Saturday, April 03, 2010

Performance, architecture, construction

[London Olympic Stadium under construction]

What are the intersections between performance, architecture and construction? Tim Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam provide a useful orientation in the introduction to Creativity and Cultural Improvisation (2007: 3-4). Here they write:
A famous modern architect designs a building, the like of which the world has never seen before. He is celebrated for his creativity. Yet his design will get no further than the drawing board or portfolio until the builders step in to implement it. Building is not straightforward. It takes time, during which the world will not stop still: when the work is complete the building will stand in an environment that could not have been envisioned when it started. It takes materials, which have properties of their own and are not predisposed to fall into the shapes and configurations required of them, let alone stay in them indefinitely. And it takes people, who have to make the most of their own skill and experience in order to cajole the materials into doing what the architect wants. In order to accommodate the inflexible design to the realities of a fickle and inconstant world, builders have to improvise all the way. There is a kink, as Stewart Brand writes, between the world and the architect's idea of it: 'the idea is crystalline, the fact fluid' (Brand 1994: 2). Builders inhabit that kink.
I've often heard it said that the backstage areas of theatres are like building sites, in that the sort of labour that goes on in both involves similar skills and practices, similar working conditions and dangers. Both sites of labour necessitate precise timing and scheduling, the meeting of deadlines and the skillful handling and processing of materials. Would it be productive to think further about the intersections between theatres and building sites or, more specifically, between the act of performance and the act of construction? It strikes me that approaching construction from the perspective of performance might shed light on why construction and building are so little considered or discussed in wider culture. Building sites are often treated as eyesores, simply necessary pains, rather than sites of becoming that are a central means through which we organize, arrange, mark and distribute the world in which we live. Perhaps the 'ontological queasiness' that Jonas Barish has identified as a part of what he dubs the 'anti-theatrical prejudice' might also influence our dominant views of construction and building.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Anne Bogart on attention

Here's a quote from Anne Bogart that I came across today. It's taken from a longer blog entry on her SITI Extended Ensemble website:
What we pay attention to creates our experience of the world and this experience, in turn, determines who we become. You see what you look for. We are always surrounded by a myriad of stimuli and information. Any given moment presents a great deal to chose from, multiple aspects of the world vying for our attention. Using the tool of our attention, we hone in on what is useful in the present moment. We have to because we cannot take everything in. Without limiting our attention, we would be afflicted by an overwhelming information overload. This is why each person experiences the same situation in vastly different ways; we each pay attention to different aspects of the world around us. Our attention can be habitual or scattered but it is possible to guide attention consciously via the brain’s executive function: the frontal cortex. Without consciously guiding attention, we are victim to our habitual perceptions of the world. Via habit, for example, we may zone in on the defeatist negative attractions around us, our sense of failure and ineptitude that multiplies and then becomes our reality. But, on the other hand, we can train ourselves to attend to the beautiful things waiting to be noticed. We can become curious and push the perceptions outward towards the surrounding world and society. We can see the miracle of life around us. We can be altered and saved by the situation in which we find ourselves.
In classes I find I'm constantly asking students to practice noticing and attending to aspects of their experience, and to attempt to describe or account for what they notice in as much detail as possible. What is it? What did you see? How was it done? This is based, in large part, on Al Wunder's 'Philosophy of Positive Feedback,' and it is, as Bogart explains, an attempt to train students (and myself) to be attentive, to notice, and to thereby seek out and focus on that which is most interesting, most intriguing, most beautiful.

It's also an important ethic when seeking to be sensitive to the impact and consequences of one's actions in the world. Drew Leder, writing in The Absent Body, explains how, in perceiving the world around us, our sensing bodies disappear, being ecstatic in nature and therefore absent, away from us. He finishes his chapter 'The Ecstatic Body' with a wonderful paragraph:
As I go through the day, my extended body ebbs and flows, now absorbing things, now casting them back onto shore. I do not notice my body, but neither do I, for the most part, notice the bed on which I sleep, the clothes I wear, the chair on which I sit down to breakfast, the car I drive to work. I live in bodies beyond bodies, clothes, furniture, room, house, city, recapitulating in ever expanding circles aspects of my corporeality. As such, it is not simply my surface organs that disappear but entire regions of the world with which I dwell in intimacy. (35)
The art I value most is that which reminds me of those regions of the world with which I dwell in intimacy and yet never seem to notice.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Looking at actors

[Sir Michael Gambon as Sir John Falstaff at the National Theatre 2005, Stuart Pearson Wright]

I'm re-working an article at present, in response to some reader's comments, and in doing so I've started reading Aoife Monks' The Actor in Costume (2009). This is rather timely given that I've just been to see Simon Annand's exhibition The Half, which Monks refers to in her opening chapter 'Dressing Rooms: The Actor's Body and Costume'. Discussing Stuart Pearson Wright's portrait of Michael Gambon and Edgar Degas' painting Actress in Her Dressing-Room (1879), Monks indicates the disappointment of such pictures which only seem to offer us an insight into actors and acting:
The problem that always undermines portraits of actors in their dressing rooms is that once actors are looked at - even if they appear not to notice - their activity turns into fictional labour, they still appear to be acting even if their averted gaze and their absorption in the task of dressing suggests otherwise. Dressing room portraits promise to reveal the mysteries of acting, but they end up perpetuating it further, making the private life of the actor all the more secretive and unknowable. The "real" actor is in the end a fantasy of portraits of dressing up. (33)
Backstage space is always implicitly depicted from a spectator's point of view. The portraits that Monks refers to are made for those whose access to backstage spaces is tinged with the thrill of transgression and who seek the real behind the imaginary. But what happens if we assume that the backstage is the normative orientation towards performance and attempt to view it, and the other spaces of theatre, as those who work there do? It's my contention that in the backstage actors (in the company of technicians, stage managers, etc.) produce space that accommodates their onstage performances and counters the uncertainty and transience of their own employment and the wearing, alienating machinery of commodity theatre. This is a tactics of coping, a means of maintaining a sustainable artistic practice by producing recuperative spaces where their needs can be met. And it has nothing to do with how they are perceived by spectators, but how they perceive themselves.