‘ I carry home in me, in my body, in my memory’
Somewhere out in cyber space I met up with Lina Issa, a Lebanese performance and video artist, based in Amsterdam. Her work described as ‘ revolving around issues of place, otherness, kinesthetic embodied memory, and the performativity of (cultural) identity’ includes video and records of her performances, in the format of books, discussion groups and diaries. “But is it Art” may come to mind, however one learns that the question is irrelevant as her work sensitively fuses notions of art, sociology, philosophy and as her own mum put it, also psychology. Her ongoing project What If, If I take your Place?, where she briefly lives out a real situation of a willing participant’s life, is now part of the Ruilen exhibition at the Mediamatic Fabriek. What was meant to be a quick interview via Skype, ended up becoming a two and a half hour long chat exploring her work, insights and past experiences. Here are some of the extracts from our conversation.
Could you describe your work as if you were explaining it to your 16 year old cousin?
I make performance and video art, my work is very much inspired by the notion of displacement and migration and it is mostly experience based work, so departing from personal experience, going to shared experiences and then translating that to an experience that the viewer or audience can go through. Memory plays an important role in my work, and especially in the way it affects our idea of self and our identity. Remembering is a ‘performative’ act. Memory is a construction and so is our identity. So I am fascinated in how we perform and re perform our identity/ our subjectivity. I am often exploring the way we construct our identity and try to ‘de-construct’ it through my different projects. My work also tries to expose those mechanisms or structures… And also tries to expose the things that influence the way we construct, understand and share our identity. I perceive displacement as a very generative (although painful) experience.
Place seems to be a strong component in your work. Is this related to your own migration trajectory?
Yes, it is related to my own migration. But displacement can be geographical, physical, mental, emotional. Tensions between place and time are definitely fundamental components in my work.
How much do you think your heritage affects what you produce? Do you think that in the multi-cultural world of today, also where new technology allows us to be in infinite places at the same time, it is still useful to talk about ‘roots’, ‘national identity’ and place specific cultural influence?
In terms of the advancement of technology I know that I am not my Facebook account, and neither this virtual interview we are having, neither the endless cheap flights that can drop me in city centres in Europe in no time, neither the revolution which is conducted on cyber space. And I am not interested in confirming “roots”, and definitely not “national identities” or “locality”. But we all do come from somewhere… And in my work (in me) this somewhere is the texture of my father’s hand when he caresses my forehead, the rusty fences along the sea boulevard where I grew up, the smell of the olive oil that soaked every bite I ate, the pulse of the street that took me to school day after day…This is what I call kinaesthetic memory. I carry home in me, in my body, in my memory.
So lets talk about your work more specifically…How do you find people for the two replacement projects?
In the project,Where We Are Not I sent someone in my place to my country Lebanon for 10 days to live with my family, visit my friends and experience the place that constitutes my idea of “home”. For this I did a casting. I placed an advertisement in different places, and met the people who reacted to the ad.Then I chose Aitana. For the project What If, If I Take Your Place?, where I take the place of someone in one situation or role in their lives, I placed an ad in the newspapers, first did it in Sweden during a residency I had there, then here in the Netherlands and now via the exhibition Ruilen | Swapping at Mediamatic. So in the second project people “choose me”, I do not choose them. I am dependent on this unstable factor called “The Other”, my work is always dependent on this unstable factor.
Was Aitana ‘ The Other’? Why did you choose her?
”The Other” is never only “The Other”, so she was “The Other” because she could travel to my country and I couldn’t (Lina has faced difficulties with mobility due to complications with getting a Residency Permit for the Netherlands, so was unable to visit her family). She, having a Spanish passport is not subject to the politics of exclusion that allow some people to move freely and others not. She is ”The Other” because she is a dancer and choreographer, because she is a daughter of a divorced couple, because she speaks another language, because she does not eat meat, because she has a girlfriend, because she does not call someone a friend very fast, because she has long straight hair. But when I met her, we talked and I had a very intuitive feeling that this person can enter my intimate and fragile emotional and mental space. I felt I could see her eyes wandering around in my personal space and that of my loved ones. I felt curiosity and trust. She also had the courage and the skills of listening, of being there, of being interested and sensitive, brave and careful all at the same time.
In your project What If, If I Take your Place? you are the one taking on someone else’s life. How do you go about taking someone’s place in their life on a practical and emotional level?
I have not yet been in a situation where I had to take someone’s place in all the roles in their life. I am always asked to step into a specific situation and when this situation is clearly defined, we discuss all the different aspects and try to prepare. But I am never prepared enough. For example, now I am working on one replacement where a daughter who will be losing her father soon to cancer asked me to take her place visiting her parents, and doing and saying things in her place. She asks me if I can take her place in understanding and filling the time between ‘knowing that he will be dying” till he actually is. My project, or the process of talking, understanding, and preparing for the ‘replacement’ opens up a space for reflection, it is like creating a ritual around a certain situation, a ritual in the sense of giving detailed attention, moving with care around the different emotions, thoughts, and relations that are part of the situation. Another example is when Wilda moved from Sweden to Thailand, and asked me to take one of her best friends for the walk they always did together when she used to live in Sweden. She asked me to tell her friend how much she cares about her and that she does not want to lose her because of the distance. We tried to prepare the situation by remembering how this walk was, and what are the special recognisable things they shared together as friends.
Are you looking to take on someone’s whole life at the moment, I mean, job, friends, home, family etc?
No… Not specifically. Those situations are charged but very rich and productive/ generative exactly because they are so specific. The longest replacement I did was for 3 nights- from Friday after work till Monday before work. There the person had a strong desire to disappear from her life for a while, she took a slow train up to the north pole and back, sat in her compartment and wrote. I was asked to give her boyfriend love, because she loved him very much but was not able to give him love at that moment, and I had to update her Facebook and blog, chat to her friends and call her father on Sunday!
How do the people on the receiving end, the boyfriend, the best friend, the father, your own family react ?
Differently. They are all informed. The person tells those involved that Lina will take their place on this date and the moment they say yes, they create an opening, they start engaging. So a process of fantasy, association, questions and reflection is activated, meaning that I step into a very active space full of anticipation, curiosity and willingness. My father dived totally in, he was emotional, he added things to the schedule, he asked me questions via Aitana about the past… But he fully recognised what he wanted from this project and that was celebrating what we share despite of the distance, recognizing who we are and what we have. Addressing the pain of missing each other, and loving each other… My mother kept moving back and forth, stepping in, but then stepping out and repeating “She is welcome, we treat her as a friend, as a guest, as a daughter, but she can never take your place”
Would you ever be willing to have your project filmed by a camera crew, or do you reckon it could run the risk of becoming spectacle ? (Previous to the interview I sent Lina an extract from the American TV Series Wife Swap, where two presumptuously distinct families swap their matriarchs for a short period)
I had offers for a documentary, someone following with the camera but I did not yet find the right form, the right tone, the right way or person to introduce the camera into this intimate place. It does not yet seem to me that it would add anything besides increasing the number of audience but that is not my aim. Aitana was asked not to make pictures, and I allow myself to take some pictures of my ‘traces in the life of an other’. But no people, and no attempt at ‘re-presentation’ as this project is not about representation, not visual at least. It is most important that this project stays distinctively different from the TV Series Wife Swap which is very sensational and spectacular. This work is not about spectacle. It is an example people always refer to because they know it. The concept of the TV Series is very interesting but it could be filmed with a totally different attitude and a totally different morality, which is not about ‘losers’ and ‘winners’, something TV always tries to make of people. I do believe filming or documenting can work and produce an interesting experience for the viewer, but it has to be with another intention and tone and it does not have to be literally filming the situation, there is a lot more around it where intimacy and fragility can be respected.
Performance art, for its live quality and the fact that it is an experience rather than a commodity has always defied the art market. How does an performance artist like yourself make a living from your art?
It is difficult but it has been good so far. It is always in combination with other jobs: teaching, giving workshops, exhibition fees, not so much state funding in my case. Sometimes even cooking! I am busy now creating my own ‘Culinary Studio/ Cafe’, for more stability combined with creativity. It will be a place where stories are served and written about food, taste etc…
Lina Issa will be at the Ruilen Exhibition at the Mediamatic Fabriek this weekend 24th/25th November from 14:00-18:00, and will be there again for two days a week until the 23rd December to talk about her project and meet potential participants. For the exact dates and times check the Mediamatic.net website or Facebook for the weekly dates. If you are interested in having Lina take your place or simply curious to check out the diaries from her previous replacements, drop by Mediamatic Fabriek, VOC–kade 10, 1018 LG or email her on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out Lina’s blog for more info on her life and work