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International live and performance art festival during the coronavirus epidemic – possible, but different

Live and performance art are arts that inherently require presence, but presence does not necessarily mean presence in the physical sense – in fact, presence need not even be virtual. This is the realisation the students of the Live Art and Performance Studies programme at the University of the Arts Helsinki arrived at when planning the Lapsody live art and performance festival to take place in September.

Kuninkaansaari nature landscape, two bunkers at the forefront, a speck of sea behind pine trees on the horizon.
Photo: Tero Nauha

A boat is circling around Kuninkaansaari island while a wedding performance of a Ukrainian queer couple is in progress, viewed by the audience on the boat in real time via a video link. In the other cabin on the boat, dreamlike videos are screened reflecting on a better, queer-feminist future.

The boat circles around the island, keeping close to the shore but the audience actually never sets foot on the island.

This is a description of the forthcoming performance staged at the Lapsody: Paramatter live art and performance festival organised by the master’s programme students of the Live Art and Performance Studies (LAPS) on and around Kuninkaansaari island. The artists are Masha Lukianova (Russia) and Tonya Melnyk (Ukraine) and the performance is entitled Wedding #5.

The original plan of the couple was to appear live at the festival: to enter into a registered partnership in Helsinki and have a real wedding celebration on a boat. Same-sex couples are not allowed to get married in Russia or Ukraine.

Then came the coronavirus and travelling become impossible.

“I think it became a metaphor or symbol for them of never being officially recognised as a couple in our respective home countries. But they were inspired by the idea of creating the performance via a video link,” says Dasha Che, a student of the LAPS programme and one of the organisers of the event and the curator of the work.

Che is also staging her own solo performance in Market Square from where the boats to Kuninkaansaari island depart.

Art in the age of the pandemic

“The Lapsody festival takes place mid-September as part of the Island 2020 programme of the University of the Arts Helsinki, and it has been designed and curated independently by the LAPS students,” says Professor Tero Nauha. The festival will feature students’ own productions as well as works by international and local artists that are curated by the students.

Organised for the eighth time, the festival has previously taken place in the spring at the Theatre Academy. The island as the venue and the challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic, with restrictions on travel, are new to the organisers and has meant that several works have needed to be adapted.

The new situation has also pushed everyone to rethink what the significance and role of live art and performance, as inherently intimate in character, could be at a time when keeping a distance must be a priority.

“Live art is built around the relationship between the performer and the audience. The relationship exists even if the artist is not physically present. The way they communicate with the audience might be different, but it is still communication,” says FjollaHoxha.

The time we live in affects the type of art we make and how. At this moment, the conditions for making art are determined by the managing of a global pandemic, and therefore also our relationship with technology,” Hoxha continues. Hoxha will be presenting a collaboration with the US-based artist Dylan Simon and his Borderline studio.

Simon will be joining the performance via a video link while Hoxha will be performing live.

Hailing from Kosovo, Hoxha finds that their work has been influenced by the military history of Kuninkaansaari island as part of the defence system of Helsinki.

“My life has been deeply affected by war, and I have a strong idea of war means and what role defence plays in it. The work plays with the concepts of authority and subservience.”

Remote need not mean online

“To work remotely does not necessary require online presence or the use of technologies,” says Suvi Tuominen. There are many other ways of communicating remotely.

“Jeff Benjamin, a US artist I invited to the festival, creates a book of poems and plant-based prints about islands. I will read the poems while Jeff is rowing his boat in the US in the direction of Kuninkaansaari.”

Like Tuominen’s, Benjamin’s background is in archaeology. Tuominen will also present a solo work at the festival, taking the audience through the rocky landscape of Kuninkaansaari shaped by the Ice Age.

Along with guests joining the event from abroad, the festival will also host a number of Helsinki-based international artists. Tea Andreoletti has curated a performative concert by the Helsinki artist collective Hanais Nun and Minerva Juolahti a work by sound artist Dmitri Zherbin.

“I’m fascinated by Zherbin’s use of analogue technology to communicate with the environment. In his most recent work, Zherbin has created improvised sound works using waterfalls in different parts of Finland as the sound source,” Juolahti says.

Juolahti’s own work is a solo performance taking place on the boat between Kuninkaansaari and mainland, as is Andreoletti’s own performance, which combines storytelling, memory and the sound and movement of the water.

New live art

The students curating the festival come from many different backgrounds: Che has previously studied dance and social sciences, Tuominen archaeology and dance and Juolahti fine arts and folklore, Hoxha is a playwright and a theatre director and Andreoletti a visual artist.

“This is quite typical of the live art and performance art circuit,” Tero Nauha says.

“Artists today are keen to seek new modes of performance and forms of creativity, which is exactly what LAPS programme is also about. Live art and performance studies have become an integral part of performing and visual arts, and they have lent themselves to dance and more traditional theatre as well,” Nauha says.

Nauha is an organiser of the Another Academy, which takes place concurrently with the Lapsody Festival. It is a live art seminar including discussions and talks on the state of performance art education, and also features live performance acts.

“I don’t expect we’ll ever become mainstream, but the influence of live art and performance art is evident in all forms of art, which is interesting.”

According to Nauha, Lapsody offers a great opportunity to see the works of new creators and fresh perspectives into what live art and performance is capable of.

It is also an opportunity to experience the natural beauty of Kuninkaansaari as well as its rich history in a completely new way.

Text: Silja Ylitalo