KVS

An archive, near and far

A conversation with Zoë Demoustier and sound designer Willem Lenaerts about the interplay between movement and sound in the documentary performance Unfolding an Archive. 

By: Elowise Vandenbroeck 

© Tom Herbots

How did this project originate? 

The starting point of the performance is the archive my father, Daniel Demoustier, has collected as a video reporter during wars, natural disasters and political conflicts. The article spans twenty years and also envelops my childhood. As a child, I took my father’s job and the images that came into our home for granted. I only started watching those video reports consciously a few years ago. My father was ill at the time and through those images I found a way to get to know him better, to see through his lens. So the approach is personal, but ultimately this story is much bigger than me. As a creator, I always look for themes with some social relevance. 

Unfolding an Archive is all about the video reports Daniel Demoustier made in his career, and yet you have chosen to hardly show any of those images.  

The images are very forceful. That’s why we chose to shift the focus to sound, which has a more associative quality. It leaves space for an alternate way of viewing and listening. My father also has a background in sound engineering and sometimes worked as a sound engineer in the Belgian music scene, so it seemed like a fitting choice. 

The performance starts from an autobiographical story. How do you approach that with your body, using movement techniques that are not necessarily narrative? 

This is the first performance in which I intentionally used my training as a mime (I graduated from the Amsterdam Academy of Arts with a degree in mime). The movement technique of ‘mime corporel’ is not as well-known in Belgium, but it helped me a lot in analysing, refiguring and abstracting these images and physical memories. Dance is more emotional and lends itself to visualising the impact, the effect it has on you. 

The creation is entitled Unfolding an Archive. Is the archive itself visualised in the performance? 

The archive is visualised by a map that I draw on the theatre floor as a kind of forensic investigation. The map is subjective: ‘home’ is in the middle; I start the performance from that sensation and proceed to map out other points. Every location is linked to a sound and a movement. Whenever I arrive at a new spot, I search for where the visual memories (of the images corresponding to that location) are located in my own physical archive. Gradually an interplay develops between the locations, the sounds and the movements. The archive gets shaken up and new connections are made. 

“The archive gets shaken up and new connections are made.” 

The topic is rather heavy, since it skirts around themes of war and conflict. What message would you like to give to your audience, Zoë?

This is the first time that my work features a tragicomic aspect. We start from a certain lightness and absurdity: a politician’s endless speech, a reporter who doesn’t know his lines, … It’s the tragedy of an inability to put oneself in another’s shoes. But maybe there is also a certain beauty in the transparency of admitting that inability, and to keep trying anyway.

“Me and my father digging through memories together, trying to reconstruct a series of events, each from our own perspective.”

Zoë, the story of this performance is very close to your heart, and yet you also engaged in documentary research. Can you tell us why? How does that material translate to the stage?

The first thing I did was call my father. Initially I had no intention to literally use that material in the performance, but during the phone call I realised: this is it! Me and my father digging through memories together, trying to reconstruct a series of events, each from our own perspective. I am glad I recorded that first conversation on my phone. After that, I asked Yelena Schmitz to record interviews with me and my father separately. Her interview montage brings to light how different our memories and experiences of that time are. How the stories come together at times, but also diverge. Both the first phone call and Yelena’s interviews appear in the performance in fragmented versions.

How do you relate to the suffering of other people encapsulated in the images shot by Daniel Demoustier?

I find that very difficult … I would love to meet the people in those images. I feel that a necessary next step is to travel to those places – who knows, this might become a multi-year project. But for now, I am trying to transparently represent the subjectivity of the entire endeavour. It’s about impressions, about how those images make an impact. I look at those video reports from a specific framework. And journalism in itself is also a framework, it’s also subjective. Theatre offers yet another framework to investigate all of these matters.

Can you tell us more about the interplay between physical movement and sound?

Willem: We started fairly early on in the process with improvisations between movement and sound. Because that worked well, we went into the archive and selected sounds that we thought could mean more than just a bomb or a gunshot. We explicitly tried to avoid any glorification or a unilateral view of violence. Instead, we went looking for sounds that carry some ambiguity, that inspire multiple associations, and that can be abstracted.

Zoë: I feel that in the end we created a sort of duet between movement and sound. Together, they create compositions.

“We went looking for sounds that don’t just tell the clichéd war or disaster story, but that provide some information about their context. They are sounds that transport you to another location, that let you travel.”

How does the music relate to the sounds from the visual archive?

Zoë: The archive consists of rushes – hours and hours of unedited images. With my mother, Annemie Boonen, and Willem, we spent days and nights going through that archive to arrive at the final selection of sound fragments. We went looking for sounds that don’t just tell the clichéd war or disaster story, but that provide some information about their context. They are sounds that transport you to another location, that let you travel.

Willem: We wondered how far we could go in manipulating those fragments and adding effects. Could we actually turn it into music? In the end we went for a moderate approach, in which we stayed as close as possible to the original field recordings. Sometimes tapes are rewound, fast-forwarded, or looped. All of that is taken from the original rushes. Any damage to the tapes is also included in the performance, so we mostly played with existing sound effects within the archive.