PERFORMANCE, SOUND AND DESIRE: THE RAVE AS COLLECTIVE PRACTICE
Sara Sassanelli is curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), and previously worked at Tate, Royal Academy of Arts and Goldsmiths. They are interested in the intersections between choreography, performance and sound and their work includes collaborations with artists, promoters and curators in clubs and galleries. Their practice centres the work of artists who are uniquely experimenting with questions of desire, new socialities, world building, experimental writing and choreographic practices. Recent projects at ICA include The Tender Interval: Studies in Sound and Motion, Females: A Close Reading (Andrea Long Chu) with Sita Balani, Paul B. Preciado in conversation with Jack Halberstam, and an all night takeover by queer club collective INFERNO.
Irene Adorni met them to talk about their research and recent projects.
Irene: Hi Sara, thank you very much first of all! I am very happy to have the opportunity to interview you. I find your research and curatorial practice very interesting and close to some topics that I also deal with in my artistic practice. In fact, I really care about issues like the movement of the body in space, and especially movement as co-respiration and collective co-vibration. As Bifo argues, the biorhythmic conjunction of conscious and sensitive organisms is a vibrant relationship: through it, individual organisms seek a common rhythm, a common emotional ground of understanding(1).I believe that breathing – vibrating- together is a way to imagine new realities that are in some way opposed to the individualistic and competitive dynamics that are typically neoliberal.
An expression of the power of breathing together is then the rave and what is generated in the context of clubbing, which can be seen as a collective practice and ritual. It is within this context that all those imposed social norms collapse, and space opens up for the possibility of imagining possible scenarios.
I would like to ask you first of all how your interest in performance art and choreography was born in the context of electronic music and clubbing, and then specifically if you can talk about your projects move close and inner u(2). It is interesting to me this union and especially the fact that the unexpected performances did not follow a declared line-up within the evening, but that in this fluid union the visual and performative elements succeeded as happenings within the club. So how did you get to the idea of these two projects?
Sara: Inner u already existed as a party, and I started collaborating with the founders who I had been introduced to through mutual friends who were performing at the parties – so it all started in a very lowkey way and I wasn’t sure what it was going to turn into. I was interested in bringing experimental choreographic practices and performance more broadly, outside of the restrictions of thematic impositions. I thought contextualising performance through different means could offer something else, something more collective. Timing, placement and viewership became more interesting to me curatorially. Not because I think thematic curation is not viable; I just wanted to use temporality as a material. I started by inviting artists without much directive in terms of scheduling or invitation. The invitation was about asking them to bring something that they wanted to experiment with, and the offer was the context and the kind of viewership the space provided. On the one hand, curating for the club has a directness about it that I didn’t feel I could achieve in the institutions I was in at the time. It removed some of the cold or severe modes of presentation that so often occur in gallery contexts and allowed for something that I felt was a more collective action of being present and involved. The dynamics between viewer and work in the context of the club were blurry or at least in some ways were displaced.
With move close, was in collaboration with artists Es Morgan and Joseph Morgan Schofield, which came about a year and a half later. move close was about experimenting with the intersections between club and performance as spaces for processing, for a kind of meditation and for communing. Move close was also about performance as a kind of interruption, almost like a reset. We would have around 4 performances per night, so almost a performance per hour, and it gave this sense of rhythm where each performance would shift the direction of the night depending on its mood, vibe or tone.
I: With your project lowkey(3) you intend to present movement in space as “inbetweenness” through performance and dance. I find very interesting this focus on movement as an element to spatially indicate inbetweenness and therefore not belonging to a point A or a point B. I think about a text by Brian Massumi in which he reflects on positionality and movement. He argues that the formation of the subject according to the dominant structure is often thought of in terms of “coding’, that is the positioning on a grid. This grid is an oppositional framework of culturally constructed meanings: male versus female, black versus white, gay versus straight, and so on(4).
Fluidity of movement and not being defined by positioning, but by the continuous movement between different points is a theme that comes up a lot in the context of clubbing. Reading your statement(5) for lowkey project, I was particularly inspired by the phrase ‘We want to exist as moving people in a low key way’, so the centrality of movement as a sort of definition of existence. Can you tell me more about this and how you suggested this correlation between movement, fluidity, and inbetweenness in your projects?
S: My interest in lowkeyness or inbetweeness stems from what I experience when listening to electronic music, especially in the context of the club. More specifically, the bodily experience of bass and its relationship to the nervous system. The project lowkey for me was a labour process organised by foregrounding free time, leisure time and time with friends. As a proposition, lowkey was about a production of assemblages of desire. I thought of it as a vehicle or space holder for desires that had previously emerged in the space of the club, or in spaces of intimacy with friends. So, as the project was being developed with two very close friends of mine (artists Eve Stainton and Michael Kitchin), part of the material was the intimacy we carried, the relationships that were inevitably embedded in its structure. So, the work for me was assembled in this permeable and solvent way, it had a very loose score and had no pre-determined sonic elements. We were all involved in both dancing and mixing music throughout. The structure of the piece was very much a reflection of the process, the practice of lowkey that later existed as part of the performed piece started in a residency in a residential home. Centring leisure time as experience in the club was what led us to invite other artists and dancers to join for different iterations; for me it was more a practice of intimate exchange, and lowkey held a space to relate through movement.
I: In 2020 you curated the take over of INFERNO(6), a huge queer techno rave, at the ICA Theatre, Bar, and Cinema with an all-night program of music, queer porn, and performance art.
In this case, you did the reverse process, you took the elements of clubbing and rave and, from their original situation, that is inside the club, you brought them inside an institutional space.
I remember I was so excited about this event that I exclaimed a sincere ‘finally!’ because often, in institutional contexts, people talk about queerness, about overcoming socially imposed limits, about fluidity, about the rituality of dance and collective practices, etc., but they take these elements within the context of clubbing and bring them back into the exhibition space, almost denaturing them. In some cases, this process is done by taking only the aesthetics of the rave but destroying the actual relational dynamics.
Instead, with INFERNO you didn’t want to denature them and therefore you made a hazard: you really brought the rave inside the institutional space. Can you tell me about this project, why you decided to do it, and how the event was conceived?
S: INFERNO happened because I found out I could get a 6am license at ICA! This felt like it unlocked some potential around the relational dynamics that you mention in your question, as I had similar frustrations about the aesthetics of the club being extracted and placed in institutional contexts. I was – and still am – keen to collaborate with collectives interested in putting the institution ‘through something’. What I want to do with the series is invite collaborations with people and collectives rooted in multiple rave traditions. The series is meant to foreground the rave as a space for emotional self-care, a space for pleasure and to actualise desire, where people could be seen the way they want to be seen. INFERNO, run by the incredible person and artist Lewis G. Burton, couldn’t have been a better way to start. INFERNO hosts monthly techno raves but they are also a community and platform that commissions and supports artists. They combine goth, camp, pop culture, and are for me, a really important space for queer nightlife in London. I think this particular event conjured a space for those who attended to access whatever emanated in that moment. I wanted it to hold a space for a collective sense of heat, sweat and euphoria. Unruliness in this context was important to me, and I hope a sense of that was achieved, or that people experience a viscosity of time, through the act of collectively dancing, moving and sensing. I’m most interested in what the series could offer, provide or do, rather than what it undermines in terms of institutional critique. I think a lot about temporality in the rave or ‘rave time’ – the low-level or high-level intoxication of the rave, the connections through dancing, the collective movement to the beat, the fact that its free-time and celebratory time but also for many, a time for processing, and it results in assemblages of different modes of being and a different way of living. Perhaps it’s also simply a mode of survival, what I mean by that is it unlocks a series of contexts in order to survive. I think INFERNO is a good example of this, it’s a place for queer, trans and gender-non-conforming people to exist, it’s also about being seen and recognized and affirmed as you want to be seen.
I: How was an event like INFERNO perceived within ICA? Was the audience the same one that would have gone to an INFERNO event anyway, or did you notice a widening of the audience with those who perhaps already visited ICA as a more institutional exhibition space?
S: INFERNO has a very committed community and I felt like they really showed up to ICA and their presence was important. The duration being 8 hours running from 10pm – 6am had an impact on the vibe/success/experience – it allowed for the different dynamics that you get in a club to actually happen; like sweat, heat, friendship, intimacy and sex, different levels of intoxication, tiredness and euphoria. However, through the inclusion of the cinema programme and the performance in the Theatre it both acknowledged the space we were in and made use of it. Having a programme of queer porn curated by UNCENSORED also provided a specificity to the use of the Cinema. It was about providing a sex-positive space for those who reject the distinction between pornography and art and who bring criticality to censorship and who want to celebrate porn through a queer feminist lens that welcomes a discussion around the politics of pleasure. I think the combination of these elements avoided it feeling like an extraction, or a parody, I think it allowed it to turn into its own thing.
(1) Breathing, Chaos and Poetry, Franco Bifo Berardi, Semiotext (e) 2018. pp. 111-112
(2) inner u is a London party run by Ben Bishop, Will Coldwell and Sara Sassanelli, rooted in the idea of the club space as a place of free expression. It mixes a program of electronic music, from techno to bass, with contemporary performances and visual arts rooted in the rave tradition. move close is a party at Vogue Fabrics Dalston curated by Es Morgan, Sara Sassanelli and Joseph Morgan Schofield, in which various performances occur unannounced throughout the night, with a focus on the relationship between current experimental electronic music and dance/live art.
(3) lowkey involves The Uncollective (Eve Stainton & Michael Kitchin) and Sara Sassanelli working to unpack judgement within a performance space through their dancing bodies. The project wants to lower the stakes of what a performance space might normally hold: the Uncollective are using Sara to lower the stakes of their dance practice, whilst Sara is using the Uncollective to make it okay to be watched while dancing.
(4) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Brian Massumi, Durham: Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 2-3
(5) We want to use the space to dance
We want to use the space to explore togetherness and aloneness
We want to use the space to mix/ loop music and create soundscapes that inspire us to move
We want to exist as moving people in a low key way.
We want to lower the stakes of what a future performance of this exploration might be/ look like
Maybe there is a little bit of impostor syndrome in this.
(6) Queer techno rave curated by performance artist and DJ Lewis G. Burton and producer and musician Sebastian Bartz (Venice Calypso), with all-night screenings of queer pornography presented by curators Lidia Ravviso and Olivia Carr-Archer of UNCENSORED Festival.