KB19 Series | Moving Compositions & ‘Hosted Occasions’ | The Isabel Lewis Interview
The Karachi Biennale of 2019 (KB19) will be the most significant public art intervention in the city since the first ever Karachi Biennale 2 years ago: a city wide project covering multiple venues, with planned installations from 100+ internationally acclaimed artists and a compelling, challenging curatorial vision.
The seminal thrust of the initiative is to instil a ‘public art presence’ in the city, displaying emerging talents, transformative exhibits and a thematic pattern that speaks to all of Karachi’s communities. Organised by the KBT – a collective of educators and accomplished professionals in the field – the build-up to KB19 has been all about outreach efforts. They have engaged with as many public discourses and communities in the city as possible, through workshops, collaborations, establishments of residencies, discursive roundtables on relevant topics and much more.
The most recent project was a two-day experimental workshop of Situational Choreography, lead by the versatile choreographer Isabel Lewis.
With Dominican and American roots, Isabel was born off the coast of South Florida. She’s spent time in NYC and is currently based in Berlin, working on unique, unconventional approaches to choreography and composition. Her works take on a multitude of hybrid formats, and she is best known for her ‘hosted occasions’: incorporating designs, smells, music, speaking, dancing, plant life and a lot more to generate a space that engages all our dormant senses.
Ticket Wala PK caught up with Isabel to find out more about her personal influences, critiques of modern & contemporary art and thoughts on KB19’s multilayered, overarching theme on Ecology...
TW: – Right now, you’re an internationally known choreographer with work in all-encompassing, unconventional formats. You have a number of interests and talents – in dancing, writing, DJ’ing, even gardening… And you’ve been invited from Berlin all the way to Karachi to contribute to a community oriented art mega project and lead a couple of workshops!
Do any series of events or important influences come to mind from your formative years that made all of this possible today?
Isabel: My base is dancing. My first love, talent and passion was ballet. From a young age, I’d spent a lot of hours doing ballet – it meant a lot to me.
I’d later become interested in making my own choreographies after taking part in choreographed dances. Most individuals interested in making it in the professional dance field in my situation would probably skip college and move to New York City to find work, but I ended up going to Colin’s University, Rural Virginia.
I studied Literary Criticism and Philosophy, and through the Literary Criticism became interested in analysis, ways of reading, rhetorical criticism… all of which went hand in hand with my interests in philosophy and ultimately my interest in choreography. I began to see choreography as a medium where I can generate different readings of the world..
TW: – Sounds like you were pretty productive in college!
Isabel: Yeah, I was reading voraciously, dancing, choreographing, writing quite a bit for my classes, generating my major thesis to complete my Literature degree… I spent a lot of hours in the library! There wasn’t much else to do at school in the middle of nowhere, so I studied. I really enjoyed that time before graduating in 2003 and moving to New York City.
TW: – What were your years in the city like?
Isabel: I was in New York for several years. I had to get a bunch of random jobs – I was working in retail stores, coat check for clubs, bartending, gogo-dancing… I was dancing for other choreographers, making my own choreographies.. I was always motivated to get managerial positions in the retail places I worked at, because I’d have the keys and be able to use the shops in after hours to rehearse my own choreographies!
Isabel: I’d begun to make works for the stage in all these experimental spaces, and I’d put this practice together, which would sometimes literally be someone’s living room transformed into a venue for showings.
There was this ongoing, experimental showing series in this church on Monday nights, with the whole experimental performance and dance community coming together to present work, collaborate, discuss things, hang out…
Step by step, the stages and opportunities were getting bigger…
TW: – When did your focus shift from solely making works for the stage?
Isabel: I was working really specifically on making works for the stage in those years. That’s kind of what I understood as what could be experimental dance…
Somewhere around 2009, I started working on this other solo show called Strange Action, that kind of took a turn from standard formats.
I’d always been struggling with the formats of making works in theatre. I didn’t understand why it was all so standardised – that even in an experimental theatre, there were so many rules and conventions and ways to do things..
I was working with liveness and experience itself as my material.
TW: That could extend to the somewhat stagnant act of walking through a conventional art gallery…
Isabel: Absolutely. And of course, there’s still relevant work that can be made that’s meant to be shown in these visually oriented ways. But it can’t go unquestioned as the standard, like – “this is art, this is what art means”… Then I have a problem with it.
What does the work actually require? What are the right conditions for that work to be shown?
I think there are limitless possibilities. And they don’t always have to be visually oriented.
TW: All of these thoughts were occurring around the time you left NYC for Berlin?
Isabel: Yes… That was 2009!
TW: – You got into DJing out there? Did you have your own boiler rooms or what?
Isabel: Yes! A lot was going on! There was a party I started 8 years ago called ‘Bodysnatch’. It started out as a hip hop party… I hadn’t heard much hiphop in Berlin, it was mostly minimal techno… At the time I didn’t really like minimal techno… Now, I love it. I didn’t really have an education in techno, I grew up on hip hop music in the South of the U.S.
It took me time to grow into my relationship with electronic music, and Berlin has such an incredible offering and landscape and potential inside of that kind of music.
So it started as a hip hop party. Now it’s much more than that, it’s exploring all types of electronic sound and bass music.
I started it as a hobby, and it’s remained a hobby, though I do get invited to play professionally every so often!
TW: – What were your sets like?
Isabel: I feel like more of a host! I’m not someone who’s super technique based… I have a really playful way of mixing music which seems like it shouldn’t be mixed together, and I have this playful approach and this skillset of hosting I’ve developed, of listening to what the crowd needs and guiding them to dancing… Dance is life for me.
If anything, that’s probably my strength as a DJ – to have that close connection to dancing!
TW: – It seems like Berlin was a reset of sorts..
Isabel: For sure. It was a total start over. I was back to the random jobs: babysitting, working in cafes for very little hourly wage, modelling for figuring drawing classes, all kinds of stuff…
They were really full days. I was just gathering cash up however I could… I worked at a bar and asked the owner if I could rehearse there when empty. It was the same types of moves I was making to solve the basic problem of paying rent.
Being in Berlin gave me this distance and space from the way I had understood myself up till that point – as an artist that works in the theatre.
In Berlin – out of necessity in a way, but also out of interest – I began to make works in intimate spaces like that very bar. I started to show the things I was working on in more intimate settings, eliminating this idea of the stage and making things more interactive.
TW: – So Berlin is where you started your ‘Hosted Occasions’?
Isabel: It took a while to even find that language…
Somewhere around 2012 or 2013 I finally figured out how to call it. I was making something that relates to performance, but doesn’t belong to theatre, doesn’t belong to installation, although there are elements of installation. But it doesn’t belong to exhibitions either…
TW: – You describe them as ‘dramaturgical’…
Isabel: Exactly. A dramaturgy to me is about how the composition unfolds in time. I was working with liveness and experience itself as my material, and how you shape that experience.
TW: – You incorporate DJing, speaking, choreography, dance, props, adjustments of the light and space, adjustments to the ambience… All kinds of plant life. You’ve even collaborated with scientists…
How does this all go down?
Isabel: What can’t be underestimated is the very long process of research. I really started working on my hosted occasions after 2010. There were some years of experimentation, where I was making small performances for small groups of people, trying to understand what this format was that I was approaching, that I didn’t know what to call, hadn’t seen anything like it, trying to figure out where it belongs..
The reason I chose the word occasion is … Well, it relies on a social occasion.
Think of the host of a dinner party. They make certain types of aesthetic decisions for a space. They decide the table setting, food, lighting, music. Who sits next to who even ….
I generally avoid ticketing. An occasion is a luxurious, sensorial experiences. It shouldn’t cost anything to anyone – it’s like a gift.
TW: – Depends on the host!
Isabel: Depends on the host! There’s all these different approaches to hospitality in various cultures, but usually amongst all of them there is something about speaking around food and being together!
As the host of these occasions, I kind of guide, and activate, and welcome people into the space.
The space is already giving you a lot when you walk in – its hosting you as well.
There might be a smell in the air, a beat, a sound. The space is decorated, (the installation element, if you will). There’s furniture, maybe there’s plant life… the whole space welcomes you to enter it, and be immersed in its environment and ambience. I’m there with a microphone, greeting, interacting, introducing topics of conversation and themes…
You feel the hand of the host at these occasions – they’re more designed and composed than a social situation seems to connote.
This host is responsible and accountable for what happens, which could be bad, good, and everything in between.
TW: – What was your first hosted occasion like for example?
Isabel: ‘The classic occasion’ was the very first one I made. It worked on a specific question: ‘how do we live a good and flourishing life in the 21st century’? And it tried to just explore and offer practices by which to engage with that idea…
So one of those practices was love. It took examples of different kinds of romantic love, and understandings of love that even originate from the story of the West, from Ancient Greek philosophy and symposium. And we’d try to take those understandings of love and consideration and apply them to things that are non-human.
Or dancing as a practice; dance as a way to put your body into relation with other things in a different way, to form kinds of understanding not purely based in rational thought.
Or gardening, which was the third proposal. A kind of mediation between the human and non-human world. The gardener is always in this constant process, back and forth, between attending to their own human needs and desires, and those of the plant. This kind of work is a mediation process – you have to learn to listen, and be able to read, what the garden requires…
TW: – How are you positioning yourself in these spaces?
Isabel: There’s one site I can always go back to in the room. A kind of station, where I can change the lighting, music, or initiate different adjustments to the settings or sound. I’ll have a really long microphone cable (sometimes I like to wrap everyone in it as I circle around), or a wireless mic if the space is complex.. ill just be moving around freely and interacting with the audience, dancing and speaking often times. I’ll generally ask someone in the group if I can have a conversation with them.
TW: – Super interactive!
Isabel: Yes, very. But in this low-key way. Not this stressful scenario of participatory theatre, where you feel that there’s something you’re supposed to be doing, and if you feel like you aren’t doing it you’ll be super uncomfortableI try to make it a much more casual atmosphere. Somewhere between storytelling and lecture. I might just dissolve that into moments of music and mingling, or invite people to go eat … The social occasion is the foundation of it, so people know they don’t have to sit here quietly and not move and not breathe, and they can talk and join in… Dance emerges out of that too.
The themes are always consistent for the particular occasion – but how it unfolds is always different depending on the crowd and occasion…
TW: – The audience, framed within this moving composition, is surely an aggregate of complicated variables to negotiate throughout?
Isabel: I see the vibe that is created as part of the composition, but I try not to instrumentalise the public. For me, that’s ethically not okay. I always ask for permission before engaging with audience members. I can prepare the space, generate the atmosphere – but I can’t instrumentalise people into becoming my art.
I try to be sensitive and gentle with that. In a theatre situation if you leave in the middle of it, you’re kind of on display. On the occasion, if you slip out – no one really cares. It’s about creating conditions where people feel they have the agency to do and be how they want to be, and how they feel comfortable being.
TW: – How do you announce these events or market them by the way?
Isabel: They tend to be spread through word of mouth. Friends and friends of friends will come.
I don’t have an instagram, or a website….
TW: – No Instagram?
TW: – We’re happy for you!
Isabel: Thank you! I think word of mouth is great! I believe in this word of mouth thing.. Depends on the scale of the thing you want to do!
I work with art institutions sometimes, so in that case they typically will do press releases, marketing that the museums do, their own social media campaigns…
It’s not like an exhibition, or conventional performance. There’s no tickets. I tend to try to not have entrances or tickets. These are economic questions sometime – the computer world functions on ticketing. I generally avoid ticketing …
An occasion is a luxurious, sensorial experiences. It shouldn’t cost anything to anyone – it’s like a gift.
TW: – You mentioned the limitless possibilities and formats that art could be presented in. What do you think is missing in contemporary art practices that you’re addressing with your hosted occasions?
Isabel: I have a particular critique of our contemporary art culture and it’s obsession with the visual. It’s a little bit too imbalanced. I think the space of visual aesthetics is a very powerful space for meaning making, but I have a feeling that the way contemporary culture has evolved is heavily reliant on this sense… And meanwhile, our other senses are atrophying in this process. They are under addressed, like muscles we don’t use.
There’s something at stake when we just use the eyes, when we understand the visual realm as somewhere we can always get objective understanding or objective distance. Our eyes are thinking as well. They are not abstract or objective – they’re personal, subjective, emotional functions. Addressing the other senses is helping to rebalance this imbalance of the dominance of the visual. It’s a way of reminding us that we’re embodied beings, and we affect one another in a great many ways, and we need time in those ways to be able to find forms of togetherness that are appropriate for a contemporary lifestyle.
Because there are many other forms of togetherness, that come from traditions, or the past, that require a belief in the same thing, or to look in the same way or be the same type of person. And at the same time, we live in this globalised world. And we can try to just conform, but we can’t – we see conformity lead quickly to conflict, and mistrust, and violence…. As a culture we have to work on these forms of togetherness…
A lot of times, the visual gets used as a weapon – “you look different”, or its like “you don’t meet these codes, therefore…”
So I’m just really skeptical of looking at the visual as this primary mode…
TW: – What compelled you to come to Karachi and contribute to the KB19?
Isabel: I had established this ongoing contact with an individual from the Goethe Institut. I’d met him after leaving this workshop along with Asad Reza, and I subsequently met with him and others including Niilofur Farukh at the Sharjah Biennale 14… We started to talk about the theme and the approach of the Biennale.
The entire approach of the KB19 seems to not do the standard thing of making an exhibition column, hanging things in this one particular way, but rather to have a Biennale that becomes a kind of forum – a public forum that is a chance to meet, gather and develop a public… That’s something I relate to very much. This gathering – and what it means to assemble a public – is what I’m interested in. It doesn’t require the formality and tradition of the exhibition in a museum to exist. The whole approach fits very well with my understanding of what can be art and how I engage with art myself.
TW: – Karachi evidently has a huge environmental crisis to contend with. Our ecological landscape continues to be decimated, rationalised by flawed conceptions of development. There are wider issues related to water shortages, waste management, urban heat islands, air pollution, noise pollution. Urban forests are constantly being razed down. This is not news… But beyond the face value devastation, there is something about our ongoing treatment of our surrounding ecology, and the past, present and future effects of that ecology encapsulating us, that needs exploring.
Part of Muhammad Zeeshan’s Curatorial Statement is – “The curatorial lense is interested in going beyond the rudimentary, emphasizing the role of ecology in the choreography of daily life.”
How did you interpret the Curatorial Statement – ‘Flight Interrupted: Eco-leaks from the Invasion Desk’?
Isabel: I think these are really interesting terms to put together. It’s something I’m very busy with in my own work, which has been to generate the conditions for gathering a public. I have a very strict protocol that I apply to the production aspect. I work with what’s already there and aim to create as little waste as possible. This is the impetus that drives me to work with smells, or plant life… It comes from the question: how can I build place, and sense of place and sense of space, without wasting any materials.
So I look at gardens, and how gardens frame and create space with plant life. I became interested in the specificity of plant life. The beauty of plant life… The human relation to plant life. All of those things came as a result of that first inquiry; I want to frame and shape space and create atmosphere without waste.
That’s what lead me into my collaboration with Sissel Tollas and smell research – a powerful way to entrench memories and create spaces… These were all ecological questions first and foremost for me – how can I create an experience of art without generating the enormous amounts of waste that I see happening in the art context in general. For being such a liberal and creative industry, it’s just not saying much about ecology…
I’m very happy about this curatorial statement. I think first and foremost, we have to understand it’s a process, and a long one. We can’t get disappointed too quickly. We see the ‘greening’ of the corporate world – this sort of flashy branding strategy that disillusions individuals who want to see real change and results instead of cute lines that sound good. So it’s always hard to make these statements in light of all that.
We should see this more as an initiation of a longer term process that requires patience and the commitment to stay with it. We may not even see the results we want in our lifetime. But this is how we generate a sensibility to help us solve the problems, which are highly complex, interwoven on a global scale. And this sensibility formation is one that takes time. It’s not like a cause and effect – it’s a gradual change in sensibility…
How do we, in a daily way, integrate into our lives these concerns that can help us towards the actions we’d need to take to implement change on all these levels.