– 46 things I’ve learnt by watching Oblivia’s performances, talking with the group and working with them
Lesson 1: You are allowed to laugh as much as you want to (as a spectator in a performance).
Lesson 2: (As a spectator) you don’t need to understand or rationalize everything that happens on stage.
Lesson 3: And yet, it all happens for a reason.
Lesson 4: Show your emotions freely (as a spectator of a performance). Don’t ever wait for what might happen next, but laugh, cry, clap your hands together when you feel like it. What’s about to come, will come.
Lesson 5: The best type of humor is to laugh at and with yourself.
Lesson 6: Your taste (as a spectator) will evolve.
Lesson 7: Things (including performance groups) evolve. (6+7 show that you should try again if you’ve met/tasted/seen something you don’t like)
Lesson 8: It’s as much about the light, sound, space and costume as it is about a single human being (= performer).
Lesson 9: A trio is an ideal for a rock band.
Lesson 10: (Oblivia is a national treasure.) We should take better care of our national treasures.
Lesson 11: The black box is inspiring.
Lesson 12: It’s not about the looks. You can look/be/feel like a fisherman or a librarian and still rock as AC/DC.
Lesson 13: A trilogy is a good length for an artistic study.
Lesson 14: It’s good to have a 5-year-plan.
Lesson 15: It’s good to keep all doors a bit open.
Lesson 16: Sometimes you just need to blow your own trumpet.
Lesson 17: Do what you saw and make it your own.
Lesson 18: Try everything once, even folk dancing.
Lesson 19: If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Carry on.
Lesson 20: Long relationships are to be valued.
Lesson 21: New faces are a must.
Lesson 22: Share the responsibilities.
Lesson 23: Share the glory.
Lesson 24: Always look for the perfect combo. Always.
Lesson 25: In the dictionary you’ll find a link to Oblivia’s work as a definition for charisma.
Lesson 26: Spectacle can be Live Art can be Spectacle.
Lesson 27: Farting is funny.
Lesson 28: Papier Maché is a great safety word.
Lesson 29: Face the unknown. Usually it’s friendly.
Lesson 30: This is all light and easy. It doesn’t mean that unimportant and forgettable.
Lesson 31: Children are radicals.
Lesson 32: More radicals than children are the adults giving the power to the children.
Lesson 33: Adults have the power and they need to use it well.
Lesson 34: Children have power and adults can rejoice in that.
Lesson 35: We don’t need to understand words, but emotions and/or layers of being, memories and Stimmung.
Lesson 36: Do. Be. Do.
Lesson 37: Improvisation is about trust.
Lesson 38: Everything is about trust.
Lesson 39: Trust is political.
Lesson 40: All art is political.
Lesson 41: The most political art is the sort of art that doesn’t give you answers but raises questions and helps you to think by yourself.
Lesson 42: We are nature.
Lesson 43: How to play a polypore.
Lesson 44: Art is multilingual by its nature.
Lesson 45: All is material.
+ you don’t need to make 50 lessons, you can do 46.
This is what I’ve learned from and with Oblivia during the past 15 years or so.
We celebrate at Theater Rampe in Stuttgart, Germany. We celebrate my birthday and we celebrate our magnificent new work, the music theatre performance Verdrängen Verdrängen Verdrängen that has been created in collaboration with Yiran Zhao, our new partner. We celebrate the premiere at the ECLAT Festival on 7 February from wherever we are: I am back to Finland and Anski is in Finland, too, and I recall the rest of the team is in Stuttgart in flesh and probably celebrates a bit more than Anski and I do.
Verdrängen is still being performed at ARGEkultur Salzburg, Austria, 6–7 March yet the world around has already changed. Although we hope for the best and keep on planning the Finnish Premiere of Verdrängen in Espoo in late March it is as if we were not able to see the whole picture – and we were not, I assume very few of anyone in the world was. We are thrilled about the interest for Verdrängen. We plan the Oblivia Festival for the autumn and the whole following year, 2021, and we work hard on an application for a large-scale project for 2021–22 Annika and Alice have just discovered. We wait for the news from Anski and Meri, both in the final weeks with their new family members, the new Oblivia crowd.
If the pandemic in late January and early February for many was merely a strange feeling that materialized in an extra bottle of pocket-size sanitizer and a habit of more punctual hand wash, no matter what we do, during March, it becomes crudely concrete in the forms of remote work and ‘social distancing’ that turned into ‘physical distancing’, city lock-downs and close-down of countries, postponed performances and cancelled festivals, a fear of and actual losing of jobs and lives.
The pandemic forces us to re-organize and re-invent ourselves. By the end of the month, we decide to start regular Oblivia Zoom meetings. First, we stumble but we manage to gather and establish a new routine. We make jokes online, we report the current situations in Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Brussels, Helsinki and Espoo. We miss each other. We welcome the new family members to this strange world: two healthy babies that we all adore online.
We become professional in our weekly Zoom meetings: we actually work together, again. We create and plan content for the Oblivia20 blog. At the end of the month, we hear news from the Big Project: we need to work more on our application, and it feels exciting. We spend much time together online and I feel a strong connectedness. The world around is crazy but we have aims, hopes and dreams.
First, we work hard to finalize the June blog. We are inspired by the theme, Trust, and the collective way of addressing the theme – we create the first Oblivia Play, a funny all-encompassing multisensorial online piece of art. Once our internal Blog Master Anski has made our effort public, a smaller team of us continues with the Big Project to support Jenny, Annika, Alice and Yiran presenting our proposal for the jury. By the end of the month, we receive the information our application has been successful and Oblivia has been selected to the Big Project.
Annika and myself mini-celebrate in Helsinki over glasses of chilly cava in a chilly afternoon on a city centre outdoor terrace (safety distance: yes, masks: no). We muse about this amazing opportunity but also discuss other things. Once again, I realize the strangeness of life, how the past months have been just absurd, how great victories always entwine with great loss and vice versa, and how often either one or the other remains in the shadows of the other.
It is time for the summer holidays.
Now the Big Project news is official and we are free to shout it out loud that Oblivia has been chosen as the NRW NOperas project for the 2021–22 season. This means the Obsessions project will premiere in Germany, in Theater Bremen and Oper Wuppertal, in the spring 2022. We are thrilled. Annika establishes a new WhatsApp group for the NOperas communication and we gather back to work. In the yearly strategy meeting, many of us meet each other in a real physical place, face to face since months. We Finns still fumble with the masks but master the integration of participants via Zoom and present. With the NOperas project in mind, we outline a 5-year strategy instead of a more commonplace 3-year plan. We are busy. While the spring babies surprise us with their new tricks, we hear there is yet another baby member joining the gang. In parallel with all this joy, we – at least I – feel insufficient in the attempts to support Annika whose mother is fading away.
We start bi-weekly coaching sessions with Elena Polzer from ehrliche arbeit (GER) to strengthen and develop our collective working methods. Annika’s mother dies. Following the series of postponed and cancelled gigs, Verdrängen is being performed at the SPOR festival in Denmark: Alice, Annika, Meri, Timo and Yiran meet in Aarhus. Part of the team continues their travel to Wuppertal and returns to home cities with yet again stricter COVID-19 restrictions. The Verdrängen Finnish premiere approaches yet the related practicalities seem totally uncontrollable.
Verdrängen Verdrängen Verdrängen premieres in Finland, at Espoo city theatre as planned, six months later and with only one show. On the premiere day, I enjoy joining the rehearsals, joking and chatting and sharing remarks in Louhisali (live comments: with Yiran, Timo, Annika and Alice, via WhatsApp: with Meri). In the evening, the lobby is full. This is the evening I have awaited for so long – any night like this, and this night in particular. Although in Finland the cultural life has had better conditions than in many other places to bear the situation, being present with so many people from the field and beyond feels incredible. Maybe it is just me but I sense a buzz in the air and I am happy, proud and satisfied and I want to seize the moment.
We have started tomake Obsessions in the studio 3 at Eskus, Helsinki. We have crafted schedules and planned live and online sessions for the whole project timeframe to be held so that everyone is present. All we have experienced since last February is becoming material for us, both in artistic and practical terms.
In a weekly meeting, I watch myself in the Zoom window and I recognize lines in my forehead. I wonder if they have been there for long or if it is a memento from the year of the pandemic or a more general signal that another year has already passed. In a few months, if the Oblivia plans develop in the anticipated way, we will again be together in Germany. In February, we will celebrate my birthday and we will celebrate our magnificent new work that we create in collaboration with the local artists in Bremen and Wuppertal. The premiere will be a year ahead and who knows what the world around us will be like.
I have written this reflection about the past months, February–November 2020, as a costume designer and artistic team member of Oblivia. It felt meaningful not only to document the pandemic itself, how I experience it professionally, but also to remark how it has instigated changes – many good ones – in how we work within Oblivia. Most of all, these events simply materialize the omnipresent contrasts in the human life, the enmeshed shades of the everyday. Life and work, shared and private, massive and minute: all is material.
It’s three years to the day since our time together.
I enter the big old industrial building, hang my coat up, take my shoes off and walk into the studio with Oblivia. Tracksuit on, ready for action. Ready for our experiments. Ready for the next two weeks. Who knows what will happen.
I look back at the memories implanted through my body, my ears, my olfactory perception and my imaginings and I sincerely miss it. I miss the professionalism, the trust, the openness and what is to me this good Finnish humour. There is something about the humour.
We sit there in a circle, I feel like a beached whale. I enjoy it. I imagined being as happy as a Titirangi bus waiting for passengers in the sun. We talk. ‘What do we feel like doing?’ We reflect on world politics. Ahh, world politics. I can feel it through my inner arms.
It’s a time of a massive election, a time of transformation in my own country, Aotearoa New Zealand. A time of standing up against monetarist inequality. This is always on my mind, no matter how far I am away from home in the studio of Oblivia. A home away from home.
‘Yes, that’s it.’ Neoliberalism. This is what we all agree we will explore and reflect on in our 2 weeks together.
I reflect on the Finnish experiments with the Universal Basic Income and how folks there have kept telling me it wasn’t so popular. I am ghosted by the philosophies of Milton Friedman, the guru of Chicago neoliberalism, and how he too wanted a UBI. He wanted to privatise public services and put it back on to us all to pay for it all from our UBI. He liked meritocracy. But, as shown in my own country, every time public services have been privatised they become more expensive and the inequality statistics and poverty levels get excited. It appears his model is deeply flawed, especially if the UBI is not very much. So much for meritocracy.
But how do we perform neoliberalism without being fiscal reformers ourselves, as embodied state ideological apparatuses? This is our challenge. We will embody it and become it’s psychic alter ego. Tools for the bank trade.
We move. We move.
We think. We move. We reflect.
We jiggle. We stutter and shutter.
It has me thinking about the notions of public bias and group-think and how so often it is very hard to move a massive body of people to take on opinions that can free them from the constraints of admiring things like being extremely rich, expensive cars, corporate success and PR that conceals the dark underbelly of economic rationalism at all costs. Paul Verhaeghe’s book What about me? (2012) reminds me that in the West we have replaced religion with economic rationalism – that all things must be justified for their monetary economic value and effectiveness, towards mantras of accountability and endless growth at all costs. What happened to balance and other things like solidarity he asks?
Our bodies become investment portfolios.
Through a series of long improvisations, our bodies feel like they become the mechanisations of automated financial algorithms. The ironies of the embodied essence of serving the economy above all else. The sell. The deal. The bull market. Financial collapse and ruination at the end of the day.
We have gone there. With a handshake and a smile.
We appear to have voted the right-leaning neoliberal party out of government in my country. But there is uncertainty if it really is going to change the government. It all depends on a small populist party, who could go either way. They want to know who has the best deal to offer them a coalition with. Perhaps we will end up with the softer side of the same neoliberal coin? …an Obama style government – a nice smile but the rich still get richer.
We explore possibilities for days and days.
Something is coming.
Something busy and something undercurrent.
Our bodies are like tall buildings in an urban stockmarket landscape. Bankers go scurrying for the latest profit margin. Again and again, we test it out. We begin to act as one. One fiscal body.
The bank is coming.
We are all listening to it. It takes me a moment to get there but I arrive there too.
Our investments take hold.
The fiscal steamroller is here. And we are flattened.
We find solidarity on the floor.
This is only a start for what we have been creating. I realise just what a long, long time is needed to refine and craft this movement situation in the room. I am here for only 2 weeks, yet we need 6 months. For me, big respect goes out to Oblivia and the intricate and highly careful way in which they develop the work. It’s something I’m sure many cannot see when they watch their work. It’s a process that operates through deep tissue somatics, conceptual reflections and this good Finnish humour. And it asks questions. Questions about our sense of being, about solidarity and togetherness and how we are after all ecologically and intricately connected.
I say goodbye at the end of one more day in the studio. I do hope we can work together again.
Since then the centre-left parties formed a coalition with the populist party in my country and the banks were happy because the populists and the Labour party prevented any undoing of neoliberalism. The country is happy on TV, but inequality and poverty remain high.
This is unfinished.
While working with them I received some DNA test results. It told me I have 1% Finnish DNA. It must have become part of me while working with you Oblivia.
I miss you Oblivia.
Kind wishes and Aroha mai from Hikurangi, Aotearoa,
I am matter. I am material. It is a substance that perceives itself.
This body is how I experience the material world. It’s a magnet for connecting to otherness – other bodies, thoughts, viruses, experiences, places, and times.
This body is material for making and grasping other material that I make more world with. The body accumulates other material. It aligns the chemicals, human experiences, and perceptions in order to think a new thought. The thought becomes material for the next project – for transforming from one way of being to another.
I’ve spent my whole life making things – sculpture, theater, furniture, architectural dwelling spaces and nature parks. I collect material because they are the ideas and beginning points for future projects. I literally have tons of wood. My material ponders the purpose of itself. I imagine configurations of objects, people, work, events, actions, movement and infinite possibilities to make something.
But then it overflows.
It bursts out of its container and crushes my body.
I have too many things,
too many thoughts,
too many plans.
So many entanglements.
I dream of being in an empty room. But the room is ultimately made of things. I know how this room was built – what’s inside the walls: plaster, lath, studs, insulation, nails, screws, siding, the crafted skills of past workers now long gone, their empty cigarette packages, their trials and errors of the day, the labor and material that was joined together a hundred years ago to create the empty room.
That dream of cleaning out my material and making am empty room is an illusion. Emptiness is also material.
ANIMAL IS MATERIAL
I saw Oblivia perform Nature Theater of Oblivia at links Hall in Chicago in February of 2019. I resonated with the material of that performance because of the human embodiment of otherness, and the spiritual, shamanistic conjuring of animal and forest nature. I work occasionally with the performance group Every House Has a Door. We had recently begun rehearsing The Carnival of Animals, where we also perform as animals.
It is this material that is significant to this essay. The human body’s animal materiality. Performing our animalness represents a mystical consciousness that integrates itself into quotidian life. What kind of animal would you like your body to be? In the Carnival Of Animals, Every House Has A Door is performing near extinct animals. I am performing as a Lesser Electric Ray. (Costume by Essi Kausalainen)
What is the purpose of performing as animals? What does it contribute to theater or culture?
I relate this practice to the primitive spiritual tradition of shamanistic dancing or the 20th century Dada practice of making non-sense in response to war, brutality, oppression, and social unrest. When the world stops making sense we act like animals. The animal we choose is significant.
I think of the ancient proverb, Homo Homini Lupis (Man is Wolf to Man). I’m writing from America in the Autumn of 2020. Our leaders over the past few years have performed as wolves. We are suffering and it is as if America and indeed the whole earth is crying out for a better animal.
We have been collecting and recycling materials while the wolf has been at our door. We have a lot to give away. We perform as animals that can listen, or animals that can wait patiently, or animals that are suffering and dying. We work in tiny theaters, trees, small neighborhood blockorganizations, and coops. We identify with the poor and outcast. Learning to act with kindness and justice is easier at this scale, but change never seems fast enough. Our performance is simple. It is material that has been performed for millennia: acknowledging and being of service to other people, and the earth.
We have the material of time. Dominant animals come and go through our lifetimes. We are led this way and that. We believe in the capacity of human beings to perform as better animals. We have faith that doing this will help heal our sickness. It is a spiritual performance. Who knows how this functions?
Recently, I am remembering this text that I spoke in The Sea and Poison (the work that Goat Island was making and performing between 1995 and 1998.) From the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis, translated by Olga Broumas, with alterations by Matthew Goulish.
“Everything has abandoned me and a great sorrow has fallen on my soul. I walked across fields without salvation.
I pulled a branch of some unknown bush.
I broke it, and brought it to my upper lip.
I understood immediately that all people are innocent.
We walk for thousands of years.
We call the sky “sky” and the sea “sea”.
All things will change one day and we too with them.”
Bryan Saner is a creative practitioner and maker focusing on the production of performance, education, neighbourhood activation, and appropriately designed objects and environments. He has made a long-term commitment to collaborate closely with artists and activists in developing alternative creative, educational and economic communities, both in and outside of existing established systems. Bryan is performing regularly with Matty Davis, 600 Highwaymen and Every House Has a Door. He is an active advisor in the Art of Rehearsal, a rehearsal coaching program he co-founded with Ginger Farley. He is a member of the worker owned coop: Bluestem Building and Restoration. Bryan worked as a performing artist with the Goat Island Performance Group from 1995 to 2009.
As part of his commitment to alternative pedagogical practice, Bryan and his wife Teresa Pankratz and their neighbours participated in the development of the Sunflower Community School, a family cooperative alternative elementary school for neighbourhood children (1997-2005). In 2003 he developed and funded an apprenticeship program in conjunction with his thirty-year architectural, sculpture, furniture and design business and continues to mentor young practitioners in carpentry and architectural restoration. Bryan’s carpentry business evolved into the worker owned coop Bluestem Building and Restoration in 2019.
He is an instructor in the summer youth arts and carpentry program at the 6018 North gallery in his neighbourhood. He is a board member of Chicago Opportunity for Peace in Action (COPA), which coordinates project based cultural exchange and jobs training activities for urban youth. He is instructing local residents and youth in Nature Park building through I Grow Chicago in Chicago’s Englewood neighbourhood.
Annika Tudeer and Timo Fredriksson are interviewed by a costume designer Tua Helve about the role of costumes in Oblivia’s performances. Video was recorded in July, 2018 in Pact Zollverein, Essen, Germany.
Just like everyone else, Oblivia too is thinking hard about its off stage presence. Color coordination is one important means to achieve this and it is not unimportant how the backstage snack buffet looks. These high visual standards are of course applied in all digital material Oblivia is producing. Besides on stage performances Oblivia has been broadening its presence through symposiums, workshops, photo exhibitions, AR experiences, not to forget all the rest more or less realistic side projects waiting to be launched!