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PAWA 23: Festival overview by Frances Pavletich

PAWA 23: Festival overview by Frances Pavletich

Written by Frances Pavletich – 2023 Written responses were curated and edited by Sasha Francis
Louie Zalk-Neale
EunSun Heo
enormousface
Sam Trubridge
Julieanna Preston
Sara Cowdell
John Vea
val smith
Layne Waerea
Tomasz Szrama
Louie Za...
EunSun Heo
enormous...
Sam Trub...
Julieann...
Sara Cow...
John Vea
val smith
Layne Wa...
Tomasz S...

“Reminds me of kick-ons where only the extroverts get attention.” - Julian Muller

“It’s right, but wrong.” - Achille Segard

“We’re not trying to please you.” - Sara Cowdell

This year I was invited to write a piece about Performance Art Week Aotearoa (PAWA) after having attended two of the last three festivals. In the good old fashioned spirit of journalistic integrity, I have been close friends with Sara for nearly a decade which makes me both the perfect candidate for the insider goss but also subject to the normal restraints that loving somebody puts on your capacity to be objective. Nevertheless, I have to say PAWA is one of my favourite weeks of the year. It is both challenging and joyful, a chance to spend a week with a community that in many respects is the antithesis to ordinary life.

Well, that’s fucking weird: unpacking one of the most misunderstood art forms

Sara Cowdell (Founder and Artistic Director) says that most performance artists “have an inherent sense of being an outsider.” She speaks about having to be willing to distort your image or the one that society has of you, to be willing to “expose or embarrass yourself.” For Sara, performance art is about the urge for chaos and it appeals to people who are interested in social dynamics. Or, as Carl Naus (Tech Support) puts it, performance art “hacks social understanding.” “To do good performance art you have to have good social acuity,” Carl says -  “or none,” Sara replies without missing a beat.

Over the course of the week I asked the artists and audience what performance art meant to them. For artist Louie Zalk-Neale, performance art exists in a“logic outside of the everyday…where the audience is implicated.” Robyn Jordaan (Photographer) says that there is a lot of trust involved as the audience is often “unsure about how the artist themselves is making or creating a decision.” For others it is a site of questioning norms or facilitating imagination. “[A lot of] people don’t like it,” Alexa Wilson laughs. Perhaps because as Sam Trubridge says, it “doesn’t communicate to the analytical, conservative part of our brains.”



So what is Performance Art, and how does it differ from theatre or other participatory artforms? 

Claire Bishop argues in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, people are centred as the medium. Rather than being spectators, we are invited to become co-creators. Engaging with the tools of sociality, artists use their bodies and chosen objects to ask questions, to negate autonomy and boundaries, and to give their audience permission to do the same: to reject social construction/s of taste; to elicit anything from empathy and catharsis to disgust, rejection, and anger; to respond to the environment around them with the possibility of failure. (Bishop, 2023)

South Korean performer EunSun Heo says that, as English is her second-language, it is “only during performance that I can speak.” This was an idea that cropped up often: that performance art was a language between the artist and their audience, invoking a feeling that could not be expressed in words. For Tomasz Szrama who grew up in Poland, “performance was the tool of resistance” whereby defiance to the state could be expressed without the fear of censorship. For many artists who have experienced histories of marginalisation, othering, or repression, performance is a way to directly challenge power and orthodoxy. Throughout the festival week, many spoke of the crossover between performance art and ceremony. For indigenous artists, the use of oral storytelling, the body, and/or sacred objects function in a way that is distinct from the European use of constructed ritual as a form of art. For Charles Koroneho who started Te Toki Haruru, is a founding member of Te Kanikani O Te Rangatahi, and ran the TŪĀHU Choreographic Research Project (2013-2014), he speaks about how, “[it is] important that performance art has a place in indigenous ideas.”

A brief and incomplete history

“The Variety Theatre is alone in seeking the audience’s collaboration. It doesn’t remain static like a stupid voyeur, but joins noisily in the action.” (1913, Manifesto, Italy)

“..through provocation, through the modification of the conditions of the environment, by visual aggression, by a direct appeal… by playing a game, or by creating an unexpected situation, to exert a direct influence on the public’s behaviour…” (GRAV Manifesto, 1967)

"My Happening, I now repeat, was nothing other than 'an act of social sadism made explicit.'" (I Committed a Happening, 1967)

While performance art can be traced back to a number of traditions, I will briefly touch on three distinct artistic eras where the audience deviated from observer to co-producer. This includes the Italian Variety theatre (c.1913), the French Situationist International (1957-1972), and the Argentinian Ciclo de Arte Experimental (Experimental Practices of Art Series (1967). 

The Italian Futurist Movement exploded into the mainstream with Manifesto del Futurismo (1909) by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti bringing about what many consider to be the birth of twentieth-century avant-garde. Inspired by a poetics of freedom, violence, and decadence, the Futurists believed that through agitation, politically charged rhetoric, and wilful disrespect of the norms of old artistic forms, they could bring about an energised, modern and pro-war Italian state. Influenced by the new sensibility, the Variety Theatre went to great lengths to provoke and engage their audience. In their Manifesto, Marinetti states that: “One must completely destroy all logic in Variety Theatre performances….[s]ome random suggestions: Spread a powerful glue on some of the seats, so that the male or female spectator will stay glued down and make the everybody laugh… Sell the same ticket to ten people: traffic jam, bickering, and wrangling - Offer free tickets to ladies and gentlemen who are notoriously unbalanced, irritable, or eccentric, or likely to provoke uproars with obscene gestures, pinching women, or other freakishness. Sprinkle the seats with dust to make people itch and sneeze etc.” (1913) While his manifestos inspired new patriotic sentiments and art practices, Marinetti would later become an active Fascist and argue that Fascism was an extension of Futurism.

The Situationist International were a group of French avante-garde intellectuals, artists and political theorists who used “spectacle” to critique capitalism. The concept of the spectacle referred to the way that our social relations and individual expression were becoming mediated and micromanaged through consumption. In Guy Debord’s mind, society had become lulled into a state of compliance fuelled by the ‘logic of the market’ and rampant consumerism. Situationist theory was thus interested in pyschogenography: the effects of an environment on the emotions and behaviours of individuals. In their manifesto ‘Report on the Construction of Situations,’ Debord argues that their “most general goal must be to expand the nonmediocre part of life, to reduce the empty moments of life as much as possible. One could thus speak of our enterprise as a project of quantitatively increasing human life…We must put forward the slogans of unitary urbanism, experimental behavior, hyper-political propaganda, and the construction of ambiences. The passions have been sufficiently interpreted; the point now is to discover new ones.” (1957) One of the practices advocated by the Situationists, named ‘Derive,’ called for individuals to simply go off and wander through the streets without destination, believing exploration was not only about reclaiming place, but also by proxy, about reclaiming one’s ‘agentic’ self. Through public experiement, the Situationists pushed for the democratisation of art via participation and the denigration of the ‘marketable’ aesthetic.

Engaging the audience to become a part of the work was also occurring in late twentieth-century South America, albeit under different circumstances and with a different set of goals. Unlike Europe where participatory art had its roots in promoting patriotism or critiquing the market, in South America artists were responding to US-backed coups where performance was used as a consciousness-raising weapon against the brutality of imperialism and dictatorship. For the Argentinian Ciclo de Arte Experimental, “Graciela Carnevale organised Acción del encierro (Lock-up action), in which individuals attending the opening reception for the exhibition were locked in the gallery for more than an hour. Their only way to break free from the artwork was by shattering the gallery windows. A conceptual work, Acción was meant to incite violence as an art medium and also to serve as a metaphor for the growing social unrest under the de facto rule of Juan Carlos Onganía (1966–70).” (Marcela Guerrero) While Carnevale was interested in the emergence of violence, Oscar Masotta, another performance artist of the time, wanted to explore the theme of guilt. In ‘I Committed a Happening’, Masotta took on the role of artist as torturer to commit what he referred to as an act of “social sadism.” In his performance, twenty elderly people were paid to stand in a storage room whilst being blasted with fire extinguishers, a high-pitched deafening sound and blinding white light. The name of the piece is suggestive of a confession - I committed - while a later interview with ‘Listen, Here, Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s’ text accompanying the work made reference to forcing his audience to consider that they themselves had paid to see this act of social aggression.

In all these three eras, the artist becomes something of a social experimenter, toying with their audience via the exploration or violation of social mores to create new states of consciousness. While the Variety Theatre deliberately set out to agitate audiences into starting riots and the Situationist International wanted to repoliticise and reawaken a deadened populace, the Argentinian Ciclo de Arte Experimental encouraged and inflicted violence as a way to fight back against who they perceived to be the actual enemy. 

Collaboration: the politics of participation, institution and money

Set against a backdrop of late-stage capitalism, there is something of a positive bias toward anything that is perceived to be collective or participatory. Seen to repair the social bond, Bishop states in ‘Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship’ that due to this perception, “there [exists the erroneous idea that there can be] no failed, unsuccessful, unresolved, or boring works of participatory art.” Railing against the idea that participatory art is inherently a good thing, Bishop makes note of the way certain works coerce the audience, as well as whether the possibility of social change is only cosmetic rather than structural. (Bishop, 2023) The question of whether performance art has “value” came up in the artist discussion, ‘to burn, to run from and make peace with,’ facilitated by Mark Harvey on the Saturday. Alexa Wilson repeats back the question: “does it have value? Whether something has value or not is a very neoliberal way of framing,” she says, redirecting the conversation back to how we give and make meaning within the specific (and highly constrictive) frameworks we have been given. 

Throughout the week, I ask people whether or not performance art is (or should be) political. Robyn Jordaan thinks no, that sometimes a work could be just personal to the artist; Mark Harvey says yes, that “because our bodies are political, our art is always going to be”; Carl Naus laughs, “depends on your definition of political, I guess.” 

The question of whether any art form is inherently political makes me think of something I hear many times during the festival: that performance art sits uncomfortably with capitalism because it cannot be easily commodified. While the practice itself might work in antithesis to market forces, one thing it cannot escape is its ties to both funding and galleries. 

This year PAWA did not receive Creative New Zealand funding, despite having received it in previous years, something that is a devastating prospect for any curator.

The complexities of funding came up during the  ‘to burn, to run from and make peace with’ discussion Alexa Wilson spoke of the pressure that institutional support brings to the delivery and reception of a work: “[with] things that are funded, [everybody is] like, alright then, let’s fucking see it.” Robyn Jordaan, a choreographer and film-maker, furthers this by lamenting that “New Zealand is very secretive about its bureaucracy.” I ask what she means by this. “Well, you only find out [what they actually wanted] when you’ve fucked up.” Almost everybody present at PAWA agrees that funding bodies lean conservative in how they distribute resources, noting that the projects tend to get safer and safer as the amount of funding the project is slated to receive grows. But as Sara Cowdell points out, “can we be truly subversive if we are getting money from the government?” It’s a question that nobody seems able to answer without acknowledging that it is either bureaucratic hand-outs that mean less agency or all our artists leaving to go to countries that they perceive to be far less hostile to the arts. That, and the thorny reality that volunteers are often expected to pick up where the bureaucrats cut back.



This year PAWA was hosted by Adam Art Gallery, situated in Kelburn Campus of Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. Galleries in Aotearoa are typically divided into two categories: institutional or artist-run, with the latter often taking a more DIY and lateral organisational approach. In crude terms the trade-off for artists seems to be something along the lines of institutions bestow legitimacy but there can be an inherent incompatibility between specific art forms or projects that do not fit neatly into the mould carved out by pre-existing critical-cultural norms. Speaking to Louie Zalk-Neale (Ngāi Te Rangi, Pākehā) they spoke about how most galleries in Aotearoa are still part of a larger colonial legacy. Asking them to elaborate further, they explain how “when you feel comfortable [in a space], you get more out of it.” Noting the ways in which performance art responds to space, bodies also respond to space and especially to spaces that have historically imposed certain realities or feelings on them. “Performance art could not be easily transposed from a gallery to a marae context,” they say, without acknowledging that the different environments have different expectations, different worldviews, and different value-systems. Much like the ongoing question of how funding changes, restricts, or determines an artwork, the gallery is subject to similar ambiguity; the overall feeling being that one must never be seen to bite the hand that feeds. 

How has documentation has affected the medium?

Over the course of the week, I consider how documentation has altered live performance. Looking at the question two-fold, I want to better understand how the medium exists outside of pure performance through photographs, video, reviews, accidental glimpsing, and conversations, as well as how the audience functions as a secondary curator via their own autonomous online presence. To begin with, I ask a number of artists whether they consider documentation when deciding how to do a live performance. Most demur, arguing that the experience itself comes first, and the documentation comes second, despite hearing a number of times that something “makes a beautiful photo.” I don’t believe that this statement contradicts the fact that the performance does indeed come first, but that the constant recording has simply become a fact of our lives, and perhaps that funding applications nowadays require high-quality evidence.

Turning the lens back on myself: knowing that I would be required to write a piece about the overall festival undeniably changed how I watched, responded to, and processed the performances. To some extent each of the writers who were asked to respond to a performance were also being asked to help the work exist outside of its “liveness,” to immortalise it, and I am aware of at least one writer who was unwilling to fulfil the task as they did not feel they connected with their given work. I also thought about how my own relationship to social media changed my presence - both as a viewer and as a participator. I posted regularly throughout the week and often caught myself considering how the photographs I was taking said less about what I was witnessing and more about my own personal tastes; in taking on the role of curator, I was turning the performance art into a consumable object - “a beautiful photograph” - for my own followers.



Before the advent of the first PAWA, Sara Cowdell understood that there was a dearth of archived material of performance art in Aotearoa which spurred her into being meticulous in cataloguing every festival. The results over the six years are stunning - a comprehensive site of material dedicated to the avante-garde and experimental world of performance. While documentation surely has its downsides, it is hard not to recognise the service that it provides for artists, galleries, participants, organisers, and enthusiasts who can track the legacy being created. Archives function as witnesses and storytellers, and in PAWA’s case, mark a kind of starting point of documentation where before there was little. For Robyn Jordaan, the 2023 photographer, archiving is “a useful tool to talk about a historical experience..[it is a] tool for a performance artist’s career, the lineage of their work, a tool for funding, for other artist’s to see if similar work has been created.” She says that “even though not all performance art is contextually political, the archiving process allows the work to become political.”

The Legacy of PAWA

Before leaving for Wellington, I spoke to Piupiu Maya Turei (curator of the Tini Whetū Project Space, a project space in Ōtepoti) who said something that resonated with me, “we think events like PAWA are for “the elite” but actually it’s the opposite - it’s these kinds of festivals that are actually for the people.” PAWA is a collaboration between artist and audience, a collapsing of the boundaries, and an invitation to witness, participate, reject, laugh, thwart, and document. When I ask Sara Cowdell who her favourite audience is, she replies, “the unintended audience…the ones who know nothing about performance art.” I imagine for the very reason that it is the unassuming audience who is most taken with the disruption, the challenge of encountering something that momentarily disturbs the carefully mediated lives we have created. For Audrey Baldwin, she describes being a performance artist as a “compulsion,” something that for her did not feel like a choice, a sentiment that seems to encapsulate what many of the artists feel - that it is a vital form of communication in an increasingly fraught world. For Sara, the legacy she is the most proud of is the relationships that form during PAWA and continue to inspire long after the festival is finished. I ask her what makes a good performance artist, to which she replies, laughing, “you know, be slightly pathetic, slightly a narcissist.”

Performance Art Week Aotearoa 2023 occurred between 1st - 5th November in Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington and featured the following artists: Leafa Wilson/ Olga Krause, Louie Zalk-Neale (Ngāi Te Rangi, Pākehā), val smith, Sam Trubridge, Layne Waerea (Ngāti Wāhiao, Ngāti Kahungunu, Pākehā), EunSun Heo (South Korea), Audrey Baldwin, John Vea, Tomasz Szrama (Poland/Finland), Julieanna Preston, Forest VickyKapo (Te Atiawa, Ngāti Raukawa), and enormousface (North America). 



Frances Pavletich runs an independent bookshop called Evening Books in Ōtepoti that specialises in small press, translated fiction, and interdisciplinary work. Her love of literature extends to writing, teaching, and curating. 

PAWA 23: Festival overview by Frances Pavletich

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