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On the Ground

Phantom, stills & vibrations

An interview with Lara Kramer By Victoria Mohr-Blakeney, Nadine Changfoot
  • Kramer in her own work Phantom, stills & vibrations / Photo courtesy of presenter

We stare through the glass and glance down at the microphones in front of us. We slip on our headsets and take in a faint musty smell as we wait in Trent Radio’s Studio Two. I sit next to Nadine Changfoot, professor in political studies at Trent University, as we wait anxiously to speak with Montréal-based, Oji-Cree dance artist Lara Kramer about her new work Phantom, stills & vibrations. Kramer is the recipient of the prestigious 2018 Trent University Ashley Fellowship, often received by academics. Poised to begin, Changfoot pulls a laptop onto her lap in the cramped studio. She is one of the driving forces behind the residency and Kramer’s fellowship. The phone rings.

Kramer’s voice comes through the headsets clearly, but as though she is speaking to us from across a wide field.

As artistic director of Lara Kramer Danse, Kramer confronts the complex and brutal relationships between Indigenous peoples and settler society in her new work. It explores the residual effects of the residential school system and the traumas that permeate in its wake. Phantom, stills & vibrations is an immersive installation, created in collaboration with Stefan Petersen, which combines audio, photography, performance and artifacts. Within the space it inhabits, Kramer builds a sonic and visual world in response to visiting the Pelican Falls/Lake Residential School, attended by three generations of her family.

Victoria Mohr-Blakeney Phantom, stills & vibrations is a performance installation and immersive experience. What role would you say the body plays in this work?

Lara Kramer The body is present in all the elements. Coming from a strong contemporary dance background, even a few years ago I might have found this challenging. Through the process of developing the installation and the soundscape, it’s very much a result of my physical body having been in a completely different physical environment. The role of the body isn’t present in the sense of a physical body in constant performance onstage that is completely visceral or tangible. In this work, the presence of the body permeates each element. It’s what has directed the development for me in this work. Innately, this is how I work. The installation offers the absences of my physical body, the memory of it.

The public is coming in and they are experiencing the exhibit where there is a void of my body being present. I’m curious to see how that translates and what that provokes. It’s not to say that my body is not imprinted in those spaces. It’s just not there in a conventional sense, as we understand performance or present in the way performance is understood. The exhibit is still very much grounded in the physical body, how we might navigate the space and in the choices that have been made in the creation of this exhibit. It is very much directed through my body.

Nadine Changfoot Did you have some ideas about who the spectator is: either settler or Indigenous, or both? And what might be the impacts for both?

LK My previous work incorporates performance and installation. I started off with performance and I realized that the aftermath [of the performance] would be described as an installation or elements in my work as installation: the performance would transform into installation. With these elements of my work, performance creating installation, I asked how could the installation aspect be pushed further and hold its own with performance taking the back seat, so to speak, but still being part of the process.

My previous work felt more catered to settler audiences. When I think back to my first full-length production, Fragments, I always had Indigenous collaborators involved in my process of creation. They are a part of the discussion, but they are not the audience that needs to be informed about the Indian Residential Schools. How profound the work can go? Who needs to hear this work? Fragments was inspired by my mother’s experiences in Indian Residential Schools. It’s really rich to have elders and survivors be part of my rehearsals, research and process of narration. In the end, the work felt more for settlers than Indigenous people.

Indigenous voices are already well-informed about this history. The urgency of my storytelling, my desire to tell a specific story, it’s for sure addressing what’s not being spoken of in settler society, or what’s lacking in settler society or settlers, in terms of not being well-informed. In Phantom, stills & vibrations, the conversation has opened up. Fragments premiered a year after the Harper apology, and moving forward to where we are today, the conversation still needs to penetrate deeply in Canada. Still, it feels a bit further along.

For Phantom, stills, & vibrations, I wasn’t thinking of who the audience is but rather, how can I reach audience in another way that is not with a stage production? I was thinking, how can the public be enveloped both with physical interaction with the elements through sound, movement and performance? I am approaching how the creation is engaged with rather than specifically who is the public.

VMB Installation has often been an element of your performance work. Do you think it’s significant that your work has moved into a gallery space for Phantom, stills & vibrations?

It feels very natural – a natural progression to come to the gallery space. It’s the emergence of both [performance and installation]. It’s also challenging to examine the visual landscape of my work. I feel like I’m being challenged to strip back the body, going more into visual matter and textile matter and audio matter. It’s a nice challenge and it feels already there. Before, I was scratching the surface and now I can go more deeply. There was interplay [in previous work]. This is a nice opportunity to go further.

VMB In this work the body seems to be a tool for listening. I see this work as an act of intimacy and sharing. How do you think of the work? What are you building between the space and people entering that space?

LK The aesthetic of the work, it’s stripped back and minimalist. You hear my voice quite a bit in the soundscapes intentionally; that’s created. The personal voice that you hear is on the headset. Right away it draws audience into something very personal, something specific from my experience and my narrative.

I’m not sure what to expect of the sharing. Maybe there’s a shared consciousness of the tone of this environment, maybe the shared experience of the environment, the universe I’m inviting people to explore. Potentially, there’s the feeling of alienation … not sure that’s the correct word. [That was] one of the underlying currents that I felt interested in. I don’t know how conscious I was in creating [Phantom, stills and vibrations]. One of the feelings I had that inspired me to create this work was my travelling up north and my experience of being there and developing/creating the field recordings, collecting sounds and stories.

I very much felt alone with the material. It feels a little grandiose for me to carry on my own. That is why we have the experience of sound both external and internal, so sound can offer something global and individual.

I’m unsure what that will create as a shared experience. Here’s some information, here’s some soundscape. You’re very much alone in the space hearing it. And at that moment, no one is hearing the sound but you. It creates an inner vibration. What does it provoke with what is happening in the space, with the visuals I see and the unfolding of the narration? There’s probably a strong contrast of both, a strong sharing of experience and also quite personalized [experience]. Everyone will enter the space and react to the space differently. There are no instructions [for the audience]. This is the most different approach that I’ve ever had. With stage work, there is more control over what the public views at each moment. Whereas with this work, people decide whether they will stay for a few minutes or five hours. That’s really interesting and creates something very individual.

Lara Kramer will spend two weeks in Nogojiwanong/Peterborough through a partnership with Trent University Colleges, Political Studies, and the Chanie Wenjack School of Indigenous Studies as well as Artspace Artist Run Centre. Phantom, stills & vibrations will be on exhibit until March 9, 2018, also supported by Bodies in Translation and Public Energy. 

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