What is the relationship between the body and the public space, and what happens when we break with the existing codes? Melissa Schriek's photo series, The City is a Choreography, raises questions that are more relevant than ever now that the question of who the public space belongs to is topical. Can the city decide this for its residents at all? Pavements, squares and parks are turning out to be too small for the social distancing society, now that we need more of these than ever. Schriek explores the ways in which the urban environment can be perceived both via the eyes and with the body, and she encourages people to take up space. She playfully experiments with bodies claiming their place in astonishingly elastic poses.
This project is a collaboration between Holland Festival and Melkweg Expo.
Public life as a play
an interview with photographer Melissa Schriek
by Iris van der Zee
As a photographer, Melissa Schriek focuses on the expressive body and how it relates to its immediate environment. She talks about The City is a Choreography, a series she made before the measures surrounding the coronavirus came to predominate public space. A conversation about how a camera can be a means of relating to the world, about how the world has come to resemble her staged photos and about Amsterdammertjes that turn out not to be street poles but props to make a choreography with.
A Choreographic Object / Elbow Kiss
As a photographer, how did you experience these last few months?
'I think every photographer working in public space was forced to work in a completely different way. At the beginning of the measures, when we were constantly told to stay home, I was unable to take photos because I need people for that, and I have to leave the house. The distancing requirements became a contradictory problem because, on the one hand, as a photographer I take distance as a subject of inquiry, while on the other hand I need people for this who can touch each other or objects in the city. It forces me to think differently: how can I go on with my work, despite the measures? But also: what does my older work communicate in the current context?
Shelter / The Distance
You work with public space. You stage your photos, but in your artist statement I read that you first observe the city. How do you see that same city now?
'In my work, I explore the relationship between people and their personal environment. In many cases, this is the city they move around in. I’m interested in the ways people relate to public space, since it’s the only space we all share together. But public space has changed tremendously in a very short time. When I look at The City is a Choreography now, I see a lot of loneliness in these pictures. I made the work before the start of the corona crisis. Before corona, I always sought images that show the urban environment, but without the noise of passers-by. I was walking through the city the other day and realised the city now looks like it always looked in my photos. I think it’s quite interesting to see how the work bends towards the way we live now'.
The Fall / The Street
In your artist statement you say that in your work you want to explore the ways people relate to each other and their personal environment. I would like to ask you the same question: how do you relate to others, to your personal environment?
'In one respect, the reason I produce work is because I’m still looking to answer that question. For me, photography is a way to locate my position in the world and connect with other people. I tend to wall myself off in a way that hinders deep connections with others. I’ll often photograph two people making physical contact with each other – or with some part of the city – but as a photographer I’m always an outsider. I’m not part of the contact. Through my camera lens, I explore what making social contact looks like.
On the other hand, my photographic eye also aids me in dealing with the world around me. The fact is I’m easily bored. I never bicycle the same route because then I’ll pass the same things every time. I try to find ways of making my environment more interesting. At a certain moment, I realised a pole by the side of the road isn’t a pole but an object to build a performance around, or to incorporate in a photo. A theatrical prop in public life. After realising this, the world around me became a lot more exciting. And I’ve noticed it rubs off on people. I’m often sent photos by people who saw a fallen tree and tell me ‘this reminded me of your work'.
The Supermarkt / The Cone
So every object you encounter in a city is a prop, every passer-by an actor in the piece?
'Whenever I walk through the city, I see a type of game take shape, as if public life is a play. That’s also the reason I like to work with bright sunlight. The light is so full of contrast during the day that it falls on the subject like a stage light. I feel it gives the world a fictional quality.
I could look at people bustling through busy shopping streets for hours. The way everyone tries to avoid each other, as if a dance is taking shape without the dancers’ awareness of it themselves. I’ll distil poses or movements from such observations which I’ll later replicate to take a photo. Documenting the moment of the observation itself isn’t interesting to me. Reality as it is doesn’t interest me much. I prefer to take small moments from reality and then use them as I see fit'.
Contemplation / The Embrace
Would you then say photography to you is a means of directing a performance?
'I wrote a chapter in my thesis about the difference between photography and performance photography. When I’m taking a photo, indirectly a street performance takes shape that really draws people. Passers-by will come look what’s going on. I think that’s a nice side effect, but I wouldn’t direct a performance without wielding a camera. The performance is in the service of my photography: I’m looking to take a photo in the end'.
The Streetpole / The Tired Man
We’ll wrap up this interview at the beginning: where does this love of capturing a performance in a photo come from?
'I used to dance – not at a very high level, but it made me more aware of my own body. I suspect I direct my models in a certain way as a consequence. I approach the human body as if it’s a sculptural medium. I think the body is the most expressive thing about human beings.
And the body is always political. Just think of an expression like ‘freedom of movement’. These past months, we’ve all been able to experience, in however light a form, what it’s like to be restricted in your freedom to come and go as you please. This freedom is now no longer a given, and this is sure to influence any future projects of mine'.