We all have our phantoms, and different ways of interpreting their presence and inspiration. Phantom Kino Ballett is one of them. The two Germany-based artists behind this avant-garde experience (officially described as an "audiovisual drama") are Lena Willikens and Sarah Szczesny. While Willikens is primarily known as a DJ/producer (she’s a resident at Dusseldorf’s renowned club Salon des Amateurs, and Szczesny as a visual artist, they both did it all while creating and performing Phantom Kino Ballett.
Let's talk about phantoms and ghosts, what do those concepts mean to you personally and in the context of Phantom Kino Ballett?
Initially, the Phantom came from our first collaboration, the Phantom Delia video series, and Lena’s EP Phantom Delia [on Berlin label Cómeme]. For the EP, Sarah created an image with dancing figures which later emerged to a costume where the figure dissolved with the owner of the shirt. This costume plays a big role in the performance. We can vanish behind the Phantom-Shirts like puppet masters behind its puppets. Wearing the bodies on our bodies. By moving our bodies the Phantoms become alive... But the question is: which body is controlling the other? Ideally, the borders dissolve!
Further, we consider Phantom Kino Ballett as a cabinet of curiosities, where we can live out our fandom and admiration for music and personalities we admire. These characters speak through the Phantoms. That said: a Phantom can be a medium (between worlds) but also stands for a state of transition.
How did your time in Japan help deepen this idea?
In fall 2017, we spent three months in Japan, and loved and learned a lot about Japanese ghost stories (called Yokai). It is amazing how many diverse concepts of ghosts they distinguish within their culture. For them, humans and ghosts are related. There are nasty ones, those who hunt humans, but there are also good ghosts, protective ghosts who look over our shoulders for our better. The Japanese people also believe that objects can transform into ghosts. Like the famous lampshade ghost or the kasa-obake, they believe if you ignore an umbrella for hundred years it will transform to a cute but annoying childish umbrella ghost. During our time in Kyoto we included a new animation about one of these ghosts in the Phantom Kino Ballett repertoire.
The work also comes from a beautiful creative collaboration; how did the idea first spark?
Actually, creating the Phantom Delia video series together was the beginning of Phantom Kino Ballett. Sarah was about to design the artwork, as she did for all Cómeme releases at that time. But from the first step we were working on the visual ideas for the cover together… and that led to a series of music videos we did for each track. Later, Sarah was designing all Lena’s stage outfits…
Sarah, what was the process behind creating the visual elements and experimental film? I understand you both did both (music/ sound and visuals/ film)?
We both studied visual arts at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, but Lena and I have more a painting and sculptural background than working with video. We both love the amateur approach, though! Out of that limitation and our visual preferences we soon developed our very own artistic vocabulary. Beside my visual work I did some mixes and radio shows, for which I combined music with quotations of movies and interview excerpts. With Phantom Kino Ballett we adapted this "radio play" kind of style and worked it out further together.
Lena, how does your state of mind when performing Phantom Kino Ballet differ from your state when playing a DJ set? And how does this experience feed your work as a DJ?
Playing a DJ set is always a form of communication with the crowd. I receive energy and this influences the way I play. When we perform together as Phantom Kino Ballett, we disappear behind our Phantoms and become visual images. There is almost no direct communication or exchange with the audience, it's a choreography, which doesn't leave space for this – and that is intended. The venue itself defines how the choreography and the installation will manifest in the end.
To work with Sarah on Phantom Kino Ballett is extremely enriching. Working on PKB ideas and their visual realisation stimulates another part of my brain, which enables me to step out of a routine as a DJ. There is always the danger of becoming a one-trick pony (which I for sure don’t want). My DJ sets benefit the freedom we both have to try out whatever comes into our minds.
Do different audiences respond to the work in different ways?
It was indeed very different so far as we performed in all kind of contexts. From a cinema, a big theatre to a little art offspace or even in a club (like we did in Tokyo.) One thing is for sure: the more professional and commercial the context is, the more friction we have. But we like the challenge. We also often had the impression that people are sometimes overwhelmed by the many layers of the project. But we always have one or two huge fans who are totally freaking out – that means everything to us!
The Phantom Kino Ballett concert will take place at the Phi Centre, on September 13.