SIGNA performs The Dorine Chaikin Institute in Berlin

Whitehot Magazine, February, 2008

By Paul J. Thomas


The history of creative and informative media, whether literature, theatre, music or film – fiction or not- has always shown a healthy appetite for the themes or issues of mental health. As consumers of these works, the audience is usually able to sit back to enjoy (or suffer through) a visit with the portrayed realities of those whose minds function slightly or severely differently than those of the majority. So, on one hand there is this history of a fascination with the mentally ill, and on the other hand we also have a general ballpark expectation of what one can expect and will experience when going to see a piece of theater or an artwork. “The Dorine Chaikin Institute” performance, however, was able to combine these to into an entirely unusual new experience which may not be classified as art or theatre, but rather an all-engulfing combination of the two.

The creators and actors of Danish art group “Signa” allowed viewers no such comfort in with this usual distance. What makes this piece so different? Within the Dorine Chaikin Institute performance there was no such “4th wall“ to establish boundaries; no line separating the audience from art, instead- the Signa actors drew their audience into the piece from the moment they entered the building. This lack of any remaining discernable difference between actor and observer, patient and viewer creates an environment ripe for the sorts of unexpected situations which actually drive the piece forward and make it work.

Upon arrival at the Dorine Chaikin Institute, reminded one of a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest of the neglected East with peeling walls and all. The “audience“ was greeted at the reception as if they are a returning mental patient coming to check themselves back into the clinic. Visitors surrendered all their clothes, personal belongings, and identities for the doctor-recommended 4 hours stay to integrate themselves as a part of the piece. Throughout this period of time, participants were guided through group therapy and activities but not entirely sure who amongst their peers was part of the piece as an actor or who was acting as viewer. In this sense the piece was driven by the collaborative creativity of the audience with the actors, relying on improvisation mixed with audiences’ disorientation and participation for it to really function as a whole.

The creators described the layout of their piece to the public: "The performance invited a small number of visitors to become patients in a psychiatric institute specializing in dissociative disorders – leading to disruption or breakdown of the memory. Each visitor was by entering the institute given a new name. Each name was matched by a medical history in the files of the hospital. Through various therapies and social activities the patients were encouraged to recover the memories of their fictitious alter ego."

For the last several days reservations to visit institute were fully booked, despite it opened 12 hours a day. After the piece’s completion, Whitehot Magazine put a few questions to the co-founder of the group, Signa Sørensen regarding the inception, execution and outcome of this unique piece:

What is the difference between your expectations as to how people would react to and interact with the show verses what actually took place?

From our many interactive performances we have learned that audience can react in so many different ways – in pretty much all the performances we have found ourselves overwhelmed by the involvement and devotion of the visitors. In general the visitors to The Dorine Chaikin Institute were very cooperative. Some of them were even courageous, I would say.

The setup was very challenging in itself. In order to take part each visitor had to change into hospital clothing, submit themselves to the directions of the staff and respond to a fictitious name. They had to take part in various group activities together with other visitors whom they had never met before. In between the scheduled activities they were taken into individual therapy sessions with the doctors or left to socialize with their fellow patients.

Do you think the popularity of the Dorine Chaikin Institute has more to do with people’s desire to re-live something from their past (like Kindergarten, for example) or to just let their lives go and have a strange new out-of-the-ordinary experience?

I think different people like our projects for different reasons. No two visitors will ever have the same experience because what they see and do within the performance installation much depend on their own actions and attitude. I think many people come to experience something extraordinary, to have a break from reality. But what they then experience is often something entirely else than what they came for. Many visitors have told us that they did things they never expected of themselves.

How was Signa born? And why does it exist?

After leaving university I set off to do installation art, raising the cash I needed as a champagne girl in the go-go bars of Copenhagen. After my first work, Precious Fallen (2001), which was an art installation in the contemporary sense, I was left unsatisfied. I decided that I had to be present myself as a part of whatever work I would do from then on. The interaction with the audience is essential to me - not on the symbolic or collective level but hands on, one on one. I have learned very much about performing at the go-go bars, in the magical semi-reality of those places. Everything is staged there, yet everything can happen. I like the staged intimacy, the secrecy. I am often misunderstood on this point. Our work is not about the erotic (not exclusively anyway), the thing I have learned in my red velvet past I use to create very different staged realities, sometimes clinical, occult, sinister or absurd.

I met Arthur – the other half of Signa - in 2003 when I was casting for 57 Beds, a major project in Copenhagen. I was looking for someone to form with me this incestuous couple dressed in white and on the run. A romantic melodramatic pastiche. Fiction turned its tricks on us and a year later we married in so-called reality. We have been working together on all the projects since then.

Arthur took care, that the style is more consequent in the media we use - like music, sound, video, graphics and so on. He also encouraged me to not to be afraid of heavy subject matter or things explicit.
Since the beginning our work has earned us a loyal and devoted audience. Furthermore many of our actors supported us again and again by working hard for nothing but the experience of joining the projects.

Is Signa working more to comment on society or to fill a gap?

Surely at one level the works comment on society, on its power structures and cultural stereotypes. However we do not want our works to be didactic, they should be open for interpretation – the audience are allowed to draw their own conclusions. We receive a lot of mails from the audience who tell us that our projects fill a gap, to some people in a very personal way - or socially in the community or artistically between art and theatre.

What were the main inspirations for the look, feel and program activities of the Dorine Chaikin Institute?

When I was 11 years old my little brother got infected with tuberculosis. We went to this old worn out provincial lung clinic. The tiled walls, the monstrous x-ray apparatus, the sickly smell and the chilled politeness of the staff made a lasting impression on me. I have since had an ambiguous fascination of hospitals. I guess The Dorine Chaikin Institute is inspired by various hospitals that we have seen on film but also from our own experiences. A friend of mine was in a closed psychiatric ward for quite a long time. I went to see her often and was appalled by the harsh and manipulating way in which the patients were treated.

Did anything that any of the participants did clearly disrupt the flow of the interactivity between players? (for example, was there a situation which your staff had difficulty handling?)

Even though our interactions with the audience several times escalated into extreme situations including physical fights, sexual encounters, crying, screaming and smashing the interior the flow of the interactivity was never disrupted. We always make an effort preparing our actors for all kinds of situations. Our number one rule is: NEVER go out of character. Most of the actors at The Dorine Chaikin Institute have worked with us several times and they are very good at coping with different audience behavior. There were situations where visitors tried to test the limits or deliberately break the fiction but we always managed to build it into the story - as the audience took the part of patients at a mental ward almost anything could be regarded a symptom and dealt with accordingly. In most situations where one visitor would try to break the fiction the other visitors would insist on keeping it up.

The Dorine Chaikin Institute was probably the most demanding piece we have made in a long time and sadly two actors left the project prematurely due to the immense stress. We performed 12 hours every day for two weeks rounding off with 36 hours non-stop. As we had put the audience in a position where they were much in need of care and guidance there was very little time for us to relax and let things flow.

Where have you performed and where do you prefer to perform? Any significant differences from one country to the next?

We have performed in Denmark (Copenhagen), Sweden (Malmo and Gothenburg), Germany (Cologne, Berlin, Bremen and Meiningen), Spain (Bilbao) and Argentina (Cordoba). Even though the audience are very different from one place to another, I could not say we have a favourite city to perform in. To generalize I would say that the Danish audience is the most difficult as they have a rather conventional view on theatre, like to have things explained and shy away from anything harsh or explicit. The Swedish audience go very far in interaction and they like to mix alcohol into the experience. The Germans are quiet serious spectators, it takes some time before they venture into interaction unless they are pushed. The Argentineans were amazingly group oriented, they laughed a lot and engaged themselves deeply.

In every one of the 20 interactive performance installations we have made no matter in which country there has been a number of visitors who returned several times and in the duration performances audience have been moving in staying as long as ten days and nights.

It seems that your performances handle a lot of heavy (serious) subject matter, where / in what ways does humor fit into them?

I once read somewhere that humor is the instinct for taking pain playfully. When I conceive the idea for a performance installation, I do not calculate with comic elements to make people laugh though I often do combine the tragic with the absurd. Humor seems to accumulate by itself. Sometimes we are surprised what funny twists the stories can take.

Do you consider your work to be theatre or performance? (if it matters)

The need to define our work comes from the outside. It is a question about where we get our money and where we present our work. However we do not identify ourselves with theatre. We do not have any kind of theatrical background and our strategies and ways of working differ radically from stage art. We call our work performance installation as our point of departure is the space, the installation.

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