ which also is a ribbon). She is a metaphor of a small human in cosmos. The name Paula comes originally from the Greek name Paulus which means small. So my Paula works with paula, with her special ribbon. Her job is to communicate visually by printing this repeating and overwhelmingly beautiful ornament. She wanders globally and communicates of the seen beauty. The previous place sets the next pattern, for example the New York effects to Paula will be seen next spring in Helsinki, Finland.

The machine is slow and time bending. It is a factory that is able to work without problems approximately four times per year. The doctor’s order has set the limit. I forget the rules always in the beginning of the new project, but now, when the Brooklyn ribbon has been finished, the pain in my hands is there and that makes calming down easy. By respecting this manual of the project, it will be possible to enjoy after ten years from now about the yet unknown massive installation, which is made of these forty different and international printed ornament ribbons.

I feel extremely privileged to be able to define the speed of the assembly line. For that reason the pleasure is an important part of the performance. Paula enjoys her movements and the choreography set by the printing process. The ink flows and the paper glides with the hands accepting to follow the weight of the body. The touch varies from strong to gentle and the rhythm beats with the working steps. The birth of the image feeds the will to come along to the anonymous destination. The possibility for sudden challenges forces the printer into the extreme concentration and to overcome difficulties and accept the errors. With the physicality, the mental part is also reacting all the time to the present. The chosen repetition grows thinking and developes strong pleasure.

Sirkku Ketola: Feedback, 2016. Handprinted silkscreen on wood. 81 x 105 cm. Process picture.
Sirkku Ketola: Feedback, 2016. Handprinted silkscreen on wood. 81 x 105 cm. Process picture.

Firsindindigo&Lifestyle: How do you prepare for the performance of this scale, which is almost a marathon? What is the preparatory phase like, and what happens during the performance aftermath?

Sirkku Ketola: During the performing period I take specially good care of myself. I try to do the outdoor activities daily, sleep enough and eat healthier. I try also to avoid the evening happenings and alcohol. The preparation for the performance takes mentally the whole day, but the most intense are the two hours before the show. The soundtrack of the performance follows me since morning. I’d like to highlight, the sound scape of my music and the noise of the printing table are essential elements of the performance. When arriving to the show space I tend to eat lightly and drink a lot of water. After it is time to check all the technical equipments and to mix the printing inks, the hue and the saturation needs to be done carefully. I have a special ritual order to do this. After this, I isolate myself, warm up and slowly become my transformation to the role. Thirty minutes before the show it is time to change the costume and become Paula. She doesn’t speak. The aftermath of the show is quick, washing the make up and changing the clothes are rapid, so I’m soon ready to communicate with the world again as myself. Before leaving I clean the colours and check all the technical details for the next day. When arriving home I stretch well and take a warm shower, except in Finland my choice is sauna.

Paula performance in Nars foundation Photo Nov 17, 3 38 57 PM
Ketola performing at the NARS Foundation in New York, November 2017.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How is New York as a place different, and this performance venue special, in terms of what is their impact on the quality and outcome of the work? How is the location different from the rest, say, Canada or Finland where you also created this performance piece?

Sirkku Ketola: The place impacts mainly how the performance is being installed. I like different spaces because they challenge the art work and keep it impossible to predict. The space in NARS in Sunset Park in Brooklyn is many ways special. First, it is near the Finntown, where there was a strong community of Finnish emigrants. During today’s new emigrations flow it felt important to mark the difficult roots of my own country. Second, the size of the gallery was perfect for the project. It fit there well, both visually and functionally. Third, the space is in the building, which is full of working artists, situated in the middle of the industrial Brooklyn. Where else should the sensual machine be? I came to New York as a visiting artist-in-residence of Finnish Cultural Institute for two months. My main goal was to research the structures of the money and power in the contemporary art scene. Beyond A Body Called Paula –project I started to sketch the new large-scale print installation referring to this research theme. The work will be produced during next three years. My colleagues in Brooklyn taught me a lot about independent artists’ living at the capital of contemporary art (NYC).

Paula, NARS foundation.
Paula performance, NARS Foundation in New York, November 2017.

The physical dimensions and the quality of the NARS space gave the rhythm for the installation when growing during the performances. The intimate gallery of the Sunset Park made possible to the paper ribbon to take a shape of a visually fine zig zag when it landed to dry to the perches I mounted. Also the rest of the visual elements of the performance found their places to create a dynamic composition. There was space for Paula to move and the audience was able to have several standpoints. The space was also photogenic with A Body Called Paula – and that’s important in our social media time.

This was the fourth time and the fourth place for Paula. In Toronto it was seen in a gallery with the long hallway. There the magic of Paula worked like in the story of the Pied Piper, when people saw the action from far, they just had to reach to the space. In Helsinki Paula measured the huge hall in Cable Factory during the five hours marathon performance. And in Turku, Finland she worked behind the lightened window in the darkness of the first autumn evenings by the riverside. And in Brooklyn she captured the industrial space around the other artists. I believe that during the next ten years, Paula can capture many different structures and spaces as rich as she has done in her first year of the process. The big scale quality will be seen in the end of the whole process. All in all, these places are valuable treasures for me, and will affect the final installation.

 

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Next time A Body Called Paula will be seen in Helsinki in March 2018. After that Sirkku Ketola travels mostly in Central Europe. She will be back in New York City during autumn 2019.

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The screenprints made in New York have been prepared at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop: http://www.efanyc.org
More information:

Introduction: http://sirkkuketola.com
Previous exhibitions: http://www.la-bas.fi/ketolaeng.html

Members Only: Flo Kasearu at the Performa 17

Ernest Hemingway once said, “In every port in the world, at least two Estonians can be found”. This is also true about New York, where more than a few community members share their Estonian House, New Yorgi Eesti Maja. The New York Estonian Educational Society was founded in 1929.  As a great coincidence, and as a brilliant and thoughtful part of the Performa 17 biennial, which took place from November 1 to 19, Estonian artist Flo Kasearu created a nostalgic ode to this members’ club house. Her site-specific performance tour guided groups through different rooms of the house. Her artist-led tour highlighted the very house’s past, changing its authentic traditional feeling into an updated stage, in which the local members themselves took part in the performing. All staged and directed by Flo Kasearu.

Kasearu runs also an artmuseum in her native Estonia. In Tallinn, visitors can book special guided tours in the Flo Kasearu House Museum. The historic wooden house belonged to the artist’s family from the time of its construction.

Flo Kasearu's House in the family history pictures.
Flo Kasearu’s House in Tallinn in the family history pictures as shown in the New York Estonian House performance, Performa 17.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Your great great-grandmother was building the house in which you live now in Tallinn. How did that heritage inspire you to pick up the idea of bringing performative component of your family house to New York Estonian House?

Flo Kasearu: Both of my great great grandparents built the house. (I just have a photo of my great grandmother, so I mentioned her in the tour).

While living there since 2009, and getting involved with so many domesticity issues and problems of living in an over 100-year-old house, many ideas have grown out of the problems. I like to solve my problems through artistic practice, turning them into objective artworks. So I established a Flo Kasearu House Museum in the house, which is open by appointment only. I do guided tours to visitors through the house and its garden. Otherwise it would be difficult to find artworks from the middle of my everyday things.

The house tour is a sight-specific art project, and as such it’s difficult to transport it elsewhere. I can partly exhibit the tour, or works from it somewhere else.

Flo Kasearu_installation view at the Estonian House.
Flo Kasearu, Installation view at the Estonian House, staged in the social room ‘potatoes as billiards’, Performa 17.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How long ago was it when your family built the house, and how did Tallinn preserve its old buildings during the times of the Soviet Union?

FK: The house was built in 1911 and my museum and the tours started in 2013.

During the Soviet era, most of the private property was nationalised and belonged to the state. After 1991, 20 year-long restitution started taking place, during which the property was given back to successors of original lawful owners. Houses that belonged to the city were taken care by the renters. City of Tallinn, for example, did not put any money into renovating them. During the restitution process houses were in a legal loophole in terms of their ownership, and thus were not dealt with by the renters, as they thought that any original lawful owners could come back and take the houses over.

Flo Kasearu Performa-project at Estonian House.
Performer doing kissing sound experiments at the Flo Kasearu tour in the New York Estonian House.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How did you end up doing a similar kind of tour in New York at the Estonia house as part of Performa 17?

FK: Just the method of being a tour guide is the same anywhere, and talking about the history of my museum house is also the same. But otherwise it is a very different project.

‘The Members Only tour’ (Performa 2017 project), is a sight-specific work for New York Estonian House and its community. As I am not a big performer, I did not want to perform it on stage. So doing the guided tour seemed a logical method. The work also included the community members participating in the performance. Guiding people to go through the house, and then becoming like a tour guide in a museum which New York Estonian House is in a way. Everything in the house looks so authentic to its original times and everything is based on old traditions and rituals.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you feel that NYC local community members joined your project easily? From an audience member viewpoint everything seemed going smoothly and appeared well rehearsed.

FK: I took the time to talk with them, listen their stories, so then it was not too difficult to convince them to join. I got recommendations from one member to talk to another member, and then it developed on until I had enough members to invite. I had two ladies cancelling in a last-minute, for example an older lady’s husband got so sick that she had to take care of him and she could not join in the end. But luckily I had also backup members in mind.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You’re a multidisciplinary artist in the true sense. Did performance enter into your working methodology from the very start of your practice?

FK: I started doing video-performances while I was an exchange student in UDK, Berlin. I was in Rebecca Horn studio, a performance and installation artist, and she told me that there is no point for me to paint for her, as she doesn’t know much to comment on painting. I started doing video-performances, relating myself and my Eastern European identity with this new city and new space. So from that time I have been doing performances once in a while.

Flo Kasearu_drawing, 2014.
Flo Kasearu, drawing, 2014. Estonian House staircase presented drawings of the artist. Her fears of what could possibly happen to the house.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In New York City, the visual components in ‘The Members Only’ tour were really stretching the context of the Estonian House in a unique way. How did the imagination for the ‘sets’ evolve?

FK: They are a combination of ideas that evolve from speaking with people and wanting to bring them and their stories to this very abstract and minimal level. And mixing them with some of my older haunting ideas. It is very sight-specific. And I wanted to bring also humour and irony level in, as I felt this is really lacking in this house.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Now thinking also how the music room was evolving, with the grand piano in it. In your tour, you mentioned that behind the doors there is a choir practice going on, but the scene was so surprising?

FK: My point was not to repeat the same things that are happening in the house otherwise regularly. I went to see the choir rehearsal happening there, and I noticed the choir teacher who is such a strong character putting also chairs. So I wanted to highlight the choir teacher and show her alone. I have had this kissing-ticking sound long time haunting in my head and I thought to display this in the room as it is kind of abstraction from the emotions that I felt in the choir rehearsal.

For example, in the choir singing room, instead of singing patriotic songs, the notes are made of this kissing-ticking, which has similar emotion and a character being nostalgic, but abstracted. And then the humor comes in, with over-reacting with this kissing note, and this way it’s also more open to interpretation.

Flo Kasearu_the music room at the Estonian House.
Flo Kasearu, The choir room transformed into an installation with kissing-ticking sounds at the Estonian House, Performa 17.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Going back to Estonia. How would you describe the Estonian contemporary art scene today?

FK: Its tiny but rather interesting. Some years ago art used to be dealing more with the social and political problems, now it is much more in its comfort zone. Although the fees in Estonian art are still quite minimal. The younger generation is more similar to Western formalistic approach, seems to me.

 

Guided Tour of Flo Kasearu House Museum (compilation of excerpts) from Flo Kasearu on Vimeo.

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Artist website: http://www.flokasearu.eu/

 

Laura Anderson Barbata on Julia Pastrana

The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home is a new book edited by Laura Anderson Barbata and Donna Wingate. The essay collection sheds light on the life of historic sensation, Mexican international performer Julia Pastrana, expanding the story from anthropological and art historical perspectives. The book can also be viewed as a personal story of discovery. Artist and writer Laura Anderson Barbata remembers her own process of starting the project that eventually led to this book. How she got engaged in the controversial subject propels ideas of activism, and a passion to rewrite Pastrana’s history from new humanitarian and feminist points of view.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How did you originally get interested in Pastrana’s life?

Laura Anderson Barbata: In 2003, Amphibian Stage Productions, a theater company directed by my sister Kathleen Culebro, invited me to collaborate with designs for a play that they were about to premiere in New York: The True History of the Tragic Life and the Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, by Shaun Prendergast. This is how I learned about Julia Pastrana. The story, unfolding in complete darkness, details the life of Julia as she traveled through Europe, a performer in a freak show, until her death in Moscow. It also briefly recounts the fate of her mummified body, and that of her baby, until they were added to the Schreiner Collection of human remains in the anatomy department of the University of Oslo. Upon hearing her story, I felt that my duty as a Mexican artist, and as a human being, was to do everything possible to have Pastrana removed from the anatomy collection and returned to Mexico, her place of birth—where she was at the time practically unknown—to receive a proper burial.

After nearly ten years of effort, Julia Pastrana was finally transferred to Mexican officials in Norway; I represented Mexico. After more than 150 years of being exhibited for her unique physical condition, Ms. Pastrana (1834–1860) was repatriated to Mexico and buried in Sinaloa, Mexico in 2013.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: It’s been really a longitudinal project for you personally. How did you get others to get involved? 

I was not the first person to request the burial of Julia Pastrana and have often asked myself, why was I able to succeed?  Why did other efforts fail? What did I do differently? I think the answer lies in the fact that I am an artist and therefore my methodology was radically different from all others from the start. My extensive collaborative artistic experiences in Mexico, Venezuela, and Trinidad prepared me for a project of this magnitude that ultimately involved international institutions, government officials, various organizations, and scientists.

LAB: The ten-year plight for Julia’s return for burial began with letters I wrote to the National Research Ethics Committee for the Social Sciences and Humanities, the National Committee for Ethical Evaluation of Research on Human Remains of Norway, the Governor of Sinaloa in Mexico, the Foreign Affairs Department of Mexico, the University of Oslo, journalists, artists, anthropologists, individuals, and various institutions that I reached out to for their professional opinion, advice, and guidance. During this process, they became deeply involved and invested in the outcome. Each one was fundamental for the success of the repatriation and I consider them to be my collaborators.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How many authors are participating in the publication that is coming out now, and what perspectives do they cover from visual and historic perspectives?

LAB: I edited the book with Donna Wingate, and it includes texts by Jan Bondeson, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Grant Kester, Nicolas Márquez-Grant, Bess Lovejoy, and myself. Donna and I researched and selected more than fifty illustrations from the public domain, library collections, archival materials, and works commissioned especially for the project.

Julia Pastrana, book cover.
The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home, book cover. 

The authors are as follows:

Dr. Jan Bondeson is a Swedish-born rheumatologist, scientist and author, working as a senior lecturer and consultant rheumatologist at the Cardiff University School of Medicine. Outside of his career in medicine, he has written several nonfiction books on a variety of topics, such as medical anomalies and unsolved murder mysteries.

As an expert on Julia Pastrana, Bondeson contributed two chapters to the book; the first is a general introduction to the story of Julia Pastrana, and the second recounts how he found her remains in the basement of the Forensic Institute of Oslo in 1988, and how his extensive research established that she suffered from hypertrichosis terminalis rather than hypertrichosis lanuguinosa, as previously believed.

Dr. Nicholas Márquez-Grant is a Specialist Forensic Practitioner in Anthropology and Archaeology at Cellmark Forensic Services, Abingdon, UK. He is also a Research Associate of the Institute of Human Sciences, University of Oxford.

His text addresses the history of collections and the anthropological framework of the nineteenth century; the ethics surrounding human remains; the case of Julia Pastrana’s repatriation and its significance; witnessing Pastrana’s body in the chapel during the repatriation process.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is Professor of Women’s Studies and English at Emory University. Her fields of study are feminist theory, American literature, and disability studies. Her work develops the field of disability studies in the humanities and women’s and gender studies.

Dr. Garland-Thomson’s essay considers the ways that the public display of Julia Pastrana both reinforces and challenges the lines between the self and other, human and non-human, ordinary and extraordinary, that such spectacles rely upon. By analyzing how Pastrana’s display and recent repatriation and burial in Sinaloa invest her body with different meanings, it traces the processes that socially mark human bodies in order to reveal and explicate the inner workings of representational systems, such as race, gender, ethnicity, and disability.

Grant Kester is Professor of Art History, and Director of the University Art Gallery at the University of California, San Diego. Kester is one of the leading figures in the emerging critical dialogue around “relational” or “dialogical” art practices.

Dr. Kester’s text discusses how European colonizers were unable to attach specific meaning to the objects they acquired through colonization and thus developed larger meanings for art more generally. Recovering Pastrana’s remains becomes an act of restitution that encourages a confrontation with the historical status of “stolen” objects and encourages a renegotiation of and reconnection to the understanding of the past.

Bess Lovejoy is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.
Ms. Lovejoy’s essay contextualizes Julia Pastrana’s afterlife by considering a number of other notable individuals whose bodies have been preserved in museums. Like Pastrana, many of these individuals possessed bodies that differed from the European norm, either because they were born with physical abnormalities or because they were of non-European ethnicities. Her chapter considers how scientific and ethical considerations complicate the collection and display of such bodies, and how some of these bodies have been the focal point of successful repatriation campaigns, while others have not.

Laura Anderson Barbata
My essay describes my own journey: the process, challenges, and partnerships that were formed as I worked for ten years for the repatriation of Julia Pastrana.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Your own artistic research work on Pastrana has included performative phases, how are you implementing this approach on the book?

LAB: While Julia Pastrana was billed as “The Ugliest Woman in the World,” what is most important to mention is that she was a gifted mezzo-soprano and dancer—she was a very successful performer during her lifetime. Julia Pastrana’s life story and the fate of her body after her death (including her successful repatriation) brings to light issues that remain deeply relevant: beauty, ownership, science and racism, commercialization, objectification, exploitation, human rights, public versus private, international law, colonialism, sexism, respect, responsibility, indigenous rights, memory, sensitivity, the physical body, and the spiritual body.

In order to unpack all of these subjects, I felt that they must be addressed through different mediums. First, it was important to create a publication to gather the most significant material concerning her life with critical essays from different scholars. Donna Wingate and I worked on this book for over four years—researching archives and discussing the various lenses through which we could gain a deeper understanding of Julia Pastrana. At the same time, our goal was to present a full account of Pastrana as a person, a woman, and an artist, with the dignity she had been denied during her life and after her death. The book includes images of my artworks—works on paper and performances—based on the story of Julia Pastrana.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How would you describe the cultural life in Mexico at the time of Julia over hundred years ago? Also, what was the context that she was surrounded by that addressed her as a celebratory oddity? 

LAB: Julia only lived in Mexico for the first twenty years of her life. She was born in 1834 in the State of Sinaloa, and according to popular legend, was born in the indigenous village of Ocoroni—or thereabout—in 1834. Today Ocoroni belongs to the municipality of Sinaloa, in the state of the same name, and is located in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

In the decades of the first half of the nineteenth century, Mexico was searching for its own destiny and independence. Since the establishment of the first settlements by European Hispanics in the sixteenth century until the early nineteenth century, the territory of Sinaloa was mainly a mining state. The population, therefore, settled in the mountains and in the valleys. Mining camps and towns were established throughout Sinaloa for the search and exploitation of metallic resources that were coveted by the monarch of Spain.

Nothing is known about Julia’s parents or siblings, and there are no documents of her birth or baptism. It should be noted that the Office of Public Records (Registro Público) had not yet been created in Mexico; it was legally established on January 27, 1857. Little is known about her childhood, although it is said that an uncle took charge of her after the death of her mother, and in an effort to make a quick buck, sold to her to a small traveling circus—the kind that occasionally passes through these remote villages. Sometime around 1836 until April 1854, Julia was a maid in the residence of Mr. Pedro Sánchez, who had been in charge of the government of Sinaloa from September 28, 1836 to June 3rd, 1837. It is possible that he purchased Julia from the circus that had exhibited her throughout the northwest of the country.

We believe that her training as a mezzo-soprano and dancer began when she lived at the governor’s house, and he likely presented her before audiences. She spoke four languages: English, French, Spanish, and Cahita, her native tongue. She was taken to Guadalajara to perform in 1854, and news of her reached the United States, as we found in an article in the New York Post. This must have been what sparked the interest of the American Theodore Lent, who worked for Barnum and Bailey and later became Julia’s husband. He traveled to Mexico to meet with Pedro Sánchez and Francisco Sepulveda to discuss a business venture that involved the sale and purchase of Julia Pastrana.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: As a phenomenon she became extremely internationalized so to speak. How would you explain this to contemporary audiences, from the perspectives of art, science, and women’s history?

When Julia Pastrana left Mexico and traveled to the United States with Francisco Sepulveda to meet Theodore Lent to complete a business transaction between Sepulveda and Lent, Theodore Lent secretly convinced Julia Pastrana to marry him, and he immediately became her manager. He presented her to audiences and billed her as the Bear-woman, the Nondescript, the Ape Woman, the Female Hybrid, the Wonderful Hybrid, and Baboon Lady, among other sobriquets.

LAB: Julia Pastrana was taken to perform in Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and New York, among other cities. After a number of presentations in the US and Canada, Lent decided to take his show to Europe. They traveled to London, and extensively throughout Germany, Poland, and Russia. Julia Pastrana’s shows were very successful, and newspapers throughout Europe wrote about her.

Julia Pastrana’s story is a reminder that what happened to her is not an experience exclusively from the past—today there are far too many cases of exploitation, abuse, neglect, cruelty, human trafficking, and discrimination. Julia Pastrana is a reminder that we urgently need to forward women’s rights, indigenous rights, children’s rights, and eliminate human traffic to start. We must end gender discrimination, defend the rights of people with differences, protect religious choices and end the voracious dehumanization of people in the name of political, commercial, religious, and scientific purposes. For me, it means that I continue working on the topics related to her, the injustices she lived and how they are still relevant today.

LAB: Among the works are: a performance piece that is continually evolving, a series of zines that address different topics related to Julia Pastrana such as: repatriation of human remains, museum ethics, exhibition practices, the objectification of people and women, human traffic, beauty and the commercialization of women’s bodies, feminism, animal rights, love, circus arts, among others; in addition, we are working towards an Opera about Julia Pastrana in collaboration with the artist collective Apparatjik, Concha Buika, and Void Design.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you think she is appreciated in Mexico today, and how will the book contribute to that?

LAB: The repatriation of Julia Pastrana sparked a great interest worldwide and in Mexico. Since Julia Pastrana’s repatriation there have been at least three plays written and performed in Mexico about her, and I understand there is a feature film in development by a Mexican director. I have also learned about a woman’s health center that opened recently in Argentina that is named after Julia Pastrana.  Because of my work on the repatriation of Julia Pastrana, I recently received an award by the Instituto de Administración Pública of the State of Tabasco, Mexico for the Defense of Human Rights.

It is clear to me that all of these responses show that Mexico is embracing Julia Pastrana and is working towards restorative actions for her memory, for the promotion of dignity and justice, and in humanitarian efforts to defend the rights of all.

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The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey HomeAvailable through Art Book/DAP http://www.artbook.com/9780692762189.html

More on Laura Anderson Barbata

Artist website: http://www.lauraandersonbarbata.com/

Intervention Raphael Red: A fine stilt dance in Boston

Brooklyn based Mexican-born artist Laura Anderson Barbata got interested in stilt dancing in 2001, while being a resident artist at the Caribbean Contemporary Arts CCA7 in Trinidad and Tobago. She studied local carnival traditions embedded in the surrounding places, and started fusing her visual arts practice with elements of local performance. While working on a project which included paper making, the performance element stepped naturally into the costumes she was making from paper. The resulting works had a connection to local carnivals. In this context, she ran into workshops that were targeted for young people, in which local youth was learning stilt dancing as an alternative hangout to the streets. Eventually, Anderson Barbata brought her experience back to her home in New York, finding new collaborators who were based in the city. The  artist has ever since worked on various projects with the Brooklyn Jumbies, a NYC group specialized in the African Diaspora performances, including stilt dancing of the West Indies and West Africa.

On August 10, 2017, Laura Anderson Barbata’s new work Intervention Raphael Red was performed as part of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Neighborhood Night Block Party in Boston. For the event, the Brooklyn Jumbies were joined with local Spontaneous Celebrations in Jamaica Plain performers, all dressed in strong and dramatic red and white costumes that have their source of inspiration in the art museum’s interior. Anderson Barbata created the costumes and headgear for the performers from the luxurious silk velvets that were recently added on the walls of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s renovated Raphael Room. She found inspiration on the brocades and patterns, and developed the ideas and materials into new styles of costumes. Even as the artist does not consider herself to be a costume designer intrinsically, she has found a prominent voice with projects that involve textiles. Her work presents meticulous details, and is her artistic tool for innovation. Anderson Barbata found the current project Intervention Raphael Red, while the conservators at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum were transforming the historic Raphael Room. She has been an Artist-In-Residence at the museum.

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The Queen and stilt dancers, Brooklyn Jumbies, at the Block Party hosted by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, August 10, 2017. Photos: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Over the past year, the art museum in Boston has added new ways to connect audiences to its historic galleries. The programming at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has involved contemporary performances from sound art to pop-up dance performances. This Block Party introduced museum’s Raphael Room to the outside world, namely bringing its aesthetics and content in a contemporary form to the streets. Anderson Barbata’s project brought the costumed dancers and musicians as a procession down the Boston’s streets. Together with the Brooklyn Jumbies, who are the masters on stilts, there was a queen as part of the procession. It introduced also a herd of zebras as puppets that were animated by volunteers and the museum’s Teens Behind The Scenes, who are there to learn about the life and work in the museum. Guests were also invited to take part in the gallery activities and art-making in the studio. The evening filled with art and party had more performances in the gardens, Palace, and Calderwood Hall of the museum.

Audience of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Welcomes dancers on stilts.
Audiences and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum welcome stilt dancers.

Anderson Barbata’s collaboration with the Brooklyn Jumbies started in 2007. The group performs stilt dancing, which is considered one of the numerous cultural forms that come with the African and Caribbean diaspora.

Jumby means “ghost” in Afro-Caribbean, and also serves as a substitute for “stilt-walkers” who function like above ground roots connecting the undead with the rituals of the ancestral African world. Barbata and the Brooklyn Jumbies blend tradition with elements of social contemporary culture, group participation, and protest.

 

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Performers at the Procession introducing Anderson Barbata’s work as “Intervention Raphael Red”.

What is remarkable in Anderson Barbata’s focus and approach is that she has anthropological sensitivity to the subject matter. The artist has studied the ancestral components behind the performance tradition. She has brought contemporary messages into its form constantly adding new aspects to its current performing context.

Stilt dancing for me combines many things. To start, we are working with scale– larger-than-life characters that have the possibility to capture our attention. The movement vocabulary of a dancer towering over us expands in space. They are accentuated and can extend themselves through their use of textiles and different materials. This is where costuming is essential to the performance visuals and the message. But also very important to me is the symbolism and tradition that is embedded into this practice. -Laura Anderson Barbata

Interview: Marina Celander explores theater with intention

New York City based performer Marina Celander crosses boundaries in her artistic practice, which combines a variety of genres and approaches to making art. Her solo performances echo authentic voice, and her deep participation on stage with theater groups comes across as statuesque, moving, gentle and charismatic. Marina Celander is born as Swedish-Korean, and is a recipient of 2014 Lilah Kan Red Socks Award for her outstanding contribution to the Asian American professional theater in New York City.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What choices did you make to become an actor, what is your background in the field?

MC: I started out as a modern dancer. After I graduated from London Contemporary Dance School I moved to New York and danced for a bit with various companies and choreographers. At one point I decided to take acting classes, which was something I had always felt I wanted to try but was afraid to do, and started studying with Gene Frankel at the Gene Frankel Theatre Workshop on Bond Street. Despite my fears, I took that first class with Gene and I remember feeling so elated and high, almost, as I stepped out from the darkness of the theater and in to the sunshine on the street. From that moment on I knew I had found what I needed to do with the rest of my life.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Where were you born and raised, at least Sweden is on the map?

MC: I was born and raised in Sweden. I grew up in Malmö which is in southern Sweden, right across the strait from Copenhagen, Denmark. I lived in London for three years while I was studying dance, and then I moved to New York when I was in my early twenties. I have been in New York ever since! I go back to Sweden every other year or so to visit my family.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You have performed with Yara Arts Group that is based in La MaMa Theatre for many years. How did you find yourself part of the company?

MC: I auditioned for a show that Virlana Tkacz, the artistic director of Yara Arts group, was putting up at La MaMa in 2000, called Circle. This particular show was special in that it had actors and musicians from Buryatia and Mongolia, as well as us New York actors. We had the chance to learn to sing these hauntingly beautiful Buryat songs from the Altai mountains. Two years later I traveled with Yara to Ukraine to sing Ukrainian folksongs, and visit Babushki, the grandmas, in the villages of Kratchkivka in Poltava and Svaritsevichiy in Polissia, and then we performed in Kyiv. This trip was also lead by Ukrainian singer, Mariana Sadovska, who was the musical director for our performance. Ever since then I have come back to work for Virlana in various poetry readings and events that she hosts, as well as being part of some of her theater productions.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Virlana Tkacz, one of the founders of Yara, and the director of the company, and many company members have a Ukrainian cultural background, But Yara is appreciated as multicultural in its productions echoing ideas of a World Theater. Did you find this conception as a great home for your own performance identity?

MC: Yes, I am really attracted to the idea of World theater. It is very fitting that Yara Arts Group is a resident theater company at La MaMa, because it is the home of World theater. Ellen Stewart, the founding mother of La MaMa Experimental Theatre, bravely and courageously invited individuals and companies from all over the world to perform and work at La MaMa.

Yara is an exciting company to work with, because of the always multi-lingual performances and multi ethnic cast. Lately, Virlana has been working with Ukrainian artists, but in the past she has worked with artists from Buryatia (in Siberia) and Kyrgyzstan. As a woman of color and a theater artist, I always deeply appreciate directors who are not type-casting based on ethnicity and race. In downtown theater in general, but at La MaMa in particular, I have always been given opportunities to act in a myriad of roles where my ethnic make up is not important. Virlana has given me and many other actors of color opportunities. I believe that putting a minority actor on stage for no other reason than the fact that (s)he is a good person to have in the show, is always a strong choice against the established order of theater in the West.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In 2015, you were part of a production that directly was touching Ukraine and the war that was happening on a huge crisis level there. Yara’s production premiere ‘Hitting Bedrock’ took place in La MaMa, (it was conceived and directed by Virlana Tkacz, set & light by Watoku Ueno, music by Julian Kytasty, assistant director: Wanda Phipps). Your role in the work was central. Tell more about your role and how it shaped in the context?

MC: The production Hitting Bedrock, was an important production as it addressed the war in Eastern Ukraine. My character was The Refugee, and her significance in the piece was that she represented all of those humans, women, children, men, the elderly, that have been rendered homeless because of the war in Ukraine, and elsewhere in the world. She represented all of those that have had to leave something important behind, a memory, a treasure, a family member, a secret, a lover, old letters, a photograph… It was a role that moved me deeply. As a result, that summer (2015) I went on a self financed, crowd-funded trip to face paint and give dance workshops to children in refugee centers in Ukraine.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In this play, the audiences had a participatory role. At one point, we were asked to give our belongings away, and were offered big tote bags instead, to put our coats and personal items in them. This was altering a perception from an audience member’s point of view into the experimental, perhaps reminiscing the point of view of people in the war. In what ways did being a central actor discussing your war losses while audience is so close to you, alter your own performance? Did this event change you?

MC: Yes, the audience were forced to walk through a long corridor in the basement of the theater, and thereafter they were asked to give away their personal belongings only to have them put into bags. The audience immediately got those bags back to hold for the remainder of the show, but many felt uncomfortable and some refused to give up their belongings even for a second. We had brusque and insistent “guards” in uniforms commanding people to go here, put their stuff there, go up, sit down, etc. When the audience had finally arrived in a “holding area” after having been shuttled around with their big bags, they had to witness the guards doing the same to me. The guards demanded to see what was in my back-back, and I showed them my toothbrush and my papers. At this point the audience is really right next to me in the holding area. Having the audience being so close to me, being one of them, really does something to the performance. As an actor I loved feeling them so close, feeling their reactions to me, their doubts, their fears, and them feeling my fears. It was also a little intimidating when on one occasion we had a lady who was a little drunk in the audience, and she was shouting quite aggressively at the stuff I said. That was worrisome, because she was so close.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Besides being an actor and performer, you handle multiple different roles. How did you come to dancing and performing Hula?

MC: Yes, I handle multiple different roles in my life on a daily basis. I am a mother, and an artist, a teaching artist, performer, face painter, a freelancer. I wake up every morning thinking, what am I doing today?

I started dancing Hula, traditional Hawaiian dance, in 2000, after finding an organization that gave beginner hula classes. I was very fortunate to stumble upon the Hawaiian Cultural Foundation (HCF), and there I studied with Michelle Akina, Janu Cassidy, Keo Woolford and kumu hula June Tanoue. I have since been involved with a hula halau, hula school, Pua Ali’i ‘Ilima o Nuioka, under the leadership of kumu hula Vicky Holt Takamine.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is your connection to the hula/Hawaiian community in New York?

MC: It’s a small, but growing, community of Hawaiians, and Hawaiians at heart, hula lovers, and Hawaiian language and music lovers and enthusiasts. It is a beautiful and loving and inclusive community of people from all over. My connection is through hula.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: A very interesting part of your practice is also face painting. That is a skill that requires another set of imagination and sense of personality in people. How did you start?

MC: I started face painting for my own children’s birthday parties, and it grew from there. Now I do other kids’ birthday parties. It’s a small side business, and I get clients usually through word of mouth. I really enjoy the face painting, and it makes me happy to paint kids’ faces.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In 2016, you created a solo work for yourself that was performed in Sweden. The work titled Mermaid’s Howl, handled a theme of you mother, and her Korean identity. How did you experience the project from the point of view of her identity, and your own, adding into the narratives that are so personal?

MC: I created a solo show called Mermaid’s Howl and performed it at the Stockholm Fringe in 2016. The story had been a long time in the making. As early as 2013, I had talked to my friend and mentor, Fred Ho, about my idea of writing a solo show. He quickly said, in typical Fred Ho style “Write it, I’ll produce it. Here is your deadline, use it.” He unfortunately passed away before that came to fruition, but I stayed true to my promise to myself and to Fred, to finish writing that piece. I am grateful to the Stockholm Fringe Festival for inviting me and giving Mermaid’s Howl its premier.

The story is about me growing up in Sweden and finding out who my mother was, and finally being able to connect the dots in my adult years. Connecting the dots from me, to her, to all of our maternal ancestors. The play is part dream, part real memory snippets, part madness and part immigrant mother-daughter story. It was a deeply personal process, of course, to write this play, which delved into questions of what is must have been like to an immigrant woman, all alone in a completely foreign country, without family, to raise a child on her own, have her dreams crushed or set aside. It also explores the question of women and madness, and what it means for women to not be able to fully express themselves as artists and human beings in a society that sees women as less valued than men.

(For a little more detail to this story and an except of the play you can go here: http://riksha.com/mermaids-howl-an-excerpt/)

 

 

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Was the theme of mental illness and it’s feminine counter-narrative hard to project into a play?

MC: Mental illness is a topic that is still not openly talked about, it’s a little taboo. I wanted to bring it to the forefront and not skirt around the issue. Without glorying mental illness, I wanted to shine a light on it from a different angle, to let people see that there may be a societal value to possessing a different sight and different viewpoint from what is deemed “normal”. Normal is a societal rule, and normal is different in other cultures. In the West there is absolutely no point to mental illness at all. It is just a nuisance, a bother, a hindrance, a difficulty, something to be shunned and stowed away, far far away. I am not saying that it is not utterly devastating when serious mental illness occurs in a family, but I am saying that there are options as to how you would view someone with a divergent view of the world. Those with divergent behavior can actually have value in society, their divergence is seen as highly creative as well as highly unusual and abnormal. At the same time, madness in women have always been a tool to belittle and demean women, to incarcerate “difficult” women, and put women in their place by the patriarchic machinery.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The play also involved projections as part of it, tell more about the visual and performance collaboration?

MC: I had three amazing collaborators. The electronic score was composed by Dåkot-ta Alcantara-Camacho. The costumes were designed and made by Jane Catherine Shaw, and the projection design was made by Youn Jung Kim. Youn Jung knew my play very well. She was a student of Fred Ho, that is how we met. In the beginning of the writing process she and I used to meet regularly and have our little mini-writing labs, where we shared, read and discussed our work. Because of her connection to the piece from the start, she really knew the flow, the pace, the colors, the feelings of the piece. The projections grew out of her intimate knowledge of the story I wanted to tell, and her receptiveness to my suggestions made the working process so easy.

Dåkot-ta created a score that was so sensitive and evocative, and reminiscent of water and forests and shaman drums. His sounds were instrumental in setting the scenes for particularly relevant moments in the piece. It really was amazing to hear the music loud, with real speakers, for the first time! Goosebumps moment! Cathy made these amazing creations that felt magical to wear, and helped me grow into the characters I was portraying in the various environments.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What would you like to say about the performance experience in Sweden, did you feel you were at the crossroads of cultures while bringing the work there?

MC: I didn’t necessarily feel I was at a cultural crossroads in Sweden, but my piece, Mermaid’s Howl, is an exploration of my cultural heritage, so it was very fitting to have its premier in Sweden. Performing in Sweden was a homecoming of sorts. Being bi-racial I guess means you are a hub for cross-cultural activities within you.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: This play involved also a Kickstarter- fundraising, and the audience was able to have a glimpse into the concept and to you as a person. What was this campaign process like?

MC: Yes, I decided to crowd-fund with Kickstarter as it seemed as the most reputable and an easy way to go. The opportunity to go to Sweden came up very quickly as I was invited to perform with Mermaid’s Howl just a couple of months before the festival started. I had to come up with the funds to go very quickly.

Youn Jung Kim is a great conceptual artist and photographer and film artist. She has a great eye and a great feel for what works and she listened to what I wanted to convey in my little promo video. From the short interaction we had on camera she created a little gem of a video for my Kickstarter campaign.  (You can view the campaign here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pq4-2zW7GZ0)

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You are an activist in social platforms. You have performed radical acts in public places, closing yourself in a body-bag for instance. Tell more about the involvement. Do you think activism can change the dominant narratives in crisis? Are you an optimist?

MC: Yes, I’m always an optimist. The particular event you are mentioning was Belarus Free Theatre’s demonstration in NYC against Capital punishment in Belarus, where young people disappeared and their families were not notified of their deaths, and never received their bodies back. This was an event planned together with La MaMa. We gathered by City Hall, and then walked over to Foley Square, where we crawled in to body bags, zipped ourselves up and laid still for 30 minutes to raise awareness of the issue. We had monitors who were watching us to make sure nothing came to pass as we were inside the body bags, or in case anyone would freak out they could quickly zip us open again. It was a very intense experience, I have to say.

As artists we have an obligation to tell stories where we stand up for the underdogs, speak up for those weaker than us, for those who do not have a voice or platform with which to tell of their story.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What new adventures do you have planned?

MC: I performed a first draft, a first work-in-progress version, of a new solo show called Shakespeare’s Sisters at Dixon Place in NYC in January of 2017. My plan is to perform it again in a larger venue and to see the piece grow. Mermaid’s Howl will also be traveling to Massachusetts sometime in the near future. We are working out the details now, so I will tell you more when I can reveal more, but I am very excited that this show will have a future life.

MARINA CELANDER, SHAKESPEARE'S SISTERS, DIXON PLACE, NYC 2017 - PHOTO SALLY MINKER
MARINA CELANDER, SHAKESPEARE’S SISTERS, DIXON PLACE, NYC 2017 – PHOTO SALLY MINKER.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You are also performing with Yara in their new production?

MC: I’m currently performing with Yara Arts Group’s new show at La MaMa called 1917-2017: Tychyna, Zhadan and the Dogs. Again, it is a project based on Serhiy Zhadan’s poetry. It was shown this spring in Kyiv, by a Ukrainian cast, and now it’s our turn to put our spin on it. Serhiy and his punk-rock band, The Dogs, are in New York performing with us. It’s an exciting show! It’s always very special to perform with a live band. Other musical elements in the show are Julian Kytasy’s bandura compositions.  This piece makes us reflect on the concept of tyranny and how easily it arises – it did in Europe in 1917, and now in 2017 we are currently in danger of allowing it to rise again. The show opened on Friday June 9 and runs at LaMama ETC until June 25, 2017.

***

Information about the Yara’s 1917-2017: Tychyna, Zhadan and the Dogs at La Mama here: http://lamama.org/tychyna/

Marina Celander on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/user26138773

Favela Vera Ortiz: Choreography unplugged

Favela Vera Ortiz is a Finnish-Argentinian choreographer based in Helsinki, Finland. The choreographer has recently been celebrating her artistic anniversary. She is currently finding herself with compositions that extend the boundaries of the body, self, and the space. Vera Ortiz is well known as an inventor of Choreographer’s Appointment, in which participants find their solo movements with the choreographer, and engage in a social form of personal choreography with a performance. The choreographer has worked with multiple themes in her native Finland, in Stockholm, Buenos Aires, Paris, and Melbourne, Australia, to name a few locations.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Your career spans over 15 years, and in fact you just celebrated your artistic anniversary. Starting from the time you went to study at the Danshögskolan in Stockholm, how did you end up choosing to go there?

Favela Vera Ortiz: Actually I had tried to get in to some schools already earlier, but always seemed to be the one who almost got in. But I continued dancing all the time and became more and more interested in making choreography. I chose to apply to Danshögskolan because they had a choreography program. I got in on first attempt and was very happy about it.

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deux2, Choreography Favela Vera Ortiz. Photo Anna Diehl.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What are the key ideas and modes of working you learned while studying choreography in Stockholm, and have they stayed with you?

Favela VO: During the 3 years of education, I learned many tools from several visiting teachers. We were 3 students at the choreography program/education, and one of the learning processes was to be able to follow how the 2 others did their compositions when the starting point was the same for all. For example, professor Örjan Andersson gave a task to use certain compositional tools with 9 dancers and the result was interesting to see how different the works were.

I also invented a method of trying to be free of judgement while making the movement, this was kind of a brainwash that was supposed to get the body to produce material earlier unknown. I am a curious chameleon and tend to try out new things which leads to different works. I’d say styles in my works vary a lot. Similarities tend to pop up afterwards, but it is not intentional.

One example is the question of how to use time. I am very interested in the concept of time being round instead of linear. This shapes the movements and music choices I make, and it has stayed with me from the first work with this “round time” that I did at school. It was a choreography of 15 minutes with several black outs cutting scenes, the shortest scene was only 4 seconds. Work with playing visibility, repetition and strong visual images.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Looking back, does it feel that so many elements have changed over this time?

Favela VO: It is a long time – 15 years – and certainly a lot has changed. But it is hard to put a finger on it and say here is a changing point and then something happened. Mostly change comes slowly with several try-outs and when there is a new direction it grows from a process and forms new frame. This overlapping process is a living creature in itself. The old and the new exist at the same time. During the past five years I have done some collaborations with visual artists which is new for me.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Many of your works have a strong visual element in them. You have worked with costume designers, in which a dress, costume and also architectural and spatial elements are conducting the narrative, or directing the movements in a way. Is doing choreography sometimes like being a composer with a certain thematic?

Favela VO: I’d say the thematic sometimes brings the costume or other visual elements conducting the movement. I have often done costume, lights and stage design by myself as it feels they are so closely linked to each other and push the movement to what it is. Last year, for example, I did a site-specific work L’AUTRE in a bomb shelter where the strong  visuality comes with shadows on an uneven wall and laser light. I did the lights with five torches. What the photos don’t show very well was the glitter on the body of the dancer, she was covered in gold shiny glitter, very thin layer of it though. (Check the photos of this work here: www.photoslautre.tumblr.com)  I also enjoy working in a group with visual artists who bring their ideas to the common table. It is always an adventure to see how the process goes forward and which elements grow to be presented. My latest work OPUS CORPUS III is a beautiful example of this.

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Opus Corpus III, Choreography Favela Vera Ortiz, 2016. Photo Valdis Jansons.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: While working in Buenos Aires, you also started working with plastic wraps or bags that evolved to be headpieces for the performers. Tell about this choreography, which was created in a local park?

Favela VO: This work I made for three dancers, the inspiration was Greek mythology so the dancers were sort of goddesses. Even the name for the piece is MOERAE which are the three sisters making and cutting the line of life. But it was not a narrative work, merely the inspiration gave some movement ideas. It was made for Villa Ocampo, a cultural house in Buenos Aires. We used the terrace of the house and the park. The idea of using plastic bags to make costume was fabulous, it worked well. I did the wigs and tutus of thin white plastic. We also planned a stage version of the piece and filmed it while I still was in Buenos Aires. Later it got invited to Chile to a dance festival, so there are two versions of this work.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Does word intercultural resonate in your personality, or multicultural, and how?

Favela VO: I am half Finnish, half Argentinian. I have lived a nomad life for several years while working in different artist residencies. I was born in Helsinki and I am still based in Helsinki, but this year is the first full year that I have actually spent here entirely.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You have created solos for dancers, for example, for Finnish dancer Riikka Kekäläinen. How much does a dancer direct the development of the work with her personality, and how do ideas come together in the end?

Favela VO: The dancer has an enormous impact for the work. I often use different improvisations to search the movement so it is essential for the dancer. I choose the dancer who I believe is the best for the theme I am working with. The frame for the improvisations come from the vision I have for the theme, but then I choose the material from what comes out while working with the dancer and develop it further with the dancer. It is like a puzzle building the body of the work. One solo for Riikka, which I enjoyed a lot to do was called LA SEULE. It was seen in Finland but also in Paris at the Finnish Institute and in Düsseldorf Tanzmesse. The theme is the history of hysteria.

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LaSeule, Choreography Favela Vera Ortiz. Dancer Riikka Kekäläinen, Photo Vilma Niskala.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Tell about the work in STOA Cultural Centre in Helsinki, in which the floor had mirrors all over, and the audience was sitting in a tight setting looking at the performer from a close distance?

Favela VO: The work is called 21 notations on human. We had visitors in our rehearsal space. They were 20 persons who each came to share one rehearsal day with us. My question for them was “What is it that interests you in humans?” So, it was very wide question with personal answers. We created movement material with the visitors during the day with the dancer Hanna Ahti and got kind of a movement bank. The work is a selected composition of these things, as the material was several hours of material on video. The 21st notations on human (https://vimeo.com/35870033) is our version. The mirror floor reflects the dancer as many and brings also a visual element with light reflecting to the walls. It is a tender piece with the dancer having a conversation with notations on the body and the surface.

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21 notations on human, Choreography Favela Vera Ortiz, Dancer Hanna Ahti. Photo Uupi Tirronen.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Somehow there is a sense that dancing for you carries several elements that might be also called as non-human, such as animal like, or vegetal, or spiritual; are these definitions closer to what you are aiming or thinking?

Yes, there is an idea I’ve been working with for some time now where the body is half human, half animal. Like a hybrid body. This creature was more animal in the work Myoclonic (year 2013) and more human than animal in L’AUTRE (year 2015). This year (2016) the work OPUS CORPUS III was asking the question of where is the human, where is the animal, where does it start or end? The whole work seems to be a question so there is no answer. This hybrid is also an alienated body and represents the other, the strange, the weird in each of us.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Your time spent in Australia, and doing the piece with yet another visual component, reminds a lot of the spiritual elements that are perhaps inherent to the aboriginal heritage, with the embodiment of place and environment and the essence of the human body in the entire life cycle. Could you tell more about this work?

Favela VO: This work started as a collaboration with Annee Miron, a sculptor and visual artist from Melbourne. We met in Paris in the Cité Internationale des Arts residency in 2010. The meeting and our discussions and sharing knowledge of our previous works made both of us interested of a common project. It took some time in between until it happened. I was working in Melbourne with Annee in 2013. The collaboration started with Annee’s project of sleepless, which developed into a performance MYOCLONIC (https://vimeo.com/66894548). Annee built a huge installation at the Yarra Sculpture Gallery, it worked as its own piece but also as a scenography for the dancer. I consider it is some kind of a jungle of mind. Annee used cardboard as the material and we used cardboard mask for the dancer. The performer, Sanna From is a Finnish dancer who came to Melbourne to work with this project. In our working group was also a local artist Anna Brownfield making the video. The work grew with visions of subconciousness and muscle tension of extremes, forming the body of being awake and alert. The name comes from Myoclonic jerks often appearing when falling asleep. The creature grew during the process and became more animal than human. It is as if this animal, creature is a relative to the hanging installation. The idea of animal body gave a strong impact to the piece. The hands were as kangaroos keep them, this certainly came after me seeing kangaroos in live for the first time. I was not thinking of using the aboriginal heritage.

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Myoclonic, Choreography Favela Vera Ortiz, 2013. Dancer Sanna From. Photo: Kelly Russ.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Finland has a rich contemporary dance culture. How would you describe Finnish contemporary dance scene from your own point of view, and experience, how has it changed over the years?

Favela VO: It has grown a lot during the past 15 years. It has grown hugely since I started to follow contemporary dance as that is about 29 years ago. Now we have more dance artists than ever, which also brings more voices, more variations of how to use dance as an art form, and gives more lively platform to all of us.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What are your favorite places to work?

I have enjoyed working in residencies as I enjoy of impulses each place resonates concerning space, energy, people, it is the whole world around – colours, light, different languages, working with local artists and getting other visions. But the absolutely best place to work is whenever the working group is working well, despite in where it is.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Who are your greatest mentors or influencers?

Favela VO: During the school I had a strong experience being thought by Hilda Hellwig, a theatre director. I liked her methods of thinking of the working process and leading it with great intuition. I suppose I have tried to keep that knowledge as one base while working. I do not tend to have idols, most of the time, I consider it is more some works that make a strong influence, so it is more one work per each artist I know that I admire. Some of the latest are works by Sophie Calle and Bill Viola. I get inspiration in books, films and exhibitions. Films having strong feeling of movement are special for me, it feels that they fill a dwell in my mind with visions and movement combined, and these strong images bubble and some day grow to live in yet another form. Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite novelists, her latest books with dystopia visions have given inspiration for my work with human/animal/alienated body.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Where are your plans for the future, you have a one-year scholarship starting now, where do you think it could take you?

Favela VO: That’s what I am planning at the moment! Not sure yet where it will take me, but I am definitely planning a new residency far away from Helsinki. I also want to continue with my latest working group in Helsinki so surely part of the year I will be spending at home.

***

Artist website: http://favelaveraortiz.tumblr.com/

Check out video about CHOREOGRAPHER’S APPOINTMENT https://vimeo.com/14337885

Artist in focus: Laura Anderson Barbata on art and community

Laura Anderson Barbata is a transdisciplinary artist known for her onsite projects in Mexico, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States and Norway. She is currently working on participatory, collaborative works that combine performance, procession, protest, movement and wearable sculptures to convey a message. In this interview, Laura discusses her recent artistic work and collaborations, giving a sense of the issues that matter in our current society.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Where do you live and work now, it seems you have multiple engagements across different continents at the moment?

LAB: I work in NY and Mexico, my home country, but I am based in Brooklyn, New York although many projects often take me to different countries such as Jamaica, Venezuela and Norway to create and present projects. The work for each project is developed in my studio and onsite.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You work with an exotic art form, stilt dancing, what is the story behind, how did you become interested in this culture?

LAB: I became involved with stilt dancing communities in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago in 2001 when I was invited to Trinidad by Caribbean Contemporary Arts CCA7 for an artist residency in Grand Riviere, a small community on the north of the island. As part of the residency I began a community papermaking project in the village of Grand Riviere and while we were working on the project I wanted to expand my work to the urban areas of Trinidad and learn from the rich Carnival traditions practiced there. I had initially wanted to work with Peter Minshall, a brilliant carnival designer who I have a great admiration for, but life took me in a different direction. Through a friend of CCA7, I was introduced to Dragon, the founder and director of Keylemanjahro School of Arts and Culture in the neighborhood of Cocorite in Port of Spain. Dragon has set up in the patio of his house a place where the youth from his community after-school could learn the art of stilt dancing. This is a community project that serves his neighborhood and is open and free-of-charge for all kids in the neighborhood. The primary focus is to keep kids off-the-streets and engaged in the cultural tradition of stilt dancing as it was passed down from West Africa to the West Indies, with the objective of having the group participate in the annual Junior Carnival Parade. The group worked with little to no resources and exclusively with the help of parents in the neighborhood. I was immediately attracted to the project, the objectives of the group and the cultural tradition, and felt that we could initiate a collaboration in which each could bring forth our skills, exchange knowledge and enrich each other´s practice. I asked Dragon if he would accept me as a volunteer and he immediately accepted me into the group, I worked with Keylemanjahro for 5 years creating alongside the kids and parents, costuming and thematic development for their Carnival presentations.

This collaboration made a great impact on both of our lives and work, and to this day I continue to work with stilt dancers. I always understood that working with Keylemanjahro was for a limited time, the experience had enriched both parts equally and it was also necessary for me to work close to home. Around this time, my gallery in New York invited me to have a solo exhibition and I proposed that we turn the gallery into a workshop for kids and teens and apply what I had learned in Trinidad and to show some of the work I had made in Trinidad and Tobago and they liked the idea.

Next, I had to find partners and collaborators, I had heard about the Brooklyn Jumbies, (a group of stilt dancers from the West Indies and West Africa), and approached them with a project in which we would have weeknight workshops in the Chelsea gallery and the street to train young stilt dancers and prepare a presentation for the group for a street performance on 23rd Street in Chelsea and then for the West Indian American Junior Carnival Parade. The project was titled Jumbie Camp and it was what launched my collaboration and relationship with the Brooklyn Jumbies, and to this day we continue to work together. To date, we have presented a number of projects together such as Intervention: Wall Street, 2011,  (https://youtu.be/84E877vGkpc); Intervention: Indigo, 2015, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-m0wLE7dSbY), performed at MoMA in 2007; and the project for TBA21The Current titled What Lives Beneath that was performed in Kingston Jamaica this year (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gs72qGXI3GU) among others.

Laura Anderson Barbata_Intervention_WallStreet
Laura Anderson Barbata, Intervention: Wall Street

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The community aspect in the making of stilt dancing is evident, loud even. In what ways do you capture that essence in your own work within the subject, and in relation to its multiple contexts?

LAB: My interest is to integrate into my work the various traditions and customs that surround us and with an artistic lens insert them into a familiar space. Stilt dancing brings forth numerous ways of performing that include procession and carnival arts. My work brings together these different forms and, depending on the narrative, can integrate protest into the unfolding of the performative work.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How does stilt dancing appear to you first, as performance, as costumes, action, identity, visual art, or combination of all those things?

LAB: Stilt dancing for me combines many things. To start, we are working with scale– larger-than-life characters that have the possibility to capture our attention. The movement vocabulary of a dancer towering over us expands in space. They are accentuated and can extend themselves through their use of textiles and different materials. This is where costuming is essential to the performance visuals and the message. But also very important to me is the symbolism and tradition that is embedded into this practice.

Traditional Moko Jumbies are spiritual beings, whose purpose in West African communities is to protect their villages against evil or misfortune. We cannot look past the social role of the Moko Jumbie stilt dancer, and the metaphor is quite clear: to see the world from an elevated perspective. For me it is very important to always honor the historical function and cultural importance of a Moko Jumbie and to integrate that purpose into the work. So yes, it is about dance, procession, performance art, ritual, and also a vehicle for communicating a message through contemporary art.

Laura Anderson Barbata, 7 king nyame, 2005
Laura Anderson Barbata, 7 king nyame, 2005

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you feel there is a line, which you cross in the making of community arts, in which the discussion turns towards the subject matter rather than the artistic medium?

LAB: I would hope that by working in this way we do away with those boundaries. Lines are usually drawn to divide and set limits, and my approach is to bring together diverse perspectives and traditions, where each one maintains its individual knowledge while at the same time exchanging and sharing diverse ways of seeing through our work together. Also, I aim for that moment when the spectator and the participants see and experience the totality of the work without disengaging the subject matter from the way it is presented. For example in Intervention: Wall Street, there comes a point where it is absolutely clear that through stilt dancing we are addressing the corporate and financial giants of Wall Street, but there is no effort in perceiving the message, they are intertwined. The metaphor in this case works off of all the layers of meaning embedded and the form through which it is expressed.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You have recently been participating in the making of environmental art project titled The Kula Ring. Could you tell about the expedition that took  you to the Pacific Island with the group of artists and scientists?

LAB: The environment has been a continual concern and interest of mine from the beginning of my career. I began my practice making works in the studio that addressed nature and the environment through drawings on paper, sculpture and outdoor installations. I also initiated community projects in the Amazon of Venezuela that combined environmental protection and the preservation of oral history in the communities through paper and book making with local materials. This background and experience is the reason I was invited by the curator Ute Meta Bauer to become a fellow of The Current by TBA21, Thyssen Bornemisza Contemporary titled The Kula Ring. (https://www.tba21.org/thecurrent)

The project is an ambitious and innovative approach to explore and find solutions to environmental issues such as global warming and the protection of the oceans. The project brings together scientists and artists and together we embark on a number of exploratory trips by sea to different areas of the South Pacific. Along with researchers, curators and artists, I participated in expeditionary trip that took us to Papua New Guinea.

There have been subsequent exploratory trips to other areas of the South Pacific with other participants and curators leading those groups. As part of the project, The Current brings us together after our trips for a convening to exchange ideas and share our experiences and findings with different communities, and to listen to their own experiences and responses to our work. The first convening took place in Jamaica this year–in Kingston. We met, discussed and presented our work and findings not only amongst ourselves but also with the local community. For this convening I created the performance What-Lives-Beneath in collaboration with the Brooklyn Jumbies, custodian of the Jamaican oral tradition Amina Blackwood-Meeks, choreographer Chris Walker and members of the National Dance and Theater Company of Jamaica informed by scientists, environmentalists and activists. This work integrated into one performance: dance, procession, science, text, spoken word, scientific research, music and wearable sculptures created with craft elements originating from Papua New Guinea and other materials to portray sea life and the elements.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The Kula exchange or Kula ring, is a classic anthropological theme, its core idea is formed around gift and commodity exchanges. Perhaps our contemporary society and times can learn from this indigenous practice originating in Papua New Guinea? Do you personally relate to this theme, or does it have relevance to you as a principle? 

LAB: One of the key tenets of my practice is reciprocity. My methodology combines an intuitive exploratory approach with a strong focus on listening. This means that I want to receive information through all my senses as well as intellectually and to find ways in which we can establish relationships built on the principles of reciprocity. So it is important for me to integrate conversations with collaborators and participants in every step of the process. The Kula Ring Exchange, as you say, is centered around gift and commodity exchanges. But there is also a secondary but equally important intention: to forge long-lasting relationships that are maintained and supported by the exchange of goods. On a personal level, this relates to my understanding of reciprocity and the value in creating kinships that transcend borders and ideologies beyond our everyday associations. I feel that contemporary society needs to focus greater attention to these forms of community building which demand personal involvement. These forms of exchange are capable of expanding our knowledge and can also bring a deeper meaning to our everyday lives, so that growth is not only personal but also expands to benefit the communities we live in.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you consider yourself to be an environmentalist, if so, how do you think art serves the topic of environmentalism, and brings forth embedded action?

LAB: Through the project The Current, I have had the privilege of meeting extraordinary world-renowned scientists, thinkers and activists that have devoted their careers and lives to environmental issues and conservation. I know what a true environmentalist is, and for this reason I would hardly call myself an environmentalist in the formal sense of the word. But I can say that I am deeply concerned with the environment and committed to learning all I can and through my work as an artist address these issues, in order to contribute on both a personal and professional level. In that way I might be considered an environmentalist.

I believe that joining artists and scientists who are focused and concerned about the environment can bring us to a better understanding of the problems we are facing, to enable us to communicate these concerns and findings more effectively to our audiences in innovative, inspiring and thought-provoking ways. I believe that every person on an individual level can create change, and if more people are inspired to join in these efforts there can be a significant positive impact.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Are there specific ways your art is bringing into cultural exchange, in terms of communicating between different people, and perhaps transmitting something unique into our society at large?

LAB: As I mentioned before, at the core of my work is the concept of reciprocity: the balanced exchange of ideas and knowledge. For this reason, my work methodology combines an intuitive exploratory approach with a strong focus on listening with the intention of bringing mutual benefits to all participants. It is very important to me that the bridges built between communities–the personal ties and experiences gained–continue far beyond each project. Art is the vehicle, the pretext for a conversation and for an exchange of ideas that incorporate the material as well as the personal for its execution.

Laura Anderson Barbata's art. photo by Dora Somosi
Laura Anderson Barbata’s studio photographed by Dora Somosi.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Your knowledge about cultures and traditions is reflected in your artistic applications. From a more philosophical point of view, are there motivational approaches that resonate through your artistic lens? 

LAB: I am strongly motivated to address through my work as an artist the challenges that face our current society. I feel a sense of urgency to delve into issues of human rights, women´s rights, indigenous issues and the environment.

Feminist artists and writers are a source of great inspiration and guidance for me, Judith Butler, Carol Adams, and artists Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Melissa H. Potter and Monica Mayer, to name only a few of the women whose work always has the capacity to teach me something new no matter how many times I read or see their work. Also on my usual go-to list are Jacques Ranciere and Paulo Freire. Theater is an art form that I love and always learn from. The Wooster Group, for example, always presents challenging works in innovative formats that are thought-provoking and executed in ways that combine various techniques, all of which teach me something new. I try to find community groups, activists, artist collectives, urban dancers and performance artists that work outside of the mainstream that are expanding and challenging the concepts of community dynamics, education, dance, performance, music, and proposing ways in which to see, live and engage with each other and the world around us.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: It would be interesting to hear about your future, what projects are you continuing, and what topics are you exploring further?

LAB: I am working on a number of projects, as we have discussed earlier, one very exciting project I am working on is with TBA21 The Current, coordinated by Thyssen-Bornemisza Contemporary Art, in which scientists and artists are brought together to address the urgent issues of climate change and the oceans. This project is in its first year and my involvement will be for three years. I will be creating new works for this project in the form of performances and wearable sculptures which are still in progress.

I am also continuing my work on the Julia Pastrana project. For this project, I am further working on the topics related to her story, the injustices that she lived and how these are still relevant today. I am working on a performance piece presented as a work-in-progress that is continually evolving, a series of zines that address different topics related to Julia Pastrana such as: repatriation of human remains, museum ethics, exhibition practices, the objectification of people and women, human traffic, beauty and the commercialization of women´s bodies, feminism, animal rights, love, circus arts, and more. I am publishing a book about Julia Pastrana with contributions from scientists, scholars and art historians to address the story of Julia Pastrana from different perspectives that also includes art works. And for 10 years now, I am working on collaborative project with the artist collective Apparatjik and Concha Buika to create an Opera about Julia Pastrana, which will premiere at the main stage of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo, Norway in 2019.

Artist Website: http://www.lauraandersonbarbata.com/

Julia Pastrana projecthttp://www.lauraandersonbarbata.com/work/mx-lab/julia-pastrana/1.php 

Dance meets art at Loretta Howard Gallery

Yvonne Rainer’s work Trio A (1966), is one of the most enchanting dance pieces of dance history that paved the way to contemporary and postmodern dance practices. It is an interesting choreographic work, not least because it is exhilarating from pure performance and performer points of view. How many times do contemporary performers get immersed in new projects, where choreographers and directors inquire effortless, non-virtuous task-oriented movements and behavior to use them as backbones for their pieces. This in fact is not so easy to accomplish at all. As what performer goes through is not so much about ‘performing’ from a merely audience seduction point of view, but follows more a neutral way of not-doing too much. This might sound complicated, but makes all sense when in dance the performers start tapping the space, letting their bodies organize the way through the space. The inheritance of this type of movement in dance, a meticulous way of appearing happens sometimes simultaneously in conjunction to things and objects. In sculptural and spatial terms, the dancer is like a living and moving human sculpture. But more than that, the art of dancing in this case is shaped also around imaginary objects, or spatial lines that cut through the architecture of space. In Trio A, it seems that the space and objects were a great source of inspiration for Rainer, acting as inner elements, and shaping the movement sequences. There are, of course, noticeable tricky movements and balancing included in the work, even when the dancer (herself in the original Trio A, which was part of a larger work The Mind Is a Muscle) would not make a full sequence of complicated turns, for example. In 1966, Trio A changed the dance scene by examining the possibilities of human movement. Rainer had learned from Merce Cunningham and John Cage to have different approach to the her audience or spectators in general. She also started to experiment with film using the same methods as in choreography.

When watching the composition of Trio A evolve on the video, it comes to mind that perhaps the biggest challenge is to maintain a calm steady movement flow. The work became a classic not only because it still makes powerful statements of what a composition and a performance is about; but stating a strong performer making the composition. It changed so much in the Western dance history.

Dance does not always get noticed among contemporary art forms, or is quite rarely placed in the art history like visual arts. When it appears to be paired together with and being a component of the visual arts as a performance art, or in conjunction of musical composition, it gets a different approach. The so-called post-modern dance era brought in new curiosities in terms of artistic collaborations that stretched beyond boundaries of different art forms and genres.

Loretta Howard Gallery opens on September 10 with a new exhibition entitled “Where Sculpture and Dance Meet: Minimalism from 1961 to 1979.” The gallery curates annually an historical exhibition, and this truly interesting archival exploration showcases videos of historic performances and sculptures associated with minimalism both in art and dance. The exhibit is timely as it is doing homage to ideas that are still in a dialogue setting current trends in visual arts and performance. The exhibition shows that choreographers and sculptors, for instance, used methods of composition that were known as subjective. Yvonne Rainer belongs to these artists who brought minimalism to dance. She did not eventually wish to include her Trio A showing into the gallery exhibition, but her historic rehearsal recording from Conneticut with a group of performers works as a good intro to her style.

In the exhibit, there is also a video of sculptor Robert Morris’ work,  in which a masked male performer performs with a sculpture created by Morris. In the 1960s, he built his early sculptures in Yoko Ono’s loft that also involved unique performance elements. Choreographer Simone Forti’s archival video of her piece Slantboard (1961), is an important addition to the exhibition. The work includes a platform in its center for performers to attach to and play with. The exhibit culminates around a piece Dance created by Lucinda Childs (original from 1979). The video is a double performance in a sense that Childs’ company performs in the background video when the Dance is recreated for stage. The choreography gathers an architectural sculpture from Sol LeWitt around it. Childs collaborated with the artist in set designs, and used music from composer Philip Glass.

Andy Warhol’s installation of helium filled pillows, Silver Clouds, adds an interesting story to the exhibition. Warhol created the pillows which then functioned as a set in Merce Cunningham’s dance work Rainforest (1968). Performers in this choreography encountered the clouds when they were floating across the stage. Cunningham often explored dancers and objects to create ‘random’ encounters, so it is great that the exhibition’s shows a performance video and the sets in the gallery space to make the central point come across.

In addition to the artists and collaborations mentioned, Loretta Howard Gallery displays Trisha Brown’s video Group Primary Accumulation (1973) as part of this archival display. The choreography explored altered understanding of the beauty and power with simple repetitive movements. Brown used principles of mathematics, modularity and repetition when composing the dance. Next to this video, there are minimalistic sculptures on the walls from Donald Judd, who created designs for some of Brown’s choreography. Then, a strong sculptural work is on display from Ronald Bladen.

The exhibition “Where Sculpture and Dance Meet: Minimalism from 1961 to 1979”, is curated by Wendy Perron, who is the author of “Through the Eyes of a Dancer” and former editor in chief of Dance Magazine. It is co-curated by Julie Martin, who is an independent scholar and currently Director of Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT). The exhibit is on display from September 10 until October 31st, 2015 at Loretta Howard Gallery, 525-531 West 26th Street, New York.

 

 

Artist spotlight: Johanna Tuukkanen, The Outstanding performer

I interviewed Johanna Tuukkanen, who is currently preparing her PhD in art education and cultural policy. She is a well-known curator and art-maker herself, and the Artistic Director of ANTI festival based in Finland’s Kuopio. This week, January 30, 2015, she will also have a premiere of a new work Panopticon together with her colleague, choreographer Pirjo Yli-Maunula in Oulu, which is a vibrant capital in Northern Finland. Their new multidisciplinary work will articulate a hot topic of women’s ‘controlled bodies’, as they are often portrayed in fashion industry and magazines, taking a theme of aesthetic violence in relation to women’s bodies as a starting point in their performance. Simultaneously, their performance asks, are we allowed to mock this phenomenon, and even make fun of it in the arts? Johanna Tuukkanen has been making noise with her performance art for good 15 years now, highlighting women’s bodies in her performances many times before.

Johanna Tuukkanen in Huippusuoritus, Outstanding Performance, Photo: Pekka Mäkinen
Johanna Tuukkanen in Huippusuoritus, Outstanding Performance, Photo: Pekka Mäkinen

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Johanna, I have known you from the early 2000s onwards. It seems that there has been a lot of currency exchange around your artistry since that time. Finnish art scene, I believe, has also developed and changed during the past 15 years. Could you highlight in a nutshell, how did the 21-century look so far in the art world from your personal point of view? What are your greatest pros and cons in the field as a participant with so many roles?

Johanna Tuukkanen: You are right, things really have changed! After studying performance and new dance in the Netherlands and Germany in 1990s, I moved back to Finland in 1997. In terms of the art scene, it was a kind of culture shock for me and it definitely took some time to find my way around it. From very early on, I found myself thinking how else I could make a difference in the arts other than working just as an artist.

Since then, I do see and have also personally experienced that the field has expanded greatly, it has opened and it is accepted – not totally but more and more – that for example in the field of dance, there are multiple traditions from which an artistic practice can stem from, not only one or two. Also the growing interest in site-specifity, a kind of ‘trend’, has resulted in other kinds of expansions and effected how a cultural production organization whether a museum, a theatre, a festival or a freelance collective might operate. Currently I’m thinking a lot about the concept of social in the arts as many artists are producing socially engaged works in collectives and communities where the artist is not the central point of the work but the interest in a process, in shared authorship, in participation and dialogue…

As a participant in the field, I feel that there are several communities in the art world where one can find a kind of ideological home and vast amount of possibilities. Yet, at the same time, although we do have some rather brave funding bodies, generally speaking our funding structures have not been able to develop in line with the field – thinking especially the amount of work that it produced by the freelance artists and companies in comparison with the institutions established in the 70s.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You are known as a hardcore doer, and as a hands on professional when it comes to performance and to its management, to your curator’s role as well, and to a founder of a successful art-festival. Where lies the secret behind it all, how do you manage all your roles, or your doings, and don’t get burned-out at the same time? You seem to be shining.

JT: Wow, thank you! I don’t really see myself that way… But yes, to say that I’m a doer is perhaps a good way to put it. I suppose I’ve been interested in many things and just started doing them, rather naively sometimes. I’ve not been waiting around for someone else to do the work but really dug my hands into stuff, working beyond my comfort zones, not counting hours… I can’t recommend it to anyone! To be enthusiastic, to get excited is a great energy and force also. For me doing different things is also very energizing, things feed off each other and I never feel that ‘I’m doing the same job’. Maybe also because I’m not a very organized person!

But to be honest, time management is a big issue for me. I’m a very work oriented person and I have to actively work on prioritizing time for my family and friends and my own well-being. But I do do it! These days I prioritize regular exercise, try to eat well and sleep enough. I try to have one day off every week but if it’s not possible, I’ll make up for it by taking extended weekends off or mini holidays.

I’m lucky to be working for organizations and things I really believe in and I feel connected to and supported by an international community. I’ve also managed to organize my life so that I live with my lovely family in a beautiful house where I can enjoy everyday aesthetics, quietness, the Finnish lake landscape, the forest and an amazing sauna.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: I associate you strongly with ANTI Contemporary Art Festival. How did this idea come forth, and develop into an international success story?

JT: This is a long story but to put it short, I was working in the Regional Arts Council of North Savo at that time and with my regional artist colleague we wanted to create a new, international multidisciplinary contemporary art festival in Kuopio, to create international networking opportunities for local artists and to active the city and different sites in Kuopio through art. We really didn’t know how it would turn out, it was a real experiment! But already since the first festival, there was a lot of international interest and the festival was a great success. The networks I’d started building in the early 2000 were crucial for our international growth and reputation and of course artists themselves are great messengers of a quality festival. I’ve personally always thought that international networking is very important and for me it has also set the standards how to run a festival. But I suppose the most important thing is that ANTI has a unique concept and in fact, it’s also modelled in different parts of the world. This all has taken an enormous amount of work and I’m grateful for the wonderful individuals who have worked for the festival over the years.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: I admire your knowledge on the performance field, internationally you seem to have a network of artists that resonate with your own way of working. Was it organic to find collaborators accross the country borders?

 JT:  Yes, it all has happened very organically. ANTI has also been a partner in two European projects and it has been a great gift and learning process to collaborate with international live art curators and festival directors.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Finland is getting a Dance House finally, how did the miracle happen?

 JT: Well, I’m extremely happy to be working for the Dance House but the background work with the private funding bodies was done and negotiated before I even started so I can’t take any credit for it. The Dance House initiative is very lucky to have a fantastic project manager, Hanna-Mari Peltomäki, but also the time was right – the Finnish dance sector was ready, the private funding partners were ready and lots work was done in a rather short amount of time.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What does living and working in Finland mean to you? Where else in the world would you imagine to live?

JT:  Living in Finland and outside the Helsinki area has been a very conscious cultural political choice for me. I’ve wanted to show that great art can be made anywhere and it is really crucial to have artists and cultural professional working and making an impact in different regions. These days, especially with digitalisation and good connections, I don’t really think it matters so much where you live.

But in recent years, as my children are getting older and as I want to find new professional challenges, I’ve become open to other options as well. Like I said earlier, I’m very work oriented so it’s probably work that will take me somewhere… There many places I could imagine living i.e. Australia and Denmark. But where ever I’d go, my work has to be meaningful. I can’t really imagine moving somewhere for the sake of the place or city.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Where are you heading next, any specific plans for the future?

JT: Good question. I’m open and up for new challenges. I completed an MA in Cultural Policy last year and enjoyed that process greatly. What a luxury to deepen one’s knowledge and expertise! I’m the beginning of my PhD so probably for the next years I will be juggling my time between the Dance House, ANTI Festival and my research…unless something totally unexpected happens. Which of course is very likely in this life.

Johanna Tuukkanen and Pirjo Yli-Maunula, Panopticon, Photo: Pekka Mäkinen
Johanna Tuukkanen and Pirjo Yli-Maunula, Panopticon-premiere, Jan 30, 2015. Photo: Pekka Mäkinen

Artist spotlight: Hiroaki Umeda discusses his recent works

Japanese contemporary choreographer Hiroaki Umeda recently presented his new choreography Peripheral Stream with L.A. Dance Project at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. in 2013, he worked with an ensemble of 11 dancers from GöteborgsOperans Danskompani in Sweden. In the piece, Interfacial Scale, Umeda created the choreography, set, costume, light and sound design. As well as being a choreographer and dancer, Umeda is a visual artist, photographer and video artist. He established his own company S20 in 2000. Umeda has entered the international scene with his multimedia performance works that employ his own body and self-created video images, music and lighting designs. These are recorded on a single notebook computer.

(On the video Hiroaki Umeda talks about the Interfacial Scale which he created for the GöteborgsOperans Danskompani in Sweden in 2013)

Since he first drew attention at the 2002 Yokohama Dance Collection R, Umeda has gone on to win praise of dance professionals around the world for the way he wraps his improvisational body movement in intricately woven spaces defined by light (video) and music with the beauty of an art installation. (Tatsuro Ishii for 国際交流基金 / The Japan Foundation Performing Arts Network)

FIRSTINDIGO&LIFESTYLE: You are known for your own choreographic language that has influences from different styles, and, from the movement point of view is highly flowing and gestural. Is there a way to trace the evolution of it, how did the movement develop?

Hiroaki Umeda: I started to dance at the age of 20, which is very late in general. At the beginning, I took some dance classes, such as Ballet, Hip Hop and etc. After a year of taking some dance lessons, I realized that there is no specific “dance style” that I want to learn: the dance I wanted to pursue had in fact not existed yet. Plus, I found that what is interesting for me in dance was, not the style, but what lays beneath those styles which is the “principal of movement.” So I started figuring out and understanding the principal of movement by myself, then I applied that principal to my body movement. I would say that my dance should be addressed not as dance but rather as a movement, since I focus on, again, what lays beneath the system of dance, which is the system of movement.

HIROAKI UMEDA: "Haptic." Photo: Shin Yamagata.
HIROAKI UMEDA: “Haptic.” Photo: Shin Yamagata.

You are a Japanese contemporary choreographer, can you describe the dance scene in Japan?

HU: I have been accepted more abroad than in Japan from the beginning of my career, so I cannot say much on behalf of the Japanese choreographers about what you are asking. However, I personally feel that contemporary dance scene in Japan has not been developed enough yet. The scene is very closed. But on the other hand, it is also true that because of the close-knit circumstances, it has developed very idiosyncratic styles. I cannot say if this close-knit condition is good or not good for the Japanese contemporary dance scene. Anyway, in Japan now, there are so many people who have been struggling and working hard to develop and open-up the scene more; that is a really big hope for me and I thank them a lot.

You started your artistic career with photography, and then moved towards dance, how did this transition happen?

HU: I was looking for an art style, which can accept real-time expression, thus, more than photography, I found that dance could be suitable for what I want to express. Dance is an art form in which I can physically put myself into in real time. In photography, on the contrary, it was really hard for me to materialize a piece in real. That is why I shifted to dance from photography. However, I have not totally detached myself from the photographic art form since I have been taking a standpoint throughout that dance can be a form of visual art. Lighting design, which I learned in photography, is now an essential factor for a dance piece.

The way you construct your choreography seems multidisciplinary. The sound and lighting design, and the visual dimension is crucial in your composition? Can you even differentiate which comes first?

HU: In practice, I start from abstract drawings, in fact, just lines. This drawing expresses my image of the tension of space, and it functions like the score of the piece to become. According to the drawings, which envision the whole image of the piece, I put together all materials, such as sound, light, dance and etc.

The visual addition or sometimes ’distortion’ makes your compositions also appear aesthetically ’charged’, could you say something about it?

HU: In my work, I focus a lot on how the bodily sensation could emerge from the space, and how, in turn, the bodily sensation could change the tension of space. That is, first and foremost, what I am interested in. The basic composition of my piece is always based on choreographing the tension of the space. By acutely tuning into the space, it is possible to attain a lot of stimuli that can provide you with physical sensations.

What does it culturally mean to be a Japanese choreographer now, from the point of view of globalization?

HU: have not been working consciously as a “Japanese” choreographer. I have been working as just an artist, focusing on how to bring my pieces to more people all over the world. I think that it is more important to be one of the many artists of the world, than just a Japanese artist.

Does Butoh as art movement mean anything to you? How about Kabuki, Gutai, and action art? They have also called you ’’avant-garde’’?

HU: I really appreciate their art works. But actually I am not so close to those Japanese avant-garde cultures. And I cannot tell if they have called me as “avant-garde.”

What role a nature and technology play in your mind-set?

HU: Nature and technology are not oppositional concepts for me. As a matter of fact, technology is a tool to understand and approximate nature. By the same token, I think that human beings and art, which human beings create, are a part of nature.

Where did you grow up? Where do you work these days?

HU: For the last several years I have been traveling almost all year round. I grew up in Tokyo, and I consider Tokyo as my hometown. But I have been working everywhere in the world. I think that what I do in my art is not connected to any specific country, city or place, so actually I don’t mind working any place in the world.

You did a work for Gothenburg Dance Company (GöteborgsOperans Danskompani). How was it to work in Sweden, also in terms of cultural exchange? Did dancers like the movement?

HU: Dancers of the company were from all over the world. They were really skillful and had great intelligence, and were very professional. To start off with, I gave them a system of movement which becomes the under layer of my choreography, and the dancers tried to find their own movements from tapping into that system. I am sure that I enjoyed seeing their movements develop from my system, even more than they enjoyed learning my system. At the moment, I have limited experience as a choreographer for big companies so the dancers helped me a lot and I learned so much from them. I would say that the process was more of collaboration, rather than providing choreography to the dancers.

In terms of the cultural exchange you are asking, the company was too international to feel any specific cultural differences. I would say that working with them was rather like a kind of universal project, working in various mixed cultures.

How was it to collaborate in Benjamin Millepied’s LA Dance Project 2? How was the audience response in Paris?

HU: Compared to LA Dance Project, the Gothenburg Dance Company was strict in terms of working procedures and time schedule precisely because they are a huge public company; I needed to follow their administrative schedule in terms of creative process, which I totally understood. On the contrary, Benjamin’s LA Dance Project is, although they have diverse range or repertoire, still small in scale as a company. For this reason, I could work more closely with the dancers and staff that enabled me to go further and experiment more in the piece. To be very honest, I didn’t expect a good response from audience in the Châtlet. Surprisingly, however, the Paris audience quite openly accepted and appreciated my piece. I was impressed by their open-mindedness.

Can you name some of your influence or mentors, colleagues?

HU: There are too many names to list up here.

What are your plans for the future, and dreams?

HU: From last year, I have started making choreography devoid of human body. For me, human bodies are not the only elements for choreographic consideration. In fact, I want to really challenge choreographing anything with “movement,” and develop a dance piece with various elements. One of my dreams now is to choreograph water.