Alessandra Cianetti: Natasha, I would like to start our conversation by asking you to briefly introduce a body of work you realised between 2009 and 2013: Rupture, Asphyxia, Suspended, and Internal Terrains. They started from the geopolitical situation in ex-Yugoslavia during the 90s, addressing your personal story and wounds. In your article ‘Staging an Exilic Autobiography’(1) you describe this as a point of departure that – through repetition and memory – become a political act ‘performed through cataloguing the loss, resolving the ambiguity of the experience and speaking out about the invisible and the unreachable’. Would you mind describing the origins of this body of work and the way it interprets your status of ‘exilic artist’(2)?
Natasha Davis: I started making the trilogy of Rupture, Asphyxia and Suspended in 2008, approximately ten years after basing myself in the UK, or roughly fifteen years after the civil war started in former Yugoslavia in the 90s. Towards the end of the first year of the armed conflict in Yugoslavia, I managed to emigrate by crossing the last border that still remained open, the border with Greece. I remained six years in Greece in a precarious situation, during which time I was also engaged in a legal fight for citizenship. Being of mixed Serbian and Croatian background, as the country was falling apart and its federal republics emerging as separate states on the European landscape, neither Serbia nor Croatia were initially willing to recognise me as their citizen. It took a number of years to pick up threads of my arrested life, to disentangle the mess of interrupted plans for work and studies, and for the experience of living in limbo, as a displaced citizen, to settle, so that I can feel and be in a sufficiently safe place to be able to start ‘looking back’. My art work is based on research but grounded in autobiographical experiences – when these experiences are disturbing to remember I need to develop strategies how to approach that material and ensure that I am in a relative place of strength when working with those memories.
I started making Rupture when I was diagnosed with cancer, during the months when I had to make decisions on what kind of therapy and interventions to choose, and then later during the initial six-month recovery. From the first biopsy onwards, I worked with my doctors and surgeons to document the process. I obtained a beautiful collection of surgical instruments to create an interactive hanging installation, and made a film of a large piece of meat being manipulated by my hands in surgical gloves and long prodding needle-like instruments. I travelled back to Serbia and filmed ruined civilian buildings in central Belgrade as a result of the bombings by NATO to put an end to Slobodan Milosevic’s political and military strategies. I documented the ceremony of becoming a British citizen. So Rupture became an intermedial research into the decay of the body and decay of the land I came from, and a story of renewal and regeneration, all in the context of the issues around exile and migration, cancer and what impact such experiences may have on the body and memory, from a very personal angle.
I conducted research for Asphyxia in South America at high altitude where it was difficult to breathe. As the name of the performance suggests, it focuses on the real and metaphorical situations in life which may lead to suffocation, whether it be due to personal or social life, traumas from the past, memory of abuse, or the stress related to crossing borders. In Suspended I wanted to explore the state of being out of balance, both physically and metaphorically, and experiment with sharing the performance space with the audience. In the performance, the audience move with me from one installation to another, as if on a migratory journey.
Internal Terrains continued on these themes but, as opposed to the trilogy in which I started the exploration through the body and memory, here I approached the material via objects and space. Memories were not excavated and shared with audience through travelling back and forth in time any more, but rather through geographical locations, maps, train journeys, addresses of temporary homes, rooms in a house – in an architectural sense. While I was making it I drew architectural plans of the homes I occupied and thought about shapes, doors, windows and objects I remembered from those spaces. When I paid attention to time, I wasn’t interested in ‘when’ but in ‘how long’. That’s why I didn’t use clocks or specific time references but metronomes, salt dripping from a bag, repetitive and cacophonic sounds produced on a violin, and similar devices. As a development of the idea of the body as home and as a site of memory, as explored in the trilogy, in Internal Terrains I was interested in what else can function as home when in transit, when in-between and in migratory situations and locations.
AC: Through your work, you walk and cross borders among media, private stories and international tragic events, internal and external emotional and physical landscapes. What other boundaries do you think your practice crosses? Where do you see live art sitting within your multi-disciplinary work?
ND: It’s true that the work I make is interdisciplinary and that live performances usually involve text, choreography, video, original sound and other tools. I’m also very interested in extracting installations out of my live performances so that they can be experienced in galleries and occasionally re-worked in these new environments to implement yet another live or participatory element. By employing this process I am experimenting with the physical defragmentation of the performance material and transforming it into something else, which resembles the process of bodily integration into a new environment, when displacement gradually gives life to a new form of existence for a migrant.
But the work is also cross-disciplinary and, as you noticed, often political – autobiography and personal histories are grounded in political contexts. In terms of methods of working and inspiration regarding content, images, ways of thinking – I am constantly excited about reaching towards other disciplines such as social and political studies, human rights issues, medical science etc. I already mentioned collaborating with doctors in the process of making Rupture. In Teeth Show, which I made after Internal Terrains, I collaborated with two dental clinicians and a maxillofacial surgeon to record a jaw operation on film. Starting with teeth as a metaphor for roots, Teeth Show explores complexities around democratic rights of the displaced body in transit and in a constant flux between breaking and repairing. It asks how crossing borders and living in exile impact on the rights of the body regarding its identity, citizenship and medical status. It is a mixed-media, playful and harrowing examination of who, and across what borders, may have access to beautiful and pain-free teeth, and what options remain to those in precarious or transient situations and those who are left out.
Live art provides an excellent space for these interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary conversations and experiments, and allows me to work flexibly between various art forms such as performance, installation, film and publication – solo and collaboratively, with professionals or with participants who have never performed, in end-on seating or immersive configurations, in traditional performance environments and site specific locations, with art and science partners. Live art and contemporary performance allow for research and embodied experience to mix organically and for new working methodologies to emerge from this mix.
AC: Looking at your work and also the difficult choice to acquire the British citizenship (Rupture, 2009) after years of exile, made me think of two artists that have been touching notions of citizenships, displacement, and belonging connected with personal autobiographical choices: Mona Hatoum and Núria Güell. In her solo exhibition at Tate Modern (2016), we can see Hatoum’s Measures of Distance (1988), a video-work of the artist’s mother taking a shower with a soundtrack of the letters the artist received from Beirut. For Hatoum her personal relationship becomes a way to speak of ‘exile, displacement, disorientation and tremendous sense of loss as a result of the separation caused by war’. Spanish live artist Núria Güell, in her ongoing project ‘Stateless by Choice’, is following various legal and research steps to get rid of her own citizenship. Güell aims to acquire the ‘stateless status’ to stand against both ‘the structure of the nation-state as a mode of political organisation’ and the fictitious ‘construction of the self in relation to the national identity’. I wonder how you relate to Hatoum’s work and in which way you would respond to Güell’s.
ND: I think the work I make definitely relates to both artists and certainly Mona Hatoum’s installations have occasionally provided direct inspiration. For example the lighting installation that is central in demarcating the performance space and the idea of home in Internal Terrains, consisting of twenty cables with a light bulb at the end of each, comes from Hatoum’s Undercurrent (2008), the difference being that I walk on the cables throughout the performance, however uncomfortable or unbalancing that may be, and interact with the bulbs. Considering we both experienced exile with all the pain and pleasure associated with it, in the way that Said, Lamming and Sebald have written about, it is not strange that a lot of the imagery we use can appear dangerous or threatening and beautiful or poetic at the same time, drawing attention to the loss and liberation in equal measure.
All three of us make work that is both personal and political, however I think Núria Güell’s work, at least the work I am familiar with, is more directly political and activist in its nature. She also taps into the ideas around mobility and the ease or hardship with which citizens of different countries travel, which is something I have also looked at. In Asphyxia, one episode compares what it is like to cross borders with a Croatian passport and a British passport and asks why that is the case, considering that I am still the same person, regardless of the passport I use. Hatoum, Güell and I have made work that directly relates to the question of citizenship and crossing borders, and perhaps my Citizenship film that appears in Rupture, as you suggested, best illustrates shared research interests with these two artists.
The film starts with the documentation of my ‘becoming British’ ceremony. In the first part of the oath I pledge that ‘on becoming a British citizen I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law’. During this, the real visual recorded documentation of that event is what the audience watch. In the second part of the oath, I pledge to ‘uphold [the United Kingdom’s] democratic values, observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen’. But in this part of the film we don’t see the ceremony in the Town Hall any more, but the bombed buildings in Belgrade. When my oath is completed, my voice is replaced with wailing Serbian women’s voices against the background of the war-torn buildings. Finally, this is succeeded with the images of an organ extracted from the human body, my body, a uterus, dissected for cancerous cells – the camera is focused on it, as I am interacting live with it on stage, as part of a ritual projected on screen. Thus the connection between the trauma of the body (individual) and the trauma of the land (collective) is directly established in the work. The parasitic nature of the cancerous cells spreading in the body, threatening to take over and destroy it, also relates to the spread of the dark, nationalistic, horrific events throughout the land, eventually destroying it, breaking it into pieces. The metaphor of the parasite can be extended to how exiles are perceived by the countries hosting them. Refugees and other unwanted migrants are often perceived as a threat, multiplying and spreading through the host country at a speed difficult to control.
But the film also raises a series of questions around the citizenship itself. What does it mean to live in a country, work and pay tax, but not be able to vote or not feel safe about your legal status? How does it feel to become a citizen of a country, be able to vote and feel safe, but disagree with that country sending bombs that are falling very close to where your family lives? What does it mean to pledge both to the Queen and to democracy in one single, very short, oath? If the country decides to go into a war, which majority of the public does not seem to wish to happen, where is democracy? I made the film ten years after the NATO bombing of Belgrade and other places in Serbia, and just a few years after the military intervention in Iraq. The latter military intervention was executed after one of the biggest mass demonstrations against it ever in the UK. Now of course we’ve had it confirmed by Chilcot inquiry that the war was not necessary at the time, as the peaceful options had not been exhausted first, in addition to a dozen other very serious reasons.
AC: In Rupture, Asphyxia, Suspended, and Internal Terrains, the body with its parts (i.e. mouth, hair) and functions is the site of an exploration of memories, ruptures, endurance, resistance, and pain. In Suspended you also put yourself in a position of fragility asking the audience to free you from the initial set-up of the performance in an act of building trust with strangers to whom you bestow your safety. In this relation between trust and vulnerability, how is the audience engaged? How does the public react? What do you want to build with them?
ND: The imagery, even when disturbing, is often poetic and beautiful, at least in an abstract way, and never there to shock. For example, in Suspended, the meat minced through a grinder onto the white tablecloth, is used as a dramaturgical tool and speaks directly, in the context of the whole performance, of how grinding the process of exile and establishing oneself legally in a new country can be. It’s a very powerful, succinct and visceral shortcut that can illuminate the difficulty of such a situation. As you mentioned, I am in a very vulnerable position at the opening scene of Suspended – I am stuck, raised on a high structure, with all my hair tied with more than 40 strings to theatre rigs, and if I were to fall all my hair would be unrooted from my scalp. When the audience are silently invited to cut my hair in order to free me into movement, everyone in the space becomes hyper aware of what it is like to be stuck, in limbo, and how carefully we need to ‘work’ together so that nobody gets hurt. The audience sometimes start cutting my hair immediately, sometimes it takes a little while, but they are generally very careful, although there have been cuts when the hair took longer to grow back! Strings are left to hang in the space amongst the audience, with bits of my hair attached to the bottom of each – evoking the sensation that if someone is displaced from their original environment a piece of them will always stay behind.
Exposing vulnerability and placing myself out of balance in the performance space, and sometimes entrusting myself to the audience, so that at least certain moments in the performance are always new and unpredictable for me as much as for the audience, can be useful for the themes I explore. These devices also enhance intimacy, help erase ‘the border’ between the performer and audience, and create a ground for the possibility of more meaningful exchanges. If the material can move and provoke the audience, it means that they needn’t have necessarily experienced exile in order to understand what it may be like to go through such a difficult experience.
I wish to provide the time and space for encounters with the audience, the time and space in which temporal and geographical, fragmented and associative journeys, as well as experiences of losses and transformations can be shared. In that sense the fragmentary nature of my work is also a deliberate choice, not just a device referring to the way our thoughts return to the past in which the displacement occurred. The fragments themselves are arranged in such a way that the audience can emotionally connect themselves to the material explored. In the trilogy the body of the performer became the material signifier to which the audience attached itself, whilst in Internal Terrains the objects as mnemonic devices became the main tool connecting to and tapping into the recipients’ own experience of loss, allowing us to look together for resolutions by examining the wounds under the scars.
AC: During your long and productive career, you have been collaborating with organisations such as Counterpoints Arts that focuses on the contribution of refugees to the British cultural scene. Would you mind saying a bit about your approach to this collaboration?
ND: Collaborative ways of working with partners and commissioners are really important to me and I have been lucky to form excellent and meaningful relationships with several partners and funders in the UK and internationally throughout my career, which has allowed me to experiment and my practice to grow in a supportive environment. Counterpoints Arts have been significant in this process in many ways. My research and their brief as a national organisation are extremely compatible and that has ensured that both politically and creatively we are on the same page. From the very beginning I realised that Counterpoints Arts really understood my work well: how I work, the issues I am interested in, the layers, how I communicate with the audience – that level and depth of understanding rarely happens and when it does it is very enriching for both sides and it ensures that we can learn from each other. There have been times when I benefited from their advice, from their knowledge of networks that I haven’t thought about, their mentorship and producing skills. As a small organisation they are incredibly prolific and supportive of a whole army of artists working around the issues related to migration and exile. I think we are also very attracted to each other’s interdisciplinary ways of thinking and working across genres. In the last few years they have commissioned two of my installations, a new participatory version of Internal Terrains in Leicester, several workshops and masterclasses, we did a Learning Lab together at Durham University and numerous public talks, plus I am represented in their amazing Traces Project featuring migrant artists who contributed to the cultural landscape of the UK – all of this has been both important and enriching. As a member of audience and a member of a larger network of artists I have attended many events and conferences they organised, and this has provided a space for working and thinking around the current refugee situation in Europe and further in a more organised, strategic and connected way. Their latest Refugee Week has just been enormous, the richest one ever.
All of the above for me as an artist is very important, as it means that I can preserve my individuality and creative freedom whilst at the same time not feel isolated in the issues that I explore. My creative performance, film and installation work is personal and poetic, and not necessarily directly political and activist, although it does become such in collaboration with an organisation such as Counterpoints Arts, especially through platforms, talks, workshops, conversations with public, and writing. Working with Counterpoints Arts has also been one of the ways for me to take my recent scholarly research out of the context of academia and into the realm of public conversations about socially engaged, collaborative and participatory practices. And I look forward very much to collaborating further with them on mobilising forces to keep drawing attention to how Europe can deal with the current situation and support migrants and refugees.
AC: Please tell us a bit more about your plans for this challenging and uncertain year for Europe-based artists.
ND: A new version of my Teeth Show has been commissioned by Science Gallery for their exciting Mouthy season and it will be a participatory version, I will be working around the ideas of crossing borders, roots and teeth with dental clinicians. The performance is on 22 November this year. Before that Teeth Show is going to Minneapolis in the USA and I’m proud that this performance has travelled to all five continents, just this year I have performed it in Canada, South Africa and Australia, last year in India, prior to that in the UK.
Whilst in Melbourne with the British Council and Arts Council support earlier this year, I started developing new performance material with director and writer Alyson Campbell, this will also be a collaboration with a stem-cell scientist and a martial artist choreographer, as well as my usual team of artistic collaborators (Lucy Cash, Bob Karper and Marty Langthorne). I will be developing it in London, with the material unrolling gradually for the audience from next spring in collaboration with Rich Mix and Colchester Arts Centre, who have also been my significant partner venues for years. Partly I will also be working on it through a residency just out of Stratford-upon-Avon, generously provided by Hosking Houses Trust.
My documentary film Berlin-Sarajevo, which I have been making with a Berlin based artist and film maker Nehra Stella, is currently in post-production and I am hoping for it to be available to public from next year. Using the context of the split of Germany into Eastern and Western parts and its consequent re-unification/fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as the war in the Balkans and particularly the history of Sarajevo since the early 90s – the film explores how it is possible that we sometimes feel as foreigners, displaced in our own cities and countries, even if we have never left them.
Finally, I have prioritised taking part in public conversations related to arts and migration. Recently I have joined conversations at Tate Liverpool, Somerset House, Christie’s, Camden People’s Theatre and numerous universities here and in Toronto, Montreal, Melbourne, Sydney etc – I will continue to do so as part of various platforms and in collaboration with students, arts organisations and NGOs, academia, artists and general public, as the current pressing questions around refugee and migration status in post-EU-referendum UK, as well as in the wider European socio-political situation, make it very urgent to engage with as many partners and in as many positive actions and conversations as possible.
(1) – Natasha Davis and Yana Meerzon (2015), Staging an Exilic Autobiography, Performance Research, 20:5, 63-69
(2) – Silvija Jestrović in Natasha Davis, Performance, Film, Installation (London: Natasha Production, 2013)
Natasha Davis is a performance and visual artist with over 40 solo and collaborative projects in a range of media including live performance, installation, film and publication. Her work has been shown in the UK (National Theatre Studio, Tate Modern, Chelsea Theatre, Birmingham Rep, Rich Mix London, Barbican Plymouth, Playhouse Derry, Capstone Liverpool, Christie’s, Science Gallery and many others) and internationally in Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Serbia, USA, Australia, India, Canada and South Africa. Her performance Internal Terrains heads the British Library’s online digital performance collection and is used as its banner and twitter icon. Her work is featured in Traces, a public project about migrant artists significantly contributing to UK arts, also part of the Southbank Centre’s exhibition Adopting Britain, alongside luminaries such as Lucien Freud, Mona Hatoum and Frank Auerbach. Natasha’s artwork has been funded by Arts Council England, British Council, Tower Hamlets, Humanities Research Fund, Hosking Houses Trust, Transatlantic Fellowship and numerous commissions and residencies. She holds a doctorate from the University of Warwick and delivers lectures, talks and workshops across the world, from Buffalo to Tokyo to Grenoble to New Delhi. www.natashaproductions.com
Feature image credits: ‘Teeth Show’, image by Lucy Cash