“Somewhere between a travelling cinema and theatre troupe, a kiss-a-gram...” Read an interview with the artist and film maker about her multifaceted, confrontational Party For Freedom audio visual work. By Nathan Budzinski
“Have you met Oreet?” a friend asks me, “she’s dressed fantastically today, like a superhero!” I’m at Copenhagen’s Overgaden art space on a warm autumn evening. The artist Oreet Ashery’s show, Party For Freedom is opening tonight. Crowds spill out onto the canal bank outside. On the opposite bank, people basking in the late afternoon sun are being asked to move off the barriers so another artist can stage a performance. A man hops onto a bike, bouquet of flowers in arm, he cycles along the barrier a bit and then launches himself into the canal, just missing two moored boats. Disappearing underwater for an uncomfortable while, he resurfaces, drenched bouquet in hand. It’s a fey remake of the now mythical performance artist Bas Jan Ader’s 1970 Fall II (where Ader filmed himself cycling into an Amsterdam canal, without bouquet).
“I think I enjoyed the lead up best. I thought it would never end…” Ashery tells me. We’ve traded a running commentary during the artist’s extended negotiation with the sunbathing public. My friend’s description of her is accurate: bespectacled and small, quick witted, she’s dressed in a striking white vinyl jumper with yellow and blue vortices across shoulder pads and straight cut white trousers. We have the kind of conversation that goes from deadly serious to laugh out loud ridiculous and back again in a few seconds.
Ashery’s Party For Freedom is a multivalent performance, video and installation project that’s taken several years to unfold, with a DVD version recently released by London’s Performance Matters project. Working with the Artangel organisation, other iterations have included concerts and screenings in London and elsewhere. The Copenhagen version consists of a video piece split across three screens in a darkened gallery. But Ashery describes PFF as primarily an audio-visual album, the commissioned music playing the biggest role in propelling the film.
For an hour I watch choppy sequences showing a range of actors in varying states of undress navigating through different scenarios: shots of the controversial Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn who was assassinated in 2002, spouting Islamophobic babble (“the army of Ali Baba here in Europe”) counterpointed with images of a woman dressed in an apron, her naked bottom sticking out and numerous chopsticks inserted in her hair porcupine-like as she wanders about a kitchen swatting flies; a chapter called “Civilisation: After Niall Ferguson”, the neo-con historian and polemicist, features animated collages of chalk white busts of ancient Greek heads with red eyes rolling, moss covered stone crucifixes in a graveyard are set to baroque pipe organ music and pastoral flute airs. In another chapter a naked woman and man recline in a verdant church yard, the woman with an apple in her mouth, feet and hands wrapped in aluminium foil ready for roasting as a BBC accented male voice instructs on the legal ins and outs of pig slaughtering at home in Britain. One segment features a man playing an increasingly speedy piano concerto while giving another man an equally rapid rim job. Opposite the pair sits a woman on a laptop with a glass of wine scrolling through a Facebook timeline, her face lit blue against the dark interior of a large salon room. Most everyone who appears in PFF is in some state of undress.
Driving the hour long video along are songs specially made by feminist girl group Woolf, the composer and accordionist Timo-Juhani Kyllönen (whose mission statement reads “I want to help mankind at the battle between goodness and evil with my compositions”), vocalist Chyskyyrai from the Republic of Sakha-Yakutia in Siberia (collaborators include percussionists Z’ev and Ken Hyder) and musician and writer Morgan Quaintance. Woolf is a four piece group who’ve been active on London’s underground queer scene for the past few years. Playing a brand of ragged and short noise-pop tunes and what they call “proto inept hardcore”, their songs form the backbone to PFF, acting as manifesto-like introductions to each track.
I’d heard of PFF during its pre-production through a call out for participants: “Somewhere between a travelling cinema and theatre troupe, a kiss-a-gram” PFF was looking for willing bodies to take part in one beginning strand of the project, Party For Hire that would eventually become the finished video piece, Party For Freedom. In a series of events, the troupe performed in private homes, workplaces, pubs and clubs, art schools and art galleries, starting with an event staged at the British Conservative Party campaign headquarters at London’s Millbank Tower on 1 May. The performances were based on Russian artist, poet, playwright and socialist Vladimir Mayakovsky’s radical satire, Mystery-Bouffe: A Heroic, Epic, And Satiric Representation Of Our Era. Written right at the early years of Soviet times, it’s a parable of global meltdown and fracture that Mayakovsky prefaced with the proviso that “in the future, all persons performing, presenting, reading or publishing Mystery-Bouffe should change the content, making it contemporary, immediate, up-to-the-minute.”
… Why is this playhouse in such a mess?
To right-thinking people
it’s a scandal, no less!
But then what makes you go to see a show?
You do it for pleasure –
isn’t that so?
But is the pleasure really so great, after all
if you’re looking just at the stage?
The stage you know,
is only one third of the hall…
From Vladimir Mayakovsky’s introduction to his Mystery-Bouffe: A Heroic, Epic, And Satiric Representation Of Our Era
Ashery and I meet several months later in London. This time dressed in an oversize cotton jumper with a white tiger’s head depicted in glittering sequins, she explains what drew her to Mayakovsky’s play: “I felt that the story encapsulates a picture of the world, it’s like a schema, something that you can adjust to anything. It's a long play but I was just interested in the beginning, where an Eskimo puts his finger in the ground [to stop a leak of water] and says, wow, it's depressing, the world is flooding.”
Mystery-Bouffe is centered around two groups of people, the Clean and the Unclean, with a cast of international characters: The Clean: “An Indian Raja/A Turkish Pasha/A Russian Merchant (Speculator)/A Chinese/A Well-Fed Parisian…” The Unclean: “A Lamplighter/A Truck Driver/A Miner…” Based on national clichés, the cast signals the ascendant globalisation happening in the early 20th century, alongside social and economic divides which still remain: the world is flooding and the Unclean – proletariat – build a boat to save themselves. The privileged Clean, who are too lazy and lack the skills to build their own boat, ask for help from the Unclean. Once safely in the boat they take it over, eat all the stored food, but then are thrown back overboard by the Unclean.
Ashery found Mayakovsky’s play during research into radical collectives and performance: “I was looking at that idea of the unfinished revolution. Things like race, things like gender, all these things that were fought over – we’re still so far away from getting anyway near being liberated in that way. So this avant-garde work, this collective work, this experimental work from the 60s and 70s, I think in the West we so much take this for granted as a heritage, a lineage… Those ideas of changing the world, making it better, or liberating oneself. And art and music as a counterculture, within those I think that there’s quite the same kind of issues of race and gender, the same patriarchal structures, and I think that those really echo in PFF, that whole gender discourse, that everyone’s white, I really wanted to say that freedom is white privilege, and that all those things are, not only in a politically real way, but also in art – all those things still have a long way to go.”
Ashery’s also interested in trash aesthetics, something that she sees as a powerful current running through music and art – like in Woolf’s inept proto-hardcore or Kyllönen’s corny, accordion powered battle against evil – and politics: “I was looking at all kind of different access points for trash aesthetic… I was looking at a lot of the hippie movement, batik and tie-dye, language of protest, I went to the Occupy almost every day when they were at St Paul’s, just looking at how they decorated the tents. There’s a certain type of cheap production value that goes with that that we identify with freedom or liberation, the left wing.”
Ashery also links this trashiness to far right wing politics: “… all these anti-Islamic, far right sites and blogs used to be incredibly trashy. Or if you look at the Innocence Of Muslims film, or at Fitna, the film that Geert Wilders produced, it has this soft edge, brown vignetting, soft focus shots. There's also a lot of cheap aesthetics that goes with some of the content of those websites. But now, some of them have changed quite drastically, they are a lot more minimalist, they look a lot more serious, I think more dangerous for that reason.”
Brought up in Jerusalem in the 70s, Ashery says that she’s always been drawn to DIY and tatty things, cluttered spaces: “It was all plastic, everywhere, everything was dirty, underdeveloped. It's an aesthetic that I can't shake off… In my parents' house it was only posters on the wall, or trashy objects. All the characters in my videos are dirty, their clothes are dirty…”
Ashery left Israel in her late teens – a dramatic shift documented in Why Do You Think I Left? in which she interviews her family who obviously resent her departure, treating it like a schism. Her brother tells her “I always felt that you, and all your friends, were such a blank generation,” and elsewhere says he feels Ashery had “a deep need to root yourself somewhere else that is not your natural place…”
In earlier works, Ashery responded to the pressure-cooker social dynamics and divisions of growing up in Israel, creating an alter ego character called Marcus Fisher, taking on the persona of a Hasidic Jewish man – complete with unconvincing beard and suit – “he was really trashy, in everything he did. Literally, the suit I haven't washed for years." In a 2003 video, Dancing With Men, dressed as Fisher, Ashery attended the male-only orthodox Jewish festival of Lag B’aomer in northern Israel: “It's divided into stages, so you've got the Sephardic Jews, from Yemen, Morocco… All of their music is samples and techno, and they have MCs. They take sentences from prayers and sample them. Then you have the Ashkenazi from Eastern Europe, and their more traditional, sung, music. It's interesting being in two very different arenas which are ethnically divided… It's a big music scene in that way. People are literally at a rave. But women aren't allowed in, it's just men.”
Most of her early work took the form of small interventions in public spaces, “I'd just do something and people around wouldn't necessarily know that they were part of an artwork.” Slowly, Ashery’s work grew in scale, taking on collaborators and performers at the same time as moving away from focusing on herself as an interloper or transgressor, feeling that she had over exposed herself. By the time Ashery started on PFF, she had set up a situation where she was working with a host of performers, artists, musicians, camera people, editors.
But rather than this being a collaborative buffer from over-exposure, Ashery found the opposite: “PFF was the most exposing thing that I could do. I didn't know that at the time… I thought that if I take myself out of the work, I won't be exposed. But so much of it is about the unconscious, and I think it allowed me to go almost misguidedly to myself… Because I felt safe that I'd not be in the work, in a way that ended up a lot more exposed, in terms of the content.” I ask her how PFF is about the unconscious: “It's been a long process… I tried to listen to the voices in my head that I wouldn't usually listen to… I spent months of zoning into that lower frequency… in your stomach, those lower sentences, sensations, thinking with your senses – listening to those very low frequency type sounds in your head. Usually I would use my thinking mind, but I was really careful to not do that.”
I say that it reminds me of a new age fascination with tuning into an inner, authentic, animal self. Ashery responds excitedly, telling me how during the editing of PFF she mounted a dismembered black pig snout on a golden card and hung it on her studio wall. She claims that throughout editing, the snout would squeal loudly, “so it's more paranormal than new age… Now it’s completely quiet.” When I sceptically ask if she’s being metaphorical in some way, she answers “No, it’s real! My friends thought I was crazy because every time they came, it was quiet, but I've recorded it… Later some friends came, and actually heard it, it's a really loud squeaking from the middle of the wall… So that's what I mean by tuning into this unconscious, I was in that zone for some time.”
PFF is a romp through an unconscious of cavorting nudist performance artists, analinguist musicians, gender bending and hippie aesthetics, but it’s also populated by the forces of right wing populists like Wilders and Niall Ferguson, the encrusted remnants of a global war on terror, white supremacism in Europe and bloody animal sacrifice. “One thing in my mind was a bad trip, you want to come off of the drugs but you can't come off… I wanted people to have to allow themselves to let go into the experience and just see what happens… I think as a result some people say that there's no clear political position, that there's no clear political message. But that was a part of it, not to have that – to have a slippage, a sense of slipperiness.”
Though Ashery’s work is full of references to ideas and histories, she says that she wanted the work to be first and foremost sensorial: “I wanted [the audience] to feel it. So they feel the music, they feel the space. To feel, in the live performances, the naked bodies, they feel the concerts… the concerts were quite big things to put on but it was important for me to have a live concert, not just a video… to experience the music live is completely different.”
As a result of Ashery’s focus on making PFF aesthetically appealing, some responses to the work criticised it for not explicitly taking a political position, or even saw it as a betrayal of the work done by previous generations of artists and musicians committed to social change. But for me Ashery’s PFF is an ecstatic expression of frustration with the current status quo of political ambivalence and a feeling of ineffectualness in general culture – trying to cut through the miasma of relativism and the current ambient fear of taking any position at all through the tried and tested method of taking everything in one’s mind, mixing it all up and seeing what comes out.
Ashery seems to agree: “My position was a bit gloomy when I made it. Disillusioned with politics, feeling like we don’t really know what’s going on… that we are in a real transition between an established world order in Western democracies, from left and right into something quite different. I think that a new counter-culture movement is not yet clear. And it’s that real limbo state that I really wanted to bring across.”
There’s a mythic type of currency that both contemporary and experimental art and music worlds trade in: one of an inherent progressive, leftist, avant guardism. By simply stepping away from a general aesthetic of mainstream culture, art and music are aligned to a radical, leftist continuum. So much creative activity makes reference to radical politics and its cultural, aesthetic world, especially from the 60s and 70s – it gets replicated, remade, rehashed – but rarely does anything take on the discomforting, confrontational, even aggressive, present self of that project.
Though Ashery claims that PFF is “definitely not something that says that people in the right wing are bad” explicitly, in its ecstatic energy and frenetic tumbling through of the artist’s and collaborators’ collective unconscious, it brings focus to the core dynamic at stake in wider culture, that between the mind and its body, and how it expresses passiveness as well as activeness: “always in my work is a sense of an increasing state control over bodies, a lot of order, a lot of fascist control over what we might think are our free bodies and free existence… I think in PFF, the mood of kind of not knowing, of not finding a counterculture outlet, it's very strong, that mood of vagueness, of somebody who's been in the peace movement and marching since I was 13, where things were quite clear, suddenly finding this kind of apolitical mood.” It’s a mood of vagueness, but Party For Freedom is definitely not at peace with that ambience. It is an attempt to punch through it forcibly, with feeling.