Friday, February 19, 2010

Soundscapes and Guitars

Last year at the Living Landscapes Conference I was privileged to witness Simon Whitehead and Barnaby Oliver's performance PINGS, in which Whitehead and Oliver explored the space between them, linked by sound echoing down a scratchy and distorted mobile phone connection between Whitehead, in a small rehearsal studio in Aberystwyth accompanied by around thirty onlookers, and Oliver, walking with his guitar by the banks of the Maribyrnong river in Melbourne. One of the things that has remained with me from that morning performance was the resonant soundscape that Whitehead created. While the phone connection became increasingly fragile and problematic, Whitehead calmly built up a rumbling storm of noise - an atmospheric condition - balancing a rocking metal bar across the fretboard of an electric guitar, positioning headphones against the pickups, handing out blades of grass for audience members to place between their lips and blow through, and carrying a large piece of sheet-metal on his head which emitted a low ominous growl as he shifted positions, from floor to standing. As I recall we finished by all slowly circling the room; the audience as slow moving cyclonic depression.

I remembered Whitehead's performance again this week when I watched the following video trailer on YouTube for CĂ©leste Boursier-Mougenot's installation at The Curve in the Barbican Centre, London.

There's something brilliant about the interaction between the finch, the twig and the guitar and the sensitivity of the guitar to the slight twitches and fidgets of these almost weightless birds.

Another memorable piece of sound art involving electric guitars is Christian Marclay's Guitar Drag, a piece that evokes the harmonic and destructive exuberance of a rock concert with the threat and dread of an amateur video recording of a crime.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Haruki Murakami on Running

One runner told of a mantra his older brother, also a runner, had told him which he's pondered ever since he began running. Here it is: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you're running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can't take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself. This pretty much sums up the most important aspect of marathon running.
Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, vii

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Flexibility in Theatre Architecture

Drawing on Jeremy Till’s argument that “time, and not space, should be seen as the primary context in which architecture is conceived,” (2009: 95) and in the light of increasing interest in performative architecture, I'm interested in critically examining notions of ‘flexibility’ in the history of modern theatre. While the much-acknowledged failure of modernism’s desire for empty, neutral, infinitely versatile theatre spaces has in some ways tainted the term ‘flexible’ with negative connotations, other softer, less technologically determined notions of flexibility and adaptability seem to be offering new directions in architecture, as well as serving a “desire to create theatre in places rather than containers.” (Wiles 2003: 266) So, over the next couple of months I'm planning to trace a history of flexibility from the functionalist and technologically driven ideas of the modernist movement, via the perspectives of environmental theatre, to the more allusive sense of temporal fluidity achieved through the adaptive re-use of buildings with prior histories and the increasing popularity of temporary, impermanent structures and ‘lo-fi’ architecture. I'll examine how the term ‘flexibility’ has been used in relation to theatre architecture, what sorts of flexibility have been advocated or explored, and what the connections might be between flexibility in terms of space, physical arrangement and social usage. My intention is to shed light on how past notions of flexibility continue to influence the design of new theatres as well as to consider the relationship between flexibility, adaptability and performativity in the design of theatres.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Oskar Schlemmer on Play and Scepticism

This semester I'm teaching a module called Improvisation: Spontaneous Performance. This is the second time I've taught it and this year I've asked students to create weekly blog entries as a way of writing drafts for the Reflective Journal they need to submit at the end of the semester. The first entries are starting to roll in and there's the beginnings of some interesting material. Already I'm feeling like I want to put some of my own thoughts up, which I've started to do. Here's my second entry, written today (the actual blog the students write isn't publicly accessible):

I'm sitting in the National Library today reading The Theater of the Bauhaus by Walter Gropius. The final chapter, by Oskar Schlemmer has some interesting material that seems relevant to our investigations into improvisation. Schlemmer writes that from the early days of the Bauhaus the artists involved sensed that the impulse for creative theatre was "the play instinct" (der Spieltraub). (82) This, he explains is "the un-self-conscious and naive pleasure in shaping and producing, without asking questions about use or uselessness, sense or nonsense, good or bad." (82) That strikes me as a good description of what I hope we will be doing in many of the workshops in this module: 'shaping' and 'producing' without worrying about the usefulness or the sense of what we are doing, but taking pleasure in the playfulness. However, Schlemmer goes on to describe how this developed at the Bauhaus:

"We might say that during the course of its development, this state of naivete, which is the womb of the play instinct, is generally followed by a period of reflection, doubt and criticism, something that in turn can easily bring about the destruction of the original state, unless a second and, as it were, skeptical kind of naivete tempers this critical phase. Today we have become much more aware of ourselves. A sense for standards and constants has arisen out of the unconscious and the chaotic." (82)

I think Schlemmer's idea of a 'skeptical kind of naivete' is helpful here when thinking about how, in this module, we can maintain a sense of naive playfulness but also engage in reflection and criticism about that playfulness without destroying it. The hope then is, that a sense of constants (which in our case would be the development of techniques, habits and understandings) would emerge.

Just some ideas. If you have the time or inclination, let me know what you think.

Walter Gropius (ed) The Theater of the Bauhaus. Trans. Arthur S. Wensinger. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.