Artereal Gallery is excited to present QUEST, an endurance performance by Sydney based artist noula diamantopoulos.
The challenging format of this performance belies the answer driven society in which we live today. By deliberately focusing on the question rather than the answer, the performance forces participants to stop, pause and reflect – a process which in many instances leads individuals to the realisation that the initial question with which they began, is not in fact, the real question which lies at the heart of the matter after all.As a performance, QUEST is essentially an interactive and collaborative social project or experiment focused on community involvement and engagement. Drawing on the ideas behind relational aesthetics, the outcome of noula’s performance is the creation of a social environment which brings people together to participate in a shared activity (or QUEST). The artwork is not about an encounter between the viewer and a static art object, but is instead an encounter between the artist and audience.
Subverting the commonly held concept that the stories or answers behind an artwork can be found within the work itself, the focus here is fixated on the performance and the participant. Rather than claiming to hold all the answers, the artist concentrates instead on the idea that the answers to all of our questions lie within ourselves. We are the source of our own answers.Marked by its open-endedness, the performance becomes about providing participants with new ways of thinking, and in particular, a new way of viewing the questions that arise in our life. In this sense, through the exchange of information, the artist gives the audience access to powerful tools which provide them with the means by which to change their world.
Artist interview with noula diamantopoulos
How did QUEST begin?
QUEST began as an idea that life and art are one, and because I am also a coach – (in coaching you ask lots of questions) the curiosity became whether that could be expressed in a performance. And where would that take us…? Without it even being polished as an idea? Prior to that, it was the idea that questions are more powerful than answers – a concept that has been coming up for me for at least a decade in programs that I run about how to create through the use of empowering questions.
What would you say are the conceptual ideas behind QUEST ?
The conceptual ideas behind this work are to do with the assumptions that we make all too often in a conversation – without exploring what it really is the person is asking when they do raise a question. There’s no exploration of the question. I find that odd. Part of it is that when we question someone else’s question – for many of us, it makes us feel that we are not smart. Because ‘smart’ means that you know the answer.
So do you think that this happens when our ego steps in?
I think the problem comes from people’s idea of what ‘intelligence’ is. And if intelligence means having answers, then the last thing that you want to do is ask a question. It is the same thing with children in the classroom. They often don’t ask a question because they believe it will look as though they are not smart. Where as in reality, a question is the root of all curiosity! Why does a rainbow have seven colours? Questions like that are what propels scientific enquiry forwards.
As a psychotherapist, how do you think your psychotherapy background and psychotherapy studies inform QUEST ?
Deeply. The reason is that in the beginning, QUEST was simply just a fun thing to do, just a conversation of questions. And I remember that when I first started doing it, (and they still are, it’s not like they’re not a fun thing to do, but they had that attitude to them), it was just about having some fun. And in having fun, with having that kind of intention, it meant that my responses were somewhat funny, because that was the space I had in mind. “This is fun, I’ve got a funny response for this one.” Very quickly though, as questions began to repeat themselves, I realised that I wasn’t honouring a process, so psychotherapeutically what it meant, was that I felt that I wasn’t honouring the psyche of the other person.
And at the same time I wasn’t honouring my own. So then in a very short period of time, I went into a deeper space, and each QUEST then took much longer to complete. It was no longer just a quick exercise of exchanging questions. It was about sitting with that question and really connecting with that question, in a way that is accepting of the fact that I may not fully understand the question – until I finally begin to connect with it. And then to wait until the response comes – and many, many times I am surprised by what comes up. And that kind of approach, from a psychotherapeutic perspective means that there is something else that is going on… What this process is actually doing is developing both people’s level of awareness and also developing a certain level of intimacy in a very short period of time.
How do you think that this work, QUEST, fits into the context of contemporary performance art and the ideas behind relational aesthetics?
That’s a good question! I have to reflect on that one for a moment. ‘Relational aesthetics’ as a concept is about how we connect with each other. And I think QUEST is a beautiful example of how we can connect with each other in a significant manner… I’m not even going to suggest ‘in a deep and meaningful manner’, because Questing can also be light-hearted in that way – through a reflective process it can become both light-hearted and meaningful. So how does it compare…? For me, you can spend a few minutes connecting with the person and asking questions like ‘how are you’, ‘what do you do’, and this is like an introduction to somebody… nothing else much happens. When you’re Questing though – in that same period of time which you would normally spend when you are meeting a new person for the first time, when you are asking all those kind of questions and are trying to find a connection, like for example, ‘what do you do for a living?’, ‘where do you come from?’, ‘oh yes I have a third uncle, he’s not alive anymore but he came from there…’ – we are trying to make connections. I think QUEST also does this within about six questions – at least that has been the pattern so far. Within six questions we realise that we have the same things on our minds… we are sharing the same thoughts.
So universal concerns come up repeatedly?
Universal concerns, that’s right. And that fact that neither of us are dictating what the answer is, neither our answer, or suggesting what your answer should be – there are no answers, it is a reflection of what is on my mind and what is on the participants mind. That is a very deep connection… And because the voice is suppressed, it really highlights the written question for you. When you write a question down, you have actually created something, because it now physically exists on the paper. And it is handed over to somebody else, to then reflect upon. And then that person, who then picks up that question and then reflects on it, has to make that question their own, because they can’t say ‘what do you mean by this?’. They cannot speak. So they have to decide for themselves, they have to make sense of that question themselves, and then once they do, they respond to you with another question. And so it goes on…
So do people surprise you with their questions?
The two most common questions I get are ‘how are you today?’ or ‘how are you feeling today?’ – something along those lines, and the other one is ‘what is the meaning of life?’ (Laughs).
So it pretty much ranges from one extreme to the other!
Yes, pretty much. The first one suggests to me pretty much that they are uncertain about how to begin a QUEST, so they ask about me. The next one feels to me like they are thinking ‘okay, we only have 10 questions, 5 each, so I’m going to get straight to the point’.
What is the most challenging question you have been asked? Have there been any questions that have really challenged you?
There are some questions that take me longer to sit with than others. And in that respect, I guess that would be the closest thing I would consider to a challenge. Maybe it’s because I resonate with that question, and there’s a personal journey associated with that, and so I have to move away from my personal experience of that question and come back to the question itself. Without any of my own personal attachment to it. That might be one of the reasons why a question might take me longer to sit with. Apart from that, I guess there’s one other challenge, when people come to QUEST and they experience extreme emotions – sometimes people are laughing a lot or crying. And sometimes they just burst into tears. And that I find very hard… especially because I’m doing an endurance QUEST, so I can’t break my endurance, but I need to ensure that I always have somebody close by who is able to manage that situation for me…
I find that part of the performance really interesting and that was going to be my next question. How does it make you feel when people walk away in tears or when they are obviously emotionally affected by QUEST, how do you emotionally respond to that? Does it cause an emotional reaction for you personally?
Yes definitely. I mean it’s not that I want to go and fix everything or make everything better or anything like that. But I do want to let the other person know that everything that they’re experiencing is perfect for them in that moment. And that there is nothing wrong with what they are feeling.
So I guess you are trying to show them a form of acceptance…
Yes, that’s exactly right. They can witness that through the questions that I give them as responses to their own questions. However I personally do not want people to just walk out of QUEST in that way, in that state – because they are in an altered state. There is, from my perspective, a level of responsibility and a level of care which I need to provide. So that they are not just left to walk away in that state. So I make sure I have wonderful people who work with me… who I’ve trained to take care of that situation.
That’s really interesting, because I’ve always thought that there is in a sense, a sort of responsibility or pressure attached to the role that you play in QUEST. And you witness this responsibility immediately when you watch the performance and see the way in which people really quickly place their trust in you. You almost become like a spiritual guide or a therapist throughout the process of the performance… And I guess that this is something you are obviously very aware of and which you take quite seriously.
Yes, I am very aware of this. For example, with some of the questions that people raise, it is very clear to me they are seeking answers. And they will cycle around the same questions because I am not giving any answers… Also, the responses I give them are not the psycho-babble type of responses they seem to expect – it is not about ‘why don’t you trust the present moment’ type questions, it’s not like that at all. It is more about whatever I’m called in that moment to reflect upon – that is what I respond with. And I don’t even know what this response is going to mean for them. So my responsibility is just to be real in that moment.
As you know, I have ‘Quested’ with you many times. But I am interested to know what the experience is like from your perspective – as the person on the other end of the QUEST? I mean you’re never asking the first question… So what do you feel personally throughout the whole process? Does it become emotional for you? Do you find that you get something out of it on a personal or emotional level?
Very much so. I find that it’s your classical situation where the teacher is also the student. And the student is also the teacher. There are dual roles without a doubt. There are times where I have sat with people in a QUEST and both of us have had tears rolling down our cheeks…