Where is the work of art at work?

Superamas. BIG 3 episodes (art / discourse) 2010English
In Jeroen Peeters and Superamas (eds.), Superamas. BIG 3 episodes (art / discourse), Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2010, pp. 75-93

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‘Often you hear a spectator’s remark like “Oh yes, I have seen your work” – which doesn’t make sense to us, or is at least an insufficient response. One does not just see a work. We are rather interested in the twist of a spectator wondering “Oh yes, I’ve been working on my way of seeing.”’(1)

Work of art. The term itself contains work: the preparatory work of research and creation, but also the work of perception, projection and memory triggered by the work of art in the spectator. A context resonates along with it: a vast array of images, artistic and cultural conventions, traditions of perception, technological possibilities that underpin certain media, and so on, are being reproduced, recognized or otherwise at work – the work of history that inevitably interferes with the performing arts’ celebration of the here and now. There is no sense without incarnation, that is without language, without medium, without codes of communication. Perception, experience, discourse and practice are situated in time and space, they take place, turning the work of art into a site of reflection. What is the ground for work? Where is the work of art at work?

These questions were the departure point of a dialogical exploration I had with Superamas in October 2004,(2) in an attempt to reflect upon their work with speech as the prime medium, rather than speaking through their work. Superamas’s work is brimming with references to discourse and incorporates critical reflection in various ways – yet all this happens within the work, that is within a certain situation whose rules are those of art. It occurred to me that the Superamas have given very few interviews about their work – a mere coincidence perhaps, or is there more to their reluctance to take up speech? Superamas is a collective that has given up all belief in originality, authorship and the figure of the artist in favor of collaboration and shared responsibility, research and production. All of this probably complicates the issue of speech or discourse. If not pulled onto the terrain of one’s artistic work, doesn’t speech risk to unwittingly affirm many persistent clichés about art, lured into the narrow formats of the media? Nowadays, artists are mostly asked to talk about their worldview in newspapers, about their life in the weekend magazines, sometimes about their poetics or research in an arts journal. But they are seldom addressed as makers, which renders part of the work inexistent.

The exchange in October 2004 allowed me to backtrack through earlier interviews with Superamas, looking for issues related to dramaturgy and making, as a discussion parallel to the creation of the BIG-trilogy. Open questions raised in those discussions were taken up again in April 2009, with the additional hindsight.(3) For clarity’s sake: though they appear as ‘we’ in this text, speaking to Superamas is always a multiple dialogue with individual voices, of which the names disappear under the banner ‘Superamas’ according to their collective agreement.

Where is the work of art at work? In addition to the opening statement cited above, Superamas first replied: ‘An object of consumption, a commodity has a functional destination. By contrast, a work of art has a priori no functional end. Trying to define or approach the place where the work of art is at work, we’ll have to regard it in its non-functionality. Put briefly: a work of art cannot be considered as something closed, but has to offer, to provide work – a work of memory, a work of projection, a work of perception. Our attention and our artistic intention concentrate mainly on that; the work of preparation and creation is guided by that concern. How can we put the work of art at work? And how will the spectator be able to work?’(4)



‘We don’t consider ourselves to be artists, we don’t have anything to express. Like scientists, we are doing research and working together as a team, each of us having their own responsibilities and skills.’

This is a very interesting statement that I would like to explore a little further, starting with your collective way of working. Did you ever write a mission statement when you started collaborating?

‘No, not anything of that kind. We didn’t feel comfortable to create and perform under our own names and decided to acknowledge that situation by adopting the more generic name Superamas. Until today, the collective approach has always been discussed within the group. We’ve always said that it is not a matter of idealism, but simply part of our collaborative practice. This comes from two convictions. There is more in two heads than in one; other people challenge you to keep questioning things, and this in a mutual way. This relates to a certain idea of mankind: one does not exist as a self-enclosed individual entity, but only in relation to others.’

Over the years, the collective of four has expanded to six, which means that Superamas now explicitly includes the positions of technical director and manager. How do you see this inclusion of production on the same level as art?

‘Our work is not the expression of someone, but the outcome of a creation/production process, which is in itself the result of decisions made by a group of people. All of us are making decisions, validating choices and “artistic” options. In cinema, the producer is quite an important person in the process. In the performing arts productional decisions also affect the result, the finished work of art. That is the reason why we not only credit our manager but also wanted to creatively share the process with the producers we’ve been working with, rather than simply regarding them as sponsors. They already make a big decision by producing this rather than that, the work of Superamas rather than someone else’s. Yet, we’re not working in Hollywood but in the field of the performing arts, in which people can work quite independently.’

Since you compare your work to that of scientists with specific skills, we could perhaps replace the notion ‘artist’ by the pair ‘researcher/maker.’

‘Our first piece, Building (1999), contained the following statement: “Science is the art of transforming questions until you get answers.” We used to reverse the proposition, saying that “Art is the science of transforming answers until you get questions.”’

Though you don’t regard yourselves as artists, your work appears in an artistic context, which becomes all the more important. Would you then endorse an institutional definition of art?

‘One could even go further with a question Rudi Laermans once asked: is Superamas’s work art? The answer does not only belong to Superamas. We think that Superamas’s work is art and we present it as such. Other people follow us by perceiving and understanding it as art. The question is nevertheless valid because we, as individuals, don’t present ourselves as artists. The nature of art itself is put in question here, but I’m not sure to be able to define it or point out the problem. We can say what we don’t like in dance, theatre, film or visual art. And what we like. We can say why we like or dislike things! We can say that politically speaking a work is okay or suspicious. We can say whether a proposition holds or not. Or with Godard: “Si ça tient ou si ça ne tient pas.”’(5)

In an earlier discussion you spoke about eclecticism and combining different media as an artistic form of critique, with a wink to film critic André Bazin’s notion of ‘impure cinema.’(6) Perhaps that could help us further?


‘Bazin, who was writing in the 1960s, has argued that cinema is not “pure” but always contaminated with other art forms, with reality, with technology, with the entertainment industry, with the temptation of tricks and illusion, and so on. We can appropriate and extend this notion to “impure art,” which simply means that art is not detached or without context. Art means relation, rumination, assimilation. Art is impure in that it ingests elements foreign to the field of art and transforms them into art. Here you can think of Godard discussing cinema – in BIG 2 – as a rapprochement of art and reality, a kind of meta-art at work in places outside of what is generally understood as cinema, which makes it impure par excellence. Contemporary visual art has fully incorporated this definition, but theatre and dance are still occupied by conserving their purity. In that sense they are moribund.’


Then how does this notion of impurity keep the BIG-trilogy alive?


‘There are several kinds of impurity at work, to start with the blending of reference frames and representations. Our strategies of recontextualization, utilization of ready-mades, and deconstruction largely depend on the source materials, whether they stem from other artistic disciplines, or non-artistic contexts like advertisement, communication or science. Once transposed, the different elements that make up our performances remain no less elements of reality. BIG is in that respect a heterogeneous assemblage of real and represented parts that only come together because they constitute a discourse – a discourse that is precisely grounded in the heterogeneity of materials that constitute it. We Superamas would like that discourse to be a large and loose dialectical construction. That is to say, not a clear opposition of elements, but a multiple, unsteady entity – not a demonstration or propaganda, but a critique.’(7)





‘What is representation? Why do we need representations? Whether we find ourselves in the context of a theatre, a gallery, or a museum, these questions are central to us.’ The issue of representation returns in each dialogue with Superamas, making it also a red thread throughout the BIG-trilogy. The answer to it differs from piece to piece though, as do the source materials and discussions relating to it. In June 2004, shortly before the premiere of BIG 2 (show/business), I asked Superamas to connect the question of representation to their understanding of art and culture at large.

‘Culture at large is the horizon of what we all understand, of what we take for granted, where things go well. An artistic context allows us to look closer into what is regarded as self-evident and to question it in order to go beyond what we understand, seeking the complexity of relations, the unknown even. What you see is not what you see. Why is something made this way or that? What are its codes, parameters and conditions of possibility? How do they define our space of interpretation? If you investigate the relation between an image and its commodification, you will always discover an emotional moment, for instance an exchange of looks, a moment of attraction and repulsion. Both desire and the industry thrive upon that principle. We are attracted by the superficiality and lightness of images. So how can we address and analyze this in an artistic context to open up alternative perspectives rather than denying them? How can we, by way of artistic work, intervene in the happy, quotidian reading of images, in order to uncover the complex reality surrounding them?’(8)

            Three years earlier, during the preparations of BIG 1 (reality show/artificial intelligence), Superamas began their working process by taking the term ‘representation’ literally, inspired by technology. ‘Re-presentation,’ presenting again, involves repetition, a strategy explored at length in the BIG-trilogy, eliciting a play with memory and observation in the spectator. The relation between repetition and reproduction technologies, which underpins a good deal of popular culture today, was the subject matter from the onset of the project.

‘Repetition is supplemented with alteration, a term that indicates minor modifications. The French philosopher Bernard Stiegler discusses three types of retention, extending Husserl’s phenomenology of human memory processes.(9) Primary and secondary retentions are related to recognizing, registering and remembering objects and events. The third is a new type of retention, a form of memorization gained through the help of technology, such as the phonograph, tape, CD, DVD, computers, and so on. These tools allow one to play back a transitory event in an identical way at a later time. For Stiegler, this constitutes a major step in human cognition. In this third form of memorization, what changes in the repetition is your own perception, and therefore your own relationship with the object, your interpretation of the event. Seeing our interest in several media, we found it a relevant starting point for BIG.’

            ‘More concretely, we work with loops, a strategy that is very much in vogue. In BIG we use a trivial scenario in which a particular sequence is repeated several times with small modifications. This does not mean we are concerned with a sort of dramaturgy that revolves around changing things. On the contrary, it is a matter of making inscriptions in time, space and meaning visible by means of this trivial scenario. How can you focus the gaze on the principles constituting the scene? We repeat a scene but leave something out; for example a voice may be left out while the lips continue to move. Yet some values remain, as evidence of the first perception and a particular way of looking. In this way they provoke reflection about all the events, both actions and experiences, that have led to changes in this pattern.’(10)

            Where is the work of art at work? What connects the elements of making, the conditions of possibility of representation, and the space of interpretation is a specific understanding of dramaturgy. Dramaturgy is not simply a matter of presenting or contextualizing material anew to make it legible. Object and context are always intertwined through the perception and history that bridges them. To acknowledge and even account for that spill-over, entails a dramaturgical strategy that seeks to situate the gaze, experience and memory in time and space – reaching far beyond the ready-made’s contextual displacement. In relation to work, Superamas discussed their understanding of dramaturgy and gave an example of another artist, stressing how important the material aspects of art are for them.

‘We cannot simply leave time and space for the work we have been discussing to exist – the spectator’s work with perception, memory, projection, resistance, desire and emotion. We need to consider a dramaturgical form to that end. How do we organize the time of the performance, one or two hours? What about the two or five minutes we have before our eyes? How do we organize and share that time with the people that are in front of it? That is what we would call dramaturgy.’


‘A large part of our work is situated in the question: how to organize time? We enter into the construction, the fabrication of a certain desire, in order to then deconstruct it, taking the very process of construction into account. That all of it is made visible in the work and can be taken into consideration by the spectator, is why our strategies are not capitalist or manipulative.’


‘The relation to the audience was at stake since the very beginning of the working process on BIG, which prompted us to study the differences in the way time and space are organized in theatre and visual arts, especially minimalism. Remember Frank Stella’s famous assertion “What you see is what you see.” The minimalists arrived at establishing a notion of real time and space in the museum by doing performances. One of the most known is Robert Morris’ 1960 column performance that preceded his sculpture Two columns. It was very theatrical: a curtain opens and one sees a column; during a stretch of ten minutes nothing happens; then the column falls; after another ten minutes the curtain comes down again. Leaving aside for a moment the somewhat conventional opening and closing of the curtain, which was just there to mark the fact that something’s happening, there are three clearly defined moments. First an empty moment in which nothing seems to happen. Then a second moment, rather elusive, in which something happens, something minimal yet radical: a fall. Most interesting is the third moment in which something has already happened, which prompts one to mentally play back and think over what one has experienced before, both the long stretch of time and the transitory event. During these ten minutes, one first wonders what to do, like “Shall I continue watching?” Then one thinks “Wait a minute, what have I seen?” The temporality changes totally, which seems significant to us in defining what dramaturgy is.’(11)





‘In the arts today there is apparently a certain morale of horizontality at work. Right now, one has the tendency to equate everything. What is in the end the difference between an ad for McDonald’s and Superamas’s work? Is it the intention, the context, the way of doing, the resulting object?’


The difference might reside in the mode of observation, the extent to which you include second degree observations, that is to say, the meta-level in Superamas’s work. Of course, McDonald’s is also occupied with research, they investigate the impact of their products in order to improve them, make them more seductive, sell more, and so on. They collaborate with scientists and spin doctors to create a closed object with a single, clear message, produced to elicit unequivocal responses. The second degree observations of the process remain hidden in the eventual product. In art the preparatory work might be similar, but the activity incited by the result is altogether different. In the case of Superamas, the research seeks to multiply the second degree observations and make them tangible in the work itself instead of reducing them to a single, strong, authorized interpretation.


‘I think you are right. The French cinematographers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet claim to make a cinema devoid of propaganda, avoiding any persuasion or manipulation of the spectator. They actually manage to do that rather well, by using a fixed frame and focusing on text spoken by actors who hardly engage in any actions. While their work is interesting and necessary, they still separate the level of reflection, that is the meta-work, from the work itself. This implies they don’t have a critical view upon what in the end constitutes our current environment. They place themselves besides that. To us the important challenge is another one:


‘We don’t want to place ourselves outside reality, but to acknowledge within the work the complexity of what is being made around us. After all, everything that is being produced and put out to be bought or seen, whether it is a work of art or not, activates our consciousness in some way. We don’t want art to be a vehicle for ideology or value judgments, which it often is, deliberately or not. To get rid of ideologies and preconceptions in order to observe the world we are living in is a difficult exercise, which requires a displacement from within. So we are not stepping aside but walking crosswise, which entails a certain self-implication.’


‘At the end of BIG 1 we repeat Adorno’s idea of the media as a tool to manipulate the masses. What his statement doesn’t take into consideration is the fact that regardless, the media are nowadays simply part of our environment. We cannot any longer remain outside of it. For us, everything that is around us can be a source of thought. Even the worst video clip conveys something: it contains references, it puts a value on behaviors or trends, it is a vehicle for ideologies. We can leave open whether that’s good or bad. The point is that a video clip contains sufficient work such that it allows us to release certain energies, certain vectors of intelligence and complexity. So how can we negotiate that?’


Regarding the idea that it is no longer possible to take a viewpoint outside and above what is going on in the world and the cultural codes that constitute it, which has been the aim of a certain critical tradition, the work of Superamas rather positions itself in the middle of the world, which is a political approach. You address reality’s complexity and ambiguity by unleashing all the codes at once, which implies a certain horizontality. You open up yourself and work with everything you can find, in order to repeat, filter, analyze and situate it, turning the work of art into a site of reflection.


‘I’d like to relate the issue of horizontality with the notion of the fragment. If you want to avoid a uniform or Manichean approach of the world, you are obliged to acknowledge the validity of many co-existing realities and arguments, even prior to our observation or claims. Providing a place for different arguments to co-exist is a basic strategy of Superamas’s work. These fragments need a particular organization in time and space in order to breathe and develop. Television for instance organizes reality as a flux, a temporal object which we can enter and harmonize with while watching. It annihilates the logic of the fragment – which we actually want to revalidate in our work.’


In our mediatized world there is flux everywhere, a flux that seeks to unify the world, to privatize it and make it fit our living rooms via television, to create easily consumable images, and so on. It seems to me that Superamas reinserts rupture, through the repetition of fragments. Cutting things up again is an interesting critical strategy, laying bare the technical modes and the construction work that underpin the image.


‘What do these fragments consist of? Flux involves a dramaturgy of climax and anti-climax, of attraction and aversion, which is based on a language of emotions. These strategies, processes and projections, the particular dynamics of emotion they constitute are of interest to us. In that sense, cutting or reinserting rupture is not simply a technical matter, we’re not searching for a visual or abstract approach to it. The whole design, the material aspects of television or McDonald’s are not abstract but very concrete, as they rest upon emotions, phantasms, projections.’

‘In an artistic work, if you prefer not to choose a certain side, don’t you then end up with two irreconcilable viewpoints, namely aesthetics and critique? When you undertake an aesthetic research, can that at the same time be a critical research? We have a hard time imagining that.’


Of course it is possible – why not? Whatever your subject matter, ideology or poetics may be, it means that you work with form. To situate the gaze, emotions and concepts, to read reality in a particular way, to work with repetition and juxtaposition – these artistic operations have a formal, and thus aesthetic aspect to them, regardless of their political resonance. You scrutinize form, you create form, you formulate. To be clear: aesthetic research doesn’t necessarily involve a naïve aestheticism.


‘Still, if you attempt to push the logic of the fragment in relation to the spectator’s gaze, you are working with existing realities. With Superamas, we treat our materials a priori as ready-mades, we don’t want to transform or embellish them for aesthetic purposes.’


Isn’t that more a matter of style or taste than a discussion of aesthetics as a paradigm?

‘Of course the resulting object has a form, which means a certain aesthetics. But in the way we work and envisage what we are doing, we are not attached to aesthetical choices, but rather to critical work. The placement and choice of the fragments, their pertinence and inner relations – all the decisions taken about these issues are critical ones, never aesthetical. That is why we actually succeed in showing things that really displace us. There is no problem in using materials that are badly lit or badly filmed for instance – the form is not what validates our choices. And if it does validate our choices – in that respect there is more aesthetic quality in BIG 2 than in BIG 1 – that is because we want to reproduce existing aesthetical systems. What is at stake is not the invention of a new aesthetics, but observing how a certain system of aesthetics functions. Again: providing time and space for different aesthetics, treating them as fragments and developing a critical viewpoint. That is something different from designing an aesthetics in favor of a poetics, philosophy or other argument.’(12)



Returning to our dialogue about aesthetic choices five years ago, I’d be curious how you look back at this. Leaving the ideological discussion aside for a moment, the increasing importance of aesthetic choices throughout the BIG-trilogy becomes plain with hindsight. How did this process come about? What was its dramaturgical motivation?

‘For us, BIG 1 was an experiment about representation, adopting a few simple elements and strategies, such as bad theatre, repetition, spotlights on stage, and ready-mades like the go-go dancers and the car. Only afterwards did the question arise of how to continue the series, along with the desire to improve the setting of BIG 1. BIG 2 and BIG 3 are more conventional theatre pieces, guided by two major aesthetical decisions: the frontal set-up, which allowed us to address a larger audience; and the system of dubbing the performers’ voices, which was a way to get rid of the old-fashioned and somewhat irritating theatricality that comes with loud theatre voices.’

You made an explicit shift toward a frontal use of the theatre in BIG 2 and BIG 3, but how did you regard the space in BIG 1? In what respect was the spatial set-up and the address of the audience different?

‘In BIG 1 we wanted to break with the conventional relation to representation. We attempted to create the situation of a TV set. The spectators were seated in the shape of an L, so they could see each other, and very closely, almost on the set, like people witnessing a real time show in a TV studio. On a theatrical level we wanted to indicate a place where we create images and clips in real time. Yet at the same time it is not an actual TV set, rather the suggestion of it – theatrical but with an experimental flavor to it. And then the “actors” happen to perform really badly. It’s not good theatre but the lousy performance quality of TV reality shows. In BIG 2 and BIG 3 the introductory parts play this role: the air guitar concert and the staging of a song that ends with applause.’

‘What is at stake was not to create another belief-effect. All these insertions of “bad theatre” indicate to the audience that their typical theatre watching habits are no longer valid here. They mark a different game concerning representation, or better “re-presentation” in a literal sense. These indications or signs – think of the “marks” in Hitchcock movies that Gilles Deleuze writes about(13) – are comparable to a tripod or a boom entering the film frame. This kind of trickery can be found all over the trilogy.’(14)




‘Reality and our understanding of it have been thoroughly revolutionized by the development of new technical possibilities. This raises questions about identity and the constitution of the subject, it concerns the politics of our consciousness. In artistic work we can explore these issues in connection with the body, our impressions and gaze. We often work with contemporary dance, because it touches upon the intimacy of the body. Our work is not purely cerebral, we want to share a confrontation with a physical reality, that of the body, precisely because all thinking is embedded in a body and in time and space.’(15)


Though Superamas refer regularly to the importance of the body and the contemporary dance context for their work, their position as performers is never discussed. Only one of them was trained as a performer, yet all of them perform in the BIG-trilogy and other works. To the question whether more experience has changed their performing practice over the years, their answer is laconic: ‘Once on stage we’re all performers. With trained ones, it is simply more varied.’ Then, how do they see themselves as performers within the work?

‘The art works created by Superamas are not the expression of someone, and this also holds when we perform on stage. We always considered Superamas as ready-mades, staging ourselves as a brand. For us, performing is not disconnected from the dramaturgical aspects of the work, in which the relation to embodiment is important. We don’t want to embody any kind of “truth” that the spectators should believe. So we are always really playing, but pretending we are still ourselves “as Superamas,” which is already a role, a construction. Compare it with playing children who claim they’re cowboys. We can say “It’s all true” and at the same time “F for Fake” – both titles of Orson Welles movies actually, though the first one was never realized. A good example is the piece Casino (2005), which we’ve been working on “presentation,” in the double sense of demonstration and of attitude or appearance. We Superamas present excerpts, bits and pieces of our own shows as well as leftovers. The whole theatre is a stage where the audience can freely walk around, like they would enter a playground without knowing how to behave and where to stand.’(16)

Curiously, a fictitious documentary in the piece Empire (Art & Politics) (2008) turns out to be an ironic self-portrait in which Superamas literally reveal themselves as cowboys, driven by an exoticist and pornographic desire for the ‘real,’ seasoned with a good deal of machismo. In Empire the relation between the performers’ personal histories and their characters is pushed to a level that was deliberately left unexplored in Superamas’s BIG-trilogy or older work. An indeterminate zone regularly appears between embodiment, fictionalization and crude stereotyping, while the casting makes subtle use of the actors’ ‘own’ bodily language and inscriptions.(17) This doesn’t mean that the Superamas suddenly appear as individual persons in Empire: they remain true to their vision that they have nothing to express. Or: they remain cowboys throughout, with the complexity of that claim exposed through the changing approach to the other performers.

If the BIG series stays low key on the level of performing, embracing the ‘bad acting’ and ‘lousy performance quality of reality shows on TV,’ the concurrent Casino (2005) departs from the same materials, but is a rather virtuoso essay on embodiment and performing. The piece opens with a quote of Godard explaining that ‘there might be something else, something the audience is lacking’ in the extreme expressions of a soldier in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket or of Boris Becker winning at Wimbledon. Superamas go on to present and subtly deconstruct a whole catalogue of male images taken from pop culture: the vulnerable ‘new man’ in a tearful sorry-duet (not unlike the emo-talk of two Superamas in the SUV in BIG 1), a dance workshop for cheerleaders with the ‘Superamas Dance Group Community’ (a wink at the Torrance Dance Group Community, documented by Spike Jonze and re-enacted in BIG 1), two Superamas accompanying on guitar an emotional cheerleader singing U2’s ‘One’ (compare with Katie Melua’s song ‘I cried for you’ that is performed in BIG 3), or Superamas performing machos that find comfort in sex (re-edited scenes from the Biodanza workshop that appears as a video in BIG 3). And then there is an epitomical film re-enactment in which one of the Superamas marvels at a call girl confessing she has fallen in love with him and wants to live monogamously when it comes to relationships. It is all true and fake at once – Superamas show what it means to remain cowboys throughout their work. What persists in the freeze frames, the open mouths filled with speech that actually comes from loudspeakers, and also between the characters and the performers embodying them, is a gap, which is perhaps nothing else than the phantasmal lack Godard refers to: ‘There might be something else.’





‘Last year we saw the work Destroy She Said (1998) by visual artist Monica Bonvicini, a video installation that uses film excerpts in which you see women, actresses, in stereotypical postures near a window or a door. The relationship between women and architecture is the main focus. An accompanying quotation from an architect says that men are educated towards mobility, including social mobility, and that, conversely, women are educated towards dependence on their surroundings. In Bonvicini’s work you can see very well how the female body is portrayed as completely dependent on its domestic environment. You see how this social fact finds its place in what literally constitutes a culture, in this case cinema. It concerns a broad range of films from the 1960s, so it is not founded directly on any political message, but is genuinely a matter of registering a certain inscription. This was very powerful and moving for us, because you are confronted with something you know beforehand, but now see how it works.’(18)


In spring 2002 we discussed a work by Monica Bonvicini in relation to your video Billy Billy (2002). Could you also relate this to the BIG-trilogy and how you worked with women and images of women in it?


‘We believe that feminism is very important. That there is still an extreme imbalance between men and women though current mainstream thinking pretends that it is no longer an issue, is an outdated statement. In that respect, in BIG we didn’t want to avoid putting women and men in the most banal social situations, because they actually show the submission/domination relation at stake in our western society. Hopefully this comes across as a critical approach!’


Bonvicini’s work also points to a paradox: though intellectual cinematographers like Godard, Antonioni and Fassbinder had a strong interest in the image of women, female authors seemed to be of no importance, though their cinema coincided with the moment of feminism’s definition. I would like to connect this issue of female authorship to the place of female performers in the BIG-trilogy. In BIG 1 and BIG 2 you worked with ‘ready-made performers,’ go-go dancers and a stewardess, while in BIG 3 you have performers with a contemporary dance background. How do you see your work with both kinds of performers? And how do you assess this evolution in the trilogy?


‘To perform with Superamas doesn’t require proper acting skills, so there is not so much difference in the end. The contemporary dancers had to unlearn, to forget about using their usual skills; moreover they had to do some “acting,” which they typically don’t do. In BIG 3 we wanted to be more general about women, beautiful women to be precise. And we wanted dancers to evoke the idea of their “off” activities, meaning training, fitness, and so on. So in that respect, there is also a ready-made aspect to their characters. Of course, ready-made performers are interesting in as far as you find good people, so casting is important for our work.’


I’m not totally convinced about the ‘unlearning’ part, though I see your point. The more general approach to women in BIG 3 gains strength because you have trained performers for whom the theatre stage is a familiar context. Looking back, Casino marks perhaps a turning point regarding the presence of women in Superamas’s work. All the female roles are performed by contemporary dancers dressed as cheerleaders – who actually return in the biodanza video in BIG 3. These women are not simply ready-mades – cheerleaders performing cheerleaders – but performers that can enact and negotiate their persona in a complex way, empowered by their training and stage experience. The women in BIG 3 perform with the same ease and self-awareness, which complicates the ready-made character of the image they enact through a more layered performance quality.


‘You always need a dose of reality and a dose of fiction; it is our work to bring these two components together. To have ready-made performers or real people in the BIG-trilogy is actually close to fiction, it is pure construction. People project what they know onto what they see. Imagine if we invited two unknown performers, train them in go-go dancing and communicate the fact that they are go-go dancers. Or take Elisa Benureau: she is a real stewardess for Air France, but we built a story around her. Moreover, Superamas has always sought to establish a fictional identity as a group, as a label that extends beyond the frame of a single piece. It always boils down to issues of belief and representation, with fiction and reality mixed up on a deeper level. What you create is not only within the show, but also the fiction that surrounds it – Orson Welles, again, is a good example. And what you see is definitely not what you see.’

‘Funnily enough some people treated the four young performers in Casino as stupid and unreflected, like they were really fourteen years old cheerleaders. Already prejudiced into thinking that cheerleaders are necessarily stupid, they blamed Superamas for misusing them, without actually ever addressing the performers directly about it! So even though they knew that it was all fake, they took part of the picture for real. This is exactly the point: as spectators, we are easily trapped in our own projections and prejudices. Moreover, there is not any character on stage that can escape his or her cultural and social reality.’


I remember you visiting go-go dancer Meny at the club Nachtwerk in Vienna in September 2002  – which indicates the ready-made’s history, with fiction and reality mixed up, and shows the importance of casting for your work. Still, in BIG 1 and BIG 2 the women (and men) are staged and perceived as mere images – not so much as acting human beings. So how did you work with the go-go dancers and the air hostess to prepare them as performers?


‘Yalda Ettehadi, Monika Woziwoda and Elisa Benureau were all very good at reproducing their own profession and attitude, the one they know from their habitual environment of a go-go dancer or a flight attendant. Yet rehearsals and a sympathetic atmosphere were essential to prepare them for a self-assured performance in the theatre, since they were afraid to be judged by the audience as stupid women.’


Okay, point taken. During three weeks in January 2002, Superamas organized the laboratory Game Boys at Tanzquartier Vienna in preparation of BIG 1. Together with a contemporary dancer and a go-go dancer, you inquired into different kinds of movement material, behavioral patterns and body language pertaining to different contexts, such as a reality shows or a nightclub at the outskirts of the city. In BIG 1 and BIG 2 you continued to work with ‘ready-made performers’ only. Why did you abandon the research with contemporary dancers at that point?


‘According to the needs of BIG 1 we continued only with the go-gos because they brought in an extreme violence and reality that comes from outside the realm of theatre. On stage they are over-identified items, that is: people think they know who they are, as a reflex, without actually knowing them. Only then can the joyful game of digging into what we thought we knew start. Imagine employing the same strategy with a contemporary dancer playing a contemporary dancer – wouldn’t that be flat and boring?’


Somehow you seem to have taken up the idea of juxtaposing body languages again in Casino and BIG 3. And, interestingly, now with Agnieszka Ryszkiewicz replacing Meny in BIG 1, you actually have again the two: a ‘real’ go-go dancer and a contemporary dancer performing a go-go dancer.


‘You are right having Agnieszka now “play” a go-go dancer in BIG 1 reintroduces some friction between fiction and reality, embodiment and representation. At the time we toyed with that idea for BIG 1 but couldn’t find a trained contemporary dancer who was able, eager and daring enough to take on that role. Now Agnieszka does it, but this actually followed from our collaboration with her and other performers, who where still students back then, in Casino, which involved endless discussions and reflections about the meaning of performance. And we’d need to reverse the argument once more, since also Yalda has been performing with us for years now, and not only as a go-go dancer. In Empire she plays the Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf and she is actually quite convincing in that role! Several years of performing on stage have made her into a professional actress. The most important thing is that the people we collaborate with have a clear understanding of the work. We have an ongoing dialogue with them; they are never simply treated as ready-mades without further reflection.’(19)





‘It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature – how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated.’(20)

            These words from John Keats where a main inspiration for Superamas’s performance Auto-Mobile (2002) and continued to resonate in the creation of their BIG-trilogy. ‘It concerns the big question of one’s personality: I don’t have any… or plenty! It all depends upon the circumstances. They create an imbalance that forces you to wonder who you really are and who you think you really are, which is slightly different. In BIG 1 the characters don’t have a strict profile, they are not defined in-depth but in relation to a context, as they tend to overplay behavioral patterns.’(21)

            During the preparations of BIG 2, the Keats quotation turns up again, this time in relation to the spectator. ‘Theatre contaminates the arts with mass spectacle. You are alone with your own view, but at the same time you’re part of a group. That is not innocent, as John Keats already knew. We reflect that confusion back to the spectators. It’s up to them to draw their own conclusions. Our material is a network of relations through which desire transports itself. Precisely in the play of expectation and deception, contradictions can become clear. To approach that without too many prejudices, you need an elaborate language, which allows to elucidate the function of the gaze. That’s why our way of working is constantly visible and easy to uncover. The biggest questions arise once we recombine all the elements after having dissected them.’(22)

            Precisely because the communal space of theatre is never innocent, it provides Superamas with a paradoxical ground for their non-judgmental poetics of horizontality and their wayward investigation of the language of emotions:


‘Our area of work is theatre, where a sort of overall consensus still prevails, even before the performance has begun: what is good, what is not good, what is art and what is not. We would like to show things in all their triviality before we start to amuse ourselves with a specific view on them. Paradoxically enough, in art you need the whole order of the politically correct to arrive at this point. Every act, every performance, inscribes itself in a particular realm of meaning, and that includes a culture of conventions. It is only because there is a shared basis that you can adjust this view and make other elements visible.’(23)


Infusing the theatre with elements of pop culture, juxtaposing and superposing existing realities while explicitly treating them as fragments, Superamas ends up choreographing the spectators’ desires, expectations and emotions, both on a phantasmal and a visceral level. These layers are often at odds with one another, creating an uneasy experience of internal friction. Sexuality and consumption meet a desire for entertainment, but also an ideologically tainted expectation of criticality, embraced by leftist art lovers. Perhaps an important consensus is to be found there, which Superamas fight against throughout their work. In BIG 2 they even made a choreography of resistance revolving around political correctness a core issue.

‘Don’t those resistances in the end rest upon expectations projected by the spectators? They render apparent the fact that ideology exists and persists, that our blind spots, the holes in our perception, are made of ideology. That’s a fairly common statement. Yet what makes the difference is this: to say it is one thing, to go through it is another thing. The latter means to give oneself time to see where it is at work. To return to our point of departure: where is the work of art at work? We think it’s essentially there.’(24)




(1) Kortrijk, October 2004.

(2) This exchange took place in the studio in Kortrijk over the course of two days and resulted in a video dialogue called Stands (2004).

(3) All the interview fragments and dialogues that follow are dated. The questions and remarks in italics are always mine, the answers between quotation marks Superamas’s.

(4) Kortrijk, October 2004.

(5) Hamburg/Vienna, April 2009.

(6) Cf. André Bazin, ‘In Defense of Mixed Cinema’, in Idem,What is cinema? Vol. I, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004

(7) Hamburg/Vienna, April 2009.

(8) Kortrijk, June 2004.

(9) Cf. Bernard Stiegler, La Technique et le temps. Tome 3: Le temps du cinéma et la question du mal-être, Paris, 2001.

(10) Kortrijk, June 2002

(11) Kortrijk, October 2004.

(12) Kortrijk, October 2004

(13) Cf. Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma I. L'image-mouvement, Paris: Minuit, 1983, p. 274.

(14) Hamburg/Vienna, April 2009

(15) Kortrijk, June 2002

(16) Hamburg/Vienna, April 2009

(17) See Jeroen Peeters, ‘The empire of spectators. On Superamas’s Empire (Art & Politics)’ in Dance Theatre Journal, vol. 23 no. 2, 2009 (forthcoming)

(18) Kortrijk, June 2002

(19) Hamburg/Vienna, April 2009

(20) John Keats, letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27, 1818. See http://www.john-keats.com/briefe/271018.htm

(21) Hamburg/Vienna, April 2009

(22) Kortrijk, June 2004, shortly before the premiere of BIG 2. I also consulted an interview by Pieter T’Jonck from the same period: ‘Montage en onderzoek tegenover geloof en demagogie: Frans-Oostenrijkse groep Superamas maakt met BIG 2 besmet theater’, De Tijd, 18 June 2004.

(23) Kortrijk, June 2002

(24) Kortrijk, October 2004