Al Paldrok of NON GRATA | Interview
Fri Feb 24 2012
Photograph: Courtesy of NON GRATA
NON GRATA: Force Majeure
At the end of DEFIBRILLATOR’s opening event in December 2010, four members of NON GRATA unleashed Art of the Invisibles. Responses to the chaotic, violent and absurd performance ranged from amusement to frustration to abject fear.
Three members of the Estonian art collective return to Chicago for Force Majeure on March 4. The outdoor performance follows a presentation at DEFIBRILLATOR of Marek Choloniewski’s interactive video installation and a reception follows.
Al Paldrok, 42, has been a member of NON GRATA since its beginnings in 1998 as a new-model art school in Pärnu, on the Gulf of Riga near Latvia. While the Academia Non Grata program there ended a year ago, NON GRATA the group continues, based both in the former school and in studios 80 miles north in Tallinn, across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki.
Ahead of Force Majeure, during which an automobile will sustain extensive damage, Paldrok answered some questions for us about the piece and its creators via e-mail from Estonia. (While the interview was conducted in English, it has been reworked throughout for clarity with Paldrok’s final approval.)
Where else has NON GRATA performed Force Majeure?
The first one was in Malmö, Sweden under the name Beauty of the Car Accident. We have [also] made it in Tartu, Estonia; Seyðisfjörður, Iceland; Berlin, Germany; and Marseille and Paris, France. First it was a more personal piece with storytelling. Since then it has moved in a different direction, more universal, and because of that we have changed the name to Force Majeure, [which] we have performed in Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland; Seoul, South Korea; and Pori and Vaasa in Finland.
Who from NON GRATA will travel to Chicago?
Anonymous Boh, Devilgirl and KA1, who is a techno animal, cyber poet and psychedelic activist from Zone Autonome de Terre-Blanque in Toulouse, France.
How specifically are NON GRATA events planned in advance, and how much do they depart from these plans in performance?
Mostly we plan, however, it also means planning for the randomness and depends on the particular kind of performance. NON GRATA has done long-term “ghetto marathons,” actions which last for 24, 36, 48, 240 or 336 hours in a row that are usually not meant for an audience, or an audience with limited access through mechanical or audio-visual devices. In the case of open performances [for a live] audience, detailed planning is required. One possible option is then piling all of these kinds of actions together to see what the result is going to be. I personally like to engage some local characters who represent different professions (chefs, militarists, scientists, robot engineers, dancers, musicians, circus acrobats), races, linguistic backgrounds, sexual orientations, etc. when in different parts of the world. The action is planned to the degree that each person’s part is rather clear and the role depends on their orientation and what they can do. How and in what manner [he or she] actually does it is up to [him or her] to decide. Everything happens for real and with no prior rehearsal, therefore, it is best if a person performs [his or her] everyday tasks. It is up to me to melt it into a whole and provide it with an ideological background. It also happens verbally and, when starting a sentence, I usually have no idea of how it is going to end.
Once underway, how responsive is one of these performances to reactions from its audience?
The vast majority are interactive and in whatever crazy situation, one can expect anything, from verbal disturbances to direct physical attacks from the audience to interference by police, fire brigades, ambulances, etc. One of the most important characteristics of a performance-artist is the ability to control the performative process, to be ready to improvise and guide the process through unexpected situations.
I’m going to quote twice from a 1999 interview you gave, and would like to hear how your thoughts have changed, if at all, since then. First: You said, “Artists have become either the ones who satisfy society’s certain aesthetic needs, small-scale entrepreneurs producing pretty things, or society’s fools officially labeled ‘the opponent.’”
Academia Non Grata was created for one purpose, [to be] a counterbalance to a bend-over attitude in the Estonian art world, which was dominated by the Yankee-style capitalism in our society. Artists made performances for the inaugurations of banks, for birthdays of the nouveau riche, and for a tobacco company’s parties, for instance. They were perceived as well-paid entertainers and, as a result, standards [for artistic performance] fell too far. Although Academia Non Grata showed definite alternatives to this way of being an artist, society’s attitudes haven’t changed.… The priorities of an artist must be his or her unconditional strategies, put to use in everyday life. The situation today is this: Established institutions in the art world are bowing in submission to authorities. [If you allow this degree] of self-humiliation, anyone can kick your ass, to put it plainly. The internet has brought about in the art world an inability to address issues or establish paradigms, scattering it into multiple discourses.
“Self-censorship has reached unbelievable dimensions.”
Although it may seem that free thought has made unprecedented gains thanks to the availability of information, the reality is quite the opposite.… State-controlled and commercial media channels are becoming more and more formal “public expressions.”
You also noted a lack of discipline and self-reliance among art students, saying in effect that one could expect someone to hand him his paintbrush, wipe his ass for him, and trim his nails.
This was more a critique of the education system, not about the younger generation. Our Academia Non Grata never got official accreditation because there was no custodial service in our school. The students had to do it all themselves: heat the ovens, clean the toilets and classrooms, help with construction as needed. The course was designed toward universal personal development.… The education systems of the [European Union] make students deal with formalities and bureaucratic rituals that take all of their power and time, and have nothing to do with creative work.
What age range enrolled in Academia Non Grata? How many went on to become members of the performance group?
We had students from ages 18 to 65, with most between 18 and 25 years old. Almost all participated in NON GRATA performances at some point; maybe 10% became members. Of course, we do not have and never had membership cards. NON GRATA members are people who, at a given moment, are directly connected to the activity of NON GRATA, who adhere to its requirements and internal procedures, express their wish to do so and acknowledge their role within its structure.
NON GRATA’s members use aliases such as Anonymous Boh, Devilgirl and Moggelitoo. Its mission statement speaks of the importance of “anonymity in group work and ignorance of local art and mass media.” Why?
The primary goals of the activity of NON GRATA are [building] an experimental, creative environment and staying in the process, to be interpreted only via the creative process. Anonymity releases a person from a career-centered orientation and enables the formation of a melting pot of unlimited ideas. There is no kissing of art-world asses or media clowns. Total anonymity is impossible in Estonia—it’s just too small a country, and everyone is known to everyone at least in art circles. It created a somewhat schizophrenic situation, where each of us was anonymously a member of NON GRATA and then someone else in the public sphere. I use “Anonymous Boh” as my artist name.
How many members are there?
We’ve had more than 500 members during the last 13 years, from all over the world. We usually have five to 10 active members and then a lot of “sleeping members,” people activated when Estonians come over the sea, who organize NG activities in their location and perform and travel with us.
On February 11, I attended a presentation in Chicago by Martin Creed, a performance in the general guise of a lecture. I don’t consider his work to be similar to NON GRATA’s, but I was curious how you would respond to some statements he made, taken out of context. One: “Feelings are the most important things.… I feel bad and I want to feel better.”
This is that cliché about the suffering artist. Some artists have even said to me that I cannot be a “real artist,” because I’m too happy a person.
Two: “The best feelings to me are the most exciting feelings, like sex, or something like sex.”
Catharsis is of course important. Recently, in France, I heard someone describe our performance as “natural LSD.”
Three: “I don’t know what art is.”
Lots of people and some performance artists believe that what NON GRATA does is not art. Maybe we don’t know, either. One possible [definition] is “to fulfill the space.” We don’t like to perform in one space several times. It’s already been stripped of its virginity and so that tension is lost.
Four: “I don’t want to be a part of my generation.”
What an ageism.
Have you or any other members of NON GRATA been arrested during, or because of, a performance?
Yes, several times. Once, on our way to perform in Paris, we were arrested in Copenhagen. They threw us in prison and kept us there for too long. I sued the Danish state and won the case; with this money we published the NON GRATA performance book. Every now and then somebody will get arrested but, usually, it’s not because the performance is too powerful, [but because the] police just don’t understand what we’re doing and do not know it is art.
What kind of damage have NON GRATA performances done to members? To viewers?
Some of our members have been injured during the actions: burn marks, bruises, broken bones. Never any witnesses. Spaces, yes. We made a performance once with the Estonian National Male Choir in a big concert hall. They gave us a bill for $5,000 in damage.
Do NON GRATA works live more in the moment of their performance, or in the effect that they have on performers and witnesses after the fact?
Myth is the most powerful documentation of any performance, photo, video, text or gossip. Does it live in its events and actions? Of course, this is the main thing. The other part [effects after the fact] is out of our reach. The author has left the building.
NON GRATA “is a cure from incest” in art today, says another group statement, and provides “aesthetical and provocative challenges…in places, where the Art World doesn’t work.” What happens if and when the “Art World” decides to honor, acknowledge or include NON GRATA?
I cannot say it hasn’t tried. I select where we perform according to what inspires creativity. The people with whom we want to do something at any given time also play a large role. We appear in very different circles and institutions, subcultures, and between various fields. Sometimes it’s an art mecca such as New York, London or Paris; sometimes the limited vastness of the U.S.; South American ghettos; performance festivals in Asia or Scandinavia. We get a lot of invitations, however, we can’t and don’t want to appear just anywhere and everywhere. We choose according to what’s appealing. The world is an experimental space, and art is a creative process perpetually on the move.… An artist must stay on the pulse of life and, if he’s lucky, a little step ahead.
NON GRATA presents Force Majeure in Chicago on March 4. There is a $10 suggested donation.