It must have been more than a year ago since I last spoke to him. We met in February 2015 during Artefact Festival in Leuven, where he was participating with Room C (extended) and I was doing a production internship. We had had some nice chats, but had not really kept in touch afterwards, apart from the occasional social media update. However, his work sprung to mind from time to time, since its evocative and intimate power had overwhelmed me so.
The series of Rooms and Duets he makes are participatory in nature, and border on performance and installation art. Always developed in response to the specific site where the work will take place, a set number of people are allocated a spot (a white cross on the floor) and are given headphones through which a voice tells them to close their eyes and imagine both abstract and personal situations. Whilst doing so, they are sometimes also asked to walk towards other white crosses on the floor, for example hence directly facing a total stranger. The work then simultaneously creates a choreography in real time and space, and a theatre spanning years and miles in the mind. Moreover, the instructions are unique for every participant, making it at the same time a collective and individual experience.
Her first question concerned the role of language in my work. I think it is as simple as this: without it, there would be no work. It is the necessary aid or trigger to recall memories and to make associations. Hereby I have to be careful not to overcomplicate things; in order for people to introspect, reflect, project I will not write highly complicated literary prose.
He tells me he uses language on an elementary level. For example, when the voice reads the line “Imagine a room”, the voice recording is solely the sonic form the ‘room’ takes, whereas the concept to which the ‘room’ refers is created by every individual perceiver, or better participant, in the work. After this, it is hardly a surprise to find French structuralist de Saussure on his list of authors whose writings have influenced him. Another theorist on there is Guy Debord, but it also includes a lot of fiction writers and poets such as Haruki Murakami, Jeroen Brouwers, Jan Wolkers, Michel Houellebecq and Bertold Brecht, artists and filmmakers (who also wrote) such as Robert Barry, Andrej Tarkovsky and Pier Paolo Pasolini, composer R. Murray Schafer, and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. A wide array of names, some of them familiar to me, others not so much – which means more to add to the already endless to-read shelf. I think it’s fitting a lot of these writings tie in with multiple elements of his practice: text, sound, fiction, imagination, the way our mind works in this.
She is right in asserting I read a lot, but I also write a lot. There are artists who complain they cannot or should not explain their work in writing. But for me, writing about it, reconceptualising it, is of primordial importance. Everything I write differs greatly from the final script that eventually is recorded for the work, but I need to do it to take further steps in the process. Recently, I have also been working closely with a curator, testing out some ideas. This collaborative writing is a new, challenging, but hopefully fruitful project.
When I ask him if he has ever written a manifesto or statement about his practice, I was afraid he would find it a rather unusual question. But to my surprise, he did not – or did not explicitly show it – and said he had actually written one once. It had been a manifesto about his ideal radio, in which he emphasized the power of radio to enable listeners to be creative in their mental constructions. I thought it was quite the herald to the work he would later develop.
She also asks me another question I have not been asked many times before: if I keep a diary. And as a matter of fact, I do. However, I point out that it is not a typical chronological diary, which I find a limiting notion. What I write down in my notebook is the result of an almost daily routine to get my head clear, to write down my sometimes unrelated, unorganized ideas.
I sense he is adamant about writing himself, so I am curious to know how he feels when other people write about his work. He does not really have an extreme opinion about factual pieces of writing such as press releases, but of course admits that it is rather nice when people write about the work. With texts that are to be published, he usually does make sure he reads it before. Especially with interviews, he likes to know which quotes would be used.
I promise him to send this one over straight away.
Essay “Imaginary Spaces”
I am the voice in people’s headphones.
I am the voice in people’s heads.
I am in people’s heads.
I ask them to imagine things.
And then I see everything.
This time there are eight people gathered.
They are standing in cold but clean room, in a square part that is formed by cracked white-ish walls, on a white cross, which has differently coloured top ends and has been taped onto the dusty concrete floor. They physically might be in the same place now, but in their mind they are already worlds apart.
There is a young woman who doesn’t look her age.
When I ask her to imagine a room, she immediately thinks of her room at home – it is funny how fast people go to their safe havens. She is standing in the doorway. On the right side of the opposite wall there is a window that looks onto the tree-lined street. On the left side, she sees a rocking chair, which is weird because in reality there is a desk standing there. Confused by this change, she loses the mental image of the room for a second. Then she is back in there. Next to her on the left, is a white wooden credenza, on top a stereo installation of Sony. She finds it bizarre how the brand pops up. Under the slanted roof there is a single bed, without identifiable linen. Finally, there are book shelves and a closet on the wall to her right. She also pictures this early even setting-sun light reflecting onto the laminate flooring, even though I didn’t ask her for it.
I feel it’s time to go a step further. She now has to make the room blue. She focusses on the wall colours and the rocking chair, trying to imagine them in an Yves Klein-blue (her favourite colour). I ask her for green, and she comes up with a sharp hue neither of us were expecting after that deep IKB. Suddenly, the light falling in is also much brighter. We play the same trick a couple of times, each mental makeover following closer after the other – orange, purple, red, black. It becomes harder for her to imagine the entire room in these shades, and slowly there are only few pieces of furniture left. Especially black is difficult, because she really tries to envision the objects, and not just a void.
Emptiness is however inevitable when I ask her to now imagine the room without walls. She is just visualizing the roof, floating above the floor. The longer she has to concentrate on the room without walls, the more elements change. She is deconstructing the space into a more abstract form; there is now just a flat roof set in the surroundings of a Windows XP green hill background, funnily enough. The bar keeps wavering there.
She can open her eyes for a minute. I tell her to walk to the white cross in front of her, turning ninety degrees in the direction of the yellow end. She is now facing another participant who still has his eyes closed. I say to her: “The person in front of you is imagining the environment of his first memory.” On the projection screen on the inside of her forehead, visuals flash in mere seconds. She is looking at the person, analysing him, making up his histories. I can see her imagining his imagination. I love this part.
She has to close her eyes again. I ask her to think of a moment in her life where she had to decide which way to go – before I can finish that sentence, she already sees a very traditional crossroads, two long paths of pebbles stretching out in different directions in front of her. A tat too cliché for my personal taste, but she holds on to it. I want her to imagine all the places she would have visited if she had chosen the one other than the one she had really chosen. She struggles. The most recognizable setting is a gloomy grey rendition of an old, small town archive, with fluorescent lighting and rows of white metal shelves. As I was expecting, conceiving of the places she did go to because of her choice was much easier. However, the longer she was thinking about a specific place, the more she drew people in the picture as well. I can feel her getting emotional.
She puts the headphones away, puts my voice away, puts me away.
She was very responsive to my stimuli, so she will think of me for a long time still, I know.
I have become accustomed to the most varying reactions.
Some people will use me, some people will refuse me.
Some willingly follow my lead and wander around in their mental memory boxes, some cannot or will not do the same.
Either way, I will have invaded their most intimate space.
And that is a precious thought.