Brent Harris/ “Project Saturday” and others

Brent Harris (Christchurch, New Zealand) is an artist and doctoral candidate at AUT University in Auckland, working primarily in performance, through a background in dance. Often working in public spaces, Brent has presented widely in New Zealand, and more recently in Zagreb and Germany. He recently completed a practice-led research project exploring voice and performance at the Institute for Theatre Studies, Free University Berlin with a scholarship from the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). New Dramaturgies is happy to present a via e-mail completed questions-answers session provoked by the Project Saturday that Brent Harris performed in February 2011 Berlin at Alt-Mariendorf underground station and area. Questions by Angelina Georgieva and Vivi Kartsioti


Q: The Project Saturday that we witnessed at Alt-Mariendorf underground station represents a form of mainly solo-performances that you have been developing for years. Generally, it can be seen as a reflection on the performance as a group situation that you push to a liminal phase letting it vibrate on its limits by constantly subverting its basic components such as time and space frame, speech, movement and spectatorship. How have you come to this form? What was the initial impetus that made you work in this direction?

 A: One impetus is an experience I had in 2004 of working as a dance teacher in a secondary school. In my first year of teaching, managing the behaviour of the students who were around 14 or 15 years old, was a problem. There’s a classroom management technique called the broken record, which involves repeating an instruction to a student who is not complying, for example, Sit down please, sit down please… I remember in one class repeating a call for Quiet please! many times, and at the same time realizing that I had little idea what my next instruction was to be. I think in some ways these performances enact situations where people’s attention to me and their attendance of the project, is at issue in relation to duration and repetition. I’m interested in situations whereby some kind of minimal rapport, or the conditions for an address or a narrating are in question. Maybe the performances keep trying to cross back and forth, doing and undoing such conditions. Another impetus is that in 2006 I was doing performances in studios and spending a lot of time reading theory at my desk. The feeling was that if I did my work in public, on the street, then the practice would somehow be exposed in public, or reaching the public.

Q: In “Project Saturday” and also in other actions, that you showed, you use simple but powerful procedures to keep the performance situation in constant dynamics. In the project that we saw it was interesting how very simple physical and vocal actions repeatedly construct and deconstruct a performative space at the U-Bahn platform or in the street by means of their initiation and then interruption, hesitation, delay… On one hand through speech actions, vocalization and movements a relationship between you as a performer and the audience around you is being established but it’s kept in a subversive and irritating dynamics in that only new beginnings are being set without reaching continuation. They create in the spectators series of expectations that are never fulfilled. By using the language emptied out of “message” and “meaning” – the speech actions vary from pure vocalization to starting story-telling that gets dispersed, the speech functions primarily as a vocal-aural experience. These repetitive patterns and motives induce irritation without being boring because something is always being expected and the audience is always alert but this is like “circulation of no effect”. So what happens is that the performance situation emerges through a process of creating losses: You start some actions, like most simply telling a story, or giving tasks but they never reach a closure, being interrupted anew and replaced by other ones etc. In that way through the losses what the audience gets is becoming aware of the actual mechanisms of the performance situation, of creating a community in it, and the space it frames is experienced as a bubbling field of potentialities. This long description was needed to ask you what is the potential that is important for you as a performer in this situation?

A: I think a sense of potentials opens an engagement with temporality to do with durations of promising, deferral, delay, and im/patience. These happen in a serial way, situated among other processes in the place that go on mostly regardless. Perhaps attaching to a task or process brings desire for progress towards a projected end. Doris Kolesch suggested to me that the performances disturb the attitude that, if art is well made, one can get a good feeling from it. Would a sense of achievement of a task provide a good feeling, as perhaps a kind of reward for the time taken and effort made? Might the serial deferrals open an engagement that differs from an instrumental one? But perhaps the task and the projected end are just not that interesting without their being interrupted. If I let the tasks and stories continue, I think expectation would dissipate very quickly and people would leave sooner. When it seems that a potentiality will pass into actuality, sometimes that feels terrible and I feel an urgency to interrupt that process and hold it as a potentiality. That’s one driver of interruption. In another way I often feel that the situation needs to make progress, that people are getting impatient and I need to moderate this. However I don’t know to what extent people are impatient or whether I’m misinterpreting something else as impatience, or projecting my impatience on them. I try to modulate things according to the sense I have of how people are experiencing it, and partly work against some feelings I get. I think the losses you suggest are partly losses of potential achievements, and a loss of sharing or reciprocity, and perhaps good feelings, involved in those. But was there then a shared sense of loss?

Q: The role of the movement is quite interesting here. You use very simple and at the same time unusual movement patterns and at the end through them you bring yourself to exhaustion in the end. What leads you towards these patterns, how do you see their function in relation to vocalization, space and audience?

A: The relay tasks in the last few projects, in which I travel repeatedly back and forth between different people, or between my water bottle and a person, or circle people, perhaps these link the people or objects as points in a provisional territory. Travelling low to the ground, for example in the rabbit-hop type locomotion is different to walking. These movements differentiate my relation to people and objects in terms of level, proximity, and sequence. At a point in a relay if I vocalize or speak in a low volume this might be heard only by the one or two people who are closest. If I’m in relative proximity to someone, then the vocalization and movement might become an offer in some way specifically to that person.

I might make a request or say something in a sharper voice but work against that tone with a movement to softly and slowly kneel or crouch. Extended fingers and wrists make for a different kind of address than low muscle tone in the arms and fingers and a kind of crouch or stoop as the head, wrists and fingers hang. With the beckoning gestures and setting off in a new direction, I don’t know if people will follow. Those attending become the other end of the provisional territory. In recent projects I’ve paired a movement or body position with a word or vocalization. I come back to this association, after intervals, a number of times. Having made an association that people might remember, I’ve explored ways to perform an ambiguous offer for some people to participate using their memory. I try then to keep the situation in question. In the jumping task that I did to a level of fatigue I tried to hold the soft arm and head position of the pair above with the vigorous effort of the lower body. The exertion might give a sense that I’m working hard for those attending, perhaps a sense of reciprocity in relation to their efforts to stay. The vigorous exercise also changes the physical state, and decreases my feelings of nervousness.

Q: Actually how do you prepare your performances? Do you have some kind of a score and do you make a kind of rehearsals? How would you describe the preparatory phase?

A: The practice happens as a series of exposures. Some kind of retreat or re-covering is necessary and I try to move somehow between the two. There’s a sense of exposure and intensification for me when people have arrived at the meeting place. In relation to the jumping above, when I was younger I did a lot of vigorous sports and training, then later dance training, and I think exercise activities are useful at different stages of the practice. In Project Saturday I looked at Google maps and walked around possible meeting places and pathways. I try to sensitize in some way to a locale, work out possible pathways and consider the time it might take to move between places. In the first few weeks living in Lankwitz, before I realized that the S-Bahn from Marienfelde was a faster way to go between home and town, I had used Alt-Mariendorf station many times, so I used those memories. I try to work out the best day of the week and time of the day. In the last few projects, I’ve tried to make the email invitation a threshold; a call in text and audio to people who might or might not be attracted in. These gave the information of the meeting time and place in repetitions created by the splicing of English and German text and audio. I’m accumulating and editing a network of actions over a series of projects, reinterpreting actions and referring to previous episodes. I mediate between remembering the plans and hopes I have for the project, and the way that things happen.

Q: After a performance how do you reflect on it? What do you consider as a successful performance of this type?

A: The other two left around five minutes after you both. I walked to Lankwitz, replaying things in my mind. In Lankwitz I walked near to where I had earlier planned to make the meeting place. I took the bus to Steglitz and walked down Schloss Str. trying to gradually calm down. I was staying in Lichterfelde for the last few days in Berlin and didn’t feel like going back immediately. By then I was really hungry and I had a meal at Forum Steglitz, then did some food shopping at Basic-Bio and Kaiser’s supermarket. I should have got more food, as I didn’t have enough on Sunday, the day you emailed me to ask about this interview, I had to go to McDonalds. You and the others attended on Saturday for a longer time than I’m used to, and I tend to feel that if people stay, it’s a kind of success, but that’s not necessarily so. Receiving your invitation to do this interview gives me a good feeling, as an opportunity to expose the practice while sitting at a desk, trying out ways to write. Thank you both for the opportunity to re-draft it. Do you think it’s getting any better? Perhaps it’s worse? In a few days these responses will probably seem poorly thought through again, or that I didn’t take things far enough. Viewing and listening to the video footage helps me to remember and evaluate the project. My aspiration is to find something that I didn’t plan or expect, which opens a new avenue to explore.

Q: You have performed internationally in various locations. How important is the context in which you perform? And to expand the question about context a little bit further – how do you generally contextualize your type of performance as artistic practice?

A: How projects engage with places is something I’d like to explore in more detail, and foreignness would be part of that. In public spaces I enjoy how the project happens amongst lots of other processes; pedestrians, traffic, the weather. We are sometimes more, sometimes less marked out with respect to those. Sometimes it’s not clear whether an unusual event is planned or not. Different insides and outsides are produced; there’s me, people who came in response to the invitation, people passing by who notice a performance, people who notice an unusual situation, and those who don’t notice anything unusual. Working in Germany as an English speaker learning German provided possibilities to engage with these languages, and with my language learning. My broken German tended even more to encourage people to complete or correct interrupted speech.

For most of the recent projects I’ve invited people who I know in some way. Contexts that the practice negotiates include dance, performance art, Schnee, collegiality, and trains. Because discussions concerning participation and temporality are happening across these territories, the idea is that I can test ideas through the practice or combine a theoretical practice with a project to make a contribution to a broader discussion.

A big “Thank you” to Brent Harris and to Vivi Kartsioti – MA student in Theatre Studies at Freie Universität in Berlin for the generous cooperation!  AG