Nikki Rosa Ootjers is a Dutch performance artist that is best known from her collaboration with Hinde Chaâtouf as Thundermoon. Her work often builds on the absurd. Lately she is devoted to her music project Venderstrooik.
You have been developing yourself as a performance artist during your studies and working as such since your graduation. How did performance help shape who you are?
I think that it helped me to develop who I am as a person, and how I handle life. I remember when I first got into the academy I immediately became friends with a group of girls and we called ourselves The Unicorn. We became kind of a collective and what we had in common was that we all liked to dress up and be very outspoken, outgoing, loud and present. We stood out in this sense. What we did was not even with the attitude that this was a work of art, but we came together very naturally and organized these things just for us. Like these weird dinners with themes and we dressed up. For example, we decided that today we are going to eat everything pink or today we are going to make wine, so we went to the supermarket and bought grapes and made pictures. Everything we did was kind of a performance but only through the act of play. Like the Homo Ludens thing, it was very organic. So that really helped shape my view on life. At the academy you still have the freedom to play and not worry about assignments, professionalism or your position as an artist. This kind of freedom you loose later in life. After the academy I became very focussed. I started working with one of the girls, the rest of the group kind of faded out. I still work together with Hinde. Together we got to this stage where everything was focussed on career, on steps and growth, and development of your practice in stead of this playfulness we used to have. At some point it got to a breaking point that we were missing this freedom so much. I think play is a general thing art has. Without play you lose the joy in your work. Especially with performances I realized that I need to take it back to making live performance. I always felt the need for that. Not doing a performance but being a performance, making my whole life a performance. I wanted to get this back and I did I think by focussing a bit less on career and making money. Most things I do are in this practice now.
In your work you often employ the absurd. What do you want to achieve with this?
I think there is immense truth in absurdity. I see similarities with the story of the Joker. The Joker, also in Tarot cards, is the character that lives an immoral life. Immoral in the sense that the Joker sees the good and the bad, he knows everything, and he decides to walk his own opportunist path and decides to make a joke of it rather than being an activist or to exploit people. I kind of see this way as well. So, he has this trickster way of thinking. If you read mythology the trickster is a similar character to the Joker, like the coyote or the fox. The coyote always makes jokes and is kind of cunning; he pulls nasty tricks that are kind of mean but also funny. I think that absurdity has something to do with this as well. It’s kind of a safe space because if you make jokes about everything, you don’t have to take anything seriously. There is an immense freedom in letting yourself see all the other sides of living a life. In stead of polarizing it, taking one thing that you really believe in and take seriously, absurdity allows you to see more perspectives. But this also has a dangerous side because if you don’t take anything seriously your life can also become very empty. So, I think it’s a fine line to walk between the side of truth, and see the truth and value in things, but also not too much. I believe in humour as well. Thinking back to my time at the academy, now performance is a thing again but at the academy everybody was painting or sculpting and doing very conceptual things but not so much performance, especially not the kind of performances we did. When I was in this group we always used costumes, and humour, and there was a lot of irony. It was cynical and funny. I remember that any time we did something before the class, nobody laughed because everybody was trying to make it into this serious event. I was always kind of offended afterwards, for fucks sake we did such hilarious things. It’s ok to laugh, it doesn’t take away the value or the layers, and humour is just one of the layers that make performance what it is.
In Madame Moustache you come on to the stage with an accordion player and exclaim “Mon Ananas! C’est une tragédie!” Can you tell me what this performance is about?
At that time, I was going through a heart break, but is wasn’t a very serious, big heart break. It was kind of a small heart break. I could see the humour in my own sadness because it was also kind of ridiculous. I slept with an old friend and there was this whole drama because it didn’t turn into a romance. At the same time, I had to laugh because it was kind of a brother figure. It was a weird situation. So, I invented this character, and French is obviously very dramatic. So, this was kind of the point. I have written some love letters to him and me though “Oh yeah, Madame Moustache”, and an accordion, and there needed to be a lot of drama. “No, why have you left me?” I don’t know the specifics why she had to have a moustache.
In the The Order of the Yellow Canary you represent an administrative worker in a surreal office. What is going on?
This tough because I had to do a big project alone, and I don’t work alone so well. I worked with Hinde so much and so intensely. It was so nice, but my graduation had to be an individual project. This project was like giving labour, it was tough. I’m proud of this work. So, in The Order of The Yellow Canary I wanted to make a system. I wanted to categorize people. I’m always writing, and I made up these absurd worlds and stereotypes that were based on archetypes in life because I was fascinated with Karl Jung, and Tarot as well, and astrology. It is fascinating and makes sense to categorize people, things and situations because I think that’s how our brain works. So, I wanted to do something like there systems of characterization but based on how I do things and perceive the world. Examples of these categories were something with Chihuahuas, and with Chuck Norris playing basketball or something, and a lot of other pop culture references. I created about 100 archetypes. I just met my boyfriend at that time, who is a computer programmer, and I asked him to make a computer program with these archetypes. It was cool. We made this test with multiple choice questions that you did on an old 90s computer. After the test was done you would get results. The installation was divided, and I would sit in another room. The test would roll out of the printer and I would read it. Then I would sign it and give you the results. It was super vague. Nobody really knew what was going on. But there was also an instruction booklet and it was very well organized.
You have been working for some time in collaboration with Hinde Chaâtouf as the collective Thundermoon. How does this influence your artistic practice?
Oh, immensely. I would even go so far to say that at this point, as far as artistic practice goes, I can’t picture it completely without Hinde, especially performance wise. Writing I always done myself, ideas and concepts they come, and you do something a little bit or not, and they come and go, and its fluid. But my practice is on the verge of complete change since we’ve been apart with Hinde, because she moved to France and I moved to Berlin. I don’t think I can go on doing performances like I have for the past 7 years, because it was so intertwined with Hinde. When I see her, we still have this chemistry and ideas pop up fast. I’m wondering how it will develop because I have plans to see her more often next year. I think the kind of chemistry that we have, and our viewpoints on what we want to make, is so connected, it’s insane. As far as my own practice, I’m wondering what performances would look like if I would do it on my own. I haven’t worked on my own since The Order of The Yellow Canary. So, it’s a surprise how things are going to develop.
In Good afternoon Mr. Tea you are playing checkers with Hinde dressed in blond wigs and muzzles. What is that performance about?
That was spontaneous. It was part of a few films we did in a very short time. It was kind of an exercise. We needed to just make something. So, I had this checkers board from another performance or idea for a performance and we just took out all these things that we had including this super cool rug that we used as the backdrop. I think we also made this movie because I found this rug, I want to be buried in this rug, and we totally had to use it because it’s so pretty. So, we were sitting, and we just got the camera rolling and then we both realized that neither of us knew how to play checkers and it turned into this weird game we were making up as we go. I believe that art is a medium to perceive higher knowledge. When I do things alone I start to think about everything because I’m overcome with insecurity but when I work together, and there is this chemistry, and enthusiasm, and we make without thinking. Afterwards I look at my own work and it’s like “Woah! No, I see how this relates to this.” When you don’t think to much about the objects you use but they all have such meanings. When you dress up and don’t just use your body there are all these facets. You can see them like random elements, but they never are.
You describe your Lecturama series with Hinde as a mixture between lectures, rituals and team building exercises. Is this an attempt to reclaim female teachings?
Not consciously. What we do is never a conscious attempt at anything feministic. Unconsciously of course we are females and we are very interested in a lot of very female things like, power things, like rituals and moon things. In this way we are conscious about the theory behind it but it’s just an interest not a political act. Also, when we do things topless for example, it’s because we are interested in these beautiful ritual aspects of femininity, or the history, or mythology. Politics never come into play consciously. We don’t find it interesting because we like to have the freedom to take a piss on everything, also feminism if we want to. If you put yourself in this corner of “We do this because we make some kind of statement about feminism in society or this state of affairs” you lose the freedom to do what the fuck you want. Our visit to FEMEN it shook up a lot of things. We really did not like that experience because we had to be so serious all the time and there was such a degree of arrogance and short-sightedness. It made us really confused because we like activism and screaming, and we love feminism, it’s very important, so why was it so shitty? Then we turned it into a Lecturama where we decided to use the ideas from the workshop with the screaming because we liked that, and it was powerful. So, we decided to do something using these aspects but without the politics. We called it New Age Activism and copied the workshop, did it topless with flower crowns in our heads. We took all these elements but then take it into absurdity and not make it into a political thing. Instead you had to scream a slogan with your spirit animal and then jump and do a little dance, and then we had to run because we had to be energetic, but nothing political.
You created Frauduleus foundation with Hinde Chaâtouf and Sidhi Achmat to invigorate nightlife. On your website you describe yourself as female power in your face. How does this influence your projects?
It’s typical and really double that I’m saying that we’re not consciously doing feminist things, and then making such statements. It doesn’t make any sense. So maybe we did exploit that a little bit. Frauduleus was a weird thing, we still officially exist but it’s kind of fallen apart. So, we started to work together with Sidhi, and we got pulled out of arts into not so conceptual projects like festivals and fun theatre things. First, we just had the idea to open a shop and we sold records and vintage clothes. Then we began to organize things, so instead of making use of a platform we offered a platform. That was an interesting time to explore Rotterdam from another viewpoint and twist it around; ask people to do something in stead of asking people to be able to do something. Then came the parties. It was just fun. It was three girls having fun. We and Hinde we can get very theoretical and abstract but with Sidhi it became a fun thing. The female power was kind of embracing this fun. It was Spice Girls for real. We kicked a lot of ass and did a lot of cool things.
What does sisterhood mean to you?
A lot! I think sisterhood is very important. I noticed that when I was in Berlin for a year, I didn’t have a lot of friends around. For some reason I made guy friends or queer guy friends, which is half way there but not really, not all the way. So, I missed it a lot to have females around me, and the kind of connection you have in sisterhood. When I have my sisters around me, my female friends, I don’t have to justify my own femininity or the lack of, or this fluidity of gender. There is this unspoken assumption that you are connected. I don’t know how to explain it otherwise. One female can be different from the other, but you also must like each other, you can’t just get a random group of women together and be like “This is my sisterhood.” In sisterhood there is a very beautiful connection that you do not have with male friends. I think it’s important and empowering. You don’t need to talk about it all the time. I wouldn’t like that. It’s nice to feel this connection and not talk about it. Sisterhood gives me power for sure. When I don’t have it, I feel a bit lost.
You are also part of Venderstrooik collective where you create music and perform with two male friends. How does being the only woman work out for you?
This is also a very nice collective. It’s very different because the creative roles are divided otherwise, but it’s nice to work with them. Music is a big love of mine. I’m really convinced that these guys are genius, especially the one that makes the music. Everything he does I support and love so much! I’m obsessed with what he makes. I’ve known these guys for 8 or 9 years, which is almost if I know Hinde. I’ve been working with them for a long time but it’s just starting to get together now into a project. Being the only woman is very different, but these guys are so special and hilarious. I don’t know anybody like them. They are weird. So, this is what keeps me interested. It’s so creatively challenging because everything they do is so funny and levelled as well. Other than gender there’s obviously the intellectual bond and you have plays such a big part. With these guys I’m so levelled. I can say, just as much as I’m levelled with Hinde.
I noticed you always wear a costume in your performances, even when you are dressed up in regular clothes. Can you elaborate this?
Costumes are very important. I don’t think I could ever perform without a costume because it’s a transition. I could never perform as myself. That’s why in daily life as well, my normal clothes look a lot like costumes because I need them to play roles even in normal life. I have this thing, when I don’t have a lot of performances; my friends notice this and my boyfriend as well. When I don’t have performances lined up, I start to be weird in my social life. I start to play roles, which is then tiresome for the people who know me. Also, before you do a show, putting on a costume is also very ritualistic. You sit in front of a mirror or there is a kind of backstage room and you’re transforming yourself into this person who will do something else than what you will do. So, a costume is very necessary. You have these performers who perform with their normal bodies and their normal clothes, but I wouldn’t know how to do that. It’s also because I dress up in normal life. I’ll tell you a story. It’s funny. My mom showed me this picture the other day. When I was a kid, there was this birthday of a teacher and we could all dress up. In the picture you see three other girls dressed up in pink fairy costumes and I’m wearing this weird golden business suit with gold stripes and red tights. It looks completely ridiculous. I’ve painted my head and neck orange, and I painted this big angular beard, and these weird Egyptian eyes. I remember I was proud, and you can see me smiling. It’s the weirdest picture ever. My mom said that this is how I went to school a lot of the time. Apparently, I always came up with these weird combinations with weird stuff on my face or head and my mom let me go to school like this because I was so proud of how I looked. Of course, I got laughed at, but I did not realize it until much later. Probably at the time I though that I look great. I suppose dressing up was always part of my personality.
You often accentuate your female appearance and create distinctive characters in your performances. When did you first realize that your presumed female body can be used as a tool and a sight of provocation?
I like to say no but I think it’s also a bit hypocritical and naïve and dishonest. I think provocation is in there. I always try to pretend that I’m not feminist. You hear me say that a lot of things I do are non-political, but of course I can’t deny the fact that if I DJ or do anything topless that it’s random. Through Venderstrooik I’ve realized that I haven’t done anything non-topless for the past 5 years. The reason I do this is because I want nudity to be more normalized so there is a political aspect. I do believe that I am of course a feminist. I do believe that it’s also a punk way of saying “Fuck You! These are my fucking boobs!” I can show my boobs in a non-sexual way and you’re just going to have to deal with it. Then a friend asked me “When was the last time you did not do something topless?” and that kind of shocked me because it’s not a powerful political thing anymore but is reduced to a gimmick. I’m turning a powerful tool into a gimmick. That made me realize that I need to be more conscious with how I use my nudity. Like you say, it is a tool of provocation. It is good to think about how you are perceived. The reality is that if you do everything topless it is going to be tiring. Also, when you pull nudity out of art and into music and entertainment, of course you always will get this shock factor. I do not want to be recognised anymore as the girl with the boobs. Also, in art in annoys me when the work is bad, and somebody is just naked. It is not provocation anymore, it’s just annoying. It becomes this thing with no meaning. I think it’s such a shame because it started as a powerful gesture. So, I realized that I need to be more conscious of my nudity and how I use it as a tool.
Would you call yourself a feminist or is it an outdated term?
No, it’s not an outdated term. It’s only outdated if we make it outdated. I would definitely call myself a feminist. Of course, it doesn’t rule out that some feminists are annoying. Feminism can be annoying and complicated and messy. It’s filled with resentment towards each other. I feel so sad that there are so many underlining ideas and concepts of how other people should behave, or other women should be feminist. I don’t have an answer on how to stop this. It’s really complicated. I found a balance for myself between when are you a feminist and do something about sexism and when not, because I am aware of this danger that when you are too occupied with sexism and feminism the whole time it’s really a shame because you let your life pass by with a lot of resentment and anger. You are more than your gender. If you focus too much on it in your activism you become a victim of it as well. I believe that we do need activism and people who focus on it all the time, but I couldn’t do it. I need to just do things without being focussed on feminism.
When did you start to think of yourself as feminist?
I think it became a real topic after FEMEN. My middle name is Rosa Luxemburg so obviously my mom was quit feminist and my grandma as well. I come from a line of very strong, powerful women. So, I think that feminism had always been in there but when you’re young you do not realize this. I think I became conscious of feminism around FEMEN because then I began to think about what feminism entails and do research. I started to read about what activism means in general and what it means to study and be active in feminism. What it means to talk about it with friends as well, making it a topic and being active in talking about it a lot with people. So, then it became a conscious thing. So that was quit late actually, 4 years ago or something. Before it was probably in there but it’s different from being theoretically involved and educating yourself about feminist instead of just being born into feminism because you’re a woman. I think there is a difference.
What is feminism for you?
Something I will never get rid of. It will always be there. Sometimes it will be empowering, sometimes it will be a contradictory element that is in the way that you want to forget or pretend it’s not there. Sometimes it would be nice not to be a woman. I think that being a woman is inherent to be a feminist in some ways because you really can’t escape even if you have nothing to do with books or education or activism. You’re still going to be a female in this century and you’re going to deal with it. I’m wondering how it would feel like to not have this for a second, but I can’t escape it. I think it’s a complicated relationship but at the same time a safe blanket.