Structured by Desire: an interview with Xavier Le Roy

 Portrait of the artist © Xavier Le Roy
 Xavier Le Roy “Retrospective” at Hamburger Bahnhof  Photo: Dieter Hartwig
 Xavier Le Roy “Retrospective” at Hamburger Bahnhof  Photo: Dieter Hartwig
 Xavier Le Roy “Retrospective” at Hamburger Bahnhof  Photo: Dieter Hartwig
 Xavier Le Roy “Retrospective” at Hamburger Bahnhof  Photo: Dieter Hartwig
 Xavier Le Roy “Retrospective” at Hamburger Bahnhof  Photo: Dieter Hartwig

One of the leading figures of 1990s conceptual dance reflects on how memory, conflict and attention have shaped his ongoing project “Retrospective”, recently presented in Berlin

It takes a while to orient oneself in “Retrospective”, which opened at the Hamburger Bahnhof in August and September for Akademie der Künste’s programme on the last century of dance history. Le Roy, a professor for performing arts praxis at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies at Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen, is well known for being one of the inventors of conceptual dance in the 90s, and less well known for his early collaborations with Tino Sehgal. 

Entering his exhibition, organised in a square setting, the visitor encounters crawling, howling, interrupted iconic movement sequences, bubbles of people gathered around still unidentifiable actions. A doorway leads to a second room with only a desk with printouts and digitised archive material of the performances to which “Retrospective” is referring. I find myself uncertain: Is this office situation meant for the visitor’s orientation or as a backup resource for the performers? It turns out that there isn’t any “either/or”. The offered materials, both the archive and the performances, need to be explored actively in order to become personal entries to the set. Unlike the meditative atmosphere often connected with live museum performance, Le Roy’s dancers create a demanding one.


Astrid Kaminski: The concept of “Retrospective”, which premiered at Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona in 2012 and subsequently toured worldwide, is a story about how fellow artists encountered your body of work. How did this idea come about?

Xavier Le Roy: The exhibition isn’t my retrospective; it uses the idea of a retrospective as a way of producing new work. The basic idea is to recast the material from solo choreography in situations with live-action, where the apparatuses of theatre performance and the museum exhibition intersect. One of my works, Product of Circumstances (1999), deals with the question of the construction of a subject through its biography. In my trajectory, I found myself in between two worlds: the one of the sciences and the one of the arts. I can examine how these circumstances have constructed my subjectivity and vice versa by using the experiences I  created in one world to look at the other. For “Retrospective”, I use these observations and ask each artist to compose a narration using my works as a filter. It becomes a way for them to talk about their life experiences, what my work does to theirs, and the other way around. It emphasises how subjectivity operates in interpretation, how our own life experiences influence the act of interpreting.

Does your background in molecular biology still affect your work today?

Everything in life potentially affects what we do, either consciously and unconsciously. I don’t doubt that more than ten years of science education shaped the way I look at the world, even if I wanted to be emancipated from it, or even if I decided not to be interested in it anymore. But how do you trace that?

Yes, that’s the question.

That’s very difficult to say, since I am not actively, consciously referring to it in my work. But you could say, I have been used by the field and I use it.

Do you miss anything from molecular biology?

Not at all.

The archive scientist Franz Anton Cramer highlighted the “Retrospective” as a mode of production and you confirmed this by how you entered the talk. Did I understand correctly that the format was not created at first out of the need to avoid something like a single story or a certain monographic format?

No, no, no, I mean both. It is a retrospective by Xavier Le Roy, not of! The format was also meant to create something that is rather specific to visual art and exhibitions spaces, where several works from different times can cohabit in the same space at the same time. This is not possible to do in a theatre apparatus, where one work is shown after another. At the end, the aim is to spread the work to other people and make something new out of it. 

When casting, did you choose performers familiar with your past work, or could the performers also go to the archives and create their own understanding?

I have had versions of this exhibition in Taipei or in Mexico, where none of the people had ever seen or even heard of my work. So, the real-time encounter is not necessary; it can also happen through the archives. But in other places, there were people who had strong relationships with my work, and/or encountered it in their education. These different conditions are part of the specificities and singularities of each edition.

Do you curate the kinds of stories that are told?

The stories that are told build-up through dialogue. But I also intervene by setting the rules of presentation, such as the different distances that are used from the visitors when telling a story or going into a physical action, which is meant to produce a certain elasticity.




How do the historical and political circumstances of each iteration shape the “Retrospective”?

Since I work with local artists, circumstances are particularly relevant. For example, in Singapore, censorship questions were central. Nudity is not allowed. Neither is homosexuality. Before you present a work, you are asked by the censorship office to deliver all the text and the content of the work. We have to deal delicately with the fact that the narration will change during the time of the showings. Regulations of the state have direct influence on what artists can or cannot do, and the social status of an artist isn’t very accepted as a professional one. Many artists retraced how state regulation has directly and intimately affected their decisions in life.

Meanwhile, in Mexico another theme was recurrent: insecurity and the questions around “los desaparecidos” (the disappeared). Many people disappear at the hand of gangs, and this reality was very much in the air. Memories and experiences of violence were part of many artists’ narration.

“Retrospective” is also a platform to give a voice to people. Have you observed that the content of your works triggers specific memories for them or is it more like a container?

They are triggered by a certain connection to the work and I insist on questioning the singularity of each connection. The work is used as a filter to look at oneself and the story unfolds at the intersection of experience and memory. 

We are engaged with a very interesting experiment in Berlin now, where Saša Asentić relates to his memories and experience of the war in Yugoslavia in the 90s. This approach is developed through the encounter of Untitled (2014), in which, for the first part, I declare to have lost my memory to create a situation where together with the public we have to look for ways to continue the performance. This loss created resonances with him, allowing him to construct a communal memory beyond those questions of who killed whom. At the end of his story, Saša uses the scream from the same work, which he links to the scream of people who were tortured in the town where he lived; the scream that he could not hear because he flew to escape the war and military enrolment, but that his neighbour told him about. He re-enacts the testimony of his neighbour and through that operation, the exhibition becomes a platform to try to represent what is unrepresentable.

I followed the stories of Zeina Hanna and of Saša Asentić. Zeina is very clear in relating to the impact, but with Saša, I wondered if the dramaturgy of the different temporalities rather supports or blurs the story. 

Zeina Hanna’s presentation is in its third edition already. It is shaped by having shared it many times with the public. It is a product of these multiple encounters, during which Zeina could continue to develop the content and technique. Meanwhile, Saša, participating in “Retrospective” for the first time, is still building from the ground up and is very much dependent on listeners. The format and the duration of the exhibition allow their parts of the work to be in progress. They are not the only thing in the space, and the performance is not conceived of as a premiere.

I see it as a contradiction to have a performance without a dramaturgy that allows us to really follow it but also without the clearly indicated possibility to interrupt when we don’t get something.

We are in an exhibition space and not in a theatre: The regimes of attention are very diverse. In the first room of the exhibition, visitors are required to make choices, negotiations, and to contribute some kind of “work”. Some parts of the performance require a focus that can only be produced by the visitors, but it depends on the others and on what is happening in the room at the same time. Attention, in this case, is mutual and not only something that one can expect.




Why then don’t you create a frame for a dialogic structure?

The possibility for dialogue exists. It is actually possible to interrupt and ask questions and many visitors do so. It is also possible in the archive room. Two performers begin by inviting visitors to have a conversation, then the structure is determined by the desires of the people in the space. We are just there. When you were there, you met people that you knew and you were immediately engaged in a conversation with them – so the function of this room is also depending on what you seek to encounter in the space.

There is another system: as soon as a visitor enters the space, there is a signal and the actions – besides the main retrospective story – are interrupted. What is the reason for this permanent interruption, or perhaps permanent update?

The reason is to welcome the visitor as much as we can. Each visitor gets his or her own entry this way. We do this to address the visitors and signal to them that we are performing for them.

Would you call this effect a kind of post-internet aesthetic, in which every user is traced, and a network of interrelations is created, rather than a presentation of something abstract like an archive?

No. It is only one tool for how the space functions. The work is done with and for live people. If the performers notice frustration produced by the interruptions, they can intervene and tell the visitors how they can follow a story that will not be interrupted. I don’t think that we deal with a conflict between the network and the archive or the institution as you suggested. Rather we play with aspects of how scripted and non-scripted actions can be in constant negotiation.

You also use looping which is often seen as a mode to objectify actions. Does this indicate a “conflict” between subjectification and objectification?

There are a series of operations in “Retrospective” that compose a variety of modes of objectification and subjectification. The two extremes are when the performers perform what we call the “immobilities”, performing “the object” that can be seen as objectification of oneself – and in the “individual retrospective”, when the performers begin by announcing her/his name and using the personal pronoun “I”. In the latter, they begin to unfold, through their subjectivity, how interpretation is a process of subjectification.


“Retrospective” by Xavier Le Roy

24 August – 8 September 2019