When performance does matter: short interview with Benjamin Sebastian

Creature live art fest­ival, pho­tos by Kristina Čyžiūtė

Kaunas (Lithuania) has quite a his­tory for appre­ci­at­ing per­form­ance arts, which is going way back for at least a couple of dec­ades. On 19–23 of July, the town had exper­i­enced some­thing what you could call a rebirth in this field here – per­form­ance fest­ival CREATurE Live Art, which brought together more than 20 artists from all over the world – from UK and Sweden to the USA, from Estonia to Australia, not to men­tion local Lithuanian jew­els. Unfortunately, I was able to attend only one day of the fest­ival, but even that was a hand­ful, since it got what any wan­nabe art lover would need – con­cen­tra­tion in video screen­ings and per­form­ances, loads of fun in techno-​operas and absurd oper­et­tas and, of course, hyp­nosis in dark ambi­ent con­certs. One part of the day was ded­ic­ated to dis­cus­sion between two NGO‘s, work­ing in cre­at­ive field – Art Container from Tallin, Estonia and ]per­form­ance s p a c e[ from London, UK. After it I took an oppor­tun­ity to get a few thoughts about per­form­ance art, both cre­at­ing it and man­aging it, from Benjamin Sebastian, assist­ant dir­ector of per­form­ance col­lect­ive & stu­dio ]per­form­ance s p a c e[.

Hey, so first of all, could you shortly intro­duce ]per­form­ance s p a c e[?

]per­form­ance s p a c e[ is an artist collective/​artist led ini­ti­at­ive, based in Hackney Wick, London. UK. It con­sists of a core of 7 asso­ci­ate artists/​facilitators (Poppy Jackson, Jamie Lewis Hadley, Stephanie Marie, Anna Martinou, Kiki Taira, Bean & Myself) along with vari­ous other artists and cre­at­ives. I work as assist­ant dir­ector to Bean, who is the dir­ector. We are both also stu­dio artists. Primarily what we are is an artist stu­dio & exhib­i­tion space for performance/​live/​time based medi­ums. We want to main­tain space for those artists who need it, work­ing in this/​these medi­ums. We also cur­ate events and present exhib­i­tions of our work and work we are inter­ested in. So basic­ally this is what we do & who we are.

Benjamin Sebastian’s per­form­ance at CREATurE

How do you see the scene of per­form­ance arts in UK? Could you com­pare it with Europe?

I think there is a very big dif­fer­ence between what hap­pens in London and what hap­pens in the rest of Europe. I think that what is hap­pen­ing in London is very much live-​art, in the major­ity, which I see as a spe­cific, UK/​London cent­ric genre, spe­cific­ally dif­fer­ent to what is hap­pen­ing in the rest of the Europe, which I see as more of a per­form­ance or action art. Having said that, I am not sure how help­ful it is to draw such lines when speak­ing of performance/​time based work. I think, well, this is just my opin­ion, but what seems to be hap­pen­ing in London is much more the­at­rical – not all of it, but a lot of it. I think a lot of more exper­i­mental, process-​based edgy work is again begin­ning to hap­pen­ing in London, which is why we are try­ing to bring people into ]per­form­ance s p a c e[, from as far afield as possible.

Is there any coun­try that would have a par­tic­u­larly big scene for per­form­ance arts?

No, I don‘t think there is. That‘s primar­ily because I think the nature of per­form­ance as a medium means it‘s nomadic, always mov­ing, always in flux. So I don‘t think there is any one coun­try with a lot of spaces, spe­cific to the medium, nor is it a case of ‘the best’ work hap­pen­ing in any one place – I feel most of the inter­est­ing artists are prob­ably mov­ing around, going from fest­ival to fest­ival, from space to space.

Benas Šarka (LT) per­form­ance at CREATurE
Benas Šarka (LT) per­form­ance at CREATurE

Do you think per­form­ance art should be reflect­ive to the soci­ety or more aes­thet­ical? Somehow it seems that usu­ally per­form­ance art is either a big „kaboom“, going with the blast, or when it comes to social con­text it is so con­cep­tual it hurts, and nobody actu­ally gets it — when there is some ran­dom item presen­ted on the floor and a big piece of paper explain­ing it. Can you com­ment on this?

I think it can be both; you can do both in the same work, and neither. Again, I can only speak per­son­ally, but I think a lot of per­form­ance art is prob­ably not socially engaged, although, by its very nature IS socially engaged — per­form­ance art is polit­ical, it’s a body; a body in a par­tic­u­lar time, in a par­tic­u­lar space, with other people. This to me is always going to be an emo­tional exper­i­ence, whether good or bad. Also, it feels to me that we think about things too much, and have stopped feel­ing things – feel­ings are import­ant too, change takes pas­sion. So even these high aes­thetic forms, like you said, that „kaboom“ as opposed to those writ­ings on the wall, even those can be quite pro­found for people, and socially engaged. (And in your opin­ion, should they be one way or another? — IK) It‘s not about „should“ for me. I’m not sure we have respons­ib­il­it­ies as artists. This is a very dif­fi­cult ques­tion for me, because I don‘t believe any per­son can say, „Artist should be some­thing“ or „Artist should not be some­thing“. I won‘t come into „should“ or „should not“ when talk­ing about social engage­ment and art. We all just have to make, think and feel.

You are a per­form­ance artist your­self. Could you describe what you do?

I‘m quite inter­ested in gender and in emo­tional intel­li­gence of bod­ies, in the polit­ical nature of them. I quite often blur lines between gender roles, expect­a­tions, I don‘t try to make my work polit­ical, but my work is polit­ical, because I‘m work­ing with the gendered body and try to unravel that a little bit. I try to raise-​up emo­tional intel­li­gence, irra­tional nature of our bod­ies, to meet and chal­lenge intel­lec­tual intel­li­gence and the rational. (Do you seek har­mony between these things of more like dis­cuss the themes that interest you? — IK ) I seek har­mony between them as a per­son, but in my per­form­ance work I try and raise irra­tional and emo­tional above rational and intel­li­gent, because I think the intel­lec­tual intel­li­gence has more space in the soci­ety and the irra­tional and emo­tional have less space, so I try to make that space. I do seek bal­ance as an indi­vidual, but in my work I try to bring one above the other at the moment.

Joana Gelažytė (LT) per­form­ance “Unfinished red poem” at CREATurE

You also work as a cur­ator, as a man­ager for per­form­ance art events. Could you share some­thing about your exper­i­ence from this field?

I always work in col­lab­or­a­tion with other people, col­lab­or­at­ing is very import­ant to me — I think we need other people. Curating for me is like mak­ing an art object, the same as per­form­ance or paint­ing or sculp­ture – it‘s manip­u­lat­ing mater­i­als to bring together an event. It is as much a part of my prac­tice as mak­ing my actual solo per­form­ances, because it feeds my artistic interests, research and devel­op­ment. Recently I worked with a group of female artists based in Ireland and we pro­duced a live exhib­i­tion called LABOUR, which was look­ing at the female body and it‘s rela­tion­ship to labour within an Irish cul­tural con­text. This was incred­ible exper­i­ence. It was cur­ated by three women, Helena Walsh, Chrissie Cadmen & Amanda Coogan & I pro­duced the show. It was exhib­ited in London, England and North and South Ireland (Derry/​Londonderry & Dublin). This was great, because a lot of the work looked incred­ibly con­ser­vat­ive, it looked as though there was a lot of female bod­ies doing very con­ser­vat­ive things, and it was cri­tiqued for this, and actu­ally the thing is, it was hold­ing a mir­ror to soci­ety, because there still are a lot of con­ser­vat­ive roles for women in an Irish con­text. I also col­lab­or­ate a lot with Bean, dir­ector of ]per­form­ance s p a c e[. Most recently we have pro­duced the event called „Trashing Performance Fringe“, which is a fringe event to a per­form­ance sym­posium in London, „Performance mat­ters“ . „Performance Matters“ was the theme for „Trashing Performance“, they were work­ing with high camp, absurd­ist & more the­at­rical aes­thet­ics — Bean and I wanted to work with much more exist­en­tial, viol­ent & dur­a­tional aes­thet­ics, so we were chal­len­ging the notion of what trash­ing per­form­ance could mean. Bean and I are also going to Grace Exhibition Space in Brooklyn, NY, at the end of this year. We are tak­ing over pro­gram­ing of this space (by their invit­a­tion) and we‘ll be cur­at­ing local New York artists and also bring­ing some artists from UK.

Could you tell me more about audi­ence in London? In the dis­cus­sion earlier today people were talk­ing that there must be a bal­ance between organ­iz­ing parties and art events, if the cul­tural organ­iz­a­tion wants to sup­port itself. I was won­der­ing, if there is enough audi­ence for more art related events when there are so many parties around?

Absolutely. The party and art events are very sep­ar­ate in London a lot of the time. I mean, they can mingle, but usu­ally they are quite sep­ar­ate. The London audi­ence is very know­ing, the major­ity – this is a sweep­ing state­ment, but for the sake of paint­ing an image – the major­ity of London‘s live art/​performance audi­ence is very know­ing. They‘ve seen a lot of (UK based) work, you quite often see the same people at a lot of events – I def­in­itely believe it is a scene. This is what I was try­ing to say when talk­ing about what is hap­pen­ing in London in regard to the rest of Europe – I think that what‘s hap­pen­ing in the rest of Europe is also the scene – like myself and other per­form­ance artists travel around, we meet the same people in a lot of events, so I think it‘s a global scene, but I think it‘s a very intric­ately woven scene in London, that includes both audi­ences and artists.

Performance in CREATurE

In the dis­cus­sion you were talk­ing a lot about the prob­lems in fund­ing. If there is quite a big scene with a lot of events, how come it is so prob­lem­atic to sup­port its artists from, let‘s say, door money?

It‘s a good ques­tion. I‘m going to have to bring it to a per­sonal level again. ]per­form­ance s p a c e[ doesn‘t want to charge at all, because we want our events to be access­ible, we don‘t want people to not come because they can­not afford to. So we don‘t want to charge people to see the art­works. That‘s one reason. I think a lot of places do charge at the door, but per­form­ance art is still a fringe art­work, I mean, it‘s pub­licly known now, it‘s pub­licly vis­ible, but it‘s still much smal­ler than all the other fine art medi­ums. So, the audi­ence size is not incred­ibly large, so actu­ally if you did put a door charge, you‘re not going to make that much money, unless you‘ll make excess­ive amounts of events and pro­jects. But, primar­ily, I don‘t want people to have to pay for per­form­ance art to be able to see it because it‘s a pro­found life alter­ing exchange exper­i­ence. I think it is also very import­ant to state here that at the moment, the UK is under siege from a, well coali­tion, but not really – its Conservative – a Conservative gov­ern­ment who has slashed 13 of fund­ing for the Arts. It’s totally sav­age, unfair and so bru­tal. Couple this with a sat­ur­a­tion of artists, espe­cially in London and any fund­ing avail­able is just such a com­pet­it­ive affair. The only way I see for­ward are net­works sup­port­ing net­works, not ask­ing per­mis­sion, tak­ing and main­tain­ing space, with col­lect­ives. Occupy.

I guess at the moment when I’m writ­ing you this last ques­tion, you are back in London, work­ing on your pro­jects and gen­er­at­ing new ideas. What is the most mem­or­able story about CREATurE fest­ival you tell for people back there and what are your upcom­ing plans for ]per­form­ance s p a c e[?

For me the most mem­or­able thing about CREATurE were the space, Fluxus Ministerija* and the pas­sion of Vaida Tamoševičiūtė (cur­ator) & friends. This is what I was talk­ing about, communities/​collectives, work­ing together, occupy­ing space & mak­ing. Even if there is no pre­ced­ent, or prior space. Fluxus Ministerija would not/​could not exist in London, our gov­ern­ment is too over­pro­tect­ive, con­trolling even. Abandoned build­ings are just boarded up here, while people pay extor­tion­ate rent for tiny spaces or sleep rough. As far as ]per­form­ance s p a c e [ is con­cerned, we are look­ing for­ward to our pro­gram of artists talks and work­shops (Alastair MacLennan is work­ing with us in Oct) & get­ting ready to head stateside to NYC with Grace Exhibition Space in Aug/​Sept. We also have a sum­mer res­id­ency pro­ject at ]per­form­ance s p a c e [ which we are hop­ing will attract an inter­na­tional crew of per­form­ance makers, so get in touch! X

Thanks a lot for your time!

* Fluxus Ministerija (“Fluxus min­istry”) — formerly aban­doned indus­trial build­ing in Kaunas, Lithuania, now — a space where artists can live, cre­ate and perform.

Ilona Klimaitytė
About author:
Ilona Klimaitytė
From the very beginning, Ilona had a passion for event management, writing and a cold glass of beer. These three forces fit perfectly together with interests in postindustrial music, anthropology and weird cinema. At the moment, she is finishing her cultural history and anthropology studies and is writing thesis on the subject of industrial elec... Read further >
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