A year ago today I ‘premiered’ something I’d been working on in Buenos Aires for a while: an experiment, an encounter, called Olek y Anastasia. It was one in a series of, for me at least, unfinished works which would have all needed a month or two extra to have really found their feet. I’m aware that could sound ridiculous given the project with Greg McLaren, Luz Algranti and Gemma Brockis – as The Other People / La Otra Gente – was over a four month period. But if there’s one thing we learnt by doing this work it’s that it takes a lot of time.
The picture shows my friend and (in BA) mentor Vivi Tellas waiting outside a shopping ‘galleria’ on Avenida Santa Fe, as per the instructions that come with a ‘booking’:
Hello, This email contains the information, codes and contacts necessary to experience OLEKSANDR Y ANASTASIA. The performance lasts 15-20 mins. You need to go to the the DISCO Galleria on Avenida Santa Fe, between Anchorena and Equador, at exactly 9.20pm.
(there followed instructions for self-booking with a google calendar, then continued…)
On the appointed day, seek and find Oleksandr at 9.20pm, and follow these steps:
a) Approach the subject and look at him as you would a ‘portrait’.
b) When he asks you if he can help, reply ‘No thanks, I’m just looking’.
(A code by which he knows you are a ‘viewer’. If the circumstance of the evening means he cannot continue, he will say so here.)
Enjoy the performance. Please do NOT
– take any photos or video
– speak to the subject
– try to pay the subject
– forget that the subject is working as a security guard. He may have to attend to his duties at any point, and there is a small risk of him being unable to perform.
Please do not reply to this email (it won’t be read), but instead send comments or questions to email@example.com – we’d love to hear from you about the experience (in fact, at this point, we need to).
Anton Hampton / Luz Algranti
I first met Vivi in March 2006 when showing Romcom in Buenos Aires. Everything about the city came as a huge suprise to me, and I immediately fell in love with how it reminded me of so many things; little sparks of different places, something of Paris here, a corner of Berlin there, combined with, for me, nostalgic overtones of early 80’s Costa del Sol (I won’t go into what i was doing down there, but I quickly understood people in Argentina were mostly not nostaligic about those years). The old Peugeot 504 and Renault 12 taxis really did it for me.
Seeing Vivi’s work was, and remains, the first really mind-changing theatre experience I’d had in years. Here’s a brief explanation of what it’s about, written for our presentation this year at the National Portrait Gallery:
Her works are non-fictional theatre pieces involving the subject present on stage: rehearsed theatre with non-actors, ‘specialists’ in their field ‘performing’ within exquisitely drawn frameworks. This practice, difficult to conceive of without first-hand experience, is perhaps best described as ‘live documentary’. Tellas’s own term, ‘live archive’ is an oxymoron that describes well the extraordinary tension between the raw material/ subject matter present in the room, and the implied rehearsal and ‘mise-en-scene’ behind the event. In her own words:
“I have been interested in exploring what I would call “the thresholds of theatricality”. When and where does fiction begin? To trace the elements which constitute theater (those things without which it would not be recognizable as theater: repetition, presence, the situation, the other’s gaze, the ritual, the text) in lives, experiences, situations, or disciplines which are not part of the theater. This interest has formal consequences: the theater is no longer an art of representation: it is a practice of the presentation of cases.”
The shopping arcade was quite near where we were living, and I had ended up becoming quite fascinated with it, no doubt due in part to the aforementioned nostalgia which came through pretty strong there. A wonderful 70’s style 5 floor thing with a glass front looking onto Santa Fe, and a ‘Disco’ supermarket at the rear (which most people were heading for).
I spoke with a number of people working there including a Chilean-born Palestinian who had atttended the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux and had somehow ended up being a (sort of) antiques dealer, owning a 7 metre-squared patch piled high with trinkets. But what I loved was how the higher you went up, the more random, anonymous and lost the shops became until on the top floor it was just a series of little box-like offices, mostly just single rooms, though some with two floors, both glass fronted, offering an obvious performance when viewed from a level up:
One of these had the door open – I looked inside and saw a man sat immobile behind a desk with nothing on it. His eyes were sad. There was nothing in the room except for maybe two box files and a photo on the wall of two eyes, one all milky and degenerate, the other vaguely normal except for a ring of thick brown hair surrounding it. It turned out this man was one of the few men in Argentina to be able to treat a certain eye infection increasingly common to cows. Naturally I became obsessed with this odd, dream-like portal, and went back on several occasions to see if there was any way he’d be up for accepting ‘visitors’, but I never found him there again, the door was always closed, blinds drawn.
One floor down was the Centre for Chinese Cultural Development, run by a family offering everything from acupuncture massage to kung fu. Theirs was the largest single space in the gallery, occupying the space of three of the above-pictured two floor ‘lots’. One day as I came up the steps (around 6-7pm on a saturday, if anyone’s around) I came across a very beautiful sight: a group of Chinese children, ranging from around 8 to 14, practicing kung fu with large metal swords, but outside on the gallery walkways rather than inside the centre. Everyone had gone home, they were the only place still open, so naturally it wasn’t a problem for them to take over the outdoor space and have more room to move. It was another surreal intervention / addition to this place, and I wanted so badly to harness it somehow, to allow for a small audience to encounter it live, without affecting or altering the actual phenomenon. I had no idea where to start, so I just signed up for Tai-Chi lessons so I could breathe in / melt-in with the atmosphere.
Luz Algranti began accompanying me on the Galleria visits, mainly for help with translation to begin with as my spanish was still pretty elementary, and many of these people spoke quite a broken version of it themselves. At the end of one of these sessions we were leaving by the main exit when the security guard, who had no doubt understood I was English, cheerfully shouted after us ‘how do you do’ (or something). This was the start of quite a long and strange adventure. It turned out he was from the Ukraine – though quick to point out he considered himself Russian – and had somehow arrived in Argentina in between 9/11 and the massive economic crash (a matter of months). He was chatty, and spoke freely (in a very hoarse, whisky and cigarette voice) about his ideas concerning the world, property, quality of life, and so on. Luz came away convinced that this was going to be worth chasing up. We both found his clunky Russian-inflected Spanish very endearing.
We ended up coming back to speak to him more and began to hear his full story. He had been a combatant in the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and, via a series of events (the small details of which we were careful to note) he started looking for God, or a version of God he could believe in, but with no luck. Having moved to Argentina however someone gave him an esoteric book – the kind with rainbows and idyllic nature on the cover – about a woman called Anastasia whose advice is “to return to Nature, build a family farm, and live there in happiness. The tools she suggests for bringing this into reality are thoughts and images of a better and more harmonious life. She feels that the traveling bards and storytellers will carry these ideas throughout the Russias. She aims at no less than changing civilization as we know it.” (etc… more here).
Anyhow, he stayed up with his wife all night reading the book to her, each of them weeping, the ideas about how to raise a family and live communally coming to them ‘like a thousand bombas atómicas’. Luz was very good at picking up on the Soviet imagery, and how the whole plan in one sense sounded like a return to Communism, while on the other bringing in strong concepts of private property: central to the plan was for each family to have one hectare of land with at least 300 different types of vegetation. The carefully delimited ‘plots’ in the Galleria seemed to mirror this nicely.
The process we worked out with Oleksandr involved a lot of listening and note-taking, followed by a period of editing on our parts, and a subsequent rehearsal / relearning of what became a script. It surprised me how O himself seemed to suggest this process. The whole thing, despite being quite the oddest project i’d been involved in for a while, seemed to make complete sense to him. So Luz and I would find ourselves surreptitiously ‘rehearsing’ with O while he was still working, during the quieter last two hours of his shift. There’d always be someone who came by with a set of keys at some point; both he and the Peruvian computer-maintenance guy from upstairs (who Olek was helping to learn Russian) seemed to have a clear idea that there was something strange going on. If they ever heard our conversations it must have seemed that Olek was successfully indoctrinating us with ‘Anastasia’ concepts as this was certainly the central tenet of the 20 minute performance we rehearsed. We worked out a route for him to take his audience (no more than 2 at a time), slowly descending to the basement where the coin-operated toys would serve as an example of ‘death’ (children must only play with living beings), and slowly rising up and up while he expanded on his vision of ‘paradiso’, using the plants dotted around as examples of the vegetation he would require in the master-plan.
It was important – and difficult – to make it clear to him that we weren’t helping him to spread the message, but were trying to do something artistic, a new kind of ‘live portraiture’. He seemed to understand that quite well, but never without losing hope that by doing it he’d be propagating essential knowledge for humanity’s future well-being. Greg came by and did one of his ‘one minute portraits’ of him at one point, as another example of what the live portrait project might include…
For Vivi the two most interesting aspects to this semi-accomplished, barely existing ‘show’ were
a. that it had been rehearsed and performed entirely while he was supposedly doing another job, being employed by other people. Interesting from an artist’s perspective in a country which as a direct result of economic hardship has made huge advances and explorations with non performers in both film and theatre. She liked the idea of taking it further and ‘pirating’ other employments for artistic purposes – something film has done a lot, via documentary, but never to our knowledge in the live realm.
b. The sense of being persuaded into believing something, and that this could be seen as an essentially dramatic / performative energy to tap into. I liked this idea a lot, despite also wanting to get away from that within the Oleksandr experience. With more time I think we could have worked more on that edge – dangerous perhaps, but if dealt with in good heart probably exactly where the thing needed to be.
For Luz and I a strong memory is of being led down into the maté-making dungeon/ hangout for the security guards where, surrounded by porn (some of it hand-drawn), he enthusiastically assured us that ‘here we’re ok, here we can work’.
But in terms of the (un)finished work – which was experienced eventually by only a handful of people – I think it was a lot about a kind of double presence. I loved the feeling of being in the theatre despite simply standing next to a security guard in a shopping gallery: the intensity for him of the task in hand, the sweat-inducing effort involved in remembering what comes next, and the frequent blanks and stutterings it produced – all this created a different kind of presence, a clumsy but lovely attempt at some kind of theatrical preparation which could at any moment flip into an acknowledgment of your presence with a smile and rush of lucicidity, before – brakes on, eyes flailing – he’d be back into ‘theatre’ mode. We’d try and push that, occasionally adding in moments where he’d walk away two paces, come back, and whisper for example ‘ladies and gentlemen, that is the end of the first part’…
I’ll be writing more about our time in Buenos Aires and the work we did with ‘encounters’ / live portraits, including i hope a contribution from Greg regarding his great work with ‘El Cuidador’.. more soon.