A Fugue State of Theatre

On Simon Vincenzi’s operationinfinity.org

Joe Kelleher

What follows is a written reflection on a piece of performance documentation, a website put together by the artist Simon Vincenzi and his collaborators, following Vincenzi’s own multi-part theatre project Operation Infinity (2007-13). The scene of these reflections is the site’s public launch at London’s Toynbee Studios one evening in early 2016, a place where several performances in the project had been shown in previous years, and where, for the website launch, I had been invited by Simon to say a few words. The words below are not the words I said on that occasion. The scene, already, displaces itself. However, they seem appropriate to offer for this volume’s collective reflection on creative critical practices, attempting as they do to touch on something that fascinates me in my understanding of such practices, and my own part therein. Most immediately, I point to the website as a critical practice arising out of the work itself, and in this instance doing so with no apparent lack of insidious intent. The creative, here, arrives at the critical with some acceleration. I am also, though, interested in ways that spectatorship – understood as a mode of socialised speech that feeds, and feeds upon, a privacy of vision – contributes to the displacement of the scene. Not through a helpless distancing, but rather a translation of what is ‘infectious’ in the work, however we might want to take that word, into spaces of thinking and feeling where the work itself – localised as it is in a theatre or a screen or the page of a book – may not go. But which we, the writers, readers and spectators, may have to suffer. I am curious, then, about the ways that the work ‘looks out’ from itself towards those other places, and curious too about the complicities that our words – my words – for all their critical attention, share with that same hungry look.

The critical documentation process was already intrinsic to – and prominent in – the work itself. For example, the perpetually rotating video camera during performances of Luxuriant: Within the Reign of Anticipation (2010), perched on its stack of technical whatnot, amongst the intermingled crowd of performers and spectators: relentless, indifferent. Or the ‘security’ operation at any of the performances – the waiver form offered on entry to The Crimes of Representation (2007), according to which I should surrender ‘all rights to my identity in perpetuity, and for the full period of copyright exist as naught.’ Or the way every gesture, every twitch and flicker of the actors in the shows, seemed to do with some sort of image ‘capture’: the screen test auditions of the immersive Luxuriant, or the way that the performers in the more traditionally theatrical The Infinite Pleasures of the Great Unknown (2008) were only visible through live relay, filmed in infra-red and projected onto a screen that completely covered the front of the proscenium stage. As if a process of some sort – a recursive process of production and consumption: of image and appearance, of act and reaction and all the rest of it – were what the work were about, more than any imperative to generate a ‘work’ as such.

Or put it like this. As I say, the recording devices – whether hidden and offstage, or right in the middle of things – were taking it all in from the start, as if what generates the record, the account, the critical reflection, were nothing less than the performances themselves, the theatre that happened. And which now, after the live, although still within its ambit, escapes itself, joins with other forms of itself, which both vanish and emerge from the ‘black hole of attention at its core.’[1] At the core of the live, that is; amongst those ‘small ecstasies of forgetting’[2] that at once puncture and sustain the theatrical fiction that the live is what we are dealing with at all.

The phrases, I realise, are a touch baroque, but the baroque – or some corroded post-digital emanation of the same – may be where we are in 2016 with Simon Vincenzi’s Operation Infinity: a multi-part theatre project that has recently been realised as operationinfinity.org, ‘a fugue state of theatre hosted on the internet.’ And here am I on the main stage at Toynbee Hall (the London base of Vincenzi’s producers, Artsadmin) with others who are attending the launch of the website, and able – just about, in the rather murky ambience – to see past the screen where pages of the site were being projected, towards the auditorium where many of us had witnessed episodes of the project, up to the conclusion of its theatrical phase with King Real Against the Guidelines in 2013. In that semi-darkness, and amongst the crushed, transparent plastic drinking cups indecorously but deliberately scattered about the stage floor where we were gathered, I was recalling those earlier episodes. Remembering, for instance, the detritus distributed about the stage area as we entered for Infinite Pleasures nearly a decade ago, plastic bottles and jars containing various dubious-looking liquids, performers (presumably) asleep (presumably) on camp-beds around the proscenium, papers being put through a shredder at the front of the stage (it turned out to be those waiver-forms... or was that at another show?). And an aching soundscape that wouldn’t let up, with intermittent blaring sirens, signal alerts. And as I was remembering all of this, I was fishing in mind for a line of thought on the nature of used things, exhausted things, used up, but put to use anyway.[3] And I was recalling the performers in those shows – those virtual presences entrapped in the image space of Infinite Pleasures, or the choric personages of King Real approaching the stage edge, gesturing to infinity while looking up to the monitors overhead, lip-synching a mangled text, part Shakespeare, part machine-coded back-translation of the same. It was like those figures – placed there in a kind of theatrical perpetuity – functioned as a form of insistence. But insisting on what?

Now, I take this insistence as a critical picking at the same programmatic indifference of image production and consumption that the work itself portrays, and from which it appears to borrow its own productive processes. That is to say, the ongoing processing of human material, of gesture and motion, of pose and presentation, into something that is worth ‘showing’; but then immediately is chewed back into the theatre’s representation machine, as the dancers in Infinite Pleasures are re-absorbed in any moment into the cinematic glimmer from which they press; or the King Real actors are pulled back, after every approach, into the backstage gloom from which they walk forwards again into momentary clarity. As if the problem the performances insist upon, might be set out thus: how to transform the recursive transformation that representation enacts? How to un-process the exploitative process that underwrites this aesthetic economy? Or – aligning the fiction of critique to the singular fiction that governs the work, i.e. the figure of Dr Mabuse, the evil mastermind of several of Fritz Lang’s films from the early and mid twentieth century, who functions as a sort of host for the Operation as a whole – how to channel another sort of breath through the spirit of ‘criminality’ that inspires the whole deadly business? As if transformation, process, and inspiration were themselves the trouble in store. Or to say it as simply as I can, as if ‘creative practice’ should aspire to do otherwise than give itself up to the sort of murderous economies that govern this world, while knowing itself to be hardly immune to those economies, whether falling foul of their ‘values’, or falling out of the accounting of value altogether.

How, then, to appreciate the creative practice of the operationinfinity.org website in these sorts of critical terms? Where might a fugue state of theatre seek to lead us, if it leads anywhere at all? And how might we attempt to follow? It may not be straightforward. A ‘fugue state’, in psychological parlance, refers to a dissociative disorder, which can involve short-term amnesia, a loss of personal identity characteristics, and a tendency to wander, unplanned. That goes some way to giving a sense of the ‘character’ of the website, which refers to itself as an ‘information retrieval initiative’ in worryingly blank, bureaucratic terms, and which – in parts – carries a background sound as if a tape machine had been left running, with nothing on the spools, recording only silence (there are occasional clicks of what might be accidentally heard operator activity). The sources of this fugal theatre meanwhile appear to be from another decade: one clip of film shows a couple of figures, wrapped in what look like exposure bags, synching (or singing?) Marc Bolan’s ‘Life’s a Gas’, while young dancers scurry around frantically. It appears to be recorded through a lenticular lens, magnifying extravagantly and arbitrarily, although other actions have been ‘documented’ through the fixed and un-expectant stare of a CCTV camera. Frequently, but randomly, we come across the paraphernalia of theatre business – and security business: an ‘industry bookings’ form, a trespass warning, a request to access my web-cam, an invitation to advertise on this site, a rapid-fire slide-show portfolio of performance stills, another rapid slide-show of what look like googlemap close-ups of East London, each punctuated by a literal black hole that doesn’t simply mark the spot but obliterates it. Banner ads and announcements, gifs, curtains and logos, fly up or else throb in some corner of the screen passive-aggressively: ‘Coming Soon’, ‘Now Showing’, ‘Join’.  A real-time date counter, accurate to the second, captions a view into a foil-lined room where nothing at all appears to be happening, except perhaps for a live video camera that may be pointing straight at us, the viewers. The area onscreen where clips from the theatrical pieces appear is small, it could be a peep show; at one point, if we look long enough, we can discern a particular act of self-pleasuring contortion. We stay, or we move on. And as we do so things jerk, they shudder, they hiss with static or else fanfare flatulently. Of course it is all meticulously labelled, even if the material itself seems irretrievably self-forgetting in its fractured state. It is also rigorously attuned to the conceptual mechanics of the theatre it derives from: the enforced perspectives and ways of looking, and the insistently punctual and then dilated temporalities (‘Now Showing’, for two hours only, and ad infinitum). And attuned too to the kind of corporate-anonymous discursive position that the theatre project was always enacting, which belies any claim to authorship or signature, or indeed singularity of any sort (Vincenzi’s name hardly appears on the website, except on a credits page labelled ‘staff’).

What I find in all this, as far as framing might go, is not so much a set of critical points or positions, but rather the intimation of a judgment, which – not unlike the ubiquitous cameras embedded in the live performances – is intrinsic to the operation, and at once impersonal, rigorous, specific, implacable. But a judgment that explains nothing, that decides nothing. Its own operations are dissociative, self-forgetting. Rather, it passes the critical decision onto ourselves, the viewers, the visitors. And, we in turn exit the site, where others will arrive, the final judgment falling – as it always does – with the last, the latest judge, the next visitor spectator; that being something akin to a ‘rule’ of the theatre, and – as long as the theatre lasts – an infinite operation. We are, at once, done with judgment and its structures of authority, appropriation and imposing morality; and at the same time – or at least as long as desire is still in play; in the form of fascination, distraction, irritation or curiosity, or whatever wandering motivation leads us to arrive here and to stay for a while – not done with judgment at all yet. The critical task comes down to me; just as – if you care for it – it comes down to you.

I am online, I am clicking through the site. I am looking at the documentation, and I am remembering a theatre, parts of which I first encountered nearly ten years ago. I reach for adjectives, labels of assessment, triggers for a report. I find this theatre difficult, un-smooth, relentless. A kind of somnolent and alert irritability; that is something I note. I find it also very funny (there are good jokes). I find it beautiful too; tender in ways, ‘loving’ if you will, more loving than pitying; but also pitying too. I invoked a peep show above, a somewhat private – and for sure old-fashioned – form of entertainment, of self-entertainment, to be enjoyed privately, in public, at an affordable price. Something shows, or suffers itself to be shown, to be seen. For as long as the shutter is open. Although this is not a tease. Things are going on all the time. The system is performing background activity. I think of a series of close-ups, but not on individuals; rather, close-ups of crowd scenes. Any of the crowd scenes that ever were, on any stage or screen. What these close-ups do, I am thinking, is they refuse to ‘humanize’. They give no names or faces, as if the task of this looking were to respect – this is what I scribble down – the indignity of it all. I need to consider this further.

 

 

[1] See Daniel Sack’s reflections on the theatricality of the baroque image in his After Live, University of Michigan Press, 2015, 160.

[2] Operationinfinity.org, landing page. All subsequent citations are from the website. Accessed 1 May 2016.

[3] My own more detailed account of the project appears in Joe Kelleher, The Illuminated Theatre: Studies on the Suffering of Images, Routledge, 2015, 89-99.