“Chaos has to mean something. The avante-garde is always a moral argument.”
We are sitting across the table from Sandeep Bhagwati, frantically scribbling down his words. He seems to have a tagline answer for every one of our questions: “99% of everything is bad, but that doesn’t mean it is meaningless.”
Bhagwati has been at the newly-named Milieux Institute since its early days, although he has been dreaming about matralab since 1992. “I had the name before the acronym,” he admits with a smile. Matra, he explains, is an Indian unit for time in music. Like a beat, he says, tapping his pen on the counter. “Except it is not the beat, but the space between.”
The name is also an acronym which reveals the potential of the space: M (music, movement and media), A (art), T (theatre and theory), R (research), A (agency).
The key to matralab, and especially matrabox, the lab’s blackbox studio (equipped with a dance floor and a powered lighting grid), is its flexibility of space and openness to many different approaches: “One week it is full of tech and the next, there is an artist who just wants to sit in the middle of of the room, in the dark, with absolute silence.”
matralab is a space of multiplicities. It is not only interdisciplinary, but “inter(x)” as Bhagwati describes, the x representing everything from discipline, to culture, media, and everything in between.
As an Indian-German-Canadian conductor, theatre director, university researcher, curator, performer, visual artist, and writer, Bhagwati himself occupies many in-between spaces. When we ask about his roots in classical music, he tells us he actually started in music with a rock band called Macbeth. “It was the 70s!” he laughs.
He describes himself as “a passing guest in classical music” and, though he now inhabits a somewhat different world, Bhagwati says he still prefers to work with classical musicians, who are trained down to the “micro-second.” As he says, “one second is an age in classical music.”
Bhagwati’s current project with matralab is :body:suit:score, a research creation piece to be finished in 2018. The project is born out of a desire to disrupt the traditional formation of “frontal opposition” between musicians on stage and the audience facing them, he explains. Of course, the theatre is set up this way to facilitate acoustics, harmony and communication between musicians, but what if we could “unmake those decisions” in a conscious way?
The bodysuit, designed in collaboration with Concordia’s Joanna Berzowska (Xs Labs), is a “universal tool” intended to help “unmake” traditional conceptions of performance.
It works like this: The suit is rigged with a system of wires and sensors that monitor the musician’s heart rate, sweat glands and motion—all “performance-related data” which is collected and transmitted to the composer wirelessly.
“Many artists are only interested in the making,” Bhagwati tells us, “I am interested in perception.”
Bhagwati describes one composition, in which three audience members control the suit of one musician with an iPad. Only one person can control the musician at a time. If they send a signal to the performer’s left leg, they affect the volume at which they play. The right leg controls which scale they play in, the belt area controls the tone or colour of the playing, and so on.
This requires the musician to learn a choreography of responses in which their instrument and their body become explicitly one. But the musician is not a “puppet or a slave.” They have free will, and can choose to acknowledge the signal sent to them and perform it when they choose.
In Bhagwati’s words, the “body suit is an equivalent to the concert hall” in that it connects and coordinates musicians, though not spatially but corporeally. And the audience is a network, an image of society, a “fragile disequilibrium.”
But Bhagwati does not credit these networks and connections to technology alone. Humans are essential in his practice. He asks us to imagine a performance done by computers, for an audience of computers, with narry a human to be found. Although this kind of configuration intrigues him deeply, Bhagwati believes that technology only brings people together if they know a human has been involved in some way. A chaotic art display only works if “people think that chaos was made for them. That someone gave it a lot of thought, even if it may seem random now.”
When asked if that is because we are obsessed with finding meaning, he replies without hesitation, “It is not that we are obsessed with it. We cannot help it.”
Interview by Eileen Holowka and Hilary Bergen (February 2016)