Photo: Dimitri Djuric
We all see things in very different ways. In such a polarised world, where one person’s outrage is another’s cause for celebration, we should know this very well. We put these differences down to outlook, opinion, worldview – but very infrequently do we think about the ways in which we actually see the world, the way that our mind perceives our physical surroundings.
Taking place from 2–28 February, Your Reality is Broken is a festival encouraging us to stop and take a look at the way we look at the world, to shape our perceptions on how we perceive. Produced by MAS Productions, founded by artists and curators Nwando Ebizie and Jonathan Grieve, the festival explores our conception of reality by combining art and neuroscience, with musical performances becoming experiments, and scientific demonstrations becoming art installations.
Organiser – and, as Lady Vendredi, the series’ master of ceremonies – Nwando Ebizie joins us to inform our perceptions of the festival.
First off – William Onyeabor has just died. What a sad loss for music! His work forms a central part of the Higher, Higher, Higher clubnight. What attracts you to his work?
Yes, it’s crazy that he just died - I was in Nigeria just a few weeks ago and the first song I heard played on the radio was 'When the Going is Good and Smooth' the song that we are going to perform for 6 hours in Higher, Higher, Higher.
One of the things I loved about watching Atomic Bomb do his music (at Barbican and Latitude fest a few years ago) is that the musicians on stage just loved it – it really is music-lovers music. It’s fun to play because there is a good mixture of simplicity and complexity – which makes it great dancing music – but it has this insistent drive to it, which is why I relate it to ritualistic ecstatic music.
This night is going to be a real chance to fall down into a deep aspect of trance music – repetition. Music that just keeps you going all night, music that powers you. I want to create that energy in the night.
What role does his music play in the whole series? It’s a six hour performance of one of his compositions – how do you expect audiences to respond to this? How do you expect the band to cope?
I expect nothing of the audience really. I want to create certain conditions for them (and the band) to go through a potentially transformational night together. But if they get bored, or angry, or ecstatic or drunk, or high – I take that as being their response. All I can do is control the conditions. And I have an idea of what I’d like to achieve – that is natural – but my challenge will be to allow flow and let happen what must.
A slight aside – this aspect of the project reminds me of Ragnar Kjartansson’s piece with The National, A Lot of Sorrow – have you seen it?
Ha ha! Yes - I loved that whole exhibition. I was sorry that I hadn’t turned up earlier – I could have easily spent a whole day there. There were three things I found really inspiring about that piece. One, that you can just do what you want as an artist. You can have an idea and the only thing stopping you from making it happen is yourself. I’ve had ideas about playing with time and music and performance for about 10 years, but there is an insecurity about presenting it. That exhibition and that piece in particular just freed up something in my brain that made me think, ‘actually, what I have to say and do has worth and is valid’.
Secondly, I’d had the idea about six hours of ‘When the Going is Good and Smooth’ about two years ago, and I kept on mentioning it to people, but didn’t do it (see item one!). But I think that song, like The National’s music, has a really cyclical quality, that just begs to be put on repeat. And as a listener you go round and round and that sensation can induce some interesting feelings. At least that is how I experience it!
And finally, the musicians – I was really struck by how interesting it was to watch them. They were going through the ringer! It was fascinating, and that was what held me watching for an hour. In fact I only left because the exhibition was closing.
How did Your Reality is Broken come about? Can you tell us a bit about the areas it explores?
It’s co-created by myself and Jonathan Grieve, Artistic Director of MAS productions. It is a playground for us to explore our main interests: music, art and science. I got to know an amazing neuroscientist called Ed Bracey, who is now mentoring me and is a major part of the festival. I have a rare neurological syndrome called Visual Snow and we are working on research projects connected to that.
He always says ‘all our brains are broken’, and that really struck me – that we all have something ‘wrong’ with our brains. But that complexity is part of our evolution and what gives us strength as a species. Apparently 90% of what we ‘see’ is a simulation created by our brains. We experience a model of reality created by our brains, not objective physical reality. I find this a comfort and also a useful way of thinking about the world in these messed up times – we are literally experiencing different realities. The scientific, experimental and political all intersect in this festival.
Ritual is a big interest for us. All the social events will be formulated along ritualistic lines. The Opening Ceremony is loosely based around our research into Haitian Vodou. There is a dining experience produced by SynasthEAT which, as well as playing with ideas of sensory perception, explores the ritual of eating and communion.
Our practice works across curating experiences, performer training and performance, so it was normal for us to include a series of workshops in the festival. The workshops will include a neurophenomenology workshop looking into perceptual disorders and sharing them in a creative way, There’s also Secular Ecstatic Art - which combines our research into creating intimacy in performance with exploding politically dogmatic thinking, plus a voice workshop which is scientific yet very instinctual in its approach. So much!
We’ll also have installations in the space that people can come and experience throughout the month – one called Bedsit Boutiq which connects to ideas around transactional analysis and is both a vintage marketplace and a performance.
In interrogating perception, Your Reality is Broken puts performance and neuroscience side by side. Is the whole thing one big experiment? Naturally, everyone perceives the world differently. It’s going to be very interesting to have so many different audience perceptions over the course of the festival.
You’re totally right – the whole thing is a big experiment. It’s an experiment for us as a collective to see what possibilities there are for artists to create work, and share it with others. We live in a time and place where artists do not have space and time to create and, for me, it is an essential part of being able to understand my reality. I have to experiment and interrogate or I really don’t know what is going on.
It’s great working closely with a scientist. One thing I want to explore is how art can be useful for scientists. I’d like to create a scientist’s playground and see what new discoveries of ways of thinking can be unearthed.
This is a festival that focuses on different perceptions. What do you think audiences will take away from the project? Do you expect people to come away with altered perceptions?
I really want people to understand that we have different experiences of reality. I think if we understood that, we’d be less dogmatic in our thinking, more accepting of one another and more interested in how we each experience the world. It has been a fascinating journey – talking to people who have different perceptual disorders and syndromes and I want to bring this to more people. Also, I want to present the idea that having these different broken brains as I do, can actually be a source of creative fuel. We need to understand that we exist on a spectrum, and that our neuro-difference is a source of strength not weakness. Something fascinating to be explored, not ignored or derided. When I’ve told some people about my syndrome, the first thing they do is not accept the possibility that I see things differently. This is such a good metaphor for what is going on at the moment. There is only one possible way of seeing things for most people. And that type of thinking just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
The festival has so much on offer – from performance, to scientific workshops, to a four-course ‘performative meal’. How do all of these things get tied together?
There is a sense of exploration, of excitement of true experimentation. During the month, ideas will pile on ideas, as installations pile on gigs, pile on vogue ballroom sessions, pile on talks, pile on intimate performance. The fundamental question that connects all the happenings is our perception of reality – whether it is distorted, how we interact with it and with others. When we engage with symbols and ritual, how does it create altered states of perception? How does music, touch, intimacy, dance, tiredness affect perception? So many questions – one month to explore!
You’ve borrowed Hakim Bey’s idea of a Temporary Autonomous Zone in describing this project. How do you feel his ideas relate to Your Reality is Broken? Is this a utopian project?
Absolutely, in that we want to create a separate time and space where our ideals our allowed to flourish – free thought and action, creativity, science and art working together, experience being valued. Jonathan’s process is very much centred around chaos theory – creating these zones where different possibilities can emerge by throwing in clashing and contrasting elements. In a wider sense then, the whole festival is working along these lines. We have invited different artists and scientists very different approaches and ideas to contribute to the festival, and we want to see how these elements can co-exist alongside one another.
You yourself will be performing as Lady Vendredi. How does your work explore the subject matter of the festival? What can we expect from your performance?
Lady Vendredi will perform at the opening and closing nights of the festival. My main performance strand through the festival will be a new piece called 20 Minutes of Action – a performance installation, which will incorporate my perceptual illusions with influences from ballet, ASMR techniques, Vogue dance and feminist mythologies.
One interesting thing about my perceptual disturbance is that it causes me to see halos around objects and things – for example, I see an afterimage of a person at the same time as seeing the person. This means that I am seeing past and present simultaneously. This seems to be connecting with my work around time – I’m fascinated by the perception of time and my sci-fi geek self is really into time travel narratives, which manifests in 20 Minutes of Action and Higher, Higher, Higher.
For full programme - go to www.mas-productions.org
If you think you might have visual snow - contact Nwando: firstname.lastname@example.org