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Harriet Middleton-Baker, The War Room, an Opera!
The War Room, an Opera!Photography Robert Harris

This artist makes sci-fi, feminist operas you’ll actually want to watch

London-based artist Harriet Middleton-Baker’s latest performance was staged in a boardroom, and asked: ‘Who has power and why?’

“It’s the performing of a story with music, language, and often dance,” London-based artist – and Dazed 100-er – Harriet Middleton-Baker tells us of her approach to opera. “I want to explore this crossover in the future and think about the use of the genre title, ‘opera’, in this context”.

Creating a body of work which spans architecture, choreography, and performance, Middleton-Baker’s work is multifaceted and whips up an alternative perspective – one that is difficult to forget.

“My overall practice is research-based, focusing on architecture – both physical and digital – as well as narratives and performances of power structures. Who has the power and why? How do we understand power and try to reclaim it?” One of the defining aspects of the artist’s work is this, her questioning tone, which palpitates from systematic structures to technological evolutions and gendered-stereotypes, through a penetrating, sociological lens. “I can’t help but make my work about things that are preoccupying me at the time,” she says of her all-encompassing approach.

Whether working as a producer or performer or both, Middleton-Baker’s creative vision is progressive and exists far beyond the antiquated ideals of opera. Take The War Room, an Opera!, which started life as a reinterpretation of A Harlot’s Progress, Middleton-Baker’s 2017 sci-fi feminist opera in which women are liberated by their autonomy. “I used all the tropes of traditional opera: violence, sexuality, love, grandiosity etc., as tools to highlight both the ambivalence and the ridiculousness of the portrayal of the female body in both contemporary and historical culture”.

The War Room an Opera!, which was performed at Cell Project Space last month over two nights, centred around a white boardroom, that Middleton-Baker had visualised. It served as a physical space and a breeding ground for “the behavioural dynamics of a technocratic boardroom” to cultivate.

Below, we talk to Middleton-Baker about replacing rigid social structures with new narratives and redefining the elitist reputation that is synonymous with opera.

“I read about women who upheld politics or policies that stemmed from patriarchal and imperialist values for example, and I wanted to pick that apart” – Harriet Middleton-Baker

Tell us about your work to date.

Harriet Middleton-Baker: I have a background in architecture and art, so my work has often straddled the two practices. A lot of my work in the last few years has been about how architecture influences the behaviours of the human experience on both a micro and macro level. I’m particularly interested in the intersection between politics, feminism, and architecture; how the design of spaces can be used to dictate power and control, aiding marginalisation and oppression.

This has also led me to think about the choreography and the physical behaviours derived from our interactions with architecture. For example, how a boardroom or a parliamentary building forms a stage set for power and governance, or how an office cubicle can incite introversion and subservience.

I kind of fell into ‘opera.’ It started really tongue-in-cheek, as part of a group exhibition curated by Cairo Clarke at Yinka Shonibare’s Guest Projects called Touch Sensitive. Cairo had asked us to respond to the frameworks underpinning the female body in the age of digital communication. I produced a work that re-wrote an existing opera about female sexual damnation – A Harlot’s Progress – as a sci-fi feminist opera in which women are liberated by their autonomy and reign terror on those who are opposed to their sexual revolution.

For those who didn’t make it, tell us about The War Room an Opera!

Harriet Middleton-Baker: The show at, and commissioned by, Cell Project Space was a development from my research into opera and space designed for enacting power. Moving slightly away from the unpicking of the genre of opera, I used it, instead, as a tool for storytelling. The operetta was a short narrative exploring the behavioural dynamics of a technocratic boardroom. Characterisations of CEO’s and board members arguing and lording over each other, god-like creatures drunk on power.

I worked with Lydia Buckler and Madison Capel-Bird from SISTASISTA and dancers from Green Candle Senior Dance Company to develop the choreography and experiment with gesture and the physicality of power. I also worked closely with the composer and performer Helen Noir, who has an amazing knowledge of opera – both traditional and avant-guard, to create the score and libretto. She is crazy talented and created an amazingly evocative piece of music that really brought the grandiosity of opera to the performance. She also starred as the CEO and sang live.

Are your ideas solidified from conception? Or, does it take you some time to realise and produce a physical outcome?

Harriet Middleton-Baker: It's a bit of both. I kind of collect stories that come out of research. Stories that fascinate me; weird anecdotes that seem poignant or really capture an idea that I’ve been drawn to. With this piece, I had been doing lots of research into the ambivalence of supporting (and not supporting) women in positions of power. I read about women who upheld politics or policies that stemmed from patriarchal and imperialist values for example, and I wanted to pick that apart.

However, when you are working on a collaborative production, there comes a point when you have to solidify a narrative so that you can communicate your intentions effectively. The idea still evolved naturally through the collaborative process, with individuals bringing their ideas to the table which enriches the project hugely.

The War Room an Opera! explores boardroom culture and the gender dynamics that are intertwined with it. Where do these dynamics come from?

Harriet Middleton-Baker: I’m fascinated by boardroom culture as it is a microclimate for power dynamics.

Feminism + capitalism > more women in the boardroom etc., but what does that actually equate to? More women upholding what bell hooks rightly calls ‘imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?’ That's not the answer, but I do see the positive in seeing women in positions of power. I grew up watching films in which women were usually the supporting cast (even in 2017 women account for only 27 per cent of central protagonists in the top grossing US films) and so it took me a long time to realise women, including myself, could participate in leadership. This goes for representation as a whole. We need to work towards making women, PoC, LGBTQ+ and other minorities in visible positions of power, that's for sure, but we also need to work towards dismantling and restructuring the frameworks that also oppress the underrepresented.

It feels like you are creating an experience that tackles issues we have to think about today. Is this conscious?

Harriet Middleton-Baker: I can’t help but make my work about things that are preoccupying me at the time. I was reading a lot about the blockchain as lots of my friends were investing in cryptocurrency and I wanted to understand how it might impact governance and power distribution as there were so many philosophical arguments being thrown around it and justifying its supremacy over existing economic models.

Because I had been researching power and governmental organisation, I wanted to include the idea in the periphery of the opera’s narrative. The reading material props at the table were both essays exploring how networks and blockchain theories might agitate contemporary economic and governance structures, whether for the better or the worse. It's a complicated issue that I don't know loads about, but I think we should all be aware of both the benefits and potential dangers of encouraging full transparency through blockchain technology.

Opera kind of feels like a final frontier for young artists to break into. Would you agree?

Harriet Middleton-Baker: Yes. I think you’re right. It's got such an elitist reputation because it’s so expensive and impenetrable most of the time. However, I think it’s evolving into a genre that works as an umbrella term for interdisciplinary work, people who work across music, theatre, dance, visual art, or who collaborate as part of their practice. I hope so anyway. I don’t actually have a huge knowledge of traditional opera, however, those people breaking away from tradition, such as Philip Glass, Kaija Saariaho, and Robert Ashley.

I also have this theory that music videos, particularly narrative-based ones are a kind of contemporary opera. All opera is, is the performing of a story with music, language and often dance. Music videos do this too. I want to explore this crossover in the future and think about the use of the genre title, ‘opera’, in that context.

“Feminism + capitalism > more women in the boardroom etc., but what does that actually equate to? More women upholding what bell hooks rightly calls ‘imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?’ That's not the answer, but I do see the positive in seeing women in positions of power” – Harriet Middleton-Baker

As technological advancements are developed and structures dictate human behaviour in new and increasingly unknowable ways, how can we retain some level of control?

Harriet Middleton-Baker: I think we are already dictated by structures that exist today, however, they are wildly outdated as they were built and designed by, and for, the benefit of only certain portions of society. I think we could be at a turning point soon, a point where technological advancement effects economic systems and by using and exposing diverse narratives about leadership we might be able to lilt these frameworks into structures that allow those who are currently marginalised and oppressed to thrive.

What subjects or mediums do you want to individually explore in the future?

Harriet Middleton-Baker: I want to continue my research into the use of opera and performance as a medium for storytelling. This includes how film can extend the life of a live performance and further explore ambivalences within stories. I am also interested in the practice of staging and stage design as storytelling aids, as I have a background in film/TV props.

Right now I am preoccupied with finding stories of disruptions throughout history that deviate from the status-quo, highlighting examples that offer evidence of courage towards working towards a better society. I naturally err on this side of cynical and nihilistic but use my research as a way of energising myself towards optimism and against destructive unregulated capitalism.