Diana Damian: In Assembly, you examine shifts between individual and collective bodies. The format of the piece is as follows: when a spectator enters, a performer joins in; when the spectator leaves, so does the performer. Can you talk a bit about this durational piece? What was it about this method of grouping, this choreography of bodies that interested you?
Nicola Conibere: The piece has been provoked by two main interests; firstly, our capacities to simultaneously see another person as multiple identities or forms such as an individual body and a part in a collective body, and secondly, how to acknowledge the unique contribution and experience of each spectator to an artwork.
In most of my work I’m interested in creating structures that acknowledge the contribution the presence of each spectator makes to an event, as well as that each person watching experiences it differently. In Assembly the mechanism you describe means the presence of each spectator affects the form of the work for the time they are there, yet they do nothing more than enter the gallery, watch and leave. Spectators can’t determine what happens in the piece, so it’s not about control, rather that the character of the event responds to their being there. It also ensures there are always as many performers as spectators and vice versa. This of course is different from what typically occurs in theatres or galleries when there are more people watching than there are people performing, or constituent parts in a work. The piece then becomes about qualities of exchange and potentials for appearing.
Another vital component to the piece is the nature of eye contact the performers share with spectators. There’s a practical aspect to this; the performers need to look at spectators frequently in order to know when their particular spectator will leave, but we are also working with the very basic level of exchange that occurs in any performance. An exchange that is fundamentally social. We explored in some detail how to look at people in such a way that offers an invitation for them to look back at us. The performers respond to what happens in the room during the performance – if a spectator smiles at them they smile back. In many ways this notes the simple interactions that define any performance situation – we created something to be looked at, and the spectators respond to that invitation by giving their attention to it, and this attention is the material we work with.
This sense of exchange is also emphasised through the model of allocating a performer per spectator. It underlines a sense of ‘I’m here because you are’; it also establishes a feeling of connection to a particular performer for the spectator. I’m then really interested in how, as spectators, we can experience an intimate connection to one person performing, yet still see them as part of a collective body, that we can simultaneously see the part and the whole.
A quick note on the term ‘durational’. Essentially this piece is a gallery work; ideally it would run for the hours the gallery is open. Due to limited resources we are able to run it in Nottingham once for three hours, meaning it becomes a one off performance and earns the term ‘durational’. If it were presented as a work like any other in the gallery, it might not receive this term as all the works on display are available for the same or a similar time period. Even though a spectator’s experience of the work evolves if they watch for extended periods, the piece itself has not been created in response to questions of duration specifically.
Diana: There are resonances here to collectives of various kinds (social, political), and the title of the piece refers to these as well. I was wondering what is it about collectivity that you were really interested in examining? As someone whose work explores audiences and their relationship the shape of a piece, how do you negotiate some of the currencies that might come about in an encounter of bodies?
Nicola: I’m really interested in how other people appear to us. This question is fundamental to dance in which bodies practise being in many different ways, and to choreography which creates systems or procedures by which bodies will appear to others. But it’s also essential to social organisation and governance. I think one reason we return repeatedly to situations in which we see live people in artworks is to practise how we see other people – and we practise it because it’s something we do everyday. The only difference in situations of performance is that we know we are going there to look at and translate how other people might appear to us, whereas in our lives outside of an art event we might not note the fact that such translation is always happening.
Above I say something about simultaneously seeing a person as a single entity as well as a part in a collective body. I’m interested in how we see bodies, that every time we see a person, a body, even though we are encouraged by the social and legal structures that permeate our lives to see that person as a single identity, that in fact we always see each body as many things at once. And that often the kinds of identities and associations we begin to see in people aren’t quite complete because they can’t be – we are constantly evolving so constantly becoming multiple possible things. This then meets with the multiple becomings that other people see in us; and what other people see in us depends on their particular frames of reference. So the appearance of individual people, of particular bodies, becomes a set of unstable repositories of multiple possible becomings. If each body hosts multiplicity in how it appears to others, then this disrupts the idea of a person, or a society, that can host a stable, fixed identity.
In Assembly the performers present a range of simple actions and they all do the same action at the same time – this doesn’t create uniformity because everyone’s body is different and each person presents the action in the way their body can, yet such differences don’t prevent a collective whole from appearing. The actions they do include things like sitting on the floor, standing and swaying, rolling on the floor, walking side to side… each of which come to appear as a coherent, organic form (yet the constant eye contact and responsiveness each performer exercises in relation to other people in the room means we never completely forget the individual personalities that make up the whole).
I am also interested in why people physically gather. Of course such gatherings take many forms from self-sustained communities to protest actions or mass celebrations. I’m particularly interested in the latter two. Why come together in protest, why not stay at home and know that many people share your opinions? In part it’s to do with creating a larger mass, about scale of appearance – of how groups of bodies appear to others – but also about sharing a collective energy, feeling invigorated by like-minded or just other people and experiencing that invigoration through one’s body by sharing a space and activity with other bodies, even if the action is not very mobile, like sitting in tents together.
Such embodied experiences are also felt through non-protest gatherings. Social dances have always gathered bodies. People meet to dance together, to exert energy in a completely useless way (useless according to dominant notions of use and productivity that is, and again this exertion might not be particularly athletic). This to me seems truly politically potent. Gathering bodies, doing actions together not for any clear reason, not for an audience, not to be healthy, not to protest, creating excess energy that is useless by our common frames of reference. What a fantastic way to spend your time. (This is one way in which I can continue to find interest in a form like ballet – I’m really not interested in athletic virtuosity or grace or defying gravity, but to the extent that ballet seems a really useless form it becomes an interesting proposition).
Diana: Your previous work Practice examined modes of perceptions of bodies- what makes them look strange, or familiar. Fabric was the key device you used to engage in these constructions with the bodies, and there seemed to me to be an element of discussion between the theatrical and the choreographic. Do you recognize any of that in Assembly? Is there something in the question of display and perception that might have carried through?
Nicola: Absolutely. The two pieces are stylistically very different but share a huge amount. In fact I conceived and researched the basic structure for Assembly back in 2008, several years before making Practice, it just took this long to find a way to realise it.
Theatricality is an essential part of what both works are discussing. In Practice, a stage piece, we used the same fabric as costume as we did to create a set. The performers begin wearing swathes of black fabric and at a certain point in the piece undress and hang the fabric to create a three sided black box, a kind of theatre within the theatre, leaving them naked to dance inside this new environment. In both cases the fabric framed their bodies in such a way as to affect how spectators would see them, and each – costume and set – are typical mechanics of modern theatre. Spectators experience the effect of costume and environment and also see the means of construction of each. For me this epitomises theatricality – undergoing a felt impact whilst seeing and knowing the construction of means to that effect. The discussion of theatricality is equally present in the qualities with which its two performers present the work; although faithful to the choreography they are also free to see and acknowledge each other or spectators, perhaps by smiling – they often have a chat whilst undressing. That elements of their personalities that exist outside the artwork are present alongside actions which are clearly being exercised according to the instruction of the choreography is to note the essential construction of the event.
Although Assembly is a gallery work and depends on the viewing conventions of a gallery, it creates a simple theatre by marking a line of tape on the floor creating a space for spectators and a space for performers. I’ve already written about the eye contact and visual exchange essential to Assembly, and this echoes what I write about Practice and theatricality above. Further, in Assembly spectators know why performers enter and exit at the times they do, the rules of the piece as construction are laid bare in another gesture of theatricality.
Diana: Shifting frameworks are also something present throughout your work. Can you talk a bit more about how you begin constructing those, and how they engage within your work?
Nicola: To an extent I already address this above – that I hope at least partly to discuss how the ways in which we regard other people is informed by the many frames of reference through which they appear to us. Artworks to a large degree create their own frames through which to present material, and theatre arts typically engage a series of mechanisms to frame how some people’s bodies appear to other people. I guess I begin with questions that are always quite similar, questions like; how can a body/bodies appear to me? how can a body/bodies appear as other than a body/bodies? what modes of perception do I engage when I encounter other bodies? how do I recognise a body/person? My repeated use of the word body/bodies here is not to deny that bodies host people, but rather marks my interest in how we live through our bodies when appearing to others as people within social orders. It is in answering such questions that I’ve then developed structural elements of the works that involve shifting frameworks.
Diana: How has your work changed over the years, as someone navigating both an academic and an industry context?
Nicola: My work has changed as my interests have developed and responded to the world around me. That world includes academic discussions and the practical parameters of industry, but it always has, so for me they are part of the milieu I engage with. I participate in discussions that include people who identify as academics, artists, producers and curators amongst others. These encounters feed into my practice as much as my encounters with other artworks, or books, or what’s on the news, or in the street.