Katayoun Jalilipour: Bringing Performance Art To Remote Audiences During The Pandemic
Katayoun Jalilipour is a writer, performer and lecturer that knows all about putting on a performance. A seasoned multidisciplinary artist, their art is a nuanced exploration of their Iranian identity, their sexuality and life experiences in an often humorous fashion.
Interview by Anusha Persson
In a third lockdown, without a firm start date for reopening from the pandemic, it is clear to see how badly the arts industry has been affected. With many venues struggling without an audience and the future of smaller performance venues being a question on everyone’s minds, performers across the country have been finding new ways of sharing their art – principally, making use of the digital space.
We sat down with Katayoun to discuss the complexities of being a performance artist when all the venues are shut. Whether it is readjusting your attitudes to live audience reaction, finding a new way to replicate the adrenaline-infused moment before a punchline, or reworking new ways to explore your personal trauma with someone watching through a screen, artists are taking on the challenge of reinventing what it means to perform.
Anusha Persson: How would you describe your work?
Katayoun Jalilipour: I’m a performance artist, visual artist, lecturer and writer. A lot of my work has been kind of focused on queerness and I make quite a lot of erotic art focused on my sexuality and desires. But it has looked different throughout the years.
I felt my work used to be quite a lot more trauma based. And at the moment I’m trying to make work that makes me feel good. So I feel I’m in a bit of a limbo where I feel I can’t really give a straightforward answer to why I do what I do. But I think themes that have always been part of my creativity are sexuality and queerness. And comedy is a big part of it, even if it is sometimes too dark.
I guess another important part of my background is that I’m Iranian. I moved [to the UK] when I was 13 [and] I think a lot of my work is inspired by growing up in Iran. A lot of non-traditional art was always censored [in Iran], and it was always something that felt very radical, and there’s this culture of having to hide things. And then suddenly, moving here, I didn’t have to hide anything.
AP: Did growing up in Iran and moving here at 13 affect how you viewed becoming an artist?
KJ: Yeah, so my mum’s an artist as well and art has always been a big part of my growing up. But I think there’s always a certain migrant mentality around studying art. It felt like a rebellious thing to do, even though my parents were supportive of it. And there’s obviously that thing of there’s so much uncertainty with art you never know where you’re going to end up? I think I have this rebellious spirit of “I’m going to do what I want”, but I think all of that has a lot of influence on why I make what I make. It’s that sort of thing where, if you’re not allowed to access a certain thing, and then you are, then that’s all you think about, all you want to do because you were never allowed to have access to that.
“When I was a student, I would do a lot of work that was very trauma based, and then just not realise how bad that was for my mental health because making art can be therapeutic, but I think you also need actual therapy alongside it”
AP: Have you found yourself developing any kind of rituals, creative or not, that help focus your thinking?
KJ: I’m going on a lot of walks at the moment, which really helps. And it’s something I definitely didn’t do before. I’m a very indoorsy person, but my girlfriend loves walking, and that’s actually been really helpful. I think it’s been helping with practising stillness and thinking about how not everything needs to have a point, like walking.
And also, I recently deleted my Instagram, which I’ve been trying to do for ages, and it has been really good. I think I just want to change the mentality that says, “I’m going to make some art and then think about what it’s going to look like on Instagram”. I think that is toxic. I found myself, for example, if I was doing an illustration, automatically thinking about what it was going to look like on Instagram. I realised that it is something I only picked up four or five years ago and before that I had so much more freedom to just make whatever I wanted. I want to change that mentality and make things without thinking about how I’m going to share it and who’s going to see it and what it’s going to look like on someone’s phone because I don’t want to make art for people’s phones.
AP: As a performance artist with experience of running queer nights, how do you feel about the future of queer night and queer enjoyment?
KJ: Honestly, I have no idea. I’m hoping that the pandemic is showing people it all has to be more accessible. What I’m hoping is that people will come back and remember all the different ways that they made things more accessible. You know, financially, but also physically. So many of our venues are not wheelchair accessible and etc.
AP: A lot of your art is very personal and you talk about the importance of your identity through it. Do you ever find yourself needing to set creative boundaries or adopting personas?
KJ: I think it’s something I’m learning more and more about. When I was a student, I would do a lot of work that was very trauma based, and then just not realise how bad that was for my mental health because making art can be therapeutic, but I think you also need actual therapy alongside it, because if not, you can re-traumatise yourself. And I think that’s something I didn’t realise then. Something that I try to talk about a lot in my teaching is boundaries and setting boundaries as a performer because I think we’re so fascinated by art that pushes boundaries, but you need some boundaries to be able to push, otherwise it can become dangerous and not in a good way.
AP: When I was doing my research, I saw that you’ve been working on a show that combines sci-fi and fantasy with questions of lesbian erasure. I thought that was so interesting because sci-fi and fantasy always seem not hugely forward thinking. I was wondering if you could talk us through your use of the sci-fi lens and how this came about.
KJ: Growing up I was not interested in sci-fi, I thought it was only for boys. But recently I’ve found some really interesting queer and feminist sci-fi references that got me to think about science fiction in a really different way. I’m definitely no expert on sci-fi, but in Mystical Femmes, my collaboration with Tallulah Haddon, we are really interested in lesbian erasure and [aim to show that] there are two sides to it. I think there’s erasing queer women from history as if they are a myth basically, kind of like science fiction, but the other side of it is in our own communities, where you feel like you can’t call yourself a lesbian for certain reasons. And I’m personally really interested in the non-binary lesbian identity, which is something a few people have been talking about. I think the history of lesbianism is a lot more fluid than we’re led to think. There were so many people that identified as lesbians and dykes, who were gender fluid, and used various pronouns and gender expressions, and I think we look at lesbianism as quite a binary thing or a solid thing when it doesn’t have to be. And in Mystical Femmes we want to challenge that.
AP: How do you find performing online as a performance artist? Do you find it’s really that different when you don’t have an audience of 50 people sitting in front of you?
KJ: It’s definitely challenging. It’s also fun and we’re still getting the hang of it. It is different because a lot of our work with Mystical Femmes is funny and it’s challenging when you don’t have a live audience that you can challenge or get an immediate reaction from in the same way. But it has also opened room for a lot of new possibilities and trying a lot of new things that you can’t do live. So it’s just about experimenting at this point and playing with it. But I think it’s a good challenge.
AP: If people were to come away from seeing your art, is there any one conversation you really want to have sparked?
KJ: I think it depends on the work I’m doing. I’m making so many different things at the moment. I think I used to be a lot more focused on what people take away from my work, but actually I’m trying to step away from that and get a new perspective. I think as an artist, if you’re too concerned about what people are going to immediately think about your work, then you might forget about your own point of view and what matters to you. But obviously it’s impossible to not think about it.
But I think, because the subjects of my work are often so personal and explore my own experiences of gender, sexuality and race, the most important thing is when an audience member tells me that they found my work relatable, or if they say that my work made them think differently and consider a different point of view.
Katayoun has recently been awarded the Katherine Araniello Bursary and the Jerwood Bursary for their upcoming work. Keep an eye on the Mystical Femmes Instagram and Katayoun’s website to stay up to date with their latest projects.