Notes on being ‘At Home’, a talk series for Impulstanz Wien
During ImPulsTanz 2005, Peter Stamer invited choreographers, performers, and directors in order to talk to them in the private context of an apartment. Being resident-in-residence of the festival his talks were hosted in a flat that was temporarily rented by the festival. One by one he has met Meg Stuart, Benoit Lachambre, Ismael Ivo, Jan Ritsema, and Paz Rojo, talked to and cooked for them on different evenings, to make them feel at home, to offer a private space for professional talks. The audience could listen to the conversations close-by or via loudspeakers in each one of the four rooms.
I need another kind of choreography. Another room. This is not my apartment. It belongs to somebody else. I just moved in for four weeks in order to meet and talk to guests I wanted to invite. I am not at home here, and still try to find out how I can feel at home. Okay, I am here. The first thing to do is to move. Move the furniture around. It’s not in its right place. I have to move it from one spot to the other. And then I have to take furniture out in order to stuff it into a small room next to the kitchen I am not going to use in the forthcoming weeks. This room becomes the repository of furniture I don’t need, I don’t want. It’s the museum, the negative space of this apartment. It’s the secret room of furniture, objects, archive of a used space. By rearranging the rooms I had to move two shelves packed with books like sardines. I pushed them into the least attractive corner of the bed-room. Throw out this couch.
The rooms are like a body. With my hands, my body, I caress them, touching every detail, taking books in my hand and put them back. I find some books I have always wanted to read. They wait for me and become my friends. I am exploring this body, its back, its spine. The bathroom is warm, humid, a moist dark hole with no window. One can undress. The living-room is made to exchange thoughts, the body’s head, talkative, spiritual, laughing, seducing, with a head bend to the back. Smoking cigarettes. The kitchen is the heart and the bowels, the stomach of that body, the beating machine that keeps the body alive, standing still on one place and keeps on beating. Food, eating to be digested. And the bed-room is your lap, my limbs, my periphery with which I touch, I sense. Cleaning up the bed-room is like washing one’s genitals, it’s a must, but not too joyful, exciting.
When I am in a hotel-room, I also have to move the furniture around, nothing special, nothing particular, it’s enough when I take the chair (if there is one) and push it a bit more to the desk, or even put some clothes over it. I don’t have to place my clothes in the wardrobe, I can leave them in my suit-case, I don’t need this sort of homecoming, like unpacking, unfolding, arranging as if I was at home. Yet, I have to leave traces in the room, traces of gestures that conquer that space, that make it become my own. Coming home to my apartment, I am obliged to clean it. I am not a fanatic cleaner, and although my home is tidy and neat, I have to sweep, to hoover it in order to come home, to get to know it again. A home-coming in tactility, a touching. My gestures, my body comes home best when it works its home out. My hands are travelling, holding a prosthesis, an extension of my body, a broom, in order to explore the apartment I share my life with. To share a flat with a flat.
I am listening to a CD that I found in the apartment. The disc was on the top of the player, ready at hand for me, seems to be that it was left there before the host has surrendered his flat to me. It’s the last song that is being played in heavy rotation since days: ‘Slow Down Smile’. A man is singing “I have lost my only friend, trouble.” His guitar weeps on two chords, three times the chorus. Gestures of longing, belonging to someone I cannot see, who is absent. A trace, a sound track, a musical gift that was left over by someone who is absent. The desire to feel at home with the help of music, representations that trigger off a memory of home that is auratic: near and far at the same time, both past and present. The ‘homey’ feeling returns as memory, as feeling of loss. A sort of uncanny home coming.
Sometimes I think that the owners of the flat have left me an item which they want me to find. A game for a criminologist. Traces to be found, finding eggs in the garden outside, a habit of Easter in my region. I enter a room and find strange things. On the shelf in the kitchen, there is vinegar that is older than the first republic of Austria, you could use it as liquid to properly conserve the vegetables that have been forgotten in the fridge and bloom very strangely. You just cannot trust food any more.
The violence of addresslessness. I don’t know where, neither who you are. A talk with no address and no questions. Investing my private gestures. Choreographing the private in a foreign place. Being observed by witnesses. Wearing a head-set that controls my voice. Talking to you who controls my speech. Having this talk broadcast to the other rooms of the apartment. Eating what’s been cooked. Leaving intimate traces on the table, left-overs that haven’t been digested. Talking at home. There is no script, no text, no interview design, nothing prepared and no depreparation. The present of presence. Let me peter out. I stammer. Putting another ‘m’ to my last name, trying to overcome myself, my pride, my selfishness by not proving how smart my questions could be. No wannabe.
When she arrived, the first thing she wanted to do was taking a shower. Right after her shy hello at the door. A blind date. How to get over the first sensation of uneasiness after you have opened the door. She appears even smaller as I remember her from other encounters. I can hear the water running when I am in the kitchen preparing food for us. Strange enough, we don’t know each other well, and yet she has taken off her clothes, is naked now, even though there is a wall between us that hides my view. She will have left a woollen jacket in my bath-room after this night, but she doesn’t know it yet. An intimate gesture, a remnant, somehow intimidating. An intimidating, but no dating meeting. She comes out, is drying her hair. She would like to make a call, she says.
Taking a shower, it takes quite a while to handle the tap for hot water. I need special gestures to get it going, a specific twist of the hand, back and forth as limy residues prevent it from working properly. My gesture of showering. It has to be reappropriated after being away for a while out. The household facilities and the special treatment, the way one gets along with them contributes to being, feeling chez soi. Chez soi. Bei sich. At oneself. As if one was a guest in his own apartment. As if the apartment was a friend that is always present and around. Around like the walls that surround you. The way one makes a coffee by using the coffee grinder the way it just works, with a particular twist, the way of switching on the hi-fi-system by bending down towards it, working with high fidelity after having lowered one’s torso, the way one makes a telephone call knowing that the buttons ‘4’ and ‘7’ are quite hard to be digited and therefore my thumb has to find the right position to press them, even the way I have to open the door of my flat with a key that doesn’t fit in the lock properly thus I have to fiddle it in a bit. The gestures that come before the gestures of coffee drinking, listening, home coming. I listen to music differently when I am at home then being abroad. My gesture of listening, perhaps sitting on a chair, or eating, or not listening at all, is different in a context that has to be conquered before I can call it home. When I listen, my body takes on a specific posture. This attitude goes along with a way of holding the head, some thoughts that come up and let me drift away. An effect of memory that is set up by listening, how I forget to breathe, how my eyes start to become narrow, how my whole face loses attention and gets soft. Gestures of contemplation.
I am unable to write, to track down what’s going on ‘at home’. How could I write ABOUT it for I cannot distance myself from the whole set-up. For the first time perhaps in my life, I do not succeed in getting space in between the project I am doing and the project of my being. I cannot overlook it, there is no gap between my gaze and the object I try to scrutinize. I am just unable to observe me as an observer. I feel like being paralyzed by these talks that suck the energy out of my body, my mind. Having to be mentally present for some eight hours, a physical and mental presence. I feel that my body is not just getting mute, it is also being mutilated by the energy it takes to be aware, awake. When I wake up, I have a hang-over. Like after a long party with a lot of drinks. My body is aching, my mouth is dry, I don’t want to talk at all. I am a ghost, aghast by the intensity of the eve. Going into the park, hanging out, needing a complete day before I can even go to watch a show.
This is completely stupid to say, she says to me. That’s what she means, this is stupid and childish. She doesn’t want a man to claim his freedom, she says. What does that mean, she asks. Freedom from what? This is coward behaviour, that’s what she thinks. She knows what she is talking about, she had to undergo a split, a rupture even before she was born. Literally a split identity. She knows about identity, she can tell.
I feel obliged to be a good host who takes care of his guests. Talking to the invited guest, keeping attention what s/he says, does, thinks, instigating a talk, in the knowledge that guests do surround us, not intervening, but leaving their traces of presence in our talks. Our talks are tough, sometimes it is about nothing, a very small talk as my guests sometimes don’t want to talk. I can sense distrust, openness, attack, friendliness, fear, relaxation, or everything at the same time. Every talk is different, and every talk makes me become different. I feel like being a chameleon with no identity. The more I say, the more I sense that my talk is in danger to become merely a figure of discourse. I have to be careful not to force my guest into something, I want that s/he feels at home, literally, but how can that be with a head-set on one’s head? These head-sets mark the presence of a machinery that not just broadcasts our talks, but also records them, to have at least something to be restored from the transitionality of our encounters but I hope that they become transparent, invisible the more we get along with them. I won’t be able to listen to the recording before they year 2035. If I did, I would have to take care of them, to deal with them. I would have to witness our talks and would have the responsibility to write something about it. If you do not take into consideration the local context of these encounters, the at-homeness, you don’t understand anything, I am afraid. Reducing the encounters to the discourse, without the concomitant gestures, looks, objects would mean to reduce the body to text. To plain information of our discourse. And its stupidity.
I see a lot of bored faces when I look around. This is not a spectacle, folks, what are your great expectations? This is no talk show, and I try very hard not to go just for the point, the great smart talker. I don’t want my guest to be forced to be clever or smart. I want them to let go. This is an objective that is very hard to deal with. Knowing that expecting eyes are on your face, being watched in order to be entertained and still not to give in. Not to be charming, seducing, or too nice.
After four long hours we finally find an approach. Standing nearby the balcony, in the middle of a loud crowd of people who touch our shoulders, they talk vividly as if we were not there at all, do whatever they do, and we find an access to each other. As if it was necessary to dive into the crowds in order to be able to talk at all. Both of us know that our talk is broadcast into the other rooms where it is more silent, where one can understand every single word. This gap between the intimate situation and the knowledge of publishing it the second it is said seems to be challenging for both of us. We continue our talk by starting it for the first time.
How to deal with the other? How not to put him/her in a position where s/he will always be the other? How rather to meet the other not in the gesture of this otherness, as the other, but the other without otherness? To let the other be is not the same like allowing the otherness of the other. Every statement produces the other discursively. Piece of cake, and yet, this is an impact that rules our talks. For interviewing forces the other to answer or not, and yet this decision is already formed by the fact that there is somebody who is asking. Whatever he does or says, it will be understood as an answer, or as the willingness, unwillingness to give an answer. By that, the other is already rendered other. Who am I to ask, for Heaven’s sake, who gives me the right to ask these people? How can they make their statements without being forced to decide whether they want to give an answer or not, when every address of mine already frames his/her discourse, the mode of speech? The violence of address. How can I talk to you without talking to myself? Taking you for the one who I just think you are?
I look into his eyes, smile. He looks back, I have the impression that he feels uneasy. Sometimes our talk comes to a stop although there would be enough to talk about. It seems that trust/distrust rule a talk more than just the content, to know what one wants to say. These stops make our talk stutter. These stops fall between the two of us, they are filled with fear, even disinterest. Do we have to talk although we don’t want to? I don’t want to force him to do so. I can sense that he wants to talk to other people, too, might be that he is not okay with the set-up of these encounters. But if I asked him about his opinion, I would become the police of discourse. I don’t want to negotiate the format, yet, every fucking time I have to talk about the whys, what-fors, hows of the series at home. To bargain the borders of the format. How repressive is at home? Do we need to see the end of all that in order to calculate how far we can go? Has this something to do with the fact that he doesn’t want to talk about privacy? This is what I sense: some issues should be left out, and I do it, I leave them where they are. Take your shoes off, if you like, and keep them on at the same time.
My guest starts talking with somebody else which shouldn’t be a problem at all in other contexts, yet I know if I let them keep talking, the whole evening is blurred. I could leave the apartment. The moment where we, interlocutors, lose contact, we lose the talk. So I have to interfere impolitely, and I don’t know if I am also a bit angry that the other took over so easily without respecting the whole set up, and my guest. It becomes very obvious that the set-up borders between private and public are very fragile, too fragile sometimes so that every interference could blow the whole thing up.
I am quite irritated, feel inhibited. What are these rude power games for? Why doesn’t he just accept the invitation? Why does he have to put everything into question I am offering? I don’t want small-talk, he says, so what are we talking about here, he asks. What do you want from me, he asks. We sit down in the living-room, I am preparing something to eat. He doesn’t like to eat. Neither does he want to talk. What are these stupid head-sets for, he asks? I try to be polite, I smile, I feel like a house-wife from the fifties, serving food, keep smiling, keeping my mouth shut. I cannot counter-attack since I am the one who invited him, I have to withdraw myself, have to refrain from attacking. I can sense how anger arises, I can sense that I have to do something since the folks around start taking sides. It’s the first time that I have the impression to fight in a pit against someone I have invited. He provokes me, I don’t know why, talking of something I said to him in a letter. Wording it publicly. Breaching the protocols of privacy. To show me the distinction between personal and private issues.
I try to prepare the whole series by meeting my guests or at least talking or writing to them. I don’t want them to have the impression that the whole thing is ‘just improvised’. That it is about nothing, loungy, ‘just’ cosy. Therefore I make an appointment and the meeting works due to strange rules: He sits at my table in a public surrounding. We talk before a show, chatting a bit about this and that, laughing together about incidents or shared experiences. There is a kind of understanding that says: I do get along with you, that we understand each other even if we don’t agree in everything. This is it, understanding without agreeing is the most important attitude for the talks. In order to disagree you need understanding which is the base in order to able to say, I disagree. Communication is enabled to become a means of getting together, of sharing, even by insisting on a point of view. Agreeing without understanding is ignorance, is a yes-yes. Anyway, we meet in the bar, have a nice evening, smiles, charming, even flirty talk. The next day, our at home talk is scheduled, I open the door, again the impression of a careful approach. Cautiously conquering the apartment whilst I prepare something for dinner. He walks around, looking at every thing, quite curious. He even tries out the bed, if it’s soft or hard or comfortable. Lying there, looking at me, smiling, without saying a word, he tests me. We sit in the kitchen, talk about his artistic background, his experience with some artists, he never cooks, he says, which is quite common amongst my invited guests: they never cook at home, always eat out at night. Everything is calm, nice, based upon understanding and, yes, respect. A mutual understanding that says: I accept where you are even if I don’t know you. My approach towards you is impregnated by an understanding of our two-gether-ness, a sensation of care-taking, I am responsible for you, and I want to start off my encounter with you by wishing that you take care of me, too.
Was he checking me out in the beginning? Trying to control me rather than being curious for the sake of the project? When the public comes in, he changes his mode of talking abruptly. An official sound takes over what was intimate before. He takes off his clothes, looking at me, letting his gaze travel to the audience, legitimizes his gesture by saying that he is naked when he is at home. He asks me to do follow him, to undress. By taking off his clothes, he changes the situation into his stage: being naked makes him appear even more dressed than before, hiding himself with and in his nakedness. Show-time. I am being caught off guard, keep my clothes on, there is no need to comply, to compete. This renders our responsibility, our share, our intimacies stage-like. Everything what I say from now on becomes a phrase, a line of a stage figure that talks to a stage figure, the precarious state of being in such a context is gone by now. Everything is very clearly set up, and the naked body is taking over.
The way she wears her head, a full theatre of head movements, looks, eye winks, mouth positions, the way she pushes her hair back. This is her being in this moment, she knows it and deals with it, she even puts it at stake, into the game between us, even the more the public comes in. The way she looks at me with a sophisticated smile of complicity when we go to the kitchen to fetch some coffee. The kitchen is crowded, and still we don’t lose contact, as if she had invisibly taken me by the hand, leading me through this sea of people. I follow her trace of smiles back into her stories. Where are you when you speak to me with your face of difference, of different gender, of different attitude and habit? Maybe you do not have to place yourself or to position your being for your difference is already inscribed into your body. Are you at the place where I suppose you are, or have you already moved to an other?
I feel how the wine is crawling up my brain through my veins, veiling my thoughts whereas he hasn’t drunk one sip of alcohol since he never drinks, in order not to lose control, I presume. And he keeps controlling my discourse, tries at least to, keeps trying to convince me of whatever we talk about. He is the one, not me, not me, his is bigger, better, smarter, silly game, and I cannot say let’s skip it, it’s over, we have done it, please leave me and my head. I cannot say it for I feel brainwashed by the talk. My words, my thoughts are on automatic mode, ‘d’ is for drive. He doesn’t let me go, whenever I try to talk to somebody, he comes by, saying that he was invited to talk so he wants to keep on talking. He feels the triumph to rule over our discourse now and to decide when it is finished, and I want to let go.
Letting go. I have nothing to rule, I am an empty bottle, and I want you to fill me. I have decided not to be the master of ceremonies which seems to cause a feeling of irritation with which different people cope differently. Creating openness presumably has to do with showing borders that frame openness, borders that render freedom possible. If you let go the borders, you blur freedom.
The apartment breathes. It talks to me.