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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.
We checked in with Gracie Whyte and Laura Berg of WHYTEBERG about their brand new work as occurred, as recalled. The duo speaks about the flexible nature of memory and the audience’s role in live and media work.
What was the process like for developing this new work? Did your film Crumbs: Chinatown act as a springboard for material?
The process for as occurred, as recalled started separate from Crumbs: Chinatown, but it was a happy coincidence that the new work would take place in the same location. We had been sitting on a few songs that bought up distinct images with corresponding personal memories. From there, we talked about the idea of a false memory, wherein the act of revisiting a memory multiple times alters its reality. The concept was then to think about interesting ways to showcase these memories and distort them in varying degrees. In rehearsal, we worked with our dancers on creating movement that incorporates their own personal experiences and spirit to develop each section.
Can you talk a little bit about creating live performance work versus making dances for the camera?
We generally approach creating for both live and media work similarly. In the same way viral videos are short and succinct, we take into account an audience’s attention span and tend to create work that has quickly changing focal points. For our Crumbs series, we have one small idea per video, and for as occurred, as recalled, there are six short ideas under one umbrella of a concept. It’s like a six-course meal!
Your series of one-take dances, Crumbs, highlights different parts of LA. Environment seems like a crucial aspect of your work. How might the environment of Automata, particularly the live audience, shape as occurred, as recalled?
Utilizing Automata and it’s surrounding outdoor area in Chinatown allows for a constant shifting of the audiences’ perspective as well as a fresh landscape to create the scenes. The opportunity to provide a fully changed space links back to the palatability of the six-course meal we mentioned before.
It is interesting that this piece deals with memory–something that video and performance hold so differently. How do you feel memory operates in these two mediums and has this impacted your approach to the work, or even the choreography itself?
We want to give people a purpose to make the effort of seeing a live show, which, for us, means providing a space to have an experience that can only be felt in full if you are actually present. This then creates a personal, ever-evolving memory for the audience – a memory they cannot access through a more permanent platform and instead must rely on the recollection of its occurrence to experience it again and again.
If you had to describe as occurred, as recalled in three adjectives, what would they be?
youthful, nostalgic, cheeky
profile by Alana Reibstein
photo by Gema Galiana / La Mujer Tranvía
more LAX Festival: liveartsexchange.org
“Los Angeles artists are revolutionizing the game, and you need to start paying attention.” —Los Angeles Magazine
The FOURTH annual Live Arts Exchange / LAX Festival returns September 22–October 2, 2016!
We have an incredible festival lined up for you this year, with 8 featured projects and 44 performances made by dozens of artists based here in LA. Our program is a dynamic blend of contemporary dance, theater in new forms, experiential walks, video installations, new music/opera, puppets making sounds, and parties. Plus a brunch-time chat series to dive into concerns in contemporary performance in our city and our field, and a new late-night hub on the rooftop of the Ace Hotel.
Produced by Los Angeles Performance Practice, this year’s festival is made in collaboration with the Bootleg Theater, Automata, Metro Arts Presents, Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles, 1333 Willow and the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands.
There’s so much to love—but we need your help to get it off the ground. By supporting the festival on Kickstarter, you’ll provide us with the critical support we need to in turn support local artists. In return, you’ll receive VIP access to events, discounted festival passes, and hot-off-the-press information about the projects and artists in this year’s lineup.
Help KICKSTART this year’s festival for some great rewards here: http://kck.st/2aUefAy
“A series featuring local artists who blur boundaries like nobody’s business.” —LA Weekly
The California Arts Council, a state agency, announced that it plans to award $56,000 to Automata Arts, in partnership with Los Angeles Performance Practice, as part of its Creative California Communities program. We are one of only forty-one grantees statewide for this program.
The Creative California Communities program supports collaborative projects that harness arts and culture as vehicles for creative placemaking. Supported projects represent the distinct character and quality of a community and present a vision for enhancing the social or economic livability of that community through the arts. Projects benefit residents and visitors to California’s communities by leveraging the assets of the creative sector (artists, cultural organizations and arts-related businesses) to address community needs or priorities. All projects are designed and developed by a nonprofit arts organization in collaboration with at least one partnering organization, and centralize California artists and their work in the project design and implementation.
Automata and Los Angeles Performance Practice will partner with the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, in addition to a handful of local businesses, to continue our launch of NEW/NET, a new creative development platform and resource for Los Angeles-based artists working in contemporary performance with robust programs in professional development, innovative shared audience engagement strategies, a web-based publishing platform, and economic infusion through direct opportunities for artists.
NEW/NET, as a platform, will provide creative residency support for the generation of new projects at Automata and CAP UCLA, in addition to other partnering sites. The platform will continue to hold Free Advice, a one-on-one consultation service for artists in the Los Angeles area hosted monthly at the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles, and will soon create a performance viewing club and a workshop series for creative and professional development, with sessions led by the Los Angeles Performance Practice producing team and established artists in the field.
Projects programmed as part of the upcoming Live Arts Exchange / LAX Festival, produced by Los Angeles Performance Project, will pilot new initiatives designed to provide context and online engagement for audiences interested in contemporary dance and performance. Online resources will become available in September.
“I am beyond thrilled to have the support of the California Arts Council in launching NEW/NET as a strategy to benefit dozens of artists working in performance in Los Angeles,” said Miranda Wright, Executive Director of Los Angeles Performance Practice.
“This is a unique opportunity for me to fuse artist-centered programs at Automata and Los Angeles Performance Practice, and to further our existing relationship with CAP UCLA, where I have been the Curatorial Artist in Residence for the past year. It is without question that artists in Los Angeles need and deserve an enhanced infrastructure for the generation of work that is reflective of our contemporary society, which is often marred by tragedy, as they create opportunities for all of us to gather together for a shared creative experience.”
The news of Automata’s grant was featured as part of a larger announcement from the California Arts Council, which can be viewed online at http://arts.ca.gov/news/pressreleases.php.
“California Arts Council grants provide vital support for projects in diverse communities across our state,” said Craig Watson, Director of the California Arts Council. “This was an historic year of state arts support. We are proud to invest more than $8.5 million in funding 712 grant projects that will stimulate local growth and prosperity, and meet the needs of our communities through deep engagement with culture and creative expression.”
The California Arts Council will continue to grow the reach of its programs in the coming year, as the result of a significant one-time state arts funding increase for 2016-17 announced last week.
Automata is a non-profit organization in the Chinatown District of Los Angeles, dedicated to the creation, incubation, and presentation of experimental puppet theater, experimental film, and other contemporary art practices centered on ideas of artifice and performing objects. Automata stands at the fulcrum points between objects and performance, artifacts and ephemera, magic and mechanics, artifice and interface. Automata creates and nurtures new work that is engaged in cutting edge art practices, and in deep conversation with our contemporary culture of simulation and mimicry while embracing the aura of the handmade and hand-operated. www.automata-la.org
Los Angeles Performance Practice is a producing organization and artists’ network dedicated to supporting Los Angeles’ unique contemporary performance community. It is comprised of independent artists and companies who create groundbreaking theatrical experiences through innovative approaches to collaboration, technology, and social engagement. LAPP serves artists through three key programs: selective project producing & management, the annual Live Arts Exchange (LAX) Festival, and NEW/NET, an artist and audience development platform. www.losangelesperformancepracice.org www.liveartsexchange.org
The mission of the California Arts Council, a state agency, is to advance California through the arts and creativity. The Council is committed to building public will and resources for the arts; fostering accessible arts initiatives that reflect contributions from all of California’s diverse populations; serving as a thought leader and champion for the arts; and providing effective and relevant programs and services. Learn more at www.arts.ca.gov.