On Sunday the 30th November I went to a performance entitled 40 Minutes given by Lena Simic at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home. This event was also a party to mark Lena’s 40 birthday and the ‘Institute’ is actually based in the spare room of her home in Anfield, Liverpool.
Established in Lena’s (and family) previous home in Everton in 2007 as a protest against the designating of Liverpool as European Capital of Culture (or as they put it Culture of Capitalism), the Institute has embraced and supported the work of other artists often financially and/or in the shape of residencies. However, at the core of its activities is an ongoing collaboration between the art and activist collective ‘twoaddthree’ consisting of Lena, her partner Gary Anderson and their three children Neal, Gabriel and Sid, who at the start of the project were (approximately) 7, 5 and 10 months old respectively, and recently they have been joined by James who is not yet one. The Institute is funded by a contribution of 10% of this collective/family’s income.
The founding of this Institute might be read as a tongue in cheek gesture and certainly the significant and diverse body of work that has been produced by the collective over the intervening years is characterised by playfulness, humour and a commitment to sometimes slightly chaotic ‘homemade’ aesthetic. Nevertheless , it is also a very serious project that is led by two respected and experienced artist/parents concerned with posing radical questions about the relationship between the family and the state, art and life, public and private, culture and capitalism and the possibilities for social transformation, and while the group’s projects aim to be inclusive and accessible they are also often iconoclastic and provocative and always critically and politically engaged.
I was then delighted to be one of 39 women who, as Lena put it. have ‘been in my life over a certain period of time since my living in the UK from 2000 onwards’ invited to 40 Minutes. In the event only 20 odd of us could attend which may have been just as well because for the performance we sat on the staircase and while there was space for more, 39 might have been a bit cramped.
Sid had apparently been designated the role of giving us instructions on arrival but he was distracted by a wholly understandable mix of shyness and excitement, so this was left to Lena herself and for the duration of the performance (but not the party that followed) Gary took the boys out, so that for a short while the Institute/home was an all women space.
Lena had asked us all to bring her an empty notebook to be used in her future work as her birthday present and, alongside bottles of Prosecco to be shared during the piece, each of us found a notebook waiting on our step on the stairs as a gift to take away in exchange. Each of these contained a complete copy of 40 daily entries Lena made leading up to the performance. These volumes then ‘document’ the process of creating 40 minutes conceptually, and during the event Lena also spoke about their material production in terms of the labour of photocopying, cutting and gluing pages in order to make these 39 copies. As part of this, she detailed the cost of materials which amounted to 270 pounds.
All of this reflects a number of important themes and principles running through the Institute’s work, including a concern for reciprocity and generosity between performers and audiences, an interest in the documentation of practice including the practices of everyday life and equally, a commitment to financial transparency.
In talking about the notebooks Lena also tells us that we all have one ‘original’ page each – one that is not a photocopy -and for some reason many of us felt immediately compelled to look at ‘our’ page. Mine is page 9 and bizarrely and stupidly I was disappointed that this is a page mostly about practicalities, rather than in the case of other entries, consisting of a story, a reflection or a draft of the sections that made it into the final live piece. Nevertheless, I was both amused and struck by a quote from Gabriel recorded at the bottom of the page that says ‘Wow, this is a really big thing for you. I dare not think what you will do for your 50th’.
40 minutes did indeed suggest some of the ways in which this birthday is indeed a ‘big thing’ for Lena. The staircase is, of course, a ‘liminal space’, a space of transition and in this piece she looks back to her past, takes stock of her present and considers her dreams and her anxieties for the future.
Like much of her work then, this piece is autobiographical; touching on her growing up in Croatia, which in the year of her birth was still part of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia; reflecting on gifts she received or events that took place on her previous birthdays; on her relationship with Gary and on all her children but especially on her recent experience of giving birth to James; on finding herself ‘ending up’ in Anfield of all the places she might live; on the problem of explaining to friends with whom she studied Drama in Bratislava the idea of her doing performance art in her own home.
Like much of her work however, this particular legacy is evident in the way this piece juxtaposes these ‘personal’ stories with and/or filter’s them through references to historical events especially those relating to Croatia, and also to ‘classic’ texts. In the two versions she imagines of her future, one is shaped by great Russian novels and plays – ‘a sort of ‘Three Sisters scenario’, she says. The other is set on a Mediterranean island and is more ‘Marguerite Duras’ but like other parts of the piece this vision equally seems influenced by the fact she is reading currently Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. This novel provokes her to quote the philospher Deleuze on ‘knowing how to age’ and finding a ‘new grace of that age’ but as the Three Sisters reference might suggest this contrasts with a running theme of being ‘stuck’; of options that seem to be closing or to have already closed down.
In short, with her characteristic unflinching candour and beguiling exuberance, as she moves up and down the stairs Lena charts the contradictory thoughts and emotions that this birthday has provoked; explores all she what she gained and achieved whilst restlessly questioning those gains and achievements in the light of her political desire for social transformation.
However, the piece is framed overall by a celebration of all of those present and of women’s friendship and feminist solidarity and this is one of the main points of this event, which embraces absent female friends especially the Croatian friends whose parallel lives she imagines. Lena quotes Tender is the Night ‘You never know the space, you occupy in people’s lives’ and it is lovely to be part of this acknowledgment of the space we all have in hers.
Further, the space she created on the staircase at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home was far more informal and friendly than my account so far might seem to suggest, as we all tried to find ‘our’ places by looking for the notebooks with our names and in the process reading each other’s names and those who could not come and as we struggled to open bottles of Proscecco, passing them up and down between us and laughing, cheering or commenting on Lena’s stories.
In the final few seconds of 40 minutes Lena chose one of the blank notebooks we had given her and wrote a line, reading it out as she did so. I am not sure I remember the exact quote (it’s my age) but I think it might have been something like ‘Whenever a woman starts to write it’s a revolutionary act’.
One of the things that I have always loved about feminism is that it allows for the idea that a revolution might start, indeed has to start at home, with the family and with friendship between women.
And afterwards, eating delicious cake and drinking wine together and with Gary and the boys we all shared ideas and responses to the piece, provoking our own reflections on aging and on politics and on friendship.
It was a lovely, utopian feminist party.
It was a lovely, happy birthday party.
It was a lovely, sad, happy, hopeful, worried, funny, serious, performance birthday party.
Happy Birthday Lena and Long Live the Revolution!