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A Conversation with An*dre Neely and Moa Johansson

an*dre and moa met in London. Each had arrived from different places (an*dre grew up in Lisbon, Portugal and moa in Dalarna, Sweden), and subsequently became firmly embedded in the city’s queer/ live art/ performance art/ club scene. Although they were both part of the same scene, and so often in the same spaces or at the same events, both agree that they couldn!t have called themselves friends back then. They knew each other’s names, they would say hello and chat a little, but that was as far as it went.

One night, both attend a performance at the Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick, East London. It was probably a week day moa guesses, maybe a Thursday or something, and so even though there’s a DJ booked for the dance floor afterwards, most people disappear once the performance is done. an*dre and moa don’t leave, two of maybe ten people who stay. “Then” moa says, “we started to dance”. They dance and dance and they have “a great f**king time”. What makes it so good, and ultimately forms a bond between the two of them that continues to hold to this day, is how similar they are in their dancing, how they both instinctively dance using the whole dance floor — dancing across from one corner to another, up on tables, taking pleasure in the whole of the space, “it was really a physical and spatial connection” moa remembers.

At some point then, that night, they decide: let’s try working together. “It was quite magical but also quite strange”, an*dre reflects, “we weren’t really friends before, we really didn’t know each other and so we ended up getting to know each other through the practice. That feels quite special because it’s usually the other way around, you already have a strong basis with someone and then the collaboration gets developed from that. We didn’t have that strong base”.

Up to this point, an*dre had pretty much only worked in collaborative set ups (“I was mostly working as a performer in other people’s works. More than making my own work actually, and even in my own work, like my writing practice, it was nearly always collaborative in some way”). moa less so (“I had begun to question this idea of working on my own … I started to feel quite bizarre about the idea of sitting in my studio, making work and then going out in the world to present it myself. I was like, do I really believe in this idea of the solo artist?”)

The work arose out of a lot of talking, much of it digitally due to the various corona lockdowns. They weren’t a rush though, the time for talking was necessary. When they were commissioned by DISRUPT Festival to create with echoes, it felt like it had come at “the perfect moment” says moa. Fast forward to May 2022 then and an*dre and moa are getting ready to perform with echoes at DISRUPT in Cambridge Junction (U.K.) for the first time. This will be their first ever public performance together in real life. They haven!t done with echoes all the way through, so whatever happens, happens.

They set about rigging up — with echoes is an installation on an impressive scale — and at the end of the day when everything is done their producer, Becky, says they had noticed that the two of them had managed to do the entire set up “almost without talking”. moa recounts “I hadn’t realised that so it was a nice observation to get from someone outside of the two of us … to say we’d barely said a word to each other, but we’d installed this whole thing, it was like we’d developed this coded, this joint language, this language without words”.

This ”language without words” is present across the practice: from the first meeting on the dance floor, the two’s approach to collaboration in with echoes, through all the groundwork the two did over the years in between (an*dre recounts how, during lockdown, they would spend long periods of time together online drawing on the the same digital whiteboard; sharing artistic space and communicating for long stretches through only (digital) mark-making instead of words) that their artistic relationship is conducted through the bodily and the material. They certainly discuss and think about the conceptual, but the spark of life in their work is made somewhere in ”the language of the world of with echoes”, as moa puts it.

It is this work, with echoes, that an*dre and moa are bringing to ArkDes as part of STHLM DANS this weekend. This time will be the work’s fourth iteration and it will comprise of two parts, a set up on the Friday evening, and the main body of the performance on Saturday afternoon. an*dre and moa describe the work as “a performance installation made of rope, fabrics, embroidered speakers, metal carabiners and loops – and two performers”. This choice, to put ”– and two performers” as an almost after-thought, reflects my experience (I saw it first at BUZZCUT Festival in Glasgow earlier this year) of the work, because if there is a central character in with echoes it is “the web”, as an*dre and moa name it.

I ask, what can audiences expect? What happens?

“For me it starts with the rope, the set up of the rope specifically” an*dre says, “because at the beginning the quality of our relationship and how it’s performed is practical, there’s no competition, we’re working together. Our role is that of caretakers, or technicians and these roles shift over the time of the piece. The rope brings all of the non-spaces together, it brings the whole room to my awareness. The rope makes all of this huge room become a part of us, and of what we’re doing.”

“One piece of rope?” I ask.

“Yeah, one 200m piece of rope. We’ve never used all of it in it’s entirety …yet”, both smile. “I guess the beginning it is all about decisions too” an*dre says. “Yes”, moa agrees, “the live-ness of all that decision making makes it so interesting for me”.

“So then the next stage”, moa continues, “is when we tie the end of the rope to the beginning of the rope, and step out of it. It’s almost like a pause. We’ve connected the material with the room with ourselves. I’d say, this stage is a moment of stillness. It doesn’t last for long, but I think it’s this moment when we step out of it that it exists on its own. Now it’s the web, it’s the space. We’ve gone from being technicians to observers.”

“And how does that feel?” I ask.

“I think often quite disappointed, it often doesn’t look like we want it to” moa says, to which they both laugh, “it’s just never really perfect, but that’s the point, you have to stand by your decisions.”

an*dre agrees. “yeah yeah, and then I guess next would be that we are going back into it and adding another layer to the web, the fabrics. This is where a little bit of the competition comes in. The negotiation between us is a little bit different, it’s still about the space, and it’s still about the building of this thing together, but our decisions become more individual. It doesn’t mean that we’re not working together for a similar aim, but that we start being more distinguishable from one another, as performers, as people, as artists.”

an*dre pauses, thinks. “it just feels really exciting at the beginning, it goes on a journey and I’m really thinking about how the web looks then I become aware of what moa is doing and it becomes this kind of soft rivalry or competition between us — you want to get in the way a little bit of what the other one is doing, or you think you know where they’re going or what they’ll do next.”

The three of us continue talking this way for almost another hour — each stage, each material. Eventually I cut them off, I’ve got too much material and we’ve not even made it half way through the story of the work, how it unfolds. One day, we promise each other, we will talk it all the way through. For now though, they tell me the only way to, as an*dre puts it, “do the work justice” is to come and see it (again) for myself.

See with echoes filling up the orbit, but damaged … (damaged, damaged, damaged) by An*dre Neely & Moa Johansson at ArkDes as part of STHLM DANS, Saturday 13 May 2023, 1-4pm.

an*dre neely and moa johansson interviewed by jessie mclaughlin, May 2023.

Photo credit: Tiu Makkonen


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