Deeper Into Findlay//Sandsmark: Interview with Iver Findlay Nov 10, 2015

by Erin

Findlay//Sandsmark's Iver Findlay talks with OtB Communications Director Erin Jorgensen about stage art, nostalgia, perception, Italian Neorealism, working with Young Jean Lee, and how stepping into a theater is embarrassing.


Erin: ...Maybe I can just throw some stuff at you and see what you have to say. I’m curious about how you got started...did you study theater at all? Or you just kind of ended up here?

Iver: I did, not really so willingly. What can I say about that? Did I study theater? Shit. I went to a school and I became interested in the idea of theater mostly coming from a background in music and film. And I liked the idea of something being live. So I was studying film, and I was kind of studying theater, but I couldn’t stand traditional theater, the kind of traditional theater that was being taught to me. Although I mean it wasn’t always…I was always interested in live performance from, you know, mostly coming from like a punk rock, music background and sort of being interested in this live event. And this live event somehow with my other artistic practice being working as a filmmaker, I became very interested in how that live event – how a film could be a live event. Or something like this. So I somehow got stuck and fixated on that.

Erin: That makes a lot of sense to me. I saw your piece in Oslo, and it’s like – in a theater – and I have the same problems, I guess. The perceptions that are set up, when you’re watching something on a stage, and like, having champagne in the lobby, and there’s this whole “theater idea,” that – I have a hard time paying attention because it’s already set up like “it’s a play!” and people are pretending to be other people, and I’m like “…this is embarrassing.” So there is something very different about what you guys are doing where you have to get rid of all that stuff immediately and pay attention to what’s going on.

Iver: Yeah, I mean, what we’re doing now, with the artists that I’m working with, and the frame is – it definitely has much more to do with sort of other vocabulary and other language that is beyond a theater vocabulary, it’s definitely rooted in performance. It somehow sidles up to live music and a dance practice, because those are the two other main collaborators in the things we make, but yeah, it’s weird…theater…I mean, I don’t even know what that *is*.

Erin: Yeah. It needs a new name, you know?

Iver: It’s funny, because in Norway they have a funny name, it’s called “stage art”. And I kind of like this, although I think that people in Norway would probably think that I’m being a bit of a simpleton for how I define it, but it’s called scenekunst, which is stage art, which is different than, you know, if you call yourself a performance artist, you’re of course coming from this sort of visual art perspective. And if you call yourself a stage artist here it sort of moves across the idea of dance and traditional theater. Everyone kind of implicitly understands that stage art, scenekunst, means somewhere beyond the traditional theatrical perspective. Maybe that includes dance, but then there’s actually “dance,” that’s separate. I like that term a lot. Stage art, scenekunst, I think this is an interesting way to describe it.

Marit Sandsmark in "Let's Get Lost", photo by Minna Suojoki

Erin: I guess, on that line of questioning, do you have a hard time – I don’t know what it’s like in Norway or Europe, but when you’re in the US, and you are working with Vallejo [Vallejo Gantner, PS 122] or Lane [Lane Czaplinski, OtB], or you know, like, the whole theater circuit, is it hard for you guys to – you’re put into a category of “theater” – is it hard for you to break that perception? I know when I saw the piece in Oslo, it was like upstairs, like in the attic almost, kind of, so it was like you’re already not going into a stage setting…I don’t know. Do you know what I’m asking…?

Iver: I do, I do, it’s interesting. The new thing that we just made, that we premiered a few days ago was us really trying to question all of that. And of course this question is running rampant in contemporary performance, the difference between the white cube and the black box, whatever it is. We tried to expand that and really try to articulate our own stances to that. Because we are also stuck with using language, and we’re making things that are between performance and installation. And although I believe that, there’s something deeply rooted inside of me that thinks that what we’re doing still is performance. Whether or not it’s theater, I don’t know. But I do know it relies entirely on sharing an experience with the artists who have made it, the makers of the piece, and people that come to view something. That being an ongoing, live conversation tends to be very present and important to us.

Erin: Yeah, that makes sense. Can you – I saw a video of the piece that you’re bringing here, but it was probably like made a long time ago and it’s a really rough cut... so that’s how I kind of got a little bit of an idea of what the piece is about. Just watching it, and thinking a bit about the description, which is “nostalgia for the present”, …but when I was watching it, it was almost like being on drugs or something, where you’re like: was that 10 seconds? Or was that like 2 hours? My perception of time in viewing got a little bit confused or…it kind of had the effect of making you stay in what was happening right now. And I don’t know if that was intentional, or if that’s something you guys were working toward with this piece, or…?

Iver: You mean as far as like, the audience being present? Or a viewer being present? Or time perception specifically?

Erin: Yeah, exactly.

Iver: I mean, I don’t think we were so interested or obsessed with that necessarily, but I think it definitely plays a part in what the piece is about in some way. Or how it works, because it plays with the ideas of repetitions and frames, and about how one frames things. And of course these frames are rooted in time. Time is something that is ineffable. Something I can’t exactly understand entirely. We all know in a larger sort of conceptual or philosophical way what time is but it’s a bit of a crapshoot, in a certain way. And what that means, especially inside of performance time – it’s not like it was a purposeful thing that we set out to do, try to fuck time in a way or try to deal with that, it was more about dealing with the frames and how things are perceived. Which, of course, perception and how the frame of perception works is rooted in some sort of dislocation of time. Or, I could also say that because we were working with these ideas about memory and how those things translate into using these sort of explorations into a performative presence, or the stage quality – of course, there’s a certain language. But it wasn’t purposefully trying to dislocate time. Just to keep riffing on this, the idea of creating a nostalgia for something that’s in the present, that feeling, creating a nostalgia for a live performance, something that – that feeling. I don’t know if that’s really what we’re trying to create on stage. It’s trying to point to a place where this is collapsed, in a way. The idea of our memory and how we process things collapsed to the point where the present can be nostalgized. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

Erin: That’s really interesting. It’s super interesting where you’re going – can you talk a little bit more about where that idea even came from or why you guys found nostalgia for the present interesting? Or nostalgia at all?

Iver: Nostalgia is dangerous. I think it’s funny, you know, it’s like this thing I sent to you about Patti Smith, you know, it’s like “oh, the good old days!” And of course when you’re a New Yorker, you’re anywhere, you’re like “oh, remember when it was like this," or when it was the good times, or even when it was our own lives, you’re like," remember when I was 20?" And I think in a larger context, the idea that we get nostalgic for certain periods, and it’s used by politicians, you know? It goes through these cycles: life was so good in the 80s. Like it was so wonderful. And you’re like, what the fuck are you talking about, you know? Who’s making that correction? Who’s using that for some sort of political gain? It sounds really dubious. Like, really? The 80s were great?! Yeah, sure. Ronald Reagan was wonderful! You hear people from these political frames talk about this, or – I think this is funny. And I think it comes from both sides. The left is like of course constantly trying to champion, “oh, the 60s and 70s!” And this is happening also in the art world, you know? And I find this really funny. “New York used to be this thing!” It happens in Norway as well. Here the big event is, “yeah, it used to be different before oil.”

Erin: Right!

Iver: And of course, no one in their right mind goes, “good!”

Erin: “Yeah, it was awesome back then!”

Iver: But it was different. It’s not so far removed. Here it’s not like, oh it’s cool because there was this huge art movement here; there was this huge economic boom that happened in the 60s because of oil. The city we live in didn’t – you know, it was like a fishing village until the late 60s, early 70s when they started planting huge oil rigs out in the ocean and making shitloads of money! It’s not like Patti Smith like, "oh New York was so great in the late 60s!" Norway was so different in the early 60s because they hadn’t gone through – they were very socialist, almost communistic, and now it’s become a huge hyper-capitalistic society. Which is kind of funny. 

Erin: Can you talk a little bit about the people that you work with? I know you work with Marit [Sandsmark], and I know Joey [Truman] is in this piece – and there’s a music guy that you work with often – I guess can you talk a little bit about how you guys started working together, how you find outside people to work with?

Pål Asle Petterson, Iver Findlay, Marit Sandsmark

Iver: Basically, we started working with the premise that – I was interested – for one, I relocated from New York to Stavanger, Norway. I had had a long history of working in New York, in performances and working as an artist. When I found myself in Norway all of a sudden, and specifically in Stavanger, there’s not a lot going on here – I somehow stumbled upon two people that I thought were interesting individual artists – to me in a way they were the strongest artists that I could see working around me. And they had worked together in a couple of one-off pieces or things like this, or smaller pieces, Pål  Asle being a musician and Marit Sandsmark working from a dance/movement-based practice. And I got interested and excited about what that would mean to finally work with a live musician and not with a heavy sound score, like the Wooster Group or Radiohole, or the Collapsable Giraffe, but actually work with the assumption that a live performance, or a theatrical performance, or a dance performance can just as much be a concert, a live concert. Which is where I come from to begin with. Just making music, and wanting to experiencing and being a part of – my youth culture was going to punk rock shows. And this was enthralling to me as a performance perspective. And all of a sudden I was like, oh – what happens when the performances I make are actually not theater, and they’re not dance, although I wasn’t really involved in dance at all, but what happens if they’re actually live concert events? What happens if they’re actually live concert events that work as an installation art piece? I became excited for the chance for that kind of change. And before I moved to Norway I had also worked with a couple of, you know – I mean, the last Wooster Group piece I worked on was very heavily looking towards the idea of choreography, dissecting choreography, and the parts that I worked on were really about this, about creating a physical score with the actors through giving them video impulse material. So I got really turned on to these ideas about what choreography could be, and what this practice was without having ever studied it.

So it was all of a sudden this thing, the two most present and interesting artists that I found here were working in these fields - that I was all of a sudden super excited about making these performance pieces, or hell, call them theater pieces that somehow utilized the idea of choreography and live music in an interesting way that had a framework but felt like they had something beyond what I normally experienced in dance or what I normally experienced in a music performance. Basically we started working in that collaboration, we had a couple other people. The first piece was much more dance-oriented. I was working with another choreographer that I had worked with before I left New York.

Joe Truman, Diane Madden, Marit Sandsmark in "now and nowhere else". Photo: Ruby Washington

Diane Madden, who had been with Trisha Brown-or still is -  for  30 years, and was the rehearsal director there, and I made a couple of sound and video pieces with her as part of her – a couple of solo pieces with her. And so all of a sudden, we made this experiment that tried to have all these elements exist at the same time with no sort of bullshit about – one thing was following the other, like we’re going to make a live concert that is a dance piece that is somehow experimental or devised theater piece, all on top of each other, without giving anything more credence or weight than the other, working with a bunch of different artists. And it was a complete failure. But interesting. Because it created a dialogue between Marit and Pål  Asle and I about how to go forward. From there we really started to codify what we were interested in and how we were making live performances, which included how to deal with the idea of building up a process-based method via improvisation and using live composition across fields, both in music and text. And in movement and choreography as a way, as a tool to generate a performance. Something that meant something to us that also had other clarity that was worked with very deeply and researched and reflected and was able to – when it came out of the chute and was experienced with the audience it had layers of emotionality and things that – it was an experience. I think that’s something we slowly grew on. And within that we were really interested in about what the meeting places between these points were.

And so we started to devise ideas about how with each project we wanted to constantly bring in new artists to work with us. Whether or not they were non-actors, and we were going to all of a sudden put them on stage, which is very true with Ruud van den Acker, who’s in biograph. You know, he’s a set designer by trade and a painter, actually. But all of a sudden we were like, yeah, it’s going to be interesting as we put him on stage and have him have to develop a framework. Develop a text. Develop a textual layer, a presence. You know, for these other elements. We’re working with Joe [Truman], for instance, who – Joe happens to be a bit of a special case, because it’s like he works on every other piece with us in a certain way. Because he has such a long history with me, working in New York at the Collapsable Giraffe, and Joe and I being in a couple of bands together. This has been a process about how that’s worked. But it’s always being renewed. For instance, the next thing Joe and I are planning on working on together with Marit and Pål  Asle is this thing where he – we don’t know that he’ll be a performer, he’s writing for the piece. So it’s all of a sudden a different context of how he’s interfacing with the process. But I think with each piece we try to involve ourselves with a different artist and a different practice in a way.

Findlay//Sandsmark's "O'Death"; sculptures by Jason Rogenes

You know, O’Death was working with a visual artist that – I didn’t know him very well personally. He was like friends of friends, and I had seen some of his work, but I was interested in what that was. To try to change our dynamic. Without us trying to codify something, become the next Wooster Group, or the next whatever. If we wanted to make something and feel like it was live, how do we bring in new players all the time that are helping us change our own thinking and our own framework about what we’re making and how we’re making it, so that we don’t fall into the place where we try to keep re-creating the same old shit.

Erin: Yeah, it’s awesome. And hopefully other people will want to come see it – like that’s my main problem is like my music friends – trying to get them to come – this is a prime one, hopefully they’ll come see it, but it’s really hard to get them to even set foot in a theater. They’re like “fuck no, it’s embarrassing!” So maybe what you’re doing hopefully will like, you know –

Iver: I mean, the best thing I can tell a music audience is I find stepping into a theater really embarrassing too.

Erin: Yeah, we’re on the same side.

Iver: I think it opens up the context – if you look at live performance or what the performative is, you know, if you’re a musician – in a different way. I think that’s exciting.

Erin: I totally agree. Let me ask you one more question and then I’ll let you go. Can you talk a little bit about the video that’s at the beginning? I saw a little bit, like maybe 3 minutes of the one that Young Jean Lee made. And you don’t have to explain it or anything, but maybe touch a little bit on the relationship between the video and the performance.

Iver: I don’t know how to do that in a succinct way, so it’ll probably be slightly long-winded. But funnily enough, a long long time ago – well, not that long ago, but ten years ago, Young Jean and Joe and I made a piece with two European artists. One was a Norwegian artist and one was a German artist. And it was a mess. A total mess. But funny, and interesting. But that’s kind of relevant. Because in this piece we identified with the way we were making text, we wanted to work with a writer. So we said, oh, why don’t we ask some writers if they want to write something? And so we had asked Young Jean if she wanted to write something, at the beginning, at kind of the conception of the project. And the idea was for her to write something that was parallel to a video documentation project, as generative material for the piece. So we had first asked her to write some text. The company, a couple of the artists, we were going to make these sort of micro-documentaries about at least two of the performers, and maybe a third performer. They were going to make these micro-documentaries, and instead of trying to make them in this sort of self-documentation way, we were going to try to reach back to this artful past of using reality-based practices in experimental or avant-garde filmmaking, like Godard, or Italian Neorealism and De Sica. So there was this sort of lofty idea, which of course got totally lost somewhere along the way. So this was the plan. And Young Jean said, yeah sure, I can do that, that’s interesting. Because she had written for another piece that was a similar idea a long time ago in New York, and it seemed like an interesting fit, about what she would generate.

Joe Truman in Young Jean Lee's "Here Come the Girls"

With the idea being that we would generate these films, and she would generate text, and then we would generate a performance that somehow used the things that were pre-recorded ahead of time, i.e. the film and i.e. this text. Trying to finally deal with how to use pre-recorded material in a live environment that was interesting. Video – or for me, I also think of text as a pre-recording in a certain way. If I pick up a book, it’s something that’s been recorded, it’s been recorded, it has print and it’s unchangeable. Certainly you can paraphrase it, but there’s a recording that’s hard to – and you can manipulate video, and you can manipulate text, but at the end of the day, there’s a pre-recording. And you can do whatever you want with it, but there’s something that you can always go back to. We were trying to blur those lines and mix them up in a live performance setting.

The long and the short of it is, we asked Young Jean, she agreed, when we got down to the business of it she was like, look, I don’t really want to write anything for your piece, the idea of writing something for somebody – I’m having such a hard time writing it, it’s not interesting. And I said, well, would you be interested in making some short films? And she said yeah, sure. And I gave her a certain set of parameters. You have to make a film about one of the performers, and I shared with her the sort of conceptual framework of what the piece was about and sort of pointed her in the direction, and was like, yes, you should film at Joe’s house, because I’d been filming there, and Joe’s house, where Joe lives is actually kind of an amazing artifact of his environment. There’s something to capture, there’s something there. And so she went and did this, part of it being, she wanted to be able to make a film out of it, a narrative type of film. And we weren’t sure how we were going to use the material. And so in a way – she made a rough draft of that, and also, really – I don’t know how to say it – how do I say it in a nice way? It’s impossible…the film definitely toys with the idea of what the frame of the camera is, and power, and who gets to decide how someone is portrayed. And this is very true about these frames of pre-recordings in general. But also nostalgia and memory.

And so in a way Young Jean made this film artifact of Joe’s life, in a way. This supposedly realistic thing which isn’t realistic at all. And in many ways that film is a bit tough. It’s tough, but it’s also creating a lot of interesting angles and an interesting framework, because it’s a female director who’s putting her gaze on a male subject, and it’s completely – there’s no other way to say it – it’s manipulative. I find that an interesting thing, about how to use something that’s been pre-recorded and how this manipulation happens. And in the middle of that, how we – Claudia [La Rocco] – we showed her the film, and I said, well, would you be interested in taking some of these videos and writing something for it? And she said, yeah, sure. So all of a sudden we have this film, it’s a bit tough, it’s been a bit of a hard subject matter within our process in a way about what we were doing with it, because what Joe is subjected to is tough. It’s not easy. It wasn’t easy for him to go through. And then all of a sudden we have this text that was written by Claudia, and there’s enough for three or four more pieces – the text and the video that was made. There’s a lot of other videos. And somehow Young Jean’s video and what it meant for the beginning of the process was constantly present. About how these power structures are built through framing and perception – we became sort of interested in and about how these things replayed themselves, and our own responses to them as artists, as people making a piece of art, as well as how they are viewed by somebody who hasn’t been through those things. And so I think it was sort of an interest in that.