Emma Lewis-Jones was one of the amazing artists taking part in the most recent Warjakka Art Residency – part of the CROWD International Dance Exchange programme developed by Goethe Institute and supported by TaikaBox and colleagues from across Europe.
This TaikaTalk happened on Varjakka, the beautiful ghost island with a dramatic history.
Whilst on Varjakka Island, Emma performed in and around the Konttori building, and was engaged in a number of community dance practices, workshops and installations. One of them commemorated the twenty women and girls who were employed by the local sawmill and tragically died in an accident in Varjakka harbour a century ago.
What was the turning point when you decided to be an artist?
Being present in the body and exploring physicality came as a release during my school years when I had a lot of frustration because they didn’t recognize my learning difficulties. When I was diagnosed it was seen as an issue and not something to celebrate.
I was treated like I was stupid, while I was just learning in my own way. That’s how we all learn – in our own ways. Mine just didn’t fit into that educational system. I felt rubbish at things every day, except for dance, art and performance in general. And music – I love drumming!
For a lot of years I thought I was stupid, not being able to translate many of the things that are positive about dyslexia and dyspraxia into my life and to channel them positively – now I recognize them to be gifts. They are really rewarding parts of my brain and my personality that I enjoy.
Performance making has been like my survival tool, I’ve been using it as therapy… Now, when I work with people with learning difficulties / behavioural issues / physical special needs, I try to look into their personal experience of life and movement.
When you work with different groups and communities in your artistic practice, do you feel it is a little bit easier for them now than it was for you back in those days? In other words, has the situation evolved – for the people challenged by the traditional systems challenging their individual needs?
Anything that involves self-expression is therapeutic. I don’t claim to be a therapist, but I’m aware that I’m using therapy techniques. People find choreography, art, music and dance workshops rewarding for these reasons.
My experience in the UK is that under austerity and the Conservative government we are regressing in the very way in which we deliver education. The understanding of how people learn is getting narrow. It’s oppressive to ask kids to sit down all day and read from black and white text books and computer screens.
On a global scale the attitude towards mental health has taken a much more positive turn. People on the ground – those involved in therapy, both physio- and psychotherapy, and people involved in the arts – have been listened to and valued more since I was young. For example, most people are sympathetic about the frustration of being dyslexic and struggling in mainstream schooling now.
It’s been proven that we can improve people’s lives and support them to express themselves if we offer alternative / broader education through the arts and through other methods – exploring expression, being outdoors, being physical and being emotionally articulate.
That opinion, however, doesn’t seem to be represented among the authorities who make decisions (laughs). I don’t think educational structures are really changing to accommodate that – even though it becomes more and more common to talk about mental health. I don’t see any integral changes…
You have been engaged in activism. How do you balance between performance and political activism and how do you combine them?
I like to think that some of my performances are actually activism – or exploration of things that I feel need to be said. The direct action of mine – as well as artistic practice – is informed by occupying space physically, and taking hold of your physical autonomy, using your political body to stand in the way of something you oppose. It is usually very physical, like chaining or gluing yourself to something or lying or sitting in the way of people getting past you (or through you). That can lead to arrest, and it’s about taking up the time of the authorities in order to send a message to the law makers that we need systemic change…
There’s this strange contrasting thing that happens when you lie in the way of the law – you are kind of actively resting. That’s one of the things we did a lot within Warjakka Art Residency on the island of Varjakka. The thing here is to find comfort in an uncomfortable place, resting deeply and sending your weight into different parts of your body – so you are continuously and actively engaged in the activity of rest. That is definitely something you have to do if you are lying on the road for eight hours before you’re arrested. I enjoy that mindfulness.
People who want to sustain direct action benefit from somatic work, body-mind centering or yoga – something really grounding. I take somatic practice into both art and activism, and the thing I carry over from activism to art is taking up space as a radical act.
I am white. I am gay. I am young. Non-disabled. I often think about the privilege that I take into the situation as a performer, as a maker, as a choreographer in the public space and in my activism. I am aware that I can get up and run if I need to. I can also be targeted for being gay. I haven’t experienced that from the police yet, but I think with your privilege you have to weigh up your responsibility and accountability – and also your vulnerability (in art, activism, everywhere else and in between)…
Speaking of political bodies – freedom of expression is losing so much when it is about the freedom of speech: those who speak up get persecuted, those who don’t are encouraged thus to be silenced through fear and laws which violate human rights. Is body harder to silence? One can delete articles and block websites, yet Chicago Aurora standing in front of the police which had earlier confronted “Black Lives Matter” members couldn’t be ignored and actually prevented some clashes. Do you believe in the power of body language over the power of words?
If there are things to be read, they will just be read. If I made a piece of art that didn’t address the fact that I’m a woman and white, those things would still be read. There’s that kind of automatic accountability that has to happen when you’re creating work.
With words one has to be making really conscious decisions and being truly selective… Your body can say a lot more than you trained it to do through dance classes, or with what clothes you decide to wear. There’s so much more being said with how you move. In that sense the body is extremely powerful and able to convey a lot of information – and in that sense it is stronger than words. The other reason it is stronger – we cannot eradicate bodies as easily as we can eradicate words.
How do you feel yourself in the artistic community where connecting activism and art hasn’t been the most popular of paths – the mainstream, light, and entertainment without awareness seemed to be the often taken path for ages? Do you feel lonely (angry or sad) in a context when there is not enough solidarity within the artistic community in the context of human rights?
I wouldn’t say that I feel anger. Art treated as light entertainment – that is something entirely predictable. I hope things have changed due to coronavirus which challenged the routines, but I am not sure it has challenged them for good… Corona dramatically limited one of the very special processes within the artistic community: to be together in studios, playing around and being physically relaxed with other artists. That is something I finally experienced in Warjakka Art Residency.
Our conversation is happening after an amazing workshop in the Konttori building on the island of Varjakka. The participants discovered new intimacy through performance art making and movement. And then officers from the forest- and the sea- police dropped by, smiling and friendly, yet one of them was carrying a gun. This looked so much out of line with the atmosphere of Varjakka, and contrasted to the subtle family vibes which emerged during the workshop. How did you manage to convert that experience?
In this situation I think about my time and resources and my capacities. When there is anger it needs to be addressed and channelled. Harnessed anger is a brilliant tool for affecting change. Take gender inequality, homophobia, racism, climate crises, border crises – my activism in those areas isn’t about sharing the peace love. It is about converting the anger into useful energy.
The workshop you referred to made me happy and grateful: I got a chance to joyfully witness the surprise of what people produce choreographically in a series of hilarious, awkward, lovely and just brilliant performance experiences – I live for that feeling of creative abundance.
Those choreographic surprises lead to brilliant discussions, gratitude and admiration – that’s the feeling you get after having given something enough time and thought. That was exactly the thing that the workshop participants gave to each other. I couldn’t ask anything more in my life than to see those things happening.
What’s your dream project?
I like to work with people who are uniquely linked to the theme or are the centre of the idea. Although it is hard to compare projects, – each is unique – I would mention one, the one marked by the Corona isolation – ”A Body Populated”. It felt like a collaborative piece, although I spent a solo week in the studio. I was collecting the unheard voices by conducting interviews with the women who lived locally to me in Nottingham, some of them were neighbours, some were friends or family, some were refugees and asylum seekers, some were colleagues…
I was interviewing them on statistics and news in the Corona time, for 6 months, and we were watching the world from closed doors. I made a ceramic cone in response to each woman’s interview. Then I laid these cones across the floor in a studio and began to make movement that played with the idea that these 100 cones represented statistics – lots of different statistics I gathered during the pandemic about women and refugees and childbirth (all the issues that affected the women I had interviewed). In that space I was also playing the audio versions of those interviews, and that felt like a very intimate experience.
With unheard voices and unseen bodies…
Yes, and my dream is to work with more and more people. I like to have lots of them on board, with shared ideas and vision. Collaborating is an art form in itself. It is difficult, complicated, the mental well-being is absolutely important and communication skills are totally essential – and you have to invest much energy and time into that to get a thorough quality discussion. Working with people in an equal way feels radical and exciting.
Could it be a piece of advice you would give to your little self?
Nothing is linear – that’s what I’d say. Even when I made a decision to engage with art, it didn’t end up the way I pictured it. We were talking on the island of Varjakka how the time is not about placing stepping stones in front of you, but rather stacking them up and looking down through them and seeing all the layers – that’s what I would share with baby Emma.
Emma Lewis-Jones was talking with Lölä Vlasenko