Outperforming Politics: How Two Curators Are Giving Brexit and Nationalism the Middle Finger

We spoke to duo osborn&møller about using performance to drive empathy before the launch of their exhibition,'Bodies Beyond Borders: Territories', at Warehouse9.
Mary, left, and Emma, right.

It’s a little strange to think that a whole year and a half has gone by since the UK voted to leave the EU. That’s because the turbulence has consistently remained fresh and in our faces. Whether we’re taking in floods of disheartening news about waffling Brexit negotiations or observing Brexit’s politics of nationalism and isolation threaten to coat the rest of the EU even more than they already do, the energy of the ‘Leave’ campaign hasn’t left or even transformed. Instead, it’s increasing its presence as a festering issue dividing the EU—which is why English Mary Osborn and Danish Emma Møller decided to do something about it.

The two friends and curators were sitting in a London pub when they heard news that the UK voted Leave. Besides obvious anger and sadness, what else did they immediately feel? An urge to start working together to use performance art to fight for internationalism, cross national and identity-based borders and create spaces for empathy to unite people from all walks of life. They banded together as osborn&møller, and tonight, their first project launches at Warehouse9 in Copenhagen. Dubbed “Bodies Beyond Borders: Territory”, the two-day-long project features the video or performance work of six international female artists who all raise questions around immigration and nationalism and exemplify challenging and unconventional performance art forms. (You can get more details and tickets here.)

On the eve of the project launch, we caught up with Mary and Emma about channeling dismay about Brexit into action, the importance of female solidarity and why making people see challenging performance is one of the best ways to drive empathy.

Girls Are Awesome: Hello, Mary and Emma. How did your curatorial duo come about?

Mary: We became friends six years ago while we studied theatre and performance together in London at Queen Mary’s University. We’d always wanted to work together, but the urgency to collaborate really kicked off last June when the UK voted to leave the EU. At that point we were living in London and had both been there for nearly ten years; on the day the vote’s results came through, we were sitting together in a pub, upset about the reasoning behind it and that it even got to the point that did it. That really kicked us into urgency to think.

Emma had been talking about moving back to Copenhagen, so we’d been discussing what it would mean to collaborate in countries where the borders were becoming tighter. That led us to talk about performance and linked us to this idea of being between places and transcending borders, especially when you use art to collaborate internationally.

Emma: We also thought about how art responds to precarious times. It doesn’t necessarily provide an answer, but definitely raises a lot of questions.

Rima Najdi, ‘Happy New Fear’.

‘Bodies Beyond Borders’ has a heavy focus on performance. What do you think makes performance one of the best artistic formats to tackle questions around borders, territory and bodies in political limbo?

Emma: We strongly believe that bodies in performance are sites of transgression.

Mary: A body can move beyond the authorities that try to control it. We’re interested in borders between genders, identities, politics, experiences and places, and how in performance, the body becomes a site to explore those borders. And we’re not so much into practices which just talk about things, but the ones that become experiences in and of themselves through the bodies of the performers.

With that, we’re interested in the political site of the female body: all the histories it carries, and also how it functions as a site of protest. It’s still radical to have female bodies presented in the way you’ll see in the performances this weekend.

Mary: And we’re also focused on female solidarity and support. That partly comes from our collaboration. For a long time, we both worked independently as producers and said, ‘what we need is support from one another! how can we do that?’. That idea extends to the performances in this project, too.

Emma: We’re not shy in saying that we’re best friends. A lot of the time, people don’t want to hear all of that ‘emotional’ background story, but we champion it. We say we really enjoy hanging out with each other: why isn’t that a strong enough foundation for us to create together?

Mary: It’s important to us to be bold, brave and loud in terms of expressing our voices as young women as well as presenting voices we feel aren’t heard enough and bodies that aren’t seen enough.

Tania El Khoury, ‘As Far as My Fingertips Take Me’. Photo by Marion Savoy.

You’ve chosen to feature the work of six female artists from diverse backgrounds and performance mindsets. What was your curatorial process like, and why did you choose those artists and pieces specifically?

Mary: We were interested in artists who are responding directly to times of crisis. There was a really key piece in the foundations of this program which is by Tania El Khoury, a UK-based artist. Her piece is called ‘As Far as My Fingertips Take Me’ and it’s a piece where the audience sits on one side of a gallery wall and on the other side is a refugee. She’s exploring the idea of touching refugees – quite literally – and learning to understand and treat refugee stories: the refugee in the piece has written an original piece of music on top of which he speaks his story and shares it with the audience in a 15 minute encounter. We found the whole work really poignant and timely, and it influenced our approach to what came afterwards.

Emma: Also, we’re interested in performances that challenge form. We knew that we wanted to provide as many different experiences of performance as possible within a very short period of time. To complement Tania’s piece, we thought a durational performance like Nic Green’s piece, ‘Cock and Bull’, would be perfect. It’s over seven hours long and composed of two women performing party politics in response to the UK parliament’s typical rhetoric, which is mostly male dominated, white and upper class. Through the duration of them performing, they sort of unravel the ridiculousness of those politics. Their bodies are worn out by the length of the performance, so it’s like a pulling apart of the parliamentary model experienced through the body breaking down.

Nic Green, ‘Cock and Bull’. Photo by Manuel Vason.

Mary: And they repeat these phrases that were used in the conservative party’s leave campaign in the 2015 election. Within that language you recognize all the political male figures controlling what’s happening, and that really spoke to us in terms of showing what happened with Brexit. Because it’s those voices which led the referendum.

Mary: It’s also worth saying that we felt like a lot of this work gets seen regularly in the UK, but we wanted to be brave with form because we know that not everybody would see something like that regularly in Denmark. Or people wouldn’t want to have a 15 minute encounter in a small room, or see a 7 hour performance. So, we frame all this work as choreographic and theatrical, but the art work itself is also a bit between borders. It can’t be categorised, so we wanted to see what could be provoked from a different kind of art form.

We want to present works where it’s ok if people feel uncomfortable, emotional or provoked. That’s the central question in the whole program: how do all these works take different perspectives on one issue?

Nic Green, ‘Cock and Bull’. Photo by Julia Bauer.

You’ve both cited Brexit as a key driver behind your collaboration and some of the works. However, ‘Bodies Beyond Borders’ is taking place in Denmark—a place with some of the tightest immigration regulations in Europe and also an increasing conservative movement.  To what extent are you trying to pinpoint Denmark-specific issues around borders and territory in this project?

Emma: When we open tonight, the first event is a screening and conversation program featuring two films by two artists. First, Alicja Rogalska’s film is made with lawyers based in the UK who had worked with but also gone through the immigrations system.

Mary: They were lawyers in their home countries but sought asylum in the UK, so they work with a system which they also had to overcome themselves.

Emma: And then we have a second screening by Núria Güell called ‘Stateless by Choice’, where she applied to the Spanish government to become stateless—a non-citizen. We’ve also invited two speakers: the spokesperson for LGBTQ Denmark will speak about a trans case study about asylum seeking in Denmark, and Copenhagen University progresso Miriam Cullen (she works with international immigration) will talk more generally about global immigration perspectives. And at the same time the director of Warehous 9 will moderate the talk and contextualise it within Denmark.

Mary: Being in post-Brexit UK but coming to Denmark, a place with some of the tightest immigration policies in Europe, created a meeting of politics which made us want to present the program here.

Tania El Khoury, ‘As Far as My Fingertips Take Me’. Photo by artist.

You say on your website that you feel like strengthening international art collaboration is an act of cultural activism. Can you elaborate?

Mary: I think it comes from us suddenly finding ourselves sitting in this island in the UK, feeling like everything was shutting around us. It’s a response to the idea of closing off, working on national identity and being insular. And for us over the past year developing as producers, internationalism has become our core interest. Sure, funding challenges make it more difficult to pull off international shows and collaborations, but we don’t want that to stop us. We try to go to at least two festivals a year to countries we haven’t been to, for example; recently, we were invited to do a curatorial residency at City of Women festival in Slovenia, and it was such a great opportunity to be immersed in their way of working and meet new artists.

It’s also about critical empathy, and seeing what happens when you use performance to spark conversation about other cultures and identities for one audience. We are keeping in conversation across borders.

Emma: We believe that the arts can create that space of critical empathy. So, it’s important to create that space for people to meet and share stories.

Mary: The immediacy of being in the same space together creates a space of interaction where perspectives can change, ideas can form, and ultimately, awareness can be heightened.

Thanks, Mary and Emma.