Recording Theatre: a Machine for Producing Meanings
catalogue text by Barbara Świąder 2015
Dorota Walentynowicz‘s art is „a being between“ – between sculpture, installation and a device, between photography and other domains. Between the artist‘s gesture and the scientist‘s study, an aesthetical utterance and an intellectual discourse. This is so because her objects are as much embedded in her artistic quest at the junction area between several disciplines as they are located in various cultural senses and contexts – ideas and concepts of contemporary humanities. However, the intertextual and conceptual games which the artist undertakes are not only the pageantry of erudition or intellectual jugglery. By entering into live discussions with a widely understood artistic tradition and contemporary scholarly reflection, she opens new possibilities for the forms of expression for both the artist and the scholar. She explores the possibilities of multimedia with scientific passion, creating crossbreeds of different genres. Her experiments in the field of art have thus become the building process of a peculiar laboratory where the distillation of intellectual „substances“ into artistic formations is continually taking place.
Walentynowicz‘s latest work, entitled Recording Theatre, jointly realised with the American artist Lisa Ruyter, makes references to the histories of photography and theatre. She juxtaposes one of the earliest, primary media which man invented, that is theatre, with a medium which is young and par excellance modern – photography, being the first representative of the new media, which would only later be followed by motion pictures and subsequent technological contrivances. As Hans Belting writes, photography „functions in this perspective like a new mirror in which images of the world appear“ (1). One should instantly add that Dorota Walentynowicz ranks the mirror amidst her most favourite motifs, which recurs in her works in different variations, first of all as a fragmented, shattered, broken surface – as it is in the work in question. Theatre is a much older mirror in which humankind has viewed its image for dozens of centuries. Yet, photography and theatre are mirrors of utterly different characters and the Recording Theatre pinpoints this difference perfectly. Even the title of the work itself contains some kind of tension, some oxymoron – „theatre“ and „record“? Aren’t these two contradictory, mutually exclusive terms? The theatre does not note down or record anything; it is an ephemeral being, submerged in the „here and now“. Photography, on the other hand, tries to halt this „here and now“ and note it down for ever, that is – record it. The theatre which is in its core elusive, transitory and embedded in the present time is now connected to the photographic camera, being a machine for the noting-down and fixing time. The Utopian concept of fighting and caching time meets the idea of transitoriness here. „The image“ of a theatre performance remains only in the viewer‘s memory – certainly not in the visual and/or textual documentation, while the photographic image is a being, functioning somewhat independently, free from the remembering subject; it functions as an image of a moment, a point in time. Hans Belting writes that only in photography can the world remain as it once used to be. (2) Belting and his contemporary scholars have thus divulged the Utopian pursuit of photography to halt time and capture the image of the world. An American conceptual artist, Robert Smithson states that the world has become „a kind of its own museum“ (3) thanks to photography, while Roland Barthes adds openly that the photographic image „promulgates death in full view, trying to save life“. (4)
In such a perspective, the title of Walentynowicz and Ruyter‘s work reveals its way-ward nature. After all, it is the theatre with its transitoriness, temporariness and elusiveness which appears to be the medium carrying life with its changeability, dynamism and motion, that is – taking down notes about the truth of life. Photography, on the other hand, has paradoxically become the domain of death, which means being numb, defunct, and frozen in a gesture. The octagonal form of the work of these two artists, on the one hand, gains the value of the black box of a stage where the potency of any being and a possible birth of any theatrical world whatsoever is inherent (when the curtain is up), on the other – it becomes a kind of a sarcophagus, a coffin, a killing machine (when the curtain is dropped) which, like a famous gun-apparatus from Tadeusz Kantor‘s Wielopole, Wielopole, kills the world just being noted-down. Thus, the act of halting an image would simultaneously mean its killing, while storing it in memory, in human minds is equivocal, unpredictable in its variations, mobile, living, „open“.
The artists often refer to the beginnings of photography and theatre – to their sources, so, at the same time, they refer to the foundations of our current European culture. Formally, this means a journey to the remote history of photographic and theatrical techniques. Walentynowicz, uses her favourite technique of camera obscura in the field of photography, which she has done consistently for many years. A famous drawing from Athanasius Kircher‘s book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae from 1671, depicts one of the first known pinhole photographic cameras. The drawing bears an aesthetical value, typical of its epoch, which presents a technical device like a piece of art, while a man inside the chamber is posed like an actor enacting his role on a tiny stage. This drawing from Kircher‘s book shows a spacious device which is like the box of a stage with a photographer (actor-director?) closed inside, trying to tell about the world, capture it, note it down, while peeping at it through a perforation in its side.
The close relationship between the artist and the camera in those pioneer times often had a very intimate character, making the photographer only a part of a large formation, the relationship being organically inherent to the space of the contraption. Man was something like a cog in a machine, while at the same time an inhabitant of this weird chamber which the interior of the camera was. The creation of a photographic work wasn’t feasible without his presence but, at the same time, a human being‘s participation in the creative act was nothing but a mere technicality. After all, the final shape of the image mostly derived from the photo-optical process, occurring inside the device; coincidence and the unpredictability of final result playing a big role in the whole operation. The said process was indeed initiated by a man, but it went „through“ the camera which, as a matter of fact, remained the proper „author“ of a photograph which „took itself“.
On theatrical grounds, their work alludes to stage solutions from the early time of European theatre, from antique periaktoi, the curtain and a small stage to the Middle Ages with its mobile mansions and Terence stage – stating here only the most obvious items. The curtain, aulaeum, is considered to have been invented in ancient Rome and linked to the art of mimes. According to Cicero, it was a practical answer to the abrupt and unexpected endings of mime‘s performances, which required a decisive emphasis. What is interesting, in Roman performances, contrary to contemporary theatre, the curtain was not taken up at the beginning but was dropped into a ditch in front of a building on stage and taken up at the end to display a painting on it. (5) Only in the period of the late empire, was this convention reversed. The curtain of the Recording Theatre is not dropped but drawn to the sides, which seems to be a metaphor of how a shutter of the camera works, separating the gazing observer form the world they gaze at; the shutter both closing out the world and opening it in a different dimension. Additionally, the curtain forms a kind of a border delimiting the status of people who are inside and outside the contraption and whose functions will be reversed after the curtain is moved aside – the viewer becoming the one who is gazed at, and the other way round.
The periaktoi is an element from antique Greek theatre, functioning „on the border between painting on stage and theatrical machinery“. (6) We can describe it after Vetruvius as „a right prism with a triangular base which features three types of decorations on its three sides“. (7) These rotating elements, placed at scaenae frons were a very practical element of stage design; thanks to them, quick changes of action could have their reflection in equally quick changes of the space of the spectacle. Before renaissance introduced sliding panels, periaktoi were in popular use because theatrical practice always adopted practical solutions. In Walentynowicz and Ruyter‘s version, periaktoi is a prism which has the same decoration on each side – fragments of a mirror. In this way, the artists seem to say that a metaphorical „change of decorations“ is practically impossible in today‘s world or even unnecessary. As for the world which is depicted in a fragmented and shattered image it is supposed to become the space of enactment for itself, its own stage design. It is so because we are moving in a closed circle of copies of one‘s own image. Simultaneously, however, the fact that the viewer is fated to view his own image in pieces is an attempt to urge his self-reflection. The act of a contemporary man facing a mirror is now only possible in a fragmentary version – the man must stand face to face with a shattered mirror which shall never show the full image. The (re)construction of this image belongs to „the gazer“ – after all it is the one who gazes who decides upon the final shape and meaning of the „gazed at“ in post-modern reality.
A tiny stage on wheels, which the object, the main element of the Recording Theatre, becomes after it is opened, is an obvious reference to the Terence cell-rooms with curtains, on the one hand, and the ludens-like approachof the theatre with its streetwise origins where practical, easy-to-mount platforms, mobile podiums and stages on wheel-carts were in use. What is worth mentioning here is the idea of Vsevolod Meyerhold‘s „shoddy market stall“ that is a theatre as a popular pastime, the domain of varied drollery, jugglers and puppeteers, as well as Mediaeval mansions of the mystery plays. Indeed, theatre has various ancestors, coming not only from the temple but from the market place, too, from official buildings, as well as houses of ill repute. These were the beginnings of many a type of behaviour in the theatre and meetings with all types of people, while the theatre as such lies somewhere in-between of all of this. (8) Walentynowicz and Ruyter‘s work seems to reflect this variety both formally and ideally, adding contact with a machine, an object and tools for making art, such as cameras and theatrical machinery, to human relations.
From the beginning of photography, it is the effects of the work of apparatus and artists which are subject to the viewer’s gaze; however, Dorota Walentynowicz, seems to reverse the direction of the viewer’s gaze in the majority of her works, including Recording Theatre, by placing the device in the centre of her viewer’s interest. In her approach machines for making photographs gain some autonomy becoming individualised beings, partially „independent”. Although they were created by a human and their nature is utilitarian, they have escaped the power of their creator and their only primary function. Walentynowicz creates her objects, bestowing them with a subjective aesthetical shape. They are unrepeatable, unique, singular, often having anthropomorphic forms. This human dimension is reinforced by the potentiality to watch the world, inherently inscribed into them. The eye of the lens is always ready to subject people, space and events around it to the act of ostensibility. Although they are seemingly insensitive, objective and non-reflective, Walentynowicz’s gazing machines have an aspect of readiness to interact, animate and exchange with the surrounding world. They „take” real images and „give back” their own versions in return. They are utilitarian objects for use – one can arrange them in order, replace them, touch them; one can enter into some of them and treat them as small stages. Others are like dolls-objects which can stand on stage at any moment to enact their roles. One is not able to determine unequivocally who is the viewer and who is viewed, who is the spectator and who is the actor.
The Recording Theatre illustrates the latter aspect especially strongly by questioning the ontological equivocalness of the receiver, the participant. The presence of the viewer is the precondition of a theatrical situation, however, the viewer’s status here is flickery, ambiguous and multidimensional. It is so because the viewer who is external to the device both gazes at (the machine) and is being gazed upon (by the machine). The viewer treats the machine as an object, simultaneously being the object of the machine. Finding himself inside the apparatus, he can feel safe, something like a voyeur hidden to peep at space and people through crevices in the wall. It is enough, however, that the curtain on one of the walls of the black solid object is opened and the gazer will find himself the centre of attention, becoming alone on stage against coincidental eyes and gazes of spectators.
The apparatus-stage of Walentynowicz and Ruyter brings many more references and associations from histrionic and photographic domains – from obvious ones, such as photo-booths to more distance ones, such as a cabaret or a peep-show. The discussed object, furnished with fragments of mirrors and prisms, seems also to allude by its character to various contraptions like cabinets of mirrors, panopticons, optical theatres and magic lanterns – all these things which have somehow animated the (non)real image of the world, creating its unusual, unreal and surprising variation, shaped between recording (camera obscura) and projecting(laterna magica). The need to play with the image of the world, to experience its strangeness or something fantastic seems to be a reversed desire to capture and record the realistic image of reality. The play between these two tendencies creates a subsequent interpretative floor of the work in question. It seems to be one of the elements of the formal and ideological game of the artists, their playing with contradictory references and cultural allusions. Through their building of tension between these contradictions, this work poses philosophical and ontological questions about the condition of today‘s man.
The motif of continual gazing at each other, a seeming objectification of this gaze, subjected to the reality of continual recording seem to be a perfect diagnosis of the performative aspect, indispensably present in the life of the contemporary man who is practically controlled and photographed all the time by various lenses, meant as an enforcement tool of social order and safety. Thus, Walentynowicz and Ruyter use anachronic means to tell us about the post-modern world in which our behaviour has practically been condemned to self-control and social control, it must be aware and happen „towards“ and „for“ others. In this way our behaviour becomes one, big and continual performance; after all Marvin Carlson affirms that all human activity performed consciously can be considered a „performance“. (9) So, who are those for whom we enact and who watch the records of our life-performance? What are we truly like? Does our living in the shadow of cameras change the „naturalness“ of human behaviour? If so – how? Does recording with an insensitive camera eye retain any traits of objectivism or, on the contrary, by a fragmentary and context-less notation of our existence does it create subjective and artificial images? Does reality still exist underneath these images?
In search for answers the Recording Theatre leads us from the metaphor, universal for the whole world, of „the world as a stage” and „people as actors” (including the most famous interpretations by Shakespeare and Calderon de la Barca), along with „the mirror-stage” of Jaques Lacan to the primordial aspect of histrionics, inscribed into human nature (of which Nikolai Yevreinov and others said) and the performative character of the contemporary world and human behaviour (mentioning at least Erving Goffman, Richard Schechner or Carlson, mentioned above). From Stendhal’s concept of a novel as a mirror walking along the pavement to the idea of simulacra of Jean Baudrilard, from realism to postmodernism. This piece of art also seems to pose the very grave question of whether or not any art history is possible today. It is almost an illustration of Belting’s thesis about the end of the history of art in its traditional version, presenting art as a polished stream of consecutive stylistic epochs, separating old from modern arts. The Recording Theatre questions this division by continuing the links between the old and the contemporary, giving new life to old inventions. (10)
Walentynowicz and Ruyter‘s work spreads a wide field for inter-textual studies and interpretative paths. It is like a peculiar machine for the production of meanings which annexes big areas of culture simply to subject them to transformation, leaving the decoding of senses to its viewers, participants, users, objects, actors…
Translated by © Marzena Beata Guzowska