Ruddy-faced with awe, a glass of wine in each hand, I find myself standing beside Noha Ramadan following her solo performance, Los Angeles, which premiered during Berlin’s Tanztage 2015 festival at the Sophiensaele. I gush effusively in an attempt to offer her due praise, “great, amazing, great, amazing”, and find myself inarticulate, tongue tied with inadequate adjectives. I am not the only one. The friend I came with disappears while I am at the bar, later telling me that he snuck away because he couldn’t even begin to talk about the performance and didn’t want to risk losing the high it’d given him by attempting to. Lost for words I mumble banal, “…so what was your inspiration?” Noha tells me that she was influenced by “the shift of perspective between earth and sky, the movement between terrestrial and celestial gazes” and the aerial perspective of contemporary Aboriginal art. “Since thousands of years there has been this art that sees from above with such clarity, way before air travel.” I recount a (too long) anecdote that I heard on Radiolab about an anthropologist who discovered the ability to access an internal GPS or ‘aerial tele-port’ whilst working in an Indigenous community in far North QLD, for whom the ability to think in precise navigational coordinates was second nature. Noha tells me that she “spends a lot of time in aeroplanes, flying over Australia staring out the window, looking at the land and at the abstraction and knowing that abstraction is really specific.”
Los Angeles opens in darkness. “Rise above the earth, and looking down on that now…” a ‘soothing’ voice sampled from a sleep hypnosis track echoes through the eclipse, lulling and vaguely irritating. The voice “…happily onwards to other places…” peters out. Deep sleep binaural beats and a cyclic pink noise wave drone resonate in sparse effusive lighting. Noha rises from the audience shrouded in a retro reflective cape – an oblong length of fabric, which dimly illuminated is both matte and sparkling like glittering coal, which throughout the performance, at times in symbiosis with her movements, her voice or the lighting, will adopt a shifting schizophrenic presence. Everything floats, legs akimbo, Noha fixes in a horizontal drift against the back wall; a raw wall of exposed concrete and plaster, left-overs, remnants, squares of colour, muted green, grey and beige, scrapings of decades of wallpaper and paint, architectural columns, a black stage curtain.
Having worked with Ebba Fransén Waldhör on set and costume – “we talked a lot, generated a lot of ideas all over the place, and joked a lot about where it could go, but in the end as usual we landed on a really reduced concept which minimally incorporated a lot of the crazier ideas” – and Wassan Ali on lighting – “we played with different colour temperatures and qualities of white light and switched between those, which creates a haptic shift in the space” – the piece has an epic supernatural momentum. With sparse props and setting, Noha’s layered movements carve a transmogrifying universe onto the vast empty stage, conjuring detailed cinematographic scenarios as if from thin air. Like the fabric she sometimes holds, hides under and wears, Noha shifts between schizophrenic subjectivities; at once the tool that disembowels, the earth onto which the viscera spills and the creature that creeps out from shadows to lap at the gutted remains.
Rapid and dynamic, the first half of the piece reminds me of furiously flicking through channels in the hotel room of a foreign country. Noha describes this section of the performance as more or less a duet with sound artist S.M Snider. Together, movement inspiring sound inspiring movement, they seem to access collective memory as the basis for an elaborate palette of special effects. Combinations of reverberation and abstraction over, under and around movements lend themselves to effusive yet concrete interpretations; here our heroine squats over a hole to give birth to a screaming mess, here she tears her own eyes from their sockets with a flick of her wrist, exhibiting the throbbing, oozing eyeballs in her open palms, over there she operates futuristic machinery, under a blanket she is a cyborg, on the floor a real girl. Noha pony gallops live through this elaborate responsive soundscape, a soundscape that lends itself to her manoeuvres, leading to fleeting moments of schlock horror action and the beautiful serenity of silver screen violence. A dynamism enabled by an impressively tight, seamless collaboration. “We decided that it made sense conceptually for all the sound in the piece to be generated by my voice because I am also creating the universe, it’s images and references, like a god. S.M Snider would then manipulate my inputs live to get to wherever we needed to go by layering the fictional elements.”
The piece shifts from this visual and cognitive realm of references and imagery and into sensation; Noha’s dancing body, abstracted and sculptural. This change of mood is an oblique, massive contrast, yet I can’t help but think that it is yet another side of this constantly streaming collective memory, what just now bombarded the audience with so much viscera and gore soon drifts off into shapes, cogitation. It ends with Noha addressing the audience with absurdist, surreal poetic wit and film quotes in rapid delivery. She asks the audience “are you following me?” Someone yells out “no!” She smiles, disarmed, charmed and charming.
I ask Noha about specific cinematic references that she seems to make throughout the performance. She tells me that there are less direct references than most people think and begins to describe a process of streaming. “I decided to open up to that epic stream and be bombarded with it instead of trying to be singular… let it all in and then see how I deal with that, see how my body deals with that, how does my mind deal with it, how do I do it in front of an audience, so that the audience brings its owns stream and energy and speed of perception and energy into the room…”
Weeks later or earlier, I overhear Tanztage curator Anna Mülter comparing Noha’s piece to a Ryan Trecartin video work. The comparison resonates powerfully, for both artists it is not the ‘objects’ or ‘subjects’ of their art, but the assemblage, that is so impressive. Both Noha and Trecartin, in their respective mediums are skilled editors. Noha describes it as “shifting from content to content management; opening up and letting it stream… and that is to do also with speed. Because if you slow it down too much, if we slow down all the inputs too much then you start to fixate on content.” Like Trecartin, Noha casts an incredibly wide net regarding references, inputs, influences, images, concepts, text, memories and gestures, yet ends up producing something quite specific. **