Marike Splint is an observationalist. She spends time in places that are not necessarily supposed to be occupied for long periods of time, like Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Having inherited questions about belonging and community from her own family history of migration – and being influenced by writers such as Peter Handke and Georges Perec – Splint notates the rhythm of an environment; studying flow patterns that inhabit it to then incorporate a theater-based experience that breaks logic and asks questions.
In her latest work, Among Us, Splint aims to re-wire codes of perception, creating a new room for the audience to look at things more closely and show one’s true colors more vulnerably. What follows is an email exchange between Marike Splint* and J. Alex Mathews,** a Los Angeles based arts administrator and artist.
Alex Mathews: What is the moment that tells you, “let’s begin,” as in what’s the catalyst to pursue an idea? A physical place, a feeling, book, memory? What inspired Among Us?
Marike Splint: It is different for every project. I have made some works inspired by my family’s migration history, but I have also started from one single sentence in Tennessee’s Williams’ memoires. But since I work outside regular theater venues, these catalysts are always related to a physical place that speaks to me, that I am interested in unraveling; a place that asks who we are when we are inhabiting it.
For Among Us, what got me started was the book Community by philosopher Zygmunt Bauman. In this work he outlines the tension between our desire for belonging and freedom. He argues that you cannot have both. I find this notion fascinating because I believe the biggest question of our time has to do with communality. I wanted to explore this in public space, so that participating performers and pedestrians passing by illuminate a response together, shedding light on a shared everyday reality.
AM: You like treating reality as a potential set for theater making, to work with the limitations of a site-specific environment. A word commonly used to describe or refer to that experience is immersive. Hailing from the Netherlands, now based in Los Angeles, what do you see as “reality” here? How do the real and unreal influence your curiosity?
MS: It’s funny because the term “immersive” is one I use in English when I talk about my work, but not in my native Dutch language. The Dutch definition for this type of work translates more as “experiential theatre.”
What I like about Los Angeles is that it is complex and incomplete. It works the opposite way from most European cities, that are charming, pretty and easy to swallow at first glance, but after a while you start to wonder what lies beneath that façade. Los Angeles doesn’t have a façade like that. It is confusing and to some even off-putting in the beginning. But when you peel the surface away, you discover the texture of a rich, diverse and fascinating city. It’s not an easy city, but that’s what I love about it.
AM: What else have you noticed about LA that interests you?
MS: Its lack of public spaces. There are very few open squares where people can encounter each other, even though it has a climate where that could happen all year. I think it’s a city that can make people feel lonely easily. But when people do encounter each other, it is beautiful. I have a bike, and when I get out of my car and bike through town, I can smell flowers and food, and people on sidewalks or other bikes greet me and each other. It feels like a parallel city that exists next to the Los Angeles of cars, highways and malls. Once you start walking or biking, the city reveals itself in a completely different way.
AM: In a city inundated by the film industry, what value does live theater have in Los Angeles? In what ways are/aren’t the film and theater linked?
MS: What the art of theatre offers is the ritual of the live and communal event. Coming back to the theme of communality, I think the medium of theatre is designed more around having a shared experience with a group of people than film is. Theatre is a space where things are real and not real at the same time. Where you can look at something and be part of something at the same time. This makes it an enticing space for negotiation and radical imagination of what it means to belong.
AM: In what ways do you see film and theatre linked and/or disconnected?
MS: My husband is a documentary filmmaker, so we have this conversation all the time. They are different media, and each asks for a different medium-specific language. I think the best theatre works with elements and vocabularies that can only work in the medium of theatre, and the best films work with elements and vocabularies that can only work in the medium of film. However, I do think they very much feed into each other, and I always like to ask myself what I can ‘steal’ from the other medium. How can I translate a hard cut or a split screen into its theatrical equivalent? And how can I apply the conceptual approach of contemporary theatre to contemporary filmmaking? Looking at art forms different from my own always helps me push my own boundaries artistically.
AM: What I appreciate about many LA artists – you included – is that they do not wait to get permission to bring ideas to life. What that often means is self-producing and/or finding unconventional places to perform. In what ways does working outside of regular venues challenge your creative process and/or set it free?
MS: I like working outside of regular venues because you can reinvent the conventions of theatre, and place your work in the middle of society. It gives a lot of freedom, but it triggers new problems. With Among Us, I spent hours at the train station to determine when it is populated enough for the show to happen. Once I had to relocate a performance because a hawk was breeding on the meadow we were supposed to perform, and it would have been hazardous for the audience. Three years ago, I did a show in which the audience was driving in cars like a real road movie, and I had to convince people to sell me their old cars for 150 euros because that is what we would get when we would bring them to the automobile graveyard after the show. In other words, you become very flexible and inventive when you create work that has a large element of chance in it. And I think this way of operating has made me a better artist – having to be flexible in producing means you also become more flexible creatively.
AM: What is it like for you when you work in a theater?
MS: Last fall, I directed a performance in a theatre for the first time in 8 years with MFA student actors and designers at UCLA. I was baffled by the amount of control I had of the space after being outdoors for so long. There were no sheep crossing the stage, no shows were cancelled because of the rain, I could control lights, I knew what the ending was – it felt great. Although I did treat the space as if I were doing an immersive show. We changed the audience configuration and worked with the theatre’s architecture, showing scenes in all corners of room. We made it feel like a huge warehouse space. For me it’s important to bring the curiosity and excitement that comes with working site-responsively into the theatre venue as well.
AM: You’ve noted the significance space has in shaping our identity, and yet, with globalization and mobilization, space becomes fluid and we’re less dependent on it. What impact does that have on your artistic choices?
MS: Yes, there are reoccurring questions that drive the content of my work, as well as the choice to use public space as an arena. How do people, place and identity correlate in a time of unprecedented migration flows? What does it mean to be rooted or uprooted? How do we relate to place when we are spending an increasing amount of time in ‘non-places’ such as hotels, airports, highways, and the Internet? How do we conceive of community when who we are is less and less dependent on where we are? These are all big questions, but ones that I believe resonate in a time in which social forms are constantly changing and radically transforming the experience of being human.
And I don’t know what the answers are; I am more of a question-asker than I am an answer-giver. I use my work to trigger these thoughts, to ask the audience members how they relate to the spaces they inhabit. Moreover, I try not to judge. I am as excited about exploring generic spaces like hotel rooms, train stations and airports as I am about working in specific places, such as historic industrial complexes and old neighborhoods. I think it’s interesting that most people are attracted to both. They enjoy being free and having the ability to feel home wherever their laptop is. But at the same time there is a desire to have roots, and that asks for commitment to a place. That’s exactly the tension Zygmunt Bauman talks about.
*Marike Splint is a Dutch director specializing in site-responsive and immersive theater. She has created shows in sites ranging from a bus driving through a transitional neighborhood to wide open meadows, taxicabs, train stations and hotel rooms. Her work has been presented in The Netherlands, Casablanca (Morocco), Tbilisi (Georgia), and at the Ruhrtriennial in Germany. AMONG US will be her Los Angeles premiere. Splint received her BA in philosophy from the University of Amsterdam and her MFA in directing from Columbia University. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and a Columbia University Merit Fellowship, and currently is a faculty member in the Theater Department of UCLA.
**J. Alex Mathews is a Los Angeles based blend of poet, dancer, yogi and arts advocate. She grew up internationally and bi-coastally in the U.S. and has lived in LA since 2007. She graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in World Arts and Cultures/Dance and she is a certified instructor in Vinyasa Yoga and Kundalina Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. Since 2012 she has worked as the Program Manager for the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, which gives unrestricted prizes to five mid career, risk-taking artists annually. Since 2014 she has served as the Associate Director and Director of Programming for Dance Resource Center, a local service organization that is the hub and voice for Greater Los Angeles dance. In the past, she worked as an administrator and dancer in residence at Bates Dance Festival and as a Managing Director with Pentacle (DanceWorks, Inc.) She believes in challenging and revitalizing public engagement with the performing arts as well as enhancing sustainable opportunities for artists. She is grateful for contributing as a nominator and evaluator for renowned grants and attending conferences for Arts 4 LA, Dance/USA, Grant-Makers in the Arts and Western Arts Alliance. She continues to investigate her role in the arts through creating, teaching, advocacy and curation/production. She was recently invited to join an art collective called “Remnants,” the SoCal Leadership Network through the LA Chamber of Commerce and soon, will begin Arts for LA’s ACTIVATE fellowship for Cultural Policy.