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Artists at Work: BADco.

Croatian Presentation at the 54th Venice Biennale, BADco., Responsibility for Things Seen: Tales in Negative Space, 2011. Photograph: Ivan Kuhari?. Courtesy the artists
Josefine Wikström interviews the theatre collective BADCo. about their work at the Venice Biennale and about the migration of theatre and performance into the visual arts space.
Croatian Presentation at the 54th Venice Biennale, BADco., Responsibility for Things Seen: Tales in Negative Space, 2011. Photograph: Ivan Kuhari?. Courtesy the artists

BADco. is an international independent theatre collective based in Zagreb. They emerged in the late 1990s, together with a number of independent initiatives in Croatia, as a reaction to the nationalist cultural and political climate at the time. Since their inception they have produced theatrical performances for the stage as well as other performance-related projects like publications and seminars on the topic of performance as well as open-source software computer programs through which choreographers, dancers and non-dancers can analyse and explore movement and choreography.   

The collective is composed out of eight core members coming from such varied backgrounds as dance, choreography, dramaturgy, computer programming, philosophy and political theory. For each production, moreover, they often work with additional collaborators. This collective working process is reflected in their performances, which are strongly interdisciplinary and which take place on the intersection of theatre, performance, installation and architecture.

Their performances often include flow-like, yet expressive, sections of dance juxtaposed with spoken and written text, films, photos, sound and scenography. But instead of choreographies which transcend the movements BADco. juxtapose the dance parts with spoken and written text, films, photos, sound and scenography. This approach, like that of a montage or a bricolage, invites the viewer to look at the performance from an objective, Brechtian distance and as larger whole rather than focusing on particular details. In the following interview Josefine Wikström speaks to BADco. ‘authors’ Ivana Ivković,Tomislav Medak, Goran Sergej Pristaš andNikolina Pristaš, focusing on BADco.’s most recent work, Responsibility for Things Seen: Tales in Negative Space (2011). Responsibility is presented in the Croatian Pavilion, which is curated by the collective What, How and for Whom, of this year’s Venice Biennale.

JOSEFINE WIKSTRÖM: Responsibility for Things Seen: Tales in Negative Space is different from many of your performances. Here the physical presence of you, the performers, is absent from the space of the performance. What is the relation between this negative space, as the title suggests, and the way the performance functions, or let us say, produces itself?

IVANA IVKOVIC: WHW’s invitation was to do something at the Venice Biennale, an environment that is very different from a theatre stage and an encounter with a public who witness the work in a manner very different from a theatre audience. We knew from the beginning that we would share the exhibition space with the films and photographs of Tomislav Gotovac (1937–2010), who was an incredible film-maker and performance artist. However we were not so interested in doing an homage but rather wanted to create a dialogue between Gotova’s work and ours, which both share a fascination with staging, watching and being observed.

BADco., Responsibility for Things Seen: Tales in Negative Space, 2011. Photograph Dinko Rupčić. Courtesy the artists

The installation consists of a duplicated a gallery wall, which we placed behind the already existing one. The visitor can see this back wall only through a cracked door and through three punched-out holes which confront him or her with three different video screens. The first screen shows footage of the company in a white indistinct space, naked, running, walking and moving in flow-like gestures. The second presents images of the gallery floor-plan together with images of us performing short choreographies inspired by architecture and science fiction. And the third video consists of live footage of the exhibition space which then is processed through a software program which edits and erase images of the present visitors with stored images of visitors who have been in the exhibition space months, weeks or minutes before. This puts the visitor in a position where he or she can observe and be observed at the same time. It allows the visitor to assume a more active role of spectatorship, one that does not rely on forced interaction, but on devising a dramaturgical path through subtle cues. This approach has been present in much of our work for the stage in the past. So, coming back to your question, we may be absent in body in Venice, but we stand next to the gallery visitors in images.

SERGEJ PRISTAS: If we compare the negative space with a stage – though I would rather compare it to a backstage, a skene01 then we should talk here about the stage of watching instead of the stage of showing. The spatial and temporal displacements that are constitutive for this work result in a performative displacement. But it’s not the performer’s actions that are displaced and delegated to the visitor or spectator. It is the ‘actionability’ of the gaze that we have created and which is triggered by the visitors’ presence. Theatre is a place of a doubled act of watching: the watching of the performance and watching from the performance. We tried here to slow down the watching part by ‘dividing’ the spectator’s gaze.

JW: So, is the act of watching deeply intertwined with moving, or let us say, choreography? To watch ‘from the performance’, as you say, is that to be moved or to be choreographed within the performance?

Croatian Presentation at the 54th Venice Biennale, BADco., Responsibility for Things Seen: Tales in Negative Space, 2011. Photograph: Ivan Kuharić. Courtesy the artists

SP: What we call the ‘choreography of attention’ is, metaphorically speaking, embedded in staged watching. There are no dramaturgical hierarchies between the watching and the organisation of movement in space. The visitor is not forced to move or to be watched, it’s just that he or she is provided with a multiplicity of experiences: the experience of watching, of being watched or of being the one who is watching from the side.

JW: This relates, I think, to the fact that recently art galleries in London and elsewhere have shown an increased interest in presenting performance and dance, and to the challenges which accompany that interest. As I see it, this has demanded, from the works themselves but also from the organisation of exhibitions, a kind of staged or spectacularised interactivity, even imposing a forced choreography on the visitors. A lot of visual arts curators use performance works in order to ‘activate’ the exhibition space and to make the visitor experience more participatory. But this often seems to me like an illusory mode of participation or interaction.

NIKOLINA PRISTAS: Even though we experimented a lot with the idea of activating our spectators in some of our performances, we have never been interested in abolishing the distance that theatre, by convention, grants them. If this distance is annihilated, if theatre involves them as ‘performers’, then they also lose their power as spectators – that is, to reflect and to think. Their ability to watch things from a side, to exclude themselves from the events around them, in order to sharpen their point of view and understand that they can influence the system that includes them as much as it includes us – as, for example, inDeleted Messages (2005) or Memories Are Made of This… Performance Notes(2006) – is important in understanding our work.

SP: That interstice between the observer and the observed is important for the configuration of public space. Interactive involvements attempt to erase that border between public and private.

JW: I read somewhere that for your work in Venice you came up with the concept of ‘theatre by other means’. What is that?

TOMISLAV MEDAK: ‘Theatre by other means’ came out of our disinclination to create a performance only for the opening of the Venice Biennale which would then only leave vestiges or documents behind. We were more interested in making something in this new context that we found ourselves completely displaced into. While theatre principally relies on the presence of the performer, the presence of visual artists is rarely required and sometimes not at all. Yet, while we didn’t want to create a performance and then leave, we wanted to retain certain elements of theatre – that of the double presence of actor and spectator, for example. At the same time did we not want to simply delegate these elements of theatre to the visitor; rather we aimed to transpose them into the organisation of the work itself.

JW: Could you expand on this resistance towards a temporal performance? And has this work in Venice, which is within a visual arts context, made you think differently around the distribution of your work and about the distribution or circulation of performance and theatre in general?

TM: The fact that you see more and more performances being presented within art venues might be saying more about how the performing arts field is transforming than about how the visual arts are finding ways to include performances. Structural transformations within the performing arts field have allowed for works to become much more presentable than they used to be. Performing arts have commonly been a massive affair. To create a theatre work you needed to command a certain amount of material resources and diversified human labour and so required a larger economy than creating a visual artwork. For theatre, this also meant a production framework which was organised more like a factory. And that was less democratic.

JW: So is this structural transformation within the performing arts field to do with the transformation of how labour is performed and organised today?

BADco.: Responsibility for Things Seen: Tales in Negative Space, 2011. Photograph: Dinko Rupčić. Courtesy the artists

TM: Yes. Today we are seeing a fragmentation of the performing arts field into smaller units of production. There are several factors that contribute to that: more people being educated and working in the field and trying to find recognition as authors; an increased mobility and travel within the field; and funding becoming less available. In that sense the differentiation mechanisms, formats and conditions of labour in the performing arts resemble more and more those of the visual arts. What has become known as conceptual dance, with its radical mobility, small scale, single-concept works, discursiveness and strong elements of institutional critique is an index of the changing conditions of production within the performing arts.

SP: Another tendency is that more and more people, who before have been programmers or dramaturges in performing arts institutions, are now starting to call their practice curatorial. This is a problem because it destabilises production budgets, in the sense that the programmes of the institutions become more about carrying out concepts with already existing works and less and less about producing new work.

TM: We, however, don’t quite fit into that change. The fact that we are strongly rooted in Zagreb and that we are a collective of eight often makes us not economically viable for performing arts venues, let alone for the visual arts context. Therefore – and Venice was a small test case – for our work to circulate in the latter context, we would need to start thinking in terms of producing objects, works that do not require our presence. We are now trying to come to terms with the implications of that. Given our collective process of authorship, which is long and laborious, it does not seem feasible that we’ll continue to do that very often.

JW: Many of your works – I am thinking here mainly of Memories are made of this… Performance Notes accumulate images, text, choreography and scenography, and so create an imaginary layer to the performance, a layer which does not seem to be written into the work but that emerges as an effect of the performance and which could be seen as a future image or imaginary. The door to the back stage in Responsibility for Things Seen… also creates this imaginary element to the work.

SP: In Memories are Made of This…, we wanted to create an overload of intimate images of remembrance, while avoiding our personal memories. We actually worked on an operation of forgetting! There is a point in the performance that is individual to each spectator, when he or she experiences that fact that the imagination can no longer create a proper time-image nor connect in a linear manner all the images that we have gradually laid before them. This is a moment when they become aware of the amount of stuff they need to leave behind them in order to progress further.  This kind of negative approach, which stimulates the imagination and opens space for speculation is also related to the ‘door’ in Responsibility… I would say that because of the very vulgar act of bumping into the door that won’t open (this happens to most of the visitors) one simply stops riding the wave of the imagery through the Arsenale inside the biennial. And that moment is a chance for us to reload their attention.

JW: And so is your idea of theatre connected to this promise?

SP: Not really… I would say that the reason I’m personally interested in theatre is the fact that it gives a space to experiment with a variety of problems and that this always happens somehow within this world and not within a promised one. The promise is one of the problems that has to be questioned on the larger scale.

The promise has nothing necessarily positive in itself. It is more important to understand what kinds of conditions that produce it or what kind of living conditions they might bring. In The League of Time (2009) we thematised utopian discourses from the 1920s in the USSR together with utopias from the second cybernetic wave in the 1970s in the US. In Responsibility… we turned to the promise, given through the architectural theory of Parametricism, which is a strand of architecture that tries to produce poster images of future architecture and urban development, but only in order to capture and commodify our aspirations for the future to the financial or ideological benefit of only a few.

JW: Can you say a bit more about Parametricism and your relation it?

SP: Well, in our view it is a form of technological modernism that has been emptied out of all aspiration to contribute to the progress of society and to the development of new forms of collective living, which is the aspiration behind much of the modernist design of the early twentieth century. Technological modernism has likewise been primarily invested into producing monuments of economic and political power. This is not a random judgement from our side – last year in Metamute Owen Hatherley made similar critical remarks in his article on parametricism.02Recently in Croatia we saw an example of what this type of architecture stands for when Zaha Hadid’s spaceship-like designed villas, overlooking the old town of Dubrovnik and to be built for a golfing resort, were brought in to a public debate over the privatisation of agricultural land where the resort would stand. Luckily the public’s dissent was not silenced by the iconic starchitecture, but this example demonstrates how this type of architecture often is brought in to serve against the interests of the local community and its ideas on how it wants to manage the spatial resources. In our next project we will try to examine the idea of terraforming and its relation to the production of life and death. My impression is that while we think that we are suffering from a deficit of utopian thinking, at the same time we have doubts about what that future might be, about what the ‘yet to come’ is.

BADco.: Responsibility for Things Seen: Tales in Negative Space, 2011. Photograph: Dinko Rupčić. Courtesy the artists

JW: So to conclude I would like bring up the impression I have that the performing arts in Croatia (and possibly in the rest of former Yugoslavia) seems deeply integrated with other artistic fields and initiatives, and here I mean both on the level of production and the organisation of the work as much as on the aesthetic level of the artwork. I don’t really see this in Europe in the same way within the performing arts. Do you agree? Is this connected to the cultural situation from which many independent groups emerged from and that we spoke about earlier?

TM: The lateral integration – a strong practice of collaboration and interdisciplinarity – between independent actors reflects the fact that these, at least implicitly, share certain values related to the counter-project to the official cultural politics of 1990s. They also share the difficulty of having to function economically on the margins of the system and therefore have to work together to redefine the cultural politics, policy and framework from below. They – including us – have done this intensively and with articulated intent over the last decade or so. These are all small contexts, sometimes even incestuous and compartmentalisation can occasionally makes things even more claustrophobic. If independence is a counter-proposal to nationalist cultural policy, collaboration is independent culture’s counter-infrastructure.

JW: Could too much collaboration between different independent initiatives also harm the independent scene on a bigger scale?

TM: No, not from where I’m standing. In terms of production and work, this can’t hurt. Collaboration offsets the failures of public infrastructure and cultural policy. And, as concerns the bigger scale, we just have to keep our eye on the big picture. We as a scene, as a segment of culture and of society that has the privilege to reflect at the changes that our societies have been swept into – for instance with the latest economic downturn – have to muster our capacity to act to help keep as much of the welfare state, the public good and the social system intact. Recently cuts of public financing in culture have been making waves across Europe. Before that there were cuts, privatisations and rationalisations in other parts of welfare state. We have to keep an eye on the big picture.