“I make things to say “this is how I see the world”, and to ask if you see it the same way.” -Tanna Chamberlain
Tanna Chamberlain is a British-Australian choreographer and performer based in Birmingham, and undertaking a MMus in Experimental Performance at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Tanna describes herself as a “choreographer of experiences”; her art encapsulates ethea from Fluxus and “non-dance” fused with elements of the everyday. Tanna’s work includes commissions with Birmingham Opera Company and Birmingham International Dance Festival. Tanna spoke to PRXLUDES about reality TV, choreographic processes in art, audience guiding and participation, and her influences from everyday experiences.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Tanna! Hope you’ve been doing well! Tell me a bit about what you’ve been working on recently — I heard you’re writing a Valentine’s Day-centred piece?
Tanna Chamberlain: Yeah! Over the summer, I caught some of this terrible TV show, ‘Married at First Sight Australia’. I secretly actually loved it — it was like a guilty pleasure — but it’s a reality TV show and therefore it probably ruins peoples’ lives, so I was starting to feel a little bit guilty for watching it. -laughs- I got struck by this thought that reality television is highly choreographed. I’ve been thinking a lot about choreography, in the non-traditional sense. I call myself a choreographer of experiences: I don’t only choreograph “dance”, I also choreograph music, images, film, sculpture [and] games — kind of like non-dance choreography, if you’re familiar.
I’m not — what exactly is non-dance choreography?
It’s a choreographic movement from the ‘80s, that came from France I think — which was about choreographing things other than “dance”. It really resonated with me. I didn’t know it existed until a year ago, and I was like “oh my god, that’s how I think!” -laughs- The movement developed in the ‘80s, so it’s not “modern” — well, it was before I was born — but I began to think “okay, this resonates with me… How is this relevant to my practice and how can I offer a more contemporary take on it?”
What principles of non-dance did you notice within the reality TV context, and how did you end up applying them?
I was struck by [the fact] that reality TV is choreographed: a) it’s semi-scripted, and b) it’s highly manipulated in the edit. And it just all resonated with me, like, [this] is choreographed, you know? So I wanted to try and choreograph my own reality television show, to explore the difference between choreography to make an artistic point, and manipulation of material for a bad or an unethical purpose. It was kind of an experiment, I suppose, or like artistic research. I didn’t want to make a “real” reality TV show, because I wasn’t comfortable with some of the ethics — [and] my ethical concerns were causing creative problems. I kept being like “oh, I don’t know if I agree with [this]…”
So instead, I came up with a spoof premise. So you know the Five Languages of Love? Like: Quality Time, Acts of Kindness, Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, Gifts. My spoof premise is — it’s really silly — what if experts decided that we could use these same five love languages (not just for romantic relationships) but also to determine our love for objects, abstract notions, places and man-made spaces… that kind of thing. It’s silliness, it’s a silly premise. But what it did is give me a starting point and framework to explore what I wanted with the choreography.
I have seven subjects — all based in Birmingham — that I’ve been working with. It’s all gonna culminate in a screening on Valentine’s Day, along with [some] other things as well. Some awesome composers/performers are gonna perform some love-related content, as well. It’s happening on 14th Feb in the Eastside Jazz Club at the Birmingham Conservatoire. But I’ll promote it properly on social media and things very soon – watch this space. -laughs-
I’m fascinated by your ideas of choreography in mediums outside of your discipline. Do you see choreography as musical, or vice versa?
I call myself a choreographer rather than a composer, but I think my work is innately musical. I feel musical inside me, so my work has a natural rhythm, natural tone, natural melody. But I would say I choreograph music, and I choreograph sounds.
Here’s an example: for the “love languages” piece, I’m recording samples of the subjects singing, talking, making percussive bodily sounds — I’m recording them all separately, so none of them are gonna be in the same room at the same time — and I’m editing those sounds together to make a sort of ironic “jingle”. You know [how] you’d have a jingle for a reality TV show? I’m making an ironic jingle for an ironic reality TV show. -laughs- I’ve used that process before — using existing recordings to create a musical object. It’s something I’m comfortable with; it’s a choreographic process, to make a musical object.
How do you feel your practice has been influenced by the arts spaces you’ve inhabited — particularly being in a music-focused institution?
I have no idea. My practice has evolved so much in the last three years that I don’t know how to answer that succinctly. -laughs- As for the art spaces… I don’t think that they have influenced me at all. On the contrary, going into the conservatoire, going into the LAB, going into spaces where I’m supposed to be making art — studios or things — I just feel creatively dead. Nothing happens upstairs. Completely uninspired. And I feel upset, because I feel like I can’t do what [I’m there to do]… I claim to be a choreographer, but I can’t choreograph, I claim to be an artist but I can’t make art or produce any creative ideas — nothing happens. Maybe that’s partly because of the pressure of being in that space, and having a time constraint to make something — rather than the artistic space [itself] — which blocks anything from happening.
Whereas when I go about my everyday life, I take so much inspiration from that: people, interactions, situations, the outdoors is a big one – being outside, my internal thought processes. When I wake up in the morning and I’m kind of in a slumber, I have about a 30-minute period with my eyes closed where I feel the most creative I ever do. Very mundane, everyday situations are much more inspiring to me than being in an artistic space.
It’s so apt you mention that, especially considering the situation we’ve been in for the past two years — not being able to access artistic spaces. What it is about everyday situations that inspire you?
I think it’s the authenticity in them. That’s what it is. I feel like there’s no pretense. Whereas as soon as I get [into] an artistic space, I feel there’s pretense blocking me from thinking authentically. I also have a huge problem with responding to somebody’s art; I find that really problematic, because when someone makes art, I feel like that’s their vision, that’s their voice. And I don’t feel like I’m placed to respond to that. I have a huge issue with drawing inspiration from an artistic object which already exists, because that’s complete. I don’t need to do anything with that, that’s somebody else’s expression of the way they see the world. So I would always draw inspiration from the way I see the world; not the way I see other peoples’ art, or other peoples’ music, but the way I see the world.
You’re only you, you’re not anyone else — “what is it like to be a bat”, and all that.
Going on from that — what roles do your own personal experiences play in your work and the narratives within?
A lot of my concepts do draw from personal experience, that’s right. I made this piece for the CODA festival last year in June 2021, called ‘A Woman Crashes’. Though the full title is actually ‘A 30 Year Old Woman Crashes Repeatedly into a Flying Fox in Office Attire’. This told the story of my past experiences working in offices, basically. It was all true and autobiographical, as my work often is. But it was also kind of a story of emancipation from a mental prison I was stuck in for years, and I know others are too. It was kind of a feminist piece. It was also in some ways a comedy. But really subtly — like, blink and you’ll miss it kind of humour. I usually try to use subtle humour to make a more serious point about the way I see the world.
Even though my work is autobiographical, it isn’t really about me. It’s just using “me” — the subject I know the most about — to tell a story about the world, or about our society, or human nature, or even something political.
Does that apply to the way in which you document your work, as well? How do you see an artistic object versus the documentation of that object?
That’s something that I put a lot of thought into. Particularly with the [‘Abstract Escape Room’] project — performance, versus art, versus documentation, whether they’re the same thing, whether they can’t be mutually exclusive. With ‘A puzzle’, I was in the process of trying to document something that I’d made, and in that process I inadvertently made another piece of art (a film), instead of a piece of documentation. -laughs-
The experience of solving a puzzle versus watching a video are radically different, right? Where is the actual puzzle box now?
I don’t know! I sent it to someone in Birmingham — this was when I was living in Essex — with an instruction card inside the box, to say “when you’ve completed this, please add your name” — [there] was a puzzle piece that said names on it — “and then pass it on to somebody else”. You can’t actually “complete” the puzzle in the usual sense, which was sort of the central artistic statement. The instruction was, once there’s no space to write your name on the names piece, please return it to my address. Hopefully, one day, I’ll get it back with a list of names, and I can imagine each person’s performance of this game. And that’s the only documentation I’ll have of it.
So: how do you see the person who solves the puzzle? Is the act of solving the puzzle a performance to you?
Yes. I see the person playing the puzzle as a performer, and an audience member, simultaneously.
How does this change depending on the medium of the performance? I know that you’ve displayed parts of your public portfolio on gather.town recently…
It changes, definitely, for every single piece. I know I’m not alone in absolutely hating working online. But last year was a good test in learning to adapt to limiting situations, like you say. I pray we never have to do it again, though. I try to leave no stone unturned in my thought process, before I do something — don’t get me wrong, I’m so aware that there are some things I can control, and some things I can’t control — but I find it really important to make sure I know what I can control, and I know what I can’t control, before going into a performance. I find it important to consider what that means for the experience.
One thing I did enjoy about the online thing was that it provided a limiting framework — for example if you were performing on Zoom in gallery mode, you knew you were framed by a small square in a corner, with other faces alongside you in a grid configuration. You knew you might be in a different position on different people’s screens, and you also knew that some people might have you spotlit, that hadn’t listened to the gallery mode instructions or simply didn’t know how to change the zoom settings.
I get that — you can still use the parameters of the digital medium to control an audience, as much as you can in a physical space.
Yeh. If I have a participating audience in some way or other, I would say that I choreograph the audience — but I have to be aware of what I can control and what I can’t control. And what I can’t control is generally more interesting. For example, I might choreograph the audience to laugh at a certain moment — I might put something in in a rhythm that’s intended to create a laugh — however, I can’t make them laugh at that point. I can choreograph them to, in the way that I generate the rhythm of the piece, but I can’t make them. And it’s interesting when something unexpected happens — an audience enriches a piece in that way.
The challenges of choreographing something that isn’t fixed, that isn’t solid… It’s like teaching an animal a trick.
So you could think: Okay, that’s my framework — different people are going to experience this differently, I know what’s in my control and I know what’s not — now, how can I incorporate that into my concept, or use it to the advantage of the piece? It was good brain gym.
Do you find that liberating — the fact that you can’t control everything, that people will try and “break the game”?
You know what? I like the challenge of trying to guide an audience to experience a piece in the way I intend them to — for them to experience it in what I think is the most fruitful way to experience it. I like the challenge of figuring out how to guide them to do that, even though they have autonomy.
Above: Tanna Chamberlain, ‘Text Scores in the Woods’ (2021), installation in Bishop’s Stortford, UK.
You’ve recently created an installation piece in a forest around Bishop’s Stortford — does the element of guiding (but not leading) the audience relate to your interest in art in everyday spaces?
Yeah! I put up a series of text scores in a wood that I walked around a lot during lockdown. The text scores made suggestions that people should do things, things that popped into my head, as I was going on these walks. They were quirky suggestions, you know; I didn’t expect anyone to actually perform these text scores, but for a fleeting second, consider what it would be like if they did perform it, and be like “huh” and move on. I guess [I] was just trying to connect with people. We were all in lockdown, this quite anxiety-inducing situation, and a lot of people were walking this same trail in the woods, every day, at different times, without connecting with one another — more often than not, looking at their phone screens. And I was just trying to connect. Just try to offer a little bit of “This was my thought when I walked past here, it made me feel good, and it stemmed my anxiety”.
Does the intention, or understanding, from the audience factor in to your artistic process?
What I’d say is: I make things to say “this is how I see the world”, and to ask if you see it the same way. It’s important to guide an audience, to a certain extent, to experience it in the way I intended them to, otherwise it doesn’t say [that]. If it’s not experienced in the intended way, it delivers a confused message, right? At the end of the day, it just says: “This is how I experience the world, can you relate? Can anyone relate?”
It’s so refreshing to discover an artist so unafraid to say “hey, this is my world — come on in, the door’s open.” -laughs-
That’s cute. I like that. -laughs-
So tell me about an upcoming project you’re particularly excited about…
Yeah! I’m performing a piece with James McIlwrath on 8th February at IKLECTIK, London. James and I are support acting for Personal Clutter, and we have developed this 25-30 minute set — I don’t know if we have a title for it yet, but it’s like a “sports day extravaganza”… James might be like “that’s not the title”, I should probably check that with him. -laughs-
Essentially, what we’re doing is: we’re playing with different performance personas and techniques that we enjoy, and we’ve developed this piece very much together. It’s got elements of both of us in there. It’s not like the things that I do when I’m doing things by myself — which is lovely.
You’ve told me how difficult you find working in response to other artists — how have you rectified this discrepancy working with James?
When I collaborate with people, I have to approach it in an entirely different way. I have to relax a bit more. I have to let things happen. And things do happen when you’re collaborating with someone — but if I let things happen when I was in a space by myself, nothing would happen, so I [would] have to approach it in a more active, thoughtful way. But if I’m collaborating with someone, I just relax and trust the process a bit more.
The relinquishment of control, right?
Yeah. We do have [a lot of] trial and error, as well; there are some things that we’ve tried that were so rubbish that we laughed about it and moved on. And you can do that, when you’re collaborating with someone — “that was awful, next.” -laughs- But it’s a completely different approach, collaborating. It’s nice sometimes, to just be like… “it’ll happen”. And it does!
Check out Tanna Chamberlain’s upcoming show on 8 February at IKLECTIK, London, with James McIlwrath and Personal Clutter:
Learn more about Tanna Chamberlain:
- Married at First Sight Australia (2015-), available on Channel 4 (UK)
- Interview with Boris Charmatz & “non-dance”, Financial Times
- What Are The 5 Love Languages? Everything You Need To Know, on mindbodygreen