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Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Mimi Lien

Posted July 30th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we sat down with award winning designer Mimi Lien to learn about her inspirations for Superterranean, from seeing a rat disappear into the darkness of a subway to the immense structures, tunnels, and systems working all around us, as well as the human body’s place within it all.  Superterranean is one of the curated shows premiering in the 2019 Fringe Festival and performed by Pig Iron Theatre Company.  Superterranean will be at 2300 Arena this September 5–15.

Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Conversation with Mimi Lien

[Music Intro]

Raina: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. Fringe Arts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of Contemporary Performing Arts. I’m Raina Searles, Marketing Manager here at Fringe Arts, and I invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence

Katy: And I am Katy Dammers, Artistic Producer at Fringe Arts. Today we’re excited to talk about Superterranean, a new work that will premiere in September as part of our Fringe Festival. Created by Philadelphia locals, Pig Iron Theatre Company in collaboration with lead artist Mimi Lien, the work is driven by Lien’s fascinations with urban infrastructure acting in concert with the human body. Today, we’re excited to be in conversation with Mimi. Welcome.

Mimi: Hi.

Raina: Hello.

Katy: Thank you so much for joining us. Mimi is currently living in Brooklyn, but commuting back and forth a fair amount to Philadelphia, so we’re excited to have her here with us today. And we’ll start with our first question. What are you drinking?

Mimi: I’m drinking Dark and Stormy with extra spicy ginger beer.

Katy: I love that.

Raina: Delightful.

Katy: That sounds amazing. It’s hot out so that sounds perfect.

Raina: Extra spicy.

Katy: I’m having a watermelon Margarita. And what are you having Raina?

Raina: I’m having a white wine.

Mimi: Very elegant.

Katy: Perfect.

Raina: Classic Happy Hour.

Raina: So to get started, you’ve been quoted as saying that you were drawn to holes, portals, pipes, partial objects and openings, which is very important to the design of Superterranean. Can you tell us more like what is it that you like about these places? What is your inspiration behind that?

Mimi: Well, I mean, I guess like, in the sort of thing that, sometimes when I’m, well often… Probably a lot of people see this, when you’re standing on the subway platforms, sometimes you see a rat. You know, well, we’ve seen a number of rats crawling around in the, in the tracks. But then sometimes it, you know, you see a rat dart into a little, a little hole that’s like perfectly sized for the rat. And it seems to know exactly where it’s going. It’s not just like, ‘oh, I discovered this hole’. Maybe I should go into it.

Mimi: And like, I just have always really loved, really loved that. And I think that, you know, that, that hole, which I don’t know what is on the other side of it, and it seems to suggest this kind of vast elaborate parallel civilization of rats that’s just underfoot. And I can kind of imagine the vastness of it, but I can’t see it at all.

Raina: So I guess, I guess, you know, tunnels, conduits, this suggestion of, of a kind of complexity and vastness that we can sort of sense with our bodies but can’t really visualize or comprehend. And I know that that has always caused a kind of like breathlessness in me. And, and curiosity.

Katy: So I know as part of the development process for Superterranean, you’ve worked with Geoff Manaugh from BDLGBLOG who’s a writer and scholar and kind of all around thinker, and done a number of different field trips to places like this.

Katy: What are some of the other systems that you’ve looked at as part of your research?

Mimi: Yeah, well, I mean I first met Geoff when I was participating in a studio that he led called Landscapes of Quarantine, at the storefront for art and architecture in New York. And, and so as part of that studio, we were examining different environments of quarantine of like, geopolitical, medical and biological. And I mean he, this is kind of a great resource for, you know, thinking about all of the different kinds of facets of, of architecture and design and how that impacts or civilization. I guess, and so we invited him. I initially started out thinking loosely about utopians as I was contemplating the beginning of this project. And Geoff has, actually had recently curated an exhibition about utopias and we invited him to yeah, talk to us a little bit about that.

Mimi: And while he was here, we also went on a field, a couple of field trips to, you know, I guess yeah, thinking about intentional communities or where a built environment dictated, you know, a certain kinds of human behavior within that. So we started out actually visiting the Arch Street Meeting House, and also we went to Ephrata, a religious community that’s like 40 minutes outside of Philly.

Mimi: And then maybe the most transformative one was going to visit a wastewater treatment plant down in southeast Philly. And that was just, I mean, super eye opening. I mean I had never had access to a facility like that. And then just the, just the, you know, sheer number of steps involved in the process of water filtration and the sheer like, acreage that that takes up. It’s like vast sluices and things like that. So that was really, I think, pivotal in terms of really the direction that this project went in.

Katy: Well, and that’s so interesting to think about cause it looks like you determined a number of different systems, some of which are very exterior and known. Like I think about the meeting house or an intentional community. It’s really built with that design and it’s not seeking to obscure it or hide it. Whereas like a wastewater treatment facility or even a subway, they kind of do their best to obscure those passageways so that you don’t see the rats running through or you don’t have to think about what happens when you flush the toilet and where it goes.

Mimi: Yeah, exactly.

Katy: How does that you know, come into your design?

Mimi: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I definitely feel like I started out thinking about systems in general and kind of worked from the outside in. And I think eventually I did start feeling that these more visible or overt systems were somehow less intriguing to me. And I found, well I guess at one point, Dan Rothenberg our director, co-artistic director at Pig Iron, just asked me what my obsessions were. And as I started thinking about that and relaying them… Oh, I found that a lot of them were of sort of, concealed spaces of tunnels and a lot of them happen to be like, underground or they’re places that were not meant to be like industrial spaces that are generally forbidden to the public that I found particularly enticing and sort of seductive in a way. And more and more I think about places that I’m drawn to like with my gut or with my body more than with my brain, in a way.

Mimi: And I think that that… Like, in a way, the process of working on this piece has been quite intuitive. And like, sort of following, following my nose. But now I’m sort of thinking of it as like, following my gut. I was like, I think I’m after a particular, visceral sensation of space, or a visceral experience of space. And the kinds of spaces that I have been obsessed with are those that affect me bodily. And I’m trying to figure out, you know, how do we make that in a performance context? Or how do we talk about that in a performance context.

Raina: Yeah. I, I’m really curious cause this kind of leads very naturally into a question of what should the audience expect to experience when they come see the show? What can we tell them ahead of time to kind of prep them and let them know what you’re, how what you’re thinking transits into this performance?

Mimi: Well, I guess I can start by saying that, we’re not really considering it like theater, theater. I guess we’re calling it visual theater. Like it’s pretty… It’s, it’s pretty out there. Like, you know, I’m, I’m, I’m sort of feeling the air with my hands right now, which you can’t see. But I’m like, I feel like what we’re after… What we’re, what we’ve made so far and what I think we’re gonna continue to make is stuff that you don’t quite… It’s not, it’s certainly not narrative. It’s definitely very visual. I think spatially, I think one thing we’re trying to figure out is like how, how do we focus the audience’s attention on a space? Although I have decided that it’s not an environmental. Like it’s not a performance that the audience walks through.

Mimi: I think, you know, as I was saying like, Oh, you know, I want to create the kind of experience that you feel that’s really been in your body. That is, you know, often thought of this something that maybe you’re in an immersive experience and it’s not, it’s not that, actually. I guess maybe one challenge that I set out for myself is, is there a way for me to try to evoke that sensation without, without actually walking through it? We did this workshop a couple of months ago and maybe one of my favorite things that an audience member said after it was that, ‘oh, I kind of like, although I didn’t touch anything, I kind of feel icky’.

Mimi: And there is, yeah, maybe I’ll say that there’s some fluids. There’s some like, soft substances. You know, we’ve been, we’ve been sort of curious about, I don’t know, this basic relationship between the human body and it’s like softness and squishiness, in relation to these hard structures made out of concrete and steel and this sort of peculiar relationship between the soft squishy features that created these massive, harder structures.

Katy: Well, and I wonder if that makes sense as it comes out of your development and the devising process where often, in a more traditional theatrical context, there would be script with media story or at least a thematic. And then they’d come to you as the set designer, and then after that is all creative and say, ‘put this in an environment’. But, this working process has been the opposite.

Mimi: Yeah.

Katy: So you have kind of developed the environment or the stage space and then they are devising the theatrical work within that.

Katy: Like how has that flipped process helped for you?

Mimi: Yeah, it’s all pretty, it felt pretty crazy and intense. I mean, definitely I found myself thinking like this is probably, you know, like we’re playing, right field. Like when you’re sitting there facing the blank page of like, what, this is going to be about? You know? Because certainly as a set designer, I’m most often responding to something. Like whether it’s a script or a piece of music or a poem or you know, it is definitely, you know, a kind of response as opposed to making the first scratch.

Mimi: And I think there’s a lot of, you know, I think throughout the years I’ve definitely had a lot of impulses. Like, oh, like you know, I see a, I see a landscape, or I see a photo and be like, that would be an amazing set for something.

Katy: Mm-hmm(affirmative)

Raina: Mm-hmm(affirmative)

Mimi: But also knowing that this is a piece that I’m making with Pig Iron, and that particular ensemble and the way that they make stuff.

Mimi: I’ve also sort of… Trying to think a little bit about, well, not every space is gonna have like, like vibrate in a particular way with that ensemble. So there’s also trying to calibrate a little bit. And what, what that, what that kind of, what that environment would be. But yeah, and at the same time thinking about something that is both aesthetically and spatially captivating to me, but also thinking about what would have dramatic potential as a performance piece.

Katy: Yeah.

Raina: So how does this process differ since you’ve worked with Pig Iron for a number of years? How has that relationship grown and changed over the years and how do you feel like this project is taking it to a new level?

Mimi: Yeah, I mean it definitely as a designer working with… I mean Pig Iron was the first ensemble company that I had worked with. I mean, it was pretty early on that I did my first show with them, which was Love Unpunished in 2006. And at that time I think had been doing theater for like two years and it was my first encounter with working this way. So, I mean it definitely, even, even, you know, other Pig Iron pieces that don’t start with the set design, the design enters the picture very early and is part of the room as the piece is being made.

Mimi: But I guess the difference is that with those pieces, there’s already an idea, even if it’s a very vague idea and just to kind kernel or a distant early germinating seed. But I’m still responding to that idea. So I guess the biggest difference was that, you know, I was coming up with that germinating idea.

Katy: I wonder if we can also talk a little bit about Philadelphia as a site, or more broadly, all of the research that we did to come up with the final site for the performance, which is, you know, the Fringe Festival, for all our listeners out there, like takes place all around the city. Some things happen in our theater here at FringeArts, but many things including super training, take place offsite. And so we thought a lot about, you know, is it going to be in a proscenium theater, is it going to be in a warehouse? And kinda ended up somewhere in the middle. And so we were thinking, can you talk to people who weren’t part of that process. What was that like and how did that affect your design?

Mimi: I think I said a little bit earlier about this piece not being an environmental piece that the audience walks through. So definitely, as we started thinking about making this piece that’s going to start with the design and, and all of my, you know, known interests in like in you know, three dimensional space being a really powerful tool. And wanting the audience to experience three dimensional space. And a lot of my designs and you know, and in the past have been like 360 degree experiences and designing a space that the audience enters. So that, you know, that’s certainly something that I thought about.

Mimi: But then, you know, for some reason I had this gut feeling that I wanted to make it in a kind of more proscenium relationship for the audience. Or I didn’t want to make a site specific piece. I guess I was interested in the role of design or the potential for design in a, in a word neutral laboratory container.

Mimi: So I feel like a site specific experience is great, and really powerful, but like, the site is doing so much of that work. And I, I guess I wanted to challenge myself to see what a design from scratch could do. So I sort of wanted to start from scratch and therefore, I thought maybe, you know, the neutral space of a proscenium theater is where I want to make it. And you know, and I do kind of love prosceniums for the very fact that you can then break it.

Mimi: So we set about, you know, trying to find the proscenium space, but I also knew that I wanted something that I, that had a pretty big volume of space, so I wanted to, I wanted to be able to shape the volume. Yeah. I mean, and you know, we’ve looked at, you know, armories and navy yards and you know, these kinds of spaces.

Katy: So many different spaces. Yeah.

Mimi: But, but there’s all, you know, there’s all sorts of logistical considerations and-

Katy: For sure.

Mimi: You know, some of them were actually like too tall, you know, I’m like, if I want to build something that feels like it fills the space, if the space is big, then that doesn’t really work for us.

Mimi: So we’ve, we’ve landed at a venue that I didn’t think, you know, I didn’t imagine we would be in.

Katy: It’s a venue we’ve never worked at before and it’s 2300 arena. It’s actually usually a wrestling space or an event space. But it kind of fit the bill in a really unexpected way for this piece because in some ways it’s a blank space so it essentially looks like a black box. And yet we are kind of creating a proscenium feel within it. So I’d like to think it’s the best of both worlds. But every site has its own challenges and specificities.

Mimi: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. No, I mean it turns out that this space has like an 80 foot by 80 foot footprint that we could, you know… With, you know, very few columns and so we could basically kind of place the audience wherever we wanted inside it and really create our own container potentially to be broken.

Raina: So I’m curious, in conjunction with Superterranean, you’re also working on an installation at Cherry Street pier. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that’s going to be and what that’s gonna look like?

Mimi: Yeah, so we’ve been talking a little bit about this like feeling of of a, of a gut, like a visceral response to architecture. And I guess I was inspired recently by… I went to see a Bruce Nauman exhibition at PS1 in New York. And I’ve always loved his work so much. You know, a lot of them are like corridors, like very long skinny corridors if you go down, and I think I even made a piece that was sort of in an homage back when I was in Grad school. But you sort swished your way around this very skinny corridor and peered into this space within. So like I was… You know, so for the performance or the show, you know, in some ways I guess we’re creating a visual theatrical work that speaks to particular spacial sensibilities. But I, I was interested in maintaining this frame and this proscenium relationship.

Mimi: And so with the public artwork I thought, well this is my opportunity to actually, to have someone move their body through a space and orchestrate that experience in a particular way. We looked at a couple of different sites and I mean this piece did really want to be very site responsive but, but I did always have this notion of going into a very enclosed space. Because I knew it was going to be, probably is going to be on an outdoor site. And so there’s this, you know, sort of larger, broader idea of this public artwork somehow how funneling the person from an exterior to an interior space.

Mimi: From an open air to an enclosed space and, and essentially like a gradual awareness of your… You know, I guess I have this hypothesis that when you’re in a really, really enclosed space, like a really tight space and maybe a dark space, like I’ve always imagined this as being quite a dark space, that it’s like an inside out experience. Like maybe you feel like you’re entering some part of a body or like you, you sense that in, innards of your body a little bit more when you’re, when you’re in a space like that. You like sense your breathing or your heart rate a little bit more. I guess because you know, your senses are being limited in a way. And so if you’re in an anechoic chamber, you probably hear the sound of the blood rushing through your ears a little bit, and you kind of imagine the capillaries that the blood is rushing through and you’re inside this kind of tiny artery. And so there’s this kind of conflation of body and architecture.

Mimi: So I was just interested in exploring that idea on whatever site we ended up in. And, I first made a proposal for one site but that ended up, you know, it was like infra-structurally challenging because it’s like underneath the Ben Franklin Bridge and I-95. These days it’s really hard to build an enclosed structure underneath an interstate highway.

Katy: Yeah, we learned so much about the security system at the state, the local and the city level.

Mimi: Yeah. I mean it’s actually, I kind of suspected, I mean in my brief foray into the public art world, definitely these considerations of what people might do in a public space, which is interesting. That’s, that’s sort of not unrelated to the, to the project at hand. But anyway, we’ve ended up at Cherry Street Pier, which is a very different vibe from being like underneath a bridge anchorage and like a rumbling highway. And so I kind of wanted to respond to that a little bit. So, I think the project has become a little bit more whimsical. There’s also a Little Baby’s Ice Cream truck is there at the end of the pier and maybe like that’s part of the experience.

Raina: Just walk through a tunnel and get a free ice cream.

Mimi: Well, get the ice cream and then walk through a tunnel and then eat the ice cream while you’re inside the tunnel and feel it going down your esophagus.

Katy: Yes. Yes.

Raina: I wonder also about the sound bleed because Cherry Street Pier is this really vibrant place. People are like walking and talking outside. So that is also very different than what the sound would sound like underneath a bridge. So do you plan to shut that sound out? Is it like a space that you enter in and you’re kind of closed off audibly from the world as well?

Mimi: That is my hope. I’m been working with a composer and sound designer named Lea Bertucci on Superterranean, but she’s also done a lot of the sound installations and things like that all over the world. She actually made this amazing sound installation in… There’s a bridge in Germany that has like, enclosure, sort of flat, tunnel like space that goes right under the road bed of the bridge. And so she made this sound installation inside that space. She’s really cool. So we are collaborating on this public art work as well. And so there’s gonna be a sound component, which I hope and imagine will drown out the existing surrounding and that you’re going to enter into this kind of other sonic world.

Katy: Well, we are so excited to see both when you’re hear in September. I think to finish after the conversation we always ask everybody what’s your low brow and your high brow inspiration? Could be for Superterranean or more broadly.

Raina: Well, I already mentioned Bruce Nauman, but I guess this is maybe similar. I guess Donald Judd… when I went to, I went on a trip to Marfa, Texas and saw a bunch of Donald Judd works out there in the, in the grasses of Marfa. And have, it’s just really stuck with me.

Raina: And can you tell us a little bit more about Donald Judd?

Mimi: Yeah. So Donald Judd is a sculpture, visual artist. I think he would, he would… He did not want to be called a minimalist, although I think a lot of people described his work is somewhat minimalist. But I feel like a lot of his work straddles the line between sculpture and furniture. And I actually recently went on a tour of his apartment slash studio and Soho and so that, he had this building in Soho and like one, one floor was the studio and then a couple other floors he lived on with his family. But he also designed and built a lot of the furniture, so his entire living environment was totally curated and very crafted and a lot of people describe it as minimalist. I actually noticed recently that the Cherry Street Pier, there’s some chairs and tables at Cherry Street Pier that seem a little bit inspired by Donald Judd.

Mimi: Yeah, but I guess I’ve always been really inspired by the crossover between his art and life. That’s, that’s just something that’s always inspired me. But also this particular work in Marfa. I can’t even remember the title of it, but it’s like, there’s like a hundred aluminum boxes that are displayed in this huge former airplane hangar and they’re all like, all hundred boxes are exactly the same dimension and they’re made out of the same aluminum. They’re like three foot by three foot cubes. But then on the inside they’re all divided in a slightly different way. Like divided into two compartments or three compartments, or with a horizontal shelf or with a vertical divider.

Mimi: And it’s a very cold work, you might say. Like it’s, the aluminum and it’s like hard corners and everything. But, I oddly fell up very motional or moved by it and, I don’t know, I’m like, maybe it was something about the, the human attempt to like discover all of the possibilities of dividing this box. Or like there’s some sense of effort or labor and it’s meticulously done.

Mimi: So, I don’t know. That, I talked about that piece a lot with our factors as we started working on this piece. Low brow? Maybe, well, I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I’ve been, I’ve tried to watch Battlestar Galactica.

Katy: Mm-hmm(affirmative) We have some fans of that at our office.

Mimi: For the past like, seven years. I mean, I didn’t even start watching it until the entire thing was over. But it’s taken me like seven years, and I still haven’t finished watching. I just watch it like a tiny bit at a time when I have, when I have the time. But that’s certainly an example of a sort of insidious system of sorts.

Katy: Yeah.

Raina: Yeah.

Katy: Totally. Cool.

Mimi: Awesome.

Katy: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Mimi. So great to have you on the podcast.

Mimi: Thank you for having me.

Raina: Yeah. Superterranean will be presented at 2300 Arena September 5th through the 15 as part of the 2019 Fringe Festival. So we hope to see you all there. make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram and download the FringeArts app. You can also visit us at fringearts.com.

[Music Outro]

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