A Conversation With … Pepper Keen

Known for co-launching Melbourne’s Sugar Mountain festival, which since 2011 has continued to set the benchmark for multi-arts festivals, Pepper Keen has pushed interdisciplinarity to the centre. Facilitating the VIA ALICE program in 2017, this year Pepper returns to the VIA Planet Earth series with Red Bull for VIA SÃO PAULO. Bringing São Paolo’s queer electronic underground to Dark Mofo with the help of Teto Preto, Badsista and Cashu, we spoke with Pepper about performance starting a dialogue, immersive arts and working towards understanding.

BYO: How did you go about connecting with the artists for VIA SÃO PAULO?

Pepper: In the last two years I've been making trips back and forth to São Paolo and during that time I was invited to take part in a festival, take part in industry meets, speak on panels and a lot of these opportunities are great and I'm super lucky to have them but at the same I really thrive off natural relationships and stumbling into things, and one of the last times I was in São Paulo I stumbled into a nightclub. It was really thriving with movement and at the centre of that mass audience there was one person who stood out, who was dancing Butoh which is an ancient Japanese dance form which is extremely odd, when you think of Brazilian movement it's kind of a complete opposite form of movement. I was drawn to speak to them, we were hanging out and quite naturally ended up becoming friends and spending a lot of time with each other. I was introduced to their community and their greater friendship circles and nothing about business came up. It was really fluid and free flowing and really natural and we were really excited by this friendship and I went back to spend a month or so in São Paulo and really get a better sense of a city that had totally taken a good grasp of my attention and my excitement. I spent a lot of time with these people and eventually we obviously shared information about what we actually do for a living and that person ended up being one of the central pieces of Teto Preto and also the greater queer underground of electronic music scene.

BYO: What was the push to showcase this particular scene as the second part of the Via Planet Earth series after VIA ALICE?

Pepper: So VIA ALICE was a virtual reality film and dance performance. It was very much based around body language and trying to eliminate a whitewashing of English language in what was very much a modern Indigenous Australian story. The virtual reality films, they will continue and they are going to take Australia being a starting point and then step out to nearby neighbours, using Australian multidisciplinary artists as our entry point to discovering neighbours and really trying to bring our communities closer. Outside of that I really wanted to use other forms of communication outside of dance, performance and film so I'm exploring that in this live event and also a podcast series which is going to be entitled VIA SÃO PAULO as well. It's basically just an introduction to the greater creative community of São Paulo and trying to open a mutual pathway for relationships to be built and fused between our community here in Australia and São Paulo and hopefully from that collaboration and exchange will happen. I'm trying to make it as natural as my meeting point was. I'm trying to provide that for others as well.

BYO: Brazil doesn't feature hugely in Australian media but we do hear that particularly under President Jair Bolsonaro it has become quite repressive for queer people and people of colour and I was wondering how have you seen these artists and their communities grapple with this political environment and what could we learn in Australia from giving these artists a platform?

Pepper: There's quite a few levels to it. On the very surface level there's been horrible situations there for people of all ages, people of all demographics, but quite heavily so for minority groups, people of colour, queer and trans communities. One person within the queer community dies every day in Brazil and the urgency within these communities to share a message of hope and transcend the dangers and create a community that thrives off each other and allows growth and ability to share their stories and share their voice is super important. Being able to create a platform where these artists can share those messages and stories abroad is super important because it builds a greater community. A community doesn't have the restraints of an area code, a community can be global and energy and power can be infused in many ways.

BYO: An important part of VIA ALICE was the immersive and choreographic nature of it, is that something that you're looking to replicate with VIA SÃO PAULO?

Pepper: It's a centrepoint of a lot of things that I do. I really try and push myself and push those around me to use technology in interesting new ways. With VIA ALICE it was very much about warping virtual reality and IRL to create an experience that might not have been done prior, or even just pushing ourselves to translate a story to people where it can be felt. Virtual reality is one thing and you can really feel immersed and present within a space or an experience but blurring those lines and extending the film and taking people into a real life performance..., it's exciting to play with that. With VIA SÃO PAULO the power of the performance is enough on its own.

BYO: A lot of your work has been noted for its interdisciplinarity and as an artist or creative producer, what's the drive for you to approach projects in that multimodal way?

Pepper: Yeah it's a tricky one to answer because I really struggle with titles because I'm always titled as artist, creative director or artistic director or something or other and it's kind of blurry. I just make things and whether or not that's in an artistic role of a facilitation role it's all about trying to really push myself and share the excitement that I experience with others. Collaboration has always been the centrepoint of that.

In my earlier years I was a visual artist, highly centred in illustration and but it felt really lonely and ever since I worked on the music festival Sugar Mountain and all these other outlets, collaboration and having other people in my orbit and being able to learn from others and share my learnings with others as well has been the source of great happiness for me. Through that experience I just feel like I can understand people on a greater level because I'm working with so many people from so many different backgrounds and demographics.

RED BULL PRESENTS: VIA SÃO PAULO comes alive on Friday, June 14, Saturday, June 15 and Friday, June 21 as park of Dark Mofo’s Night Mass. More info here: https://darkmofo.net.au/program/night-mass/red-bull-presents-via-sao-paulo.