“Self-Organizing Systems, Stickiness and Mental Resistance…”
Interview with Mette Ingvartsen on Moving in Concert (2019)
Bojana Cvejić: In your solo 21 Pornographies, the last scene, in which you are relentlessly turning with a neon-like lamp above your head, appears as a ‘seed’ of Moving in Concert. How did your imagination evolve from the two successive performances – from this solo to a group choreography?
Mette Ingvartsen: There are actually two ‘seeds’ for MiC, one is indeed the final scene of 21 Pornographies where I’m turning while holding a LED light. That solo is part of The Red Pieces, a series of works that explicitly explore questions around nudity and sexuality. In the creation process, I explored many different ways of moving with the lamp which I found riveting and also visually stunning. But it was a piece that didn’t allow for such variation, so I had to put my wishes on hold, knowing there were materials I still wanted to investigate further. MiC comes out of that, but it also brings back the idea of expanding choreography to non-human, inanimate materials and things, which was central to The Artificial Nature Series. The second ‘seed’ was thus a desire to unite the different choreographic principles I had developed in these seemingly separate series of works.
In MiC we are working with lamps that do not only extend the movement of human bodies, but they also illuminate the space and determine its visibility. After focusing on non-human agency in The Artificial Nature Series, I wanted to look into a different balance between the inanimate (non-human) objects operated by human performers, on the one hand, and the actual movement, performativity and visibility of the human bodies, on the other. I also wanted to approach movement and choreography in a more abstract manner and engage spectators differently from how I had explored spectatorship in the last ten years.
BC: These ideas seem like knots of several lines of thought. Let’s continue with the human-to-the-light conjunction. As many bodies are operating the LED lights, what is the notion of collectivity that they make? The two elements, the body and the lamp, make up a machinic apparatus, which could be compared to It’s In The Air, your duet with Jefta van Dinther, in which the trampoline is that non-human element conjoined with the body.
MI: In all my works, you’ll find the problem of choreographing with a specific restraint. This questions the idea of the body being self-sufficient and autonomous. In one way or another the body is always embedded in connections, in relations to other bodies or to non-human agents that affect the body which in turn acts upon them.
Speaking of this apparatus that contains LED lights, I thought I invented something in 21P, “oh with this wireless lamp I can turn”. I was curious whether the lamps could change colors by remote control, and after some research, I found out that they have recently come into general use. This meant that the technology was ready for the performance I wanted to make. I remembered how in her Serpentine Dance Loïe Fuller constructed a new light apparatus in order to color the fabrics she enveloped her movements in.
This is why it upsets me when people say I work with neon lights, because the LED lights are completely differently from neons. They represent one of the latest developments of light technology. As a matter of fact, most cities nowadays are lit by LED lights, which due to their low energy consumption can be left on all night, creating permanent light pollution with its bleak environments. I thought it was interesting to use these lights which are part of our daily life as a metaphor for technological extensions in general. Being concerned with how our bodies are affected by technology, computers and smartphones or other tools that extend our capacity for social interaction also came to mind. But by using LED lights I felt I could choreograph better the idea of the omnipresence and our entanglement with technological apparatuses. My wish was to return to a quite simple notion of technology that could also be low-tech or in fact anything….
BC: …any tool…
MI: … any tool that extends human capacity, whether it’s a pen, knife, stick, or anything that extends and modulates bodily movement. Lights have a huge impact on how we experience the world. The light environment that we inhabit can affect our perception fundamentally, alter our physical state, and our moods.
BC: Embodiment is strong in all your pieces. It also appears as a tool; the body is used to understand in an experiential and affective way what something means or how it feels. What exactly are you exploring through embodiment in MiC?
MI: A choreography that can only be created in this literal intersection between the bodies and the lamps. For example, during the creation process we had a scene with the lights lying on the floor while we were dancing around them. I had to eliminate that scene, because it felt no different from any traditional dance performance in which light is used to illuminate the dancing bodies. Instead, MiC proposes a choreography that cannot exist outside of this particular connection between the bodies and the lights.
Embodiment functions on two levels: one is how a single body enters a connection with one light at a time, and the other is how group constellation of several bodies with the lights, enable the emergence of a collective body which can be thought in organic terms too. When the performers create a circular form, or what we call “the cell” – we also use a lot of…
BC: …biological and physical terms…
MI: …yes, we sometimes speak about atoms rotating around a nucleus, or about neurons and emissions of electricity and how this is actually discharged inside the brain and what we see is the neuronal movement inside the synapses. Or we sometimes speak about the cellular level and how technology now enables us to enter the body and look at the smallest cellular level of our physiology, so that thanks to technology we are able to see movements that were hitherto invisible.
BC: These technological advances helped the science to develop the notion of neuroplasticity, how in different ways, our brains are molded throughout our lives. Now we have knowledge about the plasticity of our brain which isn’t visible for the bare eye.
MI: This is somewhat interesting to me: to think of this piece through movements that could happen inside the brain. Even though in the end we are not literally working on that, the idea was helpful to get away from the thought that theater must represent things in a recognizable manner. In my previous works, for example in The Artificial Nature Series, I would construct something comparable to a natural disaster from which the spectator could identify a topic having to do with the environment. By contrast, in MiC I had a feeling that the biopolitical internal level of how our bodies are determined by the technological extensions we use didn’t need to be externalized in a representation; it is more something that needs to be sensed or experienced. Or eventually it could be seen in terms of color transformation or mood changes in the space or in terms of watching in a perceptive-affective state rather than using a ‘semantic’ brain. And I think that when people try to read the piece from a semantic point of view, the thinking kind of fails…
BC: Perhaps they are trying to fix aboutness or a point of view on a subject staged. Once you work with technology, a critical commentary is expected, while technology often entails ambivalence; while we are suspicious of the purpose of its uses (for example, surveillance), we cannot do without it, it structures our perception.
MI: If you look at the characteristic accounts of technologies, the spectrum of attitudes ranges from fear of, for example, AI taking over human intelligence, to those who believe that technology could be a solution to many problems of the world. There is a complexity about what technology is, what it leads to, and what it can do for us. The criticism of surveillance technologies in tandem with data mining is readily available on mainstream media. But apparently it means nothing to us, the knowledge about data extraction for commercial purposes doesn’t stop us from using internet or social media for instance. That’s why I am not interested in conveying such criticism, when we are familiar with it and it is powerless.
BC: And probably other media are more apt…
MI: … to criticize it, too.
BC: Many processes of embodiment in dance today explore a somatic reality addressed to the individual consciousness. In MiC, but also many other group pieces you made, the imagination of the performers is collective. There’s a high stake of cooperation and commitment to constructing something together. And the terms you share with the performers, like making a ‘cell’ – I am speaking here from my experience of collaborating in this piece as dramaturge – attest to a collective vocabulary. The audience can witness the collective discourse at the outset of the piece, when the performers approach them in the waiting hall before entering the theater. The talks feature the performers’ individual interests and concerns which were part of the creation of this piece. What is it that you do in your process that makes the performers so involved, how do you share a ‘mind’ of the piece?
MI: In all processes, we share sources of books and other materials we refer to in our work. In this creation, Catherine Malabou’s What should we do with our brain? was an important source of inspiration. It provided us with a conceptual frame connected to neuroplasticity and it helped us to create a common discourse around what we were doing. Malabou’s distinction between flexibility and plasticity was key for us. Flexibility means adaptation to the demands of work and life in neoliberal economy; as artists who are working freelance, we all experience precariousness, this stretching of oneself until the point in which you break down in exhaustion or in burn-out. By contrast, plasticity promises a kind of resistance due to the idea that the brain is plastic: it records all the changes that the brain goes through in one’s life experience; it also has the capacity to repair itself, and the form that the brain takes has the capacity for resistance to adaptation. The insistence on turning in MiC is a way of practicing mental resistance. When you turn around your own axis you have to give up your individual expression. You have to let go of wanting to control your surroundings. You have to surrender to a movement structure that is as demanding as it is confronting your need for control, orientation, or for being able to make choices. Turning poses a real challenge, and some people react with nausea and have to vomit. It entails a level of stress too, but it also means practicing your own capacity to endure and to insist – there is resistance built into that. And, on another level, turning clears your brain. Some spectators reported a similar effect: that it empties out their busy mind and clears it from an excess of thoughts thus liberating a space for thinking.
BC: Turning as a kind of mental resistance is peculiar, or ambivalent to say the least. You have to give yourselves up, your sense of being sovereign and autonomous, in control of your perception. On the other hand, information also absorbs you in a flow, perpetuates you without control. But here the performers manage to turn together, in concert.
MI: Turning on the first level demands one’s ability to concentrate. You are to develop a skill that is comparable to a meditative state, or to those physical practices where “the focus is to not have a focus”, being in a state of chaos and being okay with it. While you are turning you cannot be doing anything else. This action is the opposite of multitasking, and that’s part of what is resistant about it. A resistance to doing many things at the same time.
BC: It requires dedication or reduction to one thing.
MI: It’s about dedicating yourself to one activity. And then in our case the second step of it has to do with the collectivity still. How can you manage to produce a collective being within this kind of focus? When the dancers circle around each other without bumping into each other, it’s extremely demanding and at the same time satisfying when they manage to come into sync. This is contained in the idea of moving in concert. If you look at different sections of the piece, each of them deals with a different kind of togetherness, a different ‘concert’ or a different production of collective behavior. Our movements often relate to forms of non-human behavior, like animal behavior, electron behavior or even behavior of leaves in the forest.
BC: Are different choreographic patterns formed by looking and dissecting these structures of movement?
MI: We devised movement practices from observing self-organizing phenomena. For instance, in the first scene, which we refer to as ‘flocking’, we observed bird flocks; how birds manage to organize themselves in large groups in spite of them actually only dealing with seven birds at a time in their surrounding area. This is a kind of self-organizing system. How could we as humans who dispose of multiple mental capacities to make choices, create such a system together? We were working on walking patterns, aligning ourselves like birds in a certain direction. You can be next to, behind, sideways, in front of, you can relate to someone far away or close to you. You can stop to produce an increase of speed in the room, like a stone in the water… All these decision-making processes are based on the ideas of a self-organizing system. Later the collective movements of the system were solidified into an actual choreographic structure that can be reproduced.
In another moment, we are working with the idea of two cubes related to each other by movement in order to create a hypercube, the fourth dimension of the square (cube being a three-dimensional square). How can we produce this kind of feeling of an extra dimension? The part of the piece where these two light squares are intersecting and the dancers are moving through them, is a result of observing how new geometrical forms emerge thanks to technology. We also have a dance that we call the ‘meshwork’ where the dancers imagine themselves being in a meshwork of relations. Laban devised the so-called Laban cube, an icosahedron, in fact, which surrounds the body with a certain number of points. Today this kind of cube could be replaced with an ever-changing mobile structure in which the body relates to a set of moving points. We have been working with these kinds of imaginaries to create a common idea on what we’re doing.
BC: Reflecting on the creation process from a dramaturgical viewpoint, I note that there is a high degree of transparency, in the sense that the performers can follow a thought process as it unfolds with you and with everyone involved; where the thoughts come from, where they are sourced from and how and why decisions are taken, etc. The reason I’m mentioning this is that this isn’t always visible for the viewers on the outside: a culture of working together that imbues the choreography with a certain quality. In spite of working with non-human agency, the dancers weren’t ever used as instruments executing a choreographic program from beginning until the end.
MI: Indeed. The stories I’m recounting in this interview are exactly the nine stories that the performers are intimating to the audience at the start of the show: the story about the hypercube, the flocking birds, the boids’ behavior, the story about plasticity, the story about patterns and change and even about fascia which was one of the physical practices we engaged in together. The reason we decided to include the introduction in which the dancers address the audience in the foyer before everybody enters the theater, was to create a contrast of talking face-to-face, to the neutral presence the dancers assume once they step on stage.
It’s quite important when speaking about collectivity that the individuality of each performer is there without being forefronted explicitly. We have searched for a certain kind of subtle presence that allows both the performers and the lights to shift in and out of focus. In fact, through practice we have learnt that the performativity of this piece is quite demanding; how to find the tone, how to manage to remain in a state of lightness while you resist being absorbed by the lights to which you would actually react to by closing your eyes. This subtlety is quite different from the excessive performative states I’ve explored recently, in to come (extended) for instance, where ecstatic dancing involves facial self-expressive states. The fact that I have been working with the same performers in the last three pieces – 7 pleasures, to come (extended) and then this one – is not to be neglected. A particular project necessitates a specific kind of performativity which gives rise to large differences in the performative approaches. Changes we traverse together are nourished by our common trajectory.
BC: This particular adventure entailed abstraction. In times of identity politics where affects and feelings of empathy are represented, expected or activated, you opt for abstraction. This seems like a bold choice, which is also political. Why abstraction now when everyone else is narrating their destinies or their personal story? What is your relation to abstraction in the history of western modern dance?
MI: In The Red Pieces, sexuality, queerness and power structures are central, although they are never addressed at on the personal level. I felt that with 21P I reached an edge in explicitly referencing concrete problematics around gender, violence, power and sexual abuse. In some cases, audience couldn’t see anything else in my scene of turning in 21P than a visual reference to Abu Graib. While it was important to make such explicit references to our daily political concerns in order to incite a discussion, I felt a need for something else. I needed to create a space for reflection and a space for imagination. And not necessarily a reflection on a specific topic but actually a reflection and an imagination that would enable us to rethink relations between objects and subjects. And for me that is why this gesture towards abstraction was necessary in this moment.
Recently I saw Equal Parallel/Guernica-Bengasi by Richard Serra in an exhibition in Madrid. The work is from ‘84, where there was an American air force strike against Bengasi and Serra then makes a parallel with the attack on Guernica in ‘39, where the civilians were killed by the Condor Legion. But it is basically also a sculpture, it’s four pieces of metal that are placed in an empty room. The work is entirely abstract, there are absolutely no visible political signs to be detected. Nevertheless, the title forces a reflection upon something as charged as a war attack. And so I don’t see abstraction as an operation that refuses to relate itself to the world because the way abstract proposals are framed is part of how we must read them. When this piece it’s called Moving in Concert you cannot refuse to think about collectivity, and when it is announced as something dealing with technology, you might have a problem figuring out how it has to do with technology. The work then suggests you think about what technology is, how you relate to it, what it does to you, that is, only if you want to.
In my vision, MIC doesn’t reject political reality, but it deals with it in a less representational manner, by refusing to tell the audience what they have to think about it. The piece invites people into what I think of as a mesmerizing experience that reflects the infinite abstraction of technology. If you let yourself go – that’s what I hear from people that are taken by it– it can produce a space for thinking and being, space for creating something in parallel with what you see on stage. When I look at it, what interests me is exactly this parallel space for thought and the abstraction that invites me to deal with my sense apparatus and my perception. I’m looking at light and shadow, at the appearance and disappearance of bodies, I experience rhythms, flows, and the emergence of a kind of techno-organic landscape.
BC: Besides the conjunction between the human and the non-human, you also include another kind of object, which is material. For the audience it might appear unclear what it actually is, the whole length of the piece, a stream of black grains – beans or lentils – pours onto stage like a sandwatch. What’s that about?
MI: My initial idea was to work on an intersection between technological materials, bodies and natural materials. I found the black lentils very interesting because of the sound they produce when they pour like that – they sound like rain or white noise, which is associated with digital noise. The idea was to record the passing of time by hearing a permanent running sound of material, in this case, a kind of black rain. Different associations crop up, and some people identified this sound to be the dripping of coal. The growing heap of black lentils also makes a sculpture, a volume that is continuously being modified. It’s quite minimal but it is happening. By the end of the show, the dancers get in touch with it, they enter the heap and the material sticks onto their skin and faces like in a living painting, pinpointing the ongoing connection between their bodies and the lentils that have been present there all the time. The black dots also connote dirt and noise…
BC: … something superfluous that doesn’t let the technology remain smooth in its operation.
MI: Yes, smoothness is what we want from technology but also the body adapting to technology must be smooth. However, there is always a moment of dysfunction and rupture, where smoothness is no longer possible. Stickiness is different, if not even opposite to the smooth. There is some horror to the sense of tiny things sticking on to you, that you can’t get rid of, like plague. Another thought that prompted me to stage this were the psychopathological syndromes of living in the high-tech age. The depressed, the exhausted and the burnt-out are all part of this new economy.
In the last part of the performance the continuum between the human and the non-human is expressed through a prosthetic use of the lamps; the lamps become extensions of our bodies. And the same time, the body incorporates something of this black matter on its surface. There is one more ‘organic’ element in the piece (apart from the humans) – the wooden stick in place of a lamp.
Speaking of smoothness, I am not interested in the smooth operation of technology as much as I am intrigued by how self-organizing systems can be functioning well, or smoothly operating. Self-organizing systems aren’t smooth because of an authoritarian upper hand. Therefore, they can harbor exceptions and space for variation inside them. This piece is structured in such a way that it leaves space for being outside of the general movement. If eight people have a light there is one who does not; if everyone is up and running one person will lie down; when everyone is going into the black lentils in the end, there is also one person who remains on the outside still spinning; when everyone is spinning the black mass continues dripping on the floor thus making an inert pile. The piece is created from the idea that whatever the collective activity, there is always an exception to it.
Someone told me she could watch the piece only through the exceptions. And indeed, in this piece, counterpoint arises from the exceptions or the margins of difference, lines that flee or individuals that deviate from the center.