MEAT is an upcoming theater-art installation by Swedish artist and set designer THOMAS BO NILSSON. Exploring the nuances and atmospheres of sexual identity online and off, the 240-hour-long performance was initially set off by the story of Luka Magnotta, the porn actor, escort, and alleged cannibal killer who was apprehended in a Berlin Internet café in 2012. It will open at Berlin’s Schaubühne theater on April 3, 2014 as part of the Festival of International New Drama (F.I.N.D.) For the project, Nilsson collaborated with artist-filmmaker MATT LAMBERT on a teaser video that premieres here. It is an intimate portrait of just one of MEAT’s many characters. 032c spoke with Lambert and Nilsson leading up to the video’s premiere.
Thomas, can you tell us about MEAT, and how it came about as part of Schaubühne’s programming?
THOMAS BO NILSSON: The point of departure for developing the concept behind MEAT was the porn actor, escort and alleged cannibal killer Luka Magnotta, who was apprehended in a Berlin Internet café in June 2012 after a four day international manhunt. I live right by the café where he was caught, and I suppose being so close to brutality, both geographically and by moving in some of the same circles, sparked an interest in the case.
When Magnotta was caught, images of his Montreal apartment were released in the press and on the Internet. Julian Wolf Eicke, with whom I collaborate on set design, drew my attention to this. It was a small, one room apartment, containing just a table, a chair, and a blood-stained bed above which Magnotta had pinned a Casablanca poster. When I develop a concept, I start from the set or the room. For several years I have worked with existing buildings that have been redefined and inhabited by performers. For MEAT we wanted to build a completely constructed universe in a neutral space.
I was invited to present an inhabited performance installation in Schaubühne as a part of the F.I.N.D festival. MEAT covers the entire surface of one of the stages in the theater and contains, among other settings, an exact replica of Magnotta’s apartment.
MEAT will run for 240 hours nonstop and be inhabited by over 60 performers, including myself and my closest collaborators. The audience can enter the installation at any time, day and night, and the installation will also be live-streamed.
How is the theater changing in the digital age?
TBN: Online life actually functions as a platform for performance and theater. The play can be experienced online directly, and the characters are crafted similarly to how one is creating oneself and an online personality. Rumor has it that Luka Magnotta had over 70 Facebook accounts all showing him from the angle he chose. The characters of MEAT are created in a similar way. They are all intact with online accounts, self-portraits, and video clips.
How did the collaboration between you two come about?
MATT LAMBERT: This past year I’ve been focused on an evolving a body of photography and film work that all stems from an inquiry into youth sexuality and identity in relation to digital culture. This interconnected series led to “cam models” and a trilogy of films about people working in porn, or rather people whose sense of their own commodity value had been made manifest through paid live-sex chat rooms or by appearing in the ever-ready stream of porn films that live on the net. The other work I’ve been doing has been based around the minutiae of Berlin life. When Thomas got in touch it seemed liked a dream collaboration.
TBN: From an early state I wanted the project have a filmic, yet nonlinear narrative. I was familiar and interested in Matt’s work and very curious of what we could develop in a collaboration. We come from different artistic disciplines while our work is often based around similar topics.
What role does Berlin play as a backdrop in the project?
TBN: For MEAT, we wanted to create a completely constructed universe in a neutral space, that is: not as site-specific as my previous work. But Berlin is where we live and work, so the installation we’re building is inspired by spaces we’ve encountered here. More and more we did find ourselves making references to the area where Schaubühne is situated as well as taking our performers to places like Tabasco and Blue Boy Bar in Schöneberg.
Tabasco is a seedy old Kneipe with the slogan “Men meet boys, boys meet men” and delivers an insight in the rent boy world of Berlin. We’ve invited these chosen Berlin institutions to co-direct our actors, delivering insight into dark corners of Berlin that might not be known to everyone.
ML: These were exactly the sorts of places that have infused my work for quite some time. When we were discussing the project I really connected with precisely this concept of a completely constructed universe, and by extension, the interrogation of the reproduction of the “real.” Magnotta’s case bears all the marks of someone fascinated and fractured by the reproduction of himself, reproducing in reality a deviant fantasy and then attempting to control the reproduction and dissemination of that act, to sustain the act over time, by having it become a mass-media story. That seeming moment of visibility, that feeling of release from control, albeit temporary, over something that made him passive, was fanned by his very publicly mailing body parts to high-attention recipients, to parliament and to schools, staggered to arrive across a spaced-out intervals of time and underpinned by threats to kill again. His was an attempt to manipulate attention. For me the location of his interception was intriguing not so much because of where it was but because of what he was doing there.
Tell us about the Spätkauf [“late-night shop”] / Internet café featured in the video.
TBN: I found the place about two years ago when I moved to Berlin. It’s small Spätkauf, where you have to open a door disguised as a shelf to reach the Internet café. The room hiding behind contains a small bar, some gambling machines, and even further back is a small room with five computers in a row.
I spent time there often when I didn’t have a firm place to live and needed to use a computer. The place is filthy, dusty, smoky, and—quite unexpectedly—reeks of sex. When I first visited an older man was sitting next to me watching porn with a hand on his crotch while I was paying my bills. The style of the place, the filth, and the strange intimacy directly related to the feeling of the show. It became the starting point for the development of the project’s look.
ML: Intimacy, its nuances and the challenge of depicting them in a truthful way drives a lot of my thinking creatively—both in terms of working with actors and the type of images I want to make. I’ve explored bedrooms and catacombs, graveyards and club toilets—an amalgamation of the everyday and the unexpected—as sites that host moments of intimacy that aren’t often depicted. So when we discussed the Spätkauf and the characters who inhabit it, it felt like a space that belonged in that category. The mix of lives and needs and urges and fears cramped into this filthy claustrophobic intimacy that is so raw because of its sexuality and, in a way I suppose, context of violence.
How do you see sexual identity changing as we move between on- and offline encounters?
TBN: Cruising and sexual encounters with strangers is not new, though with modern technology it has become more accessible. Now one can hook-up and end up in a stranger’s bed without a previous encounter. One can craft what identity one is displaying on these forums and when it doesn’t lead to the desired result (getting lucky), one can edit it. That’s more difficult in real life.
ML: This is something I’ve been exploring in my work from simply speaking with random hook ups right through to escorts, performers and porn actors. The idea of a digital persona is one that fascinates me. There’s a fragmentation and fluidity to identity that we all juggle on a day-to-day basis. Anonymity is still possible if you want it, but once you give it up it’s hard to get back. Many of my friends and subjects have conceded this and even myself with my work have accepted that a purely private persona is no longer possible if I want to be honestly expressive. The danger of this is the risk of corrupting the authenticity of intimate moments. However, it can also lead to more direct and focused encounters as we’re all learning to hone in on our preferences and notions of self.
There are negative cultural alarms in regards to online sex, but this can also be viewed as a positive evolution in the way we interact.
ML: A lot of my recent work has explored this. In the past, I presented quite nihilistic and disfranchised responses to the evolution of our sexual identities within virtual spaces. However, my recent work presents a more optimistic view, one in which we are able to explore and react to sexuality with an uninhibited fluidity that is much more representative of how we actually exist in the world. As long as these explorations don’t consume and deteriorate real-world relationships, I think this new language and dimension in which we emote is a valid one and can even be romanticized.
TBN: The last eight years, I have been moving constantly to new places and have been forced to rebuild and reconstruct my social circle several times a year. Being alone in a new place, I have used online platforms to make connections liberated from having to join a ready established group or friend circle. Online, we meet one on one and we are not backed up by who we surround us with. I suppose that even though, one presents, or can present, an edited version there is a certain honesty in being taken out of your context. Online, and sometimes over topic of sex, one can encounter personalities one might not normally meet.
MEAT opens at Berlin’s Schaubühne on April 3 and is on view until April 13, 2014.
Video produced by STINK Berlin.