Teo Ala-Ruona & Maria Metsalu talk new works at the ICA

Words by Stella Rousham.

What role and power do the audience hold in their encounter with performance artists? What is exchanged within the ‘communal situation’ of live performance between artist and viewer? What history, societal truth or fiction can a performer’s body communicate or distort?

Questions of audience positionality, psychological (un)certainty, performer corporeality and ontological norms, runs through a new double-bill hosted by the ICA this weekend. Curated by Galerina, the night marks the UK debut of Lacuna by Helinski based performance artist, Teo Ala-Ruona and The Well by Estonian artist, Maria Metsalu. Whilst distinct in their premise and performance quality, both of these live performance-based art works offer, in Teo Ala-Ruona’s words, an “emotional and psychological roller coaster” that is equally personal and communal.

We spoke to both artists earlier this week, as they shared their artistic process, inspiration and ambitions.

DAJ: Tell us about what people can expect (or not expect) from the respective shows, Lacuna and The Well, at the ICA?

TEO: Ami Karvonen, the dramaturg for Lacuna, describes the show as a kaleidoscopic opening of the body. It has many intense scenes one after the other; each revealing something about the performer’s body and history, while at the same time playing with fiction. Some of the things revealed through this opening are heavily emotionally and physically charged, some are ridiculous, and some are perhaps harmonious or beautiful. Perhaps the multiplicity or diversity of these openings produces the experience of a bodily roller coaster.

MARIA: The Well is a performance that premiered at Kanuti Gildi SAAL in Tallinn a bit more than a year ago. It’s a work with a very strong emphasis on text and sound. It was supposed to become an installation but then the whole project naturally mutated into a live performance. The Well exists in two versions – one for theatre spaces, where the audience is seated on two meter high podiums that surround the performers (who take on the role of the psychoanalysts looking down into the well), and one for gallery spaces where the audience sits on an equal plane with the performers (sharing space at the bottom of the well). The different viewing heights alter the viewing experience and the experience of performing the work. There are many elements which I plan to introduce for the first time at the ICA performance of The Well. The Well speaks about losing one’s humanity – once the mind is gone, the body is simply flesh, a shell left behind.

DAJ: Lacuna is described as a work of “body horror” could you tell us more about what is meant by this?

TEO: In Lacuna, “body horror” is present through the text as well as through bodily and fictive scores. I work with exercises where I imagine different things happening to my body. The fictional narrative running through the entire work is that I strive to open the tube between my mouth and my anus so wide that the entire audience can fit in there.

I find it interesting that my transmasculine body, which before the medical transition, and sometimes still, was read and understood as woman, causes confusion or even fear in others. Trans people and their physical and social transitions are still perceived as terrifying and our bodies are perceived as wrong, abnormal or deviant. In other words, from the outside, transness is still partly associated with something horrific. This is why I want to redefine and own the term “body horror” in my own ways.

On the other hand, I also have personal experience of “body horror” with my own body (and I believe that this is something that all people share to some extent – that one’s own body can cause feelings of discomfort or feels unfamiliar to oneself). Body dysphoria, which I have lived with for much of my life, is partly an uncanny experience. On the other hand, the medical transition can also bring up feelings of horror: changing of one’s body (whether the reason for the change is transition, ageing or whatever) can be a confusing, even self-distancing experience. 

I like the logics of horror, as in horror movies, “body horror” can be anxiety-inducing at the same time as creating experiences of relief in the body who witnesses it. And even though my work has “body horror” elements to it, it still always stems from a place of desirable transgression or even pleasure. I believe that works that show pleasure and transgression on stage, can give that to the audience too. 

DAJ: The Well draws less on a genre, such as horror, but on the discourse and concept of psychoanalysis – what drew you to this?

MARIA: My process does not begin with finding a theme. I wouldn’t start from a place of: “I am making a piece about psychoanalysis” or “I am making a piece about depression”. There are thoughts and images that act as a catalyst, but the essence of the work reveals itself late in the process or even after performances. The Well began with writing texts together with visual artist, Jaakko Pallasvuo, during the pandemic. These texts reject linearity and the notion of a cohesive narrative, instead creating an episodic memoir. The texts emerged through range a writing exercises – such as writing listening to Oxhy’s LP Woodland Dance as well as trying to describe what we saw in a Remedios Varo painting, Armonía (1956).

We also contemplated and wrote from photographs and images, particularly a photograph by Lithuanian artist, Antanas Sutkus, that depicts four people looking into a well. The photograph is taken from the point of view of someone looking up from the depths of the well. Inspired by this image we started to think about the well as a space, where an alternative form of analysis could take place. Being lowered to the bottom of the well by a bunch of psychoanalysts seemed like a juicy premise that resonated with what I wanted to explore – leading us to think about psychoanalytically and poetically charged concepts like: the mirror image, the unconscious, dream states, et cetera.

DAJ: The boundaries of fiction, reality, the corporeal self and the psychological subconscious run through both of these performances, albeit in distinct ways. Teo could you elaborate what ‘somatic speculative fiction’ means for you in the context of Lacuna?

TEO: For me, somatic speculative fiction means that I can imagine changes, possibilities and conditions for my own body that I could never experience in this so-called “reality”. When I talk about somatic fiction, I mean that the exercises I develop for my works combine fantastic, biologically impossible and speculative layers with somatic exercises.

One could also ask me what does transness have to do with fiction, and am I just making things harder for trans folks when I bring these two concepts: transness and fiction, together, because so often trans folks anyway need to justify their “realness” and existence. I guess the way I am looking at this is from a perspective of claiming that transness actually makes all the biological “facts” seem infeasible, because the gender binary we have taken for granted just does not actualise in trans bodies. Trans bodies have a kind of superpower; the very real, actual and somatic experiences of trans bodies ‘trouble’ the so-called ‘natural’ two-gender binary. It is through this ‘counter fictioning’ that the fiction of the gender binary matrix is made visible.

DAJ: What is dance or performative art to you both and how has your relationship with it evolved over time?

MARIA: I mainly create solo performances (besides my work with Young boy dancing group) but in the middle of the process of The Well I realized it would be beneficial for the work to include another performer (Mina Tomic). They would embody either the protagonist or her mirror image, who the protagonist will meet in the bottom of the well.

Usually in my solos the visual world and sound (the sound for The Well is made by Oxhy) appear first and I add myself as a performer to the equation rather late. There is a good amount of improvisation and an encounter with the audience. I am interested in the way this encounter can affect the direction of the performance. It is important for me to come out from every performance situation different than I entered it into. Throwing myself into the unknown makes sense when I am only responsible for my own presence, but when there is also another performer for whom I am responsible for, another strategy is required from me as a choreographer. This is a big learning curve. I keep learning more with every show we do together.

TEO: My relationship with performing arts has of course changed and deepened over the years. When I started making shows, I was really interested in long durations, tiring and challenging both myself and the audience throughout. At the moment, I am interested in the possibilities of the performing body to serve as a kind of transgressive portal to such realities and worlds that I myself want to reach to and to which I also want to take others. I believe that art that comes from something experienced by the artist themselves can create accessibility for audiences. I believe that it enables intimacy and relatability better than art that starts from a subject external to the artist. Although the work deals with personal or auto-fictional topics, I do not find Lacuna to be individual-centered. It is a communal situation where I, as a performer, give a lot to the audience and the audience to me. Something about the way performing artists expose themselves in a performance situation is extremely arousing and stimulating for me – both as a viewer and as a performer. I am at home with experiences that challenge my understanding, that are strange and difficult to comprehend. I love weirdness and things that challenge normalized perceptions of the world.

DAJ: What’s next for both of you?

MARIA: I’m currently working on a new solo performance “Kultuur”, which will premiere next year. I am returning to the solo format and will be expanding my ongoing interest in the role of the audience. In this I am continuing my collaboration with Jaakko Pallasvuo. Besides this, I have a bunch of shows with Young By Dancing Group in New York and Europe.

TEO: When I go back to Helsinki, we will be rehearsing with our band Solen Skinner (me, Tari Doris and Tuukka Haapakorpi) for gig happening at the beginning of March. After that I will mainly focus on developing and rehearsing my two new upcoming shows, Enter Exude and SLIT which I am doing in collaboration with Artor Jesus Inkerö. Enter Exude premieres in May at the Kiasma-theater and SLIT in Italy at the Centrale Fies -center for performing arts, in July.

Lacuna and The Well will be showcasing at the ICA theatre on Saturday 18th February, 20:00h. More event information and tickets for the performance can be found online. Audiences are also invited to join the afterparty organised by Galerina, at Ormside Projects, accompanied by performances by Aircode, Reptile B, Gretchen Lawrene, Lolina, Workid, Rat Section and LC.

Header image credit: “The Well” 2021, Kanuti Gildi SAAL, photo by Alana Proosa.