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Photo by Spyros Rennt
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Selin Davasse. Photo by Spyros Rennt
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Tilman Hecker. Photo by Spyros Rennt
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Belle Santos. Photo by Spyros Rennt
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Photo by Spyros Rennt

glasshouse: »The Digital Stages Itself Back to Us«

January 25, 2022
Text by Lewon Heublein

Organized by Selin Davasse, Tilman Hecker, and Belle Santos, the artist-run platform glasshouse assembles artists from different spheres and explores the digital possibilities of producing performances beyond screens and other technical devices.

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Photo by Spyros Rennt

First, I would like to take a look back. What is the origin story?

Selin Davasse: The performative is very digital today, and the digital very performative, regardless of the pandemic. At the start of the first lockdown, faced with a new season of his series at Volksbühne Berlin, theorist and curator Armen Avanessian wanted to brainstorm on ways to tackle the forced digitalization of initial off-screen works — and we all started talking. Streaming performance works often leads to an alienated experience, somehow inferior to viewing that work in person, and performance documentation is usually seen as a secondary presentation format. We were discussing ways to move beyond the streaming paradigm when it comes to experiencing performance works online.

Tilman Hecker: One of the ideas I liked from the very beginning was to create a kind of performance app. An Instagram for performers, with viewers, makers and different tools at hand. I’m still really into the idea, but we realized early on it would be way too expensive, so we had to come up with something else.

Belle Santos: The first name idea was »The Red Salon App« with ‚Appisodes’. The live element was very important, even in the beginning. How could that »live moment« still happen? It should be more than streaming, as we noted in our manifesto. We wanted to go deeper into the interaction between performance and audience.

SD: We were interested in facilitating collaboration between performance-makers and artists with a technology-based practice. We hoped that through this exchange, performance works that don‘t just replicate themselves digitally, but rather engage with and make use of the distinctive possibilities of cyberspace would come into existence. These works would be unique experiences in their own right, instead of replacements that invite comparison to the live theater experience that was then inaccessible.

After one season, you moved this digital theater under a new roof and created a »glasshouse«.

BS: The change in the leadership team of Volksbühne also marked the end of the »Next Waves Theater«. We thought it would be nice to make a fresh start with the funding we received from the Fonds Darstellende Künste and make it even more of an artist-run project, hence the new name »glasshouse«. We chose the name because we thought it could become our own theater in a digital space. I also liked the idea that if a light was to shine on the glasshouse, it would be broken into a prism, and shine in all directions, as if reflected by a crystal.

SD: The infrastructural conditions under which performance is rehearsed, staged and viewed are changing and we’re very happy to get the chance to continue our laboratory, in which artists working outside institutional and across disciplinary boundaries can experiment together at the interface of the glass screen.

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Selin Davasse. Photo by Spyros Rennt

At the beginning of NWT, you published a manifesto. What mood were you in when you wrote it?

BS: We were all supposed to have our own performances at Roter Salon in 2020, but then the pandemic forced all theaters to shut down. We then met and talked a lot on Zoom, collecting thoughts of what a digital theater could look like, coming up with this idea of the app and thinking about ways to create digital »liveness«.

SD: We had a Google Docs, and it wasn’t very coherent and needed to be distilled into something more punchy and succinct. Then, the notion of a manifesto came up. I love manifestos, but they’re always so bombastic and swollen with male ego. There is this quote: »Manifestos are written by failed artists«. And maybe in this manifesto, failure is accepted and expected to some degree. We just wanted to experiment with new forms, and the manifesto proposed some possibilities, even if in a sentimental and overly-confident manner.

As we reflect on failure, I would like to bring Legacy Russel into this conversation: »The glitch is a provocation and a proposition that is intend to show how failure can be emancipatory.« Many of your projects exhibit this kind of failure.

SD: Part of the idea was to push the platforms and apps to their limits. The artists we collaborated with had complete artistic freedom. But the ideas in the manifesto were always present in our exchange and, whenever possible, we tried to use an app as an integral component of the work, which of course usually meant that this was something new to everyone involved and the apps we squatted for artistic purposes were owned by big corporations. The thing about glitches is that they’re a bit like mutations in cyberspace. Even if they’re initially unintended, they can lead to desirable outcomes and lasting change or, at least, valuable knowledge.

BS: We encouraged the artists to see the project as a laboratory and not to make it perfect. Also, the budgets were tiny, so it was impossible to expect sensational works. Instead, we wanted them to regard the project as a platform for experimentation within their own practice in a new environment. So, we were expecting these glitches.

TH: I love glitches, but they are hard to produce and hard to control.

SD: That’s the beauty of it. (Laughs)

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Tilman Hecker. Photo by Spyros Rennt

Let’s talk about the last piece from NWT, since it was the first time the three of you worked together. In the filmic opera HÉ BIEN ! LA GUERRE, »Dangerous Liaisons« clashes with the libidinal email exchange by Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark from the 90ies. The definition of pleasure and taboos is always a reflection of the state of society. For this, you find your own complex language in the cross-layering of images and scenes in the mirror-clad baroque surroundings of Volksbühne. Perhaps you could expand on these tropes of mirroring and duplication?

TH: It was a piece that Selin and I were already working on, but not necessarily in the context of NWT. And, luckily enough, it coincided with Birke Bertelsmeier getting a grant to compose something new. The different video sequences had their own sounds but were also layered according to her score, which made it easier to combine them into scenes.

The Duplicating of all the video screens was really important for me. It feels somehow very cold and mechanical, not least because of the current situation, and refracting that made it even more touching for me. It’s a multiplication that intensifies with all the layers. In the final scene, there’s a lot of interaction or tension between the different video layers, their own sound and the musical composition of the current scene.

SD: There’s a passage in the book where the Marquise talks about the disadvantages of being a woman and how, since the rules of society were intolerable, she had to create her own rules. I know a lot of people view her character as evil, but I see her as a person who had to deal with the unfavorable circumstances she found herself in: a stuck, traumatized and very intelligent woman who negotiates a territory where she can exercise some freedom and independence. This is not to say that I want to excuse the harm she causes in the process, of course. Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark also talk about negotiating a territory in sex, romance and slippery roles. And McKenzie Wark talks a lot about polarity, about how you can’t escape the »butch-femme dialectic«. And that you have to find a way to oscillate and shift between the poles: the question of who is fistfucking whom is an empowering process.

TH: We didn’t plan it that way. Also, we didn’t decide that the instruments would be a guitar and a violin when we started. It just happened, but it’s nice when the material finds you.

BS: The benefit of working with Volksbühne also meant we could work with the incredible costume and make-up department, and had access to some of their most beautiful pieces. This also helped to make the very low-budget productions look extravagant. For »HE BIEN«, I chose to have Selin and the performer Ivan Cheng wear double costumes, merging or, rather, »twinning« both characters, which was then mirrored by the screen image, often showing something we had filmed days before. This was so nice to watch during the making of the piece!

Let’s talk about the present: The initial noise on the first episode on the new website sounds like someone throwing a stone through a window. An invitation to break out or break through the fourth wall, the screen?

TH: The screen is the real fourth wall, actually, because there is this completely invisible audience.

BS: Susanne Sachsse entered with a bang – literally, the sound of breaking glass – to kick off the new season of »glasshouse«. Susanne is an artist and experienced actress on stage and screen, yet she was interested in seeing what the digital manipulation of her own body might reveal; what happens if she collages her face to pre-recorded voices, for example, or what new kinds of alterations of her persona may be possible through new technologies on-screen.

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Belle Santos. Photo by Spyros Rennt

There was a time when I used the term post-internet theater a lot. Can you relate to that? As indicated in our pre-talk, you don’t just want to work in the digital space, but there will be off-screen premieres of glasshouse too.

TH: To quote Roland Barthes: »I love the theater, but I don’t go there anymore«.

BS: During the summer, when we were putting together the program of glasshouse’s first season, we were hoping that it would be easy to have audiences again in an IRL space. But, unfortunately, this is still tricky, so all live premieres had to be postponed. We decided, however, to introduce the terms »on-screen« and »off-screen« to the glasshouse vocabulary, to rid ourselves of the hierarchical implications between digital or non-digital.

SD: I don’t consider glasshouse a post-internet theater, but we are interested in performance works that take the intertwining of our lives and digital technologies as their point of departure. In addition to the »white cube« of art and the »black box« of theater, we want to explore the digital and the hybrid as vital spaces for performance.

BS: We are also hoping to build up a system in which glasshouse can collaborate with different institutions. This season our main collaborator is Spreehalle Berlin, but perhaps the next round will see us join forces with an arts-space, or even an opera!

A little glimpse into the future: The last online premiere for this season is a digital work by THE AGENCY in form of a survival tutorial for the catastrophe which has already happened, and which has taken on a new but also familiar aesthetic. Can you spoiler a little bit more?

BS: THE AGENCY is creating a new work that explores what the world could look like in 500 or 5000 years, when human life forms might have vanished completely or have evolved into an entirely new species. The futuristic world we are imagining is made entirely of sand, an infinite desert, and we are working with dancers Kate Strong, Liina Magnea and Challenge Gumbodete at the artspace Lothringer 13 in Munich.

For glasshouse, we will build a website which will function as an archive or living library, exposing the research and resources in the lead up to the opening of NURTURÆL (consisting of an exhibition and performance), with weekly updates and further content. The off-screen performance, which was meant to premiere in early January, had to be moved to the summer, unfortunately – the new off-screen premiere will be on June 23.

The NURTURÆL website will have the feeling of a scavenger hunt – it will host snippets from rehearsals, a moodboard, perhaps a tutorial on how to survive a climate disaster, a collection of downloadable texts, some audio files from the accompanying discourse program, and then, after the off-screen premiere has happened, the main video capturing the atmosphere of the performance itself.

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Photo by Spyros Rennt

Sustainability is still one of the big buzzwords in the art world. Both artistically and ecologically. One issue that digital art will have to deal with in the future, and which is also part of the debate surrounding NFTs, is that not only production but also consumption leaves an ecological footprint. At the same time, I also think that »progressive« art doesn’t necessarily have to try to compensate for the pollution caused by the private sector or textile industry. What are your thoughts on this?

BS: I believe that the arts can’t undo the large-scale damage, but I am personally committed to finding sustainable and recycling existing resources within the small frame of my work. Just an example: For the set design of »NURTURÆL« we are using a material which looks like sand, but, actually, it is a waste product from drinking water when it gets filtered in large waterworks. Our aim is to then donate this calcium carbonate material to farmers in the region, who can use it to fertilize their fields. However, for me, the bigger question of sustainability (not only) within the arts must also entail a gear shift in work cycles – to not exploit human resources and fuel a short-term mindset – which I think is a huge challenge in the face of small project budgets, time pressure and competition.

Next article

Impressions of »Rundgang 2022« at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna

About

PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture run by Luca Büchler and Lewon Heublein. 

PW-Magazine is supported by the Federal Chancellery of Austria and Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.