Mark Jeffery | Interview
IN>TIME Performance Festival cofounder Mark Jeffery knows how to draw attention. The U.K. native, SAIC assistant professor and performance artist spoke to another TOC editor just days before our interview. “It was the weirdest thing, I was taking my class to record sound in the Haymarket location,” he tells me. “These guys appeared from nowhere and I was like, “Who the hell are you?” (For more on that, click here.) He talks about his humble beginnings, and the future of Chicago’s growing multi-venue, multi-performer biennial arts fest.
You’re from a small farm in Doveridge. How did you end up in Chicago?
I studied performance art at a very experimental, utopic school called Dartington College of Arts in the U.K. From there I was invited to do a workshop with Lin Hixson and Matthew Goulish of [performance group] Goat Island. I took a workshop and kept in touch with the company. [Goat Island] did a U.K. tour, went back to Chicago and there was a member of the company that, unfortunately, was not wanting to continue. The company had a commitment through Randolph Street Gallery at the time. I got a call out of the blue from Lin inviting me to come and, basically, learn the show in two weeks. Now, I’m just like, “How did that happen?” I was 22-years-old and I’d never been on airplane before, and I’d never left the country.
You’ve spoken of your dad: “He was a herdsman who milked 200 Friesian cows each day, woke up at 5am and worked till 8pm, seven days a week.” I can guess where the work ethic comes from. What about the artistic side?
There was a town next to the village where I did a diploma in performing arts. I was exposed to a teacher who was working with [Martha] Graham technique and [Merce] Cunningham technique. I’d never actually danced before. I also had a delivery of the Face, which was a cutting edge experimental fashion/culture magazine that came out of London. Those things were important influences. Being taught by visual artists, experimental theater artists, dance artists, gave me a point of entry. Performance, in all respects, is such a filing cabinet of curiosities and rich landscapes.
A lot of people might not distinguish between performance art and dance. When you were working with the two mediums, did you feel like performance had more options for what you wanted to achieve artistically?
It’s interesting because I was applying to traditional acting schools. Again, at 17-years-old, you have no idea who the hell you are or what the hell you’re doing. All those schools, I got rejected from. I was a complete failure. I was doing all these auditions and thinking that I would go into some sort of repertory theater. The school where I was attending…there was a flyer up and the teacher said to me, “You need to apply for this.” I had no idea performance was where I was going. I’m appreciative that my entrance came from this formal background of modern dance with Graham and Cunningham. There’s something about the delivery of presence and technique that actually stems from that training, which I’m grateful for.
How do you see performance art evolving in Chicago?
There’s always been, for me, this really extraordinary place of experimentation in the city. It feels like performance is everywhere; it’s never gone away. It’s exciting to see that there is a dynamic now, in terms of all these venues wishing to work within things like the IN>TIME format. Performance gives people permission to open up a conversation that they wouldn’t normally open up. I get very excited about it.
What’s the origin-story of IN>TIME?
One of the things exciting to me about Goat Island was that we would be in these festivals, similar to IN>TIME, and actually have an opportunity to see other artists work. Myself and [IN>TIME cofounder] Sara Schnadt were at a performance event and we felt we needed to up the game. Sara was working at the Cultural Center at the time and we approached the theater director to see if she would be interested in establishing this branded event called IN>TIME. At the 2010 event there was like 3,000 people there. It really gave us permission and a desire to think, “Okay, can we move it out of the Cultural Center and think about a bigger event.” Here we are seven years later and we now have a citywide performance festival.
How do you see IN>TIME shaping over the next couple years? Do you think it could become an annual event?
For my own personal mental health [laughs], because I also make work and I’m also teaching, I want it to be a biennial. Ideally, I’d love some commissioning money that comes out, so that we can really think about how the programming becomes much more centralized, much more about sharing ideas. I’m thinking it could be interesting to gather all the presenters in one place, and just think about moving forward to 2015.
You’ve referred to the festival as your mid-life crisis. How does the fest measure up to, say, a Ferrari convertible?
I think it’s a pretty beautiful Ferrari convertible. [Laughs] Something I’ve discovered in my life, and I don’t know if this is just me coming from the U.K. to America and being like, “I’ve got a whole new identity,” but just having this opportunity to go knock on people’s doors and say, “Can we try this?” It’s like being a kid in a candy shop.
The IN>TIME Performance Festival continues through March 2 at various locations in the city. For dates, times and a schedule of performers, go to in-time-performance.org.