Almost a year ago, on a crisp autumn night in Berlin, the glazed-over windows of Kwadrant gallery greeted me on my way to see Elana Katz’s performance piece entitled V. People outside were standing on the window ledges on tiptoes, craning to get a glimpse inside. When I drew open the door, a flood of blue light poured into my eyes—phones on camera mode became beacons of arrival, small screens zooming in on a stark white cube anchored to a jet-black-colored floor. I drifted through the crowded room to a point where I could see the artist, on the floor with a white Philips iron in hand. Three perfectly pressed white pillows rested on the ground at her side; three stainless-steel mechanical timers ticked as steam escaped the iron’s surface.
V is for victory.
V is for violence.
V is for the void that fills the space between.
—Part of Katz’s artist’s statement for V
Berlin-based, U.S.-born conceptual artist Elana Katz challenges society to look at the ways physical, psychological, and social violence are manifested across different spheres. Her pieces and performances address the internal (emotional) and external landscapes (the body and geographical locations) where trauma is perpetuated by “reactivating” locations where violence has been integrated into the local psyche and individual narratives.
This month and into October, Defibrillator Gallery is hosting Katz for a three-week artist-in-residence program continuing her interrogations of violence. In addition to supporting Katz as she produces two new performance art pieces, the gallery is screening her 2018 digital film Running on Empty (61 min.) along with “relics” of another work.
Performance art can be seen as a holistic practice—ritual meets science to create a third form that lives outside of or parallel to normal constructions of space and time. As I began to follow Katz’s work, I started to wonder: Can these projects become a platform or catalyst for communities with erased histories of violence to alchemize their pasts in order to reclaim their present?
V was the final installment of an exhibition by Katz called “[F]acts of Violence,” a collection of works exploring the consequences of physical, social, and psychological violence and their relationship to memory and the manifestations of it. The result of seven years she spent in the Balkans investigating erased histories, memories, and societal voids, the works also grew out of Katz’s fascination with psychoanalysis. Her film Running on Empty in particular acts as a meditation on Freud’s theory that trauma causes the recipient to fall into a state of repetition that ultimately replaces the original memory. Basically, the abused are unconsciously destined to become the abuser if they fail to actively remember and transform the pain. Her works unearth the roots of the perpetuation of violence.
For Running on Empty, Katz memorized the 15-kilometer route of a mobile gas chamber van that was used in Serbia during the Holocaust. Without preparation, she ran the stretch with minimal gear—only sound recording devices attached to her body. By retracing the pathway of pain that was inflicted upon her ancestors she became the bridge between the historical memory, postmemory and the dissociation that occurs on individual, communal, and societal levels. Through efforts like this, she attempts to reconstruct the collective memory.
Katz argues that “a number of different though interpenetrating social and cognitive processes are conflated when painted with the broad brushstrokes of ‘collective memory.'” This leads not only to semantic confusion, but serves also to conceal an important political phenomenon—the role that collective remembrance can play in challenging what will be termed the “governing myth” of the nation.
Communities and cultures that actively forget and dissolve the past often do so to avoid the consequences, the pain that lives beyond the triggers. To circumvent this, Katz places herself at the center of trauma, containing it within herself as the ultimate act of care. The continuous running forced her body into shock, a physical metaphor for the grief, mourning, and loss that impacted not only the community along the stretch but the very location that the van transversed. The lives that were lost are resurrected in her shortness of breath. The mistreatment of their memory is echoed in the strain of her movements. The brutality of the events is amplified within the film’s soundscape: feedback, repetition, and reverberation—tools used to mirror the trauma.
Katz opens something in herself to provoke discussion. When she’s performing, every cell of her body is activated. Each breath, bodily movement, all her sweat and tears help to cleanse the narrative. Katz pushes viewers to question their own emotional and physical boundaries and limitations. She pushes them to accept discomfort and find ways to lean into it instead of turning away. Her works invite you to unlearn assumptions about the ways complex manifestations of verbal and nonverbal abuse come to form. Katz plunges into the origins of these internalized conflicts and returns to mundane reality in the next breath.
Reflecting on Katz’s pieces summoned the collective grief that plagues me as an African American woman, but even more so tapped into the extent that personal loss has impacted me each time I’ve lost a women who embodied the memories of my ancestral heritage—my mother, grandmother, and recently, my aunt. Although Katz has never experience a direct loss, her work epitomizes the process of grieving and mourning beyond the death of a person you loved. It delves into the loss of the intangible—a collective relationship to a geographical location, personal memories untarnished by violence or a former version of self.
Running on Empty and props used in Katz’s performance piece