Reflections on Maria Hassabi’s Intermission
I recently finished performing in the Australian premiere of New York performance artist Maria Hassabi’s hypnotizing Intermission at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Melbourne.
Intermission was first performed at the combined Cypriot/Lithuanian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, and is an entirely choreographed installation of slow, sustained and highly specific sculptural movements traversing down a set of stairs. In this Australian premier each cycle of the work (the time taken for a performer to move from the top to the bottom step) lasted approximately 2.5 hours and was on loop for 4-6hours each day for gallery visitors/audience to experience.
Intermission formed a central; even highlight part of ACCA’s exhibition Framed Movements curated by Hannah Mathew. This was an exhibition,
Exploring the many ways a movement based approach to the occupation of time and space is practiced not only in dance but increasingly in the realm of contemporary art, the exhibition brings together a series of Australian and international artists who use a choreographic approach in their work.
The following writing is a collage of thoughts I gathered in the weeks of performing and immediately following Intermission, an experience I am immensely grateful for and deeply impressioned by.
I can be embraced by the very core of who I am, quite still. – Eva Karczag (dancer, choreographer and teacher) in Deborah Hay’s my body, the buddhist.
“Oh, they’re moving…” The woman’s surprised voice trails off as if she’s also just realized that we can hear (what she is saying). She moves more carefully around the gallery space and gradually toward the steps for a closer inspection. I didn’t appreciate until this moment that we may actual appear so still. My mind and body even in the ‘stillness’ are absolutely active. I don’t tend to use stillness (the word, the idea, the embodiment) in my own practice, as it tends to result in deadness or an uncomfortable tension. Intellectually I know that stillness doesn’t mean stiff, frozen, dead or stopped but for whatever reason I seem to feel restricted by ‘stillness’ even when it is self-imposed and thus self-determined. Intermission is certainly asking that I reconsider both ‘stillness’ and the associated ‘discomfort’ I experience.
There is someone lying down on the gallery floor, resting and watching.
It’s a hard space for people to rest in to be with Intermission for an extended period of time. This is actually quite interesting (or problematic, as it was expressed to me by some who visited). I observe my audience pacing, slumping, sitting and rearranging. They shift between being deeply settled and flitting here and there. Each brings a different energy into the space and necessarily to the work. It impacts my experience of performing to different extents on different days something I consider is dialogical with my own energetic state, porosity and perception. I enjoy that my audience reflect back to me the range of comfort levels I am experiencing (and repressing) as I perform each day.
Performing & Exhibiting
I notice today that something ‘amps up’ each time someone enters the gallery…
Trained response, perhaps. Human nature, most certainly. When they leave it is not relief, but rather a slight sense of loss and longing that I feel. I hope they will return or soon be replaced with someone to keep us/me company. I have always felt that my audiences locate me in performance. This orientation to performing is significantly influenced by my ongoing interest and practice in the performance practice of seminal artist Deborah Hay. Without my audience I often feel that the choreography and the way that I engage with this choreography is dull. I am quickly bored and hugely judgmental. For this reason, I have adopted Hay’s practice of imagining my audience present in the instances (i.e. developing the work alone in the studio) where they are not. The handful of moments I find myself to be completely alone while performing Intermission I experience as destabilizing – for the work and me. Funnily enough, I don’t so much have to imagine my audience in these moments, as they tend to suddenly appear. The anticipation that someone could enter at any moment means I find myself mostly unable to settle in to any kind of true aloneness which is combined with a strange (but common amongst the Intermission performers and spoken about by Hassabi) phenomena of ‘seeing things’ due to slight visual disturbances caused by sustaining a very different kind of seeing in a stark, mostly white space.
On alternate days I move between wondering about how I am performing and then feeling much more like I’m on exhibition. The latter is a new experience and is heightened as people come close, hold their phones up, clomp around, and talk loudly about what we are doing, as if we are here but not? The set up of Intermission perhaps gives visitors to the gallery a permission to inspect us as an object. While I don’t feel vulnerable, if fact very much steering this ship with all my intelligence, I get a sense that the aesthetics give it a vulnerable facade – purposefully. It makes me think of theatre and performance scholar Kristen Maar’s article, “Exhibiting Choreography” in Assign & Arrange that I have just recently read. The article itself is introduced as one that ‘investigates the modes of exhibiting dance in museum or gallery spaces…’ and in the section Museum, the words ‘ displaying choreography’ have me do a double take. Exhibiting dance. Displaying choreography. I’m not sure that I am doing either as I perform Intermission or that I would ever consider dance or choreography (even) in a museum, gallery or any alternative space as being exhibited or displayed. These are certainly visual art terms that to my mind imply a kind of one dimensionality or non-human quality. And yet, this unfamiliar and slightly uneasy sense of being ‘on exhibition’ is hanging around.
Alone, on drugs
I look up the steps. I am alone. The others have left for the day and it is the afternoon of Melbourne Cup. I sense I am completely alone. I turn to see the front. I am. Alone. No one coming in, the invigilator elsewhere. Just the artwork and me. It my aloneness I feel more of an artwork, an object. Placed and left here. I ‘rest’ for a brief moment. Allow myself to just be here. Nothing to perform. No one to examine me. Some of these art works are making noise. Some moving a little. I am still and not still. Breathing. Thinking these thoughts. I’m glad I don’t have to stay here. I can keep moving forward and there will come a time, not too far off, when I can leave this space.
“How did it get so late so soon?” (Dr. Seuss)
“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” (Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar)
Leaving as it turns out is not so straightforward and becomes a peculiarly observable experience over the weeks. I develop a renewed appreciation for the spaciousness of the surrounds of ACCA. The seemingly too long trudging journey on the gravel (previously cursed when in a hurry to get to a performance at the nearby Malthouse), the length of footpath to the tram stop, is now neither long nor big enough. When I do board the tram I feel utterly self-conscious and ‘other.’ I remind myself this is surely an internal reality and not in any way visible. But I remain anxious that I must appear odd, on drugs even, in my super slowed and spacey post Intermission state. In pharmaceuticals there is a kind of capsule known as a spansule – a sustained-release capsule. Performing Intermission is much less outwardly exhaustive or onerous than I anticipated and than might be read by audience. It is actually quite contained and self-absorbed. To me, especially afterwards, I feel I have ingested something that is slowly releasing in my whole being and through me is affecting my surrounds. The duration of this state is quite unknown. On one day, in my ‘drugged’ post Intermission state, a stranger asks me if I’ve had a good day. I blankly reply yes, trying to think what it is that I have been doing – anticipating there may be another question. Sure enough he then asks what I got up to. I can’t quite find the words and then a frank ‘dancing’ falls out. It amuses us both (likely for different reasons.)
Rhythm and emphases
I fall into the rhythm of her clicking camera. It has the timing of a photo shoot and I’m ‘milking’ each pose. Realizing has me (internally) smiling which is a least more fun than enduring a work that can at times be uncomfortable and taxing due to the physicality, velocity and subsequent duration. I also feel I ought to have known better. In the performances following I am much more aware not only of clicking camera’s, but of my internal rhythm and of a developing hierarchy of parts or ‘shapes’ within the whole choreography. These latter two aspects are considerations in my own practice and it is my experience that the familiarity and confidence that comes with performing a work repeatedly can ensnare one in unconscious rhythms and patterns that have the capacity to emphasis (and de-emphasis) parts of the choreography. Recalling curator Raimundas Malašauskas’s description of Intermission as, “a volcano that moves slow” is useful. I imagine the heat, the tension, the slow pouring lava through the whole choreography, nothing more or less important than anything else, no matter how difficult (or disliked) it is.
Losing (control of) Time
“Time is an illusion.” (Albert Einstein)
“Time is a created thing.” (Lao Tzu)
Somehow today we lost half an hour. Afterwards, somewhat puzzled, I was able to apprehend that this must be cumulative. Like large scale cooking where the difference between using a 60g and 70g egg is significantly affecting in a way that is not in a normal scale recipe. It also strikes me how much the speed of Intermission on any given day is informed by our bodily physiology. A cup of coffee is not ideal before hand; a cup of herbal tea however is perfect. It seems almost reckless that at the heart of a work that exudes and requires so much control and discipline is an organic, unstable, changeable human being.
A few days after the day of losing half and hour is a solid day. It is my seventh performance. I am able to stretch things to the full four hours (I start in the middle, go to the bottom, exit, return and do another full loop) as planned. Perhaps being sleepy is quite helpful. I actually haven’t been sleeping too well of an evening during this season of Intermission. I find I am gently but constantly moving in my bed and semi awake for large portions of time. I have a different kind of residual soreness in my muscles likely from using slow twitch fibers in a way they aren’t use to. The soreness keeps me in the orbit of Intermission even on the days I’m not performing. When following ‘drape’ I get to ‘sleep’ today in the choreography, I am alone and actually let my eyes close for a bit. It is nice to have a little nap before finishing the final few steps.
“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” (William James)
“Feeling sick today… ” my notes read. “Can’t lay head back worried I’ll pass out.” It is a memorable day for the challenges I faced. I did however manage to settle into things over the duration. I settled into feeling sick. I settled into not being able to mask or run away from my body and its complaints. I perceived the others (Deanne Butterworth and Michelle Ferris) settled also and enjoyed the sense of a collective settling after a (possibly) too fast start. The design of Intermission is such that we don’t talk to each other apart from before each performance. Furthermore, we cannot see each other too well once on the stairs. In fact, it is even challenging to perceive each other energetically (I’m particularly thinking in contrast to dancing in a group on a floor/flat surface). It is this challenge of ‘connecting’ or being with each other that gradually leads me to understand why Hassabi describes Intermission as a solo performance or three solos simultaneously.
A woman inspects me at close range announcing, “I’m just checking to see if you are real.” She doesn’t touch me (although I half expect that she might). Rather she just stands and looks with her arms crossed before returning to her partner to announce that she can see I am concentrating very hard.
“… it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s…. That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own.” (Diane Arbus)
Later, a young man begins positioning himself careful and closely. I am curious. Is he going to join in? I consider that such an action could be interesting. I’m on the second last step coming out of ‘monster’ and rotating down onto the last step into ‘misery’. But as I move, I realize he is positioning himself AND his phone in order to take a ‘selfie’ (with me in the background). I’m not sure how I feel about this. Certainly I am surprised and perhaps even annoyed that he has made this part of the choreography more difficult by ‘getting in my way’. A ‘selfie’ is such a safe and strange way of registering an experience.
Life drawing duet
“Drawing makes you see things clearer, and clearer, and clearer still. The image is passing through you in a physiological way, into your brain, into your memory – where it stays – it’s transmitted by your hands.” (Martin Gayford)
Tonight I am performing Intermission solo. At the same time there is a performance by Shelly Lasica, a lecture and a life-drawing group. I am in the ‘background’ as Shelly dances on the gallery floor below the stairs. We are aware of and see each other. The audience is sitting between the two of us, mostly watching Shelly. I am aware of a couple of gazes in my direction. They are sustained, head in a nodding motion between me and paper. It’s interesting how this gaze (not unlike a clicking camera) seeks to inform my timing, at least initially. I feel quite loyal or attached to staying for longer in some ‘positions’, concerned that by moving on the image will be lost (for those drawing). As I continue on I become more comfortable that as I transition through images so too will those drawing. From here my attention shifts to an awareness of the conversation that is now taking place following Shelly’s performance. The first thing I really crane to hear is a definition of choreography. It is beautiful, multiplex and approximate… trailing off at the end and quite well describing what it is I feel I am attending to. And then there is some more conversation on how a choreographer ‘hands over’ or ‘lets go of’ the choreography to his or her dancers. I think of Hassabi on the other side of the world and me here, carrying on her choreography. I have found it to be useful, in her absence, to think of her. Not just her choreography but also the way she taught it performed it and described it. I have also been regularly reminding myself of what may seem a simple thing – the title, Intermission. With ‘intermission’ in mind I relax and settle, do a bit less and find more ease within the choreography. As the evening moves on I begin to notice the coincidence or relationship between words, phrases in the conversation and my movements. Hannah asks, “Are there any other questions?” and I stand. Quickly this standing, always slightly awkward and revealing, has a different reading, at least to me. A child in school standing to ask something… And yet I have nothing to say. My movement is speaking many words as I travel through the conversation and drawing activity. At times I am very close to those sitting on the steps as I traverse a narrow channel on the diagonal that has been left for me. At times I am in a position not too different from those around me – legs crossed, looking forward, waiting for the next thing and shifting when one place becomes less than comfortable.
Gaze and storage
Two men, each particular in their own way are noticeable today. The first has a gaze that makes me feel less than easy in my tight denim jeans. The second is demanding to know what the point of this art is and how it is to be stored following the exhibition. He is looking at us on the steps as he asks about storage. It makes me wonder about the afterwards and the highs and lows that most performers experience as we move between performances seasons. I usually dip into a low not unlike going into a little dark storage place…
A path well worn but never the same
We have worn a path on these stairs. Like cats that elegantly weave the same pathway through a home, negotiating variables with nuanced organization and ease. It is different doing the same thing in performance to doing the same thing in daily life. Today, as happened yesterday I run down the escalators as the doors of the 5:38 train are closing and today as happened yesterday my heart sinks in the knowledge I have missed it. I feel silly that I have the same response to the same situation as though it didn’t happen yesterday. Today performing Intermission I, as happened the other day, placed my hand too far forward as I sat down. Recognizing I had done this I didn’t think, “I shouldn’t have done this or know better,” I also didn’t have that sense of concern I had when this occurred the other day. Rather, I sat with this moment and called upon my whole cellular intelligence for a solution – understanding that this would likely be similar but not identical to the other day. And so transpired an unfolding newness within the same, a way of being engaged that leaves no place for boredom, complacency or habitual response. It is for this reason I imagine Intermission would remain interesting and challenging for the performer regardless of how many performances were undertaken. I could certainly perform Intermission beyond this four-week season.
“Emptiness which is conceptually liable to be mistaken for sheer nothingness is in fact the reservoir of infinite possibilities.” (David Suzuki)
Today I finished my 14th performance of Intermission. I have spent something in the area of 40 hours on these stairs, in these jeans and shoes performing Hassabi’s work. In some ways it became easier, in others, harder. For example, the simple act of tucking in my shirt as I left the space at the completion of each descent grew incredibly difficult to do with the honestly and ease with which it was demonstrated by Hassabi. Differently, the once awkward and almost painful ‘drape’ section grew to be my favorite for its pleasurable oddness and ‘newness’ each performance.
I am left with a deep sense of respect for the work and it’s creator and a sense that it could be performed many, many more times without tiring of it.
It has been suggested to me at times in my life that I would do well to try meditation, to, “go on a Vapasana retreat.” I have always declined such suggestions offering that I’m not good at being still or going slowly (which is precisely why it would have been suggested to me). What I now feel I was trying to express was that I don’t do well with being bored. Somehow, until this experience with Intermission I have equated stillness and slowness with boredom. Sure, there is stillness and a similar sculptureness is my own performance works, but never to this extent. The thing I have come to know is that stillness is far from boring, far from easy and is very rich territory to commit to.
My final notes read, “It’s three hours since I finished but the state I am left in is long lasting. In fact as I write and think, I am wondering about the coming weeks, life after this experience, its impression upon my whole being and how this will be present in the things ahead.”
A few more weeks on and just what this experience has been or amounts to remains both mysterious and definite. So for now, and to avoid undermining it with a neatly worded summary, I am happy to hang up my jeans and experience things from a different place simply grateful for such an opportunity and for those with whom I shared it.
You may also enjoy the insights offered through this video interview with Maria Hassabi filmed at ACCA during her time in Melbourne.