in conversation with Leonor Serrano Rivas
What is the relationship between rehearsal and revolutionary political change? four by three talks to artist Leonor Serrano Rivas about her recent body of work, exploring the importance of the chorus, the ideas of Augusto Boal, and the role of improvisation in her practice.
Leonor Serrano Rivas works in a range of media, employing sculpture, performance, film, drawing, audio and text within her practice. Often creating temporary installations and performances, her work exhibits an abiding concern with our often improvised and temporal engagement with the spaces in which we live. Initially trained as an architect in Spain, Serrano Rivas has since worked in London where she graduated last year from the MFA in Art Practice at Goldsmiths College. It is also in London that she has shown some of her most notable work, including her performance at the 2014 Serpentine Pavilion, The Sky Is Still The Same, and her recent installation Harmonic Motion, exhibited at Lychee One at the end of last year.
For her most recent body of work, Serrano Rivas has taken a Renaissance scenography manual as her point of departure. Using diagrams instructing the reader on how to make a range of natural and supernatural props, Serrano Rivas has freely interpreted these to create a series of sculptures, a video and resulting installation. The work is an ongoing process of improvisation and imitation with the various elements being re-made for different exhibitions, thereby emphasising the provisional and open-ended nature of the interpretive processes from which they arise. It also shows a heightened concern with its theatrical roots, evoking the motifs of 'the backdrop', 'the chorus' and also 'the script' in the form of the book itself.
We met up with Leonor to talk about this body of work, her engagement with performance and her interest in Augusto Boal’s writing on the political potential of theatre.
Your recent work, Limbs Describe Curves (2015), takes as its starting point a renaissance book on scenography, instructing the reader how to imitate natural and supernatural phenomena. Could you begin by saying a bit about what drew you to this book and how it functioned in the development of the work?
Leonor Serrano Rivas: It was a matter of chance, I just discovered it in the library when I was looking for something else. And I got really attracted by the diagrams and the titles such as ‘how to transform a man into a rock or similar object’. I really thought that it was this kind of magician book which was just giving me all the tricks, a script if you like, and I just had to interpret it for the project. I guess that also art in the beginning was at least in part about imitating or representing nature, and I found it interesting that was what the book was about in theatrical terms.
The video element of the installation consists of a series of short clips, each beginning with a phrase starting with ‘How to…’, such as ‘How to imitate the wind’. We then see a group of actors collectively imitate natural and supernatural phenomena. What motivated you to have these phenomena in particular imitated by a group of actors? And was the collective nature of the imitation important to you?
LSR: In the video it was really important that it was bodies and movement imitating atmospheres because that’s what the book is about. But it was also important that the bodies were actually backstage within the installation as a whole, as the main characters are meant to be the spectators of the work. Normally when you place bodies onto a stage they become the main characters, but I wanted them to become the chorus, this group acting together where each individual loses their personality for the sake of the whole. In the video this takes the form of this kind of moving sculpture across the stage.
I should add that in imitating these objects I didn’t want it to be a straight translation from object to movement, diagram to group action. This idea of a collective, communal action was then crucial as the actors were the chorus and the scenography or backstage at the same time. Actually that is what a chorus should be, an accumulation of individuals designated to be interdependent to each other, working as a sculptural composition.
The video and the sculptures within the installation evoke, but do not present, live performances. Why are you interested in performance? And why a video work and objects that ‘represent’ live performance, rather than a directly participatory work?
LSR: Performance was something I discovered a year or so ago when I did this piece for the Serpentine Gallery. It’s amazing, you just place yourself as this theatre director and give instructions but you don’t control the final outcome. I saw the final piece at the same time as everyone else. You’re also allowing spontaneity to occur and that kind of shifts the way of working. With the video in the installation, the actors were ultimately filming and rehearsing at the same time, trying to learn the movements and then spontaneously doing something that was working much better then what we’d planned. With some of the movements I was just reading the chapters and giving them the diagram. So it’s this kind of collaboration, this kind of choral action, that I love because you remove yourself from the final result of the piece and also get amazing things out of working as a group of people.
At the beginning I did think of this work as a live performance but then I had the problem that if someone is performing live they become the main character and then the idea of the chorus would have been destroyed, as would have the idea of the spectators as the main characters of the piece.
So the spectator is confronted by the work with the challenge of becoming the character of it, with the installation itself becoming, in part, a script for interpretation by them?
LSR: Yes, that’s why it was important to include a pamphlet within the installation with the diagrams from the book. Also in the installation there is the whisper of this girl reading the text. So I’m giving away the tricks to the spectators: they have the diagrams and they can interpret it and carry on with the interpretation themselves. I’m understanding the installation as this kind of trial site for a rehearsal, or performance by the spectators.
That said, I don’t think of the spectator as having to be active and moving around to perform the work. To be active doesn’t mean that you have to move things, it can come from a more internal thing, questioning, making sense of it and so on.
The idea of rehearsal does feel central to the work: the film not only appears to take place in a space like a studio, but is presented in a similar way – it is projected onto a large unfurled paper sheet that stands atop tiles from a studio floor. Could you say a bit more about why ‘rehearsal’ is of interest to you and how you see it operating in you practice? Are you, as the artist, engaging in a rehearsal of some kind? And what about the viewer entering this ‘space of rehearsal’?
LSR: To pick up on the ‘rehearsal-like’ character of the installation, the reason why I placed the wooden floor in it is because I wanted to have a stage first of all, but also because it was this old floor which, when you walk on it, cracks like in the video. That’s where the two ‘spaces’ overlap and you get this sense of being inside the rehearsal. I place myself as this kind of theatre director and I place the spectators as the main characters who have to follow the script of the work. What the work then does is create a stage for them to get in and walk around or perform in, where that could be just engaging in the site and walking.
That performative element also seems to be present in the sculptures in the show, in which the process of making, and the temporary character of their structure, is evident. How do you see the sculptures? Are they finished objects of something else?
LSR: A key thing with the sculptures is not controlling the final result, that’s something that’s showing in the way that I always change them. So I don’t understand them as a finished pieces but as different performances or interpretations of the text which change with each exhibition.
This is to say that, every time I will show this work the sculptures will be changing, keeping the same title as the interpretation of this manual. I also really like the idea of having the same titles for different compositions or works, especially in the case of the sculptures as the continuity of title highlights the context (referring to the book) but also opens up the idea of an unfinished interpretation.
When we first talked about doing this interview, you suggested I read an essay you’d written on Augusto Boal’s theory of the relationship between rehearsal and politics. I wanted to ask if you could say a bit about how, for you, these two things are connected? How can a rehearsal – a fiction – translate into something as concrete as revolution?
LSR: If we understand the rehearsal as a collective praxis where a chorus performs a symbolic action, then performance is just a trial space (or a fictional site if you wish) which, by the mere fact of bracketed from the context of what we think of as ‘reality’, can thereby bring the possibility of creating something new, different. That is why the idea of rehearsal, or ‘rehearsal for revolution’ as Boal’s puts it, is have been so important in my own research.
In rehearsal, the player or performer has the opportunity to insert him or herself in a temporal space which is constrained by some pre-determined rules or a script. If this text is open enough, then he or she has the freedom to act in a completely different way, much more free than you normally act in real life. But of course this actor is also the link between the fictional, where new ways of making could potentially occur, and the reality, as when the rehearsal is over he keeps on living his or her own life. That is why Boal understands rehearsals as potential spaces where we could evoke political and social changes.
Genuine political change has, historically, often been thought as requiring the actions of a collective. However, the collective – subsuming the individual into a larger whole – has also been the vehicle of fascism and totalitarianism. Do you think that the collective nature of these performances has limits as a vehicle for politics?
LSR: As long as the group has freedom of speech and determines its own script then these rehearsals for revolution can happen in a way that avoids some of those dangers. This is also tied to the political element of the chorus which I touched on earlier, as it is only by becoming a part of the group that you go beyond your personality and make the new something possible. The possibility of the new is also the same in the idea of the rehearsal that we’ve been discussing.
Going back to what you’ve been saying; it seems that the work is ongoing, never ‘finished’ or complete so long as there are continuing interpretations. Do you have any future plans for this work and anything that you’re currently working on that’s developed out of it?
LSR: Well I am still working with the idea of chorus and that of the backstage in my new work, but in this case I have left the book on the side. I am digging with these two concepts in the context of a live performance. I think I have solved the issue we talked about before of how to evoke the idea of the chorus together with the backstage when performing live. In this case I am bringing these two elements literally together into one.
If scenography could be understood as ornament within a stage setting, one that travels along with the main theatrical actions in defining an atmosphere, the chorus could be understood as an accumulation of individuals designated to be interdependent to each other, working as a unique organism whose role is to stand behind the protagonist, amplifying his or her discourse. This new project will try to bring these two elements together – stage ornament and the chorus - creating a performative-sculptural-composition where the audience is no longer able to distinguish one element from the other.
All images courtesy of Leonor Serrano Rivas © 2015.