Running for your life, and art

Megan Garrett-Jones: ANTI Festival Of Contemporary Art With Kuopio Marathon

Fields of Glory

Fields of Glory

Fields of Glory

ANTI is a small but mighty contemporary art festival in the Finnish city of Kuopio, set in a region dominated by lakes, pines and the people’s enthusiasm for outdoor activities. Though ANTI has gained international renown as an annual event of live and public art, its organisers have signalled a shift in their model to be more responsive: the festival will “not depend on a particular date, but will appear unexpectedly in places where it is demanded.” For September 2015, ANTI created a partnership with the Kuopio Marathon, producing a festival themed around endurance and running. Live art strategies of community engagement and site specificity stretched their legs, while developments were explored in the crossovers between running and art.

The “ordinary people” of Kuopio were called upon for Fields of Glory, working with local choreographer Jarkko Partanen to make a nearly two-hour epic in the city’s main stadium. Twenty or so pastel-outfitted men and women occupied the field with a sense of strangeness that was compounded by a rather Lynchian sound design and our ‘on high’ perspective from the stands. The performers often seemed just like shapes with Partanen working to create formations to activate the vast space. Unlike sport, which has recognisable rules, the actions of these people followed an ever-shifting logic. They teamed up to carry someone over the high-jump bar and all cheered, ran to the long-jump pit and belly flopped, their shrieks and exclamations ringing out almost musically. After a series of absurd parades, the show moved more into contemporary dance territory with the detectable influence of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s ambulatory choreographies. It is testament to Partanen’s clear visions that he created such impressive ensemble and movement-based images with non-professional performers.

The Kuopio remount of Fun Run from Australia’s All the Queens Men is worth mentioning for its nuanced local participation. In the generally sombre cobble-stoned market square, performer Tristan Meecham ran a marathon on a treadmill surrounded by plenty of pop spectacle and local ‘talents’ performing to rouse the crowds. Over four hours a narrative emerged around local heroes. To the war cry “Kuopio, this is your story,” Meecham, like the master of a mixed martial arts academy, time and again let his young students ‘take him to the ground’ with their astonishing dedication to special interest activities like historical re-enactment sword fighting or pole dancing,

In town on Fun Run’s production team, Melbourne-based Aphids director Willoh S Weiland shared in a little glory herself, picking up the substantial ANTI International Prize for Live Art, now in its second year. Accepting the €30,000 award, which recognised her body of work and commitment to innovative and collaborative forms and funds her to create a new work for ANTI in 2016, Weiland remarked that this is “an important time for the visibility of experimental art practice” and gave thanks for this support for “art-making that explores socially-engaged, queer, feminist, radical and difficult perspectives.” On Facebook, she wrote, “These are dark times for the support of the arts in Australia and I hope this award will give real cause for thought to the Minister for the Arts George Brandis. Evidence of the fact that the art being made in Australia by independent artists and small companies is internationally important. Mr Brandis, what is your vision for experimental art practice in Australia? … How will you support the partnership based collaborative model that makes interdisciplinary practice unique?”

Further testament to the calibre of the award is last year’s winner Heather Cassils. Returning to the festival in 2015 and linking in with the theme of endurance, Cassils’ performance work often broaches extremities of human form. The video Hard Times, screened inside a gym where we were offered a free workout, and shown examples of body sculpting, with Cassils in the form of a female body builder. Standing on a podium, oiled, tanned and flexing in a pink bikini, she is made monstrous with B-grade horror gouged-out eyes. The video ran three times while I begrudgingly exerted myself on the rowing machine, marvelling at Cassils’ efforts, as much in life as in art, to present a transgender physique achieved without hormones or surgery. The artist tells of a mother who wrote seeking a more ‘natural’ way for her transgender teenager to assume a masculine form. Cassils replied questioning the naturalness of daily training and extreme dietary vigilance. Nonetheless, this is a professed lifelong commitment for Cassils, working every day to construct a sense of identity.

Another video by the artist, Inextinguishable Fire, was screened on a building wall. Again dealing in artifice, Cassils performs a full-body burn stunt for 14 seconds. The image struck me as Biblical, although the performer appeared impossibly calm for a person on fire. For Cassils the work is about “indexing” in the sense of ‘pointing to,’ here to trauma while recognising the impossibility of representing it. Thus a Hollywood backdrop is revealed as the camera pans out and there is the final intervention with fire extinguishers. This theme returns in a new performance commissioned as part of the 2014 prize, The Powers that Be (210 kilometres), referencing the proximity of Kuopio to Russia where LGBT people suffer from blatant oppression and violence. Inside a multi-storey carpark at night, we are led to an area marked out by the headlights of three cars where we witness Cassils performing a fight with an imaginary opponent. At times I believe I am watching a gender queer person being brutally beaten. Sometimes Cassils seems the aggressor. It is dirty and spontaneous. Again there is intense physical discipline that suggests real bodily experience inside the performance, the artist absorbing imaginary blows with skilful stage fighting techniques. [Read about Cassils’ Becoming an Image at the 2013 SPILL Festival in RT115]

Dialogue is important to ANTI. Heather Cassils was markedly present throughout the festival, talking about the work and inviting an LGBTQIA activist with links to Russia to talk in a ‘meet the artist’ session. There were also Pecha Kucha nights and a half-day symposium, a revelation from which was RUN! RUN! RUN! International Body for Research, an art and sociology collaboration. There was much to muse on—running as a cultural form and the bio-mechanical disposition of humans to run long distances. The festival’s co-artistic director Greg Whelan even suggested running is the very performance of humanness. The most compelling example came from a piece by Vicki Weitz, Running Beyond Language. In the latest in her series of running works Weitz ran for 26.2 hours up and down a street in Kuopio. We were invited to join her and many rallied to see her through, or to try running for themselves. Ultimately it was the artist who endured, if nothing else a testament to the possibility of simply keeping going.

ANTI Festival of Contemporary Art, Artistic Directors Johanna Tuukkanen, Greg Whelan, various locations, Kuopio, Finland, 1-6 Sept

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 11

© Megan Garrett-Jones; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 October 2015