‘Live art is about paying attention’

Having just received a coveted fellowship, Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy, one of the most daring and adventurous artists in Melbourne, describes her idea of art.

“Congratulations to Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy: recipient of our 2016 theatre fellowship, reaching & engaging diverse audiences in Australia, Europe and Asia.”

I think we have to pay attention more than ever to how we treat each other and to speak up when we see things that are wrong. I’m the child of immigrants who lived through various forms of hell. I’m close enough to those experiences to know what they mean for people’s lives. So I think that we need tenderness, and tolerance more than ever and live art is a connector, a communicator in that respect.

Thus read the twitter post of the Australia Council for the Arts, one of a series announcing the names of the artists and writers who were granted fellowships before the end of the year. Tweeting has a casual tone about it in general, but there’s nothing casual about this fellowship program, one of the most coveted among the arts community, which provides grants worth $80,000 over two years. Almost 1,200 applications for funding were lodged by small to medium arts organisations, individuals and groups to the Australia Council, which highlights the importance of Kokkinos-Kennedy’s accomplishment, making it to the list of eight creative individuals who share the total of $640,000.

Artistic director of the acclaimed Triage Live Art Collective, Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy started off in theatre, before radically shifting her practice in 2006. Since then she has developed a rich body of intimate, immersive and participatory live art works with her company.

Speaking to Neos Kosmos, the artist explains how she will use her fellowship to expand the scope of her practice and develop new performances, describes the appeal of live art, compared to traditional theatre and ponders her Greek background.

What does getting an Australia Council Fellowship mean to you?
I’m incredibly honoured to have received an Australia Council for the Arts Theatre Fellowship for 2017 and 2018. I also have lots of thoughts and feelings about these kinds of awards − because for every recipient of such a gift, there are literally thousands of artists needing such an opportunity.
My first thought was: imagine being able to devote myself to my arts practice entirely for two years without the constant sense of financial precarity − something common to artists everywhere.

My second thought was: I’m part of this huge family of artists and friends who’ve inspired me throughout my life and career, fabulous producers without whom nothing can happen, and so many brilliant arts leaders who tirelessly advocate for new expressions of performance. So for any one award given in the arts, there are many, many people who are implicated.

The most important thing about this award for me is the timing, and what it will enable me to do over the next two years. In March 2016 I completed a two-year project funded by Creative Europe (The European Cultural Commission). ‘Hotel Obscura’ was initiated by me and my company, Triage Live Art Collective, in 2012. It was also the first project to ever be funded by the EU − so it was quite a coup. We created the work with numerous partners in three European countries and Australia. Our partners were in France, Austria and Greece. During this time I lived and worked between Australia and Europe to develop the project and to disseminate knowledge about live art practice (intimate and immersive works for small audiences) in the EU. This work exposed me via the IETM (international network for contemporary performing arts), a fantastic initiative of the Australia Council that enables Australian artists to meet EU partners and presenters and to build collaborative projects.

In terms of the next two years, my aim is to build on the many relationships that were initiated via ‘Hotel Obscura’ and several new collaborations with partners in Germany, Finland, Sweden, and the UK. I’m especially looking to develop my work in terms of scale, new aesthetics, the use of technologies such as apps, virtual reality and video installation.

Australia Council describes your work as “reaching and engaging diverse audiences”; what is your idea of ‘diversity’?
I’m totally committed to making works that would attract everyone, from great art lovers through to people who would not consider themselves interested in art. Art is a spectrum − everything from the band in Federation Square to the most obscure art happenings in tiny galleries. Diversity to me is about cultural, generational, gender and class diversity − and the inclusion of people with disabilities. My interest is in creating works in unusual sites or public places where almost anyone could stumble across it, see it, and maybe want to participate. I’ve made works for just one person at a time, right through to plays in large theatres.

I think that there have been seismic shifts in the interests of artists in the last decade. I walked away from theatre in 2005 because it felt too limiting. I wanted to meet my audiences more directly, and live art was a risky and experimental way to do that. The last 10 to 15 years has been all about participation and breaking down the ‘walls of culture’ to let more people in. There are a lot of great artists in Melbourne doing this in different ways: presenting intimate operas in people’s houses, creating works that employ dancing and eating together, taking people on boat journeys on the Yarra, offering elaborate immersive works that use audio as the major component, or playing live video games through the city.

Theatre is expanding and artists are offering all kinds of diverse and beautiful works that were utterly unimaginable just a decade ago. I think this says something about the ways in which artists are changing − culturally, in terms of technology, and of our growing curiosity about what’s outside the black box. This also goes for audiences − who comes, why they come, and what they’re expecting. And companies are getting better and better at drawing audiences from all walks of life.

How did you get involved in Live Art?
Like many artists, I went into postgraduate study to take some time to really think about my artistic practice and to shift it. During my studies, I travelled to the UK and mainland Europe where I was exposed to a lot of experimental work. That was incredible for me, because live art as practiced in the UK was also happening here but not on that scale, so it really confirmed that this was the direction I wanted to take. For me, live art enables you to take big formal risks, to get very close to your audience, and to ask this question very openly − what is performance for? Performance does a lot of things, but for me it’s most interesting when it’s intimate, when it becomes about the audience as much as it is about the makers and performers. Theatre can do that too, but it’s a question of scale. Making a work for one, two, five, 10, 50 people is very different from playing to 200 per night. And so it’s this thing about being close to the audience and creating works that enable them to see something, someone, or themselves in close up.

Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy

How does the audience affect the outcome of a Live Art project?
In live art the audience is central to the event, just as important as the performer − who is more a facilitator than an actor. The work is built with the audience in mind, and has to be able to accommodate a wide range of responses and even non-responses. Performers can’t act, they have to be flexible, open, and creative in the moment and this requires additional skills and insights. There is no set and forget. This is the excitement and horror of working in this way, but when it works, it’s quite sublime.

What’s your perception of your audiences? What are the traits someone needs to possess to best communicate with what you do?
I think of it more as ‘what do I have to do, as a theatre maker, to reach my audience?’. For me, live art is about paying attention to people, their uniqueness, their strangeness, their vulnerability. In our contemporary world, one of the most powerful things is the act of paying attention and being kind. Challenging people is important too. For a long time I thought intolerance, racism, and sexism were improving in our world − but now I’m quite sure that they’re not. I think we have to pay attention more than ever to how we treat each other and to speak up when we see things that are wrong. I’m the child of immigrants who lived through various forms of hell. I’m close enough to those experiences to know what they mean for people’s lives. So I think that we need tenderness and tolerance more than ever, and live art is a connector, a communicator in that respect.

Do you have anything in the works at the moment?
I’ve got some super exciting projects coming up − one of them in Melbourne. It’s a work for the public that will be made with children aged between 7-12 years. The work aims to reverse the usual child-adult relationship by putting children in charge of the situation. I’m interested in the capacities of children, their approach to people and to certain dilemmas. Another work I’m developing is with partners in Sweden, Finland and Norway. We’re looking at the potential of artificial intelligence technology. It’s being planned as a large-scale work about leadership, society, and the role of artificial intelligence. I’m beyond excited about these two works.

What is your greatest aspiration?
I’d love to make a film. I’ve written several and there’s one special project, but film is the opposite of theatre. There are so many things that can make a film fall over, but theatre always has this lovely way of being able to manifest, even in the simplest terms. It’s much more accessible.

If you could create a mainstream project with crossover appeal, what would it be?
Well I think that’s what our AI project is about. We’re looking at the possibility of involving thousands of people in various ways in that one event. It’s a topic that’s close to our hearts: the crisis of leadership, the failure of politics, and the future of this planet. So very big issues. Our aim is to create an ethically- charged work that’s focused on the tough questions of human survival, and contemporary democratic societies. Can we do better? What would it take? What will it look like?

How has your Greek background affected your artistic pursuits?
I’m an Australian with deep European roots. That’s how I see myself. But after I’ve spent three weeks on a Greek island I feel all these changes in myself. It’s another version of going home. I recently spent six weeks with my dad Harry on Rhodes, his birthplace. I love the generosity of Greeks. Their massively rich and sophisticated culture, the pace of life, the way they hang out and party together. I love the landscape too. I feel restored by being there. To be European at all means that you’re connected to a time and place in the Mediterranean where a lot of foundational ideas and practices emerged and took hold − theatre, science, philosophy, democracy, etc. I love being connected to that.

For more information on Triage Live Art Collective, visit www.triageliveartcollective.com/