On theater and new media poetry
Ten practical points toward a critique of new media poetry, as presented in theater.
filed 1 June 2001 | Chicago by Kurt Heintz
What's all this about?
This past spring, I had the opportunity to participate in a media poetry workshop called "Poetc." (I believe one would pronounce this "po-et-cetera," but the actual pronunciation was left open to interpretation, at least for me.) The workshop was held at Northwestern University, and organized by Garrison Ashwal. If the mere mention of this project sounds challenging to you, you should consider the work itself. Where some people can get bogged in the mere reading or performing of a text, this project was much more ambitious. Ashwal and a group of students committed poetry from the modern American canon to the stage, using a full complement of new media in the process. This included video (both on tape and generated live, on stage) shown in projection and on monitors (some of them moving), still photography, live electronic audio/signal processing, original music effects, original performance and dramatic tactics, and a gamut of other details too numerous to mention. I love this stuff. It's dear to me.
Ashwal & Co. gathered an ensemble that seemed to have one of each kind of artist necessary for the task: a trained actor or two, a couple writers, a stage manager, a musician and audio specialist, a video artist, and a choreographer. Like so many missions of its type, including a few I've been directly involved with, their performance revealed as much of the process in its failures as it did in its successes. But in such a spirit, there's little to lose and much to gain by testing this artform, simply rolling up the sleeves, developing a suite, and seeing whether it works. The fuller genre of media poetry for performance is often untried, and therefore undocumented, unshared, and untaught.
When I say "media poetry", I'm not talking about mere juxtapositions across discreet media, although the tool of juxtaposition is fundamental to the form. I'm talking about full engagement among the constituent genres and media on stage, even at the deepest conceptual levels. A poet with a back-up band does not qualify as a media poet. I'm not sure that a poet playing a video tape and talking over it would qualify, either. But if it could be shown that the music, the image, and the language were all threaded by a common understanding and goal, and the artist were able to present that on stage, then I'd say we were talking about media poetry performance in a fairly full way.
Don't get me wrong, here. I suggested the show had rough spots. And given the apparently long gestation period for any work of this kind versus the short deadline that a workshop imposes, there will be rough spots. But I loved the program.
There was a scene when the ensemble took one poem by e.e. cummings, "somewhere i have never traveled," and presented it as a dialogue. This poem is all about how lovers' eyes meet. Two performers, a young man and woman, took turns using a camcorder on each other as if they were making boudoir videos. It looked like confessions and private porn in one take. It was all suitable for kids to watch -- no nudity at all, and cummings' language, while suggestive, isn't at all graphic. The scene paralleled cumming's language in a contemporary way, I thought, and implied a lot of wildness and intimacy to the mature mind. It had a lot of delightful sexual tension, and the performers did their best to bring that out with wit, charm, and (hooray for this!) dignity.
The scene was staged on and near a bed, set behind a scrim on which the video was projected, center stage. The audience could see the live video fill the scrim, and still watch the physical action of the performers through the scrim. Often, the speaking performer was physically facing away from the audience while their gaze, as lover, went straight out to the camera (in character, their partner). Thus the performers could give the eye right to the audience. So the audience connected vicariously with the opposite lover in turns, as the two actors traded "recording" each other.
The media thus magnified the language of courtship by bringing the audience into a larger than life lover's gaze. (And doesn't a lover's gaze always seem that way?) The two performers also drifted into and out of the projection itself, sometimes blocking the projection and therefore anchoring the image in a physical, corporeal space. So the presence of the body was reinforced in subtle but plain ways that made it clear by physical metaphor that Body trumps Picture. (I appreciate that priority.) That added a layer of physicality to the piece, and so left the audience flipping between all the simple but keen juxtapositions going on at once. The other visual and aural elements backed away from this moment, and so left the poem's epiphanies to stand on their own qualities. I'll remember this piece for quite a while.
Ten things we'll love/hate about the genre
Below are ten talking points for my workshop with the Northwestern students. I wanted to outline and distill those points that guided my work best in interdisciplinary language arts, such as media poetry. Further, I wanted the points to address the concerns of theater. My twin upbringings as a media artist and performance poet happened side by side through the 1980s and continue to this day. I've worked in performance ensembles to bring new media to the stage, while I recognized that the ensembles' ultimate intents were to relate language: poetry, prose, fiction... a short story, a fable, a suite of language-based performance art vignettes, or a play. I drafted these principles from experience, and not from prescribed theory. They're pretty much what get me through interdisciplinary situations to this day.
Ten is a round number, and merely a target. "The Ten Commandments." "The Top-ten List." It's all the same, and rather arbitrary. It may be more useful for you to think of these points as overlapping interests that may index other phenomena you'll want to name later on as you note them for yourself.
1: Know the difference between a channel and
|Kurt Heintz is founder of the e-poets network, a writer and media artist living in Chicago, and has collaborated with poets on stage since 1991.
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