Performative Intersection of Facts and Fiction. An Interview with Goda Palekaitė

July 31, 2019
Author Ieva Baublytė

Goda Palekaitė is a contemporary theatre and performance artist, and anthropologist. In 2018-2019 she has been a resident at the A.pass artistic research institute in Brussels. In her long-term projects the artist combines anthrophological and artistic approaches and questions cultural, historical and political discourses. Palekaitė’s performance Vodka Salt was resently presented at The Kanal Centre Pompidou, as part of the Brussels performance art biennale Performatik (in the context of A.pass Usettled Study). Her new video work Elinora’s Dream (created in collaboration with Elinora Schwartz) revolves around the everyday life of the most radical Jewish community and is narrated from the female perspective. It was shown at the Vilnius Film Festival in April. On this occasion, I decided to interview the artist.

Ieva Baublytė: You are a well-known scenographer, you write scripts, and you participate in various visual art projects and exhibitions. How do these activities overlap and advance each other?

Goda Palekaitė: I combine the visual and performative arts in my practice, which is usually based on artistic, anthropological and humanitarian profile research. I work with concepts, issues and questions, and not with artistic disciplines. I believe that clinging to a certain discipline, in other words, ‘representing’ it, is not relevant any more. Speculation and dilettantism in art are not far away from professionalism and experimentation. For example, scenography is the profession of a dilettante. Each time, you work with new material, a new stage, a new team, new forms, tools and technologies, and at the beginning you have no idea what to do or how. I could say that my activities do not extend each other, but it is the same activity of mine, which develops organically, but exists in different contexts. My conversation with an actor or director in the theatre does not really differ from a conversation with a contemporary art curator. I think about history, politics and space in both contexts.

What does your everyday artistic life look like? Is it fragmented, or perhaps more consistent? Do you have any special rituals that help you to work? Such as travel notes, photographs or sketches?

I really wish I had rituals that I could hold onto in my everyday life, as for the last ten years I have been living a nomadic and rather chaotic life. I usually have several projects in different places at the same time, a lot of travelling related to them, and, of course, the place that I call home changes often too. In the last three years, I have lived in four countries. The constant collisions with global diversities, and questioning my own personal boundaries, is an energy moving my personal and artistic life forward. However, I do value consistency and peace, and I would like to have more stability. I used to draw and make a lot of sketches but not anymore. At the moment, the only regular thing in my creative life is reading. Sometimes I read ten different books or articles at the same time: but I try to read for at least one or two hours a day. Then I can think easily.

While you were studying for your BA in scenography at Vilnius Academy of Art, you went to Vienna on the Erasmus programme. Afterwards, you stayed there and took an MA in cultural and social anthropology. Tell me more about that.

I have been involved in the arts since I was a child. I attended the Vienožinskis Art School, went to exhibitions and saw a lot of the theatre. When I was 22, I realised that I could draw well, but could not think well. At that time, scenography studies at the VDA, and art education in Lithuania in general, lacked global awareness and theoretical background. I went to Vienna with the Erasmus programme, and later decided to stay there, learn German, and study anthropology. I was amazed by the anthropological relationship with the world and the political position it implies. Anthropology is a social science that represents people, and examines them, rather than representing power structures. However diverse it is, its methods and access always start from an ethnographic study. Your thinking is not based on statistics, and not even on theory or history, but on people, their relationships and views. You try to see their reality, to move away from your own preconceptions and parameters. You try to relearn, and understand things as the people you work with understand them. It respects the other, the different view and thinking. It also constantly questions objectivity, truth and power structures. This approach gave me lots of space for creativity, and really had an impact on me. In fact, I do not participate in the academic discourse or conferences; nor do I write academic articles; but the thinking methods and the principles I follow derive from there.

Last year, during the ‘Sirenos’ festival (Vilnius International Theatre Festival), we were able to see your performance Bakunin (premièred in Venice Biennale Architettura 2018 and Laboratorio Artistico Pietra in Turin), which was based on Mikhail Bakunin’s biography and his ideas on anarchism. Later, at the JCDecaux prize exhibition ‘Dignity’ at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, you presented a performance-installation Advertising Anarchism. How did this political philosophy attract your attention?

I was raised in politically unaware times. While I was studying, I did not really know what anarchism was. I did not even know what Marxism was. A young person growing up in the politically chaotic, traumatic Lithuanian climate suffers from a lack of political awareness. The names of political parties and their principles did not mean much in practice, and the subject Political Education in schools taught only Lithuanianism. Only when I went to Vienna and became acquainted with various social theories, did I find the definition of my own views.

Ideologically speaking, I can call myself an anarchist, so for a long time I wanted to do more research on the topic, and transfer it into my artistic practice. I started working with it aproximately three years ago – that is when I discovered Mikhail Bakunin as a character. I am genuinelly interested in characters that have been wiped out from official historical discourses. It is hard to distinguish what is true and what is false in their stories, and where the mythology starts. Bakunin is a perfect example of that. I started working with material about him for a smaller project, but it quickly developed into a performance.

My work Advertising Anarchism started organically. Since I was working on Bakunin, the questions related to anarchism were constantly on my mind. I was rather sceptical about an open call for a JCDecaux exhibition, because I was working on a topic that radically criticises the ideology the exhibition represents. I thought this was a perfect reason to participate: to place two radically opposing ideologies next to each other; to cause a collision, and see what happens …

Goda Palekaitė and Elinora Schwartz, Elinora’s Dream, 2018, video, 14 min

Your personal exhibition ‘Legal Implications of a Dream’, which was shown in Jerusalem (Art Cube Artists‘ Studios) and Tel Aviv (RawArt Gallery), also questions established ideologies, and seeks to know the country through the eyes of its citizens. Can you say more about it.

Yes, I interested in questioning ideologies and identity, as well as dissecting history, mythology and religious narratives. The question is, what can an artist do, what tools and conceptual measures can we use, and for what purpose?

The origin of the exhibition in Israel was artistic and anthropological research that was implemented in three different countries: the Caucasus region in Russia and Georgia where I did fieldwork in 2017, and research in Israel throughout 2018. As a result, six new pieces were created, and factual as well as pseudo-factual material was presented. History, politics and religion are the most powerful ideological machines and, even though today we are able to deconstruct these ideologies and see how they are fabricated, it does not change the fact that they do have legal consequences. In this case, the exhibition was produced in Israel, therefore one of my aims was to look at the legal implications of Israel as a state – a state built on a dream, a vision that was a utopia for all Jews for thousands of years. In fact, Israel was merely a collective vision until the Zionist movement in the 19th century. The movement was a secular one, and Israel was established as a non-religious state. However, when the Zionists got the chance to implement their dream, they had to face the reality that other people had been living in the same territory for thousands of years. Thus, the Jews came as a dream-inspired occupants. In theory, there have been three wars in Israel since its establishment in the 20th century, but in fact the war is still going on. I recently went to Palestine, where I visited a local family. I saw how people live there. They would call their reality a nighmare: economic blocade, repressed freedom of speech, everyday life control etc. People in Ramallah, the capital of Palestine, live only twenty kilometres from Jerusalem, the biggest city in Israel, and yet they have only been there a few times in their life – it is so difficult to travel that short distance.

The entire history of the Jewish nation, the Israeli nation, is full of myths. It is hard to distinguish what is true and what is not. Their history is also the history of their religion, and the modern state was established based on that history or, in other words, mythology. On the other hand, it is obvious that the Jews who survived the Holocaust are victims of another ideology. Some academic literature suggests that Israel can be seen as a typical post-traumatic symptom: those who were once victims are now behaving with others in an oppressive way. Here I am talking about governmental and military structures, not about individuals… To be honest, it was a hard decision to agree to do an exhibition in Israel – some European artists refuse to, believing that they exppress solidarity with Palestine. But I do not believe in a boycott as a political gesture. In my opinion, it is important to express your critical position exactly in places where it matters the most.

How did you come up with the idea for the video work Elinora’s Dream, which focuses on the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem and which was presented at the exhibition? How did you meet Elinora?

Elinora‘s Dream is the first video work I worked on. I am not a video artist, so I looked for a collaborator whom I could work with. Quite unexpectedly I was introduced to this woman artist, Elinora, who is also a member of a Jewish ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem. It is the most radical community of Judaism, and it is worth mentioning that the community is growing. People there live according to the 19th-century rules, laws, and, most importantly, the religious law. The most of the Great Halacha was written in the Middle Ages, but they still follow it today. The community lives without the internet and television, and speak only Yiddish, which is otherwise almost extinct. Israel’s state language is Hebrew, but the ultra-Orthodox do not teach their children Hebrew. This means that their children grow up in a country where they do not know the official language. That means they can only function in closed communities. The men only pray and study the Torah; and the women have to bear as many children as possible, work, and fully support their families. They are not allowed to publicly pray, or take decisions. They are not allowed to have communal life: the gender hierarchy is extreme… I worked in this community, in the Mea Shearim district, just next to Jerusalem’s Old Town.

The work tells the story of the life of a Jewish community through a dream, but from a female perspective.Why a dream? What does it symbolise?

I am female, and I worked with another women, so we naturally had no other choice but to talk from a female perspective. The gender segregation in the ultra-Orthodox community is very strong. Any social contact with men is simply impossible. Men demonstratively turn their heads away when they pass by. For me alone it would have been impossible to approach even the women of the community because I am a stranger but Elinora is fully integrated: she is married and has four ultra-Orthodox children. Yet, she lives a secret artistic life. She has a studio with other non-religious artists, and participates in exhibitions secretly from her family. In the begining of our meeting we just talked and walked around Mea Shearim. Elinora told me unbelievable, often horrifying stories from her life, and other women’s and children’s lives. About marital life, sexual abuse, paedophilia and other topics that are considered taboo. The ultra-Orthodox community is incredibly closed, police is not effective there, and victims hide their ordeals, in order to protect themselves and their families from public embarrasment. Those who speak up often get silenced… After a few days of really intimate conversations with Elinora, I asked her to tell these stories in front of a camera, but to imagine it as if it was a dream. I thought telling the truth, as if it was a dream, would liberate and protect her.

What reactions did this work (and the exhibition) get in Israel?

It was a very sensitive reaction. Most of Israelis are familiar with the issues related to the ultra-Orthodox community. Everyone knows how closed, conservative and problematic the community is. For example, any woman that comes into their district wearing trousers instead of a long skirt can be thrown out or shouted at. Non-religious or less religious people usually avoid contact with them. However, the most sensitive reaction was towards my friendship with Elinora, and her willingness to participate in this project. The film was presented in two exhibitions and one public event, and Elinora participated in all of them as well as in the discussions with the audience. The exhibition attracted great interest in general. There was a positive review written by a critic in one of the big cultural newspapers, and an interview with me in another. It received a lot of feedback from artists and intellectuals in Israel.

It is wonderful that we had a chance to see the film in Lithuania, as part of the Vilnius Film Festival 2019 programme. What issues are you currently researching on? What are your plans for the near future?

I continue my investigation on historical, political and cultural discourses, and am working with historical characters that yet need to be actualised in the contemporary discourse. My latest performance How to Infuriate a Historian, which sums up a year and a half’s work at the A.pass artistic research institute, was presented in Brussels in May. It took shape as a staged debate touching on issues such as the construction of history, political utopias, post-colonial ethics, and the necessity for poetry.  Historical characters such as Mikhail Bakunin, the ancient Greek poetess Sappho – the only female who wrote poetry in the male-dominated society, and the controversial Azerbaijani-German Jewish-Muslim writer Essad Bey, who have recently been the axis of my research, were the participants of this conference. Instead of actors I invited three contemporary artists-researchers whose work and views I believe to embody the historical characters from my research: Sina Seifee represented Essad Bey, Marialena Marouda – Sappho, and Nicolas Galeazzi – Bakunin. At the moment I am preparing for a research and a new exhibition at the Konstepidemin Art Centre in Goteborg, Sweden. Speculation and art as a method for the generation of knowledge, and the performative intersection of facts and fiction, still remain the epicentre of my work.

Thank you for the interview.

During the preparation of the interview, Palekaitė received Golden Cross of the Stage award for the scenography for The Perfect Match or Happy New Year, Ionesco! (Šiauliai State Drama Theatre), and Doors (Lithuanian National Drama Theatre).

Her film Elinora’s Dream (2018) was shown on April at the Vilnius Film Festival 2019.

Goda Palekaitė. Photo: Alicja Khatchikian

Goda Palekaitė, Legal Implications of a Dream, 2018, installation view from RawArt Gallery. Photo: Lena Gomon

Goda Palekaitė, Advertising Anarchism, 2018. JCDecaux Prize: Dignity, Contemporary Art Center, Vilnius. Photo: Inga Jankūnaitė