Dissolved is an installation by day and performance by night that investigates the relation between two physical spaces by way of a third “window” – a projection screen and live feed that marries the two.
Developed as part of Julian Maynard Smith’s AHRC Creative Fellowship at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and a collaboration with Florian Feigl and Christopher Hewitt, Dissolved takes place simultaneously in London (Beaconsfield) and Berlin (Sophiensaele).
Building on the telematic work that Station House Opera has been developing since the early nineties, Dissolved argues that the question of presence in performance is one that finds its home within the theatrical situation via a re-consideration of space as a physical reality; it is essentially, a theatrical problem and thus holds a theatrical politics. Theatrical because it pertains to the construction of a situation through space, time and character; variables that become deliberately confused through the creation of the third space of the projection: the neither-here-nor-there element.
As a way to concretise these variables, Dissolved deploys a particularly theatrical effect – the dissolve that occurs when two faces or bodies, both pertaining to the different spaces, are mapped onto each other on the projection – as a narrative and abstract element of the performance.
In essence, Dissolved involves two sets with almost identical features- white tables and chairs, large moveable light-weight white structures and a series of props; it involves three performers in each location and a projection that brings both spaces together. The action takes place in the physical space that we as viewers have access to, and in the projection that maps both spaces onto each other. There is a deliberate continuity to action: a door opened in London is closed in Berlin; sometimes, the setting is mirrored in each location, but the action is fragmented and different, overlapped through the action presented by each set of performers. At times, the performers interact with each other, conducting similar actions, and at others, meaning only emerges in the overlap of the two.
The performance itself navigates a range of different registers, treated here as meditations on this situation of in-betweeness proposed by the set-up itself; there are elements of farce, absurdism, narrative and plot driven character scenes, some of which rely on the set-up for meaning and others that simply play with its theatrical possibilities. Texts emerge occasionally too, as both texture and meaning-markers; this is when Dissolved is at its most expressive, poetic and productively problematic.
I recall watching Feigl and Maynard Smith, their bodies and faces dissolved into each other, sat at a white table, accusing each other of arrogance or alcoholism; it isn’t the content of the accusations that provides the theatrical intrigue, but the impossibility of delineating not only where the conversation is taking place, but whether it’s internal or external, monologic or dialogic. At other times, text is used as a kind of poetic texturing of a situation or action. There are also moments of absurdist comedy that operate in less theatrical, and more pure aesthetic terms- Feigl ironing over a woman’s body, or Yoko Ishiguro in London posing an artwork whilst another performer recites the different shifts of perspective and potential gazes on her as sculpture – a kind of joint, collaborative, displaced piece of live art.
The performers themselves come from interesting backgrounds; Ishiguro studied psycholinguistics in Japan before coming to performance making, interested in situation-specific performance in relation to questions of presence, and Tomlinson is a lead singer for Selfish Cunt; their own backgrounds and idiosyncrasies are invited in the performance itself.
Dissolved plays on a particular satisfaction in which the concrete becomes something to be desired; in and amongst the dissolves that don’t allow characters to form, the actions that cannot exist in any one space, the occasional glimmer of actually completed moments form and disappear. Within the deliberate dissonance between the two spaces and the constant scenographic shifts that play with perspective and space, the audience is constantly re-situated. Something about the set-up might imply that, given the distance, Berlin is historical in the performance unfolding; it is just seconds away due to the occasional tardiness of the feed, or technical glitches that interrupt our otherwise constant re-calling of that space.
At the same time, history is more strongly present within the set-up itself. Sophiensaele is a former centre of Berlin-based revolutionary left, and Beaconsfield a converted Victorian Ragged School; the histories that the locations carry are both invoked and ignored by the performative content of the piece. They are undoubtedly implicated in the ways in which this third space proposes a co-existence of these histories in parallel and together; yet their specificity is missing from the performance as well. That being said, Dissolved presents itself as a parable for a globalised world. Both terms strike me as productively problematic within the confines of the situations created by the piece; the globalisation here can be understood both as a process of homogenisation (the action is concrete at the expense of difference in each location) and as a context that allows for this communication to exist (the premise that a cross-cultural meaning-making process can translate and emerge). The parable implicates a religious, moral practice; and if anything, Dissolved both manages to grapple with some of the moral implications of the situations it constructs by presenting them as propositions (or what ifs) and gets rid of them by constantly returning to abstract language. At one point, we might be watching an odd re-run of Office and at another, a spatial mediation of bodies and piles and materiality.
It really struck me that despite the fact that theatrically there are shared cultural practices (much less so exports) between London and Berlin, audiences will engage with the language of the experiment in very different ways. Whilst this per se might not be implicated in the performance, it is symptomatic of some of the ways in which Dissolved constantly changes registers as if searching for a middle ground, whilst at the same time, maintaining a kind of autonomy or independence of each space. I noted particularly evocative and meaningful moments that somehow disrupted the passage of time from the duration per se, or played with the implication of identity politics between the performers (in a dissolve, where is the character and who is the character?) There’s a particularly precise and intended blurring of borders in Dissolved that to me spoke of an evocative, if temporary politics; of frontiers and psychologies of those frontiers, or overlapped maps of meaning and fragments of meaninglessness.
Although one might argue that the technology at the heart of Dissolved belongs to a particular history, there is something highly narrative about the ways in which this is used. The technical glitches, the occasionally slow feeds, the interruptions become Brechtian devices- they remind us of the physical reality whilst tempting us to also be in this third space. This shift of audience engagement means that attention gains a slightly different meaning; we’re more physically involved in the third space that we try to inhabit, and when our gaze shifts into the physical space before us, something is lost, despite the comfort of that material presence. Even the narrative “we” here seems even more questionable, given that on the other end of a feed, there’s an audience watching us indirectly, implicitly.
Dissolved is ultimately a significant experiment, with all the nuances and implications that such a performance event might bring up. It investigates the ways in which the telematic might offer a productive space of in-between that challenges our notions of authentic presence against questions of materiality and physicality; embedded within this, there’s also a really exciting, thrilling performance language (what happens when you mix German postmodern theatre with British live art?) that implicates a lot of questions about community, communication and what we take to be authentic.