Maja Bekan, Throw Like a Girl, 2022, TENT Rotterdam, photo Aad Hogendoorn

Maja Bekan - Throw like a Girl. Gossip like a Girl!

Issue no1
Feb - Mrt 2023

Maja Bekan's richly layered research-based projects involve different levels of collaboration that focus on bringing together women of various backgrounds, generations, perspectives, and experiences. Kaylie Kist met up with Bekan to talk about her major retrospective exhibition P for Performance. Nothing is Accidental currently on show at TENT. More specifically they talk about the new and continuing project Throw Like a Girl in which Bekan works together with women from the military.

To find out more about her new and ongoing project, Throw Like a Girl, I met with Maja Bekan in the large windowed front room at TENT. Bekan (1975, Former Yugoslavia) is a Performance and Visual Artist, based in The Netherlands. Her richly layered research-based projects involve different levels of collaboration that focus on bringing together women of various backgrounds, generations, perspectives, and experiences. Bekan uses her magnetic charm and ability to lean into the art of conversation as the central tool to give form to her performances, specifically created environments, video/audio/text-based installations and public conversations. In 2008 she initiated the long-term research project 'P for Performance', as a means of learning, which Bekan feels opens the possibility for change in a wider social-political context.

Performance is pivotal to Bekan’s feminist practice, she also employs it as an artistic tool to cultivate friendships, share time, reflect on the work and roles of women, and more critically as a way of rehearsing togetherness. The show at TENT, in its entirety, demands your time and attention. Several video works ask you to commit in a way, to stay with them, as one might in real-time relationships. It’s only as the conversations unfold, we begin to understand that the measure of time relates more to the preservation of these gatherings, whilst there is no doubt, that what we see on each screen in terms of performances, are friendships that stretch far beyond this institutional setting.

Centrally located in the Throw Like a Girl is a public rehearsal space which theatrically sets the stage for a series of improvised happenings. It shouts out, demanding attention. The work follows a group of women from two different worlds; the arts and the military, who have been meeting to gossip in various locations since April, whilst using TENT as a hybrid space for both intimate and public exchanges, readings and choreographed movements.

Maja Bekan, Throw Like a Girl, 2022, Essential Environment, TENT Rotterdam, photo Aad Hogendoorn

Bekan stands against the curved backdrop of gold lurex curtains. The space is partly occupied by seven wooden reading pedestals which stand in waiting, each with its own towering presence, laden with copies of texts that have informed each gathering. Every pedestal has a shelf, on which folded, beige and gold detailed boiler suits loiter. From beneath the curtain, a pink vinyl covering pokes out, licking across the floor space and up against the far side of the wall. It hints towards an unconscious material gesture that might encourage the flow of words or silences yet to be broken, I feel a sense of anticipation as I long for the gossips to gather!

—Kaylie Kist I’m always struck by how layered your work is, and it’s impressive how you’re able to weave complex ties between art, everyday life and politics, can you tell me a bit about how this particular work was conceived?

—Maja Bekan ‘We started planning in February, although I’d been thinking about the idea since 2019. I was interested in making a collaborative community within a Dutch context. The basis for the work gathers around the life story of Jeanne Merkus, a Dutch philanthropist and activist who took up arms, leading soldiers into battle during the 1875 Herzegovina uprising against the Ottoman occupation. I wanted to explore how the public memory and perception of this fierce historical figure shifted over time, from heroin to outcast. I really focused on trying to involve women serving in Dutch Defence. I was curious about their work and their experiences. The open call went out in April, I wanted to see if we could reach anyone. Then, faced with the outbreak of war in Ukraine, I was thinking, why am I doing this, should I just do something else, or wait, or use this time and money for something bigger? The military-based women who answered the call were all on high alert, at this point it wasn’t certain if anything would be possible, but I decided to try and push ahead. I find it important to create spaces for people that might not normally come together, and I also understand how important it is to relate during such fragile times. Quite quickly, a community of eight was formed, including me, a representative from the institution here at TENT, three women from the military and three from the art world.’

—Kaylie Kist Can you tell me more about the group, the gatherings and how you use the space to rehearse?

—Maja Bekan ‘The rehearsals began rather precariously, we either talked about quite personal experiences or spent time reading selected texts together, we tried to keep relating back to our central figure, Jeanne Merkus as a way of navigating. I think we all found parts of ourselves within her rich and adventurous life. We worked to try and fictionalize those connections, this is one of the elements we then use to give structure to a rehearsal. I think part of becoming this collective, or a community of sorts is to understand the professional fields as well, we went to visit one of the military bases, and the graveyard in Utrecht, where Jeanne Merkus is buried. Apart from these trips, conversations, and archival digging on Merkus, we also did small reading exercises, theatrical exercises, dancing, and singing but most of the time we are talking, with food! We then invite the audience into our rehearsals by re-enacting scenarios that have occurred during our meetings and conversations.’

How do we talk about our own personal body clocks and what times are we in when we meet?

Maja Bekan, Throw Like a Girl, 2022, Essential Environment, TENT Rotterdam, photo Aad Hogendoorn

Maja Bekan, Throw Like a Girl, 2022, Essential Environment, TENT Rotterdam, foto Aad Hogendoorn

—Kaylie Kist The relationships I see in your work, feel fully formed, long-standing and genuine, I’m interested in how what are relatively short time frames you manage to build and crucially maintain these communities.

—Maja Bekan ‘Finding ways to find time! The work requires lots of time and commitment, for me, it’s important to deal with the life in between these gatherings. For example, most of our meetings at TENT occurred after working hours or standard opening times. We would meet at 19.30, either in the office or rehearsal space, have food, catch up and start working. I think this is how I try to tackle and break down these power structures, by introducing different times, occupying and meeting differently because we all have commitments – mothers have multiple timelines to follow, the military moves in different time zones, women with periods or without periods, women going through menopause, how do we talk about our own personal body clocks and what times are we in when we meet? I’m constantly looking at these borders, what is work, what is art, how do we come together and elevate these moments and talk about what it means in relation to life, each other, and what it means to find ways to find time together?’

Opening, Maja Bekan speeching, TENT Rotterdam, photo Aad Hogendoorn

—Kaylie Kist How was it to visit the military base? It must not have been easy to deal with its layers of authority, its many protocols and rules. How was it for you to interact with these structures, this environment and what was the impact of your experience there?

—Maja Bekan ‘Going with the group was so powerful. When we visited one of the women, she was in full military clothing, it was the first time we saw her like this and then suddenly you see her through the lens of her uniform, it made such a strong impression. There is a lot of discussion about inclusivity and gender equality in the Defence domain, but how inclusive are these institutions? For instance, whilst visiting the base we only encounter restrooms for men, and there is only one for women/disabled. It still amazes me how much time it takes to change, and I question what is necessary for change. How sensitive infrastructures are for this? All these topics feed into our conversations and often also relate to the readings.’

—Kaylie Kist Your other video works gratify with the sort of guilty pleasure that eavesdropping brings. As each conversation progresses – we become more aware it’s not only about the necessity of talking but also the act of listening. From the seemingly pedestrian conversation, women not only explore personal histories and share home truths, but they also touch upon political, social and economic differences, I’m curious what types of conversation or differences did this group share?

—Maja Bekan ‘We always talk about their individual experiences, one is still in active service and two are veterans, for me, it’s always interesting to have this transgenerational learning, it becomes more layered, how you talk, woman to woman in different moments of life, how to share that knowledge? We talk about the possibility of deployment and how the female body behaves in relation to the male body, for example, how do you deal with your period? Do you have it or not? Do you stop it or not? Do you drink water or not, to avoid having to go to the toilet? It was interesting how they were able to build this emotionally charged conversational space between each other, also between their differences, thinking about rank, or being a single mother artist, or a mother that is in the military that can be called up at any moment, how does she teach her children about her role, if all the books she can find are about the father going to war? This way of sharing, getting to know each other and negotiating the space between us really forms a fundamental part of our journey together, friendship in the making, I think it’s quite beautiful!’

It still amazes me how much time it takes to change, and I question what is necessary for change. How sensitive infrastructures are for this?

Maja Bekan, Essential Environment No. 6: What if we started making less and reusing more?, in P for Performance: Nothing is Accidental, photo Aad Hoogendoorn

Maja Bekan, Essential Environment No. 6: What if we started making less and reusing more?, in P for Performance: Nothing is Accidental, photo Aad Hoogendoorn

Maja Bekan, Essential Environment No. 6: What if we started making less and reusing more?, in P for Performance: Nothing is Accidental, photo Aad Hoogendoorn

—Kaylie Kist One of the principles Young writes about in her seminal text Throwing Like a Girl, is that women have been conditioned by a sexist society to limit their bodily capacity, which brings about a self-conscious incapacity or mistrust within themselves and a fear of taking up too much space. These texts you refer to could also be seen to act as tools for creating environments, that maybe offer spatial possibilities to liberate both body and voice. In each work, there seems to be a very precise stage or environment that is being set. Is this a way to help deregulate, to give more space? Could you share something about the significance of space, and the platform you’re trying to create here?

—Maja Bekan ‘Space is important, I start by naming it– Essential Environment. Space for me is a site of production. What space are we allowed to use, occupy and how? Claiming the space is also political. I wanted a space where we could engage, as a group, to come together, dance and gossip! I think it’s important to say that the women who answered the call did not have any experience with performance or audiences.

In the text Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality Iris Marion Young writes about the female body and its difference, it made us question what is the space that the female body occupies and how much space we are allowed to take up? I think the whole work somehow evolves around this question. If you look around, these reading tables are 1 sq. meter, the size of the room, the size of the boiler suits, there are so many echoes and I think it was this text that moved us towards us focusing on the form of our rehearsal environment and how we perform in and occupy the space.’

—Kaylie Kist The second you made me try a boiler suit on, I immediately felt different. I can imagine when you’re in a group setting, wearing one might almost feel like you possess magical powers, in my willingness to wear it, I’m able to imagine myself as a unique part of the wider collective. Unlike the military uniform, for example, these have been embellished with individual gold details, I’m obsessed with how they look and this interplay between work wear, uniform and costume, can you tell me more about the clothing and the props?

—Maja Bekan ‘We wear the boiler suits during each performance. I associate this type of clothing with doing something, so effectively these clothes represent doing something together. We spoke about how they are made, how they make you feel, and that they are not really made for female bodies, we’ve had a lot of discussions about how the group felt about these boiler suits and spent time changing them, making modifications and adding details. It’s about making these women feel comfortable enough to take space. In a performative sense, again, it also speaks of how much space female bodies are able or allowed to occupy. The reading pedestals are very multifunction. Their dominant size is really important, they have a kind of power to them, each houses one of the chosen texts, and a boiler suit - I like that everything can be moved around! I think there is power in the uniformity of the reading pedestals and the boiler suits. They have the trick of being individual enough but also connecting to the collective, so everyone feels together in this.’

—Kaylie Kist Why is dancing such a big part of your practice?

—Maja Bekan ‘For me dancing is a metaphor for community, it allows participants to adopt different rhythms and positions. I also use it as a kind of exit strategy, a safe zone, so if there’s a block, then we can always dance (around it)! As I mentioned earlier, it’s also symbolic of struggle, how we, as women constantly have to dance around to discuss issues, avoid obstacles, etc. There is something physically demanding with one of the professional fields, it relies on the strength of your body, so the women in the military are very comfortable with movement in one way, it’s interesting to see how they all combine their strengths and build each other up, using the body as a tool.’

For me dancing is a metaphor for community

Maja Bekan, Throw Like a Girl, 2022, Essential Environment, TENT Rotterdam, foto Aad Hogendoorn

—Kaylie Kist The texts seem such an important part of this work, in terms of context, language, and knowledge, I was wondering how you choose these specific readings.

—Maja Bekan ‘We spread the texts around the rehearsal space, to give hints and offer the audience an idea of what we’ve been considering. To name a few; Sara Ahmed’s Killjoy and reading on Wayward Subjects, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action by Audre Lorde, we read about Comrades by Jodi Dean, On Gossip by Silvia Federici, and All About Love by Bell Hooks. For some of the group, it’s the first time reading them, which makes me super happy! These gatherings and conversations we have also relate back to the sentiment of Federici's essay on Gossips in Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women (2018). The idea of naming these women gossips may feel derogatory, but when you understand the history, the patriarchal re-shaping of sentiment and the politicising of the word in order to degrade and demean women over time, then I think unlearning the word gossip is a vital part of the work. Federici's text provides a historical account of the change in the meaning of the word gossip from Medieval times, gossip simply signified female friendships, over time the word’s negative connotation was driven by a strengthening patriarchal authority and misogynous sentiment during the rise of modern England. It feels vital, to reclaim these spaces of sharing and learning – confronting how women have been (and continue to be) diminished and shamed by the social and patriarchal conditions. The readings provoke us, provide moments of understanding, of (un)learning and the knowledge that’s shared through such feminist writers, helps create a shift. We change, we move, we grow together!’

—Kaylie Kist Do you think through this type of social engagement, you not only give voice to the past, Jeanne Merkus for example, but also to the collaborators and the audience? Is it a chance for everyone to join in with the gossip, an opportunity to contribute, and not to be silent?

—Maja Bekan ‘I think that’s a nice way of putting it. Not being silent and coming together to not be silent, is such a big part of the work. What’s important to me is learning about all these different experiences by inviting multiple voices. There is something gossipy about all the work that I make, gossip is such a positive thing, it’s a way of sharing knowledge, a tool that can engage and cross temporalities, past, present and future. When I talk about performance as a tool, I talk more about becoming than disappearing, and here I see it, these moments of sharing, and what you take from these gatherings, even though these moments disappear, the memory is perpetually becoming.’

We walk through the rest of the gallery, an impressive coven of video installations acts as an echo chamber of communities that Bekan has fostered, in which mothers, students, retirees, nuns, activists, and artists find ways not to be silent, throughout friendship seems to form a common thread.

—Maja Bekan ‘I’m looking back at all of the works I decided to share here, I constantly return to the first work with my mother and her friends. I was actually very reluctant to be like her, as I think most of us are, but only now, I realise our common ground. I’m also building my group of gossips, and friendships, just as my mother did!’

Before leaving the exhibition, I pause to read an enlarged text, another important anchor for Bekan’s research, an extract from Lisa Baraitser’s Enduring Time. The piece focuses on the temporal tropes of staying, maintaining, repeating, waiting, delaying preserving, enduring and recalling. I begin to think of friendship as a practice, a tool to liberate art from social isolation and that our ability to maintain connection is possibly the strongest thing we have in these enduring times.

Throw Like a Girl, and retrospective exhibition: P for Performance. Nothing is Accidental. Showing at TENT, Rotterdam until 28.08.2022.

The remaining Public Rehearsals for Throw Like a Girl are free admission and will take place at TENT, Rotterdam between 19:00-21:30 on Friday 19 August & Friday 26 Augustus (final rehearsal).

Throw Like a Girl collaboration includes Gabriela Dávalos Aray (artist and educator); Darly Benneker (artist, educator and project coordinator); Zosia Nowakowska (designer); Claudia Redout (Lieutenant Colonel at the Royal Netherlands Army, veteran); Amy Son (Royal Navy Operational Service communications Sailor 1, veteran); Rinke Wagenaar (Captain in the Royal Netherlands Army); Aletta van der Eijk (TENT marketing & communication coordinator) and various members of team Tent

The project and exhibition are supported by Anke Bangma, Darly Benneker, Vesna Bijeljić, Gunndís Yr Finnbogadóttir and P for Performance reading group. In cooperation with The Mondriaan Fund, Stroom, The Hague and TENT.

Kaylie Kist
is an artist and writer

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 1 — 2023