The Berlin based artist Isabel Lewis develops choreographic works, performances and experimental formats in the international museum and exhibition context. She originally studied dance as well as philosophy and literary criticism and navigates between different genres and surroundings. tanzraumberlin editor Johanna Withelm spoke with Lewis about her personal orientation as an artist, about shuttling between contexts and finding her artistic practice in spaces in between.
Interview: Johanna Withelm
Your preferred terminology for much of your work is “occasions”. Can you explain this term and the format it describes?
I began to create what I would eventually come to call “occasions” in 2010. I had recently moved to Berlin after 10 years of working professionally in contemporary concert dance and with all the experimental stages in New York. I spent two years collecting notes, conceiving and rehearsing movement and music in between sorting out the conditions of my new life in Germany and working side jobs for cash. There were many things that formed my affinities with the word “occasion”, including its etymology as a verb, to cause, occasion are of Middle Latin, meaning to cause or effect. It is also related to the notion of appropriate time or opportunity. In my occasions, the composition of the performance is not completely predetermined and scripted, but is prepared in advance and then composed in real time according to the way the situation develops. It is very similar to the logic of DJing, where you prepare your tracks in advance, but mix the music live to respond to the dancefloor in real time. Using this term helped me to stake out a conceptual space in which I could explore the creation of different conditions for the reception of live performance, beyond the practices of sight and attention framed by modern theater and museological forms of display. Could dance be experienced ambiently or with peripheral attention? Could performance be experienced the way we move through and engage with a garden, with multiple modes of attention and different degrees and tonalities of presence and participation? These are the kinds of questions that motivated the creation of a format that could move beyond my critique of ways of seeing that produce an omniscient, omnipotent subject that can distance itself from the captive and disempowered object of attention. The occasion proposes other forms of engagement by addressing all of the senseing and offering alternative forms of sociality between things and people.
I think your work often borders on the choreographic. How do you see choreography (and its expansion)?
Choreography for me is the composition of processes in space and time. These compositions can be, but are not limited to, expressed through human bodies. I work in detail on choreography within bodies, but I am even more focused on what happens socially and politically between bodies, human, non-human, and more than human. To me, composing is a public expression of care.
The buzzword “immersion” has been used in an inflationary way in the art context of late. Would you describe your work as immersive?
I can relate to your suspicion of the overuse of that term in the last ten years or so. A lot of people call my work immersive, and I wouldn’t argue with that, but I tend to call it affective, because I deal with dramaturgy by thinking through and composing the order of experience on all the sensory levels of the body. The specific architecture of the vibe or mood of the situation when a guest arrives and how it shifts and changes over time as the work unfolds or within the duration of a guest’s visit is a major choreographic concern of mine.
What interests you about working with dance, with bodies?
Bodies are fascinating non-things! Bodies are changeable, mutable, processual, magical, conceptual and material sites of collision and conflict, of synthesis and transformation. There is nothing stable that can be universally understood as a human body, and we can observe this in the ways that different cultures in different eras have understood, lived, and expressed the experience of being embodied. When you work with the dancing body as a material, you are fully in touch with this hyper-complexity. It is a kind of density that can be molded and sculpted. The human body is filled with so much memory, not only of our contemporary human cultures, but also of our evolutionary journeys in arriving where we are. I feel that when I begin to create movement within and between bodies, all of this subtle information becomes more apparent to me and to others. This is a very rich and exciting thing that creates new bonds and interesting connections between people, things and places.
Since 2021, you have also been a professor of performative arts at the HGB Leipzig, and you move back and forth between the academy and the independent scene, so here, too, you oscillate between contexts. What kind of influence does this have on your work?
Oscillating between contexts is where I feel most at home. It’s always been the condition of my life as a person who grew up in the United States with an Afro-Dominican mother and a Jewish-American father, and as someone who now lives permanently in Germany and works here and internationally. In terms of my new role as a professor, I feel that I’m still very much in the process of orienting myself and observing what these new processes and relationships mean and how they effect my life and work. There’s a lot to take in. It’s a strange thing, as someone who holds up a critical lens to processes of standardization and categorization, to become an employee of an academy that as a structure in the modern era has in many ways been invested in creating standards of education in fields of specialization. I suppose in this case, as in other areas of my life and work, I feel a responsibility as a bridge builder, communicator, mediator, and translator of codes between the academic and independent scenes, and that seems to continue to be creatively generative for me.
In December you will host the Kantine for ten days as part of the reopening of the Sophiensæle. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes, together with the visual artist Dirk Bell, we will be developing what we have in mind as a ten-day protocol of hosting for the Kantine of the Sophiensæle. The idea is to imagine and test what a Kantine might look like and what role it might play in the future of the Sophiensæle, its surrounding neighborhood, and the communities it serves. We’ll be installing the space as a place for hanging out, lounging, listening, eating, drinking, reading, moving and talking. It will be open daily from afternoon to evening for the ten days of the opening. We will be joined by charming co-hosts and occasional guest chefs, artists, and musicians. Dirk and I will cook, arrange and create an atmosphere with sounds, smells and lights. We are very much looking forward to creating a little bit of warmth for the cold and dark days of December!
Trust the Process – Reopening and program for
the 2023/24 season of the Sophiensæle
7.–17. December 2023