Ivana Müller’s Irregular Embraces:
On touching the transparent, the banal, the common, the opaque
By Jess Barbagallo
“Of tedium, as if the irregular monotony of life weren’t enough, so that on top of that I needed the obligatory monotony of a definite feeling.”
-Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
First, a ticking can be heard. Not unlike a sound effect one could associate with a photo booth camera timed to shoot, or more ominously, a bomb. Eleven ticks. She begins, a disembodied voice clearing its throat, winsome:
I will take this opportunity to stage myself. I will do it as an answer to a commission that a festival gave me some months ago. Robert, the festival’s artistic director, asked if I could make a sixty minute solo in English in which I would have to be physically present onstage. I would like to take this opportunity to tell you that after thinking about it for some time, I decided to accept the commission.
She pauses. Her body enters.
And by this to put myself in a position that could have some serious consequences for my future life.
If there was ever a rhythm to transparency, Ivana Müller has discovered a way to keep it. And if it was ever a secret, poetic logic dictates that she would tell.
I transcribed these opening lines from 60 Minutes of Opportunism, a solo Ivana Müller made in 2010, because they touch me, and I don’t know why. An impish-looking woman (quick mental shorthand compares her to Björk, her presence triggers the phrase “elphin secrets”) walks to the center of a black box wearing a daypack – her word, daypack – and a plain plaid shirt. A body without a voice, her abjection appears cheerful – how odd – and her premise, predicated on the principle of unwavering compliance, clear: Ask and ye shall receive. Or, with a bit of leaking pride, I followed the shit out of these directions.
Her methodical honesty, evident across a broad range of performative gestures, is the kind of generative and structuring force that comes out from behind the piece to give itself up, and, of course, steals the show. In the instance of 60 Minutes … Inner Monologue plays the hijacker, a spectral voice that keeps spilling Müller’s guts. Telling us that she has not performed since 2002. That she, the choreographer, is more accustomed to sitting where we sit. As she smokes a cigarette, telling us she has quit smoking. Saying she will dance and making us imagine instead. But the proceedings are full of pleasure, for our imagination makes her smile. She takes the ghost of her own voice and runs with spectral suggestion. She puts a black sheet over her body and is joined by a chorus of anonymous bodies in black sheets. Goofy ghosts.
So this is not a solo.
So she does not “dance.”
But she does choreograph. Following the dictum of compliance, her pieces become assignments in the hands of the most earnest student, the one who has discovered that, when treated as serious games, rules and restrictions can elicit serious fun. That student is probably, also, a smartass. Precepts of play appear to me as a core element of Müller’s practice, and she employs them again and again across a diverse array of works. Finally Together On Time, a performative dialogue staged in 2011 with collaborator Bojana Kunst, explores the trials and travails of collaborating in virtual times; we receive a very funny comedy of errors as the women share a script-in-hand account that could be described as a litany of happy failures, culminating in one more as Müller gets beamed in, via video projection, to a performance that is, in itself, a rumination on missed opportunities. (And the aesthetics – so gratifying! Müller’s form framed by a white projection screen and Kunst live against a stage black, the symmetry evokes all manner of sliding doors possibilities. When they pause or err in this technologically mediated realm, the audience is made privy to still image associations and possibilities, as performance veneers are chipped away to reveal buoyant vulnerabilities reminiscent of a Rineke Djikstra album.)
Then there’s In Common (2012), a game for ten player-performers who endlessly divide themselves into various tribes according to self-proclaimed “statuses” of material ownership, skill and life experience. Competitions without reward structure the piece as participants “race” to a finish line demarcated by a long piece of tape stretched across the downstage of a black box floor, proclaiming titles of distinction to advance their positions in space. It’s a who’s who of inanities that could as easily be overheard at a dinner party’s pissing contest. But to be fair, the piece does more than critique the alleged “inherent” absurdities of capitalism and bourgeois classification. Müller directs our attention toward the complex joys of naming and following, the imperfection of political systems as the meat of culture rather than exclusively their ugly gristle.
In these recent creations, Partituur and We Are Still Watching, co-commissioned by FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival, Müller amplifies the stakes of philosophical inquiry by offering frameworks that completely embed “audiences” in the completion of the work, casting pedestrian children and adults as cold-readers in interactive games, housed within the confines of the traditional theater space. Müller provides the text, but her reconfigured spectators bring the show; if responsibility were an object to be kept aloft, each participant bears the weight of her own experience.
These conceptual “diversions” are multi-faceted, open-ended. They simultaneously possess the ability to function as reusable energy basins, and to catalyze an increased awareness of the body’s delicious wonderment in states of waiting. And certainly, from this distance, they have the potential to generate metaphors – practical, pedagogical and independently lovely. In the generosity of the negative, quiet and unknown space holding a base text, we might discover other texts yet to be written, performances and connections to be made.
I was reminded of this simple phenomena – call it the incomplete – watching footage from Partituur (version francaise). Part voyeur, part anthropologist – it is inescapable, to become a part – I see a group of children and a few adults wearing headphones in a room with a red floor, a white tape circle and more white lines to demarcate mysteriously arbitrary zones. The participants are unsure, but attentive. A voice begins to prompt them and soon enough their toes are at the tape. They make shapes, they follow directions, they listen. The bulk of the action is interstitial. And what to make of this now … a minor catalogue of fidgets, adjustments, spasms, rests. Sometimes several children will run in laughter, then there are those who stand still. I guess it’s a complex of uneven engagements. Their minds are opaque to me. When I sink into a thinking deeply, I see these figures. They are actually wells.