Interview with Lundahl and Seitl

As part of the Battersea Art Centre’s recent ‘Burst’ festival, performance artists Christer Lundahl and Martina Seitl (Lundahl&Seitl) reprised their work, ‘Recreational Test Site’, renamed ‘Rotating in a Room of Images’. The work is a highly choreographed fifteen-minute performance that confounds the solo visitor’s sense of spatial and temporal orientation. Exploiting light, physical touch, video, and instructions emitted from headphones, the work asks the visitor to relinquish control of their bodies into an uncertain space and upon anonymous keepers.

In January, Lundahl&Seitl choreographed and performed a new work, ‘The Memory of W.T Stead’ with experimental pianist and long-time collaborator Cassie Yukawa at the Steinway & Sons piano workshop. They have also shown at Tate Britain and The Whitechapel Gallery, and in April last year their most ambitious performance to date, ‘Work/Workshop’, an hour long work that involves the participation of seven viewers at once, was shown over three weeks at Weld in Stockholm.

The following conversation took place on the at the close of ‘Rotating in a Room of Images’ with Harun Morison, an artist and producer at Battersea Art Centre.

Gemma Sharpe: I wanted to ask whether this was a new work or an old one.

Christer Lundahl: It’s a new work, of an old work. It has a new title, some new performers, and it has been re-recorded with Sennheiser. There are some new instructions for the visitor, and the projection room has a slightly different tone. So it’s mostly formal changes.

Martina Seitl: I still think that the work is old. But we have changed, so our view on it has changed, and also I think the surrounding world has changed a lot as well. I can feel that.

CL: That is actually a very good start, because we’re talking about being a perceiving subject, and that your world image is always is about being a subject within your own experience.  But as Martina said, we don’t exactly know if the work has changed, if we have changed or if the world has changed. I think all of them must have changed, or interlinked somehow.

MS: And each visitor who comes into the work is also a different visitor, so that changes or renews the work every time. Also, in ‘Recreational Test Site’, the earlier work, there was the presence of ‘Avatars’, who were performers in the work who had cameras on their heads connected to a monitor in a location outside the performance. Other visitors could conduct them through instructions.

GS: What kind of instructions were they sending?

MS: Totally random instructions. Everything from, ‘scream hello in the dark’ or ‘do sit-ups’, or sometimes just subtle instructions. But most of the time it was more interactive and we were constantly in discussion about this: ‘what shall we do about this problem; is it a problem?’ That has been taken out.

CL: In this piece we use a kind of laboratory setting. There is no schema; we’ve made a blank space. Here you bring your own baggage, and whether you have that murmuring in your body, it might slowly fade away in the darkness. And then you are the degree zero. Or that’s what you can argue. We fill the work with the absolute minimum of sensory input. I mean, you have some outside resemblances and people have referred to Vermeer paintings at that moment when you are standing outside a room, looking into a room, like a frame within a frame.

GS: So whoever referred to a Vermeer painting must have been talking about the moment when you look through a door and see the ensemble of performers at a table. That’s a dramatic moment. How did the choreography come about?

MS: The process was extremely long actually. But choreographing that movement was so short in relation to the whole work, although on an idea level it lived through the whole process. We were thinking about absent and negative space, so we dealt a lot with the space between limbs or fingers for example. We were interested in how negative space moves the body rather than: ‘I’m moving my body’. There was a lot explored around free will and there was a very fundamental question within me, which was, ‘what am I conducted by?’ That spread into the rehearsal room through a lot of exercises, such as trying to really imagine being conducted by something. There was one exercise, for example, where you look at your hand and you imagine that it is lifting, but without allowing it to move. What usually happens is that your arm starts to lift, and it uses a different set of muscles than if you intended to lift it. I think that a lot of movement in that room – the last scene – arose from that exercise. We were also imagining that everything was very distant. So although we were close in the room, we are imagining that we were far away from each other. 

Harun Morrison: I think that what is really interesting for me is the space of the work itself. You’ve returned to the same space and contrary to it being a neutral space you are very much governed by it and have responded its architecture. So I was really interested in how your work takes its own shape from given shapes. Because I understand you’ve done this piece in other places and I’m fascinated by how that worked. We’re leaning against these walls now, and the proportions of this room cannot be changed. They’re thick Victorian walls and there are certain parts of the piece which are governed by those immovable parts of the space and then you go into the larger room and you have spaces separated by walls of fabric. That is a fluid space, which changes shape throughout the performance. Even the light can change your sense of its height and its psychological impact. I’d love to get more architects seeing the work because through it, you start to think about how people move in spaces, and how your techniques could be applied to people’s rethinking of the experience of their living space.

CL: It is here where illusions come into place. 

MS: There’s an author called Jeffrey Longstaff and he talks about the imagined space being as real as the real space, because when we have a stimuli of space, it activates certain physical senses or muscles in the body. So when I think of a space, the brain remembers and activates it. It means that when we are in the dark and we think about an imagined space, the brain creates its own virtual reality.

GS: In ‘Work/Workshop’, which you showed in Sweden last year, you used the same illusion: when lights were off, you changed the shape of the space, so when the lights came back on everything was completely different. You really highlight that impulse we have to negotiate exactly where we are in a space, you make that dialogue we have with ourselves screamingly loud.

HM: I think all your pieces bring out survivalist modes in the viewer which is why people come out of all your performances with their heartbeats raised, slightly terrified, with that shell-shocked expression. You’ve put us in the dark, so the proverbial monster can come at you from any angle. And once you’ve done that, the power goes over to you two as to whether you tease us with a touch, or whether an unexpected face surprises us. But it constantly means that already the hairs are up because you don’t know what might come at you from any angle, and with stripped down senses, you do as a visitor feel vulnerable. You, the artists, are in a very puppet-master-like position. But you offer us something comforting like a friendly voice, or something playful like the voice of a child.

GS: But there’s a generosity and a gentleness in the work. I wanted to ask you two how you manage to avoid it being a frightening experience.

CL: I am naively surprised when people say that they were scared, because we never intended that. But of course, in the absence of anything tangible, or anything to hold on to, you invent your own ghosts. Depending who you are, the voice in the headset is either sinister or friendly as a guide. I think it’s a guide, but maybe that’s because I’m very close to that voice.

MS: I would see it as a guide. But I agree with what you said about the visitor being in a survivalist place, because our senses open up when we are in state of survival. I notice myself in survival mode all the time, like when I’m flying in particular – every tiny sound is huge, every motion of the plane is so big – it does open up the senses. In these situations it reflects back into the body.

CL: I think that our starting point is always the viewer, and the fact that we as humans have a particular cognitive filter over how we know the world. Everything that surrounds you is ‘ex-centric’ to you. The viewer in our work is at the centre of the world and in a way we are taking a God-like position when we create these universes.

HM: There’s something that a visitor said to me about why they enjoyed the work so much. It was because they felt like they were at the centre of the world and it’s interesting that you talk about constructing a world, because that’s very much what makes you as an audience member so centred. It’s that pleasurable sense that everything is revolving around you. It’s the same as a really well chosen gift, when you think: ‘that person has thought so much about me!’

CL: That’s interesting – giving a gift – in a way this is a complete experience, crafted almost like an object.

GS: Perhaps we should conclude. I asked whether the work was new or old. Now I want to ask how you feel about the work this time?

MS: I would compare it to how a child grows up. In the beginning you’re very attached, but you have to let go more and more. At the beginning you’re very sensitive – like in a pregnancy – it’s all such a mystery. And then the baby comes and you’re very sensitive about the outside world. I feel really like that about new works: you don’t want to let them go. But what I have now is a feeling of letting the work go, and the ownership is more with the visitors. But then the work cannot be forgotten as a grown up individual, and there are still mysteries about it. It keeps on changing all the time, so if you neglect it and let go completely, then in a way, the relation with the work dies. This is how I experience it.

Gemma Sharpe, Harun Morrison, Christer Lundahl, Martina Seitl