Conversations with Independents Biennial artists: Angelo Madonna and Sylvia Battista

Conversations with Independents Biennial artists: Angelo Madonna and Sylvia Battista

Interview by Joanie Magill, Independents Biennial Writer-in-Residence

On 11 August, Sylvia Battista performed Persephone, a spoken word performance art piece inspired by and responding to Jugglers, a kinetic sculptural installation by Angelo Madonna.

The performance was devised around the space, rhythm and movement of the Jugglers. A black clad figure, Persephone inhabited the space, following the flow of the grid-like consumer paths on the top floor of former George Henry Lees department store, before disappearing at the sound of a bell signalling the start of the narration of her story.

The performance was followed by an informal question and answer session between the audience and the artists. It was part of a series of projects called TEST!, a platform for artists and performers to show new work to a supportive audience and receive feedback. I talked to the two artists the day after the performance.

JM Jugglers, is described as ‘a conversation between two non-human entities, a non-verbal dialogue taking place between automata. It is a piece that plays with the theatrical potentiality of objects to perform a drama without human characters’. What was the impetus for this piece?

AM When I first came up with the idea of Jugglers I wanted to try and transfer a bit of me into an object and leave the object as a presence in space. It wasn’t really about engaging with the actual public or whoever. The experience is movement, kinetic, dynamic.

I decided to separate them. So instead of there being one, I actually preferred them to have a conversation and the idea was that one was producing more sound while spinning and the other was producing sound while producing the spinning. So this dialogue became this sort of beautiful synchronised harmony between the two.

This conversation is between two non-human objects, between the audience and those two non-human objects.

Inside the space, the atmosphere the pieces made was really a drama playing in front of an audience, so to me this is what the job of the Juggler was about.

Every time someone gets close to it, someone engages with it as much as Sylvia did with my piece, you really trigger something in your imagination. So somehow it opens up a space where basically anyone can engage on different levels.

JM So the audience interaction or the engagement with the piece is important?

AM It’s more in the mind, the experience. It doesn’t need to please you aesthetically, because what it does is reproduce as an object. I guess it’s more retinal as Duchamp might say, more the mind engaging with the object. The intention is to make you feel more calm, almost like a piece of meditation where you can meditate mindfulness into it by the sound it produces.

JM Sylvia, I felt that your response to it was a very human response. When Angelo sounded the bell to start the performance, it sounded to me very shamanistic and ritualistic, almost a spiritual call, which I wasn’t expecting. Tell me about your response to the piece.

SB There is definitely an element of ritual and shamanic practice, a spiritual approach to what art can do, but not spiritual in a sense of something detached from matter on different levels. I am very interested in that and just published a book on performance and spirituality, but my relation with the work was inspired by a memory of looking at Angelo doing (creating) them many years ago, but mainly by the sound.

To me it was really something bubbling in the underground. I remember Angelo was interested at a certain point in Persephone and I am interested in dealing with mythology to engage with contemporary issues.

I really saw Persephone walking around. That’s how I work, I visualise things and make them manifest. So I really saw this character walking around as both an embodied and disembodied thing – human and non-human, because Persephone can represent that threshold, this liminal space in between, that crack that you can come out of and go in.

I feel that we also have an anthropological duty in reusing certain images that belong to our past. I’m not Catholic, I’ve never been, but as you know Catholicism has these incredible theatrical aesthetics. People embody it in their daily lives. I remembered this image – I was living in this house and I started to hear this mumbling, this chanting and I looked out of the window and there was this circle of women reciting the rosary. It was an incredible image, it stayed with me since. So for me it was important to use it and sometimes I use it in different contexts and narratives.

I think using shamanic and ritualistic technologies makes things touch people on a deeper level. I always have that kind of response from people so its working.

JM How did the exhibition space itself affect what you created?

AM It would have been different if it was on the balcony or downstairs where the ceiling is much higher. I found the space very interesting. The fact that on the ground there were these paths where people used to walk, shopping around here, made me feel like being on stage and people are almost addressed to walk around those lines. This (space) was open so it was like so people could engage with my piece from everywhere. This was something I liked. I think that worked very well.

JM Sylvia, you mentioned the energy you felt from the performance. Can you talk a little about that?

SB Yes, just going back to the space, I think spaces like this are very interesting because they become technologies themselves for producing something. The fact that there is this path is a technology itself. You think in consumeristic terms – it’s about just buy, buy, buy, but in ritualistic terms its very interesting because it’s a boundary in a sense. There was a centre which is the hub, the Jugglers, and there was a mini stage just there to be inhabited.

It was very much induced by the space and how it was used. If you think in terms of theatrical strategies and about working with the energy of the space, however you want to interpret that, the apparatus itself. As Michel Foucault talks about, it’s about manipulating forces, and it’s quite interesting to find ourselves in a consumeristic kingdom, to play with those forces and in a completely different way.

The energy that I felt, if I did the performance for ten minutes, it wouldn’t have worked for me, because after a while I really started feeling that we were inhabiting a different territory and that people could see me, but some didn’t see me. It was funny that the children were engaging with me. That is the usual narrative with ghosts you know, the children are the ones that manage to see it. So that was kind of a funny thing for me to enter this lineage of horror film. But yes after a while I really felt that I was becoming part of a theatrical dimension that was almost detaching from the other dimension happening there. The bell was almost a sound that was breaking into, in shamanic terms, the cosmology, and somehow, I felt that the circling around closed and brought people together in the centre and all the rest stopped to exist. So that sense of intimacy, I think, was created by the structure, the boundary and the stage that is part but not part of it.

After the performance, you had a Q&A with the audience. Is that something you do as part of your process to engage with the audience and bring them into the work?

AM The whole idea of installing The Jugglers up here was to create, in the first place, a platform called TEST!, where artists can present and test their work in front of an audience without having to be scared of it. So to me, the test of The Jugglers, was my first approach to the idea of TEST! being open in Liverpool, in this building.

It’s interesting to see a platform open up to the public, so the public then can feel free as much as you are feeling free to share your new work, your new engagement with reality or not reality, your fictional piece, whatever you are making as an artist. But that is always good because the artist can get some feedback.

JM Is this the first time you’ve done it?

AM It’s the first in Liverpool. The first was in London. It was done at The Hatch space with Gerald Curtis. We launched TEST! It’s fantastic to see that it works, and that people are not afraid to ask questions and were really open to feel. The environment was friendly, there was no pressure, you can talk, you can present your work.

JM How is it useful as an artist to have that interaction with an audience?

Most of the time, yes, I like my piece or myself to interact with an audience. It will change your perception of your piece. It’s not the same piece anymore. It’s like giving birth. Once it’s out there it starts to interact itself, with the people and people start to give their own feedback to the piece without you interfering with it. So yes, it is absolutely important. It starts to interact with people on its own. Its not yours anymore. Eventually if you sell it its even better because it goes away from you and that’s it, you can concentrate on another piece.

JM Jugglers is part of an ongoing research project around the concept and practice of Emotional Minimalism. Can you talk about what it is?

AM It’s something I have been working on for a long time. It’s an open research project where I try to see what’s happened to the emotions put in place once an object is displayed and the way the object interacts with the person that is looking at it.

It’s always been a very difficult question what Emotional Minimalism means. It’s a sort of relationship between the audience which is you and the piece. It’s when you get so close to a piece that you almost lose the piece in front of you and you enter it in a completely different way – more emotionally, more effective. What is needed to trigger that emotion is a minimal gesture, or the sound, or the spinning. It doesn’t need to be the whole piece but somehow it’s something personal you get engaged with, personal to you as a viewer of the object.

This is something that started a few years ago. It will develop more in the future because it’s part of what you do within a community – within that space, that object, what it does in that space, how it will engage, how little you need to do to engage with someone. This is the same thing within the community – a little gesture may change the behaviour of someone within a community within anywhere you are.

So this is kind of my Emotional Minimalism – the idea that it really requires a bit of time before you can actually make something really meaningful and will change into something more creative that really leaves a mark and says I’ve done something that’s really effective to somebody else.

JM Does that encompass collaboration as well? Do you collaborate often together?

SB We have been collaborating a few times without the pressure of saying that we are working together. If something came up with me or with him, we sometimes involve each other because we know we are always ready to experiment and to engage. So there is a constant ongoing conversation that might express itself in collaboration or not.

I think that it is something that we really share, the idea of art that creates vibes beyond the career and again creates energy in a place.

I think that it’s such a privilege to have a platform to do that. To have the possibility of making the piece inclusive. I didn’t construct it as a participative piece but give the possibility of triggering thoughts, triggering questions, triggering ongoing conversations that can make other things happen, and that’s how it becomes vibrant.

Liverpool, we find, is a wonderful platform at the moment. It’s so responsive. There are no closed doors. Everyone is available to chat from the CEO of Bluecoat to the person in the bus stop. It’s a constant dialogue and open forum for conversation. Things can start very easily and informally and that is wonderful. It reminds me of London and how it was.

The fact of creating things like TEST! these really energetic hubs is very interesting, because Angelo will involve other artists and another kind of energy will move, so I think its very nice to create. And again it’s the spinning right? The spinning around.