Meghan Moe Beitiks on Prague Quadrennial 2023
It’s twelve years since I saw my last Prague Quadrennial, the international exhibition, festival and symposium of Performance Design and Space (PQ).
By its own description, the PQ has “evolved into a platform, which explores progressive approaches, new media, virtual spaces and interdisciplinary relations.” Still, the cacophony of the main exhibition halls is vaguely familiar: different countries with giant setups featuring a mix of portfolio displays, durational performances, and conceptual installations. Even in the confined halls of the Holešovice Market, the overwhelming mix of competing synchronous events and experiences persists.
One of the PQ23 National Exhibition halls at Holešovice Market. All photos by Meghan Moe Beitiks unless otherwise indicated.
Despite the frenetic energy, the unity and presence of the Slovakian exhibition caught my attention from a distance. Centered around a huge block of black-painted recycled grey styrofoam, the piece featured sharply gesturing performers in coveralls and white slicked-back hair, carving holes in the structure and hoarding the bits of it. Performers constantly flickered back and forth: climbing through holes in the block, staring at audience members, looking over their shoulders, picking up spoons and hacking through the block, grasping bits of the block and wondering at them caressing them, clutching them to their chests. Getting closer, you could hear a haunting soundscape, with an echoey voice of endless questions: why are you doing this to me? Why are you doing this? Above the performers was a thermal camera, its results projected on a screen behind the work– revealing the performers as colorful blobs in a sea of darkness. The piece was called “Home is Warmth,” by artists Tomáš Boroš, Pavel Bakajsa, Ondrej Jurčo, Maroš Mitro, Michal Machciník, and the creative team from Divadlo na Peróne:
Peter Kočiš and Jana Wernerová. A profound, emotional reflection on human environmental impact and presence.
For me, the Slovakian piece is a culmination of my excitement over the expansiveness I witnessed at the 2011 Quadrennial– a clear embrace of interdisciplinary approaches to performance making, and a welcome infiltration of conceptual and material considerations more commonly found in contemporary studio art. It was durational performance, theatre, art installation, time-based work, environmental art, new media, the list goes on. But it was not the winner of the Golden Triga– that honor went to the Cypress Exhibition, “Spectators in a Ghost City,” which explored the scenographic capacity of a real life abandoned city, Famagusta. “The Cyprus curatorial team proposes the use of scenographic methodologies as thinking processes, a political act, negotiating real spaces of conflict and artistic practices. Fragments from Famagusta, video archives from today and before 1974, experimental sculptural maquettes, acoustic environments and performative practices are used to connect this rare city with the Prague Quadrennial 23 visitors,” wrote the creative team. The piece included building maquettes based on those in Famagusta as backpacks and suitcases.
This range of work– from the theatrical to the conceptual– is a good articulation of the creative development of performance design. According to the PQ, “Performance design/scenography today is often presented through live and immersive experiences, where all senses can be involved and the audience members take on an active role. We see performance design/scenography as an art form that goes beyond the visual, into an experiential and sensorial realm with a focus on interdisciplinary collaboration, giving creative expression to new ideas and experiments.”
The Lithuanian pavilion, a unique point of reflection on national culture, professional scenographic work, and the body of the viewer, involving the forms of “krikštas,” an ancient Lithuanian burial monument. “‘Krikštas’ is both a tombstone and a sacrament for washing away sins and accepting a new faith. The broad meaning of the symbol allows us to connect aspects of time and space in the exhibition, to sacralise the creative process, to reveal respect for the past, the importance of memory for the future and the vision of the future of a dead world provoked by threats,” writes the creative team.
What this means is everything from models and sketches of designs for live performances, to photos of productions, to unique immersive experience, art installations, and durational live performances themselves. It’s always been a challenge to articulate, document and archive performance design– as a field inherently bound with the live performers, audiences, time and venue, communicating the experience and function of it outside of the performance it was meant for is always difficult. In many of its iterations since 1967, the Prague Quadrennial National Pavillions have often displayed photos, models, props, videos, costumes or material remnants of the live performances– archival materials of the main event, with other approaches constantly emerging but never as the main event.
A selection of photos from the 1971 Prague Quadrennial: more and a timeline of the event’s evolution can be found at https://pq.cz/archive/
But with this 15th PQ, it seems the approach to this challenge has swung firmly from the archival to the conceptual: not trying as much to show documentation from the previous four years (though many national pavilions are definitely still taking variations on this approach), but allowing a single artist, project, or experience articulate ideas that are important to performance design in that are crucial to a given region at this point in time. This is not a new approach, but rather one that has slowly gained validity and traction over the years, recognized clearly by past reflections on the PQ by its own publications.
What has emerged is an art form that is almost unique to the Prague Quadrennial itself. Embracing approaches in scenography, devised and experimental theatre, performance art and dance, the designers create installations that are more theatrical than material, immersive experiences that are both archival and interactive, prompt dialogues and workshops, explore spectacle, and continue to push boundaries.The work rests in the tension between illustration, embodiment, archive and storytelling. We see it not only in the National exhibition, where there are durational performances, portfolio books, conceptual souvenir shops and interactive landscapes, but in the curated performances, events and talks. National identity is always an open question. These are not just archives, not unique live performances, not conceptual art, but a wild blend of all of the above.
“Contemporary performance design/scenography is an art form within parameters of multi-sensory environments – creating worlds of sensations appealing to the imagination, the mind, as well as the sensory organs: the eye, the ear, the nose, the skin. Scenographic environments take on a life that by default eludes the designer’s grasp: no matter how carefully it is planned and executed, it is truly completed by the participants engaging with the designed space. Every creation, then, is impermanent and changeable; it is also visionary and volatile in that it works with, and rests on, many unknowns,” writes the PQ.
This approach influenced the student exhibition as well, which has the challenge of representing current students in performance design programs across multiple areas and nations: regional schools, Indigenous communities, professional networks. This year, as an outdoor section of the Quadrennial, it included displays ranging from interactive sound pieces to enclosed movie trailers, musical pieces, giant towers, parades, weavings, and a live fashion show from Estonia.
There was so much going on in an event that already had many demands on a visitors’ attention. Aside from the National and Student Exhibition, there was PQ Talks, PQ Studio, a series of workshops with H40, a performance space exhibition, a kids section, and a series of curated performances. Visibility is a challenge here, for any given approach– not only practically and creatively but regionally. You need to be heard above the cacophony: but you also need the resources to get into the room. Wealthy countries may have the funding to put together large exhibitions– many countries in Europe don’t have to ship their materials as far as other nations– and the framing of “performance design and scenography” is itself a western framework that assumes a very particular approach to collaboration and performance-making. It has long been a very European event.
Still, this is a PQ that is exploding with possibility even when coming to grips with its limits. PQ Talks on feminism, gender, sexuality and equity were spread throughout. Specialized panels on Latin American, Indigenous and African performance design brought attention to important works and designers. This no shortage of events concerned with the entertainment industry’s environmental impact, but also conceptual and meaningful approaches to sustainability as well. This year many efforts and panels were couched under Tanya Beers’ canonic concept of Ecoscenography. Some talks were enlivening, some, like a disability panel that featured no disabled artists, were more of an illustration of how far still the field has to go.
Many of these limits are not unique to the PQ: Performance Design, as a greater field, faces a number of unique challenges to equity and sustainability. It is simultaneously embodied, commercial and scholarly. It has a Western Canon but a clear, well-known history and practice that transcends western history. It is an art practice with well-established social and political impact. It can use as much money and time as is available, it can produce brilliance with no time and no money. It is still made up of humans who are trying to make a living, establish their own relevance, do as their mentors told them, but speak to the current age. There are still a lot of professors in the field who, like myself, are trying to establish a case for tenure, get a good production or book review, or recruit students to their programs. There is still a limiting, pervasive idea that directors do all the creative conceptual work for a live performance, and that scenographers just follow along. There is a global community of creative workers who may be laboring long hours for insufficient pay, fueled by integrity and creative devotion.
Taiwan’s national pavilion, “The Rare Ship,” presented the work of contemporary Taiwanese Designers, as well as live works from Shinehouse Theatre, such as “To the Warriors!”
But these unique challenges also illustrate the fields’ greatest capacities. We’re not just talking, for instance, about positionality and costume– we are putting costumes on humans with positionalities. We are not just quoting canons or attempting to prove a theory: we are working with others to support a live performance. Like many art forms, scenography has its own academic jargon, its own artspeak, but despite the plethora of new global creative PhDs, Performance Designs’ greatest asset is that it has no real obligation to be scholarly first. It is collaboration, making and embodiment first. It is deep in the mess of the human experience. And that reality has tremendous potential.
In this spirit, the PQ was visibly grappling with life post-pandemic, not only in the sense of documenting efforts to adapt to various lockdowns, and recovering from the massive hits to the live performance industry, but also in terms of mourning. Both the Chilean National and the Latvian Student pavilions were dedicated to major mentors who had passed. Chile lost one of their “most beloved and important teachers”. Latvia lost the indefatigable Andris Freibergs (who, full disclosure, I also studied with briefly). But the two countries’ approaches to mourning starkly illustrate one of the potential real values of the PQ: exposure to vastly different cultural approaches.
Chile made a “Memento Mori,” where you could take your picture, announcing your own death at the PQ: your polaroid was then hung amongst the “dead” in an altar activated by performers in ritual several times a day. The Latvian student team took Freibergs’ favorite structural element– the proscenium arch– and transformed it into a series of portals for viewers to look to the sky– towards the mentor in the afterlife. The grounded portion of the installation included an AR layer of student work and responses to space.
The Latvian student exhibition at PQ23, with an AR layer of student work, and proscenium-shaped channels that pointed to the sky, in tribute to beloved mentor and iconic scenographer Andris Friebergs.
The view through one of the proscenium channels to the heavens.
The challenge of the cacophony of the exhibition hall is finding the stillness in the noise – the moments when you can be reminded of the tremendous capacity that performance designers have to make meaning, shape space, create emotional experiences, and bring another layer to a live performance. I am excited to watch the PQ continually evolve, endlessly discovering its own assets and capacities.