Thursday, 4 December 2008

‘It’s the idea that is the focus…’ Theron Schmidt talks with Alison Knowles and Christian Kester of Die Maulwerker about their collaborative concert,

Alison Knowles at Performance Saga Festival - Bone 11, Schlachthaus Theater, Wednesday 3rd December 2008. Photograph (c) Martin Rindlisbacher

TS: How did this collaboration come to happen?
AK: I think it was Andrea Saemann who knew about the Maulwerker Group. I had no information.
TS: But you had agreed to come to the festival?
AK: Yes, and then I was informed that I would be having an evening with this group. I assumed when I found out about this that they would do half of the evening and I would do the other half. So a great deal changed after I met Christian in New York, and we decided that they would do a score of mine. I was thrilled with that, and he walked away with the score for Silk Thread Song.
TS: How did that meeting happen?
CK: I was in New York in March, because I had other concerts and things to do. Andrea made the connection, and we just met. I visited Alison in her wonderful loft in Manhattan. It was very nice. She showed me her instruments like the bean-turner. Then we talked, and we had the idea with the Silk Thread Song, and she gave me the big roll [the long silk scroll on which the score is printed], and I had to get it through the airport security. They wanted to grab it from me, because it was too large for hand luggage. But I kept it with me. [laughs]
TS: So you started to develop that collaboration, first in your meeting in New York, and then while you’ve been here [in Bern]? How many days did you have together to work here?
AK: Almost none.
CK: Yeah. We had the day before, and that was it. The day before and the day itself.
TS (to CK): Prior to this festival, had you come across Alison’s work or that of Fluxus in your training?
CK: Yes, we did a lot of Fluxus concerts over the past nine years. Even before that, because we all studied with Dieter Schnebel, and he frequently did Fluxus projects. Then in 1999 the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin invited us to do a Fluxus concert again, and they had the idea to do it together with Emmet Williams [one of the European collaborators with Fluxus]. After that, all these museums were inviting us to do these Fluxus concerts with Emmet Williams, so we did this until he died in 2007. So we had this training of performing Fluxus, and also pieces of Alison’s. Nivea Cream Piece of hers is in our repertory. We did Shoes of Your Choice once.
TS: And what was the appeal to you of that work that made you want to work with it and re-perform it?
CK: It was a step forward to broadening the idea of music, at first, and then going into other art fields. Bringing different art fields together. And although most of the pieces are quite conceptual, still these are scores, these are pieces, and they want to be re-performed. Some of them are maybe a little bit historical, or just made for the moment, and might be difficult to perform today. But most of them are still interesting to us – and we also play to a broad audience. They still widen out your experience. You go to a concert and it’s just listening, or you go to a visual art show and it’s just watching something, but here it’s both together. The senses are coming together. And this is the nice thing, which is still fresh today.

Notes from the performance, by Chris Regn

AK: I think that’s really important about the meld of the visual with music. Most often, we find ourselves performing in an art gallery – sometimes a concert hall – but usually in an art gallery.
In Onion Skin Song, or Shoe String Song, or the Silk Thread Song, the score is right before the audience, and this is very different from a score sitting in a music stand that no one can see. In a way, it’s a collaborative venture with the audience. They can’t see exactly what the Maulwerker is doing with that whole notation, but they get a sense. It’s very different from looking at a series of notes.
For me, the whole base of Fluxus goes back to the Cage class of 1958. You had [Jackson] Mac Low, and not Emmet Williams but Dick Higgins and George Brecht in that class. I came to know these people through that class, and came to work with Cage through that class. I think the class was called ‘Experimental Composition’.
TS: Before going to the class, how did you identify yourself as an artist?
AK: Before that, I was in painting. I did a degree in painting, and I had several exhibitions of large expressionist paintings. Then there was this huge gap, and a huge confusion for a year, where I didn’t know really what I was doing because I was very drawn to the event-score. And drawn to performance art, which was just coming in as a form. Very quickly, I just stopped painting. I also became distressed with myself, and I burned all my work. I took all the paintings out to my brother’s farm and ignited them in a hole.
I think if there’s a new form that’s been put into action in the twentieth century and twenty-first century, it is this performance idiom, which combines music, and visual art, and the audience.
TS: I’m curious, from your perspective, where is performance art in its life trajectory? Do you think its time has passed, or is it still to come?
AK: I think it’s here. It’s in the world. It’s very much here.
TS: With reference to the concert yesterday, was there anything unexpected which came up while you were putting it together?
AK: I liked it that we kept changing the order of the concert. I didn’t have any idea what the Maulwerker pieces would actually be. I was very pleased that, in my view, they could all have been in a Fluxus concert any time. The nature of the pieces was often humorous, and very precise, and the people that were doing them knew the material very well. They had skill in presenting work of this nature.
CK: For me, the Mantra and the Onion Skin Song were both pieces I only knew the moment of the concert how it would really be. That was an adventure. It was an open experience. Especially the Onion Skin Song – I really had no chance to rehearse anything. I got your [Knowles’] instruction how to read the onion skins, and I was just performing in that moment.
TS: You talked a little bit about humour, and in our conversation after the concert, we thought there was this element of a very ‘serious humour’…
AK: Yes, that’s very nice. I like that.
TS: Is that something that you think is important, is it something that you think about?
AK: No, it’s not that it’s important. It just exists in the piece, in the nature of the piece – there’s that element. It’s not pushed. It’s just in there.
For someone to sit there and move their tongue from one side to the other – it’s innately strange. I wouldn’t say it’s humorous as much as it has a kind of a beauty that’s toward humour.
CK: I wonder. My tongue piece – of course there’s this humorous side, this serious humorous side. But I sometimes wonder if it’s too much. It has this existentialist side. Someone in the audience saw the [Samuel] Beckett side in it. Which is just that the body is sitting there, and this tongue is getting to be a person in itself. It’s almost falling apart from the other body. It loses the connection to the organism; it becomes an organism by itself, because the rest of the body isn’t moving at all.
Of course it’s very humorous. Deeply humorous, at the end. But maybe in between you’re totally confused, because sometimes I get reactions from people who are disgusted. They say ‘I don’t like it. It’s like looking at a dead body.’ Because the rest of the body is dead, and it’s just this strange being inside the mouth. But then at the end it’s humorous again. Maybe this is what you call ‘serious humour’.
But if I look at the other pieces which the other Maulwerker brought in, we tried to bring pieces that would fit in the context. That fit in the performance art context. Some are still so fresh to me. Like Fountain, by Steffi [Weismann] – I love this piece but I still don’t really know why I do! [laughs].
AK: The thing about the person – the person doing the action with the tongue, or the person doing the onion skin dropping – it’s not that you’re an actor, really. You’re a vehicle for the tongue. A vehicle to drop the onion skin. You’re totally undistinguished as a person. Anybody could do it. Given they really understand the piece – I might not do it as well as Christian – but it’s not as if the person becomes the focus. It’s the idea that is the focus.
TS: Alison, do you have a sense yet of how this experience of working with Christian and Maulwerker might influence you in the work you do?
AK: Well, I really like the pieces that they did. I will remember them. There are some that I wouldn’t mind doing myself, if I had the score. Since that doesn’t happen for me so often, it’s really a compliment to this group.
As far as new event-scores … I don’t really know what the next piece is going to be. It will depend on whom I meet, where I am. I have no idea per se to pose to contemporary art. I have no thesis. I guess I just enjoy carrying certain ideas to other people.

Interview by Theron Schmidt

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