Alexis Blake, photo Daniel Nicolas

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Yelling in the Belly of the Beast - talking to Alexis Blake about the Prix de Rome 2021

Issue no4
Aug / Sep 2022
roleplay & eindexamens 2022

Alexis Blake was awarded the Prix de Rome in 2021 with her performance rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash. It’s a choreography based on the sound of the female voice, social critique and the feeling of loss and voicelessness.

—Machteld Leij How important is winning the Prix de Rome to you as an artist?

—Alexis Blake "The notion of a winner is actually archaic and patriarchical, especially in the arts. It’s entirely subjective. Had it been another jury, I might not be speaking to you now. So I’m acutely aware of the subjective nature of my privileged position. What is important to me is that this prize generates attention to the urgent issues that rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash addresses. The reason I applied was because I felt an urgency that transcended myself, an urgency that needed to be brought to the attention of and felt by a wider audience.”

—Machteld Leij The performance rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash references art history, but also images from recent Black Lives Matter protests. Previously, you also reached back to the poses of women in art history, with the performance Allegory of the Painted Woman. How are the past and the present entangled in your work?

—Alexis Blake "I follow certain roots, pathways, networks that run from the past to the present. We are not separate from that past but connected to it. The past is present and until we identify and heal from the past, it will continue to dictate the future. For rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash, I reached back to the Archaic period of Ancient Greece when women were in charge of birth and death. Lamentations – the process of bringing out what is inside, uncensored and unfiltered – was controlled and practiced by women. They had a powerful position in society, which threatened the political men in power. Solon – Athenian statesman and lawmaker - created a binary of sound frequencies where high pitch sound was attributed to disruption, disorder, the uncontrollable, animals, woman; and low pitch sound was order, control, harmony, peace, man. He claimed that these high-pitched sounds were disrupting the order of the polis, disrupting democracy. Therefore, he was able to legitimize the outlawing of lamentations. Thus, men’s voices became the norm. This othering and silencing of voices is one of the pillars of patriarchy, to this day. It is an oppressive tactical tool also used in white supremacy and classism. From Egyptian time up till the Roman empire, it was believed that women had a second mouth – the vulva – and that her anatomy was one tube from mouth to mouth. Like the voice, this second mouth was also controlled and silenced. The research image I reference in the choreography and publication you mentioned – of the naked protester with her legs spread open to the cops – is historically linked to the ancient act of anasyrma and the notion of the second mouth. I play with the connotations of a posture; it’s historical and cultural significance and I confront that with the subjectivity of the performer. This then conjures up different emotional reactions from the viewer. Hopefully causing them to question what they see, think, feel.”

Alexis Blake, krant en geurruimte, Prix de Rome 2021, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, foto Bas Czerwinsky

rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash is a powerful performance featuring singing performers moving through the Stedelijk Museum's stairwell. They sing, shout, sound deafening and heartbreaking. They do not dance, but move, assume postures, form a group that moves through the space like an organism. Blake makes her audience undergo emotions, of sorrow, pain, anger, rage and loss. Not to punish them, but to touch them, make them feel.

—Machteld Leij With rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash, you give the voiceless their voices back. Why did you feel the need?

—Alexis Blake "We live in a time where everyone wants their voice heard, but who’s voice is heard and by whom? The experience of loss at the moment is astounding. Loss of lives, possibilities, futures, the planet. And that loss is constantly being denied or gaslighted by society. We need the space to collectively process and lament the trauma of femicide, racial injustice, generational pain and violence, this pandemic and the climate crisis – just to name a few, and all of which intersect each other. In the Western context, emotions are suppressed, and as I briefly explained earlier we see historically why this is the case. To give space and sound to our emotions outside the realm of body, would be a threat to the powers that be. We need to deal with that not only cerebrally, but also feel and think from our bodies."

—Machteld Leij Are the emotions of the performers themselves incorporated into your performance?

—Alexis Blake "The energy of the process is in the work and thus felt by the audience. I am working somatically on the embodiment of emotions within a contemporary lament – not on the theatrical representation of an emotion. How I do this is by implementing my own methodologies I developed throughout the years and different therapeutic tools such as: somatic therapy, dance movement therapy and kinestic empathy, where I guide, hold space and give ample time for subjective and collective reflection, observation and discussion. Somatic embodiment requires the willingness and openness of the performer to go deep and be present. What I asked of the performers and later the audience is very confrontational. In my processes and choreographies, I create structures that give space for the performers to implement their own subjectivity. If the performers do not embody the work with their personal subjectivity, then you will not feel the nuance of an emotion or energy. It would then be flat, an illustration of an emotion. The process and the performance itself was, and is a healing experience.”

—Machteld Leij rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash is quite specific to the location in which the performance was staged. In the future, will the performance be seen elsewhere?

—Alexis Blake "I choreographed the work to utilize, occupy and confront the stairwell and upper floor of the Stedelijk Museum. But this work can and will be performed elsewhere. I will just have to modify parts of the choreography to fit the space it will be performed in. Of course, the context of a space will bring another layer of meaning to the work – depending on where it is performed. The reason I wanted to perform this work in and around the stairwell was because it is the belly of the beast. I put the volume up so much that the sound frequencies were literally making the walls tremble. As a result, the conservationist had to move some of the paintings. Also, the smell molecules I was emanating into the space during the rehearsals and performances caused a great disturbance to the museum. It felt necessary to shake up the Stedelijk as a symbol of white patriarchical society in such a way! The vibrations also affect the human body. The reverb of the space does not allow you to escape the sounds, the vibrations enter your body and the smell molecules trigger memories and emotions. All your senses are addressed. How I positioned the audience does not allow you to retreat to the background because there is no background. You cannot escape as a visitor. You contribute to the whole with your presence. Thus, the audience is just as much a part of the performance as the performers. Unless you put up a wall, you can’t escape your own emotions stirred up by this performance. Because of the difference in cultural behaviors, the reaction to the performance will differ in different locations. But the work itself transcends borders; it can communicate on many different levels with many people. I would love to show this work in the United States – to do the process again with American performers.”

—Machteld Leij Is it a fallacy to think that there was ever a time when gender equality was a given?

—Alexis Blake "In what we know of today as the ‘west’ when ‘democracy’ was birthed? Yes, it is a fallacy to believe there was ever gender equality. We have to question the sources that claim there was equality, as many feminist historians – such as Anne Carson – have revealed the building blocks of patriarchy during Ancient Greece. There were enslaved people and hierarchies of class during Ancient Greece. For example, upper class women had to be fully covered and accompanied by a man in order to leave the house. The mainstream historiography of Ancient Greece has been completely whitewashed, simplified and written down from a male point of view. The idea of gender roles and gender binary is essentially a colonial construct. Apparently, there were many female lamentation poets, but their work didn’t survive time. There is only one complete poem of Sappho’s that exists. The rest of her work is only fragments. I use some of these fragments, which Anne Carson translated into English, in rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash. Evoking her words thousands of years later in the context of now, holds a weight and potency that has transcended time. With my work I want to highlight these oppressive structures by amplifying the silenced voices of past and present in all its nuances and qualities, with pain, fear, anger, rage, joy, euphoria, sensuality. This work is a proposition for a polyphonic society."

—Machteld Leij The period when you worked on rock to jolt [ ] stagger to ash as one of four nominees for the Prix de Rome was partly during a lockdown. How is the pandemic affecting you?

—Alexis Blake "Greatly – on many levels. The first year of the pandemic everything was cancelled, and I was unable to work. At first, I could only reflect on what was happening. I had to sit with and process my own pain, and then digest what was happening in the world around me and at large. At that time, making art felt very arbitrary and trite. Also seeing how the ‘art world’ was responding to systematic racism, misogyny and exploitation, which has been amplified by the pandemic, was gravely disappointing and at the same time, not surprising. I started to focus on my voice and ended up taking zoom lessons from a heavy metal singer on how to scream properly. That was one of the first things I did in my own lamenting journey. Recognizing all of these injustices and the societal and governmental responses to the pandemic and loss, provoked me to dive deep into the history and practice of lamentation. Seeing how unpredictable and volatile the situation is with Covid, it was quite risky and challenging of me to create a performance, but I felt it was crucial and necessary to make it. People need to feel – individually and collectively – what this work evokes. Now there is another lockdown, and my work is no longer visible, smelt, felt, heard, experienced. The performances are cancelled till we know when we can perform again. That irony does not escape me. Here we are again, in the same space having to deal with the loss. But this time more the wiser, and if the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that I need to move with this loss, to allow the body to process all the emotions that arise and move from that space. The work is there, still vibrating and resonating, ready to shake the walls and minds, and infiltrate nostrils. In time. Now, I must rest.”

Machteld Leij
is an art critic

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2022