Oreet Ashery: Party for Freedom
1 May - 22 June 2013
Artangel project - various venues
Interview with the artist by Ruth Hogan
‘Party for Freedom’ is an itinerant work that involves a travelling troupe of eight performers with live events, moving image work and an original soundtrack.
RH: Firstly, why did you want to make this work and why now’
OE: The idea for this work actually began a few years ago. It originated from a research project called ‘Performance Matters’, run by Goldsmiths College, University of Roehampton and the Live Art Development Agency.
I was approached to contribute to their ‘Trashing Performance’ programme, which examined the value of trash in performance. They approached me to do something because of my aesthetic and work in general.
When I began thinking about trash, I began to consider political trash and the far-right; the media scapegoats, the blogs, the anti-Islamic and anti-immigration sentiment, why there seemed to be more and more right-wing governments in Europe, and why the Left had failed.
Trash aesthetics stems more from a leftist sentiment. The hippy movement, the paraphernalia and the clothing have always been associated with the trash aesthetic and form a language of protest.
The title of your work ‘Party for Freedom’ derives its name from Dutch politician Geert Wilder’s far-right party, infamous for its controversial Anti-Islamic policies. What compelled you to the political situation in the Netherlands’
The series of events that happened in the Netherlands with the assassinations of Theo Van Gogh in 2004 and Pim Fortuyn in 2002 were so incredibly dramatic. All the ‘characters’ in this narrative are compellingly eccentric. Geert Wilders’ anti-Islamic film ‘Finta’ had just been released in 2008 and I remember the distinctive feature of his bleached hair, not unlike Boris Johnson. By 2009 his political party ‘Party For Freedom’ was the second largest in the Netherlands.
However it was never specifically about the Netherlands but the events there acted as a metaphor or case study.
Many European right-wing and far-right parties instrumentalise the word ‘Freedom’ to suit their anti-immigration agendas, so I wanted to steal or reclaim it back from them in a way, so that when you search online for ‘Party For Freedom’ you will find this work as well, creating a counter culture response to populist misappropriation of the idea of freedom.
Nudity is integral to the live aspect of ‘Party For Freedom’ and as a thematic to your work and individual practice. In the context of a group scenario, what function do you feel it serves’ Do you intend to evoke an emotional response or do you feel it has a political force’
I use the naked body in a political sense in this work, not in a sexual sense. It was really only two years ago when I began to use nudity with groups. Prior to that, I had only used nudity in my own work and on my own body. Your body can perform and carry readings through its own biography but people just witness it. I was more interested in activating a collective action from people coming together.
I am interested in the whole notion of bio-politics and how bodies are managed. So my position is coming from an intersection of post-identity politics and bio-politics and how the body is being exploited as a result of globalisation. It highlights the globalised circumstances of how the body is being exploited in an economical sense. Communities are now formed less around ethnicity and geography but rather from migration and labour.
Some of my interests politically stem from discourses like Hardt & Negri’s ‘Empire’, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Giorgio Agamben, where Agamben discusses the idea of Bare Life and the biological body without rights.
- Where the stripping away of civil liberties is the last attack on a person’s life.
Exactly. You have a biological body but if you do not have any civil rights, you can’t even open a bank account. The naked body still retains some political agency. It represents the biological form stripped of all possible status, not necessarily in terms of gender or ethnicity. There still remains a lot of taboo surrounding the naked body, and it operates as a strong site of resistance because of this.
With the moving image work, I was conscious to work with white people, or near white, as this addresses the privileged white body in relation to freedom. Some of the moving image work is looking at the notion of the white primitive, the white savage, the white person who looked at nature as a return to your inner child, your inner shaman, and projected this at times onto your ‘inner ethnic’.
What I found out during my research was that German nudism was state sponsored and celebrated by the Nazis. They had this ideal and institution of Strength Through Joy and the whole ‘body beautiful’ principle. The notion of nature itself in the west, of course, is not neutral; it is invested with nationalistic sentiments. When German nudists moved to California in the 1940s they became the first influences on the hippy movement.
So the origins of Nudism were located in very different, conflicting ideologies from libertarian, hippy principles to Nazism. But each was associated with the concept of freedom. It seems everyone wants to hold this idea of freedom and claim it in a way as his or her own ideology.
Even in the art world, the naked body is a real marker of freedom of expression and censorship. The West is still hailed as a place where you can show and do anything that you want. It is also interestingly culturally, where nakedness begins to mark boundaries and trends in the globalised art world.
Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1921 play ‘Mystery Bouffe’ is cited as an influential work in the making of ‘Party For Freedom’. The play was originally written to commemorate the 1917 Russian Revolution and Mayakovsky has said of the work that ‘in the future, all persons performing, presenting, reading or publishing ‘Mystery-Bouffe’ should change the content, making it contemporary, immediate, up-to-the-minute’. Do you view Party for Freedom as a contemporary iteration of this and do you see the work as revolutionary in any way’
I wish the work was revolutionary, I wish I had a local revolution to commemorate. At least I think ‘Party For Freedom’ is dealing with what Mayakovsky has asked for in terms of making it ‘contemporary, immediate, up-to-the-minute’. It’s not celebrating freedom at all. In fact it’s quite the opposite. There are still so many issues that are far from liberated, such as gender, poverty and race. Looking at the 1960s and 1970s avant-garde, to 1980s experimental video work and special effects and 1990s rave culture - where are we now and what has changed’ What I particularly liked about the play was that anyone could use it.
- Like an open work.
Precisely. The original story for me is really about the financial crisis of 2008 and its retribution. The world is flooding and the Unclean (the proletariat) are building a boat to save themselves. The Clean (the privileged) invite themselves onto the boat after all the manual labour has been done and then throw the Unclean overboard and save only themselves. It’s such a relevant play.
The launch event for ‘Party For Freedom’ takes place on 1 May with the film screening and soundtrack performed live at Millbank Media Tower.
What is the relevance of the location and date for you’
For me it’s a modest reclamation of the tradition of Mayday, which has been taken away in England from its political context of protest and public gatherings and made into a bank holiday.
Reclaiming it in the particular corporate location of Millbank and part of the Millbank building questions what effective forms of resistance and empowerment are available to us now’ When does intervention become co-option’ And how do artists and the art world at large best negotiate the inevitable realities of corporate support’
Another aspect of ‘Party for Freedom’ is ‘Party for Hire’, where members of the public can invite the troupe of performers to attend an event of their choice. This live element relies on audience interaction and suggests a certain level of unpredictability and spontaneity. What can the audience expect’
I think that there will be a level of excitement in the idea similar to when you organise something and then anticipate the arrival of a guest or a friend. I think there is something equal between the audience and performers in that way. It is like a meeting of two groups rather than the viewing experience you have when you go to the cinema. There is more of a human exchange within that.
The nature of how ‘Party for Hire’ is distributed is about self-organisation, which itself is one of the most effective forms of resistance. People have to organise the event for themselves. It’s definitely not a Party, although there are a lot of party tricks in it. It lasts ninety minutes so it is demanding.
What is exciting for me is how it depends on the context changing every night, from a home to an office, to a public space, and to see what happens in every location and how the audience will respond differently. The notion of what constitutes the public becomes crucial here. There will be a level of audience participation but no one will be forced to do anything. I think any type of live experience, whether it is performance or theatre, takes time to process. I want it to be immersive and thought provoking. The work also doesn’t tell you what to think. It has no real agenda. There is no right or wrong. Instead, the sense is of political psychosis and uncertainty.
Do you think by creating a space of uncertainty that you are effectively freeing it from any imposing hierarchies’
I really hope so.