Ben Kulvichit and Clara Potter-Sweet are two UK-based artists working in performance. Since meeting at university in 2016, they have collaborated under the name Emergency Chorus . Their work is research-driven and employs a collage aesthetic whereby source materials are sampled, transmuted, rewritten and snuck into performances combining found and original text, choreography, music and image. In the midst of a third national lockdown in the UK, and having not seen each other in physical space for over a year, they sat down to talk about collaboration, their recent work, and how the pandemic has changed their practice.
CPS: How am I doing? I would say I am surviving.
I have suddenly become time-poor but money-rich (well, money-adequate), which is a strange place to start this chat from. I have work now outside the arts which is sustaining me, but the time and brain-space I use for making art is ebbing. It does make me consider how we started making work at university, with no pay and huge swathes of time. I miss that so much. And I always think about your quote about theatre being sculpted from time.
BK: That’s Romeo Castellucci on the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma podcast, talking about the parallels between theatre and cheese.
CPS: Perfect. Thank you. Yes — it feels like there’s a vacuum, where between us there used to be only time. Sweetener , the video we were recently commissioned to make for Newcastle University’s Performance Research Network — that feels made from snatched moments. A text written in an afternoon, clips filmed between day-job hours.
BK: I’m glad we made that piece. I felt very resistant to the idea of adapting to online formats for a long time, much less making work via a corporate video conferencing platform. The reasons I make performance mostly boil down to the pleasure of being in a room with other people. The process is also the work, perhaps even more so than the work that the audience actually engages with, and for me that process absolutely relies on the proximity and intimacy of collaboration. We managed with what we had for Sweetener , but it only really made sense to me because it was directly dealing with those issues — it was our attempt to reconstruct a kind of perfect live audience through lo-fi digital means. It was about what constitutes “liveness”: the sense of a shared feeling in a shared space.
CPS: That’s so interesting. I hadn’t quite clocked that resonance between process and product. Maybe that’s why a lot of the material poured itself out without much trouble — like we were conduits to its thoughts.
We were so resistant to making “pandemic” work, but that piece really feels like the output that resulted from neither of us creating together for a year.
BK: In other words we ended up doing both the things we said we weren’t going to do!
The process is also the work, perhaps even more so than the work that the audience actually engages with, and for me that process absolutely relies on the proximity and intimacy of collaboration.
CPS: Well, we said we weren’t to pivot (as Jared puts it so eloquently in Silicon Valley ), and I don’t think we have done that. We hunkered down, found some weird hobbies to get us through, and then emerged re-contextualising our practice now that this disruption is here to stay. And even though we’ve been discussing new project ideas since last summer, this is certainly the first work I’ve made since this all began. The first outlet for all the bottled weirdnesses and distance and hurt.
I wonder how it feels where you are — are you rooted? In limbo?
BK: From an art-making point of view, I’m definitely a bit adrift without the ability to be in the same place as you.
It’s not exactly a new issue though. We were speaking a lot pre-pandemic about how living in different cities felt increasingly challenging. It was hard to find any sort of regularity or rhythm in our practice, and all too easy to get lost in the ocean of administration and application-writing. Something I envy about other disciplines like music and dance is the way they encourage a daily practice. Collaborative theatre-making doesn’t have that so much — you’re either working on a project, or you’re not. I’ve been trying to give myself structured tasks recently to stop the creative muscles from atrophying, but it’s difficult.
CPS: Yes! I wish there was a way to “practice” theatre-performance making without it feeling out of place in everyday life. I had to message all my neighbours and apologise for the sound of manic laughter making its way through the walls when we were filming Sweetener . It’s not the sort of practice you can fit into your living room, making nice with the people living above and below you. Filming that video really helped me feel my way back to having any sort of claim on being an “artist” — but it did come with the feeling of being unsustainable.
BK: At the moment I mostly feel a very strong urge to pick up the threads of Something In Your Voice (SIYV), the show we were beginning to develop just before the first lockdown changed everything. Would you like to say a little about that work and where you’re at with it now?
CPS: Yes. Something in Your Voice . I feel like we say its name with a certain sigh of longing. Our third theatre show, our biggest yet if we’re talking about growth and ambition, featuring three other performers alongside ourselves and a dedicated designer. Those were the things we’ve always wanted more of in our work — more bodies onstage, more brains in the room, more attention to visuals. It was almost too good to be true...
Right now, the communication aspect of SIYV feels like its heart. We always start from these discrete jumping-off points (it brings to mind the phrase “single-origin” for some reason, like how they describe artisan coffee). First show, CELEBRATION : joy. Second show, Landscape (1989): endings. Third show, SIYV : telephones. But it always lovingly spirals out to somewhere unexpected and it’s always a wild ride to go on.
The realisation we came to when working on the piece in January 2020 was that it was a show that actually wanted to be about surveillance, data harvesting, artificial intelligence. We found a way to speak about it in funding terms: “It’s technology now told through technology then.” But it was messier than that, more indiscriminate in its breadth. It was also about: how trees talk to each other, the paradoxical loneliness/intimacy of faceless communication, cyborgian concepts where animals fuse with technology, the physical realisation of digital networks in meatspace.
That unresolved, many-ended complexity is something that is so important to the performances that we make.
BK: It’s always quite painful to summarise or pitch a show. That unresolved, many-ended complexity is something that is so important to the performances that we make. I always prefer the works that are soupy, brimming with interconnected ideas, perhaps appearing disorganised (think of the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia meme ), over the ones that elegantly express a single resonant concept. A dramaturgy exercise we sometimes do is to answer three questions: A) What’s the show about? B) What’s it also about? and C) What’s it really about? You often put A and maybe B in the marketing copy and omit C. But even as a dramaturgical prompt, C feels increasingly inadequate to me. There’s never just one core question, but three or four or five.
Has SIYV changed for you in the year since we last worked on it?
CPS: I think it’s the fact that we’ve now become solely reliant on the methods of communication we were curious about in SIYV . Instead of technological communication being an increasingly dominant, but voluntary, facet of our lives, it’s currently the only way for you and I to be speaking right now. The bits about consumer choice and opting in/out of data collection feel less important now and coming to the fore is the feeling of being confined to that online communication space. I think it’ll really need new life breathing into it, so it doesn’t just try to tell an audience about an experience they’ve already lived through. No one wants to go and see “pandemic theatre” after this (although did you see the newest thing from Taylor Mac ? It’s a pandemic show that was conceived pre-pandemic — ouch.)
BK: You’re right that SIYV feels like a show on isolation. It was always about intimacy (definitely a recurring theme for us): the ways we try and fail to know each other; the need to be heard versus the anxiety of being surveilled; how much of ourselves we allow to be captured, whether by people close to us or by mega-corporations. That’s why it can’t be adapted for Zoom. It has to resist (however symbolically) a mode of communication that is irreversibly entangled with capital and private interests. The thing you mention about trees talking to each other , sending distress signals and resources via underground fungal networks, is about a kind of decentralised solidarity. It’s mutual aid, right? For me, the show has to be about creating that kind of network between people in an embodied space.
CPS: I’d forgotten all about that aspect — it reminds me of the way I dance on the streets past strangers on autopilot now, falling into single file with my companion or stepping out into the road for safety.
So yes, we’re closer to the subject material, but the lived experience of making the show — the collision of creatives in big beautiful rooms, sharing a house and cooking together, piling into small spaces, holding on to one another — is further than ever. It feels like an impossible past life. Part of me thinks we’ll never finish it.
BK: We can and will finish it! I have faith. I keep thinking about the banner that Zoë (Brennan, designer for SIYV ) put up in between two trees in a park around this time last year: PATIENCE.
It has to resist (however symbolically) a mode of communication that is irreversibly entangled with capital and private interests.
CPS: That makes sense, for I am very bad at being patient.
Has anything changed about SIYV for you? I know the field of research around it has really expanded, and is holding your interest in a new way.
BK: I feel like I have some more clarity on the themes of SIYV , but I’m all the foggier about what it might actually look and behave like on stage.
I’m finding it difficult to think in terms of stage-action right now. Instead, we’ve been putting more thought into ways of broadening our practice out from theatre — out of necessity of course, but also a genuine curiosity about what we could do without that familiar apparatus. We’ve been thinking about ways of reworking and repurposing ideas from existing works. It’s made me notice through-lines across different works of ours. I increasingly feel like we’re actually just making the same piece again and again anyway.
I’m interested in this relationship between form and content. Same content, different forms — or even the same content in the same forms. How do you feel about form right now? How do you feel about the theatre?
CPS: My mum told me the other day that theatres in the UK are due to reopen in May — she was watching me carefully, anticipating my delight, and it was kind of painful to say it didn’t mean anything. The restarting of live performance here feels completely disconnected from me, our work, my desire to make. Like our broken economies, a trickle-down arts scene is a badly-functioning one, even without a pandemic.
So I’ve certainly cut some ties — and making a theatre show feels so impractical that, like you, I can’t think in terms of actual live performance. I’ve lost that sense of dimensionality, of how to account for live breathing people in live breath-fogged space. I certainly feel our ideas this year are more contained and have the ability to live in smaller frames: a 12-minute video work, a chance-based audio experience. The horizons are smaller and so our forms are smaller too, but maybe denser with feeling as a consequence.
Though it sounds restrictive, I’ve really enjoyed exploring ideas across forms. I’m making another work about Joan of Arc , a live-streamed sister project to a theatre piece from 2019, and I’m finding I actually have about five different works I want to make in this vein. It suddenly feels like the most natural thing to do to keep pushing these ideas — of course we weren’t finished with mushrooms. If anything, we’ve become more fascinated with them the more time has passed since finishing Landscape (1989). We’re both obsessives about ideas and it makes total sense to me to keep following our noses (like truffle pigs looking for some sweet fungi) and speak multiply about whatever we’re interested in: culture under late capitalism, despair and hope, what we might learn from other forms of life (be they robots or trees). It’s about finding these soft moments of synchronicity, two figures turning slowly in a warm amber glow, all hands raised at once, the little laughs that puncture a long and strange sequence, voices coming tentatively together out of the dark…
All those things feel possible in many mediums. And I think Sweetener really attests to that — it holds an atmosphere rather than a story (despite the presence of a narrative within it), it has synchronicity, it has a surprising change of tone, it slides imperceptibly from one world to another beginning to end. It even features us spinning around, which by accident every Emergency Chorus work has featured so far. I’m finding it liberating to step into these spaces where we can bring our oddities and write them large. Cut sections from past shows might find new homes where we might get to articulate nuances that fell by the wayside before.
BK: Are there any forms you feel particularly drawn to?
CPS: I’m especially excited to work in an audio space, which has been the most accessible medium to me in the last year or so. I listened to our sound and dramaturgy collaborator Nat Norland’s graduate piece while painting the shed. I take walks that last the length of a friend’s play. I play the right songs over and over to change the backdrop of another day in the flat. I listen to your and Nat’s collaborative pieces and pretend we’re all in the room together. I am now soaked in an arts landscape that doesn’t include the visual, and it’s wonderfully strange and new. We’ve always had an emphasis on sound and music, but now I find I can take myself elsewhere, cure all ills with a soundtrack. I look forward to our explorations there, and can’t wait to write a shitty first attempt at a song with you.
If I can take a silver lining from this huge disruptive, destructive time, it’s this freedom to try new forms without feeling the need to go and get a degree in them first. Would you say there are any silver linings for you? What do you want to leave behind from before-times and what do you want to get back?
BK: I want to leave behind the pursuit of a linear career trajectory. With SIYV , I was so excited by the prospect of working with more people, more sets, and so on. That was great, but scale doesn’t seem like the endgame anymore. The pinnacle of artistic achievement is not necessarily making a show for Festival d’Avignon! When I think about the kinds of performances the pandemic has me missing the most, it’s always the ones with a single performer with a music stand, the ones in cramped basements, the unlikely work that takes up less space physically than it does in the imagination. 15 years down the line, I hope we’re still making performances that are just us on a bare stage, doing some things.
I want to get back the sense of being in an active community of artists: conversations, learning, exchange. Seeing each other’s work. I’m craving that. Reading Maddy Costa and Andy Field’s new book Performance in an Age of Precarity , which is a partial survey of a 10-year period in the UK performance scene — a snapshot of a certain generation of artists, many of whom have been pretty direct influences on us — has reminded me that contemporary performance is really quite a small pond. Lots of writing exists about very local, marginal music scenes. Small-scale contemporary performance is comparable but much less documented, and it was only reading this book that I started to think of this field as being a cultural “scene” too. There’s real importance in that, not in spite, but precisely because of its smallness.
I am now soaked in an arts landscape that doesn't include the visual, and it's wonderfully strange and new
This isn’t something we’ve really talked about a lot, but I feel the urge, as part of our practice, to create space for this kind of community-building to happen. I sometimes day-dream about a festival of work made by artist duos (it would be called Significant Others ), a series of pieces that we commission other artists to make for us to perform, a regular curated night of short performances, maybe a podcast. The logical conclusion of this thinking, perhaps, is to one day found a bricks-and-mortar venue. Perhaps it will be run by a collective, an artist’s co-op. I’d love that.
I’ve been dipping into Emma Warren's book, Make Some Space: Tuning into Total Refreshment Centre , which tells the story of the Dalston music venue and recording studio Total Refreshment Centre (TRC), one of those under-the-radar but really beloved places that spawned a whole generation of new jazz artists. Warren argues for the importance of grassroots culture and the physical space that is needed for it to flourish. It’s terribly romantic, really, and strengthens my belief in shared space and embodied experiences. TRC, or Forest Fringe , or Royal Vauxhall Tavern , or the Shunt Lounge — these would not have been able to exist online.
CPS: Woah. Running a venue. Big boy boots stuff.
BK: It would be, wouldn’t it? I don’t feel at all ready to do something like that yet, but I think we’re in this for the long haul, aren’t we? Patience!
Jared is a character from the American comedy television series, Silicon Valley, about programming and tech in the eponymous location: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yZDgyO3Dl4
On the term “single-origin” coffee: https://coffeeofthenorth.org/what-does-single-origin-coffee-mean/
Internet slang for "real", physical spaces.
“Mutual aid projects are a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions, not just through symbolic acts or putting pressure on their representatives in government, but by actually building new social relations that are more survivable”: https://bigdoorbrigade.com/what-is-mutual-aid/
The Festival d'Avignon is an annual arts festival held in the French city of Avignon each July: https://festival-avignon.com/en