Overdosing on Performance Art in Bern

by Jörn J. Burmester and Janne Saarakkala

In the previous issue we launched the new ICE HOLE strategy, to produce issues in cooperation. The issue #4 you have just opened was done in cooperation with BONE 18 Performance Art Festival that was held in Bern, Switzerland, 1.-6. December 2015. All the videos in the issue were shot during the festival and all writers were involved in the program in one way or another. The festival theme was “Schools of… connectivity, relatedness, networks of Performance Art” and we decided to follow the same path in this issue. It is about teaching and learning Performance Art – is it possible, and if so, how?

Like the other contributors, we, the editors, participated in BONE 18 while gathering material and assembling content for ICE HOLE. We found ourselves in a postmodern limbo between performance and documentation where everything we did was potentially a performance, or a documentation of one, or both at the same time.

JÖRN: Janne, you shot the material for the opening video, which is a mix from a performance by Ann Liv Young and the students from HKB Hochschule der Künste Bern, Scenic Arts Practice. Let’s take into account that this performance was the result of a workshop Ann Liv held with acting students: what looked spontaneous, full of overflowing emotions, clothes being shed and live directing, might actually have been a carefully crafted exercise in “mise en scene”. What do you think is Ann Liv’s approach to teaching performance, and, in your opinion, how does this relate to the formats of performance art presented by the other artists in Bern?

JANNE: Young set herself and her style of performing as a model for the students and I find it a viable way of teaching any kind of art. One has to be personal as an art teacher. If you have let’s say ten of these three day workshops with different artists, the students will get an idea of ten different ways to do performance art. As a learning process I found it important that Young was on stage herself. Because only then, I presume, the students could see her in real action. Her typical style of confrontation with the audience cannot be rehearsed. One has to have an innate urge to do it. I think it was very clever from Young not to force the students to start the squabble, even though they were rehearsing provocation in the performance. She did it herself. To me it was Young’s way to show the students what her art is all about, take it or leave it.

I also participated a workshop of sorts in BONE 18, the Fluid Academy arranged by you, Jörn. I made a corresponding on video from that four day process for this issue. In hindsight I think it included the dialectic of freedom and limitations that you point out in your wonderfully autobiographical article ”This is the FLUID ACADEMY. USE IT”. I mean you arranged the setup and invited the guest professors you liked. I felt inspired in Fluid Academy but also challenged – which to me is a sign of a learning process taking place. I must say, I agree with academic performance art student Jürgen Bogle, who writes in this issue that the way to learn Performance Art is simply to do it yourself, see other people do it and discuss it, not only with experts but also with regular viewers. And as we can see in Black Market International (BMI) video interview, all the great giants think along the same line. Bogle finds a festival a good learning ground to put academic knowledge into practice. But even a festival isn’t a randomly free learning platform. Somebody has chosen the artists and their performances in the program. It is a dialogue between limitations and freedom again, like you write. How do you see Dani Ploeger‘s article ”Teaching in Violent Times” in this light?

JÖRN: In his text as well as during his performance at Fluid Academy, Dani opens up a whole additional set of freedom and limitations that we need to discuss: Those brought about by situating performance art in an academic setting. Traditionally we used to think of the university as a free space for independent thinkers to exchange knowledge and challenge positions. To actually do new thinking, invent new ways to do things. A space like that could be great to develop one’s art in the way Jürgen describes it: To make and to watch and to discuss performances. In recent years, however, universities have been converted into machines for churning out the maximum amount of scared, docile worker bees as quickly as possible, turning teachers into something akin to workers on a production line. I think Dani’s approach mirrors that well. The question is, can the framework of the university with all its limitations, or maybe even because of them, still provide a free space helpful to develop personal strategies for an art as individual as performance art? It puts a lot of strain on the teachers, who permanently have to fight back the authorities who want to regulate this free space. I’m reading Dani’s contribution like you, one almost has to recreate oneself in the romantic image of the terrorist in order to assume open spaces in todays academia and, by extension, in todays world in general. Resist the fake rationality that turns learning into a profit center.

Speaking of romantic: I like our small collection of one or two minute performance videos, all of which were done by artists connected to the festival who volunteered to do something with a very specific book. To use Madame Bovary was your suggestion. How does Gustave Flaubert‘s novel connect with the issues we are discussing here?

JANNE: In no way, actually. When you said a book would be a good object to make a short video I immediately thought of Madame Bovary before I even had read the novel. I just liked the name. And after getting to know the novel, I agree with Flaubert, who defended his creation against allegations of promoting unchastity by saying: ”Emma Bovary, c’est moi.” As a western consumer I think I am Madame Bovary. Talking about it, one last thing. The secret agent of the issue did not only do a Madame Bovary video for us, she also interviewed Black Market International members. Besides she appears briefly in the correspondent video from Fluid Academy and in the opening video with Ann Liv Young and the students. We are talking about performance and video artist Evamaria Schaller. She was in Bern to document Black Market International’s 30th anniversary that brought to the festival program outstanding group performances, solos and duos. At the moment Schaller is editing her documentary film about BMI in BONE 18 that we are looking forward to publish on the 1st of September. Thank you, Evamaria, for your cooperation!

JÖRN: Yes, totally. I’m looking forward to the extension of this issue by her film in September. We’ll have a re-launch and that will be great. Let me ask you for your conclusions. After experiencing the festival mostly through the camera lens, and editing all the stuff that people have said and wrote about in our issue of teaching and learning performance art, what is your take. Can it be taught? And if so, how?

JANNE: Like Julie Andrée T. and Helge Meyer say in BMI interview video, yes it can be taught. It is being taught all the time as we speak! It can be taught and learned in academies. We need artists to take the burden of full-time jobs in the institutions to fight against authorities so that sensible contexts for learning performance art can exist, in which artists like me can then teach a little here and there, like Ploeger suggests. But institutions are not indispensable. I’m actually learning right now, with you, Jörn. I believe performance art, or any art, or anything, can be taught and learned anywhere people meet with a genuine interest.