An interview with the creator and performer of ”Interruptor: The Stranger Gets A Gift”

Some of the art I enjoy the most is built on this principle: through the material you talk about the things you are unable to express. 

An interview with the creator and performer of ”Interruptor: The Stranger Gets A Gift”

Cristina Maldonado created an extremely empowering performance for the viewer, with a progressively growing communication between her and the stranger using the installation. The rules of her interactive performance are clear, which creates a comfort zone and a lot of credit goes to the artist for creating presence and connection on equal terms. Similar concepts of active and interactive gestures in performative arts might design the way we want to connect in the near future. Following her visit in Bucharest, Maldonado agreed to explain her ways for an interview in SUB25, courtesy of CNDB.

I think your mind is full of all sorts of things that make you so generous as an artist.

I`m glad to hear that verbalized. I mean receiving the feedback, because I don`t get to meet people afterwards, besides the organizers. People only have the option of writing a note when they leave. I want to read each and every one of them when I get home.

I can`t even remember what I wrote.

The brain is somehow drained after the intervention and I believe at least writing the note is better than trying to talk, because you can`t verbalize too much.

How did you start choosing your objects? They function on a high symbolical level: elements from nature, those mystical cards similar to tarot, but also practical stuff like duct tape, scissors, and so on. What built the history of their coming together?

It was a thing I kept thinking about because the objects are the only way I can control the performance. I have to make sure there are common grounds as well as limits. The first reason for choice embodies objects I`m attracted to, which attract my attention in my day-to-day life: things that surround us, familiar but perhaps disposable: maybe trash - you noticed the batteries, or mismatched or forgotten things you have from your childhood - dice or cards. The cards are contained in a Mexican game called  lotteria. The images are kind of folkloric. I was thinking about some universes where each of these objects should belong. Work related objects create a replica of an office environment. Glass is the basic element of my work.

My previous performance was more personal - we would be in the same room and you would choose a phrase you kind of want to get rid of and we would write it down and play games with mirrors, so that you see some visual tricks around it. I believe this practice is rooted in some shamanic heritage and an interest I have for my own culture. In that performance I realized the potential of glass and lenses, these typical instruments for manipulating the image. They help transition between here and another world, maybe a magical one, so that explains the presence of glass objects on the table. I think that material-isticism is a really good example on how something which looks so ordinary can have an inner world full of life - the light is moving, so it becomes alive, which makes you create a relationship with the object. We relate and then we explore.

Did anyone send feedback after a while? I mean beside the notes.   

No. I don`t think anyone contacted me afterwards to tell me something about the performance. I know some were very moved - I can hear the ”visitor” when I`m working. I like to keep it that way. I get to hear more emotional reactions.

Do other people also ask if you intend to be so unexpectedly intense?

I think that we are quite different, but some people do connect what they see with an inner world and give an existential dimension to that situation. I do this because I cherish the existential level of the performance - because it provides a communication otherwise impossible. I provide information emotionally and psychologically. I sometimes felt empathy, easiness and openness during the performance. Sometimes, when it`s over, I feel nostalgia, I feel attachment for a moment. After I close the projector though, I am so glad that the attachment is dissolved. It cannot be, it has no reason to be, it`s just a beautiful experience and there is nothing you can do about it. I also exercise a particularity which I feel is very valuable: having so much intimacy without being at risk - the person comes to see how it works, but afterwards everyone is free to do what they want. No strings attached.

Who is the guide?

Me, in the sense that I am building the frame, but once you accept the convention of that frame (sitting in a room, having no spatial contact, only an imaginary line), you accept that you are there and I am somewhere else, but we can hear each other. I give you some roles in the start, but once you cross that line, your ”answers” or moves create the direction. I`ll be waiting for you to start, I will see which object will call your attention, then I will react. I propose some things sometimes, or deliberately show you a trick that I like, for example some optic thing. From the moment you start proposing, it`s as unknown for me as it is for the visitor.

So you don`t know where you`re heading? Like a pattern? Is this rather introspective or playful?

I have no interest in categorizing the people when they arrive. Of course you notice some things. Sometimes you anticipate someone to be playful and in the end, they mention childhood fun, so you are right. I know we might meet in some point and we might struggle in others. Some people are more chaotic, some take more time, but that doesn`t allow me to categorize the strategy.

Did anything move you beyond the ordinary during or after a performance?

Yes, I do often react when fronting some people who deal with the material in a way that feels just crazy - those are usually artists. Someone built a tridimensional thing with tape, growing from the sheet all the way up to the projector. Another person decided to break a ball at this other performance. There are also some people who don’t care about you. They see the objects and ignore you. Then it`s reduced to colors and stuff. That makes me feel frustrated and ignored, but it`s part of the offer - you will do what you feel like doing. I am very aware of the emotional side - I feel a strong attachment, or moments that are very satisfying on a basic level. Noticing how the other person is, receiving a surprise, but it was never meant to be like... I don`t know. I wondered how to keep myself grounded in the concrete. The process was not about making people feel stuff or create time to observe themselves or ask themselves why and how they do what they’re doing. That is not the purpose.

But if you`re guiding someone very vulnerable who reads very deep in the semiotics, who feels your sensibility and asks questions, does it burden you with something higher than an artistic responsibility?

I don`t see it like that - I think we just like the idea of the oracle. Some of us look for that everywhere they can. The setup can raise the fantasy of this person who knows something that you don’t, but I never engaged in an interaction like that in the performances. I don’t use that much asking questions, but some like to ask things. When answering, I try to make it totally clear that sometimes I don’t have an answer and I twist things in an absurd direction. I share stuff, but on a philosophical level, not on a spiritual one. There is no prophetic direction when pointing towards space, time, cycles, bla-bla. When you contain responsibility, you have power over that person, you will control what that person believes. The fact that I’m not in that room and the user finds a manual to use the installation makes him or her understand the rule about using the experience as they like - so it`s pretty clear it`s about what each wants to make of it.

You asked at some point if I want to see. The moment I replied about a sensitive feeling of suffering, it took so little time for you to cut tiny pieces of black lace and to place them in a little glass, above which you wrote ”now”. For me, someone I didn’t even see made me feel safe and contained.

I clearly remember this interaction. I also experienced it on a more human level. To be honest, maybe I do have a bit of perversion. It can happen with some certain people who are available or interested in this human exchange that that space will become one of honest exploration or expression. These moments are pure gold. They make me feel like a human being. I remember seeing the phrase. I know it was coming from the inside, but we were not connected to that subject, it had just arrived. This kind of thing I cannot ignore. It`s not one of my objects, it really comes from you. I have two choices: acknowledge it and add to it, or ignore it and continue. I prefer the first. You can be afraid, but you can go about it. It can be a moment of fear: I don`t know what I’m going to do with that. But on the other hand the way I deal with it is to be very concrete and specific. In a way, that`s why I think I can work with objects in this explanatory sense. The actions that you do with an object are very good translators of concepts and emotions and abstract. That’s something that somehow comes naturally to me and I follow. It was just a reaction on the materiality of the word. Hurt - scissors - disruption - containing. I didn’t think about the meaning, it was only a translation. Some of the art I enjoy the most is built on this principle: through the material you talk about the things you are unable to express. Surviving these open moments is sticking to the materiality. Otherwise I could panic.

Do you remember your first performance of this kind? How was it?

It was a rehearsal. Not the first representation in the theatre. I showed it to a colleague to get his feedback. He is very experienced and smart. I was feeling enthusiastic all the time and really excited to be able to be with someone without being with that person in the same place. At that time I was already using these words like me - time - space, and realized it works: breaking time and space and me and him was the excitement of being very close without any danger.

How were your other performances from the dance biennale in Bucharest?

I enjoyed it a lot. The type of people coming over was already filtered by the festival or word of mouth. There was a very nice balance between playful and emotional; there was a lot of listening, a lot of curiosity and availability to try the installation. Some people were even laughing.

Are there big differences between countries when it comes to representation? I mean, because people are culturally set up to react differently to this sort of interaction.

Actually, in Czech Republic, where I live right now, it is very difficult. There`s an alternative scene, this performance is even supported by an alternative theatre, but most of the people are foreigners and few locals come over. I think they are not interested in this kind of work where you are expected to do something. I feel they are cold and distant. It is very dangerous to generalize, but I noticed that while living there. Sometimes I wonder if it has to do with culture or with me. Each time I have a certain mood, which means I do perform differently. In Russia people were more philosophical, the performance took place in a museum of contemporary avant-garde. The context influences every happening. Mexico is obviously rather loose, expressive, and so on.

What did this gamification practice teach you and how did it malformed the person you were before you started?

I was recently thinking of this. I understood what I really do for myself with this performance and then what I do for the others. I realized that through the years I could create something like a process of exchange. I polish the purpose of creating an environment in which I can share things. Those things are the most important for me, on an existential level. At the same time I can place myself in a position of receiving from this exchange. You often make performances and you know they are very demanding; they can be difficult or draining. As a performer, I remember thinking that I really have to give myself all the way I can. But this, I think this performance is really like a dream for me. It`s like someone would come over and ask if I could imagine the most wonderful thing ever. Maybe it`s exaggerated, but there is nothing I enjoy more than being with someone in this way and working on this ground, creating terms on which I don`t need to follow any protocols, formats, strategies on what art is or how it works or where we place it in the world. I`m using art to attain something required at the core of my needs. I feel it`s a fair exchange. I`m getting something out of it, the other person is also getting something out of it.

From this point on you ask yourself how to create something and how it would work. In Bucharest it was like a retreat, given the great context and people involved. Everything used to be more chaotic and precarious with this performance, but this time the technical aspects were set up and that didn’t drain me. I had a room next door where I could have some minutes between visits, to stretch, move, eat something. I was absolutely focused on this and the set-up was ideal. Some while ago I didn’t sleep well, I didn’t eat well, but at this point I think feeling good and making art intertwined are two things that were not previously on my map and now they became reality - it`s simply having a good time.

Can you portray the trajectory that brought you to your current path?

I think it happened because I was a dancer, with maybe ten years of modern dance behind me, specialized in these contact improvisation techniques and release - postmodern dancing. I think the point of encounter was always among my priorities, that moment of interaction with another body and understanding or perceiving the body in another way that is mysterious but not esoteric, while trying to keep alive the alternative realities too. You are having a physical interaction with another person, which is risky, but you manage. This is activating a part of you that is not in the vocabulary of the society. That was what kept me going. I abandoned the practice of dance and I started to work with video, as I am very visual. The crossing of the continents has followed after meeting a crew of Russian artists, who are quite radical in they way they work and approach objects quite theatrically. I was tired of the egocentric dimension of dance, all about my emotions and me, me being the medium. So I switched mediums. I liked the way they interacted with objects and I think I borrowed it from them. I asked if I could work with them for longer and work like they did. They had the project for 2 months, in 2003. It was interesting for me to see a parallel construction of reality, different from the capitalistic structure in Mexico. It feels nostalgic and soothing that the construct from where I come from doesn’t operate in the whole universe. Not saying that there are better values in these other ones, but variation felt enchanting. We resonated and met people and felt alike in how we address things. A new chapter developed and going to another country gives you total freedom to begin again. I mixed action with a bit of dance resulting from the need of abandoning language that was insufficient. I did whatever I wanted. Nobody criticized it or censored it: I come from so far away that they think I`m doing the crazy stuff because of my background.

That’s an advantage of cultural stereotypes.

Yes, you are kind of protected. You have yourself a blank page framed by some expectations, but you have ”an excuse”.

Would you go back home for good?

I cannot answer; it has to do with personal reasons. Professionally it became very clear for me I need to work abroad, but in the last 2-3 years I feel like I should work more for the social role art plays in my country. It`s very different than from Europe or Central Europe.

It`s very satisfying to make art in Mexico because of the social situation and the places art is reaching. I feel that in Europe the idea of art is already very well digested and has a clear place in society.

In Mexico, there are different Mexico`s. Various socio-economical layers and racial status issues. Let`s say that for some section of the middleclass or whatever, it works just like in Europe - festivals, institutions, minister of culture. But in some other places, art is still used as a tool for giving back some dignity to people who have a really destroyed past. They have no option of life or they have only one: to work in a mine or whatever. They have no past because it has been brutally destroyed. They’re bonding to the past and for them art is just a foreign thing. Yes, there are traditional feasts ... they too layered on so many societal shades. You can operate in another way through art - it`s more relevant in some projects and more needed. The institutions support it. There are people who are educated and know where they have to insert work that has to do with taking care of human values. Art can be giving back dignity to language, after the destruction of a culture that was there. These shades birth confusions.

How does your family feel with your being away for so long?

I am from Mexico City. I lived there. My family now lives in a nearby city. I live there some parts of the year. I`ve seen all the places, I’ve been working around. Now I live in Czech Republic. I have no idea, but the impression I have is that they`re happy if I’m happy. Until now it has worked.

Do you perceive Prague to be your new home? What is home to you, in regards to time and space?

Maybe that’s why I am obsessed with time and space, being there and not being there, I experienced that very strongly. I am not really a part of the Czech society, I disagree in many ways with it, I admire it in many ways, I miss it when I go back to Mexico. Home is arbitrary and problematic. Maybe it has to do with relationships. Home is the place that you share with some specific persons more than a place itself. I do have a partner in Czech Republic. In this moment that could be like my base but still as long as my mother is alive, for example, I also feel I belong there.

What do you do for yourself in your day-to-day life?

Well I still like to dance... I take these release dance lessons, I teach experimental art, I hang around with a couple of people, they are complex and I like their complexity. They have a lot of things to share so I like to be with them. It works by periods. If I have a project, it`s only about that, it can be a long period, like a residency. When I’m free I like to be at home, I am domestic, I enjoy being there, to have time to listen to some lecture, study some specific topic, do some reading.

What makes you tingly with inspiration?

Well there is an artist, William Kentridge, I love his lectures, he seems to have found that perfect combination or definition of his own on what art can be. The way he is describing things is so existential that you don’t understand if it`s art or life and then you see an animation made by him in the studio and you see exactly what you had imagined while he was talking. Time, space, history, the material and the doing, the dealing with the material, dealing with history and life. I also read some of his books.

You seem to love life. And to appreciate its potential.

As I was making my first statement as an artist, still as a dancer, it was like this: my goal as an artist is to support life - inside the person experiencing my art or whatever. But then this kind of shifted, I now feel different about it. I’m not sure how. Maybe now I would change that word for ”connection”, life can also be experienced as a rush, the need of feeling that something is happening and growing inside of you. Through the years you realize so many other things in the wave of being alive, not only the desire for the next breath.

Recently someone very close to me has died and I was thinking there are many things you need to deal with in order to continue life with death. You need to find a way to coexist with it. I realized how the most important things that remain with us are actually the mirroring of - this is a cliché, but... you don`t quite catch it, although you keep on hearing it - the feeling you had when interacting with that person. Not memories like we did this and that together. But how it made you feel to be with that person, the overall impression. If receiver made you feel received or contained... that is what actually stays in the sender. Since I am not religious, I have no theory about what’s next. It might be a cultural thing, you might get intuitions, sometimes you may feel like there is something else out there, but it`s quite hard to believe. In some moments I feel like something happened, but I cannot sustain that. You don`t know if it`s the product of your conscience.

Are you at peace with yourself?

I think I am getting somewhere, some things are moving, I don’t think that in this moment I am peaceful. I made peace with myself in some aspects, but there is always some kind of interruption, there is something moving all the time and you cannot fully be at peace. When you feel good somewhere doing something, then something starts to move for a short period and changes your view.

With my work I am at peace.