PerformLab interview with Benjamin Kahn

From May 29 until June 6, the first edition of PerformLab took place at Beykoz Kundura in Istanbul. PerformLab is an international and interdisciplinary program of Kundura Stage, in which new generation theater makers work on new concepts and enrich their working methods in practice. As a collaboration partner, Productiehuis Theater Rotterdam has invited four theater makers to participate in this exchange program. Before the workshops started, the makers were interviewed by Art Unlimited. This fourth interview is with Benjamin Kahn.

1. What is the essence of performance in your opinion? How do you define contemporary performance?
I think there are so many ways to answer this question, but if I were to try to describe for myself what the essence of performance is, the first thing that comes to my mind is the desire to be together, to play the game of seeing and being seen, and above all a personal but absolutely collective experience. 

I am convinced that performance allows for a deep experience that is simultaneously intimate, collective, intellectual, emotional and physical. It can make it possible to question, decontextualize or reformulate our relationship to the other, to reality, or to society.  

Performance is the place of the sublime and also the place of politics. 

How then to describe contemporary I do not know…. 

There is for me always a contemporaonerousness between art and the time and the culture in which it is produced, and for me there is not one without the other. The production of art is always the fruit of this relationship. The question which arises for me is rather what place do we decide the performance to occupy in this society? 

2. Do you believe in the transformative power of art? How? 
As I described in the previous question, performance is a place for politics. In my opinion, it allows to delocalize the discourse in more unexpected areas such as emotions, imagery or our physical senses. These areas working together, make for me performance a very powerful tool that allows upheavals in our relationship to reality.However I believe that this experience takes place in what I would call our intimate body. What I mean by that, is that is take place in a reality that we as individuals can still grasp, feel and touch. It is the ‘’palpable’’ that we have access to. I wonder if this transformation happens in a bigger scale, does that art become symbolic, rhetorical and no longer an experience? 

3. How do you think that this pandemic which humanity is facing at a global scale today will transform performing arts in the future?
To be honest, I’m not really sure that this pandemic will transform performing arts in the future. I think for example a dictatorship or censorship could be worse for the arts than the pandemic. So far, art has always survived, and I believe that art will always survive and coexist with the society. Maybe the economic system around art will change. Or because of climate urgencies, we as artist have to rethink and re-localize the place where we share art.

4. As a performance-maker how are you personally dealing with the challenging conditions posed by the pandemic? How did having to comply with the constraints imposed by COVID-19 in the creation process sparked your creativity?
What struck me at the beginning of this pandemic, has been the experience of collective fear and an invisible collective threat. I felt like retrieving, hiding, camouflaging and creating a vital safe place. All other perspectives seemed at this moment for me irrelevant. It was a question of surviving. Like everybody I think, I was obsessed by the numbers and the curve. It was impossible for me to work. It didn’t feel right to think about something else. And before the state qualified my profession (performing arts) as non-essential it felt that my practise was non-essential. After a few months I started to go back to the studio, it was possible because we as artist could identify ourselves as a bubble (a safe group) and I went back to work. This collective fear has disappeared, and I found that what I was busy with (my practises) was essential again. I realized that there was not a big difference between working as an artist before the pandemic and during the pandemic. We as artist anyway gather, confine ourselves in small bubbles/ groups during the process of creating art. The only difference is that we could not gather and share with the audience. That uncertainty really had a phycological impact on the processes of creation.

5. Are there any artist whom you can describe as "my master", or any person whom you think influenced your art the most? And if yes, who?
I kind of like this romantic idea of master. A horizontal relationship between master and disciple. For me it relates to this image that there is this humble disciple that doesn’t know and the master that is the transmitter of the knowledge. I think that I was looking for a long time for a master myself. Today I have a more exploded idea of knowledge an accumulation of non-organized experiences that inform my work. If have to name artists that have influenced me, I could say Death Grips, Alessandro Caroni for his radical conception of choreography or Giselle Vienne for her aesthetic and these are just a little part of artist that I know.  

6. When you are working on a piece, what sources inspire you? Do dreams play a role in your works?
What inspires me at the first point is the person, the performer. The triangle play of gaze in how I portrait the performer, how the performer portraits themselves and how the society portraits them.[Einde van tekstterugloop]In a creative process I dream a lot almost constantly. I think the creation is actually the tension, friction and relation of those awakened dreams.

7. When do you decide to give a title to a work you are working on if it already does not have one? 
I give a title almost immediately it is for me a way to make the project real, giving it a no is already giving it an existence then this title could change of course but will also be a referent, allows me to see how the project to derive or not from its first idea.

8. What new perspectives do you think interdisciplinary production in arts provide to artists?
I think that the coming and going between your own discipline and other is very rich, as the teaching is for example it allows to see the outlines but also its power of language and to offer a perspective. I find it very interesting to relocate our own practice. I do not think that all the projects must necessarily multidisciplinary because we must not underestimate the negotiation that this creates. but it is difficult to think today without this pluridimention and many artists today are already located on these borders.

9. What in particular (which performance, process, etc.) will you be sharing with the participants of PerformLab? 
Currently, I mainly study the materiality of scream and how it can be activated and used as a choreographic instrument on stage and / or in public space. 

I want to share with the artist invites their perspective on this practice, we look at what kind of physicality is produced through the act and the sound and the cry. In what and how is the cry already present in our “daily” life as an emergency channel and how is it executed - represented and even reproduced? How can this unique act manifest and relate, to sometimes opposing experiences or meanings, inhabiting both a primitive instinctive drive and a commercial instrumentalization of fragility? during this PerformLab I will try to propose somatic practices, as well as movement, both as a generator of sound but also their impact on the act of shouting. In the continuity of the different lines of research, I wish to deepen a radicalized practice, feeding on an index of codes, interpretations and already existing uses of the scream and I think that we will share, listing these different urgencies. In the practice I would like  to deepen the models of how an expanded choreographic practice can transform these questions into spatial and bodily matter. 

10. What do you imagine that you will be taking back with you after your experience in Istanbul attending PerformLab? 
I think and I hope that we will forge strong bonds, first human and then through our practices. it will of course be necessary to maintain them and see how this meeting will also create bridges and new collaboration in the future.