The Extension of Language

MJ Harper, “Intimate Evening”, Blain|Southern, 2018. Courtesy of Matt Lambert and the artist.

Micheal-John Harper is a multi-media performance-artist. Trained as a classical dancer, he das established an independent artistic practice in the recent year, fusing word and movement, visual and theoretical aesthetics. In the interview, he comments on Instagram as an artistic medium and the importance of language within his performances.

Christina-Marie: In Leila Hekmat’s video work Croccopazzo (2020), you performed the role of a host. I remember one line of yours, saying “And this is how drama aroused.” Why is it exactly that drama aroused?
MJ Harper: Drama is a result from the ability of humans to isolate the human being and put it on a pedestal. Everything in life happens in spirals, we are not linear beings. Governmental rules and society, however, are completely linear! This leads to essential problems and a conflict between theory and practice, so to say. The rules we have to follow might not be valid or applicable for us. Drama is a way to process and reflect on these conflicts.

CM: During your performances and work in general, text and word play a major role. Can you comment on this a little?
MJH: The text is a way to distract myself, both physically and emotionally. I often get to a sort of trance, a point where I say things I never said before, and move in a way I never did. The text is like a soundtrack to my movement. There is text and there is movement, and there is text and movement. The latter is what my work is trying to establish.

CM: The words you express often seem like poetry or word-art, one might say. Are there any poets, or writers you were particularly influenced or inspired by?
MJH: Virginia Woolf certainly had a massive influence on me. When dancing in the Company Wayne McGregor, Mr. McGregor created the “Woolf works” for the Royal Ballet, a piece based on the narrative strategy and synaesthetic approach by Virginia Woolf. I was very inspired by it and started to read her novels – and was completely startled. The way she – and with her you – dives into the character’s thinking while describing a conversation is truly fascinating. The world unfolds like a wind of ribbons or streams. And I started to wonder what would my movement look like if Virginia Woolf described it. 

CM: One of your works in which language played an essential part was An Exercise in Balance, performed at the Serpentine Gallery in February 2019. The performance was part of the exhibition by Grace Wales Bonner’s exhibition A Time for New Dreams. What was your starting point in this work?
MJH: Grace asked me to perform as side event to her show. I knew the context and for how many days the performance was to take place. It was a strange timing, just before the performance I had travelled to China and minds and places were kind of blending.  In China, I had an acupuncture session, the whole process was very fascinating and regenerating. The session, in its combination of extreme pain and almost transcendental experience, became my starting point. The piece is not something to be pinned down exactly, residing somewhere between Greek mythology, a holy experience and a body in transit. It is deeply intimate, and happened naturally.

CM: The theme of Grace’s exhibition was the “shrine” as a ritual object and portal. In what way was your performance linked to this theme and the objects surrounding you?
MJH: The exhibition focused on mysticism and ritual from the Black Atlantic in particular, however I was looking for an own version of mysticism. I had three voice recordings from my best friend, my mother, and my partner Barclay. Additionally, I chose several pieces within the exhibition such as a poem by Ben Okry from which I drew the inspiration for movement and language. The piece is very dynamic. It is essentially grounded in the “Now” when I for example use my phone as a tool box during the performance; then, by the interplay of word and movement it becomes an almost metaphysical experience, a mystical thing without being grounded in mysticism.

CM: Did you experience the show as a kind of portal in itself?
MJH: The whole exhibition was charged with an incredible spiritual energy. I think there are these places today – musicals, clubs, exhibitions – which can turn into temples without a direct spiritual link. Once you allow yourself to be open and bring yourself into situations with people you and them can unlock.

CM: Apart from – or: as a part of – your performances, your Instagram account has become of artistic importance. What is your approach, your attitude towards the platform?
MJ Harper: Instagram to me is like a precious box, unveiling always new beautiful objects. To me, it seems like a pre-workshop version of the future, some Sci-Fi/ Star Trek exercise of time travelling: you can imagine the future with it, and go back in time. In this, it is almost God-like, able to literally change the world within five minutes. As such, I use it as a tool to shape my performance vocabulary, aesthetic and language: exhibit the current and thereby advance.

CM: Until recently, there was a series of usually short-length videos combining a voice-over and digitally rendered images. They almost seem like short essays on a general topic, a fusion of music, word and image. What is their connection and theme behind?
MJH: The videos are part of a project I am working on. They are like a massive collection of essays, extremely layered and all based on feelings. A kind of Sci-Fi-tale grounded in personal experience which becomes a vessel for general experience. There is no clear narrative yet but it unfolds in the bigger frame. Leila [e.n.: the artist Leila Hekmat] is a real master of it: relating things that are bizarre and you wonder: Does that make sense? But in the end it does.

CM: The background of all the videos is a kind of starry heaven or universe. What is the reference here?
MJH: As said before with regard to Instagram as a medium, one theme of the videos is time travelling. Sometimes when I see a person I feel like travelling back or forth in time. Some cosmic logic unfolds. We as humans are suspended in time between earth and heaven. The phone, though being a fascinating tool, stands and disrupts the harmony between earth and sky. This might sound cliché, but I truly hope that we humans come together to remember the stars. We have un-learned to look at the stars and to feel their power of one-ness and belonging. 

CM: Is this what you refer to with the image of “home” in several of the videos?
MJH: Yes. Looking at the stars bears some cosmic intelligence: We are just a tiny scratch on a massive chalk board. Once you accept this, you can always return home. “Home”, here, is an inner place where you are one with yourself and the universe. The videos are about these “homes”. What is the work you are putting into your time now to make your future time – here or elsewhere – beautiful? The stars offer spiritual and visual guidance here. It is a deep and quiet work, but I hope that we as a species can return back to it. 

CM: Apart from the images, sound bears an essential role within the videos. There is music, your voice-over, sometimes another voice, or just what I would call background-noises. What is their different meaning?
MJH: A question I am interested in is what language will be like in 200, 300 years? Language as we know it will not be the same anymore, developments such as Emojis are changing conversation to an incredible degree. People become uncertain on how to interpret words and sentences and language does no longer have the vessels it had. The film “Arrival” with Amy Adams is a wonderful investigation of this question. If words no longer convey the meaning, sound, movement and gesture receive a stronger significance. The sound in the videos refers to and explores this theme in a wider context.

CM: You once referred to your work as “an extension of a language that is known and yet still, being crafted and defined.” Is this also what the different elements of the videos – sound, image, voice – are about?
MJH: Exactly! And there it goes back to the non-linearity of humankind. Sometimes, we simply have no ability to understand. We should leave a greater space for non-understanding, for feeling. Artists get very close to it, via words, images. But in the end, you have to feel it.

CM: Epically put. For now, the videos are residing on your Instagram account. Are there any plans to exhibit the videos or bring them together physically at some point?
MJH: There are. The most beautiful thing in lockdown was to realize how much energy I usually put into other people’s projects. So, during the past year I was really able to concentrate on my own ideas. The plan for now is a three-fold itineration with a gallery-based event, a film and a life performance. I work together with the cinematographer Christopher Aoun and he really throws the ball back at me. I much rely on my improvisation abilities during my work, but for film you need a structure. So in this, it feels we are uniting our cosmic ideas.

CM: Sounds excitingly great! Coming back to your formation as classically trained dancer. Are there any links or references to it in your personal practice?
MJH: The Opera-world has definitely informed me! Its grandness and excitement… In a way you can regard my Instagram-account as one grand Opera: you can always go back and find something new in it.

Find more visuals in MJ Harper’s Instagram-account m.j.h.a.r.p.e.r.
The performance An Exercise in Balance can be revisited here.

A German translation of this interview was first published June 29, 2020, on gallerytalk.net.

1 thought on “The Extension of Language”

  1. […] M.J. Harper, one of the actors in the play, described Crocopazzo! as being “about family structures and the complexity of society [growing up] observing rules done by people we don’t know [and] without us necessarily agreeing.” Which rules do you perceive as particularly intruding or limiting? Do you see any way out of them?Sure. There is a way out of old and dated conservative structures but new rules and structures will come in their place. The rules are arbitrary. Family is all about codependency. And so there will always be some kind of hierarchy and structure the group must follow to be allowed to continue with the pack. Otherwise you will be left behind.  […]

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