Wednesday, September 19

It’s Electric: Osseus Labyrint


In the past, performing duo Hannah Sim and Mark Steger of Osseus
Labyrint have hung upside-down like bats from a bridge over the
L.A. River and imitated pachyderms and slugs on stage. Their UCLA
Live performances from now through Nov. 21 of “Modern
Prometheus LLC” at New Deal Studios in Marina del Rey will
certainly be no less bizarre when they simulate the transformation
of vat-grown tissue into fully functional human analogues while
having electricity arched off their bodies by electro-mechanical
installation artist Barry Schwartz, who, by the way, they met in a
Czechoslovakian insane asylum.

As strange as the experimental movement-based art performing
group Osseus Labyrint sounds, to co-director Sim, performing what
the Los Angeles Times calls “off-the-wall virtuosity,”
was natural even at an early age.

Growing up in the Pennsylvanian countryside, Sim developed a
love of nature early on, but unlike other children, she would often
go into her bedroom, close her door, and start imitating animals
and plants in front of the mirror.

“I’m really a very emotional and sensory
person,” Sim said. “I would always find myself just
getting absorbed or tripping out on watching a preying mantis walk
up a stem and imagining what it would feel like to be that creature
or plant. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I have been all
those things because I’m made up of molecules that have been
recycled a zillion times.”

Eventually, forming the group seemed inevitable in the late
1980s when Sim, who had been performing the Japanese experimental
theater style Butoh, met Osseus Labyrint co-founder Steger through
mutual friends. Sim and Steger found that they were performers with
a similar rhythm, style of movement and fascination with nature and
science fiction.

At the time, Steger was performing in an experimental theater
group in San Francisco. Steger, formerly a professional animator,
had originally been invited to do set design for the theater group,
but when people in the theater noticed his ability to dissect
movement down into small increments, they invited Steger to perform
with them on stage.

“We kept running into each other and then realized we were
supposed to be doing something together, and so we started trying
to figure it out,” Sim said. “We never really decided
we’re going to be a movement-based group. We just felt
compelled to do this thing. We’re very organic about the
progression that we’ve gone through. We haven’t really
done it in an organized fashion or gotten on touring circuits in
this country or Europe. We’ve always booked ourselves, just
kind of word-of-mouth thing.”

Their organic progression has led to some seemingly random
opportunities. They’ve done two video presentations and panel
discussions at UCLA for the World Arts and Cultures department in
2000 and 2001, as well as performed alongside the progressive metal
band Tool at Coachella in 1999, and on the band’s North
American and Australian tours to promote the album
“Lateralus” in 2001 and 2002. Sim and Steger also
performed in the music video for Tool’s song
“Schism.”

Perhaps their prior engagements seem random because Sim and
Steger have always allowed their intuition to guide Osseus
Labyrint. Even the group’s name was intuitively derived.

One morning on a camping trip, Sim and Steger stopped to stare
at a pile of debris that had part of a crawdad, a sea creature like
a crayfish and other miscellaneous things on it. They felt the
debris was trying to speak to them, so the two wrote down words
that came to them over breakfast.

The resulting list included bones and architectural structures.
When they got home, the two searched their dictionary and thesaurus
for a word or phrase to accurately capture both ideas. They found
osseous labyrinth, or the bone of the inner ear that is the center
of hearing and balance for humans.

For Sim and Steger, both self-taught and self-directed artists,
much of their movement is also derived from intuition. Instead of
following strict choreography, the duo relies on structured
improvisation in performance.

With intuition as their guiding light, the group embodies the
idea of “art for art’s sake.”

“We knew we were supposed to be doing it, but we
didn’t know why,” Sim said. “People have been
asking us that for 15 years now. We don’t have a manifesto or
some surfacing goal we’re trying to accomplish or message
we’re trying to get across to people. The movement we do is
like a Rorschach test, a psychological ink-blot test where somebody
sees an elephant and somebody else sees a mouse.”

Without a distinct message, this type of avant-garde art will
likely bewilder many viewers. For Sim, however, performing in one
of the world’s most unusual, progressive movement-based art
groups is just a normal part of everyday life. Just listen to her
explain the 1999 Coachella performance.

“It was crazy,” Sim said. “This big, huge
music festival. I mainly remember it being really hot. But there
was a lot of good music, and we were just there, just wandering
around and checking things out all day, and we went on stage and
hung upside down and did a couple of songs with Tool.”

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