That’s the Norwegian multi-disciplinary artist Lisbeth J. Bodd’s attempt to describe “And All the Question Marks Started to Sing.” During our long-distance interview it probably didn’t occur to her that the theater piece would actually be appearing at an engineering school.
“All the Question Marks…” will be performed tonight and Friday (2/17-18) at EMPAC, on the RPI campus. It’s the second appearance at the venue by Bodd and her experimental company, Verdensteatret, which was founded in 1986 in Oslo. They participated in EMPAC’s opening festival two years ago with a piece bearing the intimidating name “Louder,” that featured not just amplified sound but a varied battery of other new and old media.
Typical of the hybrid events on the EMPAC stages, Verdensteatret’s latest work is another mixture of genres. This time, it’s a blend of theater and sculpture. A dozen performers and technicians will create an hour-long work and then the stage will be opened for audience members to wander around and get a closer look at the combination of junkyard objects and electronic gadgets that form the set.
“We like to mix older materials with new technology,” explains company member Asle Nilsen. “We don’t like just the sleek and high tech. On stage you have several bicycle wheels, which are connected to switches that we map onto sound and video. So the stage itself is a functional instrument.”
The work’s title is borrowed from the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer.
“In the poem, there’s a guy who has been up in a hotel room with his secret lover,” says Nilsen. “When he goes out into the winter streets he thinks about all these big questions that we always think about in our lives. We never do find the answers. But he’s content and he imagines that all the question marks are singing.”
“We found that quote to fit the feeling in our creative process,” continues Nilsen. “In fact, that’s almost our definition of art.”
“When we start, we don’t know where we’re headed,” says Nilsen. “We work with material until it gets warm and interesting.”
Typically the collaborators do everything from programming the computers and to welding together the elements of the set. “Everything is made from the very bottom up,” says Nilsen.
During its history, Verdensteatret has toured the world and its creations have been featured not just in theatrical venues but also in art galleries and museums. After their appearance in Troy, they’ll bring “All the Question Marks…” to the Dance Theatre Workshop in New York for four performances. The run will inaugurate a new series titled “FuturePerfect,” intended to highlight works that bring together art and technology — a mission strikingly similar to that of EMPAC.
Whether they’re performing for the culture elite of Manhattan or some engineering students in Troy, the Verdensteatret team just wants to be offered the same open-mindedness that they put into the building of their pieces.
“We hope that we have made something that people can relate to,” says Bodd. “Audiences should just stay open, as if they were going to a concert or seeing a painting.”
“And All the Question Marks Started to Sing”
EMPAC, RPI campus, Troy NY
February 17, 2011
As a kid, did you used to turn your bicycle upside down and balance it on its handlebars and seat? And then spin the wheels and think they were magic? Have you ever wished the steering wheel of your car controlled the music on the stereo, and could make it play forward or backward, or faster or slower?
You know that cute gooseneck desk lamp that sort of turns its head and smiles at you just before the start of a Pixar film? How would you like to meet its extended family of luminous technological life forms, watch them dance and mate in near darkness?
Ever wondered about the secret life of light bulbs? Would you like to spend a while inside the mind of Thomas Alva Edison?
Can you picture a giant metal sculpture with half a dozen poles reaching up 10 or 15 feet high, each capped by round discs tilted at various angles as if to catch rays of sun? What if they are set against a dreary junkyard landscape and yet the whole imagine was somehow cheerful and made you think of flowers?
Does it usually annoy you when folks behind you during a performance are whispering incessantly? And yet, has it happened that you’re not really bothered by it because the gentle minutia of sounds they’re making kind of fits in with the bizarreness of the show you’re experiencing?
Have you read artsy jargon, terms like “object theater,” and wondered what in the world these people are talking about? And then go to a show and saw frail little metal constructions that seem to act of their own accord and you say to yourself, “Oh, is that what they meant?”
Would you like to be a chic European performance artist in a company called Verdensteatret? How about making lots of noise and get grant funding and international travel for your efforts? And maybe go onstage and do a flirtatious dance with another artist, while the two of you also create a sonic collage out of old jazz recordings?
Have you been to EMPAC yet? Have you sat through something and alternated between loving it and being a bit bored by it and still wished it kept going just a bit longer? Have you been glad to realize that you’re not the only one who actually likes something that’s almost impossible to describe?
Do you now maybe understand the title, “And All the Question Marks Started to Sing”?
Originally published in the Times Union.