Jenny Hval presents I Want to be a Machine: dreams of being a burger in the artist’s postmodern theatre show

Norwegian artist Hval blows up her avant garde live show to a theatre production that dismantles the definition of music performance with bewildering effect

This is the introduction. It’s the start of a review. It’s intended to draw the reader into the article by creating a ‘sense of place’. For that reason, ideally, it should be descriptive. It is a section where the writer is meant to capture the spirit of the Barbican, the venue for tonight’s show. He’s meant to tell you about the brutalist architecture suggesting a once bright and now lost socialist future. He is meant to weave an evocative description of the crowds of darkly dressed people murmuring in the atrium martini bar, watching as people file through the cavernous hall below. The writer isn’t supposed to tell you about how, running late, he rudely pushed past two American tourists on the walkway outside, interrupting a deep conversation about ‘prerogatives’ and the importance of keeping ‘the right perspective’, or that he now feels slightly bad about it. Nor should he tell you about how, panicking when he couldn’t find the centre’s smaller Pit Theatre, he rushed up and down flights of stairs aimlessly for ten minutes before eventually clattering into an already fully seated venue, sweating profusely. The writer shouldn’t matter. He shouldn’t make this all about himself.

The purpose of this review is to recount and critique Jenny Hval’s performance of ‘I Want to be a Machine’, her new stage show, that mixes soundscapes, audio-visual elements and spoken word passages to dismantle the definition of a live show. Inspired by Heiner Muller’s fragmented 1977 experimental theatre work ‘Hamletmachine’, the performance has been described as a ‘theatrical extension of Hval’s signature style; playful, provocative and deeply personal.’ The work is meant to interweave personal and political threads into a disjointed exploration of the role of an artist in a world saturated with cultural chaos. It not only showcases new music from her forthcoming album but also attempts to revisit Hval’s own artistic awakening, her relationship with music and other mediums, and the complexities of her own self-image. It is delivered in a self-referencing, postmodern style that often slips into meta-commentary, a style the writer is attempting to pay homage to; and failing.

Photo by Lucy Thraves

The performance consists of Hval standing on a bare stage, flanked by collaborators Håvard Volden and Jenny Berger Myhre. The first songs are breathy, glitchy electronica led by half-whispered vocals, as behind, on a screen, an animation of a cathedral interior slowly fills with a gloopy substance. Eventually, Myhre and Volden leave the stage, and Hval reads from a prepared statement propped up on an easel. She speaks about watching workers in a McDonald’s during the pandemic. She observes that the burger is a form of communion between producer and consumer, a tangible, physical point of contact in a world that is impossible to touch. She muses how music is unlike the burger. It contains no muscle, no fat, and no physical space. Instead, music is temporary; it is designed to fill gaps, not to occupy them. Hval admits that she wants to be the burger. In the third row, a man laughs loudly at the absurdity.

The show continues in the same vein. Musical elements – disparate bursts of noise, haunting hymn-like melodies, and moments of euphoric pop serenity – mix with spoken word interludes that deconstruct the conventions of popular music. The man laughs. The writer realises that, as promised, the performance really is a theatrical extension of Hval’s music and her restless artistic spirit. The show is almost a blown-up version of her previous work: a collage of hauntingly beautiful soundscapes fractured with matter-of-fact spoken-word sections that critique and puncture societal norms. Sometimes, they are intended to be absurdly funny; sometimes, they are just absurd. Towards the end, Hval reads a powerful passage exploring the role of militarism and music and how her pacifism must confront the fact that much of music’s history, in the Western tradition, is martial. “First comes the marching band; then comes the army,” she says, with an air of sadness. The man still laughs.

After about an hour, the performance ends. As Hval, Myhre and Linn Nystadnes bow and take applause, the writer is unsure that the show is over. The house lights turn on and usher people into the bar next door and the writer is still unsure that the performance is actually over. People speak warmly about the show and speculate on the new album, however, the writer worries that he may have gotten overly distracted by the costume changes and focused too much on the performer’s shoes, so he says nothing. People speak about the Muji scent diffuser that spent the run time filling a Perspex box with vapour and was ceremonially dumped over the crowd to conclude the show. “Did you smell that?” a person asks even though it was emptied into the writer’s face. But the writer did not, so he says nothing.

Reflecting the next morning, the writer is still perplexed by what he witnessed. Perhaps Hval’s show was pretentious in places, and perhaps some of the metaphors are slightly jarring, notably the comparison of music to custard. However, the major themes were profound. The nature of art as self-expression and the transient nature of performance are incompatible. As Hval points out, the desire of humans is to leave a tangible legacy of their existence, whether it is a monument, an achievement or a child. Artists strive to create statements of their individuality, messages left to communicate thoughts, feelings and intentions to the people that come next – a plea for mutual understanding between the world and the creator. The nature of music, though, is impermanent, existing only in time and never truly in space. The message only exists for a moment and only lives on in the memory of the audience, who subjectively mangle it as it is filtered through their own biases and perceptions. Ultimately, this is alienating for the artist. Deficiencies in the medium mean that a musician can never be understood by an audience, however much they want to be. The worker can never own their product.

If this is correct, and music is a flawed medium for expression, then it stands to reason that the writer must also question his role in the performance. He must examine the fact that this whole process is an attempt to capture for prosperity a moment that can never last. He must also confront the fact that his biases and subjectivity mean he can never truly convey the artists’ intentions. Perhaps, like the artist, this has just been a futile effort to titrate human experience into something permanent and leave a legacy for the people that come next. Perhaps this reminds the writer that nothing is permanent. He reflects that art, like life, is meant to be consumed, following Hval’s story of the McDonalds to its natural conclusion: the burger is physical but is destined to be eaten. Perhaps this scares the writer, and he’s affected this post-modern format not in homage to Hval’s work but to avoid confronting his impermanence. Perhaps he is making this all about himself.