by Amy Bell
photos by Bárbara Velasco
The Croatian performer and choreographer reflects on his research at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía, two queers learning ballroom and if it is ok to ask if someone is gay.
Amy Bell: It was really fun for me to dance with you the other day when we did the workshop with couple or ballroom dancing and we did a bit of rock and roll, paso doble and tango. We all physically explored both the roles of ‘the woman’, the follower or ‘the man’, the leader. It was funny because you and I, as contemporary dancers we’ve done contact work and so on, we’re used to being able to lead and follow someone, but it’s not normally so gendered. Also we’re both gay and maybe think of ourselves as being open to different ways of being in our gender roles, but I feel like weirdly we were both more comfortable when you were the leader and I was the follower. When I was leading you we were both clumsier, not because we’re not capable but we’re just less accustomed to it in these codified holds and movements maybe. I felt that so strange. What was your sensation when we did that?
Bruno Isakovic: I don’t know because so many things were at work […] but I think in the beginning when I start a connection with somebody I always lead better. And then as time goes I can relax into being led.
AB: Do you think that’s in your personality or in your socially conditioned and trained experience as a man, a male dancer?
BI: That’s everywhere. That’s in sex, no really! That’s in friendship. I think I need to work on this ability to follow without fear of where are we going. I don’t know if it’s not letting go because of fear or just because of habit that I always need to lead, you know? I think it’s maybe both.
AB: But do you think that’s something to do with what’s expected of you or what you’ve become used to having expected of you as a man? Also as a Croatian man?
BI: For sure it’s connected. Well, the influence of this Croatian macho bullshit I think I digested living in Holland. So if this workshop happened like ten years ago then definitely that would be the case. But now I think it only boils down to the fact that I’m a man, but then it’s so silly because this shouldn’t at all be engaged with you as a problem because you’re a lesbian, I’m gay, we’re both just enjoying some workshop together in Madrid, it’s Performing Gender and it’s so silly that these tiny nuances also succeed to enter because of course it’s in the system! So of course we need to deal with it, it’s not that we’re above it or we’re more open by the fact of being dancers or the minority.
AB: For me, feeling surprised that with you it was easier for me to follow has less to do with my sexuality and more to do with my beliefs about the roles of men and women. I’m slightly horrified by the idea of any woman needing to be ‘led’ by a man, and even more horrified to feel that when I’m there in a ballroom hold with you I feel it much more natural to follow. When I was dancing with the women in the group I found it much easier to switch roles, but I guess that’s me… But it makes you realise how pervasive these habits are, how we carry them in our bodies without realising.
BI: It’s funny…
AB: But it also depends on who you’re dancing with too actually because it’s a fine, very personal balance of negotiating power between the two. Maybe it was just our two personalities.
BI: But with Lordes [the teacher] it was different for me. I felt that she really knows how she wants to be led but she really needs a man there, she really needs a decision.
AB: Yes but interestingly she controlled you, showing you how to lead even when she was the follower. And obvious she and I are different because she’s an expert in these dances and I don’t know anything!
BI: No, I know, but maybe it’s also her sexuality, what do you think?
AB: You know, honestly, I try not to speculate about people.
BI: That’s why I call everybody bisexual in the beginning.
AB: Well even that I don’t like to presume. I don’t think it’s something that is necessarily perceptible to me from the outside. I try not to draw conclusions actually.
BI: Yes, because then you fall into these superficial prejudices.
AB: Having a feeling about someone’s sexuality isn’t necessarily superficial and of course I also sometimes wonder about people or they seem to be sending out a particular vibe, but I try not to ask myself to name it so directly because I also know everybody defines themselves differently and not necessarily on my terms. So it’s a very personal thing that you can make too strong or too simplistic assumptions about.
BI: Maybe I do that because in high school I had a big problem of being constantly labelled as gay. So when I succeeded to not be bothered by it, to me it became only, ‘Ok whatever’, then for me it’s not a problem for myself anymore, even to think about it just because I went through the whole horror of being labelled, you see what I mean?
AB: Yes, I completely understand.
BI: So I know how it feels to be judged but I don’t do it for that reason.
AB: No, in some ways you feel you can make that judgement because for you it’s not a negative thing to wonder about someone’s sexuality. But other people don’t necessarily feel the same and I think that’s maybe what I’m aware of. It’s like when someone just comes up to you and asks ‘So are you gay or what?’ Even if they wouldn’t think negatively of you for it, it’s actually quite a violent thing to do. It can be too personal, too private. There’s a presumption that we’re all cool with it but doesn’t give you the right somehow. Also there’s a presumption that there are these stable categories of gay or straight which you might not agree with and so the need to put you in one of those boxes is also quite violent.
BI: Yeah I understand what you mean but it’s very complex what I want to say. It is violent when a person asks that just on the basis to judge you. But what if the person asks you just because he is interested in you? Also I think it’s wrong to say that it’s violent or private. It’s not private. For me what is private is everything else.
AB: Right but it’s something very intimate that might require some trust to share. I can tell you that I have a brother because I don’t need to trust you to tell you that and it’s an uncomplicated fact, but I do need to be able to trust you to a certain extent to tell you about my sexuality and it might not be so straightforward to explain. You can’t presume this trust when you ask somebody, I think that’s maybe where the violence comes from for me.
BI: Yes, sometimes it’s not so easy to share because we live in a world which makes this difficult for some people. But the feeling of violence comes from the person who is feeling it so it’s not the person [asking] being violent but it’s how the person [being asked] feels.
AB: No of course it’s not intended in a violent way, absolutely not, but that’s part of the problem, the lack of awareness of how someone else might feel.
BI: There are so many questions during your lifetime that are completely benign but asked to you in a certain way they can be very violent.
BI: So probably if you asked me that question twelve years ago I would spit in your face. But now I’m like, ‘I don’t care’, you know. You need to digest it. Also these things are so much more interesting and nicer to find out in different ways you know. This is not something to be so frustrated about. It’s much nicer to do this [touches AB] and then to feel what the person does and then it’s really on the intimate level because I open myself in effect to do this and then you said no, so who is hurt here, me or you? Actually me! Because I presume that you will allow me.
AB: Right, that’s maybe more to do with desire than classification.
BI: Yes, I suppose.
AB: To change topic a bit, you spent some time this week looking in the Prado museum and I wondered how that compares with what you’ve been experiencing here at the Reina Sofía?
BI: It was really interesting from the point of view of gender, I think this should have been an activity for everybody really, to go to Prado because compared to this, which is much more modern art, it has a much broader sense. There you see very, very old paintings and you see really the development from the 12th Century until now and this is for me very rich, to understand the broader sense of how the view of men and women developed. Also because so many things there are purely religious and from that stance, I don’t know… There was one amazing painting […] where Mother Mary was squeezing her left boob, squeezing the milk from the boob and below was a saint with an open mouth drinking the milk and next to it was an angel flying, naked little nude boy. Amazing!
AB: Amazing in terms of how we might read that now, maybe purposefully out of context?
BI: Exactly, it’s almost like a pure fetish, you know? Immediately you think of all these different sexual things when you see it. Maybe back then they were also thinking that…
AB: Yeah, I wonder that, did it ever occur to anybody back then?
BI: [laughing] Crazy…
AB: And have there been any works in this collection here that have particularly spoken to you or inspired you in any way?
BI: I love the Surrealist room, beautiful, amazing. Also I love Manuel Millares’ work. Everything is black and white and [it’s] almost like from the white canvas the blackness is coming. It’s something that connects very much to the work I want to do now, that I want at least to try [for the sharing] on Saturday. These traces of blackness, they’re like the traces of subconsciousness that come out of you, like they’re already on your body actually, you don’t need to dig so much here, they already exists somehow. I was now going around the Reina taking photos, searching for this blackness coming out of the corners of things that nobody pays attention to around the building. I was trying to find shadows, there’s one hole full of some kind of wires… things we put aside. It says something of what is important for us, how much attention we give to something.
AB: You were looking for ignored things, things which seem invisible but that actually reveal something deeper?
BI: Yeah or something that is not being taken care of. It’s almost like so small that people don’t pay attention and it almost resembles these things which are coming out of us, small things that become visible only when you really look. I’m still developing what I want.
AB: And so you’re able to draw from the space in that way but what about the history and structure of the building? It’s very loaded in a way.
BI: What it was before, it was before something?
AB: Yes I think it was a sanatorium for people suffering from TB and then after that I think a ballet company was based here at a certain point.
BI: Wow. Yes, it’s interesting how the building is and how it’s very difficult to get into and to go around the building, it’s very institutional but it’s art. It’s very funny that here these forces collide, the authority and the pleasure art can give you. I mean it’s so silly…
AB: Well it’s not necessarily silly. There is also a practical function or aim in having so much security. With a collection like this with works that are so famous, I mean, there’s a responsibility to protect them, but on the other hand it perhaps works against the spirit in which the works were originally made.
BI: Yes, it’s like, ‘Come!’ but if you want to take a photo for yourself of the work then it’s, ‘No, no, no it’s not allowed!’ I mean come on, this is art and what do you think I will do with this photo? I can understand the authority at a certain level, the art is very valuable and it can be destroyed or stolen, but me taking a photo sounds a little bit silly as a threat to the artwork.
AB: But for the Reina Sofia I think it’s a question of authorship and owner’s rights. How do you feel about that? Because what we do is in general is quite ephemeral, quite transitory and it’s different if you make an art object. But yet your work will be in this context.
BI: I’m busy with performance which is only alive when it’s happening, so I’m much freer from authorship and the work is much freer from authorship because of the existence of the audience, time and myself being on the stage or wherever. So authorship of a performance I think is very much of a paradox for me. My work is very situational, it’s very much what is it and I use this method of improvisation which is purely an act of the moment, it cannot be repeated. So yeah, I don’t know. Maybe because I’m so gay and open and I don’t want to be labelled so this is why I make these works that cannot be stilled in any frame of like, you know? [Laughing]
AB: Why do you feel that you don’t want to be fixed or labelled, especially since you just labelled yourself ‘gay’, with some irony, but you still did!
BI: Ah that’s interesting! Probably, actually definitely, because of having experienced that from other people during my youth.
AB: In a negative way?
BI: Not necessarily in a negative way it’s just purely developmental. I was always confused by people wanting to know who I am, or calling me names […] I think it’s almost like my activist role which wants to re-enforce my identity constantly to myself. Not that I’m activist like I defend a greater ideal but I defend my own [ideals] and then maybe my work is also a reflection of what I feel about my private life. You see what I mean by not labelling it?
AB: It was interesting what anthropologist David Berná was saying the other day, that it’s not really possible to escape labels.
BI: No, no, of course. I really liked what Pablo said that a label is like a photo, it is a reference point of me at a certain moment in time but it’s not me in a broader sense.
AB: So maybe it’s a different way of understanding those names or labels that they’re in flux, they change through time, they become more or less relevant, they’re dependent on other factors or they need to be read differently at different moments rather than saying this is you forever.
AB: But then I wonder if saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be labelled’ means that you don’t challenge the traditional way people use labels as fixers, you don’t encourage this more fluid usage but just try to take yourself out of the equation in a way.
BI: No, of course but I was just comparing what I felt privately bothered me with authorship. So I was just affirming the idea of why I don’t have a problem with authorship because it is just in a moment of time, it’s a social pointer, we made it together because I never have a feeling that I can make a performance without an audience. For me it cannot exist, you know? It’s impossible because I need this feedback loop of people, of eye intensity, of being seen in order for all this to happen. It’s a ritual.
AB: Acknowledging that this is very early start of the project, how do you imagine that you might continue with this project in the coming months?
BI: I think it’s definitely going to be connected with the development of another piece I’m busy with now where I’m going to use the same method I used in a previous solo on myself and I’ll apply it to an amazing opera singer. So I’m excited about giving my method to somebody else to see what she would do with it, different body, everything is different. So it’s amazing with this gender project actually because it can be a continuation of several of my works which are becoming less intimate, less personal and broader in a way. So let’s say I’m maybe going through a phase of liberation from my own identity, you know, like I really had steps. It’s very therapeutic. Maybe one day I’ll be like, ‘I am clean now!’ [laughing]
Performing Gender, Madrid, November 2013