Interview with Hotel Modern: Theatre VJs on brutal themes

by deborah on 10/27/2009

Back in June, during Eurokaz – The International Festival of New Theatre, Arlene Hoornweg and Pauline Kalker from theatre company Hotel Modern gave me an interview about their work. We weaved our talk around two of their performances – Kamp and The Shrimp Tales.

hotel_modern_kamp_1.jpgPhoto by Herman Helle from Kamp

Hotel Modern is not a typical theatre company. Because of their visual aesthetics and the multiple use of cameras, sculpture, puppetry and various sound devices, you can find them regularly in books that cover topics of  expanded, live cinema and new media art in cinematic context.

For those of you who admire the work by Slinkachu, Nathalie Djurberg, Marcel Dzama, Josef Nagj, Tadeusz Kantor, Walter Martin & Paloma Munoz  etc, the relation with Hotel Modern is like a theatre extension of visual arts.

Let’s start with the concept of your company… the concept is wider, it involves theatre aspects, but you are also notable company in the field of expanded cinema… but there is a lot of applied arts present even on your web site… I would call it visual art…. When did you decide to choose such aesthetics?

Arlene Hoornweg: We like that!

Pauline Kalker: Yeah, we have the website with many rooms. I think, it’s because when we made our first performance somebody suggested us if we would like to do a music theatre. That person thought that this was maybe something for us, we were very young at that time. Then she got an idea…

Arlene Hoornweg: Yeah, I was playin’ guitar. That was after theatre school, and Pauline and I were searching a bit. After theatre school I realized I want something else. I wanted to perform, but I also liked music. So, I started to play guitar and I really liked making songs and I really got into that. Then the theatre director said, you can make a music performance if you want. I said, OK! Let’s do that. Then we asked Arthur Sauer, the composer to work with us. He still works with us. And then the three of us made a music performance and it was fun.

hotel_modern_shrimps.jpgPhoto by Leo van Velzen from The Shrimp Tales
Arlene Hoornweg, Herman Helle and Pauline Kalker

PK: Yeah, it was fun to go really into technique, because he had these little boxes which distorted our voices, like making high voices and pitched it. He had many different instruments, and Arlene gathered texts around the theme of life and death. She made a number from every text, like a song and Arthur had all these instruments and it was really like playing. It was fun to play with the technique of his music and sounds, to make a kind of landscape of sounds. I think we both like playing with it.

AH: But we also found out what we can tell with text, what we can tell with music, for example. And that’s also what we do now, what we tell with images? What we can tell with text? We can tell a lot with images, and you can tell a lot with music; and you can tell something with text…

hotel_modern_shrimps_1.jpgPhoto by Leo van Velzen from The Shrimp Tales

PK: They all have their own possibilities. We both like the fact that the level of imagination in our performances is very high. I think we like to be in another world, to create the whole world, not only text. We want to create a really new universe. You need different senses for this. Because it’s not only one dimension, it’s not only people and text.

For instance, like our latest performance we did with shrimps. It’s called The Shrimp Tales, actors are real shrimps. If you have a world that is populated by shrimps, which perform human activities that’s even more imaginative. Especially with cameras and small models Herman (Helle) is using in ‘Kamp’, you have literally a whole world build.

hotel_modern_kamp_2.jpgPhoto by Herman Helle from Kamp

You have small models and you can be in that world, then you can make them talk with one another. You need sound to make an atmosphere. I think, if you have different media like music or visual art with sound and little bit of text sometimes, the imagination becomes even more intense, more then having only a painting. Well, it’s not better then another, it’s just what we like.

You have many layers; that’s natural…

AH: Yes, that’s the way we look at life. That you have so many layers, that there is not only one. There are lots of artists who want to have the essence, or a focus they are trying to pick up. That’s also very nice, but we want to pick everything out of the world to show the richness, and the layers. We also want to show the enormous cosmos.

hotel_modern_rococo_1.jpgPhoto by Hans Werlemann from Rococo

Your performative technique is very specific… where would you place yourself as performers?

PK: That’s different from each performance. For instance, in The Shrimp Tales we are using these little microphones and we are dressed up like we are a kind of glamorous or punk band with light on our faces. We are moving the shrimps and we do a lot of voices, we really have to make shrimps performing. At the same time we also have screenings and projections on the wall.

So, the audience can see huge shrimps in a shrimp world and can be focused on it. They can also look at us; we are also performing as actors, playing the scenes and animating the shrimps, doing the voices of shrimps. The audience can watch us, too. We are really performing as actresses, we are really there. We are showing emotions on the face, and we are aware that the audience is sometimes looking at our faces to see our emotions, and then they look at the shrimps again.

hotel_modern_rococo.jpg
Photo by Herman Helle from Rococo

With ‘Kamp’ is more sober. We are part of a machine. We are there, but we are like in a machine. In that way our bodies are telling the kind of objectivity that in ‘Kamp’ is kind of objective, in factual way. Our performing is anonymous and factual, we have really choreography. We sit down or get up in the same time, the rhythms of our bodies and the moves in that way are related to dance. We are really aware of how we stand or how we look. We choose a neutral way of being there. In ‘The Great War’ we have the text, and the text is a bit like songs, but for acting… it’s very very short. We do it like text but more in a song way. We are aware of our voice.

When we are a part of the machinery we are also partly technicians at the stage, like cameraman. We have to run around getting the machinery going.  At the other hand we also make sounds on the stage.

This multi-functionality is pretty logical these dayz… Besides, it’s the way you express yourself within many different techniques… you function like a post rock band…

PK: Because we are a group, it’s more like a band. Herman brings his models, I bring the story line, Arlene her performing skills, you know. So, when thinking about the content, we did all things together. Composers are bringing sounds, and we all bring stuff together into the whole artwork. So, the artwork has a special energy.

Yeah, it’s a mash up of your ideas and thoughts…. Could you describe me the processes of your work?

AH&PK: First, we never now! (laughter)

PK: After every show we have to start all over again. It’s like a cliché, but it’s true. You think you know nothing.

AH: Yeah, nothing. What we are going to do?! Sometimes you get nervous, but sometimes you don’t. Then we start to write down our ideas and thoughts. But it also depends of the project. For ‘Kamp’ it was a very specific idea that came up. For ‘The Shrimp Tales’ the ideas came from many different ways and we had gathered them and developed it from ideas we had last few years.

hotel_modern_war_1.jpgPhoto by Joost van den Broek from The Great War

PK: There is always a starting point. There is always this one person who has the beginning idea, because only one head pumps up. So, for ‘The Shrimp Tales’ it was my idea to get shrimps out. Actually it was a comedy idea; basically I wanted shrimps performing people. Then we had some ideas and we decided to do it on the stage. So, that’s much opened and very specific. We had an idea from before, the idea of showing the city. So, that’s how we connected it. What’s in the city?! What happens in the library, or in the museum, or hospital?

AH: Then we decide either we want them on the ground or on the tables.

hotel_modern_war_2.jpgPhoto by Joost van den Broek from The Great War

PK: Going from these ideas there are many moments to turn on your fantasy. We really have to make it work. We collect many ideas and then we choose the one we like the most. After that, Herman makes the model of that and we collect our stories and connections in the plot. We want to get the atmosphere of these places.

Herman first makes very simple model which we use for improvising things. Then we start to talk and write a little bit to work it out. We combine many ideas, and then we choose the one we like most. We pick them together and make a good scene of it. In the process we also make a lot of crap, so we choose really good ones. That’s basically like shooting with a lot of bullets.

hotel_modern_war_3.jpgPhoto by Joost van den Broek from The Great War

You are cleaning the mess of ideas…

PK: Yeah! First, we create a mess of ideas, because we have to create a lot of ideas in order to play with them.

AH: And, of course, we discuss a lot about it. What the performance is about, and what structure does it have? Why we want to use some things, why not other, and so. In ‘Shrimps’ we ended with fifteen scenes in thirty minutes, and that’s a lot.

PK: In ‘Kamp’ it was different, because the story was already there. We just had to decide what part of the story we want to show. At the end we finally chose the basic things, maybe like a cliché – gazing, crimes. For us, we don’t want to be original in what we tell. We want to tell the basic things and the most shocking, the basic things in a way.

hotel_modern_war_4.jpgPhoto by Joost van den Broek from The Great War

For instance, there were also medical experiments in Auschwitz and we wanted to have a scene also showing that. Because, we didn’t want to use texts, the image of medical experiments that we made didn’t communicate at all. Then we decided not to put it in. Not everything has to be in and dedicated. Instead of that, we thing that it has to be consistent and in a way balanced. We also have execution in performance, but we didn’t show every way of execution, but only one. It was quite difficult to choose which element we want to show. So, that was another path.

AH: Some things are the same, and some not because the material is different.

hotel_modern_kamp_4.jpgPhoto by Herman Helle from Kamp

Seems like covering the topic of Auschwitz in ‘Kamp’ had stronger effect with puppets and big screens, instead of acting… People find hard to comprehend the fact of evilness… Atrocities and killings are happening now in this very moment in Africa, Asia… but we are never enough prepared for those facts…

PK: I think it’s good to have different ways of telling. As preparations for Kamp we were watching documentaries with interviews of the survivors. I think that’s the best way of telling… just listen to the stories by people who were there. That’s really authentic, but it’s good to have other ways to complete the whole image. There is not one way, the best way of showing that.

I think, with the testimony you can get the story from really the first source. It’s very very good to try to show it with images, documentaries or, like us, with puppets. It’s good to have these different ways of going around the theme.

There is not one good way. It should be from different art forms to different media. Monuments, radio and so, actually everything that contributes the commemoration, reflection and realization of what happened.

hotel_modern_kamp_3.jpgPhoto by Leo van Velzen from Kamp

AH: There are so many artists using different ways to talk about this theme for very different audience. There are different ways to get in touch with it. Some people came to our performance and they said: it’s so distant to me, you know. It doesn’t click. It’s good to have all these books and art forms to trigger them. That’s the way people can connect with the image and to get to emotions. Some people can easier connect with books, some through image…

PK: People have different portrayals. It’s also different if you want to commemorate or if you want to grab information. These are different things. Those are different purposes actually. There are different things you can do towards the theme: memorizing, contemplating…

hotel_modern_kamp_5.jpg
Photo by Herman Helle from Kamp

Connecting these things with what happened in Bosnia, or in Rwanda. That’s also a relation, to make connection with the world today. I’m happy to see that many artists within different media are relating with the theme, making different relations and actions towards it.

Arlene & Pauline, Thanks a lot!

Hotel Modern is at the moment at world tour. Check here dates; maybe they will stop by near your neighbourhood soon…

Interview with Hotel Modern