Mette Ingvartsen
evaporated landscapes and GIANT CITY

This text was first published as part of the Performance Research edition “On Labor and Performance”, 2013.

When I started working on evaporated landscapes and GIANT CITY, I was interested in the idea of immateriality in the broadest sense of the word: immaterial labour, immaterial flows, immaterial movements such as sensations and affects. I wanted to focus on the relationality between bodies as a way of shifting the attention away from the materiality of the body itself. Making a choreography for the space between bodies rather than for bodies in themselves. The city was a good example of a place that combines both the material and the immaterial, where palpable and ephemeral elements meld together in a network of complex movements. I was especially influenced by the distinction that can be made between conventional architecture and the immaterial flows that circulate inside such stable structures. The streams of people passing through buildings, the flows of information running though cables, airwaves and exchanges of money are all part of governing bodies by conditioning their movements and patterns of behaviour.

In the same period I was stimulated by discourses on immaterial labour and how living in a knowledge-based economy has changed our understanding of production. Goods are no longer ‘goods’, and products include everything from exchanges of information to services and deliveries of experiences. The description of this reshaping of reality, how it transforms modes of productions and conditions of work, resonated with my own situation as a performer. The in-distinction between work and life, through how ideas invade bodies and minds at any hour, felt familiar. Work no longer being defined through the objects the worker produces but rather through the ideas, moods, sensations and experiences she is able to come up with.

The texts I read corresponded closely with two specific questions I had about making performances. On one hand, how to work on the idea of immateriality, or what I call relational movement, rather than on the movement of the body itself. On the other hand, how to still include the mental capacity of the performer, what the performer is thinking while performing, into the choreographic process of creating relational movements. The question of how to make a choreography that would be immaterial and at the same time fully dependent on the investment of the performer was an unsolvable contradiction that finally led me to make two different performances instead of one.

Evaporated Landscapes started from working on the idea of an immaterial set-design, from how to create a space that would be elusive, changeable and transformative but at the same time have real properties like temperature, colour, density and locality.

Together with lighting designer Minna Tiikkainen and sound designer Gerald Kurdian, we decided to test the idea of removing the performers entirely and work solely with evaporating materials and what they might be able to perform as an isolated proposition.

We created a score that was based on how to make the bodies of the spectators into ‘the place’ of the performance. The spectators’ sensory perceptive systems would be activated by the movements of light, fog, smoke, soap bubbles and sound. We examined how people would react when walking into an entirely dark space that would be lit only by sparse flashes of light, so as to give a glimpse of the seating areas that would be organized in an unconventional manner. We were curious about to what extent people would be able to use their memories of what they saw in the light glimpses to navigate towards their seats. The idea was to let the spectators sit inside this transforming space. Not watching the materials from a distance but immersed in them, sitting with their feet in the dry ice, or being able to reach out and touch the bubbles or the smoke. It became a work on scale and proportion, proximity and how to produce feelings of intimacy towards evanescent materials as if they were animate objects. We attempted to create an interactive artificial space, a miniature world that would create a frame in which bodies could move. By removing the human performers, the idea of performance itself became immaterialized.

In GIANT CITY the questions posed had to do with how inter-relational space is constructed. How bodies interact or respond to each other on the level of bodily communication. How bodies are being moved and how these flows of movement are taking part in constructing space and possibilities of exchange within space.The main question was how to become aware and perceptive of what normally is immaterial, invisible and non-graspable, nevertheless fundamental to the kind of world in which we are living. If you think about a city, there are many types of spaces that dictate how you have to move: you walk on the sidewalk not on the road, you stand on the right on the escalator and walk on the left etc. But the concern was not only with those codified motions in the city but also with how to render space tactile. Involuntary movements, which happen when, for instance, a bus stops suddenly and all the passengers stumble because of the impact on their bodies, are interesting in this respect. When the bus stops and starts normally, we don’t pay attention, but when the bus brakes in an unexpected moment, the force at work changes the space completely. We start talking, looking at each other, communicating.

What interested me in both of these pieces is how such ‘qualities’ of space are part of constructing communities, part of constructing what is possible to be communicated within space. The idea of making space or air visible, to make it into something tactile and perceivable, was one of the responses I came to in relation to immateriality and relationality. To give visibility to the invisible, or to what structures behaviour and governs bodies, is not something easily shown. It is much more elusive than its demonstration and can somehow only be suggested. The performances do not attempt to criticize and resolve this difficulty of demonstration. Rather they try to create immaterialization processes within choreography as a way of reflecting it. The immaterialization that happens when the physical body is no longer the driving force within the performance (in the case of Evaporated Landscapes). Or, the immaterialization process of choreography that takes place when movements are written in relations between performers, as well as within the structure of their thinking and imagination. The movement that the spectator can experience is both visible and invisible, concrete and imagined, sensed and thought at the same time. The complexity of these double binds, I think, relates to experience economy.

The fact that it is extremely difficult to analyze what exactly is happening to us in a knowledge economy that constantly asks us to experience everything renders us not immobile but over-mobile. Overstimulated. Theatrical performance, on the other side, has the potential to slow down this speed of overstimulation, creating a space for slow sensations that do not rely on excess. This does not resolve the rootlessness of the nomadic artist or protect against the instability of precarious work, nor does it repair the tiredness that comes from exercizing flexibility. However, while observing how the mechanisms of performance are spreading into all levels of society, it might offer a temporary antidote by slowing down time. And if there is something people still need in their over-busy, creative and entrepreneurial lives, it must be exactly that: time.

And luckily, as the Rolling Stones would have said it, time is still on our side.