Manchester-born, London-based artist and performance maker Eve Stainton reinvents what performance means in their new production, Impact Driver, which they’re presenting on September 28, 29 and 30 at ICA London. Their work pushes the limits of time and space while fusing together live welding, movement, and sound scored by Leisha Thomas and Mica Levi. What does it feel like to experience suspense without conclusion? Let’s find out.
Hi Eve, nice to speak with you. You’re presenting Impact Driver today and tomorrow. How are you feeling about it?
It’s always a bit terrifying to share new work for the first time. A lot is learnt about the performance through the act of performing it, as an entity in itself it starts to grow and become new things when it’s in conversation with an audience, so in some way, there’s still a lot to be discovered. I’m also really excited to share it with people, this evolving mass of a thing we’ve been working really hard on.
A lot of your work challenges the boundaries of the human body and raw materials. In what ways does working with the welding of raw material accentuate your performance?
For the last five years, I’ve been dealing with some questions in my research around the coding of queer aesthetics. I observed a ‘style’ emerging in the UK performance scene around softness, slippages and permeability, and while I respect and resonate with a lot of this, I was feeling increasing discomfort around the idea of ‘a singular queer aesthetic’. What if one relates to something other than this, for example, brittle hardness, or clashing… so I started opening a space for queer textures that I wasn’t experiencing.
Soon after this, mid-pandemic, I took an introductory course in welding.  All of the performers learnt how to weld at the beginning of the project; we connected in our first instance through learning this quite wild skill. I think this connection between us lives through the rehearsal process and into the performance, the context of the welding workshop holding a space for us to question and relate. It’s a very charismatic, playful group, there’s a kind of rebelliousness I find electric.
There are many connections that could be made between the theatricality of welding and the performance of codes. The large steel structure used on stage (designed and fabricated at H.S. Designs Studio) is 5 x 2.5 metres and set on platforms with intricate steel cross bars underneath. It’s a very special element in the work. It allows for all this danger and drama to exist in relation to an audience and works symbolically with ideas of a steamy booth/secluded inner world/ thriller room/ portal to a scene/ theatrical device of revealing. There are heavy steel doors on the front that allow for a cinematic trope to take place –the slow creaky door, the slow reveal, each performer being spat out, meeting the space finally, or going back inside. The gateway to this internal world of people working together and being witnessed. There’s something withholding, in a sexy way.
Do you see the malleability of the metals under welding as an allusion to the plasticity of gender? Or to society as a whole?
Welding as an alchemical process is very symbolically potent for me. There is a literal process of transformation from hard to soft to hard taking place within a split second; the drama of the change. But also, the idea of fabrication itself becomes a language. Fixedness/rigidity becoming immediately dissolvable. Without being didactic, there is something very powerful about this group of performers coming together in this welding container, then stepping out and being in the context of a theatre. How these realities shift and meet one another, the politics and codes of welding and the politics and codes of theatre or dance spaces, and who we all are.
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Impact Driver - Image: Anne Tetzlaff, 3D-Typography by Bora AKA Pauline Canavesio, collaging by Eve Stainton.
Would you say that dance and welding are conflicting states? Or are they perhaps more harmonious than they may seem? Why?
Great question. When I’m welding, I feel engaged in a somatic process, an exchange of listening from inside my body; how to maintain the right level of pressure going into the disappearing wire to create a consistent line of weld. I’m engaged inside my body in a similar way I’m engaging with a movement practice.
Traditionally, suspense is something that is ultimately relieved through a climax or a conclusion. However, you subvert this stereotype in your exploration of how suspense can be sustained as the main event; a climax in itself. Do you agree that once suspense becomes the main event one runs the risk of the collapse of its very foundations?
I’m interested in the idea of maintaining suspense as a metaphor to disrupt expectations around a prescribed endpoint. Sustaining suspense is interesting material to me in movement terms because when I’m moving, or sometimes watching dance/movement, I experience a warping of how time is usually understood; my perception of reality shifts. I have this experience with sound also. Something about a live riding of time. We are working a lot with this time-based thinking, of elongating and drawing out whilst still maintaining a level of impact.
We’ve been working with various strategies for drawing out suspense, the sound is a really big one. Leisha Thomas (alphamaid) and Mica Levi, who perform the sound score to the work, have been creating different responses to holding suspense: two sounds that flip between one another depending on where the performer is in the room, setting up a system, but then a layer gets sucked away in quite an unpredictable moment. It’s in how one idea is passed to the next. Lighting is also such an intricate feat in the performance as we are working with the edges of suspense, and strategies for holding attention. Technologies around making something more visible/concealing something. The same goes for the movement.
So I’m not sure if suspense becoming the main event would collapse itself, maybe it does, in the same way that changing the framework of a philosophy might then make it redundant… it’s the inquiry I’m interested in rather than the goal. 
Would you say Impact Driver is also examining the idea of an anticlimax?
I think the idea of anticlimax is definitely featured. We had to be careful with this, actually, because there was a moment when I felt everything could become about not delivering and could run the risk of being extremely dry. I think the setting up of expectations but those expectations taking a different turn, going in a different direction, is probably more the space.
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Impact Driver - Eve Stainton - Wysing Research - Image: Chloe Page.
I see suspense as a melding of excitement and anxiety. What does suspense mean to you?
Suspense, as a state in continuous transformation of expectations, is fascinating to me. In Impact Driver, the kind of suspense being activated is theatrical and thriller-like; a sense of impending. How I can set up a scene that has a particular ‘promise’ but then deliver something else, or ask viewers to stay in the state of unknown for longer with a sense of constant build, but no prescribed direction. How things can feel a level of intensity and impact, emotional resonance and reverberation, without spelling out the ‘ending’ or the ‘conclusion’. We’ve been working with some imagery of being ‘on tenterhooks’ and being ‘caught in the act’.
On tenterhooks, more commonly used as an expression in the 18th century, comes from the word ‘tenter’, which was a frame on which cloth was kept stretched to prevent shrinking in the drying process. To be on tenterhooks then came to mean someone being kept in a state of suspense because of uncertainty about a future event. During the performance we are performing welding, but we are also welding objects: large steel hooks which accumulate and become linked together and in continuous tension and re-negotiation.
Impact Driver is described on the ICA website as an exploration of “how suspense as a rumbling undercurrent has the potential to punctuate lesbian and trans-masc identities.” How would you say you have utilised this feeling in the exploration of queer identities?
I think many of the materials, processes and sounds in the work evoke this rumbling undercurrent of the unknown, usually a multi-layering of sinister, absurd, vulnerable, surreal, live decision making. As a non-binary lesbian sometimes presenting more masc, or sometimes not conforming to any gender binary, this can be received with a whole host of mixed responses depending on the social context. I can often feel there’s an absurdity to gender stereotyping and sexuality stereotyping so this is a thread in the work.
In your previous work, such as Dykegeist, you have broken the fourth wall and encouraged audience participation. Do you believe it important to view the audience as active agents in the world of performance art? Why? Will you be doing it again in Impact Driver?
It’s interesting to think about the fourth wall in relation to Impact Driver, as there are literally four walls to the container in the space which separate the audience from the performers. These four walls then get stripped back, peeled open and left bare as the performers find themselves on the outside of the walls and in the theatre space which also happens to be the audience space. I think with Impact Driver the concept of the fourth wall itself is present and is used as a trope, how things are contained or withheld, how the welding container can become the convention of a stage. There is also no singular perspective to view from or one ‘front’. It functions in 360 and sometimes has very close proximity to the audience.
I don’t know if it’s important for every choreographer to view the audience as somehow actively involved, but for me, I find a lot of inspiration in this concept. Us (the performers) and the audience are all existing in the room and responding to materials and concerns that arise in one way or another. I enjoy the idea that meanings are dynamic and audience members will feel differently from one another but that there is a crafting of a kind of attention or culture. Everyone in the room is an active part of the generation of that culture.
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Impact Driver - Eve Stainton - Image: Anne Tetzlaff.
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Impact Driver - Eve Stainton - Wysing Research - Image: Chloe Page.
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Impact Driver - LEAD Image - Anne Tetzlaff, 3D Typography by Bora AKA Pauline Canavesio, collaging by Eve Stainton.