Maria Hassabi at Live Arts Week VI, Bologna
STAGED (?) 2016 is the latest production by Maria Hassabi, presented on the closing day of Live Arts Week 2017. The performance by the New York-based artist developed over 70 minutes in the main space of the Ex-Gam – Galleria d’arte Moderna di Bologna building, temporarily reopened on the occasion of Live Arts Week. The space, encompassing two floors, allowed for a double experience of the piece: a first view from the balcony revealed the abstract compositional drawing while a view from the lower level allowed to grasp smaller details from different angles. As an introduction to the seven hours performance marathon of Saturday April 29th, the work by Maria Hassabi functioned as a collective attention exercise, a durational observation of an organism whose metamorphoses could evoke the movements of an anemone, slowly exploring the environment before dispersing into the physical and perceptual meanders of the evening.
XING: In your choreographic production, the hybrid status between action and stillness plays an essential role: it allows to invent formal solutions that lie inbetween different worlds, from visual arts to theaters, inbetween sculpture and living body, with different attitudes of attention: spanning from a distracted eye on the image to the concentration required for a stage work, where it could seem that almost nothing happens. How important is the work on the expectations of the cultural contexts and target audiences?
MARIA HASSABI: My works created for the theater, like STAGED?, are preoccupied with the idea of silence, quieting things down in order to turn our attention to small details and nuances that are usually dismissed in our everyday lives. Silence can create a space that is at once meditative and full of tension and uneasiness. I’m interested in these oppositions as a paradox, that one can destroy the other. For over a decade, I have utilized duration and stillness in choreographies where the body oscillates between dance and sculpture, subject and object, live body and still image. This intersection creates tension between the performing subject and their treatment as an object, between the physical form of the live body and a photographic mediation.
To arrive to this place of silence I’m referring to – which is a construction of a desired space for hyper-awareness and for sure, not an imitation of life – and to create an environment that can support it while provoking an interest in the viewer to zoom in, the silence needs to create some sort of aliveness. To achieve this, I work with the performers very closely, their material is meticulously crafted and rehearsed – every action, even their gaze, is subject to counts and cues. Their bodies appear to be still, even passive, yet they are never inert – the difficulty of their collective task produces a chain of physical reactions that are uncontrollable, and un-choreographed, producing micro-movements that are the by-products of a faltering attempt to be “still.” Rather than the detailed choreographed gestures, postures, and positions, it is the kinesthetic intensities and energies revealed through their execution that become the material of the work.
The works invite spectacle in order to exhaust it; they neither embrace nor refuse narrative, instead prolonging the viewer’s perception of it as an accumulation of the here and now. The velocity of deceleration along with the tension felt in the room can create a heightened awareness of space and time, and of one’s own physicality.
X: In your work there seems to be a critical element to the current society. A reference to a crisis of attention and to the imperatives of hyperkinetic, that the grueling slowness seems to emerge in what you call ‘iterations’. Can you talk about friction, even the physical one of the performers and their relationship with the ground, the floor? Is it a form of resistance or control (or perhaps loss of control) of the tension that invests the contemporary subject?
MH: My works are indeed mostly placed on the floor. I like the idea that by inviting the viewer to see the work from above, there is an immediate response towards a sort of role-play of power given to the viewer. They are above. In this heightened, even brutal environment, the object-ness of the body can come into question. Being close to the floor also enables me to create material that is rather pedestrian. Yet, through the decelerated velocity the transferring of the weight from one posture to the next, has the possibility of becoming a big event – as if we were performing high kicks – as the most common movements require a rigorous concentration and attention to the present moment both mentally and physically. This brings the extra tension in the work, derived from each performer’s execution of the material.
X: This expressive/linguistic obstinacy, it has something to do with the position of an artist diasporic Cypriot origin, in the current scenario of transformation of the borders of the world?
MH: I’m sure subconsciously my birthplace and origin plays a part. The bright sun, deserted areas, indeed the “green line” separating the Greek and Turkish sides of the island. And also my early years in Los Angeles, the vast desert there, and then the speed of New York, the city I’ve lived in the longest, and where my work was developed. I don’t tend to over analyze this subject of origin, instead I take it as given. Everyone’s life experiences make us who we are and frame our thinking.
X: Could you tell us something about the question mark that accompanies the STAGED? (2016) version you refer to Bologna? With the meta-titles STAGED and STAGING, and before PREMIERE, INTERMISSION.. what are you underlying?
MH: The question mark was added to the title only in March 2017. My original idea for creating this work: STAGED, which premiered in October 2016 in New York, was that all its elements would have been a well-detailed, a pre-constructed product, leaving space for the “newness” to come in only once the public met the work. Yet in the process situations kept arising that were not allowing myself or my collaborators to really secure this “staged” state. We kept on encountering influences that didn’t allow us to plan as well as we wanted – things that were out of our control, the way the world turns. A letting-go process had to take place and to also take a step back and let things happen. The nature of live performance production was stronger than the initial concept and a question mark was needed to represent the real situation at stake. Can it ever be really staged? We can only try.
The iteration we will be presenting in Bologna will not include the work’s original setting – there will be no lighting sculpture, nor its illumination; there will be no vast magenta carpet covering the entire performance space, nor specific sitting arrangement – rather, a naked version that is represented only by the performers, the choreography, sound, and the audience. I have added next to the title in italics “undressed.” The work was conceived from its start as a performance that would occupy public space as well as theater spaces. The results vary when the intentions of the closed walls of a black box space are removed, and this has to bring a shift to the title as well.
In relation to my other titles, in general I use them as primary conceit of the work. I like these basic terms that are mostly taken for granted in contemporary theater—looking at them through my own set of lenses and adapting them to questions that are specific to my work.
at Live Arts Week VI, Bologna
26–29 April 2017