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Breathing Zusammen

"What would it be to work out of the necessity of relation and connection — could we find a kind of crevice in between terms as 'solo', 'group' or 'duo', and how would it affect or maybe even resist the systems of value that controls the art world?", says Hanna Wildow about what must be among the most prolific projects we've seen in 2021. Presenting as a long-term project, spanning over multiple chapters; and–akter in this year alone has morphed between shape of online performances, in situ participatory performances, stage production and sculptural exhibition. It joins Hanna Wildow with Alva Willemark Mesaros and Tony Karlsson Savci and is prompted by the objective to direct attention towards what it means to share when working and living in a system and a world that persistently tries to prevent from sharing.

and–akter, rehearsals of escape at Krupa Gallery, March 13, 2021

C-P: The endeavor and–akter is such an inspiring one in so far not being a question of an artist collective per se in a traditional sense, but rather the case of three artists joining in collaborative and correlational art-making without claiming single authorship, while still retaining as well your own parallel practices. What prompted this union of you to happen and what have been the rationales behind it?

H.W: and–akter started growing as a ramification of an earlier work of mine called skogen behöver,jag (the forest needs, I). In that one, I was invited by Konstfrämjandet Bergslagen to explore a nature reservoir called Gränseskogen (The Border Forest) for a year, together with a group of teenagers in the small village Storå outside of Lindesberg. When the work was done, I didn’t feel done — there was so much dense material and research that I needed to continue dwelling on.

Hanna Wildow, still from skogen behöver, jag (2019)

I was especially drawn to the root systems of the forest, and the web of mushrooms that encapsulates these roots. These mushrooms connect all the trees to each other, sometimes even one forest to another, and allow them to communicate and care for one another. I wanted to use this system of care as a starting point for a post-anthropocene fabulation about a world beyond the individual. And I wanted the process to embody this story, searching for an unknown artistic format beyond the single artist, but without forming a collective. What would it be to work out of the necessity of relation and connection — could we find a kind of crevice in between terms as "solo", "group" or "duo", and how would it affect or maybe even resist the systems of value that controls the art world?

I almost instantly knew it was Alva Willemark Mesaros and Tony Karlsson Savci (tiny) that I wanted to work with, since they are both artists that I admire with works that have really moved me. But also since they both work in depth with practices of care which was something I wanted to learn from.

Alva Willemark Mesaros, Weight Duvet

Alva has this remarkable ability to pause time and space with her presence, something I first experienced at an opening where she gave me a small note asking me to lay down on a bed for her to lay upon me in her performance Weight Duvet. I was mind blown and have since then followed her intimate studies of touch, movement and connection within her ongoing work Kroppsnära tjänster (Affective Body-Related Labors).

Tony Karlsson Savci, Self Healing: Creating Your Health (1986), 2020

tiny, on the other hand, floored me when performing with the musician Zhala, appearing as this ecstatic, queer beyond-this-world creature that was so appealing it was almost hard to see them leave the stage. Years later I laid down on a carpet amongst other bodies and listened to tiny's soothing voice as they recited a meditation tape from 1986 as part of their exhibition For You Are the Only Thinker In Your Mind. It was the opposite of that ecstatic performance, yet at the same time just as mesmerizing. Everything was slowed down and I knew I somehow needed to get closer to them.

Participants in and–akter, Rah Residency, Tehran, Iran, May 31, 2021

C-P: and–akter already in this year alone has presented as a substantial long-term project of multiple iterations and shapeshifting form, between space and realm, oscillating between physical and mediated/digital. How predetermined have the cycles and longevity of the project actually been from the start, and what extent is chance and letting the project lead its own shoes forward?

H.W: As I mentioned, the idea of and–akter is to embody the narrative — attempting to shape the process and the works that grow within it in ways that correspond with the story that is being told. So we’ve been thinking of it as a sprawling root system that grows in all directions, or a series of entangled and performative propagations. All three of us are also deeply invested in practices of participation, and every iteration of and–akter has been performed as an invitation. We’ve asked for help - quite literally - inviting the audiences to shift, bend and bulge the work into a shared, breathing body of multi-species.

So rather than chance I think it is the act of relating and sharing that leads the work forward. It is an attempt to direct attention towards what it means to share when working and living in a system and a world that persistently tries to prevent us from sharing. Doing so, it is impossible to know how or in what direction it will unfold. It keeps transforming from time to time, and from space to space. Each time we have entered a space we have tried to initiate the same process of relating and connecting with the conditions and context of that place and the people in it, as well as with our own prerequisites at the time. We have created the foundation — the script, the costumes, the set design, the video, the sculptures, the sound collaboration with our composer Johan Wahlberg and the sound technician Marita Mätlik — but performing and installing the work is really about feeling, and trying to enjoy ourselves as much as we can along the way. Once, when we were really nervous before entering the stage at Weld, Alva phrased it as us playing a game that we like so much that we keep playing it over and over. And so we invite all these people to come play with us, hoping you will like it too.

and–akter, det är ett rop på hjälp, participatory performance, November 9 2021, Eldhunden, (SKF/Konstnärshset), Stockholm. Photo: Dick Hedlund

C-P: Having worked with you as a curator of the sculptural iteration and exhibition at Eldhunden this fall;

and–akter, det är ett rop på hjälp, I know all three of you each to be strong-willed artists of vision in your own right. You don’t seem to clash very much. I think I was surprised. My experience is there is a lot of faith in you in each other’s abilities, command and eye. What has surprised the three of you being engaged in a collective process of such epic proportions and what might you have learned about yourself and each other?

H.W: Working together this intimately is like being in any kind of relationship. It demands commitment, compromises and hard work. The relationship is built up, put at risk, torn down, and built up again. I think conflict is inevitable — and personally I think conflict can be something good, if there is willingness to trust and be vulnerable with each other. And I think we’ve really had that willingness with one another — artistically as well as personally.

Since the work revolves around the issue of care, we early on decided that this should be the starting point for our process as well, paying attention to listening and attentiveness to one another. We’ve allowed each other to engage in the parts of the work that we’ve felt that we’ve had the will and capacity for, while abstaining from other parts, without letting that affect our shared authorship. And we’ve kept returning to our intention to pause, to relate to one another, and to search for ways to connect. It is almost absurd how much commitment this demands when living and working in a capitalist world.

And so it hasn’t always been easy, and sometimes it’s been really hard. We share all these similarities in our practices, while at the same time being very different from one another. Tempo, scale, communication, expectations — as well as our personal, practical and financial prerequisites differ. So there have definitely been tears and fears and these have definitely taught us a lot.

Personally, I feel like Alva and tiny have brought some slowness to my sometimes spinning mind. Alva has this way of lightheartedly saying “Life!” when things don't go the way I want — a way of accepting how things are rather than banging one's head to the wall. And tiny has this capacity of deep listening — a presence that has shown me how important it can be to sometimes just be quiet. I think these are qualities that have affected and will continue to affect my practice and life deeply.

and–akter, det är ett rop på hjälp, installation view, Eldhunden, (SKF/Konstnärshset), Stockholm. Photo: Erik Danger Österlin

C-P: and–akter is very multi-layered in terms of the various narratives and storytelling it informs, from the universal, personal to such that connect to local geography. There’s much to uncover by way of the works. One train of thought is looking to the ecosystem under the earth in nature as alternative and utopian modus of coexistence between us humans too. and–akter to me sets itself apart from other art projects that weigh on similar conceptual ground in so far there’s a lot of humour and self-irony. Unusual amount of much. It’s as though you yourself play with the audience’s expectations and biases about a project such as yours. Run me through the emphasis on humour and sometimes direct dead-pan comedy.

H.W: Well, I mean — when thinking about how tremendously we — the human species — have fucked up this world and continue to fuck it up, it’s hard not to laugh at the irony. Or maybe it’s hard to continue living unless we laugh? I’m not sure. We all know that this system is killing us, we know what is needed to stop the destruction, and yet we keep on clinging onto it. That is like the definition of absurdity. And absurdity has played a great part in the making of and–akter.

The work has been heavily influenced by thinkers such as Donna Haraway, who keep telling us that we must change the story. Modern thinking and science have constructed these "truths" — such as the division between nature and culture, or the idea that humans are entitled to use other creatures and resources to our benefit, or even the idea that there is such a thing as an autonomous I. Together, these "truths" build up to the story that substantiate the system that we are living in — the system that is killing us. And so we need to change it, we need to stop repeating or even critiquing this story. We need to stage new worlds or new systems or at least new stories, about other ways of understanding ourselves and relating to each other, outside of these hierarchical and binary modes of thinking.

I think humor can have an activating and unifying effect in this, it invites us to laugh or smile together. It is a quite simple way of creating the kind of connection that and–akter searches for: something happens that stops us for a moment, creates a pause for a shared utterance that everyone can understand and play along with. As such, the humorous parts of and–akter can be seen as a rhetorical strategy or a political method. An attempt to stage a shared ritual that can pull us out of our habitual thinking — a stop mark or a pause where we can see each other, smile at one another, make a shared sound, and feel something together.

And in another sense, the humor within the work is simply about us wanting to have fun, enjoying ourselves and playing around, and believing in the importance of childish playfulness. We all spend a lot of time around children, Alva being a mom, me an aunt and me and tiny working in schools. And the process of building the exhibition and–akter, det är ett rop på hjälp (and–akter, it is a cry for help) has been heavily influenced by this — trying to learn from these children. So we started acting like them, carrying home sticks and branches, looking for faces or body parts in things we would find on our walks, building cubby holes and reading stories out loud. There is something very beautiful yet at the same time radical about the untamed mind of children, and it serves as an excellent starting point when wanting to move and act outside the hegemonic modes of thinking.

and–akter. rehearsals of escape., September 23-25, 2021, WELD, Stockholm. Photo: Marita Mätlik

C-P: Language and text is also very key and integral to and–akter. A literary work has also been conceived as part of the project. What can be said about the interplay between words and physical form and gesture?

H.W: Yes, the work sort of started in the wordplay of the title, and–akter, and then the writing of the script. In Swedish, andakt is a word for a religious or devotional service. At the same time it brings together the words for breathe and act, directing focus to an intimate relationship between breath and the spiritual. This connection can be traced through almost every major language in the world, and the lungs and the act of breathing have historically been understood as a portal to the unknown.

The writing of the script unfolded from a lot of research around these etymological affinities and from reading and thinking about breath as the smallest phonetic element of language. I got obsessed with the idea that breath is the very foundation of language and with how remarkable it is that our bodies learn how to make all these sounds out of air that our brains interpret as words. The pressing of air against the larynx, the shaping of the tongue, the sounds coming out, and all this air being shared and exchanged in the process of it. And while language tends to be a force that includes some at the cost of excluding others, breath seemed to be this unifying force, or as the poet Julian Spahr put it “this connection between everyone with lungs”. In and–akter, this was translated into everything that breathes, in a search for hybrid more-than-human bodies of breath.

At the same time, I was doing a lot of yoga and studying the rhetoric model of these classes, where breath also plays a crucial part. So when I wrote the script, it was an attempt to inhabit all these experiences while at the same time testing the boundaries of these sometimes utopian, individualistic and new age influenced modes of thinking. So the text sort of performs this circular movement of a breath, building up to this narrative peak before tipping over, becoming absurd, rebelling against its own narrative, collapsing, and rising up again.

Alva Willemark Mesaros, Hanna Wildow and Tony Karlsson Savci. Photo: Märta Thisner

When Alva and tiny entered the process, we started reading and rewriting, moving and breathing through the text together. Bringing the text into our bodies and onto stage, or firstly onto screen as the first two performances were online, keep shifting the form and meaning every time it happens. In that sense, the interplay between words and forms or gestures have grown organically, transforming endlessly and insisting on impermanence. At the same time, there are these key elements that reoccur and somehow keep the incoherence together — such as the number eight, the color green, or the repeated puns and word plays throughout the performance as well as the titles of the sculptures.

And when we started the sculptural work, it was of course affected by all this text and language that had been the starting point for our shared process — but at the same time it was an attempt to leave it behind us, to move into other materials, touching and feeling and playing outside of language. Still, you find language in all of them, the titles playing a crucial part in the narrative structure being one example. The choices of materials is another example, and the way they correspond with this story being told. There is fragility, impermanence, the undervalued, the sick, the amputated or that which have been left behind, all being joined together and destabilized at the same time.

Skriet (2021) in and–akter, det är ett rop på hjälp, Eldhunden, (SKF/Konstnärshset), Stockholm. Photo: Erik Danger Österlin

C-P: Your sculptural and material command is impressive. There’s many sculptures that were exhibited at Eldhunden that should and could be mentioned. What is a sculpture you would want to bring to light yourself for affectionate reasons or else?

H.W: It is a hard choice to make, as they all sort of became these characters that we started relating to as creatures we cared for. One such is Skriet, a stone with a crying face that I found on a beach on Gotland, partly colored green by algae. We made a fleshy belly for it out of casting tape and plaster and added an arm of a pine tree branch with a casted thumb that is pointing our attention to something distant. I really have strong feelings for this adorable and crying little creature!

C-P: Aside from the sculptural exhibition as a major touchdown with and–akter this year there was also close in time the stage iteration at WELD in Stockholm. You’ve found clever ways to bridge together the various iterations, to allow one to serve the other. Tell me about your thoughts as far as this is concerned?

H.W: I think we’ve been wanting to do stage iterations that speak about or transgress the borders and binary modes of thinking that this Border Forest has inspired us to. And so we wanted to make works that connected people, sites and aesthetics across social, artistic and geographical borders.

The online participatory performances generated a space for play, sharing and caring — a place to breathe together despite quarantines and closed borders — and gathered participants from Iran, Bangladesh, India, the US, Poland, Italy, and from all over Sweden. When bringing it into the IRL world, we wanted to continue this bridging, looking at ways to connect the performance scene with the visual arts scene.

So in the live performance at WELD, sculptures were integrated in the space and in the exhibition at Eldhunden (SKF/Konstnärshuset) the performance was reshaped into a video installation in the shape of a cubbyhole. The costumes that we wore at WELD were both installed as sculptural elements at Eldhunden and worn as costumes in the participatory performances during the exhibition, leaving traces of plaster on them that were then brought to the live performances at Verkligheten in Umeå. And at Eldhunden tiny did this remarkable work with the light, moving away from the white sharp light and bringing a more theatrical multicolored light into the exhibition.

and–akter. rehearsals of escape., September 23-25, 2021, WELD, StockholmPhoto: Petronella Petander

C-P: Lastly, what’s next for and–akter in 2022 and what’s on your respective plates in your own practices?

H.W: For now we all need some good rest. At the same time, we have other commitments and relationships that need our time and focus for a while. Alva has a two-part show at INDEX in collaboration with the choreographer Sybrig Dokter that opens the first iteration on January 14, tiny is assisting Every Ocean Hughes with their solo exhibition and series of performances at the Modern Museum in Stockholm during this spring, and I am working on a collaboration with my mother that revolves around inherited silence and how to speak about the stories we’ve been taught not to speak about. But I am sure that and–akter will reappear at some point, in some form, we’ll see…

Ashik Zaman


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