At the Well blog


A Constellation Artwork


Image: Óscar González

With Forests in Our Mouths is a two-year ‘constellation artwork’ exploring Queer Utopias. Made by ONCE WE WERE ISLANDS, it is funded by working grants from the Kone Foundation. In this blog post, we will explain what we mean when we talk about a ‘constellation artwork’ and how this affects our practice and the way we will share the work over the next two years.

A few years ago we read the novel Flights by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk. It was one of those books that we talked about for a long time, even after we finished it. It wasn’t so much the plot or the characters that caught our attention, but rather Tokarczuk’s description of the book as a ‘constellation novel’. The novel is organised non-chronologically, and each narrative strand is independent of the others. The reader is invited to interpret the connections between these stories freely and look for their own meanings. In an interview, Tokarczuk compared this to a constellation in that one can see things in the story that exist only in the experience and imagination of the reader. It is similar to the way one can look at a group of stars in the sky and see a shape that is both there and not there. This description gave a name to ideas we had already begun working with in our own artmaking practice. It also inspired us to ask ourselves what a ‘constellation artwork’ would look like for us.  

Like Tokarczuk’s novel, With Forests in Our Mouths will be made up of various different ‘chapters’ that are arranged non-hierarchically. Each ‘chapter’ can be experienced in isolation and appreciated as a narrative in its own right. It also contributes to the larger whole. Our ‘chapters’, however, will not be fixed onto a printed page and bound in a set order into a book. With Forests in Our Mouths can be accessed at various times, in various places, and also in different ways. The chapters can also be experienced in various different combinations and orders. Our chapters can change place every time you ‘pick up the book’ and the ‘book’ itself appears in many different guises. Whereas the format of a printed book encourages the reader to start at the beginning and read each page in order until they get to the end, With Forests in Our Mouths will take place across two or more years, in various locations and in various formats with live performance remaining the key discipline at the centre of our creative practice. It is, in fact, very unlikely that anyone will get to experience every chapter comprising the whole work. It is even less likely that they will experience them in the order they are made. Rather than viewing this as a negative, we see it as a key aim of the artistic research — namely, how do we make work that is meaningful regardless of how and how much of the work is seen?

The format of the ‘constellation artwork’ is exciting to us for many reasons. For a long time, we have been intrigued by the role of the audience in performance (and, by extension, the role of the reader in written work and the onlooker in other formats) and felt unsatisfied that this role should simply be that of a passive observer — or even worse, a consumer. Just as we reject the idea that the job of the artist is to entertain the audience, we equally reject the notion that the audience’s only role is to applaud when they have enjoyed a work, or to withhold that applause when they have not. We strongly believe that an artwork should provoke and inspire, that it should ask questions rather than give answers. We believe the artwork should be able to expand and transform with every new person who witnesses it. We wish for our ideas and personal experience to have the potential to act as multipliers on the stage, bringing in the experience and ideas of every person who comes into contact with them. In this way, an artwork can be a living thing, rather than a completed object that exists in the past and has a potential far greater than what we as artists can imagine. It has the potential, even, to become a communal act of collective transformation. The ‘constellation artwork’ is, we believe, an experimental environment in which we can bring all these ideas to the forefront and learn more, with our audiences, about what an artwork is, should be, or might become. 

Making a ‘constellation artwork’ also fits with our desire to make work that is more accessible for both the artists and the audience, due to the fact that it can exist in various places and in various times, and is more able to be experienced in a way that the experiencer chooses. In our practice until now, we have mostly presented our work via live premieres in more or less traditional performance spaces. This way of working creates one, high-pressure, geography- and time-specific moment that can only be witnessed by a limited number of people who are in the same city at the same time. These people must also be physically, psychologically, and financially able to buy a ticket and come to a theatre. It also creates a stressful working environment where the stakes and nerves could hardly be higher. Until now, we have been working mostly in Berlin under the German funding model which, with its emphasis on premieres, encourages the production of new performance works, but provides little support for long-running showings, sustained practice, or touring. This meant that most of our projects consisted of a premiere and two or three further shows, then that was that. If we were lucky, we might show once or twice at a festival, otherwise, the work effectively stopped being actively alive in the world. Despite our frustrations, we only began to actively challenge this pattern during the COVID period.

In 2021, we received funding to make KARELIA — A Queer Forest Fantasy in Two Parts which was particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it brought us to Finland for the first time when we came to Outokumpu for the Old Mine Residency — the first step on a journey that led us to relocate here. Secondly, it was the first time we intentionally made a work that could be described as a constellation. We originally conceived of the piece as a conventional stage performance, but when we began working, our production manager advised that we make a contingency plan just in case the premiere and shows needed to be cancelled due to sickness, quarantine requirements, or the theatre being closed. The funding body was still flexible about presenting an alternative to a live premiere, but we would have to present something online in order to fulfill the requirements of the grant. We wanted to be in control of the artistic quality of that something and also had to manage the autistic access need of dealing with certainty rather than some nebulous Plan B. We decided we would also make a film. If everything went to plan, we would premiere with a live stage show. If the live show had to be cancelled, we would premiere the film online.

Image: Óscar González

We agreed we didn’t want to make a filmed version of the live performance as film and performance were intrinsically different formats. To simply transfer the live performance to film wouldn’t work, so instead, we decided to make a film that would complement and add to the live performance, but which could also stand alone. In the end, we shot the film here in North Karelia during our Outokumpu residency. It was thematically and narratively linked to the planned performance but you could watch it alone and not feel as though you were missing anything. Similarly, if you only came to see the live performance and never watched the film, you would not feel that the experience was incomplete. We designed the two pieces to work together as though the film ‘dreamed’ the performance, and vice versa.

As it turned out, COVID was kind to us, and we premiered the film and the performance simultaneously, with the film going live online at the same moment as the audience members came into the auditorium for the premiere in Berlin. We added a third element to the constellation with an expanded programme that, as well as credits for the show, contained original writing and photography. In this way, our first constellation artwork was born. By premiering the film and the live performance at the same time, it was our intention to disrupt the hierarchy of the elements. They were both the ‘real’ artwork and as important as each other. Many people we cared about would not be able to come to the theatre that night — due to finances, COVID travel restrictions, disability — but still they were able to experience it. The work was the work, we realised. You didn’t have to see all of it to see it. Now, years later, the film endures online with the expanded programme notes accompanying it as an online publication, while the stage premiere has faded into memory. Two stars of the constellation remain bright. Since then, we have made a year-long film project with a new installment each month (12 Months — A Year, 2021-22), and a multimedia project consisting of a book, EP of original songs, a website, and a live sharing event (Homecoming — Greatest Hits! 2022).

With Forests in Our Mouths is a much more complex constellation that involves a greater number of chapters over a greater number of platforms which will interact across a greater number of temporalities. We also have another ambition to explore in this project. Not only will With Forests in Our Mouths be made up of different ‘chapters’ across different formats including live performance, film, publication, exhibition, and so on, each chapter will be made up of smaller components that can be combined and recombined according to the requirements and limitations of when and how they are presented. It is our aim, at the end of the two years, to have created, memorised, and stored within our bodies a repertoire of short performative segments that we can call upon at will. Before each presentation of the work, we will decide which elements to include and in what order. We imagine sitting in the rehearsal room and deciding on a running order, perhaps writing them down on the back of an envelope, just as musicians who have long years of experience working together might. Each performance will be adapted to the environment it is shown in. Each performance will be unique. And however much and in whichever form you see the work, you will have seen With Forests in Our Mouths.

Image: ONCE WE WERE ISLANDS & Óscar González