Sister Sylvester Explores a Link Between Art and Activism in New Work


Kathryn Hamilton is a performance maker based in New York City and Istanbul. She is the founder and director of the New York-based company Sister Sylvester, and a member of Köşe, an art space in Istanbul. American Theatre Magazine highlighted Sister Sylvester as one of the fourteen companies who could change the world in 2014 and their recent productions have received critical acclaim from The New York Times, Time Out, as well as praise for their innovative blend of video, dialogue and movement-based performance.

In September, JACK will present their latest performance, They Are Gone But Here I Must Remain, for eight performances only that weaves an underground cult film, interviews, and even a chicken to explore the age-old question of whether art can influence change. Between rehearsals, I spoke with her about how she approached the subject and what inspired her.

TR: How did They Are Gone But Here I Must Remain come about?

KH: They Are Gone... began about three years ago when I heard a lecture by a french film theorist named Nicole Brenez. She was talking about the possibility for film to effect real change in the world, and she said that it could be a rocket shot from the future back into the past, or a time-bomb, buried in the present, waiting to explode. Her example of the first was La Chinoise by Jean-Luc Godard, which famously anticipated the events of May 1968 in Paris. And the second was The Fall by Peter Whitehead, shot in 1968 in New York. She explained that though The Fall had never received distribution, it had been screened, in secret, in 1973 at the Athens Polytechnic. The students watching it were inspired, and decided to occupy their university. This action - the occupation of the Polytechnic by the students, became one of the catalysts for the popular uprising that led to the fall of the military junta, and the restoration of democracy to Greece. La Chinoise is one of my favorite films, but I had never heard of it. I was curious about the story, and got in contact with Nicole to try and find out more. She put me in touch with Peter Whitehead, and my meetings and correspondence with him, and with others related to The Fall and the events at the Polytechnic became the basis for this piece.

TR: Did you know Peter Whitehead's work before you saw The Fall?

KH: I didn't know Peter Whitehead's work before I saw The Fall - I had seen some of his music videos that he made with The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, but hadn't known anything about the man who made them.

TR: Is it necessary to have seen the film to understand your performance or is educating the audience on the film part of the performance?

KH: It isn't necessary to have seen The Fall to understand the performance. The performance uses the film and stories surrounding it and Peter Whitehead, to explore the relationship between action and image. It is also about us - the three performers on stage, and our own relationships to art and participation. So if audience members have seen it then they might notice certain details, have a different understanding of the material onstage, but it is absolutely not necessary.

TR: You did a lot of research and interviews for this piece, who did you talk to you that really got you excited and why?

KH: Well, Peter Whitehead first of all. He's been incredibly generous and supportive of this. We've been in pretty regular communication over the last few years, and I'll visit him now whenever I'm back in the UK. He is a fascinating man, and a brilliant storyteller. I chased a lot of leads concerning the revolution in Greece. At one point I was trying to reach the current fishing commissioner of the EU, who was a part of the Athens Polytechnic occupation. But her secretary firmly and politely waylaid me. It seems she doesn't want to talk about that part of her life any more. I did manage to get in contact with the daughter of the Polytechnic professor who asked Whitehead for a copy of The Fall though, and different people from film-circles in Greece who have been responsible for various screenings of Whitehead's films there over the years.

Another great interview was with Tom Hurwitz. He had been a member of the Students for a Democratic Society, and had been on security detail at the Mathematics building at Columbia when Whitehead arrived at the University. The students were not letting any reporters into Mathematics (where the SDS were) because of fear of incrimination. But Hurwitz was also a film-maker, and recognized by Whitehead's camera (an Eclair) that there was no way this was a reporter. So he decided to let him in through the window, and that is the reason that Whitehead was able to film inside the Columbia strike. Hurwitz had never seen The Fall, and so we watched the Columbia footage together. It was a really moving experience sitting with him as he kept up a running commentary on the footage, telling me about the students, who they were, who had joined the Weathermen, and who they had become - suddenly the repercussions of this moment in time became totally tangible and present.

They Are Gone But Here I Must Remain

TR: What is it about the genre of performance lectures that appeals to you?

KH: For a few different reasons. First, in a performance lecture there is the potential to play with and undermine the idea of authority, or historical truth. There are the words - the lecture - and then there are all the other things that can happen on stage to call them into question. That was important because of the web of apocryphal stories that surround The Fall, and the impossibility in many cases of verifying or discounting them. There was also just the practical issue that this was a performance with a lot of information to relay, and I wanted a way to do that very simply and honestly, without having to dress it up as something else. I've been watching a lot of Hito Steyerl's video works and lectures, and Rabih Mroue, and I like the power and simplicity of the form. A peformance-lecture allows for a fusing of fiction with journalistic elements. When I started the research for this piece I intended to write it as an essay, so I wanted that element of it - the journalistic, reportage - to be present in the piece.

I'd also, in the last few pieces I made, started to question why the performers onstage were those particular performers. What their points of intersection or conflict were with the material. And I wanted to create a space for that. So that the performers - Kelsea Martin, Cyrus Moshrefi and I, could speak about, or perform, their own connections with the material. As well as performance lectures, I was thinking a lot about essayistic films, by film-makers like Chris Marker and Agnes Varda, and I was interested in what it would mean to create a performative essay. Agnes Varda is a fascinating figure to me, especially in works like The Gleaners, where she uses non professional performers and fuses a fictional story with the documentary realities of the performers lives and social milieu. Whitehead's film, The Fall, began as a fiction film - he originally had written a script about political assassination - and then, when he arrived in New York, he began documenting what was happening on the streets. So the final film is a combination of the two - documentary and fiction. I saw the performance lecture as a way of bringing those two elements into collision onstage.

TR: What did you discover about the connection between image and action, artist and activist?

KH: In the piece we talk about the relationship between action and image with the arrow moving in both directions. So, how actions become images - which is something the first half of Whitehead's film is exploring. And then the more problematic question of how images become action. There is the story of The Fall, and the revolution in Greece. And Whitehead's own life is interesting material for this, as after shooting The Fall he, (with a few exceptions) gave up film-making to breed falcons. The violence he had witnessed in America was too much for him, and he abandoned social action in favor of personal redemption. On a personal level I also think that making this piece was an attempt to understand for myself how to be an outsider, a foreigner in a country, and also to been involved in the struggles that I care about. Whitehead was an Englishman documenting the political actions in America, and this film is an attempt to cross from observer to participant in the actions he was documenting.

TR: Can you discuss other examples of the image/action, artist/activist theory. Are you familiar with the imagery and action of ACT-UP? Is what they accomplished a good example of what you're saying in this performance?

KH: Yes, I think the work of ACT-UP definitely fits into this discussion. I love imaginative works of civil disobedience, from groups like ACT-UP to a recent Anti-UKIP cabaret that I heard about in the UK, or the artist in Syria who plays piano in the streets in the Yarmuk camp. Creating surprising images can change our understanding of an object, a situation, or a relationship of power. To turn anger into something creative is an incredibly powerful act. The line that connects image and action, though - rather than image and thought, or image and reflection - is more complicated. Sometimes images are not enough. There was a professor in Greece who I was corresponding with who reminded me of that when I got a little too enthusiastic about the story of The Fall inspiring a revolution. She reminded me of all the organizing, and the violence - the self immolation by the student Kostas Georgakis - which were powerful and well documented instigators of the revolution. I think as well there is a tendency to downplay the vital role that violence often plays in social change. In the end our piece is skeptical of the ability of art to produce social action or change. That's not to say it has no value, but the work it does in the world is often unintended or quite different from what the creators intended its political action to be. Think of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle--what he wanted was to inspire workers to radicalize and join unions, and what he got was the Food and Drug Administration.

I've also been thinking a lot about this impulse to film in the face of state violence. I was at Pride Parade this year in Istanbul (where I also live), and the police got violent. At one point I got separated from my friends and police were setting off tear gas and trying to push a group of us down a side street, off the main path of the march. I found myself pulling out my phone and putting it in their faces as if I was filming - even though the battery was dead and I couldn't actually capture anything, and even though it was clearly pissing them off more. It felt like a way to regain some measure of power, or of self control. There is a power in that gesture, and the police feel that and it is why it makes them angry, it is a refusal to submit. And I wonder about this when I watch Whitehead's film.

My work with different artists in Turkey has also influenced my thinking about this. I'm part of a collective there called Köşe, and this fall we are organizing a festival called A Corner In The World, featuring artists from across the Balkans, the Middle East and Caucasia, who make work where the personal is in collision with the political. For me this idea of the personal and political in collision is vital when thinking about the connection between art and activism.

TR: Is this a performance accessible to the general public in that a 'regular joe' will understand or does it take advanced knowledge of history and activism to appreciate it?

KH: The performance doesn't pre-suppose any knowledge of either The Fall or history and activism. Any facts you need to understand it are given in the piece - that's one of the advantages of the performance-lecture form. If you have an interest in history and activism then you might engage with it in a different way, but that's always true when you go to a performance: if you are already engaged with the subject matter then your experience will be richer.

They Are Gone But Here Must I Remain features Kathryn Hamilton, Kelsea Martin, Cyrus Moshrefi, and the world-famous Molly "Miss Chicken" von Cluckers. Performances are Thurs.-Sat., Sept. 3-19. Opening night is Friday, Sept. 4. $15 Thurs, Sept 3 / $20 remaining shows.


They Are Gone But Here I Must Remain
September 3 - 19th
505 1/2 Waverly Avenue
Brooklyn, New York
$15 first weekend / $20 after