From the TELEPHONE Interview Series.
I met Erin 10 birthdays ago, shortly after I moved to Montréal—during the massive student demonstrations that shook the province of Quebec. Since then we’ve fallen mostly in—and sometimes out—of each other’s lives; so I've had the gift of being a part of and witnessing her work as an artist. I have always admired Erin’s gift of poetry—her ability to be committed to her values while remaining open, available. There is an endless depth to her practice—the kind where even just speaking about it can become a poetic act. So, during a trip to Ghent, we sat down in a small bar and talked about her work, about the sun, about the real-life magic that we all could give a little more attention to…
Charlie Prince: How can I start this?
Erin Hill: With a stupid question…
Ok… So what have you been working on recently?
That's not a stupid question. However, it’s a bit of a funny question. You know what I’m doing …
I actually don’t so much. So, I see you every morning: you wake up way before me and you sit in this big chair beside the window, put a camera on a tripod to film the sky, and you write. I close my eyes and the scribbling of your pencil often puts me back to sleep.
I’m actually taking photos of the sunrise with an app that captures one image every minute or so. Depending on the day, depending on the light, sometimes I set it to one photo every 30 seconds, or every 2 minutes… I’ve been doing this, the Sunrise Commitment, since the 17th of April last year. I also take note of my heartbeat, write about what I see, what I hear, and the state of my body in that wake-up moment.
So tell me about the sunrise.
What to say. I don’t feel like giving an entire backstory on why I do it, but maybe rather what has changed in my life since I started watching the sunrise. I think it’s made me realize that the sunrise is very much about the nighttime, and the tension of light before the sky starts to shift colour. So, every morning, well maybe not every morning, I decided to give myself the weekends off for a while… to try it out as a Monday-to-Friday job. And on these mornings I really feel sad when I don’t wake up soon enough to see the sky shift from darkness to a little bit of blue.
The morning is the time in my life when I’m striving for efficiency—clumsy, still waking up, but trying somehow to get going. The Sunrise Commitment allows me to find a pause or an interference in that efficiency of getting going with the day, as though the day was there only to get going with me. It’s like the day has its own life, and stopping to watch the sun rise allows me to witness or tune in to what the day’s rhythm could be.
The day’s rhythm… can you talk a bit more about this relationship to rhythm within the sunrise practice..
Yeah… I had a feeling that if I could perceive or be more sensitive to all the different rhythms that I’m confronted with as I go through my daily life, then I could also find porous places within them to stop, pause. A moment of recognition for what it is that I am a part of, rather than feel a bit like a robot. 'Robot' is not really the right word, but to have agency in my experience and recognize what I choreograph through my movement as well as what choreographs me. Which I think is a big part of the practice of going to the theatre: going to watch dance, to see and to witness movement, to look at the fixed space of the stage and really look at it for a long time, to experience changes inside of that frame. I mean, if you displaced that frame to the street or to your home you could watch the performance of daily life unraveling… and so the rhythm. I wanted to do something in an urban space, that in my daily life I was too shy to do: to put myself in public. So I decided very arbitrarily that I would watch the sunrise for a month and a half. Hoping that this Sunrise Commitment would lead me towards the street, towards strangers, towards realms of potential that I feel shy engaging with.
So the practice came out of a place of wanting to experience a different sense of intersubjectivity? You were talking about how you witness your day differently because you wake up much earlier than usual; I mean, it’s something I’ve experienced when I leave a club at 10 am after dancing all night, and on my way home I see people and the landscape of the city very very differently than if I were to see them sober at 10 am after a full night’s sleep. My whole day becomes very different, and in a way I begin to live a different life. So, my interpretation and memory of the day becomes something else completely, almost like it doesn’t belong to the me that I know anymore; rather it belongs to this other person that is inside of me.
Yes, definitely. [smiles]
Do you find that it has affected your relationship to people or that you deal with people differently? You now have a lot more time to contemplate by yourself towards something that can’t really speak back to you.
Hmm. It makes me think about dance, and what I want to share. It has a lot less to do with people. I’m actually not so interested in people but super interested in the landscapes and the environments that surround people—the way those landscapes and environments relate to people, and people relate to them. The Sunrise Commitment makes me want to share more often with people these moments of silence, and like you said, relating to something that can’t talk back. The sun rising is a performance, every morning, and it will not wait for you if you’re late getting to the show.
About the sharing—I know that you do these dates with people at sunrise. I myself have been on several of these dates… they’re quite magical. How was it when you started bringing people to be a part of this?
It’s been a really beautiful experience; people are so generous. The reason why I started the dates is because, at that point, I had been watching the sun rise for six months or so and I remembered that the Sunrise Commitment came from a place of wanting to be in relation with people, with strangers.I thought this would be the next step: to have dates with my friends, and then eventually I could have dates with people whom I don’t know but who are already awake at that time given their professions. Like taxi drivers, bakers, imams…
These dates reminded me how sensitive, patient and generous people can be. And they made tangible the value of this exchange. Actually, the exchange-less value of waking up for the sunrise, of risking that your day will be less efficient; that action is for itself only. Also, sharing together the vulnerability of the sunrise, because you can never know… especially in Amsterdam: What time will the sky start shifting colours? Will it be grey? Most mornings I’m not witnessing the image of a romantic sunrise—but that’s okay because in the end it’s not really about the sensationality of the sunrise; it’s just about that moment.
Knowing you as a person and as an artist I notice something really nice where you have a desire for the work that you do to affect your daily life and to affect your habits and that your artistic work is not separate from your personal life; I always found that really brave—but I also see it as a kind of rebellion or… I see the way you make art as anti-sensational, anti-establishment, anti-capitalist. Do you feel like you’re rebelling by doing what you’re doing? By interrupting… do you feel like you’re rebelling against an economic and social system that requires you to live in a certain way, at specific hours?
Umm, no. No because when I began the Sunrise Commitment it was during spring, at a time when the sun was rising earlier and earlier everyday to the point where I was waking up 4am. So I would watch the sun rise, not go back to bed, continue working until 8 pm, and then think “I need to go to bed” but not really get there until 10pm. I was exhausted and often grumpy during that time. It was a rhythm of exploitation of myself, and I was confronted with the reality of what it means to use my body as an experiment. For me, my body and the sensual experience of being alive is everything. I am bewildered and enticed trying to feel how even the thoughts I think are, phenomenologically, just a bunch of cells moving around. This blows my mind and is what I want to share, and my body is the site though which I gather these sensual experiences.
But then, how do I share the fruits of that labor within a market, within a context that is quite based on commodification, quantity, and money-value? I would like to think that I’m learning more and more how to create the conditions in which I want to work. But this also takes time.
Maybe, I can think of ‘rebellion’ or ‘radical’ in the sense of making and sharing work as an act of speculation. to make appear the kind of context I desire. Then I think that what we can do in the field of choreography is share work that moves through different questions, and allows audiences to shift and expand the things that they resonate with.
Spending time with you, I’ve learned about this thing: the 'real life magic,' which is a principle that has changed my perspective of how I see the world. It became an exercise of paying more attention and to notice and record in my mind more. I’d love to hear more from you about Real Life Magic.
It’s funny, this Real Life Magic. It started on a pink piece of construction paper that I carried around with me for three years, and the list grew ever so slowly. It just had maybe seven things on it and one of them was Airplanes, which is a big and terrifying Real Life Magic for me. I recently started thinking about this list again and trying to expand it with the help of others, which required me to explain what Real Life Magic actually is.
So, what is it?
It is the things in life that feel like magic—that either you understand completely but they still strike awe inside of you or the things you see right there in front of you but there’s a gap in understanding.
Do you mean, in the logic of how things are supposed to work or how they manifest themselves differently? There’s this yoga class I love following on YouTube where, in the last four minutes, the instructor guides you through a shavasana resting pose, and at that moment things are super beautifully filmed, the sunset, the beach, psychedelic filters etc., and no one’s going to see it because they’re supposed to be laying their backs with their eyes closed. That defies logic in such a poetic way!
Sure, so maybe that’s a criteria for you, for your Real Life Magic! It’s also different for everyone, but yes, Charlie, that’s Real Life Magic for sure. I mean, that’s what’s nice about sharing it. Someone once did this collective dreaming where we all laid down, closed our eyes and dreamt together out loud. I used this idea but in a different setting where, instead of dreaming, I asked people to imagine and say out loud what for them is Real Life Magic. Someone would say ATMs and then someone else would say Clouds and sometimes people would elaborate on why it is Real Life Magic for them. Sometimes it would just be the word and there’s a mystery to it. It’s really nice to share this practice in a group setting—to engage in this mode of attention where people inspire each other and you can hear the way people associate or connect words. And, yeah, it’s kind of gotten out of control.
What do you mean?
I mean those people that I’ve shared it with… it’s not uncommon now that, in a day, three different people will tell me: oh, I thought of another one! And since I’m making this book that lists them, the list is just growing and growing.
What I find so wonderful about this is that by engaging with this practice you’re creating a sort of collective authorship of a poetic perspective on life… I just find that very moving. It’s kind of this book of poems that writes itself.
I like that you say poetic perspective, it is poetic in the sense that poetry is a way, an action, which can undo engrained logics. Poets are magicians. They screw with language, which is a changing yet very rigid structure through which we share life and knowledge; and they can just undo it. And I think that’s Real Life Magic.
So, this is part of your choreographic practice?
I ask you this because I’m realizing now we’ve been talking for a while and I didn’t have the reflex to ask you about your dance practice, even though at the moment I know you’re very focused on dance and choreography. So, where do you feel like you situate yourself as an artist? Or is that even relevant to you?
If I reflect on the Real Life Magic and the Sunrise Commitment and this book that I’m currently making out of the two; both of those practices have sharpened my experience or ability to notice time; and the flow of time.
A big part of the Sunrise Commitment is checking my heartbeat, my pulse, for one minute. When I do so it can feel much longer than a minute, and the rhythm of the pulse changes over the course of the 60 seconds. It’s not regular. So I notice the way time can expand. How, in the moment of the sunrise, when the sky has changed from darkness to blue but the sun hasn’t yet cut over the horizon, how that moment can be a very scary and apocalyptic time. It feels as though the world has stopped turning. These instances become experiences of timelessness. And for me, trying to figure out how to choreograph timelessness so that this experience can be shared inside of a theatre is a really exciting task. I don't know if I will succeed but it’s very much what I’m trying to do.
I think there needs to be some kind of shifting of light, cyclical, always coming back to a still point; so that there’s a reference of coming back to the beginning. Then, if we stay with the coming back to the beginning over and over again we can see that the beginning is never ever the same, even if every day the sun rises it is never the same sunrise. And then we can go on forever...
So where does time go?
Time doesn’t really go anywhere. Time doesn’t really exist. I think time is something that I feel I could be very afraid of, but that’s the fear of death and then that’s the drive that pushes me to do as much as I can now. But I also think that, for a long time now, I don't want to be afraid of death and therefore not allow myself to feel bored; the French philosopher Georges Bataille once said that “boredom is just a fear of death.” [laughs] I think that time—if it can be timeless—is also an experience in simultaneity. That you can feel some kind of wholeness: to feel a circle I think is the utmost goal. I did a showing of a work in progress piece last year, and the working title was: While the sun is rising here it is setting somewhere else. I feel there’s a lot of truth in the simplicity of this statement; it makes me think about the concept of the sunrise and the human-centric ways of dealing with life.
What’s a skill you would love to learn?
Oh… there are so many. I have one that comes to mind but I don’t know if it’s true or not: it’s the skill to paint in one motion without lifting the paintbrush: a perfect circle.
One last thing before we finish… it’s a question Christoph who interviewed me for this series asked, and I really like it so I thought I would pass it on: What do you need in order to do what you do?
I feel like I don’t need very much but that I also need a lot. I need the people I love to be well and near me—and I need a good place to sleep. I need to be taken care of but also to be able to take care of others. I need to be able to meet people who are outside of my circle. I think I need conflict, which surprises me. But on the other hand, I would say simply that I need to be supported and without pressure.
Erin Hill is a choreographer and performer from Montreal. Her work gathers a multiplicity of mediums under the name of dance, attempting, via embodiment, to arouse polyphony between visceral, sensual and cerebral experiences. Curious about dance as a communication technology, she has worked extensively with radios on stage, as well as dancing on the radio. These days she is collaborating with the sunrise, working choreographically on how to accentuate and infiltrate the fixed rhythms nascent in daily life. Alongside her own creations, Erin works as a curator for the longstanding Montreal puppetry event Café Concret. Erin is currently completing her Master’s at DAS Theatre in Amsterdam. In 2014 she spent six months at the Norwegian Theatre Academy, where she began to develop her first collaboration with Jana Vetten as Local Business.