‘Displacement is a lived experience of alienation’

Attend a sound and performance installation by choregrapher-poet Poorna Swami and Swiss composer Marcel Zaes that examines the notion of spectatorship

Published - February 01, 2019 08:40 pm IST

“Move! Move,” a man standing in the corner of the space yells, frantically gesticulating at the people who’re looking at him, waving his arms to indicate that they should clear a path. The onlookers register his presence and slowly, reluctantly, begin to shuffle out of his way. The man runs across a length of wall, to reach the next corner. Now facing a new gaggle of onlookers, he repeats his instructions. At some point, he will stop running. But someone else might take his place, staring the next corner down with a hungry eye, hurtling along the length of the wall. As a viewer, ‘the long and short of it’ is that this is no time to be complacent. A sound and performance installation by Bangalore-based choreographer-poet Poorna Swami, and the Swiss composer Marcel Zaes, The Long and Short of It plays this weekend in Mumbai.

Creative collaborations

Zaes and Swami arrived at the installation whilst fleshing out a shared interest in time. “For him, it was a more formal, musical concept – how we feel sequences and rhythms, and for me, a historical one – how we are responsible for time, politically. Because we had such vast ground between us, conceptually, we decided to start by imposing a lot of restrictions upon ourselves. We came up with: one room, one amp, one speaker, one performer, two mics, and one week. Even the sound score that is played on loop is made of sounds that we recorded in that room with those few things,” Swami shared while talking about starting points for the performance.

The installation is now performed by a larger group to amplify its immersive nature, and looped multiple times over 70 minutes. Audiences can enter and exit as they like, and spectators often choose to watch the piece in segments, leaving the space at regular intervals to modulate the intensity of the sound and movement for themselves. With each loop, the space transforms, changing the ways in which the performers orient themselves to it. The space is lit by an array of light bulbs taped to the floor, that allow for uneven patches of cold light. When you are seated, you catch the light, and spot other audience members around you, the clinical whiteness of the lights spilling across their faces. Stand up, and you find yourself watching your step, trying not to trip over wires, as the eerie, high-pitched emptiness of echoing rooms washes over you, aided by powerful speakers.

Makeshift movements

The term ‘installation’ gestures towards the process of making and unmaking, of putting together and dismantling something. With The Long and Short of It , there is a makeshift air to the set, with the performers constantly moving elements around, and using them to create sound in the act of movement. Explaining the relationship that the performers develop with the set, Swami said, “The set in the piece is another way to define the map of the space. It is where the performers go but that set/map slowly changes, before returning equally slowly to the way it began. The individual lights allow the performers to keep rearranging the landscape, just as they do with their mics and movements. We work a lot with task in this piece. We worked on stripping down these interactions with the set down to their most efficient, precise, and uncomplicated versions. We also do a lot of exercises like simultaneously working with set in a functional manner while verbally narrating personal stories of place, home, history etc. in an attempt to begin to make these inanimate objects matter to the performers.”

Recurring patterns

A preoccupation with the patterns of displacement that sound and movement enable shapes the installation. ‘Displacement’, in our times, can be a loaded word, suggesting meanings far broader than those articulated by physical inquiry alone. “Each performer finds a patch of ground, marks it in various performative ways and is then forced to leave. The body is submissive to the score…displacement recurs as both a movement directive and also as emotional resonance. For, me displacement implies many things – it’s a recurring pattern in history caused by similar decisions around boundaries, maps, and territories, be it of countries or neighbourhoods or spaces within the home. The strict definitions of maps – real and imagined– cause people to be forcibly moved out of the place they would like to inhabit. Displacement isn’t simply a geographical movement – it is a lived experience of alienation,” said Swami of the collaborators’ shared and evolving relationship with the term ‘displacement’.

When someone is about to hurtle through space, what about the anticipation of the body gives it direction and warns other people away? What happens if the audience doesn’t ‘move’? Who, then, is displaced, and how?

The Long and Short of It plays at G5A, Mahalaxmi on Sunday, February 3; more details on bookmyshow.com

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