Non Grata performances are often chaotic, with fire and smoke being common. (all images courtesy Grace Exhibition Space)

With smoke and fire, blowtorches and red-hot cattle brands, Non Grata has emerged from Estonia as one of the most audacious and evolving performance art groups to regularly come to and perform in the United States. From last month through the end of this one, the group has been guest curating a series of events at Grace Exhibition Space, showing off many talented American performance artists while also giving spectators a view of some of the raw and audacious performance work that Eastern Europe has to offer.

Led by Al Paldrok, whose pseudonym in the group is Anonymous Boh, Non Grata began in 1998, just four years after Estonia gained its independence from the Soviet Union. Taking its name from the phrase persona non grata, meaning “an unwelcome person,” the group first started as an alternative art academy called Academia Non Grata. Now they travel the world practicing performance art with a revolving set of members that has, over the years, totaled up to five hundred different individuals.

“Academia Non Grata was created for one purpose, [to be] a counterbalance to the bend-over attitude of the art world, which was dominated by the Yankee-style capitalism in our society,” said Paldrok. “Artists have become either the ones who satisfy society’s certain aesthetic needs, small-scale entrepreneurs producing pretty things, or society’s fools, officially labelled as the opponent.”

Often the value of art is in offering nontraditional strategies that one can put to use in everyday life. An artist attempts to improve the world. The aim of the Academia Non Grata was and still is to create an atmosphere in which people feel free to ask themselves and others, “What is it that I really think? What is it that I really want?”

Non Grata performing at Diverseworks in Houston, Texas (click to enlarge)

Since its beginning, Non Grata has become notorious for using what I would consider violent imagery of fire and large, fabricated brains, and for its disconcerting actions and props such as smoke, abrasive noise music, and bullhorns — all meant to create a sense of confusion. It’s almost like planned chaos. Paldrok usually carries and speaks into a bullhorn during performances, making him nearly incomprehensible in speech; but his intentions are always clear through his body language. And despite the confusing atmosphere, there are no subtle actions in a Non Grata performance: everything is explicit. Even if the images don’t make sense, the feeling of the performance is well defined.

There’s always a sense of disquiet in the crowd, but an anticipation built on fear keeps everyone watching. I think this discomfort makes us more aware of our own vulnerabilities, and these performances are meant to see how far we’ll go in such a state. After all, our hesitations, our non-actions, reveal as much about us as our actions do.

“Lots of people in the performance scene say that what Non Grata does is not art at all. I take it as a compliment, of course,” said Pardrok. “There are many of those who love us and those who hate us. Some German theater specialists show up specifically to see us, saying that Non Grata is an extremely interesting alternative theatre. The global performance art is sinking in its own blood, and every now and then, Non Grata is asked to come and rescue it. Recently, in France, I heard someone use an expression, ‘Natural LSD,’ when describing our performance. ‘High without artificial drugs.’”

Branding willing people

Branding willing people is a common aspect of a Non Grata performance.

The group stresses anonymity for various reasons, not least because some of their performances teeter on the edge of what typical American performance artists may call extreme: in one video, they topple over, smash, and set fire to a car; in another, they have an audience member pull a number out of a hat and then help them hold a person’s arms as they brand the willing participant with that number. Another reason for anonymity is so that the group can be seen as a collective, rather than individuals adding to the creative process of their performances.

“When you build up this unity in the group, it’s much better when you’re anonymous because then it’s much more a melting pot and everybody throws their ideas in,” Paldrok explained. “Also, it’s more creative, because when they’re [performers] connected to their name, they’re really careful about what people are going to think about me and do these sort of political correct things.”

Anonymity “helps express the wildest parts of yourself because they can’t see your face,” said Amber Lee, a newer member to Non Grata.

No matter how they’re perceived, Non Grata is responsible for producing wonderful and beautiful performances. In the current curatorial series at Grace Exhibition Space, they’ve presented some greatly imaginative artists. On October 5, for example, Saskia Edens performed “Merge,” a piece in which she came out of a closet to ambient music, dressed in mirrors while holding a translucent but reflective material that looked like Plexiglas. When you peered into the material, you could see Saskia’s face while also seeing your own reflection, a beautiful effect that reminded me of a scene in Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona.

Performance artist Sindy Butz peering into Saskia Edens’s glass during Edens’s “Merge” performance

“There are few people who impressed me, but Al is one of them,” said Lee. “After I met him, my whole life changed. Non Grata really impressed me, and the way he lives his life. I was in theater and I was just getting into performance art, and Al gave me this whole speech that changed my life — he said I shouldn’t just spend my life being an assistant. He was like ‘Do it. If you want to be an artist, be an artist.’”

For his part, Paldrok calls performance art “an energy — the energy in the group, and also the audience. For me, there is one thing I feel is most important: you’re connected to this creative moment and this worldwide network. You can be there with your artificial self that’s in the moment, and you can feel this moment with this artist, whatever discipline they are — photographers, filmmakers, they’re all there. You meet great poets and writers, and some people want to write about it and some people want to play in it, some people want to document it, so you’re connecting to many people. In performance you’re given this possibility to be personally involved in every second, so your art is created and also represented. I graduated from sculpture, and it was completely not possible there. In sculpture, it’s too expensive to even send your work to someone, so for six years you plan one exhibition and you’re kind of like more like a construction worker than artist.

“There are no bad performance ideas,” he continued, “but there are thousands of lousy ways of realizing them. A variety of energy movement in space is important, and artists are tools to make it happen. During the event, you have to make reality change, or you are failed.”

Non Grata’s curated series at Grace Exhibition Space continues through November 30. See the calendar of events here.

David LaGaccia is a journalist, covering art events and news stories in New York City. His interests are in performance art, film, and literature, but it's his curiosity and the art of the interview that...