Tom Engels

Lower Volume: A conversation with Mette Edvardsen

Related project: Mette Edvardsen: I can’t quite place it

The text was commisioned for and published in The Imaginary Reader Volt 2016 ISBN 978-82-303-2814-9 The book is funded by Arts Council Norway, City of Bergen, Fritt ord Foundation and Public Art Norway (URO).

I can’t quite place it (2015) is a work by Mette Edvardsen. The proposal is seem­ingly simple: she is sitting with pen and paper at a table in the middle of a street in Bergen. Passers-by are able to join her at the table. Without exchanging a word, Edvardsen starts to extract elements from the surroundings to draw and narrate a fiction on paper. What unfolds is a bizarre journey through a mental and physical landscape, composed anew from what surrounds you. Everything is already there, but recomposed into a new world with the table as its only support.

A TABLE can support and facilitate many things and actions. It is there as a common central object in our lives, as a meeting place, a place where people work, where they eat and speculate together. Why the table as a starting point for this work?

There are several things to say about the set-up. First of all, the table is an object that doesn’t fit in the scenery of the street – at least not the way it was standing there, in the middle of a small square under a tree in the pouring rain. It was out of context, ‘misplaced’ in the situation, but at the same time it wasn’t very intrusive either. I have wanted to work with this set-up for a long time. The table permits a very immediate, direct focus. At one point I was thinking about doing it in a park or in another place outdoors, just to see what I could create in a place that would be totally out of context. In this case, the situation was interesting in the sense that there was the context of the programme Imagining Commons, which permitted a soft framework, and at the same time I was just someone sitting at a table on the street. The merging of these two aspects seemed more interesting to me than just being in a park. In that sense it was a negotiation between the framing of the festival and the everydayness of the situation itself.

Secondly, the table also makes references to ‘space’ itself. This could be the space of where and when I am working at the table – but of course it also involves all the other ways in which we gather around a table. Especially in relation to work, the table is an important reference. For example, when I enter a studio to work, the first thing I do is position the table, to orient myself in the studio and create my space. Choosing to put a table in a certain position in a certain space becomes a delicate and important choice; and not only because I have to sit at that table and spend a lot of time there. There is a space that the table as such bears. On the one hand it is very concrete, on the other it is a kind of ‘aura’ of the table, or what it resonates with. The table itself is also a support. It supports a thing, work, a meeting, or it may be considered a confined space that starts to function as a space upon which we mentally project things – a space I have in my mind, for example.

It is quite an important decision to perform this work in public space. Instead of using the confined space of the theatre, you go out and set up the table, some paper and a pencil, all resources of the simplest kind. And there anyone who has the capacity to imagine makes a journey. It is this extreme limitation of resources that interests me. The journey you make with someone could basically be done with anyone. Precisely this very close contact is able to bring someone into the new space that you propose on the paper.

The piece isn’t written, it can’t just be executed and put in a random context – it adapts to its given circumstances. The piece is in that sense an ongoing project. In my other pieces, there has always been a very simple set-up and I have worked with few means: there were a few objects here and there, until the last pieces, when first the objects and then the space itself disappeared. There is an iteration of this principle of reduction and disappearance. In this work, I am definitely not trying to make any statement about the social aspect of the piece. It is as social or non-social as all my other works. But it does reflect on the question of the sort of capacities we need to connect with one another. What do we need to do that? At some moments, imagination has been shared and a connection was in fact built. What are these things? What is it that we use, all of us, to make that sort of construction? When these moments happen, you sense them. Then there are different tools for proceeding further and establishing different forms of connections.

As you said, there is a continuity in thinking about that reduction. Where does that come from?

I guess that in the first place, working with simple means was an expression of the directness that objects have about them. I would start with things that were already there. This was not so much a question of aesthetics: I just wanted to use the things that were at hand at that very moment of creation. The things were not special in themselves, and they all looked the same, or similar. Of course, together they make up something more complex than what they are in themselves. This is just to say that the idea of reduction was never an intention as such, it was more an expression of the idea that you can just start from the point where you find yourself and with the objects that surround you. That doesn’t imply that my work is about emptiness or the deconstruction of the theatre; it’s more an example of how we can do a lot in an empty space, where we can build things anew, even without the presence of others or objects. I would compare it to turning down the volume of the music a little, so that you have to pay just a little more attention to hear it. I would consider that place where the volume is lowered to be the place where I work.

Even when there is no direct intrusion of things, I can’t quite place it makes it clear that we can do so many things with just a very small number of objects. We don’t need plenty to feel plenty, so to speak. A pen and paper are still enough to provoke, to challenge and to open up worlds. You seem to insist on the understanding of imagination as a shared capacity. The sounds coming from the harbour in Bergen are transformed on paper and prove to be a catalyst or a trigger to open up a whole fantastical world on paper. A drop of rain falls on the paper and you make a comet out of it. More drops of rain fall and they become a Milky Way.The piece renegotiates the signs you perceive in the world and questions how far we can reshuffle these signs. Could you say something more about the procedures or methods you use while doing the work?

I don’t have a trajectory or structure I go through. I don’t work systematically, at least not in this case. I think of it as a form of writing, but many different kinds of expression can arise. The word that I put on paper may hint at what the word represents, but it also hints at the word itself (the composition of letters), or the action of writing as such. There are all these different ways of looking at it. When you look at the logic of creating a sentence, you normally know how to do that, since we are trained to make sense through the composition of words in a particular way. But when you just take single words, the lines that you make can produce another meaning, or you can make them sound odd or peculiar, so that meaning is deferred or transformed. Often one action leads automatically to a following one.An object is drawn, and out of that drawing I know where to go next. What decides which element will be introduced next is not random, because I make clear choices, but it is dependent on the situations and actions that unfolded before.There’s an immanent logic that arises there. There are different elements that I use and all of these things are available at any moment, they are a common resource. My interest lies precisely in how these common resources are transformed and open up a reshuffling of the senses by way of gesture, action or intervention.

For me the act of speculation is central to the work. Thinking about the title I can’t quite place it, I think on the one hand of the placing of something on the table, but something that is subject to change; on the other hand, it seems to imply an uncertainty, which evokes both imagination and speculation. You can’t determine what it is yet, but it is still only by going through these actions that something can be built.

This piece will always have to position itself on that threshold. I ask myself what the repetition of the piece will do to my own capacity to produce these relations between things, whether I develop patterns, whether things are recurrent, etc. But for now I am myself caught in the title of the piece.

And the set-up of the piece of course permits exactly this negotiation of the encounter...

Yes, exactly. I wonder for example if anything could happen at all in the foyer of a theatre... A context where you arrive to look at something maybe doesn’t really bring about the right attitude of exploration and openness. In that sense the piece feels quite refreshing because it allows for the unexpected and lets the world around you influence what happens on the paper. We build something anew on our own terms.

In that sense it is quite an empowering gesture. Imagining is not only something we should do in a theatre, or when we look at art, or when we read a book. At any given moment that gesture, that act of imagining, can be the very beginning of another world. If we could reclaim our imaginative capacities, if we could all do that together, a lot would become possible (again). I think that very basic principle leads to a reconfiguration of the senses.

There are different levels of imagination. Something is constructed, let’s say an image, and we can use that to get into our imagination. But then there are also the moments where you enter the imaginative state and something is being imagined, although it might only be relatively clear for the person imagining.

What is imagined, and whether that is relevant or not, is another question, but it’s the activity as such that interests me.

This is just the state of mind I’m trying to reach. That doesn’t mean that all that I propose in a theatre is to get people stuck inside their heads. The fact that people are there together, and that there is a bodily ground for the imagination is equally important to me. Constructing these set-ups and places where you are able to go to that level of imagination is at the core of my work. I would say it’s in your head – but your head is on your body.

Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine, a work of yours in which you are able to ‘read’ books through an encounter with a person who speaks the book out loud and knows it by heart, also insists on the encounter and the act of delivery.

Yes, it operates in a similar way. In this case, the one-to-one experience is trying to establish very different spaces at the same time. You find yourself in a public space, and there are other people surrounding you, so you can’t control the possible interactions that can emerge. What you get is a multi-layered space where the time that passes in the book overlaps with your own time in a certain environment, which intersects with the time you share with the person who embodies the book, etc. All these layers can merge and diverge again. The places where the books are read are not fixed either, in order to allow for that contingency.The moment that is shared is important there, but it also shows that this moment does not really exist. It exists, but not as an entity that we can recreate. That’s also why we choose not to interpret the books, just to embody them and read them without an interpretation. Of course, we are not neutral, but we try to focus on the mode of passing the text on. The story that is being told allows you to zoom in and out of certain situations which you notice happening around you, or the story does the opposite and completely removes you from the position and space you are in. You can shift between the states and that is of course completely individual and depends on the habits and modes of perception we have been exposed to.

Both of these pieces involve a certain social relation that expresses a form of caring. Whether it is the table where you sit together, or listening to someone who speaks a book out loud… What arises from that action? For me the last time that happened was when I was a kid. I’m not trying to say something about childhood or motherhood as such, but these actions, such as playing or reading together, express a distinct form of care, which is often only expressed at the time when people are very young. That is where imagining together becomes fundamental to understanding ourselves as human beings and caring for one another. I don’t think your pieces are ‘about’ that given, but they revolve around these gestures of care and understanding.

Many people have these experiences you describe, which catapult them back to a time long forgotten. These images and memories seem to get activated very strongly, merely because of the simple gesture of someone reading to you. Why do people stop doing that, actually? Why do these actions disappear? Why do we think at some point that we are no longer in need of these simple actions? These situations where expression is uttered by the most simple means. It’s something we’re all capable of.

Tom Engels

Tom Engels works as a writer, editor, curator and dramaturge. He is the director of Sarma, the Brussels-based laboratory for discursive practices and expanded publication. His work has appeared in EtceteraDe Witte RaafExtra Extra Nouveau Magazine Erotique, etc. Together with Bojana Cvejić, he initiated and conceived “Time and Rhythm” for the Research Studios at P.A.R.T.S., Brussels. Engels is a lecturer at the School of Arts in Ghent. He holds degrees in Art Science and in Choreography and Performance.

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