Over-communication and disempeopled bodies
Once We Were Islands are spatial designer Chris Gylee and writer and project maker Richard Aslan. Together they create performative and participatory scores with collaborators. Last year, they relocated from Bristol, UK, to Berlin. From 20-22 November, their piece A,B,C,D,E,F. will be on at Ballhaus Ost.
You don’t always refer to your work as performance or theatre, but rather think in terms of scores. What is that?
Richard Aslan: A score is words on paper. A set of rules. It provides a framework of actions or tasks, which then is a place to explore those actions. And it’s a piece of artwork itself, the idea. Whether it’s realized or not doesn’t matter actually. You can end up with one piece having a hundred scores, the lighting score, the music score, the movement score. It’s a way of thinking.
Chris Gylee: The score comes before the activity. And though it’s suggestions, or invitations, or strong rules of a path of action to follow, it is always conceived to allow space in it for unpredictability.
Your work is very process-oriented. A lot of pieces are interactions with participants rather than displaying a show to onlookers. What drives this approach?
CG: We have an idea of things that are more likely to happen than other things. Because there are all these choices we have made. So, there are aims of comprehension or satisfaction or bewilderment or trying to raise questions. But I don’t really know until we get an audience in quite how it will play.
RA: We have these component pieces that are quite instinctive. A,B,C,D,E,F. came from being really interested in what happens when you take conversations and you mismatch them according to a mathematical algorithm. That’s basically what the piece is. And I don’t know why I’m interested in that. There is this huge amount of curiosity in starting with something rule-based or instruction-based. A feeling of excitement of not knowing what the effect is. It’s an idea.
Do you feel that such open spaces are something missing from our world? Like this saying indicates, “Asking the right questions is the answer”?
CG: Yes, on a basic level of feeling, there is a desire to try and make those spaces which comes from some sort of wanting for it. Especially our really early projects were very much about people just coming together with quite a loose score.
RA: There’s a tying in of an enquiry. On the one hand, the world is in a horrible mess. On the other side, around me I see amazing people doing amazing things. Why is that? This enquiry comes in over and over again of what dehumanizes us in the face of one another. But it’s not didactic. I don’t feel I got any answers. I feel like I got a lot of questions. And I got a lot of theories. And a lot of our work is testing those theories.
Couls you relate that to A,B,C,D,E,F.?
RA: A,B,C,D,E,F. is very much about communication. And very specifically about the commodification of identity. When a woman becomes ‚the Mum‘ – there’s nothing wrong with being the Mum, but when she’s ‚the Mum‘, what is she not? And when a man is ‚the migrant‘ – there’s nothing wrong with being the migrant – but what did he stop being? I’m trying to understand on a human level this trade of product that we have.
You quote McKenzie Ward in this score: “We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present”. What do we need to resist?
RA: I think we live in a system where everything gets corrupted. Look at the commodificatin process, where everything is given a value. Information is commodified, like in A,B,C,D,E,F.: the tick box-identity, like in a points-based migration system or on dating sites.
CG: I think the commodification of information is very clear in the theme of the piece, in the text. But, information, really and truly, is completely slippery and not commodifiable. It isn’t concrete. It doesn’t mean the same thing for me as for you. We just believe this whole myth. This myth of information transaction like a telephone line: A transfers B to C. That doesn’t exist. There is potential resistance already in there. If we could just remember that these things are not so concrete, because we are not looking at things in a way that they truly are.
Does our day and age lack utopias?
RA: This constant commodification and quantification creates a present we can’t survive. It’s unsurvivable. When you live in a present that is unviable, what’s the future? If you can’t survive your own present, how can you postulate a future or utopia? I don’t think we can postulate utopias. I think the situation we are in is that it is impossible for us to imagine utopias. Because, if we could imagine them, why aren’t we doing them?
What is the role of space in your scores?
CG: Our scores are always manifest in the physical space. With A,B,C,D,E,F. very much, there’s a narrative space and how the audience sees. With most proposals, the space is very much conceived as something the participants step into and where something can happen. And until you step into it, the potential, the thing isn’t happening.
RA: The environment is always a protagonist. The environment is never passive. Chris is a visual dramaturge – telling a story by creating a special environment for the performers to interact. There is an idea of the environment being responsive and living. A manipulative environment that manipulates people who come into it.
Let’s talk about the relationship of space and the human identity and how that changes with digital technology – what happens when physical presence is reduced to a two-dimensional interface?
CG: I find the idea interesting of the screen as an extension of the human body. But whilst we’re typing into a computer, this is also working on us back reciprocally. We delude ourselves, if we’re thinking we’re just working on the machine and are in control of it. There is a kind of feedback mechanism that’s happening. I’m also trying to understand what’s happening when I’m talking to somebody on the other end of the world on a chat. There’s quite a strange spatial thing happening. Our bodies are actually only connected because they are connected to this computer machine. They have become like two extensions that allow that communication to happen.
RA: I think digital technology is wonderful in this sense. The corollary of that is that the locus of our identity is moving. It’s almost like the locus of who we are and what we are is in the process of shifting outside of our bodies and moving somewhere. It’s moving from a place that is safer to a place that is more perilous. The simple reason being is that … if the locus of someone’s identity is half in their body and half out of their body, then we’re opening ourselves up to enormous new potentials of violence and coercion and control and imprisonment and theft. If half of your identity isn’t in your body, who’s controlling it? There are huge questions to be asked.
But people embrace and enjoy this though, on social media for example?
RA: Of course. When people go online with 25 different aliases, this is a very queered version of the future, actually, where people are able to pick and chose their identity, that’s amazing. It’s beautiful.
CG: There’s real creativity in there. It’s a manipulation of the technology that has this possibility within it, so I can exploit it and play to create or change something and be plural.
Can you elaborate a bit more on your idea of the locus of identity?
RA: There’s gonna be a moment, when the locus of our identity is gonna be more outside of the body than inside. If the body dies, what dies with it? The sense of who I am may not matter really. The problem is not the technology, the problem is the abuse. But the political problems remain the same. So, to worry about the technology is slightly perverse. It’s there already. And I thinkwe are evolving constantly.
CG: There’s also a sense of acceleration. And there is the question of whether our bodily evolvement is in line with the technological or scientific evolvement that we’re making. We’re hugely adaptive and we’re constantly catching up, but it feels like at the forefront of technological change we’re often doing things potentially very naively, before we know the repercussions of what that might mean for us, like a generation later.
Can you give an example of what might happen with our identity?
CG: If everybody has an online identity that Google own – we don’t really know what the implication of this is for another 20 to 30 years. What if a generation grows up with this and then Google say, “you have to pay us for your identity now, for your account or we delete it”? And this can mean a different thing in 30 years, when your identity is an online identity, because the context changing so much. Then actually are you in control of this identity or not, if it’s going through a corporation? Potentially.
RA: We became interested in the word ‚deletion‘. What does that mean? If you take the locus of your identity into a deletable medium? If we live in a world where everything that is of value is outside your body … We sometimes talk about disembodied people – the soul, ghosts… but we’re heading to a reality where it’s actually more likely that we will be disempeopled bodies. When the locus of your identity is outside of your body and then actually somebody can cut it off; when your personhood isn’t in your body and someone takes it away, what’s left? Disempeopled bodies walking around.