Category Archives: Observation

Vesturport’s Woyzeck | A Case Study

Case Study: Vesturport’s Woyzeck

The challenge of re-imagining a classic work often lies in finding the right translation of ideas, concepts, and imagery for a modern context. Classic pieces of theatre carry many pieces of baggage to the production process: their history, the stories of their past incarnations, the lives of famous actors and actresses who performed in starring roles, the interpretation of their designers, and all the flotsam and jetsam that might be found with any single production of the piece in question. A classic work, therefore, is not just the text of the author but a historical thread that traces the line of the work from its origin to its current manifestation. The question that must be addressed in the remounting of a classic work is, why: why this classic work, why now, why does this play matter more than any other?

In 2008 Iceland’s Vesturport theatre company presented their re-imagining of Büchner’s Woyzeck, a work about class, status, and madness. Written between 1836 – 1837, Büchner’s play tells the story of Woyzeck, a lowly soldier stationed in a German town. He lives with Marie, with whom he has had a child. For extra pay Woyzeck performs odd jobs for the captain and is involved in medical experiments for the Doctor. Over the course of the play’s serialized vignettes Woyzeck’s grasp on the world begins to break apart as the result of his confrontation with an ugly world of betrayal and abuse. The end of the play is a jealous, psychologically crippled, and cuckolded Woyzeck who ruthlessly lures Marie to the pond in the woods where he kills her. There is some debate about the actual ending to Büchner’s play. While the version that is most frequently produced has a Woyzeck who is unpunished, there is some speculation that one version of the play ended with the lead character facing a trial for his crime. As a historical note, Büchner’s work is loosely based upon the true story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a wigmaker, who murdered the window with whom he lived. Tragically, Büchner’s died in 1837 from typhus and never saw Woyzeck performed. It wasn’t, in fact, performed until 1913. In this respect, Woyzeck has always been a play that is performed outside of its original time in history. It has always been a window backwards to a different time, while simultaneously being a means for the theatre to examine the time in which it is being produced.

It therefore comes as no surprise that in 2008 a play offering a commentary on the complex social conditions of class and status opens in a country standing at the edge of a financial crisis that would come to shape the next three years of its economic standing in the world. A play about the use and misuse of power in a world where a desperate Woyzeck tries to explain to a bourgeoisie captain that the poor are “flesh and blood… wretched in this world and the next…” (Büchner) rings as a warning about what that corner of the world was soon to face.

The Response to Vesturport’s Aesthetic

From the moment of its formation, Vesturport has been a company that often appropriates material and looks to add an additional element of spectacle – early in their formation as a troupe they mounted productions of Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus. This additional element of spectacle is specifically characterized by a gymnastic and aerial (contemporary circus) aesthetic. The company’s connection to a circus aesthetic is often credited to Gisli Örn Gardarsson’s, the company’s primary director, background as a gymnast (Vesturport). The use of circus as a mechanism for story telling is both compelling and engaging. Peta Tait captures this best as she talks about what circus represents:

Circus performance presents artistic and physical displays of skillful action by highly rehearsed bodies that also perform cultural ideas: of identity, spectacle, danger, transgression. Circus is performative, making and remaking itself as it happens. Its languages are imaginative, entertaining and inventive, like other art forms, but circus is dominated by bodies in action [that] can especially manipulate cultural beliefs about nature, physicality and freedom. (Tait 6)

The very nature of circus as a performance technique, therefore, brings a kind of translation to Vesturport’s work that is unlike the work of other theatre companies. They are also unique in their use of language, as their productions frequently feature translations that fit the dominant language of a given touring venue. More than a company that features the use of circus as a gimmick, Vesturport uses the body’s relationship to space as a translation of ideas into movement, just as their use of language itself is a constant flow of translation.

Vesturport’s production of Woyzeck invites the audience to play with them as “Gardarsson’s gleefully physical staging of Büchner’s masterpiece … is played out on an industrial set of gleaming pipes, green astroturf, and water-filled plexiglass tanks” (Vesturport). Melissa Wong, in writing for Theatre Journal sees a stage that “resembled a swimming pool and playground” that fills the stage with a “playful illusion.” The playful atmosphere of the production, however, is always in flux as a series of nightmarish moments of abuse are juxtaposed against scenes of slapstick comedy and aerial feats. Wong later sees a Woyzeck who “possessed a vulnerability that contrasted with the deliberately grotesque portrayals of the other characters.” Wong’s ultimate assessment of the contrasting moments of humor and spectacle is that they “served to emphasize the pathos of the play, especially at the end when the fun and frolicking faded away to reveal the broken man that Woyzeck had become.” Not all American critics, however, shared her enthusiasm for Vesturport’s production. Charles Isherwood in writing for the New York Times sees the use of circus as a distraction, writing that, “the circus is never in serious danger of being spoiled by that party-pooping Woyzeck…it’s hard to fathom what attracted these artists to Büchner’s deeply pessimistic play, since they so blithely disregard both its letter and its spirit.” Jason Best shares a similar frustration with the production, writing “by relegating Büchner’s words to second place, the production ends up more impressive as spectacle than effective as drama.” Ethan Stanislawski was frustrated by a lack of depth in Gardarsson’s production saying “this Woyzeck is as comical, manic, and intentionally reckless as it is intellectually shallow.”

Circus as an Embodied Language

Facing such sharp criticism, why does this Icelandic company use circus as a method for interrogating text? Certainly one might consider the mystique of exploring new dimensions of theatricality, or notions of engaging the whole body in performance. While these are certainly appealing suggestions, there is more to the idea of circus as a physical manifestation of idea. Facing such sharp criticism, why does this Icelandic company use circus as a method for interrogating text? Certainly one might consider the mystique of exploring new dimensions of theatricality, or notions of engaging the whole body in performance. While these are certainly appealing suggestions, there is more to the idea of circus as a physical manifestation of idea. Tait writes “… aerial acts are created by trained, muscular, bodies. These deliver a unique aesthetic that blends athleticism and artistic expression. As circus bodies, they are indicative of highly developed cultural behavior. The ways in which spectators watch performers’ bodies – broadly, socially, physical and erotically – come to the fore with the wordless performance of an aerial act.” Spivak reminds us that:

Logic allows us to jump from word to word by means of clearly indicated connections. Rhetoric must work in the silence between and around words in order to see what works and how much. The jagged relationship between rhetoric and logic, condition and effect of knowing, is a relationship by which a world is made for the agent, so that the agent can act in an ethical way, a political way, a day-to-day way; so that the agent can be alive in a human way, in the world. (Spivak 181)

Woyzeck’s challenge is fundamentally about understanding how to live in this world. A world that is unjust, frequently characterized by subjugation, and exploitative. Gardarsson uses circus to depict a world that is both ugly and beautiful. He uses circus to call our attention to these problems as embodied manifestation. The critics miss what’s happening in the production, and this is especially evident when looking at what Tait has to say the role of new circus as a medium:

New circus assumes its audience is familiar with the format of traditional live circus, and then takes its artistic inspiration from a cultural idea of circus as identity transgression and grotesque abjection, most apparent in literature [and] in cinema. Early [new circus in the 1990’s] shows reflected a trend in new circus practice to include queer sexual identities and expand social ideas of freakish bodies. Artistic representation frequently exaggerates features of traditional circus…. (Tait 123)

What Isherwood misses is that the use of garish spectacle that makes light of an ugly world is, in fact, at the very heart of what Gardarsson is trying to express. The working-poor Woyzeck who questions, and thinks, and is criticized for thinking is ruining the Captain and the Doctor’s circus-filled party. Woyzeck’s tragedy lies in his fight to survive, to be human, in the inhuman world that surrounds him – what could be more “deeply pessimistic” (as Isherwood calls it) than a vision of the world where fighting to be human drives a man to destroy the only anchor to the world (Marie) that he ever had?

Conclusions

Melissa Wong best sums up the production in seeing the tragedy in a Woyzeck “who seemed in some ways to be the most humane character in the production…the one who failed to survive.” Her assessment of Gardarsson’s use of levity is that it points “to the complicity of individuals [the audience] who, as part of society, had watched Woyzeck’s life as entertainment without fully empathizing with the depth of his existential crisis” (Wong). She also rightly points out that the use of humor in the play “enabled us to access questions that in the bleakness of their full manifestation might have been too much to bear” (Wong). Tait also reminds us that the true transformative nature of circus as a medium is not what is happening with the performer, but how the experience of viewing the performer is manifest in the viewer.

Aerial motion and emotion produce sensory encounters; a spectator fleshes culturally identifiable motion, emotionally. The action of musical power creates buoyant and light motion, which corresponds with reversible body phenomenologies in the exaltation of transcendence with and of sensory experience. The aerial body mimics the sensory motion of and within lived bodies in performance of delight, joy, exhilaration, and elation. Aerial bodies in action seem ecstatic in their fleshed liveness. (Tait 152)

Here circus functions as a mechanism for translation and confrontation in a play whose thematic elements are difficult to grapple with. Vesturport’s method and execution look to find the spaces between words, and while not perfect, strive to push the audience into a fleshed and lived experience of Büchner’s play rather than a purely intellectual theatrical exercise.

Works Cited

Büchner, Georg. Woyzeck. Trans. Eric Bentley. New York: Samuel French, 1991.

Best, Jason.”Woyzeck | Review.” 14 October 2005. The Stage. The Stage Meida Company Limited. 3 October 2013 <www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/10047/woyzeck>.

Isherwood, Charles. Outfitting Woyzeck With a Pair of Rose-Colored Glasses. 17 October 2008. 2 October 2013 <theater.nytimes.com/2008/10/17/theater/reviews/17woyz.html>.

Pareles, Jon. “Shaking Up ‘Woyzeck’ With early Rock and Flying Trapeze.” 13 October 2008. The New York Times. <www.nytimes.com/2008/10/14/arts/music/14cave.html?_r=2&scp=1&sq=woyzeck&st=cse&oref=slogin&>.

Richarsdon, Stan. Woyzec nytheatre.com review. 15 October 2008. The new York Theatre Experience. 2 October 2013 <www.nytheatre.com/Review/stan-richardson-2008-10-15-woyzeck>.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Stanislawski, Ethan. Theatre Review (NYC): Woyzeck by George Buchner at UNDER St. Marks and BAM. 21 October 2008. 4 October 2013 <blogcritics.org/theater-review-nyc-woyzeck-by-georg/>.

Tait, Peta. Circus Bodies: Cultural Idenity in Aerial Performance. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Thielman, Sam. Review: “Woyzeck”. 16 October 2008. 5 October 2013 <http://variety.com/2008/legit/reviews/woyzeck-3-1200471537/>.

Vesturport. Woyzeck by Georg Buchner | A Vesturport and Reykavik City Theatre production. 15 Janruary 2000. 7 October 2013 <http://vesturport.com/theater/woyzeck-georg-buchner/>.

Wong, Melisa Wansin. “Woyzeck (review).” Theatre Journal 61.4 (2009): 638-640.

Woyzeck. Dir. Gisli Örn Gardarsson. Vesturport. Vesturport and Reykjavik City Threatre. Vesturport, 2009.

More than Meets the Eye

This past week I had the opportunity to help out with a show at the New England Center for Circus Arts. During the summer NECCA runs several day-camps for students of all ages. Circus Camp for kids, Advanced Camp for kids who already have a background in performance, Boot Camp and Aerial Skills week for adults, and the list goes on. This past week was Advanced Camp. Unlike the other kids camps during the summer, this session has a focus on producing a 45-60 minute evening show by the end of the week, complete with lights and sound. During the week the campers work with the coaches to develop acts, and by Friday they have a stumble through, a Tech-Rehearsal, and finally a show in the evening.

Earlier in the summer I was a coach for some of the other kids camps, but this week I wasn’t scheduled. I offered to help run Tech for the show, but the director was fairly confident that I wasn’t going to be needed. I spent the week working on blog posts, working on how-to guides, and noodling in some software. On Thursday I was asked by the Camp Director if she could take me up on my offer to help with the Tech process for the show.

Thursday day I made a quick and dirty cue sheet in QLab, and got a few things in order to make the process as simple as possible. That night I got the music, programmed most of the show, and made a set-list for pre and post show music. On Friday I took notes during our cue to cue, programmed the lighting board during lunch (a Leviton MC 7016), and was set for our run through. The show went without a hitch, lights and sound behaved just fine and it was an all around success.

One of Lauren’s tasks this summer as Camp Director has been to tackle writing a more comprehensive manual about how camp runs. On Saturday morning we were talking about my process, and if I thought a single person could run lights and sound in the future. That got me thinking about what it is, exactly, that goes into something like that. I told Lauren that as long as the person was familiar with QLab (or any que based playback system that) and lighting systems (comfortable enough to google the light board, and learn how to program it) that it would be fine. It wasn’t until I said those things out-loud, however, that I realized what I was actually saying.

There’s more than meets the eye in working in Technical Theatre. I suppose that I knew that, but it’s something else to find yourself confronting the fact that the designer / operator / programmer in this case is expected to be proficient and seasoned enough at this kind of work to learn about a show in the morning, program and practice it once in the afternoon, and run the show in the evening. While that’s certainly not an unreasonable request, it’s certainly not a small order.

This keeps drawing me back to the discussions that I have with Dan Fine about the importance of rehearsing with media. Many new media performances are slowly edging away from systems of operator and cue driven playback; instead they’re evolving into shows where the media system is more like another character, watching and responding to what’s happening on stage. Those kinds of systems have to be integrated into the rehearsal process, into the performer’s process, and into the director’s process. These machines that have always helped us tell stories are changing, growing, evolving. It leaves me wondering what the future of this is really going to look like.

Lessons from the Road

You need a tech rider.

Better yet, you need a tech rider with diagrams, specific dimensions, and clear expectations.

In early June I was traveling with my partner, Lauren Breunig, to an aerial acrobatics festival in Denver, Colorado. Lauren is an incredibly beautiful and talented aerialist. One of the apparatuses that she performs on is what she calls “sliding trapeze.” This is essentially a trapeze bar with fabric loops instead of ropes.

Earlier this year Lauren was invited to perform at the Aerial Acrobatics Arts Festival of Denver as a performer in their “innovative” category. As an aerialist Lauren has already in many venues across the country, both on her invented apparatus as well as on more traditional circus equipment. In all of these cases she’s had to submit information about her apparatus, clearance requirements, and possible safety concerns.

So when it came time to answer some questions about rigging for the festival it seemed like old hat. One of the many things that Lauren had to submit was her height requirements for her bar provided that a truss was being suspended somewhere between 27 and 29 feet from the floor of the stage. In her case the height of the truss less critical than the height for her bar. In her case, the minimum distance from the floor to the rigging points is 15.5 feet. At this height her apparatus is high enough off of the ground that she can safely perform all of her choreography. This is also the lower limit of a height where she can jump to her bar unaided. Where this gets tricky is how one makes up the difference between the required rigging points and the height of the truss. The festival initially indicated that they would drop steel cable to make up the differences between required heights and the height of the truss, making it seems as though the performers only needed to worry about bringing their apparatus.

When we dropped off Lauren’s equipment we discovered that the realities of the rigging were slightly different than what the email correspondence had indicated would be the case. The truss had been set at a height of 27 feet, but the festival was no longer planning on dropping any cables for performers. Additionally they told us that they only had limited access to span sets and other equipment for making up the height difference. Luckily Lauren had packed some additional span sets, and had thought through some solutions that used some webbing (easily available from REI) to make up any discrepancies that might come up. This also, unfortunately, made her second guess the specs she had sent to the festival originally, and left her wondering if she had accurately determined the correct heights for her apparatus.

Memory Measurements

Having rigged and re-rigged this apparatus in numerous venues, Lauren had a strong sense of how her equipment worked with ceilings less than 20 feet. This also meant that she had didn’t have any fixed heights, and had instead lots of numbers bouncing around her head – one venue was rigged at 15.5 feet, but the ceiling was really at 17 feet; another the beams were at 22 or 23 feet, and the apparatus had been rigged at heights between 15.5 and 17 feet; and so on and so on. Additionally she typically rigs her own equipment, and has is therefore able to make specific adjustments based on what she’s seeing and feeling in a given space. For the festival, this wasn’t a possibility. So, after the miscommunication about the rigging situation and suddenly feeling insecure about the measurements she sent ahead we suddenly found ourselves talking through memories of other venues and trying to determine what height she actually needed.

Reverse engineering heights

We started by first talking through previous rigged situations – how high were the beams, how long is the apparatus, how far off the ground was she. Part of the challenge here was that this particular apparatus hangs at two different lengths because the fabric ropes stretch. This means that without a load it’s at a different distance from the floor than with a load. While this isn’t a huge difference, it’s enough to prevent her from being able to jump to her bar if it’s rigged too high or to put her in potential danger of smashing her feet if it’s rigged too low. While there were several things we knew, it was difficult to arrive at a hard and fast number with so many variables that were unknown or a range.

Drawing it out

Ultimately what helped the most was sitting down and drawing out some of the distances and heights. While this was far from perfect, it did finally give us some reference points to point to rather than just broadly talk through. A diagram goes a long way to providing a concrete representation of what you’re talking about, and it’s worth remembering the real value in this process. It meant that were were suddenly able to talk about things that we knew, only remembered, or guessed. This processes, however, still didn’t solve all of the problems Lauren was facing. We still had some questions about the wiggle room in our half-remembered figures, and making sure that she would be rigged at a height that was both safe and visually impressive. Finally, after an hour of drawing, talking, and drawing again we got to a place where we were reasonably confident about how she might proceed the next day. In thinking about this process, I realized that we could have made our lives a lot easier if we had done a little more homework before coming to the festival.

What she really needed

A Diagram

A complete drawing of the distances, apparatus, performer, rigging range, and artist-provided equipment would have made a lot of this easier. While the rigging process went without a hitch once she was in the theater, being able to send a drawing of what her apparatus looked like and how it needed to be rigged would have but as at ease and ensured that all parties were on the same page. A picture codifies concepts that might otherwise be difficult to communicate, and in our case this would have been a huge help.

A Fuller tech rider

While Lauren did send a Tech Rider with her submission, it occurred to us that a fuller tech rider would- have helped the festival, and it would have helped us. When dealing with an apparatus that she had to jump to reach, it would have been helpful for us to know exactly how high she could jump. There’s also a sweet spot that’s not too high for this apparatus, but where Lauren still needs a boost to reach the bar; this would have been another helpful range to have already known. While we have a reasonable amount of rigging materials, there’s also some equipment that we don’t have. Specifying what we plan to provide, or can provide with adequate notice would have been helpful inclusions in the conversation she was having with the festival. In hindsight, some of the statements that should have been added to her rider include:

  • the artist can jump for heights of
  • the artist needs assistance for heights
  • the artist will provide rigging for
  • the artist requires confirmation by

What does this have to do with projectors?

Let’s face it, tech riders are not the most exciting part of the production world. That said, by failing to specify what you need and what you are planning on providing it’s easy to suddenly be in a compromising position. While the consequences are different for an aerialist vs. a projectionist, the resulting slow-down in the tech process, or the need to reconfigure some portion of performance are very real concerns. The closer you are to a process or installation, the more difficult it becomes to really see all of the moving parts. Our exposure to any complicated process creates blind spots in the areas that we’ve automated, set-up once, or take for granted simply because they seem factual and straightforward. These are the privileges, and pitfalls, of working with the same equipment or apparatus for extended periods of time – we become blind to our assumptions about our process. Truly, this is the only way to work with a complicated system. At some point, some portion of the process becomes automated in our minds or in our practice in order to facilitate higher order problem solving. Once my projectors are hung and focused, I don’t think about the lensing when I’m trying to solve a programming problem.

While this may well be the case when you’re on your home turf, it’s another thing entirely to think about setting up shop somewhere new. When thinking about a new venue, it becomes imperative to look at your process with eyes divorced from your regular practice, and to instead think about how someone with unfamiliar eyes might look at your work. That isn’t to say that those eyes don’t have any experience, just that they’re fresh to your system / apparatus. In this way it might be useful to think of the tech rider as a kind of pre-flight checklist. Pilots have long known that there are simply too many things to remember when looking over a plane before take-off. Instead, they rely on check-lists to ensure that everything gets examined. Even experienced pilots rely on these checklists, and even obvious items get added to the list.

Knowing your equipment

Similarly, it’s not enough to just “know” your equipment. While intuition can be very useful, it’s also desperately important to have documentation of your actual specifications – what are the actual components of your machine, what are your software version numbers, how much power do you need, etc. There are always invisible parts of our equipment that are easy to take for granted, and it’s these elements that are truly important to think about when you’re setting up in a new venue. Total certainty may well be a pipe-dream, but it isn’t impractical to take a few additional steps to ensure that you’re ready to tackle any problems that may arise.

Packing your Bags

The real magic of this comes down to packing your bags. A solid rider, and an inventory of your system will cover most of your bases but good packing is going to save you. Finding room for that extra roll of gaff tape, or that extra power strip, or that USB mouse may mean that it takes you longer or that you travel one bag heavier but it will also mean a saved trip once you’re at the theatre. Including an inventory in your bags may seem like a pain, but it also means that you have a quick reference to know what you brought with you. It also means that when you’re in the heat of strike you know exactly what goes where. Diagrams and lists may not be the sexiest part of the work we do, but they do mean saved time and fewer headaches. At the end of the day, a few saved hours may mean a few more precious hours of sleep, or better yet a chance to grab a drink after a long day.

A Variety of Approaches | Lessons from Grad School


I’m learning a lot in grad school. Some of the lessons that I’m learning are consistent with my goals and aspirations, some are lessons about realigning my expectations with reality, and some are unexpected discoveries about the nature of a discipline’s approach. As an interdisciplinary student my coursework is a purposeful patchwork from multiple departments and schools. This approach means that I’m fortunate to see the world through multiple lenses, and it also means that at times I’m a servant to many masters. In my case, I’ve seen the approach of the school of Art (in my second semester I took a media and sculpture course), AME (this stands for Arts, Media + Engineering), and the school of Theatre and Film

In thinking and talking about why we make art/sculpture/programs it seems like I’ve continually run into similar questions. Questions that are rooted in the desire to find meaning, direction, or justification for the art. While one might think of this as more ideological exercise than useful discussion, I think there’s value in the wrestling with questions of motivation and function. “Why” and “for what” help to focus the creator in the process of finding the path for a particular project. To that end I think there are six statements that I’ve heard time and again in talking with other makers, performers, designers, and the like.

Six Statements of focus:

  • The act of creation is about
  • The aesthetic experience is
  • The function of the object/art/program is
  • The proof is in
  • Value is derived from
  • The meaning of the object/art/program

How a discipline finishes the above statements can help to illustrate how their practitioners are encouraged to think of the world, and their contribution to their particular field. As a disclaimer, I don’t think think any of the following observations are good or bad. These are my observations about how new and developing artists in these respective fields are encouraged to think about their work, and the process of making their work. 

The Artist / Sculptor’s Method

  • The act of creation is about is the exploration.
  • The aesthetic experience is both in the artist’s method and in the viewer’s observation.
  • The function of the object/art/program is inconsequential; the suggestion of an function is just as powerful.
  • The proof is in the critique of the work by an outside artist who is successful.
  • Value is derived from the act of creating something new; if the art is successful or not is in some ways inconsequential so long as the artist is being pushed to deepen his/her methods and unique style.
  • The meaning of the object/art/program can be explicit, implied, or absent; this is the maker’s choice, and they are in no way bound to create a piece that has specific meaning. 

In many ways this approach is about concisely making Art with a capital A, while trying to imagine that you’re only creating art with ironic italics. There’s something of an identity crisis in this approach that almost feeds off the expectation that an audience may willingly accept impenetrable art as a sign that it must be intellectually advanced. Discussions in this environment tend to start from a place of process rather than working backwards from the indented experience. For example, my class often spent more time talking about what we were currently engaged in doing, rather than exploring what we wanted the audience to experience in seeing our work. Here it feels like the answers are hidden, and that part of the artist experience is finding solutions on your own. Ironically there’s a very Ryandian kind of perspective to this field. A kind of rugged individualism that covets the secrets to other people’s magic tricks. There is also a quiet acceptance that good work may take a lot of time, or it may take very little. Sometimes the artist just has to spend 14 hours sanding, and that’s just a part of the work. There is some kind of hipster-zen clarity about the world that can be read as detachment or general disregard for the world. 

The Programmer’s Method

    • The act of creation is about novelty and newness.
    • The aesthetic experience is secondary to the methodology in the programming.
    • The function of the object/art/program even if inconsequential must be based on logical rules.
    • The proof is in the procedural methodology; further, the proof is in the object / program’s reliable operation.
    • Value is derived from efficiencies and brevity (of the code).
    • The meaning of the object/art/program is allowed to be absent, or so abstract as to be invisible.

The programmers approach is built on rules. The starting point for a creative work might be an interest in continuing to explore a particular procedure, or the curiosity about how to accomplish a particular end. Some  works are born out the necessity of a project or contract. More than anything, I’ve noticed that this perspective is always grounded in the procedural steps for accomplishing a particular task. An effective program requires an understanding of the necessary pieces to accomplish a particular end. It also often requires a bit of creative problem solving in order to ensure that one isn’t stopped by hurdles. 

Depending on the project, the programmer may or may not start with the aesthetic of the finished product. In many cases, before the programmer can start to address how a particular system looks, s/he first must think about how to ensure that the system is consistently producing the intended results. Unlike the Artist’s method, the programmer relies on the experience of others who have had similar experiences. Before reinventing the wheel, the programmer first tries to establish how someone else has solved the same problem – what was the most elegant solution requiring the fewest system resources. What trade-offs need to be made in order to ensure consistent, stable operation? More importantly, the programmer lives in a world characterized as a race. Lots of other programmers are all working to solve the same problem, for the same pay-day. “Perfect” comes in a distant second from “done,” and while the goal is to always have elegant solutions, having a solution always trumps not having one. 

The Media (Theatrical) Designer’s Method

    • The act of creation is about conveying a message or feeling.
    • The aesthetic experience is primary to the work, and should have a purposeful relationship to the world of the production.
    • The function of the object/art/program is help tell the story of the production or performance.
    • The proof is in observer and the actor’s relationship with the media. 
    • Value is derived from the purposeful connection or disconnection of the art / program / work to the world that it exists inside of the play or performance.
    • The meaning of the object/art/program can be abstract or didactic so long as it is purposeful.

The media designer is in an interesting position in the theatre. Somewhere between lights, set, and sound is the realm of the media designer. Designer’s for the theatre are often bound by the world of the play and how their work supports the larger thematic and idiomatic conventions of the script. More importantly, the media designer’s work must live in the same world as the performance. The media may be comprised of contrasting images or ideas, it might be in aesthetic dissonance with the world or it may be in harmony, but it always lives in the same place as the performance. This work must also consciously consider the role and placement of the audience, the relationship between the media and the performers, and the amount of liveness required for a particular performance. 

Between the artist and the programmer, the media designer sometimes relies on the magic of implied causation (when the actor performs a particular gesture a technician presses a button to cue the shift in the media giving the audience the illusion of a direct relationship between the actor and the media), but may also need to create a system of direct causation (the actor or dancer is actually the impetus for changes in the media). Like the programmer, the media designer is also in a sort of race. The countdown to opening night is always an element of the design process. While “done” still trumps “perfect” this question takes on a different kind of dynamic for the media designer. “Done” might be something that happens during the second or third night of tech, and ideally “perfect” happens before opening. 

Personal Essay

Twenty six of my thirty one years have, in some way, involved performance: from community musicals where I performed along side my mother, to gravity-defying circus performance for the Christopher Reeves foundation. I have also worked purposefully to provide educational access for populations that have not traditionally been able to engage with the arts. In this respect it was my work for an educational outreach program in rural New Hampshire and Vermont that had a deeply resonant impact on my view of the power of arts in education. Over the course of a five year period working for Keene State College’s Upward Bound Program I was a residential director, teacher, advisor, counselor, college-coach, and facilitator. As I transitioned to another position at Keene State my role changed from supporting potential students to supporting college faculty and staff. In my role as Rich Media Specialist for Keene State’s Center for Engagement, Learning, and Teaching I worked as an instructional designer, blackboard administrator, media maker, researcher, and faculty collaborator. While working full time in higher education, I also continued to develop as a performer through an ongoing circus training regimen. In thinking about graduate school I saw that I had been shaped by those three distinct forces: performance based art, technology, and a passion for teaching. I came to ASU to create a life where those three forces might co-exist in a meaningful and transformative program of study. In fact, that’s what I’ve found at ASU. In my first year I will have participated in, or contributed to (as performer, media creator, or system designer) eleven Phoenix-area productions while also having served as instructor or TA to over 350 students. My introduction to ASU has been, to say it mildly, a whirlwind of exposure to new ideas, methods, and opportunities to collaborate or participate. Especially interesting to me has been the opportunity to engage other artists in a critical dialogue about the impact, consequences, and outcomes of including digital media in live performance. 

I sometimes find it difficult to know what I will be doing in the next ten days, let alone ten years. That said, my vision for a professional life after graduating from ASU does include some specific goals. Without a doubt, my work will include some element of physical computing to address the issues of how to integrate real-time data from performers into the experience of seeing a theatrical production. Specifically, I plan to start a circus company with a heavy emphasis on the incorporation of traditional and generative media as elements of the performance. This involves the development of both physical apparatuses capable of capturing and transmitting meaningful data, as well as the development of applications to parse and interpret the data for playback-system integration. Further, I think this kind of work is potentially the most meaningful when partnered with an educational institution where performers, media makers, and technicians can collaborate on this process. Finally, my hope is that ten years after graduation I will be in a position to spearhead the implementation a of an integrated technology and circus program for the development of artists looking to transcend the traditional ideas of physical and mediated performance.

Flip, Flop, Fail

We all fail sometimes, and today I spent most of the afternoon fighting with technology more than understanding it. This screen shots encapsulates a better part of my day. Working on my final project for a programming class, my day was spent in negotiations with a stubborn contraption made of layers of aluminum and plastic. This semester has been very humbling. It’s provided for tremendous opportunity, led to great partnerships and friendships, but has also come with late nights and hard lessons. I’m glad to be here, but also glad for a break soon.

The Composite Effect

Though on first inspection it may be difficult to believe, every media consumable is an artifact born of composited forms. The composite is the leviathan that directly, or indirectly, manipulates the interpretation of cultural forms, and it will only get stranger. The current status of the composite in the creation of cultural forms can be explored by first examining its use in music, the manipulation of images (still and moving), and the growing field of augmented reality. The imminent status of the composite might best be understood by observing the futures suggested by an independent filmmaker and a large manufacturing company.

Contemporary Examples of the Composite

In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich defines digital compositing as having a specific and well-defined meaning. Particularly, he writes that “it refers to the process of combining a number of moving image sequences, and possibly stills, into a single sequence with the help of a special compositing software…” (Manovich , Kindle Ed. 136). Here Manovich is specifically talking about the use of this term in relation to the manipulation of video. This initial definition can be described by considering the weather report on most news programming. While providing some glib observations on city life in tandem with an abridged description of the temperature, the weather-reporter is often witnessed standing in front of some form of map. In some cases this map includes animated patterns of repeating cloud formations, often indicating where there might be rain or snow. The image of this person standing in front of a map is, in fact, a lie. The truth is that this particular reporter is standing in front of an evenly lit backdrop that is either bright green or blue. This flat color can then be removed and in its place a still image or animation is added. Here we can see a simple example of a composite: the combination of a number (in this case two) of moving image sequences into a single sequence. While Manovich initially talks about this in relation to images, he later applies the same principles in talking about the DJ.
The DJ’s art is measured by his ability to go from one track to another seamlessly. A great DJ is thus a compositor and anti-montage artist par excellence. He is able to create a perfect temporal transition from very different musical layers; and he can do this in real time, in front of a dancing crowd. (Manovich , Kindle Ed. 144)

The rise of digital authoring and distribution tools has helped to disseminate the work of the DJ beyond a single fixed set in a club. For the modern DJ, the recording studio is the computer and the distributor is the internet. The specific form born out of this type of creative act is sometimes referred to as a mash-up. While this form may be a composite of only two or three songs, many popular artists create works that are comprised of multiple samples from multiple songs. Jordan Roseman, known as DJ Earworm, describes his work by saying “what I do is take a bunch of songs apart and put them back together again in a different way. I end up with tracks called mashups.” Roseman’s work is the quintessential composite in its nature. His modular approach to disassembling music into component pieces before reassembling it into a new unified work reads as though he were quoting Manovich. In writing about the process of working with composited work Manovich notes that, “a typical new media object is put together from elements that come from difference sources, these elements need to be coordinated and adjusted to fit together” (Manovich , Kindle Ed. 138). The DJ’s appropriation and rearrangement of material in the pursuit of creating a new work is a variation of the theme of sampling and looping and has largely been met with enthusiasm. Many devoted fans of specific artists attend concerts to witness the act of live mixing and compositing. Greg Gillis, known as Girl Talk, has garnered especially high praise and support for the form.  Gillis is a composite artist. A musician whose work is entirely based in the deconstruction of established works so that he can reassemble the component pieces into something different.

While the mash-up is quickly finding home in the realm of pop-music, arguably the most well established form of composite is now largely invisible. The manipulation of photographic imagery has become so commonplace that it is nearly invisible to most consumers. In this regard, advertising, particularly, has become the champion of the composited work. Should one open any Sunday-Super-Shopper adverts for any corporate chain the only imagery involved is entirely created out of a number of independent images paired and layered together. This pairing and stacking of visual components is now so commonplace as to seem banal. High-end advertising is especially notorious for the use of composited works. The perfect photograph of a hamburger is a fine example of this magic: the composition is carefully framed and arranged by a food photographer; later the photo is manipulated to ensure for a proper distribution of sesame seeds; another artist will color correct the image for the most appetizing shade of green in the lettuce and red in the tomato; finally a designer will move the hamburger digitally to ensure that it is being presented in an appropriately branded environment. Layer upon layer, the composited image has ceased to be a record of the actual object, and has instead become an abstract representation of what it ought to be. This is the work of composite in advertising. Perhaps a more startling example can be found in the pages of the Ikea catalog. According to the Wall Street Journal, twelve percent of the images in the Swedish furniture distributor’s catalog were not actual photographs of real objects but were instead three-dimensional computer renderings (Hansegard). To accomplish this, first a scene is created in wire-frame with 3-D modeling software. The resulting wireframe is then painted with textures, and light in order to resemble an actual room. The WSJ goes on in the article to note that in 2013 one out of four images used in the print catalog and online will be made exclusively of computer renderings (Hansegard). This is both astonishing in its execution, but also a prime example of the true power of the composite. The amalgamated form of polygons and texture are layered and manipulated until the line between real object and assembled representation becomes invisible.

The spread of the composite into all cultural forms is further fueled by the efforts and exploration of the technology juggernaut Google. In April of 2012 Google released one of its first promotional videos for the development of “Project Glass” (Google). The video presents a montage of moments out of the day of the subject. The video is shot entirely from a first person perspective and demonstrates what life might be like if instead of looking at the screen of a mobile device, that same information was instead accessible through a heads-up display. This additional semi-transparent layer of information is often referred to as augmented reality. Google’s device, Project Glass, is a lightweight augmented reality (AR) system worn in place of a pair of glasses. The wearable device contains a touch surface for control, a camera, wireless antennas, onboard computer processor, and a prism display. The promise of AR is that it will change the existing relationship between user and screen forever. Simply put, there is no more screen as it’s conceptualized today because the screen is potentially everywhere and everything. When using this device, every visual experience is a composited image composed of the physical world and an additional layer of data. Google’s efforts with AR aren’t the first examples of the layered reality push. With the rise of smart phones as portable computing devices many applications (apps) have been developed across mobile platforms for access to additional layers of information. AR applications typically take advantage of GPS data (in order to determine physical location), gyroscopic inputs (in order to determine the orientation of the device), and Internet connectivity (to populate the field of view with data). While not the immersive experience of Project Glass, AR apps have proven to be an interesting investigation into the possibilities of the composite as rendered in real-time with only a mobile device.

Future Implications of compositing: Constant Composited Reality

While the promises of Project Glass might be intriguing, the future is often difficult to predict. Corning, maker of the Gorilla Glass used in many touch screen devices, has its own vision of what the future might resemble and in February of 2012 released a short promotional video, “A Day made of Glass 2”, suggesting the possibilities of touch surfaces in the near future (Corning Incorporated).  In their six-minute montage of the near future nearly every surface is fabricated out of touch-sensitive transparent glass. Each interaction with a different product reveals sheets of glass that can be transparent or opaque with a single press or swipe. In Corning’s day of glass every surface suddenly becomes a window of composited information. Tablet computers are transparent sheets that act as windows into the world where a sea of data is waiting to be revealed. For Corning it is not enough that every surface might be a display, every surface should have the potential of being a composite display. While this may initially seem like flights of technological fancy, it’s worth mentioning that in the summer of 2012 the display manufacturer Samsung began showcasing its transparent LCD screens (Sidev). Corning’s vision of the future seems limited only by the current economy of cost for these displays, and in many ways lacks any real revolutionary implications about the role of the composite in the consumption of information.

 

Beyond Corning’s slick vision of a world crafted of transparent touch surfaces the video short made by Sight Systems provides for a more interesting suggestion of what the future of displays might look like. While the short is built around a questionable storyline, the real magic happens here in regards to the representation of an augmented reality display worn as contact lenses. Sight Systems seems to suggest a vision of AR that is not simply additionally layered information but instead approaches composited reality. Here the proposal isn’t merely that the world could contain additional layered information about text messages and weather, but rather that the world aught to be constructed according to the desires of the subject. A world of constantly composited visual representations. A world of constructed realities filled with notifications and advertisements ad nauseum.

 

Closing Thoughts

The divining of specific manifestations of future technological advancements or ideological implementations is beyond reasonable conjecture. What is not unreasonable, however, is a recognition of the influence of the composite. Today’s new media artifacts are crafted realities built upon stacked films of both visual data and invisible meta-data. Digital reality, and expression is predicated upon notions and expressions of the composite, and it is not presumptions to assume that this is only the beginning. The future may well be a world of composited reality.

Works Cited

Corning Incorporated. “A Day Made of Glass 2. Same Day. Expanded Corning Vision.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZkHpNnXLB0>.
 
Eveleth, Rose. “How fake images change our memory and behavior.” bbc.com. BBC. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. 14 Dec. 2012. <http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20121213-fake-pictures-make-real-memories/1>.
illegal A.R.T. “Girl Talk.” illegal-art.net. illegal art. Web. 15 Dec. 2012. <http://illegal-art.net/girltalk/>.
Google. “Project Glass: One day….” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 4 April, 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c6W4CCU9M4>.
 
Hansegard, Jens. “IKEA’s New Catalogs: Less Pine, More Pixelsc.” wsj.com. Wall Street Journal. Web. 23 Aug. 2012. 13 Dec. 2012. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444508504577595414031195148.html?mod=WSJEUROPE_business_LeadStoryCollection>
 
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Ed. Roger F. Malina. Kindle Edition. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.
Roseman, Jordan. “earworm MASHUPS.” Web. 15 Dec. 2012. <http://djearworm.com/>.
 
SidevDisplaySystems. “L’ écran transparent Samsung NL22B bientôt chez SIDEV.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 16 Jul. 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rZslQZ6iMgA>.
 
Sight Systems. “Sight.” Online Video Clip. Vimeo. Vimeo, 24 July, 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. <https://vimeo.com/46304267>.