Electronic Campfires

The Builders Association signals through the flames with messages for a hyper-mediated world

By Randy Gener

Give us the chance to work in a theatre incorporating modern techniques,and capable of meeting the demands which our conception of the theatrical spectacle will create, and we shall stage productions which will attract just as many spectators as cinema.Vsevolod Meyerhold

The Wooster Group has pioneered ways of investigating the relationship of live theatre to our modern video culture. A key aspect of this 34-year-old New York City–based ensemble’s postmodern work is that it calls into question the nature of “presence,” and our pleasure as spectators takes wing when the performers’ mediated encounters with texts—and the high-tech/low-tech staging itself—command our attention: Content takes a back seat as the Group exploits the theatricality of its own subversive classicism, thrillingly confounding expectations at every turn.

Wooster Group performances vibrate in this tension between execution and deconstruction. But as storied and influential as this Jorge Luis Borgesian performance company has been over the past three decades, it would be a rare feeling to come away from a Wooster Group show these days with that exhilarated feeling that you’ve just witnessed the emergence of an altogether “new” form of theatre, shaped by the hyper-textual world of electronic media. Even the Group’s most devoted adherents would be hard-pressed to argue that its crazy-collagist performances have pressing or pertinent things to say about the actual impact of new media on our first-world, capitalism-based lives, or about the effect of communications technology on our ways of being.

The Builders Association, once a glittery offshoot of the Wooster Group, has long since innovated its way out of the video-aided box. In exploring the interface between live and mediated performance, this kino-eyed experimental company—established in New York City in 1993 by John Cleater, Dan Dobson, Jennifer Tipton, Marianne Weems, Jeff Webster and others (many of them former associates of the Wooster Group)—has moved in a different direction than its legendary forebear, outpacing it in architectural ways that remain to be grappled with and documented. “We are an iteration of a completely different generation,” says Weems, director of all the Builders Association shows. “Technology is much more apparent in our shows. It is staged. It’s bigger—it’s a force. It’s something the performance contends with.”

Devising “live movies” that mesh the worlds of cyberspace, theatre and cinema, the Builders Association has broken ground not just by exploiting the choric possibilities of video technology or by emphasizing the slippages between the real and virtual—its digital dialectic, as it moves beyond these formal concerns, is to seamlessly integrate live action with a range of plastic elements (filmed material, live relay, CGI animation, lighting, sound, video projection, electronic music, editing and rendering) in order to construct dramatic encounters that encompass real-life stories and illuminate our present-day disquietude with new digital means and media of transmission.

The idea that hyper-mediated practices challenge the authority normally vested in a text is a long-accepted avant-garde trope, but this notion is merely grist in the mill for Weems and company. In rehearsals, that theme is a given. With its artistry firmly connected to the circuits of today’s fast-changing world, every new Builders show presses forward to express, represent and, ultimately, dramatize the conundrums and simulacral complexity of human beings struggling to exist in ambiguous non-places, or sometimes trapped inside the distortions of time, space and identity. (In Jet Lag, a woman—trying to evade the father of her 14-year-old grandson, after having taken the youngster into custody because of a family fight—flies back and forth daily from New York to Amsterdam 167 times until she dies of the effects of jet lag. In Super Vision, a traveler with a dual Indian and Ugandan identity faces off with data images of himself, frequently in error, at airports, banks and homeland-security checkpoints.) The cyborg future has arrived, and it is pervasive: The question on the Builders Association’s mind seems to be, “How do we render and interrogate the very forces and processes that ensnare human beings in the epoch of the digital revolution?”

Over the years, Marianne Weems and company have developed a distinctive shtick of their own—a chic and fluid mode of alchemy that puts a cool frame around hot-button issues. In such large-scale multimedia productions as Jet Lag, Xtravaganza, Alladeen, Super Vision and now Continuous City—which is scheduled to tour the U.S. and internationally next year—the company seizes upon the fissures, both literal and figurative, created by our present-day preoccupation with data and technology. Always in collaboration with artists outside the theatre cabal, it seeks out a clutch of real-life narratives (stories about, say, the changing natures of identity, labor, speed or travel) and mediated environments that would illustrate and contain those concerns.

Always, these computer-aided hybrid pieces (“cross-media productions” is the label frequently applied) seek to push theatrical presentation into new, remediated territories; still, the cornucopia of loose-knit narrative and mesmerizing special effects unfolds on a proscenium stage. Almost always, the stories being spun come off as metaphorical hooks. “The kind of theatre that the Builders ends up producing,” says longtime performer Moe Angelos, “is very different from a more traditional, text-driven narrative. How to tell a story without literally ‘telling’—this is pretty interesting territory. I enjoy the challenge of creating theatre pieces while simultaneously exploring the process for creating those works.” (Angelos, a quip-happy charmer from the troupe the Five Lesbian Brothers, says she thinks of such colleagues as sound designer Dobson, video designer Peter Flaherty and production manager Neal Wilkinson as “the Ironman triathletes—they go to heroic lengths to make the magic happen.”)

Since the story is like a peg on which the ideas are hung, the real action in a Builders piece lies in the dynamic interaction between the stage and the projected material. “We’ve developed an unusual vocabulary that uses technology to talk about technology, and how it affects us as human beings,” Weems says. “I try to combine entertainment with critical thinking—to invite the viewer to investigate the invisible networks that surround us. Our work is based on real-life stories drawn from the modern-day landscape around us, which is as rich and surreal as anything an artist could imagine. I believe we can all relate to these stories, and that they evoke our chaotic, global context. To that end, we’ve made performances about data theft, about outsourcing, and even about jet lag.” The troupe has also created websites where thousands have shared their thoughts and wishes, or create anecdotal materials that are fed back into the show. In the case of Invisible Cities, an arts-and-education project in Brooklyn, the Builders worked to bridge the digital divide by creating a public performance in which at-risk high school kids interacted with video avatars and Builders performers.

Formally speaking, the Builders style is more inter-medial than multi-medial, the compositing techniques more radically exposed than merely scenographic—in plainer English, technology assumes a deeper, story-based role than scenic decoration. Virtual or filmed materials do not window-dress physical settings. “We are definitely refocusing the stage picture by bringing the media into the foreground,” Weems tells Bonnie Marranca in Performance Histories (PAJ Publications, 2008). It’s as if the performance were about making a live movie on stage. This film/stage enables the live performers to inhabit an illusionary three-dimensional world, which at once demonstrates the alluring capacities of new technology and implicitly recognizes its serious failings and humorous inadequacies.

In concert with the principle that technology itself functions as a character, the Builders Association stages the frisson between the liveness of the performers and the sentience of technology. It isn’t unusual for the actors to perform in front of mini-cams on computers and tripods, which feed live coverage into the gizmos of the video and computer operators. These techies sample and fuse this material with pre-recorded video or digital animation, and the resulting blend might be projected onto the screens or fed into LED display runs. Builders performances, in effect, grapple with the remediation of the actor’s body. It lays bare the reality of hypermediacy. It challenges us to reconcile the culture’s striving to re-fashion old discourses about the nature of community with the new epistemology of the place of the individual self within the context of electronic media.

The current Continuous City, for instance, dazzles with a stunning array of 32 MIDI-controlled screens, of varying sizes and locations, that open and close as a consequence of compressed air. Conceived by Weems, designer/dramaturg James Gibbs and writer/actor Harry Sinclair, Continuous City “takes a very different approach from our previous shows because it’s about those 32 tiny screens,” Weems avows. “Visually, it’s more about a fractal or disjointed geography.” Evoking the paradoxes of living in an always-connected wired world— in which a fictional social networking site called Xubu (a walled garden similar to Facebook, Twitter or MySpace) both encourages and holds back relationships and human interaction—the reconfigurable screens are choreographed to appear and disappear with breathtaking speed and efficiency. “The motion of those screens is powered by huge gas cylinders backstage,” Gibbs reveals. “This allows the video technician to cue the screens, which are a dynamic part of the show. Our technical director Joseph Silovsky invented this system of pneumatic screens. The technology in Continuous City is almost magical.”

Having premiered at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Illinois in September and subsequently toured to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, Continuous City can be seen Dec. 4 and 5 at the Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center in upstate New York. Stops in next year’s tour include the Festival de Liege in Belgium, Jan. 23–25; Carolina Performing Arts in Chapel Hill, N.C., Feb. 20–21; a two-week run at La Jolla Playhouse in California, March 16–30; Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio, April 16–18; Danube Festival, April 30–May 3; and Luminato Festival in Toronto, June 12–14.

“These productions have a long gestation period,” says Weems, speaking from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, where she was appointed as head of graduate directing this past summer. “It takes two years for us to develop the concepts and design simultaneously through a series of workshops and residencies.” To build Continuous City, Weems spent time at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign and worked with students at the University of California–Berkeley. “We don’t start with the script—it’s much more a multileveled process. If anything, that’s the manifesto: If a theatre wants to do this kind of work, they have to rethink their whole production model. Knowing the piece will land at BAM gives it an imprimatur, which everyone in the field responds to. It’s very hard to find a place in New York that can be a home for this kind of work. La Jolla Playhouse is producing the piece for two weeks as part of its new cutting-edge series. I think that [institutional acceptance] is a big step for us, and surprising.”

This was not always so. The Builders’s nomadic early efforts in downtown New York City, where the group never had a permanent home, mimicked the Wooster Group’s ongoing practice of deconstructing classic texts, playfully collaging high- and popular-culture forms, as well as delivering video materials on screens and TV monitors to bring a batch of ironic, eclectic and self-conscious performances to full subversive effect. In the Builders’s arresting, contemporary-dress version of Ibsen’s The Master Builder in 1994, founding member John Cleater actually constructed a wooden house, wired with MIDI triggers (which the performers activated to set off shocking sonic effects). As secrets of the architect Halvard Solness’s unhappy home life came to light, sections of the house were demolished, uncovering rooms festooned with video monitors. The company’s name derives from Act 3 of the play, where the local builders association attends the opening of one of Solness’s churches. Explaining her motivation for hitching the Builders ride, lighting designer extraordinaire and MacArthur “genius” award-winner Jennifer Tipton says, “I was interested in the combination of text and architecture and thought that Marianne’s ideas were interesting and courageous. I felt I would probably enjoy the theatre that she would make.”

The 1997 Jump Cut (Faust)—an abridged and reworked version of Imperial Motel (Faust), a co-production with Zurich’s Theater Neumarkt in 1996—marked the end of toying with classic texts. Having started out as an assistant director and dramaturg at the Wooster Group from 1988 to 1994, Weems had grown tired of what she saw as hoary postmodernist devising and found it to be a straightjacket. As Weems told author Greg Giesekam, author of the penetrating critical study Staging the Screen: The Use of Film and Video in Theatre (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) “There’s something inherently hermetic in starting out with a theatrical text that may mean something to people inside of theatre, but outside of theatre I think many of those facets have gone kind of cold.” Avid to sink her teeth deeper into the porous interstices of performance, conceptual work and installation art, Weems wanted to reach out to wider audiences. She commissioned playwright John Jesurun to write a slangy treatment of the Faust myth, which she further cut up. Marking a new phase in the Builders’s sensual-intellectual theatre, the team latched onto the idea of merging live relay and pre-recorded film, a multilayered and polyscenic device commonly used in rock concerts and political conventions. The overall milieu of Jump Cut (Faust) resembled a television studio, with a large projection screen spanning the width of the stage.

“I cut my teeth in New York in the 1980s and had a long, passionate relationship with visual arts, especially video art, conceptual art and feminist art,” says Weems, who has worked with David Byrne, Disney Imagineering and the late Susan Sontag. “It’s a very specific way of looking at the world. It’s critical, it’s analytical, it’s visual—it’s not really about starting with a play.”

At the same time, Weems’s point of view can be sincere, open-minded, warm-hearted, even celebratory. Xtravaganza, developed between 2000 and 2002, is a case in point: A kind of Follies for the electronic age, Xtravaganza looks back at early-20th-century American popular entertainments and salutes the achievements of four visionaries of spectacle: legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld’s flamboyant revues; film director Busby Berkeley’s garlands of leggy showgirls; “electrical fairy” Loie Fuller’s scarf dances (which beamed colored lights through voluminous folds of silk); and theatre manager Steele MacKaye’s Buffalo Bill shows at Madison Square Garden. Subtitled “Ten Acts Displayed with Moving Pictures,” the 80-minute piece places these four creators of show-business spectacle in a 1990s club-scene environment, backed by trip-hop and ambient drum-and-bass music. Using computers and video cameras, the Builders layer fragments of letters, documentary texts, biographical scraps and live performances with ornate sound and light effects—a trance-induced theatre of attractions for ravers and nightcrawlers.

With Weems orchestrating affairs in the mode of a media-savvy showman, Builders makes no apology that seduction is an integral part of its productions’ appeal. The company’s reputation rests on a trilogy of socially engaged pieces created in tandem with a pair of architectural firms and an interdisciplinary arts group. Jet Lag (1998), about the tragic discontinuities of travel, was a collaboration with the New York architectural firm Diller + Scofidio. Alladeen (2003), about the global outsourcing of labor to call centers in India, took the form of a show, a website and an MTV video created with the London-based motiroti artists Keith Khan and Ali Zaidi. Data-veillance and data-bodies teemed like ominous clouds in Super Vision (2005), dreamed up in cahoots with the New York multimedia design studio dbox. The three pieces, each more technically dazzling than the last, represent a pinnacle in the company’s ongoing exploration of the visual and dramatic possibilities of the stage-width, letterbox screen. Super Vision, in particular, broke fresh ground by rendering dramatic action through a fusion of live performance, video and computer-generated imagery—in the manner of a holo-deck, it embedded the actors in a richly intricate digital environment, using 3-D architectural modeling to naturalistically depict such items as a virtual kitchen and an animated boy. Lighting designer Allen Hahn, who worked on the show with Tipton, suggests that Super Vision is “the most fully integrated physical manifestation” of the Builders’s idea of theatre speaking the same language as technology.

As each of the company’s media-driven spectaculars pushes the threshold of new possibilities for storytelling, the demands of narrative itself have become steeper and sharper. Says Tipton, “I am always bugging Marianne to make sure that there is a writer involved. I find the technology fascinating, but the script does not always support it. I consider my position in rehearsals is to protect the human beings in the process. And when there is video, I am always there to make sure that the light and the timing are right for the actors.” Some critics have been harsher, complaining that the technology often overwhelms the narrative. Such arguments dog Weems and company. Note this exchange:

Randy Gener: One criticism I have heard argues that your shows are not critical or dialectical enough. A New York Times review said the themes in Super Vision had been explored before in other genres (George Orwell was cited) and were not investigated deep enough. Is this a fair criticism?

Marianne Weems: These pieces aren’t meant to be critical essays—they are theatrical productions meditating on contemporary issues. It would be pretentious to pretend that we can answer any of the very pressing questions which we all face daily as citizens of the 21st century. I think it is enough to hold up a mirror to modern life.

There is much more of an “ambient critical” approach in the visual art world than in theatre, and I think our work can be aligned with the practice of relational aesthetics (in which an everyday event is staged and the audience is invited to experience it, and perhaps to see things differently afterward) rather than a more Brechtian, i.e., starkly moralistic, approach.

It seems to me that many of reservations about Builders shows being not Brechtian or not political enough are a result of their narratives’ ambivalent points of view about how technology impacts us.
Yes. In the creation of these shows, we are simultaneously researching and representing stories about human beings enmeshed in various technologies, and that process becomes complex a part of the product. It is a difficult story to finish because none of us know where it will lead. I would add that this is also a result of the audience’s ambivalence about technology. The “delivery system” for these productions is complex, and sometimes causes static between us and the audience.

In what ways are Builders shows making peace with technology? Can you take advantage of its positive influences and at the same time theatrically accede to its negative effects?
I can’t divide this into war or peace—the characters in these shows are always contending with technology. But you also see the technicians, and their devices, filling the stage picture and enacting stories that critically—and, I hope somewhat spectacularly—examine the nuanced, ongoing relationship between us as performers, and the instruments that surround us.

What about the use of simultaneous materials and imagery? Is there a broader point being made, beyond the reality that technology is ubiquitous?
The way we represent the world on stage is accumulative, modular and combinatory. Layers of video, sound, architecture and staging convey the content of the performance as well as the text. This is not a new idea. If audiences still come to the theatre expecting a story—one story with one way of telling it—then they shouldn’t venture below 14th Street.

In working on this idea of networked selves, are you finding it’s a different paradigm of thinking about the place where we live? Are we escaping from reality?
In this accelerated global landscape, where decisions are being made more quickly, where economies are rising and falling, we’re all caught in a global flow, whether we’re economic migrants or first-world elite travelers. With that as a background, we’re telling stories of characters who have the urge to connect. In Continuous City, some succeed. Some don’t. What’s demonstrated in the show is the feeling of what it is to be connected. It’s quite simple. It’s certainly not condemning new technology. One advantage of theatre is that it can put a frame around the idea, and say, “Here it is, for better or worse.”

Are we now actually closer to each other because of technology?
The jury is out. But I think it’s also a generational question. It’s kind of a nostalgic concept that if we’re in the same place, we see eye to eye and thus connect. That is becoming less and less true. What replaces that experience? There are still ways to feel close, to feel intimate, to feel that people care. I’m the kind of theatre person who feels that closeness can be achieved through electronic forms. I don’t believe that you have to have your body on stage or in somebody’s home to make intimacy happen. But I’m not trying to be Pollyannaish about it, either. It’s not like I feel we live only through electronic communication. But we have to see that it’s a real connection. Home is basically wherever you are—where your network intersects with you.

How then do you respond to those who charge that Builders shows exhibit a narrative deficit?
I am conscious of the pitfalls of multimedia work. I say no to technology for technology’s sake. I am trying to stage a look, a language and a worldview that reflects the contemporary world we live in. We are working to create coherence between form and content, to make sure the technology and the story cohere and magnify each other. That is the way the story is told, and that is the story. The End.

*

An Epilogue: The surprise of Continuous City is how narratively focused it is and how the gee-whiz effects seem restrained and elegant compared to previous Builders shows. There’s still that wow factor, of course. The show takes a double-edged, almost melancholic stance on how constant connectivity alters our sense of distance and intimacy. Although the show maintains the aesthetic of multiplicity and simultaneity of techniques and technologies (through a participatory website, www.xubu.cc; the onsite filming of key scenes in each host city to conflate the global and the local; and the narrative incorporation of Moe Angelos’s witty live video blog), Continuous City enters into a new evolutionary phase. For the first time, the company earnestly grapples with the question: Can a narrative structure inhabit the content of a technologically driven piece, while still assuming an open-ended stance in its engagement with today’s wired audience?

Those spectators who enter Builders pieces only from the purview of narrative are missing the elephant in the room. The point is that you have the pleasure of visiting the Builders’s techno-fabulous mind for an hour-and-a-half. And the drama here interrogates the fantasies and political realities of those of us who’ve allowed MySpace and Facebook to rule and globalize our daily lives. Inspired by sources as diverse as Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities, Continuous City dramatizes the intimate and societal conundrums that take place when hordes of human beings flock into the cocoon of social networking sites, which are becoming virtual slum cities. At the heart of this Builders show, about the ethics and ideological issues behind the development of new digital communications, throbs Martin Heidegger’s prudent belief: “The essence of technology is by no means anything technological.”

“Narrative can have different weight in different projects, and there has been a pretty big range in the Builders work of the role it plays, and that is by design, not happenstance,” says James Gibbs. “My hope is that audience members leave the theatre with a more visceral understanding of the data they create and carry with them—and which they leave behind for others to find. I think there is a reluctance, across the works, to creating a traditionally ‘tidy’ narrative. That stems, in part, from an investigative process towards building the shows.”

“Each Builders production,” adds Tipton, “threads its own path through the technology of the moment. One of the exciting things about working with the company is that they have not outlined in any rigid way what should happen—and, therefore, wonderful things can and do happen.”

Angelos agrees: “I would say that the work is trying to offer our audiences live, immersive, theatricalized worlds that explore what it’s like to live in our digital age, where issues like identity and boundaries and distance are in a state of flux. Yes, others like Mr. Orwell have explored this territory. But I think Marianne’s goal is to get at what it feels like to live in our current world, which is now not so ‘brave’ nor ‘new’ (to steal from Aldous Huxley)—rather than to warn of its pitfalls. That genie is out of the bottle, at this point. Living with the genie among us is what I’d say Builders shows are about.”