Lisa Alexander | December 2016

Alessandra Cianetti: I first came across your work on current European issues at the symposium ‘Crisis’ in Excess: Performing Europe Today’ organised by Marilena Zaroulia last March at Winchester University, and thought that it is very relevant for our conversation in performingborders. 

There you presented a project that dealt with what seemed at the time a possibility to break with the austerity measures that were strangling a country and gave hope to the left in Europe: the Greek Referendum of 2015. Although the aftermath has been different than expected, you made sure that international artists would respond to this European historical moment with the project ‘Love Letters to a (Post-Europe)’ on 2nd and 3rd October 2015. Can you tell us a bit more about the structure of the project, the artists who participated and the generosity it involved?

Lisa Alexander: Love Letters to a (Post-)Europe at BIOS exploring urban culture framed a provocation that sought to invoke the agency of poetic gifting in response to a rapidly changing Europe. Artists were invited to respond with the action, idea or form of a love letter as a short work of up to fifteen minutes in length in any format they chose – to be presented live. Twenty-six artists, poets and performers created original work for the event including: Brian Catling, Robin Deacon, Tim Etchells, Brian Lobel, Claire MacDonald, Ivana Müller, Kira O’Reilly, Yoko Tawada. See: http://bios.gr/events/1266/

I had recently lived in Athens and witnessed the sense of betrayal and uncertainty that followed the overwhelming oxi to the stringent austerity measures for bailout set out by the Troika – the subject of Greece’s referendum last year. In spite of the no-vote no clear outcome followed and the goal posts were moved again regarding bailout measures. The idea for the event stemmed from an urge to curate a process of coming together and collective witness in the context of Europe at that moment and particularly with reference to Greece. It enabled a platform for excessive responses to the so-called crisis, at a time when the Troika was making excessive use of economic dogma as a means to manipulate regime change. I sent out the provocation in late July a couple of weeks after the referendum.

In the provocation I reference the encampments over five years ago; in public squares across Europe (and beyond) protesting against austerity as something that cannot be quantified by a global economic system and its ‘technolinguistic automatisms’. A poetic witnessing performs a similar relationship to the moment, in time, in place, in body. Temporal, sensual, emotional, psychical qualities cannot be accounted for.

I was struck by something I had read by Franco “Bifo” Berardi regarding Europe’s state of ‘crisis’ – that underneath the economic rationalizations was a deeper crisis – one that concerned the social imagination.[1] Something that I’ve been considering a lot in this last year in the contrasting context of the UK’s referendum. Artistic practice on the other hand reserves a holding space for the imagination; that is singular, relational, embodied and unquantifiable. In a small way the event sought to step out of the existing structures of expressive control at the time through the agency of poetic witnessing.

All artists including myself gave their work and time to it. Box office proceeds were divided between the Athens-based charity Solidarity for All and the venue. Athens-based artists hosted visiting artists, who traveled of their own volition. This was integral to the whole ethos and artistic frame of the event – to do something not dictated to by economic agendas and as an act of generosity. It was a gesture. The action of coming together, of gifting a short work, of performing in person in Athens or nominating another to perform a text, an action or sending a video missive.  A letter addresses another directly, a love letter invites intimacy, dispenses with formality, exceeds boundaries, engages a sensual encounter of the moment, is plural. A frame of witness that approaches another in the moment.

painting-by-steven-c-harvey_used-in-his-performance_loveletters
Painting by Steven C Harvey from slide show used in his piece at Love Letters to a (Post-) Europe

AC: On Saturday 18th June the European Theatre Research Network, the Inside/Outside Europe Research Network, the Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre and the Camden People’s Theatre presented ‘Being European: Before the Referendum’. They meant the “Brexit” referendum, which asked British citizens whether they wanted for the UK to stay in the EU and that would happen 5 days later. At the time we were discussing possible scenarios, now we know the answer! 

You have subsequently been invited to perform at the event ‘After the Referendum’ that took place on 17th September at the Camden People’s Theatre. How did it feel as a UK artist that has been worked and lived in Greece for a long time to respond artistically to this international but deeply personal shock? With the piece you proposed in collaboration with Hari Marini, ‘If/Then’, you ‘explore the terrain of the dilemma drawing on on-street vocal recordings of the general public in Athens, Glasgow and London’. What kind of response to “Brexit” emerged from this relation between cities, voices, and texts? 

LA: Then the message would read “Continue to wait” (participant, Edinburgh)

I remember feeling referendum fatigue. The negative rhetoric and scaremongering surrounding both campaigns, the outright prejudice of the leave campaign. The question itself simplified something so complex that I was astounded that it could be asked in that way. If/Then sought to explore the absurdity of polar questions that frame complex issues in order to conceal a whole raft of considerations; giving voice to the unspoken ground between.

Your wide face offers warmth. Your smile is laughter. Your laughter becomes mine… (Lara Pawson)

Before the vote occurred Hari and I agreed that we wanted to open up a space for multiple voices and one of sharing amidst all the negativity. If/Then also looked for inspiration and another way to express being through shared, appositional and dissonant narrativities.

We drink tea. How many is OK I ask you. Which ones are OK. Are the ones in your street OK. Are the ones among my friends OK. Your hands are in your pockets…We have to be able to talk about it you say. We have to talk about health tourism…Your honesty is made of lead. My rage is patient… (Lara Pawson)

I flew to Athens on the night of the 23rd June having submitted a postal vote. The lack of debate prior to framing a question of this magnitude in such general terms did not quell my shock of waking up to the result. A few days before I’d heard that my closest friend in Greece had a life-threatening illness. Everything fell into sharp relief. Greece feels like another home. There are people there I care very much about. Deep ties and involvement spanning the last seven years. Living there twice during this period also instilled in me a materially different sense of the social and the temporal and each time I returned to the UK I was shocked by the onward march of neoliberal agendas and their effects on social and civic engagement; explicit too on a local scale in my neighbourhood in London.

I’m walking on Mount Lykabettus. A brisk ten minute walk up from where I live. I went up there to see the horizon. [Lisa]

Hari and I had met at Love Letters to a (Post-)Europe the year before.  Since then we had re-connected in London and exchanged ideas on living and making. There were many voices that made up the text we performed. In addition to the on-street encounters – we invited writers and artists to respond with short texts that explored dilemma. Hari and I wrote our own responses within that frame as two artists who have lived in each others’ countries; the UK and Greece.

Rushing in the heavy grey rain to catch my flight…The News. And then an explosion of emotions, of thoughts blended with tiredness. A few days after the storm…a British colleague asked me: ‘Do you feel unwelcome?’ I said: ‘Sharing. I am still sharing things with people here’. (Hari Marini)

After a long discussion accompanied by ouzo and meze, I proposed to do a banner that reads ‘British Refugees Welcome’. I write in the darkness of the night and all around me I see people performing an exodus without a promised land. (Myrto Tsilimpounidi)

The on-street texts were generated by a short poetic game that sought to frame a simple, collective witnessing of moments occurring in different locales and social spaces. We did this on streets, squares and in other public spaces in Athens [2] and London. I also facilitated some encounters in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Then stories are truth/ If the birds were stars/ If this was all gone in 20 years (participants, Athens)

These small gatherings were followed by a vocally-recorded group reading. A version of exquisite corpse between strangers on the street in a process of hospitality to the moment – writing the present through describing a future.

But what if I could come inside as a stranger? What if I could come as I am, before any possible understanding of what that might mean? What if you could come as you are? What new forms of communion could that bring about? (João Florencio)

“If/Then” sought to frame the witness of singular voices and perspectives during this time and facilitate the freedom to express personal, playful and public dilemmas. It was not a direct response to the Brexit, rather an attempt to open up a space away from polarities and one that explored and imagined a social space that felt shutdown. It drew on examples from myth, philosophy and literature also. Responses between street, stage and page sought to illustrate the multiplicity and validity of singular points of view – expanding the slippage between yes and no.

What kind of space can I open up for her here? But we’re not quite there yet and I hope we don’t arrive. How vital is this in between space. (Lisa)

Then no more words just music (participant, London)

If_Then2
‘If/Then’ image by Kakia Konstantinaki

AC: In responding to the two referenda in Greece and the UK, you have been asking for collective responses in a way that seems aimed at building a ‘common’ space for discussion and sharing. In our conversation you referred to what Claire Bishop named ‘delegated performance’ while in the text of ‘If/Then’ the word ‘change’ is often repeated. Is art a means for proposing new social paradigms?

LA: Perhaps it would be more accurate if I described a form of ‘delegated writing’ and witness. Bishop [3] refers to the social turn in contemporary art (since the 1990s) in which artists have increasingly delegated performance by hiring ‘non-professionals’ to perform themselves. A process that frames the socio-economic categorization of a person and the ethics of labour so that is witnessed (often uncomfortably) by the audience. I am employing delegation as a way in which to explore the validity, multiplicity and relational process of singular witness. The ‘performer’ speaks or writes his/herself in relation to another – as a mode of gathering and provoking the experience and expression of that witness. The ‘performer’ is no longer the object but part of a process of witnessing the self as other and delving into the subjectivity of witness.

What is interesting about facilitating a form of delegated witness is that it engages in prefigurative practice and with that potentially recuperates at least a momentary social imaginary. Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanović discuss a crisis of the social imaginary as something that we are unaware of losing since its disappearance from public debate, in a climate of financially-linked presentism and the historical failure of 20th century social democracies. Amongst the potential for emergent social horizons such as self-organised movements addressing a lack of public services in for example Athens, they also cite art as

“a perfect place for imagining the social…every single work or project has a potential to project one possible world. We need not expect these worlds to be large, complete…they probably cannot change society…but they can still hack the virtual world of our society rather than ‘leaving it alone’ in its actuality”. [4]

The urge to share and frame collective or multiple modes of response in recent works is informed by an increasing colonization of our civic and social space – even of the imagination – by neoliberal and global economic process. Artistic practice engaging in modes of ‘being-with and for’ might be a catalyst for exploring another social paradigm through the ways in which it prefigures the operation of agency, gives voice to the self as other and shifts processes and construction of witnessing.

AC: A lot is going on at the moment for you, many projects are developing from the previous ones and many new ones are taking shape. Can you give us a hint of what comes next for Lisa Alexander?

LA: There are a number interlinking strands of work that I am currently pursuing and I hope to be able to confirm or add details to this blog in the new year. And to continue exploring processes of sharing and of opening up the space in between. This year has been a challenging one for many of us and the need for fellowship and imagination feels vital.

I am currently pursuing a book version of Love Letters to a (Post-)Europe that will transcribe and re-perform the event for page as a collection of letters: performance, poetry and visual scores, an essay and a series of postscripts. Full video documentation of the event will be completed shortly and the DVD lodged at LADA in early 2017. This will be made available online soon after.

I have also been helping Claire MacDonald plan/curate a short residency in Greece exploring migrancy, marks of occupation and practice in the frame of Walking Women (April 2017). 

Lastly I am looking into setting up a relay network and event series that explores ways of linking social and cultural contexts in Europe (and beyond) translocally through engaging concepts and practices of gifting, different cultural understandings of hosting and hospitality, and notions of passage with reference to freedom, agency and safety.

 

[1] Berardi, F. B. (2012). The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Los Angeles, Semiotext(e).

[2] In Athens these encounters were part of another work “Multilogue” excerpts of which were broadcast on Beton7 radio; part of “Performance Biennale: No Future” and Beton7’s “V_Ideas, Performances 2016”.

[3] Bishop, C. (2012). “Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity.” Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London, Verso: 219-240.

[4] Cvejić, B. and Vujanović, A. (2016) “The Crisis of the Social Imaginary and Beyond.” (paper): https://www.academia.edu/26017681/ p.5

 

Lisa Alexander’s artwork and research explores the subjectivity of witnessing and artistic practice as a lens on social change. She has presented in the UK and internationally. Recent projects explored processes of coming together, poetic agency and shared narrativity. She curated Love Letters to a (Post-)Europe at BIOS, Athens as an artistic response to the situation following the Greek referendum in 2015 and is planning a book that re-frames the event for page. She created/performed If/Then commissioned by European Theatre Research Network, Inside/Outside Europe Research Network and Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre and Multilogue; in collaboration with Hari Marini and the voices and words of many in the period prior to and following the EU referendum in the UK. Lisa holds a PhD from Roehampton (2014). 

 

Featured image credits: Yoko Tawada at Love Letters to a (Post-) Europe. Image: Efytchia Vlachou

 

 

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