Dorota Sosnowska

You Need To Have an Invisible Camera

Angielska wersja artykułu/ English version of :

Trzeba mieć niewidzialną kamerę, „Dialog” 2015 nr 1, s. 92–103.

What does it mean to record a theater performance? The well-known and oft-repeated reservation implying that a recording can never equal the live experience of such a performance becomes somewhat suspicious when heard for the hundredth time. Why would watching a recording be in any way comparable to experiencing a live performance? Why even expect such a relationship between the theater and a recording? What, then, is the essence of that relationship and how should we read a recording in order to fully discover its investigative potential?

The question of the vague status enjoyed by the recording of a performance was already plumbed rather exhaustively in the letters exchanged by Leszek Kolankiewicz and Agata Adamiecka-Sitek, their correspondence published in 2013 by the Didaskalia magazine. The exchange was related to Adamiecka-Sitek’s essay, Grotowski, Women, and Homosexuals. On the Fringes of “Human Drama,”[1] which was an attempt to read Jerzy Grotowski’s Apocalypsis cum figuris from a gender perspective. The debate, however, did not actually revolve around the issue of gender and sexuality in Grotowski’s final play that the Adamiecka-Sitek explored. Neither did it touch upon the rather inflammatory notions about the meaning of particular scenes in the play or the homosexual matrices at play in the deeper structures of Apocalypsis. What sparked the fiercest controversy and polarized positions in the debate was the question of recording performances.

For Kolankiewicz, Olmi’s recording is no good because it doesn’t reflect the sensations he experienced as “a member of the theater audience during a theater performance.” His position is clear: a recording considered poor by people who witnessed the performance cannot be later used as a basis for an interpretation undertaken by scholars who themselves have not seen it. Adamiecka-Sitek, meanwhile, argues that such a position implies seeing recording as something that is supposed to supplant performance itself. If so, then, the author posits, recording should „document theatrical performance,” and claims that Olmi’s picture does precisely that; here, we assume this document to be a written account of actor efforts, stripped of context which would portray the spectacle as an event (Olmi’s film does not depict either the Laboratorium auditorium or the audience itself). Adamiecka-Sitek discusses the dispute between Umberto Eco and Richard Rorty over interpretation and overinterpretation. Siding with Rorty, the author argues that a work of art comes into being only in the moment of its reading, regardless of whether that reading follows its author’s intentions or quite the opposite; whether it concentrates on placing the work in an appropriate historical and social context or quite the opposite. In this particular interpretation, the work of art does not exist on its own and is understood as a collection of stimuli encouraging individual acts of creation. This sentiment, in turn, echoes Kolankiewicz asking about the essential nature of theatrical performance. Is a spectacle ephemeral or can it be reproduced at will just by following a theatrical score? In the end, the debate inevitably proceeds towards one fundamental question—what is the theater at its core?

In my opinion, the opposite positions represented here by Kolankiewicz and Adamiecka-Sitek are a good illustration of how problematic recording can be for contemporary theater scholars. For the most part, those who believe in the “aura” of spectacle and consider experiencing performance “live” as an inherent part of the theater, and those who see themselves as witnesses of the theatrical event (member of the theater audience during a theater performance) usually reject recording in favor of texts or pictures, themselves unambiguous references to things what no longer exists. In such a perspective, theater is subject to an irretrievable vanishing while any and all meditations on performance are inevitably entangled in the discourse of testimony, memory, originals, and copies, thus bringing its own legitimacy into question. Every interpretive attempt can, therefore, be rejected as too detached from the work-slash-phantasm, the latter an amalgamation of memory and archival traces, an ephemeral event that is always past, dead, lost. Assuming the position of witness transforms the scholar into an impossible subject, unsuccessfully reenacting the past that cannot be updated.[2] Such scholars distrust the very medium of theater and see as untrue the notion that theater has its own mechanisms that “record” the spectacle in the memories and bodies of the audience.[3] Mindful of the necessity of documentation, they nevertheless claim that video recording, with its unambiguity and its mimetic proximity to the very theatrical event, is ultimately a source of concern because it can “falsify” the ephemeral spectacle.

On the other hand, even those who put their trust in recording usually make no mention or use of it in their analyses. Even if their texts include the statement that their deliberations are based on a recording, the authors usually situate themselves as spectators of some abstract production, separate from its individual adaptations. Additionally, the authors tend to create an illusion of uniformity between their and other audience members-witnesses’ reception of the play. It is that moment, somewhat contrary to aforementioned declarations, that the spectacle is replace, supplanted by its version captured on film, thus lending legitimacy to questions interrogating its “appropriateness|” and “faithfulness.” This particular approach sees the recording as a faithful account of the spectacle, because in the recording the performance is reduced to its discursive elements, to what can be translated into image and text. Stripped of its “aura,” it loses its performative and corporeal dimensions. By rejecting the discourse of participation, community, unmediated experience, representatives of the latter position tend to reduce theater to pure language. Their assumption that only some abstract form of the work can be subject to analysis raises numerous doubts and yields a number of methodological complications, including what should serve as the basis for such an abstract version? Is a video record version exhaustive enough? Should the video recorded version be considered the foremost, principal version of the spectacle? These seem to mirror the concerns raised by Kolankiewicz: what form did the performance assume as it was recorded? How much time has passed since the premiere? How do the creatives behind the production view recording? The impasse precluding a more profound reflection over the nature of the theater seems to emerge on both sides of the issue.

Is it possible, therefore, to take a different view of the question of recording? To confer a different status upon it, one that would allow us to engage in a different sort of reflection over the nature of the theater? In my opinion, the most interesting diagnoses pertaining to these specific issues can be found, paradoxically, in the statements and writings of Jerzy Grotowski, widely known for his rather negative attitude towards cameras and recording. “Since film and TV excel in the area of mechanical functions (montage, instantaneous change of place, etc.) the Rich Theatre countered with a blatantly compensatory call for ‘total theatre.’ The integration of borrowed mechanisms (movie screens onstage, for example) (…) This is all nonsense,”[4] Grotowski wrote in his famous Towards a Poor Theatre manifesto. Grotowski’s theater emerged and acted in opposition to film and TV alike. Although Grotowski expressly forbade the recording of his plays,[5] the three most famous of his spectacles were nevertheless captured on film. Moreover, as Leszek Kolankiewicz pointed out “Truth and Fabrication,”[6] it was the video recording of The Constant Prince that Grotowski usually brought up when discussing the precision and acting genius of Ryszard Cieślak.

First at a soirée dedicated to Cieślak in Paris, on December 9, 1990, and then four months later, during the acceptance speech for the honorary doctorate he received from the University of Wrocław, Grotowski essentially repeated the same story. A longer quote from the artist: “Somewhere around 1965, we let a radio (in Scandinavia, I think?) capture the sound of our performance on tape, because their techs were able to install hidden microphones and record audio during a run-of-the-mill performance. A couple of years later, in Italy or somewhere else where we took The Constant Prince, an unknown amateur managed to record the entire performance using a camera hidden in a hole in the wall, but the footage lacked audio. And because he did it in secret, we never learned who he was and how he smuggled the camera in. The footage was shot from a camera fixed in one point in space, so actors sometimes accidentally block each other out. The footage eventually reached the University of Rome, where it was decided that the pirated footage would be fitted with the audio track recorded by the radio crew: and this was accomplished long after we finished playing the Prince anywhere. Please note that the video and audio track were captured a couple of years apart, but they nevertheless ‘synced up’ very well and without much trouble.”[7] As he told an abbreviated version of the story in Wrocław, he added: “Think about the acting precision this is testament of!”[8]

Analyzing the two Grotowski speeches, Kolankiewicz ultimately concludes that something doesn’t add up. Given just the cast, it’s clear that the video and audio tracks could have been recorded at most two years and four months apart. Second, Grotowski’s mixing up of the dates seems somewhat suspicious: the Scandinavian tour took place in March of 1966 rather than 1965 (the year that The Constant Prince premiered), while the Italian leg took place in July of 1967, further contracting the recording timeframe to fifteen months maximum. Eventually, however, it turned out that the whole thing neither a mistake nor misremembered. Kolankiewicz soon discovered that the audio track was recorded by the same person who was later responsible for syncing up the video and audio, namely Professor Ferrucio Marotti of the University of Rome, that the footage was also discovered by the same professor in the archives of the Laboratory Theater, that Bruno Chojek managed to find documents in said archive that proved that it was Grotowski himself who commissioned professionals (using, in all probability, two cameras mounted on a special rig) to record his play on 16mm tape, and that mere days separated the recording of the audio and video tracks—all of which seemed to suggest that Grotowski’s anecdotes had nothing to do with reality. Why, then, would Grotowski engage in such deception? Why spin a bizarre story and what is the story actually trying to say?

According to Kolankiewicz, the artist generated for his audience a sensation of being surveilled, concealed, unwanted witnesses and did so in a narrative manner because he did not “grasp the essence of the film medium.” On the other hand, however, the story also reveals the artist’s proclivity for scientific proof. “Grotowski combined passionate pursuit of scientific explanations,” Kolankiewicz wrote, “with an extraordinary capacity, and inclination, for turning everything into a parable. When Grotowski tells a story, he never assumes the position of chronicler, bur rather immediately discards literal meanings in favor of parabole.”[9] Meaning, therefore, is born where narrative diverges from history, archive, and memory.

But what do Grotowski’s parables actually say, assuming for a moment that, contrary to Kolankiewicz’s argument, the artist had quite the grasp of audiovisual media? In two very interesting statements wherein he discussed his own artistic praxis, Grotowski actually calls the movie camera an instruments of the director’s imagination. During his 1984 lecture at the Cabaret Voltaire called The Director as a Professional Spectator, the artist described the congress between the Simpleton and Maria Magdalena in Apocalypsis cum figuris as a scene combining sexual act with hunting imagery, that left the audience rather uncertain as to what they really witnessed. To explain the difficulty of the directorial technique he employed for the scene, Grotowski used working with a movie camera as an example. “When you shoot a documentary about a theatrical performance, the first problem you encounter is proper detail selection. You can show a wide shot of the stage, but then you need to pull closer, either to a two shot or even a close-up of a simple detail, the hand of the actor and a part of his body, acting upon the flesh of another actor, et cetera. This means that the viewer of the documentary has the trajectory of his attention already pre-determined.”[10] Isn’t it somewhat surprising that a director with a rather hostile attitude towards filming and recording theatrical performances on tape should describe directorial techniques using a film documenting a stage performance as an example?

Maybe Grotowski’s manifesto, laying out his idea of the poor theater, can be read more broadly—it emerges in light of and in the context of cameras, film, television, and the possibility of capturing a performance on tape. The camera, the process of editing, and recording itself remain, at least to some extent, near the center of this particular approach to theater—they are a fixed reference point, also from a technical standpoint. Grotowski recapitulates the matter thusly: “If you’re a director working with actors, you need to have an invisible camera, always vigilant, always recording, always channeling the viewers’ attention. In some cases, it works by sleight of hand and distraction, in others the obverse is true—the attention is pulled in and focused.” A passage in Grotowski’s Montage in the Work of a Director puts an even greater emphasis on the matter: “When I worked as a director, I always operated as if working a movie camera.”[11] The notion is further developed by Grotowski in his examination of the recording of his own spectacle. “When we shot documentary footage of the Laboratory Theater’s Akropolis and when I later edited said footage together with the film’s director, I realized that although filmic perception was somewhat limited, it was at the same time very potent. What I mean is that when I see a performance from the audience, I channel my attention where I deem fit; when something happens, I should turn my head to watch it. […] Footage does not offer similar liberty.”

How, then, should we work to record a theatrical performance? The key, just like in the case of theatrical work, seems to lie in editing. “When we began editing the footage of the Akropolis performance, I said to myself: ‘The film spectator cannot trace the trajectory of their attention, the editor must do it for them.’ […] ‘We simply needed to do what I did for the audience while directing a performance.’” Although the credits of the Akropolis documentary don’t identify Grotowski as editor,[12] his apparent knowledge of the terminology, the ins and outs of the editing process, and even a sentiment he seems to harbor towards “somewhat outdated hardware” that allowed the editor to cut and splice film together by hand, indicates that he knew full well what he was talking about.

Not only, therefore, was Akropolis recorded, the footage itself became to Grotowski a sort of laboratory where he probed his own creative work, a way to explore and define his methods. This attitude towards the Akropolis footage is confirmed in What Remains of Me, Grotowski’s interview with Jean-Pierre Thibaudat: “Some may see the rather contradictory periods in my work as scandalous or may misunderstand them, but you are actually right: the trajectory is straight. […] Nowadays, processes related to ancient chants are one of our chief vehicles. But documentary footage from my earlier efforts with the Laboratory Theater, such as Akropolis, clearly shows that these performances were also chanted, at least to some extent. The same goes for The Constant Prince.”[13] From this perspective, Grotowski’s bizarre anecdote about the recording of The Constant Prince reads a little differently.

The decoupling of video and audio recording, further highlighted by the artist’s attempt to increase the temporal separation between the two, ultimately resulted in the need for technical restoration thereof, a process in which Ryszard Cieślak himself took no small part. The footage from The Contant Prince, therefore, isn’t the product of just a single recording attempt, but rather the sum of efforts put into reconstructing the spectacle in a wholly new medium. Maybe, then, Grotowski’s peculiar anecdote is also a means to emphasize the artificial nature of the film, a way to turn it somewhat opaque. Pulls the viewers’ attention to the film itself, rather than the technology that made it possible, the channel mediating the communication between actor and audience. When embedded in such a context, the viewer focuses on the recording (instead of the performance that was recorded) which itself begins to function like a separate work of visual art.

In my opinion, the potential inherent in the recordings of performances staged in Grotowski’s theater was properly, although not exactly consciously, it seems, exploited by the curators of the Perfomer exhibition, held in Warsaw’s Zachęta Gallery. Organized in 2009 as part of  the “Year of Grotowski” celebrations by Magda Kulesza, Hanna Wróblewska, and Jarosław Suchan, the exhibition juxtaposed the documentation of Grotowski’s artistic efforts with the recordings of celebrated acts of performance from the 1960s and 1970s. “The Suspicious Destroyer, the Niche Honcho, and Celebrated Pole are all figures that have to be faced by those inquiring into the nature of Grotowski and the significance that may lay in his work,” we read in the curators’ opening statement.[14] Rejecting the figures of Celebrated Pole and Niche Honcho, the curators later write: “We should rather strive to extricate Grotowski from the niches he was previously embedded into, such as theater or the anthropology of theater, and open his work to the possibility of engaging with what is ‘outside’—like contemporary and performance art.” In Zachęta’s exhibition halls, the documentation of Grotowski’s performances and his work was juxtaposed with the work of Gina Pane, Carolee Shneeman, the Viennese Actionists, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, and Marina Abramović.

The juxtaposition was based on the eponymous title, “performer,” and one quote from Grotowski himself which, repeated time and time again in reviews of and interviews about the exhibition, essentially became a catchy slogan: “The Performer, with a capital P, is a man of action, rather than a man playing another man. He is a dancer, a priest, a warrior; he is beyond the facile divisions into art genres.” Like chapters in a book, exhibition hall after exhibition hall led the visitors through terms and concepts Grotowski considered essential, including total act, the organic line, and training, and confronted the documentation of the artist’s efforts at the Laboratory Theater with recordings of other performance acts. The exhibition culminated with Art as Vehicle screened three times a day. The rarely shown film documents Action Below, a summary of Grotowski’s collaborations with Thomas Richardson that the two engaged in during their time in Pontedera. Action was filmed eight times, day after day, using two static cameras. Minimal interventions during editing, highly staged screening conditions (darkened auditorium, a ban on late arrivals, extensive commentary for the film), and an atmosphere of unavailability and transgression created a very unique, even disturbing context for the entire exhibition. If traversing the exhibitions halls evoked tentative doubts in the attendees as to the meanings of the word “Performer” in both Grotowski’s own praxis and performance art itself, then in that final hall the doubts congealed into undeniability.

After all, how does the screening square up with, for example, the work of Bruce Nauman? Right after entering the exhibition, the attendees were faced with a screening of Bruce Nauman’s Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square which featured Nauman, clad in black and barefoot, standing at the edge of a square marked with white tape. First he shot out his left foot, then retracted it, them moved the right, only to pull it back, too. He repeated the motion, seemingly endlessly, on all four edges. The performance had no overarching narrative, no climax, no ulterior trajectory. The mechanical, repetitive motion is a climax unto itself, revealing the flesh in all its materiality—stripped of meanings and devoid of functions. Moreover, as many reviews emphasized, Nauman’s piece seemed to rupture the structure the exhibition also because it was never performed in public. It was recorded in his workshop, with only the video camera in attendance. This, in turn, makes it impossible to discuss Nauman’s performance in the context of notions such as event, a community of spectators, or experience. The performance was witnessed only by the coldly analytical eye of the camera. Such an approach allowed the artist to deconstruct the very idea of performance art, transforming the resulting footage from documentation to the very purpose of the entire effort. The two highlighted elements of the exhibition clearly clashed with another, the conflict revealing a rift, a rupture running throughout the entire showcase. Although the documentation of Grotowski’s performances and other efforts seemed to gel and correspond quite well with themes including sacrifice, training, and experimenting with the limits of one’s body, in reality the dialogue between the two spheres was essentially nonexistent. It was as if the artists spoke different languages.

But even this most criticized juxtaposition between the documentation of Grotowski’s efforts and Bruce Nauman’s performance art reveals a shared similarity in terms of camera use. In footage from Akropolis and The Constant Prince, we see the camera serve as an instrument of self-analysis, a probe revealing what Grotowski’s directorial eye could not pick up on its own. Additionally, as Leszek Kolankiewicz brings up, Grotowski engaged in a similar effort during his work on the Action. The picture pasted together from eight different feeds was edited together with an audio track that was recorded just one time. It was, once again, a way to double-check the degree of precision, to measure the degree of fixation on action, to gain insight into one’s own praxis and simultaneously gain enough detachment to allow dispassionate interpretation. Like in auman’s case, the recordings of Grotowski’s efforts are themselves an experiment, a laboratory. A record of an impossible gaze, insight into oneself that simultaneously yields an analysis of one’s own gaze. Such a diagnosis, in turn, opens up novel avenues of interpretation.

If we were to discuss Olmi’s film from that particular perspective, we would quickly realize that the very background of the recording, the plans to have the performance filmed by Andrzej Wajda or Jerzy Wójcik, the negotiations, the letters, and the conversations all push the film towards this self-referential, self-analytical, experimental frame. Likewise, the story behind the editing of the Akropolis footage and the ruse surrounding the recording of The Constant Prince all seem to indicate the significance that Grotowski ascribed to the issue of documentation. These documents, however, do not work to preserve the spectacle—neither as experience nor as score outlining the particular sequence of steps it entails. They become, instead, constituent elements of an artistic process, an autonomous act of performance that reenacts the spectacle—or our own vision of the spectacle—in a new medium.

Here, we might as well return to the question that Kolankiewicz has asked Agata Adamiecka-Sitek: “Yes, but what is the most basic, fundamental work of theater to you? A single spectacle? Maybe the infamous imaginary opus, coming into existence only, as claimed by the patron of your institution, when there is an audience to witness it? Or maybe it is its theatrical score, timeless and separate from the very act of participation, that can be used to reenact performance wherever, whenever, and however one likes?”[15] On the one hand, the answer seems fairly simple. If we, however, consider Rebecca Schneider’s diagnoses from her book Performing Remains, then it turns out that the ephemerality of spectacle, its fleetingness and impermanence are a myth. “If we consider performance[16] as of disappearance, of an ephemerality read as vanishment and loss, are we perhaps limiting ourselves to an understanding of performance predetermined by our cultural habituation to the logic of the archive? According to the logic of the archive, what is given to the archive is that which is recognized as constituting a remain, that which can have been documented or has become document. To the degree that performance is not its own document (as Schechner, Blau, and Phelan have argued), it is, constitutively, that which does not remain. As the logic goes, performance is so radically ‘in time’ (with time considered linear) that it cannot reside in its material traces and therefore ‘disappears.’”[17] Rebecca Schneider demonstrates that it is possible to understand performance art, and thus theater, in a different way. “Arguably, this sense of performance is imbricated in Phelan’s phrasing—that performance ‘becomes itself through’ disappearance. This phrasing is arguably different from an ontological claim of being (despite Phelan’s stated drive to ontology), even different from an ontology of being under erasure. This phrasing rather invites us to think of performance as a medium in which disappearance negotiates, perhaps becomes, materiality. That is, disappearance is passed through. As is materiality.”

If we adopt such a definition of theater, if we see the ephemerality of spectacle as a construct stemming from the logic of the archive, then it becomes fairly easy to conclude that the context of the recording is what facilitates seeing performance as fleeting. Because otherwise what ephemerality can there be in a performance repeated night after night in unchanged shape? Performance becomes ephemeral only in the face of the possibility of capture. In this sense, recording becomes an inalienable—even if purely potential—element of contemporary theater. A part of the event itself. Maybe this was the meaning behind Grotowski’s words about the invisible camera that should accompany every ephemeral theatrical event.

But what if we perceived recording as a “ricochet”[18] of the performance? Like off the (bodily) memory of the audience, off the flesh of the actors, off conversations, documents, attempts at recording and description, legends and anecdotes transmitted between generations, off individual memories and collective affects—the spectacle, constantly moving between the past, the present, the future “ricochets” off the recording. It is neither an attempt to replace the event itself, nor is it its documentation (as indicated by Grotowski’s anecdote, where capturing the audio and video tracks of the spectacle is split between two performances, separated by quite some time); it is neither extrinsic to the theater, nor necessary for its survival and preservation. The theater, the site of endless repetition, remembrance, reconstruction and reenactment, finds simply another echo of itself in recording, another way to never preserve the spectacle.

[1] Agata Adamiecka-Sitek, “Grotowski, Women, and Homosexuals. On the Fringes of ‘Human Drama,’” Didaskalia 112 (2013).

[2] See: Paweł Mościcki, “Paradoks o świadku,” Teksty Drugie 4 (2012).

[3] See: Rebecca Schneider, “Archives. Performance Remains,” Performance Research 6 (2001): 100-108

[4] Jerzy Grotowski, “Towards a Poor Theatre” in Jerzy Grotowski Towards a Poor Theatre, ed. Eugenio Barba (New York: Routledge, 2002), 19.

[5] See: Jerzy Grotowski, “Przemówienie doktora honoris causa Jerzego Grotowskiego” in Teksty Zebrane, ed. Agata Adamiecka-Sitek, Mario Biagoni, Dariusz Kosiński, Carla Pollastrelli, et al. (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Instytut Teatralny, 2013), 249.

[6] Leszek Kolankiewicz, “Prawda i zmyślenie” in Grotowski – narracje, ed. Leszek Kolankiewicz (Warszawa-Wrocław: Instytut im. Grotowskiego, 2013).

[7] Jerzy Grotowski, “Książę Niezłomny Ryszarda Cieślaka” in Teksty Zebrane, 855-856.

[8] Grotowski, “Przemówienie doktora,” 864.

[9] Kolankiewicz, “Prawda i zmyślenie.”

[10] Jerzy Grotowski, “Reżyser jako widz zawodowy” in Teksty zebrane, 778 and 779 for subsequent passages.

[11] Jerzy Grotowski, “Montaż w pracy reżysera” in Teksty zebrane, 825 and 824 for subsequent passages.

[12] see: Kolankiewicz, “Prawda i zmyślenie.”

[13] Jerzy Grotowski, Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, “To, co po mnie zostanie” in Grotowski, Teksty zebrane, 904.

[14] Magda Kulesza, Hanna Wróblewska, Jarosław Suchan, “Performer” in Performer (Warszawa: Zachęta, Instytut Teatralny, 2009), 8; subsequent passages—ibidem.

[15] Adamiecka-Sitek, Kolankiewicz, Korespondencja.

[16] It needs to be emphasized that Schneider does not distinguish between performance art and theater, and her examples smoothly pass between plays, renowned artistic efforts, and cultural performances.

[17] Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011), 98; 105 for subsequent passage.

[18] A term used by Rebecca Schneider in her lecture Performance and Documentation. Acting in Ruins and the Question of Duration delivered at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw on April 25, 2014.