Ella Langley: Interview with Niko Wearden
Niko Wearden’s “Performer:Maker” is at once art installation, performance piece, meditation and activism. They have performed it at a variety of locations over several years, including every day for an hour at Summerhall during last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. You can read their written account of this extended performance here. With “Performer:Maker”, Niko has managed to create something beautiful out of the very waste which we collectively try to avoid looking at. In making a piece about artist’s labour, they empathise with the performers producing the flyers, rather than casting judgement on them. I spoke to Niko about how they have placed softness at the centre of their work and activism.
Can you tell us about where the piece came from and how it evolved to the performances at Summerhall last August?
Originally, I wanted to think about the fetishisation of the artist as a solitary maker that works away in a studio for hours and hours. I was, I guess, identifying as a woman at the time and I was having a lot of trouble with gender. I was so bored of people expecting my work to be women’s art or, I dunno, lesbian art or whatever... you know, seeing it through my identity. I wanted to make work that was just about material and process. Somehow escaping by putting myself in this confined space and repeating this 'making' action.
It’s such a meditative slow piece. I made this work every day for two weeks in the window of Central Saint Martins in King’s Cross. I was forced to take this time for one hour a day to basically meditate, with this practice of folding this thing over and over. I could see all these people rushing past and being really busy. Maybe I wouldn’t commit to meditating for an hour a day when I normally live in London. I had to make the meditation, making it my work. You need it... but in order to have it you have to make it your work. It also became a kind of activism, demonstrating that time out to people.
That’s something that’s really exciting about the piece and obviously worked in the context of the Fringe, because the meditation wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t made it my performance.
How did using flyers come into it? Were you thinking about sustainability?
I was thinking about this idea of artists and labour, and how many hours go into producing a Fringe show. If instead of putting on a show at the Fringe, you were to fold origami for that one hour a day, how much origami you would make?
It made so much sense that I should use flyers, because obviously there’s all this waste... it’s completely bonkers. I’ve worked for a Fringe venue for years. At the end there’s this amazing, almost ritualistic practice where all of the staff line up and take boxes of flyers, handing them one person to another person in a chain. At the end of the line, the boxes are put in a big bin lorry, and I don’t even think they’re recycled to be honest.
Using Fringe flyers explored their ephemerality, how they are wasted and how I could make something permanent and beautiful from them.
I wrote something about how insignificant that action felt in comparison to the number of flyers that end up in the bin at the end of the festival. Probably in one unopened box of flyers, there were more than there was in my entire installation.
What sort of role can art and culture play in raising the profile of environmental issues?
It's not as simple as saying everyone should make art that is directly preaching messages that can already be found in an BBC article.
I think what I have is a way of being able to see entanglements of different kinds of knowledge and being able to say "oh, if we pull these different threads together in this way, maybe that will imagine or create into being something that people will understand in a different way".
I talk a lot about 'softness'. That word is so important. I try to make work that is soft, where people don’t feel any pressure to have a particular response. If they do have a response, then that response is also allowed.
What kind of responses did you get to your work at the Fringe?
It was so funny watching people. Most people’s response was just like “oh my god there’s so many, how long did that take?” A lot of people were like "what’s the point of that". Children really loved when I inflated each origami ball, because it’s quite magical and they would make their parents stay and watch it over and over again. Some people stayed for a really long time and were just with me. That was the really beautiful part, allowing people to have some quiet, slowness and softness.
It’s also amazing how many people didn’t notice me. People would be queueing for a show and would even lean against the box. They were so preoccupied that they weren't engaged. It made me wonder if this is the way they view all of this theatre. Do they just go and sit there, taking nothing in because they're running through their check list for the day?
I heard people saying how they hadn’t thought about how many flyers the Fringe produces. It’s exactly the same thing, if you don’t even have time to notice an art installation, then you’re not looking at the rubbish on the ground.
I think it’s a good metaphor for how people move through the world and don’t think about the things made invisible by our culture. Everybody is on this treadmill... how do you interrupt somebody who's running so fast? That’s the challenging thing.
Do you have any advice for other artists wanting to make change?
You really have to set intentions in order to make change, otherwise you just won’t. You’ll be absorbed by the rhythms of what the world’s dominant cultures are telling you to do. So, if you want to break those things down you have to set an intention of how you are going to do that.
Making art is a practice and it’s something that when you repeat, you get better. So, I’d advise anyone to keep doing it. You can keep failing and then keep doing it... that failure is so much a part of the success. You have to make it into a habit. That's also true if you want to practice sustainability in your life.