Measuring the ocean in a gymnasium: an interview with James Batchelor on Deepspace  

Gregory Lorenzutti

Door: Nicky Palmans

“How do we measure space?”
“What is the physical encounter with the unknown?”
“Could my body be a map?”

These are some of the questions that lie at the heart of Deepspace. A two-month long voyage on a ship near Antarctica proved to be an endless source of inspiration for this performance about the unknown and about the vastness of space. I discuss the work and this voyage with its maker: James Batchelor.

An expedition to one of the most remote places of the world: volcanic islands near Antarctica

“The process of creating always starts from a point of observation, being immersed in a certain environment and responding to that environment,” he tells me, when I ask him about the starting point of creating a performance. For this particular performance, the starting point was an expedition to one of the most remote places of the world: volcanic islands near Antarctica. James joint a group of scientists on this expedition to further investigate the way we perceive space based on our perception of distance. It is something he is very interested in: “In a space like Antarctica where there aren’t many things to judge the distance of yourself and other objects, it creates a different way of relating to space”.

“It was definitely one of the most inspiring experiences of my life”

Still I wonder, how do you end up on a ship for such specific scientific expedition? And Why? James laughs, and tells me he was invited on the expedition by the chief scientist who used to be a dancer, now he is a marine scientist. “He happened to see one of my works and was drawn to it due to its relation to Antarctica. Then he asked me to come on this expedition. I went because it felt challenging and it felt like it would definitely shift my practice into something very unknown but exciting”. The isolation and containment made him go through highs and lows and challenged his stamina and patience. “but it was definitely one of the most inspiring experiences of my life and for the last two years I have worked from that experience and have been inspired by that expedition”.

The performance is different every time

The performance is an interdisciplinary collaborative work created by James together with visual artist Annalise Rees, sound designer Morgan Hickinbotham and dancer Amber McCartney. Annalise Rees joined James on the expedition where they both worked on the performance. I ask James what the collaboration with the other artists was like. “When Annalise and I were on the ship, we were talking about the experience together and we had in mind working in a collaborative way, but when we were on the ship we worked on our own practices and only shared our observations. Back in Australia the sound designer and other dancer joined in and the four of us were working in the studio every day, all responding to each other and creating the material simultaneously”. The process of responding is taken into performing in front of an audience as well. James tells me that the performance is different every time. All the performers are responding to each other, the space and the audience, constantly (re)discovering the material and keeping their own curiosity alive.

“It becomes a choreography of all the bodies in the space”

Our conversation goes further into the performance. Reading about it before the interview, it still sounded very vague and elusive to me and I needed some more explanation. “The performance is very immersive, the audience is able to move wherever they like. It becomes a choreography of all the bodies in the space, measuring themselves in relation to the space and the other bodies around them. Measuring is one of the key aspects of the work: how do we measure and map space? What kind of environments are we measuring and mapping and what are the scales? How small or big can we think of ourselves in relation to space? Not only to earth but also to the universe. The performance is really about shifting scale from the really tiny to the very big”.

In order to help the audience shift scale, the performance uses objects like marbles and big air-filled balls which suggest planets or constellations. Movements and sounds from the ship suggestive of the vast Antarctic ocean and the ship are used in the performance to create the effect of being in a different environment.

A completely individual experience

On James’ website I read that, with his performances, he wants to inspire curiosity and make people think and rethink. This is an important aspect of Deepspace as well, where every audience member has a completely individual experience of their own, and are led by their curiosity. That this is very important to him becomes even more clear when I ask him whether he ever had a negative experience with a performance. “When I feel most negative about the performance is when people come in and immediately sit down on the edges of the space. This sets up a feeling of a static space and makes it very difficult for individual audience members to stand up and walk around”.

Talking with James made me see how much research and thinking and experimenting went into this performance and made me strongly look forward to seeing it. Check out James’ website for more writing on the Antarctic expedition and check out Deepspace coming Saturday. Please come in, enjoy and don’t sit down!

Ons festivalhart

Ons festivalhart zit dit jaar wederom aan de Oosterstraat 7a, in de steeg achter het Grand Theatre. Kijk om het hoekje en vind ons daar! Dit is hét hart en dé ontmoetingsplek van het festival. Je kunt hier terecht voor een goed gesprek, een drankje en elke avond draait er een DJ. Wat ons betreft kunnen de voeten dus van de vloer! Ook kun je hier terecht met al je vragen bij het infopunt en kun je meteen een kaartje aanschaffen bij de kassa.

Kom gezellig langs voor een kop koffie of een borrel in het café!