by Kiera O'Brien

An Interview with Nicola Gunn, by 18/19 Curatorial Intern Ellen McGivern 

Nicola Gunn: In Spite of Myself

Currently based in Bergen, Norway, Australian artist Nicola Gunn fashions hilarious and critical performances situated between reality and the fantastical abilities of our minds dealing with the mundane. Gunn performed at On the Boards, February 14-16 with Piece for Person and the Ghetto Blaster and In Spite of Myself the following weekend of  February 21st-24th. Utilizing individual experiences, Gunn entices audiences with personal narratives, the concept of relevance, and questions of if all of it even really matters after all. With intense physical movements, Gunn pushes the conceptual limits of a one ‘man’ show with laughter and interpersonal inquiry. This interview has been edited for length and brevity.

What is your before performance ritual? How do you prepare for production?

With Ghetto Blaster I get to the theatre 4 hours before the performance time and begin warming up — a combination of circuit training and strength exercises and yoga. With all my other works, it’s similar but instead of 3 hours warm-up, it’s usually 1.5. I also warm-up my voice while I’m moving. I prefer that no one disturbs me during this time, so I am more or less able to focus on what I’m doing and what I’m about to do. I generally try and do very little during the day as I’m not actually very good at multi-tasking and really need to rest and take it easy… of course this is not always possible. Performing really disrupts my sleep patterns. I get very little sleep when I’m performing, so if I can, I try and take a short nap during the day.

Throughout your performances, your gestures are intense and full of energy, how do you stay consistent and present when your work is so physically demanding?

Presence is a craft like any other. Sometimes I am 100% present and sometimes my concentration slides a bit, and in those moments my body is so rehearsed it just performs the action unconsciously. It isn’t ideal, but the moments my focus breaks aren’t that often, and yeah, fortunately my body tends to know what it’s doing before I do and now the verbal language is so closely connected to the choreography for me, I can cover up these lapses in ‘presence’. Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster takes a huge amount of mental and physical energy which is why I have such a long preparation time and which is why it’s getting harder and harder to perform — I almost feel unable to move on from it and focus my energy into other projects, other ideas.

What exact gestures do you use when discussing ethical dilemmas or questions in your work. How did you come to these conclusions and choose to use them in your work?

There’s a lot of ‘weighing up,’ a lot of balancing, a lot of throwing it away. I did really want all the movement to be frivolous, I didn’t want us to think too much about why this movement as opposed to that movement. It is all supposed to be more or less unnecessary.

How has performing internationally affected your relationship to your body of work?

It hasn’t affected my body of work per se, but it has given me a lot more insight into how presenting houses operate, their relationship to programming, my relationship to being programmed and how they engage with the artist and the artist’s work, or in some cases, how they do not engage with the artist and the artist’s work.

Your work calls into question the human experience and our relationship to empathy. Given our current societal standing, what is our biggest threat to empathy?

Fuck I don’t know… apathy? Selfishness? Capitalism? Individualism? Probably capitalism. But even saying that is so generic and such a tired conversation. But it’s a huge fucking problem and exists and has permeated every aspect of our society and how we think we ought to be living.

I thoroughly enjoyed your poking fun of the seriousness of the art world and the artist archetype. How have you balanced your own success and the laughable nature of the industry?

I don’t consider myself to be successful. But it is dangerous to bite the hand that feeds you. I don’t take myself too seriously and I am especially aware of my own earnestness and sincerity.

I’ve read you would rather not gender your performance as a ‘one-woman show’ though you are also raising questions and comments on female experiences. Can you elaborate on  how defining your work through gender has impacted the way different audiences interpret the work?

This is a really interesting question. I have no problem being identified as a woman and I definitely talk about my experience in my work, and my experience of the world is particular to being a woman. However, I really don’t like the work being defined as a piece of art made by a woman, a one-woman show for example. The work is a separate entity from my body, it’s its own thing, and I don’t see the work itself needs to be gendered, if that makes sense. I also resist this idea that because I’m a woman, that that somehow should define the work of art I’ve made, as if work made by women has certain identifiable qualities that sets it apart from work made by men. And of course, work made by a man rarely needs to be pointed out and drawn attention to, so why should that made by a woman. It’s like how people would identify someone as ‘Asian’ or ‘Hispanic’ to point at the difference, as if the norm is ‘white.’ It’s a way I can reject this idea the dominant norm (in art, in any profession) is to be a man.

About Nicola Gunn

Nicola Gunn is a Melbourne-based performer, writer, director and dramaturge. Since 2002, she has been making works that blend performance, art, and anthropology to explore the fragility of the human condition with subversive humor. Her artistic practice is committed to institutional critique, social engagement, and generating works that activate the public sphere by questioning old ways of being or proposing new ones. She uses performance to reflect critically on its place in theatres, to examine power relations in existing organizations, and to consider the relevance and social function of art itself. The starting process is often a written text or idea imagined responding to a self-generated impulse to tell a story or explore a form. She draws mainly from her experience to create autobiographical fiction. Nicola’s work has been presented widely in Australia and has toured to Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States. 


About Ellen McGivern

Ellen McGivern is drawn to work focused on process, research, ritual, vulnerability, and accessibility. Growing up in Kansas, McGivern became fascinated with the Prairie Print Makers, a collective founded pre-World War II that examined her home state with an emphasis in working with community and self-promotion; similar values that are embedded in her curatorial practice. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the University of Kansas and will graduate with an MFA in Arts Leadership from Seattle University this June. Beginning in marketing and communications at the fine craft gallery, 108|Contemporary, Ellen has progressed her career towards curation, residency management, art criticism and artist professional development through opportunities at the Hedreen Gallery, the contemporary performance space, On the Boards, and as a resident in The Black Embodiments Studio, an arts writing incubator and lecture series in collaboration with The Jacob Lawrence Gallery and the University of Washington.