Sarah Lewis is a performer, director, curator and educator . She has created and led a variety of different performing art projects in Boston, Berlin, NYC, Brussels and the Dominican Republic working in an array of different cultural venues, from theaters to galleries, public spaces, schools and museums..
Interview led by Jeroen van der Hulst, Photography by Pedro Jardim
You are originally from the Dominican Republic, having lived and worked in several cities in America and Europe. Why did you choose Berlin as your base?
I moved to Berlin about 9 years ago after I had finished university in Boston, where I studied theatre. The theatre scene in Boston at that time was really conservative. I mean, only George Bernard Shaw, Eugune O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were being produced. If those weren’t being produced, popular Hollywood classic films were being presented in non-profit theatres. The scene for experimental work or developing artists was very minimal and difficult to get into. I had the privilege to actually visit Berlin during that time. What I fell in love with, which now I’m critical of in a way, but initially fell in love with, was the possibility of space and time. That was just not really and option in the States. I thought about moving to New York, but again space and time were a problem. How do you develop? I mean, after school there were a lot of things I wanted to try. When I came for the visit to Berlin it just seemed like the most feasible possibility to have those things in order to grow and develop.
Because of some type of fertile ground here?
Yeah, and again because of space and time. You couldn’t necessarily make a lot money in the city but it’s a place that is a great playground for ideas.
Do you feel an overlap in experiences between Berlin and other cities?
I have worked in? Of course there is an overlap. There are so many New Yorkers that have moved here to Berlin and so many Berliners that have also gone to New York. But the cities are very different. I always critique when people try to compare Berlin to New York. I think it’s kind of sad, because why compare yourself? It’s your own place, you create it so you don’t have to compare it. There is a lot of cross-migration that creates a discourse and a dialogue. But the difference is that the people that I know in New York and are working in the art field there, they’re on that hustle seven days a week. Most of them have two or three jobs to supplement what they’re doing. In comparison here, more and more people that I know that are professionals are living from their art work here. I guess, I can also compare Brussels a little bit. Brussels is incredibly international in the way that also Berlin is. Although, I know the dance and theatre scene there and it’s very craft focused, whereas in Berlin is much more theoretical.
You mentioned something that was beneficial nine years ago, but you have since changed your mind on it.
Well, I think it’s because nine years ago it wasn’t as saturated as it is now, but the secret’s out and everybody’s come to the ‘Art Mecca’. There is such a saturation in the art scene, everybody is producing art in some capacity. It’s sort of everywhere. In a way that’s wonderful, why shouldn’t people be able to do that? But sometimes I question criteria, a kind of waiting period to incubate, so you really have something before you show it.
Don’t you think saturation can be the catalyst for that? Because there is so much happening and in order for you to break through the cacophony, you really have to make an effort. Maybe it stimulates to go the extra mile or really give something time to incubate also.
I think yes, but I think about myself within this context and there is a lot going on here that is very good. I’m so blessed that I have the possibility to have access to so many good things in so many different fields and disciplines. But then I try to think about what my niche is within this, what I can create or how I can contribute to the cultural fabric. I did a project in the Dominican Republic a few years ago. This was super challenging from A to Z. You know, from logistics, to bureaucracy, to funding, everything. But, I felt inspired being there because there was stuff to be dealt with there. This is more difficult in Berlin, because it is already so self-actualised. I try to think about what I can actually contribute here in fields that people aren’t already discussing. Even though I am a Berlin based artist, a lot of what I do isn’t here in Berlin. This place for me is so good for trying to find people to have a dialogue with. You realize that there are so many resources here. I also think it’s important to contribute as well. I’d like to give a little shout out to Agora, because you have made a space that does provide an opportunity to contribute on a community level.
You are currently working on a project where you have combined speakers from different disciplines, from visual arts to neuroscience. How do you see artistic practice in this time of cross-disciplinary networks?
I can start by talking about the Blackmarket for Useful knowledge and Non-Knowledge, which was a project actually founded, developed and created by a Berlin based curator Hannah Hurtzig. And basically it’s an animated encyclopedia. You have a theme and you try to find from as many multi-disciplinary fields “experts” that can share their knowledge underneath this umbrella. So for example, we’re doing this in Riga at the moment. The theme there is the repaired, the enhanced and the dead body. Within that we’re talking to transplantologists, prosthetists, cardiologists but also to people from bio-ethics, from philosophy, who question what it means to our body to have organs transplanted or what the evolution of the body is. For the enhanced body we’re talking to trans-humanists, who have the ideal of eternal life of that at one point we could download the brain onto a physical mechanised body. Next to this we have people speaking about the dead body, like gravediggers or forensics experts.
What is so lovely about the project is that you get a narrative that is spun from many different fields. It works in the way that an expert has thirty minutes to express their knowledge to a client. This happens face to face. There’s a table and this is basically a stage for the expert. They can talk, do a workshop, create a dialogue or whatever they like to within thirty minutes. This is to share something that they know with somebody else.
What is the process of developing connections with all the experts to begin with?
Well, I think of it as a metaphor. It’s an analog version of open source. That would be the best way that I would describe it.
I have the feeling that your work is very much based in a deep research practice, like in ‘Sugar’ for example. Could you tell us a bit how you would define the effect research has on your creative processes?
It is incredibly essential to my practice. What I am really interested in is knowledge dissemination or popularisation of knowledge through artistic and theatrical forms. Research is the basis of it, it’s how I gather my material and also delve into the issues I find relevant. Also it is a way to map out how people, myself included, critique and or validate different ideas or topics. It needs its time as well. It is essential ground work.
Do you also compare this to the give and take. To calibrate your output with your input?
Definitely, but they don’t always have to connect one to one. It could be a total abstraction but as soon as you start researching and thinking about something, inevitably you start to spin off from that. It’s a very generative thing if you allow yourself to really delve into something. Of course research can be tricky because it’s endless. So it’s good to give yourself parameters on that research or a time limit.
When we first invited you to be one of the facilitators of Agora’s new Program, AFFECT, we suggested you to facilitate the phase named ‘Nourishment’ of the programme. Could you explain why this research phase suits you and how you can apply your experience?
I really like the idea of working with eight different artists in a way where I have the possibility to create some sort of structure or framework in order to play and investigate different ideas and themes. This relates to a project that I want to do in the Dominican Republic, called Sugar, where I wanted to take multi-genre artists and put them together in a setting of devised theatre. You set aside parameters, structures and exercises in order to generate content. For me in my own practice it’s very interesting with artists themselves who have already established their own practice and see what sort of dialogue we can have or what I could propose in order to create a more in depth conversation. To critique and or reflect on what one is doing but not just within your own practice, but to compare it with the people you work with, that you’re in a dialogue with.
I’m really excited to play with structures that I know but also to try different methodologies and to see whether they are effective within this context of these established artists. But it’s also interesting because the whole theme of social art practice is very much discussed at the moment. Ever since Occupy Wall Street, for example, everybody’s talking about social art practice. By no means is it new because it has a very long tradition but it’s formlessness is fascinating, and there is a lot of critique or look into about that. What are the criterion and what are the forms? I am really interested in investigating that within the program. We need to develop a foundation in order to influence the discourse and to create a new narrative.
You have worked with your family before, LEWIS FOREVER. Could you tell us a bit about the dynamics within a such collaborative process compared to working with peers?
It was such a beautiful dream that failed, and in its failure has also found some success or a resurrection of sorts. It failed because you cannot disassociate the psychology of growing up with your siblings and to take that out of the creation process. There is absolutely no diplomacy at play when you work with your siblings. You know each other in and out and what buttons to press, which became incredibly difficult, even though we generated so many ideas, and if we had somebody from the outside we would have had a greater potential of realising more of them. Still there are things that have remained, for example we’re presenting a film that we did two years ago titled Sister, which our brother will be playing live music for a festival in Chicago. That’s the biggest thing, that because we know each other so intimately it’s very difficult to apply a strategy in order to work together without having to feel that we have to compromise. Which we ended up doing a lot. That’s the thing, somebody from the outside would’ve been able to diffuse that a bit. I’ve had that with other collaborations because you do have that outside eye and a level of professionalism or diplomacy. There is a lot that I would like to try out still.
How do you feel about Agora’s new Program; AFFECT, and what are you expecting from it?
I like that there are so many different levels of mentoring going on. I find that wonderful. I love that there are five different facilitators from all different genres. We’ll have three weeks to work with these artists and it’s great that we have an overall mentor. This is also good for the facilitators to gather something from. All of us will be benefiting from one another I’m sure. I like that it takes its time and in one way one always asks what does one wish from an experience like this. Some people want a carte blanche, to have space and to work. But with this it’s so much about participation and collaboration and I think that the way it’s structured makes a lot of sense. It really provides the opportunity to have that collaborative process. You have the time to look at it, process, digest, brainstorm, reflect on it but with frameworks that allow you to combine different interests, not just your own artistic practice. This was why I was so attracted to doing it.