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“Occupy [Insert your location here]”: An interview with Inhabitant artists

Interview by Eylül Fidan Akıncı

Photos by Fırat Kuşçu

South African artists Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie performed their collaborative work Inhabitant, which focused on the habitation struggles of immigrants in the city of Johannesburg, with a new version designed for Istanbul in the frame of iDANS 05 at Dolapdere. Mirko Winkel, one of the creators of Life and Strive, performed last year centering around gated communities in Istanbul, accompanied the group as facilitator. The performance, featuring artists from Istanbul as well as immigrants from the district, was an interesting example of how a neighborhood can be transformed into a stage. Dancers Brian Mtembu and Humphrey Maleka was on “stage” along with visual artist Vaugh Sadie -who works on the relationship between infrastructures of public spaces with their residents- and Sello Pesa, examining his own dance background with artists from other disciplines. We interviewed the Berlin-based artist Winkel and the South African group.

What was the main point of meeting to collaborate on a specific project?

Sello Pesa: What interested me was the content of Vaughn’s workshops about light and space instead of theater lights that’s being used in theaters. Also to be in a different space from dance made me really appreciate dance in a different way.

V.S: The workshops were site-specific workshops looking at the role that light plays in public spaces in a very specific area in Johannesburg. Our conversation during the workshops kind of carried on after each of the sessions as well. And I think there was a mutual interest in terms of pushing the role of light in performance. I come from a visual art background and enjoy a lot of contemporary dance and theater, but I had questions about how things are lit. I never really had the opportunity to explore that, so it was a really nice opportunity when we spoke about collaborating on this project to start to understand the role light plays in the performance as well. But also being able to work with a choreographer who is willing to allow somebody else to middle in their work, rather than a choreographer who has a very clear idea about what they want to do… Often you get brought in as the lighting designer or the collaborator just to resolve very particular thing. So that was a nice way that we worked through conversation.

I assume that you incorporated daylight, too. It is interesting to approach a natural phenomenon in a creative way.

V.S: It is using what is there. Often people forget that there is so much already in a particular space. So it’s really understanding what is there and only bringing in something to highlight or to emphasize certain things. So the light is also a conceptual choice, it is not just about illuminating the performance. It is another layer, another conceptual meaning. It is about understanding that whatever, as it comes in as an object, has a meaning. It acts as another performer.

The title of your work, “Inhabitant” also calls forth certain associations and questions such as property rights, civil rights, citizenship. Can you tell us about the other conceptual layers related to these issues?

S.P: For me it was more about anything that occupies space. Be it human beings, animals, objects… I wanted to learn more about how I occupy space. So the piece, for me, was working as inhabitant. In Johannesburg people are in a big need of housing. Mostly they are foreigners who have come to South Africa. But also we have indigenous people like the Bushmen who really do not care, they just wander around in the mountains. And there are other people who can really kill to find a house. Alternative spaces that do not have four walls can be a nice place to stay… It could be by the door, or outside somewhere. You just need to occupy that space and then inhabit that area. And this was one of the other interesting things for me to really understand whether it is poverty or choice. I don’t think that now I have all the answers but I’m still trying to make sense with it, out of what it means now here for me and for everybody else.

If I’m not wrong this will be the second performance of Inhabitant, after Johannesburg. Why did you choose Istanbul?

V.S: We didn’t, actually. The festival invited us to do the project. I don’t think it would have necessarily been a first choice in terms of exploring the idea. But I think it is interesting to explore several ideas in new contexts. We have been active in several parts of South Africa, because it is in many ways familiar. But this new space is something you cannot take for granted and you start to understand some other conceptual underpinnings of the work. Also we start to understand how these very general ideas around the place and space rely on the very specifics and the dynamics of those areas. Several issues are prevalent in all cities but they really appear in specific ways. It is really challenging to the piece to stop to understand what those things are. You have a collective, you also have bodies that have to move through those spaces and also have a very physical response to them as well. It is the non-familiar that makes us really interested and challenged.

Have you made research before coming here?

S.P: The commission really inspired us to understand our practice, the way we work, the questions we ask, the decisions taken when we create work. I can make research before I come here but till I get to that place it is something else. I need to be there, be in that space, talk to that person.

In which parts of the city have you been so far?

B.M: Tarlabaşı, Taksim, the Asian Side…

Mirko Winkel: Ataşehir, Aksaray, Kasımpaşa, Dolapdere, Şişli and the middle class neighborhoods there. We explored there by walking, which allows us to compare.

V.S: You can sit in your office at your desk and download hundreds of PDFs and documents about the social complexity and all the issues and I think it is one form of research. When it comes to this type of performance it is also having a very physical understanding of these places. A merely conscious, cerebral process of research is not that type of project. If you don’t have a clear experience of that space it doesn’t resonate in anyone, doesn’t really have any real meaning. It’s a whole bunch of social theory about how public space or social practices develop a community. Unless you see and experience it first hand, it doesn’t really resonate. It’s important finding the balance between the two.

I have questions to Mirko, too. He was offered by the festival to guide you in İstanbul. How was your collaborative work with Anat Eisenberg, “Life and Strive”, presented in iDANS last year, informing this process?

M.W: We worked with the virtual spaces of new construction sites for a small group of people that can afford that. This was of course strange information I brought in this kind of project. You cannot define the project they are doing with a key-phrase like that.  All these kind of different topics that are going on in the city are informing the work but actually what is happening is much more about what is actually there. Whereas the work we did last year was much more about one specific topic in a very specific place. Creating this dialogue around that was for me a chance not to see it from just one angle, such as “this is the discussion about gentrification” or “this is the discussion about how the capital flows in the city”, or “about classes”. This work is not about this kind of categories. It’s more about like, half of us look to a specific place or go to a specific place, who stops when and watches what. I like to move very fast and then see something and stare at it and then go on while Sello has a different speed. He would much more like to breathe at the spaces somehow. Vaughn also has a conceptual approach to places. He can frame it immediately somehow. There are so many different ways of seeing the same thing. It is also a bit like freeing this kind of perception of people living there.

How was it for you to work with Mirko? Had you given the chance, would you prefer a local artist or someone like Mirko who is not a resident of Istanbul?

V.S: It is not a case of either/or as a preference. Working with local artists as facilitators offer very different processes, and I think it’s interesting to work with someone who doesn’t live in the city. It gives you a very different insight than with someone who lives in the city. People who live and try to guide you through their own place choose to present a very particular story. Whereas somebody from outside sees different things. People are intimidated by outside views of their city. They are nervous about how somebody else comes in and do a work on something they are so familiar with. There are bigger questions around ownership and citizenship in terms of artistic practices.

M.W: There is no privilege for a local artist in terms of seeing things. You can sometimes be just blind, actually. It is much more about asking questions and approaching with a naiveté. There is no hierarchy.

I’m also curious about to what extent you would choose to stay tuned to the actual political and public discussions in İstanbul. Do you have a special interest in that or would you prefer to stay a little bit away so that you can have an authentic interaction with the audience?

V.S: From an outsider perspective maybe you can only reflect on the issues, I don’t think that you can necessarily stand on the public platform and start to speak on behalf of them. If anything you can offer a reflection. These issues are already so loaded that the local people even can’t define or decide or understand the content of things happening to them. Academia also has a tendency to have very particular conversations on these things. Often they exclude everyday, they’ve become about the big ideas. They are sometimes grandiose about an idea and forgetting the complexity of things. It is that reflection we can offer actually. We can pick the hot issues aesthetically, see what they mean on a conceptual level, but we have no real understanding how things are changing or impacting…

How was your previous presentation of this work? Did anything unexpected happen?

V.S: One surprising thing was that the night before our performance there happened a car accident 200 meters away from the spot we were working in. So our final rehearsal was subdued by the police! This unpredictableness of the city, we found it in our work, too. And there were the cyclists running past, which isn’t a common thing in that area. These things surprise you because you are looking, you see things for the first time.

H.M: A trash guy who normally work there was afraid to approach during the performance because of the audience, for example.

Did the space you had chosen for the performance shape the type and form of your audience?

S.P: In Johannesburg we knew what we were expecting. The place should allow the audience to feel and to observe. It opened people who are living in that area, too. So it encouraged us to select uncomfortable places, and they are for everyone. The more you open that space for people through art, somebody may have an interest in it.

What kind of features did that space have to motivate you to perform in?

V.S: That space was very interesting, it was a former semi-industrial area in the city of Johannesburg. A big developer was buying up blocks of the city. So it is gentrification through culture. It is a forced art-precinct. There are three entrances in, with big doors and security guards inside. What we call “people from the Northern suburbs” travel in to this area and walk into this beautiful little olive grove that they planted in the middle of the city. You can sit, have a cappuccino, look at William Kentridge’s studio… And then three major galleries have project spaces. And on the other side you have industry and a whole bunch of people moving through the city. So it came from understanding that space’s complexity. If we invited people it would be people from Northern suburbs, but they wouldn’t go to the other side, they would like to stay confined. The idea was to move them through on to the space and to give them the illusion and comfort of coming through in a way that they are familiar with. The site would question that audience and also make that space available for people who walk past daily.

Have you experienced anything striking in Istanbul so far?

S.P: Food, people stopping to talk to you… If I was single, I would live in Istanbul! It is so busy and has a great dynamic.

B.M: We were told that police may come and check our passports but it has never happened.

M.W: They were actually very friendly. They chat a little and welcomed us.

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