Danish artist Inga Gerner Nielsen presents her work a few weeks ahead the Eutopia Dystopia performance in Turin.
Eutopia Dystopia is a project aimed to open a collective reflection around the European identity. As an artist, why did you choose to deal with this topic?
It was around the time of the Brexit vote, that Edoardo Montenegro from TwLetteratura and I met to develop a European project together. I had a strong feeling that I had to do something to activate my own active citizenship as a European. That I wanted to engage in the debates of what EU should be/come. At the time, I had the feeling that as individuals we were missing out on an important moment in history, where we could actually seek to influence the future of European democracy before it was too late. I felt that for Danes the European Union has primarily been an economic entity we connect with trade and borders. Not like for some other countries, where the EU flag is actually associated with peace.
It is important for me to say that I am not advocating for how the European Union functions today per sé. I am advocating for us to engage in building a collective vision for how we would want it to be. Especially at a time where it is so necessary that the big institutional apparatuses work with us to ensure a sustainable world. I needed to find a way to become personally engaged as a European in the first place. I think identity is very linked to the stories we tell. So, what is my personal story as a European citizen? I started to wonder how our possible connection to being European shows itself in everyday life. We so often experience national feelings. Such as the specific taste of a cake, the sound of a song sung in one of our many dialects, the sensation of how the air smells like when you come out of the airplane. But do we ever have such an experience of feeling European, at all?
Towards a changed mode of perception
Your approach is very intimate and personal, placing the utmost importance in sharing and one-to-one interaction. During the performance the participants are gradually accompanied into another dimension, where senses and feelings play a key role. Why is this process so important in this work?
Yes, my genre is immersive performance. This means that every audience is met by a performer, who introduces them subtly how to engage sensuously and personally with the performance installation. Because to experience my immersive performances, you must let yourself be guided into a changed mode of perception. This might be why you describe it as another dimension. This artwork can’t be experienced by your eyes only. It is experienced by your hands. By moving around the space. And, in the case of Eutopia Dystopia, behind closed eyelids; in your own memory.
In many of my performances, there is no artwork before the audience steps into the installation. In fact, half of the work of art only exists in the perception of the singular audience. Therefore, I train performers to acquire insight to their audience’s inner world.
Eutopia Dystopia is also an art-based research project focused on exploring the audience personal memories from their everyday lives. Engaging all the senses is a technique to sensuously activate their memory. And possibly find out whether there are sensuous memory of European identity to be found.
The twist of the performance is that we first introduce you to the framework of a far away yet very close dystopian future. But actually you will never come to know much about this future scenario. On the contrary, you will be led to look back at your current life – as a memory.
The social reading component of the project
How will you integrate the social reading activity on Betwyll with the performance installation?
As part of the archive we will place some of the texts by European authors that have also been read and commented on with Betwyll. We use this to look into stories which might have formed the collective dreams of Europe. We will collect some of the comments published by the students on the Betwyll app, type them onto small pieces of paper and place them next to the texts in our archive. In the performance, this works as a kind of nostalgic remembrance of how we used to share reflections and building collective stories in bigger online communities (meaning: how we share reflections in online community today). It allows for students who won’t be able to come physically to the performance to contribute to the thinking in the project. I am very excited about this idea: that we can reach a broader audience by integrating a social reading technology as Betwyll in the performance.
The research phase
As the performance unfolds, a somatic archive will take shape, made of all the stories and memories shared by the audience. This will be complemented by all the messages shared on Betwyll. What use will you make of this material?
The performance accumulate an archive of stories, which will be shown as an exhibition within the installation. Once the performance is over, we will find a way to ‘archive the archive’, so to speak. The material will be used for the art-based research of Eutopia Dystopia, which professor Falk Heinrich from Aalborg University and his two research assistants, BA’s in Art & Technology Dagmar Milthers and Christine Grøn Borg, will write academic articles about.
A site-specific performance
Your Past Belongs to Them Now is an immersive site-specific performance that will take place at Polo del ‘900. What are the challenges and the opportunities of performing in a place that is not typically meant for performing arts?
Working site-specifically, we integrate the installation of Your Past Belongs to Them Now into the architecture of Polo del ‘900. During the rehearsals I have made different exercises with the performers around the rooms and hallways. This helps to develop the immersive dramaturgy of the performance. It can of course be challenging to make a piece of art in a place hosting as many different activities as Polo del ‘900. It is an important place for many groups and at the same time a vital part of the every-day routines of many individuals. So, it is important for me that everyone feels like it is still their place whilst we are working there. But the performance will also definitely come to produce a very different atmosphere from what they are used to. It is hard to explain what that atmosphere is – you have to come experience it. But I trust that people will feel the love for the place the performance is created out of.
Exploring the future
Coming back to the Eutopia Dystopia fiction, what is your position when thinking of the future? Has it changed while working on this project?
Thinking about it now, the site of Polo del ‘900 has lead me to ask whether stories of European identity will be read as a mode of resistance in a future where a technological rupture has changed European democracy drastically. In other words, is identifying as a European in Italy today a way to also resist nationalist political positions?
The character I will be performing as in the fiction of Eutopia Dystopia really believes this to be true. I will be embodying the part of my future self that is convinced that there was a European identity. And if people start to recall this particular feeling, it could serve as the foundation for starting to rebuild a vision for European democracy. Not everyone in the group will agree with this idea. And I am not all too sure that I agree with her/me entirely either. But fiction is a way to really unfold a perspective or attitude towards the future. Performance art can be a way for us to explore different ways of reacting in future scenarios. In this case by exploring how we could create a new archive of stories using immersive performance. And with this being a durational performance, what is now still an idea for a perspective will, hour by hour, transform into a lived experience of it.
Inga Gerner Nielsen has a BA in Sociology and a MA in Arts in Modern Culture. She is the co-founder of the performance collectives Club de la Faye and Fiction Pimps, as well as a partner in the futurist association House of Futures. Her artistic and scientific work is driven by her desire for framing and investigating how people experience and reflect upon the world. While studying sociology, she has developed new qualitative methods to document and study the subjective experience of performance art and the social situations it portrays. She is s a censor at Performance Design at Roskilde University and teaches courses in immersive strategies and performance documentation and research methods. Recently she’s been teaching Art in Context at Universität der Künste Berlin and New Performative Practices at DOCH, Stockholm University of the Arts.
Eutopia Dystopia is a two-year project realized with the support of Compagnia di San Paolo under “Bando CivICa, progetti di Cultura e Innovazione Civica”.