Gilles Amalvi
The Artificial Nature Project – Interview with Mette Ingvartsen

This interview was made in the frame of Festival d’automne when The Artificial Nature Project was shown there in 2012.

With The Artificial Nature Project you’re developing a work focusing on representations of nature, which you have already begun with Evaporated Landscapes. In relation to this issue, what stage in your work does this piece emphasize?

For me, The Artificial Nature Project brings together ideas from three of my previous projects: Evaporated Landscapes, The Light Forest and The Extra Sensorial Garden. In Evaporated Landscapes we used elusive and evaporating materials. I did not want each material to be perceived as only one single thing – I wanted them to produce evocative images in constant transformation. For example, we worked with dried ice – a substance, which looks like water – trying to show it in such a way that it could also evoke clouds, mist and fog… It’s an aspect I continue to develop in the The Artificial Nature Project: to start from materials, to examine how they move – whether they move differently depending on their position, on their speed, or on how they are being manipulated. In reality, the images produced are only the consequences of these physical qualities and characteristics.

The Light Forest was a light installation for a natural environment, activated by the act of walking – which I created in a forest in Salzburg. The idea was to fictionalize a natural site, to transform it into a performative stage on which the audience’s bodies would become the “actors”, carrying out the performance by walking. Their sensations during the walk created an on-going physical performance and by being lit that particular way, the surrounding nature became artificial. The Extra Sensorial Garden, which I presented in Denmark in 2010 is also an installation – This time with light projections and sounds, but experienced through head phones and special glasses – suggesting semi-abstract, semi-concrete representations of nature. These three projects are based around similar questions – working with the way matter can become a driving force and start to proliferate, to arrange itself. The title The Artificial Nature Project is thus referring to the series and also to this new piece. It summarizes the result of the research work that was done while channeling the findings into a new form. I wanted to bring back these questions within a theatrical frame, with 7 performers.

Your work can be perceived as a staging of theoretical or scientific questions, which by certain aspects is close to the work of physicists, geographers, topologists… How do you try to convey, to translate these ideas into the field of perception?

Some of today’s scientific projects try to create some kinds of mini-tornados so that their structure can be observed, and the way these natural forces function can be better understood. This idea of creating “a model” of natural catastrophes fits with the kind of research work I’m interested in. This being said, when one decides to reproduce a natural catastrophe on stage, it is obvious that it cannot become dangerous for the public. A number of things are not allowed in the theater – danger being one of them. This means that the whole point of making a performance around the idea of the catastrophic or chaotic cannot be about the sensation of feeling threaten, or feeling in
danger – even though it’s a question that interests me a lot. I for this reason tried to focus on other areas. I read a lot about the different scientific, political, sociologic aspects that are concerned with the phenomenon of natural catastrophes: still focusing on setting up a practice and a theoretical approach specific to the stage. One aspect that was very helpful to start with was the idea of self- created problems or man-made disasters. If for example we look at Fukushima: an earthquake occurred, which provoked a tsunami. But by looking at it from another angle we see that a nuclear power plant was built in a location susceptible to be affected by a tsunami. Immediately, the disaster’s magnitude is increased by ten. This is for me a way to come close to the idea of “artificial nature”: the way we generate our own problems. The same tsunami at the far end of Alaska is not of a concern to anybody. A “natural catastrophe” is actually only a catastrophe when civilization is affected, when human constructions and individuals are affected. This contributes to a very anthropocentric vision of the world that I would like to question with this piece.

What interests me within the frame of theater is how to turn around this connection: what happens when human action is not the center of attention anymore? And how to create a performance based on “active” materials so that the performers always move in relation to them. In theater, the prop is most often there to serve and support the actor. Throughout history we can see that there has been some crucial attempts to divert the relation between human and non-human performers – The Ballets mécaniques or some of the Bauhaus experiments are good examples of that. What I would like to do it to continue this idea of materials becoming active performers, emphasizing matter, flow and intangible processes. Right now I work a lot with little pieces of PVC material. The way these confetti looks depends on the way it is put into motion: When we throw it, it looks like water or snow, but if one blows it, it can also remind us of fire or leaves… It is important that the organizational movements of these materials are as or even more important than the action of the bodies on stage. However, the bodies need to remain present so that the shift of attention can become visible – The transition from human action to non-exclusively human processes. This is certainly the biggest difference with the three previous projects – in which the human body as an actor was absent.

In most of your pieces we can observe the importance of an indertemination principle, which means the impossibility to detect the mechanism of causes and effects… One can’t tell anymore the cause of action, what is the object and what is the subject…

Yes, how to do so that the performers are not only perceived as the ones moving the materials – which would be too close to a scientific approach, supposing the control of the situation as well as keeping a distance, a sense of exteriority in relation to things. What I would like to show is almost a form of symbiosis: when a performer throws something there is definitely a consequence for the thrown object, but it’s also about what’s happening to the body that has thrown it. What we do to things, things also do to us. In practice, how can this be made clear? When one blows 10 kilos of confetti towards somebody, the storm sensation is much stronger than if one was only blowing air. The perception of those subtle projected particles gives the feeling of aggression onto the body. What is important is to find a balance between the moments when the performers are in control of the situation and the moments when the situation is turned around, when one doesn’t know anymore which is the provoking factor. Another example: We work with emergency blankets.
Those are objects that are made to protect: But when looking at a body totally covered up by an emergency blanket, the image is reversed. The object becomes a synonym of danger, of suffocation. We also work with many emergency blankets – to introduce the idea of an overwhelming mass.

A crucial part of the work involved choosing the right materials, according to their transformation potential. We ended up with a very narrow selection of only a few things, realizing that it is not necessary to use loads of newspapers, plastic bags, garbage to create a chaotic landscape. It suffices to manipulate the materials in a completely different manner in order for a harmonious image to turn into a state of disorder, chaos and entropy. In the performance we go from using almost abstract – like sculptures of moving materials – to much more connoted and recognizable images of labor and struggle.

The word “thing” that you use is also affected by this indetermination process: “something” maybe “anything”. Is there for you a limit to the definition of the word “thing”?

At the beginning, I was thinking of working mainly with materials rather than with objects. When I say “material”, I think about materials that are not yet “functional things” – but in a way more like raw materials. With materials the approach is more “physical”, it’s about mass, weight, flow. For example, the weight is going to influence the way the material falls: the speed of wind produced by a machine will determine to what height it’s going to fly… It’s thus a very concrete research about all the characteristics and physics that take place during the activities we do… But this materiality doesn’t abolish another question: What representations we affirm and which ones we try to avoid? Usually, confetti is used in festive situations – but this aspect doesn’t interest me. What I find interesting is precisely how to go into a form of representation starting with the potential of material transformation, with the associations these things can produce by the way we manipulate them. This is what makes the piece is very choreographic: the organization of elements in motion in constantly different relations.

In the work with the performers, what are the implications of this reversal between the action of things and the action of the bodies? How does the actual “choreographic” work take place?

The first step in this work involved the attempt to create network connections between human and non-human performers, and to observe all the possible relations. It was not only about defining tasks or choreographic principles, but also about seeing how the materials we manipulated affected us back and gave us information on how to continue. In a way we were trying to have a dialog with what the undead materials are trying to tell us. Among the books we were reading there was an important reference – the title is “Vibrant Matter – A Political Ecology of Things”, by Jane Bennett. In one chapter she talks about trash and describe certain “things” that are totally out of their usual positions – a cap of a bottle, a dead rat, an old tire… An enlightening moment where the debris start to vibrantly communicate. For me it brings up the following question: we live in a society that over-consumes, we throw away what we don’t use anymore, but what happens the moment when these dead and invaluable objects start to have a life of their own or the moment we start to reconsider their importance? Do we start to construct cities made of trash instead of considering trash something that pollutes needs to be eliminated and stored away?

It is also interesting to think about animism, believes, myths. One has the tendency to think that with the coming of Enlightenment in western societies, the animist belief disappeared as if it were the remains of a primitive and obscurantist way of thinking. But our connection to things is always governed by unconscious, affective and irrational mechanisms as well. To observe things, their qualities, their particular form of life is also a way to attempt to let go of anthropocentrism and of a reductive rationalism.

Among the theoretical considerations that this piece touches upon we can be reminded of the philosopher Bruno Latour, whose work deals a lot with the way objects affect us based on the notion of a “field”. For him all elements that make up a field have the same importance. Can the stage be a place of global experience, giving the opportunity to watch different strata acting simultaneously?

I haven’t read Latour in depth, but in his work there is the notion of the actant that interests me a lot. It is not about the actor anymore, not about the human being capable of acting on the world – but about the idea that each thing as part of a assembly acts within a network, and that all elements that are part of it have an influence on the outcome of a situation…I understand this notion on a theoretical level, but how can this materialize, how does it work in practical terms? I think the stage can be a good space to go into the materiality of these questions, to put them into practice, to produce loops of transformation, to show the ongoing flow between non-human actors.

This flow, how are you translating it into dramaturgic terms? By following a kind of organic evolution of the material’s states, or by dividing the process into stages?

The Artificial Nature Project is build in three distinct sequences – the first one dealing with objects’ autonomy, the way things come alive by themselves – materials, sounds, lights, but no bodies. Then there is a totally different section, where the bodies are manipulating the materials, in a very physical way, coming into a close relationship with them. The third approach is based on working with tools to produce a chaotic structure where performers act independently of each other.

The three approaches are separated from one another by clear cuts, however within each section there is a principle of transformation taking place. The principle of transformation entails to show that these materials are nothing in themselves but only due to the movement manipulations they undergo.

To sculpt all these transformations’ subtleties, light is an essential element, which can emphasize the indetermination of images. What are your ideas on this subject?

Together with Minna Tiikkainen who was also the lighting designer for Evaporated Landscapes, we developed the idea of working on light situations or installations. Each of the three above mentioned parts are thus presented in a very different light-setting. For each part we use different
kinds of lamps, different intensities which create very different sensations of space. In the third part of the show we again work with LED lights like we did in Evaporated Landscapes. These types of lights make it possible to create color transformations that are very subtle and smooth. LEDs have a complete different quality than traditional theater lights; they have an incredible plasticity, a very organic way to function. In the second part we use fluorescent tubes in a square that demarcates the performance space, creating a very exposed visible situation. In this part there are very few light changes as the focus is put on how the materials are changing appearance through their manipulation and not through light changes. The first part is totally different, it is mysterious and does not expose it’s light source to the audience. It is the only part where we are working with magic, creating a light phenomena that is difficult to determine.

What about sound? Will you be using the same principles?

Peter Lenaerts who made the sound, found a recording of a tornado or a storm that we listened to during the process; what is surprising is that the thing we hear the most is not the wind, but the sound of displaced objects, dragged onto the ground. It’s a very “dirty” sound, in fact quite disturbing. This was interesting to think about in relation to sound for the project, when does the sound correspond with what is shown and when does it diverge: it’s not because a storm is a windy phenomenon that one hears the wind. The sound and the visual representation can diverge and still create a sensation of a phenomena without flattening the representation of it. If we remove the sound from the image, the recognition is distorted; it’s during the act of putting back together the sound and the image that we can recognize what we heard, and that we can identify the global phenomenon of the “storm”. Those were questions we’re busy with: how do we go about making sound that is not representational. How to work with the real sound of the materials in the space and how to make those concrete sound blend with artificially created tones like sine waves. Peter also developed a way of thinking about sine waves, as being an entirely artificial sound material that produces an acoustic “natural” phenomena when played back distributed in space.

In reference to Evaporated Landscapes you mentioned materials vanishing by themselves. What would be the means of materials appearing and disappearing in The Artificial Nature Project?

I would like to think of this piece as a kind of ecological entity, an ecosystem with its own mode of appearing and disappearing, its own temporality. An ecosystem made of a certain finite number of elements, which is able to start moving until it reaches a chaotic state. With this perspective in mind, the “cleaning up” is also part of the performance. On a more practical level the materials are reused from one evening to the other. At the end of the performance all these materials might appear as a pile of trash, but the idea that these same materials are used for the next day’s performance is very appealing to me. With this idea of an ecosystem one can think about the stage as a kind of waste land, an uncultivated land where things would be dropped off, taken away – following a combinatorial system. Entrances, exits. Adding on and removing. For example, taking away two elements to see how the three remaining ones create a new image, a new state. How different materials can have a dialogue with one another, get tangled, fold, unfold on top of one another? How material logics produce results by itself – leading to new ways of acting.

This piece brings together two modes of perception: it exists between contemplation and interaction, abstraction and the spectacular. How do those two modes coexist together?

When one thinks about nature, it is first often in terms of contemplation. To look a the sea, at the clouds, to walk in a forest… On one hand it seems interesting to me to try to recreate this state in an artificial way, to transform the theater into a place where this kind of sensation can take place. But that is not the main objective within the performance. The objective is rather to try to create a situation where the spectators are surprised by what the non-human performers are able to communicate, of course in collaboration with the human activity. The spectacular of the performance for me happens on more levels. There is the visual evidence of materials flying or falling from 6 meters height. But, what interests me more than that is the form of spectacle that is developed over time by how the performers manage to continuously absorb the attention of the audience. At times they are also being absorbed themselves by the work they do with the materials. I recently saw an exhibition of the artist Olafur Eliasson, who works on some similar aspects of perception – but more on the contemplative aspect. Esthetically, he makes beautiful works, but I realized that the beauty of a phenomena in itself doesn’t really interest me. Even when in this performance we try to create images that are visually stimulating our center of attention is more concerned with how the images are produced, the relationship between the production and the expression produced. The impact non-humans have on us and how it re-organizes relations. The difference between visual arts and theater – between installation and stage work – is connected to the question of temporality. Asking people to take the time to look at the entirety of the work and not a little bit of it as it happens with temporal formats in museums is an important aspect of this type of theater. Occasionally, I actually tell myself that I should take much more time for those variations to take place…24 hours, why not!