The exposium Thinking-Scenography (Th-S) was born out of the wish to open up the Platform’s regularly held “time-for-space” sessions to a larger group of interested colleagues.
Thinking-Scenography took as an overarching topic a phenomenon that according to us was and still is of increasing relevance to our contemporary society: that is, the construction and design of other (temporary) worlds that make use of the strategy of the suspension of disbelief. We were interested in those alternative realities that seek to delay our mistrust in the imaginary. The first day was designed as an expedition by bus, where we visited for example the Kleinpolderplein – a slowly disintegrating large junction were the Observatorium started a project that will give the site back to nature over the next 10-20 years; the Second Maasvlakte – 2,000 hectares of sand (beach), a landscape outside the harbour of Rotterdam ‘reclaimed’ from the North Sea; and arts festival De Keuze in Rotterdam. Back in Utrecht, scenography students had transformed the venue Het Huis into a hotel, each room with different nomadic sleeping facilities.
The second day gave space to output and reflection in an Open Space session. About 50 scenographers, spatial designers coming from different domains, light and costume designers and dramaturges spent time together within a setup were everyone was as much a participant as a visitor and a spectator. We had designed the conditions – the scenography-dramaturgy of these two days – but not the outcome, so we invited the participants to make discoveries alongside with us. We invited them to look again. To carefully observe and formulate new interpretations of the things we experienced. A group of bloggers from Domein voor Kunstkritiek were present to harvest and map the different vocabularies, observations and reflections that came to the surface.
Before everyone got on the bus, Nienke Scholts held an opening lecture. A slightly edited version of her text can be read here.
Thinking-Scenography; some first thoughts.
‘At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape…’ (Italo Calvino)
In spring 2012, we – a small group of scenographers and dramaturges – started coming together to share the common pleasure we found in talking about space. We did this in a very straightforward manner. We would gather in monthly meetings called ‘time for space’ and any one of us could introduce a stimulus: a series of pictures of a set, a maquette, etc.
We realised also that besides this shared interest, the fact that scenographers and dramaturges were sitting around the table together, was more than coincidental. Various parallels were found that ran across these different professions. Most fruitful nevertheless were the differences in how we ‘approached’ the topics and imagery gathered around the table. We realised that our various ways of looking at and describing space challenged the perspective of the others. We needed to harvest this vocabulary to address the lack of discourse in the theatre field on scenography and other forms of spatial design. Hence we founded Platform-Scenography, a platform aiming to make visible and (re)think scenography. We decided to start this platform by opening up our sessions to colleagues and inviting them to meet and think scenography together in a ‘time for space XL session’: Thinking-Scenography.
We move easily through the world that is designed around us. Almost all spaces have a directive function. Sometimes these designs even manifest themselves as garantiertes abenteuer, as a reality that seems to produce manageable desired experiences on demand. We can find it in thematic festivals, in shopping malls, in the never changing ANNE the musical, or in wearing Intimacy, a dress that gets more transparent as the women get more aroused, a design by Daan Roosengaarde. Everything we might experience is already there, laid out before our eyes.
Rarely one finds a reality where one is without any directive sign to hold on to. Perhaps in a far and unknown country, but not in the Netherlands; a country where spatially everything is arranged and designed, even nature. In the article ‘Jog here picnic there: Almere’, art critic Anna Tilroe asks if we can still speak of ‘free nature’. She cites architect critic Hans Ibelings, who seeks the parallel with designing zones of tolerance for junkies and hangouts for teenagers: “free nature is a delusion”, he says. We also perceive a growing desire both in society and in the arts for forms of imagination that loosen these straight lines of our fixed surroundings. Forms of imagination that allocate other registers and challenge us to relate to realities differently, critically, abiding or with every fiber of our being.
I will describe 3 works and gestures that, I would argue, manage to temporarily deflect the automatic pilot we use to move around. In these examples, this is not achieved by a physically different spatial design, but through a performance or performative act that takes place in a given or fixed reality and that changes that reality temporarily. I want to look at what happens in that temporary space.
As we all know a museum, like any other space, contains various invisible codes that define our behavior and presence. There is the entrance with the ticket office, programme leaflets, lockers, toilets and the exit with the gift shop. The exhibition space itself is usually designed to show art in the best possible way. Directions on floors, walls and in programme leaflets guide the visitor through. Guards sit or walk around to make sure nothing is touched or damaged.
The Belgian artist Pierre Huyghe plays with these codes to create another reality within the museum. In the exhibition he staged at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in March 2014, it was impossible to follow a sequential path. The ground plan in the programme leaflet only gave the illusion of a direction, since it did not match the reality of the exhibition in any way. The numbers of the artworks were placed randomly, and there were more artworks in the space than pointed out in the programme brochure. Next to that, the light was slightly off, making the space a bit too dark.
After deciding to let go of control and encounter the unknown, it became clear that the created space of confusion was part of the reality Huyghe was offering. The imaginative world(s) of his art works were not only ‘on display’, but came alive in and merged with the exhibition space. Entering this world with nothing recognisable to hold on to, other unfamiliar codes and signs became apparent and demanded a new/ an alternative way of ‘reading’ and understanding.
The main character in one of the displayed video works is a white dog with one pink leg. He moves around a sculpture of a laying figure whose head is covered by bees. One of the exhibition rooms borders a small garden. A female guard is standing in the sun; she loosens her hair and lights a cigarette. A bit further in that garden one recognizes the sculpture with the bees. Ten minutes later, while watching a semi-fictitious documentary on Antarctica, a bright light suddenly fills the dark room. A tall figure with a luminous book shaped mask walks in. The white dog with the pink leg is accompanying him.
One dressed in a gorilla suit, the other in a blue ninjalike outfit, Olivia Reschofsky and Alice Pons – two young choreographers – pay daily visits to the Amsterdam suburb de Bijlmer. Every day, over a period of 5 weeks, they return to always the same two spots, put on a small ghettoblaster and start dancing.
De Bijlmer, that houses people of 150 different nationalities, was designed as a series of high, identical buildings that offer no social control. From the 70s onwards, immigrants were housed there because of the cheap rents. Soon the neighbourhood was known as ‘a ghetto’ – the black criminal area of Amsterdam. In recent years, renovations have taken place and living standards improved.
Blue Gorilla – as the choreographers call themselves – dance all sorts of dance styles for example the closing scene of Dirty Dancing, or freestyle. They play the song ‘Happy’ so often it became a recognisable jingle. In the first days they are noticed but neglected. In the second week, they are being recognised. People stop to have a chat. A week later school kids jump in to dance with them, a guy teaches them steps.
The way people normally move around in their environment is disturbed – the course of the day is interrupted. And on that breakline another reality emerges: the reality of a grass field in front of a blockhouse where Blue Gorilla dances repeatedly. Seeing once someone crossing the street in a costume will also only shortly attract attention. But because of the repetition – the mailman, people on their way to work, the woman on the balustrade watering her plants – they all start to expect and include the presence of a waltzing gorilla and blue ninja in their morning routine. They know and expect the show to start at 8. And they come to watch, or join. From an alien intruder Blue Gorilla becomes part of these people’s ‘habitat’. And by accepting this reality as part of their own living area, a space for (other forms of) communication, expression, pleasure, etc. is created. Blue Gorilla’s persistent presence leaves a trace, perhaps even until after they have left.
Shifting layers. Creating these kinds of temporary zones, somewhere between what is and what might become, is always political. Sometimes we cannot distinguish between the political and the poetical. Take for example the standing man in Turkey in 2011. After citizens were forbidden to demonstrate or protest at all, a man walked onto Taksim Square and stood still for 5 hours, staring at the portrait of the founder of Modern Turkey Kemal Atatürk. The portrait hangs outside the Atatürk Cultural Center that borders Gezi Park. Plans to redevelop the park, one of the last green areas in Istanbul, had triggered vocal protests in the country in the preceding weeks. Occupiers of the park had been disciplined with severe measures. Social unrest and heavy clashes between citizens and the police had followed.
The man, Erdem Gündüz, stood in silence. People asked him if something was wrong and the police searched his stuff. He remained mute. After a while people started to copy his behaviour and soon the whole square was filled with 300 silent protesters. That image went viral. All over the world people supported the act by standing still in their own streets.
The authorities – for the time being – were ‘expelled from the game’ that Erdem was playing. They could not act against this non-violent presence of their citizens. The police simply stood there as well, disarmed of their power as it were.
Gündüz finds a way to ‘speak out’ against a regime that has taken his voice. The standing act of the people in the square performs an alternative space, a passageway as it were, between the current powerand another not yet existing future system. And while standing in this passageway anything has the potential to happen.
Here, but also in the other examples, imagination as an activity or a practice is a first step towards its manifestation. Ultimately, the realities that Huyghe, Blue Gorilla and the standing man propose are real; they just offer an alternative or addition to the reality we are used to.
The literal meaning of the word ‘scenography’ is ‘space writing’ or ‘writing the space’ (Marianne van Kerkhoven). In the given examples the design of the space rather seems about re-writing ‘what was written before’, by redescribing, re-discovering, reshaping its parameters in every imaginable way.
The invitation to shift layers also invites people to look at reality from different perspectives; with belief and disbelief, with naivety and scepticism, with hope and despair.
If we live in a world where space is more and more designed, where does that leave us, designers, writers and readers of that space? Where do we position ourselves and how? What is our responsibility? Should we ‘dis’-cover the layers of space (and will there be something behind them)? Should we embrace what is proposed to us? Do we only point at and reflect on, or also act upon the world around us? What kind of words can we find to describe what we see? Can the design of alternative worlds outside the theatre also inform the perception of our work inside that space? And vice versa: do we feel a desire to use imaginative practices for a proposal outside of the theatre? And if so, what would we propose?
“If in a modern scenography space is increasingly ‘written’, then the spectators are also more and more requested to read the applied signs; fixed points of reference are barely given; their look is a journey, they are invited to map out their own route in a world without beacons. (…) But they continue their road. With the internal and the perception as companion. (…) “
“We are obliged to read [reality] with more precision and depth then before. More than ever artists – as ‘form-givers’ – have a function to make the confusing world more readable.”
– Marianne van Kerkhoven;
Een reis in de ruimte, een wereld zonder middelpunt (1991)
Van de hoop en de wanhoop (1992)