Interview: M/M (Paris) on Antigone

published on 25 November 2004

Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak of M/M (Paris) discuss their work on the Antigone opera.

Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak of M/M (Paris) discuss their work on the Antigone opera.

Penny Martin: Had you worked in opera before?

M/M (Paris): We've been working with Éric Vigner for almost ten years. He had been appointed as the director of the CDDB - Théâtre de Lorient; a tiny theatre in Brittany. It was in the mid '90s, when the Ministry of Culture had decided to place a younger generation of directors in these kinds of places to encourage creation. Theatres were made more lively and this was one of them. Éric had seen a business card that we had designed. So he came up to meet us and said 'I'm going to try and initiate some projects with you.' The rules were that we should all feel free. It was not like being asked to do a communications project. Éric said, 'If I'm going to do creation. Then you should do creation too'. So every time they staged a new play, we were asked to do a poster but not like an illustration of what would happen on stage, more like our version of the text.

PM: Had Éric worked with opera before?

M/M: Since he had become a prominent director in France, he was approached several times by this conductor Christophe Rousset, to work on some operas. He had done a couple before, like La Didone and L'Empio Punito. Then last year Christophe asked Éric to create the scenography for Antigone. Our relationship with Éric had developed to the extent that he invited us to take part in the project. He said, 'Ok, maybe it's now time for you to move on and come on stage'. Previously, we'd been working outside of the theatre.

What interests us in the story of Antigone is that it contains everything. It is kind of a psychoanalytic matrix. It can be read from many directions: from the Freudian point of view on Oedipus; in terms of a woman standing against the Law as per Judith Buter's writings, etc.

PM: The Antigone myth might be read as having relevance to contemporary events. Does it have any ideological importance for you?

M/M: What interests us in the story of Antigone is that it contains everything. It is kind of a psychoanalytic matrix. It can be read from many directions: from the Freudian point of view on Oedipus; in terms of a woman standing against the Law as per Judith Buter's writings, etc. It's a pile of stories that have been played and discussed again and again. That's why the stages were all constructed from the same complex image. For us, that's a metaphor for Antigone: it's always the same story and it can be viewed in many different ways.

PM: Can you describe the working dynamic between you, Éric and Christophe?

M/M: We know each other's space. Eric invited us to do something for the set, allowed us some time and then we showed him some models of the set. They were obviously very directive, but this was part of the working situation that had preceded the project. We didn't speak about any visual references together. Those more came from us. He's very generous. He said 'right, you've given me a toy box, now I'm going to play in it.'

PM: Were you at all anxious about turning your design into 3-D terms; architecture, almost?

M/M: For us, it was interesting because the set combined many elements that came from other contexts: for instance, the carpet was originally designed for the café (Etienne Marcel) in Paris. That carpet mixed a typeface from us with the work of artists Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno. In a similar way, we used in the sets some posters from our 'Alphabet' series that were made together with Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. So the work was connected to us and the experiences we have had during other previous projects. For many other designers, it is important to approach each design problem afresh. ?For us, this is a mistake. It's like parentheses in history. The Modernists believed that design was about the message. It had to be transparent and objective. The pretension of objectivity failed for us. For our generation, it is impossible to pretend that we are soulless. It is interesting how Modernist aesthetics have been reappropriated through post modernity. It became kitsch in a way. If we step back and look at the history of signs, it is clear that being an author, someone who has a point of view, has always endured. We believe in having a point of view and being able to distort the message. Either you do it consciously, or unconsciously, but you do it anyway.

PM: My first interpretation of Antigone Under Hypnosis was that it was a Brechtian staging, but presumably you would refute this if you aim to reject the late Modernist project?

M/M: I think what Traetta was trying to achieve through opera seria was to create a more emotional experience. Two hundred or so years later, the whole of opera seems very anachronistic to us. It's a weird thing because opera was about mixing all the artists together, the most elite creators, but now it's becoming like an isolated island. To see all the efforts of a production created for a show that would only play six or seven times made it feel unreal. More extreme than haute couture. So for us, it was like an experiment because we hadn't undertaken such things before. Without any rules to follow or work against, it was like a new landscape. Because we have been creating all these signs, we tried to fill the landscape with these. There are few elements within the set that are original. Most are taken from our previous work.

PM: Is it important to you that an audience recognises the hallmarks of an M/M product?

M/M: It's up to them. The language is becoming more and more complex. The more people look at it, the more they will be able to converse with it.

PM: How does it feel to receive negative reviews, like those of Antigone in the conservative press?

M/M: The more serious, conservative opera reviewers all read very obvious references in the production. They all missed the point and focused on art historical allusions, drawn from between 1930 and 49. None of them registered the details or could understand them. Some would say the designs looked like Miro, others said Jean Dubuffet. There was in there elements that are perhaps closer to Hockney's fax art than Dubuffet. But if they want to see that, it's fine. We are just part of a big chain.

PM: Is the development of this internal language an emotional process for you and Mathias?

M/M: Obviously yes, but we would rather say that we are not there to provide all the subtexts to what we do.

PM: What is the relevance of the film medium you have used to document Antigone? Is it relevant to read cinematic references into the Antigone Under Hypnosis film?

M/M: In the beginning, the film was motivated by selfish concerns. The opera played only six or seven times. But with the film, we can show it for the next ten or fifteen years. Before completing the designs for Antigone, we were asked to do an exhibition about the process of creating the opera. We agreed on the premise that it would be the third part of a trilogy. First we would create the show, the performance would be the second part and then it was nice to something at the end. We thought a film would be the perfect archival medium, since it would contain the experiment. Something to show to more people. We had done one or two experiments with film before, two music videos, which had both been essentially single takes. This one is composed from four symmetrical takes. Four camera movements to describe the space. They are unconnected to the action on stage. These are very strict rules to follow. All the sequences start and stop at the same point. Except from the last one. The whole set was constructed around one image, zooming in and out and looking at it again and again and again. We tried to exhaust the image. To erode its history.

PM: Is where the film is seen important to you? Do you prefer to view it in an art gallery?

M/M: We wouldn't present it in SHOWstudio if this was the case.There is no separation for us. The commissions determined the different audiences for Antigone: for the opera and then the exhibition. Many of the aspects of our work that fed into the project were created through commercial projects.

PM: Finally, would you interpret the title of the film, Antigone Under Hypnosis?

M/M: Because the camera is very slow and descriptive, you are given the impression that almost nothing is happening. But by the end, after twenty minutes, you have seen a lot, so it's like hypnosis. The experience is somewhere into your brain but you don't really know what happened. Being mesmerised by the image, which is finally exhausted.

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