Technology Is Just a Tool

Photo by Paula Court

“It really did start with the film, with Alphaville,” Shaun Irons was saying as he and his partner and collaborator Lauren Petty showed me about their “ad-hoc film set” in the Underground Theater at Abrons Arts Center. “It’s one of those films that’s so arty, but at the same time the plot’s so simple. No matter what happens, you still get the plot, so there’s something interesting to us about that. That you can dismantle it some way but you can still get the plot. It’s a rescue tale. This character comes, he meets this woman, he has to destroy the Alpha 60 computer, and he takes her out of there with him.”

Irons sort of shrugged at the elegant and uncomplicated simplicity of it all, while surrounded by elaborate light tables, snakes of cables slithering across the floor, and over half a dozen cameras arranged on various tripods throughout the space, which was only dimly lit by projectors and clip-on lights.

We were there to discuss Why Why Always, a “cine-performance” and the latest project from the multidisciplinary artistic duo, which plays Oct. 13-29 at Abrons (tickets $25). For over 15 years, Irons and Petty have been creating installations, video art, and, lately, more expressly performance pieces on their own, in addition to a substantial career as performance designers (with the likes of the Wooster Group, Yehuda Duenyas, and the Phantom Limb Company) as well as producing documentary films, most recently Standing By: Gatz Backstage, about Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz.

Despite the substantial background in theater and performance design, it’s not entirely accurate to describe their own performance work – including Why Why Always – as “theater.” While Petty referred to it as “cine-performance,” and Irons freely accepted the term “theater” on the basis that, in fact, audiences can buy a ticket, sit down for a performance at 7:30, and watch live actors performing a rehearsed script, it’s nevertheless the case that the pair aren’t interested in much of the materials that are conventionally understood to make up a theater-piece. Rather, their work, whether performance, video, or installation, might better be understood as producing a mediated experience between the spectator and performer, using diverse materials to facilitate the exchange. Sound, image, video (live-feed and pre-recorded), mixed and translated and interrelated in time and space through technology, are all sufficient means for the pair to explore their artistic impulses. Live performers – actors or movement artists – are optional, though, to judge by their more recent works, increasingly of interest to the pair. As is narrative, to a point.

“We wanted to do something that was more narrative, but as you said,” Lauren Petty told me, following up on Irons’ statement, “it is a simple rescue story. That’s the only narrative you need to know.”

Which is actually pretty fitting for a piece based on the film Alphaville. A dystopian sci-fi film by auteur director Jean-Luc Godard from 1965, it has a truly bizarre genesis. Exactly what Godard’s original idea was is a matter of conjecture, or perhaps more specifically, all he had was an idea for a film exploring the interplay of super-rational technology and the messy, irrational, emotion-based responses of human beings. Set in a futuristic “Nueva York” dominated by a super computer Alpha 60 that has banned human emotion, it’s totally proto-cyberpunk: A hardboiled agent arrives in town to locate a lost comrade and take out Alpha 60, and must navigate a world of noir tropes, down to cyborgian femmes fatales, a la Blade Runner. But for truly bizarre reasons of pure convenience, the actor Eddie Constantine was cast in the lead role. An actor known for a series of B films featuring hardboiled detective “Lemmy Caution,” Constantine’s agent was one of Godard’s producers, and he was thus cast in the lead role in the character of Lemmy Caution for no other reason than to attract foreign financial backers. This despite the fact that Caution was in all previous films (and indeed in the original novels) a present-day FBI agent.

So Petty and Iron’s multimedia live performance? All you really need to know is that it’s a rescue story. “It’s Alphaville meets ASMR,” Petty said with a grin.

So yes, actually, there is something more going on. “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” or ASMR, is an emergent theory popular on the Internet and with various artists, but still on the psycho-physiological fringe as a theory. It is, in its simplest form, the idea that some people for some reason experience relatively intense physical, tactile responses to audio or visual stimuli.

“We didn’t want to get into ASMR too deeply or too seriously,” Petty cautioned, “but we did get into these videos of women doing these very mundane activities, particularly towel folding. ASMR is intended to create an emotional or physical response. And in Alphaville, emotional responses are sort of capped, and unacceptable. Everything is about logic and the computer brain.”

Photo by Paula Court

It’s also a fascinating extrapolation of the means of producing responses in art spectators. Since the 1960s, theory has struggled with defining the location of meaning with regard to art. Is it a function of the work itself, or does it rest in purely in the reader or spectator? From Roland Barthes and the death of the author, to Reader-Response theory and various post-structuralisms, through Jacques Ranciere and the theorists whose work animates our contemporary discourse on spectacle, this tension has persisted. What does the artist do, what does the reader or spectator bring to it, and how are those being mediated – if at all – through the work itself. Neuroscience and its various popular bastardizations, such as ASMR, suggest a way to eventually sort out that interchange with logical certainty, animating various creative endeavors exploring how the assumption of unconscious physical response in the spectator could be generated by the work itself. Which gives its incorporation into the world of Godard’s Alphaville a creepy double salience: Not only does it propose a scientific (and therefore rational, insofar as it can be understood as a physical phenomenon) explanation of the very “irrational emotional” behavior suppressed by the totalitarian logic of Alpha 60, but at the same time, such theories propose that emotion, understood thusly, can be used to manipulate and to control in an even more insidious way.

Not that Petty and Irons and I got to touch on this too much in our discussion. But I found it oddly compelling to consider, particularly in context of the run of Why Why Always itself. Just upstairs at Abrons, through Oct. 21, Tele-Violet’s The Power of Emotion: The Apartment is playing. Written by Shonni Enelow, author of Method Acting and Its Discontents, and directed by Katherine Brook, the performance is an exploration of the use of emotion as theatrical material (see our interview feature on the show here). So questions of how we can produce emotion as material for art, and how that is experienced by audiences, is very much a topic of consideration today.

That should come as no surprise in terms of Petty and Irons’ work. Their use of technology to mediate the spectator’s experience is in crucial ways an attempt to figure out how to navigate this complex interplay. In a long earlier interview with Culturebot’s Andy Horwitz, about their earlier performance Keep Your Electric Eye on Me, the pair likened their work in performance to that of musicians, with their elaborate technological apparatus as their instruments employed in real time to create a live event.

And so it is with Why Why Always. Grafted onto the skeleton of Godard’s Alphaville, the performance features Jim Fletcher, Elizabeth Carena, Laura Bartczak and Marion Spencer as both subjects and objects. Subjects, helping to enact an elaborate performance choreography for cameras onstage, at the same time they find themselves the objects of the camera’s gaze.

The scenography is less theater than, as Petty described it, an “ad-hoc film set.” Much of the action (some of which, both video and audio, is pre-recorded; in some cases, a blend of live and pre-recorded) is staged not for the audience, but for the cameras, filmic projections which are live-edited by Irons and Petty during performance.

Aside from the technical apparatus, much of the rest of scenery helps approximate images from the film. “Certain iconographic things,” Irons told me, “like the lightbulb, the starkness of lighting, the simple sets. I mean, that film was shot in something like 12 days. For no money.”

“And there were no film lights,” said Petty.

“Godard wanted all natural lighting,” Irons said. “There was a guy in the closet with a flashlight. So we wanted to echo that, too. It’s a dark theater piece, like the film is a dark film.”

Most of the performance by the live actors is mediated in some way. “We have fought against anything in this being too theatrical,” Petty told me. “There were originally a couple scenes in this that were very unsupported by media when we started working on this, that we let just play out as straight actor scenes. And when we watch it we’re always, this is awful.”

“Suddenly it’s a straight play,” said Irons.

But for all that, both were at pains to distinguish their goals from a great deal of technology-oriented art being made today.

“A lot of work is boys-with-toys techy stuff,” Petty said. “But even our installation work, we’ve always gone for a depth of emotion.”

Added Irons: “The technology is just a tool.”

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