Interview by Sarah Hammer
Published in Natt & Dag in 2012
This text is a translation from LEVENDE BØKER by Sarah Hammer.
The fourth Marstrand Festival, then, will be taking place between the 23rd and 28th of March. Every evening you’ll be able to enjoy a little piece of performed art on one of Black Box Theatre’s stages. But that’s not all.
The festival has, in fact, got the Deichman Library in Grunerløkka to join in the fun. On the 23rd, 24th and/or 25th of March, you’ll be able to spend the morning with a living book. Wait a moment; I’ll explain.
For the performance 'Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine', a group of performers each learn a book by heart and collectively form a library of living books. As a visitor, you select a living book and are then taken by this book to a particular place in the library, to a café or out for a stroll, while it recites or plays its contents.
The performance, which has previously been given in Amsterdam and Jerusalem, is based on an idea by performance artist/author Mette Edvardsen. Below, you can read what Edvardsen has to say (and what I wonder about) concerning Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine.
When I read about this project, the following obvious (and banal) question immediately came to mind: How is it actually possible to learn a whole book by heart?
It’s mostly a question of time actually and how thick the book is. Actors do this kind of thing the whole time but we don’t go to the theatre to be impressed that the actors have learnt their lines. All the same, it is a bit different to learn a book by heart in this way. We try to ‘become’ the book, to be intimate with the language and form rather than interpret it. For us, the goal is not to learn the book by heart but to enter into, and become involved in, the process. We’re developing learning by heart into a practice. No matter how well you learn a book, you have to keep on practicing or you forget it again. Besides, if you’ve chosen to ‘become’ ‘War and Peace’, the chances are that you’ve forgotten the beginning before you come to the end. In that respect, learning a book by heart is a continuous activity; there’s no actual final result to be achieved.
What does this performance add to the literary work?
We don’t actually add anything to the literary work per se, but we do create a reading experience. The books, the novels, the narratives are almost a ‘side-effect’ of the project. The situation that arises between the performer and the audience, or between the ‘book’ and the ‘reader’, is perhaps concerned with the book’s content to start with. Alongside the practice and the situation that arises, I think that memory and the experience of memory is something in itself. Our world is defined the whole time by new things; maybe this practice is a counterweight to forgetting. Memory is radical in our times.
What can visitors to the Deichman Library during the Marstrand Festival expect to get from their visit that they wouldn’t get simply by reading the book?
You get to visit the library in Grunerløkka, and that’s great! Learning things by heart is a practice with a very long history and one which some cultures still practise. The purpose of developing this practice and sharing it with an audience as an art project is primarily to create a particular experience. But the ‘books’ are not going to be at the library forever and you have the chance to ‘read’ them now. The ‘books’ allow time and space for ‘reading’. For some people, that’s something they don’t often manage to give themselves.
It’s a set-up for a relatively intimate mood, for a one-to-one performance demands a good deal from both the living book and its ‘reader’. What expectations do you have in relation to this exchange?
Yes, it’s an intimate experience, but so far it’s an experience that people have really liked. There’s something direct and informal about the situation while, at the same time, presence in itself creates attention in the ‘reader’. Sometimes one-to-one experiences can be a bit more demanding, as if something more is expected of the viewer or participant. But the ‘books’ don’t expect anything in particular from their ‘readers’. Their only expectation is to be ‘read’. The ‘reader’ can close the book and leave at any time, or they can take the opportunity to talk to the ‘book’ they are ‘reading’.
According to the programme, the idea behind this library of living books is taken from Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, a work that Bradbury himself has said to examine the effects that TV and the mass media have on the reading of literature. Can your project be seen as an extension of this idea, where you examine the effect of human relations on the literary work?
I’m generally interested in the way in which we see and experience. Performed art as a situation makes us attentive of the moment, thus strengthening our experience of the moment. I believe that performed art, far more than creating something fictive, always creates a situation: the one that we are in together, sharing time and space. It is important to be present. To do something. To share. So, even if this project doesn’t do anything directly to the literary work, this way of ‘reading’ will perhaps give a strengthened or more intimate reading experience.
The programme also says that this performance is a future vision of a society where books are banned because they are considered dangerous, a society where happiness is to be achieved in the absence of knowledge and critical thinking. Is ‘Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine’ a pure science-fiction performance or are there any undertones of real pessimism here? Do you fear for the future of the book?
Ray Bradbury’s book ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is a future vision of a society where books are forbidden. Firemen are no longer used for putting out fires but for setting fire to books. Censorship is also a core issue in the book. We pick it up where the book ends, where the protagonist has had to take flight and has joined an underground movement where people learn books by heart in order to preserve them for the future. But we are by no means an adaptation of Fahrenheit. My interest is in developing this practice and seeing what it means. The way market forces want it, forgetting has become a virtue and a positive quality; memory has become superfluous and unusable. I don’t fear for the future of books. Books will always be read and written.
This is not the first time you have shown your work at the Marstrand Festival. What does the festival mean to you personally, what does it mean for Oslo and what does it mean for the field of performed art in general?
The Marstrand Festival and Black Box Theatre have become the ’the happening place’ for performed art in Oslo. People have voted on it! It’s both well-deserved and really, really cool. For me personally, Marstrand and Black Box are obviously very important; I’ve shown all my works here. I didn’t attend the first festival since I was giving birth to my daughter but this year will actually be my third festival! Back Box has both profile and competence. They’re a real resource in the field, professionally too.
Last, but not least. Imagine this nightmare vision: You’ve lost your purse with all your cards, cash and Marstrand Festival pass on the 21-bus. You run in panic to the box office and humbly beg for a new one but, owing to the tight financial situation, (Anniken Huitfeld came by for lunch and held a financial knife to the throat of Black Box's Jon Refsdal Moe) a single ticket is the best Black Box can offer you. Which performance do you choose to see?
I get a new festival pass on tick and see everything. That’s what it’s worth!