From interacting with life-sized dioramas to participatory sound installations, artist and urbanist Daniel Almgren Recén is interested in the boundaries between the natural and artificial, and how we relate to the urban spaces which we inhabit. Originally trained in theatre and dance, in recent years Almgren Recén's interests have turned increasingly to urban planning and development, and to the inclusion of the voices of others in both social and artistic projects.
Sasha Amaya sat down with Daniel Almgren Recén to understand more about his artistic journey, his past projects, and what motivates his work.
Sasha Amaya: You now work in urban studies, installation, and place-making, which is still mostly quite distinct from the world of dance. I am curious about your artistic journey from dance and about how your education as a dancer led into your urbanistic work?
Daniel Almgren Recén: I think it actually began even earlier. In 1998 I started a one year residential college for theatre production, and one year after I did another, which was more into acting, but already there we were busy with all sides of a theatre play. After this I studied in the university, focused on drama, both reading and performing, and through that we went through the whole history of theatre. It became more interesting to follow the path of non-written text, to produce things from scratch, so I started to take part in that in Göteborg, with a troupe which were very focused on developing their own work, and we used a lot of physical movement.
It was from there that I was invited into a contemporary dance context, that is to say, not one specific movement style but more conceptual creation of movements and improvisation.That was very inspiring and I realized that when it comes to creating work there seemed to be a broader possibility in dance to create experimental work, since the field had already opened; it was a place where you could work on ideas and see how they could manifest themselves on stage without a linear narrative (as theatre was then done in Sweden very often).
In Sweden we were doing lots of experiments just doing things outdoors in the public realm and dance work with people in public spaces, so for example, a train station or something like this. And just doing a lot of awareness work in public spaces. For example, standing in the street and closing the eyes and experiencing, sensitising [ourselves], considering how different spaces play, and what kinds of environments they are in energy, light, etc. Or, with the theatre group in Göteborg, taking care of someone else in the forest: you would have your eyes closed, and someone would be checking that you wouldn’t hurt yourself so that you would be free, you would go and be there touching things, heightening your understanding.
SA: It seems like in several of your projects you mingle and even conflate the wild and the domestic, the interior and exterior, the architectural and the natural, for instance in your work Native Realm, or during your time at the Biological Museum.
DAR: In Native Realm, I created a project in which I travelled with everything I own in a van. It began in 2012 when I was living in the middle of Göteborg, and people were visiting me and my stuff. I would have my place open for about a week—people would come ask questions, ask me about the things in my van. I would tell them about it and then suddenly we were in a conversation, also about their life. People would come with beer; it was a little festival centre. And then I would travel further, tracking family routes throughout Sweden over 8000 km. All the places came to feel like home as I had everything with me. The landscape was amazing [but] it became very object-centred, because of the storytelling around each object. The objects became triggers for memories.
The Biological Museum—which we curated over six months with talks, poetry, performance, and installation under a project called The Ecological Theater—is another case that I find very interesting because it has different layers: an outside environment brought inside, with the further step of entering the small house we constructed indoors. You immediately have multiple levels of reality. The space itself is a bit like the Natural History Museum in New York: you walk in, there’s a panorama, and you proceed upstairs. The animals there are placed in relation to their actual location in Nordic nature, at least as was in existence when this was built. And the taxidermied animals themselves— they’re real but dead but are supposed to look alive—are an analogue augmentation of reality. The peculiar thing is that this museum is only lit by daylight, so it is very interesting to go there in the hour of dusk: things start to disappear, whether real or not. We took the time, therefore, of dusk to create a fantasy environment. We think of digital virtual augmentation as new, but many ways of manipulating, augmenting, and transforming the things around us to create a new experience for ourselves are not new.
SA: I want to ask you about your project Near that Place, which you’ve done in both Stockholm and Berlin. In this work you constructed a small house within another space with the intention of “physically and mentally take spectators to a place between themselves and their memories.” What does that mean? How did the work manifest, and what was the process for the participants?
DAR: A colleague and I, Johan Forsman, were experimenting with the concept and experience of leaving the present and arriving [in the past]. This came from Native Realm, the project in which I travelled across 8000 km of Sweden with all of my things, and the wish to recreate this work for a theatrical setting. The goal was to translate the accumulated knowledge from Native Realm into a form where my own personal things weren’t at the centre of the work; rather the personal memories and histories of the visitors would be the focus instead. However, we didn’t want to visit the past as a place of total nostalgia, but of sharing and playing with past memories. In this way, the white suits that everyone wore were a way of leaving the present and relaxing from the need to state oneself or be looking after one’s image.
We divided the space into three sections. The first space one entered as a visitor was a kind of grey cave, a non-space where we, together, shared memories of our first homes. The second space was the theatre room in itself where visitors could listen to a soundscape through headphones, look at videos of travels and homes, drink lemonade, and eat cookies. The third space was a white, sealed, house-shaped construction that only opened after a while to invite the visitors inside. The function here was a transition space leading back to the present.
The spaces themselves we built with the stage designers from SUTODA. For the crew cave we used covering material for construction scaffolding. The White House is a wood frame covered with carton, the type used for milk cartons. Seating and tables were constructed with simple wooden planks in different sizes.
Near that Place was presented in Stockholm, Göteborg, and Malmö in Sweden, and in Berlin in Germany between 2013 and 2016. The different between Stockholm and Berlin was that the theatre space in which we presented the work in Stockholm was a relatively homogeneous group of local and European theatre visitors who reflected on the norm of international mobility in the present society. In Berlin we had a space which was not primarily built for theatrical purposes, and that challenged us to rethink and adapt the construction. The conversations with the visitors were intense since the question of involuntarily leaving one’s home came up more frequently as some of the visitors had come to Germany in the wave of refugees, which added a new layer of depth to the conversations: the time span between 2013 and 2016 has been an interesting period over which to do this work.
SA: Some of your recent projects have a very strong sociological, urban studies, and even urban policy-oriented, bent. How did you get involved in that and what kind of artistic leanings do you bring to these projects? Do you see social change or social responsibility as integral to your practice?
DAR: I have always been quite interested in substantial questions and I want to ask other people these questions, too; I want to figure out how they think. There are so many things that are strange. And there are so many ways of organising oneself as a human being... My work has shifted from putting my thoughts on display to putting other people’s ideas on display.
Lea Martini and I have recently shown a new sound installation at Uferstudios in Berlin called Wovon träumst du? (What do you dream of?). We tried to create a few questions with which we would like to start a conversation with people we encountered on the street: (1) What you are doing now, (2) What did you do ten years ago? (3) What were your future plans or dreams ten years ago? and (4) What are your wishes now? and then (5) Could you have imagined now ten years ago? To play with the levels of concrete plans or wishes in an artistic context.
On the other hand, in the Future Workshop for Youth - a survey project focused on the environmental awareness and behaviour of young people - I wanted to go into a context which was not primarily an art context, and not to frame the work as such. The German ministry that funded the project - the Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit, which is in charge of environment, nature conservation, and nuclear safety - was curious about what youths are thinking. Through this project, of which I was a member of a team of three,I got in contact with people who wouldn’t seek out an art context at all, or rarely. We asked them questions about their personal relationship to and experience of the urban environment they inhabit. Do they feel included in the shaping of the environment? Is it theirs? What is good? What do they not like? And in the end we asked about how and what should or could be made different. Participants were interested in taking part because they were also aware that this information would go back to a ministry, that what they say will also lead somewhere. And that’s what I haven’t found in the art context, really. I wanted to talk about these issues in a way that was kind of… real.
One thing is to ask these questions in an art context, and that could be relevant; the art project might, or might not, have an impact. Another thing is to ask someone for information because you can give this information to someone else [who can then act on it in a practical way]—and at this moment I have the need to go into an environment where if I collect information it might mean something can change. Of course art can spark engagement, but the changing itself is not necessarily artistic. So I became interested in understanding how I could actually facilitate change. Rather than primarily producing short artistic interventions, by going into environments such as city development, environmental planning, and local community initiatives, I can support and accompany a process over a longer period of time.
To learn more about the work of Daniel Almgren Recen, click here.