Artists and curators talking
Sonya Dyer reports from the second event of the series, which confronted the difficulties faced by artists from outside the EU coming to work in Britain. Artists Sinead ODonnell (UK) and Poshya Kakl (Iraq) used Skype to perform an action with the Cardiff audience, bridging the gap between here and there - the liminal space.
A sold-out crowd packed into an intimate space at Chapter Arts Centre. The room was set up with two sets of around twenty chairs facing each other, with two chairs for the Chair Professor Andre Stitt and artist Sinead O’ Donnell in the middle.
To the front and back of them, were two large projections, one set up for a ‘live feed’ featuring artist Poshya Kakl in Iraq (who has thus far been unable to obtain a UK Visa and is severely restricted in terms of her other travel options), the other playing a reel of Poshya’s previous performative ‘actions’ – such as tying thread to the barriers around a women’s prison (with other artists and inmates). Poshya has recently been named Kurdish artist of the year.
After introductions, the event kicked off with Professor Stitt putting forth some key ideas around liminality. He spoke about the Visa system (which is making it difficult for artists – and others – from non-EU countries to visit the UK), of visitors ‘seen as threats.’ He talked about artists creating that ‘space between’ and of liminality as ‘the place of process’ creating space for alternative social arrangements – liminality as a subversive force. Another key idea was the feminised human body – used by both of the artists taking part in this event – as a tool for liberation.
The pros and cons of our current use of technology were also mooted. Andre posited that whilst technology networks created a ‘new world’ it also allows our personal data to be tracked in a way never before possible. Technology defines us, whether we want it to or not. He finished off by posing some key questions such as:
- How – and in what way – are artists reclaiming liminal space?
- What are the consequences of denial of physical space? Of restrictions?
- Is new technology / the web the only free space left?
- Does the Internet create a positive space for interaction?
Sinead O’Donnell began discussing her and Poshya Kakl’s shared practice by announcing that she had not heard from Poshya since Saturday (the event took place on a Wednesday), which is usually a sign that the electricity is down in Iraq (cue the audible collective heart–sinking of the entire audience).
Sinead provided the background of her relationship with Poshya, how they both met as part of a project led by the artist Anne Bean (Poshya was refused a visa for travel for this project.) She related the story of when the (all female) artists involved in the project travelled to Jordan in the hope of meeting up with Poshya, only for Poshya to be refused entry into the country. Poshya had travelled chaperoned by her father, with gifts and drawings for her follow artists. They were effectively separated from her by a wall – Poshya was imprisoned, whilst the other artists waited outside, trying to get some kind of message to her. The fact that one of the artists was an Israeli was something the authorities ‘couldn’t get their heads around’. Sinead managed to get someone to smuggle a note in to her, but they were unable to get her out.
Sinead said that she felt a sense of responsibility for her friend, and talked about the physical, almost psychic nature of their relationship – they can tell each other’s moods, although they have never met.
In the space, masks of Poshya’s face and print outs of some of her messages were placed on alternate chairs. At this point, the audience were encouraged to wear their Poshya masks, whilst Sinead talked about all of the places she had taken the ‘virtual Poshyas’ –Taiwan, Ireland, Israel. She talked about the Lennon/Ono-style bed-ins and train journeys she had taken with Poshya, how she had resisted technology in the past, but now relies on it greatly.
(Meanwhile, a video of Poshya playing the flute in an Iraqi prison played in the background.)
‘If she walked through the door now I’d be scared; I’d probably run!’
Sinead said that working with overseas artists has made Poshya even more aware of how imprisoned she is. Poshya is – for example – the first woman at her school to ride a bike, breaking a cultural taboo. Sinead also related that sometimes – when Skyping with Poshya – the connection cuts out if she mentions certain words or phrases (suggesting she is under surveillance). ‘When it (their conversations) get deeper or more personal Skype gets closed down.’ The discussion returns briefly to Andre’s earlier comments re: the limitations of the ‘freedom’ technology can offer.
Poshya is online!
It’s hard to find the words to adequately describe the emotion this moment creates in me, and seemingly in the room. Palpable excitement. We see her smiling face. She texts. ‘Electricity was down’ and ‘What about actions?’
The audience waves and the Skype-enabled laptop is rotated so that she can see us. We wear the masks – ‘Oh, lot’s of Poshyas!’ she says.
We begin the action. Poshya has been working with textiles in Iraq – long pieces of yarn – and she wants to try something with us. Sinead wraps the yarn around the laptop and then – as we wear our masks – an audience member cuts the yarn so that eventually the Poshya on the screen is made visible to us again (and us to her). Poshya-in-Iraq plays traditional music, which is relayed down the line to us in Cardiff. There is a sisterly energy between the two artists. She could almost be in the next room.
After the action, the conversation continues. An audience member asks about surrogacy – how do the artists feel about Sinead being a ‘surrogate’ for Poshya?
Poshya has no problem with this. She says, ‘I don’t have a Visa. I have a freedom fantasy.’ Having a virtual presence allows her to make actions, to be there. ‘The main thing is that I am doing my art. I feel I am there with the audience; my fantasy is there, my dreams is (sic) there. I feel so sad about the situation … sometimes.’
Andre raises the issue of trust in the relationship, to which Poshya replies that she can ‘see Sinead in her dreams; hear her voice in my fantasy. I can feel her.. there is a strong connection between us.’ She says the relationship relies on imagination.
Another question – Sinead does actions for Poshya, is it ever the other way around?
Sinead says Poshya is far too busy! But the relationship is such that she can imagine it being that way in the future. Sinead reminds us that they are trying to deal with a political reality in a creative way. ‘Her work is so exciting, I knew that if I went with this (their collaboration) people would support her; the performance community would support her.’
There is another question about the power relations between the two artists, which leads to a healthy discussion as to whether Sinead actually removes herself from the performance (making it more Poshya’s work in a way) or not. There are questions about the nature of Sinead’s practice, whether this is her practice (Sinead does other types of work as well, as does Poshya).
Poshya interjects, making the point that the overseas audiences she has developed can never come to her country, ‘but I perform for them from my bedroom.’ Another question about language, performing in English – Poshya points out that her actions are a universal language, that she could hardly speak English before she met Sinead (Sinead says Poshya now corrects her English and has widened her vocabulary.) I very much enjoyed the way in which Poshya’s self-confidence subverted the (well-meaning) liberal instinct to see her only as a victim. We learn that the Kurdish word for ‘bra’ is (or sounds like)‘brother.’
With five minutes to go, Andre hands the floor over the Poshya for her closing remarks:
‘I am an artist working for humanity, not for my nationality. I dislike racial differences… It’s not important for me that I’m not performing in person. I believe performance art, any art, is an idea inside the artist. Not a product of industry. I have a warm love for the audience, and for all of you.’
And on that note, the evening comes to an end.
Sonya Dyer is a London based artist, arts consultant and writer.
First published: a-n.co.uk February 2011
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