Ania Catherine interviewed by Kate Lawson (Full text)
RE: Joan Jonas, her work and views on performance
September Issues, Volume 1
As a performance artist, Marina Abramović deals in what she calls "true reality” - I’ve read that you describe your work as “visual activism” - so what is the defining aspect of your performance art?
Today, more than ever people are realizing/imagining what is possible for their lives through the consumption of visual media--photos, film, experiences. I find making art to be political because with it, artists are either expanding imaginaries of the future generations through what we are putting into the world or creating/reinforcing limits. The defining aspect of my performance art is honesty. I feel that when I’m performing, I’m actually “performing” the least. I’m just being; I’m being my most honest self in front of people I don’t know, and to be honest with and connected to your body as a woman in a world that is telling you to lie about, alter, hate, and be distanced from your own physical being is already a revolution. This body is mine and I’m doing exactly what I want with it. That’s my starting point. My short answer: honesty.
How did you get started as a performance artist?
It was a natural and unexpected shift for me. I started as a dancer, and I got to a point in my early 20s when I felt really alienated watching most dance. The moments that stood out to me during dance performances were when the dancers were not moving, or there was a woman sitting next to me who took 10 minutes to slowly find her glasses to read the program, or I caught a glimpse of a dancer thinking in the wings of the stage, and I realized that I was less interested in movement spectacles, more interested in people, their minds, the stories they tell themselves, and how they communicate themselves to the rest of the world--aka perform. Also, I’m easily overwhelmed. It is enough for me to just watch someone sitting on a bench for an hour, that moment is so rich in messages (real or projected), that my eyes craved watching something simple, something my mind could chew on, and often times I found dance to move too quickly and I wasn’t able to digest the moments I wanted to stare at longer. Performance art felt like a better home/frame for what I wanted to make. It isn’t in any sort of rush; it is patient, it recognizes the weight and significance of the everyday, the things we often look over. I started creating performances instead of dances (many still have a significant movement element).
The representation of gender norms, identity and sexuality, intersecting with politics, are key themes in your performance art - why are these themes so important for you to explore?
They are important to me because I had so many years of confusion and denial growing up. I lived a life that was predetermined for me by my surroundings and religion, meeting societal expectations, pretending to share the values of everyone around me, then I read my journals from that time and there was this entire other human who existed in my mind and on paper but there were no traces of her in my everyday life. I felt there wasn’t room for the the version of me I felt was real to exist in this world. That sounds dramatic but I remember feeling that. In a sense, growing up feeling completely disconnected to what I was doing but fooling everyone into thinking this person was me was probably my greatest performance achievement. My early life was a performance. Feeling like the answers I needed to hear or the adults I would have been relieved to meet weren’t anywhere in sight, I started reading books on gender studies and couldn’t stop. I studied gender, sexuality, and religion for my undergraduate degree and then received a master’s from the London School of Economics in Gender and Social Policy. When I was young, if someone would have given me a book about queer women, or Feminism is for Everyone by bell hooks, or The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, or shown me Semiotics of the Kitchen by Martha Rosler, I wouldn’t have lost so many years of my life thinking I couldn’t exist as I was. Gender, sexuality, and politics feed into my work because I went through not being inside my body, not being inside my sexual interactions, not being honest with myself or anyone else, and I’ve made this circle where to be all of those things is the basis of my work. There are so many fucked up messages polluting the air and people’s minds, so I guess I’m trying to inject new possibilities of life so others, particularly young queer women, don’t feel like I did.
You use the body as a way to express these themes in your work, so how do you connect with audiences in order for them to relate with you on a physical human level?
I don’t think so much about how I’m connecting with an audience. I’ve found that when I’m really moved by a work, it’s because the artist (whether writer, performance artist, filmmaker) is expressing a very nuanced and personal perspective. I think attempts to be universal or relatable fail. The works that end up being universally relatable are that way because they reflect that person’s perspective. Ironically, the more personal you are, the more universal the message; it speaks to the thread that connects all human beings. So how that understanding informs what I do...I just focus on being 100% honest with myself, I focus on connecting to my most raw truth and communicating that. You can connect without being able to relate. People can connect through sharing similar feelings and relating to the work, or through feeling moved that someone is exposing themselves so candidly; that experience immediately creates intimacy between audience and artist.
In these shifting contexts in your work, are you also seeking a personal transformation in the artistic process?
Personal transformation isn’t something I aim for; it’s more of a welcome byproduct of my way of living. I feel transformed everyday, through every performance, but also every conversation, every door closing, every step, I feel changed.
How has your work evolved over time, what have been the most significant changes?
It has evolved because every year I am less and less afraid, which I think leads to bolder work. I used to imagine what people would say or think when I made something. I worried about how it would be categorized, if it would be (mis)understood. Now, I’m not afraid or others’ opinions. That is a significant change, also the shift away from thinking my work has to be entertaining. Dance is often seen as entertainment, and it would be an insult to call a dance “boring.” But I’ve grown to love slow cinema and the aesthetics of boredom, I see boredom as beautiful, necessary, empty space and ironically very productive. I’ve erased my concern with being too minimal or boring. I’ve learned the value of patience. I’ve slowed down.
How important is ‘choice’ to you as a woman and as an artist - and how do you express freedom of choice in your work?
The freedom to make decisions about my life and my work are fundamental. If someone else is deciding how to present my body or telling me what to do with it, my life and work disappear. Choice is the entire point. There are a million things I could be doing, some would say should be doing, but I’m not. My work is a culmination of my life and aesthetic choices, therefore it is the most complete portrait of me that could exist. Determining how my existence is communicated to the world is the ultimate freedom.
What other personal narratives are threaded through the meaning, or intent that drives your work?
So much dance throughout history and across cultures is determined by heterosexuality. How women should move to best seduce a man, to demonstrate she is the most fertile, to be easy to lift, to compete for men’s attention, to prove her grace and beauty, to keep her man. As a lesbian, I 100% avoid visual explorations of heterosexuality in my work. I feel like we have enough. I want to think about and explore how women move, or not, when prioritizing things other than men--like themselves, their comfort, their rage, their confidence, their aging, their arousal by another woman. This expands beyond movement and performance; one thing I eventually want to write a book about is how patriarchy controls women by creating and enforcing their body language--which in turn determines their emotional and mental states, the positions they believe they can occupy. We are taught that our bodies are ornaments, vessels, prizes, not beings. If we believed we were beings, we wouldn’t seek validation so desperately, we wouldn’t feel a sense of success when we are desired by men, we wouldn’t spend so much time prioritizing our beauty over our comfort or health. Getting the message across that women are beings and not ornaments is important to me; it feels stupid to even say that but I believe many people need to hear it. It shouldn’t be considered an honor or an accomplishment to be an accessory or eye candy to a man; it’s one of the biggest lies told to women. I want to put forward a different vision, the lives of women regardless of men.
Who and what are the main inspirations / influences in your career?
Some artists and writers who have influenced me are Chantal Akerman, Pina Bausch, Yvonne Rainer, Yoko Ono, Joan Jonas, Susan Sontag, Cheryl Dunye, Mary Wigman, Claude Cahun, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Roy Andersson, Judith Butler, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus. I also love mimes, german expressionism, surrealism and people watching, especially at airports.
Joan Jonas - one of the pioneers of performance art - once said she has tried to create her own ‘language’ within her work, which has spanned myths, rituals, spirituality, dance, technology, masks and music, with powerful feminist overtones in a lot of her early pieces. How important has Joan’s vision, and what she has achieved within performance art, been to you in terms of a creative reference?
She was a master at artfully stringing several elements together for one cohesive piece/experience. She was fearless. She saw that men had dominated every creative field, and when new technologies emerged and expanded her creative options, she leaped in head first, seeing, seizing, and expanding possibilities. Her creativity flowed through essentially every medium. She created worlds. She didn’t just think about performance, she thought about the environment that would be needed for the performance to be best digested, she layered performances through projecting performance films onto her body while performing, she carefully curated sounds that would bring out new meanings, totally enveloped the audience’s senses. She expanded what performance can be, found out how to fertilize it, maximize its power. I think how boundless she was really paved a way for future artists, particularly anyone working with performance installations.
What is your favourite piece of work by Jonas and why?
My favorite piece is wind. It’s so powerful how the bodies trying to survive and stay balanced in the freezing, windy weather became the choreography. I don’t feel like I’m watching a performance, I’m just watching people struggling to function and honoring their bodies’ attempts to cope with the difficulty, feeling that with them. It’s simple, and it opens the audience’s eyes to the art of the everyday. You can’t see someone walking down the street with their coat blowing in the wind the same ever again after watching it.
With one of the biggest ever solo displays of her archive of work coming to the UK next year, why do you think Jonas is still relevant to audiences today?
Bold artists will always be relevant, and bold women artists will always be relevant and significant. She is a foremother of interdisciplinary art, and with performance, films, and installations becoming increasingly more common in galleries and museums, it is important to see and pay homage to the artists who paved the path to where we are now.
Many of the early pioneers of feminist-led art chose performance as a medium to make their voices heard, from Valie Export to Yoko Ono and Carolee Schneemann.
How do you feel you are achieving the same today?
Well that’s a huge honor to be mentioned in the context of those artists. There is something unique about creating with your body, your body being your art, your body being both your paints and your canvas. The female body is so symbolically loaded with meanings and projections, so I take this form that everyone thinks they know something about and put it in situations, environments, and contexts that undermine or challenge those assumptions. I can do anything I want with my body, giving me a lot of freedom, and I want to be part of society’s unlearning what they think they know about women, their desires, their feelings, their capabilities. I hope to be part of the expansion of the next generation’s imaginary. I believe those early performance artists were doing that, they were shattering stereotypes and shocking people, making them question everything they thought they knew about gender, breaking them out of their comfort zones by showing something that might have seemed unimaginable. Once it exists, it can be imagined.