Q&A: #wintersday artists

It’s raining, it’s  cold…it’s still winter! So we thought it was time to ask the live performance artists who participated in last December’s If on a Winter’s Day  to share with us their experience. Here are some reflections from Donna Combe, Lorena Lo Pena, Hanqing Miao and Jennifer Williams.

Something Human: When you were approached to participate in “If on a Winter’s Day” in Deptford, what kind of reactions and thoughts did you have? What in particular drew you to the opportunity? (ie. site-specific, unusual spaces, the community?)

Donna Combe: When I was first approached, I felt a little nervous as I had never done a performance art piece before, but I do enjoy a challenge! I was inspired by seeing a couple of pieces that Something Human had done recently at the Deptford Lounge, which were both powerful and moving in very different ways, so I knew I had a lot of scope to experiment. What really drew me to the opportunity? A few things; Deptford, the people, the community and to be able to explore some issues that had been running around in my head for a while, and the chance to perform in a café finally clinched it, seemed the perfect venue.

Lorena Lo Peña: I was very much thrilled and drawn to the opportunity of performing (for the first time ever) in an unusual/community-inhabited ‘outdoor’ space, the high street. In the end, my final performance proposal turned out being site-specific, so I guess you can say that I was attracted to all three premises.

Hanqing Miao: When the project space was introduced to me, I immediately drew parallels between my life and work and the context of this project, so despite scheduling difficulties it was really difficult to even consider not taking up the opportunity. I work part-time in a Vietnamese supermarket, bigger but with the same products as the site I was to work in. Being a migrant, I fear/feel that I am always travelling, which makes it a lot easier for me to explore the notion of being on a perpetual journey. Most of all I was quite drawn to Deptford. I used to live down the road and talked about my impressions of Deptford in the Deptford High Street article.

Jennifer Wiliams: I was very flattered that I had been invited to work with Something Human again. I was drawn to the project because of my previous work with Something Human as well as the challenge of creating something site-specific within a very interesting community like Deptford.


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Something Human: What is the relation between your project concept, Italo Calvino’s literary work, Deptford and the venue you performed in?

Donna Combe: I have to admit, there is no relation between what I did and Italo Calvino’s work, I do not know his work at all unfortunately. Deptford is a place that suffered a lot over the years, and the Government’s policy of knocking down ‘the slums’ there really smashed the local community badly, scattering families all out to satellite places where they were very isolated and losing the homes many of them had proudly brought with very little or no compensation. I think the deep pain from all that still resonates in some respects. Having said that, despite its poverty and problems, Deptford is incredibly vibrant, mixed culturally, and it has an energy to it. It feels like a place of possibilities. It also, (as I have known some shop keepers in Deptford), does still very much have its own community. I have a love for it, I don’t know why exactly, I just do. The venue, Deli X Café, I adored immediately; its mix of clientele; students beavering away on laptops and discussing things, old and young, the section selling good organic products, the lovely seating, food and smells and, importantly, space to think. A great place to explore the relationship of people to place more in-depth, and in doing so hopefully give something back to Deptford in a small way.

Lorena Lo Peña: My concept of intervention is an action or installation that breaks-into a space not pre-designed for it, but that strongly dialogues  with it. It is a piece of art that is aware of and works with its surroundings/environment and whose artistic concept is enriched by the new space it is occupying. The relationship I found  between my concept of ‘intervention’, Deptford and the venue ‘The Red Carpet’ is one of complement. I took an isolated action from a former performance I did and transposed it to this fashion shop ‘The Red Carpet’ in Deptford, where the action itself in this specific context got an empowered meaning. The devised new piece was created by a dialogue between my previous performance action and this fashion shop, in specific.  Finally, I found that in this performative experience the most valuable relation was between the intervention and the audiences that attended it, who were the original shoppers from the Deptford high street. Their reactions, comments and presence during the intervention completed the concept of my performance.

Hanqing Miao: I was sitting on the sidewalk for a couple of hours and there was a tension with me being in one constant spot and offering something for free, I think. Deptford is a very busy place, but my end of the street tended to get lonely sometimes. I think one can travel whilst being still, by being an agent in oneself. By giving out oranges and stories, and receiving stories in return I involved myself in the community, travelling through different time and cultures.

Jennifer Wiliams:  I was trying to connect memories of travelling through, to and from Deptford across time. I had historical images and memories nestled within a large map of London, with Deptford at its centre. The idea was to collect more images and memories of Deptford from the people that came into my venue (Chaconia café) throughout the day. The artwork was built up through the audience’s interaction with it, which I felt related to Calvino’s meta-narrative in ‘If on a Winter’s Night’.

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Something Human: What was your experience of performing in an unusual space in the heart of Deptford? How did the audience respond to your work, and why?

Donna Combe: The responses were so varied and amazing, many people engaged totally and entered into the spirit of it. It was interesting how so many of them assumed that when my character (who literally didn’t have a voice) held out her hand, she was holding out her hand to ask for money. Where as, of course she wasn’t at all, she just wanted to ask for help counting the money so then she could buy THEM a cup of tea!  Gently challenging stereotypical notions around isolated ‘travelling’ people whether they be homeless, mentally ill, or otherwise and I wanted to highlight this and encourage people to re-examine their own attitudes a bit. Had lovely people willing and happy to count out A LOT of change for me, and the majority did partake of my tea offering, even if they already had a drink.  Some shied away and didn’t want me near them, others were contented to watch the proceedings although not actively participate. Some thought it was real, until Sam (the musician) started playing guitar. Then of course there was the small dog growling loudly at me in all my lonely traveller layers with leaves falling out. I thought he was seriously going to attack me at one point! It was the only moment where I almost laughed. Luckily I saw him with his owners outside afterwards, and we made friends. Lots of wonderful moments to treasure.

Lorena Lo Peña: My experience was great. I was very pleased with the outcome of the intervention and in particular with the audience’s responses. I wanted people to think about the subject the performance was arising ‘female bodies and aesthetics in fashion’. My method of touching the subject was through comedy and grotesque, and I knew the action itself would shock people because it touched an intimate and delicate feminine subject in an abrupt and exposed way. In the end I was very pleased because it generated a collective shock and loads of discussions.

Hanqing Miao: I really enjoyed working with the people at Lai Lois, the vietnamese grocery store where I performed my work. They were really accommodating to my plans and also to my concepts, and really shared a lot with me. So firstly, the “unusual” space turned out to be even more homely than my usual condition is. I’m a terribly shy person and I tend to respond to new things with silence and a blank mind, but they were fantastic. The best moment of my day was a girl who told me a story like this, “Well I woke up in the morning, and my friend said that there was a girl giving out oranges on the other side of the road! So I came downstairs to say hi.” Turned out she was living in the apartment right across the street. 

Jennifer Wiliams: I found it a good challenge to work within the constraints of a busy space and its owner. I got along well with the café owner and she was happy with what I created in her shop. In hindsight, I wish I had created something that was more visible to passer-bys (on the café window, for example) as I think this would have encouraged more people to come inside and interact with the work. I feel I should have started setting up earlier as well, meaning that I could have spent more time interacting with audience and encouraging them to contribute. People were happy to talk to me about Deptford, why they were in the café and their experiences of the place, but not so many people wanted to stop and contribute. Therefore, I started to add excerpts of my conversations with the community onto the artwork, rather than asking them stop and write them down. This worked well, I felt, and was less intimidating for the people who entered the café just for their food and with no frame of reference for the artwork.

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Something Human: How did this experience influence your creative practice?

Donna Combe: It influenced my creative practice in that space as I had to be flexible and respond to the reactions I was getting from the audience, so there was a whole middle section that really we couldn’t rehearse as such, because we didn’t know what could happen, literally anything! This made it very exciting. I think it has influenced my practice for the future in the way that I would think of a concept that involves less production values, so that it would be more self-contained.

Lorena Lo Peña: It made me want to explore more the idea of showing and devising work in public/community spaces in the future.

Hanqing Miao: This is my first serious, performative work. Previously I never summoned up enough courage to put myself in the spotlight. If you look at the rest of my work, I am usually outside of the frame. You will know it’s me because I sew myself into the fabric of the work, but I am never subject, and never subject to scrutiny. With this project though, I really had to overcome different personal hurdles, and put myself out there. It was nerve-wrecking and at first I couldn’t reflect on it properly because I kept thinking of the things I did wrongly, but then I realised that there is no right way apart from remaining open-minded about everything.

Jennifer Wiliams: I learnt a great deal about site-specific work and working with someone who is not used to working with artists. I also learnt of the importance of spectacle. My work tends to be delicate and quiet and a bit unassuming, but in this case I would have benefited from being a bit bigger and more outwardly-focused (if this makes sense???).

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Something Human: As an artist, are you a lonely traveller?

Donna Combe: As an artist, I would say yes, I have very much been a lonely traveller, but there are collaborations and moments of extremely close companionship, camaraderie and shared experience/understanding but at the end of the day, ultimately we are all ‘all-one’ ….’alone’ really aren’t we? We have moments and hopefully lots going on in our lives, but particularly because as an artist I don’t conform to the ‘norms’ of western society I feel ‘lonely traveller’ is a description I can personally relate to; not all of the time, but often.

Lorena Lo Peña: I am, for sure, but also sometimes I am not. It always depends on the journey, and specifically, on the circumstances surrounding it.

Hanqing Miao: As a person, I am a lonely traveller. I am fond of long journeys with my backpack and catching minimal sleep in between uncertain journeys. It is because of this personal lonesomeness (different from loneliness) that I try, in my sociable moments, to surround myself with lots of people. I like the idea that my art is about losing myself in other people, or losing myself in a big world, and then the viewer gets to try and chase me down.

Jennifer Wiliams: As an artist and as a person I am a lonely traveller!

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