This is the second of a four part series of interviews with female performance artists about creative process, feminism and how the two intertwine.
Alexa Wilson (Oracle, Dancer, Mentor, Anarchist, Memorising Performer, Empath, Writer, Wild Woman, Film Maker, Believer, Boss, Badass, Friend)
When you think about your own processes for making a ‘performance work’ do you have a formula you follow or is every piece a different process?
Most processes are different from each other, though I definitely have patterns with the modes I create (solo, collaboration, group works, video, writing). My processes generally are organic in creation, with a clear concept coming from contemporary questions, which is usually an embodied musing around the generative tensions within paradoxes of an often political/philosophical theme to explore the complexity therein. More recently live work allows for the extra liminal space or wild card of audience interaction to fully activate ideas; which is exciting (understatement). I think some of the most radical spaces in art are in the interstitial spaces and conversations between different perceptions, experiences, places and people. Audiences are part of this process, bringing their own perceptions/reflected.
The mystery of how I have the ideas I do and how I implement them is the magic you might really be asking about, and these things are fairly ephemeral. I think relatively multi-dimensionally so ideas come in from many directions, also I have a strong connection to myself, and the ability to reflect the complexity that I do comes from these things inherently. I am definitely no minimalist, I see the connections between things and I run with that across all modes of art making that I do. I give myself permission to break rules, also my own rules, and to continue challenging myself to be present and vulnerable, in ideas and processes, which I think accesses powerful spaces – in myself and others, as well as throwing in the odd joke.
And how do you think process informs the end artwork?
Solo processes because they are easiest for me and show or reflect my ideas most accurately because I have total agency and am sole performer to focus on. They are the most worked through, and deepest somehow. Solos are very existential, they are honest and brave, vulnerable. Intimate. I have to have a break from their intensity lol.
Collaborations usually show a generative tension in the outcome, the tension of the dynamics between artists/relations and this can be interesting, but not always comfortable, which doesn’t mean collaborations aren’t as valuable, they’re just different.
Group works show the power dynamics of the hierarchical process of choreography, in which dancers embody a director’s ideas also as collaborators. I try my best to enable performers to find their own voice within the ideas and be themselves, but it’s always a tension again – they are collaborators, and whose work is it? I don’t feel that performers are acknowledged enough for being collaborators, and generously so. Group work doesn’t come naturally to me, I have learned to lead – often by example, and being able to stand outside it means it has a different dynamic, one which can be more formed, I would never say my work is tidy because that is never it’s aim – I don’t think formed is the word either, as I often manifest a rawness, or unformedness, but ironically I am a formalist and very into structure, as who else could create ordered chaos (with layers/density/roughness) if not someone very aware of structure and form? Sometimes I think people just think I’m an idiot and can’t craft, but it’s kind of the opposite. It’s painstaking making anarchist choreography lol.
Some works more than others tend to bring out trauma in the performers or audiences, which is where healing comes in to the performance process and product for me. People can be very resistant to this – which is also totally understandable – but naturally I have become more skilled at finding ways to transform these issues more gently so that trauma is addressed but it is moving, and doesn’t remain stuck. Which is only responsible. Although you can never be completely responsible for how people receive or experience something, and it’s their choice how they respond to questions or provocations, and individuals will always choose to behave and feel how they want to, which to me is actually more empowering to acknowledge than infantilising people. It’s obviously a balance, because you have to be able to stand strong if things unravel. Which is very rare, but it does sometimes happen. There’s always the humility of more learning, it’s life.
Your current project ‘999: Alchemist Trauma Centre / Power Centre’ is being performed multiple times at different locations around the globe, what was your initial process to devise this work? and are you constantly in process with this work or is it more like a show you tour?
It’s definitely been a work in progress, it’s been constantly changing and added to, although the beginning is pretty much the same, which was birthed on the roof of the residency in India in the Himalayas. It’s one of the most existential pieces I’ve ever made, and having it CNZ funded, also to write alongside has contributed to that as I can go deeper, and take longer. But also it came out of a lot of questions around foundations/beliefs (of my own) from being in India so that’s already philosophical, then back in the West and having it reflected back to me in different contexts has meant it is always a conversation and people seem to have completely different readings of it, which is so interesting.
It began on the roof of the residency during one of the “improvisation in radical practice” weekly workshops I initiated, in which some ideas or processes just came out of my unconscious during that time in response to questions. As I was obviously so focused on facilitating and organising 20 artists in the Indian Himalayas, which was rather a big job, and that activated many insights and experiences for me about foundations in and across cultures, the little time I had to actually be creative myself felt explosive and meaningful.
I had profound insights in India about foundations on a personal level, and the work just became like performative poetry in and around that. I feel constantly on edge with this piece, like it’s asking fragile questions at a fragile time, which as a friend said is a “good sign that you’re probably doing something interesting” (thanks Zoe Crook). I call it a “poetic meditation, a poetic activist activation”. It’s a feminist meditation, so of course it’s changing continuously. It gets very serious at times, a bit too intense, that I have to remind myself to also find some lightness and humour. Then you can go too much the other way and lose the point. There is also something meditative about repetition with aspects of the work, doing them many times. A man in the recent London show who was also an artist in the exhibition described it as “hectic and beautiful”. He said it “awoke the angst, and battered the man in me”. (AJ LAAS) To read more about Alexa Wilson’s new work, click here: ‘999, Alchemist Trauma Centre / Power Centre’
What do you think the relationship is between feminism and creative process?
I am talking a lot about “agency” in regard to this work, particularly in a feminist sense. It’s a contemporary jargon word for “freedom” or “liberation” but it’s used a lot in regard to class politics as well, people having “agency”. When asked how this work was “feminist” – which I state facetiously at the beginning of the piece, in an audition for postgraduate study in Berlin – I used the word “agency”. Agency to be a wide range or “plethora” of states, emotions, thoughts, expressions of humanness, as a woman, who is a human. This multiplicity is idealistic and comes from post-modern discourse, also it could be argued – from life. I noticed immediately in my first years out of dance school that embodying such multiplicity as a woman was hard to digest for some people and I had projections of “dangerous woman” (a femme fatale cliche).
We have really been in a battle the last 50-100 years of women’s liberation to be “allowed” or even seen/heard/read with the complexity of men in literature, in film, in tv, in all representation, going beyond patriarchal fantasies or societal projections. This time has been about women writing their own stories, representing themselves in entirety and being afforded the subjectivity of existential questions in art that men have been entitled to for a very long time. So I see the creative process as totally feminist in this sense.
As a performer, also one with work on the internet – the process of feminism and patriarchy is present regardless of whether you like it or not. Your body is on the internet, it is in public, you and your subjective experience as a woman is a political process, and it still feels absolutely like a battle to be respected as women on many levels. If you deal with among many issues, the power issues of gender representation, sexuality, power, these conversations in a very patriarchal and old school traditional form of control can easily be manipulated back into “body shaming” or “slut shaming” or not taken seriously, even within my own arts communities/peers. It is a very subtle and implicit thing, but its real.
These are also not the only conversations in feminism, the first part and second half of our lives is bound up with completely different and equally as important issues to being overly sexualised within patriarchy confines. I believe the patriarchy, like the colonial, like the heteronormative, like the capitalist is in all of us regardless of gender, race, class or sexuality– and work we all need to do to unlearn behaviours and modes of thinking deeply embedded for such a long time, about ourselves and others. We can uphold self-oppression and or oppress others without realising. Women can be patriarchal to other women. Rather than always blaming, the work and healing needs to be also internal – extending also to the collective. It’s also not like ageing makes feminist conversations easier, it actually becomes more activated, because young bodies are normalised as “ok”, more controllable somehow within a specific frame. Your body ages, lol. You are a wising identity/body, our power doesn’t decrease with age. This is FEMINIST. Everyone needs to be valued at all ages.
Do you see your artistic process as a feminist practise? And if so how?
Yes. Good question, I’ve never been asked this question. Creativity and feminism disrupt both capitalism and patriarchy. Performance directly faces the subjectivity and objectification of the female body. Tactics of underminement are great and many, a consistent bombardment.
I’ve observed and read a lot of backlash to the #metoo movement, so with this backlash climate very much present as we experience one of the biggest global social uprisings since the 60s in the last 5-7 years (intersectionally) – art as a way to deal with patriarchy and with capitalism, is to be in direct conversation with these movements and backlash, also every day underminement, in an empowered way. In intelligent, subjective, rational and embodied ways.
Live work is really powerful, I see internet hacktivism as vital, the presence of women’s bodies and voices by and for themselves, but also the presence of the live – to counter conversations which are essentially cyber projections. To tread carefully or boldly there (in cyber space) is one battle, and continue allowing the live body to “hack” the virtual climate by doing live work, impressing live ideologies and realities in real time and space, which is accountable, is also another.
Anything else you want to say about creative process/feminist processes?
It’s a complex and tenuous process, but I find it overall very exciting as a time to live and make art in as a (female) artist. Things are changing very fast, which we all know. I have read and feel it’s true that feminism needs to be intersectional and inclusive otherwise it will be as ineffectual and destructive as patriarchy.
Continuing to find ways to support each other and voices not heard or valued, including the planet itself, at this time is vital. A combination of empathy and fierceness is my creative feminist process. ‘Fierce sensitivity’ has sometimes been used as a catch phrase to describe what I do. Like a mother (which I am not) – we women are supposedly hard wired to fight for what we love. This makes feminist art at this time of overwhelming climate change extra super duper powerful. The stakes are high my friends, the empathy felt means that the work is ferocious . ❤
Curated by Sara Cowdell