Melanie Mohren was born in Bonn in 1979, and Bernhard Herbordt in Würzburg in 1978. Both graduated in 2005 from the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies at Gießen, the theatre institute in Germany best known for combining academic and practical methodologies, and having a strong affinity with alternative approaches to the staging of drama.
The duo have been creating interdisciplinary projects together since 2000. Their spatial and sound installations, performances, exhibition projects, radio plays, stage plays and music theatre works have been presented in a huge variety of international settings, and have received numerous prizes. Herbordt/Mohren understand theatre as a locus where members of the public are able to encounter each other while observing and reflecting on their own responses.
Theatregoers have been finding themselves recruited as actors, participants and fellow performers for many years now. They get drawn into participatory projects in a huge variety of ways. Melanie Mohren and Bernhard Herbordt too engage intensively with the public and involve it in their installations. Yet they doggedly avoid imposing interactivity on the people who pay to see their work or forcing them to play particular roles. Since their first piece in 2000, the artistic duo have developed dramatic spatial installations that audience members can walk around and in which they are given maximum freedom of decision, are able to do all sorts of things, but have to do nothing. The rules of these stage worlds are rarely clear to the visitor when they enter and often remain mysterious until right at the end. But when the oft-rehearsed rules of social coexistence cease to apply: Who then follows whom on the stage? How do communities form? How does a group dissolve itself again? These are the questions Herbordt/Mohren are interested in, questions they deal with in their works with tremendous subtlety.
They began with small, enclosed spaces, as in 2000’s “world in a box”. A shipping container was transformed into a black box. The spectators were admitted in pairs and sat at opposite ends of a table, each equipped with headphones, through which stories about the place were to be heard. However, no concrete instructions were given. Everything was stripped down to the confrontation of the sitters, to the real presence of two human beings in a situation where they automatically began to observe each other, where every action was a response to the proximity of their counterpart, even if it was no more than a tiny movement of the hand.
The insight taken from systems theory that observers always observe themselves as observers while they are observing runs through Herbordt/Mohren’s projects as an abiding preoccupation. And those projects have become ever more complex and multi-layered, now accommodating audiences as large as 100. For “Die Aufführung” (“The Performance”) in October 2013, a staged livingscape was constructed at the Berlin sophiensaele. Strips of tape marked imaginary rooms and plywood boards formed provisional walls, but there was also a real kitchen, in which a cook was making soup. Or one could join a group of academics absorbed in discussion. This was a hybrid space, as was emphasised by the way its walls were being shifted around, tinkered with and built up as if it were a construction site. Something was happening all the time. And the spectators? They wandered around the space, sometimes stopping in one place, sometimes going further; each one was autonomous, yet part of a crowd. From an aerial perspective, it was reminiscent of the teeming mass of an ant heap pulsing with ceaseless movement: A visual translation of how people form communities, taking the innumerable personal decisions that cumulatively constitute what is known as “swarm intelligence”.
Herbordt/Mohren got to know each other while studying at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies in Gießen, a theatre institute that combines academic and practical methodologies with alternative approaches to the staging of drama. A whole generation of young performance collectives such as She She Pop, Gob Squad and Rimini Protokoll were moulded there. With their staged installations, Herbordt/Mohren too have travelled far from the classic proscenium theatre, yet they are ultimately trying to do the same things as ancient drama: shine a light on societal relations, meditate on human behaviour. Simultaneously, they are interested in interrogating the conditions under which theatre is produced, developing new aesthetic approaches and performance situations.
The mixing of different media is typical of Herbordt/Mohren’s work. They started out producing radio plays in which they took up motifs from the theatre, film, radio and television. The next step was for them to transfer these radio plays into theatrical spaces that people could walk around. They then focussed more and more on the spectators’ movements within these spaces as a visual design element. They call these interdisciplinary shifts “media hopping”.
Their shows are put on at independent theatres such as the sophiensaele in Berlin, the Mousonturm in Frankfurt and Kampnagel in Hamburg. Since 2013, they have been living in Stuttgart, where they are also based for work purposes. Instead of thinking in terms of single pieces to be premiered one at a time, their modus operandi has more in common with approaches from the visual arts, rooted as it is in long-term processes from which individual projects are then picked out. Their collectively influenced ways of working fit in perfectly with this methodology. They have collaborated again and again with the stage designers Leonie Mohr and Hannes Hartmann, who are responsible for the duo’s associative, spatial installations. They have also made use of recurring stage elements and subject matter for many years, including archive materials such as question and answer cards on existential topics. During “The Performance”, it was quite possible to simply sit at a table if one wanted and spend 90 minutes looking through these materials.
Despite the weight of the theoretical burden they have to bear, attending Herbordt/Mohren’s shows is a highly atmospheric experience, something that truly marks out their works. They always create a cosmos of sounds, visions and desires. One strolls around in an acoustic environment that envelops the theatregoer like Dolby Surround and to which each visitor contributes their own background noise. By giving us the opportunity to explore spaces of this kind, Herbordt/Mohren sharpen our sense of being part of a community, without ever telling anyone how to behave.
2013, sophiensaele, Berlin
"Die Institution" (Durational Performance)
2013, Stuttgart, Römerstraße 2, Stuttgart-Süd
“Das Stueck” (“The Play”)
2012, Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart
“Alles was ich habe #5: Zuschauen” (“All that I have #5: Watching”)
2011, Künstlerhaus Mousonturm Frankfurt
“Alles was ich habe #4: Reden” (“All that I have #4: to speak”)
2011, sophiensaele Berlin/Zeitraumexit Mannheim
“Alles was ich habe #3: Handbuch für alles” (“All that I have #3: General Guide to Anything Anyone Might Have or See Anywhere”)
2011, Galerie Matica Srpska Novi Sad
“Alles was ich habe #2: Dear Visitor” (“All that I have #2: Dear Visitor”)
2010, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Akademie Schloss Solitude Stuttgart
“Alles was ich habe #1: Theater-Installation” (“All that I have #1: staged exhibition”)
2010, sophiensaele Berlin
“Wie man ein Loch in den Himmel macht” (“how to make a hole in the sky”)
2008, sophiensaele, Berlin/Kampnagel, Hamburg
“Von Mücken, Elefanten und der Macht in den Händen” (“On mosquitos, elephants and the power in one’s hands”) (music theatre)
2008, Theater Bonn/Kampnagel, Hamburg
2006, Schauspiel Stuttgart
“Patent: Night Flight”
2004, Künstlerhaus Mousonturm, Frankfurt/Main
“world in a box” (audio drama for two spectators)
2001, Diskursfestival, Gießen
“Looking for a Small Story” (staged sound installation)
2000, Diskursfestival, Gießen
“Babels Bau” (“Babel’s Building”)
2009, Deutschlandradio Kultur, Deutschlandfunk
“Niemandsland” (“No Man’s Land”)
2007, Deutschlandradio Kultur, Deutschlandfunk, WDR, Schweizer Radio DRS 2
2005, WDR, SWR, Schweizer Radio DRS 2
“Looking for a Small Story”
2000, Hessischer Rundfunk