This relatively recent development was presented as grounds for debate at the LUX / ICA Biennial of Moving Images, where a panel discussion on Theatricality and Staging considered contemporary approaches to representing the body and language through performance and theatricality in film and video. Chaired by curator Bridget Crone, debates unfolded around the concept of “staging”. The contributions from the panellists – artist Beatrice Gibson, curator Vanessa Desclaux, Pil & Galia Kollectiv, and Crone – subsequently inform the basis of this text. Moving beyond the rubric of the biennial by examining practices absent from its programme enables a wider consideration of theatricality in film to take place. Here, I examine the role performative documentation plays in problematising boundaries between stage and screen, and take into account the shadowy position of the viewer, who recedes from view as the dialectic between stage and screen changes.
Vito Acconci, ‘Undertone’, 1972, video
As a foreground to contemporary trends, it is necessary to take a retrospective look at the initial incorporation of performative gestures in early video art, as in the recorded actions of Acconci and Joan Jonas, who preclude contemporary configurations of theatricality in film via their own video-based transformations. Repeatedly turning the camera on himself, Acconci’s physically charged videos stage performative acts of confrontation and technological manipulation in a bid to transform the relationship between audience, artist and public space. In his recoding of Undertone (1972), Acconci appears before the camera, seated at a table, murmuring a cyclical fantasy of a girl caressing his lower body. At episodic intervals, his delusion is interrupted by asking the camera, “I need you to be there, sitting there, facing me.” Appealing to an audience beyond the fourth wall of the monitor challenges the status of the viewer as a passive consumer of sensations. But Acconci’s audience is not necessary here. Rather, the camera suffices as Acconi’s totemic witness, a prototype of the Youtube broadcasting, performing for a scopic lens that has no regard for an audience.
Joan Jonas, ‘Glass Puzzle’, 1973, video
The technological advancement of television also provides a central concern for Jonas, who recalls, “every move was for the monitor”. Frequently employing the aesthetic trope of recording from video playback, first seen in Vertical Roll (1972) in which the artist plays jump-rope with out-of-sync electrical frequencies rolling across a monitor screen, Jonas takes this giddy ruse further by producing spatial illusions and complex mirror-play in the single channel black and white video Glass Puzzle (1973). In the video, two mute female protagonists are projected live in and across the surface of a single monitor. It has an aesthetic of double-exposure: inside the screen of the monitor plays a video recording of female figures enacting a series of embodied gestures; while another camera simultaneously records physical actions and impressions taking place in the domestic space around it (walking, windows, furniture, movement), and the image of this action reflecting across the monitors screen used like a mirror. Transposing spatial reflections and motion on top of abstract, sculptural light and dark photogram sequences, Glass Puzzle situates the monitor as both surface for performative presentation – a physical object for video transmission.
Thirty years on, and the orchestration of performance continues to inform contemporary film and video, moving beyond the singularity of the televisual feedback to produce temporary communities via a host of incorporated theatrical devices. This engagement has expanded beyond a mere preoccupation with contemporary technologies (for Acconci and Jonas such technology was, of course, the newly available Portapak video camera), but also in a range of media that includes the near-obsolescent. Rosalind Nashashibi’s meta-theatrical 16mm films often appear to initially document the daily lives of others. But more than that, her films posit allusions to theatre, through the repeated examination with the ritual of rehearsal. In Jack Straw’s Castle (2009), the pre-performance preparations of a film crew setting up equipment on location emerges as grounds for phenomenological interrogation, while the uncanny aspect of actors going through the motions is distilled in the photographic series In Rehearsal (2009).
Nashashibi’s most recent work migrates its focus from theatre to dance; yet still focusing on the unconsummated rituals of (non) performance, by examining the collision of private and public realms in Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies)(2012). Filmed entirely in the privacy of the Scottish National Ballet studios, Nashashibi’s camera renders the liminal space for rehearsal into public spectacle, studying the stiff interaction between groups of locals invited into the space to quietly observe company dancers practising their routines. The slow gaze of the camera enhances the disparity between these two realities colliding in a single, communal space, punctured with scenes of ‘ordinariness’ as snippets of casual mid-rehearsal conversation between performers and passive voyeurs are surreptitiously caught on camera.
Although contrived, this public intrusion into the microcosmic world of dance engenders an act of exposure, the film camera acting as the coiled rope pulling away the stage curtain to reveal the ritual of rehearsal and the site of the studio as a space of transgression, where mistakes are permitted and identities are in flux. An interesting triangulation between performers and viewers also emerges. Scrutiny is diverted away from the dancers and towards the faces of non-performing spectators, thus making way for a third dimension of voyeurism: our own, the film audience. Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies) interrogates not only the ambiguity of performance, but also disturbs codes of appropriate behaviour, professionalism of the dancers is put on edge through slip ups and errors, the informal, environment of the studio transformed into a theatrical arena via the hushed silence of intruding guests. For Nashashibi, this portrait of rehearsal examines the “metamorphical moment when you are neither fully fictionalised nor within your own ‘real’ self”. We witness a passing between personas.
Similar ritualised aspects of performance are also exposed in video documentation of performance artist Giles Bailey’s reworkings of the monologue script. Often culminating in gallery-based presentations, Bailey meshes moving image with theatricality by collaging an esoteric range of cultural references, relating to cinema, literature and the visual realm into complex, scripted soliloquies. In performance, the artist is transformed into an anti, or alter-historical raconteur, meshing criticality with melodrama as he recites alternative narratives on fictitious mid-century scientists, French New Wave cinema, or the derailed sexual fantasies of iconic video artists.
Restaging Acconci’s Undertone (1972), Bailey’s video-performance All Whirlwind, Heat, and Flash (Undertone), (2011) constructs a counter narrative for the exploited female figure evoked in Acconci’s original masturbatory fantasy. Bailey performs alongside a monitor that displays Undertone without the original soundtrack. A stereo performance/projection directly intercepts history. Bailey’s new script is seductive, initially employing sensuous language that indulges Acconci’s libidinal desire. But as the character portrait unfolds, so do the cinematic clichés: “it was all whirlwind, heat, and flash”. A passionate counter narrative of love, betrayal, murders and car chases between Acconci and his female phantasm fill the void of Acconci’s silenced voiceover. As Bailey notes, theatrical modes of writing can offer the possibility of the script as a site for historical intervention.
Although not unique in contemporary practices (with text-based performance similarly negotiated in the dramaturgical writings of Cally Spooner, and the tangential narratives of Alexandre Singh’s acetate lectures), Bailey’s subtle use of staging during performance aligns his work with the physical conventions of theatre, in both text and production. Seated in front of a stepladder, lighting reflector, and other strange props, lends the video documentation of All Whirlwind, Heat, and Flash (Undertone) a Brechtian anti-illusionary aesthetic, returning the site of the event to the informality of the rehearsal, where performance is a work in progress, incomplete and open to interventions.
While considering the function of more prosaic aspects of theatricality in performance documentation and moving image, it seems necessary to return to the dialectical conception of the ‘stage’, as explored during the talk Theatricality and Staging. Crone prefaced the discussion by quoting from the interview ‘A Theatre of Operations’between philosopher Alain Badiou and Elie During. In the interview Badiou asserts, “I think that there is a theatre when there is a public exhibition, with or without a stage”, thus cleaving open the possibility for conceiving of theatre, or theatricality in general, within the unrestricted spatial and temporal remits of moving image. He continues:
“Theatre is a complex ordering system whose material series is not set in stone: texts of course but bodies, costumes, the set, the site, music, light.”
A myriad of mutable theatrical facets engender, as Crone pointed out, opportunities for
“complicating and re-imagining the division between body and image, between what is experience and what is imagined, what is immediate and what is mediated, and what is live and what is not-live.”
The convergence of staging, script and set and costume design can be read within a multitude of contemporary artistic practice. For Grace Schwindt, the development of a fictionalised script for her most recent film Tenant (2012) allows for a dramaturgical re-enactment of her own traumatic family history to take place. Staging and filming domestic scenarios to construct a visual portrait of the tenant of a family apartment, Schwindt presents a conflicted account of Mrs Schumacher, a communist who facilitated the travel of Vladimir Lenin to post-revolution Russia in 1917. Employing an ambitious sculptural visual language, Schwindt explores the construction of social relations and knowledge production through variously fabricated means of articulation.
While used to different ends, Schwindt’s methodology shares a similar logic to collaborative duo Pil and Galia Kollectiv’s argument that the dialectic of the stage can enable a repositioning performative expression. The collective’s theatrical modes of staging (both in moving image and live performance), are thematically based on the didactic agitprop theatre of early modernism, and borrow from the ideological aesthetic of Russian Constructivism. As invited panel speakers for Theatricality and Staging, the pair conceived the dialectic of the stage from the perspective of a post-Fordist worker, seeking to change the political hierarchy essentially at play in conventional modes of theatre, and evidenced in their own productions, Asparagus: A Horticultural Ballet(2007) and No Haus Like Bau, (2008), among others.
In her edited text The Sensible Stage: Staging and the Moving Image, Crone underpins her survey of staging and moving image in contemporary art by defining the stage as platform for aesthetic transformation:
“Staging becomes a means for re-thinking and re-configuring the relationship between body and image, between immediate experience and mediated information, between projected image and performed body, and between the stage and the screen.”
But, in the context of the biennial, Crone’s focus on “staging” limits wider engagement with moving image practices working in the interstices of the screen and theatre. As Badiou determines, “theatre is when there is a public exhibition, with or without a stage.” A broader discussion should therefore incorporate an expanded appreciation of theatricality in film, video, and other modes of performative documentation – from the stage direction in Grace Schwindt’s recent works, to recordings of speech-based performances of Giles Bailey, video and performance artist Sharon Hayes and Cally Spooner, or the role of dramatic re-enactment in the films of Duncan Campbell and Emily Wardill, to name just a few. While the biennial cannot comprehensively include all aspects of expanded cinema practices, particular those operating between stage and screen, it is nevertheless vital to take a wider perspective on how ‘stage’ and ‘theatre’ are conceptualised across artists’ film and video, to bend the critical framework of ‘theatre’, ‘liveness’ in order for radical modes of performative representation to emerge.