June 29th, 2012 · A.E.Zimmer

Berlin, The Playground for Performance

Part One of Two

Even in the course of its bruised history, few have ever reproached Berlin for a lack of dynamism. Indeed, the scope of Berlin’s iconic energy has spread like wildfire, and “Berlin” as buzzword has only grown in global art circles, as the city has left recovery mode and become a reconstituted cultural capital that’s thoroughly modern, fit with a glamour that hints at its Weimar yesteryear. Berlin’s tolerance for the eccentric has withstood her many re-fashionings and facelifts, even with the city’s current status as a contemporary art capitol, so it’s no wonder that May in Berlin would be dedicated to live art and performance, that rampant visual art offshoot growing in popularity like Kudzu.

Enter Month of Performance Art- Berlin, or MPA-B– an exhaustive, month-long platform held this spring, devoted to spreading live art and performance to all corners of the city. Still in its infancy, MPA-B’s second year in action has already amassed an impressive following, this year’s highlights including performances that observe thresholds of human fascination with disgust, a “Love Mass“ officiated by one Reverend of Love (naturally), and a Surrealist taxi shuttling passengers to and from unheard-of destinations.

 

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I spoke with co-founders and curators Francesca Romana Ciardi, Florian Feigl, and Jörn J. Burmester to discuss the genesis of their great event and their hopes to perfect the confusing, seductive tango between live performance and and audience.

A.E.Zimmer: How did your lives first intersect with performance? What has drawn you to performance as an artistic pursuit?

Florian Feigl: As a teenager, I had some contact with underground filmmaking and industrial music. Living in a small provincial town in West Germany in the mid-1980s, I started out experimenting with sculpting, live performance, filmmaking, and industrial music with a very small group of people. Those practices were almost always crossing borders; sticking to just one practice wasn’t useful- it was a limitation. Liveness definitely was a very important characteristic of our practice. Time-based work with a strong emphasis on process is still what I'd describe as my prime interest in terms of performance.

 

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Jörn J. Burmester: Performance has always been central to my life. As a child, I was playing music. As a teenager, I became fascinated with theater, and was lucky enough to get my start in what was then called project theater and today would be called devised theater: stage formats developed collectively by the groups that performed them. Eventually, I got bored by theater and its focus on individual psychology and more or less fictional narration. 

I was exposed to a variety of conceptions of performance art, both as a form of visual art and as radically different experimental theater, while studying Applied Theater Studies at the University of Giessen. It first presented itself as a chance for liberation, a chance to do perform what I wanted, a space without rules. 

 

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Francesca Romana Ciardi: I first became interested in performance while living in London. I moved there in 1996 when I was only 18, unaware that the city was going through the cultural renaissance known as "Cool Britannia" from which brutally revealing and touching phenomena such as the In-Yer-Face Theatre of Sarah Kane emerged, as well as more dubious, terribly consumerist ones like the Spice Girls. 

I remember going to illegal parties and watching incredible performances transform abandoned factories and disused buildings into places of magic and mystery, and then later trying to reproduce some of their aesthetic qualities while experimenting with old video cameras borrowed from college. But it wasn’t until a few years later that I started performing when I joined the international physical theater company Theatralia and began a series of collaborations with artists working across film, theatre, music and dance.

However, my passion for performance, more specifically performance art, was ultimately cemented when the Brighton-based collective Leonard invited me to take part in their show Grass at the National Review of Live Art in Glasgow in 2007. I knew I had finally found a language in performance that fully resonated with me, and,  free of stage and aesthetic conventions that I had experienced up to that point as a performer, enabled me to take greater risks, thus becoming more receptive and responsive to my surroundings. It also led me to experience real strength and enjoyment, not in being stylistically and choreographically accurate and prepared, but in simply being myself: exposed, vulnerable and honest, armed only with my body and ideas.

 

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A.E.Zimmer: How did you come to Berlin?

Florian Feigl: I'm a performance artist and curator. Besides my artistic and curatorial practice, I lecture, write and teach performance art at art schools and universities.  Berlin seems to be a good spot to get along with practices that tend to not fit into many boxes-which nonetheless have huge potential to be applied to the most diverse topics and situations. The wide range and easy access to all sorts of practices, culturally, artistically, socially make it a pretty surprising and inspiring experience to be in this city.

Jörn J. Burmester: I moved to Berlin in 1985, escaping a quaint but rather boring background in West Germany, to pursue my then still-active interest in theater. After working in a variety of independent theater groups as an assistant director, dramaturge, technician, producer and sometimes actor for some years, I went on to study in Giessen and New York, tried my hand in writing for the theater, was forced to take a job in the corporate world, and finally decided to stop compromising and do only what interested me in 2000. It has been a steady mix of group and solo work since then, and it still is a continuous learning process.

A.E.Zimmer: How did MPA-B come about?

Florian Feigl: At the end of January 2011, Performer Stammtisch (the Berlin-based artist network founded by Burmeister) invited activists from various Berlin-based organizations, project spaces, artist networks, artist-run spaces and galleries to discuss the general situation of performance art and performance artists in the city, and how to possibly improve it, demand more attention, and introduce it to broader audiences. Already in that first meeting we had the idea to install an official Month of Performance Art. The idea was to frame the ongoing practices of various artists during one month of the year and put them into one program, to make visible the vibrant activity that is going on between artists. Three months later, the first Month of Performance Art took place.

Jörn J. Burmester: I founded Performer Stammtisch in 2003 and have hosted it with Florian since 2007. We held regular meetings to watch and discuss performance art. In February of 2011 we called a special meeting, inviting all independent producers, curators and organizers of performance art we knew in Berlin, to discuss ways to collaborate and improve the general situation for our art form in Berlin. The idea of MPA was developed during that meeting, and to our surprise everyone agreed to create the Month of Performance Art, with the first edition taking place only three months later. The basic idea was to join forces to promote a better understanding of the Berlin performance art scene among ourselves and the general public.

 

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A.E.Zimmer: Florian, I'm interested in your referral to the art of performance as a "general situation". Language often grows broad when talking about performance and its reception as an artistic practice. Why do you think this is?

Florian Feigl: I am not quite sure if it isn’t a misunderstanding. What I tried to point out was the general situation of performance art practitioners regarding possibilities to keep up their practices, exhibit, perform, etc.  However, I understand this as a very productive misunderstanding. Performance as a "general situation" describes a growing misunderstanding that confounds the artistic practice with all sorts of performances in very different contexts such as public, economic, social and, of course, the varying cultural performances. From my point of view, the main difference between artistic practice and the other understandings of performance is the non-utilitarian, process-oriented approach of the artistic practice. But let me be very clear: a non-utilitarian, process-oriented  approach is critical. This approach to art is a pretty precise line to be drawn between performance art and performance in whatever other sense: we talk about art and not about running shoes!

 
 
This interview has been edited for clarity.  All photos courtesy of Leon Elias Donath for Month of Performance Art, Berlin.
 
 

A.E.Zimmer is a writer and regular contributor to Performa Magazine.

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