For a third night, Isabel Lewis presents what she terms as her ‘occasion’ format at Berlin’s HAU theatre. Inside people sit or rest on soft carpet. It’s a visual merging of floor and seating, where visitors come and go as they please in what is one of an ongoing and open-ended series of hosted gatherings, recently presented as part of Tanz im August, on September 4. Breathing in and out, it seems the space could be breathing too, as amplified sound and light dimmers change the visible and invisible atmosphere. In the air hangs a mix of ‘the garden’, ‘the club’ and ‘the site of intellectual culture’, sprayed molecules DJ-ed like an endless looping of sound, a release of custom-made smells resulting from a collaboration between the artist and Berlin chemist Sissel Tolaas.
Along with the sight of Lewis moving around the room comes the realisation that this occasion is a kind of hybrid-complex of theatre, exhibition, nightclub and symposium. And the related host, who is sometimes central but also marginal to the live content, an embodiment of dancer, artist, DJ and interlocutor. Highly constructed, Lewis has affected the biochemistry in the room, either by the presence of lush garden-design or by the management of group conversation, ranging from questions about the ‘good life’ or sensing energy flows from humans and plants.
Lewis has said that these occasions recall STRANGE ACTION, her touchstone work from 2009, which is seen as a prototype for transitioning the role of performer to host. Earlier this year, STRANGE ACTION was presented to a small crowd at Yvonne Lambert in Berlin. At some point in the evening, the artist entered the room and tried to enable a conversation about Mr. T and Nicole Kidman. She was interested in the former’s cult TV personality, his near perfect embodiment of a character, a figure intended for the fictional moments of action-adventure watched at home. In contrast, the latter actress was spoken about as a kind of antithesis, an actor who is rarely able to reach the characters she sets out to embody, an unintended outcome of her own super-star status. In the final moments of STRANGE ACTION, music was played and the artist head-banged until reaching an emotional and physical climax, a limit visually signified by Lewis in tears and disconnecting from her hosted crowd.
In this occasion, there are moments when Lewis also breaks away from compèring conversations, seeking instead an excitement that is not directly intended for the audience. This is seen when the artist’s attention shifts from her interactions with the crowd to interacting with the computer. DJ softwares Traktor, GarageBand and djay Pro have been running the whole night and Lewis lines up a mix of ‘Ima Read’ by New York rapper Zebra Katz.
In this moment, it seems artist and computer are working together, as if a flow of energy is moving between human and machine, a continuous feedback with sound as its focus, a rhythmic loop. It’s here that the idea that the processor is hosting the crowd emerges, if only between beats, so that the artist might find an emotional intensity that is solely individual. Under these conditions –of part-artist, part-computer automation –a gap is created. Just like in STRANGE ACTION, Lewis begins to move around the crowd, head down, grinding. At first, it seems that she’s fulfilling her contract as host, but then it becomes clear that Lewis’ physical movements are not really for the viewer. The choreography is based on something mnemonic, a source of emotional intensity, where access is denied, and as a consequence makes her energetic movements her own.
This interpretation raises an interesting question about service-orientated art and the acknowledgment that where there is a service there is also human fatigue. Or to put it another way, fatigue from hosting. Indeed, since the current technological advent –a world of immaterial (service)-labour and material-labour, and where host-body and host-service are seen as one –can we find a gap in our internet and computer-adapt lives to be individual? Some might blame our digital inventions for the rise of serviced individuals. But on this ‘occasion’, it is precisely through syncing with computers that the electric flows of individualisation continues. There, the individual is once more in attendance. **