Hidden in residential Rotherhithe, but just a minute or two away from the Overground is where you’ll find The Brunel Museum – a London gem worthy of a listicle (think 20 places Londoners will never tell you about). Show up on the right day, look around, then crouch and brave the scaffolding – and you’ll find yourself in the Brunel Tunnel Shaft, a cavernous, atmospheric secret corner of the capital.
From 14th July this is also where you’ll find Arbonauts, a multi-disciplinary company devoted to site-based performances. In other words their new creation, The Desire Machine, was inspired by the Tunnel and created for it, rather than being plonked in the middle of an unsuspecting space. Artistic Directors Helen Galliano and Dimitri Launder don’t like bombarding their audiences with blurbs and encourage instinctive reactions instead – but we reckon our Q&A comes with more than enough to tickle your imagination and interest.
Run Riot: How and why did Arbonauts come to be?
Arbonauts: We met in 2010 in what was The Bun House pub in Peckham (now a betting shop) where Helen was taking part in a pretty questionable live art boxing match. Shortly after, we became a couple (soon to be husband and wife!) At the time, Dimitri was co-running Area10 Project Space – an interdisciplinary, process led arts charity in a massive warehouse (now demolished) behind Peckham library - and working on big design projects, while Helen was finishing her degree at Goldsmiths exploring site-specific performance and total theatre.
It soon became apparent that we wanted to make work together and combine our different backgrounds and approaches – Arbonauts was born from these sparks.
Run Riot: Where does the name Arbonauts come from?
Arbonauts: Literally, Arbonauts means explorers of the trees but for us, now, culturally it’s much more to do with exploring space, site and sound. The name is also strongly tied into our logo which we feel a strong visual connection with – the symmetry, geometry and curve of the image (our visual name, perhaps). We work primarily building intense performative images so the logo feels important to our way of presenting who we are.
Run Riot: You’re building a bit of a reputation for not giving too much away prior to the performances. Why the secrecy?
Arbonauts: It’s not so much secrecy but allowing the audience to be instinctive with our work. We’re creating a visceral and visual experience so we want the audience to arrive with a clean palate and not feel swamped with lots of blurb that may or may not mean anything to them. Hopefully this instinct allows them to be present in the performance and not beating themselves up because they feel they don’t understand it (clue – it’s not to do with understanding…).
Run Riot: Your projects are interdisciplinary in nature, site specific, and slow burning in development terms. Can you shed some light on your devising process?
Arbonauts: The development of The Desire Machine has been an incredible creative journey – over 2 years since the initial seed idea of creating a performance inside a zoetrope/peepshow. Last summer we had a 3-month R&D period in a big warehouse, which allowed us to be very free, experimental and creative and build a deep understanding of the visual language of this project. We had a couple of intimate, informal sharings of the piece down in the Brunel Tunnel Shaft and have used people’s feedback to inform the development of the performance this year.
Collaboration is at the very heart of our creative process and the team works closely together – sound, costume, lighting, design, music, performers – we’re close-knit! We’re incredibly lucky to be working with a team as uniquely talented and open to our way of working as ours – everyone brings a huge amount to the table and shares generously. As Creative Directors, Helen works alongside the performers building a visual, physical language and Dimitri works with designers and engineers to form the space we work within.
Creatively, the performance has been closely led by the development of the design of The Machine (conceptualized and constructed by Dimitri, designed by Carl Robertshaw) in particular the way it functions and reveals itself, which in itself is inspired by the space of the Brunel Tunnel Shaft. Ultimately, all the creative elements of the performance resonate and integrate to build a very full, saturated experience for the audience.
Run Riot: Performance space is instrumental to your practice; what’s the relationship between The Desire Machine and the Brunel Tunnel Shaft? How did you discover the tunnel and how has it intertwined with the piece?
Arbonauts: We discovered it almost by chance during Open House weekend in 2013! It was at the very beginning of the development of The Desire Machine and we were loosely starting to think about circular spaces and then came across this stunning, secret gem of a cavernous chamber. Instantly, we knew we wanted to create the piece there. The shape, texture, height and unique acoustics of the space have all played a huge part in our creative process, particularly in the design of The Machine – the installation we’ve created that the performance takes place in.
Soon after our first visit there, we had a drink with Robert Hulse (Director of The Brunel Museum) who was instantly supportive of what we wanted to do and told us about the tunnel being known as Hades Hotel – the entrance into the dark underworld of London. There definitely is a feeling of intensity, magnitude and rich history when you are down there, deep in London’s belly, that we have found hugely inspiring and has informed the creation of The Desire Machine.
Run Riot: Your previous collaboration, Biped’s Monitor, was inspired by Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees; is there a particular cultural text resonating from The Desire Machine?
Arbonauts: Going back to your question about secrecy and not giving much away…!
We have worked very loosely from a cultural text, using it as a springboard into ideas, images and movement. But we’ve found that as soon as you mention a text, people read so much into it and perhaps without meaning to, begin to place their own experience and understanding of the text into the performance. With The Desire Machine, the performance is not driven by narrative or characters in any way so we’ve decided not to mention the text which goes back to allowing the audience to be instinctive and present. The connection to the text is very delicate – it’s more like a glimmer of a memory – it’s not remotely literal.
We’re sure that savvy fans of a well-known author known for her symbolic, complex, surrealist writing will be able to work out what the text is anyway…
Run Riot: Arbonauts stay clear of the classic sit-down theatre - can you tell us about how you approach, think about and consider the audience and their experience?
Arbonauts: The energy and experience of the audience is essential to The Desire Machine. The piece builds an intimate, intense connection between the audience, performers and space. We get particularly excited thinking about the entire experience for the audience, from the very second they begin to enter the space, it’s about bringing them into another dimension of time, a different kind of ‘being present’, allowing them to plunge into the world we’ve created. For Biped’s Monitor we did this with sound - a sonic bath of singers created a tunnel of sound at the entrance to the performance that the audience walked through. For The Desire Machine we’re using a soundscape (designed by the phenomenal Lee Berwick) that is much more visceral and raw – you feel it in your bones and your eyeballs!
Brunel Tunnel Shaft