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I always thought there was something half-baked in Bertolt Brecht’s formulation of the “alienation effect.” First, there is a discrepancy between what he aims for and the method he proposes to get there. The latter mostly consists of breaking down the fourth wall and having the actors constantly display the fact that they are acting. But for a layman like me, these tactics appear, if anything, to bring about a more immediate and direct connection between the stage and the audience. And in fact, the effect Brecht sought can only be attained with spectators who are so comfortably immersed in the norms of traditional theatre that his exposing the theatrical frame distresses their expectations and forces them to think anew. In other words, the “alienation effect” for Brecht is merely a shock effect. And like all shock effects, its success is contingent on what is expected. Today, what too many performance (art) works thrive for, is a direct, immediate encounter with the audience, who, on their side, comfortably expect nothing but to participate in the experience. And diluted variants of Brechtian tactics serve these purposes all too well. Instead of alienation, a communal and relational moment is built for everyone to partake in. What is lost is the critical dimension that a work can bring forth, which was precisely what Brecht had originally aimed at.
Or did he, really? Because there is something also half-baked in the very aim he posits. As he stated repeatedly, Brecht never intended to entirely cancel out empathy. Only on the level of emotion was empathy removed; it was retained on the level of so-called intellect. Thus, the pedagogical model of an artwork leading the audience’s experience (whether emotionally or intellectually) is left intact. This was necessary for the playwright who aimed, through his works, to awaken the reflective capacities of the audience members so that each of them may engage in social criticism. The unexamined premise here, however, is that there is actually a ‘single’ society that is shared by all participants. But this premise, if anything, is utterly incompatible with the very idea of the “alienation effect.” For alienation, if we stick to its letter, ultimately signifies converting those who see into an alien in relation to what they see. And the definition of alien implies, at the very least, the existence of more than one society (if not solar systems and planets). In other words, the Brechtian alien is consumed and framed within the given society from the start, and as such, it is merely a role, yet another theatrical disposition. The fourth wall was not torn down, but only displaced to enwrap the entirety of the theatre along with its supposedly estranged audience members.
This is all to say that the opera Any Size Mirror is a Dictator (ASMIAD), made by Lindsey Drury and Panoply Performance Laboratory (Esther Neff and Brian McCorkle) and currently on a heroic run at Momenta Art in Brooklyn, is a brilliant machinery (or a bundle of machineries) that radicalizes the notion of “alienation effect” to its logical conclusion. The six or seven volatile dancers, which include the choreographer Drury, continuously engage in a game of sorts that leads one, or several, or all of them from one place to another, from one movement to another, and/or from one state to another. It is clear that they are subjecting themselves to an intricate system of conditionals, based on cues taken from everything that is happening around them. The resulting events are complex and multi-layered, often times hilarious, at others quasi-dramatic, or simply stunning.
All along, there is a four-piece band playing one piece after another. The music, strongly penned by McCorkle, covers a wide spectrum of styles but has a voice of its own. And sometimes two or three dancers may join in and sing along, creating an almost Broadway kind of moment. But other times they seem carefree, as if the music didn’t exist in the same space. The progression of the dance and music is thus disjunctive to one another. The dancers seem to have difficulty communicating between themselves. The musicians seem to be somewhat hesitant, despite their brilliance. The bandleader, played by McCorkle, seems at times upset. One wants to know what is happening. One wants to grasp, so that there is something to take home. The audience is thus placed in a position akin to that of an anthropologist examining a foreign society. But this position is not as transcendentally stable as that of the Western ethnographer (and yes, the recent, ‘participatory’ ones included), since the observers of this game are merely there as resources to provide more cues — and without knowing so. The system(s) will use whatever it needs (whatever that is not ‘it’) to proceed forward, including everybody present. In this way, the spectators are like props that get used and then disposed, or destroyed. This mechanism is ‘theatrically’ — if ironically — foregrounded by the presence of a group of so-called “recursive casts,” led by Neff, who observe and try to intervene in the performance. Their struggles and resulting impotency is a reminder of the place of the so-called “audience” in this erratic opera.
ASMIAD is not a difficult piece to watch, but it is a difficult piece to experience, for not many find solace in being truly alienated. And sure enough, most people who come can endure it only for some time. They stay for a short while and leave, perplexed or upset. The underlying sentiment, probably, is that the piece doesn’t need any audience. The fact that the piece is running for seven consecutive weeks, for six hours every day, whether or not there’s any audience there, only serves to augment this feeling. The creators who call themselves “dictators,” dictate, perhaps out of guilt, that people should read the many writings on the wall, as well as the published libretto containing the conceptual text (used as lyrics when they are sang) and the instructions for the dance. I disagree. That is what the lost audience members do — the only thing they can do — anyway: to seek for something, anything, that they can hold onto, so that they may cast a net of significance over the events taking place in front of them that apparently takes no care about the fact that they are reciprocally in front of the piece. Minimum and facile relief is thus sought, as always, in semantics.
But this work, if anything, isn’t about anything. At best, it serves to forcefully expose the fact that whatever you think it is, is only you thinking, and that the piece thinks more, and more differently, and couldn’t care less about what you think. So the language in this case is a red herring. I personally even wish that all the texts used were in a language I didn’t know. The dancers bring this sentiment to the fore as they struggle to communicate between themselves using some sort of gesture-movement language that I don’t understand, and which they also seem to have a difficult time understanding. So the piece enacts and mirrors within itself the very non-relation to the piece that it builds up with its spectators. That may be seen as the single entry point afforded — a minimum, proto-pedagogical cue, on how to engage. In any case, as with all close encounters of the third kind, any attempt at engagement requires sufficient amount of time, and communication tools need to be invented anew, on the spot. Some of those who stay and watch the whole thing (though, to be accurate, the ‘whole’ in this case entails six hours times four days times seven weeks) may find this disjunctive piece of work sad, others may find it funny. But what they are really holding opinions about is not the piece, but the relationship between themselves and the piece. If you find troubling the fact that the piece doesn’t need you, then you probably don’t need the piece. ASMIAD is like a performance from an unknown civilization. And as such, it brings home the fact that one is, and always has been, an alien. But nobody is sure where and what home is anymore.
Any Size Mirror is a Dictator continues at Momenta Art (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through October 19.
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