On the eve of Low Stakes: A Micro Festival, opening this weekend in London, Cuntemporary’s editor Jessica Karlsen speaks to the festival’s organisers, Edythe Woolley and Jack Ellis.
Jessica Karlsen: Tell me about Low Stakes, what can we expect?
Low Stakes: Chaos!… It’s a two-day festival, showcasing the work of new and emerging performance artists (five years or less into their practice), that also offers participating artists a week-long residency in New River Studios, the venue that will host Low Stakes. We didn’t want established artists to overshadow the possibilities that come from people showing something new. The idea for the festival developed organically, from a desire to create a platform that would showcase and support emerging talent in a collaborative way.
There will be 27 artists performing over three days. We started off thinking that even eight would be too many, but our idea of the festival is less constrained now. There will be a mixture of durational performances, 30-40 minute performances and 10 minute works in progress. We weren’t looking for perfection in the applications we received; we were interested in people who haven’t often had access to a studio space like this and yet had something significant to say. As a performance artist you need a lot of space to make work, and generally it’s only the more established artists who have access to such resources. The space we’re offering can facilitate the creation of work that hasn’t been seen before – some of our artists are even performing for the first-time.
JK: Low Stakes states that they love “rough, risky work”. Edythe, your own performances often have a very raw, bodily element to them. Does Low Stakes resonate with your own work that you’ll be performing this weekend?
EW: I think it’s always important to take risks, and be bold in my decisions. I like to push things to their limits to see how far I can take an idea. I like playing with explicit and raw forms. I experience today’s society as extremely hyper sexualized and simultaneously narrow minded. I like to fuck with society’s binary ideas of ‘gender roles’ which have led to bizarre crazes like Designer Vagina Surgery and Vagina Beauty Pageants. By bringing my explicit “female body” into conversation and representation, I want to raise some questions and provocations around the way we view bodies in society and space. I like pushing the possibilities of gender representation in order to discredit gendered categorizations. For instance, I use stereotypes of female domesticity, labour and sexuality, drawing from video and audio footage of the 1930s and 40s. I collide these ideas against the backdrop of contemporary pop culture to expose the generational contrast between these gender norms. You can really see how far things have come in that sense, whilst letting this contrasting mix of times play out in a humorous fashion. By putting these polar opposites in conversation, you find something totally new and unexpected. I guess my work comes from the unexpected. And one of the best ways to find the unexpected is to go with gut reactions and instincts, which is risky, and sometimes rough around the edges, but often this produces the most interesting work. Sometimes you only make these connections through mistakes, coincidences and failure.
JK: Is that why Low Stakes promotes an ethos of “embracing failure”? How is this important to you?
Often failure is just as important as success. It’s important to think of failure as a positive aspect of creating a performance, because sometimes you don’t know if you’ve created something good or bad, so accepting the possibility of failure is a way of putting aside the restrictive expectations you have of yourself. It’s a way of getting around your own self-censorship and if you fail you can re-evaluate your practice and reach for something new. With Low Stakes, we see embracing failure as a way of encouraging new performers into a space that works like a laboratory: a place of experimentation. And some of the best scientific discoveries were the result of failed experiments. The residency will give artists the opportunity to experiment throughout the week, and for us to open up a dialogue about failure; it’s important that there isn’t an expectation of failing or achieving compared to previous performances.
And anyway, what does it actually mean to fail? Is it even possible for any of these performances to “fail”? Low Stakes could probably be seen an occasion to examine these ideas.
JK: What do you hope to achieve from the audience – performer feedback sessions after each performance? Do you think that we as viewers should be more connected to what we see on stage?
We want the audience to be critically engaged in the performances, it’s something we’ll actively encourage. People become more active spectators if they are expecting to engage in a discussion afterwards. We want Low Stakes to be an environment where it’s okay to be critical about an artist’s work in a constructive way. Often, when work is talked about it’s not done in the presence of the artists.
Feedback and criticism doesn’t have to be a formal process – we want a casual discussion – a critical engagement that can happen in break out spaces or other informal places. As artists, we both have experience of discussing our work with artists, friends and peers and enjoy the way it can inform our work.
JK: Where do you see the festival heading? Is Low Stakes a one-off or just the beginning of an ongoing project?
We don’t know! We really hope it isn’t a one-off. It will be interesting to see how the venue and the audience experience the work and if they will want to continue supporting us. Everyone has been extremely supportive so far and there has been such a strong sense of community throughout this process. So many people have offered to help, revealing pathways, connections and possibilities that we didn’t know were there. Being an artist can be so isolating and lonely; making work on your own, producing work on your own and the stress that creates… So, feeling like you have a community around you can be so refreshing. Just knowing that there are artists out there doing similar or even totally different things can be very reassuring.
We like the idea of bi-monthly Low Stakes showcases of work; creating a platform that still encourages the making of new work in a supportive environment that fosters risk and failure. It’s something for us to keep thinking about! We also would have liked a theoretical or academic aspect to Low Stakes, so maybe that’s the next step for us.