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10 Questions for Irina Nalis | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Irina Nalis

10 Questions for Irina Nalis

Multidisciplinary thinking at a multidisciplinary festival in a time of crisis

Normally we'd put a descriptor - "cellist", "film maker", "techno producer" for example - in the title of this interview, but for Irina Nalis there isn't space. Like, "10 Questions for psychologist, ministerial adviser, festival founder, architectural consultant, digital humanism activist and techno veteran Irina Nalis" wouldn't fit across the page. But that's the multidisciplinary world for you.

Irina Nalis is a co-founder of the Vienna Bienniale for fine arts, has worked for the Austrian culture ministry, is currently a uni:docs fellow at the University of Vienna, and works with the architecture and design company mostlikely in "the development of a common space city model."  

Theartsdesk met her at Elevate festival in Graz, Austria, where she was a keynote speaker: the festival itself a thoroughly multidisciplinary affair, and also an intense affair given the context. This was the last weekend before Covid19 made flying around Europe a seriously dubious business, and things were already looking scary in some quarters. It was also bittersweet given the 2020 festival's British connection: DJs Gilles Peterson and David Rodigan were there for the musical component, representing the UK at its internationalist best. And Nalis was there as one of the "64 Faces" of We Are Europe, an organisation set up by a coalition of EU festivals and built on encouraging exactly the sort of interdisciplinary conversation and interaction we engaged with at Elevate. There was a strong feeling in all of this of the rich diversity that Brexit is pulling us away from. But oddly, even with the sense of looming crisis and the UK's detachment from Europe the whole festival was an upbeat affair, so we began by asking Nalis about this.

JOE MUGGS: Before we talk about your work, can we add some context? Tell us a bit about this festival and what you're here for...

IRINA NALIS: So we're here at the Elevate festival, its 16th edition, and yesterday I had the honour to do the opening lecture where I could allow myself and the audience to join the festival organisers in their reasoning in coming up with this broad idea of "where is humanity going in the times of the Anthropocene" - and how is technology involved in this question? Is it even opposed to the idea of good development? Is it a burden, a threat, or even a chance to help on this journey to a new humanity. Technology and discourse are always the key pillars of Elevate, but this year we integrate the body more than it usually is - in the music sessions in the evening but also in the daytime where there've been introductions to holotropic breath work and other somatic techniques, because consciousness will be needed to get this whole humanity thing going in the right direction... whatever "right" means.

That's a lot! This festival and your studies both roll together arts, academia and popular culture together - it's very multidisciplinary and very ambitious. Is this relevant for the general public? Do you worry that this is all too rareified?

For me there's this dance with the ambivalence of not being able to give quick answers - but acknowledging that there are no quick fixes is maybe the most vital step forward for humanity as it stands now. So this stretching of imagination, this demanding of a deeper involvement with issues... well, it is demanding, but at as a psychologist, I know we grow with challenges. Not everybody at the same pace, not everybody has the same comfort level, but all in all we only grow with the new, so I know there is a risk of putting people off in the first place if it's too complicated, but I believe that arts and all sorts of aesthetic ways of expression often - not always, but often - have a way to let people in and invite them in and have them inside a situation that would feel too complex if described verbally. You're inside it, and suddenly you're watching this crazy movie with all kinds of societal discussions of multiple levels... and it's Star Trek!

This presumably speaks to your interest in architecture too, right? The aesthetics and practical functions of a building affect Irina Nalisthe discourse that happens inside it?

Yes. It used to be, and still is, always an expression of power. Architecture is related to power, because of money, because of laws and regulation. So when working with architecture and urbanism you always need to take questions of power into consideration otherwise you are just another service industry. Why it is so much related to questions of power is also because there is this architecture of impression which we Europeans are used to, maybe not in a very good way. It's the story of churches for example: all the rulers, monarchies, aristocrats would not have been able to keep up their power only by armed forces - so they and the churches, especially established churches, would combine forces and make people feel small. That's the job of the architecture. The best and easiest and most multi sensory way is to put them in a building much too large for them to grasp. Overwhelming. That's my interest, but also - in the title of this year's Venice Bienniale, which has just been postponed - "How can we Live Together?". Power and living together are the two main parts of my interest in architecture. Participation is key.

At a festival like this, club culture is also always present, and in your biography you mention your history with this. Of course subculture always finds ways of inhabiting or using architecture "wrongly", whether that's skateboarding or putting on raves: does your clubbing experience feed into your interest?

Yes I very much believe it does. Especially, I work on architecture projects with my husband, who is not only an architect by training also used to be a DJ, he studied electroacoustics. We actually met on the music scene 20 years ago, and this is what our roots are: these subcultural positive forces of appropriation with a smile, and pushing edges, pushing limits, not questioning things by talking about it but by doing it. An important question when we talk about living together is always "where do you feel at home?" - and whenever I go abroad I always look out for either the punk place, or the artist-run spaces, and I know I'll feel connected. The punk places look the same in Argentina as in China as in London, same for the artist-run things. Somehow they have unity by being marginalised. I think there is such a power in this tension.

The British academic Paul Gilroy talks about "conviviality" as a core principle in creating meeting points within culture and subculture: he uses it particularly talking about Caribbean-British culture but that in turn is a vital feeding stream into rave and everything that's followed... does that chime with your sense of subcultural spaces being welcoming?

Definitely. There's a parallel. I already mentioned appropriation in a positive way in terms of taking over or finding new uses for spaces and architecture - and back in the 90s there wasn't so much talk about "cultural appropriation" being a bad thing. For us in continental Europe to dance at parties where there is a jungle floor, a drum'n'bass floor and a ragga floor was completely normal, it created a new normality. Maybe this is appropriation, yes, but maybe also there is, if I've understood right, this continuity of conviviality in participating in this. We certainly all knew that we were starting from a different level of being advantaged or disadvantaged, and we all questioned it.

In the Eighties and Nineties, postmodernism was maybe a blunt instrument, and there was a smash and grab, anything goes approach to throwing things together, which could on one hand be brilliantly unselfconscious, but on the other could be crass. I guess now, the interplay of cultures is both more subtle and more informed, which leads people to greater sensitivity...

Yes the question of power came back, which is a good thing!

How do you navigate between your roles? You're an academic, a scientist, you work in fine arts, government, club culture...

I have a big wardrobe! [laughs] Really this is kind of true, no joke. I stopped buying new stuff four years ago, but we live in a world with so much used clothes, I still find my costumes. I play my karma chameleon, I don't have dreadlocks like I did in the Nineties, I'm a blonde woman, so if I go to the Chancellory to do my political advisory role in arts there, I maybe wear the same shoes [as now] because I never wear stupid heels, but I would maybe let them digest me a bit easier by putting on a nice dress. I like to do this agent provocateur work a little bit hidden, a little bit masquerade. It sounds stupid and super superficial to answer your question about how I deal with these different roles, but since 15 years in the professional world and 25 years in subcultures, I try to bring as much as possible of my ideas to each sphere I get into, and so even if the ideas might be indigestible, I at least try to make the package easier to invite in.

When working with architecture and urbanism you always need to take questions of power into consideration otherwise you are just another service industryQuestions about where the human race goes from here seem ever more urgent but ever more difficult as the current sense of crisis intensifies - not just the virus, but Trump, Brexit and everything else that's going on. Do you feel energised in your work or exhausted by the chaos and difficulty to see past the current crisis?

For me certainly it's more energising. There are also moments of awe, and also humility, towards all the things the young people are doing these days. I remember as a seven year old I was sitting on a swing on the playground and dreaming how if I won the lottery I would set up a huge recycling programme - my eyes and ears were opened to all these things around us: we had sour [acid] rain, we had the sun killing us through the ozone hole, we had atomic waste. When I was a teenager I became vegetarian straight away, I never learned to properly drive a car. These were my life experiences but it was kind of niche. Now it seems like there is a real shared energy with youth, whether it's pushing against plastics, or putting pressure constantly on big companies and institutions, I'm so happy that this exists, this is probably the best time of my life.

Even though institutions - like the internet giants - are maybe more resistant to opposition than ever?

I think this is just because they are faced with opposition. They have not been faced with such an opposition before. Several times at this festival people mentioned what a dull and stupid time the Nineties were [culturally] and maybe this was why I would spend a lot of my time downstairs, physically, literally underground at a lot of art parties, techno parties, drum'n'bass, being very much that Gen X "we don't care about the rest", not in a hedonistic "we hate your stupid shit" Eighties style, but in that it felt not possible to link insttutional politics with what we're doing so we're not even trying. Perhaps be part of Antifa, maybe demonstrate a little, but not in our professional or cultural lives. And this has changed so much. It's changed in my biography too: I've worked with institutional politics since eight years now...

Do you have particular hopes for how events like this, or the culture more generally might progress?

Yes I do. First, with this theme of [fellow Elevate keynote speaker] Douglas Rushkoff "find the others". Sometimes feeling a bit isolated by working interdisciplinary, which means many times I am between the stools and there are not many people I can share these experiences with. Not many people who switch from body to brain in 30 seconds - but here I can. And back to your energising question, these moments do give people the energy. They give them the power to sustain during the other ten months of the year, and this is very important, this energy management!

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