February 26, 2010

What is this Art?

According to many of the heavy-hitter theoreticians of the 20th century, theatre is created by the act of being witnessed. Peter Brook famously states, "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged”.

At the MoMA, I set up a scavenger hunt for two invited "audience members" (players). They arrived at the museum and were given a set of clues to follow; meanwhile two actors closely followed behind them: one humming aloud, and the other asking members of the public to read signs aloud to her. The last clue was to find an actor, dressed all in black, standing in front of a Monet painting of pastel water lilies.

In this scenario, the spectators became the performers (or players of the hunt), the general public became unaware participators (interacting with the actors and creating the backdrop of the “scene”), and the actors became both performers (altering the museum-going experience through sound and staging) and spectators (following and watching the players). I made up a fourth category of spectator -- I was the only party completely aware of all the elements at play and was free to witness the entire spectacle as it played out in front of me.

What is theatre? Brook tells us we simply need a witness, so in this case the MoMA project was definitely theatre. The Encyclopaedia Brittanica defines theatre as interactive, live, and multi-dimensional: "Though the word theatre is derived from the Greek theaomai, “to see,” the performance itself may appeal either to the ear or to the eye, as is suggested by the interchangeability of the terms spectator (which derives from words meaning “to view”) and audience (which derives from words meaning “to hear”)”. So the participation of the audience becomes as important as the act of witnessing, even as important as the performing itself.

To get at a more specific definition, I informally surveyed six friends with various theatre experiences: a director, a painter, a former actor, two graduate students, and a self-professed cynic. I asked them:

1) What is theatre?
2) Is someone wearing a black outfit in front of a pastel painting theatre?
3) Why (not)?

Given the wide range of backgrounds, their answers were surprisingly similar.

The two practicing artists, the director and the painter, insist there must be an “intention” or “purpose” for the person in black’s position to be considered theatre. “If meant for some audience,” says the director, “then yes.” “It can be,” the painter replies, “but isn’t necessarily theatre”.

The former actor adds that theatre is “Story Telling in action,” and the person in black must be “part of a story being told”. Otherwise, “he is installation”.

The longest responses came from the two non-theatre academics. The student in library studies agrees that theatre is “active” and “must also involve some sort of determined intent,” but adds “as well as some sort of formal presentation.” She contrasts theatre’s “dynamic format” with that of “stagnant, non-performing expressions such as paintings ….” The other academic, a student of creative writing, interestingly defines theatre “like John Cage defines music, he says that music is created, controlled, or manipulated sound, I think that theatre is created, controlled, or manipulated performance [sic]". Both agree that theatre must have a determined structure and must be “artistically intentional”.

Surprisingly, it is the cynic who poignantly draws together everyone's thoughts. She says theatre is “the art of entertaining… for a live audience” and “usually on a stage". She does not believe the person in black’s presence qualifies as theatre unless he “move[s] around and interact[s] to form a relationship with the painting and audience”. Without this, she agrees with the former actor that the person could be considered “part of a sculpture.”

They agree upon three main points: theatre occurs live, requires an audience, and must have a conscious purpose. Without one of these essential elements, it is either seen as a different art form or as a pedestrian occurrence.

Because my actor in black was purposely standing in front of the Monet painting for the sake of an audience, my MoMA project is defined as a piece of theatre. But how is that different than a "performance" or a "constructed situation"? The Guggenheim Museum currently has an exhibit that challenges this very question. Tino Sehgal "constructs situations" similar to my MoMA project, though he comes from the visual arts world, opposed to the theatrical. "Relying exclusively on the human voice, bodily movement, and social interaction, Sehgal’s works nevertheless fulfill all the parameters of a traditional artwork with the exception of its inanimate materiality.... He considers visual art to be a microcosm of our economic reality, as both center on identical conditions: the production of goods and their subsequent circulation. Sehgal seeks to reconfigure these conditions by producing meaning and value through a transformation of actions rather than solid materials".

At the Guggenheim, I learned a very important, yet very simple, lesson. Theatre is everywhere; it doesn't have one defining element. Ever-changing, always adjusting, it is a performative art that continually redefines itself to new cultural/technological/social/historical/geographical/political/religious/artistic/and personal influences. Tino Sehgal offers a visual art that uses moving and talking bodies; I offer a performance that uses bodies as installation pieces. As long as there's a witness, maybe it's all the same thing.

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