In Production: Discoteca Flaming Star
Anita Di Bianco interviews Cristina Gómez Barrio and Wolfgang Mayer
Discoteca Flaming Star is a collaborative art group which, since 1998, has aimed to ‘present wonderful songs of love, consumption, fervour and feminism, carpets that help to cross burning bridges, fragile essays as drawings, and things that go together even though they shouldn’t’. Their interdisciplinary practice, entrancing performative style, oversized hand-scripted and hand-stenciled banners, photographs and use of disparate text sources (from the theoretical to the lyrical), reassemble musical and sculptural space into durational works that are evocative of times and artistic situations when politics and decadence indulged each others’ voracious appetites less suspiciously.
For the project ‘Valparaiso Intervenciones’, made in the winter of 2009, Discoteca Flaming Star initiated a workshop / performance with architectural theorist Jose Llano and a group of architecture and fine arts students who collectively, as the Board of Poetry, wrote the voiceover for the video during the performance. The resulting 24-minute video performance ‘El valor del gallo negro (Buthe—Turm—Börse)’ wasperformed and filmed in the 19th century stock exchange building in Valparaiso, Chile. Drawing on Mayer’s ‘Poema de la Bolsa de Valparaiso’, the artists’ drawings and other literary and musical sources, the work explores abstract processes in the financial world, the (in)visibility of the collective, and the spatial presence of bodies.
The performance includes ‘El Gallo Negro’ (The Black Rooster), a dancer from Valparaiso who surveys the inactive floor of the stock exchange and directs the camera with his gaze and movements. The performative elements—architecture, costuming, body movements, soundtrack—mark the starkly-encoded and anachronistic space of the stock exchange as a site of social and economic contradiction. The accompanying voiceover includes the collective poem written during the five-hour performance by the Board of Poetry, performed by Dagmar Gabler in the English version of the work.
Anita Di Bianco: I’m curious about the soundtrack at the start of the film.
Cristina Gómez Barrio: It’s called ‘Wallfurt Pulse’, a two-layered sound collage: one recording was made at the stock market in Frankfurt, the other on Wall Street. Over that is layered an inverted pulse. The image of people on the trading floor is no longer the reality; only 8% of stock transactions are done via trading floors now. Everything else happens at contracting tables and on the internet. These places are undergoing a re-signification process but are nevertheless kept as a symbolic reference, a backdrop for broadcasting—as somewhere to place the action. We wanted to interfere in that process from a perspective of critical thinking.
Di Bianco: The video suggests actors in rehearsal, or writers working out a play; moments of creativity or negotiation that aren’t necessarily proposing or leading to success. The looks on the faces of those seated around the cluttered table suggests long duration, everything spilling out into the space in the centre. One senses (without the benefit of hearing the discussion, or seeing the texts you were reading) that something is being dealt with, slowly. You’re not building or solving something in that optimistic, responsible way of so much current seminar-based art practice, but neither are you tearing at each other, or staging familiar or recognisable conflicts.
You also mentioned the importance of having no audience during the performance because of the presence of cameras. The addition of applause that occurs at a certain point in the soundtrack is interesting: it raises the question of what it is to perform without an audience, in this ghostly shell of a building with, as you mentioned, the security guard as is a solitary, invisibly-labouring visitor. The people around the table, the dancer’s movements and the camera’s gestures—the whole piece has a very enclosed, circular structure.
Barrio: I’ve been thinking recently about how to protect the performance from the documentation, and how to protect the documentation from the performance—how to prevent a video of a performance from this compulsion towards evoking the performance. The impulse of the video should not be that of idealising one moment that is gone; the captured moment is only one element among many in the film. How can one free the medium (video, photograph or audio) from this obligation to ‘please show me what it was, what it felt like,’—this yet-impossible-to-see performance? The aim with the work was also to protect the performers, who were not professional actors, from these pressures of expectation.
Di Bianco: You mentioned that this is only the second time you’ve performed for a camera. So the camera in this case is not a form of documentation or an outsider to the workshop, but part of the choreography.
Wolfgang Mayer: With the exception of a few colour shots where you see the dancer very clearly, and one where you see the Board of Poetry, everything appears as a consequence of the dancer’s movements. You never know what will be next. The glance is very important. His eyes are part of the dance so that he can return the glance of the camera.
Di Bianco: The movements of the dancer have a revealing quality, as an interpretation of the proceedings of the Board of Poetry, whose activity is centered around the table, but spills over into the surroundings, engaging the viewer with this whole complex orchestration going on in the background.
Barrio: We are not choreographers. We don’t know how to tell someone to dance. It was more about telling him [Valentin Keller] ‘you are our body—the body of the Board of Poetry. What-ever is captured or happens at this table is to be translated by your movement. Take the chance to enjoy the fact that there is no audience—you have something to explore. And be aware that you guide the black and white camera.’ So he was sort of a avenue of access for the camera.
Di Bianco: How did you instruct or envision the shooting in terms of your use of both colour and black and white? The quality of the two alternating images diverges radically in terms of tone, connotation, speed.
Mayer: Video generally produces this strange realism, as if you see on the recording what you have seen with your eyes. It fakes reality in the viewers’ mind. The black and white footage was filmed with a toy camera which just turns on and off and nothing else. It has a very primitive chip that films UV light as well, producing very artificial images. The toy camera is also difficult to predict because it does strange things like being in and out focus at the same time. It has its own form of realism. It films UV light, so white clothes could also appear black on the screen. If you film eyes from very close they look very watery. All the things that look so realistic in video are the opposite with this camera. When working with it, it never feels like you’re documenting. Combining this camera with the colour camera creates a third reality, unfolding somewhere between where your imagination (as viewer) is and where we (as performers) are.
Di Bianco: The lucid colour image isn’t necessarily the one you trust; it actually has a destabilising effect on the hazy, roaming, atmospheric quality of the black and white image. The blank plasma screens used to display numerical market information (which you record in sharp colour), have a grotesque clarity in the 19th century interior. You seem to avoid the nostalgia of the place.
Mayer: There were two camera operators: Alina Astudillo, a filmmaker and artist, and Claudio Vitoria, a professional cameraman who filmed the colour shots on the tripod. We told them from the beginning that it wasn’t necessary to film everything—that they should get a feeling for what we do, and sense the moments where they are also part of it. So we all shared that space / time, which ended up being five and a half hours.
We didn’t change anything in the stock market, we just added three banners, lights, the sound equipment and the smoke machine. It was very important that it was not a film shoot. Nothing was repeated. At the end we collectively wrote a poem, the actress read the poem back, and that’s it. I liked that this process was repeated in the editing. We wanted to bring all the tools we have: intelligent books, not so intelligent books, flowers, dancing, films.
Di Bianco: Banners are so often a part of your performances and installations. Can you say something about this act of unfurling them—heroism, idealism—and the lettering: ‘What kind of passion, Piero’? In the voiceover text there’s also the phrase ‘the compassionate body’.
Barrio: We are not performance artists, but we enjoy performing. When you arrive in a place it’s always different; you employ a space for a certain number of hours. We started to want or need our own space to take with us, something that gives us some kind of protection. Textiles are very light, small enough to fold and carry in hand luggage. So, in 2001, we started making the banners out of cheap cloth.
Mayer: They are very raw and rough, not elaborate or delicate pieces. We never spend much time installing them and always start hanging with an edge so that they touch the floor—we try to avoid them looking like images or curtains.
Barrio: And the sentences or concepts on the banners are condensations of exchanges between us and other artists, and different sources—books, songs. They are sentences that accompany us. Since they are such a large format, they alter the architecture in a very strong way. When they go round corners you automatically have a curved soft corner. The architecture is softened. Accoustics are also improved.
Mayer: The banners can ‘carry’ concepts with us in the space. They are like things you want to have present when you perform.
Barrio: Re-using the same banners in different locations can be a great fictional pretension, challenging continuity of time / space from the felt experience and from the video. The banners link the spaces.
Di Bianco: Your style of lettering on these banners is a messy, activist aesthetic rather than an official language, maybe mimicking or deconstructing the act of producing a flag or slogan. How does hanging banners relate to
a proposed politic?
Barrio: We look for a way of writing suitable for each thought. One aspect of this video that I like a lot is that it shows the moment of unfolding the banner outdoors – it’s a moment of struggle. Even though you’ve committed to sharing these concepts or sentences on a banner, it doesn’t mean that everything is complete or easy; you also have to decide how it belongs in the space, how to hang it, and so on.
Mayer: There is a clumsiness in the act. The video starts with these two guys unfolding the banner, and of course it’s upside down, so someone has to come into the frame to help. It refers to this heroic moment but it’s full of clumsiness and it takes a really long time.
Barrio: Then there is the wind…
Mayer: It becomes difficult to read. In some moments fragments of text, like ‘la casa es negra’, pop out. Then it’s hard to read that it is ‘comunes y intereses y aspiraciones y...’ [common and concerns and aspirations and...]’.
Anita Di Bianco is an artist based in Berlin