‘Nothing gentle will remain’ is an online publication that invites artists and audiences to speculate on how we gather together, both now and in the future. Originally conceived as a series of newly commissioned performances, workshops and screenings to take place across multiple sites on Margate’s seafront in May 2020, the project has developed within a continually shifting context of seismic global events. The original intention to imagine collective futures and take up space has become a reality, something that thousands of people are doing right now, despite the many threats and dangers of claiming public space at this time. The contributions of Josefin Arnell, Pauline Curnier Jardin, Paul Maheke, Dipesh Pandya and Naïmé Perrette serve as a manual for how we can come together and take up space during these unprecedented times.
Naïmé Perrette was originally scheduled to show ‘Both Ears to the Ground’ (2019), a video that documents a remote town in Russia and the effect of sinkholes and consequential media speculation on the town’s residents. In light of the pandemic, she has experimented with a new way of working in our current state of isolation. For ‘Until We Meet’, Perrette initiated ongoing dialogues with writer and curator Sara Giannini and artist Sam Keogh, in which they explore forms of collective lucid dreaming. These “exquisite corpse” collaborations highlight the disparities between our current realities and aim to articulate new, shared landscapes among them; places of escape during these sedentary times. Titus Nouwens and William Rees discussed the new work with her over Zoom.
WR: You’ve described your work as exploring states of transition and the construction of identities. It is usually the result of conducting fairly immersive research and departs from concrete social situations; the video we had planned to show in Margate is evidence of this. This new work for this project, in some ways, represents a shift: it focuses on lucid dreaming and seems more experimental in its approach. Yet in other ways, it feels very tied to your process and synonymous with the personal style of your videos. Why the interest in lucid dreaming? Can you talk about this shift in your working process - do you see it as a shift?
NP: My practice takes various shapes, but at the core of it are films that dive into a world I didn’t know before. The way I construct my films is coming to them with an initial interest, with open questions, and then building on different layers of existence within the group or person I’m working with. So there is a very social aspect to it, its very intimate, and is always bound to meet someone not just theoretically but also based on sharing something with that person.
With this new work there was definitely a shift, a least a temporary one, although it is too early to know. During quarantine, calls and online life became frenetic. I tended to detach myself from it, as I felt it was a particular moment to get some distance to consider what we’ve contributed in building, and the way we wish to shape our engagements. I got interested in experimenting different types of communication, allowing to share inner worlds, and build together upon them. And also, it was definitely a very strong period for everyone in terms of vivid dreams. Many friends have been telling me about interesting dreams and I came across several initiatives of collecting dreams under confinement. Some images were staying with me more than they would at a usual period. Because of seeing much less around us and staying within this forced locality, I could go further on this mental exploration.
When you make work that is close to documentary, you are constantly analysing and taking in account different spectrums. With this project, I wanted to leave more space for non-intellectualised images, to project them and reflect on them only afterwards.
TN: In your written introduction to the work, you speak about one of your dreams, in which a baby is hanging from a tree. You write about how you felt aligned with this figure, one for whom things are decided for, rather than having autonomy over their own decisions. There is an interesting question around how the pandemic has compromised our agency but how this condition can be one you work with, rather than fight against. Do you think the state of physical and social isolation, and the various shifts in reality caused by the pandemic, are present in the work?
NP: I was not drastically isolated socially, because my activities as a social worker changed but didn’t stop, and I live with several people. But, yes, this crisis brought a reflection on agency that reflected in parts of the work. This period showed us that states have the power to impose drastic changes suddenly. It both fed the hope that systemic change is possible, and insinuated that individual agency can dissolve in no time. We had to rely on the state’s decisions to avoid thousands of deaths, be subordinate to an extent that felt almost infantilising. At the same time, we were called on our individual responsibilities, and to question the roots of this situation. That is why, in this context, I’ve looked at the figure of the upside down baby as an injunction to grow. This dream was an influential element in starting the new series of work, but most parts of the project drifted away from social problematics. In the end, Sara brought straight up the difficulty of being voiceless and powerless in an extraordinarily privileged Amsterdam, while systems of oppression are exploding to our ears.
WR: You have also worked in a new, collaborative way, creating “exquisite corpse” works with Sam Keogh and Sara Giannini for the project. I can imagine that working in this way can be equally exciting, generative and frustrating; again, this question of agency within the collaboration being a factor within all of this. Can you speak about how these exchanges came about and how you have found the process?
NP: Sam had to leave the UK early on because of the government’s herd immunity politics, so he was particularly isolated. We were speaking often during this period, and we spontaneously decided to exchange a collage before thinking of this as a work. Then the project formulated quickly after I sent him the first image, so we defined the conditions in which we would dive in the work. With Sara, we often spoke of collaborating on the topic of dreams and had a lot of conversations before this, so I naturally thought of her.
With Sam, everything developed in the small spaces of two images. We have very different sensibilities, that would sometimes meet, sometimes fight against each other to exist. I realised that my initial intention to meet in co-created virtual space was a bit naïve. Even if we pursue the gesture of diving in together, you cannot share the same dream. I involved a scene that was precious to me, while he had to shake it hard to make himself some room. And so, I found it both exciting and intriguing, and sometimes violent. The process was very different depending on who initiated the first image. It was like, he came to visit me, then I came to visit him. When he started the image, it felt more like a playful exploration me, I was no longer vulnerable.
With Sara, the format was non-destructive. It kept things rolling, and whatever you proposed will stay the way it is. Perhaps we have more similarities in our sensibilities too, so the experience was very different. After the initial collage, we both composed upon what the other one proposed. We were not sticking to the scenes we sent by the other, but building a continuation. Diving in her texts provoked the next images, and vice-versa.
TN: Your work with Sara Giannini begins as a very poetic exchange; yet Sara’s final written response begins: “I can’t write what I was supposed to write.” The tone switches to something more urgent, with Sara responding to political situations in Italy. The process seems to have gone full circle, back to the concrete situations you usually work with.
NP: When I asked that question [Have you felt that vertigo, when you no longer know what is close?] I was conscious it might push us to an edge. It was broad, but yet addressing a deep, complex and uneasy feeling. It was not directed specifically for this moment, but this period has exacerbated contrasts, unbalances and paradoxes, so I guess it could only explode. As the project went on and time passed by with concrete difficulties happening around us, it was becoming harder and harder to make room to conjure these images and to enter this mode of thinking. So when I saw Sara’s answer, I totally understood where this came from. Snap back to reality.
Paul Maheke had originally planned to stage a performance at Margate’s Tom Thumb Theatre, a unique venue that is one of the smallest theatres in Europe. The work was envisioned as an experimentation with the malleability of voice and different modes of address as tools to transform the audience’s experience of a physical space. As the spread of Covid-19 led to the delay or cancellation of most exhibitions and live programming, followed by a rapid shift to online platforms, Paul wrote an open letter, titled, “The year I stopped making art. Why the art world should assist artists beyond representation; in solidarity.”, addressing the impossibility of making work during the pandemic. This letter served as a source of inspiration throughout the re-imagining of ‘Nothing gentle will remain’. Nora Kovacs exchanged emails with Paul to discuss his contribution; a new visual poem that builds upon his research interests and uses the page as a performative space of its own.
NK: Your practice took a slightly different form with ‘A light barrel in a river’s mouth’ than what many viewers will be used to. The physical presence of your body, the audience and surrounding venue have been replaced by a visual poem within which the ‘performance’ unfolds. Could you talk about this shift in medium and how your way of working may have changed as you moved from the space of a live performance to that of a publication?
PM: I have actually used the format of the visual poem on several occasions previous to this. I came to art through drawing and for a long time drawing was at the very basis of my thinking. Even today, when it comes to performance, I often score the work as I would compose a drawing: balancing out and playing with contrast and density.
It’s important to say that ‘A light barrel in a river’s mouth’ isn’t the direct translation of the performance work. It definitely has got a life of its own. I would say that it is less of a score than it is a consequence of or an appendix to the performance—which I still haven’t been able to perform live due to the pandemic.
NK: Your works often draw from a similar thread of materials, each iteration building upon and evolving into the next. For A light barrel in a river’s mouth, your references range from gravitational waves and Jeff Buckley lyrics to Édouard Glissant’s ‘Poetics of Relation’ and images from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Could you share a bit more about your research process and how these specific sources have come together?
PM: It’s funny because although I end up researching quite a bit, I don’t necessarily consider myself as someone who builds their work around specific research. The process feels very intuitive. I literally let my intuitions guide me, sometimes beyond my own understanding.
Ever since I started to make art, most of it took shape while trying to fall asleep. In those moments and in-between states, it is as if things were able to bubble up and had eventually decided to make themselves visible/audible. The various scenarii in which all of those elements introduce themselves to one another are nocturnal; they are launched from the shadows (to quote Judith Butler).
NK: Stemming from Glissant’s ‘Poetics of Relation’, the notion of opacity is something that you have experimented within many of your performances, as well as your latest work for Nothing gentle will remain. Certain parts are more legible than others; the textual and visual elements are not linear, but rather converge into a sort of ‘archipelago’ of durations and intensities. How have Glissant’s theories impacted your work? What role does opacity play in A light barrel in a river’s mouth?
PM: Glissant is MAJOR. Probably one of the most brilliant voices of our era. His thinking around the globalised world built upon the abyss which holds the remains of the Atlantic trade— therefore the (floating) ground on which we all stand and from which we have all been cast—is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful ways to articulate the struggle Black folks are put through today: a deliberate and continuous attempt to shut us out from the abyss. Which is by no means for Glissant the void whiteness expects us to believe it is.
In this regard, the right to be opaque, and to remain in the depth of the unseen/the unknown/the unseen, is as much a fundamental need as a survival strategy. Not everything can be legible nor it is appropriate for us to expect so. The problem I have with representation — which is often used as a synonym for transparency — is that it entertains the belief that everything can be articulated visually.
NK: The last ‘page’ of ‘A light barrel in a river’s mouth’ writes, “I return to the visible and although I have no body ... I still talk.” In a similar vein, Nothing gentle will remain considers how publics might gather together, both now and in the future; the parameters of which have rapidly shifted throughout the production of the project in light of Covid-19 and recent protests in response to systemic racism and police brutality. What do you hope readers/audiences take away from your work’s oscillation between presence and absence? How might we “return to the visible” amidst and after these respective (though interrelated) crises?
PM: Perhaps that we should just decide collectively to withdraw from the visible. Even just for a minute. To me, sight is an impairment to our deep understanding. It prevents us from accessing what lurks in the shadow image.
There is no return ... whatever happened is part of us now, and forever.
‘Nothing gentle will remain’ is a collaboration between curators Lydia Antoniou, Caterina Guadagno, Nora Kovacs, Titus Nouwens and William Rees, in partnership with Open School East as part of the Curating Contemporary Art Programme Graduate Projects 2020, Royal College of Art, London. The publication is available online here, with a physical publication launched at a later date.