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Visual Arts

Zsófi: Welcome to PUHA podcast, which stands for Performative Unity in the Hungarian Arts, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. We're your hosts, Zsófi and Bíborka.

Welcome to all of our guests and thank you for joining us on this rainy Budapest Saturday afternoon.

Gyula Muskovics: My name is Gyula Muskovics, and I'm part of the group Hollow. We are at Tomi’s apartment because we had a party last night in our studio and it's a mess now and we can't go there. It’s in Budapest.

Zsófi: And so maybe the two other people in the frame, if you'd like to introduce yourself.

Viktor: Okay, so I'm Viktor. I'm also part of the Hollow group.

Tomi: I'm Tomi.

Eszter Kálmán: Hi, I'm Eszter Kálmán and I'm a set and costume designer and I'm sitting here in my apartment with my dog who might be a bit noisy at some points.

Bíborka: What's your dog's name?

Eszter: Yuri.

Zsófi: Cool.

Beatrix Simkó: I'm Beatrix Simkó, called Trisha, and I'm at home in my flat in Budapest.

Zsófi: So we have some quick questions that we would like you to answer. The first one is: What is performance—or performance art, however you want to name it?

Gyula: Probably the interesting thing about performance art is that it's somehow always on the verge of different genres and connected to the visual arts and the performing arts. And this is probably my one sentence answer to the question.

Eszter: My one sentence would be that it's the art of the present—or the present and the presence, or something like that.

Zsófi: Well, you are doing really well so far with the one sentences.

Beatrix: I would say, for me it's like an idea unfolding, a concentrated physical action which is witnessed by someone or by an audience done anywhere, actually.

Zsófi: What's your first encounter or the most definitive encounter with performance art that you remember or that still may influence you?

Gyula: For me, it's a dance piece called Csajok. And if I think back, I am not sure if I would like it now. But back then, I think I was around fourteen, I was really surprised. But it was more like a dance piece and not performance arts.

Viktor: For me, what I think first is—I'm from the countryside and you don't really see that much performance art there. And that time, I decided that I want to work with—I don't know—performance art and body and dance, and yeah.

Tomi: For me, I remember that I was doing a short story reading in a theatre when I was like nine, eight. It was a Géza Hofi short story, I think.

Beatrix: For me, I think it was around fifteen and that was the first time I went to MU Theatre. And this was the piece by Krisztián Gergye. And this was something I really haven't seen before because I've been to Trafó, I remember at that age, and also to different theatres. But this was something that I couldn't put into the other genres, and this was for me, the first performance visually and movement-based performance experience.

Eszter: For me, I remember a lot of theatre pieces that I saw in my high school years. But as a performance art piece that I can remember—and I'm sure it wasn't the first one but the first one I can still remember of—was during university. And it was done by a student that was her degree piece and she was from Singapore. I think her name was Tara Tan, and she was doing a piece about her identity and Asian identity in the U.K., and she was peeling potato. The whole length of the performance, she was peeling potatoes and lastly, she had a scarf on her head. And then by the end of the performance, it turned out that she bleached her hair and became a blonde English person by the end of her performance. And that's my first memory of the performance that we defined a second ago.

Bíborka: We would really appreciate if you could talk a little bit about how performance or body-based work found its way into your art. Maybe it's been there from the beginning or maybe not. And it's interesting that I think from all of you, it was only one person who said that their first moment with performance art was something that you were reading, right? Something that involved them. So how did it come about that you are doing this kind of work, either as a collective or an individual?

Viktor: For me, I wanted to be an actor and then, I don't know—because I was taken to Budapest to the Contemporary Dance Academy—and it was really obvious that I have to work with my body, and I have to cast things through it and through movement. And because before I went to the Contemporary Dance Academy, I didn't know anything about contemporary dance. And I was just opening this book where it was done a collection of every school in Budapest, in Hungary.

And actually, I think that was the first one on the list because it starts with “b” and I definitely wanted to come to Budapest, and it was contemporary. I don't know what does it mean, the contemporary dance. And it was dance. And I knew through parties and everything that I can dance, and I applied for it. And I was taken, and before I did some ballet, I learned that what is the first position and things like this. And from that time, it was really important for me, because I studied theatre, how can I switch everything what I used to say out loud, to the body. But since we are a collective, it's a bit hard because we are coming from very different backgrounds.

Tomi: But for me, the first attempt to do something like performance was with you, and you approach me because before that I would've never thought that I would do anything with performance. Which is not true because before that, I was doing something that was performative because I'm kind of a game designer—like a multimedia artist. And I was doing live gaming, which is not really, I wouldn't say performance or really body-based thing. But if you approached me in 2018—

Bíborka: What do you mean by live gaming? Like Twitch stuff or?

Tomi: No. There is another artist group that I'm part of, which is Rites Network, and we were doing experimental games together. And the live gaming is like we are playing the games that we design live, basically. Which is also the thing that I'm kind of doing in Hollow, sometimes during the performances that we build these games, also virtually but also there's this dynamic of choreography, which is kind of like a game thing. And what we are doing is playing basically—not gaming but playing.

Gyula: Yeah, we are trying to create this game-like environments and bring this mechanism of the virtual space into physical reality. And I find this quite interesting because I have a background in creating, and I used to do exhibitions. And I have always felt that format of an exhibition is just too graphic for me, and I was more interested in something more immersive and more dynamic. And I think when we just started the three of us to work together, it was a really nice moment because our first performance, we did it based on our intuitions. We didn't have so much time to prepare, and it was quite a big success—it was in Trafó—not necessarily for the audience but for us that we just realized, “Wow, this is what we've been imagining or trying to realize.”

Zsófi: Cool. Well, do the two other of you want to say a couple of things about how you found your practice lead towards performance? Why did you engage with it?

Beatrix: So, my background is dance and I was doing it from childhood. It's a very typical but later on I continued, and dance was always my vocabulary but never in the institutional way. And when I got to the art university—which was MoME for me as well, as the guys mentioned—until then it was for me really more the dance and the movement vocabulary. But there, I studied at the Media Design Faculty and the head of this department was János Szirtes. After the graduation, we started to work together. So this was a big impact on my work that we collaborated and did many performance art projects which involved the body and were body-based and quite the simplicity describes these performances. And later on, this kind of attitude towards performance art which I would say—so he's an older generation and performance art is something that he did through throughout his life and also with other international artists.

It derives from this ’80s and ’70s performance art that we know of. And this way of performativity then in another way, also came into my work as itself and also to the dance and movement-based work. So, I think I was always interested in different kind of qualities and movement and dance qualities. And this kind of performance made it possible that the range of working with the body can be really a range, a spectrum, and I'm totally free to use it, and not only the dance vocabulary is the way to use it. Although, this is really something that I'm coming from. So, this was ten years ago when we started this collaboration and since then, I'm also doing very diverse things, from very simple—in a way without any apparatus performances—to combining performances with visual art. And also, in the dance work, there are things that—I wouldn't say that this is only dance—but have characteristics from performance or performativity.

Eszter: I work as a set and costume designer and that's my main thing here, living in Hungary. But from time to time, I'm very interested in the power of telling stories through theatrical elements such as light and the set itself or the non-human body elements of theatre, really. So, I'm really not body-based as you are. I'm quite the opposite, but that's my interest. My primary interest these days is how to tell stories through noises, for example.

Zsófi: I saw one of the videos of Eszter's noise performances where they make a whole family drama out of domestic tools in the kitchen. It's really cool.

Bíborka: The Hollow guys and Trisha, you were talking more about obviously the body, or well, depends, and how you find your way to that. And then Eszter, it's actually the absence of the body and everything else surrounding the body. So, what media do you usually start developing your work in? And then how do you invite the body or body-based stuff, or other media into your process, the Hollow people?

Gyula: I think what is most interesting in how we work is that the whole process is based on improvisation and thought experiments and intuition. So we would basically just spend time together. We basically work with our worlds. We are creating these alternative universes and those can appear, I think, in many different ways, in many different contexts. The basis of our work is shared imagination, so we just talk about random stuff but also do a lot of research. In our new project, which will be about us as a collective, we will do a lot of formative experiments and we will create challenges for ourselves that we have to go through together.

Viktor: Basically, we are referencing our own lives and from that, we kind of convey speculative things—"What would happen if,” and things like that.

Gyula: Yeah, we are just speculating, actually.

Viktor: Yeah.

Gyula: It's a very important part of our work that we are very good friends, and I think this world building is already an important part of being friends with someone. So you create this small universe around yourself, which is about how you imagine the world together. For example, one project we did, we started with Viktor’s fear of death. Back then, he was talking about his fear of death because there is a point in everyone's life when they realized that they will die at some point, and it's a very unpleasant period. For me it was around twenty-eight. I remember also for Tomi and for Viktor, it was when we started to work on Summit.

So basically, what we did—it was more about this personal encounter with the idea of finitude, but it can be interpreted in a wider sense regarding climate change or what the possible futures of the planet are, maybe. The whole idea for this new project came up when I was on a scholarship, doing research connected to my PhD in Tbilisi, during the whole summer. Tomi had this idea to do a project about a collective body. I was very fascinated by this 1980s and 1990s underground queer scene in Tbilisi during the civil war. So, we started to think about the collective body as a network of resistant, smaller units; smaller bodies.

Viktor: But also working in a group is really by default, it's really intuitive. And if you think of something then you just say it and there's instant feedback from the group, which is a really good working condition.

Zsófi: Trisha or Eszter, how does it work for you when you start a new project?

Eszter: Well for me, it's usually starting with the actual question: Can I tell a story through noises? And then, that's the form. Or, you know what I mean? I had a performance called The Lake, where I wanted to examine the differences and similarities between puppetry and dance; how choreography is the same thing with the body, even if it's not a human body but a puppet's body. So, for me, I think the original issue or my interest is always the form, primarily. And then from the form, hopefully there is more content. But actually, I'm starting from the other way around. How is, like, a talking set? How a set can tell a story without people being in it.

Bíborka: I didn't see or experience this piece—the sound one that you're talking about. So, how does the audience go into that or engage with that? Is it like installation stuff? Or is it a digital thing or?

Eszter: No, it's me and my husband onstage. It's almost like a laboratory set up, so it's a very long table and it's called Domestic Noise, the piece. And it's all domestic objects on the tables from a bathroom, through a kitchen, to the dining room, objects-wise. And we go through our story or moments of our marriage through sounds. Almost everything we do is recorded as well so it works as a looper. So, we can do light layers of sounds on top of each other, and we can create music from the sounds as well. And we also sing at one point. But I think it's very important that it's us, and that it has to be very truthful to us and it's very honest.

Bíborka: I think this is a good connection to Trisha, probably, because I remember that when you were giving your one sentence definition about performance, you mentioned presence.

Beatrix: The process starts always with an idea and if the context makes it as a one-time action, I mean a performance art or a performance, then in that case I kind of never rehearse. I find out the elements which can be also the dramaturgy in the sense that what is happening after each other, and then it happens on the spot, in the moment, and I don't rehearse. When I'm creating more dance-based, movement-based works, then it's another setting because then I rehearse, sometimes for a very long time or in different periods which can be also half a year apart from each other. And then I know that it's probably going to happen in a theatre and in that case, I know that I'm always dealing with bodies or body bodies, and probably there is going to be some kind of visual design which is created by my partner most of the time, Dániel Dömölky.

We operate most of the time with lights. So light design is always the main element, not only in the way you use the equipment of the theatre but how additional objects can be also... lighting objects can be part of the visuality. And sometimes it also comes to video. And then in this medium, I'm also working with dance films, so dance videos, which have nothing to do— or not always have to do anything with—the dance work, so far. So actually, these media for me link in different levels and settings. Currently, I'm also planning a dance video series. Yes, which is going to happen in the upcoming months. And sometimes it's guerilla, so it's happening on the street.

For example, I did a dance film two years ago which happened during a residency in Stockholm called In Between, and this was totally guerrilla. There was nothing set in before, so we just went there and created the images that we composed or choreographed before. So yeah, I'm dealing with very different stuff and context concerning also the location and the actual work. And most of the time, I work with different people—like my partner is permanent, so we’ve worked for a long time together. But concerning dancers or dance colleagues, it varies from project to project. This is always a challenge, but on the other hand, this is also a platform to build a new community and to define the language or the dance language from time to time, from the ground.

Bíborka: Listening to all of you, I had this question in mind about—take it in any way you want to answer it, or you don't need to either—but what's your performance dream or something that you really want to make work about? Or maybe you have a specific idea that you've been meaning to realize or develop for a long time?

Gyula: What I know for sure is that in our performances, usually Viktor is doing some kind of dance, Tomi is gaming, and I'm always doing something more aesthetic, or I speak or write. In our next project, we would like to do something which is very different, and we don't know how we will achieve this. We will probably just not be present in our performance. This is actually the idea that we are not there. Once there was an event, which now we call a performance, but it was actually us and a few of our friends coming together during COVID. It was ten people because that was the regulatory limit.

So, we work a lot with role-playing and throughout Hollow's history, we've developed and created many different characters inhibiting these fictional roles that we organize our performances around. And we just gave character cards to people and tell them that you can embody any of them or embody a mix of your inventions and one of the characters, and just be there. And we had dinner and some drinks, and it became quite interesting because no one took it seriously. Everyone would expect that we would just give them instructions and it would be a role-playing game, but we didn't say anything. It was also a nice moment we could just share. But still, people started to stick more and more to their fictional characters. One of them, for example, had a mask in which she couldn't even open her mouth, and she would wear it for six hours because she took it so seriously.

Beatrix: When you first asked this question, the first thing that came to my mind was that last year when I was pregnant, it happened that I had two performances which were very long—and I mean long in the sense that normally a work of mine is like seventy minutes long, maximum. So, both of them took like two and three hours long, and this was, for me, a new experience: doing something for a longer time and with a different kind of concentration in the body, and it's intriguing. In the future, I would really test the limits and even if it comes together with the topic. And also, there are topics that I'm so interested in, but I don't find the context—I mean also, the financial way to realize it. What do I need? This support and this kind of things sit on the shelf. So, I know that this interests me, but I really have to find a context for it, so I just wait, and maybe years later I can realize it. So this is also a strategy, how I try to get by with these circumstances or systems that I'm working with, also with applications and the context.

During the Impulstanz Festival, which is a very big venue in Vienna for twenty-five years now—and this was part of a residency and also a two-year program. At the end of a two-year program, a performance series took place in the Leopold Museum, if you are familiar with its spaces. There were three or four rooms that we occupied to stay with the different performances. There were ten artists involved, and I created a performative act on the top of a huge [column]—it's quite like this in the museum, a very huge, two or three meters long. And it’s called Island, and I was dealing with very soft and little movements and changing of the movement during these two hours. I was already not alone in my body because my daughter was inside, and we did it together. And there were, in the setting, also ladders—which was interesting because it was part of the visual, but people thought that they could climb up, but it wasn't intended but some of them tried. So it was also funny in a way that it wasn't intended, but they participated in the set. So this was one, and the other one was also in a gallery space, in a small gallery in Budapest. And it was like building a so-called time capsule, and it was participative in a way that people left messages in the space, and they dropped it into a box. And this box is closed for eighteen years, and these messages will end up, after eighteen years, in my daughter's hands.

Eszter: Apart from my design work, I've been creating these installation arts with Juli Balázs and András Juhász and Gábor Keresztes, sound and visual artists. Juli is a set designer. And we've been doing these very big-scale installation arts. The first one was called Infinite Dune, that won the Prague Quadrennial Countries and Regions first prize, and the second one was last year at Trafó. It was called Water Fields, and that is also a Trafó-sized installation. So, I'm planning on continuing working with them on new installation arts. So I guess my interest is towards fine art more so than performance art lately.

Bíborka: And how did you develop the concept for the Water Fields one?

Eszter: We developed the concept with the Juli Balázs together. Well, it was an EU project that Trafó was participating in. And Trafó invited people to create, not just installation, but performance art also. It was very free and wide. And they invited me, and they invited Ármin Szabó-SZékely, who is a dramaturg, and we both wanted to collaborate with Juli. So we all joined together and the project itself was called Liberty. I think it's in twelve European countries, and it's a project about migration and artistic answers or artistic approaches towards that problem. Trafó decided that for the Hungarian part, they wanted to narrow it down to the Greek migration period of time, which happened in the ’50s in Hungary.

We decided that we wanted to create something that is a very open piece for associations towards traveling and the sea and the ocean and the power of the sea. How people from the outside can just enjoy the sea or the waves or the power of the water, and how from another perspective the same thing can be a very dangerous and also very powerful effect for anybody who hasn't seen it. The installation is a huge fabric that has sixty-eight peak points in the theatre space that can be moved by audience members, so it can wave the whole thing. And it's twelve meters wide and twelve meters deep, and it’s a full video projection on it. The soundscape is from the outside where you can look at it from an upper perspective and then you can go underneath it, and there is another soundscape underneath it in headphones.

Zsófi: We would like to wrap up with one last question, and I would like to ask Trisha to answer first in case she needs to go because of the little baby. So we were wondering, who are some inspirational artists for you that have been defining throughout your career or right now?

Beatrix: Okay, I start. I have inspiration, recently, and not throughout. I have a performance artist called Simone Forti, and I'm amazed by the fact that she is over seventy and she is still active. Throughout her career she was active in body-engaged performance art, and this is something I admire and find very inspirational. I’m also very much, when in theatre, in the sense of theatre where we say there are narratives and there are texts and also visuals, so we say it's a theatre piece. There are elements when I say it's on the border of performance and I had, a few years ago, an experience with a Norwegian group called Suzy Van, a performance that I saw which was really on the border of theatre and performance. And I liked it very much.

Zsófi: Thank you.

Eszter: For me, it's Robert Lepage, who is a Quebecian Canadian theatremaker, whose interest is in theatre but in terms of visuality, or he's interested in how to tell the story in the best visual form. But sometimes, he can even break it down to seeing a performance or a production, let's say a production, it can happen that each scene is in a different visual form because he thinks that for that scene, it's the best shape and form. And I love that freedom.

Gyula: So I'm supposed to... I don't know. Probably the artist called Ryan Trecartin. He's an American filmmaker and video artist, and he's one of the first artists who tried to somehow translate the logics of the internet into performances. He and his collaborators, such as Lisa Fitch who's a set designer, have made a lot of improvisation-based, role-playing performances that serve the basis for their films. Also, because of this kind of craziness that the narratives unfolding are always multidirectional and they don't necessarily make certain sense. We also like to use this as a method to make the audience step out of their rational way of thinking. I think this is a very good strategy for creating immersive art species.

Viktor: But we also have a lot of inspirations from book culture, like Harry Potter.

Gyula: Yeah, true.

Viktor: Matrix. Songs, of course.

Gyula: Addams family. Halloween. But there are more and more artists or collectives working with similar topics and media and it's interesting. So, we had a collaboration last year with a collective called OMSK Social Club. They're a Berlin-based collective, and it was very interesting. So what we really enjoy among us, is that all of us have a different perspective on the same thing. And when we would meet, this collective who we're doing something very close to what we are doing, it was very strange, actually. That was also interesting, and I would also say that we are all surrounded by artists. Our best friends are artists, and we are very inspired by them, actually. So that's probably the main source of inspiration, what we get when we go to Trafó and see performances by people like Csaba Molnár or Tamara Vadas or Imre Vass. They're all amazing people.

Viktor: And also from me, the fine arts scene. People from AQB (Art Quarter Budapest).

Gyula: Yeah, yeah. It's more like becoming a community. Also because of COVID, I think that the circle we are part of is just growing bigger and bigger because I think people have more focus on their local communities than ever before. And yeah, I really enjoy being in this community of one hundred people and being inspired by them. And also, through collaborations, we will for example, do a collaboration with the artist duo Lőrinc Borsos in the Studio of Young Artists (FKSE) and also Csenge Vass, who's a textile designer.

Zsófi: Thank you. I think we have come to the end and thank you so much for having this conversation with us. It was really great to get to know you and to hear your thoughts and experiences. It was very inspiring.

This has been another episode of the PUHA podcast. We are your hosts, Zsófi and Bíborka. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of the series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feeder on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes.

If you love this podcast, post a rating, and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find the transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

Thoughts from the curators

A dazzling performance art scene is being born in Hungary, which, though quite small, boasts artists from all walks of life. Puha means “soft” in Hungarian, and PUHA stands for Performative Unity in the Hungarian Arts. It is an ambitious project by theatre Zsófia Kozma and choreographer-performer Bíborka Béres that brings makers and creators of the Hungarian performance art scene together for discussions. From dancer to set designer, jazz musician to game designer, we talk with all sorts of people about thoughts, approaches, challenges, and ideas in their work. They sit down to explore topics like climate change, gender, queerness, improvisation, and public space in order to replace division and competition by fostering unity and dialogue in the field.

Performative Unity in the Hungarian Arts

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