By Valeria Romagnini
Venice: GAAF publishing (2013). Hardcover, pp. 432, ISBN 978-94-90784-13-3.
The full publication can be downloaded as pdf here.
Andrea Pagnes (1962, Venice, Italy) and Verena Stenke (1981, Bad Friedrichshall, Germany) work together as VestAndPage since 2006. Their performances are socially or environmentally orientated and originate from a here-and-now interpretation of the fragility of the individual and its surroundings.
Valeria Romagnini: The theme of freedom is part of many of your works, although often in different ways. In an interview you stated, "The fact that we always work as a duo, involves that we form a bipolar sphere. What exists together reciprocally influences each other, it infects each other positively and negatively" and this thought could be enlarged to a social system. Martin Luther King stated "your freedom ends when my freedom starts". What do you think about this statement, do you see this similar or can you redefine your and the other’s freedom?
Verena Stenke: This phrase from our interview is by German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, from his investigations about Micro- and Macrospherology in the trilogy Sphären, which inspired us significantly for our movie trilogy sin∞fin The Movie. I agree that there is no freedom at any stage of life, also considering the discourse about conditioning, manipulation and dependence. No decision is taken liberally. Personally, I am very fine with this, I enjoy my responsibilities that inter-crossing spheres bring along, and those that I do not enjoy I try to avoid in life. Our investigation about freedom courses mainly around the question if freedom actually is fundamental for happiness, or better, to ensure a state of wellbeing. We have met and worked with poor people, physically or mentally chained people, people with different abilities. We saw that many of them are more serene than any so-called free, normally abled man. They are considerably freer on a spiritual level. It is also not a coincidence that a 'free' man once sad: "Free me from all freedom." Freedom of the heart and soul can bring serenity, but if we encage our souls (and only oneself does this, no one else), all outer freedom won’t help.
VR: Since you do performances together, what does it mean to you to be human both as individual and as a collective entity?
VS: I perceive myself as a human in a constant spherical interchange with and influence of others, humans, surroundings, conditions. I try to respond to this, through being open to all encounters, collisions and embodiments. Being human is a very 'human' idea first of all. For me it’s not about seeking perfection, rather it’s all about making the best out of our time, for the others and us. Mistakes are part of being human, we are an erroneous species, and it takes us a long time to learn. We are born completely disabled; the moment when we exit the womb we are the less developed species among all. Any other species can stand up and walk after a short time, but it takes years for us human to learn the very basics of independent survival. And we’re still questioning about freedom and independence? Maybe because we are born so dependent, we have the illusion that this could be changed later, once we know how to walk, eat, talk and earn money. We have a lot of possibilities of expression and significant influence, but if I’d have a free wish, I’d like that in heaven it’s all about music, the most beautiful thing human ever created.
VR: Do you see the body of the other as a tool to question your own body?
VS: Not directly, at least not in the corporal sense. Of course the (body-) mind and the (body-) psyche of the other/s are questioning each other’s positions continuously. Any physical body in a shared space is another subject to relate to with open senses: not as a tool, but more as an occasion, a potential to generate something new. What inspires and challenges me is the mind-set and spiritual reach of another being, might it be my partner, or the audience members: there lies the library of experience, which can be opened to take out and present something. The physical body is the one to encounter more easily, but also the most superficial, while encountering the mind and spirit of the other is demanding, and much more full of expectations.
Andrea Pagnes: It makes me think a lot: passing by a single person, or when engulfed into a mass, the so-called collective body, however—at least to my eyes—is always composed by individuals. I have found the quote "My body asking your body questions" that performance artist Helena Goldwater wrote in the occasion of her participation at the Venice International Performance Art Week, very pertinent and indicative. I’ve worked for years in social theatre, training, writing for, and playing on stage with differently-abled, down syndrome affected and psychic patients. I’ve learnt from them firstly how lucky I am to be born as I am, and then how important it is to become outgiving and humble, strong and tender at the same time, and more, how precious is the gift of authenticity and how difficult is it to reach it, keep it, and metabolize it. I learnt from being close to and looking after bodies of people I loved while decaying and dying. I watch and observe, wherever I am, bodies, hands, faces, eyes, postures. Bodies distressed, shaking, relaxed. Ways of talking, arguing, screaming, looking, glancing, moving. Bodies suffering because of hard life, with their injuries inflicted, encountered or inherited. Bodies hammered by age, bent over, serene or angry. Bodies scared, excited by stamina, bodies in rut, stoned by cheap alcohol, or smashed by street drugs. Anorexic bodies. Bodies built with steroids. Empty palms, dirty frozen finger tips begging for a dime, smiles full of joy, smirksmanifesting hypocrisy, lifted cheeks, lips pumped with Botox. By seeingthe body of the other, I’m still wondering who I am.
VR: Can you find space for yourself when you are performing?
VS: Performing is being in my space.
AP: Which is: your space, my space, and anybody’s space.
VR: You develop live performance actions in prominent locations around the world. It seems that location within space and time has an important value in your performance. Which are the criteria for the choice of a specific location?
VS: The locations have always chosen us, and we only followed. We don’t follow a script, neither in life nor art. We just attempt to be vigilant and approachable to that which is offered.
AP: This provided us already with many determinant experiences, which we would have never imagined before. We are open to be constantly surprised.
VR: How do you perceive time passing during your performance?
AP: Time = 0. Dilated space as if liquid.
VS: As with anything worked on with deep concentration, commitment and passion, time looses numbers. It’s fascinating how a seemingly unmanageable 24-hour performance passes just in a wink, once the intensity raises. People tell us that for the audience the experience is similar. It’s a matter of density.
VR: Is there any kind of spiritual dimension within your performance and if so, what is this spiritual dimension?
VS: We don’t represent. We offer what we are. We do not represent ourselves in a state other than the one we are in, here and now. The spiritual body is as essential as the mental and physical one for us, in life and our performance, and so is the acceptance of the unabridged state of the moment. This way we can trigger elements that are already stored inside our inner library, we activate them, and therefore open up hidden treasures. Many times we are impressed what this process unveils, in ourselves as well as in the public. It is like digging within a sort of genetic memory, the memory of the subtle 'bodies'. In Sufism culture, memory is considered a sense, just as sight and taste.
AP: I perceive my spirit as my saviour, guardian, engine, protector, maybe my closest friend. I’ve learnt how to listen at it, and still I have to learn better. Paradoxically, I feel like to be my spirit apprentice. I’ve learnt to trust through my spirit, and more, to trust it. Therefore, for what I can say, especially when I perform, it is as if I am in a spiritual journey. So to perform is for me a spiritual dimension undoubtedly. I also must say that while performing I have many times the sensation that the actions I make are part of some rituals, or better, splinters, memories of rituals, which come from very far. Specifically, before performing, I do Dynamic Breathing exercises, though not always, and, yes, I repeat in my mind a personal prayer.
VR: Tehching Hsieh once said in an interview: "I wanted to do one piece about human beings and their struggle in life with each other. I find being tied together is a very clear idea because I feel that to survive we’re all tied up." Many people seem to have this feeling to be tied to a job, to a person, to a place, to a situation. Do you feel being tied to anything or to your partner?
VS: Peter Sloterdijk seems to think that the idea of the individual is something that society wants to uphold for confining ourselves into bubbles, but that in reality is an illusion, as what exists together, influences each other—good or bad, wanting or not. I too think that the individual is an illusion, but less than perceiving this as a cage or being tied up, I perceive this as a being tied together. I think it’s a great thing to have a connection, to share and be linked (really, not just virtually).
VR: The request for recognition, attention, love, is what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan seems to consider to be the core of human activity: the capability-possibility to love only once you get to know the love of another for yourself. According to this, then, an individual, 'I' am able to do anything to be loved and to understand the extent to which the other is able to pull him- or herself to 'me'. To what extent do you see certain behaviours and the need to control the body, and possibly other people’s bodies in you as well as in your performance?
VS: We are not interested in manipulating, attracting or fascinating people, as any recognition based on this would be temporal. We are searching for the eternal notions contained into the ephemeral. We want to touch the bottom of the well, open the boxes and tear out all the hidden treasures and secrets, and this can be done onlythrough mutual trust, not through manipulation or control. We are interested in creating a common ground together with the public, to openly confront ourselves with ourselves, with our true Selves, and discovering something previously unknown about ourselves—in the best case something beautiful, a notion of compassion or liberation that we were not able to unleash before, or even a negative notion which we face more clearly now, to reflect upon and maybe transform into something positive. We watch you in your eyes and want to see your true story, just as we offer ours to you.
VR: Were there ever any frictions when it appeared that one of you was not able to carry out a part of the performance that was planned? How do you deal with such a situation during a performance?
AP: We work with failure. There is nothing 'planned'. The solution is not written on paper, and sometimes there is no solution. Between each other, we do roughly agree on frames beforehand, but we don’t determine timings, as we know that each one of us needs the freedom to dwell inside an action if the process needs it. Hence it is necessary to be at the same time concentrated on one’s own action, while being alert to what the other is up to—a 360° vigilance, cognizance of everything that is happening around, plus the centre of oneself, too.
VALERIA ROMAGNINI received her MA - Art and Design from IUAV University of Venice, Italy in 2013. She is currently organizer and Associate Curator at Personal Structures, and has co-curated, co-organized and assisted among others the exhibitions Personal Structures, collateral event of the 55th Venice Art Biennale (2013); Traces of Centuries and Future Steps, collateral event of the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale (2012); Baton Sinister, Norwegian Pavilion at the 54th La Biennale di Venezia (2011); South Africa Pavilion, 54th LaBiennale di Venezia (2011). Publications include "Marina Abramovic". PPAPER, Taiwan (2013); "Redefining Limits: A Conversation with Judy Millar". Sculpture, Vol. 30, no. 9, USA (2011); "The Venice Biennale. A Review". ERRATA# 4, Colombia (2011).
The publication PERSONAL STRUCTURES: TIME - SPACE - EXISTENCE Vol.2 by Karlyn de Jongh and Sarah Gold, presents an ongoing project that deals with questions concerning time, space and existence. It is the second book in the series, and involves the personal participation of 46 artists from different parts of the world. The concepts time, space and existence are highlighted in very personal ways and from unusual points of view. Many photographs of the artworks and encounters with the artists convey fascinating insights into their being, ideas and work.