Interview with Noé Soulier by Alice Chauchat and Natasa Petresin-Bachelez (translated by David Pickering)
Alice Chauchat What in your work for Idéographie has changed since the beginning of the process?
Noé Soulier When I showed the first version of my work in late April, it was fascinating to see what wasn't how I had imagined it. Coming from an academic background, I thought the way I manipulate texts would seem strange, illogical even, but that didn't really happen. On the contrary, the spectators were able to make connections between very eclectic texts and construct a sort of overarching discourse. My problem was that they didn't seem to perceive the composition but rather to comprehend the whole as a homogenous flow. I had worked to produce a discourse that was itself composed of discourses of multiple origins, and in which these components were not easily identifiable, but the contradictions and relations between the texts struck me as important and they were poorly communicated during this presentation. Unlike in academic contexts, in the theater there is a great tolerance for contradiction. The audience is accustomed to making connections between elements that appear to have nothing to do with each other. Now I wonder how to make the composition itself perceptible. I realized that I had composed at the level of the sentence, gradually, without really considering the overall architecture of the piece, its sections and parts. That offers many possibilities and should make the work much more palpable. It should allow for a less didactic discourse that is more like a labyrinth. I went through several successive phases of deconstructing a logical discourse. I thought I had already come a long way, but now I realize that I can still go much further in a way that also becomes more and more interesting on a discursive level. For example, there can be grafts – enormous asides, short parenthetical statements within other parentheses, and so on. I now know that people can find their way. I established a certain clarity and I can use it to go further and create other relationships between the texts.
Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez What models do you use for the composition? For example, when you talk about parentheses or links between different texts?
NS The influences vary widely. Some types of manipulation come from narration. I'm thinking of Hitchcock and David Lynch, for example, for the flashbacks and parentheses. Other tools are more musical: echoes and repetitions, for example. I have introduced real repetitions that weren't present before — now I repeat exactly the same phrase in different places and it changes meaning depending on the context. I talked about making the composition visible, then I spoke of a change in approach within the composition itself. Broadly speaking, until now there have been three major parts: the first part dealt with the connection between consciousness and environment; the second, the connection between consciousness and language; and the third, the connection between consciousness and the body. These parts are now completely intertwined and that allows for transversal links between all of these aspects. Another aspect that strikes me as important is the fact that, while everything I've mentioned is present, the real trick is orienting the spectator's attention toward such and such an aspect of the body, space, language, dreams, etc. Then there is a real choreography of attention.
NPB What are you inviting your spectators to do with this proposition? It seems to me that your compositional method is more or less fixed but you reserve the possibility of improvising or including the spectator in your game, which allows for an easier individualization.
NS There is little improvisation as such. There is some openness to what might happen but mainly a transposition of the texts to the current situation — which can, moreover, truly transform the texts after a while. I never talk about the body in general, language in general, or space in general — I talk about this body here, my body, or the body of the person standing there, about the language I am using, about this space, etc. It's more direct, but also more matter-of-fact, more perceptible, and that is when it really becomes an experience.
For example, when the piece begins, I go back to Husserl's phenomenological reduction, which itself revisits the Cartesian cogito. But the Cartesian cogito is an experience. No matter how much we think we've understood it, if we don't rely exclusively on the knowledge we have of it, the experience of cogito is always an event. The idea is to bring together all of these texts I use as events or as experiments that can be carried out.
AC It seems essential to me that the experience take place within the spectator during the performance, and that our consciousness be the domain on which the piece acts.
NS The composition is written in relation to a potential reading or experiment. It is conceived in terms of rhythms, intensity, echo, refrain — and sometimes also in more narrative terms — flashbacks, stories-within-stories, digressions. In order to achieve this, I like to put myself in the spectator's shoes.
I see a closeness between philosophy and dance in the relationship each maintains to wonderment and the capacity to let oneself be surprised by things. Philosophy achieves this with questions that mostly seem self-evident, for example asking what it means to be.
Dance has the same quality. We have a body and there is something self-evident about that. We use it to do things. With dance, we can pay attention to activities that are usually very plain to see: breathing, walking, reaching out to grab something, the enjoyment we get from running. I think my work is at the intersection, or somewhere inside of this zone of amazement, of looking at things differently. That is where a choreography of attention becomes possible, a change in point of view.
Somatic techniques—for example the Feldenkreis or Alexander Methods — allow one to feel the very fact of standing up differently. Idéographie tries to change the way one perceives the fact of being, speaking, or language's connection to things. I try to place an emphasis on experiences that thought or theory can generate. They intrigue me a great deal, and I think that truly qualifies as choreography. There is another intersection where theory starts to talk about the body and lived experience. It's what phenomenology does for example, and it's also what I am working on with this composition and trying to make an experiment out of. We can work on the voice, posture, or the way of being on stage, to try to shift from an interesting discourse to an experience that becomes something else, that crosses a certain threshold.
NPB Do you also refer back to the moment when speech was incorporated into dance performances?
NS What I have in mind is more dance without speech. For example, Merce Cunningham or Trisha Brown. I find it extraordinary the way this kind of vocabulary changes our view of corporal movement. For example, it allows the body to be perceived as a geometric mobile. It can also happen through speech. Somatic techniques use it a great deal. I think that language can play an important role in such changes of perspective.
If you take Discourse on the Method seriously, you have to relive the experiment, you can't just read it superficially. You have to look out the window at the people in the street and think: “I can see coats and hats but I can't be sure there are people.” Or to look at the hard candle and the melted wax and ask oneself: “How can I be sure they are the same thing?” These are experiences that have a sensory element, and dance is an experience that has an intellectual one.
In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty shows that the hand that touches is not the same as the hand that is touched — and that takes doing, it takes realizing. There is something unique about this sense of “realization” that escapes both theory and dance, but might be found at the intersection of the two. What interests me is using all the means at our disposal — the body, experimentation, language — to experience things. Language is an incredible tool for experience and not only for analyzing that experience. I think philosophy often produces experiences that should be lived ones.
AC The textual relationships and the use of the ideas contained within them that you develop through this project allow you to study them, though in a way that is not at all academic. You confer a type of comprehension unique to this capacity art has to make connections that are tangential, transversal, etc. out of “hard” material. Can you imagine that relationship being used to deal with other questions and maybe in forms other than a performance?
NS That particular aspect is quite cognitive, but another aspect I'm currently working on comes closer to actual experience; the quality of material elements such as voice, body and presence is very important. At the beginning of my work for Idéographie, I examined very varied texts, some of which were closely related to politics or the economy. I decided, for the current project, to concentrate on the elements directly present during the performance, and recently something else appeared in the work. I was working on the composition of two texts, one by Benveniste and one by Averroès, and I was talking about them in the same way, to the point of erasing any friction between them. To make these contrasts reappear I started to differentiate the use of my voice according to the text, in order to place markers, just as we might use colors or typographies in graphic design. That created a form of splitting, a multiple personality, and I find that important for Idéographie. The major questions of body, consciousness, and so on, may be tackled from very different angles (phenomenology, somatic approaches, anatomy, neuroscience), which are sometimes incompatible because their presuppositions are. At the same time, I face them, they all interest me and I can't imagine choosing between them. It is a difficult position that requires one to simultaneously hold antagonistic positions.
After creating the piece, I would like to tackle a similar problem that is all the more pressing in the political and economic realm. Because we are all, at one time or another, confronted with these choices, whether we are voting for a referendum, or for a political party. And, though I'm not a specialist of these questions, if I try look at them objectively, and to chose among the existing positions — of liberalism, communism, socialism, or sustainable degrowth by way of environmentalism, neo-liberalism or Malthusianism — they are all rather convincing despite their respective flaws.
AC I find it interesting that you leave out the question of convictions or values. Does everything become relative when we concentrate on the quality of the argumentation rather than the meaning?
NS If you ask the question of values rationally, you quickly get to a place where you don't have a clear-cut opinion. Some people rationally arrive at clear-cut positions, but this is not my case, and I think it's not the case for quite a few people, because positions are too complex — we don't have the theoretical means to say “someone is right, or someone else is wrong.” Often, we make choices that come from our socio-cultural determinisms: the milieu where we grew up, the education we got, the ideology we feel closest to. But we can easily start to doubt, and when we start doubting, we feel lost — or at least I do.
Maybe there is something very contemporary about this. A certain number of big ideologies have suffered a loss of credibility, and we are in a sort of fog. We think to ourselves, there is something in the market economy that seems inevitable, and at the same time we would like it to be more just and less destructive. There are also problems of recognition, and so on. We have these clusters of values or convictions that we defend. It's not a question of relativism, the question is rather: how do we manage these values we defend, which are contradictory, and we don't have any idea how to reconcile? I'm not pretending to offer up a solution, on the other hand I am trying to accept or at least start with this situation of non-conviction.
AC What I'm hearing is really the desire to produce a space in which to contemplate this impossibility — but in an active way that is not throwing up your hands and saying “whatever, it's impossible,” but insisting on staying in that moment of hesitation, in order to understand its elements, its components.
NS Yes. And that isn't easy because it means investigating different positions and probing deeply enough so that it gets interesting. It is an uncomfortable but inevitable situation.
Interview published in Le Journal des Laboratoires sept-dec. 2011
Interview with Noé Soulier by Alice Chauchat and Natasa Petresin-Bachelez (translated by David Pickering)