Meet MHz, The Team Behind ‘Ruins’

Image credit: Brian Hartley

Set in a cube, Ruins explores rupture, adaptation and togetherness across species juxtaposed with enduring ecological harm and emotional turmoil. Following a preview at Cumbernauld Theatre at Lanternhouse, it will be performed as part of Manipulate festival. The Indiependent spoke to MHz, the team behind Ruins, to find out more about the show.

The Indiependent: What is the premise of Ruins and how did it come about?

MHz: Both of us share a DIY visual arts background, and a simpler version of “the cube screen” was an emblematic design from Dav’s VJing days (part of the Pointless Creations collective). It was a staple on the Glasgow’s clubbing scene, spinning over the Arches’ Death Disco dance floors for years and touring the international budding AV festival scene between 2000-2006. Thematically, after being part of the programming team for the COP26 pop performance venue called the Landing Hub, I was introduced to incredible grassroots artists and frontline activists from around the world. I was so inspired by the conversations about different movements, and I remember hearing about Solarpunk for the first time. This sci-fi subgenre and social movement emerged online in 2008, visualizing collectivist ecological utopias where nature and technology thrive in harmony. Writers and films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki, Octavia Butler, Anna Tsing, and Donna Haraway were frequently mentioned.

Our previous shows explored the interplay of urban alienation (VOID) and technologically enhanced humans/environments (KID_X). After discovering Haraway’s text Staying with the Trouble, which describes a “more-than-human” future intertwined with non-human species and technologies, we felt it resonated with us. Composting is the practice of turning organic waste into nutrient-rich soil. Haraway uses the term metaphorically to tell a story about the planet as it might exist after humans. She emphasizes the need to “relate” to the earth’s soils, suggesting a posthumous rather than a posthuman future. This, combined with our desire to create a hypnotic, dreamscape-like experience featuring the haunting soundscapes of experimental musician Cucina Povera (who uses voice, field recordings, and synths to create sounds that range between the mechanical and natural), led us to find incredible physical performers and craft a “moment score” with dramaturg Lou Cope. We invited several Scottish-based physical performers to a paid workshop inside the cube in our studio. They each created a solo “critter” piece inspired by our research while also working with us on tasks that embodied emotional and elemental states in response to cube worlds.

Initially unsure if it would be a one-person or three-person show, we discovered the exciting possibilities of working with three bodies and creative minds in the cube; Suzi Cunningham, Philip Alexander and Rita Hu, who bring a rich and multi textured vocabulary of Butoh, Waacking and contemporary dance into the rehearsals. Our process then involved sessions of long improvisations using Haraway’s text, guided improvisations inspired by Cucina’s sounds and Dav’s drawings, and weaving these elements together to create our artistic “compost.” With Lou’s help, we established our goal to tell a futuristic yet relatable story of metamorphosis that explored themes of abandonment, transformation, and re-becoming, rather than simply showcasing fantastical creatures (although we still dream of doing a motley critter cabaret someday!).

In what ways does Donna Haraway’s eco-feminist writing ‘Staying With the Trouble, Making Kin in the Chthulucene’ influence Ruins?

Haraway’s text is like diving into a reef of ideas. Her book, online lectures, and the film Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival are packed with dense theories that somehow shimmered with poetry and strange new words like ”Critters”  “terrapolis”, “string figures” and “tentacular thinking.” As we started to immerse ourselves, her playful and passionate style sparked images in our minds and began to land physically in the studio and our bodies. We started to ask ourselves, “What if all organisms including humans are tangled up with each other?”. We experimented with the transience and liveliness of landscapes, “more than human” rhythms, the knotting of bodies and the questions: do we need to “undo” ourselves in order to “remake” ourselves, should we become “inhuman” to find “humanity”, and what is our “eco system”? 

Haraway’s influence weaves through our show through string figures or cats cradle games, intricate twisted line drawings, symbolizing the connections between “places, times, matters and meanings”. Dancers share energies, limbs and improvise together, their movements echoing Chthonic monsters “replete with feelers, digits, whiptail and unruly hair”, beings of the earth both ancient and modern that process our soils and waters.

Our story unfolds in a bleak and eerie environment. The last humans, facing extinction out of their own choices, are rescued by a hypothetical “critter brain” that propels humans towards their next step of evolution through a last-ditch rewiring that manifests as a hallucinatory sequence. This brain, drawing wisdom from our compost-dwelling ancestors, urges us to ditch our selfishness and embrace each other and the remnants of the natural world.

Our story goes a little beyond her themes too. We poke holes in the “survivalist fantasy”, questioning human exceptionalism and the point of hoarding resources when the world burns. Inspired by the NFT craze, we explore the dangers of prioritizing virtual trinkets over our real, fragile environment. We delve into the alienation and distrust that plague our modern world, products of capitalism and religious divisions. And finally, we ask how we can evolve with technology responsibly, not blindly chasing the newest gadget.

Our show might look futuristic, but our approach is anything but high-tech. We build sets, lights, and even videos using recycled materials, keeping our environmental footprint light. We embrace older projectors and even “ancient” software, proving that creativity doesn’t need the latest bells and whistles. This low-tech approach aligns with Haraway’s critique of constant upgrades and our belief in “degrowth,” and using less.

Image credit: Brian Hartley

Ruins is set in a large cube. Does this present challenges, and how do you manage these?

The cube is not that big – 3.3m to be precise, and it was originally conceived to be the size of our original’s performer’s bedroom which she used as a training space during Covid. It felt like a decent space for a solo show but we eventually decided to spice things up with 3 dancers sharing that space. We anticipated that it might be asking for trouble as the fabric making the sides of the cube is quite fragile and there is some quite dynamic choreography with lifts and spins, but our performers have adapted and found their edges and we’ve been lucky so far with no damage to the setup.

When the performers rehearse in the cube, it’s very immersive and disorientating, including not being able to see the audience. But in combination with Cucina Povera’s hypnotic sounds, this led to some very enjoyable devising sessions where the dancers lost themselves in the music whilst having to navigate the space and each other. They had no idea what it looked like from the outside until they saw the filmed documentation.

Other challenges include lighting the performers in that tight space and we ended up building some custom lights to fit with the design without washing out the projection. The interface between movement, lighting and projection on multi-layered surfaces is very delicate, with the ability to create very different looks from subtle changes. We use this a lot in several scenes to generate shape-shifting ethereal images.

Why do you think festivals like Manipulate are important?

Festivals are such a great way to connect with like-minded artists and see real-life work that we are often only able to experience through a few seconds of a trailer. Manipulate is unique in the way it centres around a particular combination of artforms (animation, puppetry, physical theatre) that combine the visual and physical element in their practice… a perfect fit for MHz as we’ve always played off these two elements as the root of all our productions. So we’re very lucky to have had this festival on our doorstep to bring up such interesting shows and support ours through the years (VOID in 2019 and Dream Engine in 2022).

Is there any Scottish theatre coming up this year that you’re particularly excited about?

We’re always excited by who and what our producers Feral are working with, be it curating outdoor performances and interactive installations for Galoshans Festival with Scottish companies Adrenalism and NOMOSS (which one of our performers Suzi Cunningham is in) in Inverclyde, to touring and producing contemporary choreographers Collette Sadler and Jack Webb’s visionary work. We also love to attend outdoor arts festivals such as Surge and Tramway’s Beyond Walls programme. There’s something so special about seeing how artists and audiences interact with ideas in public spaces.

What’s next for you after the festival?

We’re going straight to our other show STRUT, a community dance parade where 5 local dancers present their own 2 minute choreographies in a night-time show performance over the streets with a big sound system, light show and roving projections on buildings [that are] all battery powered. We will perform in Cumbernauld on 29 February and 1 March. Other locations include Craigmillar in Edinburgh (20-21 March), Aberdeen, Dumbarton, Inverclyde and Dumfries.

MHz and Feral present Ruins, as part of Manipulate Festival at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre (The Studio) on Sunday 11 February at 6pm.

Words by Ellen Leslie

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