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How Judy Garland inspired FK Alexander’s I Could Go on Singing with noise band Okishima Island Tourist Association

On 25th March 1969 at the Falkoner Centret in Copenhagen, Judy Garland gave her last performance, which included her best known song. Borrowing the title from Garland’s last film, I Could Go on Singing, performance artist FK Alexander presents an Edinburgh Fringe winning performance at Southbank Centre that explores human contact, intimacy and affect.

Accompanied by noise band Okishima Island Tourist Association, which uses sonic maximalism to open up higher states of consciousness, FK invites audience members to join her in a visceral ‘Over the Rainbow' encounter.

Leslie Deere caught up with FK to discuss the work and find out what’s behind the artist’s notions of wellness, violence and love in this exclusive interview for Run-Riot.

Leslie Deere: Hey FK, how’s your 2020 going so far? Anything notable to report?

FK Alexander: Hi! Thanks for asking - been a little dramatic so far, my husband was in intensive care for a week over Christmas, he had a seizure and very nearly died! So we have been recovering from that. He’s more or less OK now though.

Leslie: Woah I’m sorry to hear that. Hope he’s on the mend and feeling better. There’s been just a little bit going on eh? Calm down 2020.

We’re here to talk about the new run at the Southbank Centre of your performance work I Could Go on Singing, which is influenced and inspired by Judy Garland. Can you talk us through your admiration of her work and the ways in which she’s been an influence?

FK: Oh boy, she’s the one! I’m more in love with her than her movies or music; her life story, which is much darker and inspiring that most people realise. She was somehow able to keep going and going even when she couldn’t. She had this incredible mix of determination, vulnerability, frailty and strength that I am very drawn to. She had a gift from god in her voice but her connection with fans was raw and human - she showed the ways she was difficult, unreliable, needy - but not bitter, despite the 5 marriages and the addiction problems and the abuse by the studios. She also had this almost childlike faith in love yet kept all her fury just under the surface. Years ago I read 11 books in a row about her, I was obsessed by her. Since then she feels like a guide, like a maternal figure encouraging me to keep going when things are hard.

Leslie: In this performance you sing directly to a single self-selected audience member, creating an intimate encounter. Assuming this aspect isn’t pre-planned (maybe they do sign up ahead of time?) does this create a sort of tension – of who is going to volunteer next? Is this another dynamic of the work?
 
FK: People don’t sign up in advance, no - it always depends on the country, and what people might already know about the work. The space and how to operate within it is explained before people come in, but sometimes the door opens (we are standing ready when people enter) and someone will walk straight up to me immediately - other times there can be a bit of a face-off between us and them of who’s gonna make the first move! Once people see that they literally don’t need to do anything more scary than hold my hand while I sing, (although some would say that’s scary enough!), the pace usually speeds up and people can jostle for a turn.  If someone wants to take a turn but has any kind of need of mobility assistance, my assistant Caitlin will be there to spot that and we try our best to make sure than no one misses it by not being able to jump out of their seat and run up. That’s really important.

Leslie: Do people compare your work to [Marina] Abramović’s, and if so what are your feels about that?

FK: They have yes! (tosses hair) Haha. Yeah I’m down for that, it’s a pretty relevant comparison, especially in terms of one to one work that is (in part) confrontational. Of course, I find a lot of her work to be very powerful and beautiful - but the more recent ‘2k to spend a weekend standing still in a forest’ and the Jay-Z and Lady Gaga stuff is gross. For the most part she has made uncompromising, challenging work and I’m happy to be compared to a woman of her significance.

Leslie: I’m very interested in your ideas around aggressive healing and radical wellness. Please unpack that, how do you define those acts and states of being?

FK: It comes from my experiences of mental illness and being around others in the same situation. How difficult it is to recover from external trauma and/or your own mind, versus how capitalism likes to sell us snake oil and “wellness’’ rubbish, all the surface stuff.

Basically, for me, getting better from being really ill one day at a time is not easy; particularly in the early days of recovery from active drug/alcohol addiction, it was brutal. It’s a very misunderstood, mis-judged illness. You do terrible things to yourself and others. You have to sit there for a long time and let pain burn.

I didn’t go down easy, I really clung on to drugs for a long time after I knew I was an addict - everything I let go of has claw marks - and it’s an impossible/possible task. If I wanted to get even a bit better I was gonna have to confront a lot of very painful realities, make a lot of amends, deal with the naked truth of things. It requires being responsible for the things you’ve done, even if you didn’t really want to do those things at the time. Accept that various types of trauma now live within you. Make peace, or at least re-contextualise the past. It’s a long process.

Radical wellness means to me that even people who have done unforgivable things can change - it’s possible, I’ve seen night to day changes in people around me. Some of the most humble, supportive, caring, truly spiritual people have been people who I thought were about to die, or who have destroyed lives and served time. We can’t pick and choose who is deserving of a second/third/100th chance. If someone is willing to change and willing to do the work we need to allow that and give space for that transformation. Don’t get me wrong - some people are remorseless and cruel and don’t care. But I don’t think most people are really like that. People do terrible things often out of survival and the absence of choice - give someone even a bit of access to support and all kinds of shifts can happen.

Leslie: What do you see the future being for those areas?

FK: I really hope the stigma of addiction can be dismantled. In big ways and small - from dealing with it as a medical issue over a moral failing or just forcing people into the wheel of the (in) justice system. The sheer amount of people, particularly women, who are in jail and have addiction or other mental illnesses is staggering. Other things like people using the word ‘junkie’ or say ‘aye she’s just some alkie’’ to wholesale dismiss and condemn others. There is a big class issue with drugs of course but in reality, addiction cuts through class, race, gender, everything - but for sure some people can access support with greater ease than others. There are not a lot of rich people in jails.

I’ve also written last year about how the art world really needs to look at its relationship with alcohol and how this could be looked at in the same way as it looks at other access needs. I think some of that is moving in a positive direction. It’s hard, because people love drink and drugs and can enjoy it and it not be a problem, but if you think you might have a problem or even just don’t like it, often arts festivals especially can be really gruelling and unhealthy.

Leslie: Also of interest to me is your inclusion of noise music to accompany the performance. Okishima Island Tourist Association, who play with you, describe themselves as a transcendental noise duo (love that). Why noise for this particular performance?  When you were conceptualising this work did you automatically hear noise or did it organically come from developing the piece?

FK: I wanted to work with Okishima Island Tourist Association because they go straight to the bone of what noise means to me - a total experience that takes me out of my thinking mind and puts me squarely in my body in the here and now. The band is made up of Kylie Minoise and Sarah Glass who are legends and both have lots of their own music individually. I wanted to have noise and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” to be placed next to each other, to draw out the tensions of the other - the darkness of the song next to the enveloping nature of the noise - the harshness of the sound next to sweetness of the lyrics. It came very naturally as I’ve loved both Judy and noise music for a long time. I had a hunch if I smashed them together, two seemingly unrelated elements, but had a human connection in the middle as the hinge, some people might feel it like I felt it.

Leslie: The body, your body, is central to your live art – whereby you communicate ideas about new forms of language, violence and love. Talk us through the body and new violence. What does that mean for you? Where does that sit amongst language and love?

FK: When I've said ‘new language, new violence and new love’ it relates more to some of my other works. I enjoy destroying broken technology (VHS tapes, TVs, computers, cars) or my own personal property - me against the machines. Or me against my own ‘stuff’ - collections of say, my 7inch record collection or burning my childhood stuffed toys. I’m setting myself against the notion of sentiment and nostalgia. I never speak in my work, so when I say new language I mean I want to find new, physical and sonic ways of communicating or experiencing private sensations in public. New violence and new love are interchangeable - maybe things I’m doing look violent or aggressive, but I offer my work lovingly. Or the noise can feel harsh at first but morphs into a hypnotic rhythm that can hold a caring atmosphere or exchange.

Leslie: What’s coming up next? Where can we check you out again?

FK: I’m working on a new durational piece for the spring in Glasgow - it’s not announced for a while, but so far it’s looking like a bunch of my own and my husbands old CD collection getting the old smashy-smash treatment with a lot of busted up rock’n’roll snark and posturing. I just can’t resist hammers or clown make up (wink emoji).

FK Alexander: www.fkalexander.com | Twitter

FK Alexander
I Could Go on Singing
24 - 26 Feb
at Southbank Centre
Info and tickets: www.southbankcentre.co.uk

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