Thursday, May 23, 2019

Faki Day 2: Invitations, with Knives and Chains

The morning of day 3 is a sleepy affair. That's a welcome reprieve, actually - a chance to catch up on some work, some sun, and not to have that 90s radio blasting in your ear, punctuated by Serbian or Croatian exclamations (often a corrupt-sounding cackle). The silence doesn't last long, of course. Pretty soon lunch is prepared, and the camaraderie and banter returns to the round table in the middle of the apartment at the top of the building, where Lithuania’s superstar critic Monika Jašinskaitė and I are coexisting alongside many guests and permanent residents.

I've been coming here, somewhat shockingly, for 5 years now. So sometimes I get roped into different labour, like finding the secret stash of toilet paper, or showing around new guests. I'm fine with that - it reminds me that art doesn't exist without community, and that the privileged position of artists as somehow 'above' everyday labour is a lie - a philosophy that inevitable enters my writing. As a critic, therefore, I'm never afraid to get my hands dirty.

Two great shows happened on day 2, the remarkable FEST from Finnish duo Marje Hirvonen and Anni Taskula, and a first choreography from Katarina Ilijašević called (UMRE)ŽENE (roughly meaning 'interconnected', but the two words 'Umre Zene' can also mean 'dead women'). While both left food for thought, FEST, in particular, sparked some unusual conversation between me and Monika, perhaps on account of the nature of its invitation.

~

Richard Pettifer: It’s day 3. How are you?

Monika Jašinskaitė: Fine! I feel comfortable, curious, free in a way, because very small and unimportant. Like I can do what I want, and nobody will care what I say. Although, just because I have freedom doesn’t mean the responsibility doesn’t exist. Sometimes criticism has too much importance in Lithuania, even though it is not influential. What about you?

Pettifer: I am feeling very relaxed. I stopped thinking about the other work I have to do, because Faki is its own world, its own reality, so now the outside world does not exist for me. I look forward to our conversation today.

FEST

Jašinskaitė: (laughs) Do you remember in the first performance, FEST, by the Finnish duo Anni Taskula and Marje Hirvonen, there was the sound of birds singing?

Pettifer: I don’t remember this directly, but now that you mention it...

Jašinskaitė: I thought it was just birds outside the building, but now I am reading about the performance, and I think it was from the audio!

Pettifer: Why do you say that?

Jašinskaitė: In the text about the work, they say that they use ‘silence, nature sounds, and karaoke’, so I think the sound of birds is what they mean there.

Pettifer: That was a confusing point for me – how was this work about environment? At one point they asked the audience ‘who wants to save the environment with us?’ or something.

Jašinskaitė: It was ‘Who wants to save Mother Earth, not Fatherland?!’ I thought this was a pertinent question.

Pettifer: It was pertinent in that it was part of their critique of nationalism, or nationhood, in favour of a freer idea of ‘home’. But I don’t understand the ‘mother earth’ part of that.

Jašinskaitė: I have never been to Finland, but I am from the northern part of Europe where quite often we confront nature and culture (or social being) – ok, there is a confrontation between nature and civilisation, and I think what they are looking for in their work is balance.

Pettifer: Like equality? Balance like equality?

Jašinskaitė: If equality is balance, then yes.

 Photo: Ivan Marenic
 
Pettifer: A big question for me in the work was how to make an ‘equal relationship’, with the audience, and us audience members with each other.

Jašinskaitė: I think they explore the balance of many dualisms, or many poles. One was nature and human, the other one I think is two human beings in general, then man and woman (even though they are two women on stage), and then it was very beautiful how – we talked a little bit with Marje Hirvonen after, and she talked about ‘receiving the guests’ – they were welcoming us. It was a situation of guest and host. And this is the relationship between artist and spectator as well.

Pettifer: It was a shame that not everything technical was functioning...

Jašinskaitė: Yes, notable technical problems.

Pettifer: I was also curious about what they normally do – it’s apparently more like a ‘meeting’, involving local artists and groups, rather than inviting us onto stage – like a ‘hootenanny’ or town hall dance, where everyone is involved. They didn’t really do that here. The point is that everyone is participating. That’s why they call it ‘FEST’.

Jašinskaitė: That’s where I wouldn’t totally agree. It’s two different poles – one is the artistic community, and the other pole is the audience in general.

Pettifer: The public?

Jašinskaitė: Yes. So I think when they are playing with local artists, and making this Fest with local creators, then they stay on this level of hosting a party, and when they invite people, those people have to create the fest. It’s about the possibility of art to impose certain actions on people. Values also, themes… what they are thinking about. It's about the ways of being, of dealing with something. So I think, when you work with a local artist, you still stay on a level of imposing things on an audience. When they invite people on stage, on the other hand, people may have fun however they want, there are still some rules they are imposing, but it’s a little bit closer to a commons.

Pettifer: It seems to me that the possibility is to collapse the barrier between artist and public.

Jašinskaitė: But how? The artist always knows more and thus has the control.

Pettifer: I guess this depend on how open they are to having their frame disturbed.

Jašinskaitė: I would rather say to ‘create movement’. They were trying to be nice hosts, but they were saying nothing. They were not entertaining hosts as 'good' host is supposed to. But that’s the point, they were creating a space for the spectator, for the guest, who is invited.

Pettifer: I think this was why I was disappointed they didn’t hang out afterwards in the cultural centre for the punk gig – because all of the punks coming to Medika would definitely have disturbed the frame!

Jašinskaitė: But again, it’s a thing about being, you know, about being fragile. It’s – you know this balance within the duality, it’s quite fragile, and you have to always take care of the other, always re-check that everything’s ok.

Pettifer: I always wonder about this concept of care. It’s popular on the left and among artists, and is entering common public discourse. But I wonder if it’s too much. Always checking in with each other, always caring, always connected. The nice relationships for me are where I don’t have to care, which I free the other person from this labour also. Maybe this is for me a true equality – where no-one has to care! 

Jašinskaitė: (laughs) I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes that we make when we think about equality – because, going back to the performance Braille yesterday, when we talked about complicity, they had it because they were aware of their inequality. I think that in real life equality doesn’t exist – it’s physically not possible. But, while being aware of it, with care and complicity we somehow compensate for this inequality.   

Pettifer: But complicity is an example where we don’t have to care – it exists between us, and is not the responsibility only of an individual. 

Jašinskaitė: I agree partly, and I think there is a lot of faking in this care. It’s like in a way, the mother takes care of the child, sometimes she is putting too much pressure or power on the child. So it’s very important that this is a two-way relationship.

Pettifer: Let’s go to the next show, no?

Jašinskaitė: But you were talking before about the seductive aspects of the show…

Pettifer: Oh yes… um... shit…

Jašinskaitė: I think it’s important. Because for me, this work was also in a way a celebration of femininity and softness.

Pettifer:  ...me too…

Jašinskaitė: (laughs) …and…??? I understood that it was... Well, for me it was an aesthetic quality. In a way I was seduced as a spectator. Not erotically seduced, but they proposed to me the warm environment.

Pettifer: Me too!!
 
Jašinskaitė: Ok. Do you think, when you were speaking about the seduction earlier, it feels like they are abusing their femininity, you know? Like using their femininity to reach their goal.

Pettifer: I mean, I wouldn’t put it like this.

Jašinskaitė: So how would you put it?

Pettifer: I mean, I just found the work erotic. Like it was playing with this sex stuff (laughs).

Jašinskaitė: You mean the wrestling pool?

Pettifer: For example, yes. This wrestling thing, it’s a thing that exists as spectacle in male fantasy.

Jašinskaitė: But do you have any ideas why? For me, I take it in a way as an entertaining quality of the work of art. FEST also has this quality.

Pettifer: For me it was subversive.

Jašinskaitė: Why? For me this word implies an antagonism.

Pettifer: For me too. Like I said, they play with this. They don’t do it directly. It’s not a piece of entertainment made for heterosexual men, or others attracted to women. You said before, it’s like it’s turned up to maximum, so it’s not existing only for male pleasure – you can’t enjoy it on this level. If you really wanted to seduce someone, you would do much less, and without the ferocious intensity. It’s a letter of invitation with a knife inside.

Jašinskaitė: (laughs) I think that such things make you aware of the relationship that you are involved in. So it’s like, you can enjoy, but you have to also be aware of another side that is propose something else.

Pettifer: Ha – yes. I’m not sure if I was more ‘turned on’ by this performance for the male gaze, or the ‘other' - subversive and more dangerous - offer that was inside! Possibly I just find subversion and people creating open and equal spaces extremely attractive. Or I guess Freud has a reading where my pleasure is combined with punishment, and the desire manifests from castration anxiety which cannot resolve itself and so externalises onto the origin of the crisis. I wonder what the artists would say about this? It seemed like a conscious decision. I will think it over…

(UMRE)ŽENE

Pettifer (cont'd): What about this next show? Because I found it to be a good first show from a choreographer/dancer Katarina Ilijašević, but it didn’t really touch me.

Jašinskaitė: I think Ilijašević gave very strong visual material – it was very visual. And for me these images invited me into the dialogue. For example, when seeing three women being connected through their earrings into one single entity, as slaves or something, which is held by men – I wanted disagree with her. I wanted to ask the artist – do you really think so? When later on the work developed, it was very funny for me to see another image that gave an idea of what does the artist think.

Pettifer: I didn’t read it as feminist work – I’m not sure if that’s because it didn’t go far enough for me. Now that you explain this I understand it differently. But I was missing some extreme.

 Photo: Ivan Marenic

Jašinskaitė: What kind of extreme?

Pettifer: Maybe I was missing a violence.

Jašinskaitė: Because I think that this is a first work from an artist. I think if it was her 10th work, or 20th, she maybe would find some more extreme physicality, but for me, on the other hand, I think it’s a very good beginning. Because of this rope, and this having not a physical extremity – she can talk about things without violence. Maybe she hasn't even thought yet about the level of violence of the artstic language she wants to use. But for me, the work makes an artistic statement in an economical way, showing the world as she sees it.

Pettifer: But I would also say, now you explain it, this work is certainly not without violence. They are connected through their earrings by a rope held by men – this is a clear metaphor of oppression.

Jašinskaitė: I took this more as a physical image, you know? So I read it literally. I like the image that she uses – this large circular earring, I think it’s, er, it’s a kind of symbol of this ‘freely behaving Balkan bitch’ or something. By putting them on the rope in this way, it’s kind of literal, but it’s also a very nice image of having them all connected and directed by men - how they are dependent on men.

Pettifer: When I talk about this lack of violence, I can use an example to explain what I mean. There was a billboard ad for some fashion company in Australia, that has a naked woman on all fours, like a dog, with a leash around her neck and a man’s hand holding it. There was a big discussion in Australia about whether it is offensive. To me it obviously is, if nothing else because its exploitation aligns with its exploitative capitalist objective. But this is an example of the provocation advertising is constantly manifesting. What I saw in this work is much too subtle in this context – it can’t compete or subvert, because it is simply not violent enough to address spectacles which are deployed daily in the public sphere. Here I prefer Evie Demetriou’s The More You Dance, The More You Get from Faki 2016 – a simple piece of choreography that addressed sexual trafficking and slavery of women (it is almost always women who are the commodity of the sex trade) through an alignment of the objectification of the performer with that of the victim of sexual slavery. A simple act of solidarity.

Jašinskaitė: But for me the image Ilijašević  gave us was such a fragile image. I was watching how this rope affects the physical body – can it take out the earring, can it take out the ear, and how are the men holding the rope? The women were moving and the men were not controlling them. It was the image that they were under control, but physically they were not. In the beginning I thought about it as, let’s say, an artistic mistake, that might come when the artist doesn’t think about the work from multiple perspectives. But then she moved further and, from my perspective at least, it turned out that she was criticizing the position that occasionally women choose to adopt - that they are oppressed and cannot act freely. That's a very sensitive topic, of course.

Pettifer: I think my extreme version of this work takes different stories, say from the corset, or sexual slavery, maybe Princess Leia and the gold bikini in Return of the Jedi, and uses the information to add depth and nuance to the work, meaning that it is not only a gesture from a single artist but drawn from the world.

Jašinskaitė: For me this work is a very nice example of making a manifesto. When someone makes a manifesto, they doesn't say what other people say - only what they want to say. For me it was very clear what she was saying. She makes a manifesto using her artistic language.

Pettifer: We can think about it a bit more when we see it again tonight!

FEST
By Marje Hirvonen and Anni Taskula  

(UMRE)ŽENE

Choreography: Katarina Ilijašević
Performers: Nina Pantović, Ana Gliksman, Jovana Grujić, Miloš Janjić i Nemanja Bošković

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