Wednesday 3:30 – 6:00
Caren Rabbino, Instructor
The purpose of this paper is to provide a contextual background to the development of Avant-Garde-Ables, my thesis project for the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU. Avant-Garde-Ables (working title) are a series of wearable, performer-oriented devices for the direct real-time manipulation of live and prerecorded media in the live performance space. For the purposes of this paper I will use the term media to refer to video, audio, lighting, and mechanisms. These devices will be used to develop and refine the action of a specific performance in parallel development called PLEASURE (working title). PLEASURE is a one-man show exploring the human condition in a technologically saturated and hyper-everythinged world.
The protagonist of the story, while an individual physical being, adopts multiple personalities through the aid of media in order to explore and cope with self-identity and rejection. Television monitors are strewn about the stage – acting sometimes as a traditional chorus might, and acting other times as the antagonist of the action.
In order to understand the specifics of the literal state-of-the-art when discussing live theatre, it is necessary to understand its background, history, and most importantly, current innovation and implementation techniques. In the following pages I will briefly discuss the history of avant-garde theatre and quickly move into describing the present day practice of incorporating media and technology into live theatrical performance. I will also dedicate a large portion of the writing to the significance and implications that specific technological trends have in current performance practices. Lastly, I will discuss the specific technology I will be using in the development of this project.
Avant-garde is an often-misunderstood term. Literally meaning the “front guard” in French, the term was pulled from military-speak of the 1800’s and refers to the “advanced guard” of the French military who were sent ahead of other troops to scout terrain. The term is often used in an artistic mode to describe works of art that are experimental and innovative, often with a focus on culture, politics, even art itself. Avant-garde is often misappropriated, however, to mean anything that is outside of the mainstream artistic trend. In this way we can see why avant-garde is sometimes referred to as “art for art’s sake.” Bert Cardullo, in his book Theater of the Avant-Garde 1890 – 1950, takes the meaning of avant-garde as a “leading edge” one step further when he states, “the avant-garde…becomes that element in the exercise of the imagination that we call art which finds itself unwilling (unable really) to reiterate or refine what has already been created.” In effect, we need to do something new. Cardullo further states, “Many would identify in the avant-garde not merely a tendency to retreat from the maddening disorder of the world for the purpose of creating, through art, an alternative, visionary, eternal order but also a tendency to absorb the world’s chaos into the work of art itself.” This is especially important and relevant to the theatre, where form, for the most part has stayed relatively static for millennia with small variations here and there. The problem was that the way theatre traditionally worked was through the strict confines of linear narrative. Again, Cardullo points out that “theater artists became aware of the illogicality of too much literalism in the procedure of a medium that is essentially make-believe.” With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, comes an artistic revolution. Within the avant-garde, the traditional narrative form, and subsequent sub-forms of theatrical technique can be exploded. Cardullo goes on to claim that “…avant-garde drama was directly affected by the new god of science – by new scientific discoveries and the advanced technologies of the machine age, in their constructive as well as destructive capacities” which is why we see avant-garde’s early association with the likes of Futurism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism, and Absurdism, by the more specific early adopters such as Alfred Jarry, Maurice Maeterlinck, Kandinsky, Marinetti, Tzara, Artaud, and Gertrude Stein.
From this intersection of art and the machine age, it is very easy to fully incorporate new forms of technology and media into a theatrical setting in fascinating and innovative new ways. One pioneer in the effective use of modern technology in live stage performance is the New York based performance ensemble, The Wooster Group.
During a talkback at a recent remount of “House/Lights” at Saint Ann’s Warehouse, artistic director of the company, Elizabeth LeCompte, remarked of the company’s use of television monitors instead of flat-screen displays, “It’s a period piece.” However odd this may sound, it reifies the notion of the exponential growth of technology in the past 100 years. Wooster has incorporated technology into their pieces from a very early stage. “House/Lights” had its debut at the Performing Garage on Wooster Street in 1999. By the time it was remounted in 2004, it had already become antique in a way. This is a fascinating demonstration of the need of technology-incorporating theatre practitioners to live on the cusp of the current media environment, to ensure that their work has the most impact and relevance. This is not to say that the most current technology needs to be incorporated into a piece, however it may behoove a company such as The Wooster Group to know the current media trends. How else could LeCompte know that the media from a show originally produced five years prior already felt dated – and thus make the appropriate decisions based on that knowledge?
During my time working on the remount of “House/Lights” I was able to gain a good working knowledge of the creation process of the company. LeCompte, who was trained as a painter, chooses specific “constants” that are then compared, contrasted, and which eventually inform each other. These constants can be text, activities, set construction, found media, sound, etc. “House/Lights” specifically uses the constants of the text from Gertrude Stein’s “Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights,” a reconfigured set from a previous production of “The Hairy Ape,” and a “B” soft-core porn movie called “Olga’s House of Shame” from the 1960’s. During the rehearsal process, LeCompte actively runs these three constants against each other and pulls out the good bits. The layering begins. What is fascinating about “House/Lights” specifically is the success of the telling of Stein’s Faustus tale through the use of found pornography, and the ultimate transcendence of any of the individual media, becoming a tale not of the struggle between Mephisto and Faust, but of the struggle between LeCompte and one of the group’s core actors, and a leading presence in the group, Kate Valk. This is an ultimately successful use and incorporation of media in the context of live performance. Not only do the actors on stage mimic the actors on screen, but they also mimic the very language and carrier of the media itself, the television. The staging mimics television’s vernacular. “Jump cuts” are successfully executed on stage. The canned soundtrack from television media is incorporated live. The Wooster Group is talking the media’s language. In this way the group is able to do a show both using the media, commenting on the media, and being the media. What comes across is a dense and rich story. That is what ends up at the center; the story.
Other theatre practitioners whom I’ve come across in my research make technology, rather than the story, the main focus of their performance – or at least focus the majority of their energies there. The Blue Man Group, for example, focus the majority of their energy on gimmicky, albeit highly entertaining, interaction between themselves and technologically clever stage gags, and more often, between themselves and themselves. They are leaders in bringing technological and expressionistic performance into the mainstream, as well as in the use of developing customized performance devices. While many of their onstage devices tend toward musical instrument, their incorporation of the body into those instruments is valuable to observe. Venturing even further into the realm of technological performance to a place that can still be considered theatre on some level, is a man who goes by the moniker, My Robot Friend. More robotic in appearance than human, My Robot Friend’s identity approaches cyborg. Almost all attention is focused on the wearable devices the performer dons. In fact, the devices arguably become the performance. MRF’s performance suit includes a helmet of LED’s, lengthening and retractable fingertips, and a crotch covered in what is too reminiscent of a fire extinguisher for comfort. In this way, the performance becomes only about the technology. While the wearer is himself a self-contained vehicle of performance and all control comes from inside the suit, the story fades away while gadgetry is presented as grand spectacle. Although my use of technology aims to bridge the disconnect between performer and onstage media in a way that My Robot Friend and Blue Man arguably do not, I do value the importance of spectacle as an engaging storytelling tool.
Take the work of Chicago’s Plasticene Theatre Company for example, and their use of what is called a “resource.” A resource can be anything. It can be a piece of technology, or a piece of furniture. A recent choice was a series of large metal tables. Plasticene chooses a resource and works with that resource as a creative tool for inspiration and as a concept around which to develop a language and material. The result is spectacle, but with a richness which the others do not attain. Many others can be looked at to see their own uses of technology for augmenting performance, such as the content-free work of Caden Manson’s Big Art Group and their 2004 production of “House of No More,” who create a soap opera in front of the audience’s eyes by use of a specially build green-screen stage and a dozen or so live video cameras, or the absurdist work of Brooklyn-based Radiohole complete with devices to shake the limbs of the body for no discernable reason.
The work of filmmaker Roy Andersson in particular resonates with the notion of a balance between spectacle and storytelling. In interviews, Andersson talks of finding a “pictoral solution” to the visual representation and the framing of scenes. Each shot is meticulously planned out and staged. Although Andersson’s work is in a different medium, it becomes more theatrical due to the deliberate lack of quick camera work, no intra-scene jump cuts, and a slow, contemplative pacing. Everything in Andersson’s film is given its proper playable moment.
Many more artists, musicians, and performers have an influence on the current state-of-the-art ranging from Laurie Anderson, Mike Albo, Taylor Mac, to M.C. This, The Builders Association, and the SITI Company. Companies like Elevator Repair Service continue to push the state-of-the art without the use overt technology, but rather a signature prop and movement style. In this way the state-of-the art is necessarily innovative, not necessarily technological.
When working with sensor embedded performance, movement takes the forefront – how will the movement be detected. The first solution is a “smart” sensor accelerometer. Doing some tests with the 3 axis LIS3LV02DQ accelerometer from ST Micro as well as weighted and non-weighted piezoelectric film sensors, I have realized that simple circuits and “dumbly” detecting movement gives more low level control than an IC does. Rather than use one Accelerometer, which requires the interpolation of data if not kept on a flat surface, I plan to use an array of low-level sensors deployed throughout the devices.
To conclude, I find it necessary to state that it is not my intention to create a work that is “avant-garde.” Nor is it my intent to create a “post-modern” or “performance art” piece. I will use qualities from each as they and other things have greatly influenced my work, however, I see them more as houses to burglarize rather than houses to live in. To this end, I will be working with a structure defined by the objects and the making of the objects themselves. As Cardullo points out:
In this kind of theater, among other things, all production elements speak their own language rather than being mere supports for words, and a text need be neither the starting point nor the goal of a production – indeed, a text is not even necessary, and therefore there may be none. In other words, fidelity to the text, that sacred tenet which had so long governed performance, has become irrelevant: postmodernism, both as critical inquiry and as theater, continues to challenge whether any text is authoritative, whether a dramatic text can be anything more that a performance script – whether, in fact, the play exists at all before it is staged.