7 November 2016

Anonymous Bodies in Urban Utopia

As I speak to choreographer-cum-street artist Willi Dorner, Milan Fashion Week is in full swing. New York and London have run their part of the mighty marathon and the following week, the baton will be placed in the presumably-manicured hands of Paris. It’s the French capital’s offering where Simon Porte Jacquemus will go on to show his JACQUEMUS collection, for which Dorner’s work stands as a central beacon of eerily idyllic inspiration. As if having one of his positionings influence the concept of the collection isn’t enough in itself, Dorner worked with the French fashion favourite for a campaign that set social media alight with its refreshing cultural overtones. The visuals were bathing in stimulating references – ones that even if you weren’t aware of Dorner’s work, you could appreciate nonetheless – and had this almost comical take, literally flipping fashion on its pretty little head. Not too shabby for a man who had no intentions of being so cosily embraced by the fashion sphere; a world that can so often be misunderstood by those who don’t feel welcomed into its designer-clad arms.

Although fashion is a field throwing all kinds of praise at Dorner – and a field that he’s open to humbly accepting this from – reactions from the worlds of architecture, film, photography and fine art all preceded this. It was in the Austrian countryside as a young boy that Dorner recognised his desire to move and his need to test the limits of his own physicality, with his chosen output being dance. With interdisciplinary work that straddles a range of creative disciplines, there are three very simple but vital pillars that hold his work together: perception, spatiality and the body itself. In projects like “Bodies in Urban Spaces”, the performers create a moving trail that has toured the world, positioning and stacking themselves in the nooks and crannies of a city’s infrastructure before moving onto another. Works like “Living Room” and “Set in Motion” amongst others continue to play with the idea of the body and awareness of space through this resulting sculptural dialogue that encompasses cinematic chains, exhibition showings, books, short films and outdoor performances.

There’s a particular phrase that Willi uttered that echoed through my mind in a slightly haunting but positively impactful way; the concept of “anonymous bodies”. Explaining that the face carries our identity, the performers are stripped of this and positioned so that their “identity” is lost in the sea of bodies that are obscured together. Willi’s point is that in the urban environment, we’re all so tightly packed together, doing our jobs and living our lives within the set limitations of spatiality and functional structure – we are all anonymous bodies in the urban environment and it’s as simple as that.

First and foremost, I want to ask you about growing up in Austria in the sixties, how did you find the art scene?
In the sixties, I was a young boy and it wasn’t until maybe the eighties that I found out about the art of the sixties – I was already in my mid-twenties by that time. I wasn’t so much touched or inspired because I was mostly into dancing. I wasn't really into body, space and installation work, I was really in the field of dance. It was more than 10 years later that I actually turned my focus on fine arts and in particular, the work from the sixties.

Were there a lot of opportunities in the country for young creatives at that time?
I think it wasn't such a big topic at that time. In the early eighties, it didn’t have this hyped stigma and it was only really in the last 10 years or so that this started happening too.

Was an interest in this kind of interdisciplinary artistic work something that matriculated from a young age for you?
To be honest, I was into fine arts and I wanted to study fine arts but then I had a lot of energy and this huge desire to move. At that time, I couldn't combine my physicality and my interest in my physicality with fine arts and so I focused on dance. Now, after decades of dancing, my desire for fine arts actually came back again so it seems like I had to get rid of all my energy and it sounds strange but maybe it was like that.

Were you part of any subculture growing up?
I grew up in the countryside and didn't get in touch with Vienna until I was 17 years old. I was a country boy and our revolution was long hair and wearing jeans – it was very simple.

One of your most known projects is of course "bodies in urban spaces", where on Earth did the idea come from for the project?
I'm very much influenced by phemonology and in phemonology, there's a strong interest in perception, spatiality and in the body itself. I started to focus mostly on perception and after years of doing different projects on this topic, I moved on to spatiality and this was in the late nineties. I got really interested in space and in this research, a project was proposed to me to do the opening of a new residential building in Vienna – to do different performance work or installations in the residential building. I invited artist friends to join me and we were going to work in empty flats that were waiting for someone to move into them. We worked on different ideas, one was inspired by the model of Le Corbusier and I got fascinated with the idea of how to fill up a flat. You have a bathroom with a toilet, a kitchen... but how many people do you need? I realised that it takes quite a lot of people to fill up a flat or even just a kitchen or bathroom.

I was invited into the homes of some residents who I met in the corridors and who saw me working in these empty flats with performers. I was really shocked because I saw the same flats as the ones I’d been working in, but these people had already moved in and I could see how many things, objects and furniture people put into their flats. It was really amazing to see, coming from these empty flats into these really full flats. It turned my focus onto the spaces in between; what spaces are left. I then started to fill up the spaces in between and this is the basic idea for "bodies in urban spaces". How much space is left for us?

Two years later, I was invited by the technical University in Barcelona to speak about my work and they gave me the opportunity to develop a project and so I brought this idea into auto spaces and it was a very short performance but it was the beginning. I worked with architecture students and dancers and it was presented in the frame of a dance festival but on one side it wasn't so successful. Because it was in a dance festival, people expected that the dancers, when they saw them in the positions, would get up and dance but of course they didn't. Many people left because there were big expectations with it being announced as a new project – there was about 400/500 people and after 5 minutes, half of the people had left. They were obviously expecting them to get up and dance but a few people stayed and they really enjoyed and really liked it. One of the people was a presenter from Paris and she invited me the following year to the summer festival in Paris to show this idea and it was a big success. It was like a snowball effect and it just got bigger and bigger following this.

How was it received at the Paris premiere?
People were excited but there were also people who were really shocked and also very aggressive. There's always this mix that you get.

I read that during a tour of Austria, England, France, Norway, Sweden, Finland and the U.S, you drew attention from local police who stopped several performances as they thought you were burglars or vandals. Was this true?
Particularly in the US and the UK, people were very aggressive against us because apparently, we were teaching burglars how to break into houses – it was ridiculous. There's a different atmosphere in these different European countries. In the US, there's so much crime in these big cities like New York and Philadelphia and so and there's a lot of fear with people thinking that somebody might break into their house or wants to rob them. This fear isn't so strong in Southern countries in Europe as people are more friendly and open and they wouldn't think of this initially as a first thought.

With the dancers who take part in your projects, have you used the same group since the beginning or do you switch people in and out a lot? How does it work?
They are always locally cast so we audition them before we go there to work but I work with 3 assistants – one in the UK, one in Belgium and one in Austria – and my assistant in Austria now has been working for me for 8 years now and she's really excellent. At the moment, she's in New Mexico preparing a trail at a festival there.

You can rarely make out a face in the resulting images and videos of the interventions as the focus is so specifically on the body and the shapes that the bodies form together – what is the intention behind the faceless dancers?
I always stack or pile them so that they cannot see their faces but if there's a position where you can see their face, I always ask them to cover it with their hands or arms. The intention for me is to show the bodies as anonymous bodies. The face is what gives this element of identity and so without the face, they become anonymous bodies, which is what we are really are in cities.

How did the photo book revolving around the “bodies in urban spaces” project come into publication?
I realised from the beginning that it looks quite interesting if we make photo documentation. One of the intentions of the project is that it's only a temporary intervention and so the performer goes into position for 2-5 minutes and then they leave, so it's gone. It's only visible for the people that pass by and this was the original intention. In the beginning, I did not want to have visitors but, of course, no festival invites you and will not announce the performance so we changed the intention so we do performances without announcing and performances that are announced. I liked the positions and so I started a collection of moments and it was 2012 that I thought I should collect it and make a book. I thought we'd maybe go on for another 2 or 3 years and then the project would stop but it seems like it just won't stop. Nevertheless, I decided to do this book as a summary to sum up how the project started, how it developed and show all of these positions up until the present. I'm really happy with the book.

So you should be, the images are stunning. You touched upon the temporary nature of the project there. Would you ever consider doing something with it that could be permanent? There are obviously some barriers with the involvement of living people but would you evolve it further in this direction?
Quite a few friends of mines have asked me that – they suggested that I use puppets. It's funny because sometimes visitors go to the bodies, especially when it's not announced and they touch the body to find out if it's a living body or not. Even in a live performance, they go and touch them to find out if it's real or not. I get very nice emails after presentations where people say "I saw the show and I still see the bodies there", it's so strongly ingrained in people's mind – what happened at this spot and that spot – and it is actually quite nice.

The brightly coloured clothes that are worn by the individuals taking part are a marvel to the eye but is there specific reasoning behind this vivid decoration as opposed to selecting more sombre tones of clothes?
I realised that I need a contrast. Buildings are grey, brown, dark, and sometimes black and so I ask them to put on brightly coloured shirts or pants to have a contrast so that we can see them in a good relation to the building.

On the topic of clothes, I wanted to ask you about the JACQUEMUS campaign. Did you see Simon Porte Jacquemus’ recognition of your work as some kind of acceptance into the fashion sphere?
Within the first few years, I had my first contact with fashion through a photographer working with a big fashion company in Italy and then I realised that I hadn't thought of this – fashion was not my intention at all. I had requests for a shoot which I did for Garage Magazine and other magazines printed photos of my work, for example this spring King Kong magazine presented photos of my project "living room". When Simon got in touch with me, I found it quite exciting because he told me that he used a photo of mine of a positioning in New York City for his collection and it was one of his main inspiration sources for his new collection that he will present in Paris next week.

I remember the day that the campaign dropped; there was such a buzz in the industry over these stimulating new visuals that mastered this balance of fun and cool. Were you in any way surprised by the reaction that the images attracted?
Through this, you find out how your work is received. Myself, I don't know who sees the photos and who reacts to the photos but where it used to be loads of reactions from the architecture and fine art world, now it's the world of fashion that is approaching me. It's an honour but when you start to work on a project you don't think of that, it just develops.

How did you find it from a collaborative angle; was it difficult for you to implement your vision without manipulating the clothes and the JACQUEMUS aesthetic or did it simply fit and work in its own natural way?
It worked perfectly. When he explained to me further about the collections, I could understand it so clearly and for me, there was no conflict at all. I worked with the models and they're not used to being in such positions. I usually work with dancers and performers who are used to this and they are trained so the models had a bit of a hard time but they did very well.

Would you work with fashion brands again if the opportunity presented itself?
If it makes sense, yes; if I could see that it would connect then definitely. When I saw Simon's work, I understood. My daughter also studies fashion and she was very excited and when I told her that I got an email from Simon Jacquemus, she was like "wow".

She must've been very proud of you! The concept of this issue is “more is more, less is a bore”; what do you make of that statement?
I'm more into less. My work is quite minimalistic generally speaking. Everything from the short films, to the projects beyond "urban bodies". It's as simple as the body and that's what my work covers – it's almost become my brand.

What projects are you working on at the moment? You briefly mentioned the New Mexico trail before but what else do you have in the pipeline?
Quite recently I premiered two different projects and another autowork, which is choreography for 8 dancers and I did an indoor gallery work for 2 performers, which was just premiered in June and July in summer festivals. Just now is a time where I prepare new ideas or new projects. I got a lot of work commissioned for the European Capital in 2018 and I started a new work in Germany that culminated in 2019 but I started it this summer. I also got another offer for a theatre in Switzerland so it's a lot of different offers that are coming in and I'm just figuring out how to coordinate all of these projects.

This is an excerpt from my interview with Willi Dorner for Metal #36 - buy the issue here or at a half decent magazine shop to read the full interview.