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Concrete Island: J.G. Ballard Goes DutchAuthor: Simon Sellars • Oct 7th, 2005 •
interview by Simon Sellars
Isabelle Jenniches, originally from Germany, is a multimedia artist now based in California. With collaborator Stefan Kunzmann she devised a stage adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel Concrete Island at the Theater de Balie, Amsterdam, in 2002. The performance incorporated aspects of Butoh as well as an industrial/ambient soundtrack, projections and video. Stunningly innovative, it stripped back Ballard’s already minimal text to an almost subliminal level, focusing on subconscious tropes and the nightmarish dream world that lay just below the surface of the novel. The result was a poetic meditation on myth and perception, and the subjective nature of reality, as viewed through a technological lens.
Isabelle received her Masters degree in Scenography from the Academy of Applied Art in Vienna, and a postgraduate degree in Digital Media, Communication and the Arts from Media-GN in the Netherlands. These days, she has moved away from theatre to focus on new media and the concept of ‘telepresence’, collaborating with artists, actors, dancers and musicians, while drawing upon her compulsive collection of found footage from the Internet.
I spoke with Isabelle about her and Stefan’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s work, and ongoing artistic obsessions. Fittingly, for an artist so obsessed with telepresence, we conducted this interview via ICQ.
– Simon Sellars
How did you and Stefan hook up as a team?
We have been friends for…over 10 years! We studied together in Vienna and then somehow became interested in the same things. I started this postgraduate new-media program in the Netherlands, which was a total surprise to everyone as I had not even as much as seen a computer before. Anyway, I was really into it and then he came over and studied there too. Then after that, we both moved to Amsterdam.
Do you have any plans to return to Germany, like Stefan?
No, I could never do that. I have been away for so long, and I don’t know the place any more. I never much liked it anyway. I knew I would go away as soon as I was conscious enough to make decisions for myself.
Why did you both decide to stay in Amsterdam to create art? Did you find it to be a stimulating artistic community?
Yes, that was my initial reason. I’d done an exchange student year at the Rietveld Academie, when I was studying scenography, and I was really impressed by the theatre in Amsterdam. However, some things have changed since then. Now I find the theatre scene, especially, pretty uninspired and not at all daring enough, particularly when it comes to so-called new media. There were a handful of very talented and ambitious visionaries that were trying to set things up a couple years ago, but it somehow evaporated and nothing took its place. I guess there were isolated attempts, but I can’t say that I feel a part of a greater movement or that there’s any kind of exchange going on. I’m sure there are pockets where this is different, but this is my personal experience. Amsterdam is very different from, let’s say New York, which is this highly underfunded, but highly artistic and high-spirited environment where people just support each other because they have to! I was there for 9 months last year and it was blowing me away!
It seems that a lot of things are being stifled in the Netherlands these days. For example, the red-light district is not what it used to be, and the police are taking a very hard line on soft drugs. What do you think is going on?
Well, since the government changed towards the conservatives the arts have had a hard time, but I think it goes beyond the kind of government, in that the Dutch have the tendency to bureaucratise everything. People don’t take chances; they don’t just go for it.
I find the Netherlands totally fascinating, especially the concept of privacy. It’s such a small place and there are so many people crammed in, it’s like private space doesn’t really exist. I was wondering if that’s perhaps part of the reason why the Netherlands was able to invent Big Brother for TV?
Yes. There’s the famous cliche about Dutch people having no curtains and everybody looking inside everyone else’s house – we all do it! It may seem like everything’s out in the open, but the other side is that it becomes very hard to make contact. People are afraid of speaking out, of overstepping the invisible tolerance line. Everybody is free to do whatever they want – which is great – but you won’t get much comment, either neither negative nor positive, so it’s as if it doesn’t matter. After a while here, I was longing for a good fight!
Stefan told me that your adaptation of Concrete Island was a reflection on the superficial nature of Dutch culture, where everything floats on a surface level. Amsterdam seems wild to some people, for example, but below the surface it can actually be quite conservative; also you say the Dutch arts are funded, but there’s no real artistic individuality.
Concrete Island is so not Amsterdam that I cannot quite relate to that!
OK! Stefan warned me that when I spoke to you that you would disagree with what he said.
He was right!
So how do you see the work then? What was in your mind when you adapted Concrete Island? What do you want people to get out of it?
I don’t quite think like that. I mean, I can’t dictate what people will see or not see. I can only create what I see and make it come to life. In the case of Ballard, it is very much a fantasy, a wonderfully detailed world that I can really lose myself in. I would hope that my public feels at least a bit of that same fascination. Think of it as a journey – we set the pace and provide the means of transport and choose the route, but you are free to look out this or that window or to wear a pair of pink glasses or to read a book instead! Of course, this is an unusual concept for a theatre maker, which is probably why I am not really a theatre maker now at all!
Right, I see what you’re saying, but I guess I would still like to know if you have an interpretation of the novel, something that maybe guided you when adapting it. For example, I see it as a comment on technology, and how we are subservient to it – Maitland merges with the island, with the car, really, and he becomes a kind of post-human figure. I also see the events of the book as maybe taking place inside his head.
I think what I most liked when reading the novel – long before I even thought about adapting it – was Maitland’s slow change from civilised human to something else. This change took place in the middle of this civilised world, under everyone’s noses, but they were totally blind to it. At the end of our production of Concrete Island, our Maitland has become something like a lizard; that was the image.
I saw a video rough cut of the performance and I was really impressed by the whole set up: the stylised island, the subliminal images flashing behind, the stylised acting that propelled Maitland. I’m just wondering if your audience was quite prepared for something so conceptual?
No, probably not, although if they knew us, they should have been! We came up with the concept and the stage design together, but then when things got closer to the actual production process we had to split up because the workload became too much, and – this is interesting – we discovered what each of us can and cannot do! So Stefan was really good at working with the actors, whereas I am pretty much a failure at this. Stefan also adapted the text for the stage – an enormous amount of work. He wrote a beautiful script, where all the different layers were lined up next to each other. I did all of the video shoots and editing and linking it with the text and so on. That’s what we do – it’s like composing a piece of music. The script resembles sheet music.
Why did you choose Concrete Island? Why not another Ballard novel? Is it because the book is such a condensed version of Ballard’s ideas, and therefore easily adapted to another medium? Also, it’s set in a very contained space, so I’m guessing that probably made it easier to perform.
Yes, exactly. It really is this compactness that is intriguing. It has all the attributes of a good theatre play: a compact but well-defined cast, as well as the unity of space and seemingly of time, if you take it literally. But of course all that gets questioned in the end: has he been dying all the way through, and have we just witnessed the fabled speeding up of time just before death? Did he dream it all? Concrete Island is so much about intensity, an intensity that we loose in our civilised world. I’m not being romantic, but when Maitland goes back in time, so to speak, he becomes this other being. It’s actually very primordial; as he loses his humanity piece by piece, he fights for survival but also for the right of being king of this ‘island’. That’s fascinating to me, because without saying that this is a better world, Ballard reminds us about those intense, cruel streaks in us, that no matter how civilised we are, they are a part of us. Now these days, we have horrible images on TV and it’s so sickening, and we can’t escape it – but that’s not even the animal in us, it’s deeper than that. It’s about awareness instead of denial – it’s a part of being human and you have to deal with it! That’s why Ballard is important and that’s exactly why he’s so controversial.
The Souvenir project you did with Stefan is interesting, where you use the concept of travellers moving in and out of Amsterdam to present an alternative view of the city. It’s like you are using the concept of time travel to present a past, present and future history of Amsterdam. How did the audience respond to that?
Well, we started off with a round-table discussion about Amsterdam, then people were taken totally by surprise as 18 minutes of media saturation suddenly made them sit straight up in their seats: slides and video, voices on tape, frogs… People liked it actually, but we always get asked “Why so much and all at once?” Well, this is how I experience the world – I multitask all day long, so why should I stop when I am creating a performance? You have the extraordinary privilege right now of having my undivided attention; usually I would be working on something in the background and/or listening to my web-radio station and perhaps have another chat going at the same time. And, of course, I’d be looking out the window a lot!
Your work seems a bit dreamlike to me in that is doesn’t make logical sense at first, but has a dreamlike logic that’s consistent within its own world.
Yes. That’s certainly a great compliment, and something I very much like to achieve, to create a dreamlike world, as this is also how much of my work is made. Very often I follow my gut feeling, although there is a tremendous amount of thinking and theorising involved as well.
What’s next for you, artistically?
I admit that I have pretty much said goodbye to theatre, as it were. There has been a slow shift in my work – it’s mostly ‘art’ now I guess, lots of photographic work with strange twists, found footage from the net. I am obsessed with webcams! We did a project with the Waag Society in Amsterdam, together with three other artists. We wired up the city and installed connected devices to invite people to interact with each other over distance – not verbally, but by using objects. It’s about telepresence, really.
What do you mean by ‘telepresence’?
Well, I was involved with an earlier pilot project where we had two dinner parties going on at the same time in Canada and the Netherlands. This project was the work of Jeff Mann and Michelle Terran; I was just one of a handful of collaborators.
We linked the two parties using robotic devices, including glasses that would clink and a fish that could speak, wine that poured itself and also video that got projected onto the head of the table so that it looked as if the Canadian table was an extension of our table. It was a lot of fun and we found that interactions functioned on a very different level than when you just chat or wave into the camera. The Canadians were really quite there – they were present, or rather they were telepresent.
A lot of people, including myself, are really jaded with the Internet right now: too much spam, too much bad porn, too much advertising clogging it up…
Wow, that’s really sad that you say that!
Can new media once again have the power to excite people, to give them that kind of hope that happened when the Internet first hit?
I certainly feel tremendous excitement; always have done and always will! The big thing, of course, is the potential in the marriage of mobile phones with the Internet, something that’s happening now, something that many people don’t even realise is happening – when you download ringtones and send SMS messages, you are online! I strongly believe in the power of free speech, and the Internet – and the other new tools available – will make it possible for people to tell their own stories, even though, at the moment, it’s not available to nearly enough people. That’s one aspect of why I work with new media, I want to create tools through which we can speak and communicate, perhaps not even knowing that we are using high-tech tools.
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