About the Work
Ben J. Riepe’s way of working is best described as a dynamic, constantly examining form in progress. This examination, at the center of which is unrestrictedly the human body, has in recent years focused consistently and uncompromisingly on the search for new aesthetic means, forms and strategies. These new strategies strongly interact with location specific room structures and the merging with related art forms of dance, such as music, performance, installation etc.
Text, image and sound form the cornerstones of artistic engagement in the numerous stage plays, performances and film- and video works. On these cornerstones, the elements of body, space, time, movement, light, form and abstraction are in a floating relation to each other. Through an aesthetic interrogation of these interdependences, especially the field of tension of the body in a state between being a body and having a body, between presence and absence, exhibiting and performing, subject and object, stagnation and transformation, the concept of beauty is examined anew in every work. In this process, the boundary between visual and performing art, sculpture and performance, viewer and viewed, object and subject, movement and emotion, dissolves. A spectrum of diverse formats mixes in the process. Within this hybrid art form, the new artistic vocabulary develops, which constantly and consistently dedicates itself to the search for a new aesthetic of expression. An aesthetic, which serves as a weapon of sorts, that empowers the audience in its elementary experience and guides the conditions of art into a floating togetherness. In this cosmos of artistic expressions, space and time form the fundamental axis, at the center of which is the human being and the body: as a medium and resonance space, as an instrument, a witness and a creator.
In the choreographies, full of multi-layered images of movement, new fields of action open up and serve as a bridge between art and encounter, aesthetics and participation, space and community. The focal point is the question of personal conditions and necessities, as well as working on the boundary to fleetingness. In this endeavor, the choreography is far more than an arrangement of dancing bodies. It is primarily a means of structuring space and time. At the same time, the choreography is a sensual exploration of emotional depth and exposes sensual spaces of experience, which facilitates true thinking. These spaces of experience fascinate through their ephemeral nature and at the same time withstand any efforts of specification or interpretation. Yet, they continue to exist vividly, between grasping and disappearing, as a platform of memories. Maybe this is what makes their effect even more emotional.
On the constant search for new conceptual modes of implementation, the artistic path leads into the spaces of visual art, whereby the work not only undergoes a contentual and formal expansion, but also opens the possibility to develop serial work- and research projects. The promotion of excellence from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the city of Düsseldorf and the longstanding partnership as affiliated artist of PACT Zollverein Essen furthermore enables a production practice beyond the conventional economy of producing and playing. This interconnected aspect between the branches and institutions is an important engine for the adaption and perpetuation of the working processes of Ben J. Riepe.
periphere portrait © Klostermann & Mir
by PACT Zollverein, Essen, 2016
Ben J. Riepe in conversation with art historian Bianca Bachmann, about his roots as a dancer, about the nature of his choreographies, working with the human body, dance as a nonverbal language and greatest liberty in the arts, aesthetics as a weapon and an instrument, ephemeral sculptures, the quest for cognition and about what his artistic future holds.
– – –
Ben, you are a choreographer, but originally studied dance. How did you get into dance?
I have actually always been interested in or fascinated by different art forms, even as a child. I have had some very deep, formative encounters with various artists, events and performances. I was also always involved in theater myself. As a child, that was actually always my way of playing. Later, in my youth, I was often looking for an adequate form, a right language or a right material. I have always been close to theater, but I found spoken theater to be very restrictive. The speaking and this incredibly expressionistic aspect of theater, in the sense of classical spoken theater, actually completely put me off. But the theater as a form, or as a house or a place was still incredibly fascinating to me. At the same time, I found visual art exhibitions really great, but to think to myself: “I’m going to become a painter or a sculptor or something” was a little too sparse or too lonely for me… I thought about this a lot and then I looked into dance. But dance actually didn’t appeal to me at all either. It was too much of a format for me, especially ballet, or it was far too synthetic or too artificial, too mannered, stylized and, well, not real enough. Until I had seen several performances by Pina Bausch. It really struck me, because so many aspects came together that I found fascinating about theater, about the place itself: the way you are there, how people meet, how you view something there and how things are played or performed there. But also the nonverbality, the multidimensional nature, the many levels – it just moved me. And then I thought: alright, maybe dance is just the right way to go to where I want to be. It has something to do with visual art, it has something to do with theater, but both of these categories don’t really apply. And it is not really dance per se either.
What or who has inspired you as a dancer?
With Pina Bausch, I saw that she had found a way to communicate through the body, in images, on nonverbal levels, in emotional layers or also in the theater, where all these elements sort of come together. That was what I had attempted to do. I went with dance, but I knew from the beginning that dance was my vehicle and not my destination. I found a common overlap of dance, theater and visual arts, of image, language and body. This directness and freedom of the body was the reason why I followed through with my study of dance. This is what I’m saying now, even though I probably wasn’t able to express it as clearly then. I didn’t necessarily find it that great, but I thought: this is where I might find my path.
So, at the beginning, dance was a path that brought you further ahead, an opportunity to discover a whole universe. What does dance mean to you today?
Dance means having the greatest freedom in the arts, because dance really works directly with the body. Dance doesn’t work with any stipulation, not with text, not with a musical score, not with a particular material like canvas or stone, it doesn’t work with a device like a video- or photo camera. It only works with what you carry with you at all times. The instrument is the body and the rest is completely open. The rest, what you do with it, in which forms, in which spaces, in which encounters, which presentation and portrayal or embodiment or event, is liberty. Into which form you go is entirely free and entirely open. This is the reason why I am still interested in working with dance or why I still label myself as a choreographer.
The transition to choreography was the moment when you decided: I want to discover form from within this rich body of experience?
Yes, but there are different points to it: one of them is that, from the beginning, I was looking for something in dance that actually occurs very seldom in dance and that I couldn’t see myself. It wasn’t visible. Dance itself never really interested my as such. Still, the thing I was interested in, I wanted to find in dance.
Another point is that I was never really interested in being on stage myself. I only studied dance so that I could understand the tools of the trade. I never enjoyed this feeling of going on stage. I like to dance for myself, but I don’t like to portray something and I don’t like to be observed. I always found the view from the outside to be much more interesting. To be able to experience all of it, to be able to produce it yourself.
I then had this one important experience towards the end of my dance training, when I was dancing “Sacre” by Pina Bausch. It’s a piece that I had always very much admired, or am still admiring today. A piece that I consider to be THE great masterpiece of her oeuvre, especially regarding the choreography. But the very moment I danced in it, it was destroyed for me for many years, disenchanted, because everything is enumerated. I was constantly busy counting the beats. It was only about the line-up, the formations, the rows and about where my spot was, where I should stand. I saw everything from the back and looked down the rows and all the power that this piece has when you see it from the audience perspective was lost. And for many years after, when I saw the play, I felt the same way about it. Only years later, I was able to see the play from a neutral position again. It’s the most important thing for me, to be “outside” in every rehearsal, to have this view from outside, to feel and to observe. I could observe for hours. I love it.
So you combined two perspectives: the outside perspective as a choreographer, and at the same time the perspective of the dancer who knows what they do with the body.
Exactly, but I completely chose this one perspective, almost immediately after my dance training.
But the other perspective always shines through a little?
What would you say choreography means to you?
Choreography to me actually “just” means structuring space and time. This means a lot and it’s also a great freedom: it’s all there and everything is possible. At the same time, it’s all broken down and gives me the freedom to say: for every work and in everything I do, contentually, formally or anything else, I actually always come up with a structure of space and time. How long is it? Is it durational, is it an hour, is it a stage work, is it in a museum, is it in a 3×3 meter box or is it on many 1000m2? Is it connected? Do you go through it, do you sit and watch or participate? All of this is choreography to me. But, broken down to the smallest common denominator, it is actually always a structure of space and time.
Where or what is the body in your choreography?
The body is the theme, content, medium, venue, witness, creator. The body is the central subject.
As of today: what defines you as a choreographer? What defines your work now and today? Which elements are central to your engagement?
What is particularly special about my work is the transcending of genres, or, in other words, the floating relation between the many different elements I work with, like image, text, movement, light, music, atmospheres, space, body. Every element gets to take the lead at times. So it is not always the body, the theme or the content that leads the way, it can be a completely different element like the light. This is very important to me.
A further important element is the imagery, the very visual aspect of my work, the aesthetics. It’s not necessarily something I come up with or force, it’s just there and serves as an instrument to me. It has always been there, even in my first work. I didn’t plan it. When I started working, I didn’t know that I was such a highly visual type. Aesthetics is the most radical language I have for communication. What I am interested in is understanding the aesthetic material so that I can then apply it contentually.
Apart from the visual aspect, music plays an important role. It’s more subtle and very different than the visual element. The auditive aspect is something much more delicate, much more restrained. Even though it is profound and it comes from behind, it is very strong. I am becoming more and more interested in working with the auditive aspect, also because it has become compulsory for me. I cannot stand music as a backdrop and I always must listen to it. So it influences me fundamentally! But the visual element is incredibly strong and incredibly dominant as well. Maybe this relationship is predisposed in the visual and auditive aspects – I don’t know.
A fourth element that constitutes a central element in my work is the human and the body itself. Choreography or dance often only concerns the body. When I talk about the body though, I mean all the topics that are connected to the body: subject, object, physique, disguising/exposing, flesh, modification, aging, developing, childhood, testosterone, dying, death, the body as an instrument and expression, gender, sex, frenzy, body culture, cultures and cultural imprint, representation, body politics, exercise of power and its impact. So I am not only interested in the body as a material and form, as an object, but also as a subject. By that, I mean the human being within a society, their development and the development of the senses, how the understanding develops, how we see the world. This also includes culture, the cultural imprint and also the utopias, the wishes, the changes, the possibilities of transition and action. So this entire aspect, what the human being actually really means or what it means to live and to act.
What is image or imagery to you, in the context of the present day, where everything is hyper-medial and hyper- visual? What is the significance of the image or imagery in your art?
What definitely exists for me is the constant question: what is the meaning of the image? Essentially, the image is very much in opposition to dance, because dance is movement and flow. The image, on the other hand, is always a static thing, a snapshot, something that has nothing to do with dance at all. This is also what makes my work so alien and at the same time so interesting in dance, in a way.
We live in an era of images and in an age of aesthetics, in which everything is aestheticized. We live in an age of Photoshop, where everything is about the stylization of images. Everything, the internet and social media, works via images and at the same time, everything reduces more and more to the image. The image drops out of time and space. To work within this stress ratio is interesting to me, and simultaneously means that I am in constant confrontation with myself. I ask myself: what does it actually mean to choreograph pictorially, elaborately, visually or aesthetically? Ideally, the aesthetics become a weapon or an instrument.
Before I come back to the image and to what remains of that image you generate with your work, I would like to discuss another instrument: the body. The most important development in performance art was to abandon the body as an entirely controllable material and the recovery of the idea of the doubling of being a body and having a body. In her book “Ästhetik des Performativen” (“aesthetics of the performative”) Erika Fischer-Lichte, writes: “The human being has a body that they can manipulate and instrumentalize, like other objects. Simultaniously though, the body is a body-subject.”1 How do you experience this balancing act that the body brings, this inherent dualism between being a body and having a body? How do you deal with this as a choreographer?
This dualism is immediately present in the theater situation for me, because what I am watching are human beings. On the other hand, I am looking at bodies, who move in a certain way, or who are trying to embody something for me. This is actually always the theme. Even this artificial act of sitting down and not talking to someone, but looking at the body and having that distance is a strange invention on its own. That dualism is always present and creates tension. Here is where it starts to get interesting for me, because it constantly goes back and forth. These bodies that I am seeing, these human beings, become projection surfaces. It creates a generalization and on the other hand, an identification. To refine that thought is something I find very interesting. This is also why I often work with masks, with disguises and exposition, with showing and not showing the body. Especially the face is of interest to me. When you see a face, you also see the person. When the face is covered, the personality, the identity vanishes. You no longer see who this person is. What remains is only the body. To see this process and to further examine this dualism of the body fascinates me.
According to Erika Fischer-Lichte, exactly this moment, when the “transition” between subject and object takes place (and the artistic body, despite absolute freedom, is not reduced to subjectivity, but the concept remains recognizable) is what yields performance. When this is the case, the boundaries between performer and audience, between object and subject, between movement and emotion can blur.2
Yes, that is the central theme of “Untitled:Persona”, and actually, my main quest.
When you talk about quest: you, as an artist, are an observer, a seeker, a re-actor. What do you observe, what do you seek or what do you react to?
I try to let different levels react with each other within me. On the one hand, that means real things, so I engage contentually with topics such as subject/object. But this engagement is actually already based on something that I have automatically reacted to. A reflection often comes in retrospect. Then I think to myself: why do I find this interesting? What is it that I am actually doing there
These thinking processes continue for many years. At the beginning, it is often something that just triggers me, subconsciously. I often sit for eight hours a day and observe what the dancers are doing and then I react to it somehow. I try to observe myself and I believe that you carry certain things within you, but they are not organized into the categories of good or bad. Often times, you don’t even remember where things came from, and you just think: there was something. In these moments, I always try to exercise a kind of hygene within myself, and to rearrange all the things I remember. I then ask myself: what is the impulse that caused me to react right now? Do I react out of a memory, because I saw something, or is there something that moved or touched me? Or was it something that evoked an idea or a notion in me? Or is it a memory of something that I would actually like to eliminate
Ultimately, my aim in seeking, observing and reacting is to experience, to witness, if possible, with all the senses and the head as a sensory organ.
Is it also about cognition?
It is also about cognition, but not in the theoretical sense, but more so through experience. I also find this important, but it is more about reaching other layers, nonverbal layers. Therefore, I am interested in dance as a nonverbal language, just like music. It cannot be translated. That is what’s interesting about it. Otherwise you could just write a book about it. Books are important, of course, and I like reading them, but they are merely approximations to something. It takes 1000 words to describe something. I am looking for the before, what happens prior to this description. And I find that in the experience of things that I witness when I observe human beings, objects, lights, haze and audience for hours and think about how these elements affect each other.
About your work method: what fascinates me is how open-mindedly you work with your dancers, and you don’t reserve the sole authorship for yourself, but include the dancers into your considerations. What does this autonomy mean to you? Is it a kind of freedom?
This autonomy is not just a freedom, because it costs us all quite a lot. You have to work off of each other a lot and find a good mix. On the one hand, everyone contributes something, on the other hand, I am left as the only one on the outside making the decisions and giving a lot of direction from an external position, but at the same time, taking up a lot of impulses over and over again. It is a constant dialog that is rewarding, but also exhausting and requires a lot of time. We talk a lot, we try out a lot of things, I observe a lot. Everything takes a lot of time and would probably be much quicker if I would just make all the decisions on my own. But I don’t believe in that. I believe that I am not that great or smart, and I could not come up with everything by myself. A really good piece of art is more than just the artist. A lot of important moments need to happen, important encounters need to happen, many people need to come together. And even if you create an artwork on your own as an artist, it is still not isolated from the world, but all of these things shine through. This is why my processes are always strongly dialogical.
Speaking of dialog: putting themes into different contexts is something you also try by inviting guests, scientists, artists and musicians to your productions. How important is this interdisciplinary dialog to you?
I find this dialog important, but it has to be done very carefully, very gently. You have to carefully think through how you want to talk when you want to create an encounter.
To simply exchange views with random people often does not work out, you need a common embedding. I am just now beginning to find more and more opportunities and contexts for myself, that enable me to create a dialog with others. There are thousands of exchange platforms. I have also participated in many artists‘ exchanges, but most of the time, it’s not really about what you can tell each other, or where you can open a dialog on an equal footing. It’s incredibly hard to find a common language and to initiate a dialog. Most of the time, it doesn’t work, that’s my experience. But when it does work, it’s wonderful and so very important that it has become a necessity for me.
For many years I tried this myself and still haven’t exchanged much with others. It wasn’t possible, because you need to have a very clear point of view. Most exchange formats are for young artists. I think that doesn’t work because you need to be very certain of yourself in order to have an exchange. But that doesn’t mean that nothing changes afterwards. The points of view still change all the time. I certainly contradict myself every six months. But you just need a very stable, longstanding personal research background to really have productive encounters. Maybe I am ready for that now.
You travel a lot, you have residences all over the world. What does traveling mean to you? What do you take with you? What do you bring back?
Traveling is very important and very central. Talking about it isn’t easy because you quickly resort to platitudes like: you see the world with other eyes… But the truth is: when I am traveling, when I have performances or work with people locally and talk about my work, I have to formulate quick responses. I have to get to the point quickly, and often in an unfamiliar context. I always monitor myself automatically in that process. It’s as if I am seeing everything again through a different pair of glasses, as if I am seeing myself again through a burning glass. At the same time, new filters apply, which are very enriching, For example, I was in Greece during the referendum (annotation: the 2015 referendum about wether to accept the bailout conditions in the country’s government-debt crisis, which created tension between Greece and Germany) and experienced it from the greek rather than the german perspective. I was also in India during the time when the mass rape cases became public and I made “don’t ask, don’t tell”, a piece about eroticism, but with men. A piece about eroticism in India and Europe and about eroticism in art. That was when all the rape cases became public in 2012.
You see things anew, which is very important. Because I never just travel somewhere – I am rarely at a place for just a week, of course that happens too, that you just play somewhere and then leave right afterwards – but I mostly work with the people locally for a longer period of time and connect very much with these places. I talk a lot, I ask a lot, and I cannot avoid to deal with where I actually am. That’s very influential. And it doesn’t work without a strong engagement. This engagement changes, shifts and expands my view of things. It puts all the topics and contents into entirely different contexts again. These experiences are what I take home with me. They become more and more important to me.
About ephemeral sculptures: you create ephemeral sculptures in your works, which develop in the moment when the audience observes them, so, in the moment of confrontation. Your performances are therefore sculptural, or become sculptural the moment they meet the eye of an observer. But they are also ephemeral, which means that they fade away. Hence the question: what remains if “nothing” remains?
That, to me, is something I think about a lot or that I experiment with a lot at the moment, because in many ways, I cannot grasp it myself. I mean, dance is, theoretically, the most ephemeral art form of all. Even in a theater play, you still have the text or something similar to hold on to. But a dance performance is volatile. Dance is the most volatile art. There is always that desire to capture it, to record it. Or you already choreograph a piece in a way that it becomes repeatable. But this fleeting moment is not repeatable. The live experience is not repeatable. It is different every time. Every audience brings a different kind of atmosphere, you bring something different into it yourself. It is always different. This thought was what caused me to ask: how can I go the other way and make it even more volatile? And: what is actually special about it, what is the magic of it?
It’s this moment, when something suddenly comes together. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. It can even happen that one and the same play sometimes generates the magic moment and sometimes doesn’t, sometimes at one moment, sometimes at a completely different moment. In some way, it is always different. I asked myself: what can this be?
This is also why I started to actually control these processes live, like in “Untitled: Persona” or even more in “Livebox: Persona” and it actually is intended to become even more prominent in these formats. Of course, you also have to endure a lot to actually get there. You can also provoke it a little bit or create a ground for it. I just throw all the elements I have into it and I try to keep them in the air, in a floating relation to each other. Then you kind of have this moment, this electric shock or this tingling sensation. This is that special moment when everything comes together.
But do you think this moment is individual? Do you think maybe this ephemeral sculpture lies not so much in the artwork itself, but rather in the observer?
I think it has a little bit of everything. Sometimes it lies in the observer, sometimes it lies between the performers, sometimes it’s in the entire space, sometimes it captures everyone. This is generally true in art as well as in life. But sometimes it might be something between two people, or between a performer and a person in the audience. Or it’s just me, as a choreographer, who experiences a magic moment, that’s also possible. I think everything exists, and I keep wondering what else there can be. In India, for example, people believe in the “Rasa”. It describes an attitude, a stance, an attuned state of the viewer and an openness for receiving the magic moment. “Rasa” is an attitude you need in order to see a theater play or a piece of art. An ancient and beautiful idea.
An artist I know once said that cognition is the purest sculpture of all. When your ephemeral sculptures fade, do you think it’s the cognition that remains? Cognition, not in the sense of knowledge, but rather in the sense of emotional stimulation, of recognition? Is it possible that, what remains of an artwork is only what the artwork has yielded and what is being carried on from it?
Yes, often times you just remember a certain picture, a text, a piece of music or something diffuse. But the strongest memories are the ones of things that touched you or that did something to you. That is what you remember, if it was good.
About the future: what does the future hold? Will there be an artificial concentration on one topic?
That’s always hard to say… I feel like there will be an even stronger focus and at the same time an opening. On the one hand, a focus on bodies and human beings, and on the other hand it keeps opening up to me in which genres I work or which genre boundaries I am moving towards. I could now imagine also working with text for example. Now, because I have gone with the nonverbal for such a long time. Or I could also imagine working with a fixed musical arrangement, a musical score. I could imagine that I have developed enough autonomy to dare to work with these elements or that they won’t bring me to my knees or make me feel like I’m in a straitjacket. That is actually also like a focus, like a structure that always brings freedom as well. Ultimately, it has always worked best for me that way: whenever I have restricted myself very much, the work turns out to be the widest, the richest, the most open. I can imagine that this arrangement of focus and opening will manifest even more in the future.
Which topics are you focussing on for that?
On the one hand, I am interested in the power over the body or the execution of power in the sense of disguising and exposing, which I have worked on a lot with a completely different approach of subject-object and identity. But to look at this again from an outside perspective, as a power structure, is what I am very interested in at the moment. Also, the body itself interests me a lot more, to treat the flesh of the body as a material and as a creator of sound more intensely. But also the image itself is interesting to me, or, to think about what the image is? What does the image mean? And what does this mean for me right now?
Another focus is on body images and a connection with the topic of flesh: flesh for stimulation. In this, I am also dealing with the topic “carne vale” in the sense of carnival, of thrill, of dissolving boundaries, of stimulation. But at the same time in the literal sense of the word, so, to abstain from the flesh, to reject it. I am also interested in questioning what flesh actually means, in this kind of corporeality, on this kind of stage and in this kind of performative context.
I’m also fascinated by the autonomy of the body. Carnival is one of these moments where everyone can do what they want for a day. It is a sort of prescribed anarchy, and this anarchy of the body is what I am very interested in. It’s just incredible what forms have developed there. On the one hand, something like in brazil: almost completely naked in a state of ecstasy. And then again a different way: the alpine regions, completely covered, estranged with animal masks and really great musics, sounds and songs. There are so many aspects I want to examine. But all of that is already performance and already so inherently good that you don’t need to do anything to it anymore. I’m still interested in getting to know all these different forms though, and to think about what the body creates, what the body does or what comes from it? What can it do? What can it not do? What does it do? What does it mean to have a body or what does it mean to even be here?
All these developments, from birth to death, is what I am dealing with. Also, with (re-)cognition: how does (re-)cognition work? How does the development of sensory perception work and how do we perceive the world? After all, we perceive it through the senses. That’s the thing I am interested in, in theater and in dance: cognition, recognition. And that is in the body. It’s not something abstract, but it’s life, it’s the human being. So what is human, human matter, the project human being?
This examination is incredibly widespread, but everything moves in closer together as well: reality and art. I think that’s a good thing. I actually always wonder: what is the point of making art? Does it even make sense? Do we need that? Yes, but it must have something to do with life.
 Fischer-Lichte, Erika: Ästhetik des Performativen, Frankfurt/Main 2014, 129.
 Fischer-Lichte, Erika: Performing Emotions. How to Conceptualize Emotional Contagion in Performance, in: Sabine Flach, Daniel Margulies, Jan Söffner (Ed.): Habitus in Habitat I. Emotion and Motion, Bern et al. 2010, p. 25-40.