The Wexner Center Presents Norwegian Collective Verdensteatret’s HANNAH
The Wexner Center made its name by bringing international art of the highest caliber to Columbus, regardless of genre. Much of the work that’s cut deepest and left the most lasting impression has been hard to categorize and almost impossible to describe.
The latest entry in that storied list is an appearance by the exciting and acclaimed Norwegian collective Verdensteatret with their new piece HANNAH, in one of two U.S. (along with Austin) shows this tour.
HANNAH promises to be an experience like few of us have had and hopes to be another hard-to-quantify and impossible-to-forget evening.
HANNAH is an intermingling of sound, text, and installation based in travel and careful observation. I interviewed Janne Kruse by email about the troupe, the piece, and their process of making work, before their tour started. The Q&A below is taken from that interview and edited for length and clarity.
Could you talk a little about how Verdensteatret was founded and how it’s evolved over the years?
The name Verdensteatret is taken from the old cinemas across Norway, which in their early days all had the name Verdensteatret, meaning “live images from the world.”
Verdensteatret was founded in 1986 when Lisbeth Bodd bought an old beautiful circus tent (previously used for religious meetings) and a touring bus somewhere deep in the Swedish forests. The following years Verdensteatret toured all around Scandinavia with “family performances” (together with tivoli, circus and bazaars). Slowly the performances became more peculiar and experimental, the families and the tivolis disappeared and people from theater and the art world started to get interested instead.
So, after five to six years in the circus tent, and with site-specific outdoor performances, Verdensteatret went into a theater stage for the first time in the early 90s. Asle Nilsen joined in around 1988 and run the company together with Lisbeth until she got sick and died in 2014. Asle is today the only remaining artist from this early beginning.
Over a period of 30 years our focus has changed many times between all aspects of a “stage-work” — from dance to visual performance, from text based theatre to puppet theatre, etc. — and into an intermedia expression in recent years. Verdensteatret has always had a flow of different artists coming and going (except Lisbeth and Asle). All the artists in the group also has their own individual artistic career outside the group. Some stay for many years and some stay only for one production.
Today the group consists of video artists, sound engineers, musicians, sculptors, painters and poets.
We develop our works in a “flat structure,” where everyone interferes with all aspects of the work and where the different artistic professions is blurred.
What was the seed behind HANNAH and how has it evolved/was it workshopped?
We do not start a new piece with a fixed concept; we initiate a process. A process that starts with any kind of interest — and continue with doubt as a centrifugal point. Some common experiences and memories that we all share help us create a certain artistic language and aesthetics. As often done before, we made a research-journey to establish this common ground for our process. This time we chose to exactly repeat a journey on the Mekong River Delta that we also did 10 years ago (2007).
Back in the studio in Oslo we begin to process the material we have collected on this journey. The artistic results always seem surprisingly far from the material we start with. The connection between the collected material, the experience at the site and the memory of it all becomes like undercurrents that surface much later. This is a complex process that we can only partly understand. So in the performance we present on stage, we are in the same situation as the audience. We have made some choices (which we hate to do) and we like to look at them together with an audience.
For us HANNAH is about many things at once, the process is balancing many ideas, experiences and memories at the same time. And that takes time. We write HANNAH with capital letters to graphically emphasise the palindrome. Repetition and mirroring are concepts we have had with us while working on HANNAH and all the things relating to those concepts. HANNAH is the possibility of living more than one life.
It premiered at the Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival, do you consider it primarily a musical composition? What instigated that commission or partnership?
It would be more precise to call it an audiovisual composition where the musical qualities, the dramaturgy, the rhythm and the visual elements are all possible to be described in musical terms.
It is musical because it is rhythmical but then again what is not rhythmical? We try not to be caught up in genre definitions but we like music and do not mind to be set in a musical context. Our work has many entrances and it can be read in many different contexts. We like to keep it that way and to be where we can evade clear interpretations.
Ultima — Oslo Contemporary Music Festival is a festival with a wide profile and a focus on experimentational projects. We have collaborated with Ultima for some years now.
You refer to the materials as working like sedimentation. What does slow observation mean to you and why is it important? Was that a preoccupation new to this piece or has it factored into your other work? If the latter, how has that importance changed over time?
The phrase “sedimentation” points to all the layers of information that lies buried in a final artistic detail or a sequence. It reflects how for instance our memory of a certain experience is transformed into a more abstract form on stage. All these layers of information through this complex process can be seen as more or less visible/audible sediments.
In the working process we operate with all the medias active in the room simultaneously, and we use a lot of time to simply observe and listen. Then we change some components and again observe and listen … over and over until the material respond back … or not.
We cannot force the material to become something we want it to be. It is the other way around; we work with it, but in the end we have to wait until it reveals its true potential.
The phrase “attention fatigue as an observatory” points to our curiosity towards what happens to our perception when the focus is close to exhaustion.
A “slow observation of how a physical object slowly affects its surroundings” is a contemplation around time and matter; to observe the mole of a rotting apple spreading out on its plate, or reading a landscape´s morphology in geological time-spans, or how a speaker push the surrounding air-molecules…
This is all about an interest in the relation between our consciousness and the world around us. How physical and mental rooms relate to each other, what is consciousness in general, in nature? So thoughts on sedimentation has been present in previous works too but has maybe been more outspoken while working with HANNAH.
Given that concern with careful observation and drawing audience attention, why was this kept to a relatively standard 50 minute running time instead of the temptation to make it durational?
It is more fun to play it live like an audiovisual composition. For some reason it seems that we often has made our point in 50-60 minutes.
HANNAH is not just about slow changes and long observations, it is also about the contrasts to those concepts. It is about a sense of time and not being able to hold everything in your hands or have a clear overview – and also not being able to fully understand. Things and time are slipping out of our hands, there is always so much more. Whatever we touch it is only a glimpse or small piece that is revealed to us. We need to be left hanging and hungry to feel we are alive.
HANNAH has performances Thursday, March 28 through Saturday, March 30 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 31 at 2 p.m. For tickets and more info, visit wexarts.org/performing-arts/verdensteatret.