Poet, artist and creative director Clara Diesen was scheduled for a two-week residency in our studio to work on an artistic research project with the topic strategies for solace. However, a virus came in-between, and the residency was re-located outside (with our studio as a base for props and equipment). We asked Clara to tell us about the unfolding of the work, how her interest in gestures of comfort first started, and how the current situation has affected her research when social distancing re-negotiates our usual ways of communication.
> Tell us about the project you are working on. Where was the starting point for this research?
There is no specific starting point since the theme – solace and how we humans relate to one another, is a reoccurring theme in my work methods. I just decided that the shape of comfort is interesting to me, the ritual in comfort, the gestures and the momentum in giving or receiving comfort.
I just finished a course at SKH – Stockholms konstnärliga högskola in artistic self-reflection, which aims to deepen and formalize one’s practice – and so I did. Instead of researching and creating a staged performance piece, I found that the work and exploration itself was like a performance, without an audience but instead with documented parts, film, photo and texts. I hope to be sometime able to make art for the stage again, although that is a larger project, demanding resources, people, and time.
I used to be a playwriter and theatre director, but the truth is I never did theatre as one is supposed to do it, given it has specific parameters to fit the genre. I was always doing art for the stage, rather than theatre. At some point, I realized that and moved on to performance, reframing my work and methods. I would still like to perform my work on a stage, but I don’t want it to adapt to the theatre format, which I frankly don’t even appreciate as genre.
In my work, it is mainly the performers and me. What I do is that I create a framework, and a questionnaire, to focus on performative details, to search for gestures. It is like doing an inventory to search for fragments in human interaction, while at the same time, I am looking for something that I feel is authentic and not” acted”. For instance, if I am looking for expressions of comfort, I would ask the performers to suggest and repeat gestures on that theme. It could be things they have seen in film or something they have experienced themselves from their own archive of memories.
Another method is to invent new expressions, but to stay with the intention of comfort. I found that the intention is very crucial to all kinds of comfort. I guess my starting point was to continue working with my method, inspired by theatre, dance, and film: to show something that is real, recognizable yet slightly strange, elevated – so that we may look at ourselves from another angle, with more tenderness. I worked a lot with the relationship between grown-ups and children as a mirror of how we, as humans, relate to the world and how we relate to one another. It all starts there, in our childhood. My goal is always to find an expression that relates to something concrete, like a concrete truth, yet obviously representational at the very same time. I create choreographies, though it is not specifically dance. I am very inspired by Pina Bauschs and her methods, but also the Polish Theatre man Tadeusz Kantor, who was also a performance artist and did wonderful performances in nature. I am also drawing a lot of inspiration from films, and my thoughts are often processed in cinematic images.
> How are you planning to work with this research project during your time at c.off, and how has the current situation with a raging virus pandemic affected your work?
I already started a long time ago to work outside in nature, so it seemed like a good time to pick up that thread again. One of my themes, since over ten years, is the climate change and the despair I feel with consumerism and capitalism. This is a major theme for me, ever since my two children were born and I started to educate myself on climate change and the state of our nature, trying to live a more sustainable life. The awareness that is now beginning to surface, all the incredible things that have happened since the movement started with Fridays for future strikes, it is hopeful and depressing at the same time, because, it is not news. Far from it. So I gazed into the abyss. I thought of alternative lifestyles and possibilities. But nothing happened around me, and I found no escape. Then this pandemic happened, and the capitalistic system is collapsing in front of our eyes. The vulnerability is striking. Taking care of all these people when the economic system doesn’t work unless we keep on consuming and travel around the world – meanwhile, our planet is already in a threatened state. I am sad, that this is not obvious. Instead, one is talking about kick-starting the economy. I wish we could just let this slow pace go on.
With this in mind, we moved outside, the dancers and me, and worked on a distance. Instead of exploring comfort as something intimate and very physical, we are now exploring it on a distance. How are you intimate at a distance? The performers are representing human relationships and the surrounding, the setting – the world. We are exploring the feel of the world, and the distance. I found that nature can, in fact, be a bridge between people. Like you are caressing the earth, instead of a human being. This situation is a disease of loneliness. Both the social distancing, the isolation, the lockdowns, but also the fact that so many elderly dies, and because of the catastrophic situation, they can’t be surrounded by family, not even to say their last goodbyes. Since I work a lot with images it is possible that what we are trying to do, is paralleled by” reality” because right now, it is around us, we are living it.
> This is not the first time you are a resident at c.off. Almost one year ago, you arranged the interactive performance” Conversation piece” in our space. Communication and connection seems to be reoccurring themes. How are these two works related? How has your line of thought and artistic research evolved since “Conversation piece” took place?
Yes, Conversation piece was an interactive performance where I invited people to have a conversation that was totally non-hierarchic and that was more about listening than talking. It was meant to explore the silence as a means to resist the system, a way to speak that is subversive because it is different: we are so prone to position ourselves in relation to other people. It is just how we function.
I have been fascinated with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas and his (very simplified), stating that we need to accept the other’s otherness. I find that we are inclined to debate and argue because of the urge to change the other and make them more like ourselves. The difference between us does not take away our responsibility for each other, on the contrary. The performance Conversation piece was a way of exploring participatory work, where other stories met with my vision and framework. It was also a way of exploring what activism can be, as I consider myself being at least an occasional activist. I started to think about the shape of activism, that it is confrontational and what happens if you feel too vulnerable. What if the softest ways of doing it also counts for resistance. So I made a paraphrase to Herbert Marcuse’s theory about The great refusal, which is basically to deny capitalism to imply patterns in our behaviour, that we need to step away from a system that makes us consumers, because we don’t even own our desires. But what if the great refusal is too hard? Instead, I proposed tiny refusals because I didn’t have the strength or the possibility to actually refuse, but I could create pockets of comfort, which in itself is strengthening. The intention was to use connection as a tool for resistance. For example, by not letting the participants introduce themselves in the ordinary procedure with name and occupation, we could experience a conversation beyond our everyday ways of communication, where we connected in a whole new way.
> You are a poet and an artist working with and navigating several artistic expressions ranging from text to performance and theatre. I’m curious to know, how does your working process and working methods differ, negotiate and translate depending on the format.
I am interested in the form and shape of our interactions with one another, and to be able to look at this, you have to remove a lot of things – one has to reduce information until something is completely bare. Then, it gets charged with new things, new meaning. This is a link between poetry and what I do when I do performance. I consider performance or art for the stage that I have done to be poetry in live images, but at the same time, these disciplines are totally different to me. A lifelong practice of writing poetry has shown me over, and over that it is a slow work. Text is a fascinating material, charged with meaning, and something we are using and engaging with daily when we communicate through words. Poetry, on the other hand, is to get into that room of words and approaching that landscape from another angle. In my own poetry, form and language is important, but my writing is also a vessel for images. In that way, it is a parallel to my work with performance because I work with images where the perception is an important factor: seeing is a very crucial component for connection, we see things and react and respond emotionally, it comes before words. Because of this I don’t use words in my performances that much, neither did I when I worked with theatre. But the thoughts I have about seeing is connecting to my work right now – comfort on a distance. I was always fascinated with the gaze, looking at one another, a way of engaging that is not passive. Interactions between two performers for instance is more interesting when a third performer is present, it is like the seeing gets multiplied. Then an audience might be watching someone watching. In infinitum. But it has to be with intention, if any of this is going to be comforting.
> How will you continue to work after this residency? Will there be more strategies of solace to come or are you moving on to other projects?
As solace has been a theme since early on, it will surely return to me. I am continuously working with dancers to explore different themes and shapes. I also work, explore, and make try-outs with my daughter, who is nine years old and a fascinating performer. She has a kind of presence that I am always looking for in actors: she can be fully concentrated and focused, in the present – but at the same time, she is in a parallel world. For instance, if she does the same movements as a grown-up – it is still not the same movement. That area of interaction is fascinating, because it is very rich: exploring relationships between grown-ups and children. It adds something, a temporality. It is something we all share with children, but we know of it: the impact of childhood, they are living it, and we carry it with us in our grown-up bodies. We were them. We were like that, present, courageous, unbelievably vulnerable.
I hope to continue this work and exploring the relationship between adult and child.
I am also writing poetry and hope to use this current slowing down in my writing and explore that further. To see what happens if I also consider poetry to be art: what can that give? For instance, I want to explore the shape of poetry, to concentrate on form, and my interest in dramaturgy. Generally, in the white Western world, we tend to be indoctrinated with one type of story. For most of the time, in our culture, dramaturgy has to do with stories, but for me it can be so much more. By working interdisciplinary and engaging with my curiosity of artistic processes, I have found new ways of understanding what dramaturgy is and can be.
I always thought of it as a way to decode things that are abstract to me. For example, in relation to classical new music, it is tempting to say” I don’t understand it, I am not a trained musician”. Then I am not open to make my own interpretation, which can be a feeling or something else that my mind is not used to put into words. To try to articulate what I do not know, dramaturgy can be used as a tool, because it is in every field.
Finally, I think that storytelling is something that infects us with the same stories of success, and competition over and over, and that we need to have new stories – or not even new stories, but to engage with other parts of ourselves, to free ourselves from old belief systems. For the sake of humanity. Is it not time for a world of justice for the planet and equality for the people? What if this tremendously difficult time leads to a wave of solidarity. I am not so optimistic, but again, we have pockets of resistance: like to insist on doing art. We can’t buy things. Good. The big acceleration in consumerism is a disaster. I hope the governments could help people to change this behaviour. I hope the climate comes in focus now and that instead of kick-starting the economy, we reconsider our way of life. Right now: we can’t be inside. So let’s go outside.
Thank you Clara!
On Friday 17th Clara is presenting Strategies for solace. – a performance that is investigating comfort on a distance. It will take place outside in Haga parken at lunch time. Visit the Facebook event for more info!
More info about Clara Diesen and her artistic work is found on her website www.claradiesen.com.