Composer Ari Benjamin Meyers (New York, 1972) and visual artist Tino Seghal (London, 1976) both live in Berlin. Jack-of-all-trades Meyers works with visual artists such as Saadane Afif and Anri Sala and bands such as Einstürzende Neubauten and The Orb, but also with the Semperoper Dresden and the Staatskapelle Berlin. Sehgal creates live situations in galleries and museums in which the visitor becomes part of the art work. In 2010 he had a solo-exhibition at the New York Guggenheim and from July 2012 new work by Seghal can be seen at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London.
Tino Seghal has made an experimental staging of Ari Benjamin Meyers’ Symphony X, performed by the sixteen-piece Redux Orchestra. A collaboration that will have its world premiere at SPRINGDANCE 2012.
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Ari Benjamin Meyers and I was educated as a composer and conductor. So my background is quite classical, but for about five years I’ve been working mostly in contemporary art and performance. At the invitation of several visual artists, I was the music director of the piece Il Tempo del Postino in 2007, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno. Tino, whom I already knew at that time, was also involved. This project made me discover new ways of working. Many of the artists with whom I still work today, like Anri Sala and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, I met during the making of this show. It was an experience that has greatly influenced me.
Tino Seghal was originally educated as a choreographer, wasn’t he?
Exactly, that is something we really have in common. When we first worked together in 2000, during the production of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the beach in Berlin, we were each very much working within our own framework. Something that has always connected us is the way we have both exchanged the traditional restrictions of our initial professions for the art world.
You moved from New York to Berlin. Why?
I was supposed to come to Berlin for a year – and now I’ve been living there for about fifteen years. I had a Fulbright grant for opera conducting and spent my first year as a conductor in the classical, German way in opera houses and theatres. After a few years I realized this was not for me. The opera scene especially can be extremely conservative. That is when I stopped doing what I was doing, and started composing for film, choreographers, and experimental theatre.
Is there a different mentality in the European art world, if you compare it with America?
First of all, Berlin is a great place for cross-pollination. It’s not an intense city like New York, London or Tokyo, and it offers more space for collaboration and experiment: it is important to be able to fail. Besides, of course Europe has a much bigger cultural network than America does. The government support alone; the whole system of a ‘staatstheater’ - we do not have that in America. There are also more possibilities to show your work here. In New York, you might be able to put on a show, but you would have great difficulties in getting it to travel around. Working in Europe has made it easier for me to do what I do. In America I would have been forced to make more choices.
You work on a wide range of different projects. How do you see yourself?
For a long time, this has been a problem for me. I was asked this question over and over again by institutions and journalists: what are you? It is interesting that this indefinability, the lack of a niche, has now become a niche of its own. Today, and this goes for the whole art world, things are no longer so strictly defined. So I have grown comfortable with it. But if I would have to choose one term, I’d always say composer. For me this is a very inclusive term, with which I don’t just mean someone who writes music, but…
Right, and someone who deals with time. Composing is really the act of organizing time. We think of it as notes and sound, but I could just as easily compose for bodies or objects. For me working with time, which you also see in the conducting, is the essence of what I’m doing. This is probably the aspect that connects me to Tino, for example. The idea of time, the perception of it – these are central issues for many people who make art, dance, music and theatre today. I am really not interested in finding my own ‘musical language’. I am interested in finding new ways of working. When I am writing an opera for Semperoper Dresden, in its own way this offers me just as many possibilities for experimenting as performing with my hardcore band Celan would.
What makes your project with Tino Seghal for Springdance unique?
Symphony X has been performed before. It is a very challenging and exhausting piece for musicians, but also for audiences: at 120 beats per minute, it lasts 75 minutes with no intermission. There is a real dynamic between the physicality of the musicians and that of the audience. For this reason I was not satisfied with performing it like a traditional concert; that format has existed for centuries. Tino saw the piece live and was really excited about it. While we were talking, we thought of working on this together, although neither of us had ever done anything like it before, and neither had the musicians. So although Symphony X already exists, this collaboration for Springdance truly is a world premiere. I am also very excited that it will be part of a dance festival. The piece is extremely physical and I have always seen the connection between making music, conducting and dance.
What can you tell us about the staging Tino Seghal has created?
The distance between the performers and the audience was a key issue for both of us. For me it was very important to try and create a situation in which the audience could be as close as possible to the musicians. Without giving away too much: everything will take place on the stage of the Stadsschouwburg. There will be no seating, people can sit or lie on the floor, or even move around. The same goes for the performers. If you are familiar with Tino’s work, you know he never introduces anything foreign. With this project, that was one of his ground rules from the start: he exclusively wanted to work with the audience, the musicians and whatever was present on stage. The spectator becomes a participant – and is thus equally staged by Tino.
Dutch audiences are generally known to be shy…
(laughs) I have performed in the Netherlands before with my band, so I am quite familiar with Dutch audiences. And there’s really no better way than placing shy people next to sixteen performers…
They will have no choice?
Exactly, so that’s one way of handling it. On the other hand: it is not about audience participation in the sense that everyone has to do something. It is also completely acceptable if someone wants to sit in a corner and just listen and observe. But I do not think that will happen much. A lot of what Tino does comes down to creating a situation, in which the audience is forced to become active. We’ll see.
Yasmijn Jarram is a freelance writer, editor and art critic.