Paula Kramer (2021). Suomenlinna/ / Gropius. Two Contemplations on Body, Movement and Intermateriality. Axminster: Triarchy Press. <https://www.triarchypress.net/boje.html>
I come to Paula Kramer’s book Suomenlinna//Gropius in Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) Aotearoa (New Zealand), at the end of a muggy summer. This book sends me to Berlin, and to Suomenlinna, one an international cosmopolis, the other a small island off the coast of Helsinki. Reading this text is an invitation to consider dwelling, what happens when we take seriously the information that comes available to us through sustained periods of site-based dance practice – resources such as imagination, kinesthetic attunement, sensory detail, compositional awareness. I am an artist-researcher engaged in site-based improvisation practice and experimental writing. My work circles around questions of what it is to have a body and considers how bodies of different forms (including ecological bodies such as air and waterways) are entangled and co-extensive. I consider a material book as both a tactile body and a resource which opens a space of dwelling and encounter. I appreciate the detail to which Kramer’s book aesthetically reflects the logics of her dance practice in its layout and imagery, through design that includes drawings evoking a sense of the hand written, tenderly capturing the qualities of specific landscapes, showing the immediacy of process.
Suomenlinna//Gropius offers a series of writings about site and artistic practice, reflecting on the potentiality and complexity of working with bodies and spaces in their geo-political, historical, sensory, social, ecological and aesthetic strata. Of course, spaces are written and overwritten by endless information and can never really be ‘known’ by anyone in their fullness. And yet, a dancer, working closely with a site, can find a specific kind of intimacy with the others who dwell in it, with its history, its seasonal transformations and ecological relations. Such dance research is enabled and constrained by material conditions, which provide a specific window into moving-thinking with embodiment, agency, materiality and place. A dancer can gain deep awareness of particular aspects of a space, as they feel out into its gravity, its temperature and its tone; as they take feeling literally and seriously – concretely feeling the textures, surfaces, affects, temperature, timing of movement and life. This book takes the work of such dance research into careful consideration, in terms of what it offers to academic and artistic fields.
“I have total certainty that I as a dancer need to dance right here, in between these other practices, as a means of creating space. Space for thinking, acting feeling being. Dancing as a guardian of freedom, protecting and creating room to move and maneuver, dancing as a way to practice alternatives” (Paula Kramer, Gropius, p.42)
“And in shimmering meaning-making, doing, moving I physically explore: the task of art to keep spaces open. To keep spaces open.” (ibid, p. 42).
As a solo performance artist, Kramer is often working in these public spaces alone. She presents a lone female body regularly pushing against normative conventions of spatial occupation, again and again, over years, in a tender, courageous practice of listening, dwelling, lying, sleeping, mapping, co-existing and exploring the question of what a body is. In this book, the question of how bodies co-form each other remains open.
The sites of Suomenlinna – a small island off the coast of Helsinki, and Gropius (in Berlin’s Südplatz, specifically Martin Gropius Bau) – a large public plaza in the centre of Berlin – present two very different sites of research. Suomenlinna presents an engagement with coastal patterns, with rocks, with ocean. Gropius is a tightly controlled public space in an epi-centre of European culture, hemmed on all sides by cultural landmarks, the site of the Stasi headquarters and prisons for many decades in post-war Berlin, as Kramer writes, “All the deaths. All the atrocities. Right here” (p. 16). Kramer skillfully engages with the intense echoes of time in both of these spaces by creating two books within a book. Each side of the book opens to its site (Suomenlinna//Gropius) with the two parts of the text meeting in the centre of the book. Kramer’s practice is methodologically consistent across these two very different sites – engaging her body as a resource for attending, improvising, journaling with writing and drawing, collecting memories and intensities, and engaging with witnesses in choreographic sharing.
What distinguishes the book Suomenlinna//Gropius from others in the field of site based practice, is its focus on highly specific accounts of practice over a sustained period of years, and the way it articulates multiple folds of interdisciplinary research to account for different orientations for understanding place – political, geographic, aesthetic, poetic, descriptive – through drawing, poetic writing and the inclusion of a range of specialist voices in a series of short essays. Gropius presents short essays by historian Ulrich Tempel (who describes his essay as opening up four “time windows” to explore specific moments in the history of the site) and dancer-philosopher Jagna Anderson alongside Kramer’s creative-critical reflections. Suomenlinna presents short essays by palaeontologist Björn Kröger, artist and academic Annette Arlander, and visual artist Kira O’Reilly alongside Kramer’s short essays, journal accounts and poetic renderings of process. Both ‘sides’ of this book present insider and observer accounts of Kramer’s site-based performances, offering frames to understand this work through varied lenses on place-based embodied artistic research and relevant related fields.
This book could be considered a methodology text for the field of artistic research or practice-led research, as it provides a clear set of principles for site-based research, articulates contemporary processes and theoretical frames around the concept of inter-materiality, clearly evokes the performance events that emerged through the research period, and also critically discusses the complexities, and tensions, that occurred in the development of making a performative ‘work’ to articulate the research. In Berlin, this eventuated in aperformance, an event held in the liminal space where everyday life merges with a research sharing for invited guests, without public outreach, without drawing attention to itself as being anything other than movement in the everyday life of a space.
This notion of performance that emerges through Kramer’s site-based research in Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau is a valuable and important one for the field of performance studies. This mode of performing deliberately places itself ‘under the radar’ of public events, in the interest of enabling creative research in public spaces where the freedom or right to perform is in question. I think of an Iranian dance artist (who I will not name for reasons of their personal safety), working in experimental performance art, in a country where dancing is illegal and could lead to imprisonment. This dancer made a series of covert dances in public spaces in Iran, where the performance vocabulary consisted largely of everyday actions, organized in careful compositions, which aesthetically crossed the line between living and art-making but only to those who could see it. The artist’s dancing was legal, invisible to everyday viewers. But for those watching the edited video, a powerful, subtle, playful work of dance is clearly evident. Such as it is for Kramer’s work, banned from presenting a public performance in the space for which it was created. Instead, Kramer created a performance, for invited guests, who were explicitly asked to refrain from conventional audience behaviour, and instead, enter in the performance space independently and loosely, to dwell with the performance informally and casually. Practices of public encounter such as performance allow artists to sustain vital political, resistant, imaginative, boundary crossing research in our increasingly surveyed cities. Here we circumnavigate the need for conventional audiencing and the demands of production, funding, spectatorial encounter, neo-liberal economic demands and state approval that can so easily diminish the vitality of a creative practice. This account of performance, provides a framework for dances that operate without permission, that refuse to submit to censorship, that refuse to bow down to the choreopolicing endemic in many contemporary spaces. Kramer describes a dance making practice that continues in quiet, humble defiance, holding the vital importance of making space for bodies to imaginatively entangle with public spaces, to experiment with imaginative possibility in space and time, as a practice of freedom.
Gropius// Suomenlinna is a touchstone of a book – the kind of book you can return to again and again. It orients us to think-with a performance project from many points of view, through a variety of registers of writing – poetic, drawn, reflective, critical, personal, intimate, theoretical. It orientates the reader to the richness of the spaces in which we live, the profound opportunities we have to work through the sensory resources of a body, to attend to the intense and multiple layers of the environments in which we dwell.
Alys Longley is a performance maker and academic based in Aotearoa, New Zealand, whose work often travels across experimental processes of documentation in interdisciplinary creative practice.