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How Live Art is performing borders. Season Butler talks to curators Alessandra Cianetti and Xavier de Sousa

National borders seem to have short memories and, often, short tempers. Lines on maps look ancient, and therefore somehow official, and the group called ‘us’ is the one (really, just one?) which has always been here.

At the border, we are called to give account of ourselves. We may or may not pass. The manner of this passing has much to do with what’s on our passport. Where we’re from, and where we’re really from, what we’re called; and then what follows can be a call in, a welcome, or a call to halt, to return, to stay in limbo.

Surviving as someone who lives from work – as opposed to those who live from wealth – has tended, historically, to be hard. Our outgoing Prime Minister’s [Theresa May, June 2019] flagship policy position was to make this even harder. Indeed, the environment in the UK, and in other parts of the world battered by austerity, has become so hostile it seems unlikely to endure intact.

It’s in this context that the work of performingborders continues to unfold. Against the ruling class’s daily acceleration of divisive tactics, building literal and emotional walls that promise utter ruin on the ‘wrong side’, appointing real and imaginary deputies to detain, harass, interrogate (‘no, where are you really from?’), grass on, stitch up, this project intervenes in the very notion of the border. Curators Alessandra Cianetti and Xavier de Sousa tell us about their upcoming event, Curating Borderless Spaces (22 June, LADA), the pressures and possibilities the project responds to, and placing care at the centre of their work.

Season Butler: Can you give the Run-Riot readers an idea of how performingborders came about, what need the project responds to?

Alessandra Cianetti: The research for performingborders started back in 2014 and the initial focus was on the tension between Europe’s internal and external physical borders and live art’s relation to them. I was interested in exploring how live artists were responding to the dramatic consequences of ‘Fortress Europe’ but also how the changes in government policies and widespread populist propaganda where affecting artists’ practices. Also, I wanted to make sure that what I consider vital parts of both curator/artist collaborations and knowledge creation, that is, conversations, were not lost and could be shared as free and accessible resources.

After the initial period of research, performingborders started officially in February 2016 and was supposed to be a one-year online project featuring an open conversation at Central Saint Martins, London, and 12 online interviews with live artists, academics and art professionals around the relations between live art and notions of borders. When February 2017 arrived it was clear to me that I had only scratched the surface of this research, which needed to be expanded beyond physical borders to many other different understandings and lived experiences of them: cultural, juridical, racial, gendered, class, and everyday borders. The platform also needed to explore more both its off-line dimension and the tool of the digital conversation beyond the initial text-based form. This is why now, apart from asking the interviewees to respond with any mix of media of their choice, Xavier and I curated performingborders | LIVE that has been travelling to Manchester, Brighton, Nogales (US/Mexico border) and London since February 2019. performingborders | LIVE 2019 is a programme of public events and artists commissions that has been running in parallel to the website interviews to expand and re-imagine the ways we can platform live art practices that work at, across, against borders.

Xavier de Sousa: I got involved in performingborders when Alessandra came down to Brighton (where I am based) to go kayaking with me in the South East coast and interview me for the website. I don’t think either of us did particularly well on the kayaking front and we almost got our fish and chips stolen by those enormous seagulls! Nonetheless, that interview touched on a few points in relation with the queer migrant experience in the UK, and we felt there was potential here to explore an angle of the performingborders frame that could expand into other areas of borders: contemporary understandings of identity and the intersections of gender, ethnicity and sexuality with the notion of national and cultural borders. So we did a preliminary season of queer-led interviews with artists who inhabit those intersections.

At the same time, our interests started to move into a live format, as we wanted to explore different formats of what a live conversation between artists and curators who come from distinct cultural and identity backgrounds could be like. Beyond the excitement to pair up artists and curators we loved, we wanted to play with the format of the live interview and the nuances of conversations that were not yet, from our understanding, being explored enough in the UK cultural sector.

Season: What are some of the common problems you see facing artists in the contemporary climate?

Alessandra & Xavier: Finding safe spaces to live, work, create and recharge seems to be a shared issue. The artists performingborders, queeringborders, performingborders | LIVE have been engaging with since 2016, live and work in a constant state of emergency and precariousness, under daily threats of racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, economic pressures, and pervasive Home Office demands. What comes up again and again is that the art system itself is not a safe space (although it wants to be or says it is) and that is why we decided to gather brilliant minds and bodies for the Curating Borderless Spaces event at LADA on 22nd June to discuss, perform, provoke in a polyphonic day to reflect, re-imagine and learn together new ways to create ‘safe’ spaces, relations, projects and institutions in our sector. That day we look forward to the contribution of both performingborders | LIVE commissioned artists and guest artists such as yourself, Raju Rage, Bojana Janković, Marikiscrycrycry, Dana Olărescu, Kai Syng Tan and Helena Walsh.

Some of the issues surrounding the current climate are not only financial but in terms of access to resources and the possibility to make work. Since Theresa May and David Cameron’s Hostile Environment was implemented as government policy in 2012, we have seen a direct reduction of access for migrants to UK based grants, university degrees and employment. Too many of us have been told that they ‘already have English people’ being considered for the position we would otherwise be applying for. Or that our work isn’t ‘English enough’ to be taken on tour to Sunderland for instance. Or that we have to provide ‘proof of residence and passport as well as confirmation on ability to work in the UK’ to have freelance jobs. This has become quite standardised behaviour by many organisations across the UK.

Beyond this, the impact on artists’ creative aesthetics and people’s understanding of one’s practice is immense. Art is, if anything, a reflection of what is going through one’s mind. A lot of artists are now making work around the notions of borders, belonging and oppression because that is what they are going through in their lives and they want to respond to it. At the same time, many like to label work by migrant artists with diminishing connotations as ‘so of its moment’ or ‘about Brexit’ (even when the work isn’t!). It reduces understanding of the work and its intentions to a singular issue, which is very problematic, and also creates expectations that migrants have to do work that relates solely to their experience of being a migrant in the UK.

Season: What are some of the key tools, resources and alliances emerging in response?

Alessandra & Xavier: As curators…care, care, care! Care for the relationships with the artists, for the different experiences of life, openness to understand and redirect when privileges of whiteness, ableism, nationality, come in the way of how we set up art spaces and discourses. Sharing reading resources, listening to our artists, creating together and in dialogue, pushing against the constant constraints of time and resources. performingborders itself as a digital platform and series of live public events is an attempt at gathering and platforming these different discourses and to create an open and increasingly collaborative space for shared reflections.

As individual art workers we both felt the need to be part of a bigger movement that was working on a national level to change the way the needs of migrant cultural workers’ (and of cultural workers that are profiled as migrants)  – including the additional admin, economic and emotional pressures they face – are recognised and supported in our sector. For this reason we joined Migrants in Culture (MiC). Make sure you fill MiC’s national survey ‘What is the impact of the Hostile Environment on the Cultural Sector?’ by 22nd June! (or come to fill it live at Curating Borderless Spaces)

Season: I’m interested in your idea of the ‘borderless’. For some thinkers, like Glissant, borders provide distinctiveness and differentiation (though they should be porous and permeable) while for others, borders are always sites of violence. You say that your approach is informed by Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson’s theorisation of ‘borders as method’. How are you thinking about or imagining ‘borderless spaces’?

Alessandra & Xavier: We were aware that the idea of ‘borderlessness’ and also using the word itself would tap into discourses around Western fantasies around the possibility of such a place/space. Glissant’s love for passing ‘from one atmosphere to another through crossing a border’ is something that we share when we think of crossing porous, permeable and stimulating borders of knowledges, imaginations, landscapes but, as he says, those borders must not be used as weapons against migration or as immigration processes. Unfortunately, the lived experience of many artists that contributed to performingborders gave us an understanding of borders as ‘self-multiplying and overlapping processes of social division that exist and coexist “between” states dividing spaces while multiplying and reproducing them at the same time’ (Thomas Nails).

In this approach, it’s the border itself that circulates division if used as a weapon and that has a real impact on artists’ lives and works. At the same time, looking at ‘borders as methods’ (Mezzadra and Neilson) made us think at them as sites where the boundaries between the different kinds of knowledge and subjectivities are negotiated and new ones can be created. We imagine borders as this site of struggle and creation, and ‘borderless spaces’ as spaces where boundaries are not used as weapons. Borderless spaces can be seen as the ultimate utopia where the only and necessary borders for a just society are the porous and permeable ones Glissant refers to. That is a long way to come but as Angela Davis puts it, freedom is a constant struggle!

Season: Does live art have a distinctive relationship to borders (and borderlessness)?

Alessandra & Xavier: For this question we’d like to leave the stage to performance artist and activist Guillermo Gómez-Peña whose words respond to you beautifully:

‘[We] really focused on the border as a site of possibilities, as a spiral model as opposed to a dividing line and with the whole idea of the artist as a social thinker, as a binational diplomat, as an alternative chronicler [...] So I think that the border method – the border way of working as an artist – implies crossing of internal borders between multiple milieus and multiple contexts...especially those of academia, the media, activism, and the art world. [...] We began to theorize the border as a paradigm, as a theoretical paradigm that would contest Eurocentric postmodern paradigms. [...] Overlapping universes could only be articulated by an equally complex art form [...] because in many ways performance is a border language... [it] is the clash of disparate elements in the same way border is.’

As per Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s words, live artists are researchers of border spaces and international border crossers and hopefully their work will lead toward a multi-perspective understanding (and implementing!) of borderlessness.

(Alessandra compiled a Study Room Guide on the subject of Live art and borders for the Live art Development Agency in 2016 that you can access here:

Season: Do you see art, and live art in particular, as methods for ameliorating some of the deficiencies in our contemporary democratic processes? In other words, are there problems (or facets of problems) which live art is more able to approach than politics?

Alessandra: I’m always torn when asked this question. I see the ephemerality, flexibility and resilience of live art practices as a privileged way to investigate urgent current societal and political changes and struggles within and across borders. The immediacy of live art in responding, imagining, sharing and creating new visions and relations with people and places is what I find fascinating and energising every time. Change that affects the large majority (that we really need now!) comes for me from politics but live art has the power of envisioning what can be changed also when everyone says that nothing can be changed, and that is powerful.

Xavier: I think what live art is able to do is to provide a focus on the personal and the possibility to immediately respond to political actions and events. That is fascinating and it can produce incredible results that ignite conversation in the public realm. For instance, the performance artists in Croatia, such as Sanja Iveković, who responded to the fall of Yugoslavia by taking political performance actions across the country in response to the raising fascism of the time, creating national conversations, or Pyotr Pavlensky’s response to ongoing queer repression in Russia by nailing his scrotum to Moscow’s Red Square. Those were prime examples of how live art can create change and tap into a mainstream conversation.

However, the political spectrum is immense, involves extreme levels of power and greed, and requires whole communities to come together and change from within. So impact from live art is often limited to the moment, due to its ephemerality, and when it successfully manages to tap into a conversation, it is often co-opted by mainstream corporations which dilutes the purposes of the performance actions into a consumable ‘treat’.

Season: performingborders is a curatorial project. What are you looking for in work to bring under the performingborders umbrella, the curatorial aims and values or formal and aesthetic concerns?

Alessandra & Xavier: In the work that comes under the performingborders umbrella we look for artists that can challenge our understating of the ever-proliferating and multi-layered physical, conceptual and socio-political borders but also our understanding of how live art practices can work at the borders. We always look for works and artists that can inspire us with beautiful, complex, deep and unsettling visions of the world and the future while highlighting the ways the arts sector marginalises certain voices and practices.

performingborders' curatorial approach wants to expand the notion of conversation as main curatorial tool and to explore the digital possibilities for these dialogues as we did with the two performingborders | LIVE commissions for digital conversations by Burong and Critical Interruptions. But it also aims to research how to create new original work that matches the ethos of the website to share conversations and resources internationally and freely as the wonderful performances for camera we commissioned to Tara Fatehi Irani and the Istanbul Queer Art Collective do and we look forward to launch them on 22nd June at LADA.

Through the public programme of performingborders | LIVE we have also looked at how to rethink curatorial authorship and share it in the first three public events in Manchester, Brighton and London where we invited curators to invite artists of their choice to present the conversation around borders and live art in a more polyphonic way. In general we like what Natalie Bayer and Mark Terkessidis call collaborative curating in the book ‘Curating as Anti-Racist practice’ (2018)  as a way to allow for many points of access, engagement and collaborations at every level of an art project while also making sure that ‘the milieu of art professionals’ is expanded and deep attention is paid ‘to the process of knowledge formation and knowledge per se’ to avoid objectification and tokenism. A really inspiring book that we do suggest as a Summer reading!

Season: How has the project changed since its inception?

Alessandra & Xavier: Since 2016 performingborders has changed a lot, and not at all at the same time. From the very beginning it was supposed to be a platform open, porous and responsive to the curators’ research, artists encountered, and socio-political contexts so it has always been changing. In this organic way of growing from interviews, presentations, writing commissions, after the first year where interviews were only text-based, we put it to artists to decide how to answer the questions, also beyond text. The focus has shifted towards artists’ work and less and less on academics, also opening up to guest posts and field research (for example Alessandra’s residency at the Fire Station Artists’ Studios in Dublin in 2017 to research the relation to the border of live artists based in Dublin and Belfast). And obviously this year in February we brought performingborders off-line, launching performingborders | LIVE 2019 programme.

What remains a constant is the fact that the performingborders newsletter is shared on the 14th of each month as a way of keeping the focus on borders within an ever-changing ocean of artworks, stories and socio-political changes.

Season: What has surprised you in the course of this project?

Alessandra & Xavier: The generosity of all the contributors (here a list) starting with Lois Keidan (director of the Live Art Development Agency) who agreed to be the first interviewee when performingborders was just an idea and a title. Also, it is interesting that despite its slow pace and it being mainly a digital platform, over the years, performingborders has created an international community of people, thoughts, exchanges and trust and that’s encouraging and beautiful.

Also, the enthusiasm of the guests and breath of discourse at play here has been fascinating. For instance, we have engaged with conversations that explored identity from different cultural angles in what we hoped was a respectful and open way, which is difficult to be had, but very much needed.

performingborders | LIVE | Curating Borderless Spaces
Sat, June 22, 12:00 - 17:00
Live Art Development Agency - LADA
The Garrett Centre
117A Mansford Street
London E2 6LX
Information and registration (free)

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