Britta Peters: Your exhibition My Body Is Not An Island deals with the idea of storytelling on many levels: stories based on real and fictitious experiences from a human and non-human perspective can be listened to in an audio composition and they can be read as fragments on posters. And the audience is more than welcome to leave their own stories in the form of texts, drawings, and collages. There are several tables prepared for this and the whole atmosphere is very inviting. In addition to this, performers read stories to people inside and outside the exhibition space twice a week. What makes the act of storytelling so important for you?
Eva Koťátková: Storytelling is a kind of shared ground for people to meet. For people with different backgrounds and different ideas about how to function in society and how to live in this world. It is a way to connect – or not. Even if it creates ground for a critical exchange, it still functions as a place for gathering, sharing, attempts to understand and get closer to each other. I have collected stories as long as I can remember. I grew up paying attention to stories I heard around me from my parents or other family members. I collected stories I learned at school and stories I had read in fiction. Or stories I remembered from the media – stories about people not fitting in the social structures and labelled as different. Now I have a huge collection as a database somewhere written in my head, but also on my Google Drive. Whenever I start a new work, I travel with this package of stories that I keep putting back into the circle. I am interested in the question of how other stories get into official narratives. Where are the possible holes, secret entrances, or leverage points to bring in other stories, the ones that are not heard or are silenced, that are more under the surface? It seems like we have one major body that is speaking and has so many buttons to amplify, but this body is composed of many other bodies that want to speak as well.
Normativity controls our bodies and our minds, that’s for sure. But at the same time, norms organize our common life and reduce the amount of physical violence, for example, compared with a time in which the right of the strongest was the only one that counted. Mankind or different societies give themselves laws and rules, which guarantee equal rights, apply to everybody and finally become normative orders. How would you describe the dynamics between some necessary agreements on normative ideas and a situation that shifts into repression?
We need norms as a kind of supporting structure to be able to function and to be with others in public and private spaces, but the question is always: are the current norms supportive or suppressive? Who gets into the bubble and is in the centre of society with all its burdens as well as benefits and who is forced to stay outside and lose all kinds of possibilities, benefits and opportunities, being labelled and discriminated instead? We should aim for the norms to be sensitive and inclusive to everyone to allow a lot of different states of mind and of being.
Norms can shift dramatically, just think about the history of women‘s rights for example. This is a success story, even though there is still a lot of inequality. But there has been enormous progress compared to the early days. So the act of raising awareness for other stories, as we can find it in your work and as it is in the centre of a committed discourse, is something which can really influence the current situation. With the paradox that the desire for care and mindfulness is a new normative order in itself.
Absolutely, and yet I would not say the norms change dramatically – they change step by step, through small and larger gestures, statements, visions, actions, and many invisible events that lead to more significant changes. It is extremely important to listen to other stories as well as to be able to present yours, locate it and see similar patterns or connections to other stories. To see that we are not alone in the struggle.
The exhibition, which consists of a huge body, half-fish, half-human, and 20 smaller sculptural stations, has been previously shown in different versions in Bordeaux and in Prague. Is it still a challenge to work with it? How does a new site affect the installation?
It is a huge challenge, it is almost a bigger challenge with every destination the strange fish-human body travels to. And I have the feeling the body becomes freer through time, free in the sense that it decomposes and offers more and more of a democratic structure. In the beginning, the body was decomposed, but the positions of its elements were fixed, and now we are moving into the public space and working with an imaginative tail in the harbour. The adventure is growing for me as it brings the outdoor public space more into play and gives more room for imagination, hope, and possible future scenarios of change.
The design of the project is based on the metaphor of a fish out of water. It has to adapt to life on solid ground, starting to breathe differently, to get more humanlike – otherwise it is going to die. And, if we are honest, it will die anyway.
Imagining yourself in the body of a fish out of water is a poetic depiction of a situation where we find ourselves caught in a very difficult position. For the fish, it is the final situation to be in. When we are in great danger, the circumstances seem to leave us no other option than to act in a certain way. We might accept things we had never thought of accepting before, both in ethical and practical terms. But we can perhaps also decide to act differently, to risk our own position (or in the worst case our own life) and go against what is expected of us. I guess this is a situation everyone faces on a smaller or bigger scale almost every day. We are confronted with decisions every day. We can not rebel every day, this would be unlivable and many people have their realities shaken and destabilised seriously against their will. But if we have the privilege to live more or less comfortable lives, we should not avoid situations that make us rethink the way we have lived so far or how this life affects others in this world.
Everybody has the possibility to make decisions, even in very bad and seemingly hopeless situations. This is a kind of strength, you are right.
The metaphor of the fish on dry lands deals with the aspect of imagination. For me, the question of how to keep my imagination open, how to not allow others to narrow the corridor of my imagination, is very crucial. How can one avoid becoming too comfortable in one‘s own lifestyle and way of thinking? How do I keep still risking things and getting on uncertain, fragile ground, where so many things can disrupt the base of what I thought before? This is the situation of the fish: thinking about possibilities beyond the horizon of imaginable.
People are shaped by experiences, the influence and power of norms is part of this, but also other things like getting hurt emotionally or simply not knowing how to survive on a material level. These experiences can of course lead to a state of mind which is narrower and more anxious.
Definitely, and one should be aware of one’s own privileges as well as of fields in which one is being discriminated against. I also realised through many projects and also through life circumstances how important it is to be able to stay with uncertainty in situations where we don’t actually know what is going to happen until one realises that we not only live in a world of uncertain moments but in a world full of violence, deep inequalities and discrimination. From this perspective, it may be important to learn how to live in uncertainty and still enjoy the joyful moments, to not get anxious about it. To not panic about it.
One last question: Besides other elements which reappear in your works, there is the method of collage, which feels like a thread connecting everything. You started with making beautiful collages on paper, but soon started combining them with metalworks. In the exhibition in Duisburg, we have collages of different materials, wood, textiles, metal, as well as collages of text on a visible and audible level. Performers share the stories live and in interaction with the sculptural elements as well as outside on the way to the harbour. Did you ever wonder why you are so tempted to work with collage? Was it a conscious decision?
It is a conscious decision, but then the process itself is rather unconscious. I always had a deep interest in decomposing the image that is presented. It started with the critique of educational methods, which is still very present in my work. My first collages involved taking a book with educational images, a book from the 50s or 60s and a book I grew up with in the 90s where they had kept the same images. There was one in particular which I used five or six times: a teacher talking from a higher position to a child, which is of course much smaller but also standing much lower. I would always cut the bodies differently, sometimes I would support the child to get the same height as the teacher, sometimes I would put a funnel structure onto the pupil’s head showing the power game and the act of education, which is more focused on the delivery of a piece of information than on a whole-body experience.
Since the very early days of my studies at the academy in Prague, I was always provoked by images that seemed to me stable or frozen, unchangeable. That was the moment when I took scissors, or later, through installation, to free the image.
The collage also offers cracks to see other images. It opens and changes the normative power of the perfect image.
I remember in the beginning I was also choosing images that were not complete, in the newspaper for example where there was just a section of an arm, and then I somehow restored the body. It was about making the trunk function in this world, but not as a complete body in a regular sense but as an independent, freed fragment that gained its own identity.