The performance duo Gideonsson/Londré is not about putting on a show. Rather, their work is like an iceberg, where only the tip is visible through staged situations or objects which have been pared down to their essential components. Behind the restrained grey and beige aesthetic, we can sense the time-consuming experiments and repetitive movements thatemanate from the physical artworks. The tension lies in the perseverance, or the manic quest, that bubbles under the surface.
Lisa Gideonsson and Gustaf Londré began their collaboration during the early 2010s, while students at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. Today, they live far from the city in the small rural community of Kallrör in Jämtland, where, in addition to working on their own art projects, they help run Konstfrämjandet Jämtland [the People’s Movement for Art Promotion]. Artist-run spaces around the country like Celsius Projects in Malmö and Stockholm’s Andquestionmark have been particularly important for the development of their practice, but they have since gone on to exhibit at institutions such as Moderna Museet in Malmö, Kunsthall Trondheim in Norway, and Fundació Joan Miró in Spain. Recently, they participated in the first North Atlantic Triennial, which was shown in Portland (Maine, USA) andReykjavik, and is now on display at Bildmuseet in Umeå.
The duo’s starting point is an interest in the act of collaboration itself, and their works are often reiterated over many years. Abramović and Ulay are an obvious reference, but the artists also cite the French cave explorer Michel Siffre and the pianist Glenn Gould among their influences. Gideonsson/Londré’s interest in the human body has manifested itself in works such as Vargtimmen (The Hour of the Wolf, 2016–ongoing) which draws on the processes taking place within our bodies between 3:00 and 5:00, and has been shown as a twenty-six-hour performance. In Böjelser (Inclinations, 2022) the artists recorded their body positions once every hour, day and night, for an entire year. A feat of endurance, but also a kind of mantra. They map out their lives with schema and rules, hoping to access the body’s hidden knowledge. Perhaps it is all about dissolving the boundary between body and mind?
When I called, Gideonsson/Londré was on a residency in Jokkmokk in the far north of Sweden. Over the course of two hours on zoom – I was horizontal on the bed, they sat beside each other at a kitchen table – we talked about collaboration, science, and body-knowledge. I could tell that the two spend 24 hours a day together: they finished each other’s sentencesand helped each other to answer my questions. Their work is not about grandiose gestures, but precise ones, which is reflected in their analytical and articulate discourse.
What was the starting point for Gideonsson/Londré? How did your collaboration begin?
Gustaf Londré: We began working together during our time at the Royal Institute of Art [RIA] in Stockholm. Eventually, it became clear that it was inevitable, and it soon became the only thing that we did.
Lisa Gideonsson: We graduated from RIA in 2014, and by that point what we were doing together had become so much more meaningful to us than what we were doing as individuals. The starting point was a desire to approach the other person’s body and mind.
How did you get into art in the first place?
LG: I’ve always seen art as being a kind of inevitability, but it wasn’t always visual art – I worked a lot with music beforehand.
GL: And I was writing. I don’t think I knew what an artist did before I was one. But I think that we both always had dreams of being able to work with our selves and our fantasies.
How did you work before you found each other?
LG: Do we have to answer that?
GL: We often get that question. People are so interested to know what we did before. They want to understand our roles in the collaboration as a way of reading our work. Gideonsson/Londré comes from an interest in collaboration itself. We both had the need to create a space in which we could explore very mundane structures in a new way and make room for the unpredictable. We call it a kind of third body.
You’ve talked about how your working methods give rise to experiences that go beyond individual intention. Can you say more about that?
LG: In the beginning, it was very much about exploring our own weaknesses and trying to find breaking points, when things start to fall apart, and you lose yourself and your orientation in time. It began in quite a literal manner as we looked for positions in which our bodies could work together, for example breathing at the same rate for a whole day. In another exercise we tried to communicate by reading each other’s lips, while at the same time trying to speak.
GL: When no one knows who’s in charge it’s almost like disappearing yourself. Our works often stem from a curiosity about things losing stability, and to see what happens as the subject disintegrates. As a result, our practice became to some extent a search for ways to stage such situations for ourselves, and sometimes for the audience as well.
Who would you say are your artistic influences?
GL: Clearly, historical movements such as Dada and artists like Ulay and Marina Abramović have influenced our work.But primarily we’ve found inspiration in other fields, as well as in our own shortcomings. We’ve always been interested in the French speleologist Michel Siffre who went from exploring caves to exploring his own circadian rhythm [how the human body’s daily cycles are regulated by a ‘biological clock’].
LG: Other collaborations, like that of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, or Arakawa and Madeline Gins are good examples. There are, of course, many artists who have inspired us, but [Swedish musician and poet] Mattias Alkberg probably stands out for his determination and his uncompromising attitude. I remember previously naming Glenn Gould – more as a model for a way of thinking – a role model always dressed in winter clothes who dared to leave everything behind.
How did you get into performance?
GL: I don’t think we ever conceived of our work as such. We were looking for certain experiences and I can’t even remember when what we did in private became public and was perceived as performance.
LG: I think we still find it quite difficult to see our work as performance. Performance is rather a kind of unavoidable consequence of what we do.
I’m interested in your work around rituals. I relate it to meditation, which in itself is about becoming more present. Other times, however, your work makes me think about dissociation. Sometimes the mind seems to be totally disconnected from the body. A lot of your work seems to be in a controlled state, yet at the same time totally disintegrated. When you go through your rituals of counting and measuring, is a sense of time still present or do you totally let it go? Is it therapeutic or terrifying?
GL: I think that we see more and more how close total dissociation and presence are to each other. Both aspects exist simultaneously. In that sense, our practice can be really exhausting and destructive.
LG: Neither of us are striving for peace in the same way that you find through meditation. I think we feel that the situations we create for ourselves are necessary, however unpleasant they may be.
GL: When we started working together, for the first few years we made experiments which were more directed towards ourselves, trying to find a feeling which you could call presence, but simultaneously is experienced like you have entered a totally different sense of time. Vargtimmen was about influencing and affecting a barely-conscious body somewhere between sleep and waking. We tried to control each other in different ways: tie down different body parts, apply weight to coerce different body positions. Or have the other person stand in a pitch-black wardrobe at 3:00 and describe their arms, head, stomach, and legs. It was very much a question of controlling and being controlled. The following night, we switched roles.
The first time we performed the work publicly, as Vargtimmen I, was in 2016 at Stephanie Hessler and Carsten Höller’s space Andquestionmark in Stockholm. We chose to stay open for twenty-six hours, from 3:00 to 5:00 the following morning. It became a way to bring people together – some would stumble in completely drunk at 3:00 with no idea what was happening and just fall asleep. Although the audience was inactive and had to lie on blankets, sometimes with weights made of dough on their hands and legs, we were constantly awake, pulling the visitors around on the blankets, further into the wolf hour. It became a community of people with sleep problems or those who live outside conventional life.
It makes me think of the concept of ego death, without referring to the LSD connotations.
GL: Yes, it’s a bit of a loaded concept. But it is really quite close to where our interests lie. Though it’s not quite so simple as that either because at the same time there is always a living ego, or even a kind of total egoism present in our work.
LG: We are two extreme egos, which is perhaps why we strive towards a kind of ego death.
How do you develop your works?
LG: We live together and spend 24 hours a day with each other, so there is a kind of constant discussion around where things begin and end: “When are we working? What is time off? How do we relate to each other?” There are some periods when we need to have a very structured working process, then we’ll go together to the studio on the other side of the road every day.
GL: We like to work in a regular rhythm. We rarely start new projects, so it’s more about keeping things going and trying to find new aspects in what we already do. We will never be able to get to the ideal work through our imagination.Instead, it’s about the constant working process and what emerges from it, with materials, text, and objects floating around.
You describe it almost as if your whole life is part of your artistic practice – that it’s about identifying things and zooming in. You live quite an isolated life in a small village in west Jämtland, while at the same time you’ve developed a practice that requires your physical presence. Can you talk about the choice to move from a big city to a rural area?
LG: Even when we lived in Stockholm, we were drawn to places and contexts which allowed us to structure our own time to see what could arise from such an extremely optimised, yet verging on failed, existence. Quite by chance, we ended up here eight years ago, and yes, it is quite an isolated place, but we’ve never thought of performance as very a public medium. For us, it’s much more about our own exploration of the body and its gestures.
What is your relationship to the Swedish art scene in general?
GL: It is important for us to work where we are. It starts in our house in Kallrör, then it can stretch out to the rest of Jämtland, to Härjedalen, Västerbotten, Norrbotten, Tornedalen, Sápmi, to the rest of the country, sometimes even outside Sweden. The artist-run spaces have been particularly important to us: Art Lab Gnesta, NKF [the Nordic Art Association], Celsius in Malmö, and Andquestionmark back in the day. At these places we have been allowed to do exactly what we want. That is also why we run Konstfrämjandet Jämtland.
In recent years, you have exhibited quite regularly in larger institutions. You’re part of the first North Atlantic Triennial, which is on display at Umeå’s Bildmuseet at the moment, and you curated the exhibition Conditioned Movement (2022–2023) at Moderna Museet in Malmö. Has this affected your way of working?
LG: Absolutely. An institution always has its requirements and an established way of doing things. There are already so many different functions and jobs that it’s challenging to work out how the performative should relate to what is already going on in the space. For the triennial, we saw an opportunity to develop and adapt the work over time, as the exhibition travelled across three locations with different requirements. In Conditioned Movement at Moderna Museet, which we curated in collaboration with the museum’s curator Andreas Nilsson, we reflected on the institution’s role in the preservation of a collection, which we tried to highlight, through the efforts of the conservators. The exhibition was very much about the bodies that enable art, both as creators and custodians.
It feels like much of your artistic practice is hidden from the viewer – that a part of it remains a kind of shadow world that the viewer cannot access.
GL: We believe very strongly that bodies and actions can contain a wealth of hidden messages, and that those are embedded in our public work. One can sense what’s hidden, and in that sense is something interesting. Our work is very much about finding the hidden knowledge of the body, even if only temporarily.
Do you work with repetition as a way to reach that knowledge? I feel that you are looking for something that the body will reveal by doing the same thing over and over again, something that cannot be imagined. Thought and consciousness can be disconnected by the act of repetition, allowing space for the body’s own expression.
GL: Repetition is one way to do it. This is a method that is also used in many religious practices or in other contexts when one wants to put the body to the test.
LG: For many years, a significant aspect of our work has been to collect different kinds of techniques or methods which can be used to access the body’s hidden knowledge.
Thinking about your work in relation to research, sometimes it seems as though you are imitating research methodology. Where does that interest come from?
LG: You can use the measurable in absurdum, you measure until the measurable cracks from its own measurability. Within science there are often very functional structures that interest us. Everything has a purpose, method, and rules. We see this as performativity. We visited one of the world’s most renowned sleep laboratories in Switzerland, and what happens there is actually art.
GL: It’s fascinating to see people trying to optimise their actions through different means. There is an unreflective nakedness to that kind of project. It’s beautiful when function can take over and determine everything in a space.
LG: It may sound a bit romantic, but our work is also a quest to find the beauty and poetry bubbling under the surface in these places.
Is a laboratory a kind of theatre?
GL: Neither of us are particularly interested in science as such – there are artists who are, and who justify their practices on the basis of various scientific points of view. We are instead really interested in different human endeavours.
LG: When you walk around the sleep lab, you realise your shortcomings as a human being. Everything is about function. When you are there you are surrounded by material and non-material tools which humans have designed to maintain life and the being; it’s simply about the will to survive.
Yes, a sleep laboratory has a kind of poetic vulnerability in its totally analytical approach to a problem that is both private and existential: not being able to sleep. It also makes me think of biohackers, who use various techniques to improver their bodies. There’s a kind of fragility exposed by the attempt to improve one’s way of life. Beneath the pursuit of physical strength and healthy routines lurks a fear of death. This means that the biohacker’s behaviour conceals both strength and weakness at the same time.
GL: Yes, that’s exactly what interests us. And, again, it’s about what’s hidden. People look to measurability for comfort disguised as something else.
I have thought a lot about what an ointment is. More than the effects of the ointment itself on my body, it is about the act of doing of something to make myself feel better. To regularly apply an ointment feels good for the soul.
LG: That’s interesting to look at more closely: “what kind of movement is repeatedly being made to apply the ointment?”As we said, what the ointment does, as is the case with biohacking, is not so interesting in itself. We find zooming in on these movements and their meaning really fascinating.
GL: There is a technique in practical psychology called “tapping” which involves repetitive tapping on different points on the body. The idea is to stimulate and control the nervous system through physical rhythms on certain trigger points. As with many things, the object is not so important; it’s about the gesture that accompanies the object.
Böjelser is about studying the body’s positions. Can you say something about that work?
GL: In Böjelser, we wanted to look into what we do with our bodies and how they were positioned at all hours of the day. It was about understanding how we live by looking at the body’s positions. We started carrying notebooks with a chart containing twenty-four squares, one for each hour of the day, into which you should enter the average body position you have had during the hour. It became a routine that we followed over the course of a year. By the end of it, we were so aware of how we positioned ourselves that it affected everything we did. Our bodies are designed for different positions than the ones they are in most of the time today. We often think of the upright body as being the ideal, but is that really the case given that we break down our spine more and more the straighter we stand?
LG: There is a resistance in verticality, in standing up. Every day we overcome something when we get out of bed. It’s something we’ve been trying to master for millions of years.
I always work completely horizontal. I would say that I spend almost all the hours of the day in bed.
GL: We started giving charts to people to fill in and return to us. A lot of people were ashamed of the positions of their bodies and sent it back with a note saying that “this is not what it usually looks like.”
LG: It was very much about inactivity or activity, where activity was associated with the upright body. But the more charts we tried to interpret and read, the more all that stuff dissolved. In the end, it was just a meaningless line on a piece of paper. The body in repose can look just like the body when swimming. This brings us back to how taking measurement to its extreme leads to its dissolution. All the lines and squares eventually became a kind of hieroglyphic language of their own.
I think a lot about time in relation to your work. In Böjelser, you collected data for a whole year. On other occasions, it might be that contact with the audience takes place over a very long time, as in Vargtimmen, which you mentioned has lasted up to twenty-six hours.
GL: Duration enables certain aspects in the work that interest us. For example, that we never really need to think that what we are doing has to become something, it is simply in the doing of it. This idea that something can just go on and not have this external observer in mind is an important element for us.
LG: This is where our collaboration is so extremely important. Not having the other would make the long duration much more difficult to endure. We are constantly in dialogue with each other about what we’re doing, even if it’s not visible to anyone else. We believe in the slow.
Vargtimmen also makes me think about biological time.
LG: Vargtimmen was born from personal experience. During a period when we slept in a tent during winter, with rather basic equipment, we always woke up between 3:00 and 5:00 because we were so extremely cold. This began to interest us more and more. So we looked into it more scientifically, and found out things like the fact that your melatonin levels go up and your temperature goes down between 3:00 and 5:00 in the morning. It’s no wonder you get anxious and cold. The body isn’t really working; it’s a time when you’re forced into inactivity.
GL: We also think of the project as referring to other epochs in human history when the wolf hour had a function.
To be awake for twenty-six hours is also a bit of an endurance challenge, which relates back to the body’s ability to keep going.
GL: One way to get a bit closer to an ecstatic state is to get really exhausted. It’s also an approach to performance. To do something for a very long time is a technique that can give something purposeless an air of purpose. As artists who work with a kind of mind-expanding, body-exploring practice, we must always question the necessity of what we do and reflect on how something should be performed so that it doesn’t just become institutionalised posing. Of course, this does not prevent things from actually having meaning.
Do you think that people today have lost touch with the body?
LG: We don’t want to proselytise some kind of idea that people should see the world in a more sensual way, but it is certainly part of the point of the work to awaken consciousness within the body.
It strikes me how your diagrams in Böjelser almost form a readable language, as if you’re creating a language for the body and thus giving it its own voice.
GL: We are quite critical of the division of body and soul. For us, it’s very much the same thing. It’s not so clear what is what. Today people often seem to presume that there is a clear difference between the body, consciousness, and other objects that we encounter. But as far as we’re concerned, it’s all the same thing, on many levels.
LG: We often examine how objects in our environment affect the body. For example, how “tech neck” from sitting in front of screens creates new vocal modes and new ways of speaking – who knows, perhaps even a new language. But that observation may be more artistic material than a statement about how people should live, or what is good or bad.
This attempt to highlight the connection between body and mind is a thread that runs through another body of work, which is more about memory. Tanned Head, Pickled Feet (2020) consists of seven sculptures that almost look like chairs and contain various liquids used in the preservation of the Tollund Man in the 1950s. Also, in the performance Ansamlingar (Accumulations), which was performed in conjunction with Conditioned Movement, you read texts about the conservators’ methods and repeated movements based on different memory practices. Can you talk about that?
GL: Our work on bodies and knowledge has become a long series of performances about how we bear memory and experiences, and how we can pass them on.
LG: As part of our deep interest in durational processes, we are starting to think more and more about preservation and conservation. It doesn’t have to be just the physical preservation of a thing. It can be an encapsulated experience or a sensation. Just like the case of the sleep laboratory or the biohacker, we are also fascinated by the practices surrounding memory and preservation.
What was it about the Tollund Man that fascinated you?
LG: The Tollund Man died over two thousand years ago and was found in a bog in Danish Jutland in the 1950s. It was the first such body to be exhibited in a museum and therefore underwent numerous experiments to achieve the stability required of a museum exhibit. The conservators cut off body parts and soaked them in various transformative chemicals to change the properties of the skin into leather, then reassembled the body again. We are fascinated by the different times contained within this body taken from the eternity of the bog and inserted into another time on the land above.
We also became interested in the methods which were invented for the Tollund Man – the preservation ritual that the body instigated. The whole work is a kind of laboratory procedure involving the living and the dead, to reinstate the eternal life that the body had in the bog.
GL: When working on Tanned Head, Pickled Feet and Ansamlingar, we worked closely with various conservators and realised early on that this profession had a vocabulary and a way of relating to time that was really idiosyncratic. They talked about eternity, immortality, stasis – concepts that are quite intangible in an everyday context, but which are absolutely central to their daily work.
LG: Conservators have a very clear framework. There is right and wrong, and I think we recognised ourselves in that.
GL: The conservator system is designed in such a way that the person doing the work is almost completely erased. It’s almost all about movement and the transmission between bodies. In contemporary life, everything is so transparent, but the conservator’s work has been allowed to develop completely in the background, based on the conservator’s needs and premises.
How important is the audience to your artistic practice? What is your relationship to other bodies in the room when you do performances?
GL: I think this points to something which often feels problematic for us. We aren’t exhibitionists. If we want to show a work, we want it to have a power and relevance that people can engage with. I think that we work with the extremes. Sometimes, we want total participation and strive to completely erase the boundaries, but at the same time we have a great need to create situations where the visitor can only participate from a distance, or is not even there. The question of what people should get out of the situation is one of the things we find problematic with performance. One of the great benefits of, for example, Vargtimmen: vad håller dig uppe? [Wolf Hour: What Keeps You Up? 2021) is that people are not able to compose themselves because they are so tired. You get a really brutal reaction when they can’t pretend any more, and you encounter a bored and grumpy participant who’d really rather just go to sleep.
Prior to this call, I asked if you could send some documentation of your work, but it turned out that you don’t really have very much. There is such a strong imperative today to capture images of objects or events for dissemination across all the various digital platforms. The role of performance art has almost become a spectacle to encourage filming and sharing, while video is one of the few ways to preserve performance for the future. How do you reflect on the issue of documentation?
GL: We have documentation of rehearsals, but we’ve consciously resisted that kind of dissemination.
LG: You always act differently in front of the camera. When we photograph our performances, it’s almost always staged. If we were to take photographs during the actual performance, it would change how we perform and concentrate on what we really want to express. We find that we have a lot of documentation contained within our bodies because of all that has gone into making a work. This conversation is a much better way to approach what we do than through video.
How do you think your work will live on beyond your bodies and experiences?
GL: We will have to die in a peat bog. That is the solution.