Words by Maxine Flasher-Düzgünes
A few weeks ago, I shared a conversation with Sydney-based dance and curatorial artist Ira Ferris, co-Director of an arts collective Artemis Projects, who create between Europe and Australia. Ferris is co-author of the book SPACE BODY HABIT, which explores the new ways to experience and engage with spaces. Her responses drift fluently between her work as movement practitioner and multimedia artist, to her work as an exhibitions’ curator. Currently she is organizing an online panel ‘What happens in the pause?’ as part of the March Dance festival, to consider and advocate for the value of rest and stillness within creative practice and dance, which is scheduled for March 5th 2023 and free to attend from anywhere in the world.
Maxine: How do you define interdisciplinarity in your artistic practice?
Ira: I’m thinking of it as a practice that does not sit neatly or easily in any one category. It’s more porous and uses whatever medium or form or discipline is available to express ideas or concepts. I don’t regard myself as an expert in any of the forms – nor do I strive to that – but more as an explorer and a researcher. I think it is also my personality which causes me to struggle with putting myself under a label or within a category. I get bored focusing on one thing or working in one discipline for too long, or too intensely. For instance, I’ll be a writer for a while, but then I’ll need a break from that, so I’ll turn more intensely to dance or making podcasts. But at the end of the day, I feel that all these are somehow interrelated, although it’s almost impossible to explain how. I just don’t see any particular difference between them…They are all means to an end, I suppose.
Maxine: Do you prioritize any particular artistic form in your work – among them being dance, poetry, sound and video?
Ira: I would not use the word ‘prioritize’ because it seems too exclusive, as well as too conscious or intentional, while what I do is less so. I would rather speak about it in terms of a ‘core medium’ – the one that everything comes from and returns to. And that core medium would be: the body. The body is at the center of my explorations, and the tool through which I encounter and engage with the world. This is because I grew up and developed through dance; it is something that I started practicing and training in when I was five and did for 15 formative years of my life. So, when I introduce myself, I want to say that I am a ‘dancer’, even if I work in a different medium at the time. But dance is the lens through which Ifeel the world. So, even when I write, I write through the prism of dance. And this is not because I consciously prioritize that, but because it is really at the core of who and how I am.
Maxine: You also have experiences as a curator, and I think that’s a very interesting gateway towards merging a lot of these fields. What is your thought process behind curating exhibits?
Ira: This will depend on whether I work on a solo exhibition of one artist or a group show. When I work with a solo artist, I focus on bringing their vision to life. I’m focused on serving their voice, supporting them in building confidence by being in the room with them so they have somebody to bounce the ideas off, which is the process through which they clarify their own thoughts and intentions. And then maybe I’m going to be giving them feedback, as someone who is removed from the work and can see the fuller picture. And I will propose optimal ways to present their work, their ideas, in the space. Group shows are different because they start with me setting up a theme that I’d like to explore, and I curate the artists around it. For instance, one of the exhibitions I’ve done was called, Touch is the Mother of all Senses, and it looked at the way 2D or 3D images can have a tactile sense, so we feel them at the proximity of our bodies, almost as if brushing against our skin. In these kinds of ‘thematic exhibitions’, I have a bit more space to express my own ideas or artistic interests, and I think of the gallery space as a canvas that I work with, and I bring artists and artworks into that space to add colors or shapes to that canvas. And so, I see these thematic group exhibitions as one large installation and if they are successful, they won’t feel like group shows at all but have a sense of cohesion, so it feels like a work of only one artist.
Maxine: How do you think various mediums of art can exist together in a space?
Ira: Hm, interestingly I almost feel the question to be needless, which suggests: why wouldn’t they? You know, as artists all that we strive to do is make something that’s not readily visible in the world, visible through a metaphoric expression. And what we use to do that should really be open. I don’t see any need to hone in on one particular medium. That seems very stifling for creativity, actually. Unnecessarily rigid.
Maxine: When it comes to your own gallery-shows – exhibitions of your own works – do you always have live performance as part of it? Or is that dependent on the piece?
Ira: Yeah, totally dependent. For instance, recent exhibition of my work – time, circles, and natural rhythms – was a video, poetry, mixed-media exhibition that explored ways we can measure time through the body, when we switch off the very colonizing Western devices such as clocks. And I did consider including a live performance element, but I had to let go of that because it just didn’t serve the work. It was hard to pull back because gallery-performance is something that I’m quite interested in, but it was not adding anything to what I was wanting to express so it would be forceful and done only for the sake of entertainment, which is not what I was going for. So no, I don’t always have live performances as part of it, which again speaks to that thing: I only use the medium that serves the concept at the time. So sometimes that is the live body. And in this case, the presence of the body was still there, but it was on screen.
Maxine: What have you discovered in your creative work with physical materials?
Ira: When you say ‘physical materials’, I immediately think of the space or the environment the body moves in, and with. What I discovered is that the site and the environment affect the body and the body affects the site. We are very sensitive to the site, to what surrounds us, and the site is sensitive to us – whether we are aware of this or not. Making works that bring us back to the awareness of this interconnection, is environmentally necessary and urgent.
I have also discovered that once we know the space – this physical container within which we move – once it is familiar, we tend to move in it in habitual ways which limit our perception and the possibility of otherwise. This is something I’m interested in challenging. I’m interested in pushing the boundary of imagination that we create through habits. At the same time, I know that this limit is a very hard shell to break, difficult to extend, because at the end of the day even the body itself is a frame, and a relatively rigid one. So for instance, I as Ira can only move in certain ways, not just because of the particular training I’ve done but also because my body is built as a particular kind of structure. But I’m still interested in questioning how far can I push that edge; how much can I challenge the given limit, which is also a limit to imagination.
Maxine: Can you elaborate on your work with somaesthetics. Is this a term that you’ve coined or a lineage?
Ira: Absolutely a lineage. Everything that I do – and I think we all do – is a lineage; nothing really is an original idea. It’s beautiful and something to be celebrated. We are always in the lineage of teachers and mentors that have shared with us their knowledges. And this one is something that I’ve encountered through movement-artist and academic Lian Loke who I believe uses it from Professor Richard Shusterman. I am not an expert in this term, and I may be using it in ways that Professor Shusterman did not intend, but ‘soma’ means ‘body’ and ‘aesthetics’ is the way we arrange things in the world, so this term resonated with me in terms of curating art exhibitions in a way that is focused on the phenomenology of the experience. How as curators we arrange or design or curate a space in a way that effects the body of the visitor – their senses and their perception. We influence the way the artworks are ‘read’ by positioning them in a particular way within the space.
If you place them differently, the whole meaning changes. It is similar to changing the order of sentences in the text, or words within the sentence. If we shift the order, the whole meaning of the text changes, and that’s what we’re doing in spaces through positioning artworks in certain ways. And then at the same time, as curators we also choreograph movements through the space. We create certain pathways through which the works will be experienced, which is the order in which the works are encountered. And this also affects the perception – the work that you have seen just before will affect the way that you see the next work. I want to empower the viewer to know that their perception is being in some way manipulated; and if they become aware of that, then they can also question that or try to break through that. It’s not that this manipulation is negative. It’s our job to create certain kind of phenomenological experience and there is intentionality behind it. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s just that I would like the viewers to be conscious of that, so they are not just puppets at the end of the string.
Maxine: Could you tell us a bit about the development of the book SPACE BODY HABIT and some exercises offered in the book?
Ira: The book was an outcome of a two-week residency that I had done with fellow artist Elia Bosshard at a creative space called Frontyard here in Sydney. Initially we didn’t intend to write the book but wanted to develop a workshop-model around the ways that we habitually use spaces, and how to challenge that. Each day of our residency started with a particular exercise we have invented and led each other through, and then at the end of the exercise we’d have a discussion. We audio recorded the whole duration of the residency – because I have a compulsion to record sounds – and so we had this material which in the end we felt may be worth sharing with others, so we transcribed it into the book. One exercise was, unsurprisingly, inspired by [German theatre practitioner] Bertolt Brecht, who was all about breaking the social conditionings and status quo, and the political potential of that. This exercise is called Eight walks (perceptions and choices) and it invites you to walk the same pathway through the space eight times, each time focusing on a different sense or being led by a different part of the body, such as the top of the head or an elbow. And then the eighth walk is an invitation to walk the space once again, but this time very slowly, almost unnaturally slow, spending lots of time deliberating where to go next…This was aimed at highlighting that moment when we make choices, and perhaps not following the first impulse or first instinct, but giving ourselves some time – hence, slowness – to choose otherwise and see what that leads to, how that makes us feel and what we discover about the space if we surprise ourselves in the way we use it. At the end of this exercise, we had a really rich discussion on the difference between impulse, habit, instinct, and intuition; whether they are somewhat synonymous or actually different.
Another exercise that I’d like to highlight, because it was maybe my favorite one, is called Yesterday’s pathways, offered by my colleague and co-author Elia Bosshard. It is a very simple exercise that asks you to draw the path you took through the space the day before, from the moment you’ve arrived to the moment you’ve left, which could be five hours of your time. You’re asked to retrace the whole journey through the space and its surrounding for the duration of those five hours the day before. I love this exercise because it really connects you to your muscle memory. As you draw the lines, you’re deeply in your body feeling and reliving the sensations of movement through the space… In making those lines, you come to a micro level of that bigger movement that you’ve made with your body the day before; even the things like going outside of the building to get lunch and coming back down the streets and getting in again. You’re remembering those movements but you’re only using this micro level of A4 paper to present that on…So it’s very subtle, but very strongly embodied.
Maxine: What is it like working within the art scene of Sydney?
Ira: Um, well, I have nothing to compare it with so it’s hard to speak of it in terms of particular geographical context, but when I speak to my Croatian friends, many of whom are artists, we all speak of same struggles, which is usually funding and lack of money, lack of support, doing lots for free, lots of volunteering work. Sometimes investing our own money into things. And when we do get paid, it’s insignificant amount of money. For instance, as a writer you get $100 to $300 for a text you’ve spent weeks on. Because it’s not just the time spent sitting over the computer typing the text, but all the hours spent staring at the horizon and percolating ideas – these invisible moments of work that we do as artists, in periods that appear as pauses. They are not seen as work, but in reality everything happens in those invisible moments. Once you go and sit by the computer to write a text or go to the studio to make the work, that’s the end part of the process. That’s when the work is already done. You just put it out there. But all these tortuous weeks of coming up and clarifying the idea in your head – that’s just seen as nothing. And it’s something that interests me of late. How do we speak to institutions about that, so they realize there’s so much work done in these moments of pause?
Learn more about Ira’s work at https://www.artemisprojects.com.au/projects-ira-ferris