Sensing rooftops

Rotterdam Rooftopdays har siden 2014 utforsket hvilke muligheter bytak kan ha for en bærekraftig byutvikling og oppmuntret sine innbyggere til å se bytak med nye øyne. I juni besøkte jeg evenementet og klatret opp på flere tak. En av hendelsene jeg fikk oppleve var forestillingen Sensing rooftops av danser Ilja Geelen og filmskaper Yassine Abouhamid. Sammen med Ilja fikk jeg anledning til å reflektere noen tanker omkring forestillingen og hvilke muligheter bytak kan gi for livet i byen.

Av Paulina Emilia Nordström ved institutt for Global utvikling og samfunnsplanlegging (UiA)

Urban rooftops are fascinating sites between earth and the sky. Below is the buzz of the city streets, but earth refers also to the ground with its vegetation and soil. Above is the open sky with sunshine, wind, rain and crossing airplanes. The openness of the sky also leads thoughts to imaginations of new spatial practices.

Visionary buildings of Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasserl (1928–2000) are examples of this vertical relation: The Forest Spiral of Darmstadt has a roof that starts from the ground and the trees inhabit the roof meadow from the ground to the top. With an enormous interest in rooftop farming and green roofs for urban climate and storm water management in the framework of sustainable urban development, one cannot but wonder Hundertwasser’s forward-looking words: Roof afforestation is the roof cover of the future. It will be natural to have a forest, or a wild meadow, or a vegetable garden on your roof. It will be hard to imagine that there ever was a time when roofs were dead, without life, without vegetation.”

The flat roofs, criticized by Hundertwasser for an unhealthy straight line, characteristic of modernist architecture and typical for many buildings in cities across the globe, have become popular sites for urban design with an aim of creating spectacular experiences, such as dining at sunset at numerous rooftop bars, exercising in an outdoor gym (Konditaget Lüders), or strolling in a private resident garden (Denizen Bushwick, Battersea Roofgarden Apartments).

One of the ongoing debates is how to make use of these flat roofs for many in a dense city. The heavily bombed Rotterdam that arose from ashes after the Second World War has been a proactive in urban rooftop planning: the municipality recognizes the potential of 18,5 kilometers of flat roofs. They created together with the local architecture firm MVRDV a software for reimagining rooftops. With an aim of visioning how “use of roofs can contribute to a healthy, lively, inclusive, attractive and future-proof city” and encouraging people on the roof, Rotterdamse Dakendagen (rooftop days) have directed attention to the urban roof islands since 2014. Some recent examples of curious experiments include a rooftop catalogue that presents a typology for various rooftop uses (2021), a rooftop walk across the air and rooftops with an exhibition focusing on sustainability of future rooftop use (2022), and an art roof directing attention to roof as a part of a neighbourhood (2023).

At the beginning of June, I experienced Rotterdamse Dakendagen. The program was filled with rooftop tours, talks, performances and workshops. One of the things I attended was dancer Ilja Geelen’s and filmmaker Yassine Abouhamid’s journey to rooftops in Morocco and Netherlands. The show Sensing rooftops took place on the top of a former corn silo Maasilo. It started inside the silo with images and stories collected through artistic research and films by Yassine Abouhamed. In the film Ilja dances on the roofs of Tanger (Morocco) and Tilburg (Netherlands). The film images are projected and circulate on the walls, the ceiling and some bedsheets hanging from a laundry line. Ilja dances behind a white bedsheet and hands scissors to audience members who puncture/prick the sheet. Afterwards, we are taken to the roof where Ilja dances energetically. She transforms through different stages: softly twirling in the wind, running freely, but also exploring more tense animalesque qualities while crawling over the dusty floor. Her footsteps get printed over the surface of the black roof leather. She invites her audience to step into the role of film maker themselves by handing them plastic lenses to look through.

A short reflection with Ilja will guide us to how dancing on a roof can broaden the understanding about rooftops, and how she works with the audience with an aim of conveying the multiple perspectives on urban rooftops they encountered through artistic research.

P: What does the name of the performance Sensing rooftops refer to you?

I: The name Sensing rooftops refers mostly to our working process. Sensing in the broad meaning of the word, in the sense of multisensory but also in the meaning of making sense. Sensing rooftops is about going on to the rooftops and doing everything except analysing rationally. So sensing it literally, touching it, moving in it. And through art, through positioning ourselves with the camera, through finding different angles, different forms, sensing this space. And then later perhaps making sense of it.

P: Could you talk about your approach in making Sensing rooftops?

I: Our approach in the process on different roofs was very open ended. It was an exploration of rooftops based on our media of film and dance. We selected the rooftops for their different uses and locations, such as actively used domestic roofs (for laundry, gardening or for socializing), forgotten company rooftops, roofs with an open view and roofs hidden among other, higher buildings. We worked very open in the sense that we kind of allowed ourselves to see what the rooftop gives us. Are there shapes that we can play with, does it give us a certain gut feeling of relaxation or fear, excitement or boredom, of being exposed or in control, and from there we started exploring. Later when we looked back at the footage, we realized that next to the rooftop categories that we already kind of selected, there were new topics coming up out of the footage that we collected. Some of them were more visual aesthetics, about the body in relation to the space, the lines of vision, architectural obstacles and inspirations. Other recurring themes were more socially oriented, more about the use of the rooftop or the stories that people told us. As the project continued, we entered the roof with slightly more defined frameworks, or tasks to explore. Like there is one time that we collected some stories about animals on roofs, especially in Tangier, and used those as inspiration when entering the next rooftop.

In the performance, we are mostly giving the overview because we didn’t pick one specific theme and dive into it. We kind of collaged it all together. Now the global theme of the project is about showing different perspectives and inviting people to explore their common, everyday space with different glasses. This is also because we are starting our performances in Morocco, and we want to bring contemporary dance to people who are not super familiar with this art form. The first thing we want to introduce to them, is this creative thinking approach. The idea that opening yourself up and exploring a space with playfulness, with creativity, without a fixed goal or fixed research question, can be fruitful.

In our next presentation, I want to have more of a dialogue with the audience and maybe highlight a specific theme. For now, we wanted to show that there are many perspectives from which you can look at rooftops, and it can help you see other things that you normally don’t think of or look at. Then it would also be interesting to pick one of these themes, such as (domestic) animals or the rooftop as a private or public space. And then zoom in on this theme with the audience, allow them to contribute their experiences and thoughts, so that our research continues and grows while we present it.

There is a buildup in the way we present the project, first the videos inside and then the outdoor performance on the roof. Inside we show different perspectives through videos. We already invite the audience quite literally to look from different angles by projecting our videos in different places in the room. Next, I want people to embody that a bit more, to move along with us. I want to give them this feeling of what it means also physically to take a different perspective and different angles. So in my interactive performance on the roof, I am looking for ways to get people to engage physically without telling them to, without making it a workshop and giving them this task. So even if they don’t dance with me, they can follow my rhythm and dynamics with their gaze. And they are free to move around in the space if they want to look at me from another angle. So that’s why I came up with the lenses, from the question: how can I get people to feel along with my movements – but also those of Yassine, because when he films me he really moves along with me.

P: How is this approach different from sustainable development perspective that is an actual theme for urban rooftops?

I: Already it differs because we are working on two different places, two different cultures. This narrative of sustainability is a very Western European perspective, I think. In Morocco that is not how roofs are generally looked at, because roofs are extensions of the living space, which sometimes means that it is huge mess, and it is just like the dump and other times it means it is a place to gather with family. There are many uses of rooftops, but they are not so much about sustainability. The people we met in the project were generally not so future oriented, in the way that their rooftop is used. Rooftops are a given, not something you take active decisions about. It is there, so we use it, or we don’t. In that sense, it is already a different narrative. And in Sensing Rooftops we also tried to enter without this narrative, without this goal of looking for a specific use of the rooftop. Just letting the rooftop be there in the way it is currently shaped, in the way it is currently used, and see what this does with us. Without any goals.

P: This is in your performance but if you could just talk shortly about it, how does dance make you sense the rooftop in different way than anything else?

I: It is always hard to put this in words, that is why I dance. There are two main ways that we have been exploring the roofs. One is more about the space itself, its architecture, and the things that you see. Entering a new space that is not a traditional dance studio, is going to give you different obstacles, the floor is going to be different, the size is going to be different, there is this laundry stuff on a roof, that blocks your head. Then it also gives you new opportunities because it is all stuff to play with. And because it is not this clean black box perfect for dance, where nothing else is happening visually. On a roof there is a lot happening visually. It is all stuff that you can play with, which brings ideas, that brings shapes to your movement. I often try to copy the shapes around me into my body and play with them. There is more flow of ideas and inspiration. But also more obstacles or distractions that really force you to be present on the roof and to work with the roof, instead of just forcing your own stuff despite the circumstances.

Then there are the themes. Sometimes I did enter with a certain story in my mind that someone told me, and I tried to embody this. Dance is a way to really embody this story. If someone tells me the story about the sheep running around the roof trying to escape, I try to become the sheep in a way. And of course, you can rationalize this, like oh, how would the sheep feel. Or you can dance it and feel, if I am on four legs the roof looks very different. And if I now imagine that this camera person is scaring me, then where would I go on the roof. This happens quicker than thought, the body has its own reactions that don’t pass through this rational channel. You are not rationalizing it so much; you are letting it happen physically. So, it is a different way to relate to these stories and information.

When it comes to performing, it becomes again a different process. When you perform you also want to show something. It becomes about showing the roof to the audience, but also showing yourself. Presenting. And this is the part that I am starting to experiment now. Since it is interactive, I must do many test performances to let my concept develop strongly. I started the performance from the same themes you can see in the videos, but now my idea is shifting. I think the performance is going more to the direction of: how can I show people the roof in a way that goes deeper than just hi look this is a roof, and do whatever you want with it. How can I direct the attention to look at this roof in a different way. Can I get people to squat down and look up at the sky, or to zoom in on specific details? How can I add with my body certain emotions to this roof? If I move it through it like a scared animal for example, even if people don’t understand literally what I am trying to embody, maybe it can add a certain emotion to this rooftop space. So that people, like Yassine and I did in our creative process, have something to sense on the roof instead of only looking at it in this distant rational way that we are used to.

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