An Interview with Louise O'Kelly, Founder of Block Universe and the DRAF Evening of Performance
"There was this hangover of thinking that performance art had to look certain ways"
Images that come to mind when you hear “performance art”: Freddy Prinz Jr. performing “HACKYSACK” in She’s All That, someone in the nude explaining the evils of capitalism, or a number of people inconveniently doing lines of coke in the bathroom before covering themselves in dirt.
Volunteering at the David Roberts Art Foundation Evening of Performance enlightened and expanded my view of this elusive field. Louise O’Kelly curated the evening, putting together a series of performances that ranged from poetry reading and dance to a performer moving crowds with a section of an art fair booth on wheels. O’Kelly is also the founder and curator of Block Universe, London’s only festival dedicated to performance art. I spoke to her to find out more.
THEA: When did you first become interested in performance art and was there a certain artist or an experience that made you start thinking in those ways?
LOUISE: I had been interested in it in college, but was never taught anything about the subject. A turning point for me was the experience of working at a commercial gallery that represented the estates of a number of performance artists. I was working quite closely with the estates and their families who have a lot of insight into the depth of the artists' practices—it was that experience that made me get more serious about my desire to engage with the medium. So after I left that gallery, I went to do my masters, Contemporary Art Theory, at Goldsmiths and spent my time researching and writing about performative work.
THEA: So in a way, your way into performance art was through documentation and archives…
LOUISE: Yes, it was. Initially, my exposure to performance practices was through documentation, so my grounding wasn't necessarily through live work. Then I started to go see more around London and really immerse myself in what was happening. For a lot of people as well, I think that their understanding of performance came out of that period of time [the 60s and 70s].
THEA: Yeah, for sure. I think before I went to the Evening of Performance, my first thought when I heard “performance art” was just Marina Abramovic in a room with a knife or something.
LOUISE: Yes, someone like Marina Abramovic is a common reference point of someone well known for that sort of work. I realized that it felt like there was this hangover of thinking that performance art had to look certain ways, that it should involve something that makes you feel uncomfortable, look very edgy or really push the body to extreme limits. Obviously, a lot of people do still make that type of work, but I was seeing a new generation of artists who were approaching performance work in a very different way: thinking of it as another outlet to express their ideas. They were not necessarily concerned about whether they were doing paintings, sculptures, video work, or installations, but rather how their work could encompass a lot of these different elements. There's a lot of collaborative work across genres such as with music or videos.
THEA: The Evening of Performance definitely felt super interdisciplinary.
LOUISE: Yes, people are becoming less concerned with boundaries between disciplines and more interested in how they can be playful together. A lot of performers that I see or that I'm showing are also visual artists, dancers, or choreographers working in more conceptual ways. So there's a real crossover between dance and visual art at the moment.
THEA: How do you create a distinction between entertainment and performance work? Or, how do you define performance as ‘entertaining’ or not?
LOUISE: I think it is really important to make a distinction. You do an event like DRAF, which is at the nightclub Ministry of Sound and there is a lot of... well, I'm reluctant to use the word spectacle, because I know people talk about that in a negative way, but people are coming to see something. I think that the context of a nightclub is very different from the context of a gallery space, and people behave very differently in that environment. I think there is a real difference between people who have come to see a performance and people who have come to do something else and there happens to be a performance there, which they see as entertainment. I've been to different types of events showing performance work and some are held in spaces where people are having fun and they want to socialise. Take a launch party, for example, where the organisers have invited an artist to do something performative. It's incredibly difficult because the artist is not the focus of attention or the reason people are in attendance. Experiences like these can be incredibly painful for the artist because they don't have a captive audience and are there as the "entertainment" of the evening, even though it might be quite serious work that is being shown in the wrong context.
THEA: Was that a lot of your thinking behind the creation of Block Universe?
LOUISE: Well, I had the idea for Block Universe just after I had finished my masters. I was thinking a lot about performance and how to engage with it more. I was thinking about hosting a symposium that would present some performance. I was essentially looking for somewhere to gain more experience, but at the time, there wasn't really anywhere in the city that was consistently programming performance. Tate has a long track record of doing it with Catherine Wood, but as part of a much larger programme. Otherwise, performance work was being presented in the city quite sporadically. At many galleries, it was often presented as entertainment for an opening or as part of the public programme for the weekend. It really felt like an 'add on’ element that was never given appropriate space in its own right. So when looking to gain more experience, I realised that my options were quite limited and that it made more sense to do my own thing. This was one of the reasons for creating Block Universe. The other was that artists whom I had talked to and who worked with performance were also frustrated by being 'add on’ pieces or entertainers. Galleries and institutions, though very well-meaning, weren't well versed in how to work with live performance at the time. Having a green room, rehearsal time, or doing a soundcheck were unusual requests for institutions, and there was often a lack of understanding about the need to pay artists appropriately for their time in producing a work. I thought that even if I did a festival for one week during the year, that week could be about giving importance to this type of work. It was important for me that we pay artists appropriate fees, or create some sort of structure to support them in creating new work with more resources than they might normally have to work with. So, that was the idea and it's grown a lot over the past 5 editions.
THEA: You mentioned that the need to have a green room, rehearsal time, or a soundcheck isn’t often considered. How do you balance wanting to be in different spaces -- and the freedom that you get to be in different spaces with the structure of Block Universe -- and these very practical necessities?
LOUISE: It is interesting. With Block Universe, we can work across a whole host of different spaces. On the project I did with DRAF, we were able to work in places like Ministry of Sound - a nightclub with offices behind it. Every work is different and when we're planning Block Universe, it's a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. Some works will have very specific needs: you know that you're definitely going to need a lighting rig and a sound system so it's just much easier to find a venue that has those things instead of trying to build them somewhere that isn't very conducive to that. So, it depends in many ways on the needs of the work and what the artist wants the audience experience to be.
THEA: Block Universe is taking place over multiple days, how do you balance the relationships between the different works, especially if you're going to have different audiences for each piece?
LOUISE: We've tried different formats and it’s evolved over the years. The first year we did it over the course of a week and we had ten different performances - some of which happened more than once - alongside talks. That was a really action-packed schedule, so then we evolved to ten days to give us a little more space. This year was the first time that we tried two weeks to allow more breathing room between events and we realised that it meant our audiences would be able to come to see more. In very practical ways, we also do try to consider my team's time and energy, how we manage rehearsals, and set up or take down different performances before moving on to the next ones. For the audience, we tend to program events in the evening or during the weekends since a lot of people work during the day. The temporality is a very fluid and flexible thing, but I think we try to think about what's reasonable and what makes sense.
THEA: We often hear about what the curator's vision is, but there are also so many practical concerns.
LOUISE: Yes, I’m afraid there are! In an ideal world, I would have more control over the order in which audiences see each work, in order to chart the evolution of a concept. But in reality, because you're working with so many different partners and so many different people's schedules, you're just trying to make things work in a way in which you're not programming two things at the same time so people can actually go see everything.
THEA: Yeah, there's so much debate right now about what the “curator” does. Do they create a narrative? Is it an artistic role or is it a framework for a piece? Do you see your role as creating a space for these different artists to be in?
LOUISE: I really see myself as a facilitator for artists because what's important for me is ensuring that they have sufficient resources. I see my goal in the process of Block Universe as supporting artists and giving them a platform and visibility. So, the important thing for me is that we are giving them opportunities to create or present work and that they're reaching new audiences. I want to help re-educate people on what contemporary performance looks like.
THEA: I was also curious about how you might deal with the risk of the audience. I remember in Jimmy’s (Jimmy Roberts) piece, the audience responded in a way he didn’t expect. Especially when the work is participatory, so much depends on the audience…
LOUISE: That's something you really can never anticipate. I’ve worked with artists who designed the whole set and imagined they’d be moving through the crowd and having quite close interactions with them. But then, the crowd would sit or stand all around the edge, which would lead to a very different performance than originally intended. In Jimmy's case, he always had this vision of making his way through the crowd with this large object while slowly revealing the image inside. None of us anticipated how everyone might react to that. He was dressed to look like an art handler and I think a lot of people initially didn’t realise that he was the artist performing -- presuming that he was just someone really inconveniently trying to navigate a large prop across the room. It was interesting though because half of the audience was up on the balcony overlooking the work. Their perception of it was very different compared to the people on the ground as the people on the balcony were viewing it as an image while the people on the ground were in the work. It worked brilliantly visually but the experience of Jimmy realizing the work and actually negotiating the audience, and the audience also not fully understanding what was happening, was a very different experience compared to those who viewed it more as a spectacle. Essentially, you can do as much planning as you want, but you can’t really anticipate what people will do in a crowd.
THEA: Yeah, for sure. I also spoke to one of the girls from FlucT, right after Jimmy's performance, about how confrontational the audience had been and she suggested that maybe some of that came from their performance being so confrontational with the audience. She also said that perhaps it brought out this more aggressive side in the viewer. I thought it was interesting to see how, especially in this kind of condensed form of Block Universe, you get this interaction between the works.
LOUISE: Yes, it’s true. FlucT are very accustomed to operating in that environment and making their way through a crowd. Doing something, even if it is an evening of performances in a nightclub, is a little bit different than something happening in the rarified space of a gallery.
THEA: That also speaks to what you were saying about the diversity of performance art, that they’re all used to working in different contexts.
LOUISE: It's hard to say because performance takes so many different forms, but you know, even by the way that we were using Ministry of Sound, each performance was a little bit different in terms of how they occupied the space.
THEA: So finally, what’s your Unrequired Reading?
LOUISE: When I was studying, I really enjoyed reading Andre Lepecki who writes a lot about contemporary dance within the visual arts. A book that I really, really love, which I think was quite instrumental for me in the first edition of Block Universe is called The Archive and the Repertoire by Diana Taylor. She’s a Latin American scholar looking at ways of keeping cultural information alive or passing on cultural information over generations. She’s looking at how, at the point of colonization in Latin America, the written word was used by the Spanish to modify behaviours, in comparison to illiterate or non-literate societies, where cultural information can be passed on directly between bodies.
The title of Block Universe refers to an alternate theory of time, where the past, present, and future exist simultaneously. Looking at this idea of the body as archive or embodied memories and how that relates to performance was really interesting to me. It relates to what we discussed earlier about documentation; how you learn about performance and relate to performance work from the past. I was thinking about these ideas specifically in regards to this festival that is just starting out and seems to have the intention to continue-- how do you think about a legacy and how do you relate to performance over time?