The Spacing of Memories. A Conversation with Elana Katz

In the Performance Series

A conceptual artist who works primarily in the medium of performance art, Elana Katz has been researching and creating site-specific artwork in Romania and the region of former Yugoslavia since 2011, for her ongoing project Spaced Memory – a documentation and contemplation of forgotten and overwritten Jewish sites in the Balkans. Memory, ‘postmemory,’ and the ‘presence of absence’ are some of the main topics the artist contemplates around locations of historical erasure. We have met the artist during her residency in Cluj in 2015 and started a dialogue on her performance art and artistic practice, memorialization and erasure, as well as her experience of working in the Balkans, with her project concluding in July 2016 with a final performance in Romania.

Sabin Bors: I would start by asking how you arrived at the main topic of your artistic research.

Elana Katz: It is always a lived process. My historically based work Spaced Memory developed from my experience living in Berlin, where I have been based since 2008. I became intrigued by the highly developed local memory culture, in fact I consider Germany to be hyper-memorialized, particularly in the context of public space. I have done performance pieces that examine this culture of memorialization, and through this I became interested in the contrasting manner in which memory is dealt with further east in Europe, where, for a variety of complex reasons, there is a tendency to overwrite historical locations and narratives, rather than a focus on historical reflection and commemoration. I began Spaced Memory in 2011, a project in which I work with places of Jewish history that no longer exist: sites that have been either built-over or repurposed, for example a former synagogue now used as a supermarket, or a basketball court that is built over a destroyed Jewish cemetery. I’m interested in the void that is left in Balkan countries that once had significantly large Jewish populations that have now diminished. Through the erasure of these sites, knowledge of these former Jewish subcultures is gradually removed from local collective memory. These circumstances can be seen in relation to many cultural minorities in regions across the world, and the site-specific work that I create focuses on the pervasive topics of memory, postmemory, and presence of absence. This project has spanned 5 years now, and will conclude in July 2016 with a final performance in Romania.

My additional directions of working at the moment are exploring the notion of the body as a canvas; a surface that reflects our social surroundings and the complex emotional and psychological maps existing inside of the self.

Related to both of the above topics, I’m developing a body of work called Facts of Violence. It consists of several performances, video pieces, and collaborative photo works that examine not only physical violence, but psychological and social violence as well.

Elana Katz, Action Boxing Club, 2014. Performance/ exhibition, Pristina/ Kosovo. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha
Elana Katz, Action Boxing Club, 2014. Performance/ exhibition, Pristina/ Kosovo. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha
Elana Katz, Action Boxing Club, 2014. Performance/ exhibition, Pristina/ Kosovo. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha
Elana Katz, Action Boxing Club, 2014. Performance/ exhibition, Pristina/ Kosovo. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha

Sabin Bors: Why did you chose performance as your main artistic expression?

Elana Katz: Well, in fact, without performance, I simply do not feel complete as a person. It took me some time to figure this out. I trained as a classical dancer in my childhood, and left dance as a teenager, as the pressures of that world (and my completely fanatic approach to my training) essentially destroyed my love for the craft. It was a painful parting and I had a bit of an identity crisis after that point of leaving dance… I experimented with different mediums of art, and finally landed with photography, which I studied at Parsons in New York. During my studies my photo work became more and more performative. I was doing a lot of studio shooting, conceptual projects focused on deconstructing beauty and gender ideals, using my own body and others’ as well to perform in the studio in front of the camera. Just when I was finishing up my degree, it became clear to me that the only thing missing from this practice was the element of live performance itself. So my first work in the field of performance art I did at the BFA photography exhibition at Parsons in 2008, and since then it has been my primary medium. From the point of that first performance it was very clear that I had found the absolute most complete form of expression for my character and my practice.

Sabin Bors: Are there any specific ‘protocols’ in your performances, that is, specific conceptual and formal constructions through which you aim to deliver the message?

Elana Katz: No, never, in fact absence of protocol is fundamental to how I work. Ideas come to me at times that cannot be predicted, and what will resonate and stimulate ideas is always irregular. Most often an idea for an artwork surfaces in my mind as a static visual image. My understanding is that this image is a response to surrounding factual, emotional, and visual information – my lived experience and my internal understanding of it is somehow contained in that image. It is the way that I process and channel material, and it is very intuitive. Even if I don’t intellectually comprehend each intuition immediately, an understanding always comes in retrospect through analysis and reflection, which actually allows me to learn a great deal from my own creative process. In this way of conceptualizing works there is no consistency, no premeditated control – protocol would kill the process.

Sabin Bors: You previously mentioned the idea of using the body as sculpture in your performances. How exactly do you understand this body?

Elana Katz: I am very sensitive to and rooted in physical experience, and the body is the instrument with which I can most adequately communicate. Expression through the body has always been natural to me, which I why I was a dancer as a child. That said, however, I must explain that I don’t understand the body. I am both fascinated and tormented by it. I view and feel it as an infinitely complex web of psychological, emotional, and mental threads, which constantly overlap, intertwine, and push/ pull one another. I am very sensitive to all of these intricacies of the body (and mind) both in myself and in my observation of others. My work with the body – as a sculpture, canvas, or any other form – is a comment upon the mysteries of the body, and my attempt to access an understanding of it, rather than communication of my understanding of it.

Elana Katz, Action Boxing Club, 2014. Performance/ exhibition, Pristina/ Kosovo. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha
Elana Katz, Action Boxing Club, 2014. Performance/ exhibition, Pristina/ Kosovo. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha
Elana Katz, Action Boxing Club, 2014. Performance/ exhibition, Pristina/ Kosovo. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha
Elana Katz, Action Boxing Club, 2014. Performance/ exhibition, Pristina/ Kosovo. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha

Sabin Bors: In your performances, issues of identity are inherent, yet there is no specific, manifest gender discourse, for instance.

Elana Katz: I think that all of my works participate in multiple discourses, whether purposefully or not. For example, my recent work in Kosovo inevitably had a position in local political discourse about which I was initially unaware, and that work was a powerful learning experience to inform me about these circumstances. Likewise with my projects concerning beauty ideals, the body, and social expectations/ projections — these works do often hold a place in gender discourse by default, although it is not my primary focus. All of these references to/ in my work are absolutely relevant. But your question does come at an interesting time, as I am soon planning to work in a new conscious direction: questioning physical symbols of femininity and constructed gender behavior.

Sabin Bors: One idea in particular has caught my attention during the discussion we had: the idea of ‘postmemory’ and your understanding of it in relation to memory and history. Could you please detail on the way you relate to this idea of ‘postmemory?’

Elana Katz: Postmemory is defined as memory that is learned and internalized, but not experienced firsthand. I actually learned about the term from the Romanian artist Ștefan Sava, we were sitting in a teahouse in Bucharest; it was probably 2011 or 2012, during one of my first trips to Romania. Ștefan explained the term to me in reference to his own work, and I came to realize to what extent I myself, and my work, could be understood through postmemory. Marianne Hirsch’s essay “Postmemory Generation,” which examines postmemory in descendants of Holocaust survivors and the family as a space for the transmission of learned memory, influenced my understanding of the nuances of the subject a great deal. I belong to this generation of postmemory, all of the places with which I am working in Spaced Memory I know only through postmemory, and my knowledge of the places is also built through interviews with people who communicate their postmemory-based understandings. It is the manifestation of memory that most largely defines my current work.

Sabin Bors: Regardless of their form, memorials are often seen as a normative commemoration. Do you think performance can offer a counter-memorial approach that can alter the course of cultural memory or cultural forgetting?

Elana Katz: Yes, absolutely, this is why I do what I do.

Sabin Bors: So how does collective memory, as filtered through the individual, return to the collective consciousness, which does not reflect only on specific communities but the collective social as a whole?

Elana Katz: Well I cannot make a claim as to how my work, or performance as medium, affects collective memory as a whole, and I would not want to control this. The way in which performance, or whatever contemporary art it might be, affects people is very personal, and it is important that it is not manipulated or censored. What I view as one of the most important functions of art is that it has the potential to make one see in new ways; it can awaken an understanding (whether this be visual, sensory, or conceptual) within the viewer, and it has the capacity to lead one to question and step outside of what one knows. I do certainly hope that my work provokes thought and questions, and demonstrates an alternative way of being. As such, it opens the possibility for un-prescribed change in the realm of cultural memory and forgetting, whether it be in one’s social action, intellectual understanding, or simply in one’s emotional being.

Elana Katz, Barcode, 2015. Video performance, Berlin/ Germany. Photo: Lisa Stertz
Elana Katz, Barcode, 2015. Video performance, Berlin/ Germany. Photo: Lisa Stertz

Sabin Bors: In our discussions, you said some histories are unacknowledged, forgotten and at times concealed. Your performances alter political and constructed significations; they confront symbols of historical and contemporary politics, and aim to reclaim a memorial and political consciousness. How did you find out about these personal and social, forgotten and often parallel histories? In what way do they inform your understanding of a situation and the construction of your work?

Elana Katz: I’ve encountered many different circumstances, as there is a vastly complex set of historical and present-day conditions that shape the state of the nations where I have been working. I always start in a new country or city by interviewing whatever contacts I may have – usually either recommended historians, activists, and/ or members of Jewish Communities. From our talks I get leads concerning local sites that no longer exist, as well as forgotten places of trauma. I then research further, through a combination of consulting (or searching for) archives, and speaking with people who are connected with the history of the site or its present day use, and also those who are thinking and acting critically in relation to national histories, memory culture, and current social conditions.

The erased/ forgotten state of the places is shaped by many historical periods, including the holocaust, revolutions, communist governments and re-construction of cities, the Balkan Wars… and, of course, the consequences of all of the above. Information about the erased Jewish pasts of places can be concealed for reasons such as protecting the commercial interests of the business that occupies the built-over site, or due to anti-Semitism, or as a result of shame concerning the genocide-related history of the place and local involvement in it, or, these sites are often forgotten simply due to time and the fact that this past is overshadowed by more recent trauma. Histories can of course be written/ told in highly manipulated manners in order to support present-day political and financial agendas, and I certainly encountered a significant amount of this in my research. I always treat all information as relevant, and I am deeply interested in the ambiguity of these multifaceted manifestations of remembering. My observation of these intricacies are channeled into the artworks that I produce site-specifically, and also dealt with in other projects. For instance, the project that I’m developing concerning varying facets of violence – I would say that all of those artworks are created as result of what I lived and internalized during my years working, and building my own personal history, through Spaced Memory in the Balkans.

Elana Katz, Body of Work, 2015. Performance, Bucharest/ Romania. Photo: Simona Deaconescu
Elana Katz, Body of Work, 2015. Performance, Bucharest/ Romania. Photo: Simona Deaconescu
Elana Katz, Body of Work, 2015. Performance, Bucharest/ Romania. Photo: Simona Deaconescu
Elana Katz, Body of Work, 2015. Performance, Bucharest/ Romania. Photo: Simona Deaconescu

Sabin Bors: I think that, often, memory as such must remain forgotten, precisely so as to be revealed subjectively. It is subject to both appropriation and manipulation, it is unconscious and deformable – but this is where its expressive power lies. It cannot be reconstructed like (a) history. So how do you challenge and transform memory in your work?

Elana Katz: I agree with you that it is important that memory, or postmemory, be revealed subjectively. It is indeed subject to manipulation all the time, and, like I said before, I always channel my perception of these manipulations into my work. In terms of aiming to transform memory, I would refer to what I say above, “I cannot make a claim as to how my work, or performance as medium, affects collective memory as a whole, and I would not want to control this.”

Sabin Bors: I see this in relation to one idea I particularly liked in your work, the idea of ‘spaced memory.’ But how exactly do you see this spacing? Is it spacing or a form of memorial displacement?

Elana Katz: The word “Spaced” in this title refers to instances of the space between: the space between memory and postmemory, and the space between history and reality at these given sites. Both are cases of a literal discrepancy that leads to an emotional discrepancy – spaced apart from one another. These betweens are where I see that projected understandings and re-writings of histories take place.

Sabin Bors: It is said that recollection needs to offer an image of who is actually remembering…

Elana Katz: I don’t think that recollection needs to offer such an image as it simply does it inherently. The position of recollection is, of course, subjective. It can only be as such for each individual, and the way in which the recollection manifests itself is a portrait of the remembering person – a highly intimate portrait. This includes myself as an artist.

Elana Katz and Sorin Nainer, National Guilt, 2015. Archival photograph (100 x 77cm)
Elana Katz and Sorin Nainer, National Guilt, 2015. Archival photograph (100 x 77cm)

Sabin Bors: One thing I noticed is that there is a sort of ‘solitary figure’ in most of your performances; and your performances in front of an audience often appeal to documentation, whether video or photographic.

Elana Katz: This is actually not the case. I am performing for/ with the surroundings, the space and the public. I work very visually and create images with my performances, and I have a specific way in which I want the performances to be documented, in keeping with the image that I envision. So this is reflected in the photo/ video material. But the performances are not realized appealing to documentation rather than the immediate surroundings.

Sabin Bors: During your performance in Pristina, you stood at the entrance of the space without moving or talking, greeting visitors with powder on your hands and emphasizing the idea of trace and the ephemeral. But this also meant that, once people got inside, you ‘faced’ the audience with the back. I thought this to be a powerful statement in itself, because it somehow rejects the idea of a face-to-face encounter or confrontation; and somehow rejects the possibility of identifying and constructing the other. How do you see this gesture in relation to your overall performance?

Elana Katz: Actually my standing position was chosen in order to greet people as they entered the building. I had direct contact with each person who entered the building, whether or not they agreed to take my hand, so face-to-face encounter was in fact very present in this performance. The fact that my back faced the public once they had entered was simply a result of the architecture of the room, yet I was very pleased with this unplanned detail. It created an alternative to conventional performance structure, and it certainly caused people to question their expectations of how a performance looks.

Elana Katz, The Sunday, 2014. Performance, New York/ US. Photo: Motohiro Takeda
Elana Katz, The Sunday, 2014. Performance, New York/ US. Photo: Motohiro Takeda

Sabin Bors: I’d be interested to find out about your experience of working in Romania so far and about your future plans.

Elana Katz: My residency in Cluj last year was an impressionable introduction to the cultural scene and local history, and I’m working with collaborators on planning a future exhibition there. On several projects in Bucharest I’ve been working with curator Olivia Nițiș, including the group exhibition MonuMental Histories at ARCUB which ran until May 8th, and the upcoming IEEB7 Biennial in Bucharest, which is focused this year on fabricated histories. My largest undertaking at the moment is the concluding work of Spaced Memory – a (non-public) performance and film production scheduled for July 2016 that will take place along the historic route of the death train from Iași to Podu Iloaiei. The performance deals with the idea of penetrating this forgotten landscape of trauma, which has been integrated into the mundane rural and urban landscapes of Romania.

July 1, 2016

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