Q&A with Jacek Ludwig Scarso (Toxic Monks)

JacekJacek Ludwig Scarso is the Artistic Director of Elastic Theatre and creator of Toxic Monks, which appears at this year’s InTRANSIT Festival. Here, he discusses his ongoing obsession with monks. Seriously, you’ll love this guy. 

Hi Jacek. Thanks so much joining me on the InTRANSIT Festival blog. I hear you’ve been country-hopping this past weekend. How’s Italy?

Thanks for inviting me! Yes, it’s all been a bit hectic this week. Italy was great, splendid weather, food, you name it: there I am working with Romberg Art Gallery on my next exhibition: a mix of live performance, video and photo-art. At the end of this week, I’m going to Germany, for the opening of NordArt, where I’ll be showing three video installations alongside artists from 99 countries, so it promises to be an amazing opportunity. I should say that not all my weeks are this international, though!

Toxic Monks 300dpi 1

Your upcoming InTRANSIT Festival show Toxic Monks was originally created for the MACRO Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome. Tell us how the performance (in co-production with Elastic Theatre) has changed since then.

This piece has been obsessing me for some time, it’s fair to say. It all started a year and a half ago, when I was working on ‘Icons & Idols’, a joint exhibition with Marta Czok at MACRO Museum in Rome – a fantastic venue created out of a former slaughterhouse, of all places. The exhibition was about the use of sacred imagery in contemporary art and, for the opening, I decided to have an opera singer simply “exist” in the space, dressed as a monk, going about his own business increasingly  intoxicated by the fumes of his incense burner. At different points in the evening, he would travel in the space, surprising the visitors with beautifully haunting a cappella singing. The effect was bizarre, funny, but also moving.

Later on, when co-curating Fused Festival for Royal Opera House, I came across a young barbershop quartet, called The Old Telephone Exchange. Their fantastic harmony work and unique chemistry on stage made me think (as you would): “Yes, they’d be perfect Toxic Monks!” I’m glad they accepted the challenge when we were invited  to show an initial version of this in a disused boiler house in North London. Now I can’t wait to see what InTRANSIT will bring.

Toxic Monks is described as a ‘durational live installation’ and also boasts ‘Gregorian music’ and ‘Barbershop classics’. What inspired this genre-blending awesomeness?

There is something both extraordinarily  powerful and deeply vulnerable about a cappella vocal music. No wonder it’s been used at the core of sacred experiences in so many cultures. I remember once we were touring to Vilnius in Lithuania and stumbled upon a beautiful orthodox church, where monks (I told you I was obsessed) were in the middle of a contemplative sung prayer. A hypnotic chanting drone suddenly erupted into a stunning polyphonic harmony: I burst into tears, it really was an out of this world experience.

In some parts of Toxic Monks, I hope to recreate that same experience, but that for me only works if it’s balanced by a good dose of unashamed silliness. Barbershop music brings that element of light entertainment that is both nostalgic and a bit cheeky. The durational nature of the piece comes from the fact that I see my projects better as ongoing “exhibits”, rather than shows or concerts. It’s not exactly live art either – actually, I’m quite happy not to know how to define it. What I do know is that the Monks have escaped from their monastery and we see them in a limbo space between heaven and earth – we spy on them as they go about their heavenly quest and their mundane everyday activities. Apparently, they enjoy dusting and gardening…

What’s up with the ‘secret location’? Why won’t you tell us where the show is? 

These are runaway monks! We wouldn’t want to broadcast their whereabouts…

Toxic Monks 300dpi 3 (poster image)

In the show description, it also says you’ll be ‘exploring ideas about masculinity’. What will this performance tell me about men that I don’t already know?

Well, it depends on what you know already! I am fascinated by how men behave in same-gender groups. When I was little growing up in Italy, one of my supply teachers happened to be some sort of monk. I remember asking him what they would do in their spare time at the monastery. He said they liked playing football. I love that image.

At least one of your promotional photos includes monks sporting boxer shorts. Should we expect any onstage nudity? Is it safe to bring my grandmother?

Ha ha – it depends on your grandmother, mine would love it! Joking aside, I hope this piece can reach people of all ages and walks of life – but be warned, our Monks can be quite unpredictable.

Toxic Monks 300dpi 2

Don’t miss Toxic Monks at the InTRANSIT Festival, Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 June at 6:30pm (40 minute performance). Exact location TBA.

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