The power of presence: a conversation with Jeremy Leatinu’u
puehu: cultural dust
30 July 2014
n her influential 1983 work The Social Mirror, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles clad a New York City garbage truck in a mirrored surface and had a uniformed sanitation worker drive it in a city parade. As the title alludes, Ukeles’ motivation was to create an awareness amongst the city’s inhabitants of their contribution to creating waste and the undervalued but highly important public service of rubbish collection.
Reflecting an individual’s active participation within the ideologies and mechanics of society has been an important current in the history of performance practices. This is evident in other seminal works from the 1960s onwards. From Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece(1965) and Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0 (1974), that both simulated the disturbing nature of collective human behaviour, to more recent works such as Santiago Sierra’s ongoing transactions where he pays marginalised people the minimum wage to perform menial tasks as a mimicry of capitalist exploitation, or William Pope.L’s painful endurance crawl performances that created a laboured spectacle of race, gender and class divisions. The work of Jeremy Leatinu'u also engages with this ongoing legacy of artistic enquiry. However, while the canon of performance art has favoured the sensationalist, Leatinu'u’s approach conversely explores how even the mildly disruptive presence of a single body can cause profound ripples in the veneer of society.
During his postgraduate study, Leatinu'u conceived of Public Observations One (2009) a body of works that included furtive video documentation of street workers, the homeless, buskers, prostitutes, signage bearers, footage of the artist compulsively washing his hands in a public restroom, and a confessional sound work. Public Observations Two (2010), included in the exhibition Puehu: Cultural Dust (24 August – 20 October 2013, The Suter Art Gallery Te Aratoi o Whakatū, Nelson) is a singular work that emerged from those earlier explorations. The video features the artist sitting on the ground amongst the busy flow people visiting the Otara Market in South Auckland.
The inclusion of this work was a conscious decision for Leatinu'u to revisit the first instance when he implemented his now well-tested strategy of performing site-responsive interventions for the purposes of video documentation. Due to this, Public Observations Two has become an important precursor to his later works such as Welcome Project (2010), Tightrope (2011), Dead Mileage (2012), and Spatial Resonance (2013). The following is an edited conversation I had with Leatinu'u during the Puehu exhibition in which he explained these aspects of Public Observations Two.
Jeremy Leatinu’u: When I was working on Public Observations One, documenting people who worked or loiter on the street, I became aware that suddenly through a simple action they separated themselves from the people who were walking by or driving in their cars. I decided to explore this enquiry further and that is where Public Observations Two came from. I was thinking about a very simple action that gives a point of difference between you and the pace of people around you - an action that would suddenly separate a person from the general public.
However, in my research I realised that it’s harder for someone to become willingly separated within a public or a community that they are from or that you feel comfortable within. I came across a debate on TV about a protest against sex workers in Papatoetoe. The sex workers were not doing anything illegal so there was only so much the protestors could do legally. This interested me because it highlighted the politics of space and presence but also morals. Morals seemed to be a big part of the issue for many people who were against the sex workers. They thought it was morally wrong for the community and local families. I was interested in how an action or different sets of values and morals can create friction within a community. These sex workers were actually from the location and were part of the same community of the protestors so there was this internal friction from within.
For me, this was an example of how an action that is not accepted in a place or by a ‘public’ that you consider to be your community can be among one of the most challenging things to experience. You could do it somewhere else and not have the same emotions or reaction − that is the reason why I selected the Otara flea market as a place to perform.
Bruce E. Phillips: It is interesting that you mention social friction because, in the stillness of you sitting on the ground, I became more aware of the movement of the people around you. Your simple intervention reminded me of a fast flowing river – if the people at the market are the water you are a rock, not large enough to damn the flow of water but a size that caused the water to pause, part and flow around. It is the ripples and eddies that the rock makes within the river that is the friction. Why did you choose that strategy for the Otara market specifically?
JL: I was interested in the Otara market because it is a strong meeting place for all sorts of communities from the people that are buying to the people that are selling. So the friction for me was being that rock in the stream within a flow of people and doing something that isn’t going with the grain but against it in a very minor way. And my simple act of just siting down was enough for people to take notice and to participate. There were a lot of people looking and making eye contact. There were other people that would murmur to me ‘what are you doing!’ and to ‘get off the ground!’. There was also a lovely woman who came up behind me and she asked me if I was okay, smiled and patted me on the head. There is a moment in the footage that I am smiling and that is because of that lady - it was such a lovely moment. It was an intense performance for me, even though it was only 6 or 7 minutes long. It is hard to be the focal point in a certain amount of space among a significant number of people.
It was important to me that the performance wasn’t publicised or ‘permissioned’. That was part of the intensity because there was no audience around me to suggest that it was something other than what it was. If it was a publicised event it would have greatly changed the reaction because a knowing audience would have given me support for what I was doing. That was not what I wanted the work to be about. It was to be about the experience of putting myself in the position of being isolated.
BP: When you go to these popular large markets there is a degree of anonymity. You might happen to bump into people you know but generally most of us are there to be one of many. So by sitting on the ground you deliberately shifted attention from the group to the individual. It is remarkable that it is so easy to step outside of societal conventions through such a harmless or presumably innocuous action.
JL: Yes, by stepping out of social conventions people will look but more importantly they will chose not to notice you, chose not to make eye contact. As part of Public Observations One I created a sound work that I installed in every toilet in the Elam B building that played a recorded confession of my own interactions with buskers, sex workers and people who were wearing advertising placards. This was my way of revealing how I was in no way innocent because I had avoided eye contact or engaging with these people in order to remain part of the general public. For example, I shared my first experience of making eye contact with a homeless person, other times when I would walk on the outside of the footpath or an awkward moment when I was at the bank and a sex worker was standing beside an ATM machine. I was unsure if I should make eye contact as she may have thought I was there for some other reason than to use the ATM machine. For the people encountering this audio work in the toilets, I was interested in connecting occupants with my confession. We all make these decisions of where to look, where to walk and at what pace, all those responses are influenced by situations of people positioning themselves outside of the ‘norm’. These were things I observed when making Public Observations One.
BP: Why did you decide to be silent when you performed in Otara?
JL: I think that being silent is an important part of the performance. When a person speaks all attention is focused on what they are saying but when a person is silent attention is directed to their body, where they are positioned, the amount of space they are taking up and the disruptions they may be creating.
BP: Being silent also isolates you, in a fundamental way, from communing with others.
JL: Yes that is true. I was also thinking about the gaze: who was watching and how they were watching in both the live public intervention and in the gallery viewing the video work. I was staring at the camera, people who are viewing the video are looking at me and I am virtually looking at them, and people watching the video are also looking at the public. The people who were operating the camera were looking though the viewfinder of the camera and were also being looked at by those walking by. So there is this complexity that compounds in the work related to multiple forms of observation.
BP: What relationship does the work have to peaceful protest? The action is very similar in appearance but different due to motivation and situation. The act of you sitting in the middle of the Otara market is greatly different to sitting down on Wall Street, New York as part of the Occupy movement or as a protester in Cairo − same action but different situation.
JL: Presence is power. Just being alive is a powerful thing. The next step is to decide what you do with that life. People who protest are a powerful force because they are motivated and unified. Without those people sitting there on Wall Street and being visually present the issues that they are driven by become valued so differently. I think that activism or protest is something that I am passionate about and it might reflect that way in the works that I do. In saying so, my work is more about being present, being visible, and just being. Similar to the protestor, and with particular works like Public Observations Two or Tight Rope, there is a greater level of relevance as to why I am there through the actions I perform. So in this case for me, the action has to relate in some way to the place in which I am performing. Considering this, there is some relationship between my work and the act and power of protest.
BP: Can you explain to me how the influences of people, place and documentation enter into your work?
JL: People are everywhere. Humans have visited or occupied every part of the globe at some point or another. It is through peoples collective attachment to particular locations that place is created. I guess that’s what makes our relationships with a place unique because of the people that have established them. A unique experience can also be something to do with memory, the physical spatial experience, what you might have read, how you are transported to a location or the repetition of passing through a place on a daily basis. There are many human aspects that inform a place and for that reason I feel the need to understand the local context before I perform in it.
I have a process that I tend to follow. It is a triangular process: place – performance – documentation. In this triangle all three aspects are as important as each other and are constantly informing and crossing over one another. The place influences the action, the action influences the video, the video influences the location by what is being captured and what you will see, etcetera.
For me, documentation is never only a document. At the time of making this work I was experimenting with this notion and so I just set the camera up how I wanted the performance to be framed. Now I have become more particular how the performance is to be captured almost to the extent of directing. So that has been a process that I have followed but always changes depending on the work. Sometimes it’s not thinking about place as a space of interaction but thinking about place as spaces that are created for a type of experience.
BP: Therefore, in a way, your video documentation is a frame reflecting larger frameworks whether it is physical parameters such as architecture and urban design or ideological socio-political power structures.
JL: Yes in this sense video can be very powerful. It captures time, place, people, ideas and can be an entry point for discussion. If Public Observations One or Public Observations Two can can exist in another time, place and among a new audience like it has in Nelson, then that is a very powerful thing. The power of presence can exist both in a live performance and through a documented performance.
 Public Observations Two was first exhibited in his debut solo exhibition at Te Tuhi, 13 February - 11 April 2010. It was later exhibited as part of the group show Home AKLat the Auckland Art Gallery, 7 July - 22 October 2012.
 Elam School of Fine Arts, The University of Auckland