Manual Focus – Interview with Mette Ingvartsen
This interview was made in 2005 when Manual Focus was presented at ZKM Theater in Zabreb, Croatia
Ivana: First of all, I must say I enjoyed the simplicity, the simpleness and smartness of the piece. How did you initially start working on “Manual Focus”?
Mette: In fact it was a long process, but not such an condensed one. Initially it had to do with gender and where gender is located in the body. We worked with gesture, with copying male/female behavior, becoming monster, all kind of things. The proposal was less simple in the beginning and contained various ideas about how to work with props and costumes. The masks were a starting point together with ideas about androgyny, how to mix male and female and how to blur the line between distinguished categories. Not only male and female, but also artificial and real, nude and masked or even just a general understanding of dichotomies. Trying to mix opposites in a way that would make them inseparable.
Ivana: So it was a long process.
Mette: Yes, initially, but from the moment this idea of flipping the face around was clear, it took three or four weeks to finish the piece. Once we decided not to show the front side of the body, there were clear restrictions in what could be done. The materials, ways of connecting them and the transformations came out of that. We constantly worked with a double vision – looking in one direction but having to imagine we were looking in the other. It is very much about imagination and how to produce a completely different image and understanding of the body. The Camera was an important tool in the process to be able to recognize the difference between how something felt and how it looked.
Ivana: For me the body was constricted in the reduction and the system of rules, hiding frontal nudity. Transforming a trained body into a disabled one and making simple moves appear impossible with the shift in perspective. Can you tell me a little about the masks you use, why a male face, an old face?
Mette: There was a material quality about the masks that I found interesting from the beginning precisely because of their opposition to my own being young, female, with a certain kind of skin and a certain kind of flesh. The piece could have had more of a feminist push to it, but in fact it is not at all what its about. I like the way the body becomes androgynous and anonymous at the same time as it is extremely expressive, monstrous. It is no longer the understanding of the body as an upright, centered subject.
Performing it is very strange because what people see has very little to do with the performers as individuals. There is a sense of non-identity and the body becomes of another kind.
Ivana: It is a body without identity or individuality. And this is evident in the way you work as a group. Did the three of you work together from the very beginning?
Mette: I almost always start from writing but from the moment we moved into the studio we worked together. There was a lot of talking, looking and trying things out. All the obvious versions of using the masks had to be discarded; illustrating the woman as both male and female, drag representations and showing identity. This was a fine line. I no longer see it as a mask of an old man on a naked young woman, I see what it produces.
Ivana: A freakish body.
Mette: I have to say that I was thinking a lot about hermaphrodites but this was years before I started working on this piece. Still, its funny how it’s remains. There is something about the reduced expression on the one hand, and on the other the over-expression, over-coding that the masks produce – more extreme expressions then what a normal, single gendered body posesses. In one way the piece is about reduction but at the same time it is as much about over-production. A burlesque expression. Reduced and simple, but also very loud.
Ivana: And provoking, requiring an emotional response – putting someone off, even disgusting them, but also having the effect of humor. There was a distinct feeling of joy in the audience.
Mette: When we made it was not to be either disgusting or humorous, but of course we had fun making it. Things were flipping and our perceptions went completely strange. We spoke to someone who works in neuro-science and he had a theory that something happens to your brain as you watch this, so that you constantly have to readjust your way of viewing, or maybe that’s what I wanted him to think. We walk in and put the masks on in front of the audience, and the illusion is produced in front of your eyes.
Ivana: The audience is constantly having to readjust its perspective of what reality is. There is also the gaze of the hollow-eyed masks.
Mette: It makes you aware of how you are looking. Because “they” are looking back at you, but “they” are nothing. So what you feel is your own gaze.
Ivana: A question about the structuring of the piece, can you tell me something about the spatial composition and the contacts between the three bodies on stage?
Mette: We spoke about a kind of elasticity between the bodies, a contraction of their position in space toward each other, then their moving apart to contract again. There exists an attempt to fold the bodies in and out of each other. To work on the relation between the one and the many. In the beginning of the piece you have one “body” with many limbs that you see as one entity. There are moments when the three are singular and moments when they become identical. In conversation with Bojana Cvejić we discussed how these bodies are social, or maybe rather how they are not social. We were looking for ways of how these bodies could co-exist. It was clear that it could not represent human social contact, it could not for instance be hugging or kissing as it would bring us back into known gender representation. The concept didn’t allow that. This was reflected in the structuring of our contacts on stage, our merging. Watching the video recordings of the rehearsals and watching each other we basically tried to categorize different types of movement – animal movement, disabled figures, headless humans. The relation between the body in it’s normality and it’s capacity to produce expression.
Ivana: I feel that the putting on and the taking off of the masks are key moments of the piece
Mette: We could have had the “monsters” come out of the dark, but it was really important to try to show the construction and allow the audience to decide how they want to look at the bodies. It was also important to return to the upright, “normal” looking body as a contrast.
Ivana: The stage is completely bare, the light white and constant.
Mette: We tried different things, but stage lights make the body glow, or color it and we wanted to keep it flesh, not to aestheticize or polish the image further.
Ivana: In your earlier piece “Solo Negatives” you also work on creating a new body with illogic functions and connections.
Mette: “Solo Negatives” was my first “real” piece. It was in fact also about understanding identity, but more related to dance movements, their codification and readability then to gender. The limit where movements can be read in language, as signs and where they can not. It was a completely different piece but also trying to see how the body can shift between different corporal realities and qualities of movement.
Ivana: In “50/50” you are also displaying a freakish body, but through the use of its voice.
Mette: It is a piece I intend to rework in the future. I was working on extreme expressions – opera, rock concert, circus – spectacular expressions. I was using something very known in order to transform it, deform it and re-form it into something you recognize but cannot place. For example, I recorded myself singing a whole opera I never heard before while listening to it. Then I took parts and relearned them the way I recorded them. In the performance I play it double – singing it while it plays from the speakers with all the mistakes. I have to say that this proposal was perhaps the most complicated, if not complex, one I ever did. It goes from drums, to rock, to opera, to mime, to ass shaking, to the codification of facial expressions used in opera. It plays with the spectacular, performs it at the same time as it resists it. But,more about this in the future…
Ivana: You worked with Bojana Cvejić and Jan Ritsema on “Pipelines, a construction”.
Mette: Jan and Bojana followed my work in the time I was in P.A.R.T.S. Their perspective on theater challenges and stimulates how I think about performance, and I was happy to work closer together with them on “Pipelines”. The topic was thematically, politically and geographically very specific. Bio-politics and the way the body is implied in the ideas of the performance, became my way into the pipes. I ended up only speaking, not moving at all. It was impossible to translate these issues into movements because it was about ideas that works in language, with language and from language. The piece has the form of a discussion, but it is a staged one. In that sense for me it’s very much about how we speak and how we can change positions and speak from different perspectives and how this proposes another kind of theater.
Ivana: Tell me a little bit about your education at P.A.R.T.S.
Mette P.A.R.T.S. is really great if you know what you are going for, what you want. Especially with the new program which consists of two years training and two years research. The first two years you don’t have a lot of freedom, but the subjects are many, both dance classes, theory, theater, music a.s.o.. It is diverse, the level of teachers is high, and you get a lot of information. The second two years offer certain classes,but also the time to do your own work. You submit proposals and you work. I did very few workshops in my last years and had time to work on my pieces. You can ask people to mentor you and the school provides for this. If you know your focus, this is great. If not, I think it can be not so great.
Ivana: This year you are working on a new project: “to come”.
Mette: We actually premiere with it next week in Essen, Germany. I have been preparing it since I finished school a year ago and we have been working since January. It is a project with five people on stage and one off stage, for me very big and exciting. The piece deals with pleasure and desire. Opposite to “Manual Focus” it is all about social relations and structures of pleasure production, but again with an element that disturbs your perception.