SIGNA – Performance, or an overdose of life

Edno Magazine, Winter 2011

By Silvia Petrova

Link: Edno

The first time I saw a performance by the Danish-Austrian artistic collective Signa, I couldn’t sleep a wink afterwards, finding gold dust all over my body, soaked in the cloying scent of perfume I thought I was never going to get rid of. Something inside me was no longer the same, after what I had gone through that night. That’s how I felt. I remember my boyfriend looking at me strangely when I told him I had been to the theater. I was coming straight from Hades’ underworld, my veins pumped with the kind of adrenaline you get when you do something crazy, forbidden or dangerous. Drawn into the world of Signa, most people feel as if on drugs. The scary part is you can definitely become addicted from your first time. I had no clue then that a few years later I myself would be part of a Signa project.

I know the work of Signa from their projects in Germany. For their first performance in Cologne in 2007 – The Ruby Town Oracle – they were awarded the highest honor on the German-speaking scene, namely an invitation from the Berlin Theatertreffen Festival. That was their move out of the Danish underground scene, where they were famous among connoisseurs only, and a door-opener to more large-scale projects. It also gave them a rare advantage – to make independent and unconventional theater financed by state institutions. Earlier this year, Signa performed at the Salzburg Festival, while next year they have a big project for the Vienna Festival Weeks. Currently Signa are in Estonia, working on a new performance. It will be a kind of a research center for psycho-organic experiments and will premiere in December in Tallinn.

The group consists of Danish performance-installation artist Signa Köstler and Austrian performer and media artist Arthur Köstler (who make one of the most beautiful couples I’ve seen), and Swedish set- and costume designer Thomas Bo Nilsson. They live and work in Copenhagen, but they actually spend most of their time at the places where they stage their performances. Typically, they’d move into derelictold buildings with an intriguing past and turn them into a hermetic theatrical space where the audience may visit. For each piece, Signa work with a new cast, specially selected for the project, and perform with them, most often without a break, meaning that the actors are literally in character for days, and sometimes weeks, on end.

Signa Sørensen (before she married Arthur Köstler) has been experimenting with performance since 2001, creating long pieces in abandoned factories, prisons, hotels, improvising sometimes for 260 hours without a break. These performance-installations, as she calls them, are characterized by a specific aesthetic, worked out detail by detail with an almost fanatical precision. I wouldn’t even dare describe it, but it very much resembles our socialist aesthetic, and I could say it brings about some sadness and depression, always carrying a trace of the past, although one could never attribute it to a particular era or nationality. Inside that world I personally feel like “when you know you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, and with the visage of a gruesome, grieving ghost you go shuddering through nightmare life”, as a favorite book of mine puts it.

Signa explore the metaphysics of evil and typically deal with topics such as power, violence, sex, and pain. They dig in the depths of life to create a complex network of heartrending human life stories and brutally confront the audience with their world. Going through a Signa performance feels like finding yourself on the set of a movie shoot, and the moment you enter the installation,you are automatically assigned a role and start participating. From here on out, everything that is happening in front of your eyes, everything that you say, or even your mere presence is interpreted in the context of the fiction. This manipulation of the audience, which is, in fact, never just an audience, is Signa’s signature. On the one hand, you are free to react in any way you wish, yet on the other – you are consigned to the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dramaturgical and aesthetic framework despotically predetermined by Signa. This is also a world alive with suggestive sounds (sound design by Arthur Köstler) and odors. It is a provocation for all senses and often an uncompromising break through all boundaries of personal space. Here are some examples:

The Ruby Town Oracle was a village, or rather a neighborhood, of 22 houses, built by Signa. It was inhabited by 40 people, followers of an oracle called Martha Rubin. In The Hades Fracture, the audience entered the underworld and, provided they won the gods’ benevolence, they could set free one of the women held hostage there. Then they could literally take her with them for one night. Villa Saló was a reenactment of Pasolini’s Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Just like the film, this performance is the most scandalous and probably the most impressive project by the group. Thirty-three actors recreated the indescribable horror of the Marquis de Sade, including the four circles: “Manias”, “Shit”, “Blood” and “Tears”. Signa’s head-on take on the subject was so shocking that it unleashed a wave of extremely controversial reactions, both among the Danish media and the audience. The group was even accused of abusing, manipulating and psychologically damaging the actors.

Their latest performance in Germany, The Dog Trials, is based on Kafka’s novel The Trial. To stage it, Signa chose an old administrative building in Cologne that had been vacant for many years. This mindboggling place spreads over four floors and contains more than 70 rooms. It is so oppressive that the Kafka association comes on its own – because of the endless gray hallways and the coldness of the empty desks, and also because still lingering in the air is the bureaucratic legacy of the “Authority for Public Order” which was once housed there. In that building the Signa group, comprising 70 people this time, have been living and working for almost four months. And all of them are the living and breathing proof that art is work, heavy everyday work.

Almost every day trucks unload tons of old furniture, computers, clothes. For months on end the actors rummage the local flea markets hunting for all kinds of artifacts to create the atmosphere of a fictional building of Judicial Power. And after a six-hour workshop, everyone engages in practical work – sewing hundreds of curtains, sorting thousands of folders, building an archive of fictional dossiers and material evidence, or wiring all 70 rooms with cables for the purposes of the retrostyle analogue phone system designed by Arthur Köstler.

Along with all that, a complex plot structure is being developed. The whole performance is being built around it with a corresponding system of dramaturgical links and character relations. The work goes on for days and weeks on end until a functional living organism is created, in which all characters have a detailed biography, a common past, a set of tried-out rules, laws and interrelations.
In this courthouse, the audience is the defendant – it is Joseph K., who wakes up one morning to discover he has been accused, without knowing of what. It is the same here – every spectator is accused and must not break the law, even though they do not know what that law is. Entering the court, everyone is registered and handed their dossier and a personal schedule. Every night the court admits 100 defendants, who are sent from door to door. Before they meet the judge, they must attend a seminar on the code of conduct in this supreme court. They may hire an attorney, but all he can do is prolong the trial through bribery. The defendants may receive an insurance policy, but their property will be confiscated by the Court sooner or later. If a defendant keeps denying their guilt, they may be sent off to the Center for Spiritual Wellbeing, where their inability to comprehend their condition may be treated in group therapy, where the defendants may, for example, draw their guilt in blood or urine.

Signa know how to provoke disgust, humiliation, fury, or even repulsion in the audience. In their world, the boundaries between reality and fiction are so shaky you can literally become seasick. These are the moments when the brain, witnessing all the violence, must somehow assimilate the fact that in this made-up theatrical reality the blood and wounds on the actors are real. I recall an interview with Marina Abramovic, where she explains that theater is the enemy of performance, because in it there is nothing real, while in performance there is no deceit. And it is only when a performance has lasted long enough that it can reach a point of great intensity and emotional impact. In fact, Signa have discovered a weird symbiosis between theater and performance which functions like a parallel life. You may get into it for a while, but you can never live and grasp it in its entirety, because it is in a state of permanent flux. That is why the audience often comes to Signa’s installations more than once and begins to live with them.

There are viewers however, who are truly frightened by their performances, they do not want to be confronted with explicit scenes of violence or sex. It is interesting to note that many people do not mind watching the same stuff on film or TV, but when it comes so close they cannot take it. Signa do not create cozy shows for “viewers”, theirs is rather a compressed version of our life, in which we are offered a profound and synthesized look at that dark and subconscious part of man where evil is born. And it comes like a punch to the face. It is no accident that in a comment on their Villa Saló project, Signa K.stler begins with a quote by Nietzsche: “If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you.” This is exactly what is most terrifying about these performances – our confrontation with our own selves, because we are the abyss.

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