Flotsam of the future

Concert, installation, machine: Verdensteatret works with found stories and Powerbooks to create what they describe as a "rusty shadow" theatre. Synthetic expression becomes organic, organic becomes syntetic. And because the Oslo-based collective sees art created in the moment it vanishes, their multi-layerd games of reerence works with the idea of disappearance as appearance.

A text by Jon Refsdal Moe.

An old university instructor pulled a packet of tobacco from his pocket after having spent all morning explaining the basic concepts of Aristotelian metaphysics to a group of freshmen. "In all physical material dwells a potential form," he told the students while his fingers swiftly rolled a cigarette. "And according to Aristotle" – he paused at this point to lick the cigarette paper – "form is realized in matter. But what about this cigarette, then? How can its form be maintained if it is not to disappear as matter?" He lit his cigarette and inhaled deeply twice. "When its form is realized, it ceases to exist. In the end it becomes ash again." The instructor smiled and closed the door behind him.

This anecdote is not only about an old professor challenging the philosophical system in which he had taught his entire life. It also touches on the work of Verdensteatret. Just as with the instructor's cigarette, it is pointless to talk about a fundamental form, an idea that is to be realized as well as possible by means of artistic material. And just as with the instructor's cigarette, Verdensteatret's art is born the moment it disappears.

Instead of with an idea, Verdensteatret begins in the ashes; it collects fragments from contexts that may have been meaningful once upon a time: scraps found along the wayside, noises they have heard, a story someone read to them, a dream someone once had. They call it flotsam: things that were floating by and that perhaps had some purpose once. The work of Verdensteatret transforms this flotsam into aesthetic material: it is rotated, turned, and carefully reassembled. It is not the sculptures constructed, nor the pictures projected, nor the mechanisms with which they operate: the art of Verdensteatret is the shadows that fall on the back wall, the joke told in a foreign language that one does not understand, the sound produced by hammering on a piano. The art of Verdensteatret is everything that is born and perishes at the same moment.

The Oslo-based Verdensteatret was founded in 1986. Following experiments with visual performance, environmental theater and text theater, the group has evolved to incorporate more intermedia means of expression in recent years. Today the group consists of video artists, computer animators, sound engineers, musicians, actors, and a painter, among other professions. They develop their works in a "flat structure" or, as they say themselves, "by everyone interfering in everything." The outstanding feature of their work is the fact that it comprises many different forms of expression and, at the same time, a good portion of happenings. Video productions are processed with curved mirrors, and human voices are digitized; synthetic expressions become organic, while organic expressions are transformed into synthetic ones. Every picture, every individual dramatic element is combined with the others in so many different ways that we cannot see where one ends and the other begins. This begins an expansive game of references and opens up a space of associations in which a host of new opinions can emerge and disappear.

Like the group itself, the name too is Norwegian. In English it means something like "World Theater" or "Theater of the World." But don't let that remind you of hackneyed metaphors of the world as a stage – although, it may be precisely that. Nor of the old cinema auditoria from the early days of film, when people came together to experience the fascination of pictures and the technical wonders shown therein. These auditoria were called Circus World Theater. Verdensteatret takes us to such places, filling them with their own dreams of the future: with samplers, Powerbooks, and video projectors – instruments that fascinate us today but which will soon fill rubbish bins. By combining them into a "rusty shadow" theater, Verdensteatret shows us, quite plainly, that our own conceptions of the future are also about to disappear, but, nonetheless, they do want to continue relating them to us.

You may not be able to recognize that the work of Verdensteatret is theater. The group prefers to compare their works with machines and three-dimensional musical compositions. The best comparison is perhaps with installation artists such as Christian Boltanski, who works in the same way with shadows, stories, and disappearance; or with an older hero of installation art: the Hungarian Nicholas Schšffer, who planned monuments and futuristic cities and constructed light ballets and electromechanical sculptures in the 50s and 60s. "The task of the artist is not to produce an opinion but rather to create a production," Nicholas Schšffer once wrote. That may sound narrow-minded but it makes a big difference.

Verdensteatret never presents a finished opinion but prefers to show the production of an opinion instead. The viewer is never presented with a finished expression, but rather sees how an expression is created. And because time, space, and the viewer are incorporated into the production, an element of coincidence always plays a role. But just as in Schšffer's light ballets, John Cage's happenings or Alexander Calder's mobile sculptures, coincidence is always subject to a profound stringency: the rusty mechanics of the machine.

Verdensteatret adopted the idea that art should be created at one moment and disappear the next from the practices of avant-garde theater. But the idea of the perfect moment that was defined by earlier generations of the avant-garde may fall by the wayside. Instead, disappearance is made a part of appearance. Verdensteatret's expression is always blurring itself – hence, all the historical references in their works. And that is why their work becomes a defiant homage to artistic production as such: a production that leaves behind no excess of products, that creates no stable values, but instead pays tribute to the moment to which you cannot really pay tribute.

The productions put on at the steirischer herbst, "Concert for Greenland" and "The Storytelling Orchestra (Fortellerorkesteret)," are variations on the same theme and yet two separate universes. One is a performance and concert, in which the makers play on the machines as operators and musicians. The other is an installation, in which the machines start to live their own lives and produce new stories. Both works are machines. The material was collected on a trip to Greenland – that giant sparsely populated island on the edge of Europe that remains, to this day, a victim of Scandinavian colonial history. Most recently with the global charge of hunting seals and whales, the traditional food source for Greenlanders. As an Arctic subcontinent it lies up there, casting a shadow over us, a country with more poverty and alcohol dependence than you would assume in view of the seemingly idyllic total population. Most of us are familiar with Greenland mainly because of the native Inuits one sees at the main railway station in Copenhagen, when we travel to Berlin on the night train. On the news, we see that the inland ice is in the process of melting – but Verdensteatret experienced something quite different there.

You may not be able to recognize that Verdensteatret is theater. Over the years, the group has moved in many different directions. But in one respect, they have remained glued to the theater by explicitly orienting themselves according to the European, particularly to the German theater tradition of Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and Heiner MŸller as natural points of reference. MŸller in particular is often found in the works of Verdensteatret, with the "World Theater" also treating these writings as pieces of flotsam. Not as a literary template, but rather as an open landscape to be traversed.

When the old university instructor closed the door behind him, he left a lot of confused students behind. I was one of them. Twelve years down the line, I came across these lines in a book. I think that he must have been reading them while he was grinning broadly and finishing his cigarette.

"From what source things arise, to that they return of necessity when they are destroyed; for they suffer punishment and make reparation to one another for their injustice according to the order of time." (Anaximander)

Jon Refsdal-Moe (2006)

Jon Refsdal-Moe is a research fellow at the faculty of Theater Science of Oslo University. Based in Oslo, he also works as a theater and visual arts critic.

This article may not be reused without the permission of the author.