As I sit with my morning espresso in the café round the corner, an orchid flower falls from its stem onto the page of the book I’m reading. One of Line’s lines (!) of enquiry has been to look up pictures of varieties of split fruit and flowers, the kind that resemble female sex organs, of which the orchid is a prime example. Nice syncronicity.
There is much to do today. We are to pull together our 3 days-worth of brainstorming to present to the public in the museum later this evening. It takes 3 hours to render 10 minutes of film footage, so Jurgen is really up against the clock to get things ready in time, as is Line who has run into technical issues in preparing sound samples to use with the video. The computer has jammed (in layman’s terms) and is infuriatingly refusing to let her edit. Meanwhile, I go into our work/performance space to learn the pile of scores/texts/actions that I am to perform competently in a few hours, to find an expectant audience of museum visitors, some from earlier in the week (including our Fan), who have brought chairs and wait, smiling, to see me do something dramatic. They have clearly heard about the naked film shoot from earlier in the week. Putting prep aside I duly improvise a suitably harrowing cello/vocal piece about a 13 year old rape victim who has just murdered and buried her unwanted baby. The punters lap it up eagerly and afterwards launch into an in depth discussion about the conflicts of the mother’s natural instinct to nurture, the social ostrasization of Muslim women bearing children out of wedlock and how men react to these issues, touchingly described by the only man in the group. He said that he felt very moved by the emotions explored in my little improv and explained that although he is a man, he can feel these sad things just as deeply as women.
All absorbing stuff, but somewhat frustrating in terms of getting work done. Also, I am beginning to find the subject matter profoundly draining energetically. One can’t help but become immersed in the emotional states that spring from this material, and having distance from it, especially while improvising and performing around it, is proving tricky. Each night the three of us have been utterly exhausted by the intensity of our work, which has been more or less continuous since we arrived here.
One of the toughest jobs at this very raw stage of creation is to organise our kaleidoscopic array of material – sound, film, text, written pieces – into something resembling a coherent whole for tonight’s show. I take myself out of the Kvindemuseet to the relative privacy of my now favourite cafe, an incredible bakery in the centre of town called, innocuously, “Cafeteria”, and contemplate the list of Split “splinters” (LIne’s latest word for our stream of consciousness off-shoots) like a chess board. Somehow, aided by a glazed sugary walnut thing and espresso, I emerge with a structure which I then refine with the others and write up as a colour coded performance script for us to follow.
The wonderfully accommodating museum director Meret Ipsen allows us to rearrange the exhibition room as a performance space and invites us down to the now-empty after hours cafe to share some homemade soup and bread with her before the public arrives. In her soft Danish lilting English she tells us a little about the beginnings of the Kvindemuseet, which she inaugurated, her role in the Danish feminist movement and how she amassed the museum’s impressive collection of art pieces and historical artefacts, admired all over the world. This museum is a unique phenomenon: there’s nothing like it anywhere else and Merete says that people are often first lured into its peaceful spaces by the café, which has become a focal spot of the local community, mostly women, but also some male regulars. The café is tastefully arranged with sepia photos of ladies with swept up hair in long dresses, oak cabinets filled with 19th century jewellry, tall clocks, a very early Danish piano, inlaid lacquered wood tables and chairs, arrays of painted crockery and vases, elaborately carved glass cake stands, loaded with homemade cakes. The building was built in 1857 and served as the Town Hall for most of it’s existence, briefly becoming a police station for a few years until the Kvindemuseet took over in the 1980s as part of the upsurging Danish women’s movement. It’s amazing to learn that the heavy oak and green baize table at which we have been working was presided over for Town council meetings for over a century and that women were forbidden to enter until the 1960s.
Short but peaceful respite over, we make our last minute preparations. Our audience is small, a mixture of men and women, who listen with astonishing focus and intensity to our hour of strange offerings, seated on chairs around a large video screen balanced precariously on a couple of tables, Jurgen and computer alongside, Line behind the audience with Mac and mixing desk, and me perched on one of Kirsten Rose’s colourful painted chairs. Somehow events proceed without a technical hitch, and we follow our completely unrehearsed sequence more or less according to plan. I do a mini plastic wrap of the room, suddenly aware that high heels were not the best choice of footwear for such activities, and accidentally sing “Seafrog” instead of Seafog” in an otherwise moving love song. Some of the video pieces take me by surprise, not having seen the finished version until this moment, and it’s immediately clear to me that certain texts now don’t fit with the film. Somehow I adapt as we go along, all the time my brain clicking away filing notes on what works, and what doesn’t. And I have to remind myself even as I’m presenting this material that this is only a beginning, a workshop, a work in progress, a glimpse of things to come.
Line explains this by way of postlude to our attentive audience who then enthusiastically share their reactions to our presentation in Danish, German and English (for Jurgen’s and my benefit). It would appear that this rough and ready material has made a powerful impression, and it’s reassuring to know that something tangible has emerged for us to work with in the coming weeks. However, one grey frowning man in glasses was most anxious to convey his concerns that we find a professional singer and bigger film screen for our future performances, that he found a performance in the middle of an art exhibition confusing and wondered what kind of music was this anyway? Whilst it was clear that he had expected to hear a tradition opera piece it still knocked me back a little, and later led to some very interesting conversations with Line about her definition of opera and her extraordinary knowledge of the untrained human voice and it’s possibilities for expressing big emotion in a convincing way. More of which later, as it’s central to this work and all of Line Tjornhoj’s fascinating creations.
Although there is much to do before Split makes its debut at the Wundergrund festival in October, it’s reassuring to know that we can produce such rich material in 72 hours. We are on course.
by Zoë M