69 positions – Interview with Mette Ingvartsen
Bergen, October – 2014
What was the first idea that triggered the creation of 69 positions? Could you unfold the history of the project?
It was in fact exactly as I say it in the performance: it all began with the email I wrote to Carolee Schneemann. But the letter I addressed to her was prompted by the interest I had developed in sexuality and nudity in performance beforehand. These notions were present in my early work. Yet in the last few years I entirely focused on choreography for non-humans, including inanimate materials, so I was wondering why the concerns with sexuality resurged ten years later. The 50th anniversary of Meat Joy was approaching, and I thought that if I wrote Schneeman in January 2013, we would have enough time to prepare and reinterpret Meat Joy in Paris on the 29th of May, 2014.
So your original plan was to re-stage Meat Joy?
My idea was to work with Schneeman and the original cast of Meat Joy. It wasn’t about just redoing the same performance, but restaging it with bodies that would be fifty years older than they were at the time when they originally performed Meat Joy. I thought this would allow us to examine the difference between the original and the revival fifty years later. I proposed Schneeman to use interviews as a method of collaboration, so that the additional layer of this reconstruction would include the reflection on what it meant to create Meat Joy in the 1960’s, the conceptual and political underpinnings of the work. I became interested in this work when at several occasions I tried describing and doing it at the same time, and began thinking about how it would feel to perform Meat Joy, especially the bodily contact with dead meat.
Apart from the interest in the performance of sexuality and nudity, and Meat Joy, there is also speaking and doing in the format of a lecture demonstration. How do you relate your wish to enter the experience of performing Meat Joy with a solo lecture performance?
[…] In the past, I’ve explored various interviewing formats in writing and speaking. This led me to search for how a discursive inquiry could shape a new performance, as a way of reconnecting to history and to Meat Joy. I prefer to call it a “discursive practice performance,” instead of lecture performance, a familiar genre with its function and history. With a discursive practice performance I am trying to define the format by which the process of the production of discourse gives life to something else than that which it speaks about. Therefore, I shied away from trying to truthfully reconstruct the historical works because my aim was to create another reality of those works today. I’ve experimented with this in Speculations (2011), the solo performance based on speaking that I made in preparation for another larger-scale choreography, The Artificial Nature Project (2012). It was also a way for me to reflect upon the thoughts and ideas I was going to develop further in the next choreography and make this reflection public in discourse. What is the performative reality of words and discourse? How can one produce imagined or virtual realities through speech? These were the questions I was concerned with then, and I took them into 69 Positions as well.
There is perhaps a new rhythm of research that shapes your work: a solo that searches ideas for and thus pre-figures a larger scale group choreography.
Perhaps there is a parallel between Speculations and The Artificial Nature Project, on the one hand, and between 69 positions and the group choreography I am starting to prepare for next year, on the other hand. I don’t yet know what this group piece (7 Pleasures) will finally be, so the comparison between the two processes is for now only tentative. But to start from language, ideas and concepts and to try them out in a solo format before working towards a group performance seems indeed to become a new methodology. Conceptual ideas of course never translate directly into choreography, as nonverbal movement expression communicates in other ways than language. But what I know is that thinking in concepts and concerns that clearly relate to society is strong in my work and for the moment it feels important to expose those ideas in an explicit manner through language. I also like the process of preparing a new work alone, which gives me time to think and search, and what I search for is a performative form, a discursive model that expresses these thoughts, concepts and ideas.
Perhaps this is a way to extend the duration of thoughts. What makes you a theater maker in a broad sense is dialogue. So you want to launch those ideas into a sphere where they can rebound; you want them to be there, resonating with an audience for a while and you test them on a scene of thinking, before you take them on another level, into a collaboration with performers. Now what is the occasion in which you actually did explain and do Meat Joy before you started the work on 69 Positions?
It happened in the context of Expo Zéro, a project by Boris Charmatz and Musée de la danse, which was based on inviting ten artists to create their own history of dance, taking as a point of departure their own body as a container of history. My intention was to select three works from the past five decades on the basis of strong preferences: works I would have liked to make, and works I wouldn’t have wanted to make although they interested me for various reasons; only extreme and no lukewarm feelings about them. In the course of two editions of Expo Zéro I participated in I realized that my interests gravitated towards naked women doing extreme actions of various kinds. Meat Joy was in my first selection, and so were actions by Marina Abramović and Ulay, the works from the 1960’s and 1970’s. I thought it weird that nothing from the 1980’s and 1990’s caught my interest, it felt too close and I wanted to take distance from it. Since Expo Zéro is a dialogic situation where the audience talks to you, I encountered strong responses to my working with Meat Joy. For instance when I would speak about how it would be to bite my teeth into a dead chicken, people reported that they had a strong visceral experience of imagining the relation between the dead meat and the living body. At that time, I was working on the relationship between the animate and the inanimate in The Artificial Nature Project. So I think that that’s where my interest in dead meat and Meat Joy came.
You presented a version of this performance in Kortrijk. Could you put the chronology of the creation in order?
My letter to Schneeman dates from the 25th of January 2013. When Schneeman declined my invitation, I sent her another proposal, but I never heard back from her. Then I thought: does it mean I should let it go of this idea? After a while, I decided that I would pursue my interest in examining the interaction between the dead and the living, and see where it would take me. Furthermore, I started looking for other works that would be dealing with nudity, with sexual representation, as well as questions of participation in terms of direct political engagement in the 1960’s. This is how Dionysis in 69, Yayoi Kusama and Jack Smith, for instance, resurfaced. What began to preoccupy me was how to think of my own body becoming multiple, being multiplied by various perspectives. At the same time, Agnès Quackels, the programmer of BUDA cultural center in Kortrijk invited me to present the references in my work. It was a carte-blanche invitation on the basis of the idea that artists would exhibit their work in an indirect way, through the references relevant for them. I first wanted to call my presentation Ten references that I would like to share with you, meaning a selection of ten works from the 1960’s I wanted to plunge into. I remember you questioning it.
I asked you why it was that you were doing this, and what you wanted to achieve with describing nude and sexually explicit performances from the 1960’s today.
It should be said that in that early version the historical and political context was missing. I deliberately evacuated it so the description seemed as if I was inventing something on the spot. It was conceived as an imaginative choreography. After our conversation, I realized that my actual interest was in the relationship between these works and the sexual liberation movement in the context of the Vietnam War. So removing the historical and political context also weakened the operation of the works that I was referencing. That led me to the idea of producing the frame of an exhibition, where the referential works wouldn’t only be identified, but would also interact with my imaginary transposition of them today. The version from Kortrijk consisted of three parts – three rooms – starting with the works from the 1960’s, my own works and ending in reading the book by Beatriz Preciado.
Let’s get into the subject matter of this work. Nudity operates in three registers: firstly, as a gesture of liberation in the social movement in the 1960’s in the West; secondly, in the end of the 1990’s it was present in contemporary dance, and so it was in your work too; thirdly, in this solo you are performing everything naked in close proximity of the spectators.
I recall you were speaking about the failed utopia of the 1960’s, which was the creation of the communal body, and the idea that people can discover their natural self underneath the clothes as a matter of freedom, also with the notion of “free love.” And that sexual liberation would ultimately lead people to political action and social change.
Right, and then the moral codes in public order didn’t change, people aren’t walking naked in public spaces. But in the mid 1990’s, with the work of Jérôme Bel and Vera Mantero, and later on Xavier Le Roy, Boris Charmatz and others, nudity becomes an instrument for intervening on the body, interfering with the human figure in the identifying criteria of gender, the human, animal, or monster as living body, machine etc. How did that play out in your own work?
In Manual Focus and 50/50, nudity was a means of erasure of the identifying features which would increase the body’s capacity to transform. Already in Manual Focus, I was interested in deforming and disfiguring the actual body through our perception of its mechanics, turning it upside down, so that it would appear as an animal or a cripple, or just something other than a functional upright body. We were wearing masks of old men over our heads, which short-circuited oppositions like old/young, artificial/natural, male/female. In 50/50, I was much more busy with the codifications of the body in movement: the spectacular expressions of the body in rock concert and opera pantomime, go-go dancing. I was thinking about language, and the body as a vehicle for language, and at the same time differing from it or surpassing it through affect. People go like “woooow” in the rock concert and they basically cannot control their own affective stimulation. So I was very much interested in looking into the spectacularity of expressions in high/low culture, and their power of affective manipulation. How can I work on the affective potential of images that would be hard to perceive and place in a recognizable context? I remember thinking how to produce a noise in the image and a scratch in the sound.
But to get there, you had to defacialize the body: in Manual Focus, it’s the masks that do it, in 50/50 it’s the wig. And in to come the blue suits cover the whole body, thus blurring the gender of the performers. If we make a rapid comparison with the nudity performed in the 1960’s-1970’s, performing naked was supposed to produce the “real”, a situation where reality should or might yield pleasure, for instance. The situations you create in your pieces forty years later are deliberately artificial, a matter of construction, and pleasure is barred from them. The implicit rule in the past twenty years in performance is that the performer isn’t allowed to have (or show) pleasure so that the audience can have a different experience.
I was trying to disconnect pleasure and desire from the individual body against the idea that your desire belongs to you.
But belongs to the space, the situation…
To the social structures whose power is to produce and control our behavior. I was concerned with thinking desire in relation to capitalism. For instance, how commercials sexualize products: you eat an ice-cream but you actually have an orgasm. You know what I mean? What you buy is the orgasm and not the ice-cream.
Or orgasm is supposed to coax you into buying ice-cream, because that’s the point.
Exactly. If you could just buy orgasm without having ice-cream, they would probably prefer that, it would be cheaper. In to come, I was keen on understanding how desire operates. I remember reading Freud and strongly disagreeing with his associations of desire with the drive, or with “warmth”, or the notion of lack. I was looking for other ways, and the principle of desiring production in Deleuze and Guattari echoed with me. They speak about desiring machines and assemblages, and I wanted to make a choreography that would expose the mechanisms of sex. What we basically did was to apply sexual actions onto a group. So instead of understanding fucking through movements of rocking, pumping or vibrating between two people, it’s a whole group of bodies that is now rocking, pumping or vibrating together.
Manual Focus uses nudity to undo the identification of the body. 50/50 exploits the erotic potential of the body spectacle especially in the scenes of shaking buttocks or breasts up-in-yer-face. Yet it is primarily and mostly to come that deals with sexual desire. And there is a narrative order of three parts, somehow revolving around sexual intercourse: the foreplay stage of a dancing party which woos bodies into an exchange of sexual desire, the soundless mechanics of group sex as the very act of sex, and the concert of orgasm as the peak of the intercourse. Three components laid out horizontally in an upset order.
Starting with the sex mechanics, moving to the orgasm and ending with the dance. The underlying idea of this structure was that if you put the three parts on top of each other, then you would have the full sexual act. You would have positions, you would have sound and you would have the sweat and the more exuberant movements.
Alright. But how did you decide to include your own work in 69 positions and place it in the middle, so that it copulates with the first part? It raises the question whether you are inscribing your works in the neoavantgarde of the 1960’s.
The choice of all materials in 69 positions had to do with the topics of sexual performances and nudity. I could have chosen the work of my colleagues from the 2000’s, but my priority was to re-examine my own work with respect to these topics. I wanted to analyze what it was I was interested in ten years ago, and how my interests linked to sexuality now shifted from the questions of identity coinciding with the body to the questions of private-public spheres. Thus, sexuality proved to be a good instrument to investigate the merging of the private and the public, or where the two spheres overlap today. Another thought behind using my past work was the question of how I could disown it. All those pieces were made to contest the identitarian approach to the body, and they are not about me, they are more about questioning the importance of the personal. So my wish was to consider my work not only from the perspective of how it was made, but as a material for producing another choreography through speaking. For instance, when I describe and do an orgy scene with the audience, it’s not just a description of a sculpture that results from it, but a social situation in which the audience deals with the limits between the private and the public.
Why this is a different mode of participation from watching the same orgy on stage perhaps has to do with turning the work into a score of instructions. There is more space in the distance from my seat to imagine myself in those positions. The identification is intensified and accelerated when you address the spectators “you do this, and now you do that.”
My original intention in to come with using the blue uniform color of the suits was to stimulate projection. But I don’t think this happened so much for the audience just from looking at the performance on stage. In 69 positions I am trying to create a passage of the sexual act into the public sphere, which I literally mean is the audience in theater. This also happens when I ask the public to do the orgasm choir, I literally give it to them.
But you wouldn’t be happy if they were going to do it for real, would you? Even in the performance to come the blue suits prevent the exchange of fluids between the performers, it’s a safe image.
Here there is a danger that the audience could potentially join. Yet you ask them to feign it, that is, fake it?
It has happened already that some people would join, and this means that they actualized the imaginary choreography. It’s not that I don’t want it to happen, but I think I prefer when it stays on this virtual level and not acted out. The whole piece operates through language choreography. It should stay in your head, happening in the imagination. This also raises the question as to what participation is. The kind that I am attempting here involves thinking, placing yourself in the situation, not necessarily making the steps.
I find the moment right before you make the step to do something most interesting. Because I wonder what it finally is that makes one pass from not doing into doing something, and that’s actually political. Throughout the whole performance people might be – at least that’s what I heard from some spectators – in this awkward position of not knowing how exactly they should behave: Should I sit? Should I stand? Should I be close, should I be far? Do I want to be a part of it or not? Should I participate? And all these questions, they are very important for me because they provide the possibility of coming out of the prescribed mode of behavior. We know we have to walk on the sidewalk, stand on the right, walk on the left – you know, all these rules that make up the public order.
The moment of turning inactivity into activity is what interests you as long as it’s also uneasy.
Yeah, because participation involves negotiation. Refusing to participate, in terms of interaction, is also an option. So when I’m jumping around like an idiot in Dionysus in 69 and no one is joining me, in a certain way this is almost more interesting than when everyone starts to dance around with me. The opposite is also fine. But the impossibility, difficulty or resistance to participation is symptomatic nowadays, and that’s what this work is also about. So, what does it take for us to gather and do something together? I propose the space and the audience are part of defining what this space will be.
Lets speak about the third part in relation to sexuality, because it is the one that the audience might be the least familiar with to identify, except perhaps for Testo Junkie, the new practice of interfering with the physiological basis of gender expressions through hormonal therapy.
What interests me in this third part is to look at how the public sphere invades and controls the private body. The testosterone example shows how the body is invaded by pharmaceuticals, an invasion that is also connected to governmental policies of who can have legal access to testosterone treatment. Another hormonal example that Preciado invokes, through which governments control the sexual development of bodies, is the treatment of non-gendered babies: all governments, except Germany which recently ratified the third, neither feminine nor masculine gender, prescribe that the gender be defined at birth. Hormones are used to channel the baby’s sexual expression into the one of a boy or a girl. The birth control pill is another nongovernmental example, where the body is inducted into control in a soft way, as if it is a voluntary action of the individual to take the pill and feel the freedom because “now I can no fuck how I want.”
I wouldn’t say that it is the public which controls the private, because the public sphere is supposed to be the third stance between the state and the people, mediating and monitoring their relation. As such, it hardly exists today. It is the alliance between the private capital and the state, which creates policies that control consumership. The medicalization that you are describing is propelled by the ideology of individual freedom.
You think you are a free individual when your sensations are affected and you feel good. This kind of affective manipulation dominates today, and it happens despite your awareness of the power of images operating on you. The third part of 69 positions to me addresses these kinds of bodily and affective manipulations. So, after Testo Junkie, which deals with the invasion of the body through biopolitical control, we shift to a pleasure mode. I ask people to become aware of the production of sensations that I narrate, because I ask them to imagine them, and therefore, actively produce sensations in their own body. And whether this happens or not, I don’t know.
This exercise of imagination is entirely voluntary.
And the conscious activity isn’t meant to morally preach to the people that they should be aware of their sensations. I am probing another way to deal with one’s sensations and affects along the borders between the private and the public. As I am performing among them, I am also testing the degrees of proximity and distance, the intimacy of being together in such space, immersed in one’s own sensations. I am looking for ways of coming close, or going far. And lastly, the third part opens up another area of sexuality, where sexual practice no longer takes place in between the bodies, as a heterosexual, heteronormative or homosexual relation, but involves humans interacting with nonhuman objects. It searches into the possibility of radically altering how humans could experience their sensations.
The three practices that you enact here are, what you refer to as, “sexual mummification,” the closing off of one’s own body by wrapping it in tape and producing total immobility; then making love with a marble statue, which recalls the myth of Pygmalion; and finally electrostimulation, which might probably exist, at least in the form of machines that osteopaths use to relax muscles in orgasmic-like sensations. The outcome of this journey through sexual performances ends with a shift from a we, a social formation of collectivity in the 1960-70’s, and multiplicity in the example of your work, into a self, the private and solitary asocial individual. If I socially reframe the practices you describe I can imagine that it is emancipatory for any gender to dissociate his or her desire from the dependency on a sexual partner. Nonetheless what distinguishes these practices from being like sophisticated practices of masturbation? Is this making a claim for an oversexualized or omnisexual way of being? What concerns me here is that sexuality falls on the independent individual, which has replaced family as the social unit. One model of living is destroyed for better and worse, but no new happier alternatives are established. So where are we at?
I know that some people find these practices to be samples of extreme masturbation, which is solitary, alienating and sad. This is not at all how I consider it. For me they have more to do with the oversexualization of all objects and the omnipresence of sexual currencies being exchanged.
The sexual acts with the objects that you are describing are in most cases mimetic of the traditional human image of sex (rubbing, licking, bobbing the body).
Yes, but doing it with an object rather than a human can threaten the normative modes of behavior and install possibilities for having pleasure in a non-normative fashion. And if these practices produce other kinds of pleasure than the ones we know from interaction with humans, then this will have social consequences. So when I lick the lamp, I hope that there is a transference of some sort of thing where you could say “hmm” – you know?
The spectator might salivate, and at the same time think, “Oh this must be disgusting, what am I doing?”
And for me this is about how you question “what do I know my pleasure to be and how could I think it otherwise?” This would be a simple way of changing the normativity of sexual practices that control how we think we can feel or experience desire.
What’s potentially interesting about this, should it be a path of emancipation, is that it does it in an outlandish way, avoiding conflict that would jeopardize the value of social relations, as it were. Perhaps it dismantles the power structures, by divorcing desire from violence in the power to dominate others. This might be worth more thinking.
In 69 positions the spectators travel through various modes of participation, linking to different formats that the performance takes. It starts as a guided tour through an exhibition, but soon it turns into a demonstration, rather than a lecture that would explicate something. How do the ways you approach the audience evolve in the course of two hours?
In the first part, the guided tour serves as a framing device: people come with the expectation of a theater apparatus, and they find themselves in an enclosed space, standing with many others without the possibility to sit on a chair. The guided tour is also a pretext to keep them standing, and moving with me through the space. It is very important that they aren’t just watching the choreography, but find themselves entangled with it, being part of it. Soon enough it becomes clear that this is finally not about guiding the audience through an exhibition because I never leave them time to contemplate an exhibited document. There is a drive that moves me from one thing to the next. I have a score that I’m going through, but it’s constantly being adapted according to how the audience is responding.
People look at each other in those fluid movements. They observe each other’s behavior and they are trying to detect the other’s sensations. They perform surveillance on each other.
The audience members gazing at each other seems to mean “is this ok or not?”, “how are we supposed to behave in the situation?” In a recent try-out presentation of the first part, I was doing, as in every performance, the undressing from Anna Halprin’s Parades and Changes, and, as usual, I was fixing my gaze on one spectator. He looked as if he was calm and comfortable with it, and I also said, “It’s going well.” In the discussion after the presentation, he said that this was the most intimidating situation that he had ever been in. It is a clear demonstration of power reversed: I’m a naked woman looking at a man who is looking at me being naked, but I am returning the gaze that forbids him to look at anything else except right into my eyes. I wasn’t aware of the power I exercise with my own gaze in that part. The participation in the first section is centered on the return of the gaze. The strategy of the second part is objectification: “I put myself in the position of being watched”. Again it is about the reversal that recuperates the power of the objects in pornographic images. Not unlike Annie Sprinkle, who spreads her legs and invites the audience to look into her vagina, which empowers her by making her reclaim the ownership of her self-objectification, I use excerpts of my own pieces and I self-objectify. I try to all the time have this: that the body in the image has a voice and a capacity to think, contrary to women in pornography whose voice is about sexual moaning. In 50/50, the ass-shaking scene is a silent image. In 69 positions the image speaks back, and hopefully, in this way undoes the objectifying gaze of the naked body in pornography. And about the third part, I don’t know yet, and still have to think about it.
There is something distinctive about your tone that you keep throughout the whole piece. It is a tone that affirms joy. Nothing offensive, unacceptable or manipulative in the way you address the audience. Everything you do bears a positive connotation. And your tone makes the participation easier, as if its subtext is: “don’t worry, I’m not going to embarrass you too much. It’s not going to hurt, it’s nothing bad… if I can do it, you can do it, too…” It feels like an antidote to the uneasiness of the invitation to participate. Sometimes you exaggerate your joyfulness, and this reads like “why not dance like an idiot here.” This makes people react in a positive way, they mirror your joy because they also enjoy being in the aura of the performer.
There are several things to say about this. A lot of work on nudity revolves around the shock effect. This produces distance and rejection in the audience, which doesn’t interest me. Generally, I am for joy and inventiveness – YES to invention! We can’t change societal structures only through critical analysis, however, necessary this analysis is. We have to be able to imagine alternatives. So either you say: these are the structures that suck that we need to change, we can criticize them until they break. That’s one option – that’s not my way. And the other way would be to say, if we want to change then we have to have desire, we have to have energy, and we have to have joy. Maybe I’m also just a naïve optimist who believes in life… So yes, we need to critically address the structures we want to change, but we also have to be able to desire change in order to effectuate the changes. That’s why I invest in the imaginary and the potential.
And then we have to go back to the society and act according to these imagined desires, which isn’t easy, because it meets resistance and requires violence to be implemented. People aren’t only unwilling to give up conventions, it is the power of domination which won’t allow it. Look at the conservative right-wing turn in politics everywhere.
This conservative backlash that we see now all over Europe, is linked with the incapacity to deal with difference, with change, whether it’s religious, sexual or political… No matter what type of difference, there is a kind of conservative “we have to keep to what we have or else our society falls apart.” But we actually need to think: How to include difference? How to include the other and those modes of functioning that might destabilize the functioning and well-being of Western society? Should we go into the streets and do sexual mummification?
First of all, nudity would already disturb the public order and therefore, the work would be immediately swept off the streets by policemen. However, if you framed it as art and asked for permission to perform it in public, you might be immunized from law. This is an interesting political strategy to hijack art in order to provoke public order.
This question came up several times since I began this project. People asked me: Yes so, what is your action? What is it that you want to change? And I am not too naïve to imagine that my show can change the world, but it can at least express the desire for change, especially in the sense I explained before: how to resist the affective manipulation and experiment with one’s own sensations and affects, beyond the normative grip of individualist consumerism. […]
This performance might realize its political potential when it can include a multiplicity, a heterogeneous mixture in the audience. You would exactly go against the advice Schneeman gives in her letter: instead of redoing Meat Joy with the original aged cast, go to the retirement home and work with the old people. You are definitely not targeting a certain audience?
Indeed not. My principle is that whatever public is there, is the public that I’m dealing with. So I think, if I am observing something, it is this: how sometimes the joy passes into the public and they are very much with me, and other times, there is a kind of skepticism, a stiffness that makes that there is a lot of tension in the space.
And how do you work with this tension?
I stick with my performative score, but while I am going through it, I am adapting and accommodating my actions to the situation. For instance, if people glue to the walls, I literally go behind them and try to mobilize them and redistribute them in the space by way of my own movement. I’ve developed different strategies, also in terms of, for how many people I am visible in the space. I train my awareness of how people displace themselves, so that I know how I can deal with them. There are techniques, like I all the time keep on turning and so on… It’s also important how I go in and out of the documents on the wall, because it allows those spectators who have phased out of the performance to reconnect, it happens that they can come back. I see people with faces like “oh, no more orgy for me, I can’t deal with it” and then they go and look at what’s on the wall. So these shifts in attention are important for the piece.
And my last question would be: what are the implications, or conclusions, that you take from this work into the next work, which will deal with sexuality, nudity, with a larger group of performers?
The ideas I develop in the third part of 69 Positions are haunting me: how to undo conventional modes of sexual behaviour through experimental practices. This is something that I would like to elaborate more. And this comes through relations with objects and non-humans, but it also comes by reconsidering the body as a thing, or as a non-human. It might be a way to compose a group beyond personal identity or human dialogue, which is at the core of sexual interaction. The other aspect I would like to extend from this work into my next choreography, and I still don’t know how, is the bridge with the history of the normative structure to be undone, from which a future can be reimagined.