Voice 4 Vision 2011

Friday, September 21, 2012

Are We In Denial?

As a young puppeteer—particularly one who had come  to puppetry from an acting and mime background-- I found myself frustrated by the lack of appreciation for what I was doing as the mover, and maker of character, and images “behind the scenes.” Often when reviewers spoke of a production I was in, they would invariably speak glowingly of the production. They would write about the creator or director of the piece—but they never acknowledged that their responses to the live work they had witnessed had anything to do with my performance—albeit a performance that I had projected through the puppet. Indeed, within the field there are those who have shared Gordon Craig’s notion of the ubermarionette as the perfect actor. I have had one director say, with complete ignorance, that he “loved working with puppets because they didn’t have any ego,” while I stood silently wondering how he could forget that certainly I, and the other puppeteers, did have egos, and that he was working with us—not the puppets—we were working with the puppets. When one is able to witness a competent performance with puppets, one can begin to understand the relationship of skill to the performance with objects. When one is able to witness a brilliant performance with puppets, one can begin to understand the nature of the artistry of the puppeteer. But, are we in denial? Why are we—those of us who have come to the field of puppetry, working with puppets or objects? I suggest that we have migrated to a field in which we are consciously or unconsciously tapping into the way objects –created or found—act upon us and our viewers. These things when used in our hands-moving, living, acting, interacting—either as a mimesis and reflective of our world experience or of our inner imaginative one—have their own very significant ways of moving us that is unique to the medium and therefore is co-dependent upon the medium for its impact. It is not merely “dead matter” made to look alive-and therefore uncanny; it is a great range of things and though for some perhaps that latter quite enough—for others this is a limiting perspective.  
There are innumerable ways to tell a story: live actor, dance, music, written word, cinema, animation,rap, poetry, visual art, performance art, puppetry… Do we not seem to be attracted to the particular field we land in, by the medium through which we will tell our stories? Before I go on, I would be in error were I not to say that I use the term “story “broadly. It might be linear or non linear, it might literally feature a plot or it might be a story that must be constructed by the viewer either through the bits and pieces of image and text they receive, or through empathy. Since the post dramatic movement, with artists such as Heiner Müller, Robert Wilson, and the Wooster Group, some theater has truly left the bounds of the Aristotelian model, and audiences are often asked to participate in ways that are unlike the traditional viewer to performance relationship. Nevertheless, to return to the question at hand, are we, who work with objects, not in some way compelled to share our perceptions with audiences through the medium of the object and puppetry? If so, why now is there such a tremendous backlash against the medium through which we “speak.” A  sentiment which appears to be building imagines that a puppet, without the puppeteer present, is “just a doll.” I agree that without the creative intent for the object to be performable, an object may be thought of as sculpture. However, an object created and intended for performance carries additional facets of meanings to the viewer. A puppet designer and maker may have spent innumerable hours thinking through how the visual impact of the object will also reveal important information to the viewer, yet now the relevance of these objects appears to be under attack. In one instance a puppeteer and scholar has noted that he has no interest in curating a museum of puppets, yet, when I pass through such a museum in which these performable objects have been collected I experience a multitude of responses—intellectual, and emotional. In this instance, my responses to the static objects are stacked upon one base realization: that the objects were constructed by someone who intended to perform with them, or intended that they be performed by someone else.
Both Art History and Anthropology have an arm of studies referred to as Material Culture which explores the material remains of cultures to understand them.  From the website for the University of Wisconsin –Madison read:
The Material Culture Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison examines forms, uses, and meanings of objects, images, and environments in everyday life. We want to take a fresh look at old categories of study in order to discover untold stories. (my emphasis) (http://www.materialculture.wisc.edu/
And from the Department of Anthropology at UCL:
Material and visual culture is concerned with how people make, exchange and consume the material world, but equally with how material forms and visual images are central to the socialization of human beings into culture. We are in vanguard of theoretical discussion in exploring perspectives such as phenomenology and objectification.  http://www.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/material-culture
Here is where puppetry intersects with a field of study that we have yet to enter into—but which is entirely relevant to what we do. (There are others that we should begin cross pollinating with as well.) Isn't it important to consider that the object constructed or selected for performance is itself a conveyor of meaning and is perhaps itself capable of eliciting empathy? While others may wish to debate whether puppets are art, I will simply state that in many instances, I believe it to be true, and in other instances when the object is perhaps not art—yet it too reveals something about us, and is reflective about something in our culture at the moment in time in which it was constructed.  In Art and Agency, Alfred Gell postulates that
A purely cultural, aesthetic, 'appreciative' approach to art objects is an anthropological dead end. Instead, the question which interests me is the pos­sibility of formulating a 'theory of art' which fits naturally into the context of anthropology, given the premise that anthropological theories are 'recogniz­able' initially, as theories about social relationships, and not anything else. The simplest way to imagine this is to suppose that there could be a species of anthropological theory in which persons or `social agents' are, in certain con­texts, substituted for by art objects…. I have avoided the use of the notion of 'symbolic meaning' throughout this work. This refusal to discuss art in terms of symbols and meanings may occa­sion some surprise, since the domain of 'art' and the symbolic are held by many to be more or less coextensive. In place of symbolic communication, I place all the emphasis on agency, intention, causation, result, and transformation. I view art as a system of action, intended to change the world rather than encode sym­bolic propositions about it. The 'action'-centred approach to art is inherently more anthropological than the alternative semiotic approach because it is pre­occupied with the practical mediatory role of art objects in the social process, rather than with the interpretation of objects `as if' they were texts…..The kinds of 'index' with which the anthropological theory of art has to deal are usually (but not always) artefacts, These artefacts have the capacity to index their 'origins' in an act of manufacture. Any artefact, by virtue of being a man­ufactured thing, motivates an abduction which specifies the identity of the agent who made or originated it. Manufactured objects are 'caused' by their makers, just as smoke is caused by fire; hence manufactured objects are indexes of their makers. ….Just as any art object indexes its origins in the activity of the artist, it also indexes its reception by a public, primarily the public it was made ‘for.’ (5-23)

When Caroline Eck commented on Gell’s work in her essay Gell's theory of art as agency and living presence response, she wrote:
 Most reactions to Gell’s work try to assess the significance of his work to anthropology and/or art history in general; here the merits of applying a Gellian analysis to one particular, but very widespread, variety of art acting on the viewer are considered: living presence response, in which viewers react to works of art as if they are living beings or even persons that act upon the viewer, enter into a personal relationship with them, and elicit love, hate, desire or fear.  Art and Agency offers a new departure to study such responses because it singles out precisely that aspect of the interaction between works of art and their viewers that makes them similar to living beings: their agency, the power to influence their viewers, to make them act as if they are engaging not with dead matter, but with living persons….Art and Agency maps the ways in which indexes make viewers do things (in the widest sense of the word), and this mapping depends heavily on the cognitive psychology of Pascal Boyer. But it does not engage in much detail with the actual experience of the patients of the index. Yet it is precisely the experience of a work of art turning out to be alive, of the creeping awareness or sudden appearance of the inanimate as an animated, living being that defines living presence response, makes it resistant to any form of scientific explanation, and at the same time profoundly unsettling. 
Clearly, people outside the field or puppetry are busy looking into the resonances of  objects and their actions upon us. It is troubling to note that we are quickly backpedaling away from the significance of objects in the work that we do, and the question arises; what is the unspoken commentary in this stance?

In Prehistoric Figurines: Representation and Corporeality in the Neolithic Bailey examines the uses of figurines through visual culture studies and cultural anthropology, “and investigates the ways in which representations of human bodies were used by the pre-historic people to understand their own identities, to negotiate relationships and to make subtle political points"(Editor/Publisher quote). I would posit that this sounds similar to the explorations of our modern predicament, by modern day artist who work with puppetry. Bailey breaks his study down to the study of figurines in four contexts: as miniatures, as three-dimensional representations, as anthropomorphs, and as representations. He studies the actions that each of these contexts has on the viewer. Their very being as objects–without any movement or textual “story” creates impact on the viewer that can be tested and reported.

 More to come in the next few days.