The Past is a Grotesque Animal – Macklin Kowal interviews Mariano Pensotti

[box class=”grey_box”] Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is currently presenting the work by Argentinian maker Mariano Pensotti titled El pasado es un animal grotesco (The Past is a Grotesque Animal)  Showings are Thu-Sat, Feb 16-18  •  8pm  •  YBCA Forum  Fri-Sat, $25 Regular/ $20 YBCA members, students, seniors, teachers. For more information and to get tickets visit the YBCA website. [/box]
Earlier this week Macklin Kowal, local choreographer and maker of performance art interviewed Mariano Pensotti about this work.  Here are the transcripts of the meeting.


Macklin: I was struck when I read your comments on the past, a central theme in El Pasado es un animal grotesco: “The past [is] like a strange animal which should be invented and trapped following blurred traces.” What is your interest in imagined or invented pasts as subject?

Mariano: For a number of years I was collecting damaged pictures that a photo lab in my neighborhood – this kind of old-fashioned photo lab – would just throw into the streets. I started to collect them; I didn’t know why, it was just something that I was doing for myself. I knew that this project would be focused on the idea of the past, and how we can remember or retell the past in the present. I went back to this collection of damaged photos and I noticed that they were portraits of people from my generation, people of my age. Somehow this idea of my generation and our shared memories as blurred or damaged pictures were the inspiration to start thinking about how we reconstruct or rebuild the past in the present. For me, the past changes every time that you think of it. It’s an animal that changes shape every time you try rebuild it – these types of fantastical animals that have a bird’s head and a lion’s body. In a metaphorical way, for me, it is very similar to what happens to your actual memories. They change every time you remember them or try to retell them. That was the starting point, or the idea, that I was trying to develop in the play dealing with the idea of the past.

Macklin: You’ve written previously about the interweaving of imagination/invention and identity. Can you comment further on this?

Mariano: In this piece I was interested in the idea of identity as construction, and the idea of identity as something we create through narrations. In my plays I’m usually interested in the old-fashioned idea of story-telling, and I’ve been interesting in how we build our identities through narration and story-telling. What you’re going to see in this work is a constant disassociation between narration and representation. We stage small movie-like scenes with a live narrator that comments as if he or she were a sort of voice-over. What’s interesting for me in that procedure is that actors play one character in one scene, and in others they are narrators for the characters of the other actors. So in a way it’s like they are building the identities of the characters by talking about them, while the characters themselves are building their own identities through action.

Macklin: This duality of identity’s origins, coming from one’s own actions and the narration/commentary of others –  how do you perceive this phenomenon in society today?

Mariano: Society is in the process of developing a new system of identity politics that still feels to be very much in the process of figuring itself out.  Nevertheless it is strongly based in how do we present ourselves or invent ourselves by telling stories about ourselves. So it’s not that much based on what you do and more to do with what you retell. In that sense I do think there is a correlation between what we are fictionalizing here and certain aspects of contemporary society.

Macklin: Social media being an obvious example.

Mariano: Exactly. There’s always some sort of mediation between experience and your perception of the experience. The presence of the narrator in the performance works in that way.

Macklin: In this piece, how are meaning to approach this social phenomenon? Do you consider this work to be diagnostic? And to what ends, if any?

Mariano: It’s more of an analysis of this phenomenon; the idea is not so much to dismantle it. The interest is really to analyze it, and to analyze it through the device of fiction. It is a work that is basically fiction. It’s fiction that draws on the zeitgeist of the last ten years; it presents the imagined lives of a group of people in Buenos Aires. It doesn’t attempt to be a work of theory; it’s more concerned with inventive commentary, with specified analysis.

Macklin: How do you see the place of theatre in a contemporary art dialogue, especially work that is identity-based? What is its place in Buenos Aires? in Argentina at large? in South America?

Mariano: I’m not exactly sure what the place of theatre is in society. For me the theatre, as a medium, offers an opportunity to deal with the perception of time passing and the ephemerality of our memories and our experiences. There are no traces left after the performance. You really experience time at the same time that the performers are performing the play. In a more general sense, the theatre works as something that can create a much more concrete and direct connection between the performers and the audience.  Originally I was working in film and TV. Though I don’t think so much about cinema when I create my theatre works, in the end everyone tells me that there is an influence so I started to believe that there is one. I started to do theatre about 10 years ago. Before that I was working as a screenwriter. Originally I started to create work for theatre because it was much easier to produce theatre work than film. But then of course I discovered a completely different language. The poetics of theatre began to feel more interesting to me. There are also aspects of my writing – structures that come more from structures of film than from theatre. There are also visual aspects of my work that are very cinematic.

Macklin: How community-oriented is the theatre scene in Buenos Aires?

Mariano: We don’t have the system of companies that you have in Europe. Meaning that artists are working independently, working on their own projects. We decide to do something, and we just call some people up. What supports this system is the history you have with fellow artists; you work with people, and are able to call on them in the future. It’s really common to do projects in collaboration with other directors and artists. We basically are a huge community, and we share a lot of ideas, and there are a lot of artistic discussions going on. In that sense, it is a real community. The work itself, though, is not so community-oriented. You don’t tend to see work that reflects the specific experiences of specific parts of society.

Dramaturgy in Dance – Dramaturgy in Dance is a series of conversations instigated to promote discourse around dance performance theatre.
THEOFFCENTER would like to thank Roko Kawai, Performing Arts Coordinator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for making this interview possible. We would also like to thank Mariano Pensotti for giving us his time and for his vision.


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