This lil essay was edited with help from Gelsey Bell from the initial essay I wrote in the middle of the night during Theorems, Proofs, Rebuttals and Propositions: A Conference of Theoretical Theater.
Meaning, for Theater: Kikuko Tanaka’s Poultry Paradise and its Discontents
“How to explain theater to a dead chicken”
“Man is a symbol-using animal,” declared sociologist, linguist, and grandfather of “dramatism” Kenneth Burke in his Language as Symbolic Action, “Reality has been built up for us through nothing but our symbol system.” (Burke, 1966)
This breed of social solipsism at its most extreme has a special relationship with “theater” both as an artistic practice and as a functional metaphor. Burke’s statement serves to value theater as a cultural conveyor of symbolic systems, subsequently amplifying theater’s artistic processes and simplifying the modes of analysis used to understand both theater and its social implications: if an individual’s immediate reality is constructed via the interpretation of symbols, symbols can be intentionally placed to build up a reality, they can be mise en scene (put into scene/made seen) by an authorized, expressive artist, then interpreted as meanings, and reality continues as such via maintenance of culturally meaningful tautological symbol-systemization.
Symbolic interactionist Erving Goffman directly incorporated Burke’s ideas into his own sociological research, using the term “dramaturgy” for his methodology for microsociology (see Goffman, 1959, 1974). This dramaturgy, freely synthesized from Burke, Meade, Montaigne, and “the Greeks” (especially Plato,) allowed Goffman to use theater as an overarching analogy for breaking down unmediated social interactions into observable, categorical systems for behaviors. In reduction, theories of identity, cognitive functionalism, and many other dominant answers to social interaction and in-situ self-identification problematics (see Searle, 2010) debate and negate a paradigm so ingrained in Western thought that it has a name, Theatrum Mundi (“world staged,” a term usually credited to John of Salisbury, 1159). Theatrum-Mundi-based dramaturgical frames, albeit in more complex incarnations, remain especially valuable to discussions of social constructivity, encouraging analyses of existing symbol systems and political science’s questioning of who builds up meaningful reality through performed symbol systems and via what formal modes of political and social authorization (see Ranciere, 2010, Butler, 2000, Obeyesekere 1990). As William West points out, attempts to discern differences between an authored phenomenal reality and any empiric reality serve to show how a “wise and discerning few” are given a “view backstage.” (see West, 2008) It is here, in slippery positioning of authors and spectators within Theatrum Mundi metaphors, that theater audiences, artists, and academics alike are autonomously implicated in a model that constructs only a dichotomy between privileged epoché (artist) vs. blind receptivity (audience), rather than considering multiple relationships and forms of interpretive exchange.
Theorems, Proofs, Rebuttals, and Propositions: A Conference of Theoretical Theater was a two-week conference in September 2013 that relied on a problematized framing for theater performance and for analyses of its co-constructive relationships with “reality” and “society.” The conference placed four theater productions into a theatricalized argument structure, framing theater as a diacritical vehicle propelled by a lack of universality of meaning and by the impossibility of separating “interpretations of symbols and actions” from the world “itself.” Instead, the conference and its works focused on theorization as performance itself. The first step in this adjustment of framing was to define what is placed in the mise en scene by theater artists as “a way of seeing” (the-ory) that constructs subjective and multiplicit realities via its performance of ways of seeing, rather than defining what is placed there by its meaningful symbolization or the en-action of what is represented.
Theoretical support for and attacks on this type of reframing in the fields of philosophy of mind, microsociology, neuroscience, and media and communication studies are numerous and it is difficult to write anything that communicates effectively across disciplines and dictions, yet theater discourse avoids confusion by sticking staunchly to a dramaturgical frame, both in its self-analysis or in its modes of production. Reliance on dramaturgy, further on Theatrum-Mundi-based dramaturgy, remains powerful because it allows theater a direct “representative” or “remodeling” role, promoting staged versions of reality as direct, accurate symbolic and constructive (or “transformative”) envisionings of “act-ual” (en-act-able, not necessarily “realistic”) realities. Writes Paul Monaghan about his collaborative Dramaturgies Project, “At the heart of dramaturgy lie three key verbal nouns: selection (or choice), construction (or structuring), and framing (for interpretation)” (Monaghan, 2005). For Monaghan (and many others) the content being “chosen, structured, interpreted” is visible as sets of symbolic actions that have concrete, representative and analogic relationships with an objective reality. Similarly, dramaturgical theorists such as Eugenio Barba describe dramaturgy as “the work of the actions across human behaviors” with his definition of ‘action’ including all elements of performance (lights, set, props, aspects of character, words, etc) “woven together in ways that create interpretive frameworks.” (Barba, 1985, p. 76). While the word “action” has replaced “symbol” in Barba’s work, the term “interpretive framework” (directly lifted from Erving Goffman and his colleague Howard Blumer) reveals overarching conceptions of theater as a symbolically coded representation of reality. In attempts to imbue theater with as much social influence and integrity as possible, the discipline aligns itself with dramaturgical theory as a matter of course, using dramaturgical models for theater which maintain its representational and analogic modes.
This piece of writing about theater will not attempt to negate dramaturgical frameworks or argue against their use of an idealized/nonexistent theater as a metaphor for microsocial interaction, but it will use a work of performance to show how the “performative turn” is being dealt with as an active problem within actual theater-making. This active problem arises primarily as the performative turn resists a plethora of objectivist assumptions; theater’s artistic engagement in society and its capital/object-based power paradigms need not be reduced to representative morality play, metaphorical expression, or analogic parabola, theater can be used as critical methodology itself, enacting social and experiential forms as forms themselves.
Kikuko Tanaka’s Poultry Paradise and Its Discontents: Nightshifts, one of the plenary productions presented by Theorems, Proofs, Rebuttals, and Propositions: A Conference of Theoretical Theater, deals directly with dramaturgical paradigms and their influence on schemas of power and resistance, furthermore providing an example of how theater operates as an “uncanny social science.” (Gluzman, Neff, 2013)
The auteur-performer, Kikuko Tanaka, enters the very intimate whitbox performance space to Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun in a gaudy Victorian costume, inviting audience members to come see a “delightful tragedy” at her “salon.” A bartender in a bowtie (Eric Heist) serving drinks to the audience and a video of the artist and friends playfully emulating gardeners (Tanaka, 2013) are elements that construct an environment of hysterically anachronistic upper-class experience. “The play is so sad, so tragic” Tanaka whispers to individual audience members, cooing “oooh I can’t wait to see it.” She then disappears and changes costume, re-entering as a character in the afore-mentioned tragedy, a lower-class security guard. Tanaka’s costumes can be seen through a dramaturgical frame to symbolize time period, gender, and class. Her presence, when interpreted symbolically, combines inherent properties (her Japanese accent, her age, visible signs of female sex) and intentionally constructed properties (as “security guard” or “night worker” or “man”). In this symbolic interpretation lies a dramaturgical frame’s traditional relationship with theater practices; it is assumed that Tanaka–as an artistic authority–has intentionally positioned symbols at a site (in time, space, context) as a logical (logos) way of reflecting an “other” more real reality, or, on the flip side of the same coin, placed elements of her performance to distort/rupture/re-model existing really real realities. In the comparison between Tanaka’s reality and the “real reality” should be commentary, or interpretable “meaning,” visible to those who can see both the staged world and the real world it represents. However, Tanaka writes, “I don’t think there are ‘single accurate interpretations of symbols as dependent on social contracts and social roles’ at all.” (E-mail with the artist, 10/20/13) While this insistence on basic interpretive subjectivity does not negate the assumption that the artist has “placed symbols intentionally,” or that multiple interpretations stem from existing social contracts, it does allow us to question how Tanaka has placed these symbols (modeling placement rather than what is placed), and how individual audience members expect to experience meaning. If symbolic references and social coding can’t be used to compare the world-of-the-play with the world-as-a-play (because each interpretation is subjective), identification/interpretation becomes a process that can be theorized as (variously) problematized empathy with an Other, self-implication in power and class paradigms, and role-playing as social agency.
Through a theoretical lens, we find a shift in cognitions of theater (site for sight); for Tanaka, “theater” is not a separate, representative reality, but act-uality itself: Tanaka’s costuming and other elements of mise en scene are not meant to be experienced as a set of conditions in which audience members are “really” in the Panoply Performance Laboratory studio, drinking hot toddies. Further, there is no metaphor-conducive single way that audience members, performers, bartenders, passers-by, and conference-organizers express and interpret in order to build symbol systems. The ways in which individuals perform interpretation are the artistic selections, constructions, and framings practiced collectively at the site for sight, as partially constructed by the artist. “I construct the association between each element as the problematic system itself.” Tanaka writes, “But I’m not sure that how many audience members see this system as complicity between power and resistance.” (E-mail with the artist, 10/20/13)
Her first costume (“character” is sidestepped; Tanaka introduces herself to individual audience members using various common English names, maintaining her identity as the artist dressed-up) remarks on and reinforces elements of the “actual” situation: privileged artists and intellectuals gathered in Brooklyn, NY to see a play. Converse to West’s discussion of privileged, analytic sight through phenomenological epoché, Tanaka locates audience members “in seen/scene.” Through her behavior, she theatricalizes (makes visible) social relationships and expectations by acknowledging the current in-situ performance of them, i.e. theorizing them, not by re-presenting them “inside” a drama.
Tanaka, now the performer in the “tragedy,” enters dressed as a security guard and sits in a chair in front of a large box. The video-projection is replaced by multiple live-feed security cameras that monitor the audience and the entire space, reminding us that we are really here now. This play begins as Tanaka opens a large black book with a red question mark on the front and begins to read fragmented text into a microphone. Tanaka’s accent and the timbre of her voice make the readings—from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Sexual Geography and Gender Economy: The furnished room districts of Chicago, 1890- 1930 by Joanne Meyerowitz, Maldoror by Comete de Lautreamount, and Hatred of Democracy by Jacques Rancière.—difficult to decipher. This act continues for the rest of the 1-hour performance. The opacity of the text and the way it is read flattens communication itself into a single symbol: artist-as-character reading = durational action-as-image. The totality of the play (bracketed by the prelude) and its closure as an object, a single act and image, challenges again dramaturgical ideas of theater as a representative model of a more real reality. The microphone, the large box (which takes up over half of the room and is never seen inside, a totally present yet visible, bracketed-out “backstage”), and the very present cameramen borrow from existing theater techniques meant to make audience members aware that they are indeed audience members and that they have decided together that this is a play (the extent to which these verfremdunksteffect-inducing techniques have become semiotic through repetition and interpretation is another essay entirely).
As Tanaka reads, she pulls a red-orange, many-pronged phallus from her fly and begins to “pleasure herself” by touching it. Here, Tanaka forces the very shift in a framing of theater that this piece of writing is discussing, simultaneously representing an idea and enacting it/theorizing-as-act: Tanaka sculpts “accurate interpretations of symbols” as a self-objectifying masturbatory act that fails to provide self-satisfaction since it remains dependent on universal symbols, objectified social contracts, and normalized roles (a system that Tanaka calls “the library,” books being both objectified versions of Western ways of seeing and objectified ways of transgressing existing ways of seeing). Here, it is also worth noting that “visual arts performance,” Tanaka’s primary discipline alongside sculpture and video, often reduces performance solely to a conflict between positioning of visual symbols and “authentic action” (Marina Abramovic interview by Sean O’Hagan, 2010). This reduction of conflict is often done to objectify a performing body as a product within the art market. By expertly reducing the play-within-a-play to an object, Tanaka maintains her theorization of power paradigms and their relationships with dramaturgical worldviews; the play as a theoretical object identifies itself to a “tragic” extent, fatal to its own “reality” via its own ability to separate itself from the “real” world. Further, an object-state is conflated with compliance in social role-playing, including gender, class, and cultural and racial representation. While the red-orange many-pronged phallus represents, or symbolizes, “the library,” (according to Tanaka) that which is mise en scene, namely an alien genitalia (see Haraway, 1992), starkly resists any claims that this act represents an “accurate” reflection of reality/nature/the other. Stretching to maintain dramaturgical analyses, we could insist that Tanaka posits dramatistic/dramaturgical schemas for society as masturbatory, while maintaining that their fabricated/false “representative” nature makes them unable to fully build up all of reality, with this inability proven especially by their failure to encompass human “monstrosity” and other forms of difference through directly representative symbol systems. Yet Tanaka insists that her “intention is rather to address the mechanism of [the] symbolic system that creates ‘un-representable monstrosity’ only in order to make it into an appropriate motif of artistic expression/consumption through representation. This tautological system of symbolizing is, itself, masturbatory.” (E-mail with the artist, 10/18/2013) Tanaka’s use of a dramaturgical tautology as a play is a kind of pseudomenon, a statement that can’t be assigned binary truth-value due to its self-reference (i.e. “this sentence is false”). How can a symbol (the “library” alien phallus) represent something “culturally ingrained,” i.e. dramaturgy/the Western library/Theatrum Mundi, while the actress Tanaka receives no “actual” meaning (pleasure) from the alien phallus (she is acting, i.e. intentionally symbolizing masturbation), while simultaneously actualizing/representing (as a body, receiving no actual pleasure from a prop) the very failure the action symbolizes? Dramaturgical framing of Tanaka’s Poultry Paradise and Its Discontents: Nightshifts here itself becomes visible as a tautology and aligns any performance of symbolic interpretation on the part of individual audience members (or on the part of the writer of this essay) with capitulation to a less-real reality, in which they are only actors in a pre-determined social play and forced to fulfill their symbolic, social roles (O tragedy!). When Tanaka’s pseudomenon is identified, we can see the surveillance feed in a similar way, as a theorization of how individuals (the audience members) see themselves seeing, or as a representation that fails to represents its own ability to represent. As the masturbation, the reading, and the live-feed surveillance continue, the audience members begin to perform their attention/audience; agency over the image is emphasized by the multiple agents seen and seeing.
Using a theoretical frame, Tanaka’s “frantic” (the artist uses this word often to describe her practice) escalation of symbolism is a “tragic” theorization, a worldview dependent on the performance of symbolically empiricizing/”building up” (construction of = dichotomization of). As audience members to Tanaka’s Poultry Paradise and Its Discontents: Nightshifts, our own performance of a dramaturgical interpretation of symbols in Tanaka’s work positions us in compliance with functional power paradigms, making us “poultry” (perhaps punning on cowardice = “being chicken” and alluding to poultry factory farms where all of the chickens play their fatally-determined roles perfectly?) while a theoretical frame allows us to experience agency and recognize conflicts between subjectivity vs. social sight. However, the theoretical frame does not allow us to confidently interpret symbols reflected by the work in order to justify its value as meaningful within any existing “symbol system,” including those of currency, -ism, and the theater industrial complex.
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