“The Emergency Artist”, Clément Layes © Dieter Hartwig

Interview Series: Tanzhybriden – Clément Layes

From brooms, buckets, and boxes to chairs that snap like scissors of their own accord, Clément Layes creates choreographies with everyday objects. The on-stage element of his latest research, “The Emergency Artist” (2018), is set against the backdrop of a large, wooden angle, bent at ninety degrees. Half-way through the piece, the structure is turned and three black-clad performers unexpectedly appear. With no secrets to the ‘behind the scenes’ of his performative structures, I wanted to find out more about his process of making.

Did you start the creative process of “The Emergency Artist” by building the structure?
Yes. I had the idea of the angle long before rehearsals started. It took a while to complete the design, and to find the right materials. Then, I built it together with one of the performers, visual artist Jonas Maria Droste, in my studio. It’s very important for me that we make the objects ourselves, because this way, we are in contact with the material, and we don’t separate experience from object.

How do you develop the performance in relation to the structure?
I worked with the performers to discover the structure’s many possibilities. We knew it would flip and turn, and we played with its other potentials. Everyone got involved in further shaping the structure and defining its details. For example, the performers said they needed a staircase at the back, so we added it. This was possible because it wasn’t a finished product, it was still evolving. I often work that way: the dramaturgy is produced out of the unfolding of the scenography. For this piece, we had only two weeks to make the on-stage action, as the idea was to create an emergency within the creative process. This meant that the normal process of trial-and-error was condensed, and, in the end there was hardly any erasure. We kept what we produced.

Would you consider yourself primarily a performer, a choreographer or a set designer?
I trained in dance at the National Conservatory of Dance and Music in Lyon. I also studied some philosophy and engaged in a great deal of art practices when I was younger. It seems that if you follow a dance education, at some point you become defined as a dancer. And you only become recognised as a choreographer after being a dancer. This kind of thinking is part of a specialised system: we are made to believe that we cannot do many things as we are not ‘experts’. In his book “The Ignorant Schoolmaster” (1987), Rancière proposes, as a provocation against the monopoly of knowledge, that you could learn things even from people who don’t know these things: you decide to learn. In this sense, I think that the production of categories is a need of the institutions, not a need of artists or makers. Fifteen years ago, I took part in a project with Boris Charmatz, where we delved into these categories and researched how not to be defined by them. Since then, I try to think of myself as free from these categories, maybe just as a maker.

Your performances are highly technical. Is there a certain skill set that you require performers to have?
There are some skills that are necessary for the creation of this kind of work, but I believe anyone can learn them. You don’t need dance training to learn how to perform a plié or a roll on the floor. For example Steven Koglin, one of the performers, is trained in “art du déplacement” – he understands and picks up movement easily, without having a dance background. It’s the same for carpentry. I learnt the bare basics from my father watching him build houses when I was a kid. It’s more about the mindset. For this piece, we needed a specific technique of movement and speech. It doesn’t have to take years to develop a technique – we actually did it very quickly. Understanding what your aims and vision are makes that possible. This is probably where there’s the most work.

So what was the vision?
I had no idea of what the final piece would look like, but I had an idea of the feeling it would have. Nowadays, we live with a constant feeling that something catastrophic is about to happen: we could be on the verge of a financial crash or a power plant could explode at any moment. Even though these sensations of insecurity or danger are ever-present in our high-risk society, it doesn’t mean that anything actually will happen, but we live in anxiety. I wanted to transcribe this feeling into the body and language we use on stage.

Do you think the concept of mastery is still relevant?
Perhaps it was more relevant for the generation before us, as life in the 1960s was very different. Nowadays, everyone is so highly specialised in their fields, that the important thing is to make links between them. A required standard of mastery is only relevant in relation to a technique. It isn’t so relevant in relation to the process of creation. I do not think creation can be mastered, quite the opposite, in fact. Creation is not about control, but rather about a process of letting go and giving in to abandon. You can design the context for something to happen, but there is no guarantee that it will work. For me, the drive to create is not linked to the desire to master, it’s more about a desire for freedom and creating something unknown. Having said that, in this piece, everything is under control and there is a sense of mastery, it’s a machinery that goes on. But the ghost of failure is ever present.

In “The Emergency Artist”, it seems the use of words and language was just as important as the use of materials. What is your relationship to language?
For many years now I have been working with language and movement. The idea behind it is that they are two signifying lines, one that develops through the body and one through language. If the signifying lines overlap, the meaning becomes clear. There is a point of realisation, where you say “ah!” or it makes you laugh. It’s important to avoid tautology so it doesn’t become too obvious and therefore boring. On the other hand, if the two signifying lines are far apart, it creates a floating situation where you don’t know what is at stake. This realm is interesting to enter, as people have a strong desire to understand. We are starving to make sense out of things and to know what they mean. The act of naming things captures them, and so the political power of the work lies in reopening what the meaning of things could be. To achieve this, the work must not serve the aim of fulfilling the audience’s desire to know.

You mentioned your research into philosophy earlier. Which writings are your works inspired by?
“The Eye and Mind” (1960) by Merleau-Ponty. I am interested in phenomenology and the idea that you can encounter the world without language. But even when my work aims to re-approach the world without language, it always seems to come back somehow. That’s why I am also re-reading Lacan. For him, we live in language, there is nothing else. I am also interested in neo-materialism, speculative realism and re-thinking the position of the object from a non-human perspective – for example, “The Quadruple Object” by Graham Harman (2011). “Vibrant Matter” (2009) by Jane Bennett is a fantastic reflection on the agency of objects and how much we are affected by what we build and use. Each piece also leads to different research. In the previous work, “The Eternal Return” in 2017, Nietzsche was important, while for “The Emergency Artist”, as it was the 50 year anniversary of 1968, I looked into situationist thinking and the slogan of the revolution.

What would you practice in your ideal training session?
Not so long ago, at Tanzplattform at PACT, I discovered a technique called “chöd” (feeding your demon). It is a meditation technique where you learn to envision your demon and speak with it. You learn to nourish it and integrate this repressed part of yourself. You learn to give it what it needs (not what it wants). I was very surprised and happy to discover this meditation technique. I also often go on Vipassana meditation retreats, where you wake up at 4am, meditate for 10 hours a day and you don’t speak for 10 days. I like setting myself challenges like this. As you get older, you get more into patterns and things get more established, so it’s a way to keep learning.

The Tanzhybriden interview series researches multidisciplinary approaches to contemporary performance by interviewing three artists working across the hybrid disciplines of dance/music, dance/writing, and dance/set design.

The other interviews of the Tanzhybriden series can be read here:
Tanzhybriden Interview with Manon Parent
Tanzhybriden Interview with Tim Etchells