The Ground Beneath My Feet: In Conversation with Nikhil Chopra and Romain Loustau

In 2014, Nikhil Chopra, Madhavi Gore, and Romain Loustau co-founded HH Art Spaces in Goa with the intention to experiment with performance art. Their latest endeavour is curating an exhibition called The Ground Beneath My Feet, which responds to the rapidly transforming relationship between human bodies, natural elements, and machines. They brought together nine artists invested in performance art, time-based installations, real-time coding, and architecture. This event is part of a collaborative project with Asia Art Archive in India and Serendipity Arts Trust, After Event: Performance Art and its Mediations, which approaches performance art from multiple vantage points today.

Performance art is one of AAA’s content priorities. This exhibition is one initiative through which AAA investigates how the medium responds to longue-durée histories and explores new ways to revisit the histories of performance art. Other AAA live art programmes include workshops as well as a digitisation project that looks at the transmission of performance art through pedagogy and the archive.

This interview between Sabih Ahmed, Researcher at Asia Art Archive in India, and Chopra and Loustau has been edited and condensed; Gore was not present.


Sabih Ahmed: What makes performance art relevant today? We are in a time of huge flux where the notion of liveness, heterotopias, the virtual and the real are simultaneously present. We are simultaneously present in many places and in many times/zones.  

Nikhil Chopra: I think the desire to place performance in different contexts is not just coming from artists. It's also coming from institutions, it's coming from museums, from festivals, from organisations, all of whom seem to have this desire to bring performance into different contexts. While it has a lot to do with the presence of the artist, this desire really extends to the politics of the body. It is something that today we all feel the urgency to call out to, to ask, “what is the role of this body that we are all in?” and “what emanates from that body?” I think I feel this more now than I did even five years ago.

Romain Loustau: From the presence of the body emerges the question of what is human, no? That becomes the centre of our considerations for everything we are doing today. And then we are going directly into the question of how this links to our place in society. “How do we define freedom and the ability to be our own?” I think performance art explodes the boundaries and limits that are imposed on the body by society and institutions. If on the one hand there are institutions and bodies that co-create all the rules and taboos, then on the other, with performance, we test the limits and find another way to co-create what can be possible. 

NC: There’s also the condition of remoteness that is so apparent now. When I say “remote,” I mean how in today’s time we are living lives in more and more remote situations—disconnected from touch, feel, face-to-face, breath-to-breath, and body-to-body contact. Contact of that kind seems to be becoming rarer and rarer as we become “more advanced.” Given this condition, there is a real desire for touch in contemporary art, and as performance artists we feel that desire around us. We feel a hand reaching out to us. And we feel like extending out our hands to that desire for touch. We come to you saying we have a performance. We feel that we're responding to a very tactile question when the world keeps asking, "Who's there?" We are responding to that question. As artists who are working so entrenched in the body, we are entrenched in the question of identity and in communities that come out of that. We feel the call.

SA: The two of you, along with Madhavi Gore, co-founded HH Art Spaces in 2014. What led you to found it? What did you envision this space would do?

RL: We all came with very different purposes, and I would say that for me the creation of HH was part of my practice as an artist. It is almost like an art project—

NC: It is an art project! 

RL: —and because there were so many different points of view, even among ourselves, I think it has been like a Greek democratic republic. Here, everybody is allowed to express themselves. But I should add that in the beginning, there was nothing in particular that led to us initiating HH. Nikhil was doing performance art, I was coming from theatre, and Madhavi had a studio practice. We happened to be in Goa and we saw a gap that we wanted to fill. In this very specific region in India, we saw the possibility to extend our practices a little bit more.

NC: I had just returned from Berlin. I was still riding the high from having put together a performance space there with a community and the neighbourhood I was staying in. Having really enjoyed that experience, I recall saying to myself, “My God! If ever I would take one thing back home from this experience, it would be to set up a space.” And then, the three of us meet, the conversation happens, and it was synergy. I agree with Romain, that we all have very different sensibilities. We all have very different skills, very different philosophies, different circumstances, but we all came to it seeing the common ground on which we agreed to create this space. In a way, I would say that it has been more like we have watched it become whatever it has become.

RL: That's an important thing. There was no curation as such of this space. Obviously, we look closely at who we invite, but as Nikhil mentioned, we watched it become what it is because in essence it is all the different artists and all their different intentions and circumstances that make HH what it is.

Image: Madhavi Gore, Nikhil Chopra, and Romain Loustau.
Image: Madhavi Gore, Nikhil Chopra, and Romain Loustau.

SA: When you founded HH Art Spaces, did you have to define performance art and the kinds of performative practice that interested you? Or was that always an open question?

NC: I feel it has been much more exciting for us to think about it as the “live arts,” not as performance art.

RL: I would go further to say that we have been interested in the “alive arts.” Performance art­—or whatever other name one gives to the various forms that performances take—what interests us is the process that any practice takes from wherever it stands today and transforms it. 

Performance art had made a clear comment, an evocation, and a critique when it emerged. The fact that the body was involved made the artists engage with whatever was inside their bodies. It was not like a painter who takes a distance from the medium and from the object being painted… The transformation is for that moment one’s own and everyone immersed in it.

SA: I like how you have said there is no distance with performance, and it speaks to Nikhil’s reference to the increasing remoteness of situations we find ourselves in. With HH, you have produced a space that tests such transformations, a point that Nikhil brought up in September during a presentation at BODYWORKSHOP at MSU Baroda.

NC: Yes. In a way, we feel like we’re alchemists, where you say, “Okay, let's put a chef together with a perfumer. This was a residency that Madhavi had organised, inviting a chef, a perfumer, an installation artist, and a potter. And we see what happens.

RL: To see what happens when we are bringing together practitioners, their processes, in action. Not just what they have produced. At HH, that’s something we feel this space can offer. We are interested in breaking the wall between practices, and—

NC: Between life and art.

RL: Yes. And as these practitioners, their bodies and skills and rhythms, are brought together, it’s not so much about each of them doing what they do but how their coming together leaks into life.

SA: Has curating for a project such as The Ground Beneath My Feet changed the way you approach live arts?

NC: As members of HH, I think we have been feeling a certain gap in the field. There is a dearth of curators. I think we don’t have enough people who produce exhibitions in this country, honestly. This is why you have Kochi where artists are its founder and are the curators. At HH too, we are artists who sometimes curate. In a sense, the field of art, especially when it comes to live arts, is still nascent in this country. I feel like we as artists are contributing to filling this gap.

I know I don’t necessarily want to make curating my mode of operation…but when you're an art space, you’re actually facilitating art. You're a space where people come to make art. That's a larger umbrella, and under that, if you want to say there is a curatorial aspect to what we do, then yes. 

RL: I think it’s interesting you bring up curation, because we don't have this very academic relation with artists. We are all artists here.

NC: We're colleagues. We don't apply a curatorial model. In fact, a lot of our programmes at HH are open call.

SA: To come back to The Ground Beneath My Feet, the three of you are performing with one of the artists, Yuko Kaseki. Do you see yourselves immersed as artists in the projects even as you curate? Might this be a model of sorts for curating?

NC: Yes and no. I think when we are invited to curate, we’re not being invited as curators. I think that when we’re invited to curate, it is as artists and it is because we have a certain manifesto that has not been written yet, but it’s there. We get invited for that. Once we do come in to curate, we do the whole hog.

Image: HH Art Spaces, OPEN 10: <i>It is likely the house will be dismantled piece by piece with a large crane and a scaffold to support the remaining structure</i>, 2016. With Yuko Kaseki, Nikhil Chopra, Madhavi Gore, Romain Loustau, Venuri Perera, Shivani Gupta, and Sajan Mani.
Image: HH Art Spaces, OPEN 10: It is likely the house will be dismantled piece by piece with a large crane and a scaffold to support the remaining structure, 2016. With Yuko Kaseki, Nikhil Chopra, Madhavi Gore, Romain Loustau, Venuri Perera, Shivani Gupta, and Sajan Mani.

SA: How did you lay out the performance art pieces, spatially and in terms of the schedule? What has the process been like, to take a call on what performances and bodies and spaces are going to overlap at different points in time? And which ones will not?

NC: When we invited the eight artists, we sent them a curatorial note—a list of provocations and critical ideas—and shared with them what we thought was the scenario we were going to be putting our artists in. This was to give them a sense of how they might like to approach their pieces. It was also asking of the artists to see past the veneer of the tropical paradise that we're all familiar with when it comes to Goa, and get to some really strong issues. Not that these are the issues that artists necessarily have to respond to, but at least we start to inform them in the way where they are able to conceive of their pieces.

A lot of the proposals that came back to us from their artists were dark. Quite literally. They were nocturnal. We knew from their responses that we were dealing with dark moments and those hours in the day when light is escaping and day is transitioning into night. We in turn reacted to that. Every artist invited has a very different approach to performances, space, and materials, and in curating we are responding to those.

RL: Sometimes you don't need to impose a schedule. Things fall into place together. Because when these artists come for the residency that takes place before the exhibition, we are all talking to each other about our individual and collective concerns these days, and that starts producing its own coherence. Then it’s a bit like playing a game, and you say, “Okay, if we put this one onto this one, what does it do? What story can leap from this person to that person? What is the conversation that these pieces and spaces can have together?” We allow ourselves to discover. That’s why it’s always difficult to build a schedule. Because there are makers who are in the process of making, and that making is in interaction with the other, they talk together so things keep changing.

SA: As we’re preparing for The Ground Beneath My Feet, what is happening in the residency at HH right now?

NC: With the residency, we basically give artists a live–work space. They have a place to sleep comfortably at night, each one has their own private space, and we're all living together. What’s important for any artist that comes here, especially since they’re working with performance, is how to address the site that we're in. In order to have the right vocabulary to address the site, I think it's important to spend time in it.

RL: Exactly! When the artists arrive, they come with a kind of body of thoughts and ideas. But once they are here in the residency, they begin to adjust that body of ideas. We are like companions in that journey. For instance with Regina Demina, we cannot find ninety percent of the props that she had planned for Goa. This reality check is interesting as it brings all of us close to what she wanted to say with this piece, and then figure out how it can be said in this context. This journey is very important for us.

SA: What have been the most interesting challenges you’ve faced as you've embarked on this project?

NC: One of our biggest challenges has been the art space itself. There is a lot of labour that goes into running the art space, and that’s never isolated from a project such as this that we’re presenting at the Serendipity Arts Festival. Everything keeps coming back to what it takes to run a space like HH, to sustain and to not lose sight of our ethos when working on the residency…to maintain the highest standards and to share a rich experience with the artist. It's not just about sustaining it, it’s about thriving and to share with the artists that feeling of thriving.

RL: Yes, one can’t separate the running of this space from the upcoming event. Today, the big challenge more than ever is the importance of running human-sized spaces. It’s different from institutions.

SA: I like how you refer to the human scale of HH, both in relation to the need of the times, but also with regard to art spaces dedicated to performance. It's interesting then to see The Ground Beneath My Feet happening on this enormous scale, on a barge, where there will be a recalibration of all of these scales.

RL: It's very important to recognise this conversation between the scales. It's important as well to understand the kind of double language—of systems and of people. To understand that actually people inside systems are still people. And there’s a certain honesty one is looking for when one comes to a residency like ours. These moments of coming together for the project are a fantastic adventure because you come to realise that art means something else. It’s not captured in a note or a concept. You go on-site and constantly calibrate and converse. 

[This exhibition] will be on a barge docked on Mandovi River in Panjim. In a sense, it is so specifically located. But in another sense, it is way bigger, and connected with so many things that are anything but local, yet they make the local and the present. The exhibition, the site, the ideas are going to be about that. It’s very representative of the state we are in. This barge [provides] endless material to think about. I can’t wait to just be there and think about things. Think actively, as an act of performance.


The Ground Beneath My Feet opens on 15 December at the 2017 Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, India.





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