IRL Stories: Picturing Songs for Captured Voices
The world has overcome long isolation periods imposed by governments in light of the global pandemic that, to date, has caused more than two million deaths. Cultural venues have indefinitely or even permanently closed down their stages, dance floors and exhibition spaces leaving an entire creative community at risk of survival.
What impact have the distancing measures had on the artist’s connection with their audience, their community hence their Art?
IRL Stories portrays how artists and creatives across Europe are using their creativity and resources to adapt to these times of radical change. Given the growing digitalisation of everything around us and the current global crisis of IRL (in real life) experiences, the series reflects on the resilient power of community in its many forms of connection, through an intimate look into new perspectives.
IRL Stories is photographed on medium format film by visual artist Rita Couto, written with a participant observer approach to storytelling.
Just before the end of 2020, I met Thea Reifler for a walk in the park to bid farewell to the dramatic year behind us and share what we’d been up to. I was all ears, wanting to know how they and their partner Philipp Bergmann have been adapting their work during the pandemic. I first met Philipp and Thea in 2016 on a dancefloor, the best place I’ve found to click with people and co-imagine a world of possibilities. Since then, we’ve travelled together, collaborated on artistic projects, and discussed ideas for potential new utopias. The two of them form a director duo working on interdisciplinary projects with a queer-feminist approach in the fields of opera, visual arts, film, performance, and music theatre.
Thea told me about their current project: a music theatre piece called Songs for Captured Voices, created in collaboration with Berlin-based writer Göksu Kunak (a.k.a. Gucci Chunk), composer Laure M. Hiendl, set and lighting designer Sandra E. Blatterer, costume designer Nicholas Navarro Rueda, Berlin Ensemble KNM, and London-based experimental vocalist Elaine Mitchener. The piece is a memento of the unspoken: dedicated to recordings of human voices that have been instrumentalised again and again throughout history and have become the object of asymmetrical power negotiations.
The premiere was scheduled for early February 2021 at radialsystem, the iconic Berlin venue on the river Spree. However, it was clear already then, due to pandemic-related restrictions, that a live premiere may not even be possible. The new virus strain spreading in the UK has caused the country to close borders and it was uncertain whether Elaine Mitchener would be able to fly from London for the start of the rehearsals in two weeks’ time. I said goodbye, looking forward to Thea’s project in the making despite the challenges in sight, and we hoped to meet again on the flipside of the coin.
Soon after, Thea called me one morning with an invitation. Given the continued movement restrictions, the team decided to reconfigure the project and propose me to photograph a staging of the show as part of a considered digital premiere. The piece would be presented as an album – a booklet with passages of the libretto and photographs appearing alongside a sound recording of the music – to be released online on radialsystem from February 18th-28th, 2021.
I immediately jumped in, knowing I could share this story as part of my editorial series. I was keen to see the concept take form during rehearsals and witness the shapeshifting creative process on-site. For the stage photographs, I decided to focus on the elements that make visible the anonymous voices that the piece is dealing with. I intended to reflect on a state of absence while capturing the individual body language of the characters inhabiting this eye-striking landscape.
Shortly after the shoot, I invited the team to a collective interview to puzzle the project together in retrospective.
Rita Couto – Tell me about the vision behind this piece and how you intended to realize it.
Thea Reifler – The concept was drawn back in 2018 upon a research around the Sound Archive [Lautarchiv] of the Humboldt-University Berlin. A sensitive part of this collection are recordings of songs as well as a variety of languages and dialects of WWI and WWII prisoner of war camps. It struck us that nowadays the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) is using speech recognition software to check the ‘authenticity’ of dialects, using algorithms to determine whether asylum seekers actually come from a danger zone – with a not insignificant margin of error. Thus, the capturing of human voices was for us a starting point for listening closely to what remains unspoken and hidden, what exists in-between sounds and blurs.
Göksu Kunak – While writing the libretto, I had been thinking about the systems and technologies of the problematic othering in the history (considering the contemporary history as well) against non-White and non-Western (another eerie term, but there’s no other word) people. We can still see the imprints of this linear thinking of us vs. the primitive others in European politics, in institutions like the Foreigner Registration Office, the police and even in the micro-gestures of some of the White Europeans (intended or not).
As a person from South West Asia, being an Eastern, I have been personally dealing with such problems as well. However, although I have a racialized identity, I don’t have a racialized body. I had to be extremely respectful and aware of this privilege. I had to be aware that the text is not me speaking. I had to emphasize a long history of people who were deleted, who exist in the shadow archives, the ones who even couldn’t be as important as to have ID cards. Reading the articles about the prisoners of war or listening to the recordings, as well as reading and following the current news, were crucial in the research period of the work.
An important aspect was not to create the stereotypical powerless and othered identity, such as refugees with no power, but to indicate the active role of them and all the othered identities in our society. Because of that, I tried to be careful about not creating a despondent voice but gathering several voices pointing out the trying pasts and presents while also believing in the possibility of shifting the futures. Non linearity is an important aspect since the linear approach of systematic violence puts certain peoples behind, in order to keep circulating the tenets subsumed in time. The voice in the text doesn’t belong to anyone in particular but points out the complicated past – it’s polyphonic, in a way.
Laure M. Hiendl – Songs were a vehicle for us to conceive multiple narrative fragments without having to bring them together into a complete story. I see it as a kind of song book that shows us different perspectives on a complex of themes.
I wanted to separate the musical part into two planes: one layer are the musicians kind of as ‘lab technicians’ and ‘foley artists’ working in a recording studio listening to, investigating, and translating certain sounds from the archive onto their instruments (like breath, or rain). The voice on the other hand, would then find ways to embody different voices via the songs. Musically, the songs and the part of the instrumentalists are not synchronized; in fact, they weren’t even composed together, but rather assembled and fit into a certain sequence after the composition.
Göksu’s writing is extremely musical; a lot of their texts triggered a whole musical situation and landscape, bodies and voices in my head. In some of the texts, I felt like there was nothing to add to make them ‘music’ – so I just framed it with the tick of a metronome. Göksu has an immensely diverse art practice. When they write, it is often in short forms, like flash fiction or poetry. These forms naturally lent themselves really well to the musical structure of the songs…
Philipp Bergmann – We had intended to enter a research process with Elaine for several weeks, finding out ways to connect to the stories of the ‘captured voices’ with body and voice. We were thinking of a music theatre in a concert-like-form, focused on the performance of the songs, intimacy and closeness to the audience, an atmospheric space full of light and sound.
Rita Couto – How have the current restrictions impacted the creative, collaborative process?
Elaine Mitchener – It’s always a challenge going into a new situation and this was no exception. The added complications were not only that it was likely not safe to travel, but the UK ceased to be a member of the EU (as of January 1st, 2021) and therefore it was unclear what documents I needed to legally work in Germany. In the end, it was agreed by all to work together by recording my vocal part remotely, and performer and choreographer Djibril Sall was brought in to block my role. Laure discovered an ingenious way of rehearsing and recording remotely via Skype, whilst I shared my screen with them. It speeded up the process considerably and allowed the creative team to have my voice (minus me) to work with in the space.
Laure M. Hiendl – Personally, the recording sessions with Elaine were a true highlight of this production as we did find creative solutions and had the time to really focus on music. But the production as a whole was hugely impacted by Elaine not being able to perform on stage, since her practice involves singing just as much as movement – one of the reasons why we were all so excited to work with her. Especially for the staging, not being able to go into this intense movement-singing embodiment research basically turned the piece – which conceptually rested heavily on this element – upside down.
Philipp Bergmann – Frankly, for me it was and is a very demotivating situation. Covid forces us to put a lot of our time and work in structures and planning of scenarios that most likely will change again, and I do not really think the current situation is nourishing my creativity. Therefore I was very grateful to work with such a great team and that we agreed very early on that we try to do our best without creating even more stress, not forgetting how important it is right now to also take care of our own mental health.
Thea Reifler – All of the re-planning didn’t leave the space I wished for a collaborative reflective process with the whole group – it felt like everyone only came together on the very last day for a couple of hours. But overall, I’m very grateful that we were able to still work together and we’ve all stayed healthy. For me, all of it also sheds a light to all the creativity, artfulness and care that is actually in the organisation of artistic work itself. Together with our production manager Ilka Rümke, we were very busy with this.
Rita Couto – And what new languages have emerged from the challenges encountered?
Sandra E. Blatterer – As the set and lighting designer, my aim was to create something like a ‘non-space’ in which composites, sounds, and people could find their place. While the monochromatic sodium light simulated timelessness, the light sculptures in the space were connected with a ‘sound to light’ software. The idea to sync light and sound electronically resulted from the fact that Elaine would no longer be present on stage, so giving Elaine’s voice a visible ‘body’ with 188 coloured and programmed fluorescent light tubes became important to me.
Thea Reifler – Elaine’s voice was nowhere and everywhere: embodied by Djibril and the synced light tubes, through sound and the whole atmosphere. Starting from that voice, but also his own experience and practice, Djibril was developing a great part of the choreographic ideas, which adds his perspective to the piece and still can be handed over to Elaine whenever we can have a live show in the future. Nico, the costume designer, anticipating the challenges, developed a costume for Elaine that featured straps as a major element and was really easily adjustable. And you [Rita Couto] were conducting a photo-shooting moving freely through the stage design, culminating the experience in this article. So, the work is finding several different platforms than that of a live performance and this is for sure not the end of the story…