A Conversation Between Katya Ev and Bart De Baere
Recorded by Christine Clinckx and transcribed by Sabine Herrygers
M HKA library
HISK publication, In a Long Blink of an Eye, critical volume
Bart De Baere: What is there that should in any case be mentioned in this conversation, other than Augenmusik, which M HKA has committed to. What other points of reference should certainly be taken into account?
Katya Ev: For me, the first important performance was Axe de Révolution, in 2014. It was the first performative work and the first site-specific work. Like Augenmusik, it was a durational performance: walking for seventeen hours in the city with a six-meter long metal structural element, from north to south. It also linked up to the political context—Moscow and the beginning of war in Ukraine.
There are two other performative works that I consider important. Last year, I did a work in the Musée Zadkine in Paris, performing in an institutional space, which you can see as institutional critique or as an “infiltrated performance.”
In 2018, there was a work called Iceberg: Blue Room, linked to the law prohibiting VPN anonymizers in Russia, thus blocking the access to the dark web and to anonymous apps like Telegram. This was the most important thing happening politically when I was invited there. In a work like that, I bring together many different parameters of the situation: in that instance, a solo-show, low-budget, for a small institution with pop-up spaces, changing places every time, so that every place was new and not labelled as a place of art. I benefited from this and created what I named a “constructed situation,” a term from Guy Debord. A bed, a chair and a desk, a sleeping pill, and a computer configured to access the dark web. The only announcements of the event were on an EBay-like website for private persons. People got getting there anonymously by texting and getting instructions. It worked 24/7 for two weeks. When visitors were finally pushing in the door and getting into the space—an electric blue room—they received a text that said: “Your time is unlimited, just send me a text when you want to leave and close the door.” It was full for two weeks; some people stayed for eight hours, and nobody ever saw any of the visitors, who were alone and anonymous, and I honestly do not know what they did there. They could either go on the dark web, or just take a view and chill; it was a kind of David Lynch-like atmosphere: getting to the basement, being in the blue room, not knowing if the offer was true or not. I was in the café or in a connected studio, three rooms away, not far from the basement, in the same building; waiting to put the space back to zero every time, perfectly clean to re-open the door, and to let myself out.
BDB: Lets come back to what HISK wants with this kind of text, a sort of description of what you are doing. I think one may distinguish three elements in your work. One is the performative dimension, which leads to the works being categorized as “performances,” and another is the fact that you focus everything into poignant images. Still prior to this double figure of performance and image, there is a contextual capacity, as if your work were something you weave: you look at different elements, and then develop a work that reconfigures those elements. For that reason, I like this notion of a “constructed situation,” which is certainly more precise than that of a “performance.” Your work might be seen as a kind of a constructed image, and even as an image, in the sense of a kind of a performative image, happening in each of your projects and aspiring to be continued. That’s something very different from a performance, and rather more like setting up a situation.
K EV: Yes, I am having difficulties defining it.
BDB: In any case, it may be interesting not to use the notion of “performance.” It’s too reductive. It seems to me that calling the works a “constructed situation,” or a “constructed performative image,” might be something that draws more attention to their specificity.
I think there is one more constitutive element of your works, which is their “afterlife.” This “constructed situation” or this “constructed performative image” is very intensely performative, very much in its own time and situation, an outcome of your contextual weaving. Although it happens on its own behalf, it also, and simultaneously, depicts. One can see the documentation as something of a side effect, an outer element, but it is also a continuation. This “afterlife” may get its own form of complexity, precisely because it came into existence out of these different elements. This “afterlife,” a kind of an echo, continues all of the components in the kind of weaving you practice: it somehow continues the capacity of the performative image you construct. The components belong together in their initial moment, but they may also be expressed once again afterwards through different modes of documentation. In the end, the work is the sum total of all the materials: the research and its documentation, including and up to their afterlife. None of these has priority over the other. There is no ultimate goal that transfixes the works in time or form—any element may continue to be of help. You may turn a work into a video, you may turn it into a single photo, or a series of photos, or into a contextual documentation, or into a re-enactment: all of these forms are possible.
That is what I think we should offer HISK, an analysis of the fact that you have these interrelated phases that constitute your work, each of which has its intrinsic value, like the life-cycle of a butterfly.
K EV: The afterlife of these projects is somehow the most difficult question, one that I feel it is not yet completely resolved; Robert Smithson, for example, was able resolve it pretty well with his notions of “site” and “non-site.”
BDB: Other artists resolve it in a beautifully designed way, such as Francis Alÿs, who accepts the given limit of the fact that communication happens within and through the art scene, and works towards that moment of appearance.
K EV: I feel close to the conceptual logic of Smithson, in which a “site” is about an intervention in a place, opposed to the “non-site,” which is about embracing a kind of absence. My formal interest is in process-based works and the temporal structures of subjectivity, not in sculptural or static forms.
BDB: Perhaps the core moment is that of the constructed performative image …
K EV: Yes, that is very subjective, because it is linked to the experience of a person, and the key question is how this person feels ...
BDB: Moving a Mountain by Faith, by Francis Alÿs, is also a pristine “constructed performative image.” We have a beautiful, lavish installation documenting it, with beautiful videos, and beautiful materials. In a certain way, though, the “resolvedness” of that takes some of the focus away from the performative moment itself. His work exists in-between these two states, in-between the performative and the documentary state. It is as if the performative was already dominated by, or included in, its afterlife. In your work, the fact that this is less clearly the case is certainly a quality.
K EV: I do think about this. For example, Axe de Révolution in Moscow consisted of a seventeen-hour walk. It started from Moscow’s northernmost point went to the the city’s southernmost tip, making a speculative cross with the movement of the sun, leaving at sunrise, crossing with the sun in the city’s geographical center, the Revolution Square, and then continuing south as the sun went east. For this, I foresaw seventeen-hour long film, so I organized myself to have the most complete documentation possible, a 1:1 scale with the real thing. The afterlife of this performance has two facets, two parts. There is the abstract one, the cross with the sun formed within the circles out of which Moscow is constructed. And there is the film. It is a completely different thing: the portrait of the city when you go through it and walk the streets of the urban environment, from the periphery to the center and back to the periphery, with the light going from almost darkness to sunrise and then back to darkness. You have an amazing documentation of the state of the city and the urban landscape. It is something that speaks about the performance, but, actually, it is rather more like showing the face of the city than the performance itself. This was maybe the best way to resolve it, in two complementary parts. For Blue Room, the only way to do it is to re-enact it. That work does not have another afterlife in that sense.
BDB: There are the text messages that people sent you, even if they are anonymous.
K EV: I lost them. I did not keep them.
BDB: You have a script. This is also consideration you include, the use of a map, or a script; it is also one of the possibilities of the work’s afterlife. It is not only about documentation; for Augenmusik, you have, in a way, too much documentation, and for Blue Room not enough ...
K EV: Because I did not want it. I wanted to document the space in between people, and that is the only thing I did. The floor was white. During winters in Moscow, floors become very dirty. That was the only way to know what happened there. When you switch on the light, you see that one person has been there, or two; you see what their trajectory has been, whether they took the sleeping pill or not, …. Those were the only things I noted. For Augenmusik, I was also thinking of a video form as an autonomous work, but I have not had an opportunity to produce it yet. I wanted to make an installation of twenty-four surveillance screens corresponding to twenty-four walking itineraries, to synchronize all the videos into that one timeline, and to insert black screens where the documentation was missing. It would look like windows that switch on and off. I wanted the screens to be exactly like at a real police station, of different sizes, and hanging like a mess. That’s how I directed the video documentation.
BDB: A question I often ask myself is why a person takes on this very strange and lonely job, being an artist: why does a person decide to move into art? What is the value that gives you the courage to do this? What makes you do this?
K EV: The answer to that is constantly evolving. I moved from Moscow to Paris, and also from being a brand manager in a multinational American company, Procter & Gamble, to making art. I had experienced how high capitalism works from the inside, with all its internal mechanisms, and it drove me crazy.
BDB: A limit of art, especially if you look at the construction of your art, is that the core is actually small: a small moment with a relatively small amount of people. It is localized, topical, temporal: and then there may be an afterlife, a kind of memory, some memory of it, but that is rather a memory than the work itself. I believe in art too, that is why we are sitting here together, but at the same time … Having worked as a brand manager, having experienced this incredibly powerful system that really puts out its image and its thinking and its “offer” all over the world, how do you balance this to art? How can this fragile, weak, and powerless thing called “art” be meaningful in relation to the powerful, mighty, and effective reality embodied by Procter & Gamble? What is the relation for you, how to think this?
K EV: Size is not the criterion. It does not matter. Whether something is big or small is not important. What is important is its symbolical intensity. It may work in ways akin to what Claude Lévy-Strauss calls the modèle reduit, or reduced model. You can propose something, a way to do things, a way to be, a way to think: that is enough.
BDB: Is the “enough” then essentially an enough “for you”? Or does it have to get out into society, with the “reduced model” status as a sufficient statement to start from? Does it need to find to prove itself in its afterlife, or is the issue for you rather the potentiality ...
K EV: I think the potentiality is the most important aspect. I may compare it to the functioning of a neural link between two synapses. Once you’ve created a path, it can be reactivated.
BDB: It sounds very Russian, like Vladimir Vernadsky’s noosphere; once an idea comes into existence somewhere, it’s everywhere...
K EV: It is specific, it is concrete: you create the possibility. After that, it does not matter if it is a highway with heavy daily traffic or a small road … it just has to be used.
How you phrase the question is also important, since a reduced model is not that fragile; of course, it is “weak” in terms of the values or ethical positions that it suggests—it is “weak” if you refer to notions of productivity. But it is not weak at all in the way it is constructed, but rather completely takes on the model of Procter & Gamble. If I had not worked for Procter & Gamble earlier on I would now never be able to manage the whole musical mise-en-scène, with some sixty people, required for the first version of Augenmusik, in Paris.
BDB: So Procter & Gamble is not the source of inspiration but a source of technology...
K EV: Yes, a source of methodology. The level of complexity and uncertainty is definitely higher in these performative works in public space, but I managed them easily because of my experience at Procter & Gamble.
BDB: When you decided to leave the Procter & Gamble world and go into the artworld, when you made that jump, what was the initial relation for you? What was the “artworld” for you at that moment? What made it relevant?
K EV: It was a leap into a void. I didn’t know anything about it. It was like going to the woods, an escape into a polar opposite. It started anecdotally. I was on a work trip to Vladivostok and had a huge car accident that involved other P&G people there. By miracle, I was not gravely injured, but I did have a concussion and stayed at home for three weeks on sick leave. In the end, I never went back to the office. Instead, I bought a ticket to Paris to study arts. I simply Googled contemporary art schools all over the world and chose Beaux-Arts de Paris because it is public, because the education is free, and because of its quality.
BDB: Which teachers were important to you?
K EV: Definitely Jean-François Chevrier. I followed his theoretical classes for five years, and was his research assistant for two years. He could ask me to research, for example, all the materials on the relation between Dostoevsky and photography. If I had not met him I would not be the artist I am. I learned my methodology from him: the free-floating association between language, image, and historical or political facts, and that’s how I construct my works.
BDB: So, regarding the societal actors that are a reference for you, there’s Procter & Gamble on the one hand, and Chevrier on the other. You were also friends with Oksana Shachko, one of the founders of Femen. How did that happen?
K EV: It all happened quite by accident. I moved to Lavoir Moderne Parisien, a theater and an alternative cultural space in Paris’ eighteenth arrondissement. I was separating from the father of my daughter, but I had no money to rent a new place, no family, no support. Occasionally, a girl whom I had met in my studio at Beaux-Arts suggested that I move to Lavoir—she was the daughter of the founder, and was living there herself. So I found myself settled in this crazy theater for six months. It was a bubbling, politically engaged environment that I spontaneously started to document. It brought together anthropologists, psychiatrists, journalists, filmmakers, as well as people who are mentally ill. They welcomed the Partie Pirate and did street meals in the area, one of the most problematic and poorer areas of Paris, even more so when Sarkozy came to power and the government started grabbing illegal immigrants who were waiting to pick up their children from school.
When I got to the Lavoir, city authorities were trying to kick them out, and had launched eviction procedures. The Lavoir was preparing a resistance: the idea was to occupy the space in collaboration with militant organizations like DAL and Jeudi Noir. And then—surprise—Femen came into the picture. They had just done their famous action in Kiev, where they cut the cross; they had been threatened and had had to escape. They literally jumped into the first available car headed to Europe and started phoning around in order to find a place to go. They reached the people from the Lavoir Moderne, and—amazing!—the Lavoir team suddenly realized that hosting feminist political refugees was the best plan ever to save the theatre—city authorities would never dare kick them out—and although they did not know the girls they took the risk. Twenty hours later they were there and it became their base, that’s how this started.
BDB: You work on the borderline between what society accepts and what it doesn’t. You must be quite aware of the fact that there are always conditions, in contrast to our Western societies, which grotesquely pretend that society is free. How do you imagine that political, cultural, and societal changes may affect your work?
K EV: My work draws its origins from them. It is a constant, fluid back and forth. I couldn’t imagine my works as unrelated to the novelty of the historical presence.
BDB: Instead of starting from an analysis of a context, it starts from an acknowledgment and a rendering visible of the conditions. If we compare your methodology with Femen—you’ve already offered a beautiful and very consistent answer with the synapses, but I’ll ask this again all the same—we notice that they work with an output-oriented effectiveness. Is that something you would consider for your work?
K EV: My work makes use of the activism model, yes, it belongs to that family.
BDB: One of our reference artists in Antwerp, Guy Mees, was a hero for us because he was the ultimate anti-hero. We have one of his works from the 1960s in the collection. It is called Lost Space, a prism made of embroidery with black light emanating from its inside. He once said to me: “If I were an American artist, I would have made it room-size, but I’m not.” For him, the reduced model was the right scale. In activism, as I experience it, you have a topic, you turn the topic into a specific goal, and you take a path the authorities do not expect. One of the important components in this is the mediatization. Femen is an extreme example of that, in a most precise way. For you, the mediatization is part of it, as is the amount of people who see the work in an art context afterwards. But it is not the ambition. You count it in, but it is not—at least, so it seems to me—part of the performative image. It is something that may or may not happen.
K EV: You’re right, I am not very interested in mass media. For Axe de la Révolution, it just happened, I didn’t expect it at all, it was crazy. In this specific situation, the performance was seen as such a contestation and transgression that all major television stations came. Actually, I would rather not have gotten that much attention because, in such a tense context, our actions could have landed us in jail. Since then, I’ve moved my focus away from activist performance and towards the subjective experience of time and temporal structures, in an almost phenomenological sense.
Still, activist artists remain an important influence. I like Alexander Brenner, an artist and activist based in Moscow, for example; in a famous performance at the Pushkin Museum, Brenner was naked and shouting, crying: “Why did you not invite me to this show?” It was super radical, but also super fun and humorous. It is very subtly political, in his case. Or Anatoly Osmolovsky, who, with the activist group E.T.I., used human bodies to write a vulgar Russian word for “dick” on Red Square. Of course, they were counting on media attention, but there is an immediate symbolic efficiency in the proposals. For me, the media effect is only secondary. What interests me is how a work responds to the place, site, or situation in which it happens.
BDB: If we go through the classical notions of performance, I have a list of them here … the body does not exist as a body but as an experience, and as an actor in the image. The space is a holistic here and now, with all its capacities and all its specificities, expectations, limits, laws, and regulations. I’d name this form “a constructed performative image,” but such a description becomes nearly a mathematics of words. It wants to become something and the something is very focused and precise. If we look at the documentation, it seems that for the afterlife you don’t have an answer, but always a multitude of possibilities.
K EV: No, I don’t have an answer, and it bothers me: I would like to have one. There may be the afterlife in the form of a new event …
BDB: Like a re-enactment, or like what we did with Augenmusik in Ghent ….
K EV: Not necessarily. There are broader possibilities still. It may be a performative conference, or any type of live modality. In the case of Axe de la Révolution, I once did nothing more than narrate it through a series of one-to-one conversations with the public. That was for a solo show that lasted two weeks. Or it can be a very distance re-enactment, because the works are so site-specific, and their site-specificity is part of their nature, so the re-enactment has to contain that as well. It has to keep the key problematics and formal elements of the initial work, though the mise-en-scène can change completely. That is the first modality. A second modality is the archive, in an indexed way. A third are the new and autonomous artworks that come out of or strongly echo the initial performance, as when elements of the performance (documentation, props, etc.) are transformed into a new work. It could be a sculptural work, a video, or an installation. If I were to use Robert Smithson’s terms, this would be a kind of “non-site.” However, it is very paradoxical to try to render the evasive and shifting nature of a performance—an event—within the static form created for an exhibition space. We can almost say that the site-specific practice works against its own final location, be it a museum or a gallery. Another way to think of a site-specific practice for me is through an analogy with the notion of a readymade, a found object: I am working with a “found place” (a term used in environmental theater), or even a “found situation.” This is about approaching the context: the geography of a place, its social, political, and historical dimension—outside of representational terms.
BDB: Is there something else that you feel still needs to be included in this conversation?
K EV: Since we spoke about synapses earlier, I would like to mention psychomagic acts as well. Alejandro Jodorowsky uses this notion, though he didn’t invent it. You can understand it by analogy with a speech act: when you say something, you also enact it. However, if instead of speech you use symbolic or metaphoric gestures those become psychomagic acts. This is a hidden, intimate dimension of my performances, I do not speak much about it.