Derrida thought that Antonin Artaud‘s prescriptions for a Theatre of Cruelty exceeded the limits of pure theatre. I do agree with the philosopher’s analysis, even while far less acute in my own approach to understanding Artaud’s writings, and even if far less assured of what is or is not plausible in theatrical context.
Derrida’s argument dives head-long into the relationship between repetition and literality, as it pertains to theatre, but he is not tempted into defining theatricity unto itself. Few among us, practitioners, would venture there either. Perhaps most of all because the spirited attitude infusing most performing arts processes is vested into making the too familiar remarkable and the impossible possible. The resultant outcomes are, just as often, the masks through which a performance’s theatrical identity both thrives and obscures itself.
It was long before reading Derrida’s book that I took up intrigue with testing the boundaries of theatre. Defying reputed conventions, exploring ‘impure’ approaches, and experimenting with hybrid stagings. What I learned was that, whatever the categorical genre, theatricality cannot be understood as a template or collection of components. Even if theatre houses similarly systemize in order to bind certain presentational attributes and performance characteristics; theatre is still far better understood as an umbrella term for symbiotic clusters of emblematic qualities. Therein lay our mutual ability to recognize theatrics but also, contrarily, our tendency to theorize around the more definitive structural facets.
The series of installations described below provide opportunity to discuss some of these attributes and characteristics. Meanwhile inter-relating and differentiating, by example, the presentational qualities from issues of structure and form.
Berndnaut Smilde’s photographs are not digital paintings, nor superimposed collages, but are tracings of an occasion, an incident, an environmental circumstance that took place within the same gallery spaces the photographs were exhibited in. The clouds that are captured and preserved herein were swift and transient manifestations that had dissipated not long after materialization. Some of the photographs depict this occurrence in it’s precise time and place as well as from several points of view within the room. Gallery visitors are then surrounded by, and peering into, a near-past event belonging to the very space within which they are standing.
Public fascination with these images has been evident in the frequent sharing of reviews, and links to the artist’s digital portfolio, on social networking sites. For this reason, it’s safe to say that, far fewer patrons experience the original creation of these clouds than have been exposed to the photographs. I have seen one or two of these images on Facebook, for example, and noticed that many friends were impressed by the apparent marriage of science and art or expressed an equal degree of awe while describing the clouds as magical. In any case, and as Derrida would likely have predicted, it was clear that many commentators were not aware of the temporary occasion the images historicize. The photographs preserve the fruition of each cloud’s creation and document otherwise passing instances. As precise re-presentations they are, however, significantly less dependent upon cultural time-place insights than the written word is. A cloud’s repeat appearances is at any-rate, while re-contextualized in both spatial and virtual venues, likewise met with acculturated sentiment and propensities.
The ultimate expression of life in art, it was once thought, is to imitate so expertly the natural world that it could tempt us into confusing the copy for an original. Seen through this lens, Smilde has presented in a gallery setting that which only gods, or a spirit world, could have had the power to create. And perhaps a timeless fascination with appearances, disappearances, and movements in the sky above simply infuses our land-dwelling relationship with these clouds; we can at last claim to have caught one. The comments online, and in the content of exhibit reviews, arouse these musings and are suggestive of the same.The common phrase ‘seeing is believing’ seems appropriate here whether related to the in-person – and doubly so in regard to the photographic – witnessing. These responses confirm an eagerness to register or confuse inferences and suggestions for that which we are more habitually familiar with. The prior actually stands in for the latter and, that it does, is an apparently satiating if not also an enthralling experience. These are among the hallmarks of an appreciable live performance.
As an artist it is elusively difficult, all unto itself, to accomplish more than a novel technological experiment meanwhile endeavouring the very same. Smilde’s innovation achieves precisely that and by symbiotic means. Among the outcomes is an experiential metonymy typical of our engagement with a theatrical work.
Careful sight-lines, in conjunction with the artist’s symbolic deliberations, provide for a seamless staging and strengthen the ephemeral beauty of this work. My pleasure in initial exposure to this series includes and extends, however, beyond the ingenuity of the technical simplicity. Conceptually, for myself, the work speaks to more than a supra-natural human capacity, and I do not share in the view that the arts and sciences are so contrary of bedfellows. I was most taken, instead, with imagining the original happenings that are but traced by these photographs. The installations were most certainly alchemic in character, as live experiences, meanwhile no less indicative of theatrical scenography. As a performing artist I recognize the cloud’s coming into existence, for which guests were present, as pure theatre.As if to relieve me from an otherwise challenging writing task, where my thesis paper is concerned, Smilde’s work very well exemplifies that which summary literary explanations frequently confound. The related theory is too often subjugated to genre idealizations, promoted by disciplinary categories, and over-emphasizes the presumed relevance of representational forms. Conferred also by these photographs is the potential inherent to creation of a world within our world, as but another means of merging art and life. Cultivating an occasion to divine profound meaning from the mundane, and to re-acquaint the habitual in the fantastical, all at once.
As noted, the discursive narratives surrounding Smilde’s photographic documentation were contemplative, philosophical, and spiritually inclined. These reflexive and lively responses are significant contributions to interpretations of these works. It might even be said that, in these ways, commentators participation is as performative as the cloud manifestations are theatrical. Consider, for example, that Smilde has innovated with conventional (not ‘leading edge’) technologies and that no literal storytelling is presented as part of these exhibits. The artist has nonetheless conscientiously prepared compositions which invite our meaning-making. Reciprocally, we have and are tending to that conceptual narrative space.
Nimbus or cumulus, at eye level and indoors, these illusions intrigue and are evocative but do not elicit interpretations of a gratuitous deception. The latter is sometimes suggested of theatrical works upon grounds that mimesis projects insincerity. Instead, as noted above, response to these installations clearly demonstrate a wide-spread toward-belief demeanour. This, in as much as the plotted lighting arrangements, lends to an easy and uncontroversial suspension of disbelief.Witnesses briefly note, in review and publicity articles, their visceral experience of the room while a cloud forms. The changing atmospheric conditions seem to encourage this degree of embodied self-awareness. Though free to wonder in the space and not seated (as one might in a theatre house) these witness’s affectual experiences are not contingent upon purposed involvements or agency. And while the art form revolves around the very fact of mimicry the live event cannot, in an honest way, be reduced to a representational form.
In the moment of a cloud’s creation, the imitation is both a mirroring and a concrete manifestation. It is both an illusion and real. Spectators involved in this ‘double-awareness’, are nonetheless compelled to participate in the instantiation of a meaningful event occurrence, and can then revisit both the memory and a re-contextualizing of the experience through the photography exhibit. The artwork Is Not – Is – then it Is Not again – and will be memorialized by way of media representation. Through this procedural life-cycle-like multiplicity, the returning patron would then have witnessed a becoming, a presencing, a transformation, as well as experiencing an interpret-able journeying. Though unable to participate in an inter-subjective dynamic, in so far as it generates these experiential qualities, each cloud very nearly fills the role of a theatrical performer.
I doubt it’s (currently) plausible to emulate a more naturalistic style and yet nary an actor in sight. All the same, if I had to inter-relate this work to performance history, I’d be more likely to describe an amalgamation of surrealism and situationism. Making the familiar strange, the invisible visible, and the impossible possible. The work succeeds in massaging imaginations and holding, on our behalf, a plurality of aspirations. Meanwhile mirroring back to us our own ephemeral becomings, and alienation, within the confines of our societal technics. These of the artist’s conceptual intentions are not merely unfettered, but wholly dependent upon, the in/credulousness of that initial cloud-making event.
Never say never, says I. Surely, Artaud would have found the work as interesting as I do and, likely, be as attentive to the imagined implications for an immersive theatre works. Elicit symbolism, reports of visceral sensation, and the seamless illusion would have no doubt impressed him. Even if it’s just as likely he would chastise the aesthetic amicability and reflexive receptions. Artaud was, to a very great extent, preoccupied with outwardly manifestations of the inwardly theatre of the Self. So as to release dramatic inner tensions for example, if consistent with his own explanations, Artaud might instead have called for an indoor electrical storm within which visitors would be forced to confront aversions.
A growing number of interdisciplinary artists today animate participatory spaces in place of artist-performers. Much of this is explored by way of immersive presentations and many among them are employing responsive new media technologies. Intensely overwhelming or aggravating audio/visual environments sometimes accompany the intention to sensually undermine and estrange, or at least circumvent, visitor’s social identities. While this would meet with some of Artaud’s expressed purposes for cruelty – further contextualized as an aroused state of volatile unboundedness or boundary-less-ness – I’m not convinced of it’s providence as a societal remedy.
Though fleeting, and not sustainable without recollection through the photographic exhibit, Smilde’s lake-side companions seem to me no less surprising and no less potentially affective.