Annabelle Piery and Yoann Rollo, Photo by Raul Zbengheci
“Too long, too much time staring at glowing rectangles, faces dissolve into each other and the city eats itself, fucks itself into oblivion. Sitting in a chair with an unflattering glow or sitting in a chair with the open, free road rocketing past, rocketing through this exit or that one, liberating only as long as the barrels filled with sand do not explode.”
Perhaps our human brains have just been adapting in order to stop paying attention to the bombardment of flashing images on those glowing rectangles flooding the periphery. Engagement is shaping up to be a tricky element for the stage. Following in either Artaud’s tradition of traversing the stage and aggressing the persons in the seats or Brecht’s grandiose vision of alienation for the sake of greater awareness, the stage is still suffering from the same essential issue: the spectator continues to be an amorphous piece of the auditorium that is simply there to validate the existence of the happenings on the stage. And this is all the more unfortunate as late capitalism has already bought creating the impression that each consumer now also has the right, no, the need to become an active participant in the consumption machine. Yet, where are the stage machines? Where are the forces that can properly liberate an audience member by giving her unprecedented importance in the success of a performance? This is not unheard of, but unfortunately, today it leads to gimmick. Borrowing from contemporaries, Pure provocation in our current society becomes cheap. (Enora Keller) Taking a shit on a stage is only a spectacle for fundamentalist Christians
So what does this leave the creator with? Throwing away a script for participants is a start. Yet, the endeavor becomes more profound when considering the condition of today’s brainwaves. As presence and identity shift to the virtual, physical presence is slipping out of the hands of those who need establishing most. And it is not as simple as it sounds, being grounded in the body is a liberating practice. This is a proposal for audience activation by placing the totality of a performance, be it on a stage or in a black box, in danger.
If one were to continue along the Brechtian and Artaudian threads, she would be faced with unfortunate realities for the present. Artaud’s utopias for the lifting of boundaries between the stage and the spectator, the artistic and the societal, presents itself in the current theatricality of day-to-day existence. As personalities, images, passions are recycled and commodified, one is left to swim in a sea of identities mixed with images. It is no surprise that some of the most brilliant artistic minds, those who can be truly affective, are immersed in the advertising world. A question for another time would be regarding why advertising finally communicates at a more essential level than non-commercial, fine art. So the barrier between Artaud’s stage and his spectators has nearly disappeared. Children become the toys they play with, the big-budget films projected at the neighborhood IMAX. And what of Brecht’s alienation theories? Have they also been regurgitated unconsciously by the late capitalist machine? Yes and yes and yes. A quick internet search would inform the reader that Brecht considered grandiose, alienating performances a great technique for forcing the spectator to become aware of the artifice present on the stage and thus giving her the capability to explore movements and acting from a newly critical, detached perspective. Ultimately, Brecht hoped that this extreme separation would do away with the siren call of traditional theater intent on lifting the wall between performer and viewer. And where are we today? Anti-advertising works remarkably well. Simply calling into question the artifice present in contemporary publicity sells more products than the original ads. Volkswagen ran their anti-ad campaign in the 1990s as a first of its kind, now it is as common as a day ending with the letter Y.
Nolan Jankowski, photo by Raul Zbengheci
One is reasonably familiar with Chris Burden shooting himself in the arm or Marina nearly suffocating in her burning star. Borrowing from the circus, founding performance artists placed their bodies in danger to liberate themselves from the limitations of fiction and assumed roles. I am proposing that one put the entire show in danger. This is to say that spectators begin to activate the stage, they fill the space and thus become integral parts of the production where they no longer come to visit the mind of the artist, they come to visit their physical presence.
Taking on a social action perspective, performative installations can serve the purpose of preparing an emancipated spectator (see Ranciere, Bourriaud, etc..) for his/her encounter with the ever-present virtual duplicate that resides in our computer traces. One could go as far as saying that a perpetually video and audio looping installation could become standard practice for preparation to entering the virtual world. More importantly, however, is the establishing of physical presence. As it is becoming harder and harder to be grounded and develop personhood outside of the glowing rectangles that surround one, performative installations can provide the space in which to lead a spectator to viewing her physical existence. Ideally, this works by virtue of division.
Let us assume that the ideal performative installation divides the spectator in two. One half is the newly formed alien observer, a sort of transitory, observational being that hovers above the entire installation in the same way that our whole selves gaze over an art space. The second and more important half is the newly embodied physical self. This is to say that the alien observer is paying attention to and guiding the physical presence through the artistic space, being for the first time mindful of its interactions, its proportions, and its presence. A relevant example of this practice is Hi Red Center’s fake art opening. Instead of an art function, the members of the performance trio measured the density, the weight, the height, and the proportions of each visitor. In its simplicity, this performance placed the emphasis on those who, without being prepared for it, came to literally view themselves. Divided in two, their alien observers were able to sense the scope of the work. More importantly, their embodied physical presences were forced out of them or forced into their field of vision. In psychoanalytic terms, it may be useful to consider today’s societal condition as a bizarre reversal of Jacques Lacan’s Mirror Stage. At about sixteen months old, toddlers begin to recognize themselves in a mirror, quite literally establishing their physical presence for the first time. Yet, when considering today and new developments in virtual presence and prescribed identities, one begins to sense a reversal of Lacan’s pivotal moment. When acknowledging embodiment, is a glowing rectangle more telling than a mirror? What does it mean that parents are making social networking profiles for their children before the young ones can actually use them? Do these get passed down to the kids?
So in the same vein as Judith Butler’s performative identity and Giles Deleuze’s n sex, this is a call and proposition for works that can actively combat the identity manipulations that are a result of the advance of late capitalism. All identities can be commodified, every fiction can turn into a product. Yet, although one’s notion of presence is currently in danger, her ability to sense this presence cannot be commodified. Essentially, it is a question of substitution and manipulation. Josh Kline’s new exhibition at MoMA PS1 confronts culture workers, bots of sorts, with a cheeky candor. In addition to his 3D prints of the hands and feet of those who create culture and digital tastes, his video, Flattery Bath 2, invites marketing directors and entrepreneurs of want to take a bath in their choice of bottled or tap water and chat. Ultimately, the discussions descend in the realm of commodification, how the art world presumably is the source of inspiration for advertising. And the entire experience, from the bright fluorescent lighting of the room to the custom Patagonia print Kline made on commission and hung on an entire wall invite one to question their position in the shopping/art viewing dynamic. However, Kline’s work also exhibits the limits of the gallery in furthering a dynamic presence in the person visiting it. On an object-based level, images will remain images. Yet in order to delve to more profound depths, we can consider the aforementioned alien observer gazing over its separated source. Giving the viewer the capacity for clarity when looking at herself is still a pretty amazing gift in the entire state of things today. Ultimately, this is a call for overcoming both Artaud and Brecht simultaneously, to overcome both the spectacular theater and the theater of cruelty. One could imagine chambers strewn across the city where residents can come visit once a week to ground themselves, to get back in touch with their physical condition. The creators of these spaces will have to become doctors and technicians, at once bent on drawing out the alien observer and highlighting the meat-body still passing through physical spaces. Theses spaces will become political by virtue of their refusal to become commodified and their insistence on re-embodying the nearly lost physical presence of each person passing through them.