Remember: the words theatre and theory have a common origin. They derive from the Greek theoros, which was the name given to a visitor, coming to observe the holy rituals. Coming from the outside, being on the outside, enabled him to behold the ritual as a spectacle unfolding before him. Hence theory, hence theatre. Observation requires distance and non-engagement. This distance, this position where theory can occur, is also the position of the audience. What position is this? Firstly, it is a privileged position, where the onlooker, standing on the outside, is able to pass judgement on whatever lies in front. It is the position from where one can state the truth about the object: “this is good”, “this is successful”, “this is art”. So it also requires an object, a spectacle, something to pass judgement on. Even if it is a superior position, the viewer is also dependent, in need of something to look at, and also locked to this specific relationship, like Ulysses tied to the mast. A limited power indeed.
And then, there is the fact that the audience is not really stating the truth about what is unfolding before them – rather, they are being tricked, seeing only what the artist wants them to see. Only after submitting to this ruse can they perform the judgement. A kind of agreement or pact between the work and the onlooker – suspension of disbelief is perhaps the right expression – where blots of paint become persons, sequences of images become narratives, people represent other people – and these strange, moving plastic things turn into unfathomable living beings. I feel they have intentions, but know they do not have it. In order for the play of anthropomorphism to come into being, a specific relationship between work and viewer – a certain distance, a great deal of good faith – must be installed. Only then will these creatures come to life.
The funny thing is, that what makes these things appear human – to me, anyway – is their vulnerability, their faults and generally non-impressive behaviour, and the very real risk of failure. Sometimes some of them would become too impressive, too elegant, and then it becomes just a robot. Unlike human performers, these objects seem human when they don’t represent, when they are only themselves. When they are not trying to put up a show. Or, when they engage in social situations, interacting with each other or with humans. Then, a certain agency seems to appear.
What I found interesting, was that the real magic happened during the process of trying to make these objects work, not in the performances. The perpetual care they needed, the constant adjusting and tweaking, endless repairs and reboots, made their coming-to-life seem like a real struggle. Of course, it was mostly Thorolf’s struggle, but in some strange way, it seemed like they wanted it themselves.
Maybe it was because of the inherent teleology in these creatures: they had one goal, and the pleasure of seeing them reach it, created an illusion of will. Maybe it was being constantly on the critical dividing line between living and non-living, to watch them cross that line, back and forth, again and again. Or maybe it simply was the interaction, slowly getting to know them, their strength and weaknesses, seeing their personality gradually taking shape. Whereas the performance and the exhibition present something that is already achieved – the objects’ ability to move and interact. Of course, this movement would also be imperfect, human-like, including glitches and squeaks, but it would still be relatively controlled, like a well made representation of something not so well made.
In that sense, I felt that my own position was a privileged one. Like Sidney Pollack, I got to have it both ways, to see the project from the inside and the outside, to have the observer’s perspective on the process, while at the same time a part of that process. For that I remain grateful.
One day during the production process, a bird died in the large hall where we were working. Maybe it was dying already and sought a quiet place, or maybe it crashed into one of the many cables hanging from the ceiling. In any case, it died and I buried it under a bush outside the building. I’m not very knowledgeable about birds, but it was a tiny one – some kind of sparrow, I suppose. It had been flying around in the ceiling for a few hours, sometimes coming down. I thought it acted a bit strange – for instance, it didn’t seem afraid of me, just unwilling to go through the doors and windows that I opened. At some point it landed on the mat among the objects. It just sat there, looking confused. A few times, it walked a bit around, but most of the time it sat still. It seemed alive, and it was alive. And then it wasn’t.