Art critique

PentHouss uses riot tactics and endless mirrors to criticize power

I meet PentHouss – a self-proclaimed “conceptual multidisciplinary artist center” run by artists Anna Lann and Yonathan Trichter and a series of collaborators – on a Sunday evening, just before they begin rehearsals of their new immersive artwork. , CALL TO ARMS. Sitting in the apartment of their London curator, Helen Neven, Brick Lane spins under the window as we speak. Weekend pub sessions wind down, couples bicker as they pass, laughing teens pass downstairs on skateboards – and inside Anna tells me about industrial-grade riot gear. which has been hanging in her wardrobe for a few months now, bought from an internet retailer and available with the option of stun shields against electric shock.

The image of riot gear is a central pillar of this new work, which takes place over three days in an industrial space in south London. Visitors arrive in a waiting room that hums with anticipation – a low, intense, lingering shadow of mechanical sounds. Inside the next room, viewers are led into a hexagon of infinity mirrors containing a suspended, strobe-lit riot action site. Six dancers, dressed in menacing riot police uniforms, vibrate in motion – affirming their bodies in united formation, or charging the visiting audience. By involving the audience in this simulation of frontline tensions, Helen explains that the work seeks to reflect “on the complex relationship between the agents of power and the civilians they are supposed to protect; on the instrumentalisation of fear; on the duality of ‘them’ and ‘us’ at street level. “

PentHouss, CALL TO ARMS, 2021; performance photos of Daniel Jackont

The project began to germinate more than two years ago, Yonathan having just moved to Paris amid the waves of the Yellow Vests movement. Anna had recently arrived in London, and soon after, the world was embroiled in a series of protests – real action most often publicized through the mass media and our own screens. Just last week, Amnesty International issued a statement on the lack of justice for victims of police brutality during last year’s peaceful protests in Nigeria, which ended a year ago in a crackdown brutal state security forces. The Guardian reported nearly 1,000 recorded cases of police brutality during the five-month anti-racism protests in the United States last year. In the UK, the brutal murder of Sarah Everard – who was trapped in the car of a discharged police officer Wayne Couzens, abusing her ID card, handcuffs and training – was followed by ‘a public vigil which ended with an excessive use of force against the demonstrators.

All of these movements – whether for civil liberties or for climate action – have seen the pervasive presence of state police and direct assaults on civilians. Performed in collaboration with Turkish choreographer Ekin Bernay, who drew not only on the personal experience of riot police in his home country, but also on the detention of his own father for alleged dissent, the exposure experience was actively designed to destabilize. “It doesn’t matter what country you come from, where you are from or what your political beliefs are,” says Anna. “You watch [the riot gear], the design of that uniform, and you know exactly what it is. ”

people in riot gear simulate fighting

PentHouss, CALL TO ARMS, 2021; performance photos of Daniel Jackont

The PentHouss cast dance across a wide range of backgrounds and styles, including contemporary ones, with Helen noting that they place a particular emphasis on street styles such as krump, “which draws much of its inspiration from the street fighting movements, ”she said. “The choreography also uses trainings taken directly from police training.” Artists and curators note the fact that Ekin also works as a dance therapist and the sensitivity this brings to an immersive experience that some say will trigger memories of fear, oppression, intimidation and violence. direct. Yonathan tells me they started the rehearsals with an open forum to explore “how the dancers feel putting on these uniforms and being able to process this piece in a way that doesn’t trigger or disturb,” he says. “Even though you know they’re playing the part, it’s a weird experience.”

The use of mirrors and enclosed spaces creates an absence of air, placing the viewer at the heart of the action. The artists describe how the notion of crowd control “plays a big role in the choreography”. This was in part inspired by the realization that very few people have experienced a riot (or riot police). Often, this brutality is rather mediated by the flatness of a computer screen or a newspaper. As Yonathan notes, maybe “you see it through a screen, and although it’s shocking at times, when you see it once or twice you get very cold.

people in riot gear simulate fighting

PentHouss, CALL TO ARMS, 2021; performance photos of Daniel Jackont

The team have all tried the riot gear and note how it generates some dissociation in the wearer. Whether it is the effect of the anonymity of the uniform or perhaps a feeling of physical invincibility, the immersive mode of the work somehow tends towards a portrait that is both psychological and kinetic. of these agents of power. Basically, the team found that the uniform “really controls a lot of your feelings, your movements,” says Anna. “You can hardly feel anything. We were practicing dropping to your knees, and you can do it 400 times, and you don’t feel anything, so it really affects your vulnerability and your awareness of pain.”

PentHouss has long been committed to visions of a better future; utopian fictions that explore sprawling landscapes and expansive bodies while engaging themes of transformation, transgression and the endless possibilities of post-digital identity. With this lurch towards a more visceral and dystopian investigation of contemporary power – “literally a reflection of reality” – they hope to develop the project and make it run on an international scale. “What we want to do, in general, is to create this space based on testimonies from people’s own experience,” says Anna. “We are going to learn a lot from these four days from the audience, from the dancers, from everyone involved; we are going to put all of this information together and use it as a contribution to change.”

Yonathan wonders about the impact of the project if the politicians, the military, the police, the privileged could participate. “I would like real politicians to experience this job, because I think the politician has never rioted, you know, he only sees it from above.” After the interview, Anna and Yonathan return home to fog the artists’ riot helmets in hand before rehearsals the next morning. It is clear that their personal attachment to the project – with all its practical, personal and thematic complexities – goes far beyond this installation. “We want to make sure that people who are in a place of power experience the opposite.”

two people in riot gear simulate fighting

PentHouss, CALL TO ARMS, 2021; performance photos of Daniel Jackont


All images Daniel Jackont, courtesy of PentHouss

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