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ARE THEY REALLY NORWEIGIAN? / 2009

The following is a three part essay describing a residency by the now defunct Norwegian performance group Baktruppen, and was published in the first monograph detailing the history of their work, 'Performance Art by Baktruppen: First Part, published by Kontur Press.

1: HOW IT DIDN'T WORKSHOP - 28th October to 2nd November 2007

The set is rubbish...old junk and office furniture disposed of and left to rot in the university car park. If you look very carefully, you can see the fireworks set within the stacks of broken swivel chairs and battered Formica desks...

Ten minutes later, the brightly coloured projectiles are bouncing and ricocheting off the side of the university building. The wild gesticulating of those at the front signalling to the rest of us to GET BACK reduced the audience to the role of fleeing extras on the set of some low to no budget disaster movie. And was that a jet of sparks flying into that open window on the fourth floor? If you listen very carefully to the video taped documentation, you can hear the voice of our theatre technician off camera, gravely murmuring the following words:

“Robin...we're going to pay for this...”

We didn't in the end though, as Jørgen from Baktruppen never invoiced me. In fact, I don't recall money ever being discussed. So the following transcription is of another conversation that never happened. But if it had, it might have gone something like this:

Robin:Yes, what can I do for you?

Ingvild: Hello, we are Baktruppen from Norway. We wonder if we could teach inside the university?

Robin: Madam, I can tell you immediately that that is not possible.

Ingvild: Could it be possible if we came back at another time?

Robin: No, I am sorry.

Ingvild: Could it be possible if we get a special permission?

Robin: Well, maybe. But how do you propose to apply your chaotic working processes within a restrictive and inflexible institutional framework?

The Drama and Performance Studies degree course at London South Bank University first ran in 2004. Of the six students I started with, three eventually graduated. The last time I saw one of these three was at a party celebrating the (eventual) opening of the university theatre in 2007...no less than three years after the inception of the course. So this is the scene - I’m at the party, sitting next to this particular member of the first cohort, catching up on what she’d been up to since graduating, and commenting on the changes the course had undergone since she arrived all those years ago. How we didn’t even have a theatre space back then for example. We drifted onto reminiscences about the performances we did in classrooms utilising angle-poise lamps instead of 'proper' theatre lights...a cheap and nasty solution born out of necessity rather than a deliberately 'poor' aesthetic. We laughed. We laughed again about how we didn’t even have a theatre technician back then, leaving me in the invidious position of trying to mark the same work that I was simultaneously doing the lighting and sound cues for. The laughing gives way to occasional baulking as we both absent-mindedly phase in and out of a video we have running as a backdrop to the party consisting of an edited loop of footage documenting the first three years of the course. Other students present respond with a mixture of amusement and horror at being an audience to themselves and their documented performances for the first time. Suddenly, the image of a tattooed young man in oversized dark glasses tentatively emerging from a glass fronted fridge in what appears to be the university car park comes onto the projection screen.  The former student fails to place the footage. “What’s that?” she asks. I explain by saying something like this:

“Last year…the year after you graduated…we invited in an experimental Norwegian theatre group called Baktruppen to work with the final year students in an intensive week long workshop culminating in a public performance. The idea was to compress the usual thirty six hour study module spread over twelve weeks into just one week of continual activity, as a means of more realistically investigating the temporal realities of creative process.”

The former student looks at me blankly, and turns to observe the screen again which is now showing a section of the same project, this time with one of the male students simulating sexual intercourse with a watermelon. After a brief pause, my former student turns to me and says something that nearly breaks my heart:

"How come we never got to do anything like that?”

I say this was heart breaking, but there is perhaps an element of rhetorical flourish there. Either way, it was a question that I had no ready answer to, but led me to conclude that I never wanted a student (past or present) to have reason to say something like that again in the future.

Meanwhile, in the university car park, the smoke was clearing. The shattered remnants of the terracotta pots that held the fireworks cover an enormous radius. One student comes up to me in tears and asks the following:

Are we going to get marked down for this?”

Despite three years of trying to beat it out of them, many of my final year students still want to be 'proper' actors. For all the repetition of my dictum that to do something truly interesting with a medium, part of you has to hold it in utter contempt and disdain, 'the well made play' remains the totemic point of reference for the average English drama student. All that is crummy and devoid of traditional conceptions of skill or virtuosity (and therefore close to my heart), was summed up by the title of the project: 'BAKTRUPPEN: IT DOESN'T WORKSHOP'. But the trouble is, a rhetoric of failure can be downright confusing to a student (or nowadays, customer) who just wants to pass.

In describing our soon to be 'resident' guests to the students, I had wanted to scotch some of the more apocryphal tales that had already started to circulate  regarding what these Norwegian oddballs were going to be 'make them do'. These rumours were based on reviews of Baktruppen performances that the more diligent students had tracked down, describing prior on-stage exploits involving the ingestion of prescription drugs for example. Add to this the documented sightings of the two male workshop leaders standing naked in front of a car with 'God' perched on the roof, one with genitals unfurled (Adam), the other with genitals tucked (Eve), and the pre-workshop question and answer session took on an almost surreal quality:

            1: “Are they going to make us take sleeping pills?”

            2: “Are they going to make us take our clothes off?”

            3: Are they really Norwegian?

The last one was a personal favourite of mine. Ostensibly, it is a rather asinine question, but in hindsight, it was actually quite a perspicacious line of enquiry. What I think the student really seemed to be asking was this:

            “Do you mean to say they’re coming all the way over here for us?”

Suffice to say, eventual introductions were brief, and accents still being negotiated as I left the room at the start of the workshop. The last thing I remember as I closed the door to the theatre space was the strong smell of alcohol wafting from the direction of Eve. Or was it Adam? Not for the last time, the blue touch paper was lit.
                                                                                                                                   

Epilogue: Eight months later, and the same tearful student who had questioned what would happen to her mark in the light of the firework 'incident' is sitting in my office. She says she doesn't understand why her final end of year performance was given a lower mark than the ‘embarrassing’ show she did at the culmination of the Baktruppen workshop. For a lecturer, ones pastoral duties always require a certain delicacy and a lightness of touch, but my response in this case took some very particular negotiating, as this time the student wasn't crying. She was genuinely angry. However, there was to be no mea culpa forthcoming, but rather a bland admission that 'clearly, this was not for everyone'.

2: AN AFTER WORKSHOP DISCUSSION - 2nd November 2007

Robin Deacon: Going back to Monday, when you were sitting watching videos of performers having taken sleeping pills, and falling asleep during the performance...performances being done to cows in fields...performers doing bad Merce Cunningham impersonations…what was your first impression?

Martin Whelan (Student, Drama & Performance Studies): I think watching some of the videos…in a strange way it was something I’ve wanted to see for a long, long time. There’s a longing to see something so abstract…like performing to cows. So immediately that broke down any kind of barriers of…‘we’re going to get taught’. Or that we were going to follow instructions. And I think the title of the workshop…‘It Doesn’t Workshop’ is appropriate, because the initial impression was that we were on a level playing field and that this was going to be a two way thing and not something to be received.

Richard Kightley (Student, Drama & Performance Studies):  From first meeting the guys…obviously, they had a lot of character about them. You could see they were dislocated slightly from reality…and I found that quite promising.  It was just this childlike naivety…it was like ‘yes, that’s good, that’s exciting. Blow up! We destroy!’ It was just the rawness…taking everything back down to the basics and finding art within that.

Martin Whelan: The term that they used continuously is ‘play’. Its not 'perform', its ‘play’. I’m not sure if that is a language barrier problem, but for me, their idea of being on stage is not to be performing to the audience, but it’s to be playing with different things. So the structure to it was like…‘you have three hours, try this’. And then they wouldn’t say anything for two hours.  Then they’d go, ‘try this’. And before you know it, three hours later, you’re doing something. You just play with whatever the ideas were there, and then just go ahead and do it…

Richard Kightley: The time frame was essential to making the work. I think if we’d been given longer, it would probably have been a bit more elaborate, but not as raw. It’s basic…you used what you were given, what first comes…the aesthetics that appeal to you.

Robin Deacon: It was interesting watching over the week…the way the workshop was structured was to give a performance or some form of presentation at the end of each day. And I was very surprised when I came down at the end of the first day, and there was…stuff happening. There were people playing violins with video projections in the background, and people dancing, and seemingly enjoying themselves. And then I came down the following day and was told one of the groups was over at the Imperial War Museum, doing performances within the grounds of the museum.

Martin Whelan: That was something very refreshing, because it’s very easy in twelve weeks to think through an idea, and you have the image of the perfect performance, and then falter when you start to do it. But to be in that situation where, on the first day especially, it was…‘do something’. It doesn’t have to be anything in particular…just do something, and then show it to your classmates, and see what happens. And it’s such a different way of approaching something.

Robin Deacon: Can you remember what the darkest hour was over the last week?

Laura Davey (Student, Drama & Performance Studies): The darkest hour in what sense?

Robin Deacon: You know, that sense where you’re working on something, and its going well, and there’s other times where you’re sat in a room with your heads in your hands, and you’re all going ‘what the hell are we doing?’

Laura Davey: I don’t think I had that really. Not in that sense. When you normally do a piece, and you’ve got all this time to focus on what you’re going to do, having all that time, that’s when I think you find your darkest hour…in this week, we didn’t have time to think. And that was brilliant…at the very beginning, I was thinking, ‘what have I got myself into?’ This isn’t going to work. But after the first half of the day, this was amazing…like when I spoke to you before we started this, you just said, ‘embrace it, just go with whatever happens’, and that’s what I did, and it was fantastic, and I’d do it again.

Robin Deacon: But I remember being in here on the first day watching the video’s  that Baktruppen showed of their old performances and although I could see people with concerned facial expressions, most of you were still smiling or laughing, even if there was that sense of resistance. I think there is something quite infectious about what they do.

Joyce Ajoku (Student, Drama & Performance Studies): I think for me personally, as a performer, every time I was performing recently, I’d kind of lost that enjoyment…I was thinking about things too much. Like ‘I’ve got to do this, or there’s got to be a double meaning in this, and I want it to mean this’. Thinking, thinking, thinking. And what I liked about this group from Norway was that it was just like, enjoy yourself! Go out and embrace everything you do, and that’s what we did…I had such a good time. 

Martin Whelan: I think something else to add is…talking about whether it was a good way to work…what I feel has happened in this week is...I don’t think we’ve been taught much, but I think we’ve learned a great deal.
                                                                                                                                   

Epilogue: Please note that by the time of this discussion, Baktruppen had left both the building and the country. The students showed their performances twice, once in the day with Baktruppen present and once in the evening after their departure, with suitable modifications to the brand of firework utilised the second time round. Also present had been Joe Kelleher, Head of Drama, Performance and Theatre at Roehampton University, London. His text on Baktruppen Human Stuff: Presence Proximity and Pretend (2006)had been included on the reading list for the students. I don't think any of them read it though. However, his final observation during the discussion is a cautionary message for any lecturer guilty of underestimating their students:
           
Joe Kelleher: I think to be a learner, to be a student is not a straight forward business. It’s not about being a sponge and receiving, and taking on and just reproducing. To be a student is a responsibility, it’s a weight…it’s something you have to learn how to do. So you have a situation like here where you have a company like Baktruppen who are not straight forward at all…how do you possibly engage? I was fascinated to see what the results of this would be. And watching the shows this afternoon, one of the interesting things is that different languages are going on. I see some languages that I feel are owned by the students, and I see other languages that I can’t imagine could possibly be owned by the students. For example, the group outside working with a late Ibsen play that I have always fantasised doing with undergraduates. And the reason I’ve fantasised doing When the Dead Awaken, is because is one play that I can’t imagine undergraduates getting any purchase on whatsoever. It’s a nineteenth century, romantic, patriarchal piece…but I’m watching this action of the moving of this office furniture from one side of the car park to another, and I find it rather beautiful…and that’s the solution to the play let’s say. But I still think, what is the students’ purchase on this? But I see the students’ wave goodbye to Baktruppen, and then I saw the pieces transform between this afternoon and this evening. And they transformed after Baktruppen had gone. They transformed because those students had taken ownership of the languages and taken responsibility for them, and found certain ways of modifying what they were doing, so like in Batruppen’s work, the process was still live.

3: BAKKANALEN, OR THE UNCANNY ART OF BECOMING BAKTRUPPEN - 28th - 30th November 2008

“It’s like the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. Borges has written a wonderful critical essay on that poem, saying that the English translator, Edward Fitzgerald, was no good as a translator because his work on the Rubaiyat is very faulty; that Khayyam was actually not a very good poet. But somehow, over the span of nine centuries, they combined to make this little gem of a poem that would never have happened otherwise.”
(Cronenberg, 1992: 162 1)

Here, filmmaker David Cronenberg uses this fascinating example of collaborative process to explain the approach employed in his 1991 adaptation of William Burroughs book, Naked Lunch. He goes on to describe this in terms of a synthesis of radically differing sensibilities that somehow transcend singular authorial intention (as slippery and contentious a concept as that may be), and thus create a mutated version of two individual visions. ‘To fuse my own sensibility with Burroughs and create a third thing that neither he nor I would have done on his own’ (ibid.: 162). Notwithstanding the fact that this example pertains to a shift in medium (from literary to filmic), this notion as delineated by Cronenberg could certainly provide a starting point for discussing the Bakkanalen, an event that transplanted the ‘It Doesn’t Workshop’ alumni to Norway for a potentially comparable fusion.

In late 2008, the (now former) students from London South Bank University 2 and The Norwegian Theatre Academy, Fredrikstad convened at the Black Box theatre in Oslo to engage in a two week process, the basis of which was articulated through a series of recurring musical analogies - existing Baktruppen performances from over twenty years of ‘back catalogue’ were to be ‘remixed’. Or, this was to be Baktruppen’s ‘greatest hits’ - a series of ‘cover versions’ played out by the previous workshop participants to a public audience. The starting points of creative reinterpretation in the case of the Bakkanalen were six pieces 3 of performance that while representing quintessential Baktruppen works, were also in some cases ‘originals’ within inverted comma’s - When We Dead Awake: ‘a multi purpose all round Ibsen production’. Germania Tod in Berlin: ‘Heiner Müller, adapted’ 4. While it could be argued that the Bakkanalen represented yet another example of a growing trend in performance re-enactment 5, there is an important distinction to be made at this juncture. Rather than an artist or company choosing to revisit the work of those who maybe uncooperative or dead (or both), this recreation was initiated by the company themselves. Or in other words, certainly to be directed towards Baktruppen - you asked for it…

So what is it that Baktruppen (as distinct from the audience in general) wanted to see? Despite lacking a particular authorial provenance, let us presume that the following programme note represents a collective ‘voice of Baktruppen’: ‘Seeing this old work made new, often in unexpected ways was the start of the Bakkanalen project’ 6. But the notion of ‘old work made new’ could apply whether one is discussing this in terms of accurate, faithful depictions of existing material on the one hand, or on the other, radical reinterpretations of the same. Here it may be useful to recall Chris Cutler’s neologised notion of ‘Plunderphonics’, along with its related discourses on twentieth century cultures of sonic recycling from musique concrète to hip hop. Cutler cites the difficulty this phenomena poses for purveyors of supposed ‘high art’ practices, hamstrung by ‘the non-negotiable concern with originality and peer status - the craft aspect of creating from scratch: originating out of a “creative centre” rather than just “messing about with other people’s work.”’ 7 In conversation it was confirmed that the perceived ‘originals’ for many of the Bakkanalen performers were the video documents of the original performances that were to be remixed – these plundered recordings formed the basis of the rehearsal process. Another distinction emerges here: the separation between the mechanics of a pure blow by blow replication of Baktruppen’s previous works (assisted by the endlessly re-playable tools of mechanical reproduction) or the giving of total interpretive license to the Bakkanalen troupe, (consisiting of these relatively inexperienced former students), to approach such material in terms of stimulus rather than stipulation. Even if it is acknowledged that we are in the realm of impressionistic mimesis, it is worth looking again at Joe Kelleher’s speculations during the ‘It Doesn’t Workshop’ after show discussion regarding the possibility (or not) of students gaining purchase on, or taking ownership of a language. Words for example, can be learned as sounds to be made, but they may still be meaningless to those who speak them.

If the documentation utilised in the Bakkanalen rehearsals could be read as a token of absence, let us consider this notion not just in terms of these recordings from another space and time, but also in terms of Baktruppen themselves – who at the start of this process happened to be in another space and time zone. Kelleher points out that in Baktruppen’s 2002 show Homo Egg Egg (not included in the Bakkanalen repertoire), ‘They also - at least in this particular work – appear unconcerned with that most basic theatrical pay-off, human presence, to the extent that they barely appear on stage at all.’ (2006: 28 8). Perhaps then, there is form here, as when the workshop participants arrived in Oslo to begin devising the Bakkanalen, most of Baktruppen were on tour in the Far East with their new Light Metal Band 9 performance. Whether this was a deliberately contrarian strategy or just plain poor planning is open to speculation, but either way by the time they returned, the process of remixing was well under way assisted solely by the Baktruppen member Bo Krister Wahlström.

In relation to this, let us revisit Cronenberg’s evocation of the posthumous Fitzgerald/Khayyam interaction that opened this section of the text, whereby a mix of bad poetry and poor translation coincidentally produced something beyond the capabilities of either party. The neat suggestion here was of the possibility for fruitful collaboration outside of mutual intent, or even the respective life cycles of the collaborators in question. But watching the final performances of the Bakkanalen, it became increasingly clear to this viewer that such a breach of common sense notions of collaborative symmetry can just as easily take us beyond the emergent pleasures of that third, ineffable thing into some rather more disturbing territories.

In a 1987 edition of the now defunct British arts television programme The South Bank Show, Time Out theatre critic Steve Grant suggested that the Wooster Group’s radical re-reading of The Crucible was closer in essence to what Arthur Miller was trying to achieve than his original text was. Grant’s theory was that the form in which the play was re-presented (compressed, garbled, hysterical) heightened the fundamental themes of the play in truer manner than a ‘faithful’ reading of Miller’s text could ever have done 10. In response to this, here are a series of uncanny speculations - Baktruppen only take the stage in the guise of the Light Metal Band at end of the three hour Bakkanalen programme. Dressed for battle in suits of armour (fashioned from beer cans and other consumer detritus), this motley crew of conquistadors have returned from their sojourn in the Far East only to find that they have been cuckolded. An eerie pall descends over the Black Box theatre as a rumour ripples through the crowd - the Bakkanalen performers have presented something more ‘Baktruppen’ than Baktruppen could ever have done. The disquiet increases as it is suggested that the ‘real’ Baktruppen performers have been maliciously usurped by these sinister and otherworldly body snatchers seemingly from London and Fredrikstad. Impostors in the face of this New Order, the Light Metal Band begin ‘their’ performance – but seemingly ‘less Baktruppen’ than ‘they’ were before.
                                                                                                                                   

  1. Cronenberg on Cronenberg (ed. Rodley, C.) Faber and Faber, 1997
  2. Two of these students (Martin Whelan and Richard Kightley) contribute to the after show discussion transcribed in part two of this trilogy.
  3. Germania Tod in Berlin (1989), Tonight (1994), When We Dead Awake (1990), Good Good Very Good (1997), Super Per (1994), Do & Undo (2002).
  4. Programme note.
  5. I have previously described this trend/tendency as ‘performance art eating itself’. See also: artist Peter Richards Collective Histories projects, The Short History of Performance season at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (2002), as well as my own re-enacted performances of late American performance artist Stuart Sherman (2006 onwards).
  6. Programme note.
  7. Cutler, C. ‘Plunderphonics’ in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (eds. Cox, C. & Warner, D.) Continuum, 2005
  8. Kelleher, J. ‘Human Stuff’ in Contemporary Theatres in Europe (eds. Kelleher, J. & Ridout, N.) Routledge, 2006
  9. Please note that the short dialogue section in part one of this trilogy (where Ingvild tries to inveigle her way into the university for ‘teaching’ purposes ) is based on a scripted extract from this performance.
  10. ‘To some extent it is probably - in the context of the present day - as faithful a version of what Miller was trying to say when he originally wrote the play as you could possibly get.’ (Grant, S., South Bank Show ‘Wooster Group’ originally broadcast on ITV, 22/2/87).