Interview with Isabel Lewis

Posted on 7 October 2014 by Liverpool Biennial

Berlin-based Isabel Lewis hopes to bring all the senses together in her unique blend of performance, hospitality, dancing, and DJing, whilst blurring traditional boundaries between audience and artist. Following her hosted 'occasion' in Liverpool's Sefton Park Palm House, we caught up with Isabel to learn more about the thinking behind her events and to find out what audiences can expect at Frieze London, where the artist is headed to next.

Hi Isabel, could you please introduce yourself and what you do?

I am an artist working with a format that I call ‘hosted occasions’. At these events, audiences can expect to enter a decorated space that addresses all five of the senses; so there is a smell design for the space, as well as a bite to eat, something to drink, conversation, dancing, speaking, singing and music.

How is that different to a normal performance that you would encounter in a theatre or in an art gallery?

For me, the nice thing about the hosted occasion is that it connotes a social environment. The word ‘occasion’ makes us think of social events in the home, such as a dinner party for example, so the name already has this implication of sociality. 

"With the occasion, my hope is to try to address all of the senses and lower the dominance of the visual"

The occasion has the liberalism of the exhibition format, because people can come and go as they please, which is very different to the theatre format where there is a clear start and end time and it's socially awkward if you get up to leave in the middle! So there is this openness to it, but it also has theatrical elements; moments that are crafted in time with dance and music, which come out of a theatre tradition, which is also my background. What I think is most different from the theatre or exhibition format is that for both of those, the visual is the most dominant sense. With the occasion, my hope is to try to address all of the senses and lower the dominance of the visual.



Isabel Lewis in front of Sefton Park Palm House, Liverpool

What drew you to the Palm House here in Liverpool, and what makes it so suitable for this Occasion?

In all other occasions that I have hosted, I have always loved working with plants as part of the decoration to create this inviting and welcoming space. I was brought up in Florida and the Caribbean, so tropical plants are very attractive and enticing to me; it was quite a shock to find this palm house here in the middle of Liverpool! I connected to the space and felt at home right away because I believe that plants also bring this sense of life and wellbeing, and a certain vibration to a space, which is why I decided this was the perfect venue.

How will your occasion in Liverpool differ from what audiences can expect at Frieze London next week and the venues you have chosen there?

The Frieze occasions will be quite different – they are in the centre of London in two spaces, one being the Old Selfridges Hotel, which is now derelict and has this huge, concrete, brutalist architecture. It is going to be a fun and interesting challenge to work with this venue and try to make the space feel warm and inviting. The Frieze occasions will have a certain grit compared to here in the Palm House where you have the beautiful white architecture and glass; Frieze will have a darker, more nightlife kind of feel that will suit London better I think.

"My main critique of the exhibition format inside galleries and museums is the sterility and visual dominance"

Depending on where I am, what city I am in, each occasion takes on its own character  depending on the architecture of the place and the vibes of the people. It’s a cliché but I think that the friendliness of the Liverpool people and their generosity really added to the occasion here, because there was such a willingness to converse and to interact!

You aim to engage the five senses – why do you feel this is important for the overall experience and do you think this is something other artists should do more?

I think engaging the sense of smell is fascinating. As an artist, I have always worked with the body through my background in dance, and I find that smell is the bodily sense that enters the subconscious faster than any of the others; it is very powerful and I think it really connects you to yourself when you smell something and recognise that somehow your whole being is affected. Smell is really interesting to work with and the occasion format is the first time that I have been able to do this, which is something I've dreamed of for years!

I’m working with a Norweigan chemist, smell researcher and artist named Sissel Tolaas, who is winning the chemist of the year award this year which is very exciting. Over the course of the year through discussions together we have created three smells for the occasion. In modern life we mainly rely on sound and sight, so by bringing in other senses, such as scent, and touch through dancing, plants and furniture, the awareness of the body becomes so much richer. When the visual sense is primarily engaged I think the overall experience is heady, more intellectual and of the mind, but once you start to bring in the other senses it becomes a much more complete bodily experience.

Should other artists do it? Why not! It would be interesting to see more work that engages the other senses. My main critique of the exhibition format inside galleries and museums is the sterility and visual dominance, although galleries have brought into being great things such as liberalism, where the opening hours allow people to visit and experience things in their own time and at their own pace.



An Occasion hosted by Isabel Lewis on 30 September 2014

How did you go about creating these smells?

Smells can connote different things, so some play with ideas of intellectual culture, reason, rationality and logic and other smells use more of an idea of a bodily culture, which could remind people of a club or a party; the place where people engage most with the body. We played with these ideas as well as with notions of the garden, as the occasion format takes a lot of cues from garden design.

You have a background in dance – is that something that always features quite heavily in your work?

Yes, definitely. I have always felt that dance is a wonderful place to mix these modalities that are often kept apart in western culture. I have never felt that philosophy or the body were such separate ideas or practices and I feel that dance is a good place to explore mixing these modes. Dancing is a big part of what I do, how I live and how I experience the world. I am classically trained as a dancer in ballet, modern dance and more experimental dance forms but I am more interested in what I call 'social dances' of today (and any age). The occasion works with the social dances of the now, so dances you would see in a club, or a music video. It is interesting to me that these dances that are a part of our daily life don’t come out of a tradition of specific training, but are somehow part of our culture and habitus, and a way of expressing ourselves.

What elements of our culture, or other artists influence your work?

There are so many kinds of influences! From garden design, to literature and philosophy, to hip hop music which is a massive inspiration for me. There's electronic music, noise bands – it’s hard to say where I locate inspiration, but I do have a real interest in identifying what the bodily attitude of the current moment we live in is, so I try and find that through the lens of different fields, through fashion or dancing, or popular music.

"I have never felt that philosophy or the body were such separate ideas or practices. Dancing is a big part of what I do, how I live and how I experience the world"

Can you tell us about your performance collective LEWIS FOREVER?

This is interesting because they are my family, but we don’t operate so much as a collective any more, although we are very much in contact. This was a project that we had for a couple of years which included myself, my young brother George Lewis Jr. (frontman of the band Twinshadow), and my sisters Ligia and Sarah Lewis. We were all missing each other living in different parts of the world, so we decided to try and figure out ways of working together to pay for our being together, but it gets tricky when you can’t let go of these childhood patterns of power and hierarchies. We are all such different kinds of artists, and individuals, that collaborating became difficult and we decided it was best to be family rather than co-workers.

What is your relationship with technology, and how does it sit with your work and interest in nature?

I definitely use technology, and it is very much part of the occasion. I try not to make such clear divisions in my own thinking between human and nature, or nature and technology, because I find that these things are more complex as categories, being networked and intertwined. So I think that the occasion works with that in a way: it has all of these elements and if you wanted to analyse it using the learned tools of categorisation and science then you could, but it would be false to make these distinctions. I don’t think this is an accurate way of looking at it – it’s more of an interconnected network of relations, to the point they are so webbed that you cant make a distinction.

Are there manifestations of your work online?

I tend to keep my work offline because the work itself has to address all of these different senses. If one day technology develops to the point where you can experience these senses digitally, then maybe I would consider it! I avoid it at the moment, however, as I think the experience is more powerful when complete.

Do you often involve other people as collaborators in your performances? At the Palm House you involved Liverpool Biennial volunteers.

It’s actually the first time - I have been testing it out here! The interesting thing about the occasion format, is that I am the single host, but the work is not the work without the social interactions and the energies of the public, making them as much a part of the occasion as I am. So through a theatrical lens it could be interpreted as a solo performance, but this doesn’t really translate in the occasion format. This is the first time I am participating directly with people from the city, which I have been very excited about.

What is next for you as an artist?

I hope to continue developing the occasion format as I think there are lots of kinds of social situations to be explored, and each occasion is different from the next. I do have two ideas cooking: I am really interested at the moment in couples dancing, which is something I never was before. I have been researching this particular dance called kizomba which is from  Angola, a former Portuguese colony in Africa, and it’s a very beautiful, very slow, sensual dance between a man and a woman – I’m not sure where that’s going yet though! The other thing I'm doing is working with a group of dancers called Fan Club, based in Denmark, which is a group made up of four women. I am exploring doing an occasion where I pass on to them these strategies of hosting I have been developing and for the first time step out of the occasion, and see where it develops in other people’s hands.

Isabel Lewis hosts a series of occasions as part of Frieze Projects in London on 14-15 October 2014. Find out more

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