A few months ago you got in touch with us to introduce your most recent project – a “vocal composition for a crowd,” which was being created in Oldenburg (Germany) during your residency in Lower Saxony and Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Art. Now, in our latest issue, we not only have the pleasure of talking to you, but also of presenting your work and attaching a special edition of it to selected copies of the magazine. How did the idea of disseminating a performance in such a way come about?
The project we’re talking about is called The Impossible Opera (Unmoegliche Oper). My vision was pretty large-scale: from the beginning it was to be a composition for a crowd, preferably about a hundred people. The grant from Edith-Russ-Haus provided me with time to work, and helped to make the project a reality.
In preparing the project I was inspired by demonstrations, protests and manifests. The massive force of the voice, of expression. As an artist who cares about political and social issues, I wanted to show the power of such gatherings, their quality of creating meanings, sounds and beauty. I was also interested – purely from the perspective of composition and choreography – in the structure of mass gatherings and its analysis.
And in terms of form… Performance projects very frequently begin and end on the site of the action, documenting them is in no way a substitute for participation, but it can be simply a method of sharing the idea with a larger group of viewers. Publishing the film seems more reasonable than printing photos from the event, because the work was a musical and choreographic composition. Theatre seems to be a good comparison here. Plays are frequently issued on DVDs for collectors.
I wonder about the issue of reception and the legibility of the postulates raised in the opera. Your works are usually site-specific actions. They are irrevocably bound to the space where they are created. You do a lot of in-depth research before you choose your space. You try to be conscious of the context and consequences of your activities. So I am curious about the issue of uprooting the action/opera from the environment in which it came to be, and from the place where its functioning is the strongest, because it’s native to it.
My projects are attentive to the context of time and place. Of course, yes, I am aware of the forms I use. But that doesn’t mean following the classical unities of place and action. That would be very limiting. In the composition “For a Berlin Factory” we used not only the objects found in the building – machines, broken glass, the building’s structure – but also introduced “regular” instruments (violin, sousaphone), to emphasise the musical structure of the building. The audience did not see the performers and the sources of sound remained invisible, so what the listeners heard and recognised, what story they made out of this data, depended on their imagination.
The space does not limit the means – sometimes it can provoke subversiveness. I don’t agree that an opera performed at an opera house has such a strong impact. It is a rather exclusive form and most people are honestly indifferent to it. To a large extent, it also has a tendency to exclude. It’s not the most democratic form, either of creation or participation.
However, calling my most recent project an “opera” was more of a game with the form. This resulted from a few factors. First of all, this was a composition for voices – only voices, nothing else (unlike my other projects, composed for instruments, voice, objects and building). Secondly, the piece was written out for solo and choir parts. Thirdly, the stage it took place on was a part of public space, and the performers were visible, even exposed (while in many of my other projects they remain hidden, invisible to the listeners). Hence, simple choreography was also involved here.
The fact that a performance happening in a public space was called an “opera” also defined the “set design.” The intention was also to change a very closed form into an open one, one in dialogue with the space in which it is taking place.
“The Impossible Opera” was a poor opera, lacking in splendour and all the colours, all that differentiates and separates opera from grey reality, all that makes opera a festival. It was performed in a small town. It was impossible also in the sense that the voices were untrained, some were quiet, weak, embarrassed. Sometimes, however, they rang out together in a powerful chord. Some of the proposals were very strong (for example, a Portuguese girl sang a fragment of a revolutionaries’ song) and at times, we really did sound like a strong choir, negotiating some important common issue together.
So, what universal message is carried by a voice of an individual from Central Europe?
I don’t know. But I see that I’m very stubborn when it comes to collaboration and social insticts. Certain things that stem from the culture you grew up in. I also think there are no universal messages. What I mean by this is that a message which reaches many people and builds a sense of community is really always a personal message. One which doesn’t try to be universal, but, rather, openly shares its own, personal perspective. This perspective is always very complex, a result of a lot of data. Region is a big factor. The amount of politics (and I consider religion to be part of it) influencing private life and education. Other factors are gender, family conditions, the experiences of one’s adult life.
I must say that we were immediately interested in your collaboration proposal. Especially as this project dovetails perfectly with the leitmotif of our current issue, which is migration – in the widest sense of the word, also encompassing the flow of information and data. Your project seems to align with this concept on many levels. So I wonder – what are nomadism and movement to you? Are they about freeing one’s thoughts and decisions? Freedom of speech and body, which play such an important part in your art?
For me, nomadism is mostly about a constant renegotiation of your place in the world. Migration frequently entails a demand for respect for your life and work, directed at your country, directed at the countries that influence your region. It’s perhaps due to the flow of information that people hit the road more consciously, in a less instinctive way. Such upscale nomadism, the freedom to choose your place, is and always has been a privilege. As an artist I sometimes have access to this privilege, but I am fully aware of it.
About The Impossible Opera – originally it was supposed to be a political, hard-hitting project. I really wanted my performers to represent a wide spectrum of problems and characters, I also wanted people who, in the end, didn’t join the project, such as Oldenburg’s most recent immigrants; they were too shy to join in as a group, they don’t know the language yet, and their guardian didn’t want to put the group at risk either.
But I don’t think that only people belonging to a given group have the right to represent the postulates of that group. On the contrary – social postulates belong to the public domain. I wanted the performers to go beyond representing only themselves and their own opinions. At the end of the day, they are a little bit like actors, the performers in the opera, aren’t they?
In Warsaw, Łódź, Istanbul and recently in Oldenburg people from various social groups, of differing status and with various postulates collaborated with you at your invitation. What does contact with others – conversations, the flow of ideas – mean to you?
Most of my works begin with an open audition for participants. In Oldenburg, I spent the first two months in meetings with different groups. In this small town, nearly everyone sings in a choir, which seemed very promising to me – I visited about ten choirs, explaining my idea and conducting brief workshops. I also paid determined visits to the Alhambra – an anarchists’ and activists’ meeting place, which seemed to me to be the most vibrant spot in town. I met some very nice people there, and I got the whole accidental-chatting-up-and-recruiting-people thing down to an art, until it almost became a nuisance. I visited the cultural centre, too. They run courses for immigrants, language classes, a drama group – it seemed important to me to invite them all to participate – since the idea was the multitude of voices and arguments, and above all (yes, the context of the place!) the Oldenburg voice. When working with people locally, and inviting them to take part in a project, I always emphasize that I want them to be the co-authors of the content. The deal I usually want to make with them is this: the content depends on you, the form – on me. I ask for trust when it comes to the form, and for the content to be openly negotiated.
The flow of information involved making people engaged and making problems heard, giving those problems a physical form, making them audible for those to whom they are addressed. So – how does one go about speaking one’s opinions? Are they shouted out, chanted out, whispered, sung? Or is the physicality the strongest manifestation there is?
The physicality is a very strong manifestation. Especially when, as in this project, the performers are to be visible to the audience, or even functioning as a strong signal. A big part of my work is encouraging people, emboldening them. It’s working on their movement, working on their voice. Not everyone is bold enough to shout, not at once, maybe never. For some, the very act of taking part in the project is a new and brave one. The first thing you need to do is respect that. Sometimes – that’s a very hard thing – you must accept that your own ambitions won’t get fully realized.
At other times, you need to ask yourself – just now much am I needed here? Oldenburg has little political ambition, it lives its own affluent life. But the group of thirty people (out of about two hundred I was able to reach via the choirs or the activists) decided to work with me, and so I decided to carry out the work.
It is much easier to direct, to channel the energy, than it is to generate it. I have realized powerful projects in active environments, with full engagement and mutual inspiration, and with a feeling that together, we can all gain new audiences and listeners, them and I. But you always need to adapt to the context and the sensitivity of the participants, sometimes to their age, too. Maybe this time around, the project should only be based on a whisper? Maybe it should only concern the voices which are not heard?
Your participants’ statement is one thing, and your “manifesto” is another. The latter seems to erase and transcend any division, and to refuse being reduced to one channel of communication. Its force is being “multilingual” when it comes to the means of artistic expression you use (performance, music, video, choreography, conceptual art, social engagement etc.). I’m not sure if I’m reading this correctly, but it seems to me that the form and the means of expression in your art are not an aim in itself – they serve to build an overarching quality, which is the process of negotiation and constant re-definition…
…of ideas, of habits, of the structures we function in, yes. Of the language we use.
Except my works really remain open. It is important for me to remain in the liminal space between meaning, narration, and abstraction. This is why I turn to sound so eagerly and frequently. It is very important to leave the audience the space for their own sensitivity and imagination. To build a new reality, a parallel space of sorts, where things work a little differently without being arranged arbitrarily. I am interested in slight displacements (for example, in ‚The Museum Theater’ you can hear three almost identical speeches by three museum curators, but they speak with a minute’s delay from one another). I like the accumulation of text, its fragments, echoes, obsessive repetitions. I am intrigued by gestures which are out of place, and therefore underscore its contexts. This makes some of my works very psychedelic in nature. But I respects the audience’s right to their space deeply. I also respect my performers. Those are the only people able to make me compromise, even though I may sometimes think that it is harmful to the work as a whole. I am not one for a despotic stance.
Your biography is another aspect which has some connotations with our theme – a nomad artist, functioning between Poland and Germany, and internationally active. Are change and travel important to you?
As for the move, learning the new language, starting from scratch in a new country when I already had an established status in Poland – that was risky, with a lot of difficult moments, but it was also refreshing. I am becoming more of a dual-nationality artist, the period of total artistic nomadism (with about three years of non-stop residencies) is, for the moment, over for me. It matters a lot to me – this moment of re-definition, of confronting my ‚Polishness’, my social and cultural habits, this moment when I must find my stance vis-a-vis my country (especially in the current political situation), and accept other cultural patterns. All this is important.
The full text on this interview can be found in Contemporary Lynx Magazine 2(8)2017