art, theatre and reality dance to a deathly tune with farcical absurdity for a somnambulist audience

Shadow House PITS aims to create theatre that struggles to escape the defined certainty of beliefs, factual interpretations and points of view. Dance Me was created for WITHOUT A VOICE on October 15 2013 and drew its title from the Leonard Cohen song Dance Me To The End Of Love. This small, seemingly inconsequential offering from Shadow House PITS, was part of an attempt to create theatre arts experiences that intertwined historical, social and personal perspectives against provocations that force the creators and audiences off the complacent road of predictable thought and understanding. 

This attempt is more than storytelling and more than “expression”. The story-teller is still trapped within cultural binds that select the scope and sequence of events to fulfill or/and affirm a particular belief system, world view or personal experience. WITHOUT A VOICE subverted the personal by forcing juxtapositions of situation, character, cultural perspectives, literary devices and historical situations into absurdist non-linear constructions to be viewed through different lenses of personal perception. In doing this, it tried to open a kind of “uncertainty principle” which has the power to change the way knowledge and experience is appropriated. Lofty stuff . . . but with some basis and justification as I will show in this essay.

Escaping cultural narcissism

The peripheral vision of Narcissus is still blurred within the tunnel vision of idealism. Like deluded Visionary Communists of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s who could never countenance the evils and machinations of Stalin’s deliberate destruction or Mao’s foolish ego-centric inspired whims that killed millions, the current day idealistic Narcissist cannot accept the possibility of personal delusion. With a Ph D (or whatever) and a whole movement of history in support (ie. Post Modernism), the inheritors of a wailing Enlightenment leave the Modernist Ancestor adrift in a sea of doubt as religion and whatever-takes-one’s-fancy emerges triumphant in a post-modern delirium! But within the delirium, one must (in everyday life) appear as a corporate and rational functionary. Yet in doing so, in being so rational and “corporate”, it becomes impossible to prick holes in the visual, emotional and intellectual straight jacket of socialized thinking and behaviour. And so as audience and artistic creators, we ask of our artistic creations to simply “Dance us to oblivion”.

Dance me to oblivion . . .

Is there nothing more we can ask for? Is there no mystery or majesty or soul in our art; whether it be practice or consumption? As sleepwalkers under flourescent lighting, we hardly remember more than a few words we spoke over a whole period of a day; we can rarely identify one original idea that was suggested by another person or picture or a sound or dream or a moment of clarity and insight! And yet, all around us is art, music and theatre of sorts. It is on the radio, on ipods, over PA systems, in the roar or purr of motor vehicles; it is on covers of books, on walls, floors and sculptured in furniture and in transport; it is in presentations, interchanges at the supermarkets and moving on our pathways, streets, bedrooms and kitchens. The ritual of our day is a somewhat unconscious ritual for affirming our somnambulist state. Yet somehow, we kid ourselves into believing we have “free will” and a roughly democratic way of living.

And the dedicated arts practice by professional artists, educators and hobbyists tends to reinforce this dance into oblivion. The dance picks up corporate attitudes. The definitions are made by business, bureaucracies and governments.The artist appeases and goes with the flow. We inherit the rhythms of the sleepwalkers. The radical artist has mostly given up on the questions of existence while KNOWING them to be deceptions and diversions. Why even bother tapping into modernist notions of a better way when all such notions have led to the world’s greatest disasters!

Most radical art then tends no longer to “shock” in order to jolt. It doesn’t try to see things from an awakened perception. Rather it shocks to demonstrate the absurdity of the very notion of “shocking” or any notion of being “awake”. It is suspicious of words while seeing music as an accompaniment to other things. Physical Theatre extolls the body in its purest form while divorcing it from the contamination of the world. Verbal theatre tends towards exposition of a personal state of relational dilemmas or experience of being in a place or state of being. Visual art is either an ironic companion or a decoration. While of course this is an over-simplification, it highlights some observable patterns in the practice of contemporary arts.

Dream like a puppet dancing in its death throes …

In effect, the Corporate identity of arts practice supersedes the substance. It identifies with corporate or corporatised goals (even for charities), icons of dress, expectation and protocols. Dress like an accountant. Speak like an Executive. Expect a career structure like public servants. Treat artistic endeavour as an issue of Events Management. Dream like a puppet dancing in its death throes . . .

This depressing nothingness of artistic possibility in a postmodern existence is, however, within itself a delusion.

To suggest that artistic endeavour can now only display ironic, decorative or an accompanying rhythm to chime in with tunnel visions for unconscious social and personal momentums is to simply display a gross lack of artistic foundation; a disconnection with an artistic ontology. While the arts might seem to display a lack of rationale for their existence, there are certainly others who have very distinct and clear objectives for arts practice and existence within society. Arts practice from propagandists throughout time has had, and continues to have, a very specific function: ie. to affirm a particular world view and / or agenda. Within this view, artists are coerced into work requiring high levels of artistic technique or skill in order to create products paid for by the purchaser. Advertising is only one such example of this. Other examples illustrate the power of art as a mechanism for alignment with action agendas. How much are film, television, news services and corporate identifying branding used as artistic agenderists?

Even Mickey Mouse, the children’s character which made Disney famous, is utilized to sell products and ideas. In Hamas controlled Palestine, it was appropriated as Farfur The Mouse  to inculcate anti-Jewish sentiment in children.

Gravitation towards Narcissism
“I cannot see the whole so I see only myself.”

The artists who see their task as simply ironic or decorative or as accompaniment to some social, political or personal agenda miss the very point of their function. The Agenderist with power or who is seeking power has a very distinct function in mind for art: ie. to propagate, promote and affirm their agenda. It is simple. But for artists, the function seems to be very cluttered and less clear. The gravitation towards Narcissism is one response. “I cannot see the whole so I see only myself.”

The resultant knee-jerk personally reactive art as “constructivist” invention (“constructivist” here used in the educative sense rather than in the sense of the 1920s art movement) might be a starting point for genuine artistic work. The problem for constructivism in arts creation is its limitation and potential for delusion. The notion that all arts creation is really an expression of the self and personal experience is limiting and borders on pathology. It gives rise to the notion that all art is a result of some disorder or definable mental state. Educators and critics will thus point out that Picasso must have had a mental illness to paint as he did. All artistic work has a cause and effect. And before long we are back to the Museum of Degenerate Art that Hitler promoted in the 1930s with Psychologists thus becoming the defining art critics of the day! Similar discussion surrounded the art of Australian photographer Bill Henson whose work has raised discussion on his personal disposition as much as on the artwork itself.

So to consider artistic function as more than personal expressions of experience but rather as a kind of provision of different lenses for perceiving, let us consider the work of Werner Heisenberg and an unlikely relationship between physics and the arts . . .

Breaking bad?

The name Werner Heisenberg might sound like a name from the cult television show Breaking Bad but he was in fact a Nobel Prize winner for Physics in 1932. Born in Wurzburg, Germany, he is probably best known for his famous “principle of uncertainty“. Among the first articulators of “quantum mechanics”, Heisenberg was one of a number of very prominent Jewish intellectuals who emerged in the late 1920s in Germany. The fact of his survival is remarkable. Even as late as 1941 he was still prominent in German Academia and went on to further heights of success after the war. Others were not so fortunate. Like the famous academics of the Frankfurt School, he epitomizes the extraordinary abundance of intellect and creativity thriving in Weimar Germany.

Heisenberg’s “principle of uncertainty” provides a phenomenological paradigm through which we might also observe and reflect on lessons of history and art. His observation is simple. In physics, the very act of observing the actions of small sub-atomic particles actually alters the behaviour and position of the particles. The conditions necessary for such observation will have an effect. It is almost a truism to suggest that any observation or reflection on historical events, writing, art and memory will proffer versions of such that are altered by the conditions through which we observe or reflect. To extend the metaphor, I suggest that by creating conditions through art and theatre for the observation of human interactions, functions, thoughts and effects throughout time and cultures, we do in effect alter (even if only on the margins) perception. As in science, the artist creates a deliberate intervention to observe and reflect. This deliberate intervention may well be in direct opposition to the dominant and established constructions of reality and control.

This might be seen as a variant on George Orwell’s: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

Creating windows to “outside” limited cultural, dogmatic and world views

If any of us think our own god-given view of the world is fixed and the norm then we are deluded. All views and understandings are arrived at from somewhere else. And in many ways these are derived from someone else; from the words of marketing firms, prophesies contained in “holy” books, ideological discourses, stories constructed from memories and often handed down through generations; and from personal experiences, our views are fragile and limited. In this way, concepts of “free will” are limited and misleading. From Plato’s cave to the Buddhist seeker of “enlightenment” there is a strong history of acceptance of our limited and illusory world and the effort to transcend and perceive a meta-reality.

I am certainly not the first to suggest that arts practice is focused within this realm of seeking and preceding scientific examination of data; that its function is one of creating windows to “outside” limited cultural, dogmatic and world views and common understandings. Heisenberg’s principal of uncertainty assists in the application of this thought.

Dance Me? Without a voice …

Dance Me as part of WITHOUT A VOICE paired the Shadow House PITS icon of Trinculo, the dead angel / demon, with Anna Voronoff’s version of The Blue Angel. While influenced by the Josef von Sternberg film of the same name, Voronoff’s character is actually a trans-gender performer who took on the Dietrich inspired persona and who performed in the Berlin venues of the early 1930s. Falling in love with a NAZI officer and later dying in a concentration camp, The Blue Angel is ironic and freed from time and place to seek her revenge or perhaps her own salvation! Trinculo is probably as much a product of Cole Bennetts’ accidental photo that was originally supposed to be of Braiden Dunn playing “Geese” in the 2011 production. Originally a written voice for a newsletter, Trinculo has long since escaped Shakespeare’s character from “The Tempest” and has gradually overcome his jealousy of “all licensed fools” who tended to look down on his buffoon character. As he aged and became even more grotesque over the ensuing few hundred years, he became fascinated with machinations of the social / psyche / political domains. His bathtub reminded him of Marat from the French Revolution. His confinement like that of Artaud in Rodez! The mundane and the fanciful link with profundity as he chimes in WITHOUT A VOICE.

Whatever the success of Dance Me and WITHOUT A VOICE, we have timely reminders of the diversity of need when it comes to arts practice. It is with horror that we realize Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song Dance Me To The End Of Love was in reference to the orchestras who played in concentration camps as friends and family were marched to their deaths. As The Death Tango played, musicians sought to save themselves at least through Orchestras in concentration camps.

And as the horrors of human kind are almost too much to consider and we turn to absurdity and the mundane, Trinculo and The Blue Angel haunt the cabarets and the theatres as they play out their existential clap traps and try to make sense of their contradictory and neurotic realities.

In this instance they are supported by the band Dirt Baby who enact the personas of long dead musicians who tried to carve out existence within the framework of indescribable terror. We can only hope that the “Principle of Uncertainty” plays out in the observations and reflections through our art. We trust that through provocations and juxtapositions, we will transcend the personal Narcissus and be altered in some way by the process.