'I’m quite mystified with the public space in cities'

Born in New Zealand, but living in Brussels. Which has strikingly changed her practice. Attracted by the unknown, every piece she makes is a challenge for herself. The audience and its relation to the performance space play a central role. ‘When I sit in an audience, I’m sometimes more curious about the people around me, than about what’s actually happening on stage.’ An interview with Kate McIntosh for her Kaaitheater residency (2017-2021).

Let’s start with the beginning. You started as a dancer, but your work today crosses over many disciplines. How did you get there?

I trained and worked as a dancer for many years until my thirties. Then in 2004 I started to make my own work and stopped my dance training pretty much completely. A few years before, I had moved to Brussels and became excited by the mix of different art forms I found here. In other countries, I’d experienced such strict boundaries between the genres. It was a real revelation that a dancer could have an interesting conversation and collaboration with a painter or writer. I became very curious about exploring other art forms both as a collaborator and as a maker.
Since then an on-going theme in my work is that I am often doing things I don’t know how to do and in which I have very little experience. Every new production is something that I never tried before and to which I have a very exploratory approach.
Through my work you can see my feeling for the body: human bodies, animal bodies and the boundaries between both. But also bodies as materials in the world: the materiality of one’s own body and the different kinds of materiality in non-human bodies, living and not living. So for sure, my dance training informed a great deal of my work, but not in a technical dance sense. For me that is another discipline, which I respect a lot, but left.

Did your interest in the body influence the way you work with the audience? Do the spectators also become a body in the performance?

After years of dancing and not speaking on stage, working with spoken text was a big surprise to me. With it came beautiful possibilities, including being able to lie! And also the ability to construct social understandings which are not abstract – speaking about the situation here in the room together – bending the situation to fictional forms, re-describing where we are, what we’re doing, who I am and who you are. Treating the theatre as a social space is a thread in my work: playing with an audience and making contact between the performance space and the audience space. So I was slowly exploring ways to interact and physically engage the audience. I moved outside the ‘normal’ theatre contracts where the spectator sits still, watches and listens, to a place where the audience can make noise and get involved with the performance material.

Why is it so important to you to really engage with the audience?

When I sit in an audience, I’m always very curious who’s around me. Sometimes I’m more curious about the people around me and their reactions on the situation, than about what’s actually happening on stage. I observe how an audience communicates in very subtle ways, how the temperature and mood in the room changes.
I really enjoy the theatre space and ritual, but I like to test it as well. In the Worktable installation, there is no performer nor audience because there are no witnesses, there are only people in action. This was an important step for me towards the physicality of the audience: they take things apart with their own hands, they learn for themselves by taking their own decisions and actions. It let me think a lot about agency - how to set up situations where people can make choices about their own agency.
But of course, an audience is always engaged and active, also in a classical theatre format. I find it so amazing that people give their time and attention to each other, and join physically in a space to share an imagination for a while. I want to understand what makes this social - and full of diverse reactions and experiences.

Are you concerned with the kinds of audiences you attract and address?

One audience is very different from another, but I try to make my work accessible on both the conceptual level and the physical level. For instance, I like it when the installation Worktable is presented close to the street so that people do just walk in, without having any idea of what’s going on. If those people can move through the experience, feeling relaxed and engaged, I’m the happiest. At the same time, it’s a challenge to cultivate a clear conceptual thread in the work and yet allow for a great variety of responses. One person might find it to be a fun and entertaining piece, someone else might have a more intellectual or disturbing reading of it. I’m most satisfied when there is a complexity of possible meaning and engagement. Even better is people finding ways to communicate their experience to each other. This can open up an interesting dialogue – especially when the work is interactive – because there is a lot to negotiate and to learn from the other persons in the audience. It’s surprising how different people are to each other.

What is your relation with Brussels?

I moved to Brussels because of the art scene. I intuited from the beginning that there was an exciting possibility about Brussels as a multilingual space, a messy space, its difficulty of diversity, its disorganization and all those things that create very positive energies to me. They remain potent fissures and openings for things to happen, which is what keeps me in love with the city. There are not many other places where I feel these layers of texture, friction and energy. Where people really are figuring things out together, over and over and over again in new layers of systems. There is a parallel that can be made with the theatre and its need to keep on re-inventing itself.
I’m quite mystified with the public space in cities. I didn’t grow up these kinds of urban spaces at all. It remains forever very exotic to me: this density of human life, and the problematics and possibilities that come with it.
I think Brussels can be very good in embracing and having a dialogue with people from other places. I feel like a foreigner, but also realize the position of not being native is valid here. That’s important because it’s a position held by so many people, around the world - and Brussels’ identity is built on that mix. ‘Purity’ is not a word I associate with Brussels, and I’m glad about that for many reasons.

What are your expectations for your residency at Kaaitheater?

The residency gives a long perspective. To concretely think in a chunk of five years is fairly new to me. This residency will be about a different relationship with an institution: Kaaitheater is an institution that I respect a lot. I have grown to know quite a lot about it, especially as a spectator, but also as an artist. Still I hope to better understand its inner workings and the ways it’s responsive to audience and artists. I’m interested in where an institution – which is fairly fixed – has its fluidity and its dialogue both with the public and the art scene. I think that’s a thing you only understand over a longer period.
The residency will give me a chance to think about a longer term relationship with an audience. I don’t think I have much influence on how an audience is built up by performing a couple of times every two years. If I’m able to think of five years, I can think more about for whom I’m making work. How can I get the people I want to be there? How can they know about it? How they can be communicated to?
I would also like to take more risk in forms of engagement. I know it’s not easy for a larger theatre to embrace unusual formats: it’s demanding on the production team, on the communication team and so on. In a longer period, I hope it will be easier to push experiments. We’ll have time to collaborate on how to realize ideas, while – hopefully – my relationship with the theatre will be less fragile. If my project fails, then we still have another couple of years to figure out how the next project can fail even more spectacularly! There is a trust, which feels very much like a gift. And, when I look forward to the next five years, I think a lot of things are going to change. By having a steady partner for that periode, these changes can be measured together.

Do you have plans with the city in the five years to come?

Living here informs my research, the focus in my artworks. I probably wouldn’t make the same work if I was living somewhere else. In that sense, it’s a very direct relationship. I don’t have any specific plans for the city yet, but I feel a big cross-over between my life as a citizen here and my artistic life.

What would you say is the role of an artist? And what should his relation be towards society, the arts world, and the culture houses he works in?

I think there are many answers to that first question. Every artists are fills this in in a very personal way. The development of a good working practice is a two-way thing: both artists and theatres are busy creating the right conditions for everyone to work. I think there is a strong responsibility from everybody to make sure that those conditions are ethically and politically healthy.
Meanwhile, both the artists and the institutions provide a very important creative public space which has social effects and a political vision. The choices an institution makes about the kind of public space it provides, go far: how expensive is the food served in that place? What is its accessibility? Who are the audiences invited? Where do the sponsors and the funding come from? Behind all these things lies a deep ethos, which I consider very important. And I think both the artists and the institutions have a chance to challenge each other around this. Hopefully they also challenge the audience to be aware that it’s not only about going to see a show. The theatre space is also a gathering spot, financed by public money. An audience then becomes a real community.
All this creates a structural framework, in the middle of which is a space where the artwork appears. That space should defend a maximum of freedom - for the artist to understand what they’re offering and for the audience to meet and negotiate it.

 

Kate McIntosh in conversation with Lana Willems (production Kaaitheater) and Eva Decaesstecker (communicatie Kaaitheater).