Willi Dorner: bodies in urban spaces. Photographer: Lisa Rastl

Willi Dorner: Bodies in Urban Spaces

Celebrating 10 years of touring the globe, Willi Dorner’s landmark performance-piece is squeezing itself into the tightest spaces of Copenhagen.

Published: July 19, 2017Words: Willi Dorner & J.Scott Stratton

After starting as a small performance on the streets of Barcelona in 2007, Willi Dorner’s human installation performance (for lack of a better term) ‘Bodies in Urban Places’ has seen more corners and crevices of the world than the artist would have thought possible when he first started exploring the notion of “bodies” in relation to the objects around them.

The piece has been featured in major newspapers in nearly every city it hits, and spawned a book of photographs that document the piece’s travels. Because of this, it has elevated Dorner’s notoriety as an artist and choreographer to a level that most in his field only dream of. The success of this piece is so widespread, that it feels like I’m just now walking into a performance during the standing ovation and final bow.

If you google either ‘Willi Dorner’ or ‘Bodies in Urban Spaces’ you will find page after page of blog pieces, blurbs and editorial covering the near decade of the piece’s tour. But, the one thing I was hard pressed to find, was some words from the artist himself about the piece-although it could have been simply buried in the praise.

My first thought was to rectify this, and although Dorner does not tour the piece himself, he maintains full creative control of the piece as he directs his protégés orchestrate the piece.

After an exchange of emails, I was able to get a handful of questions to Dorner, via an intermediary, to delve a little deeper into the basis, the research and the process of the piece as it was first conceived.

This piece has been touring for some time now, but can you give me a little bit of background as to why you left the Black Box to pursue this more “human installation” format?

After many years of working on stage, I was interested in doing a deeper research on space in general. In the first place, that meant that I had to leave the stage in order to get a full picture of all different dimensions or aspects of space. I experimented in several urbanistic works or projects with political, economic, social,…..aspects of space. And in one of the residencies, I developed the idea of human installations – first only indoor – and a year later, when I was invited to Polytechnical University in Barcelona for another residency I could work on the idea outdoor and created a first “bodies” project.

Tell me a little bit about the research behind this piece?

The idea for Bodies in Urban Spaces I had already over 10 years ago. I was really interested in “space” at that time, and for this research, I was invited by festival Impulstanz (back then still International dance weeks) to do a project in a new residential building in Vienna – to do different performance work or installations in the residential building.

I invited artist friends – architects, composers, and filmmakers – to join me and we were going to work in empty flats that were waiting for someone to move into them. We worked on different ideas, one was inspired by Le Corbusier and the modular system and I got fascinated with the idea of how to fill up a flat.

…You have a bathroom with a toilet, a kitchen… but how many people do you need? I realized that it takes quite a lot of people to fill up a flat or even just a kitchen or bathroom.

Sometime later, I was invited by the technical University in Barcelona, to speak about my work. They gave me the opportunity to develop a project, so I brought this idea into outdoor spaces. It was a very short performance, but it was the beginning. The following year the performance was invited to a summer festival in Paris and it was a big success from that on.

After nearly a decade, how does it feel to see this piece still touring?

I myself do not tour this piece anymore. It is my assistants who do the project and they do it very well. They have been working for me more than 9 years and understand it very well. They were joining me and learned to lead the project through the working processes in different cities over years. I stopped doing it after 4 years. I needed distance to it and of course was interested in creating new works. We still have so many requests and I am happy that it is still rolling. I think that bodies are a kind of “timeless” piece. Of course, I go to a premiere and watch it live and I am still touched to see all these moments.

When you visit a new city, how is it that you choose the spaces? And how do you choreograph the bodies prior to the performance?

Most of the time I’m looking for very random spaces–nooks, crannies or cracks, places that you normally do not look at. The places that people normally ignore. When I started, I had just vague ideas in my mind. Later over the years, it changed a lot. The images that I had in mind, became more concrete and clear. Also, I learned what the body can do. The body is my limitation.

Tell me a little bit about combining the classical study of movement (choreography) with a medium that essentially freezes movement (photography)?

At first, I did not want to photograph it. I wanted it to happen and then disappear—so that it stayed in the back of people’s minds. But then I needed the photos in the rehearsal process, and through this, I got more and more interested in taking photos. I liked to decide through which specific view-point I want to see it.

In the meanwhile I create situations, meaning I compose photos for fashion and in other of my artistic projects. I am aware that it is something totally different to see the same moment live or see a photo. But both have qualities of their own. I like to work both ways.

For the upcoming performance in Copenhagen, how much time to take to prepare the spaces, shapes, and bodies?

We have been visiting Copenhagen twice before the final rehearsals that start on Saturday. The final rehearsal period will be 5 days. 5 intense days for such a long walk.

Beyond this piece, what sort of research and concepts are you exploring for future works?

As I travel a lot, the cities and its specific places and sites give me ideas and inspirations on the one hand. And on the other hand, I deepened my interest in architecture theory and philosophy, the research on specific themes and topics allow me to get a specific view on cities. I am working from two different endings – from a more practical, situational approach and from a theoretical concept or background that give me the tools and allow me to look at urban cities and its phenomena through a specific frame or perspective. I also try to find references in Fine Arts and photography and literature and bring it together.

Willi Dorner: bodies in urban spaces. Photographer: Lisa Rastl
Willi Dorner: bodies in urban spaces. Photographer: Lisa Rastl