Laughing with Katherine Cooper and Antonia Baehr
I met Antonia Baehr at the Abrons Art Center—a place that has always reminded me of a very friendly Soviet fortress. Baehr was about to perform her piece “Laugh,” a solo performance which explores the act of laughter, that evening as part of the Queer New York International Festival. Baehr works as a choreographer and is the co-founder of the Berlin-based performance group "ex machinis.” Her work examines the fiction in daily life and the fiction in theatre using a process where participants switch roles and each person alternately works as director / author / host and performer / guest for the other one.
KC: So first I would love to ask you: how do you define laughter?
AB: Well laughter is an expression, a human expression but not only human. So it can be an expression of many emotions. Anything actually. It's not only an expression of happiness.
KC: I was reading some of the philosopher Simon Critchley, who has written a book on humor, and he says that “humor is a key element in the distinction of the human from the animal. It is a consequence of culture.” And I know that some of your more recent work critiques anthropomorphism explicitly so I would guess that perhaps you would disagree with Critchley, but I would like to hear more about why that might be and also if you think laughter might be a useful place to trouble that binary between the animal and the human.
AB: So first of all, there's tons of theories trying to say that the human animal is superior and different than the other animals. I mean there's language. There's humor. For centuries, that's been going on in the western Occidental cultural history—like trying to find tricks and explanations and proving that that human animal is superior. So I would say that this falls into it. If it's false or true is not really interesting to me. I mean I grew up in the countryside with a lot of animals and we had so many animals that were making jokes all the time. I don't know. It's like if you had a dog or a cat they do jokes all the time!
KC: What's an example of an animal joke?
AB: Like, for example this crow was always picking up the cigarettes from the table and like throwing it on people. Or the dackel was drinking the coffee to get to the sugar. But that's not a joke.
AB: Another joke. Oh god, yeah. The dackel made lots of jokes.
KC: What is the dackel?
AB: Dackel is the sausage dog.
AB: Oh! The fox. The fox was jumping over the chicken. And then the chicken would look for it and not find it anymore so that's obviously a joke.
KC: Uh huh. What makes it a joke?
AB: Well tricking the chicken so the chicken can't see the fox.
KC: The chicken is left bewildered somehow.
AB: I mean you could call it play.
KC: I'm interested in the mechanism that makes something a joke.
AB: I dunno. I haven't thought about that so much. I haven't thought about that at all actually because it's not my field of research. It's an interesting thing to think about but it has nothing to do at all with what I was researching.
KC: Right. Because you are more interested in the form of laughter.
AB: Not the form. The laughter itself. Not why we laugh or if it's good for you or bad for you but actually the laughter itself.
KC: I'm interested in how this work you've done with laughter has changed your body in any way.
AB: I guess. The thing is after this piece you become quite self-conscious about your laughter but the audience too. So this is maybe something that we're not so used to necessarily.
KC: We're not used to be self-conscious about our laughter?
AB: Mmmhmm. Are you self-conscious about your laughter?
KC: I think speaking with you I am.
AB: Ah so you see. That's the effect of it.
KC: Has it affected your actual muscles? Your physiognomy?
AB: I didn't see the doctor to know, so I don't know.
KC: Do you think you laugh more or less now than when you began this piece? Or how do you laugh differently? You mentioned this a little bit earlier.
AB: Well this thing about the self-consciousness that's shared with the audience. The same happens to the people who come see the piece. I guess it happens when you call something art. Then something is changed about it.
KC: When you call something is art, something is changed about it.
KC: Yes. I agree.
Katherine and Antonia laugh.
KC: I'm a bit self-conscious about this next question for you.
KC: I'm wondering how this piece in particular changes in different cultural contexts. Do different group of people, cities, areas laugh in different parts or in different ways?
AB: Yeah, every show they laugh at different parts. In a way it's the opposite of a comedy. Like Buster Keaton for example, he never laughs. He never moves his face. And in the cinema he was measuring when people would laugh and for how long. I think he would even record it and then he would re-edit accordingly and so they would laugh there and not there and really choreograph the laughter of the audience. This is kind of flipping it around. So I just laugh and sometimes the audience doesn't laugh at all. And they laugh different places. Different parts. So it's not telling the audience what to do. In this sense, it's not manipulating the audience towards being entertained. And actually I've heard a lot that it's Zwickmühle—you say in German—it's this game (-mühle), you have to make a line of three and sometimes you get trapped and you can't go backwards or forwards anymore.
KC: Like tic tac toe?
AB: Maybe. Because on one hand you want to laugh but on the other hand if you laugh you can't hear me any more. So. Sometimes there's fights in the audience too about it.
AB: You hear like, “Shhhhh!”
KC: So what has been the audience that has laughed the most easily?
AB: China. But it was also because it was 300 people.
KC: Was that the largest audience?
AB: Yeah. I didn't get so many big theaters. Unfortunately, because it's really cool. It's really great. Then there's a lot going on in the audience. I just become a placebo for something. There's a lot going on in the audience itself. One laughter would be copied by another laughter and another laughter and then it would be silent again to hear me. But then something would start again. The bigger the audience the better. I wouldn't do a thousand but like three hundred is really cool.
KC: You mentioned that you just get interested in things and then explore them. So where did the initial interest in laughter arise from for you?
AB: Well, two things. It was the idea of the self-portrait through the eyes of others. The other thing is that there's a series of pieces where I researched theatre and the fourth wall. Maybe because it was kind of a taboo for where I was studying. Like, with Valie Export, you can't do that. You have to leave the bourgeois theater behind. You have to press it out and do things in the museum or the gallery or out in the street. I was like, “but this is too interesting!” I'd rather go in there and appropriate it and research it. And also being from another generation. I don't believe that you can say something is bad and leave it behind and do something new. So that's more like Valie's generation. She really thinks and acts like this. So that's how I got interested in the fourth wall as something really constitutive of bourgeois theatre. In the theater the audience laughs, claps and boos and so I was interested in doing the same thing as if it was a mirror. But not in the same time. So not reacting so that would be another thing again. But actually using the same material as the audience. Or the performativity, let's say, of the audience. There are a series of pieces like that. Holding Hands is like the small emotions in the faces. Apres Midi is reconstructing emotions. It's four pieces about that.
KC: I had another question about the scores. They were given to you as gifts. How is that important to the way that you perform them or to the generation of the piece?
AB: The gift thing made it very warm. Because it was for my birthday. My birthday wish. So I got those for my laughter really so the person was thinking of me writing it. And then I do it the best I could for the person. And there's also a part of fiction in what you'll see in Laugh because then the crew who worked on the piece format brought different things based on the score. And theater is great like that you know, you can lie.
KC: What do you mean you can lie?
AB: You can fictionalize things. But fiction sounds so narrative. That's why I like “lie.” For example we blindly lie when we say it's Sylvie Garot who made the magnifying glass piece. It's actually a lot of different pieces. So it's lying so you believe that Sylvie Garot wrote this piece for me for my birthday.
KC: I believed it. It worked.
KC: It seems like a lot of people when they review your work or talk about your work remark on the contagion of laughter and I'm curious to hear your thoughts on that.
AB: Well, laughter is supposed to be contagious, like yawning. But in fact, it is not always, because there are all these different kinds of laughters. So to do a piece that works with contagion, that is not intellectual, just physiological, that interests choreographers. The reflection about choreography or dance as something where the audience would respond in a bodily way. It has a name—
KC: The audience's bodily response—
AB: Kinesthetic empathy.
KC: And you think that that is why people comment on that?
AB: It has been an interesting choreographic theory.
KC: Any other thoughts on New York?
AB: It's funny. Everybody left the city because it became too expensive. Like a friend said, “it cooks you like a frog.” And I really can feel and understand the anger against capitalism much better being here rather than in Europe. It's so present. This fierce capitalism that's just not working anymore. You can totally see it and feel it everywhere. And in Berlin you see the gentrification happening but it's not so fierce. Whole Foods! Whole Foods here on Houston. When I lived here it didn't exist at all, that huge thing. And Whole Foods is hitting on our desires as bohemian artists. And the tricks—You can't find things. It's big and the entrance is big and the exit is small. You get lost. You are attracted to little things. You get really distracted. And then the healthiness. It's all free! “Gluten Free.” Instead of saying it has no gluten. It's freedom they sell to you. Gluten Free hasn't arrived in Europe yet. This freedom. I don't want it.
KC: I think that you get used to it in a way that's disturbing.
AB: But also you get stronger. If you get used to it you learn to resist.
KC: I hope so.
AB: Unless you get cooked like a frog.