Interview with Boryana Rossa

Lisa Vinebaum:
Before asking specifically about the work you’ll be performing at Rapid Pulse, I want to ask you a few questions about your performance practice more generally.

You’ve re-enacted performances by VALIE EXPORT, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and you’ve also done solo and collaborative performances (with ULTRAFUTURO) that question national histories in Bulgaria. Can you talk about performance as a platform for political action and engagement, both historically, and today? Does performance offer something different from traditional types of activism?

Boryana Rossa:
I have always believed that art has strong social and political impact, and this impact is what I’ve always wanted to achieve through my art. Performance specifically is the strongest media for immediate effect, in my opinion. I also believe that the difficulties, which the art system experiences to monetize performance art, keep this genre at the edge, fresh and strong as a political tool. The fact that performance art engages the body and in particular artist’s body, makes it one of the most risky, but also sincere mediums in art. The presence of the body with all its properties and performativities, such as class, gender, race, nationality, body shape, etc. make the political statement and the social engagement of the work almost inescapable. The “performance of the body,” and as I said, its very appearance immediately engage us with identity and personal and collective history, which instantly politicizes performance art.

ULTRAFUTURO is an international artistic collective that works in the intersection of performance art, technology and activism and focuses on the social impact of technology and science. We have also had several actions, related to specific political and social situations, many of them related to local contexts, like “Memory Picture,” and also “Civil Position” related to civic passivity of Bulgarian society in 2007. Russian artist Oleg Mavromatti, with whom we established ULTRAFUTURO in 2004, will participate in my artist talk on June 13th, and we’ll discuss our collective work and its political implications in more detail then.

LV: My next question has to do with the body’s potential to create social connections. Several of your performances (Pervert Veggies, Peoples’ Servants, About the Living and the Dead, Before and After) use the body — and specifically your body — as a catalyst for audience engagement and interaction. Can you talk about the potential of the body to create spaces for inter-subjective relationships and encounters? How is the use of the body different from using actions or objects?

BR: People associate themselves very easily with other human bodies. Therefore when they see someone else’s body in pain or physically expressing excitement, they can much easily connect to the art piece, as opposed to a piece, which represents disembodied metaphor of suffering or joy. Therefore I insist on using human body and specifically my body in performance art. There are few additional reasons for this choice:

First, performing an intervention on a body is a strong political tool of expression. I use the legacy of the “yurodivy” (or the holy fool) who in Orthodox Christianity were politically active people, who used their bodies as metaphors for political statements. In the tradition of yurodivy there is rather queer performance of gender and there is lots of trans-dressing, which I find specifically important for my work. As well, specifically hurting your own body is considered very male behavior and an expression of bravery, unachievable by women. Often in performance art circles Viennese actionists (who are mostly men, with exception of VALIE EXPORT) are shown as the ultimate heroes. So for example, my piece Blood Revenge 2 (2007) is a challenge to the myth about Rudolph Szchwarzkogler who “cut his penis off” (which as you know never happened). I am challenging this non-existing deed of heroism by a man in my remake of the piece, in which I deconstruct the genealogy of the myth and do physical work using my own female anatomy and identity, stereotypically associated with “not being brave as a man.” I am also against animal cruelty. I cannot accept torturing and killing animals as a “metaphor” of war, human violence, violence to women, etc. (as Viennese actionists and others do). If I want to use blood or inflicting pain as a metaphor, I should do it to myself, not to another creature who never consented to it. I use animals in art as collaborators, not as passive metaphoric flesh.

LV: Let’s talk more specifically about the work you’ll be performing here at Rapid Pulse. Deconstruction of VALIE EXPORT is a re-enactment of the artist’s 1968 “Touch and Tap TV”, in which members of the public were invited to touch her breasts, concealed by a box and a curtain attached to her chest. Your performance plays with our expectations of the encounter — you have no breasts because you had a double mastectomy when you were diagnosed with breast cancer. Why did you choose the framework of EXPORT’s original performance? How does your performance foster a different type of encounter with the gendered female body?

BR: I don’t re-enact performances. I make comments on them, I refer to them. I choose works to refer to in order to make a statement in a new context, and in this specific case to build over the history of representation of female body. VALIE EXPORT made her piece in the 1960s – in the middle of the sexual revolution, when the fear of the body, and specifically the fear of exposure of emancipated female body was fading away. At the same time the objectification of the female body was also being questioned. So the 1960s were not about crazy women who wanted to show themselves naked and being touched, because they are “sexually emancipated.” This is a very vulgar, mostly male understanding of this historical period and the sexual revolution as such. There were already many women who were showing themselves naked and being touched. The sexual revolution was a critique of body exploitation and an attempt to change the perspective to women body and sexuality– from subordinated to the male gaze, to women self-representation through their own desires and perspectives. This is what Carolee Schneemann made perfectly clear with “Fuses,” 1965.

As I understand the work by VALIE EXPORT, she questioned the “spectacle” of the female body by the male dominated culture. At the same time, she speaks about the “touch behind the curtain,” the “hidden” touch of someone who desires a body, but who tries to keep this touch and his guilt behind the curtain because of puritan patriarchal culture. This is what happens in the system of sexual exploitation – prostitutes, or also ordinary women are constantly blamed of being “nasty and promiscuous.” This we see in the discussion about rape—women are blamed that their skirts are too short. But for sexual exploitation and rape to happen there is a need of another — the customer, the rapist, the man. The exposure of this unequal system of “touching” figuratively said, was essential in the 1960s, but is still valid now.

However I would like to give a bit of a queer touch to this piece and address the fact also from the perspective of a woman who lives in 2014. First: women are very different as shapes and expression of femininity. EXPORT has very intentionally feminine appeal in this piece. She wears a wig, she is nicely dressed, therefore people are expecting to touch breasts in the box. But what if a woman doesn’t look that feminine? That’s the first.

The second is that I have a particular mission with this piece and related to my double mastectomy – I would like to empower women to feel comfortable and beautiful in their new bodies (this is valid also to my other pieces from the series Amazon Armor). Empowering women in this situation happens only through exposure. There are many women who have had a mastectomy and they hide it. They think they are freaks. Many go for recreation of their breast, because they think it will look OK, and will just have a “little scars” — perhaps convinced by Angelina Jolie’s media statements after her mastectomy. This is not always the case. It depends on medical conditions. The biggest problem is that women are so convinced that a breast-less body is not sexy, that it is ugly and horrible, that they go through the quite unpleasant and long process of reconstruction. Even after that they are not necessarily happy with the result. I decided to skip most of my hospital visits, including therapies that I had to go through if I decided to keep my breast (to do lumpectomy) or to reconstruct it, after mastectomy. I feel much happier than some other women who went for therapies and reconstructions. Therefore I want to expose this. In this specific piece I don’t show images like in Amazon Armor, but I offer touch. This hasn’t been done by other artists in the field, as far as I know. I think the most important is a sense of humor and thinking about your body as a re-born into something else, not a hetero normative femininity. This is the “deconstruction” of VALIE EXPORT—first deconstruction of her historical context and second, the literal “deconstruction” of the breast (opposed to the “reconstruction” after double mastectomy).

LV: Can you also talk about whether generating dialog with members of the public was part of how you conceived of the performance? And also talk about audience reaction.

BR: Since 2004, I usually talk to the audience while performing. This is an incredibly important part of my pieces and has been developed as a method by ULTRAFUTURO as a collective. I believe in the direct contact, which doesn’t repeat the cliché-glorification of the “brave artist,” who allows the “cruel-audience” to “hurt her body.” I want to talk to people, not to blame them. I like these works where the artist offers her body to be hurt, however, I don’t think this shortens the distance between artist and audience. These pieces turn the artist into a martyr, which actually increases the distance. A dialogue is much more egalitarian and much more interesting because very fast you can understand how people feel and what they think. This is the good thing about performance art. Of course the artist will always be the “master of ceremony,” no matter how close to the audience she wants to get. It is a lie and hypocrisy if someone claims to have “erased” the border between artist and audience. But again — it is possible to create closer relationship to the audience, although knowing that I will be the one to direct where the conversation goes.

LV: There is an amazing image of you on the Rapid Pulse website: you’re holding a smart phone over each of your breasts, and each phone has an image of a breast on it. This image suggests a very different type of possible performance experience for the viewer: obviously touching the body and touching a screen-based image are very different, but they both involve touch and a relationship to the body. What possibilities can the digital encounter provide in terms of questioning gender and body norms and binaries?

BR: Actually all my work dedicated to my “missing breast” is under the umbrella name “Amazon Armor.” It has many incarnations – photos, performances, objects, photos, installations. Our bodies are obviously perceived a lot through media. This is another aspect of EXPORT’s piece – it is about TV about cinema (the original name is Tapp- und Tast-Kino), it is about media spectacle, about the “society of the spectacle” (if we wish to add a bit of Guy Debord to it). Nowadays we have smart phones and YouTube channels. This is a very different culture, which creates different media and social phenomena.

Of course this relates to the body too. We see Photoshopped bodies every day. Photoshopping is also a technique many of us use to represent ourselves better to the world. But there is something else – with digital tools we can create also fantastic bodies. Bio-tech and plastic surgery, is trying to make it reality – although we sometimes see more monsters than beauties. But that’s another theme. Yes, I have another project for a phone app, where everybody can add a fantastic breast, which may not even be made out of skin, but can be metal, fur, feathers, plastic, fruits, anything one wants. I want to make my performance piece Pervert Veggies (in which people were posed with props to replace their breasts and genitalia) into a phone app. So this is for the future – by the way I am looking for a programmer to help me with that.

LV: Is there anything that you want to add about your practice or your upcoming performance that I didn’t ask you about?

BR: Yes, I think one important piece of mine, which will add more light to the entire conversation about my practice is The Last Valve, 2004. In this piece I stitch up my vagina with surgical thread to express the possibility of shutting up the hostility between genders. The piece refers to one of the points of the ULTRAFUTURO manifesto (the first manifesto of my collective ULTRAFUTURO), which anticipates the appearance of artificially constructed biological bodies that will lack sexual characteristics. The existence of these bodies proposes the idea that life can exist without the “essential” marks of the sexes, that are often referred to as fundamental for constructing our gender discrepancies. So may be, by looking at these future bodies we can decide that gender hostility creates more problems than happiness and try to overcome it? This utopic scenario for “overcoming gender” (this is how we defined it) has been metaphorically expressed in this piece.

Boryana Rossa performs on Thursday, June 12th, at 7pm at Defibrillator, 1136 N Milwaukee Ave.

She will discuss her work at her artist talk on Friday June 13th, 2-4pm, at Society for Arts, 1112 N Milwaukee Ave.

Photo by Oleg Mavromatti.
Lisa Vinebaum is an interdisciplinary artist, critical writer, and educator. Her work explores identity, labor, collectivity, and artistic production in the larger context of globalization and late capitalism. Her performances have been presented at festivals and conferences across North America. Her scholarly work has been published by Bloomsbury, Telos Art Publishing, YYZ Books, Ugly Duckling Press, and the Journal of Modern Craft Online, as well as at numerous international conferences. Lisa Vinebaum holds a PhD in Art from Goldsmiths. She is an Assistant Professor in the department of Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.