For a start, it feels right to let you know that this is a very delightful interview. It may be even one of the best interviews you will read in 2020. Because deufert&plischke, a German family and dance couple, talk about living, working and just being together.
Ok, also, they bitch about mass market clothes, Romeo Castelucci, American postmodern dance, oral discussions and the ambition among directors to ‘create images’. Yet, their criticism is the nicest you can think of. Kattrin Deufert and Thomas Plischke met 20 years ago, and they have been doing not director’s, but collaborative theatre ever since. They are not as famous as Rimini Protokoll or She She Pop, but they are so precise in describing their artistic methodology, that their so-called protocols can in fact be used by anyone in their respective artistic or other work, or actually anywhere.
The interview was conducted and translated by Olga Tarakanova, edited in Russian by Nastya Nikolaeva. First published at Teatralium.com. The English version was edited by Barbara Wittmann.
‘Writing a letter is political action’
OT: I read your interview and it was obvious that sometimes Thomas was speaking, and sometimes Kattrin was speaking. Yet, all the answers were labeled as d&p. Would you like to be present in this interview as Kattrin and Thomas, or as an artistwin, as you call yourself?
d&p: As d&p!
OT: Let’s start with the subject 'collaboration' then. You work in a collaborative way, yet I’ve read your consistent criticism of the common understanding of collaboration as a communal, or consensual process, in which everyone blends in with others. In Russia, we are experiencing a surge of interest in collaborative production right now, as well as a noticeable wave of criticism of the director’s theatre. What do you think are the limits of collaborative practice? Is there anything that cannot be achieved if working collaboratively?
d&p: I think you cannot push the limits if the collective has the director’s theatre still in mind, and therefore acts like a director. But if we think that theatre is practicing society then it’s different. I think there are no limits, but there are a lot of observations we can make, and of course mistakes and things that can go wrong, or are difficult or complex. But there is just no need for consensus, since the society itself has to deal with its complexity. There should be more than two voices. Everybody’s like, ‘You have two options, you’re part of either this team or that’. But art is not necessarily a mirror of society. It can also create society. Art produces the social imaginary, it enables what we can think tomorrow.
As a matter of fact, you should not be disappointed if your original idea is not being realized in a collaborative work. It’s more about learning how you can be responsible as a group for something that is happening. The artistic action that creates a social space may be more important than, let's say, the ideas, or the motivations, or the singular will of any of the participating artists. We need artists who are much more interested in the life of society than in themselves. If this is a given, then I think, collaborative ways of working have much more possibilities than the director's theatre.
In 2002 deufert&plischke teamed up with Jeroen Peeters and Barbara Raes to organize a 96h non-stop queer symposium. The main stage was the place for sleeping, and watching people sleep. All the spaces of the Kunstencentrum Vooruit in Gent (Belgium) were used to test the term queer in order to question artistic and scientific practices. Photo: Florian Malzacher
OT: Let’s talk about the protocols you have for creating work. Could you walk me step by step through all the important methods you use, and connect them with your big idea of the new epic theatre?
d&p: We have known each other, and been working together for almost 20 years. We met in 2001 and were almost instantly separated, since Thomas had had to work on an artistic project in Brazil for three months. There was no Skype yet, no Zoom, and the mobile phones were very expensive. So we wrote each other an email letter every day. The letters were long, and, thanks to this old fashioned form of communication, we got to know each other very well. We talked about issues like gender, collective authorship, and, most importantly, whether there was a future for the two of us, even though we came from very different fields of work and we didn't have many things in common. Writing a letter is always political action, since letters can be written from exile, or from prison. Letters connect people from different areas. Besides, you often write letters even if you are not a skilled writer, since you start with letters at a very early age (if you are allowed to write at all). After these three months we got to know each other very well without actually talking to each other. The relation between choreography and writing provided a good basis for our future work, and we developed reformulations.
Reformulations evolved out of our work on a project dealing with the so-called ‘Eastern-Western relationships’. Bulgaria and Romania had just joined the EU at the time, so there was a lot of money for these kind of projects. Everybody was doing one. We decided to work with our friends whom we had never considered as friends from the East. They were just friends, performers, and like minds. We got the money, and then we said, ‘Let’s not make this about differences, but about the things we share’. We were writing a lot. We asked a lot of questions, like, ‘Describe which spaces were your favorite during childhood’. People would write about their grandmothers’ gardens, or about some empty buildings. Everybody can relate to these writings because those spaces are everywhere. Even if my grandmother's garden is not the same as yours, I think the whole attitude we have towards these spaces is pretty similar. We developed a choreography out of all the different states and the memories of movement that we were coming across while reading those texts.
During oral discussions, some talk more, others talk less. When writing, everyone has the same amount of time. We just distribute the notebooks, then we pass them around. Everyone adds to or reformulates the idea that has been stated by the participant on the left. Once, we did more than 200 rounds. The greatest thing in reformulations is that you can always go back to the beginning, and check what the first idea has been, and how it has developed. After discussions, a lot of things vanish. You’ve been verbally fighting for two hours, and then you have no idea of what has been said. With reformulations, it’s like a huge document is created that archives all the emotions and all the different states of the participants.
Reformulations brought us to develop one more method which we call anarchiving. It’s like anarchy and archive combined in one word. Some of our works derive from the idea that an artist is a living archive. Everything they remember is like a document, organized in a very chaotic and emotional way. We started the Anarchiv series years ago. In times of the Covid-19 crisis, it’s gotten even more important. If things cannot happen live, we need other methods of producing art.
In 2018, we’ve started the Just in Time project. For this project we collected letters to dance all over the world. We taught workshops in more than 10 cities. We collected more than 2000 letters. We invite everyone to write these letters, not only dancers. Now, we are thinking on how to make this archive accessible in a very haptical and sensual way.
Anarchiv also came as a response to the hype around reconstructions in art. We always try to… I’ll let you in on a little secret. We always try to misbehave gently, just a little bit, not very loud, but always a little bit. All these procedures are about writing, because one of our biggest criticisms of theatre and choreography today is that most people work with images and they try to create images on stage. These images say: ‘This is postdramatic theatre, because there you see all these elements’. We always wanted to work with a text. Even if in the end an image is produced, it comes from a text and it always surprises us, sometimes in a negative way. For us, handwriting and gestures are important, as well as any misunderstandings that come from not being able to read what is written.
New epic theatre came up when we thought, ‘If only we and our co-performers do all these procedures, it’s not enough’. We had to invite the audience. We wanted the audience to think with us, to feel with us, to breathe the same air, and to be active so we could co-create these artistic environments. It was happening very slowly, bit by bit. We made many mistakes, and lots of funny things happened. Then, there was some balance. We call these procedures somatic gardening. We invite everyone to choose an object, a picture, or a text they are interested in. Then they have 10 minutes to spend with this item, looking at it, observing it, breathing it in, but never taking any notes. Then they have 5 minutes to lay down with their eyes closed. From there, they write down what pops into their heads in one go, and stick this note to the item. There’s this slow process of growing, in which many very different perspectives on the same things are collected.
OT: I was just going to mention that most of your performances now are like workshops. Often, the space looks quite messy, even childish. Have you been met with skepticism or refusal? How do you deal with such reactions if they happen?
d&p: Yeah, we receive lots of criticism. I can quote my parents who saw a video of our work and said like, ‘Oh, we can do that, why are you doing this if you call yourselves artists?’
So how do we deal with it? I think we create environments which are safe spaces, and we really try to approach everyone on a very personal level. People can enter and bring some of their belongings, or tell something which they maybe would not tell in other circumstances. It might be something very small, yet embarrassing. Once they have gone through this process, and their story has left an artistic trace in the space, it transforms, and grows, and people get very happy. It's a childish happiness. It's like, ‘Wow, I draw a circle and then a car appears, or a tree, or the sun, or the sunrise’. I think this is what art does, transforming simple things into other simple things. But this process of transformation makes people very happy. It’s a safe space, there is no political interest, no ideology… Well, a little bit of ideology, I would say. (Laughs.) But I’m sure it’s not an imposing one. So people tell these personal stories that they would not have told their friends, or their lovers. There seems to be something in these environments, or these situations, that makes people feel different from how they feel in the environment they know. We create unknown spaces that are safe, which I think is very important in our society.
I think all this criticism comes up because we live in a very male world. Here, even art needs to be super technical and super cool. But we're trying to establish something with this playful stuff. It can happen, for example, that somebody comes in and says something like, ‘Oh yeah, I did this when I was a child’. That's usually the moment when we're like, ‘Oh yeah, let's sit down’, and we glue the person a bit to the chair. At a certain point, a story is told of what he or she did as a child, say, they made something, and parents lost it, and it was a tragic moment. All these sudden memories evoked by these little things are quite important. People recall something that’s been forgotten for 20 years or even longer, and all of a sudden this memory brings others to the table and they say like, ‘Oh yeah, we feel the same’, and then the social situation evolves around something that’s been buried for 20 years because it doesn't fit our times. From there, normally, conversations about the present start.
People enter these spaces with certain prejudices. They think that we live in a very free world where everything is possible. Thanks to these memories, it transpires that there’s a lot of restrictions and self-restrictions and self-censorship today, in art and in dance as well. Like, my god, we are still doing works for the 60s in the US. I mean, we still haven't come up with any new ideas. That's a question mark. What will the new ideas be? Where do we want to go? Back to the skepticism, usually we try to fight it with charm, and with being friendly. Being seductive, maybe!
We don’t want to illustrate theory, but to make a contribution to theory by means of performance.
OT: You often point out your philosophical and theoretical inspirations in interviews. Which theories are you inspired by right now?
d&p: We have many friends who are philosophers. We sit together and drink together, and we are influenced by each other and they recommend books to us. Yet, we are not theorists or academics. Nowadays we try more and more not to exclude non-academic people from our work, or people who didn't have access to proper education. I think you can only reach these people if you don't mention keywords like decoloni... sorry, here comes the exclusion... emm, rather, words like polarization and protocols. Ok, we read books, but we’re interested in making our works accessible, therefore, we have to change the language a little bit.
What we read is, of course, in the frame of the 4th wave of feminism. It may seem like women have equal rights now, but things are really so much more complicated. One of our main interests is clothes. What do we wear on our skin? How do we share what we wear with other people? We read texts on the history of fashion written by feminist scholars. But our approach is, once again, to misbehave a little bit. It was a symptom of the 2000s that many artworks illustrated theory. We got self-critical at a certain moment, and we thought like, ‘Oh actually that's not what we want. We want to make a contribution to theory by means of performance’.
We see that men are somewhere up there, and women are somewhere beneath them. But we do not want to help women come up to the men’s level. Instead, we want to bring men back down to the community of women and kids. It happens at some point during puberty that men put themselves 'above'. They isolate themselves, while women and kids remain together. If we welcome men back into this community with a wink, then we can think of a future that is really different. I don't think that women have to behave like men. That would bring total destruction to the world. We would have Mr Trump and Ms Trump. (Laugh.)
OT: Can you explain how you do this in a performative way?
d&p: Yeah, we should be talking practically, otherwise people think we are crazy. Once again, it’s a question of how to equip spaces and what kind of situations to create. In Spinnen, which is a German word for spinning a thread and going nuts at the same time, we invite people to sit around a table with a lot of wool, threads, pictures, and needles, and other stuff. People sit there talking while doing something with their hands, like women were sitting a hundred years ago, sharing both a conversation and a craft.