“BETWEEN”, Howool Baek ©Matthias Erian

We Carry Worlds Inside Us

“BETWEEN” is a spellbinding virtual trip across space, multiple universes, and the indefatigable imagination of Berlin-based choreographer Howool Baek, in cooperation with sound designer Matthias Erian and media artist Jin Lee. Loosely based on Baek’s eponymous live performance that premiered in October 2019, this interactive web experience (running until 5 December 2021) is by turns a first-person video game, an absurdist animated film, and an odd dance suite for hands and feet. Beyond its ambitious multimedia shell, the work also harbours deep reflections on body representation, the subjectivity of the spectator, and the infinity of multiple universes that we carry inside us.

“BETWEEN” opens with a stark image of Outer Space swarming with dancing hands and feet. I scroll up and find my way through this odd galaxy and discover huge collages of hands performing simple gestures that remind me of shadowgraphs. My trip through space is followed by a meteor shower of clenched fists and dancing legs that are soon sucked into a giant eye-shaped black hole. I scroll again to follow them.

The next chapters of the performance are even more enthralling and hallucinogenic. Hands and arms transform themselves into Escher-like bird wedges, ears of wheat floating in the wind, the roots and branches of a tree, and even insects disappearing into and emerging out of human skin. Close-ups of human hair open portals into other dimensions filled with stunning images reminiscent of surrealistic paintings. Matthias Erian’s polyphonic music score begins with raucous soundscapes and distant celestial melodies, and then quickly morphs into birds tweeting, insects chirping, and the unsettling dull sound of splintering wood. The stereo sound effects also work wonders. When I veer either to the right or the left in my spree of exploration, the sound design swiftly responds, creating an immersive experience. It is precisely this relative freedom in choosing one’s own pace, narrative, and even music score that makes “BETWEEN” so startling.

In “The Emancipated Spectator”, French philosopher Jacques Rancière wrote that the spectator does not need a guiding hand, and would instead ‘plot their own paths in the forest of things, acts and signs that confront or surround them.’ There could hardly be a better example of this theory than this interactive web-performance. In “BETWEEN”, the disembodied spectator is no more than a cursor — a gaze, an angle of vision. Depending on their own particular level of curiosity and patience, they can steer their own way through the entire experience, choosing to skip some chapters entirely while lingering on others. One should not be fooled into thinking, however, that the format grants the spectator total freedom. It is impossible, for instance, to ‘rewind’ the show to revisit previous episodes. So although it is at times evocative of a video game where one dodges flying fists or clicks on objects in order to dive through them, the web version of “BETWEEN” still obeys the same dramaturgical rules as a live performance.

Baek explained to me in an email conversation that the idea of putting the stage version of “BETWEEN” online had been discussed even before the performance industry was brought to a halt by the pandemic. During lockdown, Baek started to think of digital space as a stage capable of hosting an accumulation of different media formats in a way that would differentiate an online version of the performance from a conventional video stream. But as the stage becomes virtual, what happens to the body? I have recently seen a number of dance works (such as Nir Vidan’s “Assembly Instructions”) featuring the fragmented body. In many of them the performers’ faces were hidden by masks, wigs, hands, shrouds, or t-shirts, while their torsos and limbs were visible as they followed their own unpredictable dance scores. Baek also digitally segments the performers’ bodies by creating collages of their limbs in order to construct a dazzling digital assemblage and then propel it into the online universe. This approach is anything but new for her. Baek says that she has been reflecting on the question: “If we don’t have faces, what expressions can the other body parts have?” for more than a decade. While many of the episodes that make up “BETWEEN” might appear abstract and the body parts expression less, the work also features thrilling close-ups of human skin complete with throbbing veins, pores, and the lines on the palms of the hand. Such occasional glimpses of pure corporeality lend warmth to this uncanny cosmic drift and render the entire work strikingly intimate and personal.

I switch off my overheated laptop, close my eyes and have an eerie feeling of déjà vu. Have I seen those endless fields of fingers swaying in the wind before? Was it perhaps in a dream? Edvard Munch once wrote: “Nothing is small, nothing is large. We carry worlds inside us.” I feel that the multi-layered virtual universes of “BETWEEN” symbolically portray these internal worlds, however unearthly or abstract they might be. It was perhaps for this reason that navigating through them resembled a lucid dream: disturbing and evocative, yet strangely familiar.

“BETWEEN” by Howool Baek is available free of charge from 1 to 5 December 2021 / 23:59 on betweenontheweb.com.

“BETWEEN” interactive web performance: Concept, Choreography, and Dance – Howool Baek | Interactive Media Art – Jin Lee | Composition and Sound Design – Matthias Erian | Dance – Nicole Michalla, Lorenzo Savino.