Strategies of adaptation

Some points of entry and exit concerning Damaged Goods’ Highway 101

A-Prior 1 Dec 2001English

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Contextual note
This essay was was first published in a special issue of A-Prior (no. 6, Dec. 2000, pp. 68-81) devoted to the work of Meg Stuart. The translation as reviewed for this digital republication on Sarma.

Where should one begin a broad approach to the work of Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods, one that strives to appreciate the multitude of images and ideas in this work? An approach that is not historical, nor one that understands in-depth theorising as trotting out philosophers or the creation of a coherent discourse? The latter already happens anyway with too much obviousness, while the work exactly circles around opposing forces. So why not just double the multiplicity, on the basis of analyses and reflections, restricted in this case to the recent project Highway 101? Not right away though – too many false tracks and phantom structures can be tedious in an essay (which necessarily has a different stake than a performance). It is an informed critique, one that is linked to thoughts emanating from Meg Stuart herself in interviews, but this still does not make it an intentional critique; after all, “The issue happens afterwards,” as Stuart herself puts it. And keeps happening, so why not in a reading route that permits different themes to be linked at their own discretion and possibly reminds one of memories of viewing experiences? Printed from A to Z, but readable in any order.


Adaptation. In an interview at the outset of Highway 101 in March 2000, Meg Stuart ends our discussion with an open question. The project brings to a head in a hundred and one ways the idea of being able to live in several time-spaces, so that technology and body took part in the same psychosis. Stuart wanted to reflect upon this typical human phenomenon: “I think that we live in numerous spaces, that this sort of thing is completely natural for us. The same goes for the way we experiment with time. People want to prepare their body and mental state for the future, by investigating their relationships with all kinds of human conditions. The extent to which science is already experimenting with people, by genetic manipulation for example, is also not always clear. Not that I feel the need to make statements about this in an ethical sense; but the relationships that people have to all sorts of media in scientific research make it clear that we easily adapt ourselves. I ask myself why we adapt things so easily.” A twofold process, but with a clear direction: we bend things to our will, and behave like chameleons in various contexts, driven by the desire to exceed ourselves. A desire for flexibility and infinity, for an open end, as the possible beginning of a long and widely branching route.


Architecture. The opening scene of the first stage of Highway 101 in Brussels took place in a glass-floored roof conservatory, visible from the foyer of the Kaaitheater studios. The audience was requested to lie on the ground and watch the choreography behind the glass floor a number of metres higher. Standing, sitting and lying dancers mark this strange, small space through simple but frenetic figures, the glass wall only serving to increase the unreality of the spectacle. As the pendant choreography of the lying spectators emphasises, the space occupied by the public is not what it is, not limiting itself to being a place for viewing, but a place that is expanding, as though it is breathing.

In its simplicity it is a key scene, setting the tone for the whole project: it questions the status of the real space as well as that space’s traditional metaphorical function. No other metaphor has determined our thinking about body, image and identity more than architecture, characterised by verticality, unity, the demarcation of an inside and so on. In Highway 101 the architecture represents a constant occasion to fan out into a coexistence of spaces, in particular of real space, medial spaces and audience space. The architecture is merely a starting point for a growing accumulation of different sorts of spaces that intersect one another and become fluid. This instability continues in a vertigo of mental and imaginary spaces, and has the effect of unhinging any metaphorical congruence or identity.


Archive. Highway 101 was a complex network in which the theme of memory regularly recurred. In view of the large part played by video in the project there was a large archive of images available, but the dancers themselves were also like a physical archive of material relating to movement and elsewhere raked up stories from their personal history. One of the things that documentation basically allows is to run off with certain scenes and to create them again elsewhere, as a remix let’s say: Soft Wear was developed in two parallel versions (see Morphing), the lounge returned several times, each time acquiring different meanings (see Intimacy), other scenes could be viewed from several points of view (see Route). Or take The House, acted out in Zurich in a precise reproduction of the Viennese set. Rather than talk about original and copy, the issue that was posed there had to do with re-creation, the re-experiencing of something that was the same and yet different. A false memory?

The archive not only has links with the past, but can also include dead end traces of our memory, phantom paths that go hand in hand with absence or loss, false memories; it allows us to experiment with the future. Highway 101 has continually created its own context with that entirety of relationships and has thus ultimately imploded. Although documentation provides the possibility of seeing yourself in the past, that suddenly appeared to be no longer possible. Because of the accumulation of the archive the performers were no longer in a position to take distance from the material: the archive took on enormous proportions that were no longer controllable.


Exit. During Highway 101’s first stop in the Kaaitheater studios in Brussels, the public was led through the building by the performers, with the simple summons “Please follow me to the next exit.” The route was connected to the image of the highway, with the stations of the performance being something like a series of exits. Strange, since in the theatre you usually expect to gain entrance to something happening, to share a space of time. So can this talk about exits be reconciled with theatre? In Highway 101 it is perhaps more a matter of an invitation to leave the theatre (in a figurative sense), away from a clearly demarcated time-space shared by audience and performers. Anyway, the performers too are stepping into and out of the event, alternating the role of performer and guide.

The sharing thus appears to crumble, but not right away. The personal experience of what is happening is suddenly broken up. “Please follow me to the next exit” terminates the theatrical illusion, the very announcement of the next exit is the exit itself. The spectator’s self-experience is very ambiguous at least for that one moment – it connects the theatre with what lies outside it, so that the ambiguity also spreads out over both sides. The theatre no longer fulfils the traditional function of ‘outlet’, namely of a defined entity in which the mind can reflect itself and, in so doing, cherish the illusion of coinciding or at least being congruent with what is taking place within that frame. This may sound as though any further discussion is put paid to, but the awareness of subjectivity is somewhat different in Highway 101: the subject is split, and the mirror also broken. The lucidity lies in the lack of an image, the lack of theatre, rather than in a consistent view of the split subject. The exit offers not a way out, but a view onto nothing, a gaping. And announces at the same time, with degree of irony, a subsequent exit.


Experience. The starting point of a still unwritten Highway 101 was the idea of developing a hundred and one simple ‘Tasks/Dances’ which could be brought together and performed in various contexts. “The tasks are not static exercices but are open for improvisation and accidents. In this work the performance and process are blurred. Movement never stands alone but attempts, sometimes inadequately, sometimes eloquently to redefine an experience.” (Meg Stuart in the Laboratorium programme brochure).

In Highway 101, images cannot be thought about separately from their performativity (see also Morphing), and point moreover to the viewer being integrated in these processes. This is important, since by weaving the image with the experience of the viewer – in contrast to a detached visual relationship – not only is the viewer’s involvement greater, but new possibilities also open up for the performance itself. The fundamental participation of the spectator is precisely what allows a game with his/her identity to be elicited, thereby questioning to a far-reaching degree the notion of subjectivity – namely in such a way that theatrical and other reality levels seem to merge unashamedly.


Figure/ground. As soon as figures are able to be distinguished from a ground they become readable, included in a visual frame of reference. That frame is in the meantime coded in the most diverse ways, so that its deconstructions are likewise many-sided. Meg Stuart uses this familiar form of visuality as a vehicle for choreographing depth, playing for example with the distance and closeness of a dancer in the space, or by merging 2D and 3D (see also Medium). Simple inversions of figure and ground can already induce totally new perceptions, with whole structures of meaning starting to shift.

Within the framework of Highway 101 in the Kaaitheater studios in Brussels, the French video artist Magali Desbazeille was invited to present an installation which she developed together with Meg Stuart during a workshop at the Le Fresnoy art school: Sand table. On a glass table lies a fist-thick layer of sand onto which a video of a recumbent dancer is projected. The dance passage appears to have been recorded just before in the same space during a floor choreography, and has already just settled as such into the viewer’s memory. While different mental pictures crystallise in the projection, a performer begins to toss around in the sand mass, thus manipulating the projection surface and the appearance of the image. It seems to be an attempt at endowing the image with volume, to bring it back to life. In an absurd way a current image is trying to conform like a mimicry to an exploding figure from the past, ending in the neurasthenia of a present that no longer recognises its own place.


Hyperrealism. The rear wall in one of the Kaaitheater studios has an open middle section that looks out onto a staircase and can be closed with curtains; above this there are sliding doors on the left and right giving out onto rooms of an in-between floor. In this setting a series of everyday scenes are put on, but somewhat differently than The House in Vienna: projections onto the white doors are also shown. The actions do not bear much resemblance to reality for very long, being visible only when they are taking place in front of the wall, or on the staircase or when the doors are slid open and the viewer can see right into the rooms. Or rather, he looks at them as though it is a sort of ‘tableau’, framed by a window. Sometimes the doors close and you see a projection, sometimes a performer leaves by the staircase, ending up in the projection above. ‘Live’ recordings are thus being made and projected. But as the video image slips by it becomes clear that previously recorded images are also being used, shown in themselves, or mixed with a live recording, or changing over into the performance itself, so that it’s no longer clear whether this is still actually taking place ‘live’.

In this ingenious piling up of images different levels of reality become blurred and at least one grand narrative that has clung to dance since modernism perishes, namely the notion of transience, of here-and-nowness, of livelier than live, or whatever ‘real’ that may be ascribed to performance. At the most we can distinguish degrees of visuality, so clearly the world of Damaged Goods is paved with images. In that excess it not only leaves reality far behind, but it is also no longer possible to isolate the image as entity, since it is absorbed into a chain of transpositions – which are visible and thus also reveal their performativity. The very doubling of images just makes reality – or is this only simply a presence on stage? – more real so as to end up as hyperrealism, an excess in which the image celebrates itself.


In situ. With Highway 101, Damaged Goods abandoned the conventional theatre for the first time in years in order to work on location – the only precedent in this sense is the project This is the Show and the Show is Many Things (1994), where performers made interventions between the public and works of art in the Museum for Contemporary Art in Ghent. Working on location does not mean per se that it is a question of site specific work, but it does mean that the issue of the theatrical context crops up, now that the self-evidence of the black box is no longer available. The theatre steps explicitly outside its aesthetic of disappearance, whereby all manner of contextual phenomena are suddenly able to trickle in freely. This also requires the artists to deal with this context, to form it into a specific context for the work.

In Highway 101 it was mainly this latter dynamic that was important, rather than the direct anticipation of an urban or political context – a question that at the Viennese stop was posed by a lot of people in connection with the participation of the extreme right-wing FPÖ in the government of Austria. The architecture of the buildings in which the work was performed certainly provided a direct reason to structure the choreographies and to ascribe new meanings to the building (see Architecture), as well to trace the route along which the spectators were led (see Route). By moving from city to city the past also created a context, since memory clings to material, ideas and scenes, so that Highway 101 created its own context on the basis of its archive, and was ultimately overwhelmed by it as well (see Archive).


Intimacy. For Highway 101’s stop in Vienna the dramaturg Stefan Pucher designed a large space with fixed carpeting, sofas, tables and salon lamps in which the audience and performers could encounter each other – The Lounge. This space also returned later in the project, as the surroundings for scenes involving direct confrontations between viewers and performers – a new way of working for Damaged Goods –, thereby eliciting a variety of questions.

In Vienna this is the first space that the audience enters, after which it takes its place and gradually notices that dancers are carrying out small interventions amongst them, all the time visible for a few people around them: they jump up and down on a sofa, or use everyday gestures to point at the surveillance cameras set up in the salon. The setting emphasises the intimacy in several respects: the closeness of the performers, the visibility of their actions within a restricted circle. The apparent comfort of the lounge all too soon appears to have another side: in a subtle but effective manner, the surveillance cameras reveal the fiction of privacy and thwart the intimacy. The lounge is an enlarged social space, in which the conforming of the private in a public perspective is made strikingly visible. “You are not in the right position” Stuart calls to an innocent spectator, after which the person corrects himself, “That’s better!”.

In the Raffinerie in Brussels the scene in the lounge is a sort of apotheosis, which obviously gives it a more theatrical function. The audience know in the meantime who the performers are and choose straight away for a more external relationship to the lounge, either by watching from the outside or by a conscious desire to participate. The performers exploit the audience’s theatrical self-consciousness by hyperbolising it (interventions are this time more blatant, such as a staged fight), or by returning the gaze of the spectators by cornering them with a plastic smile for minutes on end. At the same time the viewer is able to follow the registration of his own behaviour on monitors, see how he looks at himself, so as to establish that this is not so very different from the excesses presented by the dancers. In an attempt to remain serious the spectator himself starts ‘acting’, but then in a very ordinary way, caught between image and performance that double the external gaze upon oneself (see also Overexposure).

The performances finish with an after-party, with the lounge once again serving as a meeting place. The spectator then has even more freedom to put on his own act, to try out the salons and the surveillance cameras undisturbed (unseen?). Is this a desire to perform oneself, or to get everything sorted out again, to erect once again the fiction of the private in a direct and thus intimate relationship with the camera? (see also Private).


Landscape. The emancipation of dancers has meant that the traditional structure of a single cane-wielding choreographer has already disappeared for quite a while from many dance companies, and this goes too for Damaged Goods. Yet Highway 101 went further in demolishing authorship: besides choreographer Meg Stuart, dramaturg and scenographer Stefan Pucher, video artist Jorge Leon and a permanent core of performers (Simone Aughterlony, Heine R. Avdal, Nuno Bizarro, Varinia Canto Vila, Ugo Dehaes, Davis Freeman, Eric Grondin, Rachid Ouramdane and Yukiko Shinozaki), the group was open to numerous exchanges with guest artists during the tour. In no way did the road proceed from A to Z; in addition to stops between March 2000 and March 2001 (Brussels-Kaaitheaterstudio’s, Vienna-Emballagenhallen, Paris-Centre Pompidou, Brussels-Raffinerie, Rotterdam-TENT and Zürich-Schauspielhaus), the project branched out into numerous side projects that in their turn also fructified (or disturbed) the series of performances. Solos and video performances were separated and presented elsewhere. The reverse happened as well: after a residence at Le Fresnoy art school in France, Stuart invited a number of artists to show their work under the auspices of Highway 101, in Vienna the performance was followed each time by a different DJ set. A total structure as a landscape, aiming at a variety of trajectories and hence well nigh infinite.

One noteworthy side project was Highway Journal, a magazine dealing with themes connected to the work of Damaged Goods, but with little explanatory function. In each city where Highway 101 stopped, an editor was appointed who chose a theme and put together an issue in the local language, supplemented with an English translation. In their introduction to the third instalment of Highway Journal, Myriam Van Imschoot and Rudi Laermans, who worked out the magazine’s general concept, also situate it in the limitless cluster of activities: “The Highway Journal operates according to the double logic of the prosthesis. On the one hand it is an appendix – perhaps superfluous – while on the other hand it also wants to intervene on the body of which it is an extension. In both cases the prosthesis is not so much complementing and completing the body; quite on the contrary it is presenting the body as radically ‘illimitable’.”


Mediated body. The Vienna stop of Highway 101 was presented in the framework of a festival expounding the theme ReMembering the Body, which was also the name of a book edited by Gabriele Brandstetter and Hortensia Völckers. The title brings up an apposite metaphor indicative of a paradox: ‘corporeality’ is a theme that is enjoying unprecedented popularity, while the body today is particularly remote, abstracted in images, letters and numbers. Remembering is first of all aimed at the role played by memory in marking out a symbolic space, the configuration of the body as a bearer of identity. A body, after all, is never what it is. Which immediately gives rise to the paradox that the body is always mediated, and disintegrates into splinters and pieces since it attaches itself to various contexts, not least those promoted by new technologies. ‘Re-Membering’ is thus in a second movement the gluing together of the pieces as well. This memory is the theme of Damaged Goods’ work, not so much out of nostalgia, but out of a recognition of the political status of the body.

During the first stop in Brussels, an installation was presented in which a dancer got going, surrounded by a dozen surveillance cameras and monitors. The continual registration from different corners directly influences the movements of the performer, the body explicitly relating itself to its traces on the monitors. The intervention of technology enables to fragment and compose the body, the camera working as a machine to redirect the body. A technological system intervenes on the body, in search of a new unity and control, a streamlined image. Yet the machine remains a prosthesis, a remainder that does not allow itself to be internalised – while in its intimacy with images the body also reveals itself as recalcitrant towards the technological condition. Meg Stuart inscribes noise by making the paradox of a mediated body visible: the new unity and control is inevitably linked with a fragmentation of the body – because of an imperfectly executed aesthetic of disappearance there is ‘snow’ on the image.


Medium. The House – Vienna version. A large wall full of windows, doors and a staircase, dancers walking in front and behind, looping their movements (see Repetition). A bit later two dancers use an intermediate floor in order to create a trompe l’oeil: of the one dancer you only see the upper body, of the other the lower body. Handy use is made of the windows in order to slice the image, like a montage taking place on the spot. The actions and manipulations performed by the dancers could be described as ‘live footage’.

Notice, though, that The House is also characterised by a spatial implosion. Pretty much all the actions take place at wall height, adjusting themselves to a single surface. Three dimensions are reduced to two, Meg Stuart herself referring to the ‘flatness’ as a simulation of video.

The specificity of the one medium is appropriated by the other, video principles internalised in the body, in choreography and theatre. A confusion of disciplines leads to changes in our perception and in so doing steers how we reflect on this. A staged confusion of disciplines, in other words, which in one movement makes the conditions of our viewing visible. Is that not the heart of what we call ‘performance’?


Morphing. A crucial aspect in A choreographic laboratory was the transplantation of a model from computer technology onto the dancing body and onto the structuring of a choreography. Morphing means the transition of one situation into another and lends itself excellently to fiddling around with the status of the image and its performativity, and hence to playing with identity and forms of self-manipulation. That game with different presences was one of the things that took shape in a solo improvisation by the dancer Varinia Canto Vila, in which the basis for Soft Wear was established – a solo that developed in parallel with a second version of it by Meg Stuart herself.

Danced on the spot, Canto Vila’s appearance during Soft Wear changes completely several times in a short time span, the body slowly twisting, the face grimacing. A familiar image slides into an obscene mask, a strange image that seems stuck to the skin and all of a sudden places the viewer at an enormous distance. And then the picture tilts further, raising a new mask. Canto Vila makes it impossible for the viewer to get close to the image.

The possibility of combining very different images and experiences in a short time is what Stuart calls “the speed of dance as a medium. It’s not like butoh, where one imagines one is a rock for example. It’s more to do with the desire to be an image, and then not – something like a billboard.” Which directly translates into her idea about identity: “I no longer feel I’m a fixed presence. I cut parts of my identity out of their context.”

Stuart appeals to a completely different register in her version of Soft Wear, even though it is based on the same starting points. In the stream of images and morphings that she imposes on her own body there is no longer any place for the viewer, but she also comes a cropper herself. The obscenity reveals itself here in the lack of self-control, or rather in the excess of a stream of images that takes over.


Omnipresence. With surveillance cameras and monitors all around, confusion arose in Highway 101 about the spatio-temporal place of the ego. “It has to do with displacement and exchange, a confusion between am I there or is it a memory of myself? Is it real or not real, live or prerecorded? Which of all these moments is the present, what are we certain of?,” is how Stuart describes the situation. This fanning out of the ego can also be regarded as a redistribution in different spaces: for example, filmed in one space and projected live in another. At the same time the temporal status of the ego is multiple, but this is absorbed into the pretence of being present in a number of spaces, a sort of omnipresence. A presence that isn’t one, since it covers different charges, is eroded by several degrees of reality, but certainly underlines the idea that people can live in a number of time-spaces. It makes the manoeuvrability of the subject visible, and, through the unity of the image, covers up in a single movement its radical schizophrenia.

Note that this paradoxical omnipresence is underlined on the level of experience by the music. In the Kaaitheater studios in Brussels, for example, the viewer was free to walk around while an electronic soundscape by Bart Aga penetrated just about everywhere because of its abstraction and fluidity, like a creeping poison. The experience of unity and amiability stood in sharp contrast to the dissemination of identity in performances and video images, and made this close look at the human condition at once bearable and therefore possible.


Overexposure. In the solo piece I’m All Yours, Meg Stuart sits in an armchair and talks about herself with a somewhat theatrical irony. All the thoughts that occur to her are imparted as textual fragments, things like “This shirt is second hand.” or “I’ve only been raped once.” Almost nonchalantly she hands herself over to the public, employing small transgressions to make static claims of identity porous and undermining them. The human desire for identity and self-control is turned upside down.

Stuart says about this excessive exposure: “Sometimes I’m haunted by a sort of pornographic urge to expose everything, but at the same time to hide what it’s actually about. You’re showing a part of yourself and hiding a different part. For example the revealing of personal thoughts without really meeting the viewer’s wish to read someone’s thoughts. It’s about the fact that people control their minds and their desires most of the time.”

As part of Highway 101 – the opening scene in the Raffinerie in Brussels – the solo comes over more pregnantly. This time the audience is close by, but behind glass doors. While Stuart carries out an extensive dialogue with herself, her performance is also projected live onto a large screen behind her. Now it seems even more as though she is talking a load of nonsense, ranging from outpourings about herself to remarks about the people around her. It seems as though the staging is making her lose her identity: the gaze of the camera singling her out on video, the group of spectators doing the same. Stuart incorporates all these gazes, tries to resist them with words, yet only manages to communicate a load of chaos.

Overexposure is thus more than an excessive self-revelation making apparent the performer’s self-control. What is fundamental is precisely the playing of oneself, a theatre that necessarily involves a viewer. The identity centre lies outside the self in daily life as well, of course, the self only being able to constitute itself by means of a self-projection of fantasies evoked through the gaze of the other. Is not overexposure rather a dissection of this process, a recognition that identity depends on exposure, and on the unceasing denial of this?


Private. In Private Room we see a closed room on a large video screen, in which a young man (the performer Rachid Ouramdane) is sitting in an armchair, watched by a surveillance camera. In front of the screen, Meg Stuart is sitting in the same armchair and giving a commentary on what the man is doing: “You are not in the right position” or “Don’t try so hard.” There are connections between the exhortations spoken live and the recorded actions on video. But we can only guess at exactly how they are connected: is the man on the screen aware of what is happening live, does he know he is being looked at, not only by a camera but also by a performer and a whole group of spectators?

“How can the private become public through projection?”, is what Stuart is asking herself. Because projection presumes a registration and thus a camera, the private has to be viewed in order to make it public. There lies a paradox in this practice, since the private resists visibility, it wants to be unseen – and in this it contains a different claim than that of identity: it incorporates not a multitude of gazes but withdraws from them in order to realise a unity (see also Overexposure). This tension floats nicely to the surface: the man in the room seems not to know that he is being looked at, or perhaps he doesn’t want to know. The will resists the gaze, prompts a desire for the private; and at the same time the technology cuts through this private space, pushing it beyond volition and thereby revealing its dynamics.


Process. The seeds of Highway 101 were established in September 1999 in Antwerp, where Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods contributed a Choreographic laboratory to Laboratorium, an exhibition project curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Barbara Vanderlinden. Starting out from the confrontation between artistic and scientific methods, this interdisciplinary project raised such questions as “What do laboratories mean? What do experiments mean? When does an experiment become public and when does the result of an experiment receive public recognition?” (programme book).

In a few informal presentations Meg Stuart, a number of performers and a dramaturg attempted to connect two perspectives: a presentation of material which had been elaborated over a period of two weeks, as well as verbal explanation about the way in which this had been realised. This reflection could also be understood as a meta-level (an external perspective in retrospect), but rather it poses the question as to the process, by tracing it and insisting on a different status for it (it is in this claim that the actual meta-level lies). What we usually approach as an image to be deciphered, as a static piece of information, can no longer be detached here from its past, from the artistic process. The dismantling of representation in the temporality of processes thus consists in part of a referring back, requiring the viewer to then project this mode of time as well. (See also Experience).


Repetition. Towards the end of the Viennese stop of Highway 101, the audience comes together and watches at a distance a large wall full of windows, doors and a staircase – a scene that is known as The House. Dancers walk up and down in front and behind. Two dancers each walk from right to left behind a window, time and time again. Repetition within a limited spatial frame is a method that Meg Stuart often uses to structure time. At the same time, what the material and scene consist of is made banal, reduced to a non-event, so as to foreground the patterns themselves and hence the succinctness of their clear spatio-temporal alliance. As a choreographic principle, this repetition allows for a series of manipulations of a single movement or gesture: such as acceleration and slowing down, spatial expansion and condensing, transposition, as well as combinations and extensions of these.

Two dancers each walk from right to left behind a window, time and time again. Yet you never see them return from left to right, this bit has been cut out as it were. What makes use of possibilities of repetition on a choreographic level appears at the same time to be organised according to a montage principle borrowed from video – the dancers are ‘looping’ their movements. Is this still simply a case of choreography? (See also Medium).


Route. At each of Highway 101’s stops in six cities the performances were structured as a route through a building. Each space provided specific possibilities for the performers to work out scenes, and the moving around of the viewer meant that he experienced the space in a conscious way. The special thing about a route is that space allows itself to be easily connected with memory. Think for example of the mnemonic device of associating a list of items you want to remember with particular corners in your own house, so that you can call up the list again by means of an imaginary route. This mental regaining in a spatial construction was an important choreographic principle in Highway 101: it encouraged the spectators to make their own connections between the various scenes, which at first sight sometimes had little to do with each other.

Take the stop in the Raffinerie in Brussels, where the audience stood in the courtyard watching a choreography taking place on the fire escape. This became even more meaningful a little later when the spectators were led across this staircase and in so doing looked down upon their own absence in the same courtyard. At the same time it was possible to see from the staircase into the space in which beforehand very intimate confrontations were taking place and thus at least to literally take distance from them. Gradually a choreographic structure unfolded in the head of the viewer, guided by the combination of places and points of view with particular scenes, with different reading viewpoints resonating with each other. The entirety of staged and random remixes involves a doubling of the spatial route into a temporary counterpart in the viewer’s head.


Surveillance. A lot of the material for Highway 101 originated in relation to media, the surveillance camera in particular forming a leitmotif throughout the project and tying in with various themes. It is the camera (coupled with projection) that introduces and choreographs watching and being watched, with the system itself being expressly visible. A conscious involvement of the performers and spectators with the phenomenon results in the place of the body and its visibility appearing more clearly (see Mediated body). A process of documentation and reproduction causes confusion to arise about the status of real presence and the traces of this on image media (see Hyperrealism), with the recording of spectators also redefining their experience of what is happening (see Experience). The surveillance camera ‘sees’ and makes a great deal of processes visible, but it also intervenes in the private sphere (see Private), allowing body and behaviour to be redrawn (see Intimacy). Because as an instrument of documentation it also constructs a memory (see Archive), the surveillance camera ultimately leads to hypothetical spheres in which various modes of temporality are merged (see Omnipresence), and false memories also become reality.


Spectator. The spectator was assigned a crucial role in Highway 101, through choreographing his paths through the spaces, through direct relations with the performers, through a game with intimacy and identity, through the importance of watching, through the merging of experience and the construction of meaning. In addition, the spectators are also treated in several scenes as a group, so as to redefine audience space in terms of group choreographies. Take, for example, the invitation to the spectators to go and lie on the ground in the very first scene of the project (see Architecture). A few scenes later the audience is herded together in the small courtyard of the Kaaitheater studios, and unashamedly looked at by the performers through the windows. A simple, yet effective gesture that points out to the public its presence.

In Vienna the audience had to proceed slowly as a group through a long corridor, while it was being obstructed by a living wall of performers and thus had to negotiate as it were every metre forwards. Midway this experience gained a counterpart in the projection of a mass of people, shot from a bird’s eye view, on a large screen. For a moment there was some confusion as to whether the audience’s own struggle in the corridor was being recorded live and projected, an idea that disappeared as the camera climbed higher and showed hundreds of people. Once again a bridge between experience and image – the video actualised the viewers’ realisation that as a mass they form one large body occupying the space – which raises the issue of where the choreography actually ends: is it the performers or the spectators themselves who are defining the expansion of audience space?

This expansion of audience space can also lead to excesses in which roles become blurred and even the identity of the performance itself becomes uncertain as a result. In the Schauspielhaus in Zurich a large glass cage in the foyer offers space to a restaurant. The spectators of Highway 101 found themselves in the somewhat darkened foyer watching a scene taking place at one of the tables in the restaurant, with other restaurant visitors all around unaware that anything strange was going on. On the other side of the cage a performer is explicitly demanding attention, and is being watched through the restaurant. The place where the performance was happening was suddenly totally unclear, since the relationships between performers, audience and random visitors made any unequivocality impossible in an accumulation of conscious and unconscious actions and viewing experiences, the relations between these, and the meta-levels and confusions that they provoked. The impulse for this excess was provided, it is true, by the Damaged Goods performers, but was immediately afterwards surpassed by a multitude of activities that were beyond their control. If there’s no performance without an audience, can there still be an audience without a performance?



The observations in this article are mainly based on an examination of A choreographic laboratory (Antwerp, September 1999), Highway 101, particularly the stops in Brussels-Kaaitheaterstudio’s (March 2000), Vienna-Emballagenhallen (July 2000) and Brussels-La Raffinerie (December 2000), Private Room, Soft Wear (in the versions by Varinia Canto Vila and Meg Stuart) and I’m All Yours, as well as on the publication Highway 101 – The Journal. In addition I conducted two interviews with Meg Stuart, in Brussels on 6 March 2000 (published in Tijd Cultuur,15 March 2000) and in Salzburg on 14 July 2001, and had discussions with Tine Van Aerschot (Brussels, 7 December 2000) and Heine R. Avdal and Yukiko Shinozaki (Kortrijk, 1 February 2001).