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On being together in difficult times: why performance art matters now

Photograph: ‘STAGING: Solo #2’ by Maria Hassabi

Louise O’Kelly is the Founding Director of Block Universe, London’s leading international performance art festival. Taking place in major institutions and unique off-site locations throughout London, including the British Museum, 180 The Strand, Somerset House, Royal Academy of Arts, Studio Voltaire, Brunel Museum and the Old Operating Theatre, Block Universe showcases cutting edge performance work at the cross-section of contemporary art, dance and music over a ten-day period. This will be their fourth edition, launching on the Bank Holiday weekend and running from 26 May – 3 June. Here, Louise writes about this years festival.

Block Universe started out of a passion for this unique art-form and from a desire to support artists working with performance, who tended to be under-resourced and lacking appropriate support structures for the type of work they were making. Every year we work with a mix of international names and local artists who we commission to produce new work, alongside a public programme of talks, workshops and special projects that has been curated for the last two years by my colleague Katharina Worf.

The theme for the festival evolves year on year, picking up strands in the national consciousness that resonate with me on a personal level. Last year it was impossible not to think about global politics, from the blatant racism and xenophobia of the American government to our own vote on Brexit.

As a result, the conversations I was having with the artists we worked with were very much focussing on ideas of national identity, borders, and identity politics. One of our artists realised a conceptual dinner, drawing parallels with the UK’s desire to exit from the European Union with the break up of a relationship, and Pluto’s demotion from our solar system. Another worked in partnership with a therapist to hold sessions that conflated personal experience with our political frustrations. Working with performance art means you are dealing with living, breathing individuals and all of these things are felt at a very personal level, so others related it to their personal identity, or looked at the interdependence of society on the government as in the role of a carer. I feel that performance art has the ability to touch upon these subjects in unusual ways that can share new perspectives and have a profound impact on the viewers.

For this year’s edition, I felt it was important to move away from the divisiveness of the current discourse taking place in British and American politics in particular, and instead spread a more positive message. Myself and my whole team are all Europeans, and London is our home so it was important to us that we focussed on ways of being together or co-existing when our government seems intent on creating barriers to doing so. Our programme is always very international, and so many artists based in London are originally from somewhere else, so this felt like an important topic to address, as these governmental policies have the potential to have a disastrous effect on the arts.

As a result, I’ve been looking at and discussing the ways that we cohere as communities, whether that be in our daily existence or in utopian and dystopian imaginings of the future. Two of our artists, Evan Ifekoya and Victoria Sin, who are collaborating together for a new commission, have spent time researching Octavia Butler’s archive’s at the Huntington and One LGBT archives in LA. From this research, they are developing a script based on Butler’s writings that imagines a sci-fi futuristic world where cis men no longer exist. The performance will be held at the Brunel Museum, which is a unusual concrete bunker created by a giant drill in order to create the Thames Tunnel back in 1843, so feels very otherworldly.

Photograph: ‘No Fantasy without Desire, No Destiny without a Daddy’ by Evan Ifekoya and Victoria Sin

In addressing the larger context of our interpersonal and sexual relations, Ifekoya and Sin’s performance touches on both the macro and micro within societal relations. In an era of #metoo, those conversations hold a particular urgency around the current power dynamics of how we relate to each other, and the ramifications of a wider imbalance in gender relations in society, affected by race, class and other factors. Performance art has the ability to touch upon these subjects in sometimes oblique ways that feel meaningful, and can open up conversations around these subjects. The immediacy of the live encounter in tackling subjects that are sometimes difficult to articulate is also one of the reasons that I feel it is such a powerful medium, and is perhaps one of the reasons why so many artists are turning to it now to create their work.

In thinking about how we exist together, the politics of sex and love inform Giselle Stanborough’s durational lecture-performance. She has been exploring the confluence of capitalism and our love lives, which these days is for the most part mediated through apps such as Tindr or Grindr. Utilising the terminology and imagery of motivational speakers and self-help gurus, the 4 hour performance takes a wry, but very clever tongue-in-cheek approach to the TED Talk format. Visitors are welcome to drop in and stay for as long as they wish throughout the whole period.

Other artists address these topics in a variety of ways, from Nora Turato’s rapid spit-fire deliberations on life in contemporary society, to They Are Here’s series of workshops with Londoners working precariously in the gig economy. Alex Mirutziu’s free performance in the Royal Academy courtyard explores the de-personalisation of an individual within a crowd, and seeks to illustrate the performative forces at play in society.

I would also encourage people to come and spend time with Maria Hassabi’s live installation at 180 The Strand over the Bank Holiday weekend. From 11am-7pm on the 26 & 27 May, visitors will be invited to slow down, and spend time together in the space. Moving at an almost imperceptibly slow pace, a lone figure in a brightly patterned outfit moves over an expanse of vivid pink carpet. For me, the value of real-life encounters is heightened in an era where so many of our relationships happen online, through text or social media.