INTERVIEW // Anahita Dehbonehie, Scenographer & Production Designer

Photo: Installation for Transmission, designed by Anahita Dehbonehie. Photo by Ian Garrett. 

For the past several months, I’ve been working on Transmission: a distributed, mixed reality performance that recently had it’s premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In the creation of this production, I’ve been working closely with Anahita Dehbonehie, a scenographer and production designer. When she wasn’t busy designing an interstellar spacecraft and the technological interfaces for an imagined future, we spent a lot of time talking about art making.


What follows is a discussion we had about the differences in designing live spaces and virtual spaces, the limits of traditional theatrical spaces, how art and commerce exist together, and the importance of chairs.


KL: I wanted to start out by asking you about you - who are you and what is your background?


AD: I am a theatre designer in Toronto, and I approach theatre design from a collaborative and collective perspective.


I was never someone who was interested in theatre as a kid. I associated theatre with things like Shakespeare, something boring and distant. It was also antithetical to my extreme class consciousness when i was growing up. The divide between art and entertainment, and high and low culture was something that featured very prominently in my adolescent brain.


When I was in my teens, my first real boyfriend took me to see this show. I didn’t know we were going to a show, we were going camping. We went to this place in the woods, and we saw a work by R. Murray Schafer. The show was a bunch of puppets across a lake, and music, and lights from invisible places — I had never seen anything like it. It was like an out of body experience, and it was also my first true immersive experience. And since that experience, and many like it, I’ve found that confining art to a black box is something that limits me. The limitlessness of space is something that’s really fundamental to my understanding of theatre and art.


I ended up going to school at Concordia for Theatre Design. When I was there I went on exchange to the Norwegian Theatre Academy, where Robert Wilson was the director. It was a very small group of artists on this little island right off of Norway — so my foundational training comes from a group of people who are essentially really bored by or really interested in the same things. And they sit in this room, and they are really open to each other’s ideas, but they are also really open to criticizing each other’s ideas. And they find harmony, and they make work, and then they share that work. And how that work is received is important in a different way than how it was made.


KL: What was attractive to you about creating digital work within theatrical contexts?


AD: I genuinely believe that digital technology shares that same creative trajectory. I find that often digital work gets relegated to the “unreal” as if it’s consequences and the heart of what makes it up can be a little less thought out, more prescribed because it fits within a medium. Which is unfortunate, because I think you can dramaturg a single projection in a show as well as you can dramaturg a scene of Checkov. I really believe that, and I think unless you do that work, that single projection just ends up being scenery.


We spend weeks going over the page of a script - the director and designers spend weeks talking about the set, and maybe ten minutes talking about what’s projected in the back. Which is a shame, because our relationship to video - our increasingly constant relationship to video - demands that we apply that sort of rigorous questioning to that aspect of our work. Because we all have a relationship to video, just as we all have a relationship to scenographic elements — chairs, for example. There is a reason that a director and designer will have endless conversations about which specific chair to use in a scene, because it’s chairs are more than just furniture, they are one of the real things that make up our lives, and therefore we all have a relationships to these objects.


In that sense, we also have a relationship to digital media: to newsfeeds, to soundbites, to snapchat. These things make up our lives. And when we put them into art, and into relationship with a politicized issue, or a politicized body, that relationship becomes even more tenuous, because everyone’s global relationship to technology is different.


KL: I see a really strong connection between the relationships you are describing about how people identify with objects to the way that I as a dance maker think about gesture. When you’re thinking about the relationships that people have to chairs, or digital objects, or scenographic objects, how do you manage everyone’s differing perspectives on what that object is? Is it about context, how the objects work together… essentially, how do you as a designer approach choosing something that will mean different things to different people?


AD: It’s a really tough thing to do. As makers of entertainment that’s meant to be consumed and deconstructed — and theatre and live performance constantly asks you to engage and deconstruct and analyze — I think that’s a challenge that we’re constantly faced with.


I’m kind of old school. My choices comes from the relationship to the characters, which comes from a script. The question becomes: who owns this space? And I think when you’re talking about digital spaces, that question becomes a lot more open and exciting. Who built this framework? The answer cannot always be you and your team.


And so I think it’s about diving into character, and finding what is the most honest thing, the truest thing you can say here — and not “true” in the sense of big universal truths, but true in the sense of this is true to this character.


And it’s not true necessarily to how it’s been written, especially if you’re talking about classical text, but it is true to how we as designers perceive a character. Once you add digital technology to this work - it’s not about updating or changing the work, it’s about making it accessible through the mediums an audience can understand.


KL: Let’s talk about accessibility. In a very extreme sense we have the idea of performances that are distributed through snapchat or Instagram, projects like the one we’re working on where you need to explore a whole city … where do you see accessibility changing, and then how do you see it affecting the way that designers think about their choices? Do you think technology changes these choices in a significant way, or do you think that stages are stages whether they are in front of you or on your phone?


AD: I think that’s a really great sentence, “stages are stages whether they are in front of you or on your phone.” But I don’t know that I completely agree with it. I do think that when art is in a physical space, especially a theatre, and you have to pay a certain amount of money, and sit in this chair, and you have to look this way for three hours… These are the conventions: if you get up, it’s rude, if you cough, it’s rude, if you’re alive, it’s rude.


There is a certain amount of inaccessibility there - not just financially. Theatre is an institution that prides itself, or has within its codification, that it is inaccessible to some degree, to certain actions, to certain people, at certain times. Whereas, the stage on your phone opens up the possibility, in a sort of voyeuristic, fucked up way, of accessing you back anytime it wants. And I find that really exciting.


Essentially, when you access theatre, it’s your impetus - Whereas when the stage is digital and essentially travels with you, the stage in your phone is like, the stage in your heart, in your hand on your table - it’s everywhere, it’s constant. And it’s something that has the ability to call you back, to surprise you, to show up at a time when you’re not expecting it.


KL: So, you get into a really strange ethical place at that point. You’re almost talking about your phone or a digital interface as an extension of your body, and it seems likely that technology is moving in that direction, with implants and wearables. There’s the wonderful positive edge that you’re talking about, where you can democratize art, and make it something that’s a part of your being and an essential part of your life, and can be truly interactive in ways that are exciting and beautiful and inspiring. But then there are the insidious aspects of art too, which include propaganda - and when something has access to you and your thoughts and emotions, potentially when you don’t invite it or you don’t consent to it, the ethics become worrisome.


AD: It’s funny, I remember - whenever I think about the Internet I feel really old, because I remember when it slowly became a thing, and that won’t be true for the next generation. I remember thinking that this is going to be the next platform where I’m going to see really interesting art displayed here. And 90% of youtube has nothing to do with art or expression in that way, it’s different, it’s more about reality performance and people talking about their everyday.


One of the artists I really like right now is Amalia Ulman. She did a great project about this alternate reality of herself titled “Excellences and Perfections,” and it’s a legitimized body of work. It’s at the Tate.


Anyways, a lot of what you’re talking about is advertising - I think that’s something that’s always been present, like Alphonse Mucha, who did the Moulin Rouge paintings - he did tons of ads for soap, and perfume, and Parisian wine - art has never really broken with commerce. And digital technology, is entirely based on commerce, the Internet especially. It exists because of money, and because people have found a way to make money off of it, and that’s been true since its inception.


Some of the VR programs I’ve experienced that are truly beautiful works of art are are only possible because there are also programs created alongside them that make you pay to pretend to race a car. I think there are spaces within commerce for art, but I do not think the two can be mutually exclusive in a capitalist society. I think we can make spaces within commerce for art rather than trying to separate ourselves from that system. And we can also try to bond these two together, because I find that workable as a model. Is that terrible? Am i a sell-out?


KL: No, I don’t think so.


AD: 20 year-old me would think that I’m such a sellout. But now, I think you can do both. Because of digital media, because of the proliferation of digital ads all the time. For example, Facebook is your friend, and the thing that tells the world about you, but it is also seriously a company, and it is out to make money off of your existence. That paradigm is so constant. As soon as you get on the Internet, as soon as you step into digital form, you’re immediately interacting with commerce and advertising, and you’re attempting to use commerce and advertising to get your name out there.


KL: There’s something really interested about the duality of friend and exploit, especially when it comes to technology. But that paradigm exists in the ways we interact in non-digital spaces.


As artists working in North America, there is no social safety net for artists. We have to engage in self-promotion in this way.


The opinion on art in North America is fairly bleak and frivolous, but I’ve found that digital art gets kind of a pass. People are like, “Oh, cool, it’s using modern technology” and it doesn’t get the same “I can do that in my basement, that’s not a dance, that’s not art.” You know what I mean? It’s not the same with digital art. It’s almost like the gimmick of it gives it a legitimacy in the eyes of people who don’t consider themselves artists.


KL: Given the ways that digital art making makes a lot of people excited, do you still think that liveness is important? Is there something still essential about bodies and spaces as vessels of experience, or do you think that will fade away?


AD: A couple of weeks ago some people from this company I work with got together, and we were talking about how to use the Oculus Rift in a performance. The thing that I got most excited about was the comparison - in part because digital technology is still so new. The stage we’re at with virtual reality is the same as the first films trains, where people ran away because they thought it would come out of the screen at them. That’s where we are with VR. And you really feel that way when you put on a headset, and look at the computer that’s running it, and it feels like the beginning of a new thing that we haven’t figured out to the extent that we’ve figured out other pieces of tech in our lives [picks up phone].


And so, today, and maybe for the next few years, liveness is important as a counter to digital work. They make each other stronger. They are both important to having a holistic experience, but they comment on each other in a useful way. They open up the possibilities for interaction, and when they work together, it really feels like we’re attempting at the potential of how we perceive and understand art.


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