Expectations ran high ahead of this year’s Alt_Cph after the announcement, made last autumn, that the 12thedition of the art fair would focus on performance art. Particularly because the arrangers have kept the social media well supplied with teasers ever since. Indeed, the first impressions from Fabrikken for Kunst og Design, a collective of artists’studios in Copenhagen and the setting of Alt_Cph, did not disappoint.
A huge grid structure made out of shiny aluminium, placed on a vast pink carpet, divided the hall into wall-less booths or stands, allowing audiences to move freely between tableaux that would be brought to life by performances at various intervals. A simple mega-set design that looked good and made the works look good too–even those that didn’t quite deserve it. Never mind, then, that the design was also redolent of a post-Internet, advertising-like aesthetic of the kind already familiar from Berlin and New York.
Up until now, Alt_Cph has acted as the artist-run exhibition venues’alternative and somewhat unassuming art fair, offering audiences yet another option when the Copenhagen art scene launches a new season every year in September. This time, the curators – siblings Anna and Esben Weile Kjær, chosen for the position after an open call – not only moved the event to May to give it some breathing room. They also transformed the event into a festival – not to say mini-biennial – featuring 50 performances and an ambitious programme of talks spanning three days.
Amidst all these changes, they also upheld aspects of the flat hierarchy typical of the artist-run scene: all the exhibition venues, platforms and collectives invited each contributed performances to the final programme. And perhaps it was this mixture of cool top-down management and democratic co-curating that helped create that distinctive “Copenhagen atmosphere” that many commented on during the weekend. A relaxed, communal vibe of the kind one sometimes finds on smaller-scale art scenes.
On the opening day, the choreographer Maria Metsalu (presented by the Alt_Cph curators) offered a taste of the Estonian performance art scene, which is supposedly quite hardcore –a claim that was certainly borne out by seeing Metsalu in action. With a ferocity akin to the Vienna Actionists, she performed a ritual séance in and around a pool of blood-red water, at one point lying on the floor with a lit candle inserted into her genitals – flame outwards, that is. She repeatedly hurled herself out among the audience so that several people had to grab each other in order not to fall. The whole thing might be described as aggressively controlled, yet still creating a certain nervousness amongst the audience.
British duo New Noveta (also introduced by Alt_Cph) got the audience worked up, too. Lasting only a few minutes, their panic performance on Friday night dragged curious onlookers in its wake like a tidal wave. They swept through the space so that no-one could really see what was going on – apart from the fact that the two performers dragged each other along, leaving behind a long trail of juices from broken berries and several trampled pieces of art. Somewhat to the frustration of those who were trying to present a more conventional kind of exhibition.
Pulses sent racing by all this excitement, many subsequently threw themselves enthusiastically into the opening party, which is said to have lasted long into the wee hours. Indeed, Esben Weile Kjær is no stranger to party planning: many probably associate his name with the party concept Mainstream, which grew out of Bøssehuset in Christiania and carved out a space for queer partying on the Copenhagen club scene.
While the event would be shimmering with excitement and energy at some points, these were interspersed with periods of lethargy, pervaded by a stoner-like trade-fair mood. Quite surprising, really; you’d expect a rather different pace from a festival bearing the title Over-existing. Still, that left all the more time to study the programme in great detail or to have a snail treatment at The Institut d’Esthétique (presented by Anaïs Lepage for the curator collective Heiwata from Mexico City, Paris and Toronto). Or to simply drift aimlessly around, taking in the increasingly garbage-strewn exhibition venue where various kinds of debris gradually began to dominate the scene, including quite a bit of mud from Maja Malou Lyse’s somewhat strained and aggravating staging of a mud fight between three bikini-clad women in an inflatable paddling pool.
The title Over-existing is a reference to the quote “Am I over-existing or am I over existing?” – a Ryan Trecartine reworking of “To be, or not to be”. It has to do with a post-performance concept that the curators wanted to introduce – a concept that was illustrated in a very literal fashion by placing a funereal bouquet on the floor after the completion of each performance. A macabre and rather peculiar ritual given the current discourse about how everything is performing and that nothing exists beyond the performative. So, funerals are performative, and within object-oriented ontology a stone is performative and so on.
Another perspective on the issue of over-existing versus being over existing can be provided by a discussion of privileges: after all, giving something extra of yourself and working with identity issues is not something that everyone has the opportunity to do – far from it. It would have been good to see that kind of nuance more clearly expressed amidst this setting, which was certainly a queered, performative, free space, but also very much about maxing out and getting an energy going.
A few excellent highlights put heavy world politics on the table – not in a burned-out activist manner, but through performances with a capital P.
On Saturday night, American performance artist Tyler Matthew Oyer (presented by Vermilion Sands, Copenhagen) delivered a bravura performance that made yours truly shed a tear (to my great relief after a long period worrying about chronic apathy). Oyer began by lighting candles held by a pentagram-shaped candlestick on the floor and then proceeded to chant everything to hell. “We are casting spells tonight to take down capitalism. To take down imperialism”, he sang in a voice reminscent of Nils Bech, but with unearthly presence. Quite simply, Oyer struck a blow for a–perhaps old-fashioned –kind of performance in which the performer has something to convey to the audience and does so without any flim-flam.
Equally musically and choreographically gifted were the trio consisting of just in F Kennedy, Casper-Malte Augusta and Lydia Östberg Diakité (presented by the collective Marronage, Copenhagen). They had an important message about never believing hype, as expressed in this message: ‘Beauty is industry. Let go of the ego’. A soft, spectral-coloured experience that went straight under the skin.
Many other works could be mentioned from the extremely generous programme, featuring more than 100 artists. However, thinking back it is not so much the individual contributions, but the overall totality of this weekend’s edition of Alt_Cph that springs to mind. More than anything, Over-existing was a performative continuum that set the aluminium grid in motion, causing everything to sway in a single, vast, rather queer manifestation – an invigorating blast of fresh air on the Copenhagen art scene.
It will be interesting to see what will happen to Alt_Cph in future. Who knows? Perhaps the seeds for a new performance festival in Copenhagen were sown this weekend. Here’s to hoping, anyway.