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Transdisciplinary Form and Production: Reflections on Translation, Embodiment and Mobility (through Alma Mater, 2011)

by Robert Walton and James Oliver

A collaboratively authored paper available in 2012 Transdisciplinary Imaging Conference Proceedings.  The paper responds to the conference theme of ‘Interference as a strategy for art’.

An earlier draft is available here, read on for more.


Transdisciplinary Form and Production: Reflections on Translation, Embodiment and Mobility (through Alma Mater, 2011).

Robert Walton and James Oliver[1]

Faculty of the VCA and MCM, The University of Melbourne

Introduction

This paper is the result of an emerging collaboration and performed series of dialogues, through the everyday, mobile, practice-as-research explorations of colleagues in a performing arts/art school setting. The collaboration itself is an imagining of transdisciplinary research. This written articulation of our initial explorations is now in its third iteration. It began with two conference papers that were performed in parallel (almost), across two countries and two hemispheres on the 23rd of June 2012 – where Robert Walton began the papers at the University of Melbourne, and some 9 hours later James Oliver completed the presentation at The University of Chichester, UK.[2]

This on-going, iterative and conceptual ‘journey’ of collaboration therefore operates across a practice of transdisciplinarity – between forms of theatre, live and visual art, and between a theatre maker and an artist-anthropologist – with particular reference here to Alma Mater and mobile performance. As a research collaboration it is an interrelation and imagining of the exploratory potential, and practice of, the value of embodied translations being engaged in our practice-as-research exercise.

To borrow from Jon McKenzie (2001), there is already a ‘liminal norm’, and increasingly so, in terms of the crossing of disciplinary thresholds of practice, between art and technologies and of becoming ‘in-between’ and being ‘mobile’ with practice. This is now a form-of-norm, evident in much contemporary and live-art practice (see Wilkie 2012, Wilson 2012). Building on these developments, our contextual approach to the transdisciplinarity highlights the process of embodied translation in art practice, towards a form(al) outcome – through collaboration and/or participation – and how the practice that leads to such form(ation)s can also be research.

It occurs to us that this translation is further evident as immanent in process, where transdisciplinarity is also a mode of disruption and interruption towards a reimagining of practice, and not a remediation towards an established form, or indeed a renaming in a different language. This connects back to a certain in-between-ness quality in transdisciplinary practice, and how we then reimagine form as a re-presentation of practice, and practice as a form of research. These questions of practice and form can be achieved in multiple ways; for example, in our case the context is to consider mobile, itinerant theatre practice, and particularly through adaptation with new technologies.

But to what end? Is it for the sake of form alone, or is it the relationship between forms and their practices (their formations)? Is it how they are influenced by (or influence) embodied socio-cultural and technical relations? If so, what are the ‘structures of feeling’ and meaning associated with practices of embodied, transdisciplinary translations in these formations and relations (cf. Williams 2005 [1980], Read, 1993)? These are somewhat ambiguous questions at the start of our collaboration, but, importantly, we discern them to be important, innately reflexive starting points for a first-stage reflective practice, even before pushing for an iterative, reflexive creativity from practice. To further borrow from Raymond Williams, these questions are, ‘crucial everywhere in art but in drama always and especially central and evident,’ (Williams 2005 [1980]: 164).

In short, our exploration here is preliminary to further engagement with such questions, towards developing a practice-as-research collaboration. This paper largely serves as a provocation for reflection on arts practice as a possibility for a disruption of arts practice, as it engages with the world, the everyday. In this sense, this is where we can return to the relevance of the in-between, and a translation towards transdisciplinary practice, and as a reflexive move towards practice as a form of (becoming) research.

Work in context – Alma Mater

Following from above, we now wish to reflect on the internationally toured work Alma Mater, created by Fish and Game[3]. This paper addresses two particular points relating to this volume’s theme of Transdisciplinary Imaging. Alma Mater has been defined as a ‘filmic tour for one’ that uses mobile high-definition video with high-fidelity original music to create an artwork that sits between theatre, film and installation. Individual audience members enter a specially constructed, full-scale child’s bedroom to immerse themselves (via iPad) in the world of a little girl in this handheld, 21st century fairy tale.

You can view a range of videos of this project here:

http://www.fishandgame.org.uk/?portfolio=almamater

The artwork consists of a 20-minute silent film with a complementary musical soundtrack screened on an iPad, and an exact replica of a set of a child’s bedroom, complete with bed and stool.   The audience member holds the iPad and wears noise-cancelling headphones throughout the piece while the film is played back.  Beginning at the door to the bedroom, the film depicts movement through space that the audience member is encouraged to replicate.  In this way the movement in the film causes the audience member to recreate action that took place in the room and encounter characters that were also once present there.  Over the 20 minutes of the piece the audience member interacts with the room by changing their position and sitting on the stool or bed.  The audience member is completely alone in the room and may choose at any moment the level of precision and extent to which they will recreate the movement; some people choose sit still and not engage physically while others become fixated on aligning the iPad to the shots very precisely.

Alma Mater exists in the meeting of the film on iPad with the audience member in the space where the film was shot.  Removing any one of these axes renders the work incomplete, and so it is in this sense that it is performative, only gaining traction in reality by the act of its doing.  Screening the film out of the context of being alone in the exact replica of the room is not the how the work was intended.

Translation, Embodiment and Mobility

Two participatory technologies in Alma Mater seek to present authoritative interpretations of the work, and by extension, the world. The first and most obvious of these is the iPad, which informs visual and sensorial perception of the ostensibly ‘blank’ reality of the second technology, the child’s bedroom.  The embodied experiences of these technologies, as spatial translations, operate across the work’s dramaturgy on two levels: synchronically, for each moment, the participant is provided an image and relating sound that correspond to a physical position within the room; diachronically, over the period of the piece, the participant is provided with a dramaturgical, narrative and physical path that leads them from beginning to end.

iPad

At the beginning of Alma Mater the images presented on the handheld iPad are very similar, almost the same, as the participant’s point of view of the physical objects in the room. Over time, the room and film realities diverge.  While the participant continues to follow the movements of the camera around the ‘blank’ room, characters enter the filmed reality and begin to introduce new objects.  This divergence continues until the filmed world, controlled by the characters of the fiction, has been completely decorated with the specific, and ‘realistic’ objects that populate it.

It is in this divergence that a hierarchy of mutability is established that prioritises the reality afforded by the iPad, which has the capacity to transform faster and more fully than the temporal landscape of the physical room the viewer is in. There is disruption. One is initially aware of the offer of seduction, but remains cognisant that the embodied meeting of this film in this space, that is to say, a previous reality of the space with the one currently being experienced. There is the experience of both realities simultaneously but to fluctuating levels of affect and presence. The participant spends increasingly less time examining and exploring the tangible reality of their immediate corporeal circumstances within the actual bedroom.  Increasingly, more attention is paid to the iPad’s fictional reality than to the ever-receding memory of corporeality and awareness within the blank room. In Alma Mater this flight from the real and advance into fictional or dream space, creates the palpable sensation of being drawn in, or as Michael Fried puts it, ‘absorbed’ (1980). One remains bewildered by the embodied meeting of this film in this space, at this time. It is in this sense that Alma Mater approaches the phantasmagorical, a momentary in-between-ness, a fleeting occupation of translated embodiment.

In Alma Mater a character will turn and look directly at the camera, therefore directly engaging the viewer in a mutual gaze. In this moment the participant is implicated, and translated, in the act of performing at the axis of two worlds. They are performatively present, where the subjective ‘I’ is reflexively re-articulated: I can see her through this screen, can she see me? Is she a ghost in my world, or am I a ghost in hers? We are at a threshold of embodied consciousness, in between the perceived world and the conceived world.

In alternative examples, as the subject-participant is translated through the disruptions in the piece, it becomes clear that they are in the ‘wrong’ place at the ‘wrong’ time, through choice, design or mistake. The participant can also chose to look away from the screen at any point.  In these moments of frisson with the insinuated desire for seamlessness between worlds, the dominance of the iPad is undermined, however briefly, and corporeal agency within the room erupts once more. The spell is broken; the dreamer awakes.

The child’s bedroom

Alma Mater’s set is the replica of a child’s bedroom, and is the second participatory technology that seeks to present an authoritative interpretation the world in this analysis.  Although the outside of the box remains unfinished and clearly a fabricated set, stepping into it gives rise to the irresistible belief that one is in an actual child’s bedroom, however blank and simply it is decorated.  This is achieved by the combination of complimentary signifying objects, (skirting-board, floor boards, window and door mouldings etc.) that working together delimit the possible readings of the space through what Aston & Savona (1991) refer to as a ‘redundancy’ of signs all reinforcing the same representation of reality. In this way we are seduced into believing that, like we are with the majority of the architecture of domestic space, we are in a home like any other.  And with this evocation of the house and home it is possible to situate the audience’s experience in what is perceived to be a real place, as opposed to an abstracted any space.  It is this irresistible belief of specific placement within a real room that imbues involvement in Alma Mater with what Bachelard terms the ‘fundamental value’ of ones earliest experiences of ‘imagination augmenting the values of reality’. (Bachelard 1994: 3)

Bachelard suggests that the child’s burgeoning sense of reality accrues from the experiences of solitary daydreaming in her or his specific home, a sanctuary from the world.  At this early stage it is inescapable and essential that the presented reality of the domestic room is accepted as reality.  And in so doing the imagination of the space becomes indelibly combined with the physical experience of it.  From this point onwards into the rest of our lives we are forever held between our actual physical reality and our imagination of reality – encompassing that relationship between lived, perceived and conceived worlds, cf. Lefebvre (1991), or as Pink (2009) describes as ‘sensory emplacement’.

So upon entering Alma Mater’s set, the solitary participant compares this room with all rooms, and specifically to all bedrooms, from which her earliest memories, dreams and conceptions of herself issue.  The voyager through the piece becomes an involuntary topoanalyst.  Bachelard captures this nostalgic sense of wonder in recognising space in the following short passage:

And so, faced with these periods of solitude, the topoanalyst starts to ask questions: Was the room a large one? Was the garret cluttered up? Was the nook warm?  How was it lighted? How, too, in these fragments of space, did the human being achieve silence?  How did he relish the very special silence of the various retreats of solitary daydreaming? Here space is everything, for time ceases to quicken memory. (Bachelard 1994: 9)

The set, even without the iPad, causes the audience member to react to their conception and memory of their childhood bedroom. The bedroom is clearly enough that of a child, yet plain enough to initiate a sense of oneiric (that is to say absent-minded dreaming while awake) association specific to each audience member.  Initially only a small amount of detail is needed to begin the process of nostalgic association, as the participant will creatively augment the blank reality with imaginative detail as Bachelard suggests, ‘All I ought to say about my childhood home is just barely enough to place me, myself, in an oneiric situation, to set me on the threshold of a day-dream in which I shall find repose in the past.’ (Ibid: 13)  And it is within this extended, liminal threshold that Alma Mater operates between unstable realities and in-between-ness.  It draws upon the concept of the house and home which Bachelard aimed to establish as ‘One of the greatest powers on integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind.’ (Ibid: 6).

Notes on Interference and Inference in Translation

 The imprecise alignment of two representations of the same reality also gives rise to interference in embodied translations.  Alma Mater prescribes a stricture that often requires the participant to attempt this impossible alignment. This gives rise to conscious renegotiation of the terms of engagement within the body of the participant in physical space. In each of these negotiations the participant must decide whether or not to continue to play the game and follow as the stricture dictates, or instead to break the ‘rules’.

The film on the iPad is a continuous flood of constructed images. The screen can be negotiated, by glancing away, but the sound delivered through the headphones cannot. The film’s images and sounds seek to augment the participant’s reality, more, it seeks domination over space. This elicits a critical consciousness of a mode of being, where the embodied translation of lived experience confronts the power of the cognitive over material practice, and the power of the symbolic realm. This is also an example of Lefebvre’s (1991) ‘spaces of representation’ in action (where lived sensory experience informs material and cognitive relations).

The iPad establishes such a requirement of stricture, asking of the participant too much, and more than is possible within the confines of the room, and so it is inevitable that the audience experiences a moment of rebellion when they choose to drift into their own way of doing things. In that moment they alter the power relation within the work and become led by their own senses like in Debord’s Situationist conception of the dérive. This shift interferes with the domination of the theatre as a ‘representative space’ of institutionalised behaviours, promoting instead a social ‘spaces of representation’ (Lefebvre 1991).

Alma Mater’s stricture also demands that the participant place their body in relation to the shot presented in the film. How then does the participant deal with moments of editing in the film, the cuts into action? The desired imperceptible seamlessness of the cut into action in normal cinema becomes a major rupture, or interference in Alma Mater. An editorial cut into action is impossible for the viewer to achieve, and therefore becomes a literal cut in the otherwise fluid action of their traversal of the set.

Finally, the iPad invades the hallowed domestic space of the bedroom that is set apart from the world as a sanctuary preserved for dreaming. A fear might be of the interference of the iPad in the process of dreaming, by providing or even replacing the dream image. Yet as the mode for engaging with reality is forged in the meeting of the physical space and the imagination of the child, all subsequent additional objects and screens must subscribe to this fundamental framework of apprehension. The reason the iPad is so seductive is because it engages with us in an oneiric mode, reminiscent of Bachelard’s memory of his garret or attic room.  Instead of being opposed to this state of sense making and apprehension, which it can never be a threat to, the iPad draws upon the house’s success, and becomes a portable abstraction of our ‘corner of the world’ and our ‘first universe’ (Bachelard 1994: 4). Building on Bachelard’s claim that ‘The normal unconscious knows how to make its home everywhere’, we now do not need to be within the house to precipitate the sanctuary of the oneiric state, we just need a symbol of it. Thus we have the iPad as a portable, imagined, private home outside of the body, it is our childhood bedroom dreamscape that we can carry with us, it is portable solitude.

Spatial Translation and Transdisciplinary Practice

And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows instinctively that this space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when, henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams. These retreats have the value of a shell. (Bachelard 1994: 10)

Such ‘structures of feeling’ and affect as highlighted above point to the sensory dimension of understanding space. There is a lived human aspect in spatial constructions and translations, as already suggested with our concept of embodied translation, in a transdisciplinary and participatory project such as Alma Mater. The experience of Alma Mater can be given a spatial translation, such as with Lefebvre’s (1991) spatial triad, on the articulation of the mutuality of perceived/physical space, conceived/mental space and lived/social space. For Lefebvre, this is a means to counter the hegemonic power of conceived space, what he calls Representative Space, relating to the power of ideas and the symbolic.

Adapting his model, a spatial translation (or triad) for us helps clarify our notion of embodied translation as a form of transdiciplinary practice. So, in its doing, Alma Mater articulates a particular combination of the participant’s (lived) experience of coming into being in their own childhood home (as with Lefebvre’s lived/social Spaces of Representation); within the blank set of the room, guided to move by the film and music on the iPad (as with Lefebvre’s perceived/physical space of Spatial Practice); with the iPad this becomes a directed, exploratory, oneiric reverie through the staged bedroom, and so to all bedrooms and all dreams (as with Lefebvre’s conceived/mental space of Representative Space). The specific subjective relations and mutuality of these overlapping spaces are, crucially, also to be understood as embodied and emplaced. This is significant to each individual participant in Alma Mater, as theirs is the only life in the bedroom, and they become the re-centred site of the work, an embodied translation of a situated imagination and experience.

Alma Mater is a ritual that performatively enlivens and foregrounds the embodied experience of topoanalysis that gives rise to the participant’s nascent ability to enter an oneiric state of imagination in a waking dream: a translation. And like in a dream, the participant is the central protagonist and interlocutor, physically engaged in each moment of the chain of events as they unfold: an embodied translation. However, she has no choice or agency in the given circumstances of the dream, only whether or not to stay engaged or try to wake up.

In conclusion, as a reflection on a transdisciplinary form, production and imagining of practice, this paper is a proposition on a new research project. It sets the scene for the further explorations and questions we propose – on using the body and other (new) media, in spatial relations, as a way of addressing questions of practice and its social, cultural and technical formations. To explore embodied translations and what is possible through a practice engaged with the representation and experience of the everyday, of community, of home.

 

References

Aston, E.  and Savona, G.  (1991), Theatre as a Sign-System, London: Routledge

Bachelard, G. (1994) [1969], The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press

Foucault, M. (1991) [1975], Discipline and Punish, London: Penguin

Fried, M. (1980), Absorption and Theatricality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Lefebvre, H. (1991), The Production of Space, Oxford: Blackwell

McKenzie, J. (2001) Perform or Else, London: Routledge

Read, A. (1993), Theatre and Everyday Life, London: Routledge

Williams, R.  2005 [1980], Culture and Materialism, London: Verso

Wilkie, F. (2012), ‘Site-specific Performance and the Mobility Turn,’ in Contemporary Theatre Review, 22:2, 203-212.

Wilson, J. A. (2012), ‘When is a Performance: Temporality in the Social Turn,’ in Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 17:5, 110-118.

 


[1] This joint publication brings together a theatre, live-art and performance practitioner, who has a background in ICT (Walton); and a cross-art-form artist-researcher with a background in anthropology (Oliver). Both practitioners are migrants to Australia.

[2] Robert presented the original paper at The Transdisciplinary Imaging conference, The University of Melbourne, 22-23 June 2012, as Disrupting The Gaze: Transdisciplinary Reflections On Mobile Media And Theatre Production, Through Alma Mater (2011); James presented a paper at he Somatics and Technology conference, The University of Chichester, 22-23 June 2012, as Domesticating Performance in the Digital Age: Alma Mater (2011) and the Using Mobile Video in Theatre-Making

[3] Robert Walton and Eilidh MacAskill

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