In search of material literacy

On Mount Tackle by Heike Langsdorf/radical_hope Dec 2016English

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Contextual note
This review was first published in Dutch at Translated into English by Jeroen Peeters with the support of Heike Langsdorf/radical_hope.

Upon entering the theatre three people welcome the spectators in three languages. “The whole space is accessible, from the top of the risers to the backside of the stage. There is no ideal viewing position, so feel free to walk around and try out different perspectives. Enjoy.”

            In the programme note Heike Langsdorf says a few more things on that invitation to the spectators to choose themselves what they’d like to look at and from where. She compares it to public space, “an environment where encounters can take place between sometimes very different kinds of people.” In our current superdiverse society many “viewing cultures” and ideas about art exist next to one another – is here a conversation possible? Mount Tackle announces itself as a concrete experiment that seeks to explore how this multiplicity can affect a performance in the theatre.

            On the risers a few rows of chairs are taken out and replaced by cushions. The familiar gap between house and stage is disguised by a construction of platforms. Large strips of dance floor are draped diagonally across the space, shielding off part of the back wall, then touching the floor, rising again over the auditorium or coming to an end somewhere on the risers. Centre stage sits a mountain composed of large inflatable cushions, stacks of blankets, some plastic bags with hay, books, small objects and props, and underneath all of this two human bodies of which only a hand and a foot are visible. At the side there is a seating corner with snacks. Elsewhere pieces of string hang like loose ends over a clothesline, a black man with a mask quietly takes a nap, plastic bottles and tennis balls are scattered here and there, and much more. Between all of this a few dozens of spectators are hanging around. Where to begin in this tangle of people and things, nooks and crannies?

            During one and a half hours this space will slowly transform, produce various casual encounters with people and things, and evoke all manner of associations. Is this an urban picnic? A festival? A refugee camp maybe? Such images provide you with something to hold onto, yet they also crumble in the hybrid current of emerging relations. There is happening both very little and a lot in Mount Tackle, it is a performance in which you continuously try to connect fragments of experience and also observe that process. What is this actually all about?




Although Mount Tackle presents itself as an installation, it is also a performance with a precisely composed dramaturgy. Many planned events direct the attention in a subtle way, like minimal choreographies in which people, things and noises come together. (The credits mention some fifteen collaborators and they’re all active in the space, even though they can’t be distinguished from the spectators so easily, as many of their interventions happen in a sense ‘undercover’.) A performer puts on a green jacket, distributes hay to people, drags a table across the stage and overthrows a crate with glass bottles. A whole group of spectators follows the tinkling noise to then stand there looking at the overthrown bottles, while just behind them the black man with the mask continues his nap. And otherwise nothing happens. Or? Various concrete sounds are picked up via microphones and amplified, just like the lighting creates zoom effects. A photographer takes pictures all the time, while someone else makes film clips with a Smartphone. Isn’t it above all the various media that produce attention and meaning here? Sometimes you only see the curious faces of other spectators flocking together and trying to get a glimpse of something.

            From the risers you don’t see much more of all this than spectators walking back and forth in search of connections and meaning. Mount Tackle hardly undertakes attempts to activate the traditional audience space. In a sense Mount Tackle behaves deliberately indifferently towards the familiar contract with the spectator: on the risers you experience more acutely than elsewhere the failure of the ideal viewing position. It makes me wonder about ‘literacy’ in the arts and elsewhere – what knowledge and skills do we need to deal with today’s complex world? For Heike Langsdorf and co the theatre and the bourgeois culture it entails, are only one possible viewing culture in this world. Does the theatre then only appear in a ruinous state? No, because like in no other art form the obsessive quest for meaning is a social endeavour in the theatre – not so much because everyone shares a single fiction, but because everyone is also observer and mutual witness of this process of searching and groping in the dark. Yet that doesn’t bring us much closer to the ninety nine other viewing cultures that Mount Tackle hopes to activate.




Halfway the performance all the lights dim, the clamour subsides and a single spot lights a turning golden rod, so that a flicker travels through the whole space. Like a weak winter sun it lights up the walls and the ceiling, the technical rig and the clear space above the auditorium.




On the risers someone hands out potato chips to some spectators who are sending text messages or chatting quietly. The nibbling and the rustling of the bag are not exactly familiar in the theatre, but remind one of the dark movie theatre in which social intercourse and corporeal engagement follow a different set of rules and media.




At the matinee on Sunday also children are welcome, and with three dozen they’re hanging around in the theatre, not to say they’re often overwhelming the event. In the quest for a diverse audience and other viewing cultures it is a brilliant intervention that activates a different imagination. Children do symbolize an unencumbered gaze and the renewal of the world – yet in Mount Tackle this is to be taken literally as well, for the children are not quite bothered with the theatre codes, they love making a mess and they just go their way in this multiple paradise. Oh, what all those mommies and daddies come up with! A blond girl of about three years old wears a cute white pullover that reads: ‘In the mountains’.




On Saturday a performer is sweeping and gathering hay in between. I hear her sigh: “Where does all this confetti between the hay come from? That confetti was supposed to stay in the bag, you know, confetti as potentiality!” On Sunday another performer tells me laughingly while we’re rolling over grey blankets on the floor: “Wow, today it’s just a barn in here with all that hay!”




Near the end of the performance the mountain is dismantled, the centre cleared and everywhere people are involved in cleaning actions to make way for several new assemblages and installations. The smallest objects are ordered on a small wooden staircase as if it were a stand at the flea market. Other things and flowers end up in an apocryphal altar of sorts. Elsewhere someone starts to fold clothes. In between some Arabian pop tune resounds from a Smartphone. A few spectators extend a helping hand.

            Cleaning up, ordering, arranging. The actions are clear, and also the emerging constellations are more or less familiar. After looking, reading, listening and documenting in the first part, now a careful invitation for participation seems to come to the fore. Or better: the gaze shifts from theatre and installation towards media and viewing cultures that revert to rituals and everyday practices. And yet Mount Tackle relentlessly reaches beyond recognition, its multiplication of viewing cultures is experimental and speculative (and not an anthropological study, let alone a target group strategy). The walls of the theatre keep all too intrusive images and worldly concerns outside the door, so that something else can come into being.

            Both the gaze and the quest for meaning operate inevitably via recognition, that is via a familiar, shared language. Yet the most striking aspect of Mount Tackle are not the cultural fragments and quotations that provide you with hold, but their material power. As installation and performance Mount Tackle is literally an environment, in which all manner of things are sitting around – objects, clutter, stuff, trinkets, gadgets. Sometimes these things are brought to ‘speak’, for example by arranging them or in a small noise concert with a contact microphone. But as often the things remain mute, they’re apparently nothing more than meaningless clutter we don’t know how to handle. This recalcitrant materiality also makes clear that a good deal of  the actions – of performers and collaborators, but also your own experiences and thoughts as a spectator – are equally stuck in making do or remain dangling. What exactly is at stake here?

            In a sense Mount Tackle balances all the time on the threshold of the unfamiliar, that turning point where meaning emerges (or not), where new experiences and insights slumber, yet without staring you in the face. Sensory experience and materiality go hand in hand with excessive pause for reflection, precisely because there is always happening too much or too little. Mount Tackle is a performance without punch line, manual or shared fiction, yet it isn’t a gratuitous experiment in which you are getting lost all the time. It’s actually quite wonderful how a large group of people is at ease during one and a half hours in this informal, open situation without binding narrativity. What knowledge and skills do we need to deal with today’s complex world?

Heike Langsdorf and co are searching for answers first and foremost in reflection on our concrete handling of everyday things and technologies that mediate our doings, that steer our senses and imagination. Mount Tackle invites everyone to collaborate in a playful, experimental form of ‘material semiotics’ in which the usual meanings are  suspended. In this game I became time and again aware how precarious that search for a different, non-instrumental attention and ‘material literacy’ actually is. While you’re giving the unfamiliar and the making-do a temporary place, you cannot but take care of the foreign that emerges in this relation. That is making world, in an alternative and modest way.


I saw Mount Tackle in the framework of Burning Ice #10 at the Kaaitheater in Brussels on 3 and 4 December 2016.



Credits Mount Tackle

by Heike Langsdorf | in co-creation with Lilia Mestre (performance matters, overall), David Helbich (acoustic matters), Ief Spincemaille (scenografic matters), Michaël Janssens (assisting space and light), Anna Luyten (important talks & performance), Raquel Santana De Morais (drawings), Mathieu Hendrickx (Mount Tackle, the video), Kristof Van Baarle (artistic dialogue), Christoph Ragg (all levels, from day one), Tiziana Penna (audience matters), Karlien Torfs, Wayaba Tokpwi, Dieudonné Zoko, Adil Mabchour (joining the process) | administrative shelter Krul vzw | co-production Kaaitheater, Buda, Vooruit, Vrijstaat O./De Werf, Kunstenwerkplaats Pianofabriek | support KASK – School of Arts / Ghent, de Vlaamse Gemeenschap, de Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie, Casco Leuven | big thanks Didier Annicq, Sébastien Hendrickx