Anthea Moys is a Johannesburg-based performance artist whose practice is informed by play, games, learning and engagement as well as the the rules that inform this. The past two years have seen her take on different teams, clubs, cities and individuals in a series of performances that explore ideas of winning and losing and the individual versus the group, inspired by an empathetic curiosity to understand other peoples’ worlds. Anthea’s work is inherently playful, motivated by a desire to learn through experience, which in turn is extended to include the audience during a performance. Her work challenges people to engage and participate in someone else’s game, and in so doing, learn a little more about themselves. Anthea will be challenging any and everyone attending the FNB Joburg Art Fair to a bout of arm-wrestling.
Starting off by briefly looking back, what first attracted you to performance as an artistic medium?
I started dancing when I was six so I suppose I have always been drawn to the body in motion. But I think I turned my attention towards working with performance in a more sustained way when in 2005 I went to partake in the MAPS Master of Arts in the Public Sphere course in Sierre, Switzerland for about a year. There I was exposed to incredible performance works and artists who were working in really interesting and playful ways with performance. I think it was here where I realised that I really enjoy working with performance and this began to shape my practice.
What does performance art allow that other art forms don’t?
Firstly I do tend to struggle with this term ‘performance art’ as I find it quite vague – but let’s not get wrapped up in definitions! Quite honestly I am still trying to figure out how to best ‘categorise’ my work. So, for me, what my work – call it performance art or artwork that works with performance – whatever! – allows for, is arguably a more engaged and often physical experience that happens between people. It asks the people I work with and the audience to really get involved with the making of the artwork.
How significant is the notion of engagement to you in your work?
Very significant! On many levels and in many ways: There is my engagement with the idea itself and the process of making the idea become a reality. There is an engagement with the people I work with and the process of listening and learning. And then there is an engagement with ‘rewiring’ or ‘re-contextualising’ the ‘rules of the game’. There is the engagement on part of the audience – how they engage with the work is a crucial component for me. And then there is an engagement with the documentation of the work – how will the live event be documented and ‘retold’ afterwards? How do I want an audience to engage with the idea after the live performance has happened?
What’s more important for you, the creative process or the final performance? Are these two aspects separate?
Both for me are very important. I enjoy the process usually more than the final performance. There is less pressure here and I can really engage quite organically. But I could also say that all the live performances have still been part of a larger journey in engaging with performance as art – each performance counts as part of the larger creative process. In other words I still see the ‘final’ performance as part of my education, part of an on-going investigation into things I am interested in: play, games, people, learning, exchange, winning, losing. In this sense, they are not separate but part of a larger whole.
What are some of the elements that inform your creative process?
I am essentially fascinated with how we play and work together, how we make, abide by, break and remake the rules of the game – in sport, in life, in work, in play. I am fascinated with the process of learning and extending myself, this human life, in many, many different ways. Curiosity and hands-on embodied experimentation, I would say are the main informants for my practice.
If I get an idea, I have to try it out and see if it works. Sometimes the idea is quite fully formed – these usually are an image or a series of images that I then go and set into motion. But most times the ideas are less fully formed and involve processes of negotiation and development, which happen over time and with people and then usually involve a live performance.
What was your intention when you took on and challenged Grahamstown and Geneva in your Anthea Moys Vs. pieces?
To win of course! No, just kidding! I have always been and still am genuinely interested in people and what they do and why they have decided to do what it is that they do. This curiosity spurs me on to create most of the work that I make. I also really love learning something from someone who is passionate about what they do. I feel extremely privileged and lucky to be in this space as the learner. For me, this becomes a really interesting, special almost spiritual space of risk, trust and of exchange. So – this was the intention or the desire – to learn more. To engage more with that which scares me, that which I know nothing of and at the same time get to know people who I would never normally get a chance to meet.
The project is also about inclusion. It seeks to invite and highlight that which already exists in the space. So – for most of the teams I went up against in Grahamstown – they live there and most of them have never been included in the festival before. So the work has taken on another form in creating a platform for them to show and share their incredible work!
For me – setting up this kind of competition asks the participants two very clear things: are you willing to teach me how to play your game? And – are you willing to play your game in a different way – all of you against me? Of course there are more questions but essentially I didn’t want to change the activities that I wanted to engage with – in fact I wanted to highlight them as incredibly diverse and exquisite art forms in their own right! So, just changing one rule – all of you against me – is a simple and accessible way we can then engage with the intricacies and beauty of karate, soccer etc. as well as the beauty in the acts of learning, losing and winning.
What function does the arm wrestling motif serve in your work?
The arm-wrestling motif? It stands as a reference point for the performance we did in Cape Town. We needed a motif that was recognisable and accessible. It is simply a logo in a sense for the performance… For the performance “Anthea Moys vs. The Political Parties” (abbreviated title). I challenged the political parties to come and arm-wrestle me in the lead up towards the 2014 general elections. We, Arterial Network, the AVA Gallery and myself wanted to create a space where we could really ‘wrestle it out’. The motif of two hands arm wrestling was the most straightforward to illustrate this wish. You can find out more about the work on my website.
Please tell us about the piece you’re going to be performing at this year’s FNB Joburg Art Fair…
For this year’s Art Fair I will challenge artists, security guards, curators, cleaners, volunteers, organizers and members of the general public to a test of strength, as I take on all-comers in the ancient discipline of arm wrestling.
“The Artist is Arm Wrestling” is a playful re-imagining of the Marina Abramović work “The Artist is Present” (2010) – a 736-hour and 30-minute performance piece during which the artist sat immobile in MOMA’s atrium while members of the public were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. Some participants wept, others fled, whilst others stood their ground and held her gaze.
By inserting an arm-wrestling contest into the space between the artist and the public, I introduce the rules and create a completely different game. ‘The Artist is Arm Wrestling’ explores how rules paradoxically encourage play, and reveal true character. How and why do we compete, and for what?
The work is a continuation of two performance cycles I have staged over the last year – Anthea Moys vs. The City of Grahamstown and Anthea Moys vs. The City of Geneva, and also represents the continuation of my long-standing engagement with participatory performance practice in contemporary art, and my interest in play, risk, and failure.
I will be challenging people to arm-wrestle me at the opening of the Art Fair on the evening of Thursday 21st August (by invite only), thereafter on Friday, Saturday and Sunday between 12:00 and 14:00. Thursday and Saturday’s performances will be facilitated by Master of Ceremonies and Head Judge, Gerard Bester.
Art fairs are primarily about buying and selling art. How will your piece sit within this context?
Art fairs are about buying and selling. Essentially all art wants you to experience something, anything – even if it’s a bad experience; art wants you to engage with it in some way or form. This performance is exactly that: it asks you to engage – in a physical manner for periods of time – where you can arm-wrestle me. You might win; you might lose, but for a time we will sit opposite each other, look into each other’s eyes and battle it out. So no, it’s not for sale, you can’t take a ‘thing’ home with you, but you will experience something only for that time, that is your own unique experience! Your own challenge! And probably: your own win! The value of my art, for me, is largely in the experience itself – the time, space and action between the people I am playing with/competing against and myself.
What’s next for you?
On that same weekend of the Art Fair I will be playing with The Brother Moves On at Ithuba Art Gallery in Braamfontein as part of the Backspace (re-trace) residency on Saturday 23rd August in the afternoon. We will be challenging you, yes YOU! to a series of games. That same night I will be working with my first year Wits Design and Drawing students (The Brown Paper Bags) on a series of performances that they have been working on for the Ithuba space as part of the Backspace (re-trace) exhibition. Come play with us in the space!
In the last week of August, commissioned for the GIPCA Live Art Fest in Cape Town, I will then be performing and directing the piece The Impossible Auction with writer and director Gwydion Beynon and performer Gerard Bester.
On the 2nd of October we will open my solo exhibition at Ithuba Art Gallery where I will be exhibiting work from the Anthea Moys vs. series from both Grahamstown and Geneva as well as a series of new works (I’m learning how to paint!). Next year: watch out for my own Orchestra!
More info on Anthea and her work via her website.