[-empyre-] Artaud, ritual, spectacle, alchemy...and a pinch of science

Gordana Novakovic G.Novakovic at cs.ucl.ac.uk
Fri Oct 14 02:51:40 EST 2011

Where one stops, the other goes further in depth. It is a fascinating
experience of listening to and being heard by like-minded, a process
of creating a multiple-body/mind, a kind of a virtual collective body
‘materialising’ from the discussion. Johannes, thanks for the superb
casting and directing the show with no leading role.

It would take far too long to respond individually to each really
thought provoking comments (which can be of course done in one-to-one
follow-up), but must say that most of the reflections feel as if they
are adding the missing bits in my own contributions and are bringing
more clarity to my own work (difficult to single out one or two so I
won’t), or covering issues that for the sake of the space and time I
had omitted (and am sure others did too). I had exciting dialogues
with each of you running in my mind, which would come probably to
thousands of words if written. (now that I have finished, I realised
that I ended up with an incredibly long chunk of text - million
apologies for that, but I’ll post it before I start cutting)

So I’ll try to respond to Johannes questions that somehow summarise
the essence. In a trial to work along the lines of Artaud’s
visions...and use interactive tools and science I guess is a bit of
mission impossible. And this is where the fun starts.

There is fast growing number of works that apply one-way stream of
data (brain waves or other biological functions). And here comes the
hard bit again. How to create a shared experience beyond watching
someone having an experience?

Another Holy Grail, this time of interactive art, is the idea of
turning a participant into an actor. Works beautifully in theory. Not
always in practice. Although I conceived my most recent piece to be
meditative, it failed to an extent in its fully interactive version
(videodocs http://vimeo.com/28885150 and http://vimeo.com/28659134).
It worked well as meditaive when the piece was exhibited as a simple
projection (free running, real-time generated processes – in a way
interactive within itself) without interactivity with the audience.
Obviously, stillness, motionless come as a natural clue. From my
experience (and seeing responses to other artists’ works), now that
people are familiar with interactive tools, installation that does not
provide instant, clearly visible respond is mostly doomed to fail. And
there the habit plays the crucial role I believe.

The piece that worked well was Infonoise, a spectacular
sculpture-projection ‘screen’ in the shape of Moebius strip, 12 x 1,5
meters. The artistic concept was complex and provocative, addressing
infowar; however, it induced visceral response by the audience. So
here I’d like to bring in the disussion the topic of scpectacularity.
I think that it is a necessary element that can help in overcoming the
dependence on perceptual habits and mechanical clock, and bring a
potential to open up body and mind for the natural, biological
perception of time, speed and space that Olu beautifully elaborated.
‘Be like water, my friend’ (Thanks, Michele, for bringing Bruce Lee
into discussion, that quote of his have been helping me to survive

The shock and awe of the Artaudian world.

‘The root of the word spectacle is in Latin specatculum or spectare:
to watch. It is related to the art of theatre that originated in and
gradually replaced the ancient rituals in Western culture. It refers
nowadays to the blend of mass-media and the entertainment industry,
reflected in all segments of contemporary life to the extent that it
has become a paradigm for contemporary social relations. However it
can be applied to a certain extent to ritual and interactive
installation, this term is in opposition with the essence of both: the
active participation of the audience is the conditio sine qua non,
either in ritual or in interactive installation.

Spectacularity in interactive installation is of an entirely different
nature than mass-spectacles. It is the fluid, changeable form of
interactive installation that separates it from and opposes it to the
uniform immersive anaesthetic of tech-spectacle.

Participation in ritual is a complete mental and physical engagement
located in a very particular space. It is a closed event of the sacral
genre that excludes spectators and audience. Only individuals that
undergo a process of initiation are invited to participate. Physical
activity in its endless varieties is inseparable from mental processes
of total unity with space resulting in transitions through levels of
changed consciousnesses. Ritual operates in liminal spheres that are
defined as a sensory threshold of changed consciousness introducing
participants into esoteric meta-physicality. Participants reach deep
levels of physical self-consciousness by dissolving their bodies in
space and the symbolic dramaturgy. The entrancing experience leads to
archetypal knowledge, reaching, according to Roy Ascott, even the
primordial cell levels. Spectacularity in ritual functions as a major
formal element. It creates a dramatic tension that symbolically
signifies its inviolability and by designating the distinctness of the
event separates it from the perception of everyday reality. Instead of
voyeuristic spectating - there is active participation. It is the
participant who actively creates dramatic tension through interaction
and unity with the otherness of the event. Its metaphoric language
personifies formidable forces beyond human control. There is an
embrace and overcoming of primordial fears through uncanny, fearsome

Interactive work and ritual create drama through a language of signs
and symbols in contrast to the logic of narration. The emblematic
sonic and visual language of interactive installation and the specific
radiant energy generated by its body, the reversible stream between
the participants and environment through interaction amalgamates
participants' bodies with installation parallel to the unity of body
and space in ritual. Repetitiveness of the visual and the aural
elements within a changeable flow of audiovisual modules as the common
structure of interactive works operates as a classical mantric,
trance-inducing ritual instrument. The sum of sensational stimuli
changes the perception of time, space and matter leading to mental and
physical self-awareness. The process of interaction transforms the
characteristics and the apprehension of the particular space,
incorporating and transfiguring technology.

The omnipresent conflict between man and technology is played out
through the tension between the living body and the body of the
installation. The human body becomes fluid, transparent, immersed and
dissolved. Skin becomes a propulsive membrane. The sum of various
sensations increases sensitivity and level of self-consciousness of
the body through a symbolic process of de-composing and re-composing.
The participant's body is immersed in the environment, it feels and
processes these impulses in its own right, reading the received data
within but also beyond the levels of conscious perception. It is
exposed not only to various audiovisual sensations, but also to the
installation's body generating different electromagnetic phenomena.
However a small number of works deliberately instrumentalise these
effects, the way that interactive installations engage our sensory
apparatus and the impact of the installation's environment on
participants' personal bio-electric system is still enigmatic.

The aesthetics and functional mode of interactive installation are
significantly determined through the architecture of hardware and
software. Regardless of their scale and complexity there is a division
between works that can be called 'interactive instruments' and
so-called 'responsive environments'. The structure of the 'interactive
instrument' invites participants to follow a specified routine in
order to establish interaction. Or – they can be lead by the
'shamanic' individuality of Stelarc, par example, whose body is in the
role of mediator in interaction. On the other hand there are so-called
'responsive environments'. Through a sensory system, the installation
'feels' and 'responds' to the presence of participants. A particular
reaction that can be invoked by responsive environment is the specific
web of participants' trajectories through space and/or spontaneous
gestures, a specific 'choreography' as a form of ritual activity.’
(extracts from G. Novakovic, Electronic Cruelty in Ascott, R., (ed)
Engineering Nature: Art and Consciousness in the Post-Biological Era
Intellect (Bristol, 2006)

And here comes butoh. A shamanic leader through phantasmagoria,
communicating the meaning of the installation through her mind/body.

And yes, ritual is not a comfortable, relaxing, entertaining
speciation. It shakes, assaults body, mind, senses...can be, and often
involves violent actions of some kind, takes all kinds of instruments
(metaphorically, but often literarily) to lead participants to
catharsis. (what do we do with the health and safety regulations in
public spaces? might be overcome by using scientific laboratories,
they – scientists - are allowed more than us?)

Now a bit of neuroscience. There is an interesting fairly recent
discovery of the function of so-called ‘mirror neurons’ – the
discovery that brain regions respond during both action and
observation of action, leading to scientific evidences for empathy.
Here I am sure Ramachandran will talk much better than me

So – what could we learn from that when we are masterminding our
spectacle, or electronic ritual? And what can our work tell back to
scientists that otherwise they won’t be able to find out, simply
because they lack the skill, talent, knowledge, experience (and time)
to construct an experience for their subjects (our performers and
audience) to experiment in the environment that feels natural, however
it is arti-ficial.

My feel is that the big question is that we do not automatically
empathise with others. We need to be emotionally stimulated, fully
engaged. How to deal with that? Do we need some kind of initiation?
And if so – what would that be?

Another fascinating thing about butoh for me is that this practice
(sorry, lack more appropriate term) does not precondition audience. It
can be ‘performed’ as a solitary meditative activity. So it would be
interesting to compare variations with the same interactive
environment with and without the audience. Than by changing certain
parameters of the installation that I conceptualised as a kind of a
tuneable instrument (colour, speed etc can be modified without loosing
the essence of the piece).

In a way – the idea will be to turn theatre space into a scientific
laboratory, and theatre into a laboratory, and get scientist into
active collaboration on structuring the performance – both as a
collective and solitary experience. And let artists and scientists to
extract what they find useful for their own field once the series of
shows is over.

Now let me get back to ritual and Artaud.

It was Artaud who argued the need for theatre as a kind of exorcism
that can relieve suppressed forces originating in contemporary
alienation through a performance that will take the form of ritual of

" .... [theatre] reforges the links between what does and what does
not exist, between the virtual nature of the possible and the material
nature of existence. It rediscovers the idea of figures and archetypal
symbols, which act like a sudden silences, fermata, heart stops,
adrenaline calls, incendiary images surging into our abruptly woken
minds. It restores all our dormant conflicts and their powers, giving
these powers names we acknowledge as signs. Here a bitter clash of
symbols takes place before us, hurled one against the other in an
inconceivable riot. For theatre can only happen the moment the
inconceivable really begins, where poetry taking place on the stage
nourishes and superheats created symbols." (Artaud, 1964: 17)

It was Artaud who argued that alchemy could be the key for introducing
an archetypal and symbolic theatre language: "... alchemical symbols
are chimeras just as theatre is a chimera [....] alchemy and theatre
are virtual arts, so to speak, and do not contain their object within
them any more than they contain their reality." (Artaud, 1964: 35). He
took the disturbing, changed conditions of everyday life as an
argument for the need to create a new theatrical form and language
that would meet the sensibilities of the contemporary audience

Alchemy is a complex exploration of ontology in an amalgam of art,
science and philosophy. Alchemy, according to C.G.Jung, was the use of
chemical, or quasi-chemical processes in an attempt to create a
"subtle body" of a semi-spiritual nature:
" Just because of the intermixture of the physical and psychic, a
doubt remains as to whether the final transformations in the
alchemists process are to be sought for more in material, or more in
spiritual, realm. But actually this question is wrongly put: no
either-or existed for that age, but intermediate realm between matter
and mind, a psychic realm of subtle bodies to which a mental as well
as a material manifestation was suitable. This is the only view of
thoughts; on any other, they appear absurd." (Jung, 1940: 222)

If you have endured to this point - thank you so much for your
patience! hope I haven't completely wasted your time

Best regards,


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