skull ark, upturned with no mast (2017–18)

Music and concept: Clara Iannotta
Architecture: Anna Kubelík
Light Design: Eva G. Alonso

Sound Technician: Chris Swithinbank
Performers: Karin Hellqvist, Emma Iannotta, Truike van der Poel, Johanna Zimmer

Commission: coproduction Münchener Biennal & Musik der Jahrhunderte Stuttgart, in cooperation with the whiteBOX.art München, the Berliner Künstlerprogramm des DAAD and the Elektronisches Studio der TU Berlin, supported by Kulturstiftung des Bundes

Duration: 35′

Dedication: to Laura Frahm


[photos ©smailovic]

One of the first books I read as student in composition was Remembering the Future, a transcription of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures that Luciano Berio gave at Harvard University in 1993–94. Among the many explanations about his work, one sentence stuck out from the rest: “we should look at music, and listen to theatre.” Since I started to study composition, I have been fascinated by the idea of music as a multi-sensory experience. To have a complete understanding of a sound, the ear needs the support of the eye. How does the visual become music and vice-versa? I was not interested in the creation of choreographic movement as simple commentary, but rather in the building of an environment in which the visual and the sonic are essential to each other and inseparable. Following this research, I started to develop, together with an engineering class at MIT, an audio-visual instrument consisting of many semi- transparent silicon sheets which performers could stretch and manipulate. Thanks to pressure sensors, lasers, motors, we were able to retrieve data, detect how and where the material was being touched, and use it as an interactive map to shape the sonic environment.

In 2016, when approached by the Münchener Biennale, I proposed a project to them, in which I would create walls of silicon that would surround the audience, allowing them to experience audio and visual memories of the performance space — at that point an old apartment room. This project slowly developed as I started my collaboration with visual artist Anna Kubelík. We started to discuss the stage design, how to reveal the liveliness of such an audio-visual instrument, and what it meant to be enclosed within a space. While researching this topic, Anna and I read about the symbiotic relationship between the Venus’ flower basket sponge, a dweller of the deep sea, and two small spongicolid shrimps swept into the interior of the sponge as larvae. Once fully grown, the two shrimps are too big to escape the sponge’s mesh, but although trapped inside, they are provided with everything they need in order to survive by the sponge, and indeed they can live longer inside the flower basket sponge than outside it. There are two worlds in this story — a private, interior one, and an exterior one. The outside world does not see the small shrimps, the only thing they see is the cage, the beautiful sponge. They live a private life, hidden from and unknown by the surrounding ocean, growing old within the walls of their privacy. Somehow, the symbiotic relationship between the Venus’ flower basket sponge and the shrimps represents an aspect of the world we are witnessing today, where many people live their lives behind a screen, trapped in a virtual reality that allows them to act without being exposed. But does their life exist also outside the virtual reality, or are their screens their only way to confirm their presence in the world?

Anna and I wanted to transform this life-struggle into music: four performers are encaged by a structure that only allows them to move their upper body, staging this incredibly private life, so private that they assume they are the only ones to exist. With skull ark, upturned with no mast, we wanted to reverse this story, and allow these performers to be seen by the audience, gradually revealing their private space to the outside spectators. We have been working with the light designer Eva G. Alonso, who has created lights within the clothes of the performers, so that we can play with their bodies, and create movement, shadows, and awareness of their existence, while at times maintaining the privacy, or showing that from the outside we can only ever perceive a part of their private existence.

The title of this performance — skull ark, upturned with no mast — comes from the work of the Irish poet Dorothy Molloy, who has been a constant inspiration for me over the past years. In her work, we often encounter the human body — her body — in its most intimate expressions, as she faces her own mortality, at times enraged with the betrayal of her own bones, at other moments lost at sea. In “Life Boat,” Molloy writes of isolating herself within her own mind, turning her skull into an ark, blocking up the holes that let the outside world in, and trying to wait “for forty days,” but finding that the “dark stirrings / of my mind released the beasts within.” Molloy captures a paradoxical inversion between the public and private spaces: as she tries to enclose herself within the most private space of her mind, she nevertheless finds herself surrounded by countless demonic animals. We find these kinds of poetic inversions throughout Molloy’s work and in the conception of skull ark: the ark as a symbol of peace becomes a carrier of demons; the feminine body as the bearer of life condemns its inhabitant to death; the cage of the sponge becomes a protector of life; the immense weight of the ocean enables the lightest movements; the privacy of the sponge is transferred to the visibility of the stage. As we try to bring our sponge–skull–ark structure to life, we are hoping to capture the range of these paradoxes described by Molloy, from holy stillness to an overwhelming torrent of activity.

Clara Iannotta & Chris Swithinbank

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