This revised and expanded edition includes two new chapters that offer an updated look at how these ideas continue to develop in contemporary art practice.
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About the Author
Bridget Crone is a curator, writer, and lecturer in visual cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Dr Bridget Crone is a writer and lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, with over fifteen years’ curatorial experience.
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A Theatre of Operations: A Discussion between Alain Badiou and Elie During
ELIE DURING: Let's start with a major question. If one grants that a politics of theatre exists, is it possible to speak of a politics of 'theatre without theatre'? A lot has been said about avant-garde theatre abolishing the stage or the separation it implies. In some cases an avant-garde abolished the stage by promoting it as a 'physical concrete site', 'a unique site without borders or barrier of any sort', in which the placement of bodies is more important than the text, and which forms 'the theatre of action itself' (Artaud). One can also speak of the abolishing of the auditorium rather than the stage. In any case, what this action marks is the emergence of a new spectator who is no longer a simple spectator but also an actor or actant participating in a kind of collective creation. It is clear that contemporary performance has been heavily influenced by this gesture in the various spaces it constructs whether inside galleries or on their thresholds. But what then remains of the 'public' that is traditionally associated with the idea of theatre? In your opinion, is the suppression of the stage or its transfiguration capable of opening a new space, a site for the emergence of a collective subject?
ALAIN BADIOU: The relation between the stage and the public has always been a torturous problem for theatre. Think of Molière's meditations on the duality of the public (the nobles and the bourgeois, the court and the town) or of Brecht's concept of the dialectical division of the audience, of Agit-prop theatre in the Soviet Union, or Vilar's idea of a 'popular' theatre and the vogue of happenings about 50 years ago like the more contemporary fashion of 'street theatre'. In Greece, theatre was already a political instrument, or to be exact a function of the State. Wealthy citizens were obliged to pay for theatrical performances through a kind of tax. This is the source of the persistent idea that theatre has a political, democratic and even revolutionary function. In reality, as I have argued ever since my essay 'Rhapsody for the Theatre', theatre is bound to the State; it is a public mediation between the state and its exterior – the crowd, gathered together. And just as circulation occurs in both directions (from power towards the crowd and from the crowd towards power), theatre is entirely ambiguous. It is the point at which a certain audacity of the State encounters the intellectual resources of what is collective, gathered together and public. Louis XIV himself funded Molière's materialist adventures, and in France popular theatre just like street theatre is still funded by the State. I don't think abolishing the stage radically changes this situation. It is merely a formal transformation and the theatre has seen many of those. Why would a crowd which does not revolt against flagrant injustice actually constitute itself as a collective subject through the grace of a theatrical summoning? The ambiguity of the situation of theatre can only continue. Theatre is an art and art will always be a site divided between subversion and institution, contemplative passivity and active rupture, the State and the crowd, creation and the market. An important work displaces these frontiers but it cannot abolish them.
ED: But then if the political virtue of theatre resides in its position, the question arises of what remains of that position in performance art. If we define 'theatre without theatre' as a form of pure theatricality, a modality of the presence of bodies freed from representation, performance comes down to the organization, according to an intention to create art, of an immediate experience of being-together. Consequently is there not a risk that performance will fall into a degraded form of 'ethical' theatre consecrated to revealing either the performativity at work in social exchange or – by staging suffering or mistreated bodies – increasing awareness of the vulnerability of beings and the relation between beings? In fact, just to focus a little, could we return to what constitutes for you the specificity of theatre?
AB: I think that there is theatre as soon as there is a public exhibition, with or without a stage, of a desired combination of bodies and languages. The exhibition of the body alone we will name 'dance' and of language alone 'reading', even if no written text pre-exists. Theatre is the intersection of the two. Moreover it displays elements external to the languages' / bodies' duality such as images, screens and activities (painting, sculpting or throwing objects, etc.), but these elements simply introduce new dimensions of the body (violence, nudity, sex, imaged deformations, etc.) or of language (soundscapes of all types, mixes of languages, music, etc.). In this framework an insistence on a particular aspect of theatricality, like the contemporary impact on theatre of all the forms of dance or an emphatic use of violence on bodies, would in fact express ideological demands like those you mention: focusing on the fragile life of bodies, on threats to the entirety of what is conceived as 'natural', hostility to any strict coding of individual life, dissipation of the frontier between public and intimate life, etc.. The problem is that these demands simply reflect contemporary subjectivities rather than presenting a genuine movement for their transformation. What needs to be found – whilst accepting the formal transformations – is a more affirmative element, or rather, to take up Brecht's terms, a didactic element. The question of the relation between theatrical action, performance and politics cannot be reduced to the radicality of gestures. It supposes that all of this be integrated within a larger vision of the challenges of the contemporary epoch.
But before one even gets to that point, perhaps it is not so easy to 'exit' theatre or internally annul it. In fact, theatre cannot be reduced to the stage and its perspective or to the interpretation of a pre-existing given (a text or a protocol for improvisations ...). Theatre is a complex ordering system whose material series is not set in stone: texts of course, but also bodies, costumes, the set, the site, music, light ... This set is neither closed nor for that matter infinite. But it is in this set that the theatre-Idea must pass; that is, what theatre makes truth out of in the pure present of the material ordering itself. Suppose that someone does nothing more than imperceptibly emphasize everyday gestures to the point of being apparently indiscernible from the 'audience' in which he is operating given that these gestures could just as easily be the 'natural' gestures of an audience member. It would be a case of theatre and not of the absenting of theatre. Why? Because the underlying idea – that every relation to the body can support a performance – can only be transmitted in the present of its material ordering; thus the terrestrial 'passage' of the idea will be co-extensive with its immediate activation. It is for exactly the same reason that Duchamp's first ready-mades could not escape the status of the visual arts (painting, sculpture, etc.). In these arts, the passage of the idea is co-extensive with the showing of a material form with a contour, however blurred the latter may be. As soon as the display of an indeterminate object can be perceived as the display of the latter's contour, as a local staging of its materiality, the display has a 'plastic' relation to the idea. However an indeterminate corporeal action, once it is grasped as deliberate or 'working', enters into the 'scenic' arts; it enters dance, mime or theatre. No doubt one could in the end reduce the ideal types of the visual arts (leaving out pure music for the moment) to a transcendental aesthetic. If the displaying gesture that indicates the idea organizes the primacy of space (or the contour) over time one has a case of 'plasticity'. If the display organizes the evident primacy of time over space, one has 'theatre'. In both cases the subordinate term (time or space) is not suppressed but organized by the other term. I have always seen this in the use of videos as an intervention, whether they are theatrical (incorporated within a display in the present moment, in a slice of time) or 'plastic' (abandoned to their repetitive destiny in a museum room and thus primarily placed in space). The intellectual effect is not the same because the idea that arises in the two cases (if an idea arises) is not presented in identical transcendental systems. So I would quite willingly posit that in principle the most indiscernible performance of everyday gesture remains theatrical in the sense in which Duchamp's readymade remains plastic. When it is a question of determining the artistic register or the formal genre, the gesture and its placement are more important than the exceptional or indeterminate, invented or repeated nature of 'what is' shown by the gesture in its site.
ED: To sum up, in what is paradoxically designated as 'theatre without theatre', the reference to theatre is not merely residual: perhaps it is due to an essential dimension of all performance which is that of thinking in relation if not to a text to be interpreted at least to instructions or statements to be performed, that is, complemented or used as rules which can then be revised. Without such a relation what is it that is performed? What would distinguish performance from the execution of a task in somebody's ordinary life even if that somebody be an artist? The theatre-Idea passes via a material ordering which implies statements, even if they be invisible or inaudible. Only in the limit case of the happening with spontaneism is there an aim to emancipate performance from such rules. But it is not because room is made for chance and improvisation that something like an instruction is not implicitly at stake: 'let the party begin!' is still a statement – the zero degree of the script. Between the idea and the act there is the statement. Hence George Brecht's 'events' and some of Allan Kaprow's 'activities' evoke a kind of restricted theatre (in the sense of 'restricted action'). Speech and the text are reduced to instructions or minimal declarations which are not necessarily performatives in the linguist's sense. Could this be compared to Beckett's theatre and his singular montage of gestures and statements?
AB: This is an entirely different register, but one of considerable importance. It's a question of knowing whether the theatre of representation has been succeeded or not by a theatre of operations. In more general terms it's a question of whether the display of the theatre-Idea ceded its place to the construction of that idea, such that the codes of that construction are themselves visible or shown? In my opinion, the question of the place of ritual, of improvisation, of chance, and that of a spatial relation which is either orientated or not between what is shown and the audience, all of this comes down to discussing – in reference to the most recent experimentation – the relationships between the visible and the invisible in theatrical (or non-theatrical) action.
Here I call 'invisible' the instructions or statements which you rightly identify as being 'between' the idea and the act. For a long time these instructions were half hidden – because they were only present during the rehearsals – or half visible – inasmuch as the Brechtian director wanted to reveal or explain them in the programme. In order to complete the passage from a theatre of display to a theatre of construction (or process) there must definitely be a revision of the nature and place of instructions. The first form of that revision was for just over a century the increasing importance of the director. At the frontier of the visible and the invisible he was the man of instructions (or axioms of performance). Performance, along with the invasion of the stage by schemas drawn from dance or corporeal practices, clearly indicates the end of the century of the director. But that end should in no way be confused with the end of theatre. This is like believing that the end of metaphysical construction in its limited classical schema – implying a theology – is the end of philosophy. The end of the idea of a director of the world is in no way the end of any idea of the world. Theatre has existed for a long time without the separated figure of the director and it will continue without it.
The entire question lies in knowing what will then localize the instructions, however random the latter might be. My feeling is that they will become more and more abstract and not corporeal or collective. We are headed, and this is my prophecy, towards an austere theatrical mathematics.
ED: Let's enter into the detail of this large-scale history: the emergence of a theatre of construction, then of a theatre of process which would seem to find its logical development in the idea of a 'theatre without theatre'. At the turn of the century a revolution occurred in theatre which in a certain way prefigured the turn of visual arts towards performance. You often underline the importance of Meyerhold, and not only for the 'new theatre'. In what manner does Meyerhold form an event for you rather than, say, Stanislavsky? What exactly did he change in the idea of theatre?
AB: Stanislavsky, whose work is nevertheless incredibly complex, was mainly interested in what I would call the constructive invariables of theatre: at the centre, the construction of the character. The temporal dynamic of the actor is fundamental. As always, the theatre idea is submitted to time, but within a constructive and organized vision of the effects which bring about its manifestation. With Meyerhold it is the collective present which becomes decisive. It is not temporality which is constructive but the artificial display of the present as action. Theatre must primarily indicate how it fuses an active conception of thought with material sequences that frame and exhibit the present as fiction. What's more, the evolution of this fiction has indicated its fragility and division since the active present can just as easily be that of the crucified body, of mystical dialectics (the sublime and the abject), as that of the didactic of choices, of the organized staging of conditions that surround the absolute present of a decision. Indeed, Artaud and Brecht indicate two different ways of being faithful to the Meyerhold event. But in both cases there is performance since no invariant of the type 'character' can be separated from the artifice of a present such as that delivered immediately and collectively by theatre. There is also performance in that all of the tenses of action count equally. We know that for Brecht every scene must be organized according to an energy which makes it comparable to the entire play. Nor can the mystique of cruelty, of the unbearable real, 'expect' the systematic and referential construction to which Stanislavsky was attached. It's true that with Meyerhold the passage of ideas in theatre no longer had to occur via representational mediation. The route was open for performative exercises.
ED: These exercises are often described today according to the paradigm of the game: from Wittgenstein's language games to notions of interactivity and participation tied to happenings and media art. It's as though what is expected of games or of play – and yet they have always formed one of the fundamental dimensions of theatre – is that they loosen theatre up ... But on the side of the game there is also ceremony and then ritual. Finally there is the feast. How can the theatrical apparatus integrate or evoke these different figures of performance?
Excerpted from "The Sensible Stage"
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Table of ContentsIntroduction Bridget Crone A Theatre of Operations: A Discussion between Alain Badiou and Elie During
Alain Badiou and Elie During Performer, Audience, Mirror: Cinema, Theatre and the Idea of the Live
Ian White 'Je suis photographe': Figures of Cinematic Narrators
Vanessa Desclaux Spectators, Obejects and Infrastructures: A Discussion between Dan Kidner and Bridget Crone
Dan Kidner and Bridget Crone Treatise on Movement
Beatrice Gibson Moving Poses / Arresting Feeling: Jimmy Robert's "L'Education Sentimental"
Dominic Andrew Paterson Between the Body and Object the Voice Appears: Yael Davids' "Learning to Imitate" and "Learning to Imitate in Absentia"
Lisa Panting The Subject in Process: Material Equations in the Work of Carolee Schneemann and Annabel Nicolson
Lucy Reynolds Working Songs: 'yes to the connection between voice and audience'
Anne-Sophie Dinant The Gesture of the Muted Voice: Cara Tolmie's "Myriad Mouth Line"
Mason Leaver-Yap The Divided Stage: Splitting the Dialectics of Performance
Pil and Galia Kollectiv Notes Towards a Sensible Stage