Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"With Choir," Emely Neu with No Bra

The musician Susanne Oberbeck, a.k.a. No Bra, and journalist-turned-artist, Emely Neu met for a live interview in London on May 25, 2013.  The occasion was Neu’s master’s thesis performance entitled “With Choir.” It was structured as a traditional interview, but Neu added a third element – a trio of masked actors -- calling it a “triangular situation.” Neu said the chorus was meant to embody the natural discomfort of any exchange. I know from my own experience, that the process of interviewing someone is fraught with uncertainly.  A seemingly straightforward exchange between a prepared interviewer and a willing interviewee can easily go off course.  Yet, these detours often produce the most interesting material.

Each participant after the fact reported feeling uncomfortable with the outcome of the event.  I’ve since become further acquainted with Neu and Oberbeck individually, and I can guess why.  They are both contemporary German-born artists, fully engaged in their respective fields, but their aesthetics and personalities are very different. Neu is motivated to take concrete action inviting others to collaborate. She responds viscerally to injustice and seeks solace in nature. She is the curator of a book called, “Let’s Start a Pussy Riot,” created as a way to raise funds for the wrongfully imprisoned members of the Russian collective, Pussy Riot.  In contrast, Oberbeck is an understated, urban realist; a solitary observer.  She catches the small details revealing society’s alienating forces. Her early interest in filmmaking shifted to singing and songwriting in 2003. Her pop sound places an industrial instrumentation behind her pointed ballads. I believe that even in a traditionally formatted interview, the conversation would have been bumpy. 

I attended the performance with my husband, Jeff. It took place on the top floor of Rich Mix, a venue used for exhibitions and screenings located on Bethnel Road. We entered a large, darkened theatre space. Chairs had been placed on three sides of a spotlit set in several neat rows.  A small coffee table with water glasses sat between two upholstered armchairs. Just beyond the shadows, three masked, bronze-painted young actors stood wearing togas. They emitted soft giggles, moans and sniffing sounds. As people entered the room and selected their seats, they glanced at the disguised group. Most people smiled quizzically and conferred with their neighbors. The murmurs from the stage combined with the audience’s hushed conversations as if in parallel play.

Once everyone was seated the strange prologue of mirrored whispers quieted as Neu, wearing a neat white blouse and dark slacks, purposefully entered the square of light with her guest. In slim patterned pants, sneakers and a large leather jacket, Oberbeck seated herself across from Emely in the adjoining chair. Her hip-length hair – often her only on-stage attire above her shorts -- contributed to her spare presence.  Neu’s questions for Oberbeck covered topics such as the personal significance of the fall of the Berlin wall and her musical influences.  Jeff pointed out that the format suggested a typical television talk show: the Greek chorus functioned as both the house band and the side-kick for Neu. As such, the “choir” felt slightly aligned with Neu leaving Oberbeck outnumbered. Her defense tactic was in keeping with her personal style: she shut down and answered back with comments she later said were aimed at “entertaining the audience.” Neu carried the conversation forward against this tide. The trio did disrupt the interview in an entertaining way for this particular exchange, but ultimately Oberbeck’s retorts seemed to unsettle the flow more than the squeaks and sighs interjected by the actors. Thus true to Neu’s objective the “choir” was the catalyst for and gave physical form to the unexpected.

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