Lost Password

Interview: Mårten Spångberg

This spring, the Swedish choreographer Mårten Spångberg premiered a new performance, The Planet (late at night), created for the exhibition Six Weeks, in Time at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, on view from March 26–May 8, 2016. The performance was part of an expanded choreography of objects—including, among other materials, a Polaroid camera, a pile of dirt, three pizza boxes, three Harley Davidson motorcycle gas tanks, and five stretched canvases left in the forest for eighteen months physically marked by the duration—that might be described as an installation within a gallery, but which Spångberg identifies as “a concept, a machine that produces indetermination.” Three times throughout the exhibition dancers became part of this field of indeterminacy, moving amongst the scattered objects in a performance that reimagined the relationship between the performer and spectator as one of mutual recognition. Over the hour and forty-five minute performance, casual social exchanges in the form of conversation between the dancers interchanged with choreographed phrases. In this space, actions were recursive and dispersed, conceived in tandem with a fictional story Spångberg wrote titled For Now that speculated on the sublime horror of an endless present. The Planet (late at night) was realized with Nikima Jagudajev and featured Madison Bristol, Tzu-Nu (Jessica) Huang, Wei Mei (Dolly) Huang, and Sofi Rossil-Bolanos. The following conversation took place between Mårten Spångberg, Nina Bozicnik, Assistant Curator, and Emily Zimmerman, Associate Curator of Programs,over Skype in preparation for the exhibition.

Nina Bozicnik: In our conversations, you have started to touch on different methods and forms that choreography can more through—films and perfumes, for example. In the context of The Planet (late at night) for the Henry Art Gallery, I wonder how you are thinking about the multiple elements in that piece—the For Now story, the dances, and the multiple objects—and the constellation of ideas they are holding, specifically in the context of the different economies of time that informed our early talks about this project.

Mårten Spångberg: From the mid-90s until 2012, I was asking, “What is choreography?” I was not thinking of choreography as strictly the art of making dances.

There is a relationship between choreography and dance, and when we speak about choreography vis-à-vis dance, it is dance as we know it, with trained bodies and people that are probably somewhere in their 20s, slender, and a lot of other things. I understand choreography as a way of writing—which I think needs to be expanded—but it is primarily a way of organizing. Architecture is the organization of space over time, and choreography is the organization of time over space. We know that architects fear mess and that is why they compartmentalize. The biggest form of architectural organization is of course a grave or a tomb. We put our people in a tomb in order to know where they are so they don’t come and scare us in the night. If architects are afraid of mess, well then what about choreographers? They are people that fear movement, and therefore organize it. What choreography does is to domesticate movement. Choreography has a semiotic capacity and understanding it as such means that choreography can only say what semiotics allows. Similarly, when I am writing, I can only write what 25 letters allow me to write. It is a lot, but it is still within the realm of the possible.

Choreography was twenty years of my life. Choreography is not experience dependent. It can say more than “Oh that is a wonderful thing!” Instead, at that time, especially in the 1990’s, we wanted to argue that choreography is discursive. Choreography can capacitate discourse. It can ask a question, it can pose problems.

Choreography is organized by rule. Dance is much more interesting. Dance is not organized; it is a floating something. What I am interested in is the experience of dance without structure, similar to my experience with the Caravaggio painting in which I was not able to structure my experience.* I had no devices by which I could organize what I was seeing, and therefore I could not remove myself from the experience until I was able to attach it to some other structure of meaning.

During the last three or four years, I have come to see that I need to be interested in dance. Because if something is not structured it can go beyond the realm of the possible and enter the realm of potentiality—that thought that I cannot yet have. If I watch a choreography, that which is organized, I can only go away from that and say, “Well, that was tops!” Being constantly in organization will not make me have another kind of thought. In the encounter with unstructured dance, something can happen that is beyond the explainable. This shift of interest happened in 2012 after 9/11, after Katrina, after the recession, and at the moment when we understood that capitalism has become omnipresent. So whatever I imagine, it is already co-opted by capitalism. However, if I do something that estimates potentiality, then that moment can also generate a thought that is beyond what capitalism can think. Of course this thought would be incorporated into capitalism the moment after, but this little, little moment of a thought is worth the trouble because you know art is not here to make the world a better place; art’s job is to make this world come to an end. This world, how we think now, is to come to an end. So when I went to see the Caravaggio, what happened was that my world ended. I was another person when I came out. The world was another place. It sounds romantic, and it is. But I saw the world for the first time. That is the job of art.

If you think about what Duchamp did with Fountain and Bottle Rack, he brought sculpture to an end. After Duchamp we could not think of sculpture as we had in prior ages. Not only did Duchamp change what sculpture was after Duchamp, but he also changed what sculpture was before Duchamp. What art does is not just add something to what we can already think; it brings a way of thinking to an end. So in that respect, philosophy, art, and science have something in common. Philosophy’s job is to make truth. Science’s job is to make fact.

[installation view]. 2016. Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. Photo credit: Jonathan Vanderweit.

[installation view]. 2016. Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. Photo credit: Jonathan Vanderweit.

Emily Zimmerman: Each of the elements within The Planet (late at night) has a particular relationship to time. What is the symbolic meaning of the Lion Bar chocolates and their reference to Robert Smithson?

MS: The Lion Bar wrappers contain pieces of wood from a Robert Smithson monument. I was in Holland when work was being done to replace some of the monument’s wood that had rotted. I asked if I could take some of these pieces of wood, and the answer was yes. Obviously the lion is the king of the jungle, like Smithson is the king of monumental sculpture, with this horribly male attitude of his that resulted in creating a piece such as Spiral Jetty so large that you can see it from the moon. So I thought a response to Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is nine pieces of wood in Lion Bar wrappers arranged in a spiral on the floor.

The Planet (late at night)—the performance and the objects—are together monumental sculpture in the most cute and friendly way. It’s like a monument in the shape of a puppy. It’s a monument of a small utopia.

Another part of the story is that I asked a friend of mine who is a curator at PS1, “What do you think the most uncool thing in contemporary art is right now?” After thinking for a second she said, “Well, obviously, monumental sculpture.”

So then I started to think about this and thought, “What makes a monumental sculpture monumental, and who draws the line?” A monumental sculpture is something that is in a context, but is not of that context. An example would be the Monument to the Murdered Jews in Europe, in Berlin: it is in Berlin, but it must not be of Berlin. The suffering that you can sense when you go to the monument in Berlin is of an abstract character. It is for people, every Jewish person, and everyone who has been related to a Jewish person forever.

The experience of a monument is the experience of nothing. But it is not an empty nothing, it’s a full nothing. A monument is the experience of a full absence.

The piece is called The Planet; it is not called The World or The Earth. The world, where Seattle and New York City and Vienna are connected, has an epistemic capacity. Earth has an animate capacity with buildings and horses and things that live under a stone. The planet however, is indifferent. It is fundamentally indifferent to us; it minds its own business. The planet is this nothing—something that is absolutely indifferent. The planet is 4.6 billion years old. Think how small we are from the perspective of the planet.

I’m interested in the undividability of the planet and its withdrawn ancientness. The planet is the monument, the earth is a sculpture, and the world is a picture of a sculpture. So the planet, the earth, and the world are a kind of Joseph Kosuth piece. The planet is undividable also in its indifference. That is why the piece is called The Planet—it is something that we cannot experience. We cannot read it. My experience is of the planet, but I cannot understand what this experience is. The experience of being non-differentiated is both the moment of absolute terror but it is also the moment in which everything is possible.

In the title, The Planet (late at night), the night is also a monument. The night is not dividable. The day starts with a great deal of light, and then it goes to twilight. But the night does not divide.

EZ: I’m reminded of the opening passage of Nietszche’s On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense. I’m noticing an existential thread in the piece, between this idea of the planet as indifferent, and the idea of the horror of undifferentiated time, thinking about a passage from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, where the character we are following loses all external cues of temporality.

MS: Which is also exceptional bliss. The experience of being non-differentiated is both the moment of absolute fear and of pure presence and possibility.

NB: And that is how your story For Now ends—with this sublime terror of an eternal presence.

MS: And this is what happens when we are in the monument.

On Thursday, I decided that I believe that we have a soul. Promise. I am convinced of this. I am very surprised about this. A post-structuralist now believes in a soul. And furthermore, I have started to read Merleau-Ponty. Can you believe that?

What happens when you are in the monument is that you are being touched by eternity. You can never touch eternity, but it is exactly this eternal now that touches you and is absolutely non-structured. So what is this fear and bliss? It is experiencing oneself as pure existence. At this moment I can be everything and unthinkable. I am contingent. It is dangerous to talk this way because it can be construed in terms of Universalist or Gaia theory, almost smelling of a fascist pureness of being. This is a disclaimer.

But I also think that we are in a very different time now. In art, the aesthetic experience is one that goes beyond what we have the capacity for as individuals; it is beyond identity. In the advent of an aesthetic experience everybody is equally, which is not to say equal. We are equally. And whatever you are is absolutely fantastic. The aesthetic experience is the space where identity and differentiation is not. At that moment, we are equally. You participate in the world in this way, somebody else in another way, but we are equally. In that moment we can begin to formulate new kinds of law.

In this particular piece [The Planet (late at night)], I cannot tell anyone what to do with an aesthetic experience. I should not even say that an aesthetic experience should happen. The coffee cups and the pizza boxes and the little bit of earth and all these objects are there not to produce an image but to produce a sense of “whatever,” which the viewer fills in when they come into the gallery. “Whatever” not in the sense that anything goes, but Agamben’s whatever, which says: whatever it is, it is of importance. It is the same as with love: you don’t love your girlfriend because of her long legs or rich family; you love her because you love her. Whatever she does is important. In this moment, says Agamben, we learn not about each other, but we learn about the idea of love.

What interests me in the work that I do is to generate “whatever” of importance. Of course this generative “whatever” coincides with what Deleuze implies by the term concept. The work that I do is absolutely not conceptual, but the work is a concept. So when you walk into it, it’s not an installation, it’s a concept, a machine that produces indetermination. But it has to be delicately put together so that the indetermination teases you to introduce “you-ness.” The best part of it is the lack of a relationship say between the pizza boxes and the pile of dirt, which invites a new kind of thought to show up.

NB: You use the term generative as a function of this associative landscape of objects. To generate connotes something different than to produce, which I associate with predetermined outcomes. To tie it back to capitalist value systems and what I perceive as a difference between to generate and to produce, is there a critique here in formulations of value?

MS: I think that the term generative comes down to a rather traditional historical understanding of poiesis. My conversation with Greek philosophy and later Arendt and Agamben is that poiesis is not to produce, it is the bringing forth of, it is generating something. And that thing is indeterminate. The best outcome from an aesthetic experience or performance is when you say, “Wow, that was sort of, kind of, a little bit, you know what I mean?” And your friend says, “Wait did we see the same show?” That is the conversation that I want to have with someone after a show. What you generated because of the show was something entirely different than another person. And then you need to go to dinner to reconcile the two points of view. The work is generating meaning in you. I am absolutely disinterested in work that you go and interpret. What is interesting is what I don’t know and what you don’t know either. It would be groovy if being with The Planet generated something in a spectator that made them change their mind about something, or to say I want to quit my job.

The piece that we are doing together is absolutely non-critical. The piece itself is not there to produce a critique. If someone reads a critique in it, that is fine. The piece is a speculative moment and the experience of the piece is a speculative moment.

Within what you call the “associative landscape of objects” it is not me or the spectators but rather the ancient subject in the objects—the coffee cups and the tennis racket, for example—that produces some tension that we can never access. This is what I mean by a soul. You go into a room or any kind of situation with people, and you can say, “That person is something extraordinary. I vibe with this person.” What is that which vibes? I propose that it is the soul that vibes. Sometimes it vibes well and sometimes it doesn’t vibe at all. Most of the time the soul is a little bit on vacation. Capitalism puts the soul on vacation.

Husserl’s phenomenology is one that stays anthropocentric with experience being accounted for as human experience. In this case, where was the planet before us? The problem with Husserl is that when we weren’t here, there was nothing. Merleau-Ponty on the other hand tries to construct a non-human phenomenology, and one of his proposals is that there is this ancient subject. It is a subject that we cannot have access to and that is in all of us.

This becomes interesting in horror. If you think about Cronenberg’s films, such as The Fly, where the human character starts to coincide with the body of the fly, and he experiences himself both as a subject and as an alien at the same time. The most fearful moments in horror are the ones in which there is a subject that loses control of themselves (which is, of course, what I am talking about in For Now). What I am thinking about there is that silent voice, the voice or the presence of something that is there, but doesn’t speak, that is also indifferent to us, and can destroy us.

The fear of the world is easy. Worldly horror is a storyline such as this: some guy was treated badly, he comes back for revenge, and you shoot him. Earthly horror is a little bit scarier; it is when the natural elements come and take us, as in John Carpenter’s The Fog. But the real horror is the planetary horror of indifference that doesn’t acknowledge us and cannot acknowledge us. Planetary horror can wipe us out at any moment without noticing.

EZ: How do you see presence within the contemporary landscape of dance in the museum? I’m thinking specifically about Hito Steryl’s recent article in DIS magazine on the Terror of Total Daesein, in which she argues that there is a certain capitalistic value behind the recent emphasis on presence in the museum and how that influences particular structures of time and attention.

MS: The cynical response is that capitalism saturates and then it expands. The museum world overtook sculpture and could not have another exhibition of work by Louise Bourgeois. So museums had to think about something new, which was dance. So that process suggests expanding the economy of museums. Dance is also an absolutely harmless art form at this moment. It is totally depoliticized. Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, Jérôme Bel, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker— all of them are great because their work is as dangerous as a Barnett Newman.

NB: Would you put yourself in that group?

MS: Totally. I have been thinking about this quite a lot. As I said before, I don’t believe choreography is expression dependent. When you invite a choreographer into the museum, you cannot expect the results to be a dance. Instead, it is a way to invite someone who uses certain tools, which are different tools from a filmmaker or a visual artist. I use choreographic tools. What these tools are is difficult to say, but they are not necessarily there to make a dance.

What has happened now is that people invite choreographers to make small, harmless dances in the museum. After International Festival, I introduced a term we stole from Rosalind Krauss: choreography as expanded practice. This was all a matter of saying that choreography could be other than a dance. It’s a mode of production.

What we have to think about now is that every society has the art that it deserves. The Louvre happened in a bourgeois society. It was there to show how great France was, and then it was there to teach how to be a bourgeois audience. The Pompidou Center and the Guggenheim are museums of industrial societies. So in part what the Guggenheim is doing is to show the grandeur of American production, celebrating America, and at the same time, teaching us how to be middle class citizens.

I am convinced that the Pompidou Center, the MoMA, and similar museums are there to celebrate a mode of production that is based in the manufacturing of objects. Now, in 2016, we live in a society that circulates abstract value, as opposed to industrial might. The twentieth century was the century of the architect. The twenty-first century is the century of one who has competence in movement, namely, the choreographer. The museum is now correlating itself to the society that it is in. The object goes away, and movement, relation, performativity, identity, and abstract values come in. The work is not there in the object, in the Donald Judd. It is not in the Dan Flavin anymore.

The appearance of all these dance exhibitions is a way of correlating to a society where production is otherwise. Obviously we don’t go to the museum anymore in order to see an exhibition of work by Matisse. We go to Tate Modern to experience “Tate Modernness.” To be at Tate Modern is to be a good citizen that engages in culture, engages in knowledge acquisition. It is not just dance but the entire museum that is transforming.

I think that dance is going to stay in the museum, but choreographers and choreography need to respond to this context in ways that take the invitation seriously. There are three options: make a piece in a museum that could be made in a theater. (Instead of making such an adaptation, stay in the theater where the lighting design is great and the dressing rooms have at least one shower.) The second option would be to make a dance that stretches from the morning to the afternoon according to the open hours of the museum, or is redistributed in space, say in the Xavier Leroy retrospective, or all of the works by Tino Segal. (In this case, there is the same understanding of dance as in the theater.) The third option is the one that I propose, and that is we must not just respond to the time of the museum. A related thought is that museums exhibit death as a way of celebrating life, while theaters show life as a way of celebrating death.

We must ask ourselves, “When we put dance in the museum, how do we take it one step further?” It must be a museum dance. How does choreography transform because it is the museum? As a choreographer in the museum there could be no dancing; there might just be a drawing. When we think about dance exhibitions (or exhibitions dealing with dance) it is almost always a visual capacity—dance in front of an audience—that is being negotiated.

But we could also consider the production of an exhibition as a choreographic activity such that when the objects come to the museum they are choreographies in the way they have been processed. I find that artists shallowly deal with this idea right now. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker has an exhibition at the Pompidou Center now that is an adaptation of a stage work. She is not going to change the way her dance looks because of the museum; nor does the museum want her to change the way her dance looks. Because the museum is known primarily as the place for painting and sculpture, dance in the museum potentially looks more like dance than it would in a theater because it needs to prove itself as dance. Otherwise, I might get mistaken for a visual artist, which would be bad for me because my stocks are in dance.

With the exhibition that we are doing I am extremely interested in how the objects are the choreography, not an installation, but the choreography. I was very intrigued by the invitation and the question, “How is this not the documentation of a previous choreography?” It is not a relic of what has been, but it is a choreography. That we have dancers coming in and activating it is a bonus. For me this is not the important part, it is the combination of objects.

At the end of the day, I am very happy that dance has entered the museum. But, I am a little disappointed in my choreographer friends that they have not brought it where it deserves to be. A few years ago I did a piece, La Substance, in New York at MoMA PS1. It is a 4.5-hour piece that did not submit to museum time, nor is the time of the performance adhering to theater time. Obviously a dance that is 4.5 hours long is not there to be attended to; it was about formulating a tension between theatrical time and exhibition time. With such tension people don’t really know how to behave. Say, I am there to talk to my friend, but we recognize that we are in a museum, and it is a performance. My interest has been to consider if there is another way of talking that needs to be developed for that situation. Can we learn to talk to each other in a new way in that context? It is not the end of the world if I fall asleep or if I have a nap or talk to my friend, or Facebook a bit during the performance.

The piece is there to be a conversation partner. The best moment is to have two people sitting next to each other, looking at the performance talking to each other at the same time. The performance becomes a companion, like a dog in your house that can be ignored.

NB: In thinking about your work, do you consider a response such as, “That was boring,” as indication of a generative condition, or something negative?

MS: The problem with boredom is that it stands in relationship to capitalism. Boredom interests me in that you lure an audience into a sense of indifference. But in order for this to happen there needs to be superimposed layers of time. These layers of time, or textures of time are difficult to talk about because it is not a matter of rhythmic time nor is it a matter of intensive time (which is a time that expands in some kind of Deleuzian or Bergsonian sense). It is more time as being superimposed, incompatible phenomena, some of which are more rhythmic, and some that are desynchronized. I want to put my audience in a state of trained indifference in order for these migrations to become generative. It’s a matter of the production of indifference; only through indifference can a contingent production take place. I know exactly what happens in a performance—it is never improvisation, it is 100% set—but it needs to be such that I don’t know what it generates. It can be an amplifier for you to be what you are.

My work is not community work. Instead, it is an undoing of community so that we can form new kinds of community that is generated because of experiencing the work. Many years ago Žižek said in a conversation that there is a generosity of not having to say “hello.” At the workplace, generosity is the condition of not having to be friendly. It is okay that you are not in the best mood today—I care for you anyway. A community that is based on a generosity of “not having to,” an acceptance of whatever you are, is always important. In that moment, care takes on a non-economic capacity. The care that I want to talk about is absolutely non-reasoned; I care because I care and nothing more. Otherwise, I should optimize my care, and it becomes “Are you happy now? … Are you happy now? … Are you happy now?” and then it becomes surveillance in a way.

Now I am going to say something really sentimental. My Mother’s friend says to me, “It must be so great to be a dancer because you can express yourself,” and of course I say something friendly back, “Yes, it’s great—I can express myself all over the world, all the way to Seattle. It’s great!” But what I think is “You’re all wrong.” The reason I want to work with dance is because it allows me to be anonymous. When I dance, I don’t have to be on show. Dancing is a way of not being occupied with myself; it gives me permission to not be busy. I can go to the studio and just dance. When I dance it’s a matter of becoming anonymous. To really dance is to become public.

*A few years ago Mårten Spångberg participated in a conference in Hong Kong. While there he was invited to see a Carravagio that was on loan to a local museum. He describes the experience in the following way: “I looked at this painting and was absolutely blown apart. I have never ever experienced something that powerful. It was a small painting called Supper at Emmaus. After standing there for 15 minutes, I realized it was not the figures who were interesting, it was the blackness, it was the dark parts. And ever since then I have not been able to think very much about anything but Caravaggio.”

Nina Bozicnik is Assistant Curator at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle. She co-organized the exhibition Six Weeks, in Time this spring, and forthcoming this summer, with Chris E. Vargas, is co-organizer of Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects .

Emily Zimmerman is a curator and writer based in Seattle, WA. She is the Associate Curator of Programs at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington. Most recently she curated Gift City: A Project by Keller Easterling, co-organized Six Weeks, in Time, and is on the curatorial team for 9E2 Seattle, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Nine Evenings. See more here.


Share This Post

Caden Manson is a director, media artist, and teacher. He is co-founder of the media ensemble and network, blog, and publisher, He has co-created, directed, video- and set designed 18 Big Art Group productions. Manson has shown video installations in Austria, Germany, NYC, and Portland; performed PAIN KILLER in Berlin, Singapore and Vietnam; Taught in Berlin, Rome, Paris, Montreal, NYC, and Bern; the ensemble has been co-produced by the Vienna Festival, Festival d’Automne a Paris, Hebbel Am Ufer, Rome’s La Vie de Festival, PS122, and Wexner Center for The Arts. Caden is a 2001 Foundation For Contemporary Art Fellow, is a 2002 Pew Fellow and a 2011 MacDowell Fellow. Writing has been published in PAJ, Theater Magazine, and Theater der Zeit. Caden is currently an associate professor and graduate directing option coordinator of The John Wells Directing Program at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama.

Related Articles