Medusa, magic, and monsters: a conversation with Ainhoa Hernández Escudero
— August 28, 2023

In May and June 2023, Ainhoa Hernández Escudero worked on her newest creation (don’t look me in the eyes) in a New Adventures residency. In this interview with dramaturge Astrid Klein Haneveld, Ainhoa takes us along into her world where magic and science fiction meet queerness and monstrosity and where female figures and robots reclaim the stage in an affectively dark world...

Who are you?

I am Ainhoa Hernández Escudero, born and raised in Madrid, Spain. I came to the Netherlands, to Amsterdam, to study at the DAS Theatre master program in 2020 which I finished in 2022. I’m a maker working in between theatre and dance. I also facilitate and generate spaces for thinking and sharing different kinds of knowledges. I have been busy with a project that I call Blooming The Saga that I initiated at DAS; that tackles magic, queerness, and science fiction and their potential to produce and manifest other ways of making sense in this world or alternative realities. The first chapter of this saga is called The Torch, the Key and the Snake that I presented as my final work at DAS and I recently premiered in Frascati. For the New Adventures residency, I started working on the second chapter of the saga called (don’t) look me in the eyes.

What was your reason for applying for the New Adventures residency at ICK?

During the last year, I have been close to ICK for different reasons, and it was an excellent place to continue this physical research. I feel welcome in my practice. There is space to share questions such as: What does it mean to work with the body?; what are different approaches in working with the body?; what is the approach of a maker with a physical theatre or urban dance background? You learn and enrich your practice by discussing and physically working with these questions.

(don’t look me in the eyes) by Ainhoa Hernández Escudero, photo by Hermien Buyse

Could you elaborate on your inspiration for (don’t) look me in the eyes?

In (don’t) look me in the eyes, I am working around the figures of Medusa and the Gorgon sisters, a Greek myth. It’s a mythological tale, and Greek mythology is at the beginning of Western cultural narratives. I found it interesting to work around this figure and to this mythology to exorcise this figure and others who have been mistreated throughout history. I want to speak about how Western society has historically mistreated women, queers and non-humans. In this work, I tackle the relationship between technology and bodies and the concept of the Monstrous-Feminine.  

The Monstrous-Feminine is a term used by Barbara Creed and refers to the interpretation of horror films conceptualizing women as victims. Creed observes how women are positioned as victims within the horror film genre, challenging this patriarchal understanding of women. The Monstrous-Feminine horrifies her audience through her sexuality, as she is either constructed as a virgin or a whore; there are different appearances of the monstrous feminine, which all reflect female sexuality: archaic mother, monstrous womb, possessed monster, witch, and castrating mother. I am trying to reverse the spell and feel empowered by the concept of Monstrous-Feminine, following the strategy used with other terms, such as queer or bitch, transforming their meaning and re-appropriating those concepts changing a negative connotation into an identity statement.

What is the thing that fascinates you the most about Medusa?

Well, this is changing throughout the research process. Lately, I have been fascinated with two things. The first is Medusa’s gaze and how problematic it is not being able to be seen and not being able to look anyone in the eyes simultaneously. What power dynamics are connected to the gaze, and how to work with this gaze in the theatre space? So, how can we also tackle the power dynamics between the audience and performers through gaze games in a theatrical context? Marta Keil, one of my advisors, is helping me to think this idea through. The second idea that Medusa is triggering, which is fascinating to me, is the interpretation of Medusa being a simulacrum or a reflection of others but not a subject. This idea contrasts with Western culture’s obsession with the truth, or authenticity—an obsession that comes from Modernity but is still present in the current times– and its connection with what is real and valuable. However, our society is configured around a technological hyper-reality with more similarities with a network of simulacrums. I’m interested in researching fakeness, identity simulacrums, confusion strategies, and the in-between spaces.

(don’t look me in the eyes) by Ainhoa Hernández Escudero, photo by Alwin Poiana

You mentioned that in (don’t) look me in the eyes, you explore the relation between body and technology. What fascinates you about working with technology?

I am positioning the myth of Medusa into a dystopian future as a way of playing with science fiction. I hope this replacement can make us aware of some of the issues present in today’s life that the figure of Medusa is triggering. Science fiction has always been connected with new technologies, which makes me move towards using digital technology in this piece. One of the aspects of the piece that involves the use of digital technology is the work with the voice, by working with effects and plugins that modify my voice. These voice effects allow me to play with identity and expand the possibilities of multiplying the different identities someone can hold in their voice and body. 

Secondly, I have started working with two snake robots, which are toys for children. They are a bit retro-futuristic in that sense. I’m including two robots on stage for various reasons. On the one hand, robots have been designed as a product to serve humans. The term robot comes from the Czech word robota, meaning serf labour. That means similar extractivist practices have been applied in the relationship between the patriarchal system, robots, nature and women. Most of the women robots are servants. I’m interested in a critique of patriarchal dominance by proposing a different relation of intimacy between humans and technology.

On the other hand, robotics also makes us question what it means to be human or what it means to be alive. Robots also make us reflect on human mechanisation. The work with robots on stage can make us reflect on all those questions and create and defend the interactions we want with robots and technology.

It’s interesting how there is currently much debate about Artificial Intelligence (AI), that we are scared that it will become more powerful than humans, but in fact, they are less powerful and becoming more powerful at the same time.

There is a fascinating discussion around power dynamics and technology. There is a fear towards technology, but it’s always like that. Whatever defies the current system of hierarchical power is a menace. AI is a new regime of truth, reproducing existing inequalities, but it is perceived as more progressive than the previous discriminatory systems. AI is an archive of human knowledge, and it is configured by whoever feeds it, right?. So, what kind of knowledge we provide machine learning with is an important question, in my opinion. Maybe what we fear is our history, to be confronted with our bias.

For this work, I have also been working in conversation with AI. I want to create a booklet that the audience can read after attending the piece to dismember this project formally and in a conceptual connection with the literal dismemberment of Medusa’s body. This booklet will contain a fanfiction story, futuristic and dystopian, about Medusa and the Gorgon sisters and Perseus and Athenea, the other main characters of the myth. My collaboration with AI to write this fanfiction story has not always been fruitful, because it guides me towards the same kind of narratives I’m trying to escape. 

(don’t look me in the eyes) by Ainhoa Hernández Escudero, photo by Alwin Poiana

(don’t) look me in the eyes is the second chapter of your trilogy Blooming the Saga. Is there already a starting point for the upcoming third chapter of the trilogy?

In the first piece, I worked with the figure of another mythological tale: Hekate. And now I’m working with Medusa, so the third chapter might invite me to work with another Greek mythological figure. In this saga, and maybe in general in my work, I am working with icons or figures that contain information that triggers specific thoughts, ideas, and feelings. My way of working involves listening more than imposing or rationalising ideas. I arrived at the figure of Medusa half-asleep by listening to what was there. I never had a special relationship with this figure, and I never thought of working with Medusa before, but it was clear that this was the most potent image that appeared in front of me. I always wanted to use a work methodology related to the topics I am tackling: channelling images and ideas is a way of working that fits with what configures me now.

As a final question, could you summarise your practice and your work in several key words?

Exaggerated characters, affective, dreamy, pop culture, dystopia, futuristic, technological bodies. Dark, or something like post-punk. It’s connected with the darkness as a place of knowledge.

Trailer for (don’t look me in the eyes) by Ainhoa Hernández Escudero, video and edit by Saskia Habermann

— Article written by Astrid Klein Haneveld