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You are the sole actor in your life is an exhibition and experimental performance that explores the complexities of human connection in an increasingly individualistic society. Long-time friends and collaborators, artist Yulia Zinshtein and film director Emma Westenberg are behind the immersive performance. Presented at The Bomb Factory Art Foundation in Holborn, the play takes place against the backdrop of Zinshtein’s paintings, which aim to create a world of desire, performance and reverie inspired by film stills and her own personal experiences. Delving further into the thinking behind the project, Zinshtein and Westenberg discuss their new work with Something Curated.

Photo: Yulia Zinshtein

Yulia Zinshtein: We met in Amsterdam.

Emma Westenberg: In 2012, I think.

YZ: It’s one of my favourite stories. I was visiting a friend that happened to be Emma’s roommate, and he wasn’t able to open the door for me. So Emma was going to let me in. She was late and had to run in a storm. She opened the door and then the first thing she did was take off all of her clothes. And I was like, “We’re definitely going to be friends.”

EW: [Laughs] Yeah. This was a hectic period of my life.

YZ: But I think we followed each other throughout cities and we kind of got to know each other better. We both moved to New York. You went to Cooper Union.

EW: We immediately started appearing in each other’s work. Because you were taking pictures back then. I would visit you in Paris and you would take a lot of pictures, which was my first experience seeing your vision.

Photo: Yulia Zinshtein

YZ: Yeah, I was studying photography at the time, and you were making weird videos that I was involved with. Our friendship has always been surrounded by our creative endeavours. The idea of performance has been a significant part of my work from the beginning, and I think we connect on that level through our shared appreciation for campiness and exaggeration of the real world.

EW: Drama, romance… and you always have a sense of creating community, which is also quite a performance thing in a sense.

YZ: I guess I never thought about that.

EW: You’re organising spaces, life spaces. The parties and bringing people together. Performances and exhibitions do the same thing in a way.

YZ: Yeah, it’s true. Let’s talk about how this collaboration came about. In my mind, it was me laying in your bed and we were just talking about my dating life. And I think throughout our relationship, it’s always been me telling you stories and you’re like, “Well, this isn’t real.”

Photo: Yulia Zinshtein

EW: Yeah, it was that, but it was also because we started living together when I was new in London. We talked a lot about what we wanted to do — me wanting to try things out in the live space, and you wanting to explore new ideas in your work. So, we decided to create something together. You had written this beautiful poem, and we realised that we both loved dwelling on romantic stories. So, we thought, why not use all your unfortunate dates? “It’s for comedy,” you would always say.

YZ: All of this is not in vain. The thinking behind the performance came out of the idea of sitting in an interior of a cafe. We were thinking about how we enjoy eavesdropping on people’s lives.

EW: On each other’s lives, and strangers’ lives.

YZ: Yes, I’m curious how you can plop into someone’s life and get this little bit of information and then leave and create your own ideas about what’s going on. So we thought it would be fun to bring that into a live space and have the opportunity for the audience to eavesdrop. This is really an extension of my paintings because my work is so much about performance, of desire and our identities, and I think about that in both a curious way, but also in a kind of funny way.

Photo: Yulia Zinshtein

EW: It’s about the absurdity of these situations and also enjoying that, not just the drama. I think in that sense, we have similar sensibilities where we do care a lot about true human emotions in each other but we also enjoy the whimsical or the absurd and the not so serious as well.

YZ: The thread of romance and desire has been in my work for a long time and there’s always been a feeling like it’s not that important. But within the past three years, especially with the pandemic and everything, I sort of tried to be more open about admitting that love is what I want and what most people want, but bringing that into art form feels kind of scary.

EW: The only thing I want to know about people is about their romantic life. And what are they afraid of.

YZ: [Laughs] Exactly. A lot of these ideas are in the performance. When I first moved to London, I got out of a serious relationship and I just wanted to go on dates and meet people, and I ended up in bizarre situations.

EW: A lot of internet dating involves meeting complete strangers, which is part of the appeal. You don’t know anything about the person, so it’s like a wildcard experience. With internet dating, you end up meeting really random people and having unexpected encounters.

Photo: Yulia Zinshtein

YZ: My first date was with a psychic in an ethically non-monogamous relationship.

EW: That was your first one?

YZ: That was my first date when I got to London. I really threw myself into the water. I was just also there for the story. I was so curious. He read me and I mean, the first thing he said was, “You’re Jewish.” And I was like, “Okay. That’s very obvious.” And then he brought up my mother and my relationship with my mother and the pain that’s carried down generationally.

EW: What do you look for in a date?

YZ: I feel like I like to play into romance sometimes. I like creating the scene in the way that I also do with my paintings in some ways.

EW: How do you mean that? Creating the scene?

Photo: Yulia Zinshtein

YZ: I mean, a lot of the times on a first date you get a drink and that’s kind of it, but I like to, I don’t know, plan something more like dress up. I like to dress up, perform. Being a femme woman. Because on the day to day, I’m just a gremlin and then suddenly she comes out. Yes, she’s showered with makeup on. And to be honest, I love the feeling of a first kiss. There’s nothing like it. It’s my favourite thing.

EW: Yes, I see.

YZ: What about you?

EW: I don’t know. Especially with internet dates, I don’t actually have expectations. If you meet someone in real life, you already know if you’re attracted to them or if you fancy them and what the vibe is. But with an internet date, it’s more like, “Okay, who is this stranger? What’s their life like?” I’m just always interested in meeting people. To me, the fun part is simply meeting a stranger.

But getting back to the performance, I think a few things came forward during the rehearsals. It’s like this kind of funny feeling of watching somebody’s dates, like, “Oh, I’m not supposed to be listening.” It’s like, “Ooh, the drama, the gossip.” But then there are these genuine moments in there. The poem and the way they perform it are really beautiful, sincere, and actually romantic and wistful.

Photo: Yulia Zinshtein

The sense of longing comes forward, which is a more sincere emotion. I think it’s also just very playful. I hope people laugh. I hope it’s fun and exciting to watch, to just be with these dates, sit in it, and relate to it in a way where it’s not that you’re looking at a play, but you’re kind of in the space with these people.

YZ: Yeah, I think that’s also what I wanted to touch on. Sometimes a white cube gallery space doesn’t feel right for me. I often want to make the space more immersive, as I find people connect with the work in a more natural way. Even people who don’t usually attend these kinds of events find it more accessible.

Accessibility is important to me in that way. I always try to make the space welcoming, with seats available so people can sit down and actually look at the work. A big part of it is bringing people together and fostering connections that spark conversations, which is important to me. I think we got lucky with the opportunity to do this at Bomb Factory. They’ve been really helpful and open, allowing us to experiment in this space. I feel lucky to have that.

Following the live performance, Zinshtein’s paintings are on display at The Bomb Factory Art Foundation in Holborn until 23 June 2024.

Feature image by Yulia Zinshtein. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

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