Michael Caldwell: A Factory of Humanity
Last week I had a great conversation with Michael Caldwell, a conversation that encompassed photo-bombing others' selfies to the mouldy memories that remain in dance studios connected to our student years, sci fi to American politics. But most importantly we talked about his upcoming show Factory, happening September 20-23rd at the Citadel (details at the end).
LR: So…I don’t really know anything about your upcoming show other than it’s happening. That’s kind of a fun place to start….
MC: Like most pieces we do, it started years ago. The trip I took in 2010 to Vietnam was the start. I made a choice to really document the experience through writing, photography, video. That turned into my solo at dance:made in Canada in 2011. But I had so much more stuff. I was alone in this country, I could’ve got sick, I could’ve died. I wanted to investigate that isolation and loneliness.
At face level Factory is about the complexities of human interaction. Beyond that it’s about well, how you and I could get into an argument about the quality of this recording for example. But that argument is influenced by so many other factors: our commutes, what we ate this morning, something that happened when I was five that reminds me of this. And we’re not aware of it while the situation gets intense and out of control very quickly.
On a personal level we understand how that can happen, but on the macro level people with power make big decisions…
LR: Coming to it with those same influences, they may not be aware of as they make decisions.
MC: Exactly. The title Factory references an assembly line. And in our interactions are like an assembly line; we keep understanding and learning but at the same time these patterns keep recurring, in slightly different ways but the same thing.
LR: Evolution takes millions of years.
MC: In order to move forward together we have to figure out our shit.
LR: I just listened to an interview with Glen Beck [former Fox news super right-wing political commentator] who is now apologizing for how 8-10 years ago he stoked some of the fires and caused some of the polarization of American people. He was saying how those who feared Obama should be empathetic to those who fear Trump now. It’s the same fear in a different form. The only way to move through this is to work together. We don’t have to agree but we have to work together.
MC: In the piece what you see is the microcosm, but the bigger idea has grown from it. I overlaid an arbitrary idea onto how we created the movement: you dancer 1 do this to dancer 2 and dancer 2 do something to dancer 3 all the way around back to dancer 1. What you do will get back to you.
LR: Ah, a sort of assembly line.
MC: And Factory is also now turning into the idea of factory as your community and then the question is what do we want to pump out of it? What do we want to make in response to climate change? What do we as Toronto want to do about Black Lives Matter? It’s a collective movement of acting together and by doing it together we can sort things out. In opposition to a leader like Trump who is functions in isolation.
LR: The word factory could have a slightly negative connotation to it: automation and remove from humanity….but I like the expression you used “what do we want to pump out of it”. The word pump makes me think of the heart, a mini-factory in each of us. Human beings are the factories and you are pumping something that is directly human.
MC: I’ve been talking about a lot about technology and humans with a friend of mine who works at a high level in a technology company. He said there is no doubt that humans and technology will be totally integrated. That fact has created two camps. There are a lot of people who say let’s return to nature and the body and the environment and the other option is let’s innovate and go go go. And he says if we don’t look at this integration as a positive now and start thinking about what this will be and making solutions together, then when we get there [to the total integration] it’ll be a gong show.
LR: Technology and innovation are not inherently evil. It’s how it gets used, it’s the corporate ownership that calls ethics into question.
I’ve been reading a lot of sci fi lately and I understand the social function of it – to criticize society and warn “if we don’t get our shit together, this is going to happen!” But I long for a sci fi story in which something goes wrong and we fix it.
MC: Have you seen the movie “Contact” with Jodie Foster? Carl Sagan wrote the novel it was based on.
LR: Yeah I went to see it right after my dad died. I actually saw it in that theatre across the street there!
MC: That would’ve been intense….But it had a more positive view on the future.
LR: Yes. Carl Sagan was pretty special. In kids’ sci fi they put the hope in the hands of children, characters who run with the positive idea towards the next horizon. We should put it in the 40 year-olds’ hands too. There’s a lot of vital energy in 50, 60, 70 year old now, energy they could put into the problems. Cross-generational work. We’ve got to work together, like you’re saying.
MC: It’s all about how we relate and live together. We live together everyday but we just don’t think about the systems that support us. The streetcar tracks, the bike lane, the pipes that carry water to wash my hands. They all connect us to each other so we can function. They are there everyday and all the time, connecting us.
LR: Back to Factory more specifically….What about the design elements?
MC: When I went to Vietnam back in 2010, people thought I was from every Asian country possible and then some people just knew I was from Canada. There were subtle clues in how I was dressed.
The costuming for Factory is like that too. All neutral colours with hints at character: “Oh that guy is kind of hip, she’s edgy and she’s conservative.” I wanted to have some element of an era or style.
LR: Not explicit.
MC: No, to hint at another layer of the relationship when the dancers are together. It’s subtle enough that it’s not the total reading of the work, but a layer.
LR: It’s great that you are doing something with this big a team. Have you done anything this big before?
MC: No. It’s great to have a group. But really five is as much as the Citadel can hold.
LR: It’s funny how five can still seem like a small group but six becomes a big group.
And what about Phil Strong, the composer?
MC: He is live mixing in sound and space.
LR: What’s it like? What are Phil’s parameters?
MC: His play is how he rides the performers differences from day to day. Maybe one day a dancer is a little slower or a little more agitated in their interpretation. He makes choices to adapt his sound structure.
LR: He must love that. Making the sound based on set ideas but integrated with the energy of any given moment.
MC: He does
LR: What he does creates another creature. All these creatures coming together, working together to pump something out of the factory.
MC: The audience is on two sides so the audience is IN something. The risers are just a little higher than the performers space. To offer that point of view that we’re in it and we’re watching it together, but we are separate, watching it from afar but very close.
LR: Just those few inches difference in level.
MC: Seeing each other across the performance….
LR: I love the multiple physical perspectives on performance. It reinforces that there’s no one right way to see the work.
MC: The proscenium theatre is great because we can abandon the idea that it’s about us at all, as an audience. The energy is focused forward, we know we’re not being watched….but then this [audience on two sides] is a good experience too, that you are part of it. Everyone is part of the complication and the complexity. You’re being watched, you can’t check out. Well you can, but someone will see you checking out. You are part of the image.
LR: Part of what someone else is seeing.
MC: Yes and part of that is seeing someone not taking action when something violent might be happening. Or someone might be moving in response to the action.
I call it a dioramic view. You’re not in the action. I want that to be clear. There’s enough separation that you can just watch. You are close but just that little bit of elevation for the audience creates space.
LR: I think that’s an interesting delicacy to find. How thin can that fourth wall, that separation be and still keep the magic? The otherworld-ness, even when it is very recognizable whispers “that’s not me out there but it’s a reflection of me”.
MC: A lot of what I’m doing artistically now -- my performative, choreographic, presenting, curatorial work -- are working in tandem and are related. They are merging into one overarching idea: site responsiveness.
How we respond to the physical make-up and structure of where we are making our work, the history of the site, the community around it. Curatorially, I’m interested in programming the works of artists and companies who think about site. My interests are going towards companies and artists who are looking at all the things going into the space in order to create the whole vision.
LR: That’s something I’m very interested in too, it kind of grew organically over my last few pieces but I’d like to learn how to see and cultivate that more consciously. While creating my last work Animal Vegetable Mineral and because of it’s content, I started to feel theatrical spaces of all sorts are like ecosystems.
There’s always so much to talk about, I am infinitely curious about how people make stuff. People are doing fascinating things, always. Like this, like Factory. I am sorry I am out of town for it, but I hope it is a great success. Give my best to all your dancers and collaborators.
September 20-23, 2018 at 8pm
The Citadel; Ross Centre for Dance
304 Parliament Street
Toronto ON M5A 2Z6
photos by Zhenya Cerneacov