In 2016, artist-curators Anna Buyvid and Anna Khodorkovskaya organized the Worldwide Apartment and Studio Biennale, a decentralized biennial held in artists’ studios and apartments and apartment galleries around the world for two months. Many artists took part in WASB. Another biennial with the same space-specific coordinates, artists’ studios, and apartments is #00Bienal de la Habana 2018, the initiative of independent artists from Havana who wanted to offer an alternative to the official biennial that was not held that year. The event led to social movements and police interventions. Other projects with an internationally applicable festival-type format include the Living-Room Festival held 2010–13 in Zagreb, Berlin, Brussels, and Madrid; the lorgennale 2016–18, and X-Apartments 2002–12, a project created by Mathias Lilienthal and applied in Duisburg (2002) Vienna (2003), Berlin (2004), Istanbul (2008), Sao Paulo (2009), Johannesburg (2010), Warsaw (2010), Mannheim (2011), Beirut (2012), Zagreb (2016), Stuttgart (2017), and Budapest (2018).
The longest surviving and ongoing diffused biennial project (until the pandemic’s spread), however, seems to be Hors Lits, initiated by Leonardo Montecchia in Montpellier (2005) and continued in many other cities in France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Finland, Tunisia, Mexico, Chile, Austria, and the UK. The Hors Lits format involves a tour of the city with stops in the four apartments in which the performances are held. I performed in two of the Venice editions (2015, 2018) managed by a friend, Laura Colomban, but only in December 2020 did I have the chance to have a conversation (via Zoom) with Leonardo. It was my first Zoom meeting after the lockdown in March–April 2020. In that moment my mood was pretty blue due the restrictions and the massive time that I spent mostly at home, but during the conversation I regained my spirit.
Jean-Lorin Sterian: I have to say that although usually I love to spend time at home, now I can hardly stand it. How about you?
Leonardo Montecchia: It’s different when you have a choice. I moved to a new house last summer, so it was good to have a new place, with a river view and a big garden. I’m pretty lucky. My last trip was to Argentina in February 2020. It was great cause I met my family, but since then, I stayed at home. I miss travelling too, but it’s not a good time to travel yet.
J-LS: Did you host performances in your home or in other people’s houses?
LM: I hosted many shows in my place. My own performances at the beginning, and other artists’ too. Maybe a little too much. After a while when they went to the rue de l’Université (my old addresses), people said we are going to Leo’s house …
J-LS: What was your first encounter with homemade culture?
LM: My very first contact was with Hors Lits, the day when I did my first solo performance in my bed. Or maybe when I did some theater shows with my twin sister at age seven in my childhood home …
J-LS: How did you start Hors Lits?
LM: The very first Hors Lits in 2005 came after a difficult moment în my life, both professional and personal. After I spent some time questioning myself, I felt the necessity of direct contact with the creation. I decided to do a solo performance in my own bed. And I proposed to do the same thing to the other three artists. It was a one-time proposition at the beginning.
J-LS: How was the first edition? How did it the concept evolve since then?
LM: The first edition was small with just twenty people in the audience. But it was magic. I instantly felt the »rightness« of the proposition. I felt that was the right direction for me. An alternative place from which to create, and having a different contact with artist and public. The concept hasn’t changed a lot. There were four performances of twenty minutes, just like now. But the public had the choice of what performances to see. It was very difficult to organize, and finally the people stayed for all four. Something important happened with me and with the audience. We decided to do the same thing one month later and we had more people in the audience, and then we stopped.
We did a performance every now and then and after three years of irregular events I made the decision to make it regular; three times per year. Some friends from Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Marseille wanted to try it and I said okay, maybe it’s important to think about the idea of a network. We never imagined how things would go on. Hors Lits didn’t started as a project; everything happened naturally. We acted first and started to think about it later. At the beginning I didn’t understand what had happened. And then I understood – this is the space of freedom of creation, outside the official stuff, the old dance company stuff, subventions. I’m not against that but we need different things, we need different forms. You know, I have had my own company since 2004, I have some government subsidies, I have all this stuff, productions, employment, but that’s another type of creation. In France we have a lot of money, but you have to turn into an administrative specialist in order to get it. Back then you had to ask permission all the time in order to do anything. It was very bureaucratic.
J-LS: Did Hors Lits fulfill a need?
LM: I needed the other space, an alternative space, in order to create, find new people, meet artists. I also needed to reconnect with the facility of creation. Without administrative stuff or political decisions. Without subsidies, authorizations, papers. Just artists, creation, and the public. So this stuff happened at the beginning when I realized this is a necessity to me.
J-LS: Who was Hors Lits’ first audience?
LM: We invited people via word of mouth and email. It was the first time we did something like this so we had no idea of what is gonna happen. We were pretty careful at the beginning. That’s why now we meet in the city before sending people to the houses. The first time was very innocent. Almost all audience members were artists and friends from the dance community, but this has changed.
J-LS: How did you feel having so many people in your house, some of them strangers?
LM: Is was really weird. At the first performance I did in my house, in my bed, I didn’t look at the audience at all. There is line in the show when I say to the people: »I know you are there.« That’s why I didn’t look at them, because I know they were there. I played with »I know you know that I know that you’re there.« They stayed at the sides of my bed. I didn’t know who they were. At that moment I lived in a small apartment. Many people told me that they were to my house during the performances so sometimes I meet people who telling me things like, »Hey, I like your sofa.«
J-LS: This still happens to me as well. I use to meet people at the parties or art events and they were telling me: »I like your wallpaper! How come? I was in your home in … 201X.« »What can I say ? I hope you had a good time!« I cannot remember all of the many people coming to my flat during the seven years of lorgean theatre. How was it for you to perform for an audience at such a close distance?
LM: It’s something that you have to learn in time. Now I love it and it completely changed my way of performing. Sometimes when I’m on a big stage I suddenly feel alone because people are not close. At the beginning I was really intimidated. As I said before, at my first home performance I was not looking at the audience. I played with presence and nonpresence in many performances. Once in Lille I did a performance in which I was blindfolded and I told the audience you can watch me, but I cannot watch you. And in the last three minutes of the performance, after I did some actions, I warned the people that I would take the blindfold off and I spent the last moments looking them in the eyes, one by one. It’s totally different from the stage and now I love it. Sometimes it’s very difficult when someone from the audience who has a bored, dull face is very close, and you have to deal with it. But now I like it. I want it. I need it.
J-LS: How did you select artists to perform in Hors Lit?
LM: We don’t choose; I just mix proposals. As a rule, I choose at least one artist that I don’t know at all. We make a speech in the front of audience in which we tell the audience that are not programming the space, we are just artists making space for other artists. I always say to the people: We didn’t know the performance until yesterday. You’ll see different things. Some things you’re gonna like, some thing you’re gonna hate. Don’t worry, it’s just twenty minutes. It’s not going to kill you. I actually sometimes think thing that you don’t like are stronger than the thing you like.
LM: And we talk a lot with the audience after the shows. There are so many people who are happy to discover things. This is very specific for Hors Lits; people don’t know what they are going to see. They don’t have any idea, because we don’t communicate too much about the content, we add just a little text. It’s for people with open minds.
J-LS: And the organizers from all the Hors Lits host cities have the same speech?
J-LS: So this is part of the format.
LM: Exactly. It didn’t come from the beginning because from four performances three could be nice and one could be less nice. I don’t remember where I was exactly, but I once saw a rehearsal of a performance and I told myself »I don’t know if I can stand this.« The idea of the speech came after this experience. It was a good idea because people liked this kind of honesty. It’s a risk, so we assume the risk.
J-LS: It is important for you to not raise audience expectations?
LM: They have to know the context when they come to Hors Lits. Sometimes artists present a final product. Sometimes it’s in a work in progress. Sometimes they just try things. Sometimes as an artist, you don’t like your own work. Once a woman asked me, »What, you don’t like what you do?« Yes, sometimes. When you talk about something that you made many years ago, you say I don’t like it. Yeah, it happens and it’s okay.
J-LS: Hors Lits has a specific format that doesn’t offer the audience just performances, but also a walk between the hosting houses. What is role of the outdoor part of the event?
LM: It’s very important. The walk means people can discover new spaces. At the beginning we had this thing when people could choose which performance to watch. It was terrible to manage it, cause people were like »I wanna see that, no, the other one, things like this.« It was a mess. Then we started to offer the four shows one after each other and the walk became important. They walk together from one performance to another, commenting on the shows. It creates a group effect, which is very nice. The walk creates a new dynamic between them.
LM: Yeah, and something more. We talked about showing the four performances in the same place. But it’s not the same thing. Because people don’t have this gap between the shows. And each time they discover a new house, a new space that offers new experiences.
J-LS: What is happening after the last performance is over?
LM: We have a last meeting, usually in a bar. It’s important that audience meet the artists. In Montpelier I can say we have a problem now because Hors Lits has become very popular. There are three groups of 30 people in the audience for every performance, which means 90 people in each edition. With the artists, it could be like 100 people. It’s a lot! It’s not always easy to find space for all these people, even if we just go for a beer. But this last meeting is very important.
J-LS: Who is the guide? Who takes the people from house to house?
LM: Different people. Usually part of the organization team. And sometimes we have artists who do performances during the walk.
J-LS: Regarding the increasing popularity of the festival, what do you think could happen if Hors Lits becomes a big thing, too big to handle?
LM: I don’t know what too big is.
J-LS: I don’t know either, but sometimes some projects start underground and they grow and grow and then become something else.
LM: I don’t think it will be ever too big because we don’t have money. Some people started Hors Lits in their city ten years ago and now they have a team, between one and five people. I have no control over the project so it could go anywhere. I think that’s the reason why Hors Lits still exists. I don’t want to have control. The only thing that I ask of the people that organize Hors Lits everywhere is just to be in touch. It’s not an obligation, I just think it’s important If some people don’t want to share their experience it’s not a problem. Creation and meeting people is the most important thing.
J-LS: How are the performing artists paid in Hors Lits?
LM: We share the funds: four parts for artists, and one for the organizers. For me it’s not important to be on the market. There will never be a Hors Lits Coca-Cola edition. There are people who started with Hors Lits and they wanted more money, subsidies, money from the city to do this and that. I said okay, but money should go to another project, not to Hors Lits. Because for me the important thing is the thinking and ideology of the alternative place. We have to create with freedom. I’m not against the money, but it matters where this money came from. This is the difference between Hors Lits and other events. When you have to ask for money from the city or the government it becomes political. Hors Lits is a big thing now, but is not on the market. And it will never be.
J-LS: I like that. Could be Hors Lits called a site-specific festival?
LM: I don’t like think like the word »festival.« I prefer »event« or »artistic action.« Festival is too institutional. Hors Lits is a concept, and a network of people with similar questions.
J-LS: What was the profile of the hosts of the first editions of Hors Lits? I reckon most of them were artists.
LM: Yes. At beginning the host and the audience were mostly artists but it changed a lot with time. Now there are all kind of people. Funny, last year I went to another French city with a project and had a meeting with the mayor. After he read my CV he asked: »Are the one who created Hors Lits?« So Hors Lits is quite known in France. Hors Lits is more important than me. And I like this. Now it’s very simple to find hosts. »Are you from Hors Lits? Yes. Come in.« It’s a lot easier than years ago when we had to explain it. Lots of people came after performances and told us: I would like to propose my home for the next edition. We have a list of proposals.
J-LS: It’s the same for HomeFest. Hosts or even team members were the audience at the beginning. They enjoyed the vibe and then they wanted to have the same in their homes. How can you perceive the domestic space after so many shows in your and many other homes? I suppose you now see it with different eyes, because it’s also a stage for you.
LM: You know now it’s like a reflex: when I go to a new place the first thing I do is look everywhere, here it would work this, here like this. I see the proposition that the house makes to me. It totally changed the way I look at places; not all the homes, but all the places. Now when someone tells me about a project I just ask, what is the place, what is the budget? And then we can do something. If the place is a toilet of only three square meters, no problem, we’ll come up with a proposal.
J-LS: I always imagined lorgean theatre as a laboratory for artists. How does Hors Lits work for you?
LM: Oh, I had so many experiences with the performances in the houses. Sometimes it’s like a laboratory … sometimes I regret it’s not more of a laboratory! Sometimes I see performances that are too »ready,« too »pretty.« As time passes, I increasingly love artists who take risks and search for new things. Sometimes I regret that artists don’t understand all the possibilities that they have at home, all the new things that they will never have on the stage.
J-LS: Did you meet artists that couldn’t adapt to the domestic box? In my place I had this issue mainly with actors who had worked at state theaters.
LM: Oh, yes. There are so many artists who arrive with these expectations of lights and sound stage system, smoke machine, whatever … You don’t understand! This is not the stage as you know it. This is just a house where people live. And you can take a lot from it! Some of them listen and understand; some don’t. The same with the relationship with the host – which is very important. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. You cannot force someone to communicate or involve more that he/she does. We cannot do more than: »Here is the artist, here is the host, meet each other.« Sometimes magic happen, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s always different. We don’t want to demand that the hosts be present. Sometimes they just give us the keys, and we almost don’t see them. But generally, they are very involved în the performances.
J-LS: The audience also plays a big part in making magic happen. They are so close to the artists, so their energy is more direct and more influential to the performance.
LM: Absolutely. The audience is very important. And they are always curious, I guess because they don’t know what they are going to see. So they are open to new experiences. They are generally very surprised and happy. The same thing goes for artists and for hosts: new experiences, new sensations.
J-LS: Do you think the domestic box (the domestic space that hosts art events) interferes with the performances?
LM: It interferes a lot! Domestic space is not neutral at all. It is so different compared to black box, which »wants« to be »neutral« (nothing is really neutral, you have a lot of conditionals things in a black box too). I always say that a house is an alive space. So we need to understand and respect this space.
J-LS: Is the home changed after a performance?
LM: Totally changed. A lot of hosts told us that they have changed the way of looking at their their home after the performances.
J-LS: What do you think will happen with Hors Lits within this weird context that we live now? The other type of performances, concerts, theater, contemporary dance can go on with the distance restrictions. But in the homemade culture events where the proximity, the intimacy between people is essential, it seems like there is no future in the next years.
LM: I don’t really know: 2020 was a very difficult year for everybody, of course. I have no idea what is going to happen. Here in France we said this winter we’re gonna be on standby and then we’ll see what happens for the summer.
J-LS: In April–May 2020, during the lockdown, we managed the HomeFest on Zoom and it went pretty well. The audience was only about 20–30 people for each show, the artists and audience were in separate homes and people stayed for long conversations afterward. The character of the intimacy and the home space for the performances were preserved.
LM: We are talking also about a »Covid compatible« Hors Lits but we’re not sure.
J-LS: How you imagine this »Covid compatible« edition?
LM: I have no idea. Maybe one-on-one performances or just five people in the audience and the artist in the shower or performers dressed in astronaut suits. I really don’t know. At the same time I don’t know if I want it. Maybe we can do it once, just for the fun of it, or we can say we can’t do it as we like so we won’t do it. The contact is so important. I just watched some old videos from Hors Lits where people were dancing very close and I felt so touched, I almost cried. And I said to myself I don’t wanna end this … but if we cannot do it in the same way, maybe we’re gonna do another project and Hors Lits will be on hold until we can do it as we want. It’s really weird moment and I don’t want to sacrifice the project. Maybe it’s better to wait. Maybe we go to hibernate for six months, or two years.
J-LS: Yeah, I know, because at the core of any homemade art project is to put people together under the same roof. And this is not happening anymore. I don’t know: maybe we can use this context, as sometimes the restrictions could make us more creative.
LM: Yeah, sure, but in this case it won’t be Hors Lits anymore. It will be another thing.
J-LS: What about the lockdown phenomenon when all of a sudden, artists from all over the world started to perform in their homes?
LM: It was a different thing because it was mediated by video. People asked me – why you don’t make performances from your home? I don’t want to do this. For me it’s important to invite people to come to my place. It’s something alive. I’m very grateful for all this technology stuff and I love it; we can have this conversation now, but it’s not the same thing as sharing a drink at my house or yours or somebody else’s.
All images courtesy Hors Lits archive