Walk With Me: A Performance Artist Adapts to the Pandemic

For two weeks last fall, performance artist Alisa Oleva walked with 33 different women in Istanbul; sometimes for 30 minutes, sometimes for three hours, but always from 1,500 miles away.

It wasn’t how Oleva had originally imagined her research residency with the performance art platform Performistanbul. But while the COVID-19 pandemic kept the London-based artist from traveling to Turkey, it also made her residency’s theme of “home” all the more vital.

“There were all these slogans saying things like ‘stay home, save lives’ that made a lot of assumptions,” says Oleva. “They didn’t ask, ‘Is home a good place to live? Is it a safe place? Do you even have a home?’”

Alisa Oleva, Walking Home (2020), performance, 18 days, curated by Performistanbul, in collaboration Live Art Development Agency with the support of British Council Turkey, as part of Performistanbul Artistic Development Programme, Istanbul (© Alisa Oleva, Performistanbul, 2020)

As awareness grew over the rising rates of domestic abuse globally during the pandemic, Turkey entered a fraught debate over withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, an international human-rights treaty on preventing and combatting violence against women. The threat sparked street protests last summer despite coronavirus-related restrictions.

“My practice often starts with the personal, and gets into the political because those things are intertwined, especially in cities, where private and public are shared,”  Oleva explained to Hyperallergic in a phone interview. She adds that the idea of “home” had an additional personal resonance for her as an immigrant from Russia to the United Kingdom.

Oleva carries out research for her participatory parkour-movement performance Traceur, in Slavutych, Ukraine, in 2020.

“I wanted to talk to women about safety, about where they felt they had the ‘right’ to walk, about the association of women with home in cultures like Turkey and Russia, and whether that was changing,” she says.

So Oleva decided to ask women in Istanbul to take her along, remotely, as they walked to a place they considered home from one of a selection of starting points that related to the largely invisible history of women in the city. Through Performistanbul, she put out an open call for participants who self-identify as women, and walked with each one who applied before the deadline and could arrange to “meet” during the project period. As the participants walked in Istanbul, they spoke on the phone with Oleva, who was walking in her own neighborhood.

“My artistic practice is about working with walking as a medium,” says Oleva. “Sharing someone’s footsteps is how things are unraveled, what allows conversation to happen.”

Alisa Oleva leads a ‘walkshop’ called How does the city move you as part of a two-week art residency for young artists in Artsvit Gallery, in Dnipro, Ukraine, in 2019.

The women took Oleva to many different “homes”: a bench in a park where one said she likes to write, a meeting with a friend who another said makes her feel safe and embraced, a grandmother’s house, a soothing viewpoint in the city. The starting points were equally varied: a sculpture by a Turkish woman artist, the spot where a women’s rights march began, the place where Turkey’s first female car racer won a championship.

“The maps give an individual voice, but also a collective one, to women and their stories in Istanbul,” says Naz Balkaya, Performistanbul’s UK representative and assistant curator.

Footage of Oleva’s side of the walks was primarily taken by Timothy Maxymenko, her boyfriend, while a Performistanbul team member filmed the participants in Istanbul. Short video documentations on Oleva’s project website, “Walking Home,” follow the two sets of feet and legs walking side by side on a split screen, with snippets of the recorded conversation. The artist has also compiled the footage into her first film, which will screen online in February and March.

Alisa Oleva, Walking Home (2020), performance, 18 days, curated by Performistanbul, in collaboration Live Art Development Agency with the support of British Council Turkey, as part of Performistanbul Artistic Development Programme, Istanbul (© Alisa Oleva, Performistanbul, 2020)

In addition to Oleva’s residency, Performistanbul has presented 89 live performances – on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Zoom and other platforms – by almost 50 artists around the globe through its “Stay Live at Home” initiative. Started in March 2020, it explores the new possibilities that digital tools can bring to a performance practice.

Oleva likewise sees potential in the constraints posed by COVID-19. “Even though I’ve never been to Istanbul, I feel very connected to it through all the walks the women took me on,” she says. City sounds often filtered through the phone, and she says could get a sense of Istanbul’s hilly topography based on when the women’s speech became more winded. 

“It’s such a simple act but there’s something about knowing someone, somewhere, is walking with you,” Oleva says. “The idea of walking in different places at the same time is something I’d like to take with me in my practice after the pandemic.”

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