Get To Know: The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein

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The pioneering performance art of The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein is less a gentle hand-hold, more a high-voltage bolt of electricity to the brain. Her fearless new show Notorious interrogates various characterisations of womanhood and the female body, intersplicing pop music, feminism, the myth of Medusa, and Nicki Minaj. Ahead of her run at the Barbican this November (7th-11th), we caught up with her to find out more about what the show will hold, her process, and the role discomfort plays in her performance. 

Hi! We’re coming as a team en masse to see Notorious at the Barbican in November and we're psyched - it'll be the first time we see you perform. How would you describe the show to the uninitiated? 

Notorious is an interdisciplinary performance that explores the relationship between pop culture and representations of the female ‘monster’. It is a visceral, bodily piece, which will evoke layered and dissonant emotions in you – you will hate it (and me) and maybe even love it (and me), but you will certainly feel some stuff. And it will also be hilarious, witchy, unhinged, and ridiculously excessive.

We're in. Can you talk us through the writing process? 

My creative process for Notorious started with my research. I was looking into the figure of ‘the whore’ and the cultural need to redeem women who don’t fulfil particular standards of womanhood. This brought me to the historical figure of the witch and the way in which she, and the need to punish/redeem her, is so present today, particularly through public shaming (which today is carried out so fluidly through social media). From there, I developed key images – e.g. an eyeball staring out at you from between labia instead of eyelids – and an interest in key characters/people – Medusa, Nicki Minaj, Mata Hari. From there, the work continued to develop into actions, scenes, pieces of writing, etc.

How does it compare to the process you undertook to make your previous work like Splat! and How To Become A Cupcake

Notorious is my first post-PhD piece of work – and so its process has been very distinct from previous works. I felt like my PhD almost answered too many questions for me, that there was very little mystery, or curiosity, left in some of the strategies that I’d been working with in previous shows. I really pushed myself to find new strategies and processes for Notorious. I played a lot with character and text in the development of this show, which felt very new for me. I’ve also been working with a large team, including a designer, David Curtis-Ring, who has really brought my visions to life in a way that I haven’t explored in previous works. I think with each show I’ve made, I’ve allowed each one, more and more, to take up space, to fulfill its need for space and scale. And so Notorious is certainly the next step in my work in that way as well.

As you mentioned earlier, the female body plays a huge part in your work, and therefore you embrace nudity as part of your practice. I think many audiences find that pretty radical because some of us struggle to undress with confidence at the gym, let alone on stage in front of an audience. What does it mean for you to use nudity in your performance? 

I always find this a funny question. For me, being naked on stage has little to do with body-confidence. This is my body, and it is my material for art-making, and so it is present in my art-making. My practice deals very explicitly with problematizing the overly fetishized image of the female body, and so my body must be present in the work. I always feel like the work just brought me there on its own – it was needed. My relationship to my body has very little to do with ‘body-image’. This ‘confidence’ is really just the agency and power I find in my own body – in its physicality, in its multiplicity, in its leakiness, its mess, its difficulty, its weaknesses, its rhythms, its functionality, its complexity.

I can imagine that most will come away from a show like yours feeling empowered, but what would you say to someone who found it uncomfortable?

That’s a really important feeling, and I really support your feeling that way. I hope you spend time exploring that discomfort.

Exploring discomfort must also be something you do in your work as a visiting university lecturer. How does the performativity inherent in teaching compare with your work onstage? 

I think the biggest difference is really the varying versions of me that are delivered in these different settings. There’s The Famous, onstage, who appears to be a crazy mess. There’s Academic Lauren, in the classroom, who appears meticulous and probing. While that meticulousness certainly informs my performance-making (The Famous actually makes incredibly deliberate choices within her cloak of chaos), it might not appear onstage. But it is that rigour that really feeds into the classroom, both in terms of my choices as a teacher, but also in regards to my expectations of my students as practitioners. Also, The Famous can be a real bitch, while I like to think that I’m a rather supportive and generous teacher.

It must be so invigorating for your students to be able to experience both personas - one in the classroom, and the other when they come to see you perform. What can they learn from your live show that they can't in the classroom? 

What I don’t think can ever come across until you’re present at a live show, especially with my work, but with anything, is the visceral, emotional depth that art can produce in you – and how significant those feelings are in relation to the thinking, theorizing, problematizing, understanding, of a work.

Let’s say a lost recording of Notorious is dug up in 500 years and played by some futuristic archaeologists. What would you hope they’d say? And what would you hope it would say about 2017? 

This is a tough one. The answer requires either egoism or self-effacement in order to avoid egoism. I’ll go with egoism. I hope they’d say this work contributed to a significant dialogue around the representation of women in this time and place. I hope it would say that while 2017 was a shitty year politically – with women’s rights and LGTBQ rights being slaughtered (especially in the US), homophobic, transphobic misogyny on the rise (thanks in large part to the Cheetoh-flavored ruler of the Right White West), and fascism on the rise in the US and Europe – some of us still cared enough to resist. Even if only through art-making.

And now the for some quick-fire questions. What was the last show you saw?

REQUARDT&ROSENBERG’s Deadclub. It was fab.

You’re stuck in traffic for hours with one song on loop. What do you choose? 

Radiohead’s ‘Videotape’ or Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want It That Way’.

People, places, or things? 

I hate ‘people’, but I love bodies.

What’s more useful: fame or infamy? 

I’d say, generating difficult but necessary dialogue – which usually brings about infamy.

…and now the big one: cats or dogs? 


See the show at the Barbican from 7th-11th November. Grab your tickets here