Creative Projects

Queering Ambient Performance: Prototyping the Digital Tableau Vivant

Yesterday I gave a peformance paper at the Slow Media Conference held at Corsham Court, Bath Spa University. Below is my video presentation and paper. The video (A Garland of Beauty, 2015) is a test piece that exploits digital technologies to expand the remit of the dramatic tableau (as defined by Denis Diderot). Through a reperformed and slowed down version of Judy Garland’s performance of I Could Go on Singing (from the film of the same name), this work seeks to challenge heteronormative understandings of digital and physical space. Referencing the work the of Bill Viola and David Michalek, this film and dance seeks to challenge our concept of space and of place drawing on notions of the uncanny and the queer. Slow motion is used, in particular, to intensify this effect and focus the viewer on small-scale details and immerse them in the emotional and political contents of the picture, whilst also creating a sense of unease.

But, little one, your grief is very profound, and very thoughtful! Why this dreamy, melancholy air? What, all for this bird? You’re not crying, but you’re distressed, and there’s a thought behind your distress[…] That morning, alas, your mother was out; he came, you were alone; he was so handsome, so passionate, so tender, so charming, there was such love in his eyes, such truth in his expression! He said things which went straight to your heart![1]

In his review of Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s painting Girl Weeping for Her Dead Bird (which was exhibited at 1765 Salons in Paris) Denis Diderot attempts to bridge the gap between object and viewer by exploring the narrative potential of Greuze’s

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Girl Weeping for Her Dead Bird (Oil on Canvas, 53.50 x 46.00, Edinburgh National Gallery)
Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Girl Weeping for Her Dead Bird (Oil on Canvas, 53.50 x 46.00, Edinburgh National Gallery)

painting.[2] It is the girl’s trance-like state that seems to instigate Diderot’s reading of the work. It offers Diderot the opportunity to participate in the painting’s narrative, as if he were another character standing next to the girl in the room. Diderot’s reaction to Greuze’s painting aligns closely with his thoughts on theatre and, in particular, his notion of the dramatic tableau. According to Diderot, stage drama could learn much from painting.[3] 

Contrasting the effect of pictorial tableaux with that of the coup de théâtre, Diderot states:

An unforeseen incident which takes place in the action and abruptly changes the situation is a coup de théâtre. An arrangement of these characters on stage, so natural and so true that, faithfully rendered by a painter, it would please me on a canvas, is a tableau.[4] 

He goes on to say that ‘if a dramatic work were well made and well performed the stage would offer the spectator as many real tableaux as the action would contain moments suitable for painting.’[5] In short, Diderot perceives good drama to consist of a series of painted (emotional) moments, rather than a continuous flow of abrupt actions and events.

This is not to say that dramatic action is suspended in these tableaux, but that the focus of the drama lies less with the characters’ actions and more with their emotional states. Indeed, although these tableaux are intended to present to the spectator a dramatic moment suspended in time, Diderot also thought of them as host to a latent kinetic energy.

One of Diderot’s most interesting examples of a situation that could be used as a dramatic tableau comes from Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis. As he says:

Can there be anything more passionate than the behaviour of a mother whose daughter is being sacrificed? Let her rush on to the stage like a woman possessed or deranged; let her fill the place with cries; let even her clothes reveal her disorder: all these things are appropriate to her despair. If the mother of Iphigeneia showed herself for one moment to be the Queen of Argos or the wife of the Greek general, she would only seem to be the lowest of creatures. The true dignity which seizes my attention and overwhelms me is the tableau of maternal love in all its truth.[6] 

Diderot’s description of this scene expands the dramatic moment, focusing the reader, in particular, on the emotional aspect of the situation.

Michael Hays has argued that the focus upon emotion is a common feature of Diderot’s literary works, stating that ‘in his plays Diderot focuses on a category of feelings, not on action, and the formal homologue to this turning away from action towards situation is found in Diderot’s interest in the tableau’.[7] What is particularly interesting about Diderot’s description of the scene from the Iphigenia myth described above is that he reduces Clytemnestra’s regal status to that of a domestic mother; her emotional situation causes her to forget the fact she is royalty and the wife of Agamemnon. There are no intricate verses here in Diderot’s tableau, but inarticulate cries and gestures. In this scene Clytemnestra is completely enveloped in the situation; her emotion results solely from maternal instincts. Despite the status of the characters in this scene, the emotions portrayed can be said to be entirely domestic.

Diderot’s notion of dramatic tableaux is based on the idea that dramatic action should focus upon the representation of an intense situation that completely envelops the characters on stage. For a tableau to be truly effective, however, the characters must be unaware of their surroundings and absorbed completely by the emotional situation in which they are placed. The idea of absorption and Diderot’s focus upon absorptive situations and activities in his works is something that art historia Michael Fried argues is also a feature of eighteenth-century French painting.[8] He posits that from around the middle of the century there is growing interest in depicting subjects involved in absorptive actions, such as reading, writing, and thinking. The subjects, according to Fried, are so engaged in their activities and/or mental states that they are unaware that they are the object of someone’s gaze, whether it is that of the viewer or another character in the picture.

Fried sees the focus on absorptive states as contrasting with previous approaches to painting that, more often than not, feature characters that look outside the frame and towards the viewer, or consist of a number of characters that are unaware of the action that is taking place elsewhere in the frame. In Fried’s opinion, paintings that depict absorptive activities are paradoxical in nature; while the viewer is drawn into the painting, seized by the character’s intense state of absorption, they are also excluded, the character being unaware that they are the object of someone’s gaze. In short, a distance is created between the drama and events portrayed in the picture and the viewer.

Diderot’s interest in Greuze’s painting, therefore, lies not just with the girl absorptive mental state, but also with the fact that her deep introspection provides the work a narrative potential – a latent kinetic energy – that opens up an emotional tableau which Diderot is then able to explore. Indeed, in his narrative he speaks of events outside the temporal frame of the painting and of emotions both past and present. It is the girl’s absorptive melancholy state that allows Diderot to penetrate this painting and explore the emotional space of the tableau. Had the painting lacked the apparent introspection, the emotional space in which Diderot wanders would have been limited.

*****

In A Garland of Beauty, I use digital technologies to expand the remit of the dramatic tableau through a reperformed and slowed down version of Judy Garland’s performance of I Could Go on Singing from the film of the same name.

Referencing the work the of Bill Viola and David Michalek, this film and dance seeks to challenge our concept of space and of place, using slow motion in particular as a way in which to focus the viewer on small-scale details and immerse them in the emotional and political contents of the picture.

Viola’s quintet explores grief, personal suffering, and bereavement focusing on the unfolding expressions of five actors in slow motion.

Michalek’s Portraits in Dramatic Time similarly harnesses slow motion capture. According to Michalek: “The cameras were fixed, and the live action was recorded for duration of 10 – 15 seconds depending on the scene. Within these constraints, dramatic narratives were condensed down to an essence, [with] Each scene-sequence of drama was crafted to provide a physical metaphor for an emotional condition.”

Rather than pitting analogue and digital technologies against one another, each of these performances use digital technology to focus the viewer’s attention and engage them in a slower process of spectatorship, inverting the more common definition of slow media.

In A Garland of Beauty, the relationship between slow and fast and analogue and digital is complicated through queer performance. By reinscribing Judy Garland’s performance on the male body, the screendance not only queers the Garland original but perceptions of digital and physical spaces and well as private and public spaces. Indeed, A Garland of Beauty activates a new understanding of LGBTQ identity by blurring the personal and the political through the public sharing of the home movie. As Christopher Pullen states in his work on gay identity and new storytelling, “the emerging context of “online” new media, and its potential to bring audiences together, [provides] new connectivities for emerging self-reflexive [and LGBTQ] storytellers”.[9] 

This film attempts to articulate some of the dichotomies that surround discussions of slow media and digital storytelling. The next phase of this project will consist of a series of re-performances of the Garland number in a range of different spaces, particularly those that have heteronormative or masculine associations. The aim here is to blur the boundaries between both the physical and the digital and between the heteronormative and the queer.

REFERENCES

[1] ‘La jolie élégie! Le charmant poème!…Mais, petite, votre douleur est bien profonde, bien réfléchie! Que signifie cet air rêveur et mélancolique! Quoi! pour un oiseau! Vous ne pleurez pas, vous êtes affligée; et la pensée accompagne votre affliction[…] Ce matin-là, par malheur votre mère était absente. Il vint; vous étiez seule: il était si beau, si passionné, si tender, si charmant! il avait tant d’amour dans les yeux! tant de vérité dans les expressions! il desait de ces mots qui vont si droit à l’âme!’ In Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994), p.533-534, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 236-237.

[2] See Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994) p. 533-537, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 236-240.

[3] On Diderot’s theory of the dramatic tableau see Daniel Brewer, The Discourse of Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France:  Diderot and the Art of Philosophizing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Jay Caplan, Framed Narratives: Diderot’s Genealogy of the Beholder, Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 19 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), Tili Boon Cuillé, Narrative Interludes: Musical Tableaux in Eighteenth-Century Texts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), Jack Undank and Herbert Josephs, ed., Diderot Digression and Dispersion: A Bicentenial Tribute (Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum Publishers, 1984) and Peter Szondi, ‘Tableau and Coup de Théâtre: On the Social Psychology of Diderot’s Bourgeois Tragedy’, New Literary History, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1980), p. 323-343.

[4] ‘Un incident imprévu qui se passe en action, et qui change subitement l’état des personages, est un coup de théâtre. Une disposition de ce personages sur la scène, si naturelle et si vraie, que, rendue fidèlement par un peintre, elle me plairait sur la toile, est un tableau’. In Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994), p. 88, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 12.

[5] ‘Je pense, pour moi, que si un ouvrage dramatique était bien fait et bien représenté, la scène offrirait au spectateur autant de tableaux réels qu’il y aurait dans l’action de moments favorables au peintre’. In Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994), p. 90, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 13.

[6] ‘Quoi donc, pourrait-il y avoir rien de trop véhément dans l’action d’une mère don’t on immole la fille? Qu’elle coure sur la scène comme une femme furieuse ou troublée; qu’elle remplisse de cris son palais; que le désordre ait passé jusque dans ses vêtements, ces choses conviennent à son désespoir. Si la mère d’Iphigénie se montrait un moment reine d’Argos et femme du général des Grecs, elle ne me paraîtrait que la dernière des créatures. La véritable dignité, celle qui me frappe, qui me renverse, c’est le tableau de l’amour maternel dans toute sa vérité’. In Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994), p. 90-91, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994) p. 13.

[7] Michael Hays, ‘Drama and Dramatic Theory: Peter Szondi and the Modern Theatre’, bondary 2, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1983), p. 73.

[8] Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[9] Christopher Pullen, Gay Identity, New Storytelling and the Media (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 231.

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