Design And Performance Lab
Jane M. Gaines " On Wearing the Film",
in Bruzzi, Stella and Pamela Church Gibson, eds., Fashion Cultures. London: Routledge, 2000.
Hal Foster, Prosthetic Gods, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Marquard Smith & Joanne Morra, eds., The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
Thomas Oberender, "More Presence on Stage" (Theater Heute 2004)
Diedrich Diederichsen, "The Idiot with the Video Camera" (Theater Heute 2004)
Silvia Stammen, "When Images lernt to how act" (Theater Heute 2007)
Mark Hansen, "Embodiment: The Machinic and the Human," (aRt&R: Artistic Research and Development, 2005)
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, London: Routledge, 1962.
introductory readings on performance and video projection space:
More Presence on Stage
To see means to decide: on the impact of video on the theatre, the doubled view with the camera, and different functions of video on stage.
One of the fascinations of theatre is the attempt of its actors to create an event (something that happens in the moment), something event-ful, which at the same time it threatens to destroy in the process of production. Often plays and performances seem to aim at a very particular, unique moment, in which something very "real" takes place. This heightened moment appears as a particular accomplishment of something that has been rehearsed and planned, and now suddenly is transformed into a moment of revealing evidence. The essential ambition of each artform is probably directed at the production of such moments which are not producible in a calculated manner.
Falk Richter, "Electronic City"
I see myself seeing
In the dictionary entry under "video" we find the explanation that the word is derived from Latin, and means "I see." Video is a kind of optical recorder, and its great advantage is that I can see immediately what I see. The immediate availability of the image allows that it can be linked instantly and directly to the moment of its production, it can almost become at one with this moment. With video the image can for the first time become a part of the present moment (presence), in which it is generated, since it is its live witness, and even more so, it is its "real-time" result
At this point one remembers particular scenes in Frank Castorf's productions [at the Berlin Volksbühne where Castorf is artistic director], one remembers the simultaneous presence of the actor as a person on stage along with her or his image projection. But one also remembers Paul Virilio's preoccupations with the real-time technology of contemporary warfare, the green and gray flickering video images of missiles automatically seeking and aiming at their targets. Here the same aspect of video technology is fulfilled: action and reaction occur in the same moment, and one experiences the phenomenon of the "event" happening.
Video as a technology thus allows that we can produce an image of our own actuality: the image becomes a part of this actual reality. The video image thus becomes a feedback mechanism of the reality in which it is embedded. A good example of this is the memory one has of the first time one suddendly saw one's own image on a monitor in an electronics store or shopping mall which had been captured by a hidden camera. The passer-by on the street - it was me, and this recognition usually causes a reaction in us, even if it is only a short, critical look at our own image on the monitor to check how one appears or how one looks, independent from the fact how one feels. This trivial example takes us close to the Latin meaning of the term video,' since this I see' means, in actuality, "I see myself', or more precisely, "I see myself seing."
The transitory character of video
When we reflect on the use of video in the theatre, we can distinguish two fundemantal strategies in which it is used: 1) the projection of prerecorded footage (film projection), and 2) live production (real time video projection or synthesis). In the first case we see video in its relationship to film, namely used as the projection of prerecorded or found footage. Video in this case is the poor cousin of classical film, which it reproduces as a video copy or as sampled and edited version of a movie. Basically this is not so different from traditional uses of film in the theatre, in the way in which Erwin Piscator at the beginning of the 20th century had used film projection on the proscenium. Video most often appears in contemporary theatre as such video copy. There is no difference to the use of film, apart from the fact that video is cheaper and more easily accessible.
Interestingly, a number of movies today are professionally produced as video, since often television productions have to be cost effective and completed quickly, for example in the music video, soap opera and porn movie markets. These productions have an extremely transitory character, their transitoriness is written into them, they are made to be instantly replaced by others. Although these video genres are not often seen on the theatre stage, they have left their mark on the theatre since they have created a certain aesthetic which has become the dominant style in popular and commercial culture. Video production in this sense has created its own aesthetic language, in which art and nonart, professionality and dilettantism, the fake and the authentic, spontaneity and market imperatives, experiment and lack of ambition mingle freely. What would pop music be without music video? Without video no trash, no soaps, no reality TV, and no René Pollesch or Wooster Group (without trying to use a value judgement now). In this sense, the transitory and democratic culture of pulp video has left clear traces in the theatre.
The live creation of video images in the theatre, in contradistinction to the use of precorded footage, fascinates us because the real-time projection of filmed action on a screen onstage opens a second, rival "scene". The first production in which I observed this use of video was Fred Kelemen's staging of "Desire" (after Eugene O'Neill's "Desire under the Elms") at the Prater, Berlin Volksbühne, in 2001. Bert Neumann had created a unfied stage design for the entire season - the set of a Western, with a farm in midst of a cactus desert, and with a huge screen in the background on which classical Western landscapes from old movies were projected. Thus, the live action onstage and the projected film scenes began to compete with each other for the "right image." Above the roof of the farmhouse, furthermore, there was a second screen attached, much like an advertising billboard. On this billboard Kelemen showed the live video (or certain prerecorded scenes) of the actions that were taking place inside the house. But here the director goes one step further: After Abbie, performed by Kathrin Angerer, begins her seductive temptation to attract the desire of both father and son, she disappears as a real stage person and from now on only appears as the desirable woman (projection) on the screen. The tension between the stage characters now shifts toward the tension between the action onstage and the action on screen.
Video as an observational and documentary medium, which is constantly tracking us, from the money dispensing machines to the airport, shows itself here from another side: as a seducer arousing, grabbing and captivating our desire. The projections, with which O'Neill's characters relate to each other, are transfered by Kelemen to the screen as mirror of the characters' self-projections. The drama of narcissism has found its ideal medium in video. Kelemen's dramaturgy, in using multiple presences of stage actions (onstage mingled with live video and prerecorded video onscreen), thus created a liminal situation, a threshold between near and far, presence and absence, directness and indirectness, narcissistic self-observation and surveillance of the other.
The drama of seeing
Similarly, Frank Castorf's production of Dostojevsky's "Erniedrigte und Beleidigte" (The Humiliated and the Offended ) shows how video generates images in real time and splits this real-time into two simultaneous conditions which rival with one another; they do not become synthesized in this production but remain contrastive. The reaction of the screen to the stage action provokes an awareness, how the perceptional process of the viewer is a decision-making process which essentially produces her or his "truth" or "reality". Like the stage sets of Bert Neumann, which relocate the stage action into closed rooms from where it can only be seen via video transmission and thus put the viewer into a situation in which she can fundamentally only see fragments (selections) of the action, in the same way the live video images also point to the fact that "seeing" is an active, world-producing or reality-producing process. This drama of seeing corresponds on the thematic level with the world view of Dostojevski's characters experienced as existentialist drama. With this explicit dramatization of perceptional processes, Castorf responds to the implicit dramaturgy of Dostojevsky's subject matter -- the actors do not experience themselves as sovereign subjects, but see their becoming-guilty as purely a matter of being in this world, since this world has no Being that remains independent from their existence. The live video accentuates this dual nature of Being.
As video is considered culturally as objectifying surveillance media on the one hand, and as media that can translate our desire for the other - for example in MTV, or in pornography, but also in such video installations as Samuel Taylor Woods' recent work - it is particularly well suited to our search for the "real", since its "real-time" character and its "profanity" allow it to become a part of the reality it depicts. It penetrates into spaces where it makes itself forgotten again. But through its presence, actual reality becomes simultaneously objective and subjective. In this space of interference, "human beings" (humanity) in Frank Castorf's production of "Erniedrigte und Beleidigte" reveal themselves. But not only in this production: the model reality of the small TV societies which expose themselves to public viewing in the "Big Brother" or "Superstar" Reality-TV laboratories is characterized by a similar oscillation of its inner condition, since these laboratories show us human beings who perform their social survival in a self-conscious manner as well with the awareness that they are observed. They live under the conditions of the show, as if viewers were not present, and the TV viewers see them living as if their lives were only a show. In front of the video camera, the behavior of the chosen performers (the tested, the guinea pigs) is at once public as well as intimate; it is determined by both calculation and authenticity, driven by money but also by souls and the will of the people, always both ways, always inextricably entwining the presence, the Now of the event, with the anticipation of its effect.
Thus the TV-laboratories create "transparency" for spontaneous moments through the procedure of "enclosing" or embedding the people in a locked space -- it is a procedure that Bert Neumann's stage design refers to. When in these Reality TV-laboratories, and in the constant tension between competition and need for community, between a sense of self and a calculated sense of one's effect on others, moments or flashes of true insight into the depths of the characters of these candidates occur, then such moments are ultimately those which such constant media surveillance is trying to tease out. One could argue that the actual testing in these "laboratories" is not about discrete and detachable characteristics or capabilities, such as knowledge or athleticism, but "humanness" in general, woman and man as total resource.
This testing corresponds to recent Castorf productions in which the actor has been made "transparent" through video. The reality in these stagings is the effect of quite different fields of ambivalence: strategies of performance include the authentic innocence of an amateur actress within a professional theatre production which uses the effect of this "authenticity", along with the interference of sensual and erotic seductiveness (porn movies projected on the screen) and intellectual provocation (monolog downstage). Live video is here only one dimension of a staging which aims at using various simultaneous and antagonistic effects.
Frank Castorf, directing his adaptation of "Erniedrigte und Beleidigte" (Dostoyevski) at Volksbühne Berlin
Bert Neumann has developed stage designs which are unthinkable without the use of live video projections. To exaggerate a little, one could almost speak in this connection of a "spatial revolution" of theatre space through the use of video projection. The forced intimacy of the stage life of those city dwellers and suburbanites (in the plays) is created through our observation of the camera's observation of their actions. In this case the spatial inventions of Neumann's design for "Erniedrigte und Beleidigte" or for Dostojevsky's "The Idiot" require the use of live video, but these images do not create the spaces, they only allow us to peak inside them. The images used in the Volksbühne productions are not digitally manipulated, they use no additional effects. The video here shows what I cannot see, and it establishes an unresolved or unredeemed reality next to reality; the simultaneous impact of this consists of the alternative, and autonomous character of these realities. Video dissociates the action.
It is quite different with Matthias Hartmann (Bochum Theatre) - here video appears to be an integrative means which concentrates all elements to one unified impact. Matthias Hartmann in this sense creates highly complex integrated works of art whose effectiveness impresses us through a kind of purified illusionism. These stagings are romantic, in the sense of Friedrich Schlegel, since they completely reveal the construction of their suggestiveness, and they self-consciously refer to the artificiality of their reality. In Hartmann's premieres of Albert Ostermaier's "Es ist Zeit. Abriss" and "Deutschland, deine Lieder," and in his stagings of Christian Kracht's novel "1979" and Falk Richter's play "Electronic City", live video is used in combination with film projections and recorded footage, and it predominantly becomes a space-creating medium which generates a stage reality which could not be created in conventional ways and also could not have its own existence.
The screen becomes the dominant scene which absorbs the entire material which is produced by the actors and camera operators, and which synthesizes this material on a higher level. For example, in the staging of "1979" one actor wanders through the villa of a millionaire, and this walk is created through superimposition of his own image with images that are created by means of another actor leafing through an architectural magazine whose design photographs are filmed live by a camera person: these filmed images become projections of architectonic space for the walk on screen.
Matthias Hartmann's premiere staging of "Electronic City" takes this principle even further by locating the entire action in a blue box and by using several screens to mix the real time images of the actors with live recorded image-illusions of realistic spaces, superimposed and collaged with other filmic materials and computer simulations. The screen is the integrating "stage", the scene which combines the action on stage with the simulated images. The perception of this synthesis is rivalled by the live action of its generation in front of the cameras. An additional doubling is created by the use of two parallel screens on stage right and left, which show the synthesis from two differing perspectives, for example by separating the image of the seeing actor from the POV image of what the actor sees. The live video projections, created by the video team directed by Stephan Komitsch and Peer Engelbracht, thus appear as a virtual form of the design and as a hyper-scene (hyper text). The neutral stage space of the blue box is defined as a zero space without any narrative dimension: it becomes a stage which is "played upon" in an entirely new sense.
Dissociation or open synthesis
This method of using video images can be said to create a "playful" reality which shows up how it is created artificially, while it also offers itself to be experienced as an "open" illusion. Here too the use of live video creates an epic dimension of the dramatic action, but in a rather different way from the productions of Fred Kelemen and Frank Castorf. To use a paradoxical formulation: Matthias Hartmann's productions of "1979" and "Electronic City" develop a precise hermeticism precisely through their use of such an "epic" technology of live video, as the narrative dimension of video becomes dominant and without competition - neither the stage space nor the actions of the actors have a reality besides the one created through the video. The simultaneous actions do not problematize each other, but generally happen only for the intended synthesis as a total effect. In achieving this, the closed hermeticism of the staging becomes nearly invisible or unnoticeable through the complete transparency of its production: the video technician at the editing controls (computer) sits in midst of the audience, the camera persons and his assistants work with handheld camera directly on the open stage, and the actors are clearly interacting with each other as well as with the camera.
The heightened control atmosphere, which is created through such use of video technology as a determined regime of timings, positions, angles and precise shots, appears to considerably reduce the levels of freedom in the performance of the actors, whereas the levels of freedom of perception in general are raised. Different from Castorf's productions, the video in Matthias Hartmann's work creates a central perspective through which the whole staging is directed: the video image and the simultaneous process of its production is clearly the horizon line of this staging, from the beginning. Within this constellation the actor behaves functionally - from the perspective of the video his or her acting is only another form of video sampling and rendering/projection. The total constellation of this complex and multi-layered construction functions well, since the tensions or ruptures within the processes, which are set in motion by the actor's performance and his/her re-encounter with his/her images, are not thematized by the actor, and thus do not have a thematic dimension in the performance as a whole but are resolved and fused by the open synthesis of all stage components.
In the productions of Frank Castorf and Matthias Herrmann the reality of the video images always show a different reality from the live scene on stage. In the stagings of Matthias Herrmann, however, the actions do not irritate each other; rather, the use of video projection completely closes off the world of the performance (the staged world) from the spontaneous experiences of the performers. This closed hermeticism of the staging at the same time hides behind the almost perfect transparency of its production -- everything is made visible and observable. Stage designer Volker Hintermeier built installation landscapes for "Es ist Zeit. Abriss", "Deutschland, deine Lieder," or "1979" which exhibit all objects openly, and thus refer to the screen as a membrane and an integrative scene within the scene. Therefore the spatial designs in these productions do not show any social spaces but only medial spaces without a fourth wall: in a certain sense they remain empty and only come to life when they are "mediated" through images.
Lived cubism and vivisection
The inverse principle characterizes the stage designs of Bert Neumann (Berlin) - here the stage sets close with a fourth wall, and create a space which is not open and transparent to our view but at first appear closed. What is offered (hidden) by the stage set has to be discovered slowly by the viewer - in following the action on stage the viewer makes acquaintance with distances and depth, with the fundamental fragmentariness and selectiveness of the shown , and with its fundamental recalcitrance. The stage sets of Bert Neumann create their own form of reality, since they are based on the disruption of the sovereign viewpoint, for example by splitting the focus and perspective into different viewpoints which do no longer allow for a central, unified perspective. Video artist Jan Speckenbach, who has worked in many of Castorf's more recent stage productions, called the method of using real time video a kind of "lived cubism" - I translate this as a revealing of multi-layered actions within the plane and the simultaneity of images. The stage in this case shows different views through diverse ways of seeing - and the effect is always only a patchwork of selected views, never generalized as a totality. Out of this fragmentation of perspectives, these partial views and their rupture points, a simultaneous collage of discrepant ways of seeing is created. Jan Speckenbach's video transmissions place the dissociated aspects of the action side by side, and thus inevitably split the moment into dynamic and conflicting components. This method creates what one could call a disturbance of impressions, and through its erros it provokes the success of the event.
A staging which is as hermetic as Matthias Hartmann's "Electronic City", on the other hand, must rely on a very smooth functioning of its procedures, since all disturbances threaten the illusion of this romantic mode of production which self-assuredly points to its complete artificiality. Disruptions within the situations generated by video are rather unromantic glitches which are not commented upon or used but smoothed over. Thus the characters within the open spaces of Matthias Hartmann's stagings tend to look much more locked in than in the enclosed and encapsulated spaces of Frank Castorf. In a staging such as Castorf's adaptation of Dostojevsky's "Erniedrigte und Beleidigte," the real-time video shows us the "other side" - it brings into the foreground or into view what (as Castorf argues) the actors cannot or do not want to see by themselves.
The actor is here subjected, via the eye of the camera, to a second examination: does she lie or does she not lie? The video camera extends the grip of the system to the furthest corners and nooks of the stage life, and creates an experimental situation in which the oscillations of reality turn the actor into someone who is tested within a heightened social scenario: privacy and professionalism, freedom and constraint, deceit and honesty, all of these aspects become amalgamated inextricably in a reality which does not allow an outside objectivity that could grant reliable judgement. The actor is made transparent in Castorf's productions, while in Hartmann's case we have a stage made transparent, and Castorf's actor appears more vulnerable than ever, as does Hartmann's stage. The actor is vulnerable in front of the zoom of the lens on a doubled live stage, more so than ever appeared possible in traditional theatre. Any kind of acting method we remember from this theatre, any particularly drastic theatre rituals, manically rehearsed choral-choreographic dramas or provocative nudity on the boards of the old theatre appears almost philanthropic, mild and literary compared to the harsh vivisection through live video. But Castorf seems to have this forceful politics of viewing as his main objective: there are literally different stakes. The form seems to protect the actor, but under the conditions of our contemporary suburban and city dwellings everything becomes video-form, and thus the actions of the performers in "Erniedrigte und Beleidigte" come to feel existential as rarely experienced in the theatre.
Self-irritation and different conditions of perception.
The notion of "disturbance" or self-irritation also marks an important aspect in this, if one wants to move from the epic effect of real-time video, for example its transparency of production, the creation of a double scene within the scene, and the oscillation of perception, to a further differentiation. While the synthetic illusionism of Matthias Hartmann's stagings develops, thanks to the use of live video, a heightened suggestiveness of the action that is based on the integrative effect of video projection, the use of live video in Castorf's production has a rather dissociative effect on the stage action: it specifically increases the heterogenous motives in the action by enlarging its self-disruptive moments.
Thus the use of real time video seems to enable a dramatiziation of epic material whose conflicts can perhaps no longer be personalized (in a psychological sense). The narrative adaptations created by Frank Castorf and Matthias Hartmann would appear strangely banal or less complex, if they were robbed of their video dimensions, and this means that the dramatic sensations in these stagings rely to a large extent not on the tension between characters (characterization), but on the tension between character on stage and character on the screen. In this new forcefield opened up by live video, the actor is obviously not only subject but also object, and therefore it suddenly becomes possible on stage to present other, more abstractly operating forces of the social and the political, for which the novel always seemed to be the primary medium in its epic mode of narration and its freedom to range between times, places and points of view.
Live video creates a climate of roaming, vagabond viewing and of multiple scenic presences, among which the actor moves within different perceptional conditions. The romanesque narrative form of such video stagings therefore is not accidentally connected to the director's adapations of novels.
After the strategies of ironic irritation of the relation between actor and role, for example in the well-known manner of "stepping outside the role," and after the intertextual perforations of the dramatic text, now the use of live video in the theatre seems to shift the distanciation effect (Verfremdungseffekt) to another level. The doubled view, which is always created through the use of video projection, seems to achieve in a very subtle manner that the performer appears, and must appear, relatively unbroken in her immediate action, since her identity as a character in the live screen projection already suffers from an irritation in the overall effect. There is a tendency, then, that the play with the split identity of the character shifts from the actor herself to the spectator and her perception of a doubled reality. Thus on a higher level an "identity" of the actor's relation to her character may become possible again, although such a process of course would lack any unselfconscious naiveté.
The splitting of the view, the spontaneous feedback mechanisms between performer and the performed, the roaming vagabond viewpoints, or the problematization of seeing and understanding --- all this appears to give the use of real time video in the theatre a tremendous capability for enforcing the drama of seeing. It is our perception, which generates the world - we are reminded of this by the doubled gaze of the real-time camera on the stage. Potentially such alternative viewing offers the chance to make visible what gets out of control, whenever in the theatre control is executed. The roaming view of the camera person at his viewfinder promises the testimony, the real-time presence of the event on stage. Thus the use of real time video grants the special opportunity to heighten the theatre staging and translate it into a presence whose highly concentrated simultaneities open up perception to a degree of freedom and to ways of cognition which would not otherwise be possible.
Translated by Johannes Birringer
From the special issue "Theatre und Video," in TheaterHeute, April 2004, pp.19 -26.
The Idiot with the Video Camera
Theatre is not media, but it uses some.
Among the numerous end of the year lists of best productions and best actors which were published in December 2003 one could also find a desperate note from a Berlin critic: under the rubric "wishes for 2004" she stated that perhaps just once in the new year the Berlin Volksbühne could resist using video projections on stage.
What caused this lament? It would hardly be conceivable that someone cried out demanding that the Volksbühne resist at least once this year using any actors, or using any music. But video projections still seem to be an alien body in contemporary theatre, and this seems to be assumed without any need for explanations. What is worth discussing from the perspective of the theatre and its critics seems to be the question whether, and to what extent this alien body is allowed to appear in stage, not whether video is to be regarded generally as alien to theatre. The critics' irritation about the use of video in productions refers to the fact the video cannot yet be counted among the constant theatre technologies, and that it is rather perceived as a particular "director's concept", thus to be counted among the variables. Such variables begin to make critics nervous when they are repeated constantly. They are only allowed to be repeated if they are accepted as a constant component of theatre.
Now, the self-reflexiveness in all artistic means of expression in contemporary art today has led to a point where no components of an artform are self-evident, and therefore any and all media, on any level, is subject to discussion and to the discourse of legitimation. The perspective and method of self-reflexiveness have increased the range of media and their use on the one hand, since such method is a discursive one and no longer relies on an esssentialist notion of art; anything can therefore be discussed and may need to be legitimized, whether it is journalism as a strategy of art or television as theatre. On the other hand, the universal self-reflexiveness makes all media appear marked (codified) and thus potentially foregrounded, any medium can be potentially major, and any traditionally major medium can become minor. The means of expression can no longer be divided into genre-specific main forms and directorial choices for minor forms. The noticeable and frequently foregrounded use of media apparatuses can therefore easily gain attention and be subjected to such a debate about its legitimacy - and thus the result can be a general irritation. Or the use of video can provoke a conservative backlash, an attempt to go back to a status ante quo and a time when the major instruments of a genre were not disputed.
Now, everyone involved, especially all critics, are used to such debates on new media, and they have recourse to a particularly rich experience of discussions on the relationship between theatre and new media which reaches back to at least the beginning of the avant-gardes of the 20th century. Similarly, attempts to integrate various new media into the theatre practice have been around for a while; but we have different theories today with which these attempts are described, named, and analyzed. Basically, one can summarize for and against all these discussions that there really can only be one sensible use of the term "media", since before the rise of technological media there had been no debate about the term. What was discussed were form, content, materials, plot, action, etc. We can therefore assume that the media debate, by and large, especially if it was not a debate on media aesthetics, was a debate about media in the sense of technological media, and that this conception of media therefore was to extend to other, non-technological media, just as in the case of air, sound waves, and bodily spaces of resonance.
I will proceed in this manner, even though in some of these discussions the term media is used for various things: often technical influences on the stage action are mentioned which do not deserve the category "media" but rather belong to the apparatus, from sound amplication to projection. Or the discussions refer to competing forms of publicity such as television, movies, computer culture, but in these cases the issue is not mediality but most often particular narrative or dramaturgical forms, venues, modes of distribution rather than the displays and media necessary. Finally, at issue are often particular aesthetic formats which have been brought via medial architectures like Trojan horses into the theatre where they cause trouble as new, merely technologically supported but primarily aesthetically disturbing elements of performance, such as higher speeds which have been borrowed from television, or contrary strategies of slow motion that have been influenced by video installations in the visual arts: movement in slow motion, looped voices and scratched dialogues. Finally there is the use of media in a proper medial sense, as extensions or modifications of the basic elements of the cultural form of theatre: projections replace the fourth wall, or cameras multiply the scenic spaces, etc.
Frank Castorf directing "Forever Young," Berlin Volksbühne
Medial apparatuses and synaesthetic utopias
We may always find arguments for and against these developments in their various articulations, and such arguments may derive from the specific success or failure of a production. But generally I believe that the debate suffers - apart from the confusion of technical apparatuses, publicity and aesthetics with a generalized concept of media - from two unclarities: first, whether the theatre wants to understand itself as media, which wants to defend itself against others or complement itself, and secondly, which status media, old and new ones, have in a theatre which does not understand itself as a media and should not, as I will argue here.
It is obvious, and needs no further explanation, that the theatre is constituted from a variety of artistic genres and forms, and yet this formulation can be misleading since it suggests, ultimately, a homogenous totality of its various parts. Such a totality, as in the notorius notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk (Wagner), presupposes a principle of integration which supercedes all constituent parts and thus also sublates the distinctness of the different media. Such a principle may have existed in traditional theatrical forms, on the level of dramatic texts or in even older ritual forms, but the idea, that such an integration exists on the level of the different means of expression in theatre is itself a reflection of specific ideologies such as the "Gesamtkunstwerk" or the notion of a new multimedia theatre. If there had not been these unifying visions on the formal level, and partly also on the level of media, and such visions seem to arise especially in those times when the classical locus of the unity of text and drama seem to fall apart, then the theatre could have incorporated new media in a very relaxed manner into its extremely wide and spacious parameter, where so much else seems to have room. The idea that there might be proper and improper uses of media practices on stage is therefore closely connected with the rise of new media and especially of particular ideas of mediality and media effects which encourage such formally unifying visions.
Compared to the visual arts, there had never been a particular intimacy in the theatre between its means of expression and its media. The spoken theatre generally used the same media also used in everyday communication -- sound waves, the human body - and it only used other artistic media (which are based on a closer relation between medium and means of expression) as background and supplements, such as painting and, in a certain sense, music. The theatre uses media, but isn't one. After Wagner, symbolism, then futurism, and Joris-Karl Huysmans and certain other synaesthetic philosophers or synaestheticists, models and utopias were developed to unify the means of artistic expression by means of architectonic or medial apparatuses, and to make them controllable and programmable from a centre, to make them comparable and translatable into each other. Naturally, the theatre with its wide range of artistic means and expressions seemed to be the ideal place, or the most likely model, for such a mediatized total art.
But this is not what happened, and it was the rise of film which seemed to offer precisely such place and method where a medially unified and combined form of art was realized: directors, stage designers, actors, lighting designers, photographers, painters, art directors and composers - they all worked together in film to create a roll of celluloid which appeared to fuse all the various medial properties of the arts into one object . And they left the theatre to its natural, disparate heterogeneity.
Symbolic Rules and Social Milieu
Meanwhile in the camp of the visual arts: here the rise of new image media had naturally had a rather significicant impact. If we summarize the 20th century, in broad terms, we can say that the rise of new media gradually redefined the relationship of means of expression and media in visual art in a completely new way. In the wake of Duchamp, and particularly his reception by the neo-avant-gardes of the postwar period and the conceptual art of the 1960s, the visual arts began to examine and situate the status of art and distinctions between art and non-art in external parameters, symbolic framings, and the White Cube of the modernist gallery as well as in the social and economic determinants of an art milieu rather than in the traditional and also traditionally modernist orientation towards the internal means of expression and media in painting and sculpture; among these definitions and localisations there are normativ-optimistic ones and purely descriptive ones which tend to be more pessimistic.
These attempts at definitions share the concerns that modern theatre articulated in its self-definitions: the status of a work or the limits of the form were determined by rules and symbolic consensus, and the place of the White Cube and its symbolic function in art was perhaps assumed by the fourth wall in the theatre. Even though these rules and limits have undergone many decades of questioning and deconstruction, their symbolic validity has not really been weakened. It is more significant that the attempts to define theatre and the visual arts via symbolic and social consensus as cultural forms - and not as media - has proven to be relatively successful. Of course there are some differences: the pressure created by the presence of an audience in a performance replaces or softens the symbolic disciplining and the need to inscribe limits symbolically into the reception, which is something the White Cube must provide for the arts. That is why the deconstruction of the White Cube is more attractive.
But what both share is that the symbolic consensus is given a social correlative, a milieu or cultural space of resonance which then again differentiates theatre from the visual arts, in spite of their structrural similarities. This leads to the fact the identical medial practices - for example in the milieu of performance art or the moving image installation - can refer to entirely different milieu-specific internal rules and agreements and thus can mean very different things in the theatre or the visual art gallery, and can also be original or good in rather different ways in these different contexts. This reference of the symbolic rules to the milieus and the economic contexts is by no means arbitrary, since the contexts have influenced in very specific ways the hardware of the symbolic rules and their genesis: the white cube of the gallery, and the symbolic architecture of the theatre. In these architectures we still recognize the social reasons for their genesis, the idealist white space which decontextualizes and provides a certain autonomy, security and an asylum against an all too close proximity to the meanings out there, while the theatre represents an exemplary public space and a symbolic repetition of the order of the world. The White Cube works with the dialectic of letting in and locking out of the world, whereas the theatre works with repetition, exemplification and hyperrepresentation of the world.
If we now were to ask what might be wrong with the use of new media in the theatre, we could immediately declare a number of uses of medial expressions as available for consensus and thus as non-controversial. They are not a problem as theme or as subject matter; nor are they as quoted means of expression which are translated from a media reality into a theatrical reality. As machines and apparatures they will only bother those who also objected to other traditional apparatuses in favor of a "poor theatre." I don't even think that the large-scale video projections in the Berlin Volksbühne, which often do not expand the scenic design but interrupt the stage action, would normally be a problem if they were to work more clearly with a culinary aesthetic of the digital image. In this case they might only be rejected as a matter of taste or they would be welcomed as an extension of the theatre space, as a new form of stage design, not an attack on its existence. For this view of media as an attack there is a different reason which we will have to turn to more carefully now.
Low Tech beyond the spectacle
The discussion is not about media. At issue is video. And it is not every use of video that is the problem, since its use for stage design is most often unproblematic. At issue is video in two modes. First, video projections which cannot be read as beautiful design or extensions of stage space or as meta-reflections on theatrical space, but which can be read as the intrusions of the dirty and ugly world of popular television narrative, on the level of the production aesthetic, not on that of a familiar citation. Secondly , it is the use of the video camera in its immediate connection with a moving actor, not in the sense of a thematisation of the actor's corporeality -- as it has been done in performance art and in experimental theatre for ages and thus critically no longer poses an issue - but in the sense of the thematisation of the actor as dramatic character with a camera, a "man with a video camera" in an obviously ironic sense of a caricature of the man with the movie camera, as he was envisioned with much revolutionary emthusiasm by Dziga Vertov in the 1920s.
Both uses are indeed specialities of the Berlin Volksbühnem, and not only in the stagings by its artistic director, Frank Castorf. What distinguishes the specific uses of video here, and in what ways do they disrupt the already established consensus which grants the theatre a basic intermediality within the framework of its symbolic rules? If one looks at Hans-Thies Lehmann's influential book on the postdramatic theatre and what it says about the relationship of recent theatre to technological and electronic media, it is noticeable that he tends to use the synomym of "high tech theatre" for a theatre that uses electronic media. It implies that electronic media, even if it was not in fact economically or technically the case, have always been perceived as expensive and progressive (avant-garde), even as there could be a subtext which implicitly criticized that with the use of high-tech media the aesthetic progressiveness was short-changed, since it was merely delegated to the technololgy; only the technology in that case was avant-garde.
What is less known is that the technological media today can also be low-tech, and -- since the non-medial rest of the theatre is not marked as technology - that they offer the only possibility to relate to a daily and widespread use of media which cannot be read as an aesthetic enrichment or competition, but rather allow a commentary on the medial and aesthetic ways of behavior of our contemporaries. This cheap, but mobile, trashy but appropriate every-day use of the video camera is the other side of the society of the spectacle, without which we cannot understand it. This use of video has little to do with the revolutionary hopes once connected to its documentary use, and everything with its immediate, quick and consuming capturing of images of life in our daily paltry conditions of exploitation. At the same time these mobile video images are intimately connected with quick and shortlived effects of power, compensations of one's own insignificance and powerlessness.
So at first sight it is not a formal aspect of this medium, this exhibited mobile video camera, which counts, but its close relationship to a new banal everyday aesthetic and the daily performances of Low Culture. This sense also dominates the large scale projections, even if in slightly modified form. What caused the scandal of the huge projection in the production of "Der Meister und Margarita" was not just the length and uninterrrupted flow it was given, nor the fact that something was allowed to happen in the video which does not happen so often, namely that the narrative was clearly allowed to progress and perhaps even to pre-empt the dramatic action on the stage. If a high resolution digital projection or a 35mm film projection had done this job, it would not have been a problem. The scandal was that it was a trashy TV- broadcast, no solemn Bill Viola celebration, but a cheap cable-channel-aesthetic that was apparent in each camera move.
Martin Wuttke directing "Die Perser" on an abandoned arifield in Berlin
Video, the despised medium
These indices of a social reality, generated with video camera and projection, nevertheless develop a formal and theatrical aesthetic which comments on the status of electronic media: we have to imagine them as means of expression in the theatre, just as any other. Since the theatre is not media, it can incorporate other media only as means of expression, not as communication tools in their social function. A stage performance does not becomea video, it remains a stage performance. Therefore the question, whether and how electronic media fundamentally disrupt the formal framework of theatre, cannot be posed. Rather, we should ask whether they receive the same knowledgeable care and treatment as other, conventional means of expression.
This means: they are not clean, without history, mechanical, and purely formal. They are laminated with stories of their use and application, metonymic contents, media-historical catastrophes and epiphanies, and above all with daily, lived reality. These are the machines, with which subjects spend their leasure time. They speak their dialect. One has to use them as one uses spoken languages --- including their histories, mannerisms, clichés, etc., avoiding the usual traps of a pure naturalism, pure distanciation, etc. But even the simple look of a camera, not just of the images it produces, can be quite hilarious.
Video is low tech not only in those cases in which one uses the formats of home movies or cheap cable TV shows, but is generally a medium that is socially disreputable, and which is regularly blamed for its effects, when young people use violence, or when their parents become apathetic and dumb or when everyone is hung up by the sex. But only when the use of a medium has passed through the social images, the history of its reception and technical application, can it be grabbed aesthetically and used in a new way, for example to open the stage space in a strange and humorous way, to create 360-degree auditoria and expand the formal, architectonic, physical, and dramaturgical possibilities of these lenses --- and thus finally shake the symbolic securities a little which normally impose themselves and control each mediation in the theatre. The man with the video camera, in the doubled negation of his old utopian ancestor, then receives something back from the promise of revolutionary realism.
In this another very real relationship, perhaps the only real close relationship between medium and means of expression in the theatre, could play a role. Since the human body as media or cause of media is rarely replaced in the theatre -- only in exceptional cases, and then to point to its absence -- it is the composition of the body through the actor which connects the theatre, inspite of its fundemental a-mediality, to a tradition similar to the visual arts's connection to its object. If we are dealing with new media in the theatre wanting to be more than merely extensions of the many traditional and non-traditionals means of expression which are already there, then we would have to give them the status of actors: one has to treat them as actors who have a dialect, a face, a history in the world outside of the theatre. All this the media have, too, and video is most often proletarian, or an idiot.
Translated by Johannes Birringer
From the special issue "Theatre und Video," in TheaterHeute, April 2004, pp.27 -31.
For conceptual notes on "telematic dress" go to next page
Project directors: Johannes Birringer & Michèle Danjoux
Brunel University, West London