NEW YORK – The question of the relationship between humanity and technology has long been a favourite subject of artists from Futurism and beyond. Now Virtually There, a performance inspired by Bauhaus master Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, 1922, seeks to continue the conversation. Hosted by Performa Visonaries at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City from 19 November to 22 November, Virtually There is the brainchild of Mafalda Millies and Roya Sachs, celebrated artistic directors and curators who have combined their talents to bring the creation to life. We spoke with them about why the theme of new media is still so relevant today, the importance of risk and their focus on collaboration.
To learn more, a conversation with Sachs and Millies, as well as Virtually There choreographer Karole Armitage, will be held at Sotheby's New York on 5 November at 5 PM. Please RSVP at +1 212 894 1016 or at sothebys.com/preferred.
Tickets for the performance are available for purchase here.
This production includes contributions from many accomplished artists. Could you talk about how the project came together?
Mafalda Millies: Both of our backgrounds are multidisciplinary, and we both share a passion for collaborative projects in general. When we discovered our mutual fascination with the ethos of the Bauhaus school and Oskar Schlemmer’s contribution to its theatre in particular, we decided to join forces and bring to life a contemporary performance, inspired by the original Triadic Ballet. From the start, it was important for us to bring together a diverse group of contributors, from different artistic disciplines and generations. We researched artists who worked in a diverse range of practises, and who we believed could experiment with the topic in an entirely new light.
Roya Sachs: I think some of our collaborators, such as the Campana Brothers, were intrigued by the challenge of working in an entirely different realm like costume design with new materials (LEDs, mirrors, cables). On our initial material scout in Chinatown with Humberto Campana, I remember him turning to me and saying, “At whatever point in your career you are, if you don’t take risks, you can never evolve.” I think that goes for all the artists involved. We hoped the risk in taking on such a challenging project would inspire them to discover something new about the themselves and the overarching subject. It took almost six months for us to get the entire group together. The project was always going to be born once we had assembled our team – until then all we had was an abstract idea. For that reason, what the project is now is a fusion and cross-pollination of each individual’s vision, input and reaction.
You cite Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet from 1922 as inspiration for Virtually There. Why do you think a work that’s nearly a hundred years old still has the power to resonate today?
MM: Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet reflected the impact that the industrialization was having on society at the turn of the 20th century. It showed the dichotomy between man as an organism of flesh, as well as a mutated, machine-controlled simulacrum. Furthermore, it shed light on Europe’s post-World War I preoccupation with technology, and explored the ethos of Walter Gropius in the Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar in 1923, “Art and Technology – A New Unity.” Society and industry were shifting, humans were evolving – a new type of codependence was emerging between man and machine. In our contemporary world, reflecting on the cultural evolution that society is yet again undergoing seems as relevant as it did nearly a hundred years ago.
RS: There’s a wonderful quote from Schlemmer’s diary in September 1922 that I think explains it beautifully: “Life has become so mechanized, thanks to machines and a technology which our senses cannot possibly ignore, that we are intensely aware of man as a machine and the body as a mechanism.” We find ourselves at a similar crossroad, where our interaction with technology is no longer mutually exclusive; it has become intrinsically linked to who we are and who we will become. Rather than trying to critique this shift, we merely aim to acknowledge the impact of the digital revolution on us, in a similar vein as Schlemmer in regards to the industrial revolution.
In what ways has our relationship with technology and new media evolved in the 21st century and how do you address that in Virtually There?
RS: The way in which we interact, communicate and engage as a community, and society as a whole, has changed entirely over the past twenty years through technological enhancement and the emergence of new media. The digital realm gives us unparalleled access to information, allowing us to crosscut time and space. On a cultural side, we are able to experience and immerse ourselves in the arts on a deeper sensory level than ever before. On a societal side, the emergence of new media is increasingly detaching us from the analogue world and pulling us into a digital space.
MM: In Virtually There, we aim to reflect upon these new experiences, this current shift, by taking our audience on a journey of three acts. The performance starts on a naive, playful tone that ceases to acknowledge its surroundings. As the ballet progresses, we begin to see a transition into a realm of awareness and maturity. In act three we witness the emergence of a new state of mind, cohesively adapting in its environment. In doing so, Virtually There ends on a note of mystery, and hope, both for the present and the future.
How do the different aspects of the performance – including costume, choreography, staging and music – express its overall message?
RS: All the elements of the performance reinforce our strong focus on collaboration – bringing to life our own version of Schlemmer’s Gesamtkunstwerk. By combining the worlds of art, design, music, dance and technology, we attempt to create a unique dialogue, in which one component cannot live without the other. The lighting design could only be developed once the choreography had been made, and the choreography could only come to life when the costumes had been produced.
MM: There is a strong sense of co-dependence that we wanted to introduce to viewers. By doing so, we show the challenges that are encountered, as well as the unique opportunity in creating something that is larger than us, a collective understanding of how society at large has been affected by the digital revolution.
What questions or themes would you like to leave your audience thinking about?
RS: Our aim is not to subjugate audiences to certain themes or questions; we hope that each individual will interpret the performance in their own way. It may ensue feelings of transcendence, freedom, anxiety, new beginnings or even confusion.
MM: I guess the simplest question to encapsulate it all – are you Virtually There?
Virtually There's creative team includes: the Campana Brothers for costume design, Karole Armitage for choreography, Charles Derenne for music, Kate Gilmore & Heather Rowe for set design and MATTE Projects for lighting design.