Interviews

Ute Meta Bauer’s Laboratory for Experimentation

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Ute Meta Bauer (photo by Christine Fenzi; all images courtesy the Centre for Contemporary Art unless otherwise noted)

“Where do we go from here? Towards theatre … We have eyes as well as ears, and it is our business while we are alive to use them.”
—John Cage

“The politics of the theatrical, and also the theatricality of politics configure a compelling space that offers room for manoeuvre, and also a retreat into the imaginary.”
—Ute Meta Bauer

SINGAPORE — In the all-too-rare instance where the gallery meets the stage, Ute Meta Bauer has organized a compelling exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore, aptly titled Theatrical Fields. It is not by happenstance that Bauer, a curator and educator originally from Germany, finds herself exploring the intersection between installation and performance. Her career began with studies in stage design and since then she has aligned herself with artists exploring the borderless region of the theatrical where ideas move seamlessly and temporally between gesture, object, storytelling, video, and sound.

Within this transdisciplinary space, Bauer has created for herself a unique place in the artworld. Theatrical Fields has its roots in her co-curation of the 2002 Documenta 11, where works by several of the artists in the current show, including Joan Jonas, Stan Douglas, and Isaac Julien were exhibited. Fast forward to 2015, her embrace of performance and long-time association with Jonas will advance to the 56th Venice Biennale, where Bauer will be co-curating the artist’s exhibition at the United States Pavilion.  

Ute Meta Bauer now resides in Singapore as the founding director of the recently opened Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA): a national research centre of Nanyang Technological University, comprising three platforms: exhibitions, residencies, and research. Having recently transitioned from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Bauer was founder of the MIT Program for Art, Technology, and Culture, she has taken on the challenge to explore new avenues of experimentation within the space of the CCA galleries, and bring her approach to art as transdisciplinary practice and exhibitions as “expanded theater” into the cultural milieu of this bustling port city of Southeast Asia.

Isaac Julie, Vagabondia (2000), Theatrical Fields, Centre for Contemporary Art
Isaac Julien, “Vagabondia” (2000), Theatrical Fields, Centre for Contemporary Art

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Randall Packer: With your academic background in stage design, your curatorial interest in new media art and installation, the current Theatrical Fields show at the Centre for Contemporary Art, and your collaboration and “guilty pleasure” working with the band Apparatjik, is there a thread running through your work?

Ute Meta Bauer: I have this connection with my shows, basically, to the group of artists that inspires me, and if I see something occur and if there are two or three artists using certain elements of the topics, I usually start thinking about that and then very often this is how a show starts.

So I was working very closely with Joan Jonas at MIT when I moved there. I found her work got much more into the theatrical and we were already working together at Documenta 11 with Lines in the Sand. She had also worked with the Wooster Group.

RP: I want to shift back to your own particular interest in the stage and how this has influenced you. Theatrical Fields began with Documenta 11 and it has evolved from there: so what is the thread for you?

UMB: The thread is for me when I started stage design, I shifted immediately with my first paper working with performance artists. Way back it was VALIE EXPORT, and I was also very inspired by the films of Ulrike Ottinger.  And so to me the link between art, music, media, sound, was not separate. I felt this world belonged together. But also what inspired me was the books I was reading: the Surrealists, Alfred Jarry, and Antonin Artaud. The way artists use media has ended up in the meantime with the stage, theater directors are using video, so media has entered the stage. I think the separation is not that big anymore.

Judith Barry, Voice off (1999), Theatrical Fields, Centre for Contemporary Art
Judith Barry, “Voice off” (1999), Theatrical Fields, Centre for Contemporary Art

Very early I started to make projects with my colleagues, we would do performances with music bands so I never considered myself a curator, we just did things. What was very important to me was exhibition as sound, as Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), the encompassing approach such as Kurt Schwitters’s “Merzbau” and other artists who in their work would have a theatrical moment and this notion of an overall space. And the production space has always been important to me as a curator, what do you generate with an exhibition. So to me the exhibition is a tool.

RP: I was struck by the way in which you had embedded the keywords of theater into Theatrical Fields, placing the concepts all around the various galleries and linking them up with the works: character, play, protagonist, costume, exposition, and so forth. What was your thinking behind that. Was this meant to be didactic or were you trying to create a conversation between installation and theater?

UMB: What I wanted to do with Theatrical Fields is as though you enter a kind of stage, with the different characters, they become the protagonists and interact with each other. How Judith Barry works with the voice: so what is the voice? Or, in Constanze Ruhm’s X Characters, what is really the difference between a character and an actor?

Constanze Ruhm, X Characters / RE(hers)ALL (2003/4), Theatrical Fields, Centre for Contemporary Art
Constanze Ruhm, “X Characters / RE(hers)ALL” (2003/4), Theatrical Fields, Centre for Contemporary Art

You start questioning yourself again seeing these works, what is happening, and I thought, for an audience who might not be that familiar, it would be interesting to have a glossary. The word theater itself and theatricality comes from “to see” and also theory has the same root word and I found that very interesting. There is no audience without the participants. I want to have an emancipated viewer. And also the people I want to reflect on it are viewers, like I’m a viewer, but then what do is we spin off of it.

RP: I thought that showed an extraordinary respect for the viewer, trying to bring them into this dialogue between installation art and theater, I think it’s a very difficult border to be working with. In Theatrical Fields, you say you are “introducing theatricality as a critical strategy in performance, film, and video installation.” And yet theater is traditionally live, it’s typically linear in form, it takes place on the stage, and generally reliant on narrative development that requires considerable duration. How do you reconcile the contrasting forms of theater and installation in terms of the design of the show?

UMB: You really point out something very crucial because I am trained as a stage designer and of course in classical Greek theater you could not switch space or time. The hours used had to be exactly the hours of the live, you could not do a backwards loop or two years later like you do in the cinematic. So I thought it’s interesting to have an expanded theater in the cinematic, but also how cinematic structures have influenced and informed contemporary theater. So the boundaries are blurring even though there is this animosity between theater and performance art. Joan Jonas, of course, has a link to live performance but Stan Douglas does not. But he is very interested in the narration of his characters and he can provide the space.

Stan Douglas, video still from Suspiria (2002). Courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner NY/London and Victoria Miro, London
Stan Douglas, video still from ‘Suspiria’ (2002) (courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner NY/London and Victoria Miro, London)

So it’s this translation of cultural formats into another format which I’m also very interested in. What they really use is the notion of theatricality. It’s clear: it’s geared towards an “audience,” each of these works uses a kind of staging. I thought, that’s quite interesting and I’m wondering, what potential does it open to the artists to do it that way.  I want to have an audience coming into the space, and say, OK what’s happening here? What is the artist doing? Or what is the possibility of an exhibition in terms of communicating something different than the artwork itself. It’s this kind of layering of spaces.

RP: I went to your symposium last week and this differentiation between theater and performance art came up. Really, it’s very polemical, this distinction between the two. How do you resolve that distinction?

UMB: I think it’s to understand the subtleness and the individuality of each piece. If you take Constanze Ruhm, for example, she uses basically a theater rehearsal room where her characters meet and she stays in the traditional format of time and space. There is an airport lounge where her characters meet and the conversation is the time they are waiting. So she comes back to almost the traditional standards of Greek theater, but of course then she films it. The interesting part again is the script is generated in a chat room. The characters lost their initial script. But the way she communicates with us is a very classical form, you sit and watch. So she confuses these elements.

With Joan Jonas, she films herself performing “Helen of Egypt” in the public space of contemporary Las Vegas, a story that goes back to Helen of Troy. So of course she violates everything that traditional theater would do but she is very conscious about it. So she almost counters traditional theater.

Eva Meyer and Eran Schaerf, She Might Belong to You (2007), Theatrical Fields, Centre for Contemporary Art
Eva Meyer and Eran Schaerf, “She Might Belong to You” (2007), Theatrical Fields, Centre for Contemporary Art

RP: She is consciously working against it.

UMB: Exactly. But again Nathalie Sarraute said there is no anti-theater, there is only theater and I think there is performative action that almost always takes place in the form of the theater. You share the space, the timeframe, and then you have the possibility of cinema, and then you have the possibility of installation. In the work of Eva Meyer and Eran Schaerf, they both work with hörspiel (radio play) and they work with installation and they work with film. And this is what I try to open up with people to see this potentiality of making something visible, making something heard, and it has again to do with theater.

RP: I am very curious how you are going to stage Joan Jonas’ work in the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale next year, because it is such a small space within a Neoclassic architecture. What in the world are you going to do with her work there? How do you make it work?

UMB: Oh, it’s the opposite. Joan will make it work. Paul Ha and I are there as co-curators to support her. I’ve been working so long with Joan, she very much has a sense of spaces when you see her installations. But if she translates a (performance) work into the gallery, as in the case of Lines in the Sand, it was first an installation for Documenta 11 and then she developed a performance out of it. She has an incredible sense of space and what’s possible in every space.

Joan Jonas, The Space, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2005), photo by Paula Court
Joan Jonas, “The Space, the Scent, the Feel of Things” (2005), DIA Beacon (photo by Paula Court)

Take The Space, the Scent, the Feel of Things at Dia:Beacon. If you see these blank spaces down there you say, oh my god. You see these huge dark corridors, and yet it was magic. She has this life-long experience. At MIT she was teaching in a parking garage in the beginning because there was no classroom. It was amazing what you can do with a parking garage. So I’m pretty sure she will do something amazing in Venice.

RP: How collaborative will this show be. How are you working with her?

UMB: We are co-curating, myself and Paul Ha, who is director of the List Visual Arts Center at MIT. Paul is also the commissioner. We’ll do it together with Joan for the US Pavilion. Usually she has an idea and works it out and she would just discuss with you and say, what do you think? I want to have this, will this work? It’s very much a dialogue with her. She is thinking something through and you as a curator give her feedback and how that could work. But it’s very much driven by the artist and this is how it should be.

RP: And because she is so attuned to working with various spaces, she doesn’t really need a designer per se.

UMB: No, she does not.

RP: Will she be physically present in the show?

UMB: Joan always is present [laughs]. To her a space has to work without her. If it’s the kind of space that is accessible for the audience. And the performance is where she is present. She always works with the space. And even if she might not be present when you see the show she usually is present in the show. Joan is very much present. That’s the strength of her work, you feel it. She has a remarkable voice. When I hear her voice, Joan is present. We were teaching a long time together. When I hear this voice I always listen in. She has the kind of voice that makes you listen.

RP: How does she feel about being the American representation next year in Venice, it’s a big deal.

UMB: Yes, it is a big deal for her. This is why you will see a remarkable piece in Venice. If you see her performances now she throws all of her knowledge together. She is like a sorceress. She has this decade long experience as a performer and she is still a shy person. But she is so powerful on stage. The time is right. I think for her, it means more at this moment in her career. She is such an iconic figure. She is a leading performance pioneer.

Joan Jonas, Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll (1972), photo by Roberta Neiman
Joan Jonas, “Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll” (1972) (photo by Roberta Neiman)

RP: Vertical Roll, for example, is one of the great classics of early video art.

UMB: I met Joan first in 1983 in New York preparing a performance festival in a theater space, I was doing stage design. And Joan had been so important and we had embraced her always as an important American artist.

RP: For Venice is she going to be producing new work?

UMB: Yes, of course.

RP: So it is not a retrospective. And it will it be one large work? Do you know what she is working on? Can you even say?

UMB. No, it’s not like keeping a secret. Joan is somebody who needs time to develop a piece, and then she thinks it through. She goes to the space. Then she usually connects it to what she is reading. So, I can’t really say what she’s up to, she just returned from Nova Scotia, Cape Breton where she spends the summer, and this is where she usually develops her pieces.

RP: Before we finish, I want to ask you a little about your work here in Singapore. You’ve been working in the US, in Europe, and now here you are in Singapore. Is this taking your work anywhere new, will you continue doing what you have always been doing? Does being here in Southeast Asia change at all the work you are doing?

UMB: Of course it changes where you are and the discussions that you have, the artists you meet and the context. Of course you change something. But you don’t change yourself in that sense. Of course, you adapt to a place, but what is interesting is what do you bring to a place, what does this place bring to you. But here I have an exhibition space, I was missing curating. So to reconnect my practice as a curator, to have such a space here at the Centre for Contemporary Art, a research center, it was almost too good to be true.

RP: So you consider the space to be your laboratory.

UMB: I do see it as a laboratory, because we are a research center of NTU (Nanyang Technological University), and it’s also a space for experimentation. I needed to bring all of these works into one space: there is sound, there is noise, there are different lights. Does this function? I really had to ask the artists to please trust me. I will not ruin your works. You always try to test things in an exhibition: be experimental, you use the exhibition as a stage. Art is not written in stone.

Theatrical Fields is on view at the Centre for Contemporary Art (Gillman Barracks, Singapore) through November 2. The exhibition, curated by Ute Meta Bauer with Anca Rujoiu, includes works by Judith Barry, Stan Douglas, Joan Jonas, Isaac Julien, Eva Meyer & Eran Schaerf, and Constanze Ruhm.

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