Performance is not just something we watch in a gallery. We see it on Instagram, on Vimeo, in degree shows, in TED Talks and on the streets, where people adopt idealized personas as suits of armour in their own, highly personal battles. They get what they can from the razzle-dazzle; they share online in the hope that it might evolve; they trade off their own entertainment value, trying to spur emotional reactions in people. But the tipping point of the laser show is often blurry.
In their performances, Marija Bozinovska Jones, Nástio Mosquito, Robertas Narkus and Nora Turato all play confused leaders who’ve lost sight of what they’re doing. They hinge on their
charisma and way with words to exert their sway on the audience – whether it’s Mosquito talking to visitors in the Giardini of the Venice Biennale or Delfina Foundation resident Narkus doing a surprise meet-and-greet in his studio at an opening. Engaging with them in real life, on video, online, over email, these artists brand themselves, burnish their reputations, repeat their catchphrases, make performances of their performances. Take from it what you will. Call them self-absorbed meta-narcissists, or mascots in a losing game. But I’m going with it.
Marija Bozinovska Jones as witnessed in On Selfhood (2018–19), Total Refreshment Centre, London, June 2018
Nástio Mosquito as witnessed in No.One.Gives.A.Mosquito’s.Ass.About.Our.Performance (2019), Venice Biennale, May 2019
Robertas Narkus as seen on Prospect Revenge (2018), Delfina Foundation, London, June 2018
Nora Turato as seen (via Vimeo) in Explained Away (2019) at Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz, February 2019
Marija Bozinovska Jones (MBJ)
‘So, I have a kid. (I have a kid – I have a kid.) That has not exactly originated from my testicles. (Testicles – testicles.) And, sometimes, he comes to me and he asks me: “What’s for dinner?”’ Nástio Mosquito raises his eyebrows conspiringly in close-up, his expression swerving from conviction to mockery.
‘CappucCINO machinees. PLIE systems. CRYing babies. OUTside traffic.’ Nora Turato staccatos in a face app, her stretched lips puckering in furore.
‘So, you want to understand how this company works?’ Robertas Narkus steps up on a table, stretching his hands emphatically.
Mind Lab Pro
Marija Bozinovska Jones (MBJ) croaks the brain-training apps through pitched-down vocals, her jagged baritone booming through a screen of chromatic synths and laser beams.
I need to hold your attention as I describe these artists, tantalize you with promotional snippets of game-changing conversations. What I recount might seem like fabrication, but it’s taken energy to get it on this page, so you’ll need to trust my authority as a narrator and objectivity as a reporter. Follow me. Listen diligently.
A drum slowly beats outside the busy entrance to the Venetian Giardini. Mosquito looks at the sky through tinted glasses and speaks in an indecipherable language before gesturing to a band. ‘Bring it, bring it, bring it.’ A double bass twangs. ‘Come on, come on, come on.’ He beckons in a handful of admirers hovering around him attentively. The crowd starts to thicken as the band whispers, ‘Coma eh?’ [writer’s note], then syncopates into a chant, ‘Coma eh?’ The strings rumble. Coma eh? The beat drops. Coma eh? Mosquito mutters, ‘Wha’ sa’?’, cupping his hand over his face as the music softens, then announces mellifluously: ‘You look at the stars and it’s all good. You’re silent in the ground,’ growling spiritedly, ‘Look what they didn’t tell you NOW!!!’, swinging and clapping wildly, ‘YOOOU want to … let it REST???’, then answers with a louche composure, ‘We say …’ and knowing nods of the head, ‘… allow yourself to say …’ Coma eh? The chant resumes. Coma eh? Mosquito swoons, ‘Wha’ sa’? … Wha’ sa’! … Why-yu-uh? ...’ A herd has gathered, following his every move with wide-eyed expectation.
An aloof art audience edges the walls of the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein. Turato leans against a kitchen island at the centre, fixing them with her stare. She shakes her fist and scans them shiftily, tantalizing the breaking of the silence, her buckled stilettos digging in the floor. Finally, she divulges: ‘Cleaning’. She pauses artfully. ‘Cleaning started with water.’ I frown into the video as she proclaims with a pointed finger: ‘Its evolution brought soap,’ staring down her assembly, dumbfounded by the scandal. ‘It was only later presented that soap was harsh and so …’ she compartmentalizes with her hands, ‘soap-free fucktants were introduced.’ ‘Those ser-fucktants’, she snaps formidably, ‘became questionable and numerable and so’, bearing her teeth with indignation, ‘soap-free-fer-fucktants were presented while in fact’, takes a deep breath and then recites seductively, ‘some ser-fucktants were far gentler and far more effective.’ She lowers her voice, delighting in her own rhetorical exercise, while audience members cock their heads, grip their arms and purse their lips.
In an open studio in London, a throng of art strollers gathers in front of an unoccupied desk, where a MacBook links prospectrevenge.com to a projection screen. Coming in cliques, the audience cross their legs on the floor as Narkus’s face flashes above on video. ‘THERE’S NO TIME FOR DEEPER DISCUSSION! – HOW YOU GONNA DO IT? – … AH ... AH … AH.’ Wearing a blazer and looming over the camera with a thick stare, he pantomimes the gobbets with the dense assertiveness of a cagy politician/marketing guru/vlogger-entrepreneur. Block chains of trollies roll through the montage. Narkus appears inside a trolley, accelerating riotously. With a strained earnestness, he goads the driver from behind the camera: ‘Go.’ The trolley swerves. The shot cuts. The video loops. The people shift in their seats and look longingly at the vacant study area: fastidiously ordered bookcase, rolls of blank paper, empty chair. Eventually, Narkus arrives, donning a shirt, bashful and bumbling. The people blush. He isn’t wearing any trousers.
In a dark warehouse, the voice of MBJ discloses a set of findings: ‘Self-help, self-esteem, self-assessment, self-employment’. The artist remains calmly mute as she hears herself played back, violet-lit, clad in a white mesh T-shirt, gazing into a phone that’s been comfortably secured around her shoulders. She is the archetype of these behavioural concepts, a fuzzy universal setting out the guidelines.
‘Nourish the mind-body with goji berries.’ In slinky monotones, MBJ fixes the phrase with the seductive control of a charismatic leader (or is it virtual assistant?), luring us into her self-care regime, offering up the exotic fruits of affirmation. She hopes that we gain something from her (and she from us), all in the good name of self-improvement. Savvy?
‘The references are good in the very narrow area of histogram methods.’ I think I need a personal training session with MBJ. (I’ve been labouring over this product, trying to give it some shine.) What if she were to come out from behind the screen so I could consult her face-to-face?
The chant fades in the Giardini. The double bass keeps rolling. Mosquito buzzes through the dispersing crowd, delivering personal sermons. Two women are nodding at him intently. Move in closer and listen (it’s like he’s singing, only he’s speaking): ‘… and I say, “Brother please, sister please. Don’t freeze.”’ He shows his palms imploringly: ‘You’ve got to question what is power,’ darting between their smiling faces. ‘This is a very important question. Because if you answer what is power, what is your centre of authority, maybe you’ll change your perspective of what you consider to be your own.’ He makes a jump: ‘Or how you DEAL with it.’ The ladies ‘mmm’ and nod with gratification. Mosquito edges away and mutters, ‘Thank you.’ They thank him again.
Turato paces the museum, fingers pinched, trumpeting a headline – ‘Clothing brands have been passing spandex onto the bodies of unsuspecting men’ – before making a U-turn on her heel: ‘Ladies. Hear me out,’ hand on hip, widening her cow eyes, ‘a bathrobe you can wear to work – what do you say?’ She looks around. The audience remains silent. She drags her fists over the island in her sharp-fitted suit.
Narkus takes to his desk and scrolls down to a gold rotating medallion. He introduces Prospect Revenge: ‘Well prospect is a prospect must be a certain direction, yet not a direction rather multi-directional,’ he pauses and then starts shaking in exasperation, ‘NO the word direction doesn’t fit there,’ he blurts, ‘It is an existential hiccup, repulsive reaction and engine,’ looking down uneasily. The audience follows his lead. ‘It’s not going anywhere, rather circles in spiral.’ People exchange stealthy looks of amused pity.
MBJ, I’m having a crisis. I’ve got myself stuck in these prolonged in-jokes that never land, surrounded by bad actors reading from dishonest scripts … I lap up their words like a dog, while knowing they’re a sham. I’ve been sucked into an infinity mirror of delusions and now all I’m destined to tell is lies. ‘The bakery was next to the slaughterhouse.’ What was that? Some lousy connection. MBJ – standby.
Mosquito: ‘Do you think there’s art happening here?’
Anon: ‘You are art.’
Mosquito snorts and shakes his head. Anon looks confused.
Having peeked into this exchange, we pull out of the crowd and watch the double bass making guttural arpeggios. He pauses and hands us a flyer trailing from his waistband. I read it out loud: Are you a dreamer or just ambitious? ‘You’re asking me?’ He resumes his bow, ‘Oh, I don’t know’, hitting a string, ‘if I’m still that dreamer,’ twisting a peg, ‘It’s hard to follow a dream.’
Double bass: ‘Is it an art fairy?’
Me: Is what an art fairy?
Double bass: ‘Who decides which artists get to be here.’
Me: You mean the fairy in the cloud?
Double bass: ‘Oh that. I wouldn’t know about that. I’m not an artist.’
Mosquito makes a signal. The band hunkers down and resumes playing. Now the song seems like a hoax, the lyrics drunk and empty, Mosquito playing the court jester. Suddenly, the guitar marches up to Mosquito yelling – something – ticking his fist in the air, enraged and giddy like a drill instructor. Mosquito shoots upright, replies – something – stamping in outrage, dropping in defeat, gesturing at the crowd. People rush towards them. Slowly, the band’s spirits align into euphoric chants: the guitar jumps, Mosquito screams at the bass, the song repeats.
A side note: MBJ is not all human. She is a combination of live, processed and simulated recordings – phrases spoken from the body, modified by an app and mimicked by an algorithm. As they speak to each other, the different vocal elements form a new language, shattering the rules of the script in their clanging cacophony.
MBJ Wetware: ‘The bakery was next to the slaughterhouse.’ (Valid recording of MBJ mimicked via black-boxed Deep Learning.)
Turato: ‘Bambi’s mother shot. Nemo’s mother eaten by a barracuda. Lilo’s mother killed in a car crash. Corda’s mother and a brothered pierced spear. Postmodern Kung Fu Panda too done in a para-Christ peacock. Aero’s mother too much memory crushed by pirate ship. Human babies modern ice age chased by sabre-toothed tiger over a WATERFALL!!’ She swings back riotously.
Narkus: ‘I’m instrumentalizing art infrastructures to launch a “revenge coin”. Talking to investors, I’m pitching it as a blockchain based digital content authentication system for digital or virtual goods, assets, crypto-collectibles – all, of course, oriented towards the art market.’ He looks both shy and exhilarated. ‘The solution is coming. Everything is very clear here.’ We return his smile, sharing the delicious embarrassment, investing in a new kind of roguish pleasure.
End note: I doubly apologize if you feel cheated by this nonsensical rampage. Sorry, not sorry.
Marija Bozinovska Jones is an artist based in London, UK. In 2019, her performances have included transmediale, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany, Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge, UK, and Somerset House, London.
Nástio Mosquito is an artist based in Ghent, Belgium. This year, he has performed at Künstlerhaus Mousonturm, Frankfurt, Germany, Malta Festival Poznan, Poland, and Venice Biennale, Italy. Later this year, he will have exhibitions at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle, Belgium (opens 13 October), and Hangar, Lisbon, Portugal (opens 29 November). Forthcoming performances include SpielArtFestival, Munich, Germany (opens 25 October).
Robertas Narkus is an artist based in Vilnius, Lithuania. In 2019, he participated in the Kaunas Biennial, Lithuania.
Nora Turato is an artist based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In 2019, she has had solo shows at Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz, and Beursschouwburg, Brussels, Belgium. Her solo exhibition at Serralves Museum, Porto, Portugal, runs until 12 January 2020.
Main image: Nora Turato, Explained Away, 2019, performance documentation, Kunstmuseum Leichtenstein, Vaduz. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstmuseum Liectenstein, Vaduz; photograph: Miro Kuzmanovic
First published in Issue 206