Lithuanian artist Inga Galinytė and Greek artist Anna Papathanasiou, two halves of an artistic duo, have been researching the phenomenon of empathy since the day they met. Responding to individual traumatic experiences, the artists are executing a long-term communication project to try to create an ‘empathetic body’ in their performances each time they meet. During the opening weekend of the 12th Kaunas Biennial BEFORE ARRIVING | AFTER LEAVING, the duo presented a collaborative performance at Kaunas Railway Station and will meet again for one more performative act just before the end of this year’s biennial at the end of September. In the following conversation, the artists shared their thoughts on the traumatic experiences implemented in their collaboration, the everlasting search for empathy and their performance in Kaunas.
How did you two meet and how did you come up with the idea to establish the long-term relationship projectF.T.I.J.s (FIRST TIME IN JACUZZI. sorry.)? What is the meaning behind the witty title of the project and what is the modus operandiof the relationship it is based on?
Inga Galinytė (I.G.):We met at the Watermill Center in New York under the direction of Robert Wilson during the International Summer Program in 2018. We spent five weeks surrounded by an international artists’ community while creating, working and living together. The Watermill Center is an amazing and unique place where two phrases ‘Yes, you (I) can’ and ‘It is good for you’ can really change your perception of yourself and break your limitations.
Anna Papathanasiou (A.P.):We were both separately selected to perform our pieces at the 25th annual Time Bomb Gala. While in the process, we were more than happy to discover how our artistic vocabularies presented a common ground, that of the duality within the self. While coexisting in that framework for more than five weeks we initiated a dialogue upon the idea of building a ‘collective ego’ and tried to work on the concept of co-creating a non-grounded place that would give us a sense of stability.
I.G.:But after the program ended there came the separation part, and I guess we didn’t want that. So that’s how we started our long-term relationship project where we made a promise to keep in touch every day by sending daily correspondence to each other that gradually took the form of an audiovisual shared diary of collected data, consisting of texts, images, sounds and movement. The daily practice of remaining loyal to an idea or a significant other allowed us to explore the utmost fundamental act of separation that every single being undergoes during a lifetime – the separation from the mother’s womb and the phenomenon of trauma.
A.P.:By the time we left the U.S we came up with the idea of creating a common sacred place that is not defined by geographical coordinates but instead by an invisible mental and emotional cord that can function as an exercise of creating a referential point within the general concept of impermanence. That has gradually been actualized by remaining present, committed and connected in a preordained way. Like an etude to enforced loyalty.
I.G.:And here it might be the time to introduce the title of our project. At the Watermill Center the artists had evening sessions/discussions while relaxing at our house’s Jacuzzi. I didn’t join those ‘meetings’ for a while, but after one hard-working day I joined my friends in the Jacuzzi and when I wanted to get out, I fell down quite hard and in a dramatically funny way because I didn’t know there was a gap between the Jacuzzi and the terrace. Then this phrase came out of my mouth: ‘FIRST TIME IN JACUZZI. Sorry.’ We ended up laughing and I got a huge bruise on my leg that lasted for quite some time. It was a funny story with the visual print of a mistake, and the symbol of trauma. And we liked the witty sound of it, because it took ‘the drama feeling’ away from the project.
Your first collaborative piece Empathetic Bodywas performed at the Swamp Pavilion by Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonai during the 16th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, in Venice, Italy. Would you tell us about this performance? What was it about?
I.G.:At the Swamp Pavilion we had our first physical meeting after meeting in New York. For three months, we had been growing the project from a distance, and the performance in the Swamp Pavilion (Swamp School) was a part of the whole creative process. We did not know where exactly the project is going, but at that time we immediately empathized with the swamp, which has always seemed like a bruise of nature. Not a lake, nor a river. Something unfamiliar, scary and that did not meet ‘beauty’ standards. Without proper compassion people used to drain swamps and destroy a natural ecosystem. That is how we often deal with personal traumatic experience as well, by pretending to not see it or by destroying it. At the Swamp School we started to build Empathetic Body.
A.P.:We had to spread our collected writings, elements, emotions and findings on the floor and bind them into a somatic and vocal representation. It was not easy at all, time was limited, and our pool of inspiration seemed more like a stagnant pit of scattered images and texts, something like a broken diary puzzle. What made it strike our emotional chord was the honesty and vulnerability in even the smallest detail. It all came together the night before the actual performance, and we ended up building up a study in falling. Falling as an act of empathy towards each other, and those back home fighting their own personal battles. Talking to each other in our own languages, creating an analogue AI code in both Greek and Lithuanian, trying to communicate not through the stereotypical social constructed form of language but through emotion and somatic presence, we created a vortex of motion, where fragmented words were exchanging places with our bodies bashing on the pavilion’s floor while a light was placed in the center under a glass of water containing water from the Venetian canals. It was our very first dive into what would later embody in Greece the second part of the performance, ‘Baths of a future paradise’ taking place in a hamam. The monument once again gave a new aspect to our piece, which evolved by collaborating with more artists such as Jay Glass Dubs and Cristian Petru.
Recently you performed Empathetic Bodyat the 12th Kaunas Biennial. Is there an ongoing storyline that connects all of your collaborative Empathetic Bodypieces?
A.P.:Empathetic Bodyis the general idea, the spinal cord running through all of the physical performances that function as meetings throughout the whole project. It is transforming and adjusting like plasma on a wound. To me, how it will end up looking is not predetermined. We control the outcome as much as it controls us. Like the piece itself, it is a matter of control, dynamics and being attentive to the slightest transpositions.
In Greece we had the chance to stage the performance and add new components such as the sound-score created by Dimitris Papadatos, which was developing hand in hand with our motion and speech. This second volume of Empathetic Body, which went by the subtitle ‘Baths of a future paradise’, took place under the central dome of the Bei Hammam monument, which added some of its history to our common narratives.
Yet, the main storyline behind the piece, presented in a minimalistic, repetitive way, would be the ‘Sisyphic condition’ of the contemporary human. The performance functions as an expansion of an experimental procedure regarding the appearances of a long-distance relationship between objects of similar traits, and it goes over a meeting incident, as if two planets align while orbiting the sun.
I.G.:I could say that in Venice we gave Empathetic Bodya skeleton, in Thessaloniki muscles and at the Kaunas Biennial, we will cover it with skin. Every new concept of pavilion or festival or biennial functions as new material to build the Empathetic Bodyand where the Empathetic Body can be performed according to different needs.
How does the place where you meet in order to perform influence the performance itself? Are those site-specific performances? Or is it the act of meeting itself that matters?
A.P.:The place defines the performance in a great degree. Every space is a new territory that welcomes us and lets us crash on its surface. To me it constitutes an act of sharing the experience with the given ground. Each space provides us with a certain ambience, and in exchange we deposit our sentiment and energy. Like a city embraces the people inhabiting it or like a mother would catch falling children. Without it we wouldn’t have the chance to stand. It is the gravitational field of each space that contributes to the process of the piece. The performance’s premise is that of the constant coming back to the ground, returning to and feeling what has always been the familiar surface that we very often take for granted.
I.G.:The performances are not site-specific, but we empathize with the place and use given elements that magically repeat themselves. If we notice the tendency of a particular repetition, we bring it to another performance that sometimes manifests as a movement or architectural detail for scenography. The whole project FTIJ.sis a living organism, but most of the time it grows by us communicating at a distance, so the act of meeting is the necessity – water that does evaporate.
During the performance Empathetic Body: March to the Beat of Your Own Drum, which took place on the opening weekend of this year’s Kaunas Biennial, you invited people to join you to watch the stars together and then sleep under the open sky. Please tell us more about this project. What inspired it? And why did you want people to keep you company during this performance?
A.P.:The subtitle of this particular performance came out of the need to embrace diversity. We all are sophisticated mechanisms constructed of the same elements but in different proportions and analogies. Empathy in our code is the ability to create space for every individual’s unique rythmology and pace, to welcome and reflect upon what is not us in the familiar sense. Sharing our experienced pain with the spectators by presenting a bare, raw motional structure and vocal code. Being in the epicenter and demonstrating a childlike vulnerability that invites the spectator to empathize with their inner self and with a common pain.
I.G.:One of the most essential things about the FTIJ.sproject is our audiovisual diary that we exchange daily in small doses. Usually it happens at the end of the day just before we go to sleep. It is like saying ‘look what I found today’ or ‘look what happened to me’ or simply saying ‘I am here for you’. Most of the time it’s the final information of the day we share and receive and then we sleep on that. Our evening data exchange correlates with the romanticized/iconic action of watching the stars, which gives you a nostalgic feeling of missing something or someone that is physically absent. We wanted to add this part into our performance because it is something very intimate, naive and subconsciously empathetic. In our first more active and the shorter part of the performance, we use the material of personal and common (Kaunas city) traumatic experience, where sleeping afterwards manifests as an act of healing/letting go.
Inga, this is not the first time you’ve invited people to sleep in a public space. You did so before, criticizing the constant modern rush during the CREATurE Live Art Festival in Kaunas. Is the Kaunas Biennial performance somehow linked to this?
I.G.:The phenomenon of sleeping has inspired many artists over the ages, including myself. As a physical movement it is universal and contextually open to different meanings and artistic comments. In at the CREATurE Live Art Festival, I performed my very first performance, and yes it was a critique on our constant modern rush, but this time we do not criticize anything. On the contrary, we want to create a common ground that is free of judgment.
Inga, in the last few months you’ve been coming back on regular basis to the place of your and Anna’s performance in Kaunas Railway Station tocontinue the performance on your own. Could you tell us more about it? Will the drawings and texts gathered and carved in the mirror-like platform by you somehow influence the performance you and Anna are preparing for the end of September?
During these few months the second part of the performance moved from personal story to the traumatic history of Kaunas, which is actually my hometown. My relationship with the city was always complicated. While living here I had this urgency to leave, to run far away. But somehow I was forced to come back for different reasons. I was trying to see the bright side of the city but always found myself beaten, head down, lookingat the grey asphalt over and over again. It was a bruise and it needed to be seen. Thanks to the Kaunas Biennial and the FTIJ.sproject I finally answered the riddle by accepting the complex and often traumatic history of the city. By reading true and fictional stories I found my hometown like a child playing alone and looking for connections. And so I initiated an empathetic dialogue. Every engraved text message or drawing now creates a map enriched with common experience. When you look down into the mirror-like platform you find your reflection layered with the message on top of it or beside it engraved by others. The reflection becomes less perfect and more human. Speaking about the final performance, the influence of the second part is still open to creative input because the process has not been completed yet, but every story existing on the platform will have input by shaping our moving patterns and intentions.
Speaking of your separate practices, what are the topics that each of you constantly deal with in your individual bodies of work?
A.P.:Time is one of my main concerns. What I am constantly battling with is the inevitable friction that time causes, the deforming force of gravity pulling us day by day closer to the ground. By creating and inventing new vocabularies and codes, time appears more sufferable, I guess. A large amount of my body of work is focused on the human face as a source of emotion and recognition. On many occasions I use self-manipulation and transformation as a death-defying act of overcoming my natural limitations set by nature, like an intervention into the personal home. I am constantly reinventing myself by making myself optically unfamiliar. I act out of character and mimic patterns not given to me at birth but enforced by observation.
I create space between myself and others, like giving a show. I like to create some natural distance from the audience so that they can have a whole perspective upon me as an acting tool, like an animal at a zoo.
I.G.:A few years ago, I dedicated my master’s work to the phenomenon of flow, which I believe became the topic of my life, embracing other temporary topics that come and go. It is a topic of formless, ever-changing, creative limitlessness; it is full of energy and the metamorphic process. Flow, in its nature lucid and of open structure, manifests in my work through symbolism and becomes recognizable as the ritual of cleansing, death and rebirth. Flow, in the form of cycles, embodies the idea of repetition as one of the most important qualities of a ritualistic practice, which, in one way or another, I attempt to portray in my work.
Inga, most of your work is of a meditative nature, while you, Anna, seem to be more into severe social critique. How did you two manage to find a common artistic language?
I.G.:During the process of creating Empathetic Body: Baths of Future Paradiseour team consisted of four elements: air, fire, water and earth. We were making jokes that structuring teams by element is the perfect way to organize them. One element is always lacking another. It was a joke, but it has a core of truth. Anna is fire and I am air. We exchange energy by empathizing with each other during the creative process and actual performances. By hybridizing two different polarities you always have a possibility to create a new form or a new language.
A.P.:If there is the will to create a bond between a and b, then there is the chance to connect the dots. Everything connects. It is clearly a matter of point of view and to bring together different prisms constitutes one of the most interesting and productive practice methods. You can see the two merged into one in the way we built up Empathetic Bodythroughout this past year or so. We both function as teachers and students exchanging mindsets and making space for each other’s input in all kinds of different levels. Artistic collaboration is a political act of democracy, an experienced way of showing a take upon a topic without enforcing it. Even a violent crash is contained within the space given to us but has an impact on the audience that is willing to relate with pain and trauma as a human condition coming out in different gradations and shades.
Self-analysis is an important part of both of your individual practices. Is it somehow implemented in your collaboration as well? How? Is there a ‘collective vs. individual’ kind of approach generated within your collaboration?
I.G.:Yes, self-analysis is very important – I could even say a necessity – to me. But there are different stages of self-analysis that I pass through. I used to write a lot of self-reflections, and read a lot of psychology and psychotherapy books as well as esoteric literature on human nature. But now I am at a different stage of self-analysis. I let myself go more into feelings, the non-logical part of myself. And here comes the empathy, where the meaning of it comes from Greek ‘empatheia-em’ (into) and ‘pathos’ (feeling) – an unconditional penetration into yourself and others.
A.P.:Art in general derives from observation and self-analysis, in my opinion. My practice is based upon digging deep into the darkest corners of my existence. I somehow create a script of how I function, my past mistakes, the act of self-cannibalism, the way I perceive my surroundings and the way I am affected and reshaped by people and situations in general. What might seem like a nicely articulated image for the viewer to me, most of the time, is an exaggerated depiction of a past wound that must be exposed for therapeutic reasons.
In our common work, I would say, self-analysis is organically transforming both of us. We both incorporate elements into our separate practices, sometimes unconsciously. It is a mind-shifting state that provides the chance to get out of your comfort zone when it comes to your own practice and apply a different manner for the same result. To me it is a fun experimentation that includes self-growth, constant alteration of my personal methodology and a dialogue between different cultural and habitual traits. That is one of the most important parts of artistic collaboration, squeezing your ego with someone else’s under a common roof.
This year, the Kaunas Biennial explores the notion of the journey as a metaphor for the changing cultural identity of the city. What journeys do you find most revealing?
A.P.:To me the most vital journey is that of us walking this common ground during the same historical period. I am as, I suppose, most of our generations’ peers, in a position where I can perceive the microscale and the macroscale both at the same time. That is crushing because in terms of functioning, it is like a pendulum over one’s head, a firm reminder of our mortality, but at the same time it takes some of the burden of absolution and self-centered perceptions away. The character is shaped by the act of moving from one place to the other. Population relocations, journeys intentional or unintentional as the current global political state shifts the notion of locus. The collective ID is being transformed and redefined rapidly day by day. Our passing by this strange rock is a journey of unknown duration. That involves the same amount of bipolarity to me as the state I find myself in before getting on a plane, not eager to leave and at the same time not willing to stay. The unknown is the most exciting and inescapable journey of all.
I.G.:The personal journey of self-growth in every aspect of your life. An ever-changing, constantly active being. This journey affects the whole environment, starting from your home, your city, your continent and extends throughout the whole planet, the entire cosmos.