For Object of Love at the New Performance Turku Festival members of the public were invited to sign up for a one-to-one coaching session with artist and PCT accredited Relational Dynamics Coach Joshua Sofaer who offers them a confidential 25 minute coaching session in a soundproof glass box in the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art.
Following on from the long history of the ‘readymade sculpture’ in the gallery, Sofaer brings his training as a coach directly into the museum with his unique kind of ‘readymade performance’. Sofaer’s performance asks us to consider the relation between art and everyday life and the way in which visiting an art gallery or museum can be beneficial to how we live our relationships with others. Sofaer’s performance is part of the New Performance Turku Festival but takes place also as part of the Greatest of All is Love? exhibition in the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art.
Rachel Lois Clapham is one of the festival’s Notamoleskine Fellows and participated in one of the coaching sessions. She caught up with Joshua and they talked about Object of Love outside the confines of the glass box.
Rachel Lois Clapham: How did Object of Love come about?
Joshua Sofaer: Christopher (Hewitt) invited me to consider making a piece within certain parameters and conditions, some of which were implicit, to do with what the festival was about and some of which were explicit, to do with budgetary remits and possible spaces. I started training as a coach a couple of years ago and have been gently incorporating it in different forms of art making. I wanted to see how an explicit use of a coaching session in an art context might function.
RLC: How was the coaching element in Object of Love different from other pieces you have made?
JS: I made a piece called Operahjälpen in Stockholm where I trained opera singers in how to listen to problems. Members of the public would apply for a ticket with some kind of problem. Opera singers would then go to their house and listen to the problem. When the problem was in the air, they would then select an aria from the classical 19th Century repertoire and sing it directly in somebody’s house with a pre-recorded professional backing track. My hunch was that when you go to the opera you bring your own life, and you are hoping that some magic will happen on the stage and you will leave somehow better for the experience. I wanted to see if by fore-fronting the problem, paradoxically, people would listen to the music more acutely. Actually, that is what happened, people felt uniquely addressed. And the feedback we received was that people would go to the opera much more often. That piece was not intended for a huge audience but it garnered a lot of interest and was considered successful on its own terms. In Object of Love, I was interested to see whether a more explicit and direct use of coaching could work in an artwork.
RLC: What is PCT?
JS: PCT is the accreditation for the particular form of coaching called Relational Dynamics. A lot of coaching is unregulated but there are bodies set up to try and establish a best practice and PCT is one of them. I was extremely sceptical about the training in the beginning. I was really unprepared to understand the potentiality of it. Whether or not that potentiality translates to the piece itself is something that maybe you are better placed to answer than me.
RLC: Yes, I have never been in a… therapy… is that the word for it? I’m not sure that it is the right word…
JS: Some people in Turku were conflating coaching with psychotherapy or with therapy in general. It’s really not. Therapies tend to be backwards looking, they look at origin causes and try to interpret. Therapists often offer advice. Coaching is forward facing, goal oriented and solution focused. Coaches do not offer any advice. The most they would do would be offer an observation or a suggestion if they know something in the world that a coachee is looking for.
RLC: I am very interested in the style of the conversation; it seemed to rely very much on your presence. I’m not sure if that is the coaching or part of the work as you created it. Your presence seemed to have a channelling effect in the sense that your being there was clarifying what I was saying and you also were repeating some of the things I was saying back to me. My thoughts were crystallizing but it wasn’t revelatory, it was more of a focusing.
JS: ‘Reflecting back’ is one of the cornerstones of coaching. Coaching has a lot of different techniques but in 25 minutes there is only a certain amount we could do. One thing I was interested in is trying to affect some transformation in 25 minutes. In most cases it probably was just a moment of clarification for someone. The tougher the problem the easier it is to coach. When people came in with simple things they were not invested in so much, I found it much harder to address because the work is done by the coachee. The higher the stakes of the question that is brought, the higher the return and the easier it is to deal with as a coach because people are invested to the degree that they want to see some solution, or rather some clarity of the situation, a next step. That is one thing that I tried with as many people as possible; to at least enable them to find a next step.
RLC: Did anything unexpected occur in the vitrine?
JS: I totally believe in coaching and I believe that if I am doing my job well, and if the coachee is engaged, then the process will work. What I was testing in this particular context was a further level of seeing and not seeing, and what art practice itself is doing. So the idea was that these conversations could be witnessed and not heard. That people on the outside could see the coachee undergoing some kind of change. Looking at the video that was shot externally to the vitrine, what you see is me sitting there and somebody next to me going through all these thoughts. It is quite interesting to look at that.
RLC: They did gesticulate didn’t they?
JS: A lot, a lot.
RLC: For me, your mask provided an erasure of your personality, or a distancing that made it easier for me – as the participant – to deal with such a unique one-to-one live experience. Was it easier for you – as the performer – to be objectified in that situation by having something covering your face?
JS: People would try to find my gaze in order to get some reassurance from me. That slows down the process. What I wanted to be was a symbol or figure. I’m interested in the figure of the shaman. As coach, I wanted to be an object that precipitates or moves the coachee rather than a figure of authority, or a reassuring, validating presence. When the coachee looks for that validation from the coach – which is very understandable and a common therapeutic model – they become reliant on the therapist for validating their existence. The coach wants to be a neutral figure, almost an irrelevant figure. It is a different kind of role. And I am interested in what the costume produces in that regard. So the one thing I might change would be to explicitly blindfold myself. My hope is that the coachee then thinks ‘I can’t get reassurance from this person, they are simply a symbol. So I have just got to deal with the issue at hand.’
RLC: I searched out your eyes. Not because it would be rude not to (and I think that is a factor) but because if you were offering your gaze then I would explore what it meant to look into your eyes in that moment.
JS: There was one very practical problem, which I could not solve during the festival. I had to really keep my eye on the time in the sessions. Keeping the time is very much part of the coaches’ job. And moving the conversation on within certain time frames is a very important factor. I was scared to make the alteration to the blindfold without a way to manage the time blind.
RLC: I had no idea how you were managing the time. I could not see any time pieces anywhere inside the box or in the museum. I knew something was at work but I couldn’t quite understand what. It was quite intriguing.
JS: (Laughs) I’m tempted not to tell.
RLC: I almost don’t want to know…
…Can you talk more about the costume, I understand it is itself a labour of love?
JS: From the moment I was contracted late last year, I started the costume. My aim was to find something that would be wearable, transportable, not so ornate that people would be lost in it. But enough that people would feel a thrill from it. It had to be non-narrative. From a practical sense, I also wanted to do something with my hands. My working process is often quite cerebral. But I had not anticipated how long it would take to make. Each jump ring had to be sewn on by hand. Then each knot had to be glued because the thread on the metal has a tendency to undo.
RLC: I know performers stay very close to every aspect of production, but quite how much of a hand you had in its making I was surprised to hear. I like the labour you invested in it. However manual or detailed or time consuming it was, it is something you have completed, and in a practical way. It is an object of love …
JS: This relates to the museum reference, I wanted to be an art object in the gallery. It was important to me that my skill was brought to bear both in the aesthetic visual representation and in the encounter that is held in language. Everything is made in collaboration to a certain extent, but I did as much of the costume as I possibly could. For instance, I hand dyed each of the coloured ties. In terms of materials, I wanted them to be quite readily available, domestic materials. There was something about the cable tidy, the idea of neatening up the wires, that fit with the themes of coaching. The mask is formed from a badminton racket and batting about a shuttlecock from one person to the other is a useful metaphor. The costume was not initially recognisable but if someone delved into it they could begin to make associations with these everyday objects that had been transformed and made into art. This is also partially what Object of Love does, it takes the readymade performance of coaching, which I do outside the context of art, and brings it into the gallery. There was a correlation between what was happening with the costume and the narrative of the encounter.
RLC: When I took my turn and walked inside the booth, your usual shoes and clothes were left just inside the entrance. It confirmed I was moving into a different zone, there was an artifice being signalled. But it also brought me back to you, Joshua, in a small way. That was quite a potent moment for me.
JS: The coachee is the only one that can see the leftover ordinariness of my clothes. If you look from the outside you cannot see that. I hoped that that small gesture would create an intimacy between me and the coachee in the sense that they can recognise my humanity, leave it at the door and concentrate on their own problem and work with this surface I have created.
RLC: Where do these ‘confessions’ or conversations sit right now?
JS: I felt afterwards that I had been the audience of the entire work. I had been witness to this vast array of issues and questions that people presented. I can’t really associate a particular problem with an individual but what I have is a sense of our collective human need to share; to have an interlocutor, to talk to others in order to better understand ourselves. The overpowering sense for me is one of feeling humble in the moment of presence of other people.
Rachel Lois Clapham is Co-Director of Open Dialogues, a UK collaboration founded in 2008 with Mary Paterson that produces writing on and as performance.
Photography by Hannu Seppälä for New Performance Turku Festival
Interview conducted for Notamoleskine at New Performance Turku Festival 2013
New Performance Turku was curated by Christopher Hewitt and Leena Kela