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On tangled archives, memory and performance: Re-gathering around Puzzling Home 家的形狀

14th June 2023

In February 2023 performingborder’s annual performance to camera Puzzling Home 家的形狀 by Ghost and John and Michael and Jane was released following a co-commissioning process shared between performingborders (Alessandra, Anahí, Xavier) and Queer Art Projects (Tuna, Seda). 

In 2022 we invited Hongkongese multidisciplinary duo Ghost and John to take some time to reflect on how borders and live art had interacted in their practice. To do this they extended the invitation to their long-term collaborators, Michael and Jane (who work in photography and video), to create a new performance to camera using existing footage they had taken in 2020. In this new work, all four of the Hong Kong-born artists explore the intersections between performance, multidisciplinary collaboration, historical archives, and personal stories.

Our conversations about Puzzling Home 家的形狀 started back in January when we received it for the first time. As a way to reflect on the work we attempted a Google doc-based conversation, however, following the work’s release (and the relentlessness of life) we all felt the need to sit together, watch the performance again and have an informal chat to create intimacy with the work. The result of our May re-gathering is an edited transcript of our exchange in response to the commission. We recommend viewing the commission first, before reading the conversation below.

See the full commission and contributors’ bios HERE

Alessandra: Well, it’s interesting to see the commission again after a few months and going back to that period when the artists recorded the footage because it was when Ghost and John were back in Hong Kong during the pandemic. For Puzzling Home 家的形狀 they worked with Michael and Jane to explore and expand on their footage and I really liked the fact that they’ve been blending their own artistic research and their personal life as a couple with Hong Kong’s historical events for example, the handover ceremony when sovereignty over Hong Kong was transferred from the UK to the People’s Republic of China. Through this work they convey how all of that has shaped their own personal stories as migrant artists. In the commission, the dance on the threshold of the sea – that tension between staying or leaving – feels very personal to many artists we have worked with.

Seda: Some of the archival images are very familiar to me, from my experience of the Gezi Movement in 2013. When I see them, I can’t stop myself from remembering those times in Istanbul. And this is despite the fact that I don’t know much about the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, like when exactly it happened and despite the very specific situation of Hong Kong, in between the UK and China, with nothing similar to it in any part of the world.

Tuna: Yes, I had the same triggering flashbacks to the Gezi Movement when I first saw this. It seems governments react to these protest movements in quite the same way, even when the circumstances surrounding them are so very different. For instance that image of the zebra crossing, the yellow lines with slogans written on them, we had exactly the same thing.

Seda: Yes, exactly the same image, produced in two very different corners of the world. It is fascinating to me.

Alessandra:‘we shall not surrender’

Tuna: The slogans are the same, but also the fact that they are written on a zebra crossing which are, lines/borders drawn as a universal symbol of crossing, of moving: That’s where you are allowed to cross, from one side to the other side. And when you’re trying to resist the police, this becomes as difficult as crossing borders between countries. Just being able to push the police one more line on the zebra crossing becomes a huge deal. That’s why everyone ends up using them as a place to write these slogans. But Ghost and John carry this yellow line from the streets, onto a book, in the form of a yellow marker to highlight “political implications” on a text about art, and by so doing they cross discursive borders as well.

Seda: And there’s this yellow rectangle they also use as a filter.

Tuna: To make the whole thing yellow! And it all starts with a traffic sign: yellow is not “stop”,  it’s not “go”:  it’s right at the border, right at that moment of crossing, that threshold when movement is imminent like on the beach.

Alessandra: I think also the sentence here that they are highlighting in the commission at minute 2:08 says that:

“In the 2012 interview Tariman speaks of the honesty about one’s political commitments in art, saying that when one creates art without being apologetic about its political implications, one is actually being quite ethical”.

I think that the Umbrella Movement started in 2014. But then there were various waves of pro-democracy protests, and when Ghost and John were back before the pandemic, there was another big moment of resistance as well in 2019. Somehow when you watch the performance to camera, there is so much intimacy in the performers’ duet as well as togetherness but at the same time, you are definitely hit by the embodied reality of this idea of the political implications and the pain, you know, as well, on this threshold they are inhabiting.

Tuna: Yes, and the threshold with the one that the sea creates on the sand, the way it just goes a bit, and then comes a bit back again, that threshold that movement itself, I think resonates with what I was saying about protesters.

Seda: Yes, it’s exactly like when crowds of people clash with the police. You move forward, only to be pushed back, and it goes on and on. I mean, if we could watch a time-lapse version of such a recording, it would resemble waves crashing.

Alessandra: What do you think about the images of structures inserted within the performance to camera? The architectural structures with plants… you know, we can see these architectural, external structures, as well as the interiors with the TVs. The artists seem to build for us an idea of the city, as well as showing to us the resistance of the city. Also, they add this layer of coloured shapes into the visual narrative, where the colours end up shaping a boat, the narrative starts with a boat, and goes back to a boat.

Tuna: An upside-down house.

Seda: Yeah, I like how when you simply turn the house upside down, it transforms into a boat. With a small tweak, something stable becomes something mobile.

I appreciate the concept of having fragments of home rather than its entirety. I love their representation of home in geometric, abstract shapes inspired by the architecture. This resonates with me because it reflects how I remember my past, when intricate details are juxtaposed with the present, they trigger vivid memories. It’s almost like a portal that transports me. For example, if there were a window, and I recognized the same window, or rather its shape, from my past in a different city, it would become a portal, seamlessly transporting me to that city and triggering memories of my past. That’s why I appreciate the fragmented nature of home. It aligns with how I’ve constructed it in my memory.

Alessandra: Through this piece there is also a specific way of creating a performance to camera and reflecting on how we perform to the camera.

I was thinking of something we were discussing with the performingborders digital residents mother tongues. And Anahí, you said that you sometimes read performances as scores, and I found that very interesting because I more often read them as relationships. So when you mentioned that, I wondered “Oh, actually, I’ve never thought of that”, and so I’m wondering if also in Puzzling Home 家的形狀 you have perceived a score, if you were reading this performance to camera as a score or if it didn’t work this time?

Anahí: No, I don’t think so, because I knew it was archival footage. And the way that they described it initially when they told us about the footage, made it seem to me like originally they didn’t have any intention for what they were doing on the sand. It all sounded like it was very playful or in the moment, improvised almost. And so then I think I always just looked at this commission through a lens of repurposing: they’re reworking archival material. In some ways, this is what I find not most interesting about their approach, which was similar to Jamila’s [SERAFINE1369] in their commission It is impossible to say everything here so I leave you with this, which came out in April 2023. Both of these works ask: How can we repurpose existing archival footage in a context where we’re not contending with liveness anymore? What new liveness and now-ness can we create? And in some ways, these are central questions to all of our performance to camera commissions too. It’s interesting because, upon a rewatch, I actually don’t think that the archival-ness of it really comes across at all. I would be interested in where the work could go if it was looking at itself as an archive too, like if it looked at itself as footage or a performance of footage.

Seda: It’s fascinating how they specifically chose to display some of the archival footage on old monitors. And because of that, one might assume the archival material which are shown on the old monitors represent the past, while the beach scenes, the performance, depict the present. But we know that all of them are archival, and all were carried here in some hard disk, which is a very relatable experience. We all carry our past in some hard drives, often without knowing exactly what we are carrying.

Alessandra: I feel like their movements were the embodiment of the archive, in some way when they’re moving, they are moving in response to the archive or the images that they selected, so whenever I saw them interacting, it felt that they were really embodying history in their own personal story.

Xavier: Yeah, I’m in agreement with everyone really, I think it’s interesting because it doesn’t feel like it is archival footage, it feels like found footage, a lot of the images that you see juxtaposed with the dance, which is quite interesting, brings another element of, not necessarily playing with nostalgia but playing with a reflection on the past and how it feels in the present. So in that sense, it feels like it’s very much a new formulation of their own archive. And I agree with Anahí, I would quite like to see in a couple years time, if they will use some of this in another thing that kind of takes it to a new present, you know what I mean? I think it would be quite cool. I think it was Anahi who mentioned Jamila, and I think there’s an interesting correlation between the passage of time in this piece and Jamilla’s work across very different projects and performances to camera, or live performances. They kind of have a narrative woven through them. I’ve found that the use of the archive versus maybe some found footage, maybe some newly recorded imagery is quite an interesting parallel with that, because it kind of opens up the past into the possibilities of a new future. It’s a corny way of saying it, you know what I mean, but I find it interesting how they kind of correlate their own archive and weave it through time in a different way from Jamila.

Anahí: I’m interested in that it seems like people had a similar experience of the architecture and the monitors in the film, connecting them to memory and nostalgia, which I don’t think that I shared actually! For me, the architecture and all the interior shots added to the political landscape that they were building and an overwhelming sense of imposed power and surveillance. So for me, rather than invoking memories of “home” in a positive nostalgic sense, it seems to also critique it… 

Tuna: The thing is, when I think of home, I’m not necessarily thinking of a lovely place I want to go back to. I mean home to me is not a safe space. I might be nostalgic towards it, but I’m very aware that the moment I turn and look at it, it looks back at me, and starts its surveillance once again. It is like the porthole that we see in the video. A porthole gives a very restricted, constricted view of the world. Yes, it evokes the boat, which is movement and as such freedom but, as an upside down house it is like a prison. So, what I’m trying to get at is: the positive nostalgic sense and the critique might not be contradictory: For some, home is a place of surveillance. So when you think of home, you also evoke surveillance as well.

Alessandra: I understand what you mean, although obviously, I come from a completely different context, but when we think of home, there is the harsh side of home to consider, and the socio-political harsh side of home is also one of the reasons why one leaves as well, whatever is their context. So in this performance to camera I also see the contradiction, actually not a contradiction but the parallel between the intimacy of the two dancers, and the shared harshness of the architecture and the society that they’re living in as well as leaving.

Tuna: They’ve chosen a place that would look more or less the same anywhere: a beach. I mean, this could have been shot in England basically. And this is where they can be themselves: A part of home that can be found away from home. But the inserts remind us that this is not any beach, cuts into the sameness with its specificity. So in order to be themselves in a place that actually you can find anywhere in the world, they had to leave that specific space, which is, I think, interesting. I would love to see them do this on a UK beach.

Alessandra: As you’re mentioning archive, I’d like to go back to your 2019 performance to camera as Istanbul Queer Art Collective. That was our first commissioned performance to camera, you know. In Moebius Stripping you did not use the actual archive of documents but the weight of the documentation. So you were using that kind of memory of the weight of the documentation as well. So maybe I’m completely wrong here, but I was thinking that this is also a form of working with archives and memory as well.

Tuna: Of course, that’s why we chose to do it in an archive as well.

Seda: But oddly enough, if we didn’t have to keep all these documents, we wouldn’t. I mean, they are not the documents we would choose to retain, it wasn’t a voluntary archive.

Tuna: Yes, the home office archives them! But that’s why doing it in an archive means something. MayDay rooms [where the performance happened] ] is the kind of archive we love, while this kind of archive we hate [referring to their personal archive they worked with in Mobius Stripping, which was made up of Visa and migration documents needed to stay in the UK],  so we’re trying to make a point. We did manage to make our Mobius Stripping a part of their archive, it stayed there for a year. And we did choose to start shooting by putting the camera where the window is, and the window showed the church with its portal window. We did feel that we were making a point of just using what we found. We were making a point that we are now in a completely different culture. Because, you don’t see much: just a room with a window, but you would never have a church right there back home. So our archive is making use of the liminality of windows, just as Ghost and John do. Mobius Stripping itself is now archival for us. We might use parts of it in other things the way they are using it.

Seda: Yeah, past performances become material for other performances. So there’s this cycle of recycling, upcycling, or whatever you want to call it.

Xavier: There’s an interesting question here about how we travel with our own archives. We kind of either shred them as we arrive in another place, or we build new ones, blending them with the ones that we already have. So if you look at Mobius Stripping, you are inside of an archive (May Day Rooms), shredding another archive (your own legal paperwork), creating a new archive (a new performance piece) which is like a different kind of ongoing archival process, right? You are creating a visual artwork that is itself an archive, from a physical paper archive that you’re shredding onto a newly fixed archive that we can’t touch. And I think there’s something quite interesting about the levels and layers of the passage of time but also of materials being used and being created and being kind of shaped according to experience. You can also see resonances of that in Ghost and John’s performance to camera I think.

Seda: It feels so organic nowadays. I mean, you carry your digital belongings with you wherever you go, especially when you move. Most of your memories, moments, and all sorts of things like photos, videos, or items you’ve collected such as books or films, you simply take them along—it becomes your personal archive. It’s truly remarkable; twenty years ago, I couldn’t have imagined this. Now, you can carry a vast amount of meaningful possessions that resonate with you. Or we could say that day by day we are losing our ability to let go.

Tuna: That’s why reworking archives in art is so important, because I think that we live in a time when we’re continuously making these archives that no one ever goes back and looks at ever again. It’s just for that moment.

Seda: We don’t have time for that. I mean… what do we do? We try to multiply time. There’s the passing time, and then there’s the time we try to hold onto. It was impossible a hundred years ago; we didn’t have the means. Before we had photography, video, sound recordings, or anything like that, time used to just slip away. It simply passed and was lost, or it remained in our memories for as long as we could hold onto it. But now, we try to multiply it, as if we don’t want time to pass. We strive to keep it. It’s truly intriguing. Especially when it comes to moments like protest scenes, there are countless versions of those zebra crossing photos stored in millions of people’s personal archives on their hard drives. It’s quite complex, but we don’t simply let time slip away. We tend to accumulate it. Now, there is more ‘past’ than we can process. Perhaps it also means there is less present and future.

Tuna: But this is like a performance to camera all the same, though, isn’t it? I mean, rather than just the archiving of a moment. Because there’re costumes, thought-out stances, obviously, these are movement artists, and they might just spontaneously dance, but it is choreographed all the same, it has been worked on before. And there’s this body painting that also sort of comes into it. In terms of the clash between the costume and the environment, there’s a constructedness. And I think this image at the beginning of the video, of holding a plastic chair, something that you wouldn’t necessarily think would be there at a beach also adds up to the idea that this is a performance to camera.

Alessandra: Especially because it was done during the COVID pandemic period. So they were there in Hong Kong, they were back home and expressing themselves towards the lenses of a camera and decided to do a performance back then. When we invited John and Ghost to do a performance to camera for performingborders, that’s when they decided to go back to that time, and see what we can reflect on this also with Michael and Jane, so that this becomes a collaborative work. We have been talking mainly of John and Ghost because we see them in the video, however, Puzzling Home 家的形狀 is a four-person work and the construction of the idea of a city, of memories is very much also Michael and Jane and I think that’s something that should be brought up.

Seda: For this particular artwork, the performance precedes the commission, and I adore that. I believe it’s a more authentic approach to art making. Sometimes you just want to do something only because you can. You and your friends find yourselves in a stunning beach, for instance, and with your dancer bodies or performer bodies ready, you can perform and capture the moment on camera without waiting for someone to commission the work.

But three years later, an opportunity arises to use this footage in a perfect context. I mean, someone commissions you for a project, and you already have your footage prepared. Voila!

Alessandra: How big is your archive Seda?

Tuna: It’s crazy.

Disorganised archives, that’s what I was trying to say about all the images that we take in our daily lives. Archiving is something all of us do, but I think the art comes into it when you organise that archive in a way to create emotion and meaning, and it’s like all the pieces coming together to create this beautiful video basically.

Xavier: Thinking about time and archive, and about how these can be repurposed… I’ve made a conscious decision last year to not throw myself into performance all the time, or to do all the projects I’m invited to all of the time. Certainly not to constantly be writing funding proposals or applications for Open Calls all the time, as I found it was defeating the purpose of creating performance, the joy of it, and my interest in the art form in the first place. Recently, I started to have an idea but I’ve become really allergic to writing funding applications or trying to get commissions about this idea. And I wanted to work on the idea before I get any commission or any funding or anything like that because it really was dragging me away from the joy of creating actually. In a way, the action of repurposing something that they created in their own time, at their own pace, out of their own artistic impulses seems really interesting to me, actually, as a repurposing of, or a reclaiming the power of creative impulse, you know what I mean? And that was in an archive, not being used until they were ready to use it. Now they found that this is the right context to use that material in, but it’s already kind of done and it didn’t need anyone’s permission to exist in the first place. I think that this is actually a really refreshingly anticapitalist way of creating and the joy of the previously-filmed scenes comes across so well. If you’re not thinking about the question of ‘buying’ or ‘selling’, or ‘putting it on’ or greenlighting art, you know… it gives the potential for hope in the creation of art for creativity’s sake, instead of ‘creating for a commission’. Here, we’re witnessing through this performance to camera something that was created spontaneously and out of their own spontaneous creative intention, then repurposed once someone asked them and paid them to do something with it. That, I think, is incredibly powerful.

Alessandra: Any final thoughts before dinner, anybody?

Tuna: Oh, you said dinner and we are done!

Alessandra: Thank you, everyone.

​​Queer Art Projects (QAP) is an artist led creative production company that curates and produces art projects like exhibitions, performances, screenings, talks and workshops, commissioning new work from queer artists on cutting edge contemporary issues and brings existing work together in contexts that underline their relevance and resonance.  QAP is founded and managed by the duo Tuna Erdem & Seda Ergul, London based queer artists, originally from Turkey, who have been partners for more than a decade. QAP’s projects have been predominantly funded by the Arts Council England (ACE) in partnership with various organisations like Every Woman Biennial, Goldsmiths University, Bonington Gallery etc. QAP has a digital platform that has recently been turned into an online commercial gallery for queer

Image: still from Puzzling Home 家的形狀 (2023)

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