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Metascenography

On the Metareferential Turn in Scenography


Pamela C. Scorzin*
This contribution discusses the design practice metascenography by way of an
exemplary case study: Janet Cardiff and George Bures Millers interactive and
immersive mixed-media installation The Paradise Institute (2001). My aim is to
determine, analyze and characterize inherent metareferential elements, strategies
and potentials that may help to explain and evaluate the metareferential turn in
contemporary visual culture. Contemporary metascenography testifies to a remarkable new role of the audience as active, complicit participants and so-called
prosumers (a blending of consumers and producers), who contribute to the
completion of performances as open art works, particularly if the latter present
themselves as multi- or at least double-coded metareferential pieces. In this context metareference can be understood as a significant symptom and an essential
part of the general appreciation and celebration of the recipients creativity; moreover, it bespeaks the concept of shared, or multiple authorship in contemporary
culture. The nature of metareferentiality in regard to the scenography under discussion is thus an index of an attitude that fosters democracy and emancipation
within the traditionally hierarchical relationship between author, work and audience.

1. Scenography and metascenography


Scenography has recently become an umbrella term for multi-media
artistic and design practices predominately concerned with matters of
staging, orchestrating, dramatizing and enacting. However, as a phenomenon which goes beyond merely creating scenery it is much more
widespread in our culture. Scenography conceptually considers structures and settings, lights and projections, sound and props as well as
costumes in relation to space, scripts and texts, acting or performing
bodies and the audience. Contemporary scenography can thus be seen
as a highly interdisciplinary, transgeneric, intermedial, crossmodal and
*

My heartfelt thanks go to Werner Wolf, Katharina Bantleon, Henry Keazor, Heiner Wilharm, Ralf Bohn and Ernest Wolf Gazo for their critical discussions and helpful suggestions.

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polysensual approach to creating stages and events. All of this shows


that scenography is an all-encompassing visual-spatial and temporal
construct and hence a particularly topical phenomenon.
Unfortunately, a clear definition of scenography is still wanting,
although over the past few years developments and practices of scenography in art, theatre, film, design, media and everyday culture have
received increased academic attention1. Until recently the term scenography was loosely applied to theatrical staging, museography (the
art of designing museum and gallery exhibitions), and film-set design.
Of late, first attempts at clearly defining the term have aimed to describe and contextualize scenography with reference to a novel, updated practice of Gesamtkunstwerk (see Wagner 18491850/1993). At
the beginning of this century the English director and writer Pamela
Howard tried to give a thorough assessment of the scenographic phenomenon (see 2002/2009). However, in tackling the question of what
scenography actually is, Howard only investigates the parameters of
visual and spatial creations in theatre and performance, while scenography cannot be exclusively limited to theatre and the stage. Nevertheless, in her discussion Howard provides a perfect template for an
exemplary scenic artist and designer, someone who assists in the
seamless synthesis of space, text, research, art, actors, directors and
spectators that contributes to an original creation (ibid.: 130). Her
explanation of what makes a scenographer even indicates a need for
meta-competences and authority which he/she ought to contribute to
this holistic field of contemporary design practice and creative disciplines. The result is a thought-provoking re-evaluation of the traditional role, function and methods of theatre, exhibition and stage design.
Until recently, research in scenography lacked focus and depended
too strongly on individual academic disciplines and fields of research.
However, present-day descriptions, analyses and interpretations evince
that scenographic developments from the Baroque Age to the 21st century show a tendency to converge towards common practices. Most
1

See for example Aronson 2005, Oddey/White 2006, Bohn/Wilharm, eds. 2009,
Howard 2002/2009, Flscher 2009, McKinney/Butterworth, eds. 2009, Brejzek/Mueller von der Hagen/Wallen 2009, Rewa 2009, Collins/Nisbet, eds. 2010 and Klanten/
Feireiss/Ehmann, eds. 2010. The term scenology was introduced by Heiner Wilharm
to differentiate the historical, theoretical and methodological approaches as well as the
emerging academic discipline from the actual practice of (meta-)scenography (see
2008: online).

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contemporary literature on scenography strongly underlines characteristics such as the intermediate cross-modality and hybridization of
different forms and materials which outline scenographys transdisciplinary, transmedial and transgeneric character. In scenography as in
the formative tradition of installation art different (new) media and
practices blend, interact and synthesize rather than being brought into
mere opposition to, or competition or rivalry with, one another. In this
state of intense dialogue, exchange and hybridization as well as digitalization, the performance in question can also generate a particular
awareness of the characteristics of the media involved, and the latter
are thus prone to comment on their own as well as on each others
medial conditions as autonomous medial sub-systems in an illuminating way.
As a consequence, contemporary scenography acquires a characteristic feature of inherent metaization which aligns it with the metareferential turn discussed in the present volume. Indeed todays scenography generally shows a marked tendency toward self-reflection, for
example by creating and breaking dramatic illusion, and it increasingly displays an awareness of stage representation as a process rather
than a static work.
Scenography of this kind, which in addition shows a strong inclination toward mega-size, can be regarded as an excellent example of the
multi-faceted practice of the post-medium age sensu American critic
Rosalind E. Krauss. In her famous text A Voyage on the North Sea:
Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (1999), Krauss expands
Clement Greenbergs canonical description of the modernist desire for
pure art forms in order to encompass the forms, methods and issues
of art today, the art of the post-medium age. Krauss argues that, while
this drive for purity of art forms still exists at the turn of 21st century,
the art forms themselves, as well as the new media technologies, have
evolved in such an accelerated way that the search for purity can no
longer follow the same tenets. The mashup rules! As a matter of fact,
mashup in its modern sense of a recent media phenomenon, a resampling of previously existing medial or artistic material, can currently
be considered the most popular source of metaization in contemporary
culture; consider, for instance, a digital media file containing text and/
or graphic, audio or video elements as well as animations, thus recombining, recoding, restructuring and modifying pre-existing digital material in order to create a derivative and hybrid new work.

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Within the past few years the term scenography has also come to
refer to a newly emerging academic discipline which focuses on more
recent innovations in staging practices, among which metareferential
reflections on staging practices and activities themselves are a characteristic feature. Wherever scenographic description focuses on such
metareferential phenomena it transforms itself into metascenography, and in an analogous sense, the same term may also refer to the
corresponding object of description: a scenography that attains metastatus. In both cases the audience plays a decisive role. Metascenography may thus be regarded as an inherent, audience-based and usergenerated part of scenography. The term metascenography, used to
designate the aforementioned scenographic principles (cf. Scorzin
2009a: 301314), has not yet become an established term. However, it
appears to be highly relevant, since metascenography reflects, demonstrates and clarifies what scenography actually is, how it works and
functions, and where it is located and can be encountered in our
culture. Metascenography can be recognized and explicitly realized in
mise en abyme compositions, such as the act of staging a stage. A
conspicuous example of metascenography will be discussed at some
length in the following.
2. Metareference in the scenography of The Paradise Institute
In embarking on a detailed discussion of a specific example of metascenography, I would like to underline the innovative contemporary
nature of 20th- and 21st-century media landscapes with their notorious
discursiveness, the strongly theory-oriented disposition of contemporary art and its specific design practices. Before this backdrop, the
question of what metascenography actually means requires some
further elaboration. This also holds true for the question of how it generally relates to the metareferential turn, in particular when considering the developments and characteristics of the post-medial condition.
As a form of metareference, metascenography is in accordance with
Werner Wolfs definition of the concept at large:
a special, transmedial form of usually non-accidental self-reference produced by
signs or sign configurations which are (felt to be) located on a logically higher
level, a metalevel, within an artefact or performance; this self-reference, which
can extend from this artefact to the entire system of the media, forms or implies a
statement about an object-level, namely on (aspects of) the medium/system referred to. Where metareference is properly understood, an at least minimal corre-

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sponding meta-awareness is elicited in the recipient, who thus becomes conscious of both the medial (or fictional in the sense of artificial and, sometimes in
addition, invented) status of the work under discussion and the fact that mediarelated phenomena are at issue, rather than (hetero-)references to the world outside the media. (2009: 31)

This definition presents itself as a favorable starting point to describe


and reflect more deeply on an exemplary metascenographic work of
contemporary installation art2: The Paradise Institute (2001), by Canadian artist-couple Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller. This complex,
much-discussed and award-winning work is a mixed-media installation sporting the impressive dimensions of 5.1x11x3 metres and a running time of 13 minutes (see Illustrations 1 and 2).
In The Paradise Institute3, originally produced for the Canadian
Pavilion at the 49th Venice Biennial in 2001, Janet Cardiff (*1957) and
George Bures Miller (*1960) focus on the aesthetics, rhetoric and experience of cinema by means of a mise en abyme; that is, by staging a
cinema. First, viewers approach a simple plywood box within the exhibition space; then, after climbing a set of small stairs, they enter a
lush, dimly lit interior, complete with red carpet and two rows of velvet-covered seats. Once seated, the audience peers over a wooden balcony onto a miniature replica of a grand old movie theatre created with
spectacular hyper-perspective. This is only the first in a series of refined
illusions orchestrated by Cardiff & Miller. Subsequently viewers are
asked to switch off their mobile phones and to put on the headphones
provided, so that the projection which encompasses at least two different levels or layers can begin: on the first level the film features
its visual as well as its auditive dimension, while one level above we
are also faced with the (bin-)aural presence of a supposed, yet invisible audience. The projected film is in itself an inherently metareferential blend of filmic genres: it is part film noir, part thriller, part sci-fi,
2

Similarly good examples for the discussion and exploration of metareferential potentials, motivations and functions in scenography are to be found
in recent media art works and installations such as Teresa Hubbard and
Alexander Birchlers Grand Paris Texas (2008), Francesco Vezzolis Trailer
for a Remake of Gore Vidals Caligula (2006), Democracy (2007) and Greed
(2008), or Thats Opera 200 Years of Italian Music (2008/2009) by German exhibition scenographer Uwe R. Brckner, Atelier Brckner/Stuttgart.
3
See www.cardiffmiller.com as well as Cardiff/Miller 2001. For a more
detailed, art-historical discussion see Scorzin 2007, 2009a and 2009b.

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part love story, part murder mystery, and part experimental film with
delicate allusions to film directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni and David Lynch. These references to film makers
greatly admired by the Canadian artists are built-in devices that can be
seen as a subtle homage to icons of the filmic medium. Hereby a given
new work is metareferentially inscribed into an acclaimed, esteemed
and eminent media tradition (see Schwanecke in this vol.).

Illustration 1: Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller. The Paradise Institute (2001), exterior. Mixed-media installation. Running time: 13 minutes. Courtesy of the artists, Galerie Barbara Weiss/Berlin and Luhring Augustine Gallery/New York City.

However, what is more striking and particular about this scenographic


mixed-media installation in view of its metareferential potentials and
essentials is the binaural surround sound that every individual in the
audience perceives and experiences via the headphones. The pieces
audio track transmits highly disconcerting invasions and irritating intrusions which seemingly come from both inside and outside the miniature film theatre; intrusions by which the sense of isolation, as each
member of the audience will feel, is broken. Fiction and reality become intermingled as absorption in the movie is suspended and other
realities constantly flow in. The cinematic illusion is thus repeatedly
established and immediately broken again while the projection lasts. A
cell phone apparently belonging to a member of the audience suddenly
rings, for instance, so that the protagonist on the seemingly distant
screen awakes from a feverish sleep in his hospital bed, peering with a
weary, yet alerted and curious eye directly into the audience space.
Then a female friend whispers intimately into ones ear: Did you

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check the stove before we left?, whilst the audience is watching a


house suddenly go up in flames. Thus, the visual imagery and the nonlinear script of The Paradise Institute are essentially enriched by the
binaural sound parts of the work, integral elements of this scenographic mixed-media installation which produce some irritating and astonishing effects of metalepsis4. As in other cases the paradoxical impossibility of metaleptic transgressions here, too, seems to lay bare
the fictionality of the work in which they occur and thus implies a
meta-statement on its medial nature as an artefact (W. Wolf 2009:
50; cf. also W. Wolf 1993: ch. 3.5.4 and see Klimek 2009).

Illustration 2: Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller. The Paradise Institute (2001), interior. Mixed-media installation. Running time: 13 minutes. Courtesy of the artists, Galerie Barbara Weiss/Berlin and Luhring Augustine Gallery/New York City.

Towards the end of the film, the mysterious Paradise Institute resembles a fast paced movie trailer, evolving and developing in full ex4

For a recent discussion of metalepsis as an implicitly metareferential device in


various works of art and media see W. Wolf 2005.

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panse in order to captivate the fantasy and imagination of the viewers.


As a result of this and other devices it can be argued that each individual audience member in this elaborated artificial space of strategic
screening consumes, and at the same time creates, a movie. In fact, it
can generally be said that the audiences of metareferential works are
at the very frontline when it comes to collaborating with the authors in
the perception and cognitive realization of their respective works. Indeed, they play an important role, which can be described as the role
of prosumers, a term recently employed by Austrian media theorist
and curator Peter Weibel (see 2009)5 with reference to the general acknowledgement, increased activation and emancipation of the creativity of the consumer and recipient in the 20th century. Prosumeroriented works are defined by addressing all our senses and thus slowly
transforming passive spectators into immersed but highly activated
participants. They thus become performers of their own roles in this
holistic play, while becoming increasingly physically as well as psychologically involved as a consequence of a tricky play of illusions,
sensations and emotions which unfold in space and time.
The non-linear montage/hybrid blending of cinematic story-telling
and the elaborate fusion of diverse film genres and stereotypes in The
Paradise Institute have been sound-tracked by an associative collage
of related sounds, noises and voices. Yet, the acoustic dimensions of
the striking filmic soundtrack, of the illusionistic cinema space, with
its prerecorded virtual and real-life soundscape as well as the real physical space of the audiences, are enmeshed and merged into a confusing
and highly disconcerting state of non-differentiation by weaving, overlayering and synchronizing; moreover, there is a juxtaposition of elements interlocking and hooking onto each other, so that multiple binds,
wipeouts and blackouts, instability and uncertainty arise in what the audience actually perceives, experiences and realizes in the condensed,
scripted space and time of the installation piece. Thus, the scenographic engineering of the art work itself already contains, combines, discusses, displays, and demonstrates thoughts, or anticipates a multitude
of remembrances, ideas, reflections, associations, connotations and
combinations that might be triggered while being perceived and experienced by the audience.

The term was originally coined by Alvin Toffler in his 1980 publication The Third
Wave.

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Out of this, one more important question arises, namely: Where


does reality end, and where does fiction start? What happens when opposite and extreme levels, ontologically and logically differentiated dimensions appear simultaneously and intentionally interwoven in subtly
synchronized staging as in The Paradise Institute? And what happens
when narration and fiction expand and metaleptically blend into reality and not vice versa, when the fabricated media reality spreads to,
and leaps into, the seemingly real, albeit still artificial art space of the
audience, moving and destabilizing their minds, blurring and unmarking the sound differences between what is real and what is fiction? Is
the result a real virtual reality which is more powerful and much
more emotionally effective than other mediated realities such as, for
instance, cyber worlds? One may be inclined to say so; at any rate,
staging a multi-media installation in this virtuoso scenographic mixedmedia way clearly alludes to modern Western cultures current, as well
as long-time concerns with the problem of reality, or rather the binary
opposition of reality vs. fiction.
What looks almost like popular science fiction, mixed and/or augmented realities, recently developed by the German Fraunhofer Institutes, cannot achieve the effects that we see in Cardiff and Millers
work, produced by means of elaborated 3D surround sound and the
seemingly low-tech quality of their crude plywood installation piece
within an ordinary exhibition design. Despite the (self-)reflexive way
in which their real virtual reality-construction develops its themes
and guides us into the issues of our present time, drawing on ancient
questions of Western philosophy, the artist-couple may have even borrowed directly from a popular movie of our days for their own filmlike installation. It is the Wachowski Brothers The Matrix (1999; see
C. Wolf 2002) with its guiding questions: What is reality? What happens to our perception and experience, when the fictional transforms
itself into the real and reality suddenly appears to be fictional; when
the physically absent becomes psychologically present and powerfully
effective on the real by influencing and affecting it? In questioning the
binary opposition of fiction vs. reality Cardiff and Millers scenographic art installation mirrors current concerns with the notion of reality which is at present especially popular owing to new telematic
media technologies and the Internet. The condensed space of the mixed
reality of its scenographic invention and interactive creation appeals to
all the senses of the human body and becomes an intensely experienced reality.

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If one takes the metareferential message of The Paradise Institute


seriously, the border between the imaginary and the actual becomes
blurred: The real and the medial as well as the fictional and the imaginary fuse into one complex fabric of a performative event and become the emblem of an age of a new pervasive experience economy.
At the centre of this multi-dimensional action of tricks is the sensitive
and attentive recipient as an active participant. It is he or she who in
the end becomes conscious of the metascenographic elements and
qualities of the work, where the arts exhibited and displayed fuse with
the arts being performed, where ontologically different realities and
levels converge. The complicit participant is hereby enabled to individually experience, enjoy and reflect on metareference thus, in the
case of The Paradise Institute we could even speak of applied metascenography. Therefore, the metareference within The Paradise Institute is indeed not merely a sign (system) or message encoded in a
given media amalgam, but actually anticipates and integrates an activated, informed participant who is willing as well as sensitive and
competent enough to engage in a collaborative creative process. Metareference in The Paradise Institute can thus fulfill a number of functions: Metaization might, for example, bestow pleasure and (intellectual) prestige on its communities as suggested by de Villiers, Fuchs
and Keazor in this volume. Metareference might, moreover, be regarded as a built-in Distinktionsmerkmal (sign of differentiation and
aloofness) of a specific class or group. The work of art, in the age of
the metareferential turn, can indeed be considered an exclusive work
offering a special bonus that addresses and targets particular ingroups, the cognoscenti and other communities of shared values in
experience societies. It thus mobilizes the completion and the fulfillment of the open art work in a clearly more active way than traditional, non-metareferential art works. Metaization of the metascenographic kind featured in The Paradise Insitute may even be regarded as
an index as well as promotion of more democratic and emancipatory
attitudes underlying contemporary art and media, since it favours an
audience that is knowledgeable, appreciates and understands the strategies and rules, nuances and potentialities of the work at hand.

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3. Metareference in societies of the experience economy


In summing up some of the crucial aspects and essential elements of
metareference in Cardiff and Millers scenographic Paradise Institute,
metareference can on the one hand be said to be essential in terms of
factual content; on the other hand, it can also be considered a mere
side-product of the perception and experience, as well as the cognitive collaboration, imaginative power and shared creativity of an immersed audience. Immersion, activation and participation here enhance the recipients self-awareness as he/she is actively involved in
the situation as well the relief of the performed events and happenings.
In supporting the cognitive capabilities and collaborative creativity of
the recipients, the members of the audience need to become complicit
participants and even active performers to a considerably higher degree than in the reception of the traditional arts. Scenography always
works to a large extent on the sensual and emotional levels as well,
rather than emphasizing rational and intellectual levels. Therefore, it
addresses our entire being, the mind as well as the body with all its
senses.
By emancipating the recipient scenography has contributed to the
emergence of the prosumer in our culture since the mid-20th century.
The prosumer is the result of a long process of emancipation from
passive recipient to a more active participant, a process which culminates in the idea of the collective, shared, or multiple authorships of
our days. This also touches upon a central aspect and interesting facet
of metareference in general: considering metareference as an effect of
the interaction between work and recipient, we will have to ask what
competence or literacy collaborative participants need in order to actualise the metareferential potential in a given work. In that sense metareference has to be considered an effect triggered by a more or less
significant in-group indulgence, and at the same time as an index of a
higher and exclusive level of interpretation that bespeaks considerable
connoisseurship and media savvy (cf. Caldwell 2008: 357). However, even if one remains unaware of a works metareferential dimension, one will still be able to enjoy it on a different level of meaning
and understanding, as metareferentiality always emerges from essentially multiple, or at least, double-coded works. Providing multiple
modes of being read, a metareferential work will thus frequently appeal to different people on various levels of meaning and experience.
Moreover, metareference stands for a new form of formalism. Be-

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speaking a crisis and even an end of a certain notion of what art is or


should be, it can be regarded as a highly self-reflexive, narcissistic,
even complacent mannerism of an autonomous system such as high
modern art that exclusively addresses the happy few of a sophisticated elite. Indeed, metareference in many of the arts and media
definitely counts on informed, alerted and well-educated recipients or
even aficionados (cf. Butler 2009: 313). In connection with this,
metaization can also be regarded as a symptom of the increased historical and cultural literacy of our age; as indicating an evolutionary
increase in autonomy of individual systems in modern Western
society. The metareferential devices in contemporary artworks such as
The Paradise Institute can thus be seen either as an intensified
affirmation, appreciation or homage, as well as acknowledgement and
celebration, or as a sheer critique and artistic exaggeration, ironic
parody and disillusioning revelation of its own methods, mechanisms,
tactics and strategies. In addition, artworks of this kind reflect their
explicit potentials and implicit impact as exemplary media-based total
works of art. Their aim is to explore, to discuss and to communicate,
to illuminate, even to exploit and elicit their respective scenographic
techniques, tactics and totalities, as well as its means, motivations,
mechanisms, conditions, even limits and functions.
The implications and consequences are as follows: elaborated
metareferential devices such as the ones discussed above (in particular
the metaleptic transgressions, anomalies and paradoxes) generate illusionistic as well as anti-illusionistic effects. The anti-illusionism does
not only trigger a cognitive process and (self-)reflection of a performance involving mixed-media components, but also a general media
and scenographic awareness. We become aware of a new reality processed by new media technologies of the digital age. As the metascenography of the Paradise Institute suggests, the new media technologies are increasingly perceived and experienced as actual reality
dovetailing with current expectations within our culture, which testifies to a remarkable contemporary paradigm shift. Self-reflexivity and
self-consciousness, as crucial parts of metareference in a work of art,
do not intend to relaunch the old illusion/fiction/simulation vs. reality/
medium/artifact-conflict in Western culture alone. Todays metareference, with its inherent explicit discursiveness, instead represents a more
general kind of applied Erkenntniskritik (critique of cognition; see
Peper 2002).

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The American critic, writer and media theorist Norman M. Klein


calls the concept of a condensed, multi-sensorial and cross-modal
space of intense experience such as the one Cardiff & Miller provide a
refined scripted space (see 2004). It is in fact a small Gesamtkunstwerk with technically elaborated binaural sound effects and a high
potential for immersion, a work that insidiously hides its powerful
authority/authorship, the powerful regime of its aesthetics and its manipulative capacity, its totality, or with Michel Foucault, its governmentality (see 19771979/2004), behind those transgressing binaural
and astonishing visual special effects. In order to enjoy the performance and screening of the Canadian artists, the recipient-participants
have to subject their wills and minds voluntarily to the tricky direction
of the authors/artists/designers etc. and the holistic scenographic concept of the installed work. Yet, this deep immersion into staged illusions and enacted emotions is, at the same time, broken by several
anti-illusionistic elements such as the aforementioned display of
headphones, the estranging experience of the defamiliarizing dissection of bodies and voices, or the unconcealed miniature plywood model. The result is constant oscillation between absorption into the fiction
and reflection on its artificial nature as a designed effect of setting,
staging and enacting.
In comparison to non-metareferential mixed-media installations,
the play with illusions and emotions remains rather ambivalent and
ambiguous with Cardiff & Miller. As a counterbalance to immersion,
the complicit participants are also distanced by metareferential devices
so that they are not deceived, patronized or cheated by the media artists The Paradise Institute is not at all about magic on stage, but it is
still mesmerizing! However, while the recipients become increasingly
integrated into the work as performing participants, the work itself is
increasingly drained of fictional content such as, for instance, classical
(filmic) narration which recedes in importance or even becomes arbitrary throughout the reception process. Essentially being about storytelling and (filmic) narration the piece deals with the dissolution of
one story into many stories. It thus presents a number of refined and
sophisticated scenographic devices, in particular an elaborated artificial fabric, a deliberate collage and montage of cited and recalled
components, well-known elements and stereotypical fragments from
the great archives of our matured modern culture. Irritatingly, disconcerting and stirring moments in the metascenographic work are designed not solely to produce a higher degree of attention and sen-

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sitiveness within the recipients, but also to stimulate individual and


personal creative interpretations, new cognitive comprehensions, and
subjective understandings of the viewed film, and are thus meant to
process novel figurations and creative (re-)combinations of meanings.
Fantasy, imagination and sympathy are highly involved in this enhanced kind of perception and reception process.
Self-consciously and self-confidently, Cardiff & Millers metascenographic installation ultimately demonstrates that the task of contemporary scenographers is to provide instructions for actions, to arrange,
form, provide and administrate cross-modal events, to design memorable experiences in the art world and the real world, or rather to transgress this presumed ontological difference through their scenographic
workings. Beyond its own specific characteristics, metascenography
then extends and refers to the entire discipline and the entire system of
staging and enacting in contemporary Western culture.
4. Concluding remarks: metascenography in the context of
the metareferential turn in contemporary culture
In search of answers concerning the general phenomenon of a metareferential turn, to which the relatively new phenomenon of metascenography as discussed in this essay has contributed, I would like to
offer without any claim to exhaustiveness some explanations and
interpretations from a scenographic point of view:
A. The metareferential turn may, for a start, be linked to the frequently
diagnosed end-time crisis in Western culture. This crisis may be
seen to manifest itself, for example, in a supposed end of the history of art in general (see Belting 1983/1987) as well as in a loss of
confidence in the grand master narratives (see Lyotard 1979);
moreover, the proclaimed end of art and aesthetics may also be invoked, as well as a general crisis of representation in the contemporary arts (see Danto 1997), when everything in the tradition of
the arts and media seems to have already been said, done, and
shown. What remains as a result of this crisis is the hegemony of
the grand archives of a modern culture coming of age. Signalling a
stage of stagnation and/or exhaustion in the process of a universal

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historization6, metaization seems to steer on a path to mere eclecticism, new formalisms, and mannerisms.
B. The eliciting of medium-awareness in the process of metaization
can moreover be regarded as an effect of the increasing differentiation, formalization and autonomy of the art system in Western culture (see Luhmann 1995) exploring and exploiting its own medial
nature, functions, qualities and potentials in comparison to other
autonomous (media) systems in modern society, thereby reflecting
its own ontological status and specific external difference to other
systems in modern society. It should be noted that ultimately all
autonomous systems tend to demonstrate and negotiate their external as well as internal differentiations; modern art, for instance,
classificatorily signals and even significantly marks its specific nature and systematically autonomous status as modern art by way of
its specific aesthetics and rhetoric. To the extent that postmodern
art and media are even increasingly considered to be autonomous
this process of differentiation through metaization is accordingly
intensified.
C. Contemporary metaization can, thirdly, be interpreted as a special
side-effect of strongly activating, involving and integrating recipients as active participants, or even as acting and performing prosumers having formed an integral component of a work of art
since around the 1950s (which can, for instance, be observed in the
development and increased production of interactive and immersive mixed-media installations; see The Art of Participation, 1950 to
Now [2008]). So metareference does not only imply the activation
of a certain cognitive frame in the participants mind, but also subtly educates, stimulates and supports his/her personal creativity in
the course of completing and manifesting the modern open work of
art (see Eco 1962/1989). It is therefore a clear marker of a tendency towards more democratic and emancipatory attitudes underlying
contemporary art with active recipients becoming immersants7,
complicit participants, users or prosumers.

In a German-speaking context, the epitome of this is Wissenschaftsgeschichte (history of science), which is in the process of turning into a flourishing academic discipline.
7
The term immersants was originally coined by the new media artist
Char Davis in the 1990s.

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D. The metareferential turn might finally also be seen as a significant symptom and additional side-effect of the current emergence
of a new Global Art and common hyper-culture, that is, it is indicative of a post-historic, post-ethnic and post-medium state which
is characterized by remarkable practices such as the popular mashup. For are we beyond the unification, digitalization and hybridization of all creative genres (see Nth 2009) not increasingly
experiencing new (re-)combinations and syntheses of various contexts such as the recently emerging complex and multi-ambiguous
post-global hyper cultures, instead of the frequently invoked
impact of old cultures? These phenomena clearly depart from
supposedly homogeneous, national monocultures, and seem to
proceed towards a new hybrid Global Art, demonstrating in particular the interconnection and endless migrations of forms and media
across different cultures and borders. Mirroring, and reflecting on,
these tendencies is not least among the reasons that may be invoked to explain the current metareferential turn.
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