by Amy Bell
photos by Jasmijn Slegh
Nina Kurtela is a Croatian visual and performance artist based between Zagreb and Berlin. After the Performing Gender research week sharing at Maastricht’s Bonnefantenmuseum, she discussed her resistance to bodily representation, endings and her passion for opening up interpretive spaces for audiences.
Amy Bell: So far many of the sketches you’ve made in this research week have centred on the invisibility of your physical presence. You’ve provoked something like imagined or expected performances that don’t happen in a way we might usually recognise in a dance context which is so preoccupied with the primacy of the virtuosic body. For the museum sharing you created a scenario where groups of visitors found themselves in a room of paintings and were then plunged into silent darkness for a short period. I’m interested to know what the connection is between this strategy of your physical absence and any thoughts you’ve been having about gender and sexuality.
Nina Kurtela: I think really if we are obviously stating this idea of gender in this project we are even more confirming stereotypes. So to reduce that I think it’s more interesting to look at it as taking away all the labels, taking away all the classifications, taking away the body so that we are somehow at the beginning, zero, empty, there is nothing but neutral space. So we start again and we have this new potential of really giving the audience space. Because if I would put a body, any kind of body, that would be very clear and by removing it and leaving this open space of emptiness and expectation I feel it creates the potential for different solutions or different ways of looking. Maybe my bigger interest is in creating this space of potential in which visitors somehow confront themselves as viewers. This is interesting for me because then it becomes about you, the audience.
AB: I wondered if this is also a conscious strategy for resisting or avoiding the objectification that I think it’s safe to say all performers feel, but I think female performers often feel more.
NK: Yeah, it is also maybe true that I’m trying to avoid this labelling or representational way of presenting my body on stage even though it’s really hard for me because I really like to perform, I like to be on stage, I really enjoy to move and to dance. I also enjoy this exchange of energy on stage and but I’m really not interested in this representational ‘ta da!’ way of performing in my own work and I always try to be as neutral and natural as possible on stage.
AB: Since you feel less representational as a performer and you enjoy moving, don’t you think there’s still a way to employ your physicality towards saying what you want to say?
NK: Well in some ways it would be much easier for me to move, you know? But I like to put myself in very hard situations, to find new solutions. Also I think dance very often doesn’t deliver my conceptual idea clearly. I mean I can come and dance but then, why? What I am trying to say to you apart from just enjoying myself being on stage? You know? Why use dancers in certain situations? And I love to dance and to watch dance it but it’s not the right medium for my conceptual decisions…. yet! I don’t know if I will find a way to use dance in a way that satisfies me, but if I do, I will do it!
AB: Watch this space! I think these questions, ‘Why a body? Why movement?’ are present for a lot of dance artists but I feel for people like you who are coming to this project with more of a visual arts background these question are even more urgent.
NK: Well yes, but I am also really interested in looking at dance and movement in a broader perspective so for me dance is not just a moving body on stage. Everything is dance, everything is movement, when we’re standing still we’re still moving because our blood is moving… When I am absent it’s also choreography for me because the audience have their own way to reorganise themselves in the group, there is expectation, there is imagination, everything is happening, it’s actually social choreography as well. Like during my sketch at the museum there were different reactions in different groups. Sometimes people would couple immediately when the dark came, in one group they stood in a circle and then in another there was such a beautiful scene because everybody was gathered together looking at the fire escape light. There’s a real social aspect to that.
AB: Forgive me, I’ll play devil’s advocate little bit,
AB: Do people ever say to you, particularly about the works which are about absence, ‘Well but you didn’t do anything, you didn’t craft anything or you didn’t make a statement’?
NK: Yesterday’s sharing at the museum was a kind of radical experiment for me. People were confused, it’s true, but that’s great, I like that. I like these questions and in fact I got some very interesting feedback. Even though for me it felt like the sketch didn’t really work, because the conditions were not really clear or right for this kind of proposal, there was obviously some kind of curiosity from the visitors and I was happy in the end. I learned a lot.
AB: But it seems to me that the craft in this kind of work is in the framing of the situation, in controlling the way the visitors are invited to take part, either explicitly or implicitly and this can’t really be rehearsed ahead of time. So did you learn how better to approach this?
NK: Oh yes, it was really ridiculous, myself and the technician standing in this little cupboard operating the lights every time for five minutes and these five minutes were the longest five minutes I ever experienced, you know?! I was trying to feel and sense the timing because, as you say, it’s all about time and framing the experience. We were trying different things as well and sometimes it worked, sometimes not, but it’s something I’m curious about.
AB: And it allowed you to switch around the power of viewer and artist?
NK: Yes, it’s really about the viewers. They really confront themselves, they are in the dark, they are together and then they are thinking. One man said my sketch made him feel the paintings in the room were looking at him, rather than the other way around and I think that’s beautiful and exactly what I wanted to achieve.
AB: I guess it’s safe to say then that you’re very sceptical or resistant to traditional modes of commodifying art, you’re more interested in experiences than producing objects.
NK: Yeah that’s true. I guess I’m just more interested in process and research then a final product. It is also nice when a product happens, but not as a priority, not as the thing that I’m aiming for. It’s more valuable for me that the process of creation is not under pressure and that there is a time of actually learning, experiencing and collecting knowledge.
AB: But that seems to be what you also enjoy to open up for the viewer, for them to experience something happening in time, the unfolding of a process of some sort.
NK: Yes, very often I’m interested in constant change, in duration, transformations and somehow I’m always very afraid of endings. To deliver a final product for me somehow it’s over, you know? Making things finish can kill them.
NK: I like to keep things unfinished so that they still have potential to change, transform, move, expand. I also realise that in my art practice I’m really curious about setting situations that I actually don’t have control over so I construct the situation as some kind of frame, but then the circumstances, the people, the landscape, the weather, the time is actually shaping the thing. This is exciting for me, that I don’t direct it, that it has its own life to develop further and of course it’s always very risky because you never know what’s going to happen. It can be a failure as well, but this is also good, I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem when things are restricting me, when things are done.
AB: Is that sense of death and restriction connected to the very traditional idea of production moving towards an object which is a commodity to be bought and sold?
NK: Yes, but I think there’s a very logical explanation for that. We have a natural fascination with objects, an evolutionary attachment to them since the objects we invented were the things that made us survive, tools, weapons and so on. And I don’t say that I don’t have that fascination, some of my processes also end up in the shape of objects, but it’s not the only or the main goal for me. Today we live in a society of hyper consumer production and we have so much garbage, so much trash in this world. I feel I don’t need to make another piece, I don’t need to add to this mountain. For me it’s more interesting to really create experience and to exchange knowledge and ideas. I think it’s more about modes of creation, like how do you create, how do you relate to practice as an artist? The final ‘thing’ is a consequence of that. I feel that art has to be socially engaged, so it has to have this aspect.
AB: What do you mean by socially engaged? Do you mean involving audiences directly in the work as you did in your sketch the other day or in terms of having a kind of political agenda that motivates your work?
NK: I think it’s both. The example of the sketch I made at the Bonnefanten is very political. Letting the audience take over, as I did, is a political statement. So I think one doesn’t go without the other. It’s very interconnected for me. But I also think that whatever you do has an impact on the surroundings so it’s political anyway, it’s social, you cannot avoid that. Even [at the sharing] we had an audience there, we had people coming, taking their time, walking around, being engaged with us. That was a form of social engagement. It was a political decision as well to go to this institutional location and do that. So this is also why we have a responsibility as artists and I take it as a big responsibility somehow, this position.
AB: And is part of your politics to do with resisting the hierarchies that often exist, particularly in a very traditional way in performance? Specifically I mean the idea of the author, performer as the central figure, as the one who speaks some sort of truth…
NK: … as the genius. Yeah definitely. But there is a long history of this…
AB: Yes, of course since the sixties and Barthes’ Death of the Author, maybe earlier. But the artist as the central figure in any given work is still fairly pervasive in dance, right? That’s maybe also what you’re resisting with your physical absence?
NK: Yes, being this central figure of authority definitely something that I’m not interested in. Also I’m not interested in representation which is something I felt was a little bit expected from us during this week.
AB: In what way?
NK: I felt a little bit of pressure to create something that was assumed to be very representational of the body, of our position in the museum.
AB: It’s true that Peggy [Olislaegers, workshop leader] has proposed the artist’s own body as the site of origin of this week’s research, but each day you’ve found a different way to try to challenge that. But actually I think in some ways your interest in opening up process and something which develops over time, not necessarily in a linear way, seems to connect with rather than oppose the premise of the project, that gender or sexual identities are always in process and happening in time. So in a way I feel making a sketch to address one’s identity is not necessarily about representing a kind of monolithic, singular thing although it might feel like that is the invitation sometimes.
NK: You have a point really. And I think it’s interesting to see for example when Selm [Wenselaers] came [and led Lost in Transition, a session on gender fluidity]. This was really open without defining, really raising questions about this. But Selm’s session was much more interesting for me, for example, than when we had the people coming from the local LGBT community which was really representing ideas of identities.
AB: Because they presented quite fixed identities whereas Selm was questioning the basic possibility of identity?
NK: Yes. It was very categorising because we went in a circle, ‘So you are gay, you are straight’.
AB: But we didn’t have to introduce ourselves in those terms at all. It was possible to sidestep that categorisation altogether and say, ‘fixed categories are not really relevant for me, they’re not interesting for me, it’s not really who I am’.
NK: I know. It’s just this whole presentation really didn’t make me think about anything new. Did you have any interesting ideas after that, or it was just like, stating the obvious?
AB: For me it was interesting to understand what a gay or trans experience might be like in this particular context. But in terms of gender or sexual identity I think it’s a very individual thing and some people find it very true and very helpful to put a name to it or to identify with a certain community or way of being.
NK: I don’t judge that. I think it just didn’t trigger any interesting discourse. It was also a little bit like exoticising them, you know? Like, ‘We bring a transgender woman here, look at her life!’
AB: Well I think that slightly disregards each person’s own agency. I think Willemein, the transwoman finds it meaningful and important to meet groups in this way. But I suppose it’s true that there’s always a risk of seeming to represent a group of exotic ‘others’ when you present to a circle of people who do not belong to that same group.
NK: Yes! And Willemein said herself that when she goes to spread awareness in schools she has this problem.
AB: Yes, she said she worried that ironically she may be doing some sort of disservice to her community because she might inadvertently be supporting negative stereotypes rather than dismantling them.
NK: Yes and I feel that we’re doing the same here. They became ‘the others’ and we are all the same. Here we are all doing the same things, we are living in this world, having the same problems, some different problems too but like this they become someone else, the others, the ones who have to justify that. I mean come on! Especially to us? I don’t need that. I need some more interesting discourse around this topic, no? I have friends who change gender, most of my friends are gay in Berlin. I know what that means.
AB: So perhaps for you it would be better to assume some prior knowledge of diversity and go past that into something a little bit…
NK: …more progressive.
AB: Yes and also maybe something that’s not so explicitly only about diverse identities.
NK: Exactly, exactly.
AB: In other Performing Gender cities it’s been interesting to look at whether artists deal with the topic of gender and sexuality as the primary content of their work, as secondary content or if it’s purely incidental. I wonder which category of those you’re interested in.
NK: I think I’m in the middle which means I think I’m always very interested in a certain context and the social surrounding of my work and this helps me to relate to a topic. I feel like being like a cultural anthropologist, you know? Trying to understand the surroundings, the society, the landscape, the mentality and everything in a certain environment is always somehow a trigger for me to create. But I am trying to avoid the direct implication of some group or target because, again, as soon as you say ‘this is that’, then it means that there is also something that is ‘not that’ and so you are making divisions and I’m really not interested in dividing people but maybe drawing them together.
Performing Gender, Maastricht, March 2014