A conversation with Corentin JPM Leven
Corentin Jean-Paul Marcel Leven is an experienced scenographer, costume designer and lightning designer, as well as being a performance artist and director. Originally from France, he graduated from the Norwegian Theatre Academy in Fredrikstad, Norway in 2015. Now, he is presenting his very first full-length performance as a performance artist: +- is based on Corentin’s own experience of being diagnosed with HIV. Ahead of the premiere at Black Box teater, we sat down with Corentin and his scenographer Ann Mirjam Vaikla to hear about how it all came into being.
What was the starting point and your aim of this specific project?
Corentin: We started to work on this project exactly one year ago in Estonia – in other words, it’s been quite a long process. The main drive was to deal with my own story with HIV – but also to put it into a modern-day perspective.
It affects your very core to be diagnosed HIV positive. It is a very intimate process, it questions your own intimacy, sexuality and stigma. In addition, there is a massive historical aspect to deal with, and these pop cultural references that people often associate with HIV. Sometimes it feels as if you don’t have much space to process it all. It is definitely a grieving process where you have to understand it, like with any kind of diagnosis, I would imagine.
People around you also react in their own ways. At times, it is a very dramatic reaction where you end up having to take care of them and explaining them what this diagnosis implies in 2020. Other times you hear disenchanted stories from fallen pop icons which seem to depersonalize the whole diagnosis. There is a community, a group of people, that this diagnosis forces you to relate to. From the past to the present, all these victims form a whole and at the very early stages of your diagnosis you don’t really know where to place yourself in this large demographic.
In addition, there is this stigma that you face very quickly after being diagnosed; your own stigma. Do you dare to tell people and talk about it? It has been some years since I was diagnosed, and I still carry this with me every day. Who do you tell? When do you not? When does it matter? When does it not? This performance has been like a “coming out” process for me.
Who do you tell? When do you not? When does it matter? When does it not? This performance has been like a “coming out” process for me.
When I was diagnosed, I had quite an impressive flow of impressions and reactions. That was probably the starting point of working with the performance – trying to understand and systematize the grief. It comes with a lot of anger, this diagnosis. Anger towards oneself, because it touches the very core of a person. The freedom is questioned as well, because we address the sexual, the intimate, the relational… everything is sort of requested when you get this diagnosis.
Working with this performance in parallel to dealing with the diagnosis has been an interesting process. To take time to raise these questions and to understand the universal aspects of the diagnosis in general, but also of the status of HIV in 2020. We don’t die from it anymore, but there are still issues related to the virus. There is also this sense of privilege. Having HIV in Western Europe is very different than if you were in Central Africa, for instance. We are born in the right time, at the right place. How do you deal with this, and how do you address the historical fact that so many people had to die before? It is still such a short time ago – it has barely become history yet; it belongs more to the realm of memories, which is a very difficult grey zone. People had to die, and their stories are gathered through books, movies, poems, photos. And finally, now, we look back and accept that this is history as well. We still have to define it, remember it and write about it.
Focusing on queer history, we should really take time to acknowledge what this virus has also caused us in terms of integration back in the 80’s. The generation before had May 68; the AIDS crisis was a clear cut in sexual freedom in the gay community. The sexual freedom was questioned, the ways of life questioned once again by the conservative values. We can be part of defining this history, and a big part of this performance is an attempt to do precisely that.
Ann Mirjam: We had two lines of creation, and one of them was to use the Kübler-Ross grieving process model. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist in the 1970s who defined grief at different stages and how grief evolves.
Corentin: This was our way to deal with my own story. Then there was this drive to make a clear cut between the individual and the collective. It still feels very early to talk about my personal experience. Besides, who am I to talk for others? Who gets to speak for who? We were starting from a personal story and working on how to make it a more universal topic. In the beginning, it felt like we weren’t entitled to speak for all those people affected by HIV. But at the same time, it would lose a lot of its sincerity if we only were to address the common emotions of this. So it was very important to us to have a more individual part and a more community part. What does the collective remember, and how do you deal with collective memories thirty years after?
During the making of the performance, you spent two residences in Narva, Estonia. Narva holds first place in Europe in terms of HIV-positive people per capita. Was it coincidental that you chose to work just there?
Corentin: It was partly a coincidence, but as soon as we discovered that it was, then it became a huge drive for us – also because the virus manifests in a very different demography there. There, HIV is more related to drug use than sexual transmission. We met with a clinic there that works actively to find and help people with HIV. Narva is a city with a whole different view on where HIV comes from, and where the stigma is very differently based.
+- is a very intimate performance, and also a very physical performance. Why did you choose to work primarily with the body and the body presence?
Corentin: Of course, the whole performance had to feel true to my own story. The shock of being diagnosed made it impossible for me to find comfort in words. I have a background in literature, but at that point I felt as if I kind of lost all my truths – as if the shock made me become mute. To address this psychological space on stage felt more relevant than trying to intellectualize and define it by a dramaturgy and by stage vocabulary. We early chose movement to be our main aesthetic. Solving the performance this way was a very complex process. If you decide to tell a story, you sort of know where your focus is. But with movement, I find it very interesting to gather different stories together and just remember where to locate them in my body and let that show on stage. I think it is all very physical because of the shock that kind of mutes you – and it is a very lonely place you’re in at that point. On this project, I am focusing on the very first phase of this process. If I were to write a project description now three years after, it would probably have been a very different description, because you learn every day how to live with the virus.
Ann Mirjam: I come from Estonia, and for the last two years, I have been leading an art residency in Narva. We did the two residences there in order for me to combine my job as head of this residency platform with, as a scenographer, finding this visual world together with Corentin. It is amazing to work as a scenographer to another scenographer! We are thinking in the same way.
Corentin: Ann Mirjam and I have the same vocabulary. We’ve had a very interesting journey defining this performance.
When you were diagnosed with HIV, did you know right away that you wanted to make a performance about it?
Corentin: No, first I had to fix my life! I didn’t do it for the arts! (laughs). I was so angry during the first period, even though I felt very weak and powerless at the same time. I made the project description about a year after. It was very hard to put it into words. Writing an application is such a systematic procedure, and when you get a diagnosis like HIV you are in such an emotional chaos. It was very difficult, and it took a lot of research as well. I have always been very interested in queer theories, et cetera, but at that point, when it’s your story you are dealing with, you become a lot pickier about your references. It required a lot of research to find people who managed to put this into the right words.
Can you tell us about the room, the space and the elements on stage?
Ann Mirjam: The scenography is rather minimal, for several reasons, but one of the main objects is this memorial quilt inspired by one of the biggest collective art works in the world. The AIDS memorial quilt was hand sewn and patchworked for the victims and laid down in 1996 in Washington, D.C. For us, this was the key on how to combine this individual and personal with the collective history through this.
Corentin: The AIDS quilt is still laid down every year in different cities around the world. It makes this bridge between the present situation and the past, but definitely also between the collective and the individual, how someone becomes a part of this quilt and yet someone else is alive. How do you carry this legacy and make sure it isn’t forgotten? It happened only 30 years ago. Ann Mirjam has done beautiful work in creating a more personal version of the quilt for our scenography.
How do you carry this legacy and make sure it isn’t forgotten?
Ann-Mirjam: I was lucky to have access to Corentin’s diary during this time, written while facing different phases of his trauma. We decided upon the imagery based on his diary. I defined the second hand fabrics and the colours; the fabrics all come from different second hand stores in Narva. It is a site-specific work, but very much projected through the friendship between Corentin and I, as well as the process he has been going through – the process he still goes through.
Who would you like to see this piece?
Corentin: There are two different targets that we have in mind. Of course, I would like the audience to be kind of young, just to make sure that we have a platform to talk, discuss and also learn from each other and carry this legacy together. People between 16-35 years old are definitely the target audience, but we have a very age eclectic group. We work with Ulf Nilseng, who is in his fifties, the dramaturg is thirty-nine, so there is an age gap which brings different generations’ perspectives and approaches to this theme. It is also very valuable to hear about the victims of AIDS, to hear about this crisis from the inside – from people who have experienced it. Ulf was a young man during this crisis, living his own sexuality. He understands and is moved by the performance in a slightly different way.
+- will be performed at Black Box teater between 6-9 of February. Have you planned to show it on any other venues and dates?
Corentin: We will perform +- in Trondheim for the Multiplié Festival in April. We have other talks ongoing. But the piece should tour because of the different perspectives from country to country and the different narratives around HIV.
Corentin JPM Leven: +- will be shown at Lille scene 6-9 February 2020.
Header photo: Teater Innlandet.