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Annette Arlander | rehearsalmatters.org

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Annette Arlander

performancekunstner, instruktør, forsker, professor

Interview: Isabelle Reynaud
Stockholm , 14. februar 2009

Why did you choose to do theatre/performance?

I chose theatre directing, because it was a 'hot topic' in the seventies, in Helsinki. I chose it because it was a combination of arts. I had been doing visual art, I had ballet training and also some music lessons. But I’m bad at music. There was a drama club at the school I went to, and my parents expected me to be an artist. I went to auditions when I was still in high school and I thought, “This is exciting”. I wasn’t accepted the first time I auditioned. I was 18 at that time. But I thought, “Oh, this is something I want”, and so I waited a few years and then I went back, without really knowing why. But I already wanted to be a director back then. Mainly I didn’t want anyone else to boss me around. I wanted to decide for myself and I felt that I wasn't good enough at anything. It's classical.

You can say that theatre was a combination of the arts. But later, in the eighties, I worked with performance art and theatre parallelly. Back then I saw performance art as the anarchic underground work, while theatre was my ambition, but then it changed. The reasons I turned to working with performance art had to do with an invitation to start a program in performance art theory. The word performance art in Finnish can be interpreted and expressed in a much wider sense. So they probably expected something like alternative theatre and theory. During the program many things coincided, but somehow I thought that I didn't want to turn people into artists.  They need to take responsibility for themselves, so in the beginning my methods were criticised because I made people work alone instead of encouraging collaboration. It just didn't want any division; I wanted to avoid the situation where someone is the boss and the others just perform their tasks. Instead everyone needed to create his or her own world. Though not in the devising way, in the sense that all performers create material just for the director. My starting point was that you can’t teach directors by turning them into performers. But that’s the way I came back to performance art. Because if I was supposed to teach other people to do it, I would have to challenge myself to also do something.

Could you give a short introduction to your rehearsal processes and your creation process now? Basically from idea to product.

My work today doesn't really involve rehearsing – but rather repetition. This doesn't include my background in radio plays and theatre. There I had a different way of working, I experimented. At the moment I'm working with two longterm projects and by that I mean that they go on for more than ten years. They have a special system that I will describe in a moment.

But then some things that I make are just impulsive, like extra. They start with a particular place. When I come to a magic place that I need to do something with. This could be a landscape or something. It can be a small area as long as it’s beautiful, extraordinary, something that needs to be recorded. Sometimes it could also be an object. I have one project called Performing Landscape. So for instance 'witches’ broom' [1] - it's a formation on birch trees - what can I do with that? Or an old piece of wood that is white, and so on. It can start with that. I have to find out what I can do with these things. I might put it on or something...

Another kind of work is with texts or paintings. I have made one work based on a painting by Helene Schjerfbeck[2]which is just a bench. For two years I made a lot of benches. The bench would be in the same position as it is in the painting but you couldn’t recognize it, even though it was inspired by that painting. These are the impulse works.

Then there are the two basic projects, as I mentioned. One is The Years. I have a studio on an island outside Helsinki. In 2002 I chose one spot on the island, but other years I choose two or more. Basically a place where I go once a week for one year, and repeat the same image. Not only the same spot, I also have an action, a position or a pose that I repeat in the same place wearing a scarf of a specific colour. I choose a new colour every year.  Following the Chinese calendar we are now in the year of the Ox. So at the time of the Chinese New Year I choose an image and repeat it throughout the following year.

How do you get the idea for an image and why do you want to make these particular images?

I search. I look. Now it’s very limited so I have to think. I want to make something different than I did the previous year. And then an idea comes to my mind, and at the moment it is the buffalo. So this year I chose to focus on an old and huge, rusty ship in the middle of the island. I climb up to sit on it, because even though it doesn’t look like riding on a buffalo, it’s an association to that. Last year was the year of the Rat. And because a friend of mine said, “Oh, you are always looking at the water”, I thought I would go in the water. So I went very close to the shore, sitting on a rock, and I also went into the water. But when I was sitting on the rock, I realised that it reminded me of The Little Mermaid. I knew I was going to Copenhagen to a conference, so I looked at the image and posed like The Little Mermaid, and because of this association I kept repeating the same pose. On shores, in different places of the world... Basically I stick to one idea and add some things in the proces. You make a choice, and after that choice you repeat, but of course new things happen during the repetition. There are surprises, small things, but I try to stick to the idea. This is one of the long projects.

The other is something I call Trees Talk which I started around 2003. My last radio play was called Where rocks speak and included talking rocks and pebbles. I made an exhibition about talking trees, which we showed through a monologue coming out of headphones that were hanging from the tree. Again I started on the island with five trees before I continued to do the same in other places.

My project called The Years also developed over a long period. I didn’t start with the Chinese horoscope. I started on Mount Rhonda in Mallorca, making a diary because there was this beautiful view, this beautiful 'picture', from my window. I was actually working on another project, but just had to come back to this 'picture', and I saw the weather changing every couple of hours. It was never the same, it was miraculous! So when I came to the island after that, I wanted to see if I could use the same idea there, so I put the camera in the same place every day for two weeks. It was interesting, and I decided to run the project for a whole year. I just wanted to see how not only the weather changes, but also the vegetation changes. After one year, I decided to keep going for another year, but with a different image. That's when I came up with the general concept of the 12 images or scenes. So it was a process leading up to the concept.

When I was making theatre I used to start with the general concept and gather material. I make a decision and I take it from there. I would like to be more systematic, but that's just not how it works. Most of my time I am a teacher, I am a bureaucrat. I worked as a freelance artist until I was 40, and then I made productions, but this is my era of freedom.

What is essential for a successful rehearsal? What is necessary for you to feel that you succeed in your creation?

That is easy to feel in projects where I have a ritual. It's like a spiritual practice when I return to the places. Whether it's successful or not depends on the weather and if I am peaceful and if it is not dangerous. But it is different with my impulsive work. I don't want to sound old-fashioned, but inspiration is crucial. I need to get excited about the project. Sometimes I work at one place for two weeks before I find out that it doesn't work the way I want, so I move on to find a different spot. That is why I like to make videos. I don’t look at the footage immediately, just parts of it and decide afterwards.

I just need to see a possibility, a connection, or find a reason to continue the project. The last was in Sal in Kap Verde where I went on holiday. I originally went there, because I read about some salt mines that I thought could be interesting to use, and because there would be a brown scarf  for this year, so maybe I could do some experiments. But when I walked around there, I did some other work, basically just because I wanted to do something. And then two days before I was supposed to go home I found salt basins hidden next to the city and realised that the sky mirrored in the water had the same colour as my scarf – that was amazing. I made some experiments with symmetrical lines.

And maybe I should also explain that it’s successful when I am not ashamed to work in public. Because this is something that you are used to when you do theatre – that you can close the doors, and it is private. And in some way it is private with the camera, because there is nobody else. There is no man behind the camera. I put the camera on a tripod like you do now, and just take it from there. But it's still open. People come and go and it feels a little bit weird. Sometimes people are laughing, “Why is this crazy woman taking pictures of herself?" and so on – and it is successful when I don’t mind. When I am concentrated it doesn’t bother me.

Which problem seems impossible to solve? Something that you experience again and again, and you haven’t solved?

I have four. One is a skill problem. Skill vs. devotion. Because I appreciate technical quality and I appreciate performance skill, but I am not a skilled performer, and I am not technologically skilled, so I use low tech technology, and I don’t – a cinematographer once told me, “You have to learn how to focus” – I use automatic everything. So where is the balance? Do I really have to learn how to make a film, should I do that? Or should I learn how to perform, and do I then lose the whole idea? If it becomes like a production? So the skill problem is something.

I am very vain, so I don’t like it when I look old, or clumsy… That is also a skill problem. Because in some way, after a while it is definitely more interesting when it is more brutal, when it is not so polished. I have not solved this problem.

The other problem is a collaboration problem, because most of my life, I have worked as a director in collaboration with writers, actors, musicians, and so on. So I invented this form of working, where I don’t need anybody. I am like a factory. There are no problems with copyright. It is the antidote of a big production. But then, how can I include collaboration? At times I have thought that if I gave my video to a composer, he would be inspired to compose some music. I tried it with one guy, but he just didn’t react to anything. The closest to collaboration that I've come, is that when it’s really windy I ask a friend to hold the camera. So this is not a bad problem, but I know it's there.

And then I have the marketing problem. Which is on one hand someone who would say, “Let me market your work”, and on the other hand the question: Why should anybody want to see it? Because the focus of the work is the practice itself.

The fourth problem is not only a problem, I think it is also a possibility. I think that with this practise I have partly solved the time problem, because I think that is the biggest problem for everybody today. Imagine, if you want to work in cycles, the cycle is one day and night or it is one year, the natural cycles. Then you can have a week or a month. If I want to work for one year I have to do it where I am at home, so I am tied to this place. Time and place are tied together. I don’t have the time or the possibility to go somewhere for three months. But that is the same for everyone, it is the same for every artist, there is never enough time.

Do you think that there is a relation between a good creation process and the result?

Yes. Not always, but usually you can see how a work is done. It is not simple.

What would you choose to do, if everything would be possible? What would your Utopia be?

I would want to spend one or two months in one landscape, not just one week, but one or two months to get below the surface, because when you arrive you see only the surface. Then I would involve others as co-performers in some way, with tasks or variations. And I would do like choreographers do - which I despise - but instead of telling them what to do, I would give them places/spots. Make them repeat what I do but in their own way. Give them a task. And I would like to use better technology. The best high technology editing facilities ever.

And then I would like to have a composer working on the 'sound world' with me. I used to make radio plays, but I don’t have any words left, my words have run out, so I look at the image and search for the sound. Sound is very dominating; with the sound you can change the images to anything you want. I mean a beautiful composer who would understand what I want and not make it his own…

And then I would like to be ambitious about the installations, because now I have made most of them on the island, which is very low tech and in small spaces. Only two of my installations have been shown in museum contexts. And I would wish to have technological experts to help me think how to make the projections look good. In my latest projects I have been fanatically doing everything on my own. Just because as a director I was never able to.

So my Utopia would be to have people help me make it look better.

I guess if we really think of Utopia, of course Utopia would have to be in a beautiful environment. The place would be absolute, not only beautiful, but extraordinary. Stimulating and a place that produces action. So I would like a stimulating environment, to have the best technology in the world, all the time in the world, and all the help I would need.

I would love that time stopped running… Not forever, but for a few hundred years…

When I speak of time, it is only because I want to do so many things at once. I am free – I could live… And even as a professor I could design my schedule differently, but I enjoy that work, and I enjoy doing different things. Overcoming time... All Utopias are about overcoming death. And maybe that is one reason to suddenly start making documentations that stay instead of the ephemeral moments. I need the camera as a witness, it is not just to make the images, but I need the witness there for my ritual. It's not because I enjoy performing. A good actor or a good performance artist 'flies' because of the audience and their response. I am unsure of that. I'm almost hiding a little bit. Somehow I would want people not to look at me. Of course I want to be seen, but mainly I want people to see what I see.

Looking with me. And this is because when I look at the sea and when the cameras see my back – what I see is totally different. So even in that moment, the image, the view that I have and the view that the camera has actually have nothing to do with each other. And mostly what I see when I sit there is more beautiful. I think that when I was younger my Utopia would have been to be able to function through telepathy, to be able to go into other peoples' heads. Today that is not for me though. Today I would like to somehow merge with the landscape and then return. To be at one with a rock or the sand, only momentarily, and then continue life. Eat the cake and keep it, so to speak... But you never get any depth in anything, if you want to have both.

Now I don't say anything more. That is it for me.

[1]                            http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/646092/witches-broom

[2]                            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helene_Schjerfbeck


Edited by: Frederike Fahse, Isabelle Reynaud