Conversation with Pepón Osorio, Naya Salamé, Lisa Kraus

As part of ear-whispered, Lisa Kraus, project director, and Pepon Osorio, project consultant, were slated to visit Beirut in January 2018 to meet area artists and better understand the context out of which Tania El Khoury’s work arises. Unfortunately this trip was prevented because Bryn Mawr College’s insurers don’t provide coverage in Lebanon. Instead, a series of video-conferences were held. The following is a lightly edited version of one of those conversations, with Naya Salamé, a theater artist who has toured as a guide and technician for Gardens Speak and installed it at Bryn Mawr. It took place on January 19, 2018 and addresses authority, agency and the audience experience of El Khoury’s work.

Pepón Osorio: It’s always helpful to talk to people that are around the artwork, but also around Tania’s development of the work. At certain stages, each work means something different. I’m going to ask a lot of questions to you in relation to your connection to the work, both as an outsider and as an insider. What’s your relationship to the work? Specifically to Gardens Speak.

Naya Salamé: So I’ve only worked on Gardens Speak for now. The first time that I worked on it was in Beirut and Tania showed the work at a festival and I was a volunteer in the festival and I worked as an audience guide and sometimes a technician for it. I think it was a year later year that she contacted me so that I could start touring with it. She felt the role of the guide was more important than she thought originally, so she wanted to have the same person and she wanted to be sure it was going to be done right so I started touring with Gardens Speak and working as the guide, mainly, but also I managed the building of the installation.” And then I work as an audience guide for the rest, for the performances.

Pepón: Right. I remember you from the time we went to Boston and saw the work. You guided . . .

Naya: Oh, really?

Pepón: I don’t remember the group we were in, actually. The three of us were there.

Naya: What did you think?

Pepón: Oh. I was disturbed and that keeps coming out in the conversations that I’ve had with people. Disturbed and somehow confused. That’s a good question for me because it’s has prompted something else I wanted to ask you, about death. We talked to Dali—I don’t know if you know him.

Naya: Yes, I just met him.

Pepón: OK. We talked about death—which I also work and confront in my own personal work. I wanted to ask you specifically, how do you prepare yourself, or do you think that the audience—and this goes back to the question you asked me about what I feel about the gardens piece and I told you “disturbed.” I was disturbed because I have to prepare myself to face issues that are recurrent in my work and in my personal life. My question is, how do you prepare yourself to humanize the work and experience or do you not prepare yourself to be surrounded by the theme and all the experience of death when it comes in Gardens Speak?

Naya: Give me some time to think about that because it’s evolved every time that I worked on the piece. So, in the beginning, the first few times I felt like I needed to prepare because it was going to be something that is pretty tough on the audience most of the time. I felt like I needed to be ready to receive the audience’s emotions. But, little by little—I don’t know how this is going to sound—I have to disconnect myself from the idea of death because when I do the show five to six times in a row, staying in the dark for all of that time, I have to disconnect myself or it becomes really too tough on me. I remember in Beirut, the first time, it was particularly difficult because there were a lot of people there connected directly to the situation and, especially, there was one of the martyrs that people knew in the theater, in the circle. And it was really tough and I was feeling it one hundred percent all of the time, and it became too much. I just prepare myself physically as an actor. I feel like I have to be ready physically, but I don’t really connect to it as much as before. I don’t know if that makes sense or if it sounds a bit harsh.

Pepón: Do not worry. I’m not here to judge. It is what it is. It is what it has to be for you. But I also find it fascinating that in conversations with Tania, that she feels the same way. She feels that she has to disconnect. And in my conversations with her, at some point, I also use the same reaction where I really have to move back because you put in too much energy into the work and you invest too much energy and too much sentiment into the work and at times it feels like you’re running out of that investment and you don’t have anything else to put in and you have to step out. That’s what I feel. Feel free. There is no right or wrong here. What you mentioned brings me back to a place that I left with a feeling, at the end of burying my letter or note, which was, for me, “where is this letter going to?”

Naya: Yeah.

Pepón: “What’s going to happen to it?” You know what I mean?

Naya: I completely understand. I was just going to say, on the last few performances that we had, I was the one unburying the letters at the end of the day and that feeling—it comes and goes, for I have not been able to disconnect from it completely—of actually putting my hand in the soil to unbury something, feels like I’m breaking something that is sacred. I don’t know the word, like a tomb raider or something.

Pepón: Intruding.

Naya: It’s very, very intruding. Exactly. So I completely understand the feeling of that letter, because you know it’s a show, it’s not real, it’s not going to stay there, someone is going to have to unbury it and then show it to the families and do something. So it’s a bit unnerving to bury it and unbury it at the same time.

Pepón: It’s true. And I left feeling hopeless because I feel like, “I’m buying this letter. No one will know. I’ll take the image—it’s very powerful—I’ll take the image with me of the sentiment of what happened and I’ll just walk away.” And I think that my struggle is that after you finish seeing and writing that letter [at ear-whispered at Bryn Mawr College], you will move to another place and see those letters. What I’m thinking right now, Naya, is two things; the intrusion and the North American way wanting to know more about the other than myself. The culture where you have access to “others” and in this context and I wonder if it defeats the purpose of Gardens Speak, do you know what I mean?

Naya: Yeah . . .

Lisa Kraus: I do know what you’re saying. I’ll just toss in, I did speak with Tania a bit about the thinking process of the installation and I think that you’ll be very interested to hear her own thoughts also about this question. It’s not a question that’s escaped her.

Naya: I think it’s interesting to find out how it’s going to make people feel. I’m trying to put myself in the experience of someone else who has just experienced it and goes out to see all the letters. I think a lot of people feel self-conscious about the letters because they know it’s going to be read. I don’t know, I really wonder. I’ll have to think about that.

Pepón: It’s important for me, in order to suggest to Tania all these ideas, that they’re complexities that might arise from the installations themselves. Considering there are going to be three more pieces connected to it. I just want to make sure everything is covered in a way that is fruitful and also loyal to Tania’s practice. Because when you leave that place, at least in Gardens Speak, you leave with a sense a place of privacy and no one knows. You are in a world of your own, unless you turn to the person next to you, you are in a world of your own and you leave in a world of your own. And making that world that and making public moment immediately after seeing the work can be unsettling. And what do we do with that? That’s for Tania to figure it out but for me it’s there, it’s very clear.

Naya: And I think that it’s really cool you’re trying to be sensitive about it and that’s already a good thing that’s going to lead us to the right direction. But at the same time, you were saying that it’s a very private experience, but even when you look at the other person and you see them, it’s still very private, it’s still just this small thing we’ve just all shared together. It’s still pretty private. But don’t you also have the curiosity of when you’re writing the letter of what other people might have said to the same person?

Pepón: No. Not at all. Not for me.

Naya: Oh. OK.

Pepón: Not for me But, I’m going to talk to Tania about this, but I’ll tell you and feel free to tell her, about how I was disturbed. I wanted to know if this is the same in the rest of the work, and I speak as an artist and I speak freely because there is a way in which I find it very enlightening for me. I resist authority. I resist governments, authoritarian governments.

Naya: Yeah.

Pepón: And when I saw you for the first time, you told me what to do.

Naya: Yeah.

Pepón: And for me it was very, very difficult to follow your instructions. I was very, very tense and disturbed that I had to go into a place that was so controlled. Then I got into the burial ground and I began to feel that the person who had died, died from the circumstances of that control and being told what to do.

Lisa: Really?

Naya: Oh wow. OK.

Pepón: When I wrote that letter, I felt that it was my only opportunity to fight back. Am I making sense to you?

Naya: Yes. Right until that last point. How did you feel that you could resist with the letter?

Pepón: With the content of the letter, with what I wrote in the letter.

Naya: OK this where you felt you had the freedom . . .

Pepón: . . . to do whatever I wanted to do.

Naya: Yeah.

Pepón: And then that’s why I didn’t want to read anyone else’s letter. Because that made an immediate connection with my own freedom.

Naya: That’s really interesting. I think Tania would love that idea because, in the end, although we give instructions, people end up doing, pretty much, what they want. Not everyone follows the instructions and it’s OK. So I think it’s really interesting how you felt the connection with the person. But also a lot of people who maybe aren’t necessarily artists most of the time ask me more questions about what they should do, where they should go, “are we allowed to do this?” or “allowed to do that?” I don’t think a lot of people see it as you do because they need more instructions Didn’t you feel like you had the freedom to not follow the instructions?

Pepón: No. Not at all.

Naya: OK.

Pepón: It wasn’t until I came to the United States that I felt, and much later through a friend of mine, who is North American and white, that I could leave the movie house in the middle of the movie.

Naya: What?

Pepón: I don’t think it’s my upbringing, I was surrounded by many wild and crazy people in my childhood. But I think that it has something to do with how we respond, and I’m heading towards another question that I wanted to ask you, that we respond to structures with structure. This sounds very poetic, but it’s not. What I’m getting at is that I felt like I didn’t have the freedom because it meant I had to be different from everyone else around and that I had to break the rule. This brings me to another question. I’m dying to ask and I’m going to ask you—have you seen Tania’s other work?

Naya: I have seen one other piece. I haven’t see a lot of her work.

Pepón: What other work?

Naya: As Far As My Fingertips Take Me.

Pepón: I wanted to know, also as an artist, how much the history of the totalitarian government is in the work. The notion of authority, the notion of following the rule, the notion of the body as a vehicle to be controlled.

Naya: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not here to answer for her….

Pepón: No, I want you to answer for yourself.

Naya: I think that Tania is very aware of the notion of authority and she really tries to distance herself from it as much as possible. The idea of having instructions is mainly to have some sort of structure because it is a performance, it’s not an installation. It is an installation but it works as a performance with a beginning and end. I’m not trying to justify it, but in order to make it pleasing for people. Despite all this, people have a lot of freedom to break the rules and people do it all the time. Usually what happens is when one person breaks one rule—I don’t know if they do it on purpose or if they do it because they just didn’t understand well or whatever—people start following and it kind of becomes a lot more free-flowing which is a lot more interesting. I think Tania is someone who wants that to happen. I completely agree, when I’m in a performance, like an interactive performance, and I feel like I have to do something. I kind of only do it in solidarity with the artist because it’s what they want me to do. It always bothers me to have these instructions, so I completely understand. But I feel like we give freedom to people to do whatever they want. The space is quite big, they can walk around the garden. A lot of people, at the end, stay and watch other people. A lot of people don’t use the basins or will stand outside of the soil, they don’t want to be on the soil because they don’t want to ruin their clothes, some people don’t take their shoes off. If someone feels that they don’t want to do something I ask them to do, they will usually just do it or ask me if it’s OK and I always say it’s OK. The idea that she’s trying to reproduce some kind of authoritarian or some kind of authority by putting instructions, I don’t really think that’s the point. I think she’s trying to move away from it by having something that is interaction. When you look at classical regular theater, when you have people on a stage and people who are lit and people who are in the audience who are just sitting and passively receiving information, I feel like that is a lot more authoritarian than people having an interaction with instructions.

Pepón: Thank you. I wanted to ask that question in relationship to what could possibly happen by seeing the letters. If Tania decides to have a space where there is a lot of freedom that people can do whatever they wanted to do. I cannot disassociate myself when looking at the work—that these are real lives that I wanted to believe, these are real and real people who died. It’s a question of respect. All of these questions come up all the time for me when I’m thinking about the letters. To what extent do you have to ask for respect, in a nation like in the United States, that has no respect for anyone?

Naya: Yeah.

Pepón: You know what I mean? All of these things have to come into play for that. I’m not talking about the entire country, I’m talking specifically about the government.

Naya: Yes of course.

Pepón: And so . . . I thank you. I think that feels completed.

Naya: Thank you.

Lisa: Nice to see you. Bye.