Friday, January 12, 2007

Costumes and representation

I encourage folks to follow the comment threads to read Maiko and Neil's responses to Darren's thoughts on relational aesthetics versus the theatre presented in BioBoxes. I'd liek to pick up on the question about representation and costumes that Maiko and Darren were debating.

A costume doesn't necessarily dictate that a performer is different than themselves - whatever a performer wears is their costume, which could signify information from an imaginary or a literal reality. It signifies on stage, even if that signification is "I am myself without artifice." As Maiko argued, a Pakistani vest in Calgary could be read as a sign of validation from the previous participants in the project. What looks like a costume in one context (say a cocktail dress, fishnets and heels in a school gym) is simply the correct social attire in another (an urban cocktail bar). In Judith Butler's conception of gender as performance, we're all always in costume, choosing (consciously or subconsciously) how we wish to code our identity in the contexts we're encountering. In the artworld context, thrift store or pseudo-thriftstore garb is often juxtaposed with very design-conscious glasses and footwear. So taste, investment, individuality - these are also signs on stage. If Darren were to appear for a Q & A wearing a suit from Moore's, the piece would be different than if he's in jeans and those cool rubber-toed leather boots. The fact that a suit isn't his regular choice of clothes for the day signifies somethng to his audience about where he is situated in our culture, and that has an impact on the piece. Performance artists use costuming extensively in conceptually-based work, taking the meaning-production of surfaces into the manipulation of their skin and skeleton as signifying elements (check out Julianna Barabas' seamline, Orlan or Marina Abramovic). Assuming that what you wear isn't meaningful on stage is pretty selective analysis. In the Q & A context, representing the non-performative self really just means representing the day's choice of costume, which has something to do with our social status, taste, economic realities, the weather, and demonstration of allegiance to our social group through fashion.


Darren O'Donnell said...

of course what you choose to wear all the time is meaningful all the time. But I think we need to be able to distinguish between a piece of clothing that says "this is a particular me" and one that says "this is not me, it's someone else." I would call the latter a "costume" and the former a "get up." I think the lab coats were costumes. Which isn't necessarily a problem except that I thought they were unnecessary costumes, redundant.

Heidi Taylor said...

I would say the lab coats say "this is the researcher me.", and your argument is not with costumes but with signs that are not slippery enough to be conflated or interpreted as "authentic" or "real." The lab coat is really just an example, though, to get this thought process going. What kinds of sign making are happening in relational work, and how do they relate to the imaginary? It's a spectrum, not an either-or.

Eric Rhys Miller said...

I've greatly enjoyed watching the parry and thrust of these discussions. Thanks to all.
The phrase "it's a spectrum, not an an either-or" felt like an opening to me. I too have felt that sinking sensation, both onstage and as an audience member, that I was participating in something not quite realized, where my presence as a full human being was not required. I have felt the frustration of ACTING and the impatience with being asked to suspend disbelief. I have also sat in dark rooms watching performers and have felt my breath altered, my mind stopped, my perspective shifted, my heart opened: and often in those events there is an extra-daily, an extraordinary aspect to the presence of the performer and the created world. And I have felt moments in performance that enlarged rather than constricted the space of possibility in the room: opening rather than restricting the field of association and meaning for the audience. I would agree that this rarely happens when actors are sitting on sofas pretending at life, but sometimes, even then...humanity happens.
That said, I am seriously rocked by the radical restructuring of 'audience' and 'artist' continued by work such as the Social Acupuncture/Beatiful Engagement model. Go forth and invert the hierarchies, yes! A healthy, important infusion.
And yet, to say "we" are all so tired of the well-made play is perhaps elitist and confuses the form with your own experience of it: not all are diminished by watching a play or listening to a story. A great deal depends on the intention of the artist, and their attitude towards the audience. All of which to say that theatre at this time offers a spectrum of forms and approaches in order to achieve various ends. To dismiss the ancient conventions of magic, narrative, performance, or the act of watching an actor take on a fictional role as no longer relevant is at once bold and reductive. Painting took a path completely away from representation for a time, when painters, critics, academics claimed that it was only about color, form, the act of painting itself, etc. But aren't we experiencing a more inclusive definition of art in the world that encompasses the ancient through the post-post-modern, recognizing that strategies are only strategies?
I'm going to steal something from the director Anne Bogart, and I wonder if it, if not my attempts above, might instigate further discussion. A list of 7 human needs that theatre can fulfill, in no particular order. She posits that the best theatre experiences encompass all 7:


There are all kinds of ways to participate, and perhaps Darren is saying they only begin when we lean forward in our seats to grapple with something that is undeniable, and can go much further. That speaks to my own (often frustrated, unfulfilled) desire to use the space of a theatre event to awaken, myself and others, in the biggest sense of all those words. I am grateful for those who can shed some light in that direction.

Darren O'Donnell said...

The problem is that the classical approach to theatre is still so dominant and that, worse, it has fallen out of aesthetic and philosphical and political discussions that are happening in other forms. I really do think that so many aspects of the experience no longer offer much and could/should be discarded. Or at least shouldn't be totally dominant. and it's not about elitism. It's just that I feel like those conventions are really not up to the task of helping me understand and interface with the world. And that there are so many other better options.

and Heidi, I think the coats say "this is the researcher me" if they were actually used during the period of research. And it's not about conflating with the authentic or real, unless you happen to consider reality real and then there's no need to conflate. It just is.

Vicki Stroich said...

Calgary speaks.
Or one small part of Calgary.
Who was at PCC. Who saw Q&A and Bioboxes. Who was in Diplomatic Immunities and loved the experience. Who knows about Social Acupuncture. Who is looking forward to working with TR. Who saw HIVE, even. Who is currently engaged in developing and producing five new pieces of theatre through the company I work for. Who recognizes and respects how dialogue and criticism like this (well, some of it) advances all our work (I'm a dramaturg, after all.) Who would rather listen to all the interesting points of view than to talk.
But I'm going to chime in. But it isn't the dramaturg that wants to chime in. It's the person who sees a lot of stuff. It's the audience member. Yeah, the educated audience member with my fair share of background, but the audience member. And as an audience member, if I'm truly engaged, I don't think much about how whatever I am watching is affecting the greater questions of its form until after it happens. If I'm not engaged; I mull over that question too much while I am "sitting and staring." When I'm engaged I just know I'm enjoying my experience.
And until I read these posts I hadn't really spent that much time mulling over either show as a form. A bit, but not much. I was still just enjoying them. I was still enjoying the surprise of a frightened and defensive (in my view) performance artist cheering up while talking about cheese and the surprise of styrofoam cracking in my face. Both surprises were very pleasant, by the way. Which is surprising, I suppose. I was enjoying feeling things with people about people; all of the people. Feeling things (wildly different things I'm sure) about the real people on stage for Q&A with the real people in the audience for Q&A. Feeling things for the real people whose story I was being told in a box with the real person who was sharing that story, using their real emotional and intellectual response to it, with me. And maybe for some people it feels like they are "sitting and staring" as I believe Darren put it, but the intimacy of it worked for me in a way that few performances have.
And then I liked feeling as though I had gone somewhere special after I left the box. And I felt like I had a special experience that only a few other people might have shared. And I enjoyed imagining how different their trips were from mine, even in little ways. The same way I enjoyed imagining how every person in the audience for Diplomatic Immunities last year and Q& A last week had a different description of or feeling about what it was they saw.
I enjoyed the moments when I caught my mind wandering in Q&A. When I was admiring someone's hair rather than listening to them and then being drawn back in because they said something suddenly that I wanted to hear. I enjoyed looking around at pretty things on the walls of a box while someone was speaking to me and then being drawn back in again by something they said that I wanted to hear.
There are lots of things about both experiences that I enjoyed, that made me feel something, that made me feel special, that made me wonder, that made me think about myself, that made me think about other people. Both shows offered me a whole range of experiences that made me happy that I saw them.
I said I hadn't thought much about the shows outside of how much I enjoyed them as an audience member and I hadn't really. But now that I think of it, another reason I'm happy I saw them is that they inspired dramaturg me to remember that surprises and people are the most interesting things about the performance and the theatre. Maybe they are the only things left that are interesting about the theatre. I can use that information in my work.
I was inspired to post by Eric's post about how reductive we can be when we think about what an exprience offers or doesn't offer the people who see it. Every single person is going to have a slightly different experience, no matter what they are encountering. And we can discuss process and ideas all we want, and god knows as a dramaturgy that's all I do (and I am often conflicted about that because) what people are going to remember (or not) is what comes out of their inetraction with the experience that all that process leads to. Audiences will continue to surprise us. And that is a pleasant surprise, too.
I felt like I had an experience at both Q&A and Bioboxes that I find, sadly, rare; an experience that was satisfying, that swallowed me whole at times, that I took a lot away from, that I couldn't ignore, even if there were moments when I wandered.
So, maybe it isn't very elegant but that's what I want to say.

Darren O'Donnell said...

Hey Vicki, thanks for joining the conversation. But I have to say that I don't think it's fruitful to contrast Bioboxes and Q&A. That's certainly not what I'm doing. I'm just interested in talking about the role of the labcoats and the kind of performances in the Bioboxes.

and in the other posts, talking about the role of antagonism in Q&A. More curious if you felt - as kris did - that Q&A was a sharkfest.

Also curious what you thought of the use of the lab coats in bioboxes.

but these are two separate threads, in my mind.

Vicki Stroich said...

Yes. I agree it isn't fruitful. I don't think that was my intention as I started writing.
I read all these threads at once as I procrastinated this afternoon and I suppose the fact that both of the events came up in discussion and I saw them both recently and I liked them both made me want to express what I enjoyed about them seperately. But their proximity in my post above does look a lot like comparison. And as I wrote I realized there were aspects of the experiences that overlapped for me a bit so I meandered around that for awhile. I knew it was a bit inelegant and as you say perhaps it isn't fruitful to this discussion but it was my response to some work that was being discussed.

I figured if we could talk about your ass, I could talk about how I felt and what I found successful about your work.

I will focus on the seperate threads so as to not cause any more confusion. But I will address the threads you mention above here because I don't feel like going back to those indiviudal posts; I hope that isn't too severe a breach in protocol.

Re: the lab coats. They didn't bother me. It seemed like something neutral to wear. I don't even know if I assigned any extra meaning to them at the time. So evidently, I don't necessarily think that they added something to the performance for me. On a functional level, I think I would know that I should go see the person with the clipboard about the show even if they were just Maiko and Jamie and Kris wearing whatever they were wearing that day. They are obviously the people in charge (they have clipboards!) and they are handsome, responsible looking people. I would want to talk to them.

Re; Q&A. I don't think the Calgary session of Q&A was particularly sharkfest-y. I think there were some really interesting questions that were asked that were meant, in some cases, to get something "meaty" or authentic or emotional from the person onstage but I don't think that they were asked because of an excessive moral superiority on the part of the person asking. But I did feel from the people sitting around me a desire to get something "real" from the person on stage and a frustration when someone wasn't giving them what they wanted. I think that some audience members can get frustrated with the person being interviewed and that can lead to some passive aggressive mumbling and some seemingly aggressive questions. Of course, they won't accuse anyone of hiding so it is always polite but there can be a bit of tension (in my experience.)
And, while it isn't Q&A, I did feel at times during DipImm that audience members were asking questions to trap the person onstage into stating some kind of opinion out of a sense of moral superiority. But they were usually tying to trap the performer and not another audience member. And as you say in an earlier post, they usually reveal more about themselves in those moments than the people they are asking question of. So the feeding frenzy can turn just as easily on them.
I think there is the potential for a feeding frenzy in the event, the same way there is the potential for everyone to exchange recipes at the end. There may have even been some antagonism that I didn't pick up on. I thought that question about AIDS in the aboriginal community was asked because the guy asking it was interested in the topic and wanted a discussion to happen.
It seemed like a pretty friendly gathering to me overall.

That's all I have to say.

Anonymous said...

lab coats are about a neutral as science