Nothing about Aleks Slota’s elfin appearance prepares you for his performances. Small-framed and wiry, his body hardly looks bullish enough for acts of endurance or feats of strength. For the last 15 years, however, the Polish-born, Berlin-based artist has carved out a unique space in the cluttered European “live art” circuit. Slota, 37, thrives on awkwardness, on the dissonance that results when his unassuming presence is suddenly, and often violently, imperiled.
To date, Slota has delivered historically vexing speeches from his apartment window; taped himself to a chair in a public space; staged “ritual suicides” (acts of self-abuse, performed in public squares, and, as he notes in a new portfolio documenting his recent works, designed to rid himself of personality traits he dislikes); greased up his arms, legs, torso, and head, and then bent himself into and around a common office chair for several hours; danced with abandon while holding a huge kitchen knife; and positioned himself as the main noise-maker in an ongoing series of sound-art collaborations. The last time I saw Slota in action, he was swimming across a Berlin canal in the early winter cold, in order to visit his favorite café.
Born in the small Polish city of Rzeszów during the last gasp of the Communist era, Slota immigrated with his family to the United States when he was nine years old. Much of Slota’s fascination with constructed violence, the border between actual physical harm and calculated risk, makes a kind of sense – he was raised in two worlds, one obsessed with order and obedience, the other fascinated by, and teeming with artificial, and highly entertaining, mayhem.
His subsequent acts of intervention are hybrids of slapstick comedy’s real-but-not-real social contract (wherein we agree to watch an act of rude violence and engage it as such, while fully knowing it’s all rehearsed and perfectly safe). Slota’s works obviously exist within the long tradition in performance art of employing a body as both a representative of the actual self inhabiting the body on view and as a metonym for humanity. There’s also a healthy amount of good old-fashioned bad boy daring on view – Jackass with an MFA.
Has the use of your own body as both object and active participant always been a part of your performance work?
I came to performance rather organically. I was studying photography and was feeling the limitations of a two-dimensional static form. The very first performance I did involved the re-printing of old family photos on transparency, pinning them to a pile of apples, and then smashing the pile with a baseball bat. Really naive and cute in retrospect, but the line from photography to performance was clear to me (a line I revisit often now as photographer that documents performance art).
I don’t know that I use my body as an “object.” It’s never the intention. I’m always focused on the active participant part. When you say “object,” I imagine body-based performance, with a lot of cutting, blood, shit, cum etc. I can’t do that. I can get bloody or hurt in a performance but not on purpose. I’m not interested in that kind of shock. I’m not interested in entertaining anyone, and sometimes I feel that performances that rely too much on the body as a play-thing tend to come [too] close to entertainment. Then it gets into the realm of a sideshow – the guy that lifts weights with his balls or the woman that swallows swords.
I saw a woman a few years ago masturbate with a giant dildo while reciting her boring poetry. When she had an orgasm she nearly sprayed the audience with her juices. Even though she was naked and fully exposed physically, I felt no intimacy or connection with her. She was just exposing herself to us, there was nothing at stake. For me there has to be vulnerability and the potential for failure for performance to be interesting.
Last year I did a piece called Dance Like Everybody’s Watching, during which I danced as though in a trance and played with a kitchen knife. I didn’t cut myself for many reasons, but mainly because that was not the point. I’m more interested in having the audience skirt the line of real danger with me. I hope they expect pain and suffering and when it doesn’t happen I hope they question their desire of seeing someone get hurt.
How has art about the body changed since you began your career in the early 2000s?
In general it’s much more accepted now. Everyone is a performance artist or at least a performer. The scene is getting bigger and, I hope, more diverse. The performance art ghetto is growing larger, and there is some gentrification here, some good some bad. But by no means am I an expert on this. I’ve been doing performances for about 16 years, but I have not felt accomplished enough to call myself a performance artist until recently.
What are some of the limitations of working with your own body, and some of the best things?
The best thing, which is also a limitation, is that I’m there interacting with the audience. For every opening, I’m performing, I’m stressed. There is never down time. I sometimes envy painters, photographers, sculptors, etc. They can enjoy their opening; I have to freak out. But also the interaction with the audience is the best part of performance; it’s so immediate. I can react, the audience can see me fail or succeed. They can see real pain and sorrow. That is the best part of doing live performances.
How do you see your work in the larger context of current work about self and image, as well as performative works that are both about endurance and spectacle?
This to me is a question of the artist’s persona: how does the artist present their self? I’m interested in the idea of the artist as a trademark, especially performance artists. The obvious example is Marina Abramović, someone whose work I respect, but can’t get past her trademark. Not the way others have applied it but how she wields it. She has become an institution. Just through her persona she has accomplished what Richard Serra had to use tons and tons of steel to accomplish. Recently I’ve been considering how the work of Tino Sehgal is similar to the product that is Kim Kardashian. I like the reproduction of ephemerality in both cases. On one hand in the high artworld, and on the other in the pits of the internet. But in the end both are selling a persona, their own personal trademark.
Many of my performances happen in public spaces so I can’t escape the label of spectacle. I don’t usually intend to create a spectacle. Naturally if you do something unusual in public it often becomes a [spectacle], but it shouldn’t be entertaining. I once almost got in a fight with a drunk from Belarus who didn’t like my performance; because he didn’t understand it, because he was not entertained. He only saw me in the context of a street performer and got quiet irate when I wouldn’t “perform.” In the end I explained to him what was happening. He still didn’t understand, but he gave me two euro and a beer. So we became friends and I became a failed busker.
Endurance and durational performances have become a cliché. I’ve done my share, so I’m not immune, but now I’m a bit suspicious of the merits. Labor legitimizes the object. Usually a well-crafted pencil drawing with many visible strokes will be valued more than a simple scribble (clearly this is not always true). In this way I think performance artists legitimize their craft [through] thinking, “Well if I do this thing straight for eight hours or nonstop for a week it will have value.” In my practice I’m more interested in doing “fake” endurance. When I swam in the freezing canal to get a coffee, that was clearly an absurd gesture. It was more interesting to me because of how quickly it ended, than for the fact that the water was cold and it was difficult to do.
Tell me about the connections between your sound and music-based works and your practice as a whole.
The kind of noise I’m interested in now is almost totally open, a lot of it is improvised. Years ago I “sang” in a metal band. As fun as that was and as adventurous as my bandmates were, I still felt bound by the conventions of that style. I need the space of performance to be unstable and free. When I stand in front of the audience, I want to be scared, and then to work through that fear through sheer force of will. Improvisation in music is directly related to my own rules about performance: not rehearsed, not entertainment, not acting. As dogmatic as this sounds, and as hard as the rules are to follow, I very much try to adhere to them.
For my last sound performance I worked with a guitarist and drummer who are good friends of mine. We had a simple structure. The guitarist would start improvising then the drummer would join and then me. Once twenty minutes were up the drummer faded away and we knew it was time to stop. These kinds of rules are simple and minimal and they are as far as I want to go with thinking and pre-planning of sound performances. For me the performance was a success (with a small caveat: the audience seemed to enjoy it and this made me a bit uncomfortable).
Have we reached a point in performance where the body as subject and object is now fully, even over-explored?
You could easily gaze into someone’s open vagina or gaping asshole in performances done in the ‘80s and earlier, but does that mean the body is fully explored? I don’t think so. There is a certain level of intention and power that, for me, makes many such performances a bit too exhibitionistic. Nudity, the deep clinical nudity that some performance artists engage in, does not interest me. When I see a performance where the artist starts taking their clothes off, I automatically think, “this better make some conceptual sense or you just want me to see your junk.” Like a bad horror film that shows the monster too soon, reveals too much. I’m interested in psychological horror, a more intellectual torture.
Nudity is a crutch, just like swearing, and I know, I swear a lot. I think some performance artists try to force a fake vulnerability through their nudity, without engaging the audience in any other way. So no, the body is not fully explored, [but] the strictly physical body has been opened and flayed. However the total body, including the mind and the less tangible aspects of the self, remains to be explored.
Any work that includes performance must also by nature include the theatrical. Where do your works, which are often very funny, fit on the spectrum that spans from performance art to circus spectacles?
Hmm, I’m not sure if I agree with the first statement, because by theatrical I automatically think acting, or more concretely a practiced, rehearsed acting. Naturally we “act” in many situations, some people even rehearse their social interactions, in essence act. For me as I stated above, performance should not be rehearsed, acted or entertaining, all aspects of the theatrical. I do sometimes use objects in performances, that can be described as props, but that’s as far as I would go with that analogy.
I’m interested in comedy as a way of telling the truth. The way the jester gets away with giving the finger to the king. I’m not sure if it’s true but it makes sense that growing up in a communist country where comedy was a subversive way of critiquing the system had an impact on me. I didn’t realize until much later in college how powerful the comedian could be.
I was really drawn to the more silly slogans of the Yippies and the more absurd sayings of the Situationists. But what really piqued my interest was the Polish group from the ‘80s called The Orange Alternative. They organized mass happenings that directly confronted and mocked the system through absurd gestures. One year they organised a demonstration in remembrance of the Bolshevik revolution. It was clearly done in a mocking tone, but the communist authorities had a hard time cracking down because it would seem they were anti-Soviet if they did.
I try to make “serious” work but I’m very happy if these comedic influences shine through.
What do you see yourself doing when you are not young enough to, for instance, swim across a canal or fold yourself into a chair?
I’m going to rock forever!
I guess I’ll keep doing those things, just more slowly. Granted I’m not as spry and nimble as I was when I was younger (I’ve had a few knee surgeries), but my mind is getting more flexible as I age. So it’s about working smarter not harder. The relationship between audience and performer can be explored with large and bombastic gestures, or quiet and intimate ones.
I guess I’ll go towards the quiet, or just use larger amplifiers.