Nomad Sessions: Experiential Interviews and Traveling Video Installation – Sarah Manya

 

“The narrative of leaving home produces too many homes and hence no Home, too many places in which memories attach themselves through the carving out of inhabitable space, and hence no place in which memory can allow the past to reach the present (in which the ‘I’ could declare itself as having come home). The movement between homes allows Home to become a fetish, to be separated from the particularly worldly space of living here… in such a narrative journey, then, the space that is most like home, which is most comfortable and familiar, is not the space of inhabitance – I am here – but the very space in which one is almost, but not quite, at home… Home becomes the impossibility and necessity of the subject’s future (one never gets there, but is always getting there), rather than the past that binds the subject to a given place.

Sara Ahmed, “Home and away”

 

There was always something comforting, familiar about airports and air terminals. They give a sense of purpose and security. I was there with a definite destination-usually home, somewhere.

Leela Dhingra

 

The fact that airports can be comforting, even relaxing – something that I have always found to be both true and strange – struck me in Ahmed’s essay. I lived outside of my country of origin for more than a decade in an effort to find my artistic home, which I did, in Belgium and The Netherlands. But during this time, I struggled with the notion of home – was it a place? Could one have two or more homes? Most aspects of my identity seem to dwell outside of a geographic location. But there were other defining factors to my life: as a freelance choreographer, I lived from gig to gig, working many side jobs and moving from apartment to affordable apartment constantly. While I found numerous related side jobs, teaching and coaching, none of this work was guaranteed either, and had its own set of negotiations and issues.

Over the past seven years, I have made two solo interactive performances about dislocation and the nomadic lifestyle. Welcome to It is a scored performance piece performed in a black box. Stranger than Fiction is an interactive solo performance using images and spoken text, for a small audience, who view the images and video on iPads and set the pace for the performance. For the third and final piece in the triptych, Nomad Sessions, I wanted to create a narrative from other voices and experiences other than my own: a portrait of a community and a diaspora. I worked on a short project using interviews as a form and wanted to continue my research gathering experiences from other freelance artists though the interview format. I began to wonder, what are our commonalities? Did others have similar experiences in terms of a feeling of dislocation? How many of us as members of the artistic community actually identify as part of a nomadic group? Many of us had left our “homes” and have found second, third, and fourth homes, languages, and identities. We are used to working and thinking nomadically – and this in itself constitutes a commonality. But how many of us actually identify as a part of the international, artistic diaspora? What would happen if we recognized this as shared experience despite our wide geography and patterns of mobility? And of course, how did freelance artists survive in different cultures and environments? This aspect seemed both highly individual and exceptionally taboo; as much as my friends and colleagues discussed money, there seemed to be many topics that were simply not spoken about.

I began developing and testing a series of questions about geography, labour, economics, and ethics to be asked to independent artists over about twenty minutes. The installation/performance seeks to provoke questions about collective and individual identity through an interview process and a video work made from the interviews. The interviews themselves are performative and experiential, exploring the notion of what community and commonality are among the artistic diaspora. This work is both a public and a private experience. It is a way to research and collect information about how other communities are managing the nomadic lifestyle, the horizontal model for success, and in general, the life of the artistic precariat and nomad. The video interview centers on the individual experiences of the contemporary artistic nomadry. I ask questions about mobility, and the sense of personal, national, and artistic identity. After the interviews, the material is cut and shown, either during a festival or during other activities. For the participants and the performer, the interviewing is a performance that aims to trigger a thinking process with affective potential. The interviews are one-on-one for approximately twenty minutes. In the context of a festival, I am able to offer the participants an option to opt out of the filming, should they choose, and to just participate in the interview for the experience. The first incarnation of this project happened in Amsterdam in 2017, where I conducted and filmed interviews for one evening of the festival and then created a short video in three days. As I write this, I am currently working on the next series of interviews as part of a production residency at Centre de Creation O Vertigo in Montreal.

My aim with this project is to conduct these interviews and show the results all over the world, wherever there is a freelance dance and performance community. I also hope that the form can be flexible and take place whenever I can conduct the interviews (or train someone to conduct the interviews in a local language) as part of a festival and show it back to the same community in a short amount of time. It is important that the work is shown in spaces where freelance artists will be present: a festival is ideal. This is part of the affective nature of the work – that it is both an individual and public reflection. It is a sampling rather than a thorough ethnographic research; it is a way to gather information from a community and show it back to them. I am interested to see what the commonalities are and how differences emerge.

It is also a way to generate a conversation among the communities. As my graduate research began in Canada, I slowly realized how working as a freelancer had shaped my views on labour, ethics, and hierarchical structure. The relation of the individual to the system was strikingly different in this environment. I saw that my familiar assumptions of my artist peers and many other commonalities were missing. Yet, I also found a context for the work I had been doing for years. Terms such as “immaterial labour” or “precariat” triggered a process of considering my own work in a different way. While the economic disadvantages were clear, the advantages were murkier, yet began to emerge in my thinking. Could our work as artists challenge hierarchical systems?

The interview is a perfect form, much like the duet. It both is and isn’t a conversation. The interviewer has a series of questions and an objective to get the most interesting answers to those questions. It is a kind of dance, this listening. I have given a lot of thought about how to listen, how to absorb and how to make the subject of the interview feel comfortable. What do these conversations generate? First, my aim is to expose the situation of freelancers, perhaps making some of these topics less taboo. Second, it is my hope that seeing some of the commonalties might ease the isolation that many of us feel in our situations. From the interviews, it seems that many of us have questions about risk, security, and what kind of situations are necessary to create. Complexities of the situation and questions continue to emerge; the topic of the artistic precariat is sensitive. Since the questions are personal, there is a constant evaluation of how far to push for information. Overall, participants have been extremely generous in their willingness to speak publicly about their situations. Each city has its own set of challenges and contexts. While I have only conducted interviews in two cities thus far, certain questions have more resonance. Identity and identifying are main topics of discussion in Montreal, especially the notion of how to define oneself as an artist in relation to making one’s living solely from artistic activities. Everyone involved in the project is a member of the precariat and many have commented on feeling less alone through hearing about others’ lives. I hope that this can happen for others as well, as part of the affective process of the work.

Works Cited: 

Ahmed, Sara. (1999) “Home and Away: Narratives of Migration and Estrangement.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, pp. 330- London and New York: Sage.

Dhingra, Leela (1993) “La Vie en rose”, in Kate Pullinger (ed.) Border Lines: Stories of Exile and Home, pp. 97–118. New York: Serpent’s Tail.

Sarah Manya is performance maker and emerging scholar. She makes site-specific works and dance theatre performances as well as multi-media productions. Her work has been performed throughout Europe in festivals such as Springdance, Festival Something Raw, Motel Mozaique, Festival Tweetakt, and Noorderzon, Body Stroke, Recyclart (BE) Festival Neuer Tanz (DE). She has been a guest artist and lecturer at New York University and Amsterdam School of the Arts Modern Theater Dance Department among others. As a performer, she has worked with Felix Ruckert, Martin Butler, Vera Mantero and Vloeistof. Her training includes DasArts (NL) and Rotterdamse Dansacademie (NL). She is currently working on a project entitled “Everyday Virtuosity” in Humanities Doctoral Program at Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture at Concordia University in Montreal (CA). She is the recipient of a Fulbright/Netherland-America Foundation Fellowship in Choreography.