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The Performance Art Pioneer in North America’s Barren Heart

Freya Björg Olafson makes work in isolation that speaks to audiences around the world.

Take everything you know about genres, artistic labels, tidy comparative boxes and academic jargon and please throw it into the nearest garbage. Balancing on the edge of definable terminology wavers Freya Björg Olafson, an interdisciplinary artist who is pioneering a creative career all her own.

Trained in classical ballet, contemporary dance, and with a Masters of Fine Art in New Media from the Transart Institute, Donau Universität Krems in Austria, Olafson has structured a practice combining film, sound, movement and installation—or something to that effect.

Based in the barren heart of North America (aka Winnipeg, Canada), Olafson travels far and wide to exhibit her work. It’s both a perk of the job and a necessity in order to get her work seen, as well as connect with new artistic communities. Isolation can be a great incubator for creation but also as the tendency to stifle career growth.

“I often take travel as a time to reassess or redefine, to be open to how people perceive you or respond to you at first go,” Olafson said. “It’s interesting to navigate. But it can also be very destabilizing at times too.”

Living a nomadic lifestyle has also found its way into Olafson’s production process, where being precious about details isn’t an option. HYPER_, for example is Olafson’s most gear-specific piece and it’s still relatively easy to transport. It requires a black box theatre, 160 light fixtures, glow-in-the-dark aerosol paint, black lights, boxes of 3D glasses and projections on a massive scrim. Touring the work has allowed Olafson to hone in on what elements are essential and what can be adapted while still keeping the trippy, expansive feel of the work.

Re-staging a piece can be challenging due to the fact that most theatres and venues aren’t equipped to show interdisciplinary work, or media arts, especially in regards to Olafson’s work that plays with the finicky elements of perspective, visual trickery and illusion.

Minor adjustments also allow the piece to live a particular away in a particular venue, retaining some of that ephemeral performance magic.

“With a few earlier pieces I made, I honestly didn’t think that the work would end up going on the road, but how I could reset the piece if I was invited to do it again was on my mind,” Olafson said. “I also really enjoy rethinking and reformatting work to fit the context you might be entering into.”

Whether it’s screenings of her film work at White Box | SanctionedArray in New York, physical performances at the Bauhaus Archiv in Berlin, panel discussions at Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival in Chicago, residencies at Medea Electronique in Greece or acting as advisor and confidante for female artists through Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art, Olafson has turned adaptability and accessibility into an art itself.

Although she’s universally recognized as a pioneer in her field, Olafson explains that she still encounters the struggle of being a female artist make art.

“In terms of interpretation, there have been a few times where people have assumed that Hugh [Conacher, lighting designer] has done all of the video because I’m a woman on the stage,” Olafson said. “Although he is collaborative and is always inevitably part of the conversation of the work, it can sometimes get interpreted with that gender lens.”

This assumption is sadly nothing new when dealing with a performance onstage along with technical, behind-the-scenes work. In certain cases, Olafson will find herself listing each specific role she played in the production, even down to Isadora software programming. Other times she just laughs it off and keeps on moving.

“I feel like sometimes working interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, there is room for more confusion because we all just try to understand what the parameters of how a form or a discipline makes work or presents work,” Olafson said.

Creating art in an undefined genre allows Olafson to fully explore new audiences that identify with her work. She pinpoints a group called Hong Kong Exile as a recent influence. They blend dance, theatre, new media and composition into a “a visual massage”.

“I super appreciate work that subverts or challenges what your expectations are of the genre or what your perceived feelings about what the genre is,” Olafson said. “Or work that navigates the concerns of the space that it’s in, beyond just going and breaking the fourth wall. I appreciate when work has a kind of inquisitive approach that way.”

Being a witness to this involved approach to performance is engaging and allows the viewer to feel connected in a way that some live performance misses or blocks. In her works AVATAR and HYPER_, Olafson utilizes a kind of live video collage, a layering found footage or actively created imagery that pulls the audience in with vacuum-like suction. If watching Bob Ross paint happy little landscapes is marvellously delightful to you, then imagine that bizarre wonderment in Technicolor through a kaleidoscope. Crazy, right?

Olafson’s fascination with live video began while attending a residency in Montréal. Working with her computer’s built-in webcam and finding video tools and open source software, she began exploring how other individuals use their personal cameras and it inevitably siphoned into her work.

“I’m keen on working with the methodology of digital collage and working with content of today,” Olafson explains of her process. “I’m interested in our relationship to technology, how we are engaging with it as people in our verbal communications and physical communications, how it is defining the way we see ourselves and the way we present ourselves to others, getting into the bigger frame of identity.”

This massive wormhole finds Olafson scrounging the internet for hours, floating in the black abyss of the world wide web. For HYPER_, Olafson swam through this realm for an especially long time, playing with potentially kitschy elements and developing a concept beyond purely visual aesthetic.

“There was a worry for me in researching the materials for a long time and wondering how I would transcend that,” Olafson said. “How do I find deeper meaning and substance through out the work both for those witnessing the work and for myself as a performer.”

Olafson describes HYPER_ as “visual chapters and shifts in studies on ontology”, developed out of a cerebral process with a slow creative build. As a creator making bold, undefinable work in a digital age of -isms and -cores, the zeitgeist and nebulous identity of Olafson’s performance being appears somehow more poignant.

“As a painter you can step back from your work and have it stand as it was when it was made,” Olafson said. “In the live performance, there is always this act that your body is transforming or has transformed, but I appreciate and respect that my works were made in a certain time period, where certain values and decisions I made reflect what it became. I’ve often ended up fighting the transformation of a work.”

Freya Björg Olafson’s online portfolio

HYPER_ at Canada Dance Festival - Trailer 2016 from Freya Olafson on Vimeo.

Photos by Hugh Conacher and Marc J. Chalifoux

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