I met with Al Paldrok to talk about the performance art group and school, Non Grata, of which he is a founding member. The group, or collective, began as a school in Parnu, Estonia, a seaside town 130 kilometers from Tallinn, near the Latvian border. The school opened in 1998, largely in response to the capital-driven art that was proliferating in the country at the time. In the immediate post-Soviet period, performance art, especially, became extremely popular as an index of the newfound freedoms that independence and democracy had to offer. Banks and corporations would hire artists to create performance at their events, or would sponsor performance pieces, in an effort to look contemporary and progressive. Al and the artists who joined him found this repugnant, and something that went against the spirit of art.
When the Non Grata Academy was founded, it had no accreditation, and everything was built from the ground up. The staff and students lived there, and did everything themselves, including cooking and cleaning. The aim was to have an artistic space where the artists could be in the moment, in the process of creation, all the time. Working as a collective, they stressed anonymity – also a reaction to the new phenomenon of the artistic celebrity and fame that came with success. The artists either remained anonymous or used pseudonyms, to avoid attribution. The school also takes a non-hierarchical approach, with the teachers doing the exercises alongside the students – forcing them to challenge themselves as well. This approach reminded me of that take by Oskar Hansen in his design studio in Poland in the 1960s and 1970s, which also inspired a new generation of performance artists, but in Poland.
The performances that the group create are difficult, if not impossible to comprehend without having experienced them in person. In this way their work is the ultimate performance, in that a simple photograph or video cannot convey it in its entirety.
While the performances appear chaotic – with a variety of costumes used, in addition to smoke, loud music, bullhorns, and at times fire – it is a controlled chaos. Everything is carefully planned, but spontaneity is also planned for. It is never known how the crowd will react, and the performers must be ready to respond to that, as well. A recent performance entitled Force Majeure involves burning and destroying a car. That said, when the group engage in their long-durational collective performances, there are very strict rules – no romantic relationships, no alcohol or drug use, and no mental or physical violence. These parameters are necessary in order to create a free and open atmosphere that will allow for complete and pure creativity.
Eventually, the Non Grata school moved to Tallinn, when it was incorporated into the Estonian Art Academy. Al insists that despite their institutionalization, nothing about the approach changed – the only difference was that they sent their bills to the academy.
It may be convenient to compare Non Grata performances to those of the Viennese Actionists, in their wild, unabashed and visceral approach to performance, however Al believes this may only have been true in the early days, when students found books about the Actionists and perhaps copied some of their motifs. Indeed, Non Grata takes those performances to a completely new level, involving a variety of different props, actions and events. In fact, the performances are meant to engage the audience so much so that they do not really know whether they are part of the crowd or part of the performance.
With regard to the interpretation of their performances they are also very open. Al insists that you don’t necessarily need to understand the performances, but can just feel them. They even often refuse to give a title in the beginning, to avoid unnecessary and limiting associations.