London - Interviews

Block Universe, London’s Performance Art Festival: An Interview with Director Louise O’Kelly

2 months ago

On the occasion of the opening of Block Universe, I interviewed curator Louise O’Kelly to learn more about London’s leading international performance art festival. The festival runs for 10 days, starting on the Spring Bank Holiday Weekend – 26 May to 3 June 2018.

Carla Ingrasciotta: How was Block Universe born and what motivated you to start a performance art festival?

Louise O’Kelly: Block Universe was born out of a desire to support artists working with performance and to create a platform to promote this medium. There remain many misconceptions about ‘performance art’ in the public mind, and I was keen to champion what I saw as a new generation of artists working at the cross-section of contemporary art, dance and music. The energy and excitement audiences have for this type of work is palpable, and I was conscious that there wasn’t one dedicated organisation in London committed to supporting or presenting this type of work, so it felt like a necessary addition to London’s cultural landscape.

C.I.: Could you tell us about this fourth edition of Block Universe? Who in terms of visitors are you expecting to see this year at the festival?

L.OK: For our fourth edition, we have expanded to ten days from a week, and are presenting a really exciting selection of UK-based and international artists coming from as far as Australia, the US, Germany and the Netherlands. We are commissioning the majority of the performances, so there is lots of exciting new work to see in both major institutions and unique locations around the city, many of which will be new to audiences. There is also a fantastic programme of special events including talks, workshops, a symposium and artist-led gatherings and discussions curated by my colleague Katharina Worf.

Visitors really cross the spectrum of audiences interested in contemporary art, dance and those interested in cultural events more generally. Usually people never know what to expect, but when they come love what they see as it’s something new.

C.I.: The festival takes place across various locations in London such as The Store X at 180 The Strand, the British Museum, Somerset House, Royal Academy etc. what long-term vision do you have for your performance art festival in London?

L.OK: We have built a strong reputation within the international arts community, which has resulted in fantastic opportunities for the artists we have presented and our goal is to reach even wider London audiences. Positioning the work inside familiar and well know institutions in central London is an important means of engaging people with the work who might not otherwise seek it out. This positioning is part of our longer term ambition that performance comes to be seen and respected as just another medium alongside the traditional forms of painting, sculpture or installation.

Next year will be our fifth year anniversary, so that is a big one for us and we already have some very ambitious projects underway. We are planning a publication to reflect on the 50+ performances and 30 new commissions we will have realised over the last few years. We are also working towards a number of specially commissioned events and interdisciplinary projects across the city and internationally to celebrate this special anniversary edition, which will be important to further strengthen our international ties and elevate the profiles of UK-based artists in a wider global community.

C.I: How did you select the artists involved in this edition?

L.OK: This year’s edition in many ways was a response to the divisiveness that has been more pronounced in world politics over the last year or two, and it felt like a positive action was necessary to think about how we can exist together at this moment in time. Hence the selection of works or the conversations we had with artists around the new commissions they would develop revolved around ideas of community and collectivity, whether utopian or dystopian, and of course conversations around gender relations and sexual harassment were also important in considering the ways that we relate to each other in a broader social context or in our intimate relationships. It felt like a much needed response to the current political situation we are in and all of the artists selected I felt were already dealing with these topics in one way or another.

C.I: Is it a coincidence that most of the performers in this year’s programme are women? How important is feminist topics to you and to what extent is it something that you take into account for the festival?

L.OK: I am proud to present individuals of any gender, but being a woman, of course feminist topics are very important to me. By creating a platform to champion artists working with performance, I do feel it is important to consider how that platform is used and whose voices are heard. There is always a strong representation of female or female identified artists in the programme, but this is simply because they are great artists! I try to be conscious in my programming choices that Block Universe is representing the full spectrum of performance happening, regardless of gender or race.

C.I.: Could you tell us about one performance or project that you particularly like this year and would suggest our readers to attend?

L.OK: I would of course recommend seeing everything, as I am so excited about every single performance that we will be showing over the ten days of the festival. What I might suggest is having a little taster over the bank holiday weekend to whet your appetite.
We will be launching with a free live installation by Maria Hassabi at 180 The Strand, co-commissioned by The Store X. It is an incredible venue in the heart of London that has hosted pop-up projects from the likes of the Serpentine, Hayward Gallery and Lisson Gallery. Happening from 11am-7pm on Saturday 26 & Sunday 27 May, this will be Maria’s first ever presentation in London, and as an artist who has shown in every major museum in the US and as part of Documenta 14 last year, this is certainly not one to miss!

Carla Ingrasciotta

  • Louise O’Kelly. Photo: © Louise Greidinger Louise O’Kelly. Photo: © Louise Greidinger
  • Maria Hassabi, STAGING Solo #2 ©Thomas Poravas Maria Hassabi, STAGING Solo #2 ©Thomas Poravas
  • Gery Georgieva, Blushing Valley Gery Georgieva, Blushing Valley
  • Giselle Stanborough, Dates, 2016 Giselle Stanborough, Dates, 2016