Having experienced artist Alicia Frankovich’s work live for the first time at her Undisciplined Bodies event at Salon Populaire, Berlin, on 18 May 2011, I later spoke with the New Zealand-born, Berlin-based artist about the ideas behind and around both the event itself and her practice more broadly. We moved from a discussion of unconventional spaces of art, to ideas of the body, performing sculpture, ideas of bodily disciplining, the audience, and notions of liveness.
EW: I heard about Salon Populaire from a friend of mine in London, she suggested it in connection with my research about ‘alternative’ or ‘off’ spaces, artist-run, curator-run spaces – I’m interested in working out how they function, what they mean in terms of the machines of art.
AF: I definitely think they bring about a certain type of work that you can’t do elsewhere. They actually kind of form a practice; they invent a practice.
EW: The thing I find particularly interesting about Salon Populaire is that it’s open only one night a week, and whatever happens on that night, that’s the gallery.
AF: What I also like is they really don’t know exactly what’s going to happen until the day itself – it all just goes ahead.
EW: How did it work with you and having the Undisciplined Bodies project there, was it made for that specific night or had you already done it somewhere else?
AF: Well, I thought about an intervention where I introduce a group of moshers into the audience. So people are just kind of going about their business – talking, or something – and then all of a sudden these dancers would come and cause havoc a little bit. In the sense that they’d perform these semi-violent actions as though they were listening to heavy metal, but the room would effectively be in silence.
EW: The moshers would hear music through earphones or something?
AF: Yeah, through headset type things. Exactly. So they’re sort of kicking and their arms are going out, but of course there wouldn’t be any music in the space itself. But then I thought that this was bordering on an annoyance of sorts… I’m interested in setting up equivalences, a conversation between, I suppose, different fields of activity. So, in the piece I ended up doing you’ve got this separation between – have I digressed?
EW: No. I’m into digressions.
AF: You know, like bringing in these band members and then the red drink …
EW: What was the red drink about?
AF: I wanted to think of the red drink as a piece that really enters the body. It is sculptural and performative – the look of it, the act of taking it in, and the affect on your body. Some of my performances are born out of sculptures – I have made a piece called Revolution (Martini Fountain) which consists of two Martini bottles – one red and white, one inverted and one right-way up – that kind of cycle through this bodily liquid. The bottle was kind of strung up in a way that was emulating a performance piece I did where a curator (Emma Bugden) lifted me up and down in the space. Every five minutes I was let back down to the ground, but when I was raised up in the air I really felt how taxing it was on my arteries and on the blood flow, things like that.
EW: How long did that performance last for?
AF: It was one hour duration and there were twelve lifts where I was hauled up in the air in the middle of the gallery. While I was up Emma introduced herself, invited people in and then closed the door to retreat to the center where I was lowered back down to the ground. This occurred once every five minutes and in-between lifts we stood in silence and drank water with the surrounding audience. It was just really isolating, this awareness of the cycles of the body. On the idea of cycles, I think it’s kind of fitting that at an opening you might have a drink of some sort– like a kind of welcome. It’s also something about us all being in a collective situation.
EW: So how did Undisciplined Bodies evolve from the two-step mosher guys to what it was?
AF: Thinking it through, moshers would be a bit aggressive in this situation. From some of the ideas that were on the table I guess I came to the word ‘undisciplined’– thinking about a common behavior to do with these bodies. So, with the moshers, they would enter this salon or gallery as a form of intervention– carrying out an action that could have been perceived as perhaps exceptional to the norm behavior-wise, which might perhaps make us consider our own behavior.
EW: Yes, already when you look at the start of Undisciplined Bodies, with the ballet dancer lying on the floor, there’s this sort of subversion or change of how things are usually done. Filming her from above is also an example of this.
AF: Yeah, I feel there was kind of this stage-y element to it, which was something new for me– within the aesthetic, with the film camera, the theatrical lighting, the filming of the performance, and even leaving this absence of a stage itself.
EW: I had the impression of a kind of circus-ring happening, with you on the sidelines directing. With everything sort of moving. I think there was a really nice sense of movement, especially as the audience also moved about the space to follow each action.
AF: That kind of control, the way I made them move throughout the room for each stage of the piece, became a very strong part of the work; turning the audience into performers of sorts. For example, with the ballerina, everybody felt like they needed to stand back and hang around the edges. They were timid in front of her. With the band they were much more at home with the format.
EW: And then the new video piece, where the actor is dancing, what’s the story with that part?
AF: That is called Genet Piece. What I did was – I call it a quasi-reenactment – it’s a scene taken from Jean Genet’s only film, Un Chant d’Amour (1950). It’s a solitary boy dancing in this way where he desires a non-existent other; the excerpt I chose is actually quite a banal dance. When I got this male actor into my bedroom it became very apparent that it was more about my control over his body.
EW: You were directing him. I really liked that, the fact that we could hear your voice saying ‘do this’ or ‘do that’, or whatever.
AF: Yes, I say ‘would you mind playing with your hands or something like that’. There’s a reference coming from the real film, the man is kind of playing with this sock – this really quite unspectacular thing that becomes kind of intimate – so I referred to some of those actions as if they were my own requests.
EW: You’re sort of disciplining his body at the same time as understatedly referring to a certain historical disciplining of bodies, via Genet’s film, this actor himself, and your own (verbal) presence in the piece. All the implications that uncovers!
AF: And I guess if you use your own body in performances – well, for me it was interesting to remove myself from the scene and in particular to remove the idea of the female body and replace it with a male. There’s always this vulnerability about the female body in performances. The film is also fairly amateur in the way that the lens slides in and out of focus and also the fact that he’s not a dancer as such. This comes back to what I was saying earlier about setting up equivalences between these various bodies… Going from the ballerina to the band members, to the body of the actor in the Genet Piece, to my own body performing with the gallerist on the bicycle in Milan (SEMPRE MENO, SEMPRE PEGGIO, SEMPRE PIÙ). Going from the video projection to the behavior of the bodies at Salon Populaire, including perhaps the altered behavior after the red drink, and then comparing that with the mode of the jumping sculpture – the human activation of a figurative piece – which again is supposed to be about the idea of my body perhaps acting out in the space when I’m not there. A kind of performative action (performed by an object).
EW: It seems like the whole event functioned as some kind of organism, I guess bodies are something that keeps coming up – the body, our bodies, as metaphor for all those cycles…
AF: I think having a human (Fiona Geuß, one of the Salon Populaire curators) holding the sculpture piece seemed to give more out in addition to the mechanics of the machine. That piece exists as a sculpture, just hanging, then gets turned on and maniacally jumps up and down in a quite chaotic way. Having that performative context for a sculpture appears in a lot of my work. So it’s movement, action. But I was quite interested in removing myself physically from this particular occasion.
EW: So that’s something you’ve not done in the past?
AF: I don’t think I’ve done it for an entire event yet. I have used that concept for a show where I presented myself as a sculptural problem for the audience. I arrived in a taxi and my friends dumped me on the audience, for them to deal with as a piece, as an artwork. There was the idea of something very tactile, and not only that but something living. It was an idea of a sculpture that gave something back. I’m very much interested in breaking down that distance between the audience and the artwork and I guess that’s where my interest in performance lies, as well as thinking about how these moving objects and the movement within the camera work, and ‘how do people think about the drink?’
EW: I like to think about everyone in that space having red drink. Like what you said about a collective situation, which is in this case both internally and externally manifest. This created a good energy, I feel.
AF: I carried over some of these ideas for my recent piece at HAU 3. I got five string musicians to play from Bartok’s String Quartet Symphony No. 4, Movement No. 4, they ‘picked’ at these string instruments (a pizzacato) while reading the score lying down. They were mixed up among the audience so again we kind all formed one group, one situation… All performing, all behaving, we’re all experiencing it, all in it.
EW: Regarding equivalences, for me an interesting thing was that you’ve got this dancer, there’s an actor, there’s the musicians, there’s the artist, and then you’ve got this sculpture that comes alive by Fiona’s activation, and then of course the audience – who are like a huge performer – and it’s almost like, within this circus thing, everyone has their part to play but at the same time it is very open and fluid as to how those parts might transpire. With that in mind, it felt like we were all moving – a circular, cyclical kind of movement – but at the same time, thinking, ‘what’s going to happen next?’
AF: I think the architecture of the space is a big part of that, too. How to overcome it and bring about ideas of how we’re positioned and how experience is created by space. When the audience come in they must react to what’s happening, and what’s happening is spatial and social as much as it is about these actions that are taking place.
EW: I thought it was interesting that while the ballerina performed, the camera looked directly down on her – a bird’s eye view that the audience had no access to.
AF: Yes, the only person privy to that view was the camera, which is yet another story. In a way the video piece becomes like a compositional ballet or choreography for the floor, because your ‘frame’ is a bit like a stage to work within. That will happen with the ballerina film in a similar way. In that earlier video piece, which was of the performance I did with a gallerist in Milan, we kind of pummel the sculpture-object; we destroy it together. The idea is around the artist and the gallerist showing a piece – they deliver it, they exhibit it, they work with it, and they kind of destroy it …
EW: Your whole Salon Populaire event is, I guess, movement; we can see the links between each part as we move through time and space. It also felt like it could have been a whole exhibition compressed into one evening – a more traditional gallery show that was kind of thrown in all directions for just one night. In terms of bodies forming in a (architectural) space, when one thinks of society more broadly (of all our disciplined bodies), all movements are being dictated by the spaces we exist in. When you think about art and the way we’ve been trained to experience art, experience the gallery, and what we’re expecting/expected to get out of it – these alterations and activations you have initiated are incredibly vital.
AF: To think how we’re expected to perform in a space.
EW: For me that was the thing that was most exciting about Undisciplined Bodies – you really weren’t exactly sure what your role was, what was going to happen, where we were going next.
AF: What the expectations were.
EW: I wondered how much you had directed the band and how much of the performance was theirs, for example the fairy lights placed over their bodies.
AF: The lights were the band’s idea. I just said ‘I want you to play’. I didn’t want to impose anything except for the physical limits of them playing their set lying down. You get to witness them as a different kind of body; you see them physically as bodies playing music, not just musicians playing music.
EW: Yes, it’s something I also thought regarding the band; your body is accustomed to playing in a certain way, the routine of that, which you probably don’t think about so much. But as soon as you subvert that custom something very interesting happens – this disciplining is suddenly rendered present. Likewise with the dancer. The forces of gravity are working on you very differently – and it’s challenging.
AF: Those certain freedoms they would normally have when they can perform in mid-air, they are suddenly hit by the floor itself. What are the implications of that?
EW: Are there pieces within this, or is the whole thing, something you will continue to develop or was it specifically for the Salon?
AF: I’m certainly interested in carrying on with this idea of multiple stages within an exhibition experience. That idea is quite connected to the theatre. I guess that’s what the Salon allows, a context where all these things can occur in one occasion so that there’s a sense of liveness to them – even in showing a video. That’s why I was interested in filming the piece as well, because you get this hyper-awareness of the live body when you’re filming from a live performance – another kind of energy. I’m interested in the spontaneity the live event involves. Anything can happen.