Stories of the Firefly: Silvia Battista’s “performance of the inside”

Silvia Battista, ‘Icarus’

In her upcoming performance, ‘Stories of the Firefly’, part of Liverpool Hope’s Angel Fields Festival in February, multi-disciplinary artist Silvia Battista will combine visuals, experimental storytelling and sound to a create a visceral, visionary journey, placing the internal experience of the audience centre stage and making herself invisible. Ahead of her performance, I sat down with Battista on an overcast January afternoon to talk about alternative states of consciousness, interdisciplinary performance and playing the Kazimier Stockroom.

During the early years of the new millennium, when Battista was working with Wolfgang Tillmans in London, her house and studio were broken into. All her photographic equipment, her materials and documentation were stolen. Having lost everything, and having no insurance to quickly replace her equipment, Battista shut herself in her studio and returned to basics. She spent a year drawing. During this time, she didn’t exhibit, instead focusing on refining a technique which fundamentally altered the direction of her artistic practice.

Silvia Battista

Classically trained in Rome, Battista employs a cross hatching technique from her academy days. She describes the action as becoming obsessive, enabling her to lose connection with time and space, entering “this world of lines and forms and shapes”.

What emerged from that process of tapping into alternative states of consciousness was a set of mythological characters, one of which, Icarus, resonated with her so much that she was compelled to take him off the page and explore the connection she felt through with him through performance. “I really struggled with that drawing. It developed very fleshy wings and from that I started to become obsessed with Icarus because of stories of my life, of failing or death of friends. It really resonated with me and I started to explore theatre and performance at the Royal College.”

Battista had been invited to do an MA at the Royal College of Art and later completed a PHD at Royal Holloway. Both enabled her to expand her practice and reflect on and research the states of consciousness she was accessing in the production of her drawings.

Silvia Battista

The PHD was challenging as there was limited literature available to draw on, but it did give her the terminology, “[It was] almost a school of magic in learning how to use words to express the intangible dimension that I was investigating.” Since then, research interlaces her practice.

Battista’s practice occupies the space between ritual and performance. Her goal is to render herself invisible as performer, facilitating an internal performance in the mind of the audience, “I am very interested in questioning the focus on visuals. Although I do visual stuff, I am interested in the invisibility of the performer and the performance as a trigger for creating what I call introspective theatre – in the possibility for involving participants in journeys. The performance is strategically devised in ways that is triggering but not forcing, so participants start to create their own theatre in the mind. Obviously, this happens in any performance, but I want to kind of radicalise that.”

In the work that emerged as a result of the Icarus drawing ‘You Whisper, I Listen, He Speaks’ performed in London and Brighton, the audience entered a space where a figure sat while a video was playing. The animated character in the video, Icarus, told his story and asked the audience to share their stories with the seated figure, to help him recover from his trauma. Queues of people formed to tell their stories. Battista reflects, “[The performance] was about recreating the story of Icarus, as the story of falling and embodying Icarus as a wounded being. I stayed there for three hours and people started queuing because I became a vessel. Almost a confessional vessel. The stories people shared with me were incredible. I am very interested in the performance of the inside, in the imagination of the spectator and rendering the

You Whisper, I Listen, He Speaks (2005-2011) from Silvia Battista on Vimeo.

In ‘Stories of the Firefly’, which she will perform next month, Battista will be almost invisible. In the dimly lit performance space of the Warehouse Theatre in Liverpool Hope’s Creative Campus, she will use sound, voice, accordion and drumming to bring together a series of connected stories from shamanic encounters she has had with animal spirit.

Silvia Battista

The performance has been a year in the making. Battista has presented one story at a time in a variety of venues around Liverpool. One of which was the Kazimier Stockroom, where she performed in a line up with Alexander Tucker and Germanager. The performance was a blend of written pieces, drumming, accordion and vocalisation. I asked if it is important to take performance out of a conventional art space and present to different audiences, “I loved those situations because they are really unusual. I’m exposed to situations that kind of trouble my practice and allow me to understand which potentialities are there. It’s one thing is to be in my own rehearsal and another to have an audience.”

Her vocalisation straddles sound art and at times sounds like shamanic invocation. For Battista, navigating the tension between entering an alternative state of consciousness and maintaining the restraints of theatrical performance is a work in progress: “I realised that, yes, sometimes I go completely out of control, but I have to control that because otherwise it becomes a monotone performance. I have to acknowledge the craft of theatre. For a fifteen-minute performance it works very well because I can go out on a high and it’s like a rapture. [This is] the first time that I work with a forty-minute piece with the three elements, voice, accordion and drumming. Vocalisation brings me into a different state of consciousness, so I really have to be able to come, go, and come back.”

In ‘Stories of the Firefly’, Battista will bring together her research interests and practice in an environment where she can control the external elements. She will facilitate an interior experience for the audience, but ultimately have no control over it. It will be unique for each individual and I am really looking forward to finding out what that experience will be.

‘Stories of the Firefly’ is on Thursday 13 February in the Warehouse Theatre, Liverpool Hope.