Hauntology inteviews / Emese Csornai

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Wikipedia: Hauntology (a portmanteau of haunting and ontology) is a range of ideas referring to the return or persistence of elements from the social or cultural past, as in the manner of a ghost. The term is a neologism first introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Specters of Marx. It has since been invoked in fields such as visual arts, philosophy, electronic music, anthropology, politics, fiction, and literary criticism. 

In 2022 I made a series of interviews with my colleagues involved in this research. I was looking for answers to my questions regarding the evolution of lighting design. From colleagues’ previous anecdotes of their professional history, an intricately non-linear development of this particular work started to outline in front of my mind’s eye. 

In order to understand the future of lighting design in performing arts, the variables defining its past and presence, and the visions shaping it need to be summoned. 

This is the first written publication that builds mainly upon and around the overlays of the interviews I have made so far. I am planning on further interviews and texts following this one, hopefully giving a complex picture of lighting design and performing arts relating to one another.

‘…It was light itself. Whatever comes with it, I take it.’ (Tomi Humalisto)

Lighting designers come from the widest array of backgrounds, many of us educated in theater itself. The versatility of lighting design as a field allows various approaches. We all found something captivating there. Tomi Humalisto for example has been studying in art education, which at the time was less compartmentalized than it is now. He followed a course mentored by a scenographer and a costume designer. They made a theater piece that today would be called ‘devised’, back then the term was not used. Later on on an exchange year in the fine arts course he took a workshop of lighting installation, led by the lighting designer Tarja Ervasti in a fortress on an island outside of Helsinki, with endless caves and rooms and cellars. They rented equipment and built a light installation. He was blown away by the tool and its impact, and learned that there is a school for studying lighting. For him it wasn’t so much about theater, it was light itself he was impressed with, and he decided, whatever comes with it, he takes it. Bruno Pocheron and his friends from art school were hired by their professor to assist an audiovisual installation of dia projections and moving screens, in the palace of festivals in Cannes for the launch of the perfume Egoist by Chanel, making it his first encounter with stage. Jan Maertens entered Stuk Leuven as an extracurricular activity, taking responsibilities as a volunteer and getting entry tickets for performances in return. For him the change of mind has been remembered as a decisive factor: in an engineer‘s curriculum things are taken seriously in their functioning. The art world represents another set of values, being not very output driven, its added value is not through usefulness.

In the rarest cases it is obvious that someone will work in theater, like in the case of Henri-Emmanuel Doublier, who himself comes from a theater family. He entered with the ambition to be a musician, nonetheless involving himself in performing and stage work from the young age of eight. 

There is a complex toolbox that shows itself in its functioning and in its effect we catch glimpse of and get driven by. Through a complex hands-on study, we understand the basic toolbox and we gain knowledge enough to be innovative. Unsurprisingly our path to get to theater contextualizes our ambition in it, informing our development in it and always leaves a trace of legibility on our further body of work. There is always a little window of time and space where our younger self shows themselves, just getting mesmerized by what they see, upon first peek into theater and lighting.         

Choosing methods of working- 'The Yes-attitude' (Bram Coeman)

Bram Coeman remembers from the beginning of his work trajectory hacking the Buda Fabriek, creating their own there and then while making Dans in Kortrijk from 2002, that ‘here and now’ of there and then that described the festival as a whole. He continues in those footsteps with Buda, making a variety of things possible. How to make things possible is the central question. This is now the establishment of the still prevailing yes-attitude at Buda on the technical and curatorial level. 

Henri Emmanuel Doublier, early in his career reaching the boundaries of the classical theater scene in which there was a steep hierarchy, joined the Superamas and started working together as a collective. They showed work at Dans in Kortrijk, where, opposing his previous history, it felt everything was possible, and chaotic. He also appreciated the different way of organizing technical work in Belgium, where with less technical staff more is possible, because of the involvement instead of the professionalization,  the counterpart he often came across in France. 

Sharing work has been an issue of overlay. When not in a collective, but sharing the oftentimes lonesome work of a lighting designer has been something both Tomi Humalisto and Bruno Pocheron have practiced that has been a healthy exchange creating more agency and resulting in uncomplicated tour schedules or normalized workloads.

Geert Belpaeme has been talking about the foundation of his presence in his work which is a result of him participating in different functions, as a performer, director, teacher, dramaturg, writer, and this different involvements and perspectives help him take him to a place of practicing theater, as opposed to producing. This practice of changing roles, perhaps in other ways than in his clear example, has been accompanying most of us participating in the research project, and keeps us running to be not codified by roles. If one is limited to a singular role, work gets codified in a way that is not reflective to the potentiality of theater, it leads to the notion of professionalization, a both socially, and weirdly professionally limiting phenomena. The idea of being reduced to one’s potentiality of producing comes up as an issue in each single interview. 

In all interviews the intertwined development of the media involved has been mentioned. 

Stage arts as a multiplicity, as a collection of visions, with a lot of personal engagement as opposed to professionalization is praised as a nourishing mental space to grow together in theater. Bruno Pocheron has been talking about experiencing the physicality in theater that plays out in a different way as it did in fine arts in his experience: in fine arts a projection of the results define the meanings while in theater the means are many and they also generate the vision.  

Fine arts from another testimony, Tomi Humalisto mentioned the Russian avant-garde as an aesthetic reference close to which his experimentation in theater-making has taken off. In the late 19th early 20th century a number of strong-minded artists created experimental theater works, some of which proved to be a complete failure in front of the critics of the time and at the same time paved the way to future experimental lighting design and stage works in theater and film. One better known artist to mention is Vasilij Kandinskij. Tomi has been talking about an early collaboration where he has been working with a slow and dreamy set designer with a very strong vision, who persistently found out how to make a huge piece of canvas move in space. Strong colors in geometric shapes were hitting the scenography, projecting dancers’ shadows on the vast backdrop. The media developed in respectful cooperation. Those reflections both have to be noted down for us to look into the eye of the complexity that is understanding theater in the larger loops of time and space.

A common wish and attempt that has been coming up in the interviews of the freelance lighting designers is creating continuity in work, through long committed artistic collaborations in which all parties involved can develop. Another way of creating continuity that has been mentioned was through transmission, knowledge-sharing in different formats and contexts. 

This mentality of personal involvement and making things possible, risk-taking and skillful collaborations (and likely favorable micro-climates) marked an era of placing experimental theater and dance performances on the map from the ‘90-s on. Contemporary dance scene was emerging, that is how Jan Maertens understood it, fighting for its position. The lighting design aspect of it played a big role there, or it was emerging intertwined with contemporary dance. 

It was an era of extreme engagement, dedication, of exciting works that are sometimes dangerous, group defining their own terms. Artists cared way more for their art than for their careers, says Bruno Pocheron.  The work was more untamed, he continues, with less safety rules, technical common sense was the agency called for. 

The downside: self-exploitation, doing things at all costs. One lets oneself go within the drive, this leads to burnout. Saying no is healthy, it is good to know where one’s capacities lay.

Never saying no makes you feel indispensable. The graveyard is filled with people who cannot be missed. The trap, we all might have stepped in it once, says Jan Maertens.

Stage rules- 'Theater is forgetting its skills' (Bruno Pocheron)

The theater nearly all of my interviewed colleagues and myself entered, was much less specialized compared to how it is now. Knowledge-base acquired through hands-on practice, instead of formal training in a study institute (remote from the theater and collaborating art forms) was the base of the engagement. Personal engagement in each case, (whether coming from, leading to or bypassing school) at the theater, was a strong choice, out of genuine interest.

This relates to the origin of the yes-saying of Bram Coeman and the greater organizing principle at Buda: figuring out how to make something possible, working towards what is possible, following a technical common sense rather than safety guidelines. In this layout professional respect and a sense of working together towards the best outcome clearly exceeds the importance of a generic system of rules external to the site of the theater and current potentialities within a space and a group.

Knowledge sharing is the nature of this hands-on way of working, and negotiating, actualizing rules according to the situation is the trajectory of the work. Thinking efficiency, from down to up considering the right investment is essential in this way of working.To quote Henri-Emmanuel Doublier, if the head is good, the whole team goes good. In this practice of collaborating between theater technical crew and lighting designer among others, being omnivolent is a key character of the motivation and practice of the work, as opposed to specialization.

In theaters some old pulley systems for hoisting individual pipes, sliders for adjustable hanging, motors, drop-boxes, scrims, and dimmer cities communicating via Ethernet bundles and so much more can co-exist. Traditionally theater is not a place like the market, where one system wipes out another, here an accumulation of witty and practical solutions takes place, where the relevance of a technical solution is indicated by its simplicity, precision, ease of operation and installation, its capacity to be developed. This is also a ground for inventions as there are some archetypes of solutions that can be developed and customized infinitely.

Situations that would be evaluated case-to-case on a common sense ground by knowledgeable and devoted technicians operating day by day in that versatile knowledge-base have gradually shifted to a regionally uniform safety regulation system that compliments the idea of specialized experts and not risking the holistic knowledge base. Of course in the framework of the holistic knowledge base, the technician is personally responsible for the potential tragedy taking place, in the reality of the specialized experts in a generic regulation, it comes down to regional insurance systems and this is how risk-taking and responsibility are dissociated from one another, in a place where everyone goes because no generic events take place.

I feel the urge to mention that most young technicians I meet still go to theater to learn in such a holistic way on both ends of computing and phenomena of physics, from the older colleagues who are a living archive of this versatile knowledge, coming from all different backgrounds.

Another, with the safety regulations comparably strong example of the generic is the repertory plot. The phenomena comes from, but is not exclusive to the United States (and in all fairness it is not an absolute rule but a likely risk).

I think it originates from the idea that lighting is a more sober and functional service, and it inevitably will contain side-lights, back lights and front lights. Taking in consideration what the generic best use of each fixture is imagined, and how many fixtures are needed for a wash without a dip, an optimized rig is serving as a base of the production entering the theater. In this way less manpower is needed to set up, and it all can happen in a shorter time. A contemporary version of a repertory plot is exactly the same, but comprised of moving head LEDs.

In this layout the idea of the generic is taken a step further, as each fixture can produce a variation of colors or even shapes, nothing needs to be added to the repertory plot.

In this ideology of practicality the angle of light, one main parameter defining the use of a light source, is already disappearing, if we do not count color and the quality of light. These moving heads of course are a lot heavier and non-modular, compared to traditional theater fixtures, so diverging from a repertory plot is even less possible for practical reasons. One example of Jan Maertens, where a lower rig has been placed with the fixtures placed in accordance to his plan, right under a repertory plot that was not to be touched is perfectly symbolizing the ideology of efficiency overgrowing common sense. Here a theater is built within the theater in order not to touch the supportive generic plot that was supposed to save time and manpower.

The myth of efficiency is echoing back in the thinking about LED in theaters, which is a topic worth its own chapter and author (here we could link Tomi’s text on LED)

Politics- 'Quality beyond attempt' (Henri-Emmanuel Doublier)

In Bram Coeman’s experience, theater he encounters now has never been as diverse as today, and as closely connected to the world. A lot of activism is happening on the research level. Artists want to question decision makers' doings, and decision makers want nice arts to be presented, and there is a friction, he says. The friction lies between the expectation towards artists to produce, and on the other hand securing a time and space to reflect on topics. 

Artists are to be recognized according to their presence and not according to their production, but it is a laborious process to put that concept into an ongoing practice. 

An ethical layer that hasn't been so visible before, a new kind of awareness is unraveling before our eyes, joins Tomi Humalisto. There is a tangible relation shift of staged arts and arts at large towards politics. This by itself is a phenomena of a revolving non-linear expression of arts in history, referencing the phenomena of Hauntology from a very tangible perspective.It reminds Tomi of the 70-s in Finland, which was a decade of political theater. 

In the current layout of elements, the artist appears as a politician, within the leftist global layer. At times these politicians are merely orators, and the ethics unreflected in the fiber of the work. As Bruno Pocheron points out, under the flag of political correctness, many possibilities of examining a thought gets lost. When an artistic voice is changed to an artistic language, or a lack of a certain language used as an artist (and a game of taboos), no repositioning is yet, or any longer made possible.

Now ethical concerns around racism, gender, equality, ecology is the zeitgeist of the makers, continues Tomi Humalisto. Something they cannot go by.

Henri Emmanuel Doublier encounters better and better works, being aware of problems of society and summoning them on stage from interesting angles. This contrasts quite some artists from the past who did not disturb anybody, who just gave the audience a pleasant moment. But on the other hand theater is in a marginal position in society at large (definitely so when compared to its position of society 30 years ago) and these uncompromised artists he fondly summons, are playing for 200 people while pop culture reaches millions, so the polarization of society shows itself ever stronger in our time, which gives the best face of the phenomena a double edge. 

What makes this situation even more confusing, is that due to different developmental factors of western societies and the individuals they are comprised of, under constant technological stimuli and productional pressure, the functioning of pop culture may also be at a hinge moment. Progressive political concepts are quoted by its icons but not contextualized, even at times misinterpreted. The stars of pop culture and media personalities will be judged based on their prompt statements in a pass or burn (thumb up and thumb down) manner, seldom using their media coverage to exploring a thought- possibly because it is not needed, or in the fear of being misinterpreted and being virally torn down. A risk nobody can afford in the realm of likes. We could pretend the functioning of theater and pop culture largely differ, and I would like to keep this question open to our guarding gaze. Exploring at depth how controversies are handled in theater today in small and large can show us an accurate picture about how wide that gap is, and if it is shrinking (which I here propose without offering a ground to it) what is the speed of that shrinking. 

On the top of all of this as laid out from some facades in the chapter stage rules, and on the link of eco-crisis: theater is held both captive by and responsible for wrongly understood consumption of values, that further complicates the collaborative styles, the norms of touring, production, and material use, which all creates a hinge moment what compelled me to make this article based on interviews and likely will be the reason of a sequence of actions, discussions and reads to come.

Luxury: 'The only shared language we have is what happens on the stage' (Geert Belpaeme)

The notion of luxury around lighting design work (again I am aching to have a better wording describing the work) mostly comes up related to time.

The most efficient time to work on lighting design is in a studio or on a stage that is with a rig and there is a possibility (with electricity and decent dimmers) to make at least a sketch if not a full setup of the lighting one is considering related to the other media on stage. The distance of the rig from the floor, the color of the floor, the quality of the walls and the distance of them from one another, the flexibility of the rig, the quality of the equipment in use, the possibility of darkening the space, not to mention a full black-out, are all important factors in understanding what is it actually we are working with.

The closer these parameters are to the ones of the performance, the more representative the work will be to its physical manifestation in front of audiences. Inherent to working with lights is setting up, striking down and making changes. That also means that if the room is free but the rig needs to be rearranged in-between rehearsals for another purpose, one will lose significant time by setting up the same plot repeatedly. The amount of time and its conditions is an agreement of the working group, and it is based on concepts of working together, and the producing institutes resources and ideas of support. 

A small theater for example can come up as a possible luxury too, as one may get permission to work from an inventory by oneself, or being allowed to make changes without a technician being present. In this way one can have a freer schedule and an easier handling of non- pre-amped changes.

What I am writing here so far are trivialities related to lighting, but I felt the necessity to put that down, as from all people I interviewed, Geert Belpaeme was the only one to elaborately discuss the topic of choosing the right space to rehearse. The work has to define, and find its own methodology, emerging from the making. The communication around and within the work is not to be tamed with external moderation, he points out.

These are values I assume we all would gladly agree with, nonetheless on the long run we lighting designers fail limiting ourselves to the rare chances these are the conditions of a work.

Geert in this statement thinks primarily from the maker’s point of view. It is not that my lighting designer colleagues do not initiate creative processes or would avoid putting on the hat of the makers. We eventually give up on some discussions and surrender to the more sensful or more threatening ones when we are devoid of the luxury of time.

Establishing continuous artistic relations as a method of creating favorable working conditions, and deepening multimedia collaborations and defining methods and strategies over time is a popular choice of many of us, to provide continuity for our creative processes and develop common values, upon which future working conditions can be based.

Another luxury is well working fixtures with good optics. That requires maintenance from the venue, and a sincere listing of instruments- some fixtures sharing parameters are never going to function in the same way. Tomi Humalisto likened old Niethammer profiles to old mercedes-benzes: they are bulky, heavy and reliable. Here time for and transparency and trust of the communication between lighting designer and technical team is essential. The little examples I have been bringing up here are evocative to the non-generic nature of technical communication.

Enough time seeing rehearsals and understanding the movement language is a necessity that is at times considered luxury. Time to negotiate both with technicians and in rehearsal, making try-outs, time for starts-stops and making precision work is the ideal set of circumstances defined by Tomi Humalisto.

Participating in warm-ups and not always looking from the back of the rehearsal room was another frequent mention, or in any ways using the focus point of but not reducing activity to light and its prerequisite to be a quality work, which is the technique.

In another form Jan Maertens talks about this phenomena in an autobiographical context.

Doing technical work, he recalls, growing in it created a vision that lighting design could be his artistic language. He learned to express himself in a non-rational, creative way, and from that angle of his research to add to a broader artistic discourse.

I needed to learn this, Jan says, and that learning process is still going on. It comes with the necessity of being rational and non rational at the same time.

Expressing yourself with lighting should be the main form of expression as opposed to verbally elaborating on it to represent the work to collaborators, he continues. That is (the possibility to express oneself with light) limited in time, and that suppression makes one communicate rationally he concludes his worry about not well formed working circumstances.

There is a big chance to be misinterpreted and misread, as the content of lighting is non-rational. That can mean freedom in the void of understanding…

Too much rational lighting design is too much one on one of what needs to be expressed and what is expressed. Finding a voice in that non rational communication was a big event, says Jan Maertens. Lighting as a medium was giving me an opportunity, he says. It was a means to getting out of a forced monocultural approach.

Jan’s thought process is continuing towards the theater of today, as a continuation of the history of theater, politics, stage rules and experts. It allows us to gaze at the reality we are dealing with, and on what grounds do essentials become luxury. Let me follow through the thought here as an extracted quote:

Reproducing a piece of only the human stage performance is denying the nonhuman performative factor, the human interface of the non humanistic elements.

Non-human theory is present on a discursive level but practically denied.

In the free scene this phenomena is most often understood, but not dealt with because of the lack of the tools and the lack of time. There is an air of survival, creativity is invested to implement only that.

Institutionalized world of staged arts is in a dire need of fresh blood, not capable of implementing, because there is a border between creation and touring, and it is not possible to overcome. Live arts in this way become dead arts.

Staged arts and lighting design needs to stay useless otherwise it loses its point.

In this section of luxury I must blink back at the idea of experts. In this ideology lighting design is an isolated service almost, not mixing in with other media. Although lighting design dressing up a work before the public sees it is a non-contemporary concept, it haunts us in collaboration agreements, financial plans, and at times post-education ideas of young makers. It is interesting to witness different collaboration models in performances as an audience and compare for oneself what outcome is based on what system of collaborations. In most mid-career and senior artworks touring Europe, the one media beyond the rest and hermetic artforms are not to be seen. It seems what is a tougher format to support being a bigger investment is more desired as an artistic work to show. On the other hand there are completely different social norms and place for individualism in society and career paths in the arts compared to 30 years ago, that makes the basis and shape of collaborations a loaded topic.

I have started with time in an equipped space that is determined by the common decision of the group and resources available, and this is where I am returning. Tomi Humalisto recalls the time he started working in Finland, it was not so common that touring groups would come technically prepared. He remembered a strict looking technical director turning to him, saying: give me your lighting plot! He used the plot as an example to another group, that this is how prepared they should have arrived.

Today there is a culture of devised and process working in which the participants may be scared of pre-planning, thinking that could ruin the principle. In that way there is a return of a form in time, but resulting from a different set of circumstances.

This plan may change, it is a basis of discussion, a matter of use- this is Tomi’s advice for agreement to have the initial plan not a final choice one could not adhere from.

As a conclusion on luxury, the language and words of lighting design need to be carefully differentiated from each other. If something is technically defined, it means it is capable of providing the words but not yet or not consequently the thoughts explained through words. The wording can change. The hard wired reflex of searching needs to happen in a non-technical space is an economic conditioning which does not do its justice to lighting design in relation to the rest of the media, and makes lighting look like a luxurious commodity, pushing it back into a cliche role of making things look good.

Real luxury is working with artists who understand and accept the different growth curves of the different media at play in the work they bring to life, artists who are willing to shape the making of the work according to a common vision. In such an environment different artforms can generously cross-pollinate each other and inevitably something new emerges just by generous interaction over time.