What makes for a livable world is no idle question. It is not merely a question for philosophers. (…) Somewhere in the answer we find ourselves not only committed to a certain view of what life is, and what it should be, but also of what constitutes the human (…). – (Butler, Judith Undoing Gender New York and Abigton: Routledge, 2004, p. 17)
Annie Abrahams, born in the Netherlands, has been based in France since 1985. She holds a doctorate in biology from the University of Utrecht and is a graduate in fine arts from the Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten, Arnhem. Abrahams’s work most often employs networking technologies: she produces networked performances, net.art pieces, collective writing projects, videos, as well as installations and performances in physical space. She started using technology for her artistic practice around 1991, and her first telepresence piece took place in 1996, in a gallery in Nijmegen, Holland.
Her works have been exhibited and performed internationally at institutions such as the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, New Langton Arts in San Francisco, Centre Pompidou in France, Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki and many other venues.
Annie Abrahams’s work –simple, almost ‘basic’– is, I think, poignantly relevant today, within the hyper-mediated, hyper-saturated, super-networked environment that has become, for many of us Western subjects, a ‘natural’ daily habitat. What is it that makes it so? To me, it is the work’s stark simplicity and understated ‘nakedness’ that makes it moving in its subtle, often futile, attempt at interconnectivity, evoking a sense of unattainable and, at the same time, all too present intimacy.
Abrahams’s networked performance pieces are commonplace, messy and malleable. They are about the ‘banal’ reality of everyday life, time passing by, two people temporarily crossing paths in fractured, desperate or indifferent, successful or futile attempts to communicate, to (be) together, to love – in shared presence, but also shared absence.(See: Chatzichristodoulou, Maria “If Not You Not Me: Annie Abrahams and Life in the Networks”, Digimag 54 May 2010 http://www.digicult.it/digimag/article.asp?id=1793
Dominic Johnson has suggested that “we have almost no language, other than banality, to describe intimacy.” This is because “intimacy seems to be uncomfortably tied to risk” and so generally, we restrict the condition of being intimate with an-other to “the safest mid-point of what might be called a continuum of intimacy.” This conventional understanding of intimacy, Johnson argues further, “has drawn its scope of representation too closely, naturalizing a banal, feel-good figuration that represses the discomforting diversity of intimate human relations”. (Johnson, Dominic “Live Art and Body Modification” Invited Lecture at School of Arts and New Media, University of Hull, May 2010)
Though I do not intend to contest Johnson’s suggestion that intimacy is often, in everyday life, and art, restricted to a ‘banal’ middle ground, I do not necessarily consider banality as a safe middle ground in Abrahams’s work. Here, I suggest, it is the very banality of the intimate encounters that makes them troubling, discomforting. A banality evocative of daily, commonplace frustrations, such as fragmented intimacies, emotional unavailability, broken links, hitches, misunderstandings, failed attempts at communication, dysfunctional connectivity, aching bodies, and erotic lack.
Inspired by Abrahams’s first solo show in the UK If Not You Not Me at the HTTP Gallery in London (February-March 2010), I here attempt to probe a little further into her universe in order to find out, and reveal, something more about Abrahams the artist and, maybe, also about Abrahams the woman. Here is our exchange, in traces of dialogues that emerge from within chaotic email exchanges and particularly low-tech skype connections.
Annie talks about Gender
Maria Chatzichristodoulou:I know that this is an obvious question, but here it is -do you think that being a woman makes a difference as far as your work and your artistic development are concerned?
Annie Abrahams: Of course it makes a difference that I am a lady Had I been born a boy I would had been a vet, or a doctor, or maybe a bank director… I am the eldest of five sisters born in a small village to a farmer and his wife. I should had been born a boy. It is difficult having a father who wants you to be a man but wants you to act as a woman. I had a very challenging relationship with my father. I was also receiving conflicting signs about my role. There were no female role models around me other than wives and nuns. The women around me ‘belonged’ either to their husbands or to god.
Maria Chatzichristodoulou: Do you consider your work as gendered in any way?
Annie Abrahams: I don’t know… I never succeeded in using female seductive power in my relations with others. Only now, after my menopause, do I feel comfortable in defending my work in general, and its ‘feminine’ or gendered aspects in particular. I sometimes regret that I did not feel free to play more with my sexuality within work situations. When I think of your question though I realise that it was easier for me to concentrate on issues of class and push questions of gender aside. Maybe, coming from a working class family, I have always been more acutely aware of class rather than gender issues. Class seemed easier to define, it seemed easier to identify class-related situations or occurrences that appeared problematic, and for me to actually do something about them.
For example, it was clear to me that I had to publicly defend my family to the world, due to its particular class background. Raising gender issues, on the other hand, would had been more problematic, as it would had entailed a rupture with my family’s heritage and the social norms within which it operated. Raising gender issues would had meant fighting against my father, which I actually did a lot. It would had also meant disapproving of my mother and sisters, which was a lot more difficult to do…
Another thought about gender, and whether my performances might be more gendered than I realise or care to admit, relates to my performance Tit-for-Tat (2009) – http://aabrahams.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/tit-for-tat2/, a telematic performance for two scientists. Although the performers in the final piece are two female scientists, Elisabeth Rolland-Thiers, PhD in cognitive experimental psychology and Bénédicte Aptel-Guiu, researcher in dermatology, I originally approached some male scientists too. None of them wanted to take part in it. In fact, some responded rather aggressively they could not understand why I questioned science. They did not want to be involved in a performance that foregrounded the failures of mediated communication, rather than its success.
Annie talks about Intimacy
Maria Chatzichristodoulou: I am interested in discussing the idea of intimacy as I perceive this as a strong element in your practice. I would like to ask you to reflect on what this notion means to you. How relevant is it to your work? Do you think that, through your practice, you sometimes aim to achieve some type of intimacy with an-other? And whom might you be aiming at as your intimate partner? Your audience? Your co-player in a piece?
Annie Abrahams: I never thought much about intimacy (or extimacy…). I have a difficulty with using this term. That is because, for me, intimacy indicates a situation where one deliberately relinquishes control to some extent in order to approach another person. This is a very dangerous situation; if it lasts long enough, anything can happen. I suppose that this is why, in my work, I do not talk about intimacy. My thinking is more about communication: about, on the one hand, the desire of being close with someone and, on the other, the necessity of restricting one’s openness, of closing oneself, of retreating from intimacy.
So my answer to this question has always been ‘no’ because I never aimed at intimacy per se. The principal aim behind my work has always been to research the challenges and limits of inter-personal communication, either this is mediated or not. To do that I need to be on my own, I cherish loneliness, I don’t seek to escape from it. Without it I cannot reach out to the other. Being with others dissolves the I. For this reason, intimacy did not necessarily indicate something positive to me, it was something one had to constantly negotiate with oneself, and with the other. The more I think about it though it seems to me that, indeed, I have been creating instances of intimacy in my work for a very long time, although I never thought about it this way.
Maybe now I am beginning to consciously try to create the circumstances for intimate exchanges in my performances; maybe now I should say ‘yes, I am concerned with the idea of machine-mediated intimacy’. Though I do not, in general, aim to achieve intimacy in my practice, I am indeed researching on it through employing a phenomenological approach. In doing so I sometimes violate conventional communication rules
I always look for situations that make any attempt at escaping from exposure impossible. In general I do not rehearse my pieces. If this is necessary for instance, due to technical reasons I write new protocols for the final performance. I try to find ways to penetrate the other performer just for a second I want them to expose themselves to me (and to our observers) in an action, or a response, that is out of their control. I want them to unveil something they usually hide or only disclose in situations of complete trust, of complete intimacy. I want to know how they function, not by them telling me, but by me almost forcing them to reveal an instance of their ‘hidden code’ in public. I want us to go beyond self-representation and the control that this requires. Am I really forcing them to do this?… No I am not. What happens is that the situation in itself that is, the telematic performance interface, the protocols, the flaws in the streaming connections rewrites the conditions of communication in a way that makes this revelation possible, if not inevitable.
Let me illustrate this by giving you an example. In my last series with Antye Greie, A Meeting Is A Meeting Is A Meeting, http://aabrahams.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/a-meeting-is-a-meeting-is-a-meeting/, we explicitly challenge one another. We push each other towards new terrains, and into unknown, unrehearsed actions. We did not aim to produce an intimate encounter for this work, but the fact that we enter unknown realms makes it intimate because we cannot control the image of ourselves that we broadcast to the public. For this performance we both accept a discomforting prerequisite: something that we don’t want others to know about us, something secret, will, no doubt, escape. The moment this condition of discomfort suddenly and unexpectedly occurs is maybe one of the most intimate moments one can share: when a secret escapes during a performance, the minute it reveals itself to us and to our observers, this secret cannot but be unstaged. It is a moment of nakedness within the performance.
The other reason that this series might appear intimate is that Greie and I are very interested, in the moment of the performance, in each other. Because we are interacting with each other so intensely we almost forget that there are onlookers. In a certain way, the format of the performance itself stages our intimacy, before this becomes unpurposefully unstaged. Our goal, in this encounter, is to go beyond our individual bubbles, to co-exist within a mutual construction.
Maria Chatzichristodoulou: You work with digital technologies and experiment with networked performance practices -do you think that the technological medium that is often, if not always, between you, your performance partner and your observers, can function as an obstacle to these intimate encounters? Or do you think that this technology, through challenging and renegotiating physical distance as well as ideas about absence and intimacy, might actually strengthen this closeness, this coming together, the mental and sensual proximity that you evoke and experience?
Annie Abrahams: I want to stress that, for me, mediated intimacy, that is, intimacy that occurs through the use of machines, is not the same as the intimacy that we experience in our flesh lives. It is neither a lesser, nor a more potent experience; it is just different. And I like this different form of intimacy. This is maybe because I am, in my heart, still a biologist who wants to learn more about the world around her. Through the use of machines, and the mediated circumstances that they allow me to create, I have access to all kinds of intimate behaviours that people do not normally demonstrate in public. Technology is not an obstacle for intimate encounters; it is, in fact, a facilitator.
Annie talks about Sex
Maria Chatzichristodoulou: (No question was asked)
Annie Abrahams: The belief that, after menopause, sexual intercourse goes on as before is mistaken. At least it didn’t for me. This made me really angry for some time, as nobody had warned me! It felt very lonely. I think that the sexual life of post-menopausal women is still very much a taboo subject that people shun away from.
Annie talks about Biology
Maria Chatzichristodoulou: I would like you to tell me a bit more about your background as a (woman) scientist, a biologist. What made you study biology in the first place?
Annie Abrahams: As a farmer’s daughter I was not allowed to study art. This was not something my parents understood, something that they felt could give me a career. So I chose to study a subject that they could accept, and which at the same time allowed me to explore the world around me. I felt that biology was the most relevant field of study for me at the time, due to those circumstances. It was a subject that allowed me to ask what was one’s position in society, and how did I want the world to be. Gradually I got involved in political action, as was common at the time (I started my studies in 1971, in the aftermath of May 1968), but I soon felt that the direction I was taking was not the right way for me. I remember at the time reading Dostoyevsky. My colleagues did not think that this was acceptable literature to read. They could not understand why I read Dostoyevsky and not Marx or other political literature. That’s when I realised that I wanted to break free from this circle. I did not want to be within a context where reading Dostoyevsky is considered a waste of time. This created a rupture, which went on for about two years. That is when I left biology to go to the art school.
Annie talks about her Art
Maria Chatzichristodoulou: Do you think that your training in biology, and your understanding of and familiarity with a scientific approach in general (as methodology, as worldview, as ethics, as aesthetics), has affected your artistic practice?
Annie Abrahams: It did not, or so I thought, during the first years. When I decided to break with the science world to study art, I wanted to forget. I wanted to break free from everything that was reasonable or formal. I wanted to abandon all the rules I had been taught. At the beginning I was doing expressionist paintings and work that was, to me, as far from scientific methodologies as possible. It took a long time for me to become interested in science again. Around 1993 I discovered complexity theory, and this was the first time that I considered certain scientific theories as relevant to my practice. I felt that complexity theory aimed to explore infinitely complex relations, rather than give finite, ‘closed’ answers to questions. But it was not until I became involved in performance practice that I realised that a lot of my work had already been using scientific methodologies in some ways.
Maria Chatzichristodoulou: Can you elaborate on that. How is it that your work employs scientific methodologies?
Annie Abrahams: In fact, all of my work emanates from one big question: ‘How can we live in a world that we don’t understand?’. In my art I often act as a scientist. My work is experimental, in the sense that my performances are experiments. I ask a question. Then I create a situation, using formal protocols and rules, that I hope will give an answer to my question.
I never know what the outcome of my experiments will be. I never have a pre-conceived idea about the performance outcome in my head, but I do have a hypothesis about the process that helps me write the protocols. All I do is decide on the rules of the experiment, the constraints of the interaction. The outcome emerges as a result of this set of protocols, rather than as a result of the pursue of an aesthetic or other vision. Once the performance begins, my role is to observe. I do not interfere in its development. Any outcome is good, because what is important to me is the experiment in itself. Sometimes, the result makes me more happy than others… Sometimes, all this trying and failing, trying and failing, results to a beautiful moment, a moment worth waiting for.
The performance Huis Clos / No Exit – On Translation (2010) for example, is part of an artistic research project. This means that I am using artistic methods in order to get an answer to a question. Like in scientific research, in my artistic research I try to pose clear questions and to translate my hypothesis into precise performance protocols. Furthermore, I try to distinguish between my different roles, and how these can affect the experiment: it is important to be aware of when and whether I am a facilitator, an organiser, an operator, a performer, or an observer.
Often, especially if a performance outcome is confusing to me in relation to my initial question, I collect responses from observers that might help me better understand the process or the outcome. My projects are not immersive I want the observers to keep a certain distance, I want to make them think.
Maria Chatzichristodoulou: Do you see yourself as a performer in your work, that is, as an active agent in real time? Or do you see yourself more as someone who initiates and curates situations/experiments, and then observes developments?
Annie Abrahams: I am, and I do, all of this, but not always at the same time. I see myself as a performer, but also as part of the experiment. I am an agent operating within a set of rules, which I have myself defined.
Maria Chatzichristodoulou: Do you consider much the type of experience that you want your audiences to have while attending your performances? How important is this to you?
Annie Abrahams: This is an important question, and one that is not easy to answer. As mentioned earlier, I don’t want the audience to be immersed in my performances. I want them to be distanced; in fact, I don’t want them to be an audience at all, I would prefer to think of them as involved observers. Those observers are not important for the development of the piece as such at least that is the case for performance works where audiences are not invited to become actively involved as participants. In those cases my focus is on my performance partner(s) and on what is happening between us/them, rather than on those observing us.
My intention it to test what, and how much, we can share between us, and how those relationships can develop. At the same time, the performance would not exist without the people observing this; the exchange would not make sense without their presence.
Maybe a performance is for me, as an artist, what an article is to a scientific researcher that is, a way to make public, to share, something that you think is important for other people to know about or to feel. So it is clear that I cannot perform my work in solitude, I need people to share it with. The question of liveness though remains for some of my performances that do not actively involve the audience, and this question is: does it make a different to how audiences experience the piece whether this is streamed live, at the moment of its making, or whether it is pre-recorded and broadcasted at a different time? I don’t think that there is a single answer. This reminds me that, for some time now, I have been musing on making a webcam movie…
Annie talks about Politics
Annie Abrahams: For a long time my favourite saying was: “Please smile on your neighbour in the morning”, I think that a smile in the morning can change a whole day and, by consequence, a lot more. Smiling is a political act, possibly the most effective of all. A banal, insignificant smile carries significant potential for social change. I hate politics. I prefer action.