INTERVIEW: MATT STEINKE & VERDENSTEATRET
Austin-based artist and composer Matthew Steinke explores the “inner voices” of objects portraying the construction of their identities through the intersection of text, sound, video, installation, sculpture, performance, code, electronics, and robotics. Oslo-based artist collective Verdensteatret creates work characterized by an ongoing experimentation with different media and building complex links between seemingly incompatible technologies and materials. Matthew recently interviewed Verdensteatret about their fascinating approach to making work and their most recent project, HANNAH, which will be part of Fusebox 2019.
Matt Steinke: Interdisciplinary work can become extremely complex and multidimensional. It is also very difficult to convey in writing or conversation. Each artist or collective has to develop specialized methods to produce their work. Do you look to any historical interdisciplinary institutions or movements such as The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, or Fluxus? If so, what kinds of applicable methodologies were you able to extract from them?
Verdensteatret: It is true that interdisciplinary work is complex and demanding. These complexities relate more to the scale and extent than to a content. Content is always complex. Yes, a work like ours often avoids description and language though these two concepts are very present elements in our process. Verdensteatret has a history spanning more than 30 years and has through this time developed a specific aesthetic signature. We have a unique audio visual style, where sound spaces mingle with kinetic sculptures, installations, and stories of the fragile human soul. A nomadic perspective is rooted deep within the nature of our work, it is an ongoing voyage. It has always been there, imprinted in the works as tiny details or radiating out from the overall history of the works. We often describe our activity as a telling orchestra that performs compositions in the movable room genre. Established notions of form and style are more or less useless for these peculiar works of art. Verdensteatret’s poetics is characterized by an ongoing experimentation within different medias by building knotty links between seemingly incompatible technologies and materials which result in large-scale orchestral works and space-related musical compositions. Verdensteatret has strong ties to the theatrical tradition that includes Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and Heiner Müller and has over the years moved into a more sound based visual installation form. The collective consist of video artists, sculptors, computer programmers, sound artists, musicians and painters, among others. We collaborate in a flat structure where everyone has a hand in everything. Though Verdensteatret has a kind of signature, every production of ours is significantly different from the previous ones.
MS: How do you compose movement and sound for kinetic objects and projected video? Is the video produced first or are the objects produced first? Was there a visual score or an outline for HANNAH? Can you give some examples of how one discipline influences another discipline in this piece?
V: We have always asked and confronted the situation we work in. What is a live scenic performance? What does it consist of? How does it manifest itself? What is it and why do we try to make it? Over the years we have developed a polyphonic audiovisual system which we internally call The Room Instrument. This is a way to view the whole room as one total instrument; all the media — sound, video, human performers, kinetic sculptures, light, scenography etc. are considered during the working process. The purpose is that every artist can work temporally with any media from any point in the room, and it is a way to interface the collective artistic process with the different media. It is not one performer that performs the instrument, but the whole artist collective together as one band. It is important to underline that everything in HANNAH is played live. Every artist in the group play their parts live; both the artists visible on stage and the artists situated at other locations in the room.
Our work has this underlying feeling of rhythm and intuition. All the elements and actions on stage are viewed as parts of a language. It might not be understandable but it has to make sense.
For us HANNAH is about numerous things at once, the process is balancing many ideas, experiences, and memories at the same time. And that takes time. We write HANNAH with capital letters to graphically emphasize the palindrome. Repetition and mirroring are concepts we have had with us while working on HANNAH, and all the aspects of the work relate to those concepts. HANNAH is the possibility of living more than one life.
MS: Is HANNAH in part about the presence of objects with or without human interaction? If so are you aware of Graham Harman’s theory of Object-Oriented Ontology that does not view human existence as something to be privileged over the existence of nonhuman objects? What did you discover about the objects in the process of making this work? Did a narrative emerge? What else emerged from the process of developing this experimental project?
V: While these are interesting questions, we did not explicitly work from that angle in the making of HANNAH. Our process does not spring from some particular philosophy. But of course after the work is out there we are open for any interpretations the audience might have. Verdensteatret has always given a lot of "agency" to objects, they take on their own life and certainly make their own narratives, maybe just through their failure to communicate with us. We also live together with the objects for a long time during the development and touring, and they start taking on the mysterious lived-life quality, that makes their boundaries and position in the hierarchy more confusing.
MS: What kinds of emotional experiences are invoked in HANNAH? How are they conveyed through sound, video, lighting, and sculpture?
V: We do not start a new piece with a fixed concept; we initiate a process. A process that starts with any kind of interest—and continues with doubt as a centrifugal point. Some common experiences and memories that we all share help us create a certain artistic language and aesthetics. As we've done with previous projects, we made a research journey to establish this common ground for our process with HANNAH. This time we chose to exactly repeat a journey on the Mekong River Delta that we also did ten years before in 2007. We wanted to see if a repetition was even possible. Back in the studio in Oslo we began to process the material we had collected on this journey. The artistic results always seem surprisingly far from the material we start with. The connection between the collected material, the experience at the site and the memory of it all becomes undercurrents that surface much later. This is a complex process that we can only partly understand. So in the performance we present on stage, we are in the same situation as the audience. We have made some choices (which we hate to do) and we like to look at them together with an audience.
In describing HANNAH we have used the terms sedimentation and geological time. This points to all the layers of information that lie buried in a final artistic detail or sequence, and the relation to a much broader time span. It reflects how, for instance, our memory of a certain experience is transformed into a more abstract form on stage. All these layers of information through this complex process can be seen as more or less visible / audible sediments. In the working process we operate with all the media active in the room simultaneously, and we use a lot of time to simply observe and listen. Then we change some components and again observe and listen…over and over until the material responds…or not. We cannot force the material to become something we want it to be. It is the other way around; we work with it, but in the end we have to wait until it reveals its true potential. We hope that these observations and doubts are still alive when the audience enters.
We have worked with the phrase “attention fatigue as an observatory” which relates to our curiosity towards what happens to our perception when the focus is close to exhaustion. A slow observation of how a physical object slowly affects its surroundings is a contemplation around time and matter; to observe the mold of a rotting apple spreading out on its plate, or reading a landscape´s morphology in geological time spans, or how a speaker pushes the surrounding air-molecules…This is all about an interest in the relation between our consciousness and the world around us. How physical and mental rooms relate to each other. What is consciousness in general, in nature?
HANNAH is not just about slow changes and long observations, it is also about the contrasts with those concepts. It is about a sense of time and not being able to hold everything in your hands or have a clear overview—and also not being able to fully understand. Things and time are slipping out of our hands, there is always so much more of everything. Whatever we interact with it is only a glimpse or small piece that is revealed to us. We need to be left hanging and hungry to feel we are alive.