Thomas Schunke – Portrait of a Performance Artist
By Liam Klenk
Thomas Schunke is a performance artist and filmmaker from Berlin, Germany. I met him in his home in Geneva, where we had a long chat about his life and work, creativity, the performing arts, and the future of performance. This portrait claims by no means to be complete. It is a moment in time, spent with an extraordinary artist.
Thomas studied art and film making in Berlin in the 80’s. He arrived in Geneva twenty-eight years ago, after living in Zurich, Rome, and Sicily for a while. At first, he found work in the vineyards around Geneva to keep himself afloat. Then, he quickly made connections in the art scene.
Back then, in the 90’s, there was a huge movement of house squatting within this wealthy city. Almost 2’500 houses were taken over. Within those squats, an off-scene of the arts and theater developed. Some of these houses even had their own theaters with regular independent performances.
The only theater that survived from this era of freedom and rebellion against social structures and norms is the Theatre du Galpon, close to the river Arve.
Over the years, Thomas has been engaged in all kinds of creative pursuits. He writes, films, paints, and develops his performances. In the 90ies he was also a musician for a while, as part of the punk band ‘Poesie und Krach’ (Poetry and Racket).
Thomas performs all over Switzerland, and sometimes in neighboring countries as well. In theater environments as well as in public spaces. He also teaches film at the Academy of the Arts in Geneva.
Every Tuesday, Thomas works for the Atelier Pilote, an atelier collective for artists with psychological problems. He explains to me that, often, art helps in unexpected ways. For example when one woman kept going into uncontrolled, loud rants, Thomas and the artists at the collective turned her rants into a choir which calmed her and at the same time morphed into an ever-more artistic performance. Sometimes, the psychological problems manifest too intensely to be solved by the creative pursuits of the group.
However, many times, art becomes an instrument of healing for them.
Performance vocale "Chant d'Argent" de la chorale d'Atelier Pilote (Dina Lichtenstein, Laurence Pilet et moi…) hier à 16h à Halle Nord. Attention, 6 minutes de noise vocale qui font comprendre que l'argent est le nerf de la guerre.Merci au public qui était composé de Cyril Verrier, Heike Fiedler, Helene Christe Acevedo, et quelques passants. Et aussi à Pascale Favre qui ne pourrait pas applaudir car elle filmait. C'est pour cela que les applaudissements sont un peu faibles…
Posted by Thomas Schunke on Wednesday, June 13, 2018
Thomas says, “With the years, I get more and more disappointed with theater. It is often too conventional. I crave seeing new ideas and approaches. My disappointment actually started quite a long time ago.”
“I used to be fascinated by theater, especially by the Brechtian epic theater and the alienation effect.”
“But then, in the 70’s, I went to see a Brecht play in the German town of Idar Oberstein. It was not what I expected. The play was tame and moved in well-trodden paths. The alienation effect concept wasn’t even attempted.”
“Ultimately, I don’t think plays and the alienation effect go together. Independent performance art and happenings are where we can be free to shift boundaries, to move, ask questions, and provoke.”
Thomas wants to involve the audience. He wants to spark reactions and see where they lead. He loves the unpredictability of his performances. Sometimes, audiences become very involved, sometimes not at all.
Thomas speaks about “Living Art.” And the institutional versus free forms of living art.
For him, this is what performance art is. It is life. It reflects life. And, by introducing art into our daily reality, we sometimes even change this reality.
One of his great inspirations is the Brazilian theater practitioner, theorist, and activist, Augusto Boal and his revolutionary approach to the interaction between actors and spectators. Another source of inspiration is the Spanish performance artist Esther Ferrer, who also questioned the traditional approach of performance arts.
“In a traditional performance venue, I often feel as if the spectators are taken hostage. Once they sit in the auditorium, no matter how uninteresting a part of the show or a monologue is, they have to suffer through it.”
“It’s hard to just get up and go out for a while. Sometimes, this can mean fifteen minutes or even longer of rather wanting to be somewhere else to come back later.”
Thomas recounts how, in his experience, the dynamic when he performs in a theater or art gallery is radically different from when he performs on the street.
In an official performance venue, people come with the expectation to be passive while others serve them with content. On the street, however, spectators are unprepared for their encounter with art.
Thus, their reactions as well as their level of involvement are spontaneous and often surprising.
Extraits de ma performance participative "Mon sapin nu" le 9 décembre aux Bains des Pâquis. L'installation du sapin nu évolue et le calendrier d'avent des Bains continue et ce soir c'est à Katia Orlandi qui ouvre sa cabine à 18h!!!
Posted by Thomas Schunke on Sunday, December 23, 2018
“I’ve started to collect a lot of stones that make sounds. I have hundreds of these sound-stones now. I play on them during some of my performances and I want the spectators to play on them, too. There was one performance in a theater in Bern. I tried my best to get people to participate. But no one did. No dancing, no playing the stones. Only a couple of theater technicians began to engage.”
“Then, I did the same performance at a roofing ceremony for a new building. You know how they always have a decorated tree on top? Instead, I was the tree.”
“I played the sound-stones. I danced. At first, I was a bit worried. Everyone looked rather serious and official. But then, all of a sudden, everyone started dancing with me. People were having fun. I had almost 100 stones with me and the spectators played on them for a long time.”
“But sometimes, interesting things can also happen at an official art space. It depends on the crowd. And if someone will take the lead, make an unexpected move.”
“I remember an exhibition. Cariouche. It was a two-month-installation. An open process. Every day, we collected the empty beer cans which people had left behind and fastened them to the ceiling. We called our installation the Orchestre des Canettes de Biere (Orchestra of the Beer Cans).”
“For the finissage, all we had to do was pull a thin rope, and the hundreds of beer cans we had collected and installed on the ceiling all tumbled down at once. The amazing thing was, people started to go crazy. Old ladies were dancing and stomping on cans, people were kicking cans around. Everyone went wild and just played with the hundreds of cans. It was total chaos. Beautiful.”
“You just initiate something with your art. But then it develops a life of its own. You don’t always have control.”
Geneva orients itself strongly on what happens in France. In May 2020, throughout France performance events under the motto Pas de Retour des l’Anormalité (No Return of the Abnormality) were held. The idea was to sensitize people to the fact that going back to the way things had been was not a desirable option. In the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown in Geneva, the PANCH Performance Art Network CH organized a cultural protest in Switzerland under that same motto.
Thomas organized his own protest and taped a “Quatre Metre Carre” for himself, a square 2x2m. Thomas had only just taped his square close to his home in the city center when the police came and fined him 750 Swiss Francs.
A week later, Thomas tried again. Went outside, taped a square and performed. This time it was no problem.
Interestingly, all creative initiatives came only from independent artists. The theater companies didn’t take any performance-related action in the current crisis.
Thomas is worried about the loss of physicality in theater caused by Covid-19 and how far it might go.
“A few weeks ago when the lockdown was lifted, I was able to do a performance for 50-60 people in the Bains des Paquis here in Geneva. Everybody danced in the end. I cried. Because, more than ever before, this performance showed me how precious and important the collective experience is for the arts.”
“Even without Covid-19, I notice a loss of physicality. When I teach my students at the art school, I notice how virtual they are. When I give a film assignment, everyone immediately turns towards their computer screens.”
“However, film lives from physicality, far more than we realize. It feels as if nowadays, the connection we should have to our bodies is interrupted. Everything now happens in the virtual world. So, how do you preserve physicality? Soul?”
“When I look at most theaters and shows, I don’t see much that deals with these issues. I don’t see much that is truly contemporary. The performance arts seem to not grow fast enough with the times.”
“And, look at the situation Covid-19 has created. The living arts are lethargic. Everyone seems to just be waiting for theater and shows to reopen. But why are they waiting? Why not take initiative, respond, adapt, and evolve? This is one of the greatest changes we’ve had to go through during our lifetimes. It is comparable to world wars.”
“My best experiences when watching performances in the last years were when space was treated differently. When it wasn’t just about stages and spectators.”
“Currently, I am trying to respond to our changed environment. There is a chance there, for growth, for new ways of expression, for physicality despite distance. Have you ever noticed the tree stumps in parks? I have currently proposed a project with Atelier Pilote. The name is Souche (Stump). I hope we’ll get the funding for it. Within this project, we will use each stump as a stage. Because they do look like little stages. Each stump will be a stage for a solo performance.”
Le virus du jogging a augmenté à Genève en même temps que le Covid-19. Chaque jour je vois depuis mon balcon des nouveaux cas qui font du jogging sur la Plaine en pleine journée. Pourtant c’est comme ça qu’on attrape le virus du jogging, en allant dehors! Et du coup, moi – qui fais jamais du jogging, ce n’est pas bon pour la santé d’un fumeur de faire du jogging! – je crois je me suis fait contaminer hier en traversant la Plaine en vélo. Voilà, j’ai le virus, je le sentais déjà ce matin, je voulais vraiment faire du jogging. Mais en aucun cas je vais le faire dehors pour protéger ceux qui ne font pas encore du jogging. Et en plus comme fumeur à un moment ou un autre je vais commencer à tousser en faisant du jogging et les autres joggeurs vont penser que j’ai en plus attrapé le Corona virus! C’est pour cela que j’ai eu l’idée de faire du jogging à la maison. Et j’ai combiné alors l’utilité et la fitness-détente à l’âge du confinement en faisant du jogging sur le chemin pour aller à la cave où se trouve la machine à laver collective. Aller – retour, ça m’a fait 1 minute 51 secondes du jogging, quand même extrême genre course en montagne. Bizarrement j’étais plus rapide en montant, mais je crois que c’est parce que j’ai perdu du temps car un con avait ouvert la porte d’abri à la cave, du coup ça bloquait. Et je dois vraiment améliorer ma technique avec les interrupteurs et l’ouverture de la porte, j’ai perdu beaucoup des secondes précieuse, j’ai fait des conneries. Mais c’était mon premier jogging à la maison et je vais m’améliorer. On a le temps…Par contre, je ne sais pas si de faire du jogging comme ça à la maison correspond à la sécurité sanitaire. A demander aux manitous de la médecine…Mais au moins je n’ajoute pas encore à la tempête des postillons des joggeurs sur la Plaine.
Posted by Thomas Schunke on Tuesday, March 24, 2020
More from Liam Klenk:
Join TheatreArtLife to access unlimited articles, our global career center, discussion forums, and professional development resource guide. Your investment will help us continue to ignite connections across the globe in live entertainment and build this community for industry professionals. Learn more about our subscription plans.
Love to write or have something to say? Become a contributor with TheatreArtLife. Join our community of industry leaders working in artistic, creative, and technical roles across the globe. Visit our CONTRIBUTE page to learn more or submit an article.