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M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2020: An Interview with bluemouth inc. (Café Sarajevo)

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Part of the magic of theatre is the ability to create entire worlds within simple black box spaces. With the advent of technology such as virtual reality, the distance between us and the world has been collapsed further still. In bluemouth inc.’s Café Sarajevo, audience members can expect to have an immersive theatrical experience that will bring them from Berlin to Sarajevo to Mostar as they follow their protagonist Lucy Simic.

As we travel with her to her father’s birthplace, Bosnia, pertinent questions relating to the fissures that divide a nation will arise, alongside audience participation moments that will cast them as characters within this story. We spoke to bluemouth inc. core members Stephen O’Connell and Lucy Simic to find out more about the choice to incorporate 360° video and the process of developing this piece before it makes its world premiere at the 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival this January. Read the interview in full below:

Bakchormeeboy: bluemouth inc. is described as a collective that creates original immersive performance events in alternative spaces. How do you conceptualise your work – does it begin with the medium or the subject, and how does it develop from there? Why was the form of a live podcast chosen for this piece?

Lucy: We don’t have a methodology. Different pieces have evolved depending on the combination of artists involved. Often the medium and the message reflect one another. It’s a democratic process that begins with what people bring to the table, what people are interested in exploring. That can be content or form.

Sometimes it’s a response to the piece we did before. We invite new collaborators into the mix, seeking out artists who are exploring ideas or materials that are new to us. We aim for an iterative process but there is a lot of discussion. We’re getting better at getting on our feet as soon as possible. Sometimes the subject is there from the start and sometimes it sweeps in. It depends on what people feel drawn to in the moment.

We started with the Chomsky-Foucault debate and translation – because half the debate is in French and so right from the beginning we had the headphones in the room and this alternate way of communicating, which makes us listen in a different way. Some of us brought in clips of podcast material to add to the Chomsky Foucault debate. I remember someone brought in a podcast interview discussing the Stanford Prison experiment and so from early on we were looking at podcast techniques to tell a story. We were all interested in the manner in which a podcast tells a story. Then I introduced the story of my trip to the former Yugoslavia.

Stephen: It really depends on who is in the room. Our work, particularly at the beginning, is very organic. I like to think of our process as being similar to how an abstract painter may work with a canvas until an image reveals itself through the act of doing. Other times we function more like a rock band. Someone brings in an idea and we all jam on the material, adding and subtracting material, until a clear thread begins to take shape.

Bakchormeeboy: Café Sarajevo will be receiving its world premiere during the Fringe. As a country whose history is rather distant from the events of Bosnia, how do you think local audience members will find relatability and understanding of the work?

Stephen: Our hope is that the ideas of the piece will resonate within any culture. One of the earliest impulses of the piece was to investigate the debate between the French philosopher Michel Foucault and the American linguist Noam Chomsky that was broadcast on Dutch television in the early 1970’s.

The topic of the debate was Human Nature and Ideal Society. Our desire was to delve deeper into the events of a place like Sarajevo with a curiosity to understand whether the lessons of the conflict in Bosnia would resonate in other cultures or could provide a warning for events currently happening around the world. I don’t think we are any closer to understanding this notion of “Human Nature” than when we started the project, however we have found much value in reflecting on the essence of human nature. Foucault and Chomsky never seemed to resolve this issue in their debate. They seem to agree to disagree that humans are innately creative creators that live in highly complex situations and often forced to respond to threatening external conditions.

Bakchormeeboy: From the VR work we’ve seen so far by other companies, it’s often used as a crutch or a gimmick. How does Café Sarajevo intend to make VR an integral, necessary part of the experience that non-VR tech would not be able to do otherwise?

Stephen: When we started we really didn’t even know what questions to ask. Virtual Reality as opposed to Augmented Reality or even Mixed Reality. In the end we decided to explore the integration of 360° video content in live performance. We gradually realized that we weren’t particularly interesting in having the technology define our creative process nor did we want the technology to be responsible for defining the audience’s experience. We made a conscious choice to create visual content that enhances the audience’s experience and that shift significantly helped our creative process and I hope helped us avoid the trappings of a gimmick.

Lucy: There are a few scenes in the piece where the audience shifts from being participants in a live podcast to being on a tour in Bosnia. These are moments where we use the 360° video to enhance or recreate a sort of site-specific quality in the work. We’ve always used video in our work and we’ve always created immersive theatre. This seemed like a good strategy for integrating the 360° video, which parallels the immersive nature of the piece.

Bakchormeeboy: What was the significance of the three cities chosen as the focus of this piece – Berlin, Sarajevo, and Mostar, and what was something interesting that your team discovered during the research process?

Lucy: I feel those cities chose us in some ways. They weren’t really part of the piece until Stephen and I went on a trip to visit my family. It was the summer before the US presidential election and there was something ironic about driving through Bosnia thinking about Donald Trump’s language, that he never says “we”. It’s always “I”, and how that “I”, at the very base of his language, is divisive. We were already working with the Chomsky-Foucault debate on human nature and were visiting these cities and realized they were all divided cities. In Berlin it was a people divided by a wall.

The same ethnicity and religion on both sides of the wall but ideologically divided. It was a symbol of the “iron curtain” between East and West Europe during the cold war. The wall came down in 1989 and Germany was reunited but the difference in culture that was introduced created a tension that still exists today. Sarajevo was surrounded and under siege for nearly four years. It was defended by a diverse population of Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians surrounded by extremist Orthodox Christians intent on ethnically cleansing the city of its Muslim population and claiming the territory for it’s own people.

The city is now geographically divided between a Serbian, Orthodox Christian, side and a Bosniak, Muslim, side. The city was very integrated before this siege and the younger generation are trying to bridge the wall to regain that integration but there is still a lot of mistrust in the generations that lived through the siege. Mostar is a centuries old town that was built during the Ottoman Empire. It is divided by a river. One side is Bosniak and Muslim, the other side is Croatian and Catholic. During the war in the ’90s, these two sides first fought together in 1992 against the Serbs who are Orthodox Christians, then in 1993 they fought each other.

Bakchormeeboy: In terms of developing as artists, what is the philosophy behind bluemouth’s work and how do you see it continuing to push boundaries in the years to come?

Lucy: It’s hard to know until you are in the room. When we’re in the room our goal is to try and not repeat something we have done before in the same way. For example Stephen has always been interested in bringing in film and video content for bluemouth, this time he wanted to try 360° video. We learned which techniques worked better for both shooting as well as integrating 360° video, the effect is not the same as film or video. I keep myself inspired by seeing what other artists are doing. I go see a lot of innovative theatre and dance. It’s also adding new people to the mix. It’s a good challenge to invite new collaborators on projects, especially if they have skills or a practice that is different than ours. We’ve learned a lot about phone apps on this project by working with creative technologist Jacob Niedzwiecki.

Stephen: By bringing new artists into the process. The pieces are always defined by the people who are in the room. Inviting new and often younger artists into the process is healthy for the growth of the company. We are trying and certainly can improve upon including a greater diversity of voices in our work. It is an ongoing process, finding a balance of not only people we would all like to work with, but creators whom are interested in working within a collective process.

We genuinely aim to create an egalitarian working environment. Which isn’t always easy. It doesn’t matter if this is your first or tenth project working with the collective, everyone has an equal voice. The goal is always to try and serve the “Best Idea”. We certainly all have different opinions on what does or does not work, but we share a collective desire to recognize and celebrate individual excellence.

Bakchormeeboy: By setting the show in a traditional black box space (as opposed to an ‘alternative’ space), is there some kind of limitation that is imposed on the work by lacking site-specificity, or does it in fact enhance the work by being situated in a safe, controlled environment?

Stephen: I am not sure I would say a traditional black box is a “safe” environment. I love the complexity of site-specific performance. The environment inevitably adds such a wonderful layer to any work. This piece could certainly work well in a site-specific setting. We went back and forth discussing the possibility of alternative settings for this project and settled on a black box theatre because it allowed us greater control of the various bits of technology like radio frequency and wifi for the mobile devices. We were much more rigid about avoiding conventional spaces when the collective first started working together.

Over time we gradually came to realize that our curiosity to explore the relationship between the audience and performer was perhaps more essential to our collective work than site specificity. That has recently evolved into a curiosity to integrate the audience into the image. It seems like the term “site-specific” has gradually become replaced by the word ‘Immersive” and we are okay with that.

Lucy: This particular show is enhanced by the black box space because of the technology we are incorporating. The 360° video provides the location. Maybe the piece could work in a big warehouse. It would work just as well if we had the same technical resources available to us.

Bakchormeeboy: Café  Sarajevo asks audience to consider our complicity in events that shape and divide our world. How is it that as individuals we are able to take responsibility for what seem like such vast, world-changing events, and overcome that fear of not having any say or power in such circumstances?

Lucy: I grapple with that everyday. Don’t you? I feel like it helps to be paying attention to all the small choices we make. They may not seem significant in the big picture, but they are good practice in being a good citizen. We have some say in affecting the culture around us and we have to believe that that can create an impact elsewhere. If that culture is inclusive and sensitive then perhaps we will abandon violence as a means to resolve our differences.

Photo Credit: bluemouth inc.

Café Sarajevo runs from 8th to 12th January 2020 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of the 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Tickets available from SISTIC

The 2020 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival runs from 8th to 19th January 2020. Tickets and more information available from their website here

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