37. RMNSC: a man like a machine – tomorrow?

Special written for the blog during 37. RMNSC Festival visiting / October 2012


At 5 October in Krakow has started The 37th Krakow Theatrical Reminiscences, the legendary theatrical  festival which since 1973 remains one of the most controversial theatre festivals in Poland and abroad. The City of Tomorrow is the consept of this year’s festival, that mean the festival’s focus is not only here and now, but the future too.  A new festival director Anna Lewanowicz  proposed a new perspective of the understanding of urgently in the context of the modernity. The City of Tomorrow means new understanding of a place of theatre today.  According to Anna Lewanowicz, it’s an attempt to include the festival in the daily life of the city, because theatre today also can be a platform for discussions of political, economic and social problems of Krakow as well as of Polish society. Such strategy reflects the main trends of  contemporary art practices in principle, for example, the experience of the last Berlin Biennale and Documenta in Kassel. Artists today, going from abstract metaphysics and focusing their attention on real problems of the reality, water down borders between arts, society, politics, and science. That’s why the program of this year’s festival with such forms as bio art presentationartistic city trip, and interactive project (except plastic-theatre-dance performances) looks absolutely natural.

On the one hand, it seems difficultly to say why, for example, bio art presentations are showed in the frame of the theatre festival. But, on the other hand, who  know exactly what will be theatre in the future? Or what such definitions as game and theatricality will mean? We could try only to guess. Therefore, TheCity of Tomorrow is not only about what we will talk tomorrow, but also which forms we will use. To try understanding for what and for who will be theatre tomorrow is one of the tasks of this year’s festival.

For that the definition avant-garde is used in the festival’s concept. Returning it to the original meaning (because today a lot of people associate avant-garde with art practices of the beginning of the last century), the organizers chose works of those artists who not only speaks about urgently problems, but, inspired by the images of the future, use modern technology. The Masses-The Machine-The Dream, the motto of the festival, in detail constructs an image of the future that may come tomorrow. The future where personal identity is dissolved in the mass, a Machine is both a subject and an object, and the border between dream (imagination) and the reality loses its shape.

When We Meet Again \ Me and The Machine (UK)

Interactive project When We Meet Again by British-Spanish group Me and The Machine takes only 9 minutes. It’s a video story that a viewer could not only individually observe (the performance is one-to-one show in a dark cellar of Krakow Art Center). But he or she could personally experience the story. A viewer is not an observer or co-partner (partner) of the performer. He is a hero of the story, which is the fruit of his own imagination. The role of the performer is to be only as an assistant and guide a viewer on his or her feelings or memories.

The performer meets you at the entrance, holds through dark corridors in a large cellar, and then put on you one’s glasses, headphones and a device. A women’s voice in the headphones asks: ‘You can see a picture?’‘Yes. And further: ‘When I first met you, you could see me, but I couldn’t see you’, says a voice, and on the screen inside the glasses you see the image of a girl of the same glasses as you are. ‘I took you by the hand, like this, put it on my shoulder and led you’, a real hand out of nowhere (you cannot see it, only feel) takes you by your hand and leads. A few steps into the void turn into an endless journey. On the screen you could also see a shoulder and an arm. Is this my hand and my feet? Then we begin to dance (‘Repeat after me’), real hands out of nowhere take my hands and the music sounds. I dance. In the dark. But there is no black image in the eyes, but someone whose eyes are hidden behind dark impenetrable glasses. Then the dance is interrupted, and we will be parted again. The hands disappear, and the image too. I haven’t seen you because of the glasses.

The performance is over. But what was it? Did it happen with me in reality or it was my dream? Or maybe it’s just going to happen, isn’t it?

It seems strange to talk about invisible glasses which people put on themselves in the reality and which hidden them from each other, trough using real glasses. But the result is when after the performance you come out, you would like remove these invisible glasses. And perhaps, all that you had experienced in a final of the performance, when an imaginary partner has gone (because I could not see you), in the reality is not going to happen. And a hand that puts your hand on the shoulder will lead in the dark, and then put into your mouth a berry, which is real, because no theatre but the reality.

The fact is when you remove glasses you don’t see the performer who was with you all this time. So, that person who was present in your mind during the performance becomes even more feasible and desirable. Nine minutes – I would like more, but more is not needed. Because there is no time to think about yourself or what you feel. Only the desire to climb the stairs up, go out from theatre space and in the reality remove the glasses.

Bio art presentations 

An artist is in a laboratory smock, with rubber gloves, who creates his works in sterile lab conditions – so, does art of future look like this? Or is it just one of the trends, perhaps, temporarily? The exact answer we will know tomorrow. But today it’s fact, that bio art develops actively, leaves space of only visual art and appears, for example on the field of performative art. Ecological problems, researching of the human body, his genetic variations, and mechanization of a body, relationship between a body and invisible organisms as well as a machine are the topics which are interested by bio art artists. It’s important to note, that they don’t use art or piece, but lab, research, experiment.

So, a visual artist, designer and researcher Jae Rhim Lee (USA) says about her body as a machine, which is capable to produce plants. As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was interested in how the human body can interact with living organisms. For example, in the project N = 1 = NPK = KIMCHI = N she used her urine to grow bio cabbage for making bio kimchi. Before that, she researched her urine for the presence of nutrients, taking special diet she spent some time in the laboratory collecting her urine in a sterile container. Thus, her body became free from toxins and she could to grow absolutely bio plant. By this action Jae Rhim Lee tells not only about the human body as a source of bio-products. But also she focuses on the relationship between our ‘waste’ after eating and a meal which we eat.

Jae Rhim Lee \ The Infinity Burial Project

Her other project – The Infinity Burial Project – is about death, or rather, the consequences of decomposing body. ‘By trying to preserve our dead bodies, we deny death’, says the artist. She means also the last scientific research of human bodies’ freezing for prolonging life. It also means that we refuse to be able for the consequences that the decomposing body, which contains industrial toxins, brings to the environment. Thus, Jae Rhim Lee grew from the dead tissues of her body (cropped hair and nails) a unique mushroom that is able, mean the artist, to clean the living body from toxins. Now she with volunteers’ group continues her research.   Lee thinks, that an infinity mushroom  is not only a real object, but a symbol of the new relationship between a person and death.

After her English artist John O’Shea presented his works. For example, the Pigs Bladder Football project. Several years ago John worked in the clinical research unit of University of Engineering in Liverpool, where he knew about the process of growing human organs from the dead animal tissue. So, he had the idea to use bioengineering for industrial purposes. For example, for the cultivation of soccer balls. In August of this year the first ball was grown, and the company of Pigs Bladder Football was started.

John O’Shea \ Black Market Pudding

The other his project was Black Market Pudding, when John O’Shea put on sale a traditional blood sausage of the UK and Ireland manufactured using blood taken from a living pig (usually, it was taken from a dead pig, of course). The project became a reason of public discussions about    the ethics of such action because of anima’s suffers. But the artist said, in his view, people who are comfortable eating meat, should be equally comfortable with killing animals. And began new project – The Meat License Proposal. John proposed a license for the consumption of meat, following which a person can only eat an animal killed with his own hands. It means, he or she should go to the farm, make an act and after that to get the meat. You need to decide, said John O’Shea, to be ethical and don’t eat meat or to stop cheating and fairly kill animals. The artist continues to develop this project, studying the laws and statistics of different countries, and provoking discussion on various communities.

The next day the presentation Meat, Metal & Code: Engineering Chimeras by Australian performance artist Stelarc  was happened. The main subject of Stelarc’s works is the human body (what a body is, how he is created and how a body can be affected be mechanization). Stelarc’s idea that our body is just a machine, full of soft and devices, and we die because this ‘machine’ switches off. (Later on the question, does he really identities himself as a machine, he answered, that a machine is that now stands before you and talking with you. It is not mine, it’s not me).

Stelarc \ Extended Arm

Stelarc showed a video of his performance Extended Arm, where he put on his body a special device with sensors, which started fully control the movements of his hand. For 4 hours (at the presentation was shown only a fragment) Stelarc couldn’t control the moving of his hand.  Or his other project Ear on Arm: Engineering Internet Organ, when the artist implanted ear’s transplant in his arm. ‘If the body was altered it might mean adjusting its awareness, says Stelarc, It means,  that changing of the architecture of our body, we can change our consciousness. Implanting of variety electronic device in the body, a person can influence on the evolution of the body.

When you see the animated masks, robots- doubles, a man inside the skeleton machine, a talking head from the screen, it looks like a fantastic film. But the living presence of the artist, his comments, and the real ear on his arm – all talk about the reality of these projects.  Stelarc has turned his body into a material, a platform on which he could materialize his crazy ideas. But it is important that every of his ‘madness’ is based on hard work, research and knowledge of technology (not just a fantasy or a dream, but real science that proves the reality of every dream).

Without nonhumans there is no man. (c) Bruno Latour (?)

At the end of the second festival’s day after all presentations the panel discussion has happened. Do we need to be afraid of mechanization, technology use, computerization, which are not only part of our everyday lives, but, as shown of the artists’ presentation, it could penetrate into a body and mind?

Artists’ minds, that these fears and anxieties are protective human response to foreign, unrecognized. At first, perhaps, robots-doubles walking on the street could scare. But then we get used to them, and it becomes to be normal. Especially, recent developments and research can not only make our lives more comfortable, staving off various technological and environmental disasters. But, in particular, to offer solutions to problems that have already occurred with the human body (diseases, for example) as well as in the environment.

Stelarc \ The Muscle Machine 

The difference of real heart from a heart transplant is that the blood does not pulse, but circulates in a circle. It means that heartbeat which is traditionally considered a sign of life disappears, tells Stelarc. Does it mean that life disappears? Does a man become as a machine or is a machine is got new meanings? The artists only offer their models and scenarios, and tomorrow will show that one has the right answer.

Perhaps, these artists are right, and fear, rejection, anxiety, which appear when you look at their work, it is a defensive reaction. They look to the future where they got the sources for their real fantasies.  For them, all of these forms and objects, which for another people could be looks like anomalies, identity as a beauty. But the fact is, in general, bio artists prefer to close themselves into safe space of a laboratory, where their partner is a computer double and a child is a plant. So, perhaps, their look in the future is their way to win the fear and anxiety caused by the external real world. Thus, to be a machine is really a way not feel pain, not suffer, not worry.

Interestingly, the appearance in the festival program such performativity projects made possible to identify the specific feature that distinguishes the theatre (performative arts) from other arts. Specifically, a living presence of an artist or, as Jerzy Grotowski defined it, conductor’s being, to be as a bridge between the audience and a story (or experience, which a story gives). It means, in the case of video projections and interactive project, if an artist sits between the screen and the audience and tells, comments his work, it is theatre because of a living person. Even he or she is like a machine.

Photos (c) RMNSC Press Center

(to be continued)

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