About Mette Ingvartsen

Mette Ingvartsen is a Danish choreographer and dancer. Her practice involves teaching, writing, making, performing and documenting work. From 1999 she studied in Amsterdam and Brussels where she in 2004 graduated from P.A.R.T.S. She is currently doing a practice based Ph.D in choreography at Stockholm University of the Arts (UNIARTS). In this context she is researching the relationship between artist writing and artistic practice, using her choreographic work as a way to experiment with these relations. Questions of kinesthesia, perception, affect and sensation have been crucial in many of her works. Starting in 2009 with evaporated landscapes, a performance for foam, fog, light and sound, her interests led to a series of propositions extending choreography into non-human materials. Momentarily she is occupied by how language can be a material for speculative choreography, creating imaginary and virtual extensions of the body. Her latest work 69 positions is the first in a new cycle dealing with the relation between sexuality and the public sphere.

Extractions on choreography

Extractions is a series of texts formulating extended notions of choreography closely related to performances and their processes of making.

Immaterial Choreography

On Giant City and Evaporated Landscapes

When I started working on Giant City and Evaporated Landscapes, 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, color, 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.

Non-Human Choreography

On The Artificial Nature Project, or how to make choreography for non-human performers

In 2009 I made “evaporated landscapes” a performance for evaporating materials. With soap bubbles, foam, fog, smoke, light and sound a miniature model-landscape was created for the spectators to be emerged in. The set-up of the performance was small and experimental in order for the audience to have a tactile and physical experience of the transformative, artificial landscapes that were presented. The performance was operated by three technicians who manipulated machines, creating an animated world without human presence. The theatre as an illusion making machinery was unfolded by making theatrical illusions, at the same time as showing the operations that make such illusions possible.

The piece evoked questions in the audiences around natural disasters, environmental destructions and around people’s personal relationship to nature and contemplation. Listening to what the piece evoked in people, I had the feeling that the piece itself started to talk back. As if I had made something that all of a sudden had a life of its own, a voice and a capacity to speak.

What does it mean to make a choreography for materials, where human movement is no longer in the centre of attention? What does it mean to address the force of things, the forces of materials, objects and matters as something that acts upon humans? What is the relationship between the animate and the inanimate world? When do objects start to gain their own life? Can a thing create agency? Do materials have the capacity to move human bodies? These questions kept disturbing me even more after the performance was finished than during making it. Wherever I looked I had the feeling that we live in a time where natural forces constantly push us to reconsider the relationship between human/inhuman, animate/inanimate, subject/object, harmony/chaos, protection and threat.

I was thinking about the extreme forces of natural disasters destroying all human constructions and leaving dreadful situations behind. But more than that, I was thinking about how the amplitude of the terrible effects left behind, can often be traced back to human errors, miscalculations and lack of security measures. This seems to be the case with for instance with the Katrina hurricane. The human redirections of the Mississippi river had already before the hurricane proven to be dangerous for the citizens. Similarly with Fukushima where the tsunami was only the first step in the sequence of natural/man-made disasters. What interested me in this is not the moralistic concern for the decay of nature, but rather the breaking moment when the force of things detaches itself from human control. When the disaster finally hits us, we are forced to accept the fact that we as humans are not in the centre of the world able to control it, and in this moment the relationship between human and non-human actors gets reconfigured.

It is through imagining such a reconfiguration that “The Artificial Nature Project” is made. A poetics that is not centered abound the identity and personality of the performer but rather focused on the expressivity of materials and what materials are able to perform. This does not mean that the human presence is not important on stage. Rather the centre of attention is shifted around, offering the spectator is a possibility to reconsider her own relationship to materiality.

In earlier works I was very often concerned with the materiality of the body and how to make the body appear as expressive matter. In “The Artificial Nature Project” I am rather interested in how matter and materiality can be understood as a body. A body understood in these terms is not a body of human flesh, but rather an organization of elements that all operate in order to make a situation function. By making a choreography for materials, operated partly by humans, partly by machines and partly by the minds of the spectators, the notions of human beings being at the centre of all action, activity and agency is put in question.

In the process of materializing these ideas, it was extremely interesting to observe how the expressive qualities of the materials would immediately retreat if the presence of the human performers would come in the foreground. What we searched for is how to remain in a relation where the labor of the performers is always clear and evident, so that the focus can remain on the non-human expression. But the force of the performers is still extremely visible throughout the performance. Their force is transferred into the materials, thus the movements of the materials are the movements of the performers. It is not because the performers are masked or hidden that what they do is not important, rather the opposite. They are important exactly in how they are able to collaborate to become invisible, or to constantly change their ways of manipulating the materials in order for the spectator to experience the uncanny feeling off dead matter talking back. The performativity of this piece is neither in the humans nor in the materials alone, but in the intersection between them. It is the third image that is composed in between that creates the particularity of the performance. All elements are considered to have equal agency. Humans, non-human materials, machines, cables, curtains, lamps, immaterial lights and sounds effect the entire situation in a complex network of relations.

The first part happens without the presences of human performers. The audience enters into a conventional frontal theatre space, but when the lights go down they are hit by a penetrating darkness. Something seems to be moving in the air in front of them. Little glimpses of light blink in the air, as if we would be far out in a galaxy or surrounded by tiny florescent animals flying in the air. The light phenomena changes shape, colour, height, density to the point where it becomes impossible to fasten a decision on what it might be that is going on, on stage.

Then there is a hard cut and the space opens up

In the second part of the performance, the performers are operating the materials manually like material researchers, attempting by alchemy to transform one material into another. The images change from post-apocalyptic, to more natural landscapes in construction. We see lava, liquids and rain, but most of all a long transformation of qualities that could also be considered abstract movements.

After a while the performers leave the performance space and when they come back they bring air-blowers and several other tools to manipulate the materials with. This third part starts with a hard cut into a fictional situation.

It looks like a catastrophic site where everything is burning. The red light makes the silver materials glow as if they were burning hot. The performers are both creating a problem and being subjected to the problem at the same time. They keep things moving in the air and all around. It is a chaotic situation with many different activities. A self- created disaster. Actions counteract one another, some people try to spread the fire while others try to extinguish it. Some are trying to clean up the catastrophic mess while others are flickering the lights violently, together they are making it impossible to achieve any focus task.

The piece finishes by the light being covered by the performers. Like closing a window you had been able to look out through, to see a landscape in constant making, transformation, destruction and reconstruction. An illusion that both showed it’s mesmerizing effect and it’s laborious production.

Landscape Choreography

On evaporated landscapes

Evaporated Landscapes is an artificial world that behaves according to rules of evaporation, dissolution and transformation. Departing from ephemeral materials and matters like light, sound, bubbles and foam the performance constructs landscapes of various kinds. Some of the artificial landscapes resemble nature, as we know it from the past, others look more like futuristic inventions. In either case they produce sensations of calmness and rest but also fascination and surprise, impressions we normally attribute to the world of natural wonders.

Evaporated landscapes is a science fictional fabulation. It is about trying to create fiction through mechanical extensions, not of the body but of nature. It is a reflection on how nature could look in the future when we no longer have access to the resources that are in decay today. But more than that it is a fiction existing inside the theater space, almost like an artificial garden that offers you a moment to slow down and enjoy a series of “un-natural wonders”, at the same time as being aware that the magical tricks are produced by machines.

The performance has a lot to do with what kind of relationship people have to nature today or maybe rather to the fact that the idea of nature no longer exists. You have to travel very far to reach un-spoiled, un-touch nature areas. Mountains that are not made into ski-stations and beaches that have not been overgrown with hotels are hard to find, but of course much more importantly air and water that has not been polluted by CO2 and other emissions that today make it, that the idea of pure nature no longer exists.

Evaporated Landscapes is an experiment with what a performance can be. In the performance choreography no longer belongs to the organization of bodies and their movements in space, rather it is understood to be the relationships that operate between ephemeral elements, as they magically float and dissolve. The movements that appear do not only show up in space but also within the bodies of the spectators due to the sensations and perceptions they encounter throughout the performance.

Evaporated Landscapes departs from the idea of 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, color, density and locality. The ephemeral elements, light and sound are used as a way of achieving a transformable topological space. The performance follows a score based on the idea of making the bodies of the spectators “the place” of the performance.

Soft Choreography

on 69 positions

I say “soft” because I do not want to say “social”. But what I really mean is another kind of organisation of performance that would not rely on a clear separation between the performers and the spectators, the stage and the auditorium, an encounter and a constructed event.

Soft choreography is the opposite of hard choreography.

Hard choreography means: a choreography written down to the smallest detail without much space for deviance. A performance that can run all by itself, even if there is no audience to witness it. It does not change when someone gets up and leaves, nor does it expand just because people want it to. It keeps its autonomy, its object-hood, and not much can shake it. It can be performed without people observing it and its writing does not change depending on whether there is anyone watching or not. (When such performances succeed, they are often called masterpieces.)

On the other hand, a soft choreography is one that cannot exist without an audience. It is a performance carried out in relation to the specific desires of a specific group of people at a certain time. It is a risky performance that might as well not happen. It is a fragile situation that asks the audience to share the responsibility for it.

That said, it does not follow that nothing is planned or that nothing will take place. Rather, the desire in soft choreography is to arrange conditions for encounters to occur.

The softness of choreography applies not only to human physical movement, but also to the organisation of space, the organisation of a group in space and of its behaviour. The softness carries a persuasive quality. It has a seductive but not sexual undertone, the seduction of being part of a collective, sharing a certain time and space, in order to construct something together. Today, the idea of the collective body may be a utopian idea. It is an idea that our individualist society is constantly trying to disrupt by making any kind of collective mobilisation and resistance impossible. Contrary to this tendency, soft choreography brings a group of people together, for a short, but precious moment in time.

The space grows soft when it is undivided, when the circulation in the room is open, when people are free to organise themselves as they like. It is important that the space is able to change. That it does not have only one configuration, but that other potentials may be realised in it as well. This means enabling people to change their activities without necessarily noticing when they pass from one state into another.

The mind grows soft when different modes of being start to intermingle. When critical reflection dissolves into a drifting sensation of pleasure and then returns, much sharper and clearer. When a mental thought becomes a movement or tone. When a tone turns into a melody and becomes a verbal narrative or a heated debate.

Interactive”, “collaborative”, and “participatory” are only a few of the words that have been used for this type of theatre. “Democratic” is another. And even though the medium of dance has been revisiting such concepts in recent years by reconstructing utopias from the past (the 60s and the 70s), it’s time to give it another try. Too much hardness in the field of choreography (and in my own work) makes it urgent to think of other ways of being together in the theatre.

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