Anonymous Boh on a Landscape of Open Art
An interview with Anonymous Boh published in edited version in Sirp magazine in 2010.
Anonymous Boh has been active for years on a frameless territory where an art object has seized to exist as a physical piece. The space has many dimensions upon which the activity has been built. Curating the performance group Non Grata actually means creating a certain kind of school which can be characterized by features as structured chaos, performances in arbitrary environments and interiors.
By obtaining its reputation as an alternative, Boh, together with Non Grata has swooped onto the global art landscape without looking back. Performances, art tours organized in tens of cities across Europe, Asia and America have turned the notoriously alternative Non Graters into a creative collective who are much better known elsewhere than in Estonia. Their experience is not a subject much talked about, although artistic activity transcending boundaries of art and countries is today’s artist’s most desirable self-realization. Boh’s ambitious nature is drawn to public’s attention by an exhibition on the ‘holy’ ground of Tartu Art House. The walls of this building have not yet been alienated from post-impressionism. Boh’s exhibition, upon a closer inspection, places itself into the existing, maybe even a couple of centuries old context of spectacular arts. Here are a few references to that.
First of all, one could talk about a neo-Baroque approach which surprisingly is being addressed in connection to the new media. It has to do with art which combines visual, aural and even sensory elements into a whole performance. Today, neo-Baroque can be found in theme parks, multimedia shows, films, VJ concerts and performances. Therefore, Boh’s massive installation positions itself both into the modern as well as historic matrix.
Another context is the history of participation-based art and the idea of an open art work with its roots in more primitive ritual practices where it was not possible to separate the game from the reality and where true stories were blended into fiction. More concretely, one can refer to the predecessor of the technological and performance-based visual arts in the 20th century art who both created open art works which were meant to engage the audience. The role of happenstance and the unplanned within the presentation or realization of an art work is, from the view point of art history and theory in new media, a fascinating research subject. The subject is also linked to the intriguing issues of immaterial and ephemeral art.
The third context is performance art. It is also here that the Estonian art history begins with the performance’s of the 1980s, the performance festival Eleonora in the beginning of the 1990s, from the activities of the ambitious T Group, Toomik’s activity-based art, the study subject of interdisciplinary arts in the Art Academy and many other things. Non Grata, led by Boh is one of the most consistent, and it also seems, one the most pragmatic representative in the field, as the auditorium is global audience and international stages.
The fourth is the context of Non Grata sub-culture which is being cross bread with Boh’s own ideologisms, images and objects. Also from the posters of his last exhibition one can find titles of installations and performances such as Beauty of a Car Accident, Cartesian Theatre, Magic Numbers Make Waves, being displayed side by side with existential diagrams and noise machines. Anonymous Boh is an educational example of Estonian art taking place mainly outside of Estonia. In connection to the exhibition, I asked Boh some questions:
Cartesian mentality, carnal duality and how a performance artist relates to that. As it is known the instrument of a performance artist is one’s own body. Body as means but also, at the same time, the content. Mental, substantive that goes together with the body, the matter. How does the physical, the carnal start to deliver the spiritual?
Artist’s own body can be a performance instrument, however, today its importance gradually decreases – there are robots, electronic and mechanical devices, automobiles, crowds of people – that all can be remotely directed. One’s own body is definitely the most available means. One can direct a performance totally separate from one’s body, using only one’s brain. To create a non-carnal space, a virtual performance or global catastrophe where performative activities start functioning on their own, disconnected from body. As brain is still a material part of one’s body, a thought originating from there is already a compromise between an idea and materialized reality. The real world is, as we all know, imperfect. Within the compromise between the spiritual and real, the carnal side finally determines, as it acts as a filter or stirrer of the channelized idea. Filters and stirrers are widely used in all kinds of technical activities precisely as the factors that distort the original signals and raise the quality. Carnal filter in co-operation with the surrounding real absurd theatre at its best will result is a creation of a reality shift which, in turn, will bring about a new mental dimension that will, on the meta-level, initiate new processes. Therefore, the initial idea being thrown into the mundane reality is rather in a secondary role, it is more of a trigger. There are no bad performances, but there are thousands of lousy ways of realizing them.
Can what’s happening on the material, carnal level, also start dictating the mental nature of a performance, its content? Meaning that the content of a performance is being created autonomously and you are not directing it?
It is possible. Vast majority of performances are interactive and in whatever crazy situations one can expect anything: from verbal disturbances to direct physical attack by the audience, unexpected spatial configurations, interference by the police, fire brigade, ambulance etc. One of the most important characteristic features of a performance artist is the ability to control the performative process. To be ready to improvise and guide the processes in an unexpected situations.
Do you plan your show or let the things take their course? Do you maintain in control of everything or plan the randomness?
Mostly I plan; however, it also means planning for the randomness. It all depends on the particular kind of performance one is dealing with. With Non Grata we have done long-term ‘ghetto marathons’ – actions which last for 24, 36, 48, 240 or 336 hours in a row and that usually are not meant for an audience (or, through the use of mechanical or audio-visual devices, audience has limited access) and where just the chronological outline has been determined. In case of open performances with an audience detailed planning is nevertheless required. One possible option is to pile all kinds of actions together and see what the result is going to be. When performing in different parts of the world, I personally like to engage some local characters who might be the representatives of quite different professions: chefs, militarists, scientists, robot engineers, dancers, musicians, circus acrobats, people of different races, linguistic backgrounds, sexual orientations etc. The action is still planned to the degree that your personal part is rather clear and the role applied to the others has to do with what are their orientation and what is it that they can do. How and in which manner they actually do it is up for them to decide. What differentiates a performance from a theatre is that everything happens for real, with no prior rehearsal, and therefore, it is best if a person performs one’s everyday tasks. It is up to me to melt it into one whole and to provide it with an ideological background. In most cases it happens also verbally and when starting a sentence I usually have no idea of how it is going to end.
Can you approach be defined as Baroque or Neo-Baroque? No matter what, it is spectacular, full of sounds and fireworks?
To choose one of two, I’d say Neo-Baroque. But then also just for the multitude of the actions, the tools used in true Baroque are way too low-tech. Like in Shakespearian theatre where they didn’t rehearse anything, roles where cast and play was delivered right on spot, honorable audience sat on their chairs right on the stage and commoners were surrounding them in a herd.
Are the characters described in your performance plan projections of your desires and fears?
If you are talking about the Cartesian Theatre, then the answer is no. This performance was assembled using the method described above; during a couple of hours it integrated people from Riga, California, Berlin, Basel and New York and it reflected on rather universal topics.
“High without artificial drugs”. Recently, in France, I heard someone use an expression “Natural LSD” when describing our performance.
You are an artist who finds your way to the international art arena without any help from curators. What are the top events in your field participating where is an absolute must?
There aren’t any such ‘absolute must’ places of exhibitions in our circles. We mostly deal with underground circles. I select the places where to perform according to what inspire my creativity. The people, with whom you, at a given time, want to do something together, also have a large role. Sometimes it can be art meccas such as New York, London or Paris, sometimes the limited vastness of the US, Southern-American ghettos, performance festivals in Asia or Scandinavia. We get a lot of invitations, however, we can’t and don’t even what to go just anywhere and everywhere. We have the chance to choose according to what’s appealing. The world is an experimental space and art is a creational process in a perpetual move.
Don’t you think that the art world is fragmented and consists of segments of various top levels where in each there are specific rules, stars and masterpieces?
Yes, I do think so, or actually, that’s the way it is. Apart from Andy Warhol, and to some extent, also Jeff Koons, in the art world, there are no commonly recognized megastars who would be known to any Tom, Dick and Harry. In the present condition that, by the creation of the Internet, the information society has brought about, the art world, as an institution, has not been able to address its issues nor establish its own paradigms. The art world is scattered into several discourses. However, it seems that from the hierarchical standpoint it is even positive and it offers more creative surprises.
Describe your segment? Can it be called performative art?
Sure it can. In the performance circles there do also exist museum performers and underground. We appear in truly different circles and institutions, subcultures and in between of various fields.
What kind of a position do you hold there?
I am known as the pack leader of NG and I have kept my personality inseparable from NG. I have not accepted personal invitations, but have laid down the condition that there will be a whole group present. I have, of course, also been the only one who has always been involved, whenever NG is performing, as the other members have changed. In the performance scene everybody knows NG, there are many of those who love and of those who hate us. People have also said that it is not art. Some German theatre specialists show up specifically to see us, saying that NG is an extremely interesting alternative theatre. The global performance art is sinking in its own blood, every now and then. And NG is then asked to come and rescue it. It irritates some serious old school people, but mostly, for people who are open to new things, regardless of their generation and background, it is an experience. On the festivals we circle, we do have a somewhat star-like status. Something very striking is being expected from Non Grata. In underground art circles with cynical attitude towards the mainstream art, particularly in France, Germany and California, our arrival is very much looked forward to, so that we could do stuff together they wouldn’t normally do. Integrating and involving different groups and artists into our action creates a synergy that is usually not present in the art field. It is as if a nomadic tribe of artists steps by and the reality is being altered. Like the story of NG written by Finns where they talk about the liberators from the incest and the orphic hole …
In New York too, it is known when the “crazy Estonians” are in town again.
Are your shows location specific?
Our performances are mostly context- and location specific. We make no plans prior to our arrival to the place and we do not provide generally pre-required work descriptions. Everything is being decided on the spot where we are going to perform or the performance space is being chosen due to the inspiration drawn from the actual place. Local cultural background, history, stereotypes, nature, people, politics, personal experiences are all being involved and blended together. They’ll form a mini model of a concrete society and, with its different levels, it starts to serve as a background for a concrete idea or it’ll behave as an art work in itself. One possible method is to fulfill the space. We don’t want to perform in one space for several times– it has already been stripped of its virginity and the tension has been lost.