Joanna Matuszak's Lecture

Joanna Matuszak’s Lecture on March 21, 2015

We in the west always have our presumptions about the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet living. When I first invited Joanna to speak I was thinking about the shape of On Occasion being this space where we could learn and think about different genres of public performance from multiple cultural perspectives. My plan was that On Occasion would present a diversity of cultural perspectives and performance genres. Our first debate came at the stage of writing the press release and different interpretations of Soviet, Post-Soviet and the term Russia. Having been born into the Cold War and being highly aware of Gorbachev’s election and the changes that followed – I wasn’t so aware of the new terminology or shall we say the academically correct terminology when referencing what we call now the Russian Federation. Also since the invitation of Joanna to speak was sent the tension between the USA and the now president, Putin has risen and I am personally fearful that we are digressing back into a cold war climate. And in creating a space for greater cultural understanding maybe a good place to start for both sides as maybe there are no sides and just lots of creative people trying to make art and be free in their own lives. Sometimes when we start to see our similarities we can have greater respect and that is an aspect that Adam Rose drew attention to in the workshop.

Joanna Matuszak by Carron LittleMatuszak’s lecture started with a brief history of the USSR working from the October Revolution in 1917 and the collapse of Russia to the different artistic climates under the various Soviet Communist leaders. Starting with The Nest performance in 1974, this piece was very participatory – the public was invited to sit in a nest and created this moment of closeness. There were no instructions and it seemed apparent in all the pieces between 1970’s and 1992 were group collaborations. There was one group that travelled around the train system visiting 42 stations. They documented each station – how many guards were on duty, the conversations they had with the guards and there was a leaflet sent out to friends stating where they could meet at specific locations during this performance. Matuszak showed a transcript from one of the conversations that documented a dialogue with a train station guard about taking photographs. The guard said they weren’t allowed and they said but tourists are allowed and his response was but they are not from here, ‘But we are at home why can’t we take photos’ and the response was ‘You are not allowed’.  That one transcript reveals a lot in terms of how the people were policed and how critical government control over the population and let’s not forget these forms of censorship happen here in America too. It comes down to fear and governmental fear of artist’s as they are the people in society who they cannot control but what happens when you do let people become free and let artists express themselves freely? You create a more educated society, that is less prone to violence because educated people are more articulate and will use words rather use violence. When people are oppressed they are angry and we can see that revealed in the work of the artists who from the nineties up until now seem very angry, in Post-Soviet Performance Art.

Matuszak's lecture

There is a sharp contrast between the work prior to 1992 that was made in collective groups and the audience was friends or people who were part of the group compared to the 1990’s to date that spans a range of individuals, mostly male creating action-based works. Artists like Alexandr Brenner and Pavlenski who in 2013 nailed his scrotum to the Red Square in a piece entitled ‘Fixation’. This piece was performed a year after Putin’s re-election. Putin had been in power from 2000 to 2008 after Yeltsin’s resignation on December 31, 1999. Putin served his term and as prime minister in the years following 2008 and worked with his friend to change the rules so he could stand for re-election in 2012. Is this performance making a statement about Putin’s ‘fixation’ with ‘Power’? The artist has been hospitalized in a psychiatric ward since and in Pavlenskii’s most recent performance decided to chop off his ear. These simple, yet powerful one gesture acts are emblematic of a person who is desperate, who is so restricted he mirrors the oppression in society. One of the questions at the end was is there any difference between a person running naked onto a football field and these gestures by Pavlenski? And a discussion grew out of this about how these actions are spectacles played out in the western media as they are invisible in the country of origin. Another example would be Pussy Riot who are again working as a collective growing out of the Soviet Union tradition yet their audience is the a western public – presented through the western media. I would say much like Pavlenski’s work these performance are staged as a political gesture. And there is a long tradition of public performance being used as a method of raising political awareness. If we think about Emily Davison, the Suffragette who threw herself in front of King George V’s horse on June 4, 1913 at the Derby Race sustaining injuries that killed her four days later or the women who chained themselves to the fences outside the Houses of Parliament in 1918 to demand the freedom to vote. Or to 1969 when women in the UK and America burned their bras outside Miss World competitions sparking the feminist movement of the 1970’s. These often simple gestures come out of this need to campaign and draw attention to political oppression.

Adam Rose

In the workshop led by Adam Rose we were invited to think of a gesture, one action and then choose if we wanted to do a collective gesture or an individual. All the performance artists decided to do solo gestures and the people who don’t usually perform decided to do a collective gesture. The collective group became a group of ten people and they decided to walk in two lines through the Cultural Center. They walked blending in normally before they started jumping, this simple gesture made people stop and look. After climbing the stairs they waved to each other and then they came down the stairs dusting the banisters as they came down. Me and Brianna headed into Randolph Square I went up to people who were sat on their own and shook their hands and said ‘Welcome’, I came up to the entrance of the Cultural Center and there was a group entering just at that moment and I stood at the doorway and welcomed everyone who came into the building. We then walked in the other way and switched roles. Brianna sat down opposite an older white man and took off her headscarf and massaged her hair – this action lasted about 10minutes and was very powerful. He of course tried not to look but he was being performed to in this intimate one to one space. We then left the space to meet up with the collective group. Sara and Ji went outside the Cultural Center – they were both wearing puffy jackets one was blue and one was yellow. Sara had decided to fall and Ji had decided to write on people’s bodies as his gesture. Having decided to do individual gestures they decided to collaborate. Everytime Sara fell, Ji wrote a Chinese character on her hand – the character meant positive. Sara had first decided she was going to fall 50 times, then after 50 Ji persuaded her to do 75 and then after she reached 75 he encouraged her to do 100. After one hundred she stopped. In our conversation after our public actions we had an enlightening conversation about audience in relation to all the gestures. Brianna and I produced the only pieces that directly engaged the public and this took risk on our parts to be brave to enter into the public’s meta-space. The collective group didn’t interact with the public or notice them and Sara and Ji’s performance became these two simple gestures performed with a fourth wall that remained in tact.  The fourth wall becomes a safety net in a way when performing in public and sometimes it is the scariest thing to cross in the invisible divide between you and a stranger.

Adam Rose Workshop

The question I posed in the first paragraph thinking about our similarities and what is interesting to me is the abstraction of these single performative gestures by Brenner or Pavlenski are similar to action painting in American Abstractionism. Adam introduced the idea of the abstract gesture and what happens as this gesture becomes repeated, as in the case of Sara and Ji’s? It becomes all the more abstract, like a ‘Becket-tian’ moment. In discussing it with Sara after the gesture of falling was a direct response to the Matuszak’s lecture. And in turn this abstract gesture although is live repetition, becomes a reflection of death in the living. Let me elaborate – living under an oppressive regime becomes a living death, a death of the living and when artists are oppressed then society becomes stuck in mental decay. And perhaps this is when artists take desperate measures and I would argue Pavlenski nailing his scrotum or cutting off his ear is an example of desperation in living under an oppressive regime.

For more images from the workshop and lecture please visit the On Occasion Blog