Alys Williams, VITRINE’s founding director, has interviewed London/Zürich based
artist Nicole Bachmann about her recent solo show ‘full stop slightly high’ at VITRINE, London, and her wider practice. Bachmann works across video, text, sound and performance, situating the body as a site of knowledge production used to explore alternative discourses within language and form.
Working predominantly in mediums which are still underrepresented with the art market, VITRINE started representing Bachmann in 2019, sharing an affinity for live art. ‘full stop slightly high’ is Bachmann’s first project with the gallery, exploring VITRINE’s unique space and its confined form, which limits the movement of bodies, as a metaphor for the social constraints we may experience in our lives. The exhibition, which is still viewable 24/7 on Bermondsey Square, now seems more pertinent then before considering the current situation most of the world has found themselves in.
AW: I wanted to begin by talking about language, something which (in both vocal and bodily form) is at the centre of your practice. You have often spoken of your work avoiding normative vocabulary by opening up spaces or gaps in which to “embody vocabulary” where new meaning can be created. I believe you first develop your scripts (or poems, could I say?) in written form, yet your performers utter a cacophony of sounds sometimes unrecognisable as words.
What is your method for this journey, from written text to spoken word, and how much is scripted or allowed to alter in the process of improvisation?
NB: The written text is a mapping of ideas, feelings, and a possible journey. But also, it is the tone and melody of the piece, providing the words to be spoken. It is the backbone of the performance, but also the material we work with first. It is the humus from which the performance will grow. It serves as a map for the performers and myself to help guide us through the process. We start by reading the text, and then break it up into smaller chunks of words and sounds which we begin to play around with – this helps the performers to familiarise themselves with the text. Improvisation plays an important role in the process as new tangents and layers emerge from it. Voice exercises are also a great tool to create the initial sound of the performance. It is based on the energy and interaction between the performers, sometimes I can suddenly discern what will be a key element or what captures the essence of the work.
After experimenting with all parts of the texts, flaws and redundancies become obvious. Sometimes, saying a word and moving at the same time makes the other superfluous, movement or sound might be enough. Words get cut, sentences are taken apart, and sounds and movements are added, slowly the components start to interweave and complement each other. The initial script will have been shortened quite a bit, but its essence will have permeated the work already. I see rehearsals as a second scripting, where several elements are brought together, and to a certain extent, fixed in place. Although my performances are based on improvisation, they have clear fixtures and markers when the energy, sound and movement change throughout the piece. The quality of the exchange remains the same even if the movement or sound slightly changes each time.
AW: In many of your recent works, including your show ‘full stop slightly high’ at VITRINE, London, the dancers perform the vocal whilst simultaneously working with movement. Does one lead the other?
NB: Yes and no. Sound is the red thread through the performance generated by words or movement. A fast movement might produce a breathy, hard and loud sound, whereas a gentle word might instigate a soft movement. Yet it works the other way around too, a fast succession of words asks for active movements, and stillness in movement creates silences. But yet that’s not all. Fast might come with silence. Loud might come with stillness. Opposites broaden the range of expression. Becoming insynch and out-of-synch plays with varying degrees of intensity and rhythm, having an effect on the emotional level and content of the performance. It is a choreographic tool to work with each component separately. I think about it like a musical piece.
AW: How do you evolve this combination in relationship to the premise, space and intentions of the work?
NB: The premise of a new work usually develops in tandem with my research and is initially independent of a specific space. It is more like a cloud, hanging above my head, taking on different shapes. Ideas are explored through poetic writing in relation to movement and voice. The space itself becomes a further component of the work once rehearsals start onsite and can further heighten its intentions. The relationship between the premise, space and intentions of the work really come to fruition once improvisation and experimentation starts in rehearsals. Together with the energy of the group a possible scenario is created in friction with these components. There is an initial idea and concept I follow which will lead to a work, but just exactly how this will play out is a mystery and the work often takes the lead. My works are process based and can only be imagined so far ahead.
Space, movement and voice, are inter-dependant and need to be taken into account in my choreography. Rehearsals on site are an important part in making the work, as it allows us to explore the sound and energy of the performance, using the architectural features of the space. Be it a clean museum space, or a smaller gallery with domestic features like window sills, it will have an impact on the work. Intensity, pace, volume, proximity and melody are all facets which need to be fine-tuned for specific spaces and works.
The space will also influence the relationship to the audience, which needs to be carefully thought out and adapted accordingly. If the work is being shown in various spaces the choreography has to be modified. The performances are dynamic works which will react to each situation. Certain aspects will have to change to keep the emotions and intentions of the piece intact. Sometimes the spaces will have a larger influence on the work than usual. For instance, in ‘full stop slightly high’ the space worked in symbiosis with the idea of social constraints, becoming an integral part of the piece.
AW: I have always believed one of the most important skills or instincts of a gallerist curator is “timing”. When this involves VITRINE’s programme, I am looking at ways to create relevant and exciting threads between consecutive shows and artists, as well as inviting artists to be show at the best moment for their practice and audiences. We have all been thinking a lot about “timing” recently, as the current crisis seems to take our control of this precious resource out of our hands.
Your show ‘full stop slightly high’ has been disrupted by the Covid-19 emergency and lockdown. We opened with the first performance on Tuesday 11 March, just before quarantine. I remember watching the scene in relation to the work. The audience were already following some social-distancing (no kissing or handshakes and many wearing gloves). As they stood in the public square watching two dancers within the enclosed glass space, I couldn’t help draw parallels; considering societies new rule to “avoid contact” in relation to your intention (pre-PV and pre-pandemic) to explore VITRINE’s unique space and its confined form as a metaphor for social constraints.
How have you found your understanding of this work has changed, with the situation that now surrounds it?
NB: It was almost a conversion from inner to outer. No longer thinking about social norms as impacting our inner worlds, but actually seeing the impact they have on our bodies. Norms and rules are suddenly visible, orchestrating our behaviour and our bodies in a very public way. The content of the piece slightly shifted from thinking about how we deal with social norms, self-censoring, etc. to thinking about the relationship we have to our bodies, and bodies in the public sphere.
What impact does physical distancing have in our society where some people already say we are alienated from our bodies? How do we deal with the separation we have to endure and the isolation resulting from it? Maybe for me, the most striking point was the isolation of the dancers behind the glass. The audience was shielded from the performers, or them from us. The almost invisible barrier of the glass representing the barriers between each of us, keeping us safe yet without human touch and intimacy. I’m wondering whether this might be a glimpse into our future with AI, where human touch has been supplanted by machines as a future scenario in nursing homes.
AW: Absolutely, and with social and political change an important inquiry in your practice, how do you see this practice evolving into this post-Covid-19 future “New Normal”?
NB: My focus had widened before the pandemic, thinking about collaboration, networks, and how information is passed on. I see this as a continuation of my research in thinking about how to be together, share knowledge and the various ways of connecting. Reading Donna Haraway’s ‘Staying with the trouble’ (2016) made me think in the myriad ways we can share information and how our bodies communicate with each other which is sometimes below our radar. I started to think about how her term “tentacular thinking” applies to my work with the performers, the networks and exchanges we create, and how alliances are formed in unexpected ways. Hence my inquiry into social and political change is ongoing, albeit with a wider frame of reference.
The Covid-19 pandemic, along with its social distancing measures, have brought up questions surrounding performative practice. What does it mean to work with performers and their bodies in terms of intimacy, proximity and human touch? How can I continue to explore my areas of research if performances won’t be allowed for a while?
AW: The show was intentionally timed (on my part) to coincide with the launch of ‘Performance Exchange’, a dispersed performance event in commercial galleries, for which VITRINE is one of four founding galleries. It furthers my commitment to the discourse around collecting live art and to creating a sustainable, supportive and focused gallery structure for artists working primarily with performance and ephemeral works.
The legacy of performance has often come down to record - remnant or documentation. I know that you are a trained photographer and document all your own work, yet you see this as documentation alone and intend the work to be the live action.
Why do you consider this so important to the work, and how would you like to envisage the work existing in 50, 100 or more years?
NB: The work is being made in several stages whereby only one is meant to be shown live and has the aspiration to be the finished work. The others are preparatory or documentary in nature. They show the path of how the work has found its form and records the moment of the live performance. The performance itself is imagined for a live audience with all the components that entails: physical proximity to performers and to other audience members, a specific moment in time, and if durational, the audience members decision to arrive/leave while being watched by others.
I’d like to imagine my pieces to be re-staged by a future generation, using my notes, script, stage directions, and documentation of rehearsals and performances, as references. Leaving space for them to also re-interpret and re-imagine the concerns of our time for a future generation and make it relevant for them.
AW: Whilst we had to cancel the following planned performances and the show now has a very limited audience, the 24/7 nature of VITRINE’s exhibition space means that the show continues during lockdown. People living or shopping on the square can hear an audio work, running 24/7 from contact speakers on the glass, and see the visual remains of the performance in the plinths and marks made by the performers. This new state of the work imagines its corporeality through hearing and sharing, and in its absence.
How do you feel about this aspect of the work taking precedence over the live performance due to the situation?
NB: Each materialisation of the work has its own specificity, but none has precedence over the other. They are within each other, maybe in different forms, but the same in content and feeling. The work currently being shown at VITRINE, London, is an audio installation, with speakers on the glass from which you can hear the audio work created from recordings of rehearsals for the live performance, along with plinths, handles, and marks from the performance. The installation holds the ideas of the live performance, leaving it to the audience to fill. As the relationship between the live performance and the audio installation has been conceived this way, the work hasn’t changed due to the new circumstances. The ratio of time between the live performance and the work being shown as an audio installation has changed dramatically, but the essence of the work has stayed the same.
AW: Do you feel this carries through into your approach to video and video installation, which is another important aspect of your practice?
NB: Corporeality, intimacy and liveness are definitely aspects which carry through in my videos, audio works and video installations. In each case they will be formulated slightly different, adapted to the media I use.
If I were to show the performance as a video, I’d conceive it differently to a live work. Taking Merce Cunningham’s ‘dance for camera’ as a reference in which filmic language such as camera positions, editing and close ups/wide shots, are used to productively translate the performative energy into a video piece. One example would be my previous video work ‘I Say’ (2017), the work was filmed in one take with three cameras, and each performer was mic’d up separately, so it can be shown as a multichannel audio and video work. It successfully preserved the liveness of a performance while using filmic language.
At the same time, I’m thinking about how different aspects of a work can be linked together and form multi-chapters in different medias: a performance filmed for a video; an installation featuring architectural facets of the video; a performance happening in the installation re-interpreting everything. A circular movement with no end.