Maria Hassabi: Stillness is the Move

Ahead of her presentation at Centre Pompidou in June, the artist and choreographer talks about slowness, detail and the anti-spectacular

Beginning, Middle, End. The structure is a fallacy: a flimsy plot line that we invoke in order to convince ourselves that we are, in spite of ourselves, in spite of everything, getting somewhere. What if we weren’t? What if we were to just, well, stop? If we were to step out of the narrative, shake off our yearning for progression and lie motionless in the flux, what might we notice?

Maria Hassabi’s performers writhe in such in-between states, their movements protracted, their purposes unclear. Slack, they loll in doorways; slope down stairs; bodies pile upon on curled bodies. For STAGING (2017), Hassabi sets harlequin limbs on a lurid pink carpet; for STAGING – undressed (2017), her performers unfurl on the cold, bare ground. The carpet was pinned down again for STAGING: Solo #2 (2017), presented at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW) in January, but the cast was cut: a single figure remained: inching, edging, grappling with some-thing absent. With Hassabi at the helm, the figures – slow, always slow; close to still – come from nowhere and lead to nothing: not presented, just present; not spectacle, just life, interrupted.

When Hassabi talks, she can’t stay still. Her nerves are endearing, her movements quick.

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Maria Hassabi, STAGING – undressed, 2017, live installation views, Aarhus City Hall, Denmark. Performers: Jessie Gold, Hristoula Harakas, Maria Hassabi, Oisín Monaghan. Courtesy: the artist, Koenig & Clinton, New York, and The Breeder, Athens; photograph: Thomas Poravas

Harry Thorne  Can you tell me about the development of STAGED? [2016] and STAGING?

Maria Hassabi  For the past five years or so, I’ve been working between the contexts of the theatre space and the exhibition space, both of which have a particular set of conventions and contradictions that interest me. Based on these experiences, I wanted to develop a diptych work: STAGED? and STAGING. The first considers the hierarchies of the theatrical apparatus while the second destabilizes similar codes and relationships within exhibition spaces. STAGED? has a set duration, a beginning and an end: it’s created with a dramaturgical arc and it has all its elements gathered together in one space. STAGING is a live installation, which means that it is created in the form of a loop and its duration is determined by the opening hours of its host venue. It unfolds as a progression of encounters: multiple fractures, installed in multiple sites throughout a building. The accumulation of bodies, colours, sound, light and architecture are reminders of an event that is continually in progress, always ‘staging’ itself, which finds completion only in its STAGED? theatrical form.

HT  How do the two works evolve as they move between different venues?

MH  Every location comes with its own information – hierarchies, architecture and flow of visitors – and in each case I have to respond accordingly, deciding whether to include all or a combination of the parts, for instance. For the iterations in public spaces, we present ‘undressed’ versions of the works, meaning I strip away the carpet, the sound, the lights and, on occasion, the number of performers. 

HT  I like this image that you’re building of the work as an organic form, one that acclimatizes to its host body and extends into its crevices – architectural and otherwise. Is the score that you and your dancers follow equally flexible?

MH  Quite the opposite. Lots of viewers think that all of the works I make are the same, because they are all quite still, quite slow, but that’s not the case. There are distinct choreographic differences between the works, which require efficient rehearsals and a considerable amount of labour from the dancers. There are more subtle changes amongst their ‘undressed’ cousins. A common thread in these two works and my previous live installations is the very strict script that the dancers follow, which is transcribed on paper, describing each movement and their counts – we call it the Bible. 

The original material for the diptych is a two-hour solo, which I created using my body, experimenting with specific ideas, images and forms of physicality. From there, I taught it to the dancers, finalizing with their bodies the counts, precise spacing and the gaze. This two-hour solo provides the base script for each of the works and it remakes itself to fit the concepts for each. With STAGED?, for instance, we wanted to create an amorphous sculpture from four people, which could appear as a single body. The performers only used part of the solo material, each a different section, and together we formed an embroidered ‘mass’. This was where the costumes became important – the colourful patterns were meant to create a confusion as to which limb belongs to whom. 

HT  Can you talk about STAGING: Solo #2, the latest iteration of the project, which you presented in Düsseldorf?

MH  Unlike STAGING, which was created to be part of large group shows, I envisioned STAGING: Solo #2 as a solo exhibition, a work that had to complete itself. From my first visit to the Grabbe Halle of Kunstsammlung NRW, I loved the space. Its vastness and high ceilings felt spectacular and my initial response was a desire to create the most minimal iteration of STAGING possible. I wanted to flirt with the expectations of a space calling for a spectacle and find a way towards an anti-spectacular, intimate exchange between the visitors and the work. This resulted in STAGING: Solo #2: a single figure on a vast pink carpet, a subtle soundscape and slight lighting manipulations.

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Maria Hassabi, STAGING: Solo #2, 2017, live installation view, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf. Performer: Hristoula Harakas. Courtesy: © the artist; photograph: © Tino Kukulies

HT  When did you first become interested in this idea of the anti-spectacular?

MH  I think this was intuitive. There was something about the loud exhibitionism that I was seeing in theatre performances around 2008 that was turning me off. I have always been attracted to images and the space that they give the spectator to project, feel and be, and I wanted to bring that quality into my performances. My early experiments with slowness and stillness came out of an attempt to create such images for live performance that could be supported solely by physicality while avoiding the use of theatrical tricks – changes of light, costume, music. I was interested to see whether physicality, in time and space, could, by itself, create images.

When I first began exploring this, I copied hundreds of images of bodies derived from art history and pop culture but, inevitably, everything came to resemble tableaux vivants and the source material remained more interesting than the live body. So, I started paying attention to the transitions: to the ways in which the body transfers its weight from one pose to the next, from one image to the next, and what it requires to do so. I zoomed in on the details, choreographing even the smallest gestures – the breath and the slightest change of gaze became part of my material. Moving with such precision naturally brought slowness and quietness into the work, and working with this slowness ultimately helped to remove rhythmical patterns, such as accents, that are usually employed to emphasize a dramaturgical meaning. Since the emergence of post-modernist dance, repetition has been used, in a way, to break images, to bring something new to something that exists. I think that stillness does the same thing. If you hold an image for a long time, your initial understanding of it begins to crack. 

HT  This produces an interesting conflict because, as sedate as your bodies become, they remain confrontational. Setting them in this decelerated loop, you deny either a point of entry or exit, and this seems to sap the very agency of the audience. You refuse them the satisfaction that, in this context, they believe they are entitled to.

MH  I think there’s plenty of satisfaction on offer. It’s just that, in order to attain it, you have to shift your understanding of satisfaction itself. We, as the performers, play with the very protocols of the performer-audience relationship. The biggest difference is that we don’t ask for your attention in order to exist within our score. We will continue our task whether you are present or absent, whether you love us or ignore us.

HT  Which response do you prefer?

MH  I think they’re both important. There’s a certain democracy given to the viewer that I’m very attracted to: the freedom to choose how much time to spend with a piece. This is part of what I want to channel in my works instead of declaring: ‘I’m here. Watch me. I’m performing for you. I’m giving you everything.’ We’re still giving a lot: at any given moment, you can see the labour of the dancers, their concentration, even devotion.

HT  This raises questions about how you classify these performers: are they subjects, objects or something else entirely?

MH  They’re both. They move between being subject and object, dance and sculpture, live body and still image, the spectacular and the everyday. This in-betweenness is what is at stake. 

HT  How do audiences navigate that fluctuation when, within a contemporary art context, at least, the conventions of spectatorship are so established?  

MH  Conventions are partly what we try to navigate.

The spacing of the work – meaning where the performers are installed – the timing and the intensity of the performers’ gazes, are our tools to provoke a destabilization. When a passer-by enters the frame and you end up locking eyes, even for a moment, something happens – not only to the performer, but to the viewer as well. There is a clash, a moment of interplay between subject and object that sees real information received and projected back at the same time.

HT  It’s as if you rob them of their power to observe.

MH  It’s a momentary theft: a shift. The work doesn’t dictate – that’s what theatre does. In theatre, you’re supposed to be a dictator! [Laughs]

HT  But it does dictate, in that it imposes itself upon a physical architecture, which means that you, in this equation, play the part of dictator.

MH  Perhaps. [Laughs] The works take space, of course, but absolutely everything takes space. The locations I choose  – or impose upon – within a given architecture are my way of testing modes of viewership and behaviour. When we presented PLASTIC [2016] at MoMA in New York, disrupting the everyday traffic of the museum was intentional. Dancers were placed in transitional spaces: on staircases, in corridors. One of the staircases we used was one of the main entrances to the museum, so people had to walk by us, and so many of them were annoyed! Some visitors stepped on us, jumped over us, called us nasty names, but mostly they just photographed us. 

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Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC, 2016, live installation view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy: © the artist and The Breeder, Athens; photograph: Thomas Poravas

HT  I find myself increasingly incapable of divorcing your work from socio-politics: the merging of public and private; the untameable speed of capitalism; the figure lying motionless in a crowd. Do such politicized images factor into your choreography?  

MH  A lot of the elements I use work against our current culture’s sense of time and placement. The works are slow and still, the dancers are mostly placed on the floor, sometimes in unpredictable locations. Some of the repeating images I use are of bodies falling apart – or what we call ‘forgotten bodies’ – such as those of homeless people, junkies, general outcasts: members of societies that seem to mean nothing as they don’t produce capital, just take up space. In this sense, Thomas J. Lax called my dancers ‘avatars of what appears to be a breakdown in a manufacturing chain’. I’m not trying to imitate them – my people are mostly young, healthy, dressed in outfits that clash with these references and destabilize the narrative – yet I’m interested in what happens when viewers find themselves in a dialogue with this kind of material, which memories they stir up, even responsibilities. I’m interested in what happens when the viewer is given the ‘power’, even momentarily, to look down on us from above.

HT  At the risk of too heavily associating your work with the darker side of politics, I should also say that I find the shared endurance of your dancers extremely powerful. It’s collective resistance, of sorts, to time and movement – or collective refusal. 

MH  I think the impact of any work is greater once collectiveness is felt. The dancers I work with are incredible. Performing these kinds of works can be intensely demanding, and their commitment is irreplaceable. The collective resistance is a collective commitment to the here and now. But it’s not about comfort. Some time ago, a good friend and fellow choreographer told me that he wanted to perform in huge theatres for huge audiences. That would be amazing, of course, but my works can’t do that. I don’t want to create another theatre space: when we perform, we want to test theatrical conventions, and that’s why you can almost ‘walk all over us’. I want to take away the barriers – or attempt to – and test a new way of intimacy each time.

Maria Hassabi is an artist and choreographer based in New York, USA. Her performances and installations have been presented at: documenta 14, Kassel, Germany; Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, USA; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and the 55th Venice Biennale, Italy, amongst others. On 26 & 27 May, she will present STAGING: Solo #2 (2017) at the Store X as part of Block Universe, London, UK. From 7– 24 June, as part of MOVE festival, Hassabi will present STAGING: Solo#2 at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France, and her work will be included in the group exhibition ‘Talismans’ at Foundation Calouste Gulbenkian, Paris, until 1 July.

This article appears in the print edition of frieze, May 2018, issue 195, with the title Stillness is the Move.

Main image: Maria Hassabi, STAGING, 2017, live installation view, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.  Performer: Jessie Gold.  Courtesy: the artist, Koenig & Clinton, New York, and The Breeder, Athens; photograph: Thomas Poravas

Harry Thorne is assistant editor of frieze and a contributing editor of The White Review. He is based in Berlin, Germany.

Issue 195

First published in Issue 195

May 2018

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