ONCE UPON A TIME
At base, my thesis interests continue to address disjunctions between performance theory and practice from within the plastic arts domain. Though not the explicit target of my research, my concerns generally relate to the bio-ethical implications of (what I view as) a cherry-picking of theory from both performative and theatre history that serves to re-affirm predominate cultural values and attitudes. It is with prudent interest in intermedia, interactive arts, and employment of responsive technologies that I choose to address issues that are pertinent to performance practitioners across disciplines.
Originally, I had intended to address assumptions inherit to current trends in vocabulary, as this is the very first and lasting barrier encountered in discussions surrounding cross-disciplinary approaches to collaborative creation. I suggested there was a need for alternatives to the mechanical-name framing of new presentation compositions, that arbitrarily categorize otherwise homologous genres, and had intended to challenge accepted ontological allocations attributed to performativity and theatricity.
This line of inquiry necessarily shifted emphasis to the participatory role of theatre audiences, as contributors to a relational and inter-subjective dynamic, that takes place both within and outside of theatre houses. Taking up a phenemonological viewpoint in contrast with, for example, communication’s reception theories. Essentially this proposal-outline sought to redress conceptions of The Fourth Wall, from that of a practitioner-situated metaphor, to a potentially fuller understanding of the engagements that take place between performers and audiences.
In an effort to narrow this transdisciplinary (a.k.a. academically broad-swathed) research project into one that is more in-keeping with master’s level expectations, I tuned-in to on-campus conversations surrounding ‘participatory performance artworks’, instead. The latter is frequently conceptualized as the performative opposite to that of ‘representational’ theatre. These conversations typically equate living actors with that of inanimate objects, ignore the occurrence and affects of metonymy, and subjugate the conditions of engagement to the issue of physical agency. In short, these theoretical approaches emphasize in/divisions of archetectural space, and forego addressing issues of participant invitation, meanwhile laying claim to a democratization of art.
Overall these kinds of omissions, and the perspectival (dualistic) aesthetic ideals employed to classify participant experiences, are what is intended to discern between that which is considered performative and that which is classified as theatrical. The experiential implications of application in practice, however, are not intentional. In many cases, these are not substantiated allocations, so much as trends in labelling departures from conventional (structural) forms. This represents and perpetuates a non-transferability of theory to practice, and vice versa, that maintains disciplinary departmentalization for the very artists whom otherwise aim to defy or traverse them.
LENDING TO THE NEW TOPIC
In noting that the above ontological allocations are taken for granted, all the while post-modernist theory has developed around overtures toward revolutionary change, my prior outlines called for an unpacking and revising of aesthetic theory. To work toward understandings that, for example, take into account the embodied multiple-persons circumstance of performance events.
In the revised outline I pointed to pivotal markers in our cultural trajectory such as calls for fresh innovation within the visual arts, during the Cold War in North America, and the performing arts movements of Europe during and following the great wars. More specifically I spoke to the convolution of abstract expressionist critiques of the Modernist visual arts academies, and rebellions against the commercial Art Market, with the prescriptions of practitioners like Antonin Artaud and Bertold Brecht. Continued reference to both the propaganda and the creative rebellions from this era ever-strengthens an anti-theatricality sentiment among contemporary practitioners. Again, most noteably among student artists in the studio arts departments. The bias promotes proliferation of theory (and countless artist statements) that deflect, if not merely distract, from important considerations for practitioners whose interests are indeed centred around visitor’s experiences.
Whether for better or worse the entire written history of theatrical creation has been shaped explicitly by concern for audience experiences. What’s more, and not coincidentally, the extremely scarce references to this history resonates with the conditions of the society we live in. Instead of providing time-place contextualization, and informing new explorations in the live arts, in this case performing arts theory is ported in fragments and transposed upon the non-collaborative, object-orientated, representational models of creation inherent to a plastic arts history.
This second outline also suggested that the collaborative creation models promoted within the performing arts, unto itself, offer several constructive solutions that meet the challenges of cross / multi / interdisciplinary creation processes. In this realm there are non-dychotomous concepts of alterity, other-worldliness, and transformational becomings that have only recently been mined for performance study purposes. The ethos practiced in tandem with these varying theatrical models might also serve to shape radical approaches to art-making and presenting, undermining traditional ‘creative genius’ hierarchies, and exploring otherwise novel social engagements. Whereas the popular emphasis is upon a singular individual’s subjective experiences. In context with art-making processes and theory, this more frequently risks subscription to, as opposed to challenging, the increasingly anti-social values familiar to the North American continent.
In order to (yet again) narrow this topical field, for research purposes, I am now focusing upon the oft-cited writings of Artaud and his call for a Theatre of Cruelty. The practitioner’s life / works / manifesto is frequently revisited in trans-disciplinary context, as if to have foreshadowed the Performative Turn clear across the humanities, and represents an emblematic reference among emerging artists.
WHY ARTAUD STILL AND YET
As a young performing artist experimenting with new technologies, and a variety of presentational formats, I too was drawn to Artaud’s call for psycho-sensual evocation and spectacle immersion. Still today, his descriptions of The Theatre of Cruelty generates poignant envisionings, and begs for reconsideration among experimental artists hoping to elicit meaningful subjective experiences. It could even be said, parochially for example, that we are now all living within a theatre of cruelty as a cultural circumstance. The new outline, and resultant paper, will summarize both historical and contemporary interpretations of what Artaud intended through use of the word “cruelty”.
While I will not be formally analyzing Artaud’s psychological condition, I will be referencing the generally accepted diagnosis of schizophrenia, and other schizoidal spectrum disorders. I believe this should lend to interpretation considerations when attempting to implement Artaud’s prescriptions. High-functioning narcissism, a fundamental distortion of bodily perception, an unstable and un-unified sense of self, and the memory traces of hallucinations are the likely challenges this practitioner faced at the time of writing his manifesto. These attributes are recognized in association with a reduced, sometimes non-existent, capacity to distinguish between one’s own experiences and that of another’s. The latter, of course, recalls my interest in boundaries (the first outline) as apriori conditions for inter-subjective engagement.
There is a plethora of scholarly work analyzing the highly narcissistic traits promoted by Western societal norms. Key features of this personality disorder are, for example, a reactive pre-occupation with one’s self-image and a relative absence of affective empathy. I will be quoting Peter Brook’s warning (whom himself manifested a theatre of cruelty) upon the significance of empathy, to the devising process itself, and in regard to the dynamic between performers and audiences. I view this to be of relevance, even while omitting or redefining the role of professional performers, and especially if designing systemically enhanced environments within which visitors will be immersed.
The above inter-relates to theory surrounding social constructions of individual identity, as a topic of research, and as a Western cultural phenomena. The difference between social roles and ties premised upon self-image (or a societally construed self-object), and those premised upon a flesh-and-blood feeling-sensing memory-referencing organism, is specifically important in bio-ethical context. This issue recalls aesthetic theory surrounding the subject and object, and lends to further understanding of the performance of character and persona (a performed identity), shaped by either intent.
While nationalistic and familial identities were of more paramount relevance in his own time, and calls for creative radicalism or reform were roundly fueled by hopes of healing the wounds of a traumatized population, Artaud’s call for immersion does not account for a plurality of spectators nor does he propose closure after ‘ruptures’. The practitioner’s own performances, at this stage in his life, suggest an inability to empathetically anticipate the reactions and participatory contributions of his audiences. These kinds of considerations might be seen as indices of Artaud’s ‘tough love’.
In these ways Artaud’s cruelty provides opportunity to re-examine the sensual, affectual, and sociopolitical dimensions of contemporary performance artworks. If building upon Artaud’s conceptual legacy it is necessary that we too connect-the-dots between performance theory, the experiencing of performance events in practice, and our critiques of the cultural epoch within which we are situated.
HABIT DISRUPTION & UPCOMING TESTS
I expect the new proposal to posit that the principal successes of Artaud’s prescriptions (in practice) pertain to the de-previledging of literary scripts and an elevation of ‘irrational’ communicative methods. Experimentation of this kind has represented disruptions in audience’s familiarity with performance conventions. An experience of disruption is not so much contingent upon order-versus-chaos as it is upon recognition of habit, place-centric normative ritual, and cultural expectations in general. Is it not, afterall, Artaud’s poetic and passionately insightful attack upon the cultural conventions of his day that has so inspired generations of practitioners and theorists alike?
The premise of my current investigation therefore surrounds the issue of ‘habit disruption’ with an eye to the already-habitual Artaudian world of fragmented, disembodied, psycho-sensual spectacle within which we are all immersed. In brief, the question I expect to arrive at is how we might generate opportunities for alternate, potentially evocative and interpersonally mending, participant experiences. The topic will draw on parallels to Brecht’s Alienation Technique and refer to Bataille’s abject transgressions. The latter is moreso relevant to Artaud’s own ‘body without organs’, Nietzsche’s nihilism, and these theorists’ desire to likewise heal the self and other. Some of my prior, phenomenology, readings are sure to be cited as well.
In keeping with all of the above, the project experiments I am currently organizing will exemplify an intentionally non-novel approach to habit disruption in a technologically interactive, potentially immersive, installation space. This will be achieved with employment of max/jitter software, concealed video cameras, and a low-tech theatrical sceneographic set-up. Combined, these will allow for mirror-images to manipulated. The tests are intended to provide for pedestrian participation and present fleeting opportunities for experiences of alterity in direct relation to issues of personal identity (as self-image). The potential for the development of an artwork, and adequacy in addressing some of the social issues noted above, will be discussed in an addendum after the trials have been completed.
A new outline and timeline is to follow.