Maria Metsalu is an artist and performer currently based in Berlin, who recently graduated from SNDO (the School for New Dance Development) in Amsterdam. She has been working on her solo project ‘Fuchsia’ for over a year, which has sprouted into several versions that have been performed in various locations, such as Tallinn, Amsterdam and Berlin, but also online, throughout the year. The final edition of ‘Fuchsia’ was brought to the stage at the New Performance Festival in Tallinn at the beginning of November this year.
We met up with Maria a couple of days before her performance at the festival, to discuss ‘Fuchsia’ and recurrent themes in her work, like the construction of a self-image, artistic self-representation, and the impact that digital environments have on it.
Keiu Krikmann: You graduated from SNDO (the School for New Dance Development) in Amsterdam this summer. Is it important for you to define yourself specifically as an artist, performer, dancer or choreographer?
Maria Metsalu: No, but sometimes it’s good to use labels. But of course, I’m not a choreographer in the traditional sense. I do a lot of different stuff, and the expression of my work is constantly changing.
Before starting at SNDO, I had almost zero background in dance, although when I lived in Denmark I did do dance theatre for a year and a half, and I had done sports and a bit of folk dancing. At SNDO you can do different things; some make films, others focus on performance, etc.
KK: When it comes to the themes you work with, like the line between the online and offline worlds, digital identity, and also gender, would you say you arrived at them due to a stimulus of some kind, or have these issues always been with you and important to you?
MM: To an extent, I’ve always carried them with me, although I only really started researching issues relating to digitality in-depth when I started working on ‘Fuchsia’. I mean things like how I present myself on different virtual platforms.
Another important theme for me is loneliness. I like being alone, although I also enjoy spending time with others. So, virtual environments were a good solution: I could spend time alone, but also socialise with other people, although in the long run I felt that it made me depressed. It was then that I started looking for ways to restore intimacy with people.
At the same time, I started thinking about the self-image of an artist, since my art and my private life are closely linked. The artist is also like an artwork: you have to behave like a politician or a celebrity on social media, you have to sell yourself, and, of course, mistakes and questionable morals sell better than perfection.
And another theme I’m constantly working with is originality and unoriginality. Marjorie Perloff has this concept of ‘unoriginal genius’. I agree that today a genius doesn’t necessarily have to create something new and unheard of. In the digital age, so much information and so many ideas and their mutations are readily available, so your brilliance lies in how you use or process others’ work. I’m often inspired by music, Instagram, pop culture, etc. I try to make a collage of how I see the world and how I am in the world.
KK: It’s good you mention Perloff’s ‘unoriginal genius’, which refers to working with already-existing material, recontextualising it, and using collage as a method. I find this way of working extremely pertinent. On one hand, because the way we receive and process information can be really fragmented. On the other hand, when it comes to you more specifically, it also relates to many of the themes you take on, like identity and digitality, where recycling already-existing material seems to be only natural.
MM: Exactly, because I need to make choices anyway, intuitively, whether I work with collage or not.
KK: Can you introduce ‘Fuchsia’ a bit? What has the year you’ve been working on it been like for you, and how has the project developed over time?
MM: I started ‘Fuchsia’ when I was doing a residency at Püha Vaimu Saal, in Tallinn, which was required as part of my studies at SNDO. So, I used the time to research my graduation work, which I presented the next year in March 2016. For me, a significant starting point was loneliness, and how to get over it, what the possibilities for self-therapy are; for example, I did crystal therapy and angel therapy. I also performed on camgirl sites and created videos using green screen. Soon after that, I was approached by Konstanet, and we agreed I’d do the third part of ‘Fuchsia’ there, in the form of a virtual exhibition. So, I began creating a new character who was an art exhibit at the same time. This also helped me to distance my own person from ‘Fuchsia’ a bit. So, the second version of ‘Fuchsia’ focused on the character of the art exhibition, and also introduced the third part.
With the third part I got more into games, and brought in ‘Magic: The Gathering’ and video games. I also collaborated with many people regarding the music and text I used, and ended up presenting five videos as the third part of ‘Fuchsia’.
KK: What impact did placing ‘Fuchsia’ in the context of an art exhibition have on the project as a whole? Is there a difference between exhibiting and performing? Do you feel you can switch easily between the two?
MM: That’s not an issue for me. Although at one point I started to miss performing (I really enjoy being on stage), before the third part of ‘Fuchsia’, there was a longer period where I could not be on stage, as there was a lot of technical work that needed to be done.
KK: I would also like to ask about the process. There have been quite a few people involved in creating ‘Fuchsia’: architects, music producers, performers, stylists, programmers. How have you managed this?
MM: I like to outsource things, as I often lack the technical skills I need in my work. So, I like to collaborate; but on the physical part of my performances, I work alone.
However, I sometimes start thinking, maybe I should learn certain skills, like 3D programming, because by outsourcing you also can’t control things that much anymore, so you really have to trust the other person.
KK: I’d like to come back to the question of constructing your image, which is a central theme in ‘Fuchsia’. Even more so because your image as an artist is tightly bound to that of you as a person. So, what do you think: is a selfie more about exposing or constructing yourself?
MM: I think it’s totally about constructing. I don’t know what exposing yourself even means any more. I was once discussing with a friend what the ‘ultimate selfie’ would look like. My friend said it would be a photograph with the pyramids of Egypt in the background, of course.
KK: In the sense that this would be the most typical selfie, the most default version of it?
MM: Yes. So, I started thinking about it more during the residency: how much could I even expose myself? So, I decided to use an internal camera to show the audience my vagina. At the same time, the fact that people can literally see inside me is a completely abstract idea to me. But in a way, that is the ultimate selfie.
KK: Like, when you become an image, you only see it as such? It becomes detached?
MM: There’s detachment there, yes. Or maybe I’ve just grown cold towards these things.
KK: You’ve been working with this theme for quite a long time, and extensively: don’t you feel you’ve exhausted it?
MM: I’m not sure if I actually want to exhaust it. It’s been a long year, and I think I need to finish with ‘Fuchsia’. So, I’m pretty excited about next year, I have a new show coming out. But I’m happy that ‘Fuchsia’, which was a really personal project, was received so well.