Jozef Wouters is a scenographer and theater maker. Based in Brussels, where he founded the artist workplace Decoratelier together with his technical director Menno Vandevelde, he engages in various projects and artistic collaborations. Wouters’ work often relates to a specific location and initiates a dialogue between strategic spaces, social processes and the power of imagination. Since 2017 he is an autonomous artist in residence with Meg Stuart / Damaged Goods. In 2020 his book “Moments Before the Wind” was published, a heterogeneous collection of notes and reflections on space, scenography, art making and institutional critique, edited by the dramaturge Jeroen Peeters. Some of its materials are part of the stage show “INFINI”, an ongoing collection and live exhibition of scenographies by artists Thomas Bellinck, Benny Claessens, Wim Cuyvers, Begüm Erciyas, Bryana Fritz, Rimah Jabr, Jisun Kim, Sis Matthé, Anna Rispoli, Rodrigo Sobarzo, Michiel Soete, Michiel Vandevelde, Rebekka de Wit, Jozef Wouters, and Arkadi Zaides. “INFINI 1-17” was scheduled to be shown at Berliner Festspiele this March but it had to be postponed. In early February, tanzraumberlin magazine had the chance to talk to Jozef Wouters – who also allowed to publish some photographs of his collection of infinis (French for painted theater backdrops) in this issue.
Interview: Elena Philipp
tanzraumberlin: Jozef Wouters, you have been working with choreographers such as Claire Croizé, Radouan Mriziga and Meg Stuart for some years now. What characterizes a scenography or space that makes itself available for dance?
First of all, it is not about throwing requisites into the rehearsal space. A lot of what I learned as a scenographer comes from Meg. She picked me up when I was 22 or 23. I was following a Master in Scenography after I was thrown out of theater school and I was working as a technician. Bart Van den Eynde, a dramaturge whom I met during my Master studies and who was working with Meg, introduced me to her. When I was working with Damaged Goods for the first time, I was in the studio for months, and I also joined the dancers’ improvisations even if I was shy. I learned to understand that dance is about energy. It took me a long time to see what I could contribute as a scenographer. I found out that I wanted to make a space about the gaze, not a space for the dancers to use but a space that forms the shape of the gaze that looks at it. Space is constantly evolving, it is about energy, decisions, history, dreams, people and people looking at something which creates this weird entanglement we call “space” but which is so much more than just square meters.
Space as an entanglement of forces and energies: That brings me to one of the works you did with Meg Stuart, “Projecting [Space[”. I saw it in Berlin in 2018. It was set in the Reinbeckhallen in Oberschöneweide and presented by HAU Hebbel Am Ufer. The first room had a lot of shelves crammed into a very small space, which, as your book says, was inspired by your idea of dancing in the ruins of an Amazon hub. The second room was this huge, beautiful, but neglected former industrial hall that felt at once foreign and familiar. How did “Projecting [Space[” come about?
“Projecting [Space[” was particular since I was a co-author, a co-signer of the work. As a scenographer your ego has to be really flexible, that’s part of the job. You tend to forget the bravery it takes to make something yourself. When Meg invited me as co-author I made my own story about the spaces of the future. A lot of the work with Meg is telling stories. At some point she said: We are nomads from the future coming back. So I thought, what would it be to already build the ruins of the future? My first proposition was an ugly 3D model with a warehouse full of racks and I really liked it because Meg asked, “where are we gonna dance?”. That was a good way to start making space. I remember a Bauprobe where we put up plastic lines to simulate the racks, and she started chopping them away. I had to think of when I was a kid and I was sneaking into a field of wheat before it was harvested to lay down. By laying down it became a space. We think space is something we have to build but we can also carve it out. The Reinbeckhallen were frustrating for the dancers to relate to; there was so much metal. But the collective work we had to do to make space out of the hostile surroundings was important for the Ruhrtriennale, where the piece premiered in 2017, and also in Berlin. The opposite is not so interesting: You get a giant hall for free to do whatever you want. For me, that is the worst. It is much more beautiful to say: There is no space. Let’s make it.
How do you create space?
I love to work with what is already there. Space is already there, sometimes it is enough to just point at it. It is not rocket science – you put people together in a space. If you spend enough time in a space at some point you find out the plant wants to be over here, I want to be over there. All of us can do it, but there is often no time. As a scenographer I have a medium to adapt it if I am wrong. A lot of the materials I choose are not taken for aesthetic reason but only because I know I can move them one day before the premiere if I need to. It is a practice of looking for ways that space can doubt and still change its mind, a language in which the technicians or the dancers can say: oh, this rack is too high, let’s make it lower – which you can’t do with a tribune for 400 people.
An adaptable performance space as in “Projecting [Space[“ is special for the spectators, too. I remember that at the Reinbeckhallen there were no designated places let alone seats for the audience to sit or to stand without being in the way of the dancers or being far removed from the action. Despite the huge space it felt like an intimate encounter and as if each and every one of us who visited the performance was an integral and important part of it.
The audience is a result of the negotiation of the bodies and the dramaturgy with the impossibilities of the space. What I liked about “Projecting [Space[” is that the audience and the performers have to find a modus to live together, even if it is very briefly, sometimes only for a second. I had a feeling that we were doing this in a completely different way. “Projecting [Space[” was not about participation – like “hey, are you brave enough to dance with me?” or “do you feel weird if I come too close?” – but I wanted to make a space where you can be together. Just soft. Somehow collectively trying to create the conditions for performance.
Since you value space as a flexible medium, why do you like working in large theaters? They seem to be the opposite of what you aspire to. For an elaborate show like “INFINI” you need a big theater with modern stage machinery.
I love the buildings with fly-bars – even more since they became electronic. It’s a dream because there is this one person on a computer who has a headset and I have a headset and we can make spaces in an instant. You just have to make sure the infinis are flat, so they can go up and down easily. Recently, we were in Antwerp for a week and we started playing with the machines; in the end we had 400 moves with the fly-bars in four hours. I have so much joy working at these houses. When we perform “INFINI”, there is a relaxing in these spaces that are often so tense. We have fun, the technicians have fun, the audience can come and go as they like… About buildings like these people often say they are horrible because they represent a certain idea of culture and arts. There’s a contract behind the space; a whole set of expectations that come with a great theater. If we would shrink “INFINI” to the size of a small theater we would tour it more. But the political significance of it for me is that it is so big: It needs Berliner Festspiele to do it and to take the risk of showing all these artists. Almost none of the artists we invited, including me, could work in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele on their own. But together we are strong.
The theaters in which you show “INFINI” can only be converted to a limited extent. Does the show change shape instead?
“INFINI” is a heterogenous collection which is always evolving. By now, we have 17 works, and each time we perform “INFINI” a new one is added. For Berlin, Bryana Fritz, a US-choreographer based in Brussels, made a new one. But in a way, all the infinis change: going to a different theater forces us to think about the relationship between the collection and the reality. A work changes its meaning. Rebekka de Wit wrote a beautiful text about the Charleston church shooting; but she feels that in 2016 she could say things that you can’t say now anymore. I also need to understand the building: how far is it from the stage to the bar, how deep is the orchestra pit, what is the history of the theater? For Michiel Vandevelde’s work it has to be pitch dark and it is difficult to create pure darkness in a big theater, because of the exit signs. You understand the bureaucracy in a building like this.
In what way does “INFINI” relate to dance?
There are a lot of choreographers in the collection – Michiel Vandevelde, Begüm Erciyas or Arkadi Zaides – maybe because there is a natural connection between movement and scenography. I don’t like making scenography for theater because it is often instrumentalized. With dance we share a language. We are trained in understanding that authorship is something fluid. As a scenographer your ego has to be like the body of a speleologist: You can’t have too much body fat otherwise you get stuck. But you also have to have enough body fat to survive in case you are stuck and all alone.