Trained in philosophy, literature and dance, Isabel Lewis is a contemporary performance artist based in Berlin. Her brilliant and unique approach towards art, choreography and composition explores techniques and ideas beyond the visuals of eyes and activates all human senses by creating a space (social gatherings) and adding music, dance, story-telling, decor, and most importantly, plants which engages all human senses – touch, smell, sight, hear, taste – with diverse techniques which she calls ‘hosted occasions’.
In collaboration with Goethe Institut and Karachi Biennale, a two-day workshop of situational choreography was held at NAPA. I had an opportunity to interview Isabel Lewis while her short stay in Karachi. The questions are mainly about her career, practice, critique of art and about the two-day workshop held at in Karachi.
MA: What is this workshop about and could you explain a bit about the collaboration?
IL: I met Niilofur Farrukh at the Sharjah Biennale’14 and we discussed the approach of the Karachi Biennale which was to connect it to the public on a platform where people can gather, meet and understand art on a public forum. I could relate this idea to my work which is to gather people rather requiring formalities as in exhibitions and museums. That point we started to discuss the Biennale and potentially about the workshop, which I was very delighted to do as I have never been to Pakistan and this is my first time. I am very curious to see how it will go. I am looking forward to the workshop. I understand that there are only 12 participants but I will meet them. There are two days in which we will know one another and do different kind of exercises which will bring us towards performing and thinking about how we construct that idea of performing and the second day will continue to this process and it will be open for the public at 4 pm.
MA: Every artist has its cultural influence on the performance, performance artist or visual artist, does your performance reflect your culture and tradition and is it difficult for you to convey the message through performance in a totally different culture and set of audience?
IL: It is a very interesting as well as complex question. I think that we live in a world which is much globalised and I really don’t have an idea from where exactly I belong (laughs). I’m based in Berlin for 9 years and being educated in a particular tradition, I also have roots in the Caribbean and America; I am someone who travels a lot in different countries with the work and work in different kinds of cultural context. So, certainly my education and my formation have a certain kind of impact on the expressions I create in my work, but what I do when I travel to other cultures is to ‘listen’, first and foremost, and try to leave an openness in the work to be able to adapt to situations and not to come from fixed ideas about what to expect from the audience and participants.
Secondly, I know I can rely on certain techniques and structures that I created and worked on over the years but I also try to bring these techniques and structures with flexibility in a new culture and also possibility for interaction with both the participants and audience. Someway I use the side of my work actually to encounter and meet one another to understand our differences and also potentially find points of connections.
MA: How a general audience will understand your performance, if it’s not, let’s say, culture based?
IL: I think in my case there are many different techniques in performing and I try to do physical activity of the body and choreograph it as a language that is used and spoken and there is a whole range of possibility where histories of dance that you can refer to different cultures and time periods, similarly how you can read and the way literature can have many influences with different time periods and cultures. That’s one of the aspects that I do, but I think a large part of what I do is placing that choreography in such way or situation to be received in a way I am interested in. I choose not to work on stage or distant myself from the audience like we do it in theatres and galleries. My work is more situational where it’s interactive and where public and the performer are on the same ground.
And they have the stories to relate…
Yes. I tend to use the idea of hosting as a way of opening up a potential space for interaction and conversation with the public. One gesture that kind of put something in a silent way in front of the public and then invite them so they may know that they can ask questions, speak and discuss in entirely different kind of situation which is more relying on social fabric situation which is again very different meter than the galleries and theatres where it’s very formal, silent and people only watch and observe. So, instead, there are many ways such as that like choosing to think about the work as hosting, something social as a ground to which I, perhaps, present something and create and if I present something it depends on certain choreography which is appropriate for me for certain kinds of themes, thoughts and means which can be explored inside dance and movements. Concepts and ideas can be made physical with dance which I really enjoy and can be enjoyed as a form of research; trying to understand world more process oriented rather than showing.
I really don’t try to convince public. There are certain things that I’m interested in saying than represent it. When you represent something, you may be tried to convince or convey a message. I am busy inviting public into the processes of thought which they can feel, see, unfold, create their own opinion and thoughts, and feel if they have moved or not moved by.
MA: How performance art, dance, or choreography that you do is different from the performance in a theater and an art gallery?
IL: This is a great question. For me, Performance art has a particular historical line that comes out of visual art and contemporary art from 60s and this kind of art, (performance art) was a reaction to the gallery scenario. My work generates reaction, working a lot with the bodies and does not involve materials like plastic objects space that is a particular historical line in the contemporary art.
I personally don’t consider myself a part from that line because my background is theater and dance. What I do is I call ‘performance’ and this is a perfectly good way of calling what I do. It can be called dance, choreography, live art which is an also an interesting category that maybe can describe performance that’s not in the historical line with choreography or performance art and also different from theater and exhibitions context.
What I call performance, live art, choreography or dance is different than what happens in theater for structural reasons. Theater has particular formats and arrangements and they are different; public and choreography is different. There is usually duration, one buys a ticket and spends an evening, and there is usually quite a fixed relationship between the performer and the public. These performances have been created to deliver one privilege point of view in the best season in theaters and mostly the tickets are expensive. So, the whole economic and contractual construction creates conditions for a particular kind of theatrical dance.
Performance that happens in the galleries some of that can be related to historical line in making body art actions of the body being placed inside of an exhibition context and made function in a specific way as an object for observation like the way you might look at a sculpture. It processes the body and actions in a similar way, looking at them in a blank space and heightened something about the presence in such space.
Another thing that relies on both, elements and traditions, in some way but also carves out its own grounds. I think I am not interested in working with antology or object hood, or people or observer actions that are perceived from a distant objective point of view and observed as a sculpture. I don’t propose theatrical situations from one privileged point of view. I try to create immersive work that can be entered and exited, can be experienced from different angles and points of view and that can happen in many kinds of spaces. My work is very sight specific and by that I mean wherever my performance is happening; club, restaurant, parking lot, garden, gallery, theater, It really take its context and location very seriously and tries not to create an idea of neutrality which I think theater and exhibitions do; those are formats which try to disappear and let the work stand on its own. I am very much into recognizing locations specific to the work and to the way we are going to understand meaning making in each place and co relate with the work. The sight for me has a very big impact on my work. In my case I rather try to amplify rather than a race what the sight does.
MA: Let’s talk about the occasions you host and the multi-sensory experiences in these occasions. How far have you reached with these occasions and hosting? When you are finished with the occasions what do you feel that how far have you come?
IL: These occasions are the terms I started to use in 2012 and 2013. The first time i showed a complete “occasion” was in Geneva in 2014. I started working on them by doing small shows in Berlin in a friend’s apartment, in the bar that i worked at and when its closed i practiced at friend’s apartment and asked them to spread the word of mouth that invite people to come and experience what i was working on and thus, it became occasions. That was a long process. I started with dance and theatre and i was always trying to question the format and think about the possible ways and formats to do things and explore new ways of making dance something a little more embodied for public or organising theater in a way to the public that the way audiences watches dancers from a distance and that means visualise are highly activated once in a dance performance
I thought, being a dancer myself, how strange it was to use primarily the eyes for something which involves the whole body and entire body is engaged when you dance. I was working really hard on a way that the reception of a dance becomes more sensual and sensorial exactly the way I felt when I was dancing myself. This is again a long process of trying things, experimenting infront of people, moving, reading and then finally I realised that maybe one way of doing my way is to create a situation where more of the senses get activated. Only visualisation should not take the dominance and can include food, something to taste, furniture, dancing so the body is addressed in so many different ways, can have places to lie down and body feels it. This is how it becomes a social. Its a social occasion just like a dinner party that one host arranges; the host takes all aesthetic decisions, chooses the menu, flower arrangements, chooses the music so I also used that as a metaphor for myself as an artistic practice that how could I make the decision about the space, create the music and smell, find a collaborator to work with to create a smell for the space, I collaborated with chefs in every city so that they can provide the taste of wine that can be added in the show. So by addressing, composing and thinking about the show and the art works as it could address all senses but not the eyes only was really the important part of the occasions.
These occasions have been in Berlin and in over many places over the year like Shanghai, North America, South America, Seoul, Emirates, and each time I try to leave certain flexibility in my work it can adapt to its context so they are always different but they are also resilient. There is something consistent about them as well and this consistence has to do with what it means when people gather especially with food, like something which is basic across every culture but also different, However in my occasions it’s my way of doing it which is contemporary but also relying upon familiar traditions. It was the good starting point of the occasion or gathering so when people gather, know one another and exchange ideas in a social space. They shouldn’t be silent and sit at one place. I believe we can be a social human being like the way we are and around us the show should unfold.
I might be introducing certain topics on the micro phones like storytelling, reading, dancing, speaking as well as making music in a situation and dancing similarly as a host does in a dinner party. Similarly it’s more aesthetics and choreographed version of being a host. In the end, it depends how much people invest in time; they can come in for 15 minutes enjoy the smell, see the space which is decorated or arranged in particular way with plant life, scents, furniture etc and when they leave they have these sensory impressions. There are different moments to focus, attention, eating and tasting, but when people stay for longer period they are able to experience and enjoy all kind of topics but the motive is, no matter how long one stays, should leave with an impression.
MA: Do these performances come naturally (the moves, expressions) or you have to work on yourself, draw inspiration from someone or something? Have you ever done it for a general public?
IL: I think because of my training I started in theater and in front of certain people who really goes to theatre. When I started making different performances that I called “occasions”, I was sneaking out to self-produce without any institutional support and by self-organising I gathered and encountered different kind of public I used to do it at friend’s house, at bar where people will be around at social scene and if I organise anything that outside there will be people who has happened to be there and of course friends came to support. So i think over the years, i had different kind of experiences where I had put myself to in a situation where I could access different kind of pubic. I have made public artworks in Basil with massive plugs in big square in front of an art fare where definitely there was art public but general public also. So yes, I would say a lot of time within contemporary art you are still generally doing with certain crowd which is different at many places and art galleries. There is potential a general public to understand really how general a general public is? If this communication reaches to one’s ear I think you are already within a certain cultural feel.
The public work that I do and have experienced, I guess, is always very subtle and its more about participants having internal rather than external focus and ends up touching the people who are open to be touched and spoken in that way and others are not disturb who wish to pass by.
MA: Where this idea came from to indulge people in this way you try to create such environment and people understand about their senses like smell, taste and explore what they haven’t yet?
IL: I think what I noticed in a contemporary culture that I lived in (USA and Europe) so there is a big emphasis of how one is educated, process of the mind, idea of rationality, logic and reason and the primary way of understanding the world. But I felt from my lived experience, context and different interest is that there are many ways as well to understand the world.
I was always someone who was always reading, dancing and studying and for me, these processes were more linked. These were supposedly specialised fields but my way of understanding was to wish to interrogate the body more than the mind processes and realising that the mind itself is in the process of thought that happens inside the body so, it’s a bodily function. It’s just a weird idea, somehow, that separate it from the body and this idea inherited from a particular history related to enlightment and rise of capitalism.
So, this way of thinking comes from a long and different history. I felt that the contemporary culture is still is tangled with this very old history and thoughts and it has been a short time in the human history in that case so it became interested to me to find contemporary ways and intricate senses. Music, dance, science, etc are all separated specialised fields and these separations initiate the separation of the senses occurs. These senses are chopped up and represented by these separated fields. I felt there must be something that could intricate way to these senses again and finding a contemporary expression to perhaps much older way of being by that I felt more into to earth, ecology and other natural processes that we urgently need. From there an urge to create an art work that would include and awaken the entire human sensorium intricate into being in a body which is thinking in a body and thinking which is in a body.
MA: Why plants have become an important feature of your performances?
IL: Many things became the features of the occasion came in relation to ecology, an amount of the waste which I saw in art production, break down of things and thrown away, I thought I wanted to find ways to create spaces without creating waste and degenerating as little as possible. This comes from here to work with the plant life to work over the idea that how does one generate the sense of space in a garden, intimacy, comfortable space for hanging out, lingering, staying, discussing, so gardens became my interest. I spent 2 years in studying gardens, design of gardens of different cultures and historical periods. Human have been gardening in different ways from a long time. I felt garden is a good metaphor where you can play, wander around, mediate, kiss, rest and create a sense of spirituality, so a garden can be used in different ways and its hospitable too for different activities.
I felt it’s a good start to use organic materials that cannot be hurtful for the environment. I look for the plants that can be rented out or purchased and later given away to public. So by using plant life I can create a sensual and beautiful space without harming the environment. Plants have energetic qualities, their presence can’t be neglected and I must say they are great performer and human have a lot to learn from plant life. I really enjoy working with plant life and it gives me a chance to relate to each place that i go and different plants that are available. This is powerful way to generate sense of play, space and time, real or preferring to real without building up and degenerating something.
MA: Your background in philosophy also helps you brings out the best?
IL: It’s helpful and I think each one of us are drawn to different things that move us. Likewise, I was always drawn towards philosophy, literature and more towards making in how to transform something in physical knowledge and intellectual practice that I have learnt in the books. It’s one of the things that really motivates me. In general, in an academy there is so much you can store information, read and learn but it doesn’t become knowledge until its really digested and embodied, and dance is a great form that makes it to be able to bring that knowledge into a body and for me that’s the key. There is different way to embody knowledge; I am not sure to say why and where, but its true I tend to be motivated by what i read and that is what drew me to study philosophy and drew me to understand the world in different perspectives. Philosophy gives em a chance to depend on how you use and think about philosophy. For me, there is one way to look at the world but there is spiritualism, religion and these are all other ways to try to understand the world and it’s one of many modalities mode I was drawn towards and it’s one potential way to but i use it also a version of among many other potentials.
MA: Art plays a crucial role in changing the society, where do you see performance artist in this frame?
IL: What is interesting and socially relevant, it requires a lot of collaboration, gathering and practice all the time. We need to learn to live together and flourish together. Dance and performance requires people to come together and not only work existence inside the body, but work existence between the bodies. It’s good way of modelling ethical form of relations and experimenting new ways of interacting that maybe outside what the cultural at large would consist upon. For example, in the USA you talk to compete at a large way of being on public space about in competition with other. Dance and performance is something where you have the necessity to collaborate , making bridge, attempt to find points of translation, ways to understand one another without having to eliminate our differences and without being who we are and trying to be who we are together and most importantly dance gives a lot of opportunities.
MA: We all need break from the busy urban life and work. What do you do when you need a break?
IL: I go to the country side as much as I can but it’s not often because i grew up in an urban environment and i live in an urban environment. It’s necessary for me to disconnect from the phone, computer and open my ears to other kind of sounds and open my eyes to be able to stretch across the landscapes, which I cant stretch usually far in an urban landscape, smell different kind of smells. I find ways to feel recharged and energised by this and also by doing kind of very basic pragmatic things which sometimes also are meditative as if I cant go to the country side but staying home, organizing drawers, doing the dishes well, cleaning the house or gardening even in a small way. These forms of engaging with care for things is my way of taking break.
MA: How does a performance artist survive as performance doesn’t seem to be a commercially beneficial? If I am not wrong.
IL: It’s a great question. It’s a complex process in figuring out what works for you. It’s not an easy question. I can be clear about it that its not a financially viable career choice if you want to make money (laughs). It’s not impossible to make a living as I do make a living but as the matter of fact I am not married, not have children and I live in a small apartment in Berlin so my expenses are low. I give some money to support my family and my expenses are still not so high. I can afford to have a nice quality of life by the salary I earn by doing many different engagements.
What else do you do…
IL: Other than performance, teaching is important for me, performance fee, commissioning fee from new performances I make, between these 3 things I am mostly working around. The salary I earn from this which is in relation to my artistic practice but completely different ways and scales because I get sometimes invitations from community oriented which doesn’t have large production budget and fee to pay so I accept it as it is a great opportunity to meet different public and test out something as I have studio practice things that i work on my own but I cant always work alone and need to interact with the people to understand the work. So money is always not something to say ‘yes’ to a certain project but sometimes its about opportunity, experiment and research that how to further this work.
You have to piece it together. It’s not an easy path or a clear way of earning money from but with being creative and problem solving people do with performance is what you get to get very good problem solver.
Who is your inspiration?
IL: It’s a great question. I am inspired from many different fields and many different things deeply touched and inspired me. But there are some people I know outside of Berlin who are creating places for hosting and growing their own food, have a beautiful kitchen and have something beautiful to eat which are grown in an aesthetically good ways and being in communion with and opening that up as a place for others. This is an example that I would want my work to be such restorative in tuned with the environment.
There are contemporary artists as well who inspiring for me. I guess I am getting inspiration every day like yesterday I met Mariam Agha and she is fantastic. She is working with textile, tapestry and doing beautiful things like working on the past, carpet from the past, deconstructing and creating it in her own way and adding her own point of view. I found her work interesting and broad range of how its engaging and managing to create a contemporary expression.
I noticed Mariam’s work is high level of craft and care. I think composition of craft and care is a form of love and loving the environment and I inspire from love and care.
MA: Have you ever tired becoming an actor or going towards commercial direction carrying same profession?
IL: I never had the desire to act in a commercial way although dance is commercially interesting. I have a small independent production and choreography for music videos. Music videos has great potential, fun format and a lot of things are out of the box and experimental.
Recently, I collaborated with a fashion brand in Pairs called Cohosh. I started to choreograph with them and I have done two shows so far. This is a very exciting platform to try something that takes me out of my comfort zone. Its completely new set of skills, different context, different problems to solve, public etc. Normally the fashion shows are as short as of just 15 minutes whereas I finish my work in 3 hrs to 4 hrs or days or weeks so its a different challenge and it’s interesting.
I’m opening myself up for different commercial collaborations but very importantly the only way I would do it that if it ethically aligns with my mission. The reason I worked with Cohesh is because the Creative Director has made a few commitments to end the use of plastic in this fashion brand. Historically, this brand introduced plastic in an innovative fabric for fashion. In 60’s it was a periodical amazing moment in the introduction of this fabric for women’s wear. She is making a very strong stand to end the use of it. I can feel now that she has a care that yes it’s a commercial product and made and sold to generate commercial income but also understanding and giving importance to the actual facts and ready to give up on plastic.
I am happy to put my name with Cohosh, otherwise it wouldn’t be the case and my name linked to any brand has to mean something to me.
MA: What has been the most successful performance in your own experience? Or any memorable collaboration?
IL: In some ways, I judge performance on the basis whether it was able to connect to public that was there. Sometime, to connect with some public can be a difficult one. A good performance is something that you feel from inside if the public is really present or was out or feeling addressed. It has been a long time that I had a feeling of not managing to connect and it gets over with experience and time. It happens frequently that I feel yes, I have managed to connect to the audience.
I manage to connect to the public. There is a special feeling during performing that is the connection, gratifying feeling and generosity of the public’s intention. Its a special thing from the public which i don’t take for granted.
Recent collaborations which I have been moved by is recently by my work in Sharjah Biennale, “Untitled” (inwardness, juice, natures) with collaborating with an artist, Methew Lutz-Kinoy, and two composers, Haklander and Hatam. I worked with the local based musicians so there were many people from many different backgrounds like American, Saudi Arabian, Serian drummers and Indian drum players and they all were based in the UAE. I found a way coming in dynamic conversation with the sight itself. That was an abandoned factory in somewhere in desert. It was a very challenging site, we were coming different backgrounds and sets of skills, through care and process of working we created a piece I am very proud of that felt like I have generosity in my collaboraters and the connection we were able to form.
MA: What are your expectations from the two-day workshop?
I don’t expect much because its kind a trap. Everything is new and humble without an expectation. I think we are going to have a good time, connection in advance, its a situation which allows to work, build trust and communicate and i hope public will come and be open to the process we are going to begin.
MA: Advice for the future performance artist?
IL: I would say develop practice with uniting strong relationship with senses, tuning exercise for own body which will help you to compose situations. Aspects and sensitivity bring you into empathy with other that how we engage with ecology, community and also human.
MA: What is the key to success?
MA: Dance for you in one word?