Moving Objects. A Conversation between Saar Rombout, Darragh McLoughlin, Benjamin Richter and Jenny Patschovsky

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Moving Objects

A Conversation between Saar Rombout, Darragh McLoughlin, Benjamin Richter and Jenny Patschovsky

Jenny To start off our conversation, I would like to ask you to introduce your artistic path and your work of today.

Saar I work a lot with ropes, which started quite early on. I started with both with sailing and Circus since I was five. In my bachelor at ACAPA (Fontys Academy for Circus and Performance Arts in Tilburg, NL) I started with swinging trapeze but at one point switched to triple cloud swing and really enjoyed discovering how I could work together with the ropes and how they were manipulating me. After my Bachelor, I kept researching with different kind of rope disciplines and started to do some multicords. I explored how changes in the rope would change my movement and how I would react to that. Four years ago, I started my master’s degree in Contemporary Circus Practices at SKH in Stockholm. I took this as the base of my research to look into how the ropes had agency and how they affect me just as much as I affect them. At one point, it also started to involve the rigging, as I did this for a long time as well. With the rigging, I was creating a different kind of rope structures that I could interact with. Rigging and the rigging design became a part of my artistic practice and is not a separate thing to my research or my performance. Afterwards I did another education called Narrative Design, organized by the film & media department together with scenography & costume design department of SKH in Stockholm. This was a lot about production design and about how the different objects, the scenography and everything you design in the space are part of the narrative.

Jenny When you say that the ropes affect you, what exactly do you mean?

Saar For me, it's more a dialogue, we react to each other. Which is also why I work a lot with improvisation, because I feel like if you fix everything, then you don't really listen anymore to what the ropes are giving you and then you cannot really react to it. For example, I built a Rope Wall that was eight by eight meters where there was a bar on the top and a bar on the bottom. The ropes were going round and round, and there were weights on the bottom, so there was tension on the ropes. I felt like being like such a little person in that big thing. I am not deciding what is happening. I'm letting the ropes move me. And of course, a part of the input comes from me. But I'm trying to really listen to what the ropes give me. And if something changes in the ropes, that also changes my movement.

Jenny So, the rigging is part of the performance too?

Saar Sometimes. In some cases, the rigging and build up is really part of the performance, but in other cases that happens before the audience arrives. Often, I also let the audience interact with it. One thing that I created was a Rope Cube, this is a truss cube with a rope installation in it with like lots of different loops of ropes that created a sort of stairs. And that was not something that I performed in. It was for the audience to explore the ropes and to find their own relationship with them.

Darragh When you talk Saar, I notice your use of pronouns. You are speaking about “them” and the objects as something of agency, even in your language, which I found pretty interesting and peculiar, like our relationship with our little friends.

Saar I feel like I’m not doing that so much, but I also forget that I do it. I was in the class with a hair hanging artist who was working with a water tank called “Tank”. He was her counterweight, and he was a “he”. She named him and gendered him. He was really like another classmate, in a way.

Jenny Darragh, what’s about you?

Darragh I feel like the first very relevant point would be the first big work I made, which I started when I was in my final year of ACAPA. It was called “Fragments of a mind”. The piece was about a person in a small room, an empty room in nowhere. He was there with five balls. By moving and organizing the balls, he searched for some sense of meaning in this abstract world. I guess I was really searching for questions about agency and how the balls could become companions. It wasn't just one. It wasn't the person and balls, but it was him and five other objects. If it was all of them in one pile and him standing alone, it was him and them. But maybe it could be one of them with him and four of the other ones over there. And so there really started to become all these kinds of social games appearing, but in a very abstract form of course, because they're just balls lying around in a room. I guess on the narrative level, the character searched for ways to make them more alive by moving them, and somehow the tragedy was that actually, he had to move them in order for them to seem alive and to keep him company. When he stopped moving them, they just sat there.
There was something about this work that started to make me feel a little bit insane. Maybe it was the fact of doing it alone and attempting to really enter the concept, rather than just seeing it as a performance and that I was creating images for people to perceive. As soon as I finished the work, I stopped performing it because there was something about it that changed my relationship with objects. I was living in a juxtaposition as I tried too much to make it real, even though I knew it was all make-believe. There is something about this way of working, this looking for narrative, I felt wasn't the right way for me.
I don't personally believe objects have agency. But I like to play with the idea that they do. I'm very curious about how I anthropomorphize them anyway, and I smile at them, or I notice that they might be funny in some moments. And I think this is just the human lens we look at. So, the work I'm doing now with balancing objects is much closer to the feeling of more alive relationship with the objects because of how they actually move me. In the action of balancing something, I am in a state of movement which felt very different than throwing and catching and organizing objects. I think when I was more a juggler, as in3 a thrower and a catcher, I was much more exuding mastery. And now I'm much more an object that is working with another object. And we're both influencing each other, which somehow feels more true.

Jenny Is the difference in the quality of the objects?

Darragh I don't think it's so much about the quality of the objects, but more the quality of movement that comes from balance over throwing and catching. If I throw, I really decide where the object goes and then I will respond and catch it or not catch it. And I feel with balance it's a more chaotic movement that is going through my body, and I can't stop it unless I stop balancing. While I'm in the action it's unstoppable. And this makes me feel much more connected with the idea of life, agency and movement.
In this next work that I'm talking about, “Stickman”, there's me, there's a stick and there's a television. One moment in the work that I find relevant to share is where I do a balance in my elbow pit while lying on the floor and I'm just relaxing; on the TV is the title ‘The man is moving the stick’ and ‘The stick is moving the man’ and I switch between these titles, and I keep the same image where I try to balance the stick and be as relaxed as possible. I'm trying to not control the movements and see if people can switch between who has agency, who's moving who, who's in control. On the inside it really feels like there's a little bit of a dance with the object. I think it's the fact of both being out of balance that somehow forces us to keep engaging with each other. And amazingly, it's me that cannot stop moving. Not the object. So, the combination brings the object to life but also brings me to life. I think there is a lot to be found in there.

Benjamin I’m really triggered by both of you in a nice way. I’m trying to think when I first encountered a notion of something similar to this idea of object agency. This is post rationalizing and back then I had no idea that it was called this. I remember in 1993 making the first Gandini show when we first started speaking about who is moving who. And it’s still a fundamental question that seems to be expanding through all circus disciplines. As a juggler and dancer, I realized that the different shapes that were commonly used in juggling were moving me in different ways as I was moving them in different ways. So, there soon was a sense of different kinds of agency in the objects. And for quite a few years I was very obsessed with this idea that the objects have agency over me. Not in an anthropomorphized way but in the way that only objects can, and humans cannot. Even though humans have shape and form there is a will in the background going on and wanting to affect something. With the objects I notice a sense of presence, but not a wanting. And I find that very freeing. They don't actually want to have any agency over me. But me being the human who wants to perceive agency allows that to happen. So, on the one hand I'm shifting very much towards this feeling of objects absolutely not having agency in the same way as living and breathing things do. But they have a different kind of agency. I wonder if it's even possible for a human to perceive it because it's a non-human agency. I can imagine and I can project agency onto objects through isolating my senses in different ways and picking up and perceiving on different qualities of objects. But can I really? I don't know. It's a question that I'm really interested in still. As a juggler, it keeps me wanting to find out different ways of moving things and things moving me. When I say “things” I like to use the lens of “OOO” in regarding all phenomena as objects to be potentially interacted with.

Jenny Do you think that this way to let yourself be moved by the objects is specific for your work?

Benjamin That's part of it. But also, it's the rhythm, the pure amount of time of the performance. For example, “TAKTiL” is now 4 hours long and very slow. Sometimes I sit around and do nothing for 10 minutes. That's perhaps not the most circus way of doing things. But it's a minority discipline. So according to Johann Le Guillerms definition it is more circus than many other things now. I’m working with wooden blocks. Instead of just picking a block up and putting it on top of another block I'm throwing it in a certain way to create a certain dynamic, to provoke an alertness in the audience to a particular moment, which can then be followed by something very fragile and very fine. It's a playing with contrast of dynamics. I think circus plays a lot with contrasting dynamics. And space and tempo. I think that's quite a classical circus trait that you still see in contemporary works.
And in relation to what you said about balance Darragh, I feel that when I play with balance in my own body, I have a more honest relationship with an object that I am in dialogue with. Whether it's a ball, a stick, a stone or a big wooden block, if I'm off center I don't have total control. And I can be more influenced by the object. So, decentralizing myself, my weight opens up another level of communication. That's why I like moving a lot with my weight. As soon as I shift into a plan, it feels very anthropocentric. Then it’s me with my plan dominating everything.

Jenny This aspect of domination, of control is essential for the object turn in circus. I think the three of you have very different approaches. For you Darragh it seems to me that you are planning carefully the dramaturgy of a piece that is happening in my mind.

Darragh Yes, I'm really controlling. Like in a scientific sense, where you ask: what conditions do I need for the experiment to work? Even though everyone has their own history, which will be the unique lens they see the world through, I’m trying to get them to have very specific experiences.  I would even go as far as saying that I want them to resist the fact that someone is trying to make them feel a particular experience, which in turn is just another experience. The circus technique is there to help me get them into the right place. This is very important; it gives me a lot of credibility. That technique makes people already say yes to something, and then I can kind of lure them into my little traps. I want them to notice what's going on with them and that someone is playing with them a little bit.

Jenny Letting go of control brings us directly to the idea of improvisation. I’m wondering if it’s possible for you Saar to combine improvisation and not fixed processes with the idea of rigging.

Saar Yes and no. I have been working a lot with creative writing where I'm trying to find different ways to make apparatuses or installations that I work with. But of course, in rigging you always must work with the forces that are involved, and you have to do some calculations and you have to know that it's safe. So, I'm trying to create unpredictable installations and, in a way, use the rigging as a score. I'm creating an object, do calculations and drawings and computer models, but I'm trying to create things where I don't necessarily know how they will react.

Jenny This letting go of control during the performance is also a high risk that circus artists take now. I wonder why we are so willing to do this in nowadays of all times.

Benjamin I think it has to do with a desire to experience presence and community. Control often brings with it a sense of planning and separation. I think we have all had enough of that for now and are searching for moments of connection and space for communication with the rest of the world.

Darragh Maybe it's humans in conversation with the world, but the world is just quiet and doesn't say anything back. It feels like some sort of conversation is going on, but maybe we're just talking to ourselves. I think the objects in the world are indifferent to us, but we are still searching for meaning. And this search for meaning is something unique to us, it’s very human.

Jenny You would say that the idea of object agency is nothing more than a human idea?

Darragh Definitely. Objects have presence but it's not necessarily the object doing something, but just us. It’s the world being reflected back to us and us interacting with it.

Benjamin Do you know these spaces that have been empty for a very long time? Say there is a house in the woods that has been empty and not visited for 100 years. That has a very particular quality. When I’m in a place like that, I think there's something going on here that I, as a human, have nothing to do with. Something sort of nonhuman that feels like it's communicating with me. And I know it's still me as a human perceiving that.

Darragh What we were talking about made me think of it’s like shouting into a cave: Hello! and the echo is coming back again. And you go: Hello, hello? And you think the cave is speaking to you. It feels a little bit like we're doing that with our objects.

Jenny And yet it just makes sense to care about the objects and what surrounds us because we didn't do this for such a long time. Even if this making sense is something very human, too.

Benjamin I would add that this sense of taking care of things and sharing that with others is a big motivation for me for this attempt at revealing object agency. One of the nicest compliments I had after a performance with “TAKTiL” was when two women came afterwards that were very touched and they said: We are going home now to take care of all of our things.

Jenny So, let’s take care of our objects. Thank you for this inspiring conversation.

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