If a City Could Have a Nightmare, It Would Look Like Bridge Over Mud

Review by Rick Smith. The Stranger 22. sep. 2016

Right now the stage at On the Boards looks like a landfill. A miniature train track snakes around glass plates, bones, crystal balls, angular sculptures, and piles of crepe paper fringe. Bullhorn speakers line the floor and ceiling. It's a mess. 

When it's showtime, the lights go out. 

Then stuff starts to move.

It turns out all the junk on the ground is a complex, room-sized instrument composed of a networked system of 10 computers that communicate with each other and with robots on the stage. The piece was created by Norwegian art collective Verdensteatret, a group that's been going strong for 30 years. 

The artists developed their own software in order to link all of the stage elements together. Six "trains" roll around the tracks, projecting LED light through a lens. The light filters through colored plates, glass, wire, and throws up otherworldly shadows on screens in the background. Sculptures, which also serve as canvases for light, scoot along the tracks. Three projectors beam images onto screens, too. 

Everything is connected, but nothing is automated. The collective "plays" this instrument in real time, using the computers and their own hands. In one section, for instance, an actor blows the hell out of a tuba. A program picks up the sound and translates it into a vibrating image of a sphere, which is then projected onto screens. The show is LOUD-quiet-LOUD, dark, and eerie. 

Piotr Pachel, one of the members of the collective, told me that responses to the piece have been interesting. When they installed the instrument in China, some viewers thought the piece engaged with the Chinese tradition of shadow puppets. When they installed the piece in Moscow, some viewers saw references to Russian Futurist ideas about the role of bodies onstage. The U.S. viewer might pick up some Mad Max: Fury Road vibes (sans pyro, add breathers), or they might see the words "abstract" and "steampunk" floating around in their minds but refuse to put them together in a sentence due to their general antipathy for all things steampunk. 

The experience of watching the show is somehow both meditative and apocalyptic. I've only had that feeling one other time in my life. I was standing on the beach at American Camp. It was a pitch black night, and I could hear the terrible sound of the ocean rushing the shore, but I couldn't really see it. I was both terrified and blown away by the beauty of the void. But maybe I just need to listen to more Norwegian Black Metal? 

The intellectual beauty/terror of the piece lies in the interaction between the artists and their instrument. The actors onstage are both cogs in the instrument's machine and gods controlling the universe. That incredibly polarized, existential instability reflects the relationship between a city and its citizen. How much control do we have of this city we've set up for ourselves? In Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog asks, "Does the internet dream of itself?" Bridge Over Mud seems to be asking, "Does a metropolis dream of itself?" From what I can tell, the answer is yes. And it has a lot of nightmares. 

This show premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music a few weeks ago, and it's last stop in the States is right here in Seattle. We're lucky to have it.

Beyond Time

Review by Anette Therese Pettersen.  Klassekampen, 22. sep. 2014 
Venue: Henie-Onstad Art Center, Oslo 2014

Broen over Gjørme (Bridge over Mud), the most recent work to emerge from Verdensteatret, is low-key and strangely touching.

On previous occasions, I've compared Verdensteatret's performances/installations to dwelling inside an animal in a coma. It's not a particularly original description, but it's a recurring image of all the Verdensteatret productions I've been witness to. The group transforms its stage or art space into a dramatic body, pulsating between its visual and audiovisual elements, and all the fragments that float by has a certain dreamlike expression.

Just like its predecessors, “Bridge over Mud” is such an installation – an all-encompassing work. Dramaturgically, it's not plot-driven, and there's no obvious narration for the spectator to follow.

Instead, there's a fragmented form that opens for countless interpretations and entry points. Verdensteatret was founded in 1986, and the twelve artists who make up its current constitution all come from different artistic disciplines. The company has been on a number of international tours, and received an honorary Hedda Award, Norway's most important theater prize, this year.

Nevertheless, I feel Broen over Gjørme presents a more fragile sound structure. Their earlier works had installations that also occupied more of the vertical space in the room. This time the setting is a wide flat “field” of railroad tracks.

Small wagons chugs around, and the emission from their headlights is projected through glass prisms creating landscapes and formations onto the walls of the room outside the construction.
After a while, the stage becomes better lit and small periscope-like loudspeakers are raised and suspended (a closer look seems to reveal they're made of scheap plastic glass). Inbetween the tracks, where the trains rolls along and figurative (almost Bauhauesque) boards are being pushed to and fro, you can also glimpse some formations that could look like coral reefs.

There are a number of associative trains of thought, but there is something about the tracks and the rest of the visual setting that makes me think of Tarkovsky's science fiction movie “Stalker” (1979). The film works well as a prism for this work, but while Tarkovsky lets his characters leave their eveyday life and enter The Zone, in so many ways this work embodies a (timeless) Zone by itself.

Amongst other things, the spatial imagery is made up of wires, tracks, glass prisms and loudspeakers, yet the combined expression or experience is most organic.

 In the film “Stalker” its main character states early on that whatever happens in The Zone does not depend on it, but on us. You can say the same about “Bridge over Mud”, as none of the images, plots or soundscapes are unambiguous. The room or universe crated by Verdensteatret seems familiar in a peculiar way, though alienating, leaving the onlooker to choose how to imagine the implications of each image created – be it through long trains of associations or smaller, fragmented sequences.

The images and soundscapes that emerge lead me to think of something prehistoric –it's as if we hear the distant echoes of the creatures that is the origin of what today has become petroleum and raw-oil -hoisted out of their reservoirs.

The hall at the Henie Onstad Center provides a good space for this work. The sounds come closer and closer while the room gets better lit – and the energy built up throughout the nearly hour long performance of “Bridge over Mud” finally recedes.

The span between deafening cacophony and the somewhat more scrawny, fragile space this performance creates seem to reflect the extremeties of human life. To get back to “Stalker”, there is another quote brought back to life by “Bridge over Mud”: “Weakness is something fantastic, strength is nothing.”