Curatorial essay: Exhibiting a country on the edge, a U.S. approach to performance design

An e-mail message popped up in our in-boxes soon after the curators returned home from our meetings in March 2010. “I am struck,” a curator wrote, “by how important it is for us to manifest a cultural re-imagination.” This comment, a necessary spur to action, was a response to stage designer William Bloodgood’s early architectural ideas of the United States pavilion space.

“I guess if I were going to give Bill any questions to further his process,” the note continued, “I would ask him where he thinks we are going—how we are changing? What has dominated and represented the American cultural landscape—and what is it now?” The curator liked the fact that the trend toward sustainability was evident in Bloodgood’s preliminary ideas and went on to say he has reservations about the “viability of current methods, forms, and art-making structures and systems.”

“The Prague Quadrennial is about change,” the note added. “What constitutes change in America? What has changed? (Obvious changes: Bush to Obama. Economic collapse reveals a false economy of means.) What is the new economy of means? (Crisis in arts funding. Scenography must do more with less. Waste less. Be sustainable.) What does it mean to be sustainable? How has that changed design for performance?”

At Prague National Gallery: USA performing garage under the sign of Obama | Photo by Randy Gener

New Challenges
These questions cut straight to the core of why From the Edge, the USA pavilion at the 2011 Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space, rocks the boat. Creating an exhibition of theatre design that both vividly represents a country and opens up new scenographic or architectural horizons is an extremely tall order — if this is the path future curators wish to pursue. At most European art biennials and mega-exhibitions, curators sidestep the problem by promoting a single artist (or a group of artists), a synecdoche that stands for the whole. Add to that challenge the imperative inscribed in the new moniker of the quadrennial, which has repositioned its focus from “world scenography” to “performance design and space.”

The layers From the Edge’s curators needed to cut were thick with ambiguity, obstacle, great diversity, and ambition — not the least of which was the necessity to search for a compelling metaphorical space that would house the overall exhibit in Prague. A comparison with the Venice Biennial might be instructive. In Venice, visual artists are essentially decorators of an already existing palatial venue in the Giardini or of a historic naval shipyard site in the Arsenale. What’s doubly crazy about the Prague Quadrennial is that theatre designers from around the world are expected not only to turn up every four years with an exhibit of works but also to erect an architectural space that will somehow sum up the disparate elements.

Entrance to "From the Edge" at Prague National Gallery | Photo by Randy Gener

Entrance to "From the Edge" at Prague National Gallery | Photo by Randy Gener

Cultural Re-imaging
From the very start, From the Edge was conceived emblematically. Artistic director Susan Tsu and the team of curators were intent on showing a perspective or an image of American theatre that had not typically been displayed before at the quadrennial. We wanted to create an exposition that forced the world to re-examine or revise its hard-to-budge assumptions about America. Of course, we couldn’t manufacture out of whole cloth a new cultural re-imagining of U.S. theatre, so part of their journey meant coming to an agreement about what it means for today’s U.S. designers to create socio-politically committed work at the shifting edges of new artistic possibilities. What does it mean to be a risk-taking performance maker in the U.S. today? Considering the predominantly text-based works that define the American theatre, can we find works that hew closer to this new magpie philosophy called “performance design”?

To quote again from the numerous e-mails swapped among the curators: “Design is becoming more site-specific, [more oriented toward] performance spaces over large scenic treatments which seem gratuitous, another form of Wall Street’s conspicuous consumption and frankly are not affordable. Even in the commercial theatre, heavy spectacles are failing. There is a generational shift that is happening. The basic structure of musicals and other forms are changing to reflect the audience’s appreciation for complex performance modalities. The country is focused on large shifts — demographically, politically, culturally, and socially.”

To greater magnify those “large shifts,” From the Edge purposefully concentrates on fewer U.S. productions. Unlike previous American national exhibits, which had been behemoth affairs, From the Edge wears its impish unconventionality on its sleeve. Bloodgood’s pavilion is an arrestingly iconic structure — a disheveled old garage space in a grubby section of a city in Nowheresville, USA. With its brick walls, concrete floor, metal trusses, and industrial lighting, the mode is beat-up realist.

As you approach it from the entrance of Prague’s National Gallery, the first thing you are confronted with is a huge graffiti of President Barack Obama’s face prominently painted on one side. Then you see a playful inflatable sculpture by performance artist Pat Oleszko jutting out on the roof’s edge — a fanged dinosaur-type monster engorging the figure of Uncle Sam entitled WarUSaurus. Susan Tsu sums it all up perfectly: “From the Edge not only refers to the brave and dangerous edge of creation but also refers to our country on edge.”

In the Czech Republic, many visitors to From the Edge have since expressed a desire to visit the very workspaces and performing venues in the U.S. where the original creation had taken place. That impulse speaks directly to the romantic lyricism that throbs beneath Bloodgood’s conception of a performing-garage pavilion. If John Conklin’s recreation of a designer’s studio, which was the USA entry for the 1987 Prague Quadrennial, captured the messy processes of design, Bloodgood’s pavilion emblematizes the very site and mind-space of a rowdy, anxious and fecund re-imagining — the chrysalis of a new American theatre struggling to reinvent itself despite the long shadows cast by the commercial theatre and the still-living experiments of the 1960s avant-garde. In fact, Bloodgood took direct inspiration in the example of the Performing Garage in New York, which serves as the headquarters and workspace of the Wooster Group.

"Appomattox" (model), an opera staged by Robert Woodruff, takes the audience back to the end of the Civil War | Photo by Randy Gener

"Appomattox" (model), an opera staged by Robert Woodruff, takes the audience back to the end of the Civil War | Photo by Randy Gener

Imaginative Design Amid Tumult of Change
Inside this beat-up performing garage, you see a welter of theatre designs that express complicated viewpoints about American society and politics: shows ranging from the technologically savvy to site-specific re-envisioning of classics which wrestle with death, loss and tragedy after 9/11 and hurricane Katrina; new plays and devised work about the disenfranchisements resulting from inequalities of race, class and gender; people’s withdrawal into consumption or inside the white noise of technology in order to escape the worsening realities of a damaged outside world.

From the Edge displays thirty-seven pieces, out of 360 submissions. The curators paid special attention to work that came from young companies that have not been exhibited at the Prague Quadrennial before. They took a tougher stance against big-budget productions from commercial producers and large nonprofit companies, except in those very special cases (American Idiot, Appomattox, or Goodman Theatre of Chicago’s Desire Under the Elms, for example) where the productions clearly redefined the edge or pushed beyond that boundary.

Since a great number of works selected are ensemble-generated, the curators gave special recognition to six well-known avant-garde companies whose historical influence on the new generation has been either direct or inspirational (Builder’s Association, Cornerstone Theater, Ping Chong and Company, SITI Company, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and The Wooster Group). Additionally, August Wilson and Ellen Stewart were paid tribute for their life’s work and inestimable contributions to the American theatre. In most cases, new U.S. theatre collectives eschew the typical process of creating sketches or of model-making, with the result that the only tangible evidence left that a design process took place are the production photos, the snippets of video, and the audio excerpts. Sometimes the design was the internal discussion in the midst of creation.

Tributes to Ellen Stewart and August Wilson in "From the Edge" | Photo by Randy Gener

Tributes to Ellen Stewart and August Wilson in "From the Edge" | Photo by Randy Gener

From the Edge proffers a buoyantly self-critical view from the ground. With a tongue firmly in cheek, it delivers the hard news: this is how American theatre artists irreverently wrestled with art, politics, and imaginative design during the dramatic unraveling of the Aught Decade. The period in consideration coincided with the tumult of a worldwide economic recession and a political transition in the White House — a wrenching reevaluation of core American values that brought about the rise of an African-American as our country’s forty-fourth president.

After twenty years of the Bushes and the Clintons, angry American voters demanded sweeping change with President Barack Obama — the promise of a break with the unhappy past or of a new style of politics or, perhaps, a novel racial transcendence. But exactly what kind of real change could be realized after Obama was elected? Haven’t we entered a new Depression not seen since the Great One of the 1930s? Intriguingly, the majority of artists displayed in From the Edge, despite their optimism and ebullience, register only their unresolved feelings about the possibility of real political change in the situations of both the U.S. theatre system and our country’s institutions.

“The view of scenography is changing every day,” Tsu says. “Traditional boundaries and descriptors of scenography are being challenged by the intersections and blurred lines of other disciplines. U.S. designers are often frustrated by not being able to manifest the full force of their ideas. Trained as collaborators, we are mostly responsive to each other, but many designers want to do more. Strong designers are able to lead their teams and directors, but not unilaterally. Many designers become directors and both design and direct, like Nancy Keystone (of Apollo and The America Play) or Basil Twist (of Arias with a Twist). Paul Chan’s conception of taking Waiting for Godot to the streets is a brilliant manifestation of an old idea. Ping Chong has long been both the designer and director. David Kaplan both directed and designed Tennessee Williams’ play The Day on Which a Man Dies. Rob Roth (Screen Test) and Chi-Wang Yang (The Closest Farthest Away) both did the video design for their pieces.” Tsu adds that she would personally like to see directors and designers more enmeshed in each other’s work. She would like American training programs to have “a broader base of studies that includes media, sculpture and movement in addition to the more traditional courses. There is much work to be done on this front.”

Anxieties about technology exhibited in "From the Edge" | Photo by Randy Gener

Anxieties about technology exhibited in "From the Edge" | Photo by Randy Gener

An International Art-based Platform
In Prague, scenography, performance design, and architecture have to be deployed as visual experiences that both project and perform. Design elements extend the performing body. If displayed with theatrical intention, design elements can also perform without and in spite of the human body. I would go so far to say that, after post-structuralism, communication is now the dominant force in design innovations. PQ provides designers with an international art-based platform where they can wrest back the centrality of time-based performance modes, which visual artists have ruthlessly co-opted for their own ends.

Indeed, more and more visual artists are turning to live performance and site-specific exploration, as can be witnessed in the Venice Biennale and in the modular Intersection maze of PQ 2011, to execute their trans-disciplinary ideas. Perhaps the PQ’s “performance design” mission might work to break out of that visual-art-vs.-theatre-design silo through a process of providing legitimacy to theatre design as a practice (a doing), a production (a thing done, a thing that performs), as a performance (a thing that acts), and as an art project worthy of putting on a pedestal of contemplation in the world’s museums.

Time will tell if Prague’s “performance design” rubric will have a visible effect in the training and professional practices of U.S. designers. As theatre art becomes increasingly hyper-local and immersive, the designers of the future will first need to be widely touted as primary creators of the spatial or performance event.

What is clearer is this: Vibrating within a new discipline that is up for grabs, From the Edge proposes one approach toward an American version of performance design. Future curatorial teams will really have to find the courage to contend with the challenge of displaying the U.S. anew — of re-envisioning U.S. design creativity within a competitive international design environment. I believe the future of U.S. participation in the PQ rests on the continuing advocacy of acts that delve into “designing performance” and “performing design.” We need to lay bare the wider potential of scenography and performance design to reinvent the way human minds create in virtual spaces, in theatrical spaces, and in everyday life. —RG

This essay was originally published in the fall 2011 issue of TD&T Magazine. Theatre Design & Technology is a peer-reviewed magazine published by USITT, the United States association of design, production, and technology professionals in the performing arts and entertainment industry. I served as a co-creator and curatorial advisor of From the Edge. I was also appointed Editor-in-Chief of PQ MAG, the official newspaper of the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design & Space in the Czech Republic.

Brian Sidney Bembridge's model for "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" | Photo by Randy Gener

Brian Sidney Bembridge's model for "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" | Photo by Randy Gener

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9 thoughts on “Curatorial essay: Exhibiting a country on the edge, a U.S. approach to performance design

  1. Pingback: Prague diaries: Philadelphia designers and practitioners talk about how performance design affected their works and processes « in the theater of One World

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  6. Pingback: Postcards from the Inge interview, Part 3 | A Ripple Effect « in the theater of One World

  7. Pingback: INTERVIEW Part 3 | From the Edge: Performance Design in the Divided States of America « in the theater of One World

  8. Pingback: INTERVIEW Part 2 | Active Searching & The Value of the Prague Quadrennial « in the theater of One World

  9. Pingback: INTERVIEW Part 1 | From the Edge: Performance Design in the Divided States of America « in the theater of One World

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