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AUGUST 3, 8:00pm-AUGUST 4, 8:00amhttp://panoplylab.org/www.varispeedcollective.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/emptywordsbanner.png

Empty Words Written by John Cage, Arranged and performed by Varispeed

8 PM – 10:30 PM: Part I: Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue

11 PM – 4:30 AM: Parts II & III: Exapno, 33 Flatbush Avenue, 5th floor

5 AM – 7:30 AM: Parts IV: Procession from Borough Hall over the Brooklyn Bridge

All parts of the performance are free and open to the public.

This overnight realization on Cage’s centennial is a meditation on the voice’s power to transform language into music. Varispeed’s new arrangement will lead audiences on a 12-hour journey of sound, from an ensemble of electronically manipulated and mutated song in the concert hall of Roulette to the noise of naked voices on the Brooklyn Bridge at dawn.

Written in the early 70s, Empty Words stands as an epic culmination of Cage’s exploration of the “demilitarization” of syntax and the voice’s power to evacuate meaning and create music. Using Thoreau’s journals as his source text, Cage employed chance procedures to remove all syntax from the original, creating four separate movements through which the level of textual abstraction grows.

Part One (utilizing phrases, words, syllables, and letters) begins in the concert space of Roulette, employing multiple performers and theatrics to employ the musical extremes of language. The performance then moves to the new music community space Exapno, where Varispeed transform Part Two’s words, syllables, and letters into new spatial arrangements. Peppered with food (and perhaps a nap), Part Three scatters syllables and letters around the building in a performance that is both a participatory scavenger hunt and a solo lecture. In conclusion, listeners will become performers on a communal sound walk through Downtown Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunrise, vocalizing the letters of Part Four in equal partnership with the surrounding urban “silence.”

Varispeed’s premiere performance of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Manhattan was listed on Time Out New York’s Best of 2011 list and received praise in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Varispeed has worked to discover new inroads into contemporary vocal music and opera in creating site-specific, sometimes-participatory, oftentimes-durational, forevermore-experimental events. As individuals, they are all multi-faceted performers, composers, songwriters, and thinkers who collaborate in ensembles such as thingNY, Panoply Performance Laboratory, and Cough Button. (text from the Facebook event)

Don’t miss this ephemeral epic. Varispeed is (from left to right in image above) Gelsey Bell, Paul Pinto, Aliza Simons, Dave Ruder, Brian McCorkle, and the ghost of John Cage…

In 1969, to “encourage a more enlightened dialogue” about citizen participation and citizen control, Sherry Arnstein proposed a model (below), to show the spectrum between Nonparticipation and Participation of citizens in social and governmental institutions. Her A Ladder of Citizen Participation(1) links power to participation, proposing eight “rungs” of engagement, from manipulation at the bottom through Citizen Control at the top. I also like her “Limitations to the Typology” section, in which she discusses the limitations of her model…

Arnstein’s concerns were largely clustered around hospital care, osteopathic education in medicine, and the de-segregation of U.S. hospitals. Way over on the other side of sociology in the same year, in the theater, Richard Shechner published Public Domain. In the last essay, The Politics of Ecstasy Shechner articulated a conceptual shift from theater as an art form to theater as a complex set of social and psychological transactions, advocating what he called Environmental Theater, meant to “liberate the space and democratize the relationship between actor and audience” (2) Shechner and Arnstein’s core assumptions include the belief that participation, collaboration, co-creation, are all positive modes, serving society by re-distributing power, resources, authority. Arnstein writes:

“My answer to the critical what [is “citizen participation”] question is simply that citizen participation is a categorical term for citizen power. It is the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future. It is the strategy by which the have•nots join in determining how information is shared, goals and policies are set, tax resources are allocated, programs are operated, and benefits like contracts and patronage are pareeled out. In short, it is the means by which they can induce significant social reform which enables them to share in the benefits of the affluent society.” (3)

The author of this blog post couldn’t agree more adamantly with Arnstein on this (with perhaps the exception being her final sentence, which hints that success within a capitalist structure would be the type of ideal agency enabled by social reform). This post will insist that, as the smaller, pan-logical doppelganger to the larger structures of human organization, theater has an opportunity (some would say, a responsibility) to experiment with social and political modes of participation, as ontological research. Participation in theater, “audience” participation, as a microcosm of (possibly only a metaphor for) citizen participation, is one of the only ways we can put such models, proposals, and relationships on their feet, into reality, analyze them, test them, and actually add them to the endless, living mise en abyme that is human culture.

That being said, the arguments for audience participation in the theater that I’ve heard most recently (arguments often interwoven with platitudes about Wisconsin) echo Arnstein’s “rungs”, suggesting (in various ways) that participatory performance can “train” individuals to be participating citizens, that it can “educate” audiences, and allow them to “express themselves.” What I find so fascinating about this, is that these seem like arguments for lower (less participatory) “rungs” on Arnstein’s ladder. What would allowing audiences to participate on higher rungs be like? Would application of these higher participatory modes destroy/remove/alter something crucial to theater’s operation in society? Would use of these modes undermine our work as an art form?

As an exercise, I’d like to apply Arnstein’s model to our current participatory modes in theater and preliminarily explore what these types of participation might look like in the context of our work in performance. I will be applying these rungs primarily to the work itself and to artist/audience relationships, but will also mention basic application to theater institutions and the “institution” of “theater” when these applications seem simple enough to express in a sentence or two…

1.) Manipulation. In this mode, citizen participation is fully engineered by those in power. In the theater, this is the traditional mode: tickets are purchased and individuals passively consume the stageproduct, which has been constructed to suit their projected, statistic desires. Likewise, theater artists consume the resources and sensibilities that are gifted to them by Boards of Directors, panels, and larger institutions both private and public, corporate and non-profit. Arnstein writes that within this illusory form of participation “people are placed on rubberstamp advisory committees or advisory boards for the express purpose of ‘educating’ them or engineering their support. Instead of genuine citizen participation, the bottom rung of the ladder signifies the distortion of participation into a public relations vehicle by powerholders.” (4) I think we could relate this to the season subscribers who “influence” the types of theater through (often projected) consumptive demands.

2.) Therapy. In this mode, pathologies are identified in audiences by those in power and then forcefully healed. I would link this to conceptions of “rupture” that perforate (yes, make holy, and hole-y) “political theater;” this theater is built on the assumption that people are basically stupid and need to have their “minds changed” or to be “made conscious.” In this mode, theater makers identify “social ills” and colonize their audiences’ worldview construction through bland, mimetic (and usually over-simplified) tropes. Funding institutions and theaters do the same, supporting projects which position artists as cultural psychologists (which, in turn, seems to encourage their selection of white men, who are clearly most qualified for this eminent role, as they are the most “sane,” “sensible” and “normal”…[sarcasm]).

3.) Informing. Writes Arnstein: “Informing citizens of their rights, responsibilities, and options can be the most important first step toward legitimate citizen participation. However, too frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information – from officials to citizens-with no channel provided for feedback and no power for negotiation.” (5) I think it’s fairly easy to see what kind of theater this might be, in which condescension, elitism, and a vast divide between artist/audience prevail. Informational post-drama in a professional arena is more popular in Eastern Europe than it is in the U.S. but it is most popular here as educational theater, skits and scenes developed to be performed by the powerholders in middle school gymnasiums, nursing homes, and prisons to inform less powerful people (children, the aged, the incarcerated, the sick, etc) about AIDS, bullying, genocide, and the like, without any acknowledgment that certain audiences might have expertise in one or more of the areas being addressed…

4.) Consultation. This is the mode that “documentary” theater usually operates in; when I read this (only number 4 on the ladder!) I got worried about the Focus Workshops for Institut_Institut, and how PPL is gathering information from the general public, consulting our audiences, without assuring their influence or impact. This rung, at it’s worst, allows those in power, or those distributing the sensible (artists), to soak in the self-satisfaction of “giving people a platform for self-expression” or some such thing, while simply using participants to justify their own agenda. However, the onus is on the artists in this situation, to incorporate, accommodate, and respond within this particular participatory framework. (In defense of the Focus Workshops they are parody of product-centered, institutional Focus Groups, group therapy, and a plethora of classification systems, in addition to being consultations towards the creation of work…what do we think about that though?) Also included may be the use of a “real life” event to make a play (Moises…) and the use of “real people” in performance. This rung really seems to be the most trodden by theater artists.

The Tectonic Theater Project's 'The Laramie Project'

5.) Placation. Arnstein links this rung to consultation, as they both promise direct results of citizen participation, but (she says) both fail to deliver. She says: “at this point, citizens may realize that they have once again extensively ‘participated’ but have not profited beyond the extent the powerholders decide to placate them.” In performance, this mode seems quite similar to consultation, but I think it speaks most pertinently to issues of casting and race, and tokenism at large. In the theater industry, the first four modes of participation often result in pathetic attempts to include underrepresented and minority groups solely on the terms of the powerholders. This is an incredibly complex issue, but in theater work itself, it seems this rung manifests itself in wish fulfillment, i.e. the desires of the audience are accurately deduced (how??) and their resolution is manufactured within the frameworks of powerholders. More participatory dramas about Iraq, the audience dons gear, and then after the show the audience feels…well… successfully placated: pats on the back all around for participating in such an important and political show, we really learned something tonight about reality, etc…The experience itself however, remains completely phantasmic and often constructed by powerholders without sufficient information (due to the lack of collaboration/participation from others in their process perhaps…).

6.) Partnership. For the sake of our appropriation of this model, number 5 seems to be the first rung on which an audience would actually be invited to colloquially “participate” in live theater, following very strict directions and rules. In Partnership mode however, the artists acknowledge and act on their need for the audience, via actions like hand-raising (“how many of the people here tonight….”), and stand-up comedy and improvisational theater-type input. Yet the relationship between artist and audience is preconceived and static, constructed by the artist and the mode’s framework. In this mode, participants are told what kind of participation they are allowed to have, and exactly what they should provide through their participation; the illusion of “free content” is limited by the social context of the performance even though the participants and the artist(s) enter what (at its best) feels like a titillating collusion. Ugly Betty calls this “interactive theater.”

7.) Delegated Power. For Arnstein, this rung gives citizens their own type of power, pitting their strength alongside (but often against) powerholders. Participation is structured so that citizens are given full power in some areas (but no power in others). Aleotoric performance modes fall into this category. When audiences are allowed to solely determine certain performance outcomes, content, and other elements, but have no influence on other aspects of the performance, power has been delegated/a powerholder’s sensibility has been distributed. Even if the entire performance is formed dually by artists and audiences and the divide between them is extremely blurry, the space, the time, a certain number of participants, the framework for the experience, etc, are all controlled by the artists. This mode is very popular in performance art and classical avant-garde music, seems very interesting and useful, and certainly has a lot of books, articles, etc written about it.

8.) Citizen Control. Is there such a thing as audience control? For me, this final rung is most interesting and confusing in a theatrical context, because it places pressure on our conceptions of art itself, and who “gets” to make it. I assume that this rung would simply be a flexible, experimental mode of community theater, with authority (performers, director, playwright) regardless of the mode of the performance itself, shifting between various community members, with form and content directly born of the community/audience. But this is difficult because it assumes that those who are usually considered “professional artists”, and those in power in political spheres for that matter, are not participants, or members of a community. This mode could also be some kind of flash-mob performance, simultaneously arriving in the heads of more than one person, and performed by and for the same group of people. It’s very difficult to make a distinction between that and say, a bunch of people talking to each other at a bar (see Arnstein’s own Limitations to the Typology). Damn that vanishing point between art and life…and between power and powerlessness.

Habitat for Humanity ("Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian ministry founded on the conviction that every man, woman and child should have a decent, safe and affordable place to live. We build with people in need regardless of race or religion. We welcome volunteers and supporters from all backgrounds.")

So my questions become: is it useful then for us as theater artists, our identities analogized with the “powerholders” (“realize your privilege as an alcoholic realizes that she has been operating predominantly under the influence”) to seek a higher rung for participation in our own communities, outside of theater, so that we may experiment with each of these modes, including number 8? And if our “own community” is really the theater industry (in addition to the neighborhood in which we live, the institutions in which we work, learn, and participate), should we increase participation in it as well as in our local-through-federal governments?

Schechner concluded that Happenings (beyond Kaprow’s original Happenings, which have always seemed to me to have existed more in the “really fun party with artsy activities” mode than in any other….) were the highest level of participation and democracy, yet participants remained hierarchized through their level of knowledge about the event and its structure, and Happenings for the most part were no more un-scheduled and un-structured than some of John Cage’s conceptual compositions, which likewise appropriate participants and chance elements into a “work” authored by an artist. This, it seems to me, might be best associated with rungs 3 and 7.

Art is Life: Allan Kaprow invites attractive art students to lick jam off of a car's hood

In conclusion: we always talk a lot about why individuals become theater artists. Usually it has something to do with being an outcast, with being lonely, and needing to be a part of something, and step outside the self. It seems that participation in public performance gives individuals a sense of personal authority and confidence, an ability to narrativize conflict and analyze human behavior (and hence deal with ones own life and its conflicts, and empathize), and a sense of being important, useful, and deserving of attention, etc, etc, etc. Even if not everyone should/can commit their lives to the absurd pursuit of theater, it does seem beneficial for more people to get the chance to participate in theater, especially past the 3rd rung proposed by Arnstein…thoughts?

__________________________

(1)Arnstein, Sherry R. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224
(2) Cameron, Kenneth M. “Books in Review: Dionysus in 69 and Public Domain” in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4, Dec., 1970, pp. 432-436
(3) ibid. Arnstein, p. 216
(4) ibid. Arnstein p. 217
(5) ibid. Arnstein p. 218

 

-Esther

“For time flows on, and if it did not, it would be a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables. Methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change. Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new.”
Bertolt Brecht

How are we “of our time”? What does “historical context” mean in-the-moment in performance? How can we develop an approach that deals with our contemporary and evolving conceptions of time, history, and the contextual “location” of individual conception? Here is something that emerges as an ideological  and aesthetic dichotomy through collaboration with thingNY on TIME: A Complete Explantion in Three Parts: “of the moment” drama vs. “epic” or dialectical theater.

This post is in response to various aesthetic sentiments and then to an e-mail written by Jeffrey Young, arguing for text that he calls “of the moment.”  Gelsey, please feel free to weigh in on this, I don’t necessarily share this definition of your text, would love to hear what you think about it all.  Mostly, I began this post in attempts to understand my own aesthetic reaction to Jeffrey’s statement and Matthew and Paul’s affinity for autobiography/contemporary reference—which comes up in me as a hairball in a cat—and where this reaction on my part comes from so I can be more mature about it…

First, I think it’s only fair to state that the main ideological positions under which this post functions are inseparable from the idea that public performance can and should catalyze and assist something like “Complex Sight.” (“Sight” not as a sense, but in terms of ways of seeing, or view-point, again, the-ory, the-atre, the = view) which of course is just a “post-colonial reification of Bertolt Brecht” if you want to be like that about it.

The dichotomy between our reactions/preferences, if I attempt to see it on the most concrete level possible, might be described as one between “in the moment” (what could this be called?) work and “epic” or “dialectic” work. On one hand, there is this “in the moment” work that is meant to exist during its first and last performances and in the time period of its creation, refer and describe/express its own time, and pertain directly to the decisions being debated and anxieties being dealt with in a particular time by individuals of that time (zeitgeist?).  This work is often autobiographic, non-theatrical, task-based, and contains references and images that are part of the shared (supposedly) daily lives of the performers and the spectators alike. On the other hand, “Epic” (or “dialectical” as Brecht called it later when Epic was given a capital “E”) work is meant to be re-performed many times (there may be some ritual element even to its performance, as a conceptualized task or political action), describe and express human time, and be relevant to the decisions and dialectics that human beings make and participate in, throughout time. References and images are mythic, historical, conceptual/nature/body/thought-based, often more expressionistic or abstract.

Opera, the only medium other than musical theater that is even remotely similar to what we’re doing,  is firmly rooted in its tendency towards the latter “epic” presence and re-presence in time.  We know that Wagner advanced a tautology of unified works of art, Gesamptkunstwerk, which not only unites artforms but assumes that a piece will be perceived in the same way (uniformly, predictably, mimetically) by a united public. This is how Wagner’s work is in alignment with theories of Volksgeist, and an audience with common conceptions, ideology, national identity/biological race, and homogeonous volk-instructed culture via aesthetic, expectant, and formal transmission. Wagner’s work especially is supposed to be “timeless” in a very particular way, and I think we can agree that it does pretty well at this and that this is why Hitler liked it so much. There is more than a hairball in the way here, so I understand reactions against timelessness/epic-ness as it stems from Wagner and Western classical music traditions.

However, in the theater,  in politically-rooted reaction to Wagner’s type of timeless focus, Bertolt Brecht begins with a separation of the work’s elements, which allows an audience to see how a work is made (this is why NYTimes reviewers say a work is “Brechtian” if the lights are exposed, the music is atonal, and actors are sitting onstage or changing costume in full view of the audience) and makes sure that spectators don’t forget that they are seeing a play (which will inevitably end in time and is a subjective way of seeing). This is important (though separate from mimetic timelessness) because Brecht perceives an audience as an engaged body of individuals who must be forced to  “See Complexly,” becoming conscious of their own subjective and cultural conceptions alike and comparing them with those present in the work (held and acted upon by, etc).  Brecht proposes that when audience members understand what their conceptions and expectations are and where they come from, they become better prepared to make just decisions for themselves and others (which is a proposal that is easily tied into Adorno and various Marxist and phenomenological aesthetic and political theories).

Brecht then moves farther away from Wagner by placing this work in a “real” time, a historical time rather than a fantasy/mythic time. In addition to this, Brecht proposes that awareness of time (both in terms of history and stage-time) is a crucial part of an audience’s ability to think Complexly, to remember that they are watching a play, to recognize that they exist as socio-political agents, and to understand that people’s actions and understanding are forever evolving and transient.  In Brecht’s circular narratives, historical context is defined and relevant, both in terms of the piece’s setting, the author’s context, the story, and the audience’s “location” (historically, geographically, culturally, and so on). I think that these distinctions are are best understood through reading Brecht’s own ‘Modern Theater is Epic Theater: Notes to the opera Aufstied and Fall der Stadt Mahagonny’ (1930), the source of that dual list that we all saw copied to the point of disintegration in university course-packs wherein we see the crucial distinction relevant to our exploration here, of “man as process” (Epic Theater) vs. “man as a fixed point” (Dramatic Theater) and a negation in dialectic/epic theater, of linear development, evolutionary determinism, and ‘eyes on the finish’ (progress/product focus).  I just ignore some of the other dualisms…

Brecht’s viewpoint on time can also be understood  through the hermeneutic lens of his contemporary, Hans-Georg Gadamer, who wrote on the nature of human understanding and the range of an individual’s ability to understand based on his or her own personal “horizon” of influence and experience, and the nature of ‘historically effected consciousness’ (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein).

In order to help a spectator’s understanding of her own context, or even evoke the general sensibility of context, Brecht favors Umfunktionierung, the refunctioning/ repurposing/re-presenting of  Time: In the dialectic or epic theater, like the aspects of character, narrative, political debate, and moral parable, time/historical location is separated out from the other aspects of the piece and made into a Gestus; Brecht chooses past historical contexts for his works (for the most part) so that historical context (time) may become an isolated element that can be packed and unpacked as a Fabel (an analysis using socio-political ethics, context, and a certain materialism/naturism to determine cause and effect relationships and situate the work of art in time and context), and therefore likewise engages Complex Sight and its analytical socio-political function.

IS it possible to use contemporary and pop-culture references, first-person narratives, autobiography, the self onstage (“real” time, “real” character) and other “of the moment” elements to catalyze and engage Complex Sight (and each of these devices are individual in their implications)? If so, I would like to learn how. Until that explosive day when I understand how, it will seem to me that these “of the moment” elements (and the sensibility, mood, aesthetic, and form that they perpetuate) are the opposite of Gestus, causing the individual audience member’s experience during the performance to merge with his or her daily life and thought, and reinforce his or her existing ways of living and thinking, and allow him or her to leave the theater without having been compelled to action, engaging in Complex Sight, participating in a collective experiment, or any kind of experience that he or she can’t get from film or television and all of the contemporary theater that wears the garments of these mediums during its masochistic identity-crises on the way to extinction. Likewise, I don’t like the way this end of the spectrum leans towards a Wagnerian-type conception of the audience as a unified body that can identify with us, the authors, in the way we identify ourselves and in the way that we intend, as if we are fairy tales or other mythic figures; to place a person into performance, fictive, historical, or “real,” is to extend that person  and his or her statements/opinions/experiences into subsequent subjective analyses and catalogue-forming of “what is sensible.”  I am not coherent enough to be a theory of the sensible (no individual is, that’s why we make characters), so I don’t want people to use me to determine anything.  For an interesting argument that works against this, there is always Herbert Blau’s post-modern bible Take Up the Bodies: Theater at the Vanishing Point (yeah, but Blau has different agendas, his work is relevant to an argument against this but not exactly in opposition, it’s focused differently…)

Likewise, in terms of time, I think “of the moment” work encourages individual audience members to have a “passive culmination” response, which is the erroneous feeling that what we are now, and what we think now, (and what the individual is and thinks) is the highest evolutionary point so far on some kind of Platonian journey, which shuts down analysis and the desire to learn and change (this journey towards the sun is also called “dialectic” so maybe this is where Brecht gets left peering from his own personal horizon of conceptions?) by reinforcing the value of the now and the value of the authorial positions in time (and in this case, about time) held by the work’s authors (playing oneself further reinforces this, which I do see as a positive thing in performance art but not in theater, WHY? Another post).  Also, “in the moment” work may prevent us from having much of a relationship with our audience’s grandchildren, as they will see us as products, relics, and the irrelevant dead, forever confined to our own self-reference, like a snapshot of a snapshot.

I do think, however, that perhaps “of the moment” engagement can become epic, or dialectical, if it is presented not as a mirror but as part of a Lehrstück, in which the unity of form and content is part of a meta-dialectic of socio-political function, as per “the means have to be asked what the end is.” But of course, who can do this asking? I am very interested in seeing if Paul Pinto’s one-minute lectures (as himself, as part of this TIME piece) can hit something interesting in this area, I think they are beginning to, which is very exciting. Also, this whole debate is about TEXT, and text with music, not about forms that have audience engagement, or incorporate aleatoricism.

Let us see if work with text and music (memorized by us as performers, etc) can be simultaneously “of the moment” and dialectic. Perhaps there is no dichotomy between these two at all, it seems likely that it’s better modeled as a spectrum, (with “in” the moment somewhere in the middle? Perhaps as a beginning to a way of dealing this this?) we’ll have to define our terms better, and I think the analytical merging of these two weirdly polarized hands might be exactly what we should be working on…I additionally propose that perhaps we’re only able to move towards a compromise in terms of this dichotomy now because the split in postmodern reaction to a traditional leaning towards epic-ness (in Modern opera) vs. a postmodern reaction to a short-sighted populism (in theater) in part creates such a dichotomy. I might also suggest that preferences for “of the moment” work may, in fact, be pre-determined by a position as part of the post-modern avant-garde music dialectic, just as my vehement defense of epic-ness is a part of the post-dramatic theater dialectic.

In anti-conclusion, Robert Leach on how Brecht dealt with this: “ duality of form and content was replaced (to over-schematise briefly) by a triad of content (better described in Brecht’s case by the formalist term ‘material’), form (again the formalist term ‘technique’ is more useful here) and function. In Brecht’s dramatic form, these three constantly clash but never properly coalesce to compose a rounded whole.” (from Leach’s notes to Mother Courage and Her Children.)

Now if only we can only combine Brecht with John Cage somehow, we’ll have the TRUTH….

Every so often, there’s a book that states something so crucial so clearly that I am flooded with a desire to make everyone read it. Natalie Crohn Schmitt’s book Actors and Onlookers: Theater and Twentieth-Century Scientific Views of Nature is such a book. I read it a while ago as a companion to Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and picked it up again this month to mix some of Crohn Schmitt’s clear synthesis into PPL’s creation of an opera about the concept of “nature” as a “fetish,” in the cultural anthropology sense (more on that in a moment) for 2012 called NATURE FETISH. I just finished a draft of the libretto for this project.

Crohn Schmitt’s (in her title and throughout the book) idea of “nature” captures current conceptions of nature in the arts and humanities, as constructed by postcolonial, queer, postmodern, and other frameworks and modes of analysis extremely concisely. For Crohn Schmitt as for Gananath Obeysekere, Judith Butler, Jean Baudrillard, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (and many others from additionally various fields and schools of thought), the concept of “nature” is a description of human projection of empiric “reality” as well as a construct itself (for biological systems, etc). In theater, nature is the supposedly empiric reality that theater is to represent (mirror, etc) for various (Greek/moral/analytic/Hamlet) reasons. Crohn Schmitt is one of several performance theorists (focusing on theater) who points out that the Aristotelian worldview of nature, in fact the view that there IS such a thing as a single, empiric “nature,” is no longer the relevant view held by science, philosophy, history, or any other field in the humanities, or even by individuals living and thinking along in everyday life, thus it can be a very poor paradigm for theater work, especially for “performance theater,” which is event based rather than mimetic, or script-based theater (another essay and part of that whole performance art vs. theater debate).

Rejections of empiric reality have long been the tasks of humanist, postcolonial, and phenomenologist (and other) thinkers, perhaps as part of the “skepticism towards metanarratives” that Fredric Jameson writes is a fundamental part of the “dominant cultural logic of late capitalism.” Regardless, the movement away from a search for empiric truth and reality is the epistemic shift that has most influenced the modes of production carried out by theater artists in the 20th and 21st centuries.

John Cage


Towards this thesis, Crohn Schmitt proceeds to compare and contrast the theory and work of John Cage with Aristotle’s Poetics which may bore some musicology lovers and composers (you know who you are) but influenced me a lot as a theater artist when I read it, especially her well-argued opposition to the designation of Cage as an “anti-artist” as he follows in Aristotelian footsteps in his attempts to express, mirror, represent, and describe nature, with the simple (yet insurmountable) difference that his conceptions of nature are postmodern, rather than empiric; Cage’s work mirrors a chaotic, subjective nature, sometimes entirely constructed by the audience, the moment, and/or the context of the work.

John Cage, Experiments in Chance Operations (1950s)


Subjectivity, more specifically subjective formalism, has long been the point of entry for artists into expression of a post-Aristotelian worldview as contemporary physics state generally that the relationship between subject and object form the core of the problem of knowledge, and of Being itself. Thus, the mode in which the “postmodern” theater finds a home is an ontological one; ideas that literally shift relationship between a being (a subjective audience member say) and a “thing” (a conception about nature, say) have, in the last 100 years, shaken human modes of ordinary thought. This often aligns all too easily with economically and politically influenced trends towards radical individualism and the construction of many subjective realities that are often (ironically?) built out of products, objects, and consumption-based lifestyle choices rather than perceived patterns in relation with the self. This latter alignment concerns me more than it does Crohn Schmitt, I’m not sure she’s as ardently influenced by Marxist theory as I am, she tends to leave the political implications of artistic modes out of the picture. Yet, her analysis is so straightforward that it can be extended and applied in these areas. She writes that what we (still) consider new theater, the type still seen as avant-garde, or experimental (even though this attempt/experiment/action/event has been made since the mid 1950’s with Pinter‘s text-based work and following and into the performance theater of the 1960’s with Schechner, the Wooster Group, Maxwell et canonical avant-garde all), seeks to rupture (via event, see Alain Badiou) empiric modes of ordinary thought, promoting evaluation of the relationship between subject and object. For Cage, this meant re-assigning the role of any structuralizing/constructing elements (distribution of the sensible) to chance, the audience, etc, thereby undermining the authority of existing modes of perception. It is a difficult mode, in the past few years I think most concisely answered by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma in their works such as No Dice,and Poetics: A Ballet Brut, both strongly influenced by Cage. For my generation of theater artists (under 30), this deconstructive intention (pioneered by Richard Foreman, Schechner, LeCompte, and many others) is often diluted into one of general disassociation, disruption, and nonsensicality/informality that poses as (simulates) a de-hierarchized/democratized form. Despite, or perhaps because of the power of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s work (and other companies and artists working similarly, mostly outside the U.S.) I feel a need to become critical of these ideas, so that I may remove myself emotionally from my devotion to them and begin to determine how to take another step (please ignore this reliance on a progress-based figure of speech), or evolve along with and inside human modes of ordinary thought.

Poetics: A Ballet Brut Conceived and Directed by Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska


To this end, I’ve just finished the first draft of a libretto for an opera performance dedicated to these ideas, in summation, modes of ordinary thought about nature, natural modes of performance, and projections of nature. The concept of “fetish” is closest I think to containing/expressing all of these threads. A fetish is an object, idea, or being onto which human desires, beliefs, and values are projected, or “objects/beings/ideas” etc that are entirely comprised from these. Subject-object relationships (between projector and the projected) thus forms the first task of consciousness, the problem of knowledge. Concretely, in the theater, this problem forces us to ask, if reality is all a projection, where do individuals actually get the conceptions, desires, beliefs, values, etc that construct it, nature or nurture? Aligning the former with (again) empiricist and empiricism-influenced worldviews, I find myself much more interested in the “nurture” side, the double act of consuming/embodying cultural conceptions and then “projecting” them and being projected on by them in daily life. This subjective act/experience will form the performative base for the NATURE FETISH project and be a vehicle for the performance of conceptual frameworks, culturally constructed for human relationships with “nature.” In the piece, each framework for projection is expressed and described through music, text, movement, objects, symbolic and figurative imagery, reactive technology, and video projections. Narratively, each framework will be adopted and enacted by the two main characters as they attempt to reconcile their human consciousnesses with a natural world perceived first as “real/natural” and then as fetishized.

Mother Nature


Performance theory wise, I am afraid of being too arrogant, presumptous, idealistic, etc, to insist on the following points; they are in experimental stages. I will say that contemporary culture can probably still use a good dose of deconstructive panic; audiences may need to be disoriented and have their realities dissasembled, so that they may de-hierarichize, and democratize authority structures, attack the constricting and empiric-thought-based paradigms for race, gender, sexuality, and more (“gotta tear down to build up”). Yet, I am interested in trying other ways of helping audiences (and subsequently humanity…) experience realizations about their role in the construction of reality, their responsibility for reality, and inherent effect on it/in it. These realizations are becoming more important to me I think than the realization that existing institutional and conceptual constructions can be and often are harmful to those attempting to use the frameworks they impose on their daily lives. The harm in constructions is largely found in their monopoly on frameworks, their insistence that individuals use their ways of seeing things by cutting off support from those who can’t or won’t use/fit in to ideals, and blocking individual access to cultural (emotional, psychological, authority) resources, as well as to fundamental resources such as information, food, water, etc. I would like to facilitate the provision of cultural resources, and the encouragement to provide cultural resources for the self and for others, by offering alternative frameworks for use, primarily in psychological and emotional spheres. The practical question that arises then is where do these “alternative” frameworks come from? And here I think is the component shift that happened/is happening after the 1990 publication of Crohn Schmitt’s book: “Alternative” frameworks are created automatically in and come from cultures that have begun to develop a process of cyclical construction/deconstruction of frameworks, moving out of a deconstructive mindset and into one that is de-hierarchized, conscious, and creative, engaged and living (as per the Living Theatre’s initial intentions), mutually reflective, i.e. mise en abymic rather than mise en scenic (another essay). At this point, I feel a need for a seeing-place that presents frameworks side by side for comparison, for subjective analysis on the part of individual audience members. Thus, I will draw on the forms and expectations of the “traditional avant-garde,” humbly grateful for my predecessors’ cracking of Aristotelian constraints through their use of non-linear narratives, post-Stanislavkian acting techniques, multi-media, video, and other expressive and descriptive elements that are extremely helpful for this type of inquiry, while nosing my way feelingly into what is most simply a kind of mindful, co-creative reconstruction, positioned in opposition to every type of monism.

So here is the part that makes the project almost a pun, and is a nod to one Aristotelian-derived methodological consideration I like, which it unity of conception. “Nature” is a projection, a fetish, of the type that is wholly subjective (as a force, place, name for the cosmos, etc). Thus, I will be gathering as many subjective projections of “nature” as I can, as well as the larger constructed frameworks for projection that often exist in service of a political, economic, or cultural capitalist mode. On the private, subjective end on a spectrum of influence from small to great, are literal relationships with nature, memories, intentions, actions, and so on. These will be collected and performed, with the craft of the project being a kind of planned “emergence” (complex systems theory is Brian‘s point of access on this) of the public, political patterns of relationships between subject (human) and object (nature). My impulse is still an attempt at representation of the “real,” the “natural,” but at least I can include where such projections are coming from, in myself and in the contributors to, participants in, and receivers of the public performance of the piece.

A Note on Aristotle plus the Milesian School: When I was working on On the Cranial Nerves of Barbarians I became really obsessed with the absurdities and pitfalls of ontological pluralism, wherein ontology reconciles the reality of Being and Becoming by conceiving of seeds (or “homeomeries” according to Aristotle) that in substance and movement comprise the real, natural, material elements of the world, much like early conceptions of atoms, and the Multiple Realization theories of Functionalist philosophers of mind and the generally monist ideas of Physicalists. I have a feeling this is all going to come back to mind for NATURE FETISH