Sep 16, 2012

Not long after the cataclysmic events of 9/11, I launched a series of one-on-one conversations between myself and various artists and theater people I admired. Open to the general public, the talks took place in the SITI Company studio in midtown, Manhattan. I did not know that these conversations would fulfill a palpable need for substantive discussion in a room with no separation between the audience and the speakers. We all sat in the same light, breathed the same air and followed thoughts as they developed through the art of conversation. The event was, for lack of a better word, “acoustic” or “unplugged. Nothing in the presentation was enhanced or amplified in any sense of the word.

I never prepared a list of questions for my guest. I followed the thread of themes and subjects as they emerged and developed and I tracked meanings arising between us. In challenging times, spectacle takes the back seat in favor of the human need for intimacy and exchange. The post 9/11 days were saturated by spectacle and display. The constant replay of planes flying into buildings, too reminiscent of action films, felt numbing and hallucinogenic. The “acoustic” encounters that became known as “Conversations with Anne,” (now published by TCG as a book of the same name) provided an alternative to the dominant culture. We circled around the charged space of conversation and encounter. Always, the discussion opened out to include questions and thoughts from those assembled.

I, as others, crave aliveness. I want to be challenged and feel present and participatory. I long for adventure and meetings in a charged atmosphere. But what is aliveness? What constitutes a real meeting beyond the habitual co-existence with others or the mediated relationships of social media? When does an authentic adventure begin?

First, it is important not to be alone, to be breathing the same air with others, sharing the sensation of moments of being together. Ultimately we find meaning in our relation to others. And it is the search for meaning keeps us from living in fear. Without meaning we tend to give up, we fall into repetitive patterns. The senses shut down, we live in fear and resentment, and routine replaces living. We start the process of closing down and hardening that leads to death.

We need to breathe the same air and share the sensations of living-through moments of being together. Solitary confinement is the worst prison sentence because isolation has been shown to cause significant damage to mental health. But isn’t it possible to be isolated in the prison of one’s own daily life?

In 1972, Jerzy Grotowski published a manifesto entitled Holiday, which ushered in what became known as his paratheatrical phase. He began to distance himself from the conventional theater and he attempted instead to transcend the separation between audience and actors. Rather than spectacle, he was interested in the potential for human co-presence and exchange within a specific context. The word holiday is a translation from the Polish “swieto.”” Rather than vacation or time-off-work, “swieto” refers to the notion of the exceptional, the holy, sacred, or special. Perhaps, closer to “holy day.” In Holiday Grotowski introduced his vision of “active culture,” a field in which participants, rather than creating new productions, worked towards co-creating encounters exemplified by “collective effervescence.”

It is not theater that is indispensable but: to cross the frontiers between you and me; to come forward to meet you, so that we do not get lost in the crowd – or among words or in declarations, or among the beautifully precise thoughts. (Jerzy Grotowski)

Generally, I participate in and gravitate towards a theater that speaks through metaphor. The problem for me with the paratheatrical impulse was its propensity to abandon metaphor for direct experience. And yet what binds both the theater and the paratheatrical experiences seems to be the eternal human search for meaning. Without meaning we fall into repetitive patterns. Whether between actors or between actor and audience, what does it “mean” to approach one another in a pure sense? The meaning emerges in the encounter.

In our present cultural moment, it is vital to be alert to the isolation and the desensitization of the spirit that we are prone to in our media-saturated culture and then to find alternatives. In a world of commerce and meritocracy we find ourselves disconnected from one another, obsessed with material gain and the accumulation of prestige. What does it mean to approach one another with awareness in the energized space of a meeting outside of the world of commerce?

Guy DeBord, in his seminal book The Society of the Spectacle (1967), proposed an antidote to the deadening impact of capitalist spectacle in what he named “constructed situations,” which calls on artists to create moments that conjoin people out of passivity, rendering them the co-creator of what promises to be, according to DeBord, a less mediocre life. The situations are temporary and highly dependent upon context. The Occupy Wall Street movement is a great proponent of constructed situations, calling for specific collective actions to happen at significant crossroads of global culture. The organizers announce a time and a place for constructed situations at, for example, a traffic intersection connecting to a commercial bridge, a bank, or a factory. People gravitate to these places and participate within this context. There is no prescribed narrative. What happens is spontaneous and mostly unscripted.

Perhaps the most interesting current practitioner of DeBord’s notion of “constructed situations” is the young Anglo-German artist Tino Sehgal who is currently animating the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London (July 24-October 28, 2012) every day from opening till closing with a constructed situation entitled These Associations. In the massive Turbine Hall, fifty or so “interpreters” move through the space together, alternating between walking and then moving in what seems reminiscent of the Viewpoints “Flow” exercise. The enormous hall ebbs and flows with the physical and vocal energy of the participants and the visitors. Occasionally the “interpreters,” who Segal chose from all ages and walks of life, break off to speak with the visitors. Apparently the subject of the discussion follows four possible themes: Moments when they had experienced either a sense of arrival, a sense of belonging, a sense of satisfaction, or a sense of dissatisfaction with themselves.

One of the most interesting aspects of Sehgal’s work is his stated attempt to redefine art as “the transformation of actions rather than things.” He wonders, in the occasion of his creations, if something that is not an inanimate object can be considered valuable. He does not consider this work to be “performance” and he is insistent that it takes place in the context of a museum rather than a theater. In an establishment that places value in objects, he offers an alternative. He organizes the framework in which aliveness and inter-relatedness between people might exist. He creates situations in which singular, ephemeral interactions might occur.

While museums and galleries generally place value upon objects, the theater tends to value marquee-named actors, spectacle, dramatic tension and journeys made possible by narratives. For the price of a ticket, you may enter the sanctuary to witness the virtuosity of the storytelling, the acting and the stagecraft. But in order not to get lost in the visual and aural noise, perhaps we need to regularly return to the essence and heartbeat of the theater: the creative relationship between the audience members and the actors. Like musicians who intermittently revert to acoustic sessions or Dogma filmmakers who decided to put strict limits on their methods, excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology, the theater can remember what it is by celebrating its analogue and unplugged nature.

The essence of our art form is perishable, ephemeral and temporary. Existing only in the time set aside for its occasion, it is dependent upon the intelligence, flexibility and adventurousness of the assembled. Perhaps it is necessary to safeguard and encourage the intrinsic fragility of the art form.