Space Rules: Techno-Nomad Theatre
Moving metal holds a fascination for contemporary performance art (i) . In the traditional theatre, moving metal appears as gears and levers, sustaining a machinery of make-believe, shifting props around, opening trap doors, holding lights to illuminate. In today's large West End or Broadway spectacles, we find this mechanical, connecting, sustaining metal in a machinery of technological excess close to the rollercoaster ride (ii), thrilling spectators' senses. In this essay, I will investigate what can happen when theatre technologies themselves heave into view.
The theatre machinery of diverse human and non-human agents and materials can lay open its functions. It can deterritorialise itself, building upon performance art's deconstructive methodology. In this deconstruction, a new machine emerges. The machine I am talking about here is Deleuze's conception of the machine - a coming together and becoming of divergent elements, a productive conjunction, an assemblage. In this essay, I do not intend to apply a reading of a Deleuzian machine to a theatre production. Instead, I intend to engage in a Deleuzian becoming-machine: I wish to see what happens when I try to take seriously the flows of disconnected elements, moments, and happenings set into touching and aligning action by, and perceived by, my visceral being at the site of theatre. In this way, I look for a phenomenology of being-in-theatre-space.
In this conception of a theatre exploring itself as a field of relations, the affective register doesn't need to be structured by the play of absence and presence. Instead, I will focus on the affects of fullness, co-extensiveness, location, vibration, energy flows, and non-divisionary relations between human, metal and space, human and machine, human/machine.
With this, the focus on the body entering the theatre is not on the question of what is or isn't the body, how and why is it repeated, doubled or haunted, but it is:
'What can a body do?', of what affects is it capable? [...] Spinoza never ceases to be amazed by the body. He is not amazed at having a body, but by what the body can do. Bodies are not defined by their genus or species, by their organs and functions, but by what they can do, by the affects of which they are capable (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: 60).
Affects become the location of embodiment and subjectivity effects. Within the paradigm of affect, concepts such as energy, mass, dispersal and rhythm supplant concepts such as differentiation and alienation. Moira Gatens sees the potential of these affectual states shortcircuiting definitions of the body:
The collapse of [the] distinctions [between artifice and nature, human and non-human] raises interesting questions concerning contemporary and future possibilities of hybrid life forms and body prosthesis presented by technology. These new technologies present possibilities for making novel connections by producing assemblages capable of forging different extensive relations and new intensive capacities (Gatens, 1996: 167).
How, then, can these extensive relations and intensive capacities become visible and tactile in the theatre?
Within the realm of nomadism, everything can provisionally be functioned into material towards a future whose shape and location isn't fixed yet - material towards something new. When Deleuze calls Nietzsche's aphorism nomad thoughts, he characterizes them as being 'in immediate relation with the outside, the exterior' (Deleuze, 1977: 144).
One of the problems of thinking nomadic thoughts in the theatre is the very bounded, boxed nature of conventional theatre. Nomadism is a playful mode of being in thought, and it is this quality that precludes a minimalist, formalist conception of an original theatre - the nomadic lies in extension rather than boundary. At the same time, the connection to the exterior, the embeddedness of nomad thought invites a re-visit of the theatre. In this re-visit, the theatre emerges as a space in which different times, conceptions of reality, and of the public and its spaces, of the human and the becoming-other meet and touch. Nomadic theatre: theatre in process, lacking direction (iii) . Nomadic theatre: a theatre of chance, of material, of wandering without aim (iv) .
As a laboratory of the nomadic, then, my reading here shall erect the theatre as a hall of mirrors. It becomes a ruin of technologised half-forgotten relations. It emerges as a curiosity cabinet, curiously inhabited, as fingers trail over dusty exhibits. Thus, instead of consigning theatre and its modes of address to the teleology of the history museum, I want to let a theatre of nomadism emerge as a wunderkammer, a curiosity cabinet, a form preceding the order of the museum and the archive. In this wunderkammer, theatre lives as an extended field of collection and of unknown assemblages.
A HOUSE OF THOUGHT
The performance Untitled by Catarina Campino and Ricardo Jacinto performs theatre space as plans, rhythms and rule givers. It presents a site for bounded wanderings in the no-man's land of spatialised theatre history. The performance took place in July 2003 as part of CAPITALS in the Sala Polivalente, a theatre deep within Gulbenkian's Centro de Arte Moderna in Lisbon (v). This location already marks a history, a split scene: gallery, museum and theatre are spaces with divergent histories. They are interestingly marked at a time when performance art as a meta-genre of art behaviour becomes history. Performance art eschewed the theatre and positioned itself in the gallery - only to become part of the museum. As I hope to show, Untitled's strange theme park theatre can function as a layering of historic moments made tangible, made into skin-sense. Untitled traverses and rehearses the museal in the form of a dis/ordered Kammer. It opens up theatre as a curiosity cabinet, un-making the connections the museum forged, forgetting the order of the archive.
In Untitled, different moments of theatre's history come into presence, present themselves, not along a teleological line, but in a mélange of positions, allusions, openings and images. In navigating the space of Untitled, walking along the changing stage/auditorium landscape, I am forced to make connections. I have to jump from a seating area onto a level floor, to get up onto the stage, and to connect up the metaphors, images, and fragments of intellectual history the event assembles for me.
In Untitled, audience members inhabit an empty theatre, full of the machinery enabling Western stage productions. At the opening of the house, spectators enter an auditorium fronting onto a stage. This stage is empty apart from a black curtain draped over its length, and a low-hanging lighting rig. The auditorium, in turn, is unusual, since a significant section of its tiers have been cut out, leaving a scar of open space surrounded by seats on the side and behind. The audience members entering soon find themselves out of space, and, after a brave decision by one, enter and laughingly colonize the gaping hole to sit on its floor, expectedly oriented towards the empty stage.
Following this initial game with the rules of theatrical space, and with group dynamics, the lights go down. An assaultive metallic sound booms, not from the stage, but from behind and above, from the technician's box. Decisions have to be made by audience members: where shall I orient myself towards, where is the scene/skene of this theatre? Is this location of the sound's origin a «technical» issue, should I suspend my attention to it in a theatrical make-believe, reading the noise as a naturalized part of whatever fantastic scene will open up before me?
The location of the action in the technician's box makes complex the origins of voice and authorship, and their relative positions. One of the conventional rules of the theatre space is that the place of action is the stage, even if other cues and impulses emerge from elsewhere.
Immediately, the lights flicker on again. This constellation of booming space, sharp noise and visual revelation of space continues, changing rhythm and playing with expectation and reaction. At times, the expected sound doesn't come, or comes late, the intervals of light changing duration and disallowing a discovery of transparent rules. At last, the curtain that had lain tame and deflated on the stage floor comes to life as it is slowly, mechanically, pulled upwards. The bar the curtain is attached to rises, dividing the visual field of the stage anew. Simultaneously, two other curtains drift in from the sides, closing the stage, ending the act, creating a desire in the moment that vision becomes obscured. The curtains frame the wave of material rearing up on the stage floor.
At the end of the first act, our senses exercised, the audience face the mystery of the closed curtain that has re-established its magical spatial division - it has recreated the space of mystery on its other side.
At this moment of reestablishment of historical theatre in a disembodied, mechanical world of industrial sound and action, the authorial point of origin fractures and shrouds itself, but is not erased. Jon McKenzie writes about «minor performances»:
It's not that minor performances are totally out of control; rather, they are guided in another way: they're remote-controlled by patterns of recursive mutation. In a minor performance, seemingly unrelated components and widely dispersed processes are expropriated and become caught up in a machine of becoming (McKenzie, 2001: 225).
Between the metal, the sounds, the kinaesthesia of moving bodies and moving curtains, a minor performance, a becoming might be taking place. As the place is established, the becoming solidifies, shapes a border with which I can translate the event.
The collage of elements bodies forth histories of constellations that reflect on the theatre and the public, the mirror, the body and the mind. The citational and the referential are running amok and mutate into a series that spells out a new image.
In order to write, and to create a field of tension surrounding agency and space, let me call from becoming into being a historical performance space. The material conditions of the suspenseful tension gripping us in Untitled's theatre evoke it metonymically. I feel it in the presence of the obscure, dark curtain. Around the theatre machine of Untitled, hidden spaces and blanks multiply, as different parts of the black drapings proceed to move away from walls, create new exteriors and interiors. This shifting house, devoid (at first) of the presence of the human body, with magical materials dancing as metal moves, plants a different spatial image in my mind: Deleuze's rendition of the baroque house. Witnessing Untitled, I receive a visual echo of Leibnitz's theatre house of the soul. The curtain of division and connection, of presence and disavowal, echoes Leibnitz's spatial image for the veiled relationship between senses and consciousness. Leibnitz conceives of the «monad», the soul, in the allegory of a double-storied house. This house, he writes, has a lower portion full of windows and an upper story that is dark and only receives reverberations, waves or impressions, transmitted through curtains (vi).
Leibnitz's upper and lower story are linked by material, making the relationship between the different parts of the body/soul one of touch and extension that matter:
To increase the resemblance we should have to postulate that there is a screen/canvas/curtain/membrane [toile] in the darkened room [la chambre obscure] to receive the species [les espèces, or beings, sensible species] and that it is not uniform but is diversified by folds [diversifiée par des plis] representing items of innate knowledge; and what is more, that this screen/canvas/curtain/membrane, being under tension, has a kind of elasticity or active force, and indeed that it acts (or reacts) in ways that are adapted both to past folds and to new ones coming from impressions of the species. This action would consist in certain vibrations and oscillations, like those we see when a cord under tension is plucked and gives off something of a musical sound. For not only do we receive images and traces in the brain, but also we form new ones from them when we bring 'complex ideas' to mind; and so the screen which represents our brain must be active and elastic. This analogy would explain reasonably well what goes on in the brain (Leibnitz, 1981: 144/5).
The membrane tensed between the upper and lower story is not raw matter, passive receptacle, but dynamic, shifting, lived consciousness. It responds with the (un)clarity of 'something of a musical sound' - not an answer that stands in clear, unambiguous relation to a question, but an approach of matter, a vibrational excitement.
The brain here becomes a memorizing action, a muscle, a flux. Representation isn't disembodied, leaving no traces of the materiality of its action, but instead the translatory, substituting, passing and exchanging energies of an economy enacted in time and space become tangible. History emerges in the material tensing, touching, in a writing that isn't sign but act. 'Reasonably well' does reason pass from a disembodied image to a scene, a stage of partial presences (species). The point of emergence is a field, not a text.
A sense of the theatrical scene of knowledge as a three-dimensional field of extension and touchings, rather than a two-dimensional screen, becomes alive for me in the Untitled theatre space. The act itself and the identity of the spectators as spectators is emerging - our attentions and orientations react to the intermix of cues and our shared presences. The 'musical sounds' of Untitled vibrate in space, at the beginning, just at the point in time when theatre audiences attempt to orientate themselves toward the stage spectacle. The theatre space becomes elastic. To extend my analogy, within this house, the spectators take the position of the changing curtain. This theatre's rules are playfully engraved in this theatre's house in a complex interplay between historical knowledges and the sensory input of the current/extended scene. Deleuze asks about the different, multiple orientations towards travelling in the smooth and the striated: 'Tree travel of rhizome travel?' (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 482). Is this theatre a space of a tree's hierarchical, grounded, historical presence, connecting in fine-grained wood the earth and the sky, moving us upwards towards a new clarity? Or is this a rhizomatic history, with intensities encountering intensities, extensions covering dialectics, a dispersed multiplicity of sensation? Minor and major performance mutate into one another, as citational practice and playful assemblage interact. Together, they create a continuity of field-relations between my thinking mind, body, shifting metal, audience body.
Leibnitz's text historically emerged out of a public dialogue, it was written in response to Locke's «tabula rasa», to a conception of a mind as a camera taking in images from the outside. Particularly interesting for a performance perspective is the membrane curtain at the heart of this public act of feuding theorists. The curtain is a resonant image and, in its absence or presence, a defining feature of the historical Western theatre space.
In Untitled, the curtain articulates the dramatic scene, marked by the gazes, bodies and desires of the audience. The always already material history of theatre is played out in the instinctual knowledges of appropriate behaviour patterns. The expectant audience's desires work with the materiality of the theatre apparatus - the folds of the curtain, the self-effacing blackness of the scaffold, the theatre lights screening their beams into tightly focused sites of visibility. Vibrated into reaction and patterns, the material nature of spectator consciousness responds, sets up counter-vibratory rhythms that run along the taunt fabric. Out of these oscillatory, chaotic, reactive and transformational waves, the material touching of theatre space and body/mind space transforms this theatre spectacle into an exhibit in the curiosity cabinet of historical conceptions of the mind. In this material displacement of the I in the theatre, the boundaries of self playfully flicked, a form of perfumance might emerge. McKenzie uses Derrida's term to approximate performance functions, and he writes:
In a perfumance, one does not simply perform as an actor, engineer, manager, etc. One perfumes, disintegrates, becomes other via a machinic process of invention, intervention, in(ter)vention (McKenzie, 2001: 228).
In the theatre of perfumance, different constellations of knowledge, machines, flesh and metal emerge in an intimate and playful arena. Nonsense, non-sensical mappings, can intimate themselves onto fields of thought.
For the theatre to emerge, the space barred by the curtain is the only necessity, not the presence of the actor, whose position as desiring screen is already successfully and conventionally pre-empted by the spectator's orientation towards the spectacle. And indeed, the spectacle engenders the history of theatre: after the curtain locked into place in Untitled, taking up its position and setting the scene, the barely touching lips of its gap emitted their inaudible sound of seduction, and eagerly, we entered its dark tent of promise. As one audience member gets up, explores, and vanishes in the gap, others follow or find other positions a-propos the invitation of the opening of the curtain. Ritually, some of us pass through the curtain onto the other side. But who are we as we take up or reject the curtain's invitation? Are we participants in a ritual, engaged in a sacer ludus, a holy game, are we tourists, or are we nomads?
The space some audience members enter between the curtain veils holds two objects. In a first room, an antechamber, a mirror is laid on the floor. Suspended above the mirror, a spotlight lets its beam fall on the reflective surface, illuminating nothing in the chamber itself. The mirror is fixed at an angle so that its reflected light shines upward. It lights up the ceiling of an audience gallery next to the stage. The light of the stage illuminating the audience: a familiar metaphor out of theatre history's canons. A humanist theatre of education emerges in this interplay of space and light. We, the audience, are the object of the shadow-play played out on the stage, our own actions, magnified, held up to our social education and moral betterment.
Audience members soon begin to intervene in the light's path, holding their limbs up to a shadow-play, fragmenting the theatre-as-mirror into a theatre-as-sideshow. Spectator bodies, magnified, transformed, arrive in this sideshow of the auditorium. They don't promise the obscured site/sight of reason's light, of the ideal forms throwing shadows in Plato's cave. The origin of these shadows is all too clearly visible: theatre mechanics, lights, electrics, techne, naturalized and yet painfully present, disallowing a full identification with the theatrical scene.
Instead (or in another comment on a theatrical heritage), this theatrical play with bodies, densities and light evokes a childhood scene, a child's display of body parts not (directly) in the mirror, but in the light emanating from it. Uncontrolled play disturbs reason's purview of the world in the theatrical panorama. The mirror does not offer a confusing simulacrum, no double haunts this economy of the stage and the auditorium. Instead, production is banal, excessive, performed in the registers of the giggling transgressor who has moved behind the curtain. But Untitled's spatial scene does not only posit play behind the curtain. The antechamber of the sideshow opens into a different sanctum.
Beyond the space of the mirror is another curtain, which, once transgressed, allows the spectator to stand in the presence of her fellow audience members and of a large, black, rectangular slab. It stands, mute, like a sarcophagus, like a remnant left behind after the dead king's body has transmutated (to cite yet another moment of theatre's official history). Slowly, action manifests itself: dried ice begins to flow over the slab, covering the painted wood with a white cloud, flowing down, flowing over the edge, dissolving into swirls on the stage's floor. There is a delight in the beautiful chemistry of this display. The desire to see becomes the desire to touch - and soon the audience is carefully dabbing at the flowing ice curtain. Someone puts his mouth to the slab - feeling the ice on his face, but also kissing the strange box. Standing high above the spectacle on the audience walkway, I see pilgrims, ritualists, engaged in a strange, meaningless act. A different slice of theatre's history is opening up in this theme park of stage memories. Pre-enlightenment, pre-moral institution, the intermeshing of stage machinery and audience bodies creates a scene of both reverence and playfulness. The diverse affective mechanisms of vision and touch, of exploration and surveillance, together create a new theatricality: a diorama of ritual theatre.
Nomadically, we are taking up discarded remnants hidden in the sand of history: we try out the pose of supplication in front of an altar unknown to us, feel the gold of ice with our lips, or stand to watch the strange spectacle unfold. In all of these poses, the outside is carried within: there is no full immersion, just a touching of ancient strings that sound old notes of behaviour, activated in moments, discarded into the flow of audience desire. The theatre of mechanics has emptied out the stories, narratives, the shaman has sketched into the sand. It leaves us with a new machine: bending our bodies, activating momentary nomad impressions, as it pulls us into its whirls (...patchwork, differentials of speed, delays and accelerations, changes in direction, continuous variations... (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 482). As a traveller of the smooth, the striations of history become momentary affects on the body's surface. In this theatre as rollercoaster, amnesiac surfings crest on the waves of barely glimpsed possibilities of past engagements.
Within these waves of historical spectatorial possibilities, estrangement, performance and alienation become complex terms. We are forced to wander - not only in the mindscape of theatre history's roles, but also physically, moved out by movement.
Later on in the show of Untitled, the seating area itself moves. Stagehands enter the stage area, and manipulate buttons which in turn make the seats move in and out. Opposing this mechanical ballet of horizontal lines is a video-screen.
The screen answers back by mirroring the view of the geometrical gliding of seats, and by allowing glimpses of the hidden mechanics, magnified into magnificence. The seat rows can see themselves. The stagehands wander amongst these mechanical giants. The audience stands perched above the roving seats, in the gallery, outside the action. Where is the fullness of presence, where the melancholy pleasure of not-quite-self-recognition? We hover over a theatre clearly not in need of us. The robots (and their human master/slaves, whether present as stage-hands or invisibilised as inhabitants of the technicians' box) work without the audience, and our bodies are pressed, secreted out of the theatrical space, and into the sidelines.
But something binds us, doesn't allow the contract of the audience and the theatre to fall apart. Like Leibnitz's brain home, our attentive veils are trailed out in the pit of the theatre. Pleated, moulded and tensed, an affect binds me to the rhythmically modulated seats on their slow path into a vertical line, cutting me off from any place I could rest and sit. I can see robots immolate each other on TV, their human creators laughing and crying about their extensions, and be bored. But the hour spent in the presence of the theatre machinery moving itself has set up another appreciation, a shared field.
In a discussion of aesthetics, Deleuze and Guattari point towards nomadic art. They investigate the abstract line - the non-dividing line, the in-between line:
Whereas the rectilinear (or 'regularly' rounded) Egyptian line is negatively motivated by anxiety in the face of all that passes, flows, or varies, and erects the constancy and eternity of an In-Itself, the nomad line is abstract in an entirely different sense, precisely because it has a multiple orientation and passes between points, figures, and contours: it is positively motivated by the smooth space it draws, not by any striation it might perform to ward off anxiety and subordinate the smooth. The abstract line is the affect of smooth spaces, not a feeling of anxiety that calls forth striation (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 496-7).
What is this affectual relation between moving seat-rows, activated by hidden gears, and an audience member? My co-presence in this field of movement makes me think a fold extending itself, think a transference in style, in the abstraction of movement itself, a pulsatory smooth field of extension rather than demarcation.
The curtain is playing with the segregational history of its historical antecedent - dividing the educators from the to-be-educated, the adored from the to-be-adored. Here, the curtain emerges as a different theatrical symbol. It becomes a field of tension, a shared extensiveness, a drum cover transmitting in a field of becoming (vii) , where the divisions between machine, wood, steel, buttons and flesh are less important than the affect of movement, there, for a short time, in the excessive excitement of the rollercoaster.
This nomadicism of the journey within the field of the curtain aims neither at an exoticising of the non-Western, nor at a sense of the nomadic as a non-location, a globalised, dispersed, non-participatory spatiality. Instead, in my phenomenological witnessing, the nomadic theatre emerges as a nonsense space of traversed images and stories. It makes strange landfalls, and connects different points in different archives of knowledge. Within the amalgamation of histories, gears, levers, curtains and flesh, the body does feel - does engage in affective connections, creating machines of meaning-making. As my attention teeters on the edge of the theme park and the theatre, I am reminded that what I do with these intensities and arrangements is my decision: the ethical demand of a nomad space that allows for difference is to 'become the child of one's own event' (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: 65) - to exist towards futurity. The nomadic is never a place to live: as minor and major performance transmute into one another, the nomadic become reterritorialized. But the intense capacities and the extensive relations become visible on the horizon of the possible. They exist in virtuality, infecting productively thought and action.
As Deleuze and Guattari remind their reader, smooth space as such is not liberatory. The nomad is not a saviour, and not a revolutionary to build a new state.
But the struggle is changed or displaced in [smooth spaces], and life reconstitutes its stakes, confronts new obstacles, invents new paces, switches adversaries (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 500).
Petra Kuppers is an Asst. Professor of Performance Studies at Bryant University, Rhode Island, and Artistic Director of The Olimpias Performance Research Projects. She is author of Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge (Routledge, 2003) and Bodily Fantasies: Medical Visions/Medical Performances (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2006).
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[i] In March 1960, Jean Tinguely's sculpture Homage to New York destroyed itself in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, and Deleuze and Guattari can speak of joyful, deterritorializing machines (Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari, 1995). Today, in shows such as Robot War, robots fulfil the task of destruction on television, creating a popular cultural activity out of acts that were once sub-cultural happenings. The machines are commodified, and the lustre of revenge against capitalist exploitation and for moments of infiltration has worn off, as reading for resistance experiences tiredness in the face of overwhelming and all-devouring marketing machines.
[ii] Hans-Thies Lehmann reminds us that in the 17th century, the name given to tech-heavy productions was «machine» (Lehmann, 1999, 414). In general, the organic and the inorganic often mixed and merged in theorizations of the perfect theatre, from Kleist's Marionetten-Theatre to the Ubermarionette. Theatre without humans, purely inorganic, has equally many historical precedents: from Servandoni to Moholy-Nagy.
[iii] It is this sense of the nomadic as a spatial metaphor, as something that talks about location and dislocation, that appears in texts such as Schneider, 2000, and Sayre, 1989.
[iv] Note how easily the word choice «nomadic» becomes entangled in value judgments mirroring Western/Other relations. This issue of anthropological markers re-invading the post-humanist framework of Deleuze and Guattari are discussed in texts such as Ghambou Mokhtar, 2001, or Christopher Miller, 1998.
These criticisms echo feminist critiques who discuss the implications of «becoming women» - are these politics sustainable in the here-and-now, or do they affirm the status quo, using the language relations of today to build potential alternatives in an elsewhere? For Sadie Plant (1997), the binary male/female mirrors the zero/one numbers and their exclusivity, which become unstable as multiplicity spills forth. Within this conception, the «female» as well as the «male» split their edges, a condition with which the «female» with its traditional marks of de-centeredness, is better equipped to cope. Looking for theatrical salvation in other locations: this is not the aim of this article.
[v] I gratefully acknowledge the invitation by Rebecca Schneider, Marten Spanberg and Maria Assis to assist Rebecca in leading a CAPITALS workshop project. This article is also published in CAPITALS, eds. Maria de Assis and Mårten Spångberg, Lisbon: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian - Centro de Arte Moderna (Lisboa), 2004.
[vi] Anthony Vidler (2000: 223) picks up on the architectural fantasy of the monad, and critiques Deleuze's reading, pointing to the «interior» position of Leibnitz's fold, not the transgressing principle of Deleuze's generative play.
[vii] My play with Leibnitz's metaphor here echoes Elizabeth Probyn's (2000) description of a desire towards belonging: a yearning to make skin stretch. This tissue-language of folds and touch, of carnal appetites, are at play in the affective registers I want to activate in my reading of the theatre scene.