When we spoke with Florentina Holzinger, Berlin Art Week was approaching, along with the celebration of ten years of Atonal, the pioneering festival of experimental culture in all its forms. Expectations were running high, as its latest edition represented the most diverse and ambitious project to date. Two weekends of concerts and club nights were filled with world premieres, unique performances, and surprising appearances by some of the most interesting artists working in today's multidisciplinary, adventurous, and transgressive cultural sphere.
Between a programme of music, art, workshops, listening sessions and more, one of its focal points was the exhibition Universal Metabolism, a performative journey of artworks created or adapted for the Kraftwerk building. The central theme: bodily and extracorporeal cycles of exchange, reconstruction and transformation. Participating artists included Mire Lee, Romeo Castellucci, Marco Fusinato, Florentina Holzinger and legend Vale Export, among other talents.
The immense offer was overwhelming, in a good way. And amidst all the commotion and data, I chose to talk to Florentina Holzinger about her études and spectacular musical activations that she has been performing in multi-storey car parks, city streets and city squares; predominantly metropolitan spaces associated with fast-paced commuting, urban crossroads and the motorised sphere.
According to Frédéric Chopin, ‘an étude is a musical composition of considerable difficulty, intended to provide practice material for an instrument and its player’. An étude is defined as an extreme form of physical activity requiring precise and technical training. In these études, acrobatic effects meet the world of music to create scores for bodies as instruments. In Étude For Church, performed three times as part of Berlin Atonal, a two-ton iron bell was asked to ‘call the canonical hours, summon tempests and awaken the sleeping soul’. I talked to Florentina Holzinger to find out more about this act and some of her thoughts.
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Étude for Disappearing. Composition for eight bodies, five harps and a car2_(c) Silke Briel, Courtesy of the artist and Schinkel Pavillon.
Where did the thinking for Étude for Church begin?
Étude for Church is a part of a series of études that I have been performing with my team in public spaces since 2020. The essence of these études is the very literal creation of sound with and through the body as an instrument. I played a lot of Chopin on and off the piano as a child. The repetition of technical difficulties plays into the definition of an étude- I wanted to represent that musically as well as to embody it. Stunt elements usually play a big role in our études, we like to use the effects repertoire from stunts for sound production (crashes, collisions, etc).  In this étude, however, things were a bit quieter.
We are at the moment in preparation for an opera project that takes on the topic of the church. It starts with a 1 act opera by P. Hindemith called Sankta Susanne, which plays in a convent and centers around fantasies surrounding the female libido.
The essence of our series of études lies in the physical experiment with body and physical extensions (often of technical nature) as literal instruments. To make very literal compositions with the body.
For Atonal we use a 2t church bell as an extension or as an object with which to merge to become a sort of bell-hybrid, a human bell. The whole thing has now evolved into a noisy tryptich. So yes here we are certainly working off of certain symbolism and rituals from Catholicism and their relation to physicality. It became a very straightforward musical composition for a bell and 5 bodies hitting it.
There are many things fascinating about an iron bell as an object. The production process is immense, most of them hold up to hundreds of years of complex history and changes of meaning throughout the years. Not to mention the sound and resonance of a 2t iron object.
What can you tell us about its relationship with rituals in general and catholicism?
I must say here, I grew up more or less atheistic, but of course growing up in a country (Austria) culturally very shaped by catholicism. I had an almost obsessive fascination as a kid with catholic symbols and miracles and the more extreme mysticism seeping in from eastern and southern Europe. When I was a teenager in Austria, interested in subculture and the alternative scene I developed of course a very critical distance to the church- in Austria the Catholic Church was mainly associated with abuse stories from the priest seminary in St. Pölten of the late 90s.
Later I had excursions in other world religions, I read the Qur’an and Tao Te Ching- I realised that all of this can be read in similar ways. I got completely atheistic and dedicated myself to dance. I find it slightly problematic to phrase theatre or dance as spiritual practice in my context, but must admit (with a wink) it satisfies for me certain aspects of a religious practice. Nowadays I find it funny to be so bold as to call the theatre a church- hence Étude for Church.
What are you looking to generate in your audience?
If I can provide an audience with a new or different experience of some kind, I am already extremely satisfied. If I can fuck with their concepts about what is right and wrong- even better. I like humor. I don’t take art very seriously. For me, art can be complicated, defying, questioning the social consensus, cynical, and a challenge to everyone involved. I expect a lot from my audience: openness, trust, participation, courage and above all time. Beautiful and ugly, good and bad - what fascinates me about art and especially dance is that these supposed opposites are so close together and interchangeable.
You clearly create wordless stories. What is your relationship with the verbal and the written when it comes to storytelling?
I like text as a theatrical tool. But it is more used for distraction or to make certain jokes to be honest. Our theatrical main medium in shows is the body. I take it very seriously as a tool.
As a trained dancer to objectify the body does not necessarily have a bad connotation. It is first and for all material to work with and to exercise control over. Don’t get me wrong: I come from an experimental dance background, where concepts around sensing and feeling  are definitely big motivators for movement. I don’t come from particularly formal dance, yet I could describe myself as a formalist. Shapes in time and space do matter to me as a choreographer. I guess for me it felt natural that a shape can be also the inside of the body, or even an imagined extension of the body.
People always describe the work as radical, or pushing physical boundaries. My point of view is that the body is my lab and I take physical experiments quite seriously. I am curious about researching dance as a means for superhuman power or possibly transcendence. At the same time, I am comfortable calling myself a Charlatan - I mean theatre is all about illusion. The sphere were reality and illusion collide or better work together interests me very much. [What is] physically possible is often that which the mind can comprehend: so I try to educate my mind more than anything.
A lot of people also associate self harm or violence with the work. As a dancer I am very conscious that the body is my medium and has to be treated and cared for like an instrument if you want to reuse it. At the same time: training can be a lot of things and doesn’t need to look like a feat of athleticism or like health care. Especially the vulnerable or multiple abled body usually has a high level skill set. Usually in performance we hardly ever push any limits. My rehearsal processes can be very extensive because I really want to allow bodies to establish a practice that makes a performance just another day at the office.
What can you reveal about your next projects (without spoiling)? And what is a dream (only one) you have to make come true?
As mentioned before we are working on an opera project at the moment. It will be quite a new experience for us. All the études we did in public spaces this year are research steps for this. It will be a challenge because we will have to deal with the structures of opera institutions, but that also makes it exciting. In our opera we take on the church. Musically we will combine classical orchestra and choir with noise musicians and sounding bodies. It will be an orchestrated mass- we want to blow people's minds.
If Florentina Holzinger was a dictionary, how it would define:
Low budget costume.
Abuse of it comes as no surprise (Jenny Holzer).
A waste of time and money––very necessary.
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Photo: Eva Würdinger.
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Photo: Nicole Marianna Wytyczak.
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Photo: Nada Žgank.
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Photo: Nada Žgank.
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Photo: Nicole Marianna Wytyczak.
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Photo: Nicole Marianna Wytyczak.
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Photo: Nicole Marianna Wytyczak.
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Photo: Nicole Marianna Wytyczak.
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Photo: Nicole Marianna Wytyczak.
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Étude for an emergency. Composition for ten bodies and a car - Photo: Nicole Marianna Wytyczak.
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Étude for Disappearing. Composition for eight bodies, five harps and a car Photo: Silke Briel, Courtesy of the artist and Schinkel Pavillon.