Lars Jan & Geoff Sobelle

Kinetic language, aquariums, and experimental performance.

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Sonny Valicenti in ABACUS. Photo by Steve Gunther. All images courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Artists and performance-makers Lars Jan and Geoff Sobelle met in Philadelphia in the early 2000s, and lived together in a 5,000 square foot loft in a part of North Philly called the “Badlands.” They had no heating, but they did have a swing, baby carriage versus wheelchair races, ample rehearsal space, and a pet rabbit named Steve who had a pen larger than most New York City apartments.

Jan and Sobelle have collaborated off and on since, and are currently collaborating on HOLOSCENES, which will premier at the Toronto Nuit Blanche Festival in October.

Both coincidentally also have shows in this fall’s BAM Next Wave Festival—Jan’s ABACUS (a TED and megachurch-influenced presentation about contemporary persuasion and national borders) is on September 24 and Sobelle’s The Object Lesson (a solo performance/installation that revolves on our relationship to everyday objects) will be on November 5—8. Both will be at the BAM Fisher.

Jan and Sobelle met up at Café des Artistes, where My Dinner with Andre was filmed in 1981. Sobelle is having Ile Flottante, Jan has ordered a pizza from a nearby restaurant and is hoping it will be delivered during the dessert course. This may or may not have happened. “Choose your own reality,” says the panda to the rabbit …

Geoff Sobelle One of our longest conversations revolved around a piece that at some point became called Psychocosmonautics and I think laid some ground work—or maybe just served as a means of expressing—some themes that have continued in your work—aquariums, Japan, matters of the mind and altered states of consciousness, work, pleasure, travel, and talking. When I think of you, I think a lot of those days—I think that I was really there as a kind of facilitator—I was your actor, but I was there to help you somehow articulate these things that you were grappling with—we hauled massive flat-screened televisions around and we talked endlessly while eating the Master’s Pizza at Di Fara on Avenue J. In those days, you kept coming back to My Dinner with Andre. And in that paradigm, I was the Wally Shawn and you were the Andre Gregory, and I was along for a wild ride that took us from dolphin brains to Laika the space dog to Japanese Aquariums. Here, conversation was like white water rafting.

Lars Jan I don’t believe that I have much faith in verbal communication, but my actions tell a different story. I love to consume literature, and stories, but my overwhelming feeling is that language is impoverished—incapable of encapsulating the breadth of human experience. I don’t mean grand narratives, I mean moments. I’ve always been disappointed by my ability to put moments into words, so much so that I really don’t tell stories anymore. This drives Mia, my partner, crazy, because she loves to hear and tell stories more than anyone I know.

That doesn’t happen to me when dealing with language in performance because I feel free to create relationships and context for the words that I can’t otherwise achieve with the language alone, or in conversation. While I love language, I find it more possible to aspire to complex ideas, and the great challenge of communication between people, through visual and kinetic gestures. You know, dancing chickens. That sort of thing.

GS Tell me about aquariums.

LJ I fell in love with them at the Osaka Aquarium, when I was living in Japan studying Bunraku. There was an exhibit of jellyfish that knocked me out, and I returned a few times to video them. Rather than the expansive tanks in the rest of the aquarium—they had a massive whale shark that looked sad in one—the jellyfish exhibit was full of cabinet-sized cases, and felt like a wunderkammer. And the acrylic panes were normal sized, they looked like windows into houses or TV screens. I didn’t realize the impression that the exhibition left at the time, because that was 2002, and one way or another the aquariums keep showing up in my work.

You and I first collaborated on [Psycho][Cosmo][Nautics], which we made in a living room in Midwood in December 2003, and you played an aquarium salesman standing in front of three giant monitors that began as aquariums and transformed into much more. That associative character was named Paul, and in many ways he is the same Paul that drives ABACUS, the upcoming show at BAM. Your Paul was interested in physiological evolution—people becoming more like dolphins basically—whereas this Paul is chasing social evolution, which maybe is also about people becoming more like dolphins.

Now we’re collaborating on HOLOSCENES, which features a giant aquarium that you actually perform inside of. That piece is about the feeling I got from looking at photos of flooding from around the world, particularly of half-submerged people surrounded by water and the flotsam of their lives. In order to make something about that feeling, I wanted to create a space for performers that is at times totally dry, at others totally submerged, and can switch between the two very quickly. Enter giant custom-made aquarium and powerful hydraulic system, stage left. To me, it’s climate change in a box.

GS HOLOSCENES is comprised of a series of solo performances in a large aquarium. Why do we love to look at people in rectangles?

LJ Well, the spaces I grew up in are composed of rectangles. Right angles and boxes read as human spaces to me, though that’s definitely a contemporary and slightly Western bias. You know that Austrian artist, Hundertwasser, who built structures without any right angles or truly flat surfaces within? He also filled his apartment buildings with tree tenants, which were grown in peoples’ flats and stretched out of one of their windows to the outside. I like that “cohabitation” between our built spaces and the natural world, and the acknowledgment of a porous relationship between the two, or maybe an erasure of distinction at all.

The basic metaphor of the rectangular frame holds infinite interest for me. Frames—for paintings, movies, the web—are windows or doors. I never stop asking, portals to what? What are the rules of the world through the window or door, and what are the rules of the place that I’m watching from? Like in the Cocteau movie, Blood of a Poet: is it possible I might just fall through the doorframe and make a big splash?

Now that I’ve actually built a massive one, maybe the aquarium fetish will be over.

GS Are you a fetishist? Please elaborate …

LJ There is no business like show business, let’s leave it at that. (Sobelle is stung by a bee, requires EpiPen, interview resumes 15 minutes later. Neither mentions the incident again.)

GS What was the first performance that you made and why did you make it?

LJ We had assemblies in our high school, and my dorm was hosting an open house. I led a mashup skit of Braveheart and Reservoir Dogs—you can guess the era—in which two black labs racked one of my friends, who was wearing only a kilt. Then another friend poured “gasoline” on him and cut off his ear. Then another friend, dressed in an angel costume, arose from the audience singing a Velvet Underground song, I don’t remember which one. I never did any theatre until college, but this was probably my first real piece. What’s your favorite object?

GS My favorite object may be also the oldest object that I have, meaning, the object that I’ve had the longest, which is only partly about sentimentality. It’s a small Eiffel Tower made of just some cheap metal, though I always thought that it was made of brass, until actually right now that I describe this. It has a great feel. I love metal. It’s solid, durable. You could probably really hurt someone with it. My dad bought if for me when I was six years old. We were on the actual Eiffel Tower. I just think it’s funny that he bought me the tiny version of the thing that we were actually standing on. And maybe I was a tiny version of him. Something about miniatures, and time. Maybe we both just looked far away.

I also like it because there is nothing “special” about this thing. It’s a souvenir—a memento that exists in the hundreds of thousands. As I’m thinking of this now, I am supposing that the Eiffel Tower must be one of the most duplicated buildings in the history of architecture. That’s pretty grandiose, but if you think about it—it’s like the Colosseum. Or the Taj Mahal. If you ask someone to name a building, I would bet that the Eiffel Tower is pretty high up on the list of most commonly named. But the thing about a souvenir like that is that you only have the one. And it did its job—I remember the day.

Not long ago, I came into possession of a second little Eiffel Tower, almost identical to the first. It’s clearly a bit newer. Mine is so much better, I can’t even begin to tell you. If I lost the first, I would destroy the second. It is an irreplaceable, yet totally replaceable, object.

LJ Where is it now, and what’s near it?

GS It’s on a shelf in my apartment, next to a few other totem-like objects that I keep with me—a small deer, a crystal that contains “world within worlds,” a bullet casing from an AK-47 that I found in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a wooden foot with a flower growing out of it, a nondescript magic device called a “pull,” and a non-functioning alarm clock.

LJ What’s a “pull?”

GS A “pull” is a device used in slight-of-hand magic that consists of a safety pin, a length of elastic and an alligator clip. The pin attaches somewhere on the body or upper arm, and the clip takes hold of a small object to pull it out of sight.

LJ When did you develop your passion for objects, particularly as a vehicle for performance? How has your interest in the inanimate changed since you were a teenage magician?

GS I’ve always loved “things.” My sister and I shared a similar kind of emotional attachment to stuff, in that we would endow inanimate objects with feelings and personalities. She had it worse than I did. She would actually be worried that certain objects would be lonely, so she would never leave a single chip in a bowl, for instance. My family aren’t hoarders in the Jerry Springer sense of the word—nothing newsworthy, but there’s always been a garage full of stuff. My grandfather was also like this. His garage was amazing—chairs dangling from rafters, every tool known to man, automobiles rotting into rust in the California sun—I still love the smell of old motor oil on gravel—old metal like an ancient drill press, a rusted out engine. That was his domain. Maybe he taught me how to love objects.

I’ve worked with the Pig Iron Theatre Company for fifteen years. James Sugg, one of the core members of Pig Iron, and I were once talking about props and objects. He told me that he never went onstage to improvise with a prop—that way, he would never be responsible for it, for its whereabouts, for its preset, and so on. I was completely taken aback. I thought about it, and it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure I had ever gone onstage without some stupid thing to hang on to, a literal prop to hold myself up!

One of my favorite things that we ever got to play with onstage was a beautiful taxidermy deer. It was so strange—because it was both alive and dead, real and fake—all at the same time. The character dealt with it as though it were a real deer, but of course the audience knows that it is a mount. There was a great trick where its shadow moved on the wall. Its ear waggled, and then the shadow took a few steps and bent down to snarfle among some vines that had dropped into the office. For me, this mysterious moment was a very poetic translation of a strange relationship that contemporary people have with wilderness—fetishizing, but not really understanding, controlling, but not actually controlling …

I just really love the strange theatrical life of inanimate objects. They tell us so much about character, about space, time—the way that someone deals with the object allows us to see a whole world through behavior. Normal objects, like an egg, being treated as though they are the most mysterious things in the world can lead to great comedy, or bafflement.

As long as I’ve known you, you’ve had a camera in your hand. How did it get there? Did movies lead to performance? Or vice versa? Or did you intend to merge them?

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Geoff Sobelle. Photo by Jauhien Sasnou.

LJ My mom got me a nice still camera when I was thirteen, after some begging. I carried it everywhere, and haven’t really put a camera down since. I always liked taking pictures of landscapes, in Marshfield, the town I grew up in, on a farm in Pennsylvania—lots of blurry shots of deer at dusk. I rarely took pictures of people. I got into black-and-white infrared photography—I like the high contrast, and the fact that the world looked off somehow. I liked taking pictures of the semi-invisible.

When I left Pig Iron, which was my very first job out of college, I got a video camera and spent three months learning to shoot and edit by making abstract music videos of songs by Brian Eno and Love and others—a solo intensive.

Shortly after, I dragged that camera to Japan and then through Siberia. That material became one of the foundations for what I guess was my first multimedia theatre piece, [Psycho][Cosmo][Nautics]. When I was in Japan I rode the subways and trains a lot, which were fantastic, and so I spent a lot of time looking across the train car, seeing people in the foreground and then the world passing by through the windows set next to one another. When I shot video in Japan, and then in Siberia and Central Asia, I shot everything in triptychs, simulating three windows. When put together, the triptychs form a very wide frame, sort of like Panavison or How the West Was Won—a very old Hollywood epic proportion that I’ve always responded to.

I took a theater directing class in college because they didn’t have a film program as yet, and the teacher, Roger Babb, was brilliant and that was it. I was hooked by performance because it allowed me to collide all my interests in one place. Even then, my performances always had cameras and films in them.

You went to Lecoq for a year and you have been a part of Pig Iron Theatre Company for a long time. You’ve performed in straight plays, and worked in various collaborative units—often trios, it seems. I know that you’ve also worked alone, or at least tried to. Where are you in terms of collaboration right now? How does it feed you? How does it not?

GS I think that a strong collaboration is when each and every person working on the project is hiking way out—extending beyond what they knew that they could do—all in service to this thing that is bigger than any one person. That is a hugely gratifying relationship, and I think it can produce amazing work. It’s also unquestionably difficult.

I have worked in ensembles, in duos, trios—all of these are such different permutations. But I was feeling burnt out on collaboration, like I could respond to other artists’ impulses or provocations, but was having trouble locating my own voice. That was why I decided to try to make a solo piece, which became The Object Lesson. At the end of the day, as the sole author of the piece, I could truly make decisions and bigger moves on my own without having to compromise. This was a first for me, and hugely gratifying.

I am very happy with the outcome of The Object Lesson, though it ultimately was more collaborative than I originally intended. It is not something that I ever could have made in a room by myself; nor is it something that I think could have been made in a truly ensemble-like fashion. David Neumann, the director, was constantly creating with me, constantly provoking and asking hard questions, and also, constantly leaving and coming back. This was such a fantastic way for me to ingest what we found together and then to explore on my own to discover what I really wanted to do with it.

Hey, lone wolf—what’s your take on “collaborative theatre-making?” Is there such a thing?

LJ Well, I collaborate with many phenomenally creative people on just about everything, and I direct Early Morning Opera, which is a network of artists I’ve been collaborating with for years. And in each of our projects we always fold in new collaborators, often non-artists, as well.

It’s true that I decided I had to make some things that I conceive, direct, write—you know, author. As long as I can have that authorial experience in some project in my life, I’ve found it frees me to be able to collaborate on other things in a much more fluid, open way. But ultimately I’m a director, not a collective member, which maybe I thought I could be when I started making performance.

That being said, I can’t make what I’d like to make without tremendous collaborators, often authors in their own right on other projects, who transform and feed back my initial impulses into things better than I ever could have imagined. I often launch projects, but through development with the other creators in the room, they actually become something that we make together.

GS You’ve brought a child into this world. Does that change the way that you think about making things? What about beauty?

LJ Well, she’s a fabulous artist, as most two-year-olds probably are, and she’s already taught me how to look at a painting, which is: either for a long, long time, or for one second. Anything in between doesn’t really work. That medium, thirty-second or minute-long attention span is so adult. I have to work consciously against that medium rhythm in my life; it keeps me from seeing things.

Otherwise, the big change is that I have to fully believe in work in order for it be worth my time. I feel like I should’ve realized that even before Esme came along, but better late than never.

What do you think of the time you live in? How do you fit into it?

GS I’m not sure I understand a thing about the time I live in. I often feel like a stranger. Maybe we all do. Everything seems to move so fast and moving faster. I fit into it by holding things up and by slowing down. Or I try to do that.

LJ I think you often make comedies in the same sense as Chekhov made “comedies.” How does that strike you?

GS If you mean time-honored comedies that way outlive their author and completely revolutionize the theater but are misunderstood 100 years in the future while still being cherished—I would have to agree with you. Actually, I have no idea what you mean.

For some reason, in the stuff that I make, there is often a room in a house. A lot of theatre does this, I think. But there is something definitely about being trapped in this room! The room may even fall apart around you, or change completely, but you can never really get out of there. And that room is usually the theater.

LJ Speaking of traps, how do you choose where to live, and how do feel about that choice?

GS Right now, I choose to live in Brooklyn. I wanted a change after twelve years in Philadelphia—I wanted to try to live in the “market place.” I like it. I like the hustle, the energy, and I’ve had some really fantastic opportunities since I’ve been here, for just over two years.

But, you know, I don’t find myself making as much as I did when I was in Philly. Partly, I think it takes a while to meet the collaborators that you want to make things with—and I’ve already expressed my ambivalence about collaboration anyway—but also, this has been a time about producing, and less about being in the studio all the time. So, I feel good about that choice!

Can we make enough money doing this? What is “enough?”

LJ It’s hard as hell, but yeah, I think we can, but I don’t see much of a model for doing so in the US. Which means we each just have to be as creative about developing our own model, custom-fit, as we are about making our work. There isn’t a total system that expressly is set up to help us make a reasonable living as artists.

“Enough” would feel like I had the flexibility to take some significant time off to research, travel, and do other things, and that I had some extra money to support art, activism, or other projects by people that I believe in—in addition to making my own, and paying my collaborators well.

GS What do you really need to make something? What would you really want? If you could, list five things that are essential—or highly desirable—to make something worthwhile.

LJ If I’m in prison someday or tomorrow because a faction put me there for participating in “the resistance,” I could make little shows with puppets made from the pieces of fingernails I chewed off.

So time, space, and teeth are the most important. To that equation, I would like to add a little light—though working in the dark would be fine for a while—and real freedom. Not in the patriotic sense, but freedom to pursue ideas, with the resources to pay myself and my collaborators a bit more than fairly so that we can have bourgeois securities and property, while maintaining a lifestyle of freethinking, orgies, and responsible childcare.

That distills to: time, space, teeth, light, freedom.

What are you working on?

GS Well I’m still working on The Object Lesson. I am about to go back into the studio to ready that project for its run at the Next Wave Festival at BAM. I still consider the piece to be in process, and we are adapting it to fit into the Fisher Space, for more people that we have ever performed it for.

I am also working with you on HOLOSCENES! This is such a different process, and one that I really love. I feel like it is so utterly physical—and metaphysical—but I have been hungry to create a purely visceral work that demands everything from the performer for a long time. I feel that my role in creating HOLOSCENES with you is not intellectual, not dramaturgical work—but really about finding the performance state in the tank, under the water, over long stretches of time. To survive! This piece is so much about presence—literally, it is a piece about breathing. I’m very excited for it.

What do you wish you did but didn’t do? I mean—apart from the lever. In 2000, Lars and Geoff met each other in Edinburgh while on tour with Pig Iron Theatre Company. One evening, while going on an adventure with James Sugg, they discovered a large electrical box in the basement of a theater where multiple clubs were playing terrible dance music. There was a massive lever, the size of an elephant trunk, connected to the electrical box that was marked “Master.” It may or may not have been the kill switch to the entire building. Possibly the entire city. Possibly all of Scotland. They contemplated pulling the lever, and the many consequences of this action. And still do to this day. Or, maybe, it’s the lever. What would have happened had we pulled the lever?

LJ I wish I tried to keep the tenuous hold that I had on the Japanese language while I had it. I wish I stuck with the piano lessons when I was four. But above all, I wish we had pulled the lever. Obviously, if we pulled the lever, we would have released the tigers, and I would have liked to see the tigers walk through Edinburgh at night.

Lars Jan performs ABACUS on September 24-27, while Geoff Sobelle performs The Object Lesson November 5-8. Both are part of the BAM Next Wave Festival

Lars Jan & Geoff Sobelle’s HOLOSCENES will show at the Toronoto Nuite Blanche Festival in October.

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