“Undone (a breath score)”, Agnė Auželytė & Stephen Doyle © Ludger Storcks

Breathing Space

In the month of November 2019, Lake Studios Berlin offered “Double Bill Residency” to support the creation and the presentation of works by Grace Euna Kim – “Dance Party (the apocalypse is disappointing)” and Agnė Auželytė & Stephen Doyle – “Undone (a breath score)”. The works premiered on the 6th December at Lake Studios Berlin.

“I’m interested in asking: ‘What is an open structure?’ You put in an input and get an output. How can a work be like that?” prompted Marcela Giesche at the end of our interview in the cosy back garden of Lake Studios Berlin. Giesche is one of the founding members and (as I like to think of her) the ‘mother’ of the space. I was one of their first artists in residence in 2014 (during which time I helped paint the ceiling and the walls of the big studio for a day), just a year after the birth of the space in 2013. Since then, I have had the privilege of witnessing its continuous transformation and growth. This process, which originated from a courageous collective dreaming of creating a generative space for artists, is in itself a manifestation of building an open structure.

An open structure, in my opinion, can be defined as a conscious orientation towards constructing a space that is unconventional and flexible, and that allows the capacity to dream and to rebel. The repetitive action of putting into attain this output is not without effort indeed, it requires clear intention, the strength to overcome doubt, and persistent labour. It is an act of devotion that creates a history. As Sara Ahmed writes in “Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others”, history is a result of ‘the very repetition of gestures, which is what gives bodies their tendencies.’ In this metaphor, I view the ‘bodies’ as Lake Studios Berlin, and ‘their tendencies’ as the philosophy of the founding members that motivates every input into creating a space that is an expression of these visions:

This is our space. We live here. Dance here. Breathe here. After one and a half years of planning, we started in April 2013, converting this place from an old carpentry warehouse into our residence dance studios. We laid down each and every board of the floors: hammered, nailed, banged, and screwed them all in. In the garden, we dug up the cement, hoed the new earth, and planted seeds. We poured our sweat and hearts out into the space so that one day, we could enjoy the joys and comforts of our freedom. Freedom is dancing. Freedom is laughing. Freedom is being able to express yourself through movement. Freedom is sharing this all with you. We welcome you to share this little oasis with us. – The Lakies

As an active gesture of sharing this freedom, Giesche hosted “Double Bill Residency”, the studio’s first residency to be co-sponsored by the Berlin Senate. The residency offered solo artist Grace Euna Kim and artistic collaborators Agnė Auželytė and Stephen Doyle accommodation for a month, access to the studios, and a stipend. In return, they presented their works at the two evenings of Double Bill performances. Giesche chose these specific artists as their practices appear to resonate with her interest in cracking open the predetermined and normalised rules within social structures. As a choreographer and a dancer herself, Giesche researches how different spaces and situations inhibit or create freedom for the performer, and how these varying conditions affect the performer and the viewer enabling them to enter into various states together. She is interested in performances that stir up a shift in space, time, and the social context, and which eventually lead to producing a new social situation. “Although the outcomes may turn out to look completely different to each other, I saw this research reflected in both of their works, and I was therefore attracted to them.”

The two works, “Dance Party (the apocalypse is disappointing)” by Kim, and “Undone (a breath score)” by Auželytė & Doyle, do indeed look quite unalike. While Kim’s work feels like an inhalation and then a holding of the breath, Auželytė & Doyle’s work is more like a long exhalation. While Kim investigates the possibilities of destabilising and challenging existing social norms, Auželytė & Doyle delve into the exploration of an internal landscape that gently spills out to create a unique, external world. Kim’s work sets up a space where every movement, sound, and spatial choice of both performer and viewer are intensely amplifiedthe audience shares in the responsibility of designing the space by being given the freedom to react as they choose to. Auželytė & Doyle’s work, meanwhile, creates an otherworldly dreamscape that the viewer is invited to passively witness as they absorb a poetic and sensorial experience. Both works, however, take the body as the starting point.

Kim spoke calmly and carefully about her work as we sat at the back garden of Lake Studios Berlin on a crisp, winter afternoon. She explained to me that her piece addresses “the body as a site of resistance and catharsis in crises.” She told me that she had come to an understanding of how the social and political mechanisms she found problematic are “written into the most intimate and banal gestures and movement processes of the body.” She therefore approaches the body as an initial site of activism through intimacy and psychic action.

As the audience enters the studio for “Dance Party (the apocalypse is disappointing)”, mobile phones are handed over so their cameras can be blinded with a circular, black sticker – a commonly accepted ritual on Berlin’s nightclub scene. Around the studio, nine performers are standing, facing the walls with their eyes closed and their backs to the viewer, quiet and still. Nothing ‘happens’ for a while. As time passes, I notice myself becoming hypersensitive to every movement and sound in the space, however slight or subtle – the way someone walks, where and how they choose to stand or sit, the sound their jacket makes … Every gesture is amplified. Audience becomes performer. As the hushed uneasiness swells, a very slow reveal begins to take place. Three or four people in the audience begin to make what look like intentional choices in the way they stand, where their gaze falls, and how theymove. They stand out unmistakably, and I gradually realise that they too are performers. These subtle interventions become more extreme until one of them breaks out into an intense movement accompanied by heavy breathing. She is always on her toes, strenuously distorting all possible body parts in all directions. Her eyes are closed. The jerkiness of her movements and her arduous breathing make her look as though she is in pain. She walks in random directions, then falls suddenly and violently. She repeats the action again and again. Her eyes remain closed, so it becomes the viewers’ responsibility to clear a space for her. What do we choose to do?

I sense a growing tension in the space as more and more unforeseen and forceful actions erupt from erstwhile hidden performers. A piercing scream bursts suddenly from someone who had passed as an audience member until this point. Three more performers join the blind-distorted-stagger-and-fall dance. The line between who is the performer and who is not is thrown into deeper confusion. A new space opens where it feels as though anything can happen.

Gradually, as I watch some of the performers slip back into the state of ‘normality,’ where they act like any other audience member, simply watching without engaging in performative acts, a series of question arise in me. As Giesche had already mentioned, each situation and location yields a different set of rules and therefore astate of being. For example, there is an expected way of being when you are on an U-Bahn at nine a.m. that is quite different from the expected way ofbeing if you arein a club at three a.m. So, what, in fact, is ‘normal’? Are norms constructed by repeated practice, and when should they be examined and challenged? Why do we feel uncomfortable when we feel that we are being closely watched by others, and do not know who will ‘break the rules’ and when? Was the tension in Kim’s work due to the unpredictable breaking of rules within a given space, or simply down to the intensity and the violence of the actions themselves? 

After the long intermission, during which time I lie down and breathe deeply in order to counterbalance the physical rigidity that had built up inside me during the first performance, I enter the studio for “Undone (a breath score)”. Under a single, dim centre-light, I see Auželytė and Doyle lying down on the floor,with their eyes closed, on either side of a pile of keyboards in various shapes and sizes. They look peaceful. They had explained in the interview that this work is the second part of a triptych. All three works share the core theme of practicing a range of physical or mental exercises that alter the performers’ states of consciousness. They then improvise from this specific state instead of making rational decisions. The improvisation focuses on approaching and creating sound in an embodied manner. In “Undone (a breath score)”, they chose to use Holotropic breath work, a technique developed by Christina and Stanislav Grof, as the practice to transform their mental and emotional state. The keyboards are the material for the ensuing improvisation.

Acid Bodies – Moabit Action, Berlin, 2019 – Grace Euna Kim, video still, filmed by Marjorie Brunet Plaza

As soon as they start to move, I notice the contrasting movement qualities of their bodies. Doyle suddenly and casually pops up from the floor and starts to play with a keyboard. Auželytė, meanwhile, peels slowly and gracefully away from the ground to join him. Throughout the piece, Doyle occupies himself with themore practical task of arranging the keyboards and creating sound. Auželytė, on the other hand, spends more time dancing with the keyboards. She picks them up and moves with them as if they are extensions of her body. Despite this juxtaposition of physical presences, their bodies coexist within the space in a way that feels natural. Nothing is forced and everything seems to intuitively flow. They are both completely themselves, but also effortlessly together. Within this ease, I glimpse the time they have spent together in the process of making this work, because, to borrow Ahmed’s words once more, “the labour of such repetition disappears through labour: if we work hard at something, then it seems ‘effortless’.” In this fluid togetherness, poetry arises.

The space is gradually filled with drones of varying notes from the 14 keyboards, their keys held down with tape. Auželytė and Doyle occasionally use their voices to echo the notes. As the calming drone washes over me, I feel the vibration from the floor through the soles of my feet. I exhale deeply. As the piece progresses, it occurs to me that right now, the what matters less than the how. Rather than focussing on what specific sound and movement they execute, it is moreimportant to notice how those sounds and movements are created, and how they exist together in this specific zone. A unique state spills out of them, fills the space, and moves the viewer.

At the very moment I feel that the accumulation of drones has become too acute for comfort, the notes begin to subtract from one another, fading in sync with the dimming blue light. What a relief it is to feel heard and taken care of in such a space. All sound gradually fades away to nothing, and Auželytė and Doyle are left standing facing each other with their eyes closed. They begin singing: “Last night I dreamed that I was a child …” (from My father’s house by Bruce Springsteen), and an extremely bright light brutally fills the space, blinding everything. It is as if I have been torn out of a pleasant dream. Just as my eyes adjust to what seems like a new ‘reality’ – this world of pouring light – the space is drowned in blackness and the piece ends.

The two works I experienced this evening at Lake Studios Berlin inhale and exhale, just as the space does. The space breathes like a living organism does – breathing different breaths with altering times and needs, but never ceasing to breathe. It is a place where I also remember to breathe and let some of my closed circuits open. And through these new open circuits, I inhale and exhale in a newfound depth.