With all the advanced technology facilitating communication these days, it’s amazing we have any time for human contact. Telecommuting to the office, chatting into the cyber void, even virtual sex—what fresh hell of wireless gadgetry will quicken our descent into permanent anonymity? No surprise that theater has horned in on the digital action. Multimedia performance has become a computer-video zone that stretches the parameters of the playing space in ways a Luddite like me can’t even dream of, never mind explain. But the same risks of alienation that attend the overused Palm Pilot accompany the high-tech stage.
When theater began seriously questioning its raison d’être in the ’60s, Joseph Chaikin, echoing Artaud and Grotowski, promulgated the notion of “the presence of the actor,” the unique human aliveness that separates theater from TV and film. Multimedia auteurs have often felt compelled to deconstruct this dimension by demonstrating identity’s essential fluidity (now you stand before us, now you’re on-screen). Their work has, for better or worse, desacralized the bond between theatrical performer and spectator. Two new productions being presented by P.S.122, Instructions for Forgetting and House of No More, invite us to ponder whether artfully deployed technology mightn’t help us recover the art form’s lost human connection, or whether it necessarily deepens our estrangement.
Tim Etchells, artistic director of the British company Forced Entertainment, has created a comfortingly low-tech video lecture—multimedia for those who still can’t program their VCRs. Seated at a table with a microphone and surrounded by three ordinary TV carts, he looks like your average pint-loving Joe with his red soccer jersey, expanding middle-aged waistline, and bald pate. He begins his 90-minutes-plus talk with an explanation: “I ask my friends around the world to send me stories and videotapes. For the stories, I ask for things that are true. The topic can be anything. I ask for short reports on things that have happened in the world. For the tapes, I say, ‘Don’t make me something special—send what you have.’ I say, ‘I’m sure that whatever you choose is bound to be right.’ ”
Etchells repeats these instructions intermittently, a sign of his production’s stylized informality. Reading from a script in a lulling narrative voice, he gives us a guided tour of what’s been sent to him. Not much seems to link the material. At the start, he shares quaint letters alongside footage of the moon and sea. The stories, however, quickly take a sordid turn. A tale about a man being sodomized by two lesbians with a phallic art object includes close-up shots of the threatening green-eyed hounds that belong to the sexually adventurous women. Somehow topping this, the wacky bowel experiment of an ingenuous friend is recounted as she stripteases on tape.
A family man, Etchells provides home video of his eldest son, Miles, an adorable eight-year-old who performs magic tricks for the camera and later recreates the Titanic disaster with biscuits. The funniest segment comes from a friend conducting a 10-week course on “failure.” The video: newscast excerpts of an unsuccessful attempt to dispose of a beached whale with dynamite (resulting in a dangerous rainstorm of humongous chunks of blubber).
Though the stories are ostensibly about memory—what we preserve, what we let go of—Instructions for Forgetting doesn’t strive to make explicit thematic points. Desultory (perhaps too much so for some), the piece acknowledges the human need for unhurried reflection and recollection. Releasing yourself to the oblique curve of the theatrical experience has a salutary payoff. Etchells plays a blank tape he received, “all snow and hiss,” wondering if there could be something on it. He decides to include the video even after he finds out that there isn’t. The nothingness on-screen serves as an analogy for those events from our past we haven’t preserved, yet it also functions as a “breather” for the audience—just one of the many ways in which Etchells’s art attempts to restore patience and calm to the human pageant hurrying us robotically along.
Big Art Group’s technologically dazzling House of No More, by contrast, is perfectly aligned with the vertiginous tempo of modern life. Still, the production (created by Caden Manson and Jemma Nelson) provides a slick antidote to reality TV. Everything presented is so ostentatiously phony that the distortions reveal a reassuring truth. The performance layers live video feed with green-screen technology to enact a lurid thriller involving a trampy mother searching for her equally trampy daughter. Eight cast members take turns playing the roles. Gender and race are of no importance, as identity blurs and shifts. Men wear high heels along with the women, while skimpy swimwear lets private parts bob openly. Strangest of all are the prosthetic putty noses—apparently, not even the face can go unmediated. Lustrous to look at, the piece’s vision lies totally in its style. The melodramatic yarn (written by Nelson, who doubles as sound designer) serves as an excuse for ingenious computerized effects that are precisely choreographed with the dexterous ensemble. House of No More provides spectacular eye candy. But it’s a relief to be reminded by Etchells’s Instructions for Forgetting that the most vividly theatrical part of ourselves may be the least visible.