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The Language of Visual Theatre: Sign and Context in

Josef Svoboda, Meredith Monk, and Robert Wilson

by

Dean Robert Wilcox

A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment


of the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

University of Washington

1994

Approved by_____________________________________

Program Authorized
to Offer Degree___________________________________

Date___________________________________________

University of Washington
Abstract
The language of Visual Theatre: Sign and Context in
Josef Svoboda, Meredith Monk, and Robert Wilson
by Dean Robert Wilcox
Chairperson of the Supervisory Committee: Professor Sarah Bryant-Bertail
The School of Drama

This work is about ways of seeing. More precisely, it is about different


ways of perceiving the world through the medium of theatre. Seeing theatre is
the distinction between participating in the world as an object in space, and
perceiving something at a distance. I have chosen as the focal point of this
discussion three stage artists whose work is essentially nonverbal. The Czech
scene designer Josef Svoboda, most noted for his work with light and multimedia; Meredith Monk, a choreographer, composer, filmmaker, and stage
director who transcends the boundaries of these individual categories; and
Robert Wilson, the postmodern director extraordinaire. What the work of each of
these three have in common is the creation of a complex theatrical language of
visual expression.
The nucleus of this analysis is the crucial distinction between the way in
which the field of vision is structured and how it relates to the operation of spoken
and written language. This work is not devoted to compiling exhaustive
biographical information, nor a comprehensive overview of the careers of
Svoboda, Monk and Wilson. Rather, it is set up to focus on specific examples
drawn from their practical work to illuminate certain techniques that characterize
a visual stage language. While the use of the term "sign" in the title implies a
semiotic basis, this analysis owes as much to phenomenology, deconstruction,
cognitive psychology, and the exploration of memory as it does to theatre history,
film theory, architecture and art criticism. In short, this investigation draws on
observations and conclusions from a broad spectrum of disciplines to lay the
groundwork for a discussion of visual perception.

Doctoral Dissertation:
In presenting this dissertation in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the
Doctoral degree at the University of Washington, I agree that the Library shall
make its copies freely available for inspection. I further agree that extensive
copying of this dissertation is allowable only for scholarly purposes, consistent
with "fair use" as prescribed in the U.S. Copyright Law. Requests for copying or
reproduction of this dissertation may be referred to University Microfilms, 1490
Eisenhower Place, P.O. Box 975, Ann Arbor, MI 48106, to whom the author has
granted "the right to reproduce and sell (a) copies of the manuscript in microform
and/or (b) printed copies of the manuscript made from microform."

Signature___________________________

Date_______________________________

Acknowledgments:
The many influences on a work of this nature can never be summed up by
the bibliographical information contained in its closing pages. In an attempt to
rectify this I would like to thank the following people for instilling in me the desire
to learn, and encouraging me to use that learning to see the world differently.
Philip Graneto (for being the first teacher to admit that he did not have all the
answers), Michael Kelly, Nathan Carb, Bill Buck (for teaching me the value of the
word "why"), Zakiya Hanafi, and my committee, whose teachings and ideas have
added so much to this work, Michael Quinn, Meredith Clausen, Jack Wolcott, and
Barry Witham. A special thanks to Michou Szabo at The House, Seth Goldstein
at the Byrd Hoffman Foundation, and Helena Albertov at the Theatre Institute in
Prague for opening their extensive archives to me; to Milena Honzkov for
helping me obtain an interview with Josef Svoboda; to Svoboda for
enthusiastically answering all of my questions and providing me with invaluable
research material; and to Jennifer Jones and Bob Black for helping me maintain
my sanity through this whole ordeal. Finally, this study would not have been
possible without the help of Sarah Bryant-Bertail, whose enthusiasm for my work
has been a constant source of encouragement. I am in Sarah's debit not only for
her ever expanding knowledge of theatre history and critical theory, but for her
friendship and her continual efforts to help me discipline my remarkably
ungrammatically inclined mind.

Dedication
This work is dedicated to my closest friend, who also happens to be my
wife, Sherry Lyon. Without her love, support, patience, and artistic insight this
work would not exist. At best, I deserve only half of this degree, for I could not
have completed it without her aid. Sherry, I love you, and promise that this is my
last official act as a professional student.

I talk in pictures not in words.


~ Peter Gabriel

Table of Contents:
Page
List of

iii

Illustrations..........................................................................................
Introduction

......................................................................................................
Chapter One: An Approach to Visual Semiotics .......................................
Spoken and Written Language
............................................................

11
11

Mental and Physical Images


.................................................................
The Art of Memory
...................................................................................
Regulating Learned Modes of Perception
..........................................
The Semiotics of Logocentrism
............................................................
Theatre Semiotics and Mimesis
...........................................................
An Approach to Visual Semiotics
.........................................................

19
27
41
51
76
86

Chapter Two: Josef Svoboda: The Context of Design ............................. 109


The Context of Design
109
............................................................................
Dynamism and the Visual Language of
113
Scenography...................................................................................
The Isolation of Architectural
122
Elements................................................
The Move Toward Multi-Media
133
Images................................................
Kinetic Compositions: Cords, Slats, and
145
Mirrors................................

Light as Form in
Space...........................................................................
Photographs vs Live
Performance........................................................
Signs, Symbols, and
Icons.....................................................................

156
167
168

Chapter Three: Meredith Monk: The Art of Excavation............................. 173


Monk and the Question of
173
Design.........................................................
The Art of
176
Excavation...............................................................................
Music, Space, and
Time.........................................................................
The Sounds of Monk: Moans, Cries, and
Whispers..........................
Archetypal Images and Artificial
Signs................................................
Memory Part One: Objects and
Monuments.......................................
Memory Part Two: The Photographic
Image.......................................
Chapter Four: Robert Wilson: A Theatre of Form and Structure.............
A Theatre of Form and
Structure...........................................................
The Architecture of the Stage
Space...................................................
Alternate Modes of Perception:
The Convergence of Language and
Images............................
Light as an Essential
Element...............................................................
The Actor as Form and Substance Through
Movement...................

188
193
201
206
223
233
233
240

254
269
276

Semiology in Action: The Collusion of Images,


Icons, and
Objects..........................................................................

285

Bibliography.............................................................................................. 299
........
Appendix: Microfilm Illustration
Enlargements............................................
.

319

List of Illustrations:
Figure

Page

1. Good marriage and bad marriage.


Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking, (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1969), 125..................................................................
17
2. Past, present, and future.
Ibid., 122.....................................................................................................
17
3. A model of Short-Term information storage.
Gregory and Elizabeth Loftus, Human Memory, (Hillsdale,
New Jersey: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1976), 50.................................... 33
4. Pattern recognition diagram.
Ibid., 27........................................................................................................
35
5. Marble Lion at the Alupka Palace.
Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form, (New York: Meridian Books
Inc. 1949)....................................................................................................
39
6. Marble Lion at the Alupka Palace.
Ibid...............................................................................................................
39
7. Marble Lion at the Alupka Palace.
Ibid...............................................................................................................
39
8. The Duck/Rabbit.
E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, (Princeton: Princeton
University Press,1960), 5........................................................................
47
9. Dali Atomicus.
Photograph by Philippe Halsman.......................................................... 70

10. Panzani Advertisement.


Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, (New York:
The Noonday Press,1977).......................................................................
73
11. Diagram of second order signifying system.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies, (New York: The Noonday
Press,1972), 115........................................................................................
75
12. Diagram of second order connotative and denotative system.
Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics, (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1983), 27......................................................... 75
13. Cross-Frame Bicycle.
Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, (London:
A Da Capo Paperback, 1979)..................................................................
90
14. Sophie Taeuber-Arp.
Robert Motherwell, The Dada Painters and Poets, (Cambridge
Mass:The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981),
295................................................................................................................
90
15. Fountain.
Mary Ann Caws and Rudolf E. Kuenzli, eds., Dada/Surrealism,
(No. 16,Duchamp Centennial ), 65.
Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz................................................................. 93
16. L.H.O.O.Q.
Ibid., 152......................................................................................................
93
17. The Brady Bunch.
Barry Williams, Growing Up Brady, (New York: Harper Collins
Publishers, 1991),
212..............................................................................102
18. Saint Joan.
Jarka Burian, The Scenography of Josef Svoboda, Middletown:
Wesleyan University Press, 1971), 150.

Drawing by Josef Svoboda......................................................................117


19. Saint Joan.
Josef Svoboda, Tajemstv Divadelnho Prostoru, (Prague:
Klub Ctenru, 1990).Drawing by Josef Svoboda................................117
20. Romeo and Juliet.
Josef Svoboda, The Secret of Theatrical Space, ed.,
and trans. Jarka Burian, (New York: Applause Theatre Books,
1993), 63. Photograph by Jaromr Svoboda........................................129
21. Oedipus-Antigone.
Svoboda, Tajemstv Divadelnho Prostoru
Photograph by Jaromr Svoboda............................................................131
22. Mother Courage.
Burian, The Scenography of J.S., 160
Photograph by Jaromr Svoboda............................................................132
23. Kta Kabanov.
Svoboda, Tajemstv Divadelnho Prostoru
Photograph by Josef Svoboda................................................................136
24. Laterna Magika. Brussels, 1958.
Ibid. Photograph by Josef Svoboda.......................................................136
25. The Wonderful Circus.
Souvenir program, (Prague: Laterna Magika)
Photograph by Vojtech Psark................................................................138
26. Minotaurus.
Souvenir program, (Prague: Laterna Magika)
Photograph by Vojtech Psark................................................................140
27. Intolleranza. Boston, 1965.
Svoboda, Tajemstv Divadelnho Prostoru
Photograph by Josef Svoboda................................................................144
28. The Three Sisters.
Svoboda, Tajemstv Divadelnho Prostoru
Photograph by Josef Svoboda................................................................146

29. Ground plan for Tristan and Isolde.


Josef Svoboda, The Secret of Theatrical Space, 59.
Drawing by Josef Svoboda......................................................................147
30. Rusalka.
Helena Albertova, "Even a Disciplined Stage Designer Has
His Dreams: An Interview With Josef Svoboda," Theatre Czech
and Slovak, (Vol. 4, 1992), 56
Photograph by Vojtech
Psark.................................................................151
31. The Wedding.
Svoboda, Tajemstv Divadelnho Prostoru
Photograph by Ilse Buhs, Berlin..............................................................154
32. Tristan and Isolde.
Josef Svoboda, The Secret of Theatrical Space, 59
Photograph by Josef Svoboda................................................................163
33. Sicillian Vespers.
Burian, The Scenography of J.S., 66
Photograph by Josef Svoboda................................................................164
34. The Tales of Hoffmann.
Svoboda, Tajemstv Divadelnho Prostoru
Drawing by Josef Svoboda......................................................................169

35. Quarry.
Robb Baker, "New Worlds For Old: The Visionary Art
of Meredith Monk," American Theatre,( Vol. 1 #6, October
1984), 9. Photograph by Johan Elbers..................................................181
36. Quarry.
Robb Baker, "Living Spaces: Twenty Years of Theatre with
Meredith Monk," Theatre Crafts, (March 1985), 37.
Photograph by Lauretta Harris................................................................181
37. 16mm Earrings. Photograph obtained through Monk's producing
organization, The
House..........................................................................185

38. Specimen Days.


Baker, "Living Spaces," 37.
Photography by Sarah Van Ouwerkerk.................................................191
39. Atlas.
Bonnie Marranca, "Meredith Monk's Atlas of Sound,"
Performing Arts Journal, (Spring 1992), 25.
Photograph by Jim Caldwell....................................................................198
40. Specimen Days.
Kenneth Bernard, "Some Observations on Meredith Monk's
Specimen Days," Theatre, (Spring 1982), 88......................................205
41. Juice.
RoseLee Goldberg, Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present,
(New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1979), 93.........................................209
42. Book of Days.
Meredith Monk, Book of Days, ECM New Series. 839 624-2.
Photograph by Jerry
Pantzer....................................................................217
43. Recent Ruins.
Kennith Bernard, "Some Observations on Meredith Monk's
Recent Ruins, " Theatre, (Spring 1980), 89...........................................219
44. Recent Ruins .
Bonnie Marranca, "Meredith Monk's Recent Ruins: The Archeology
of Consciousness: Essaying Images," Performing Arts Journal,
(Vol. IV #3. 1980), 41. Photography by Lois Greenfield........................221
45. The Games.
Robb Baker, "New Worlds For Old," 7.
Photograph by Ruth
Walz...........................................................................222
46. Ellis Island.
Marranca, "Meredith Monk's Recent Ruins: The Archeology
of Consciousness: Essaying Images,"
44................................................229

47. Wilson's sketches for the CIVIL warS.


Trevor Fairbrother, ed., Robert Wilson's Vision, (New York:
Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991),
75................................................................243
48. A Letter for Queen Victoria.
Robert Wilson, Robert Wilson: The Theatre of Images,
(New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1984), 36.
Photograph by Dominick
Pronzo...............................................................245
49. Einstein on the Beach.
Ibid., 47. Photograph by Babette
Mangolte..............................................245
50. the CIVIL warS.
Ibid., 116. Photograph by George
Meron.................................................247
51. The King of Spain.
Ibid., 11. Photograph by Martin
Bough.....................................................248
52. Ground plan for Deafman Glance.
Obtained through the Robert Wilson Collection
at the Columbia University Library, Special Collections.......................249
53. The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud.
Wilson, The Theatre of Images, 14.
Photograph by Martin
Bough......................................................................252
54. Sketches for Einstein on the Beach.
Ibid.,
139.........................................................................................................269
55. When We Dead Awaken.
Jennie Knapp, "Wilson Meets Ibsen," American Theatre,
(March, 1991), 10. Photograph by Dan
Nutu...........................................274
56. A Letter for Queen Victoria.

Bonnie Marranca, The Theatre of Images, (New York:


The Performing Arts Journal, 1977).
Photograph by Johan
Elbers......................................................................280
57. Einstein on the Beach.
Wilson, The Theatre of Images, 49.
Photograph by Babette
Mangolte..............................................................290
58. Chair for Einstein on the Beach.
Ibid., 132. Photograph by Ron
Forth..........................................................293

Chapter One: An Approach to Visual Semiotics:

Spoken and Written Language:


It is at this intersection of concepts and percepts that the temporality of our
dynamic world is located. Spoken and written languages1 extend over time, as
does vision, but have the ability to fix our shifting reality. As the phenomenologist
Maurice Merleau-Ponty has pointed out, "We never cease living in the world of
perception, but we go beyond it in critical thought - almost to the point of
forgetting the contribution of perception to our idea of truth."2 There is a tension
that exists between these two worlds. Verbal language is a classification tool,
used to segment and categorize the waves of perception that bombard us in our
daily lives. We apply names to things and classify them under specific linguistic
headings. Table, chair, dog, cat, springtime, joy... denote certain fixed categories,
or concepts, that help order our seemingly disordered environment. They are
labels used to qualify an ever changing world of perception. A rock may look like
a fairly stable entity, but does it look the same in moonlight as it does at noon?
These verbal tags merely classify like objects, and must be transcended to
capture the uniqueness of perception. While it may be possible to describe the
appearance of the object under different circumstances, no amount of verbal
information will replace simply looking at it.
Verbal language is predicated on the fact that it is composed of units of
meaning that are discrete in their usage. If each of the words that I have put
1

While there are certain differences in their usage, one being sound
oriented, the other sight oriented, both are governed by a similar set of rules. For
the purpose of this visually oriented discussion I will hereafter refer to both
systems under the general term "verbal language."
2 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, (Evanston:
Northwestern University Press, 1964), 3.

2
down upon this page did not rouse in you, the reader, a specific meaning then
they would cease to be useful for communication. When I write "gatar ghtyeed
futyhs dersteganion speyehah," you might assume that it is either nonsense or
another language, but quite simply you would not understand what it was that I
was attempting to communicate. Those discrete units that I typed hold no
meaning for you, or me for that matter; they are simply combinations of letters, of
symbols from the English alphabet. I could replicate the same "sentence" with a
combination of symbols drawn from another system, "
," and the result would be the same. There is a hierarchy of
structure that exists in the English language dependent upon certain
combinations drawn from a system of 26 letters, or written symbols, that
correspond to certain sounds. Thus if I write, "a, b,c,d..." you are able to
distinguish one written letter from the next, and link it with its appropriate sound.
These letters are combined into words which are then combined to form
sentences. It is a structure complete with specific rules of organization based on
discrete units of meaning. Yet, as linguist Emile Benveniste points out,
"Phonemes, morphemes, and words can be counted; there is a finite number of
them. Not so with sentences."3 Verbal language is a structure with a specific
quantity of parts that are able to be combined in seemingly unlimited ways.
Though Benveniste has captured something crucial in the combinatory
aspect of language, I can't help but wonder if a computer were asked to calculate
all the possible combinations of the English language based on all known words
as they function within the rules of grammar, if an astronomical number of
possible combinations might be achieved. Words are stable units of meaning that
unfold in sentences according to a predetermined set of rules. This indicates that
Emile Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, (Coral Gables,
Florida: University of Miami Press, 1971), 109.
3

3
while it is possible to conceive of an endless variety of combinations, the reality is
that eventually all possible associations will be reached. While this may appear to
be a gross over-generalization, this approach to verbal language as a fixed
system provides a place to begin my examination of the difference between
visual and verbal expression. The fact that certain rules limit the process of
linguistic signification is the key to this preliminary hypothesis.
In his discussion of Wittgenstein's philosophy of language games, JeanFrancois Lyotard enumerated the conditions for verbal language to exist as a tool
for communication.
The first is that their rules do not carry within themselves their own
legitimation, but are the object of a contract, explicit or not, between
players (which is not to say that the players invent the rules).The
second is that If there are no rules there is no game, that even an
infinitesimal modification of one rule alters the nature of the game,
that a move or utterance that does not satisfy the rules does not
belong to the game they defined. The third remark is suggested by
what has just been said: every utterance should be thought of as a
move in a game.4
The principle that "If there are no rules there is no game," is crucial for
understanding the process in which verbal language is used to communicate.
Based on the system of rules as defined by the culture that the language
operates within, it must have boundaries beyond which lies non-communication.
Suppose, ignoring the laws of grammar, I create a sentence that states: "Books
tummy archway and thus record all emotive remaining." Can this be considered
one of the many choices for combination that Benveniste described? While each
word and each letter are drawn from the finite system of the English language,
Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1979), 10.
4

4
and all of the above signs signify something specific, the process of combining
them yields little meaning. They are discrete units of signification stranded in a
meaningless context.
Both written and spoken language unfold in a sequential format. Though
each word may be considered a discrete unit of signification, every unit is related
to and builds on previous ones, and it is not until the entire sentence has been
apprehended and digested that it exists as a meaningful entity. Animated within a
temporal structure that demands that the relation between units be clearly
defined, it is the sequential nature of verbal expression that provides the crucial
distinction between language and vision. As Susanne Langer has written, "A
temporal order of words stands for a relational order of things."5 The field of
vision is distinguished by its relational form, the contiguity of all visible elements
as seen simultaneously, whereas the realm of language is defined by its
combination of stable units of meaning extended over a temporal structure.
For the moment, I will sum up the distinction between the two systems by
stating that words are sequential, i.e., they add up to meaning through time,
whereas vision is relational, that is, the components simultaneously synthesize
into something meaningful (a proclamation to be addressed and amended at a
later point). While the interaction of the two systems assumes that all visual
experience can be labeled and broken down into its constituent elements, Rudolf
Arnheim has pointed out that "perceptual experience cannot be described as the
sum of the perceived components."6 An abstract painting can be dissected into
red lines, blue dots and a white field, but the simultaneous impact of the painting

Susanne K Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, (Cambridge, Mass:


Harvard University Press, 1942), 73.
6 Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception, (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1954), 58.
5

5
is lost as it is transferred into language. It is more advantageous to show the
painting rather than talk about it. This underlies the basic hermeneutic problem of
the relation of the parts to the whole. While the field of visual perception can be
broken down into its parts they individually do not add up to the whole.
The two systems have a tremendous amount of overlap. Both can be
analyzed sequentially, but the distinction between them is that vision can be
instantaneous whereas language relies on the acquisition of meaning through
time. Granted, that as one's adeptness at reading increases the sense of moving
from one isolated point to the next is significantly diminished. Yet, despite the
speed at which the material is absorbed, a temporal process is still evident. While
it is true that certain words can take on various meanings depending upon their
placement in different sentences, there is a limit to these fluctuations. Despite the
fact that the word "present" can be used as an adjective, as in "she was present
in the room," or a noun, "I've received a Christmas present," the restricted choice
of definitions underscores the fact that context is important to the meaning of the
word. It would be impossible for me to say, "The telephone present, so I
answered it," and expect to receive the same reaction if I used the word "rang"
instead. Due to the rules of combination and the discrete meaning attached to
each word, this contextual manipulation does have a boundary.
While this manipulation is limited, verbal language has certain strengths of
communication that the visual plane does not. Words help categorize and name
concrete objects drawn from the world of perception. Words have the
presentational quality of distance that vision does not, making it possible to
discuss that which is not in view. I can describe a field of red flowers swaying in
the wind, and expect that if you understand what each word means, then
conjuring up this image is not so difficult. But, this description relies on the
interaction of language and vision, of concepts and percepts. How is it possible to

6
describe in words alone what the concept "red" means to someone who has
never seen the color red? This interaction between the physical world and the
world of language is a critical one. As Wittgenstein noted in his Remarks on Color
"When we're asked 'What do the words 'red,' 'blue,' 'black,' 'white' mean?' we
can, of course, immediately point to things which have these colors, - but our
ability to explain the meanings of these words goes no farther!"7 The two
systems, language and vision, must work interactively if communication is
expected to take place.
Language gives names to the concrete world of perception, but also
moves beyond this to encompass the world of concepts. Abstract, intellectual
concepts are in the domain of verbal language, a process of communication that
can be replicated visually only if there is a link between the image and the word.
Even a complex discipline like mathematics relies on an elaborate set of symbols

for example, the symbol for infinity,

to represent abstract concepts that have been explored through language. Take,
. While embodying the abstract concept

of extending without end, it does so only through its connection to a verbal


description. Is it possible to express the ideas past, present, and future,
democracy, youth, or marriage without relying on predigested verbal labels? In
his Visual Thinking Arnheim discusses an experiment in which students were
asked to present these ideas in a visual way. While it is true that the results do
visually represent these ideas, I am not convinced that they are identifiable
without already comprehending them on a verbal plane.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Color, (Berkeley: University of


California Press, 1977), 11.
7

Figure 1: Left, good marriage; right, bad marriage.

Figure 2: Past, present, and future.

Understanding the meaning of these images requires that I first discern what it is
they are trying to indicate. They may be abstract concepts represented visually,
but they are ultimately dependent on their connection to the system of language.
Verbal responses may be either names which identify objects or
adjectives and adverbs which specify their properties. Picturemaking can also identify objects and specify properties, but it
cannot name an object and describe it separately. Verbal
surrogates enable us to separate abstractions from concrete things
and respond to them in a special way.With symbolic responses we
can make propositions and hence perform logical and mathematical
thinking. A realistic picture, on the contrary, cannot state a logical
proposition.8

There is an interplay between the presence of the visual world and the
absence of that material presence contained in verbal language. While it is true
that with words alone one can discuss a visual phenomenon even when that
phenomenon is absent, the individual word is dependent upon the initial presence
of that phenomenon to establish its signifying power. Words can discuss absent
objects, but the verbal label must be linked to the visible or tangible material
world. What do "red," "blue," and "tree" mean? They are concepts dependent
upon percepts, entangled in a hermeneutic circle of absence and presence that
surrounds the signifying capabilities of the systems of language and vision.

J.J. Gibson, "A Theory of Pictorial Perception," Sign Image Symbol, ed.
Gyorgy Kepes (New York: George Braziller, 1966), 97.
8

8
This interaction illuminates the underlying collaboration that unites these
two systems. While one excels at concrete percepts and the other at abstract
concepts, it is the fusion of the two that allows for perception and thought. But
how useful is language in dissecting the emotional impact of a visual experience?
As Susanne Langer, the philosophical chronicler of feeling and form states,
"language is a very poor medium for expressing our emotional nature. It merely
names certain vaguely and crudely conceived states, but fails miserably in any
attempt to convey the ever-moving patterns, the ambivalence and intricacies of
inner experience."9 This inability of language to pin down feeling is echoed by
one of Langer's mentors, Ernst Cassirer, when he wrote that "Language is, by its
very nature and essence, metaphorical. Unable to describe things directly, it
resorts to indirect modes of description, to ambiguous and equivocal terms"10
While the perpetual flux of our visual environment may be alluded to by
linguistically derived concepts, they are no substitute for the impact of the
relational, simultaneously revealed world of vision.

Mental and Physical Images:


We can never dispense with language and other symbol
systems; for it is by means of them, and only by their means,
that we have raised ourselves above the brutes, to the level of
human beings. But we can easily become the victims as well
as the beneficiaries of these systems. We must learn how to
handle words effectively; but at the same time we must
preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the
world directly and not through the half opaque medium of
concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too

Langer, 100-101.
10 Cassirer, 109.
9

9
familiar likenesses of some generic label or explanatory
abstraction.
Aldous Huxley - The Doors of Perception

Susanne Langer believes that all thinking begins with some form of sense
perception.11 It is only through translation into the sphere of language that
meaning is acquired. As described earlier, language consists of discrete words
which function as labels, categories for sense perception, and it is the interaction
of these categories with perception that allows for cognition. The difficulty with
the correlation between the two is the tension created by the difference between
a static and dynamic system. The distinction between discrete units of
signification and a shifting process of relations. If nature abhors a vacuum is it
also possible to say that it abhors isolation? Just as nothing in the physical world
can be considered static, nothing can be considered completely isolated except
as it is dissected by a verbal label.
The process of seeing is predicated on the fact that everything perceived
is in some visual relation to other elements (an action that is similar to the
interconnectedness of words in a sentence). Yet, while the conceptual nature of
language allows for words to be analyzed individually, it is impossible to
physically see a color, a shape, an image that is not conditioned by surrounding
colors, shapes and images. As Mitchell has pointed out, "The image is
syntactically and semantically dense in that no mark may be isolated as a unique
or distinctive character (like a letter of an alphabet), nor can it be assigned a
unique reference or 'compliant.' Its meaning depends rather on its relations with
all other marks in a dense, continuous field."12 Language, however, has the

11
12

Langer, 266.
Mitchell, 67.

10
special capacity to embrace abstract concepts as well as describe elements that
are not immediately visible. Through language I can ask you to imagine an
entirely isolated element, like the example of the secluded, enduring monolith.
There is a separation and isolation that transpires as the discrete units of
signification are used to categorize the visual world.
This isolation of visual elements through language is an integral
component in the process of visual perception as well as how the mind organizes
this visual information. Central to this discussion of temporal and physical
separation is the concept of the image. While it is possible to discuss visual
images, mental images, sound images, poetic images, etc... they all relate to the
dynamic process of "seeing," whether it be with the mind's eye, or the body's. In
his Ways of Seeing John Berger defines an image as "a sight which has been
recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance, or set of appearances, which has
been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and
preserved - for a few moments or a few centuries."13 This description of an image
relies on the apprehension of reality as it relates to recalled or reproduced
perceptions.
This temporal aspect of Berger's description is echoed by Sir Frederic
Bartlett's introspective analysis of the mental image in his book Remembering:
"Imaging consists essentially in the utilization of experiences which are no longer
fully presented to perceptual sensory organs, and such utilization is a part of all
remembering processes."14 An image is something recreated or reproduced, by
words, sounds, thoughts or by the medium of one of the many visual arts

John Berger, Ways of Seeing, (London: British Broadcasting


Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972), 9-10.
14 Frederic Charles Bartlett, Remembering: A Study in Experimental
Psychology, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932), 34.
13

11
(painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre). Whether contained in the mind or
manifested in the material world the nature of the image is predicated on the
interaction of thought and perception. As Aristotle wrote, "To the thinking soul
images serve as sense-perceptions. And when it asserts or denies good or bad,
it avoids or pursues it. Hence, the soul never thinks without an image."15
The physical image presented before the conscious mind, be it a painting,
a photograph, or the surrounding environment, is a complex interchange of visual
elements. While I can perceive the overall visual pattern created by the image
concurrently, its composition relies on the relational aspect of its individual parts.
The process of seeing, as a dynamic system, is both simultaneous and
sequential. I can apprehend an impression from the image as a whole, and then
analyze this impression by scanning its constituent parts. This mediation
between sequential and relational elements is not quite captured in the process
of verbal language. Though each word relates to others in a sentence by virtue of
its placement, it is impossible to glean the entire sentence all at once. There is a
process of examination that transpires as the sentence is temporally
apprehended by moving from one word to the next, and subsequently analyzed
as a coherent whole.
The form of verbal language is contained in the grammatical structure of
its use. By comparison objects and visual images appear to have an unlimited
combinational flexibility. There is, however, a distinct difference between the
properties of the image and that of the material object. Part of the difference is
contained in the process of "seeing" as opposed to touching or physically relating
to a three dimensional element. The object is present before me, I can see it, but
I can also pick it up or walk around it. The image, by virtue of its replicated
A New Aristotle Reader, ed. J.L. Ackrill (Princeton: The Princeton
University Press, 1987), 199.
15

12
nature, has a physical existence, but not to the extent the object does. I can hold
a painting, but I cannot hold the objects that it reproduces. The object is limited
by its physical presence, the image is not. While a coffee cup may be used as a
planter or goldfish bowl, its function is limited by its form. It is designed to contain
things, and though perhaps it may be used as a door stop or a bookend, it would
be sorely lacking as a car battery or a mop.
Visual images have the capacity to transcend this functional problem by
presenting an extensive array of combinatory possibilities. A painting may show
the image of a car used as a countertop or a sieve; function is obliterated in the
wake of the formal arrangement that the image presents. The theatre, as a
distance oriented medium created through the placement of material objects,
shares the strengths and weaknesses of both the object and the image. It is
possible to give objects new "meaning" through their use and combination with
other elements, but impossible to transcend their physical limitations. I may use a
collection of "neutral" boxes to create a variety of theatrical spatial arrangements,
a kitchen, a bedroom, a car, a spaceship; or I may use them as specific props in
a performance, a gift, a table, a cat, but I am limited by the form of the box. It
would be difficult, although not impossible, to use these same boxes to represent
a pencil, a set of earphones, or a paper clip.
As was established by discussing the properties of verbal language,
images function quite well for the presentation of concrete information. Pictures
and models are good for representing objects, tools, mechanisms, organisms,
places, scenes and environments, whereas words are essential for learning
about properties, groups, classes, and universals.16 Though useful for concrete
information, images are less adept at capturing abstract concepts. It would be
impossible to express the thoughts contained in this work with images alone. It
16

Gibson in Kepes, 106.

13
would be equally difficult to explain a panoramic view from a mountain top
without either showing a photograph or painting of it, or relying on poetic imagery
designed to conjure in the mind of the reader a series of mental images
constructed from percepts derived from his or her own individual experience.
The difficulty in dealing with mental images is that there is a large degree
of indeterminacy involved in their construction. A physical image can be scanned
for information, dissected into its individual parts, but it is in the reassembling of
these parts within the mind that the image as a whole may become indistinct.
While a mental image may enable me to recognize a friend's face through the
association of specific features, a nose, an eye, a characteristic tilt of the head,
the degree of indeterminacy of this mental image would not allow me to
completely describe or draw an exact replica of his or her face. While I may be
able to envision the image of a tiger, I am not able to count its stripes.
Mental images appear to be the synthesis of information derived from the
sequential analysis of visual material balanced against the simultaneous impact
of the visual world. As I view a painting I see it in its entirety, but scan it
sequentially, as I might pass over the face of my friend taking in the eyes, the
nose the mouth, etc... In this respect, perceiving visual images and constructing
their mental counterparts seems to work in opposition to verbal language. I
visually apprehend the whole and then scan the individual parts, providing my
mind with more specific information. Verbally, however, regardless of the format
in which the information is presented, oral or written, or the speed with which I
am able to move through this information, I will always apprehend the parts
before the whole. While it may be argued that one cannot take in all of the
information presented in a visual image simultaneously, and therefore must focus
on a specific part of the image, the remaining material nevertheless actively
conditions the reception of that focal point.

14
The process of seeing and containing that vision in a mental image is like
that of piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. I have the composite image presented
on the box and assemble it by conjoining the individual fragments. This locates
both the process of perception and mental imagery within the context of a
dynamic system, balanced by the interaction of the parts and the whole. But, as
the cognitive psychologist T.E. Richardson points out in his study of Mental
Imagery and Human Memory mental images come already interpreted and
organized and do not appear to be structured like a photograph. If something of
the image is forgotten it is generally an integral component and not as if a corner
were torn off of a picture.17 Although some elements may seem "fuzzy," like the
indistinct number of stripes on a tiger, while others may appear crystal clear, like
the eye or nose of a close friend, the image has a certain totality.
The distinctiveness of the nose or the eye, or the fact that the image of a
tiger is incomplete without stripes, can be explained by the tendency of the mind
to latch onto that which is most obvious. The tiger's stripes stand out because of
their visible contrast in coloration from the rest of the tiger. Likewise, the eye or
the nose is discerned from the rest of the face to provide a unique physical trait
used to distinguish one individual from another. These elements become
important in the creation of mental images by virtue of their distinctiveness. The
synthesis of an image in the mind relies on the interaction of these distinct
fragments with the simultaneously apprehended whole. The human mind cuts up
the visual field into a mosaic of bits of information that are then reassembled
mentally.
In his cognitive study of brain disorders, The Man Who Mistook His Wife
for a Hat, Oliver Sacks describes the problems of perception encountered by a
John T. E. Richardson, Mental Imagery and Human Memory, (London:
Macmillan, 1980), 18.
17

15
music teacher referred to as Dr. P. Provided with photographs of people from his
past, Dr. P. was able to successfully identify only a few of the images. As Sacks
writes,
By and large, he recognized nobody: neither his family, nor his
colleagues, nor his pupils, nor himself. He recognized a portrait of
Einstein because he picked up the characteristic hair and
mustache; and the same thing happened with one or two other
people. 'Ach, Paul!' he said, when shown a portrait of his brother.
'That square jaw, those big teeth - I would know Paul anywhere!'
But was it Paul he recognized, or one or two of his features, on the
basis of which he could make a reasonable guess as to the
subject's identity?18
Dr. P. represents someone who is capable of perceiving visual information in
fragments, but unable to synthesize them into any type of coherent whole.
Through his questioning of the music teacher, Sacks came to the conclusion that
Dr. P. was able to recognize the jaw and the teeth, but not the entire image of his
brother Paul. The distinct fragments overshadowed his apprehension of the
image as a whole. Sacks also describes the sharp contrast between sound and
vision, as Dr. P.'s ability to recognize individuals by the sound of their voice had
not diminished. In this area his capacity for synthesis was still active; it was
merely in the process of vision that he had problems of recognition.
In a postscript to the piece Sacks asks, "How should one interpret Dr. P.'s
peculiar inability to interpret, to judge, a glove as a glove? ... A judgment is
intuitive, personal, comprehensive, and concrete - we 'see' how things stand, in
relation to one another and to oneself."19 For some reason the mind of Dr. P. was
Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, (New York:
Quality Paperback Book Club, 1990), 13.
19 Ibid., 19.
18

16
able to apprehend visual information, yet unable to synthesize it into a
recognizable form. It is this distinction that noted scholar of the psychology of
representation E. H . Gombrich addresses in his essay "The mask and the face."
"We could not perceive and recognize our fellow creatures if we could not pick
out the essential and separate it from the accidental - in whatever language we
may want to formulate this distinction"20 Dr. P. was able to perceive things
visually, but not draw the distinction between the essential and the accidental.

The Art of Memory:


Like you, I too have tried with all my might not to forget. Like
you, I forgot. Like you I wanted to have an inconsolable
memory, a memory of shadows and stone. For my part, I
struggled with all my might, everyday, against the horror of
no longer understanding at all the reason for remembering.
Like you I forgot . . . Why deny the obvious necessity for
memory? . . .
Marguerite Duras - Hiroshima Mon Amour
The subject of memory is one that touches on virtually every facet of
human experience, from sense perception to the complex structure of verbal
language. It is within this area that the distinction between the processing of
words and images becomes more apparent. Though there are certain
differences, as in the operation of perceiving and communicating, the two work
together to facilitate the storage and retrieval of information. As Frederic Bartlett
points out, "Remembering is not a completely independent function, entirely
distinct from perceiving, imaging, or even from constructive thinking, but it has

E. H. Gombrich, "The mask and the face," Art, Perception and Reality,
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), 3.
20

17
intimate relations with them all."21 Memory, like the organization of the visual
world, is a dynamic system that functions through the interaction of various
components. It should not be conceived of as a storehouse of static information,
a collection of images pressed onto wax tablets, a series of photographs, or any
number of inert metaphors that have been used to describe it. Although Aristotle
had conceived of perception as the active process of "being moved and
affected,"22 his understanding of memory was captured by a fixed image.
For it is clear that one must think of the affection, which is
produced by means of perception in the soul and in that part of
the body which contains the soul, as being like a sort of picture,
the having of which we say is memory. For the change that
occurs marks in a sort of imprint, as it were, of the sense image,
as people who seal things with signet rings23
Despite Aristotle's convincing metaphor, memory should not be conceived of as
the sensory imprint left behind by the signet ring of perception, but the ephemeral
residue remaining after the initial perception has faded. One does not access
intact mental pressings; rather each memory exists as a collection of bits of
residual information that are reactivated and synthesized, promoting an
interactive process of reconstruction.
Human memory is quirky and fallible and reflects the dynamic, at times
chaotic, process of human existence. As memory scholar Elizabeth Loftus has
suggested, the process of recollection is indeed a malleable one. "We fill in gaps
in our memory using chains of events that are logically acceptable," thus, in

Bartlett, 13.
22 A New Aristotle Reader, 174.
23 Ibid., 207.
21

18
essence, creating a new memory.24 Loftus's contribution to the field of memory
research has had a significant impact on witness testimony in criminal cases. Her
theory is predicated on the malleability of memory, in which experienced percepts
are combined with after the fact information, thereby altering the original memory.
While witnesses at the scene of a crime may believe that they remember exactly
what happened, there is no guarantee that their recollection hasn't blended in
information pertaining to something other than the crime.
Loftus's work places into question one of the overriding metaphors used to
discuss human memory, the computer. As useful as this image is in order to
obtain some kind of a mental picture of the memory process, I find it to be
inadequate. Computer programs, based on the binary structure of digital bits of
information, reconstruct "memories" from essentially fixed stored units. I am
convinced that computers, though created by the mind of a human, have the
ability to record and access information more precisely than the human mind.
One of the many strengths of the computer is denoted by its name, the
manipulation and computation of discrete units of information. A computer is not
an organic entity that is caught in the ever changing flux of the material world, but
an electronic storehouse of information. Addressing one of the more quirky
elements of human memory I am compelled to ask, "when was the last time that
a computer had a song stuck in its head?" The computer was designed to
compare digital information, yet it is also capable of collecting, storing, and
analyzing data transferred to it by sources capable of perceiving analog material.
The computer metaphor, while intriguing, remains insufficient for discussing
human memory since it relies on a system that does not address the

Elizabeth Loftus, Memory: surprising new insights into how we


remember and why we forget, (Reading Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley
Publishing Co., 1980), 40.
24

19
preponderance of internal and external data that infiltrates the human mind at
any given moment.
In constructing a view of memory as it relates to imagery and language,
psychologist Allan Paivio has described what he calls the duel coding theory. His
approach is that " images and verbal processes are viewed as alternative coding
systems, or modes of symbolic representation."25 Independent representational
systems exist for the storage and processing of nonverbal and verbal
information. As Paivio has stated, this hypothesis "assumes that the imaginal and
verbal processes are differentially available as memory codes for abstract words,
concrete words, and pictures. The image code increases in availability uniformly
over the three levels, whereas the verbal code is highly available as a
representational response to words but somewhat less available as a verbal
referential [labeling] response to pictures."26
Paivio's theory, while not wholly accepted by the psychological community
at large, offers insight into the processing of both verbal and visual information.
Investigating the difference between simultaneous perception and sequential
activity, Paivio examines the areas in which these distinct systems of storage and
recall intersect. Visual perception is characterized by its spatial properties, a
system capable of receiving, transmitting and processing information
simultaneously. Visual imagery, however, while predicated on a simultaneous
structure, can also function sequentially. This type of visually conditioned
successive activity occurs in situations when an individual recalls the experience
of walking down a street and passing by various objects, or when linked to a
sequential activity like counting objects within a field of vision. It is this

Richardson, 13-14.
26 Allen Pavio, Imagery and Verbal Process, (New York: Holt, Rinehardt
and Winston, 1971), 233-4.
25

20
combination of spatial and sequential mental activities upon which the ancient
Greek poet Simonides presumably founded his system of artificial memory.
As the legend goes, he was present at a banquet when asked to step out
of the room only moments before the roof collapsed, crushing everyone else to
death. To aid in identifying the mangled bodies, he mentally reconstructed the
position in which everyone had been sitting prior to the collapse of the roof,
combining the sequential and spatial aspects of visual memory. Realizing that the
combination of the two mental activities increased the possibility of recall,
Simonides developed the art of artificial memory. While the guiding principles for
this activity grew hand in hand with the art of rhetoric to become more and more
complex, the foundation rests on the establishment of a series of mental, visual
"loci," much like the arrangement of seats at a table. These loci form a
sequential, spatial set of mental "hooks" onto which information that must be
remembered can be placed. All the recaller need do is mentally stroll amongst
the loci to recall the speech, the list, the information that has previously been
linked to the imaginary hooks.27
The properties of language, on the other hand, while fundamentally
sequential in nature, can also function, not in the spatially parallel or
simultaneous way that vision does, but in an operationally parallel manner.
Linguistic information may be processed, or operations carried out, functionally
independent of one another, but nevertheless parallel. These mental actions may
function serially or at the same time, but unlike the spatial contiguity of vision,
each element in the system is not dependent on the other elements.28 It is this
mental operation that was captured by Dada poet Richard Huelsenbeck's

For further discussion of artificial memory see Frances A. Yates, The Art
of Memory, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966).
28 Paivio, 34.
27

21
description of simultaneity in his 1920 essay "En Avant Dada: A History of
Dadaism."
Simultaneity (first used by Marinetti in this literary sense) is an
abstraction, a concept referring to the occurrence of different events
at the same time. It presupposes a heightened sensitivity to the
passage of things in time, it turns the sequence a=b=c=d into an ab-c-d, and attempts to transform a problem of the ear into a
problem of the face. Simultaneity is against what has become, and
for what is becoming. While I, for example, become successively
aware that I boxed an old woman on the ear yesterday and washed
my hands an hour ago, the screeching of a streetcar brake and the
crash of a brick falling off the roof next door reach my ear
simultaneously and my (outward or inward) eye rouses itself to
seize, in the simultaneity of these events, a swift meaning of life.29
To explore this subject more fully it is necessary to investigate the
functions of the separate storage medium for visual and verbal memory. Refuting
the theory that all memory is primarily linguistic in origin, cognitive psychologist
Ulric Neisser has pointed out the fact that animals and young children can learn
from visual experience, independent of language.30 By focusing on the body as
an active physical object, both muscle memory and spatial memory can exist
independently of verbal language through the positioning of forms in space. This
process indicates that there must be some form of non-verbal storage medium.
Cognitive research on human memory has isolated the regions of short term and
long term memory as well as iconic (visual) and echoic (sound) storage

Richard Huelsenbeck, "En Avant Dada: A History of Dadaism," The


Dada Painters and Poets, ed. Robert Motherwell (Cambridge Massachusetts:
The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981),35-6.
30 Ulric Neisser, Cognitive Psychology, (New York: Appleton-CenturyCrofts, 1967), 138.
29

capabilities.31

22
Basically, iconic and echoic stores precede short term memory, as

shown in this diagram taken from Gregory and Elizabeth Loftus's Human
Memory.
Short-term Store

Environment
(Visual input)

Iconic
Store

Scanner
(attn + Pattern
recognition)

Slot 1
Slot 2
Slot 3
Slot 4

Rehearsal

Echoic
Store

Environment
(auditory
input)

Slot 5
Slot 6
Slot 7

Long-term Store

Figure 3: A model of Short-Term information storage.

Prior to storage in short term memory, iconic information is scanned for


pattern recognition, and judged against previously stored information. This
appears to be the area in which Oliver Sacks' patient Dr. P. had some sort of
blockage. He could receive visual information but not synthesize it into an
identifiable pattern. Gregory and Elizabeth Loftus believe that "Pattern
recognition is the process of attaching meaning to sensory pattern and probably
consists of testing for the presence or absence of elementary sensory
features."32 Immediate sense perception is believed to be contained in some sort
of sensory store whether iconic or echoic and then, after being tested against
previously stored information, transferred to short term memory where it is held
prior to its internment in long term memory.

Included in this division of storage media are also odor and tactile
senses, but in light of this discussion I will focus only on the visually and aurally
derived.
32 Gregory and Elizabeth Loftus, Human Memory, (Hillsdale, New Jersey:
L. Erlbaum Associates, 1976), 33.
31

23
This dynamic structure also acts as a kind of sensory filter. The capacity of
short term memory is only about five to seven items,33 which indicates that a
great deal of the information that floods the iconic and echoic stores is lost in the
transference from one storage medium to another (this is perhaps why the most
distinct bits of information are retained, while less memorable elements
disappear). As the fragments of information that pass through iconic and echoic
stores are scanned for pattern recognition, they are judged against previously
formed concepts in short term memory, as in the recognition of a single face, and
then assessed by comparison with the information contained in long term
memory; i.e., data about all faces in general. It is this dynamic process that is
captured in the following diagram.
A
(info: physical
pattern from environment)

Pattern
Recognition
program

Info about concept


of an "A"
Short-term store

Sensory store (info still


in spatial, or physical
representation)
Info about all
possible concepts
Long-term store

Figure 4: Pattern recognition diagram.

Beyond the interaction of echoic and iconic stores with short term and long
term memory, the question arises as to how the concept of a "photographic
memory" fits into this structure. This is a process called eidetic memory in which
the mind so accurately records visual or aural information that the perceiver can
recall even the tiniest, most seemingly insignificant details with the utmost clarity.
Certain studies have shown that the specificity of this type of memory, as well as

33

Hochberg in Art, Perception and Reality, 64.

24
memory in general, differs from individual to individual. Not surprisingly, people
who are more attuned to the visual world retain a greater amount of visual
information, and the same is true for those focused on verbal language. In his
short story "Funes the Memorius" Jorge Luis Borges captures the extent to which
an eidetic memory can be both a blessing and a curse. Funes's capacity for
visual observation is so acute that he surpasses the confines of normal senseperception. As Borges observed:
We, at one glance, can perceive three glasses on the table; Funes,
all the leaves and tendrils and fruit that make up a grape vine. He
knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th
of April, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the
mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once
and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negro
the night before the Quebracho uprising.34
Indeed, his powers of perception and memory are so advanced that on the two or
three occasions he had conspired to reconstruct a whole day, he never hesitated
once in his observations, "but each reconstruction had required a whole day."35
Funes's visual memory is so acute that Borges describes his character's
distress at the failure of language to capture the extent of what he is able to
perceive. Returning to a previously cited observation on the interaction of
language and vision by Emile Benveniste, his belief was that "We do not grasp
thought until it has already been adapted to the framework of language."36 He
considered language to be the primary interpretive system. It is through
language that labels and concepts are applied to the whole of visual experience,
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings,
(New York: New Directions Publishing Company, 1962), 63.
35 Ibid., 64.
36 Benveniste, Problems, 56.
34

25
aiding in the classification and segmentation of perceptual observations. But,
viewing this process as it affects and is affected by memory, Bartlett attests, "the
name, as soon as it is assigned, immediately shapes both what is seen and what
is recalled."37 The limited, fixed system of language as it is applied to the limitless
combinations of visual experience filters and fragments that experience into
constituent parts. This system of verbal labels relies on the generalities
associated with communication and proves to be quite restricted when applied to
a visual experience drawn from the temporal and ever changing world. As Borges
describes:
He [Funes] was, let us not forget, almost incapable of ideas of a
general, Platonic sort. Not only was it difficult for him to
comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike
individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at
three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as
the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front).38
Relying on his incredibly precise visual memory, Funes lived in the world of
images, of the concrete, and was unable to wholly function in the world of the
abstract. He simply did not have enough words to categorize and record the
extent of his visual perception.
Funes's advanced eidetic visual storage system foregrounds the issue of
visual imagery used as a mnemonic device. In support of the legend of
Simonides, Allan Paivio states that "Objects and pictures are better remembered
than concrete nouns, which in turn are superior to abstract nouns... [however]
pictures are in fact inferior to words in sequential memory tasks under conditions

Bartlett, 20.
38 Borges, 65.
37

26
where verbal labels of the pictures are not readily available to the subject."39 This
interdependent system of visual and linguistic memory is comparable to James'
percept and concept theory. Though they have independent features, they must
work together to allow perception and thought to function. Yet, this
interdependent nature does not address the problem of why images are more
easily recalled than words. This discrepancy between the two systems may be
located in the duel coding or redundancy hypothesis in which concrete visual
information is stored both visually and verbally (that is with a linguistic label
attached); whereas abstract concepts, which may be expressed visually, are
generally only coded in language.
On the other hand, the process of information storage may work hand in
hand with the process of reception in determining why images are more readily
recalled than words. If a sentence can be assumed to transmit information in a
sequential fashion as it unfolds through time, then the whole is never completely
grasped. It is only through the rehearsal process of the echoic store that a
residual meaning is able to exist. In contrast, visual information is apprehended
simultaneously and sequentially as the whole is perceived and then scanned for
individual parts. A denser amount of information floods the iconic store indicating
that visual information, composed of both the whole and the fragments, provides
more opportunities for later recall.
This assessment of memory as it relates to immediate and subsequent
recall is contained in Paivio's concept of "backward masking."40 This activity
entails a prior image affecting the reception of a present one through a temporal
structure that unfolds like a language. Each word in the sentence is judged
against what has come before it, and conditions what comes after it. The
Paivio, 178.
40 Ibid., 137.
39

27
interaction of short term memory and echoic storage ensures that by the end of a
sentence the beginning has not been forgotten. As someone listens to or reads a
passage, the operational aspect of language moves sequentially forward as well
as back. The interaction of visual imagery functions in the same manner. It is this
instantaneous balancing of sense-perception with data stored in short term
memory that was the basis of Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein's concept of
montage. For Eisenstein montage existed as "a collision. A view that from the
collision of two given factors arises a concept."41 The moment after the viewer
receives and processes one image, another appears conditioning the reception
of the first. As Eisenstein describes in relation to his most discussed film The
Battleship Potemkin :
In the thunder of the Potemkin's guns, a marble lion leaps up, in
protest against the bloodshed on the Odessa steps. Composed of
three shots of three stationary marble lions at the Alupka Palace
in the Crimea: a sleeping lion, an awaking lion, a rising lion. The
effect is achieved by correct calculation of the length of he
second shot. Its superimposition [in the mind of the spectator] on
the first shot produces the first action. This establishes time to
impress the second position on the mind. Superimposition of the
third position on the second produces the second action: the lion
finally rises.42

41

Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form, (New York: Meridian Books Inc., 1949),

42

Ibid., 56.

37.

28

Figures 5,6, and 7: Marble Lions at the Alupka Palace.

Montage, then, is not the mere sequential arrangement of discrete visual units,
but a dynamic interactive process of backward masking in which two separate
elements collide to form a third.
This activity of backward masking involves the momentary retention of
information in memory to be played off of present perceptions. As Arnheim
writes, "memory can take things out of their context and show them in
isolation."43 It is this removal from the original context that makes the concept of
memory so crucial to this discussion of vision as it relates to the arts. The
structure of memory allows that percepts be re-contextualized at will, a process
replicated by the composition of a painting or stage picture. The understanding of
the visual plane depends upon taking in the full scope of the information
presented while simultaneously scanning the horizon for more specific bits of
data. The bits depend on the whole and the whole on the bits; if something is
removed or forgotten then the entire structure is affected. With visual mental
imagery the fragments are synthesized to gain greater understanding of the
visual sphere. As Ulric Neisser points out, the act of visual perception is a
constructive one, much like the artistic principles of cubism, in which multiple
Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking, (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1969), 104.
43

29
views of a scene or object are mentally fused together to derive an overall
impression.44 The process of memory is involved with the process of immediate
perception in the respect that prior images are woven together with present
ones. New relationships are formed, and new contexts are devised.

Regulating Learned Modes of Perception:


Our reality is influenced by our notions about reality,
regardless of the nature of those notions.
- Charles Sanders Peirce
Language exists as a tool for communication as well as for the
classification of sense material, but the limited system of language implies that
these categories themselves are also limited. A contemporary of Charles Peirce,
William James captured this convergence of concepts and percepts with his
discussion of static and dynamic systems.45 In the previous discussion of
memory it was made apparent that as sense experience is classified, stored, and
retrieved, certain elements are simply filtered out. One of the most celebrated
terms used to discuss this process is schema or schemata. As Bartlett defines it,
"Schema refers to an active organization of past reactions, or of past experiences
which must always be supposed to be operating in any well-adapted organic
response."46 We perceive the present as it relates to stored elements of the past,
either contained in mental imagery or categorized by verbal labels.

Neisser, 140.
45 In the Peirce statement above the same idea is captured in his
distinction between reality and our notions about reality.
46 Bartlett, 201.
44

30
It is this process that Merleau-Ponty describes in relation to Kant's
philosophy of the perceivable world. "We can only think the world because we
have already experienced it; it is through this experience that we have the idea of
being, and it is through this experience that the words "rational" and "real" receive
a meaning simultaneously."47 Visual or verbal schema are matrices placed over
the field of perception and used to organize and filter the expanse of these sense
impressions. As E.H. Gombrich points out, "All culture and all communication
depend on the interplay between expectation and observation ... it is one of the
problems of the foreigner in a strange country that he lacks the frame of
reference that allows him to take the mental temperature around him with
assurance."48
This interplay of what is being experienced in the present as it encounters
what has been experienced in the past operates on a number of distinct levels.
The act of perception is invariably conditioned by personal and cultural schema,
a complex relationship I will henceforth refer to as learned modes of perception.
These "habits" of looking at or experiencing the world in a specific way are not
necessarily innate to the human mind, but acquired through living in and
interacting with the world. The curious thing about learned elements is that they
are not perpetually inert, but, like the units of linguistic communication, they are
changeable, hovering between the fixed and the dynamic. As a situation is
perceived information is judged against existing categories based on past
experience. This process is fixed, but alterable as new information is merged with
old to provide new experiences, new avenues of thought. But as James posits,
even "The concept of 'change' is always that fixed concept . . . Whenever we

Merleau-Ponty, 17.
48 E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1960), 60.
47

31
conceive of a thing we define it; and if we still don't understand we define our
definition."49 It is this notion of organizational concepts that the social
psychologist Erving Goffman puts forward in terms of his frame analysis. "I
assume that definitions of situations are built up in accordance with principles of
organization which govern events - - at least social ones - - and our subjective
involvement in them; frame is the word I use to refer to such of these basic
elements as I am able to identify."50 In order to begin to classify and comprehend
the vast spectrum of sense-perception the receiver must have a stock of fixed
ways of perceiving.
It is this distinction that can be applied to James' theory of concepts and
percepts. As Nelson Goodman points out in his philosophical investigation of the
Languages of Art, "Talk of schemata, categories, and systems of concepts comes
down in the end, I think, to talk of such sets of labels."51 It is this statement that
captures the continual interplay of visual perception and linguistic classification.
As James rightly points out, the mediation between the two is necessary for
perception to exist . Concepts, as static filters of the dynamic system of
perception, must interact with and be affected by percepts, as must immediate
perception interact with, affect, and be effected by memory. "Without some
starting point, some initial schema, we could never get hold of the flux of
experience. Without categories we could not sort out impressions."52 The danger
in ignoring these learned ways of seeing is that they can be mistaken for the only
"natural" way of looking at the world. Most schema are derived from personal
James, 82-3.
50 Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis, (Boston: Northeastern University
Press, 1986), 10-11.
51 Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of
Symbols, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1976), 72.
52 Gombrich, Art and Illusion, 88.
49

32
interaction within a specific cultural framework, and exist as fixed properties on
the subconscious level. We are continually affected by modes of perceiving the
world that are conditioned by education, media, language and a variety of other
elements within a particular social frame.
Drawing on this concept of static but changeable modes of perceiving the
material world, I would like to build on a comparison that Ernst Cassirer draws in
his Essay on Man: "Language and science depend upon one and the same
process of abstraction, art may be described as a continuous process of
concretion."53 Both scientific analysis and the system of language share a great
deal in their structures. Using Cassirer's statement as a starting point, scientific
inquiry can be viewed as essentially denotative, dealing with true/false,
black/white questions through isolation and experimentation. This shares with
language the ability to place sequestered elements in direct opposition. Through
language and physical isolation I can juxtapose two discrete items such as black
and white, on and off, one and zero. In reality, however, what is black without
white, or the concept of on without off? The binary crumbles in the wake of the
interdependence and necessary interaction between the two elements. It is only
via the relationship of one to the other that they exist and take on meaning in the
province of language.
Scientific laws, while predicated on natural or experimental occurrences,
exist as linguistic concepts used to filter out information derived from percepts.
This is the basis for Thomas Khun's observation about shifting paradigms. At any
given time one paradigm may be dominant in relation to others. Though one way
of perceiving the world may take precedence, this does not rule out alternate
modes of perception. Like verbal language, this is simultaneously a fixed and
shifting system, alterable through new discoveries, new concepts derived from
53

Cassirer, 143.

33
the physical world. Like linguistic communication, through which we are able to
comprehend one another by virtue of stable units of signification, our scientific
understanding of the perceptual world is built on momentary truths. As Khun
observed, these truths are continually questioned by the influx of new
information, just as verbal language continues to develop and change. Reacting
to the established truths that preceded him, Albert Einstein conceived of his
theory of relativity, and revolutionized our concept of the universe, a system of
thought which continues to change and expand as we learn more about the
function of time, space, and matter.
As with any dynamic system, change can only be affected as it relates to
established properties and laws. The concept of "dynamism" is nothing more
than the interaction of past, present and future. Extending this idea to a
discussion of schemata, Jean-Francois Lyotard writes, "Learning is the set of
statements which, to the exclusion of all other statements, denote or describe
objects and may be declared true or false. Science is a subset of learning."54 In
order to frame this observation within Wittgensteinian parameters, he continues,
"Scientific knowledge requires that one language game, denotation, be retained
and all others excluded. A statement's truth-value is the criteria of determining its
acceptability."55 It is this oscillation between what is known and what is perceived
that allows this dynamic system to function. As a stable dynamic system, the
denoted process of perceiving the continual flux of the world is fundamentally
akin to the process of vision. Both are relational and interactive, dependent upon
one element in association with another.
It is this convergence of language and vision, of transient static categories
and modes of perception, that is at the center of Hans-Georg Gadamer's
Lyotard, 18.
55 Ibid., 25.
54

34
philosophical discourse, Truth and Method. His belief is that "The recognition that
all understanding inevitably involves some prejudice gives the hermenutical
problem its real thrust. ... Actually 'prejudice' means a judgment that is rendered
before all the elements that determine a situation have been finally examined."56
This is the interaction of the schematic memory with the immediate perception,
the concept with the percept. "The horizon of the present can not be formed
without the past... Rather, understanding is always the fusion of these horizons
supposedly existing by themselves."57 This fusion of horizons predicated on the
interaction of prejudices with perception, is the static changing structure captured
in the interaction of language and vision. There is a central point at which the two
elements fuse, allowing the process of thought to transpire, as old categories are
challenged and reformulated. Without pre-judgments it would be impossible to
enter into a relationship with the perceptions of an event or another individual. As
Arthur Koestler indicates in his analysis of the artistic creative process, The Act
of Creation "An apple looks different to Picasso and to the greengrocer because
their visual matrices are different."58 The two must reach some point of
interaction if we are to believe that they can communicate at all. There must be a
fusion of horizons, a merging and changing of schema.
Drawing this discussion closer to the activity of shifting and changing
visual perception, one of the problems that Wittgenstein examines in his
Philosophical Investigations is: "Someone suddenly sees an appearance which
he does not recognize (it may be a familiar object , but in an unusual position or
lighting); the lack of recognition perhaps lasts only a few seconds. Is it correct to

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, (New York: The Crossroad


Publishing Corporation, 1992), 270.
57 Ibid., 306.
58 Koestler, 43.
56

35
say he has a different visual experience from someone who knew the object at
once?"59 This question foregrounds the process of schema and memory as they
relate to the observation of the visual world. Does Wittgenstein's question
address the same problem that Dr. P. had in synthesizing and distinguishing the
meaning of the individual fragments of his visual perception, or does it simply
discuss an application of the wrong schema?
This type of shifting perception has been dealt with by both Wittgenstein
and Gombrich, among others, with the example of the image of the Duck/Rabbit.
Studying the drawing it becomes
apparent that it is possible to see
it one way and then another, but
not both at once.
Figure 8: The Duck/Rabbit.

Wittgenstein also proposed that one


examine the signifying properties
of a triangle. "This triangle can be
seen as a triangular hole, as a solid, as a geometrical drawing; as standing on its
base, as hanging from its apex; as a mountain, as a wedge, as an arrow or a
pointer, as an overturned object which is meant to stand on the shorter side of
the right angle , as a half parallelogram, as various things."60 He uses linguistic
labels to categorize a shifting visual experience, and each time he calls another
one of them to mind, my perception of the triangle is somehow changed. While it
is possible to conceive that the triangle can represent each of these things
simultaneously, the complicated process of vision does not allow it to be
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, (New York:
Macmillan, 1953), 197.
60 Ibid., 200.
59

36
perceived as all things at once. This observation foregrounds the difference
between the spatially parallel activity of vision, and operationally parallel
mediation of language. Through language I can comprehend that this triangle can
be many things at once, however, simply observing it, I cannot actually see it as
a hole and a solid simultaneously.
This regulation of learned modes of perception through the changing of
the linguistic filter is best observed in cases where the mind is unable to process
information in the standard way. The example of Dr. P. offers wonderful insight
into the synthesis of visual fragments as they relate to stored memory. Studying
the effects that autism and aphasia have on the functions of the brain in relation
to artistic activity, cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner discusses in his Art,
Mind, and Brain the independent functions of language and vision. The
conclusions that he draws from his study of aphasia indicate that verbal language
is only one of humanity's many symbolic systems.61 "Painters can, typically,
continue to create significant works of art after their language powers have been
seriously disturbed; indeed more than one researcher has claimed that visual
artistry actually improves as a result of aphasia."62 In support of this type of
argument, Allan Paivio describes the spatially parallel processing of imagery
similar to "autistic" thinking. A method of observation characterized by a freedom
from the logical restraints of the sequential activity of language, and functionally
dependent on the speed of simultaneous association.63 Clearly, as these studies
indicate, there are a variety of ways to organize the experiences derived from the
material world beside filtering them through language.

Howard Gardner, Art, Mind and Brain, (New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Publishers, 1982), 295-6.
62 Ibid., 274.
63 Paivio, 38.
61

37
While the systems of language and vision are structurally different,
Wittgenstein's example of the triangle suggests that it is the interaction of the
various ways of categorizing perception that provides the most manipulable
approach. The mind is capable of shifting visual relationships by the
augmentation of the conceptual schemata through which the world is perceived.
The mind is conditioned to view the world in a specific manner, and it is merely a
matter of becoming aware that it is possible to see things differently that changes
these learned modes of perception. I am continually amazed that as soon as I
become cognizant of something I had previously been oblivious to (a person, an
object, a specific sound or smell), that element seems to permeate my world. If I
become interested in purchasing a particular type of car, I suddenly see that car
everywhere, the same is true for a book or specific recording. Certainly some of
this can be attributed to the impact of the media; after all, it is advertising's goal
to force me to notice these things, but beyond this, the activity of perception is
conditioned by what schemata I use to view the world, what frame I place around
my experience.
This idea of becoming alternately aware, of seeing things differently, was
central to Bertolt Brecht's work in the theatre. The key to his concept of the
Verfremdungseffekt, or the process of making things look "strange," was to force
the spectator to examine familiar material from a different perspective. In
accordance with his Marxist ideology, a theatrical presentation that appeared
completely deterministic and unalterable was a crime against social change. By
breaking up his pieces with placards, songs and narration, Brecht altered the
"runaway train" mentality of conventional theatre, a process that races inevitably
toward its pre-determined conclusion. Brecht's Epic Theatre style of production
was not concerned with presenting a seamlessly woven narrative, but about
showing the choices both the actors and the characters make as the plot moves

38
from moment to moment. This approach allows the audience to see that the
events and their consequences are not unalterably locked into an inflexible
structure, but could have happened another way.
This mediation between possible choices and outcomes was captured in
Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle when the former palace servant Grusha,
fleeing from the palace guards with the abandoned royal baby, teeters over a two
thousand foot drop on a shaky wooden bridge. She is confronted with the option
of risking death by crossing the bridge, or remaining on the same side of the
ravine and risking capture by the guards. A simple metaphorical example, but
Brecht's work is filled with this type of crossroad. This mediation between one
alternative and another was also extended to the craft of acting in which the actor
was to be clearly separable from the character. Not only do we witness the
choices made through the movement of the plot, but in the construction of the
production.
It is in this respect that Brecht devised, to borrow Peter Brook's term, a
"rough" form of theatre in which all the seams remained visible. Encountering
both the live actor and the intangible character, the spectator is able to see the
choices as they are made and trace the consequences as they are played out.
Brecht created a unified theatrical system built on the fact that the individual parts
could be discerned from the composite whole. As Brook points out in relation to
Brecht's techniques, "alienation is a call to halt: alienation is cutting, interpreting,
holding something up to the light, making us look again."64 By holding the fusion
of dramatic elements at bay, Brecht was successful in offering the spectator the
ability to witness the possibility of change, to alter the way in which the world is
perceived.

64

Peter Brook, The Empty Space, (New York: Atheneum, 1968), 71.

39
The Semiotics of Logocentricism:
This examination of the perceivable world through the manipulation of
conceptual frames is best captured by the discipline of semiotics. Devoted to
analyzing the characteristics of sign systems and the laws that constitute them,
this discipline rests at the intersection of language and the visual plane. By
addressing not just individual words and images, but the culturally determined
systems in which they operate, semiotics foregrounds the process of
communication as it relates to memory and learned modes of perception. While
semiotics is a useful tool in this discussion of visual language, what becomes
instantly apparent is that most semiotic research rests on the dominance of
spoken and written language as the primary interpretive system. Building on the
work of Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles S. Peirce, the governing framework
of semiotics has been drawn from the field of linguistics. As Kaja Silverman
discusses in her book, The Subject of Semiotics, "The logocentricity of
Saussure's model has also proven to be a general feature of semiotics; it is the
common assumption of most semioticians that language constitutes the
signifying system par excellence, and that it is only by means of linguistic signs
that other signs become meaningful."65 Images are conceived as subservient to
words, with respect to linguistic classification and categorization. This reliance on
language as the primary interpretive system for all other sign systems
problematizes semiotics with respect to a discussion of visual expression.
Emile Benveniste defined the framework of his semiotic analysis in purely
linguistic terms, formulating an model that demands that every semiotic system
based on signs include: a finite repertory of signs and specific rules governing
these signs; further, these finite elements must exist independently of the nature
Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics, (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1983), 5.
65

40
and number of the discourses that the system allows to be produced.66 In this
respect, though semiotics is considered the study of all sign systems,
Benveniste assumed that to be included within the parameters of semiotic
evaluation a system must function in the same manner as linguistic
communication. While there is a precedence for this evaluation with respect to a
pictographic sign system (like the method of communication based on nautical
flags in which each flag has its own discrete meaning, the combinations of which
are governed by a codified set of rules), this limited definition of semiotics
excludes the contextual manipulation of the visual plane.
In his discussion of the field of semiotics in relation to film theory Giles
Deleuze states:
When we recall that linguistics is only a part of semiotics, we no
longer mean, as for semiology, that there are languages without a
language system, but that the language system only exists in its
reaction to a non-language material that it transforms. This is why
utterances and narrations are not a given of visible images, but a
consequence which flows from this reaction. Narration is grounded
in the image itself, but not its given."67
The premise of my discussion of visual perception is based on the interaction of
verbal language with a language of visual expression that is independent of a
language system. While verbal language is a temporarily stationary semiotic
enterprise, with the ability to change and evolve, it is ultimately conditioned by an
established set of rules and a finite repertory of signs. Is it not possible to
Emile Benveniste, "The Semiology of Language," Semiotics: An
Introductory Anthology, ed. Robert Innis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1985), 237.
67 Giles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, (Minneapolis: University of
Minneapolis Press, 1989), 29.
66

41
conceive of a semiotic process based on a different structure, a more fluid one?
Can a "language of the visual" that exists as a dynamic perceptual operation not
only be conceived of, but used to discuss architecture, painting, sculpture, film
and theatre?
Before getting more deeply involved in this question it is necessary to
compile a series of definitions of some of the key semiotic terms. At the center of
this discussion is the "sign." Defined by Peirce a sign is "something which stands
to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody,
that is creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more
developed sign."68 In verbal language, signs are the discrete elements that, either
by themselves or in combination, permit information to be transmitted from one
individual to another. This description implies a fixed structure, one in which each
sign has a specific meaning within a specific group or culture. As Saussure points
out, language is a communal activity. It is "not complete in any speaker; it exists
perfectly only within a collectivity."69 Yet, as Peirce's definition implies, beyond all
else a sign is something which is used to communicate between one person and
another. Though words as signs are caught within a defined system of cultural
expression, is it not possible to conceive of a sign that is completely dynamic in
its existence? One that has no stable meaning, but is able to communicate by
virtue of its context?
For Saussure, the sign is a fusion of two distinct elements. It is the
"combination of a concept and a sound image."70 One exists externally from the
Charles S. Peirce, "Logic as a Semiotic Theory," Semiotics: An
Introductory Anthology, ed. Robert Innis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1985), 5.
69 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, (New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966), 14.
70 Ibid., 67.
68

42
individual, a word, an image, a sound, while the other is an internalized thought.
He classified the concept as the signified and the sound-image as the signifier.
They are inextricably linked, as the two sides of a sheet of paper are: cut one
side and you affect the other. So for Saussure a sign can only be that which is
the complete make up of both signifier and signified, a specific sound or image
that rouses a specific concept. Eliminate one or the other and the sign does not
exist. Saussure's system is predicated on what he refers to as the arbitrary
nature of the sign. Since the link between the signifier and the signified is caught
within the workings of a social structure, there is a bond between the two by
virtue of an agreement between individuals. We as a group must agree that the
sound or written equivalent of the word "tree" relates to the mental concept of a
tree. But, the completed sign, the agreed upon link between signifier and
signified, is only arbitrary in Saussure's system because of his logocentricity. A
drawing of a tree represents the mental concept of the tree not by any social
convention, but because it visually resembles it.
Filtering his study of signs through the medium of spoken and written
language, Saussure's system deals specifically with the problem of static and
dynamic categories. He divided his theory into the synchronic, "everything that
relates to the static side of our science,"71 and the diachronic, "everything that
has to do with evolution."72 While the two function in a complementary way, he
felt that "The multiplicity of signs, which we have already used to explain the
continuity of language, makes it absolutely impossible to study simultaneously
relations in time and relations within the system."73 One must either proceed
synchronically or diachronically, that is, by analyzing elements either at rest or in

Ibid., 81.
72 Ibid.
73 Ibid.
71

43
motion. While it is possible to theoretically isolate signs from their context and
analyze their individual properties, ultimately any semiotic system must be
considered a dynamic process. Since even language mediates between the
stable and the changing, it is impossible to look at its constituent elements and
not take into account how they function relationally within a sentence. This
problem of the synchronic as it relates to a dynamic system becomes even more
complex as we move into the relational structure of visual expression.
Peirce's definition of the sign opens up the binary created by Saussure to
incorporate what Peirce called the interpretant . There is the sign, which he terms
the representamen; the object to which that sign refers; and the interpretant, the
sign that is created within the mind of the receiver. Whereas Saussure's system
established a one to one correlation between the signifier and the signified,
Peirce incorporated the concept of translation of the received sign, a process
that offers the possibility that the sign used in communication may not have
exactly the same meaning to the receiver as it did to the initiator of the message.
Communication, in Peirce's system, is a process of negotiation, one conditioned
by a multitude of variables as distinct as society, memory, schema, and
Gadamer's individual system of prejudices. Saussure supposed a system of
signs that would operate like "a storehouse filled by the members of a given
community,"74 whereas Peirce's system allows for interaction with the dynamism
of the physical world. Saussure's investigation attempted to locate the minimal
units of linguistic expression within a bi-partite system, whereas Peirce's work
reflects his desire to establish a system to analyze the minimal relationship of
units of signification. One sought to isolate individual components from the
dynamic process of communication, the other to examine the process itself.

74

Ibid., 13.

44
Within his classification of the term sign, Peirce analyzed three specific
types of signs: icons, indexes and symbols, each complete with its own specific
communicative properties. An icon "is a sign which refers to the object that it
denotes merely by virtue of characters of its own, and which it possesses, just
the same, whether any such object actually exists or not."75 An image of a
unicorn denotes that creature despite its mythical existence because it looks like
what a unicorn is thought to look like. The icon has a physical resemblance to the
object it represents; a painting, a photograph, a stage character all share with
each other the nature of the icon. Pierce's evaluation of this specific type of sign
is crucial for developing a methodology to examine the visual world. For Pierce,
the icon is the most concrete form of the sign. "The only way of directly
communicating an idea is by means of an icon; and every indirect method of
communicating an idea must depend for its establishment upon the use of an
icon. Hence, every assertion must contain an icon or set of icons, or else must
contain signs whose meaning is only explicable by icons."76 Drawn from the
visual world, icons have a specificity of meaning that is unparalleled by
Saussure's network of arbitrary signs.
An index "is a sign which refers to the object that it denotes by virtue of
being really affected by that object."77 The index is dependent upon the object for
reference to be classified as a sign. Peirce identifies a rap at the door and a
lightning bolt as indexes since they rely on a connection between two segments
of an experience. The rap is a sign that someone is at the door, while the
lightning bolt is indicative of a storm. The difficulty with this type of classification
is that there exists a whole range of interpretations dependent upon the natural or

Peirce, 8.
76 Ibid., 10.
77 Ibid., 8.
75

45
artificial nature of the sign. As Langer explains, a wet street can be taken for a
natural index that it has rained, or it may be an artificial sign, indicating that a
sprinkler system was set off.78 According to Peirce, the index is dependent upon
concrete, iconic information for direct communication.
The most complex of all of Peirce's sign categories is the symbol. For
Peirce, "a symbol is a sign which refers to the object that it denotes by virtue of a
law, usually an association of general ideas, which operates to cause the symbol
to be interpreted as referring to that object."79 It is in this category that Saussure's
arbitrarily connected signifier and signified fall. According to Peirce, "All words,
sentences, books and other conventional signs are symbols."80 Language is a
system of symbols that are defined by the culturally specific meaning attached to
each word in that system. But, as Cassirer notes in An Essay on Man,
Symbols - in the proper sense of the term - cannot be reduced to
mere signs. Signals and symbols belong to two different
universes of discourse: a signal is part of the physical world of
being [Peirce's icon]; a symbol is part of the human world of
meaning. Signals are operators; symbols are designators.
Signals, even when understood and used as such, have
nevertheless a sort of physical or substantial being; Symbols have
only a functional value.81
Whereas the sign at the level of the icon has a concrete relation to the object, the
symbol is a "second order" sign that relies, not on a specific physical
resemblance or presence of the object, but on an attached concept. As distinct
classifications of the term sign, symbols are denoted by their abstract quality in
Langer, 59-60.
79 Peirce, 8.
80 Ibid., 16.
81 Cassirer, 32.
78

46
the representation of ideas, while icons embody concrete objects. In this respect
all of Saussure's signs are Peircean symbols, as they are conditioned not by a
concrete resemblance, but by a social situation that links an external signifier with
an internal signified.
More specifically, in visual expression, while images may be considered
iconic in the sense that they physically represent what they signify, these same
images can also be raised to the level of the symbol. Visual symbols are icons
that have been coupled with a specific meaning independent of their physical
resemblance. The symbol is validated by the connection of the concrete image
as a whole with a specific abstract idea. As Howard Gardner points out in relation
to Langer's work, "pictorial symbols do not yield meaning through the sum of their
parts, for there are no reliably discriminate parts. They present themselves and
must be apprehended as a whole. They operate through shades of meaning,
connotations, nuances, and feelings, rather than a discrete, translatable
message."82
Examine the image of the cross, the symbol for Christianity. As an icon the
image simply represents an intersection of two pieces of wood, whereas the
symbolic nature of the image stands for the teachings, stories, and events that
comprise the conceptual foundation of Christianity. The cross as a symbol was
built up over time through the connection of the icon to a specific set of ideas.
The curious thing about this process is that, as Gardner stated, the symbol yields
meaning through connotation and emotional content. When I see the image of a
cross, conditioned by a specific cultural education, I intuitively understand what it
symbolizes. There is no need for me to search through the vast amount of
teachings that comprise the Christian faith to comprehend what the cross is
intended to signify. As Yi-Fu Tuan describes in his Space and Place, "The
82

Gardner, 51.

47
symbol is direct and does not require linguistic mediation. An object becomes a
symbol when its own nature is so clear and so profoundly exposed that while
being fully itself it gives knowledge of something greater beyond."83
This observation on the quality of visual symbolism can be viewed in light
of the prior discussion on the process of memory. Imagery is adept at
representing concrete information through the speed and flexibility of relational
elements as they are apprehended by the parallel processing of spatial material.
It reveals its meaning in a simultaneous fashion whereas the verbal system is
geared toward handling abstract problems, concepts, and relationships through
the processing of sequential information.84 As symbolic entities, words function
synchronically as discrete units, and sequentially as the buildup of information
occurs over the temporal structure of a sentence. Symbolic images, while sharing
the capacity for discrete meaning similar to words, have the potential to be
combined with other elements in a simultaneously discernible setting. While it is
true that words function as symbols because they are discrete units of
information, Nelson Goodman concludes that:
Nonlinguistic systems differ from languages, depiction from
description, the representational from the verbal, paintings from
poems, primarily through lack of differentiation - indeed through
density (and consequent total absence of articulation) - of the
symbol system. Nothing is intrinsically a representation; status as
representation is relative to symbol system. A picture in one system
may be a description in another; and whether a denoting symbol is
representational depends not upon whether it resembles what it
denotes but upon its own relationships to other symbols in a given
system.85
Tuan, 114.
84 Paivio, 434.
85 Goodman, 226.
83

48
Goodman's attention to multiple symbol systems illustrates the difficulty in
using a traditionally linguistic based analysis like semiotics to discuss the process
of visual perception. Quite simply verbal language and visual images are two
separate signifying systems, each complete with its own logical structure. What
has become apparent throughout the course of my research is that the structure
of vision is almost inevitably interpreted within the structural logic of language, an
activity that can be detected at the very basis of Western philosophy. As
metaphorical an approach to perception as Plato's description of the shadowy
projections of reality that adorn the walls of his imaginary cave might be, the
philosopher's ascent from the phenomenological world to the realm of the mind is
conditioned solely by his appeal to reason. Invested in the evolutionary process
of human thought moving from shadow into light, he poses the question: "Then,
my dear Glaucon, what study could draw the soul from the world of becoming to
the world of being?"86 Ultimately Plato finds salvation in the study of arithmetic,
an exercise devoted to the isolation and juxtaposition of discrete units, similar to
scientific analysis and verbal language. Each system is dominated by an appeal
to "reason" conditioned by the distinction between black and white, true and
false. Evaluating the composition of the human mind and the scope of senseperception Plato wrote, "You see then my friend, that really this seems to be the
study we need, since it clearly compels the soul to use pure reason in order to
find out the truth."87
With the assumption that "the truth" is located in the conceptually driven
system of "pure reason," Plato is wary of information derived from the perception

Plato, Great Dialogues of Plato, eds. Erich Warmington and Philip G.


Rouse (New York: A Mentor Book from New American Library, 1956), 320.
87 Ibid., 325.
86

49
of the physical world. Is the "truth" of a painting, photograph or sculpture to be
found in the logical structure of arithmetic or verbal language? Can the same
rules that govern words and numbers be extended to contain the multitudinous
variety of the visible world? A similar question arises in relation to Jacques
Lacan's semiotic analysis of the mind. Lacan believed that "the unconscious is
structured like a language,"88 placing a linguistic frame around all sense
experience. Expounding on this statement he explains that, "before any
experience, before any individual deduction, even before those collective
experiences that may be related only to social needs are inscribed in it,
something organizes this field, inscribes its initial lines of force."89 While the
previous discussion of schema and the process of memory indicate that there is
always an organization of the field of perception, Lacan's lines of force are
exclusively determined by the structure of language: how we classify, name and
express our visual perceptions in a linguistic manner. This logocentric attitude
pervades most semiotic analysis, yet what escapes the boundaries of this word
oriented dominion is that language is but one way of structuring the phenomena
of the visual world. It is an approach, not the only approach.
In the conclusion to his study of Mental Imagery in the Child, Jean Piaget
specifically addresses the issue of the supposed superiority of language as it
related to the perception, interpretation, and recollection of the external world. He
asserts that "there are two fundamental reasons why the collective sign system,
or language, does not fulfill the requirements of this semiotic function, and why it

Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis,


(New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978), 2.
89 Ibid.
88

50
needs to be complemented by a system of imaginal symbols."90 Understanding,
as Aristotle did, that the use of imagery is an integral component to the process
of thought, Piaget locates the first reason in the fact that language is a social
process caught within an external system of communication, while mental images
concretize words within the mind of the individual. His second reason resides in
the description of language as a cognitive tool only capable of designating
concepts (classes, relations, proportional connectives or truth functions, etc)
through the isolation and juxtaposition of concrete information or individuals (My
father, Edward VII, etc). Similar to Cassirer's critique of the metaphorical,
indicative nature of language is Piaget's suggestion that, "there is a vast field
which language cannot describe, unless it uses endless circumlocutions. This
field compromises everything perceived in the ongoing present, but also and
more important everything perceived in the past in the external environment,"91
that is, as apprehended through an act of sense-perception then stored and
recalled through memory. Pointing out that it is not the superiority of language
that enables this process, but the interaction of language and images, he
concludes by stating that "It is clear, therefore, that if one wishes to evoke in
thought some past perception, it is necessary to supplement the verbal sign
system with a system of imaginal symbols."92
Extending this description of the interaction of language and images to the
foundationary ideas that have conditioned the field of semiotics, a distinct
philosophical difference can be detected between the work of Saussure and
Peirce. While Saussure's logocentrism is evident on the surface of his bi-partite
Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder, Mental Imagery in the Child: A Study
of the Development of Imaginal Representation, (New York: Basic Books Inc.,
Publishers, 1971), 380.
91 Ibid.
92 Ibid., 381.
90

51
semiotic system, focused on the minimal units of communication, the same
cannot be said for the Peircean analysis, directed toward the minimal
relationships of the communicative process. Offering much more flexibility with
regard to the visual than Saussure, the foundation of Peirce's system is
embedded in a logical structure struggling to free itself from the restraints of
language. Though "Peirce considered semiotic and logic, in the broad sense, to
be synonymous terms,"93 he advocated that "logic should therefore not be
premised upon either psychological or supposedly introspective knowledge of the
nature of mental operations but upon the logicality of nature - that is, upon a
logical quality of external reality."94 Peirce foregrounded the difficulty of dealing
with a form of logic that was tied to linguistic categories, to prejudices, and
learned modes of perception. He sought to reconcile the process of logical
thinking with the dynamic organization of natural phenomena. His interest in the
logical quality of the reality external to the human mind (that is the perceptual
world as opposed to the conceptual world) exposes his semiotic system to the
dynamic configuration inherent in visual perception, a process acted upon by
language but not subject to it.
Whereas language is governed by an external, temporarily static, yet
changeable, set of rules, the field of vision composes itself by its own internal
(dynamic) form of logic. One system is predicated on a sequence of stable units
of meaning, the other on an unlimited scope of combinational possibilities. The
tension between these two systems is captured by Peirce's discussion of the
visually oriented world of dreams. "We often think that something is presented to
us as a picture, while it is really constructed from slight data by the

James Hoopes, ed., Peirce on Signs, (Chapel Hill: The University of


North Carolina Press, 1990), 231.
94 Ibid.
93

52
understanding. This is the case with dreams, as is shown by the frequent
impossibility of giving an intelligent account of one without adding something
which we feel was not in the dream itself."95 Implemented by the unconscious in
the form of dreams, images are more adept at expressing emotional content,
while words, located within the domain of the conscious mind, excel at rational
explanations.96 This statement appears to produce a division between the
conscious control of language and the unconscious control of images, a
problematic differentiation that psychologist Carl Jung addressed throughout his
entire career. In the essay "Approaching the Unconscious," completed shortly
before his death, Jung wrote,
The subliminal state retains ideas and images at a much lower
level of tension than they possess in consciousness. In the
subliminal condition they lose clarity of definition; the relations
between them are less consequential and more vaguely
analogous, less rational and therefore more 'incomprehensible' . .
. It is from this fact that one may understand why dreams often
express themselves in analogies, why one dream image slides
into another, and why neither the logic nor the time scale of our
waking life seems to apply. The form that dreams take is natural
95

Charles S. Peirce, "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities," Peirce

on Signs, ed. James Hoopes (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina
Press, 1990), 78.
96 While this description may imply that the two are mutually exclusive, I
must point out that this division between emotion and rationality is not as
uncomplicated as this statement suggests. Language and vision are distinct
systems complete with their own strengths and weaknesses. This is not to state
that they are entirely independent from each other. As the previous discussion of
concepts and percepts, memory, and schema indicated, they are systems
founded upon different principles that must work interactively to facilitate
perception and cognition. What may appear to be an inflexible binary is in
actuality a process in which all elements are active simultaneously.

53
to the unconscious because the material from which they are
produced is retained in the subliminal state in precisely this
fashion.97
It is this observation that captures what Akhter Ashen, the current editor of
The Journal of Mental Imagery, describes as "dream logic" or "modern logic;" a
process that he differentiates from "Aristotelian logic."98 There is a tension
between the conscious structure of language as a frame for sense experience
and the unconscious, seemingly illogical, nature of the imagistic expression of
dreams. The two patterns do not uncompromisingly agree with each other since
they are based on completely different logical orders: the stable order of
language imposed from without, and the dynamic, relational order of images
contained within the arrangement of the dream. As Ashen points out, "against the
simplistic linear Aristotelian logic, the general thrust of modern logic is diversified
and dynamic and cognizant of the fact that meaning, whether in waking cognition
or a dream, cannot be properly extracted except through carefully developed
methodological devices."99
In developing his methodological approach to dream interpretation,
Sigmund Freud was conscious of the logical dichotomy between the waking and
sleeping state. He believed that "falling asleep at once involves the loss of one of
our mental activities, namely our power of giving intentional guidance to the
sequence of our ideas."100 The non-sequential quality of dreams replicates the
Carl G. Jung, "Approaching The Unconscious," Man and His Symbols,
ed. Carl G. Jung (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1964), 53.
98 Akhter Ahsen, "Proluicid Dreaming," The Journal of Mental Imagery ,
(Vol. 16, #1+2. Spring/Summer 1992), 66.
99 Ibid., 68.
100 Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, (New York: Avon Books,
1965), 87.
97

54
spatially parallel logic of visual experience. As Freud observed, "Dreams are
disconnected, they accept the most violent contradictions without the least
objection, they admit impossibilities, they disregard knowledge which carries
great weight with us in the daytime."101 Freud's entire system of dream analysis
appears to be based on the tension created between the seemingly non-sensical
composition of the dream and its formalized discussion and interpretation by the
analyst. As Benveniste declared in his essay on "Language and Freudian
Theory,"
We are thus confronted with a 'language' so special that it is of the
greatest importance to distinguish it from what we normally call
language... In the area in which this unconscious symbolism
appears, one could say that it is both infra- and supralinguistic. As
infralinguistic, it has its source in a region deeper down than that in
which education installs the linguistic mechanism [prior to the filter
of the schema?]. It makes use of signs that cannot be split up and
that admit of numerous individual variants, susceptible themselves
of being increased by reference to the common domain of a culture
to personal experience [The self-expression of the artist through the
work of art?]. It is supralinguistic in that it makes use of extremely
condensed signs which, in organized language, would correspond
more to larger units of discourse than to minimal units. And a
dynamic relationship of intentionality is established among these
signs that amount to a constant motivation and that follows the
most remarkably indirect paths.102
Dream logic and pictorial representation share similar features in relation
to the function of language. "To represent a scene pictorially, however, requires
but a single picture, albeit a complex one; and the information it contains

101
102

Ibid.
Benveniste, Problems, 74.

55
implicitly may be discovered in the representation without involving derivation in
the sense of logical inference."103 Discussing a similar idea in his Freudian based
semiotic analysis of film theory, The Imaginary Signifier, Christian Metz points
out:
It is true that the image can organize itself - and that it usually does
so, in the cinema as elsewhere, caught as it is in the constraints of
communication and the pressures of culture - in figures as 'bound',
as secondary as those of language ( and which classical
semiology, based on linguistics, is in a good position to grasp). But
it is also true, as Lyotard has rightly insisted, that the image resists
being swallowed up whole in these logical assemblages."104
While there may indeed be an interactive component to the logical order of
language and images, neither should be assumed to be dominant over the other.
In a dream, as well as in other imagistically derived phenomena like a
painting, a film or a theatre piece, a visual image may be symbolically
conditioned by the functional properties of language, i.e., an icon of a cross
linguistically linked to the teachings of Christianity. But it is important to
remember that the visual icon is not completely swallowed up by the logical
structure of language. As a symbol the cross is conditioned by the link between
the image and a specific cultural meaning, but as an icon it is conditioned by the
surrounding visual environment of each individual encounter. A painting may
present a cross complete with four wheels and dashboard, a dream may use a
cross to represent a troubled marriage, a life-changing decision, or merely the

Mark Rollins, Mental Imagery, (New Haven: Yale University Press,


1989), 20.
104 Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier, (Bloomington: The Indiana
University Press, 1982), 124.
103

physical crossing of two pieces of wood.105

56
The complexity of the visual world,

however, is compounded by this process. As long as the image of a cross is


presented within specific cultural frames that reads it as a symbol for the
Christian faith, regardless of what visual elements condition the icon, its symbolic
nature will bleed through. The icon and the symbol, the structure of the visual and
verbal planes, coincide as their distinct logical foundations resonate
simultaneously.
It is the tension between these two structures that Andr Breton was
dealing with when he defined Surrealism as "pure psychic automatism, by which
it is intended to express, verbally, in writing, or by other means, the real
functioning of thought. The dictation of thought in the absence of all control
exercised by reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations."106 What
Breton and his fellow Surrealists were striving for was freedom from the
controlling logical structure of language and the ability to allow thought to
express itself as it does in dreams, unfiltered by static categories. What the
Surrealists were able to illuminate was a dynamic process of thought as it relates
to both vision and the individual components of linguistic expression.
A burst of laughter
of sapphire in the island of Ceylon
The most beautiful straws
Have a faded color
under the locks
On an isolated farm
from day to day
the pleasant
After all, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes it's a
misnomer.
106 Andr Breton, "What is Surrealism," What is Surrealism ed. Franklin
Rosemont (New York: Monad Press, 1978), 122.
105

57
grows worse.107
Figure 9: Dali Atomicus.

Both the spatial composition of this Surrealist photograph and the arrangement of
words in this Surrealist poem proceed through the juxtaposition and interaction of
images free from the constraints of formal logical principles. Like dream logic
they follow their own intrinsic logical structure not dominated by categories
imposed by an external frame of meaning. In one respect it can be said that both
are composed of discrete units of signification, of words, icons, and symbols that
are caught within the structure of language. However, it is not the individual
components, the word "faded," or the image of the chair, in synchronic isolation
that are of concern, but their diachronic interaction with the other elements of the
composition that creates the overall atmosphere.
Moving beyond the surface signification of individual elements, Roland
Barthes' semiotic analysis stands out from the logocentrism of other semioticians
by virtue of his discussion of visual material and his obsession with both filmic
and photographic images. Acknowledging the presentation of information in an
immediate, simultaneous way, he believed that "pictures, to be sure, are more
imperative than writing, they impose meaning at one stroke, without analyzing or
diluting it."108 His focus on the interaction of language and images caused him to
augment this statement by writing that " this is no longer a constitutive difference.
Pictures become a kind of writing as soon as they are meaningful."109 That is, as
soon as they have been analyzed, categorized, and comprehended through an
Andr Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, (Michigan: The University of
Michigan Press, 1969), 41-2.
108 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, (New York: The Noonday Press, 1972),
110.
109 Ibid.
107

58
act of linguistic interpretation. Yet Barthes could sense that behind these ocular
patterns, independent of language, lay something that could only be alluded to
and never actually grasped by words alone. His strength as a semiotician is his
acknowledgment of a non-verbal method of signification produced by the spatially
determined structure of the visual plane.
It is this elusive element that Barthes described as the "third meaning" in
his discussion of the work of Sergei Eisenstein. As the result of the interaction of
visual elements a supplemental meaning is created that can be talked about and
around, but never fully contained by language. What Barthes alternately refers to
as the "obtuse meaning" is suspended between the relational aspect of vision
and the sequential aspect of language. Drawing on Saussure's binary system he
explained that this meaning is "a signifier without a signified, hence the difficulty
in naming it."110 Despite the fact that Barthes could dissect each Eisenstein still
into discrete visual signs, complete with signifier and signified, "the funny
headdress, the old woman, the squinting eyes, the fish,"111 he discovered that
something was present in the combination of these particular images that created
a meaning independent of their status as individual signs. It is this meaning that
he referred to as "outside (articulated) language while nevertheless within
interlocution,"112 a process of signification that echoes Benveniste's evaluation of
unconscious symbolism as both infra- and supralinguistic. Both semioticians'
descriptions elucidate condensed, multi-layered signs that communicate
something extra-linguistic, indicated by, but never actually captured within the
province of language. It is this relational structure of obtuse meaning that is

Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, (New York: The Noonday Press,
1977), 61.
111 Ibid., 57.
112 Ibid., 61.
110

59
indicated by Eisenstein's theory of montage: a dynamic system composed of two
colliding elements, the comprehension of which eludes the demarcated nature of
language.
In another essay, "The Rhetoric of the Image," Barthes goes to great
lengths to discuss the denotative and connotative properties of the visual sign. He
finds that the denoted message of the Panzani advertisement that he dissects is
that which is supported by and complements the text.113 In this photo ad, there is
a one to one correlation between the signifying properties of the image and the
written word.
Through connotation, however, concepts
are constructed by the interaction of
signs (both signifiers and signifieds
united) from this first order denoted
system.114 It is in this light that he
identifies the impression of "Italianicity"
that permeates the image. As he points
out, "Italianicity is not Italy, it is the
condensed
essence of everything that could be
Italian, from spaghetti to painting."115
This reading, however, is conditioned by
Barthes' personal and cultural interaction
with the images presented. It is only

113
114
115

Ibid., 32-51.
Ibid., 91.
Ibid., 48.

60
through his identification of the individual
components as "Italian" at
the denotative level that they are able to fuse

Figure 10: Panzani Advertisement.

and interact through contiguity and take on the connotative signification of


"Italianicity."
It is this same process that Umberto Eco focuses on when discussing the
connotation and denotation of the signifying properties of architecture in his
essay "Function and Sign: The Semiotics of Architecture." With respect to
structural elements, Eco places denotation at the functional level stating that "the
first meaning of a building is what one must do in order to inhabit it."116
Connotation, though, implies an ideological or "symbolic function."117 Through
their separate discussions of denotative signs combining to form connotative
ideas, both Barthes and Eco illuminate the first and second orders of signification
that are inherent in the make-up of the visual world.
It is this second level, that of the symbolic, of connotation, that is crucial
when proposing a semiotics based on the interaction of dynamic elements as
opposed to the sequential activity of a fixed system. In Mythologies Barthes
qualifies Saussure's signifier-signified relationship when he states that "the
signifier is empty, the sign is full."118 Using the example of a black pebble he
elaborates on the manipulability of the visual object by pointing out the possibility
of making the pebble signify several different things. In Barthes' discussion the
pebble is not a completed sign, but "a mere signifier."119 It is only through the
Umberto Eco, "Function and Sign: The Semiotics of Architecture,"
Signs, Symbols, and Architecture, eds. Geoffrey Broadbent, Richard Bunt, and
Charles Jencks (Chichester/New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1980), 20.
117 Ibid., 24.
118 Barthes, Mythologies, 113.
119 Ibid.
116

61
process of linking this visual signifier with a specific signified, as in allowing it to
indicate a death sentence, that it becomes a complete sign. Barthes continued by
examining the role that this now completed sign could play in the construction of
a second order signifying system, or as he put it, "systems which build on already
existing ones."120 Expressing his ideas visually, he drew a diagram to illustrate
how this process transpired.
Signifier

Signified
Sign

Signified

Signifier
Sign

Figure 11: Diagram of second order signifying system.

This is this same type of semiotic convergence that he captures in his discussion
of the Eisenstein stills. Incorporating the concepts of montage, backward
masking, and the third meaning, the diagram presents a dynamic structure in
which two distinct signs combine to form a third.
Expounding upon Barthes' second order signifying system, Kaja Silverman
adjusted his diagram to include a discussion of connotation and denotation.

Denotative
Denotative
Signifier
Signified
Denotative Sign

Connotative Signifier

Connotative
Signified

Connotative Sign
Figure 12: Diagram of second order connotative and denotative system.

Though appearing to deal only with the sequential movement from one level to
the next, both diagrams emphasize the role that memory plays in the process of
120

Silverman, 26.

62
signification as it is conditioned by a second order signifying system. This fusion
of signifier and signified combined with other completed signs to create new
relationships, relies on the retention and recollection of stored information. While
the fusion of elements within the relational field of vision may appear to transpire
simultaneously, the level of connotation achieved with something like Barthes'
third meaning can only exist after the visual information has been processed at
the level of denotation. Images are grasped and processed by the functional
qualities of language, stored in memory and then assessed as they relate to each
other within the arrangement of the visual composition.
The movement from simple denotation to a second order signifying system
is dependent upon the spatially parallel system of visual memory combined with
the operationally parallel linguistic order. While this interaction between language
and images facilitates the seemingly instantaneous reception and processing of
information, the end result moves beyond the confines of descriptive denotation.
As can be seen in Barthes' analysis of the individual elements that comprise the
still photo from Eisenstein's film, it is the convergence of distinct visual signs at
the denotative level that allows for the subsequent connotative structure to exist.
The attractiveness of this type of semiotic analysis is that it conditions Saussure's
static system to move beyond the signifying capabilities of the individual
components to imply a dynamic process that is built on the relationship of distinct
units extended over a temporal frame. It is a method of inquiry preconditioned to
address the semiotics of motion actualized by the interaction of a viewer and a
theatrical presentation.

Theatre Semiotics and Mimesis:


A great deal of the work performed in the field of theatre semiotics has
been devoted to developing a methodology that is specific to the craft. Taking

63
into account the concerns of an essentially artificial system of signs set in motion
in front of a live audience, the relationship between the actor and the audience
has been the cornerstone of this discussion. From this viewpoint a semiotics
based on the functional qualities of verbal language has been adopted to analyze
the agency of the actor through the text. Though realizing that the theatre is a
distinct semiotic system drawing on "language, pictorial signs, sculpture,
architecture, music, gesture, etc...,"121 Jir Veltrusky summed up the semiotic
approach of the Prague school by stating that "all other components of the
theatrical structure are more or less predetermined by the sound and semantic
qualities of the text."122 This appeal to language as the principal element is not,
as we have seen, limited to the Prague school, but indicative of semiotics in
general. What this attention to the function of the text through the actor does is to
eliminate or at least significantly cripple a semiotic system devoted to the visual
aspect of performance. Visual elements are relegated to a supporting role, and
read solely within the confines of the text, that is, as they are conditioned by
verbal language.
Is there perhaps another way of approaching the theatre? Is it possible to
initiate analysis by focusing on the intrinsic logic of the piece as structured by the
visual world of the performance and then move back toward the signifying
properties of verbal language contained in the text? Even a cursory overview of
studies devoted to the semiotics of the theatre123 reveals little attention to the

Jir Veltrusky, "The Prague School Theory of Theatre," Poetics Today,


(Vol. 2:3, 1981), 228.
122 Ibid., 227-8.
123 See: Jean Alter, A Sociosemiotic Theory of Theatre, (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), Elaine Aston and George Savona,
Theatre as a Sign-System, (London/New York: Routledge, 1991), Keir Elam, The
Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, (London/New York: Methuen, 1980), Martin
121

64
structure of the visual presentation independent from the text. Most of the
references cited above begin the discussion with the actor and the written script.
While Patrice Pavis has done some wonderful work in terms of analyzing the
mise en scne, Andre Helbo touches on the semiology of the image through
Barthes' work, and Elaine Aston and George Savona include a chapter on
"reading the image," the controlling semiotic base is drawn from the realm of
language. My intent is not to completely dismiss this work in the wake of a
system devoted to images, but to illuminate the linguistic substructure that
permeates most theatrical semiotic analysis. Though perhaps an incomplete
chart, these studies focus on only five of the thirteen sign systems that Kowzan
illustrated in "The Sign in the Theatre."124 His logocentric approach leaves the
elements of make-up, hair, costume, accessory, decor, lighting, music and sound
stranded in a framework constructed to analyze the semiotic possibilities of the
word.
In order to properly address the problem of words and images in the
theatre it is necessary to understand that, though they are conditioned by
separate logical structures, the two work, as they do in memory and perception,
jointly to facilitate communication. Language supports the visual and the visual
supports language. In dealing with the "conventional theatre," that which grounds
the process of constructing a performance within the framework of the written
Esslin, The Field of Drama, (London/New York: Methuen, 1987), Erika FischerLichte, The Semiotics of Theatre, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992),
Andre Helbo, Theory of Performing Arts, (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John
Benjamins Publishing Co., 1987), Patrice Pavis, Languages of the Stage, (New
York: The Performing Arts Journal, 1982), Herta Schmid and Aloysius van
Kesteren, eds., Semiotics of Drama and Theatre, (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: J.
Benjamins Publishing Company, 1984).
124 Tadeusz Kowzan, "The Sign in the Theatre," Diogenes, (#61, 1968),
52-80.

65
text, a semiotic system devoted to the function of spoken or written language is
wholly appropriate. The problem that arises is that this same system is
inadequate when approaching a form of theatre that is structured by the
arrangement of visual images independent of a written text. How is it possible to
analyze a performance created by someone like Robert Wilson, who does not
begin with a text but claims, "I work out of intuition. Somehow it seems right...The
work mostly has some architectural reasons. This one's here because that one's
there,"125 with the same set of language based tools used to approach Shaw or
Shakespeare?
In the process that Wilson employs to create what Bonnie Marranca
dubbed the "Theatre of Images," the element of language tends to be layered on
only after a spatial, visual framework has been established. If one grounds the
analysis of this theatre in the word, the dynamic process of visual expression is
lost within the logical structure of language. My contention is that to use a
semiotic system based on the function of verbal communication to examine a
theatre that is profoundly visual is to echo John Cage's feeling that "talking about
music is like dancing about architecture." You can express some of the content,
but by and large you will miss the point. Even a quick glimpse at the "scripts" by
Wilson, Foreman, and Breuer in Marranca's collection, entitled The Theatre of
Images, reveals that such works rely more on description than dialogue.
Ultimately it is this factor that distinguishes the theatre of images from more
conventional forms of drama. Owing more to the disciplines of architecture,
painting, sculpture, dance, and music, than it does to the verbal arts, any
examination of an imagistic theatre must focus on the shaping of visual elements
within a theatrical framework independent of a textual basis. It is a question of
Frances Aleinkoff, "Scenario: A Talk with Robert Wilson," Dancescope,
(Fall/Winter 1975/76), 15.
125

66
design and direction that prefigures a semiotic discussion conditioned by verbal
expression.
A semiotics of theatre derived from a semiotics of language can only be
adequate for analyzing elements that are presented on stage as signs of reality,
that is, as mimetic components used to reflect the life of the spectator. It is this
type of theatrical activity that Peter Handke illuminated in his interview with Arthur
Joseph, "Nauseated by Language."126 Responding to a question about the basic
idea behind his stage work, Handke stated that he was attempting to "make
people aware of the world of the theatre - not the outside world."127 He sought to
create an intrinsic artistic "reality" predicated on an internal logic independent of
the static categories of verbal language. Handke strove to push the theatre to its
limits of representation by forcing the elements on stage to remain contained in
their own theatrical world. As signifiers, Handke's props, characters and dialogue
are not mimetic in the sense that they signify something outside the boundaries
of the stage space, but refer only to themselves.
One of the crucial distinctions between discussing the makeup of visual
theatre as it differs from conventional theatre is contained in the concept of
mimesis. Defined as an imitation or representation of reality, conventional theatre
is predicated on the action of reflecting the world that exists outside the
boundaries of theatrical space. Embodied in the old adage, "a willful suspension
of disbelief," the mimetic theatre depends upon the spectator accepting the
actions on stage as representing something "real." As we sit comfortably in our
theatre seats we allow our imaginations to expand, only half believing that we are
watching these actions as they transpire for the first time. All of the elements on

Artur Joseph, "Nauseated by Language: An Interview with Peter


Handke," The Drama Review. (Vol. 15, #1. Fall 1970), 56-61.
127 Ibid., 57.
126

67
stage used to create this type of spectacle function as concrete iconic signs of
themselves, but more importantly they exist as mimetic signs of reality. They are
Peircean indexes pointing to elements contained in the world outside the doors of
the theatre. Visual theatre, however, based on an internal logic of visual
perception in which all elements are conditioned by their spatial contiguity, is not
completely determined by its mimetic qualities. It does not mirror the reality
beyond the doors of the theatre, but, through the temporal interaction of all of its
elements, creates a unique, artistic "reality."
Critical analysis of mimesis, however, entails more than just a
differentiation between the original object and its replication. Examining the
debate between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical positions, we can see that
the foundation of mimesis rests on the distinction between intellectually
determined concepts and sense derived percepts. This argument about the
stable properties of language as opposed to the dynamic attributes of vision can
be traced back to Plato's Republic. For Plato all earthly activity involved an act of
imitation that was subservient to what he described as the realm of ideals. In this
respect, he presumed a philosophical plane of intangible ideas from which the
activity of daily life was drawn, a process that placed all human action one step
away from his ultimate reality. Beyond this, the artistic activity of imitation, be it
through poetry, sculpture, painting or drama, was viewed as twice removed from
the original ideal. Plato's metaphoric treatment of mimesis is likened to the
reflecting principles of a mirror, or more specifically the distorting effects of
looking at an object through water.
The same objects appear straight when looked at out of the
water, and crooked when in the water, and the concave becomes
the convex, owing to the illusion about colors to which the sight is
liable. Thus every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this

68
is the weakness of the human mind on which the art of conjuring
and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices
imposes having an effect upon us like magic.128
Plato's great fear was that if the viewer trusted in his or her own vision of
the world as opposed to a more logical approach, they would ultimately be tricked
into believing in something that was merely a distorted imitation. Plato's
philosophical thesis is founded on his belief in a realm of essences, an ethereal
plane of ideal forms that remain truer than the physical reality we are surrounded
with on earth. For Plato, the artist and poet are inferior to the craftsman since
their work is not simply a physical manifestation of these ideal forms, but an
imitation of a replication. Plato considered any form of imitation as essentially
inadequate, since it moved the viewer even farther away from the true reality that
existed in his ethereal sphere. Focused on the importance of this essential reality
as opposed to its earthly imitation, he located his philosophical discourse in the
area of linguistic concepts and abstract ideals, thus discouraging discussion of
percepts as they relate to the ever shifting plane of visual perception. Though
recognizing the emotional weight of the arts by acknowledging that it "awakens
and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason,"129 Plato
denied artists admittance to his well ordered state.
It was precisely this function of art that caused Aristotle to reclaim the
process of mimesis for the benefit of human education. Aristotle observed that

Plato, The Republic, in Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to


Grotowski, ed. Bernard F. Dukore (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.,
1974), 26.
129 Ibid., 29.
128

"imitation, then, is one instinct of our natures,"130

69
and it is the poet who "must of

necessity imitate one of three things - things as they were or are, things as they
are said or thought, or things as they ought to be."131 For Aristotle the conception
of mimesis, as the imitation of reality in one form or another, was not only the
basis of poetry, but an innate quality of human nature. Just as children learn to
speak through imitation, the spectator of a theatrical presentation may learn to
distinguish between right and wrong, moral and immoral by imitating the acts
presented on the stage.
Yet, beyond the differences between student and teacher with respect to
the idea of mimesis, the two were philosophically at odds in categorizing visual
perception. Plato's supreme distrust of vision replicates itself in his discussion of
imitation as essentially deceptive. Plato held the conviction that the viewer should
rely upon reason and intellect in dealing with any and all sense-perceptions,
whereas Aristotle believed that "unless one perceived things one would not learn
or understand anything."132 Aristotle's investment in the physical world not as a
place of philosophical deception, but a learning institution to be experienced by
all forms of sense-perception, diametrically opposed Plato's notion of an ethereal
truth. Plato's tiered system culminating in his plane of ideals deferred interaction
with the physical world in favor of a reliance on a conceptual one. Concepts are
ideals and abstractions, and do not necessarily interact with what can be
touched, tasted, smelled and seen. One philosopher extolled the virtues of
reason conditioned by language as it related to abstract thought, the other the

Aristotle, Poetics, in Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to


Grotowski, ed. Bernard F. Dukore (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.,
1974), 34.
131 Ibid., 52.
132 A New Aristotle Reader, 200.
130

70
virtues of abstract thought as they related to reason conditioned by senseperception.
Though extolling the virtues of visual perception as it related to reason,
Aristotle's analysis of the drama placed plot and character over spectacle,
thereby forcing the visual aspect of performance to be subjected to the controlling
power of language. While this process, as explained before, is wholly appropriate
for a theatre dominated by the spoken word, it fails when addressing an alternate
method of production. The same can be said for a system designed to analyze
the mimetic qualities of the performance as semiotically composed of signs that
serve to indicate signs from the external world of the spectator. Neither system is
adequate for addressing an artistic creation that relies on the contextual logic of
visual perception to signify within the confines of the work of art.

Polish

theatre director and visual artist Stanislaw Witkiewicz captured this contextual
formation in his discussion of a new approach to the theatre that he termed "Pure
Form." Building on the fact that "theatre is a composite art, and does not have its
own intrinsic, homogeneous elements like the pure arts: painting and music," he
states:
The idea is to make it possible to deform either life or the world of
fantasy with complete freedom so as to create a whole whose
meaning would be defined only by its purely scenic internal
construction, and not by the demands of consistent psychology and
actions according to assumptions from real life. Such assumptions
can only be applied as criteria to plays which are heightened
reproductions of life. Our contention is not that a play should
necessarily be non-sensical, but only that from now on the drama
should no longer be tied down to pre-existing patterns based solely
on life's meaning or on fantastic assumptions.133
Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, The Madman and the Nun and Other
Plays, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968), 292-3.
133

71
Not entangled in the assumption that the theatre was responsible for miming the
patterns of movement and logic contained in everyday life, Witkiewicz based his
theory of Pure Form on the belief that all elements of life should be considered
merely raw material for an artistic creation. He was attempting to avoid the
slavish imitation of "reality" in order to create something that went beyond the
confines of that reality.
With this ideal Witkiewicz summarized the tension between a theatre
organized around its own internal logic, like that of dreams and other visual
phenomena, and a theatre based on the patterns of language, complete with a
logical structure based on specific rules of order and composition to create a
fundamentally mimetic gesture. As he is careful to point out, however, similar to a
dream's use of symbolic material drawn from everyday life, "The concept of Pure
Form is a boundary concept and no work of Art can be created without real life
elements. Some sorts of beings will always act and speak on stage, parts of the
compositions in paintings will always be more or less analogous to actual objects
in the visible world, and the reason is the impossibility of dispensing with
dynamic and directional tensions."134 While it is necessary for the theory of Pure
Form to react to and use components from reality, Witkiewicz insists that "The
novelty of my theory lies in treating the signifying components of words and
actions as artistic elements, i.e., as elements capable of creating formal
constructions, acting directly, as through they were simple elements, qualities,
and their complexes."135 Within his theatrical frame Witkiewicz advocated that the
whole of life, words and actions, objects and images, should function like

Daniel Gerould, ed. and trans., Witkiewicz Reader, (Evanston:


Northwestern University Press, 1992), 148.
135 Ibid., 153.
134

72
Benveniste's (non-signifying) units, that is, capable of unlimited combinational
possibilities conditioned by the intrinsic logical arrangement of the composition.
It is this process of artistic creation that takes into account the complex
relationship of visual signs as they relate to language, memory, learned modes of
perception and mimesis. Addressing everything at his disposal as raw material
simultaneously conditioned by its use in the exterior world of reality as well as reshaped within his dramatic structure, Witkiewicz was calling for more than just a
shift in artistic creation. He was demanding a complete transformation of set
modes of artistic perception. It was the concept of learned, culturally determined
ways of perceiving reality that Witkiewicz was attempting to subvert. He believed
it possible, through art, to manipulate unconscious or presumably natural codes
of perception, to change them, to alter the rules of how things are interpreted. By
focusing on a different set of laws, a different logic, the relational aspect of the
visual world, the combinatory possibilities offered by the dream state, the use of
discrete objects and images as if they were elementary units, Witkiewicz's theory
of Pure Form is pivotal for the development of a semiotics of visual expression.

73
An Approach to Visual Semiotics:
In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira,
city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up
the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of arcades'
curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I
already know this would be the same as telling you nothing.
The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between
the measurements of its space and the events of its past . . .
Italo Calvino - Invisible Cities
In her recent book, The Semiotics of Visual Language, Fernande SaintMartin wrestles with the complex problem of developing a method of semiotic
analysis based on visual perception. Addressing the possible coalescence of
word and image, she states that "This visual plane of expression is markedly
dissimilar to the verbal plane of expression and thus necessitates an
autonomous description of a relatively syntactic order."136 Emphasizing the
dissimilarity between the two she begins her process at ground zero, attempting
to clear a space for a tabula rasa of visual semiotic inquiry. "It remains a fact that
the determination of the basic elements of visual language has been, until now,
the stumbling block in the construction of a visual semiotics."137 While SaintMartin's study illuminates a number of important concerns in the examination of a
visual language, she is ultimately waylaid by the same misdirection of focus that
thwarted Saussure's semiotic investigation. By attempting to reduce a dynamic
system to its individual units both Saussure and Saint-Martin freeze the flow of

Fernande Saint-Martin, The Semiotics of Visual Language,


(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), xiii.
137 Ibid., 2.
136

74
time and thereby lose sight of the elementary relationships that animate the
system. The focus should not be on what fundamental units constitute a semiotic
enterprise, but on the interrelationships of those units, and how they function
within the context of that enterprise in motion.
What Saint-Martin's study does address, however, is the fact that the
language of visual perception exists with no finite alphabetical basis. Each
individual element is continually conditioned and reconditioned by the visual
relationship it has with surrounding elements. The varieties of color, shape, line,
and texture are infinite. Though constituted by a long history, the visual arts have
no "dictionary" in which to look up the "meaning" of the color red, or the definition
of a vertical line. Not grounded in a vocabulary of discrete signs, visual language
appears not to function semiotically at all, yet this appearance belies the truth.
Susanne Langer points out that music and visual expression should not be
considered languages since they are not comprised of discrete vocabularies.
They exist as communicative structures independent of a finite system of sounds
or visual elements.138 But she also observes that, "Visual forms - lines, colors,
proportions, etc. - are just as capable of articulation, i.e., of complex combination,
as words. But laws that govern this sort of articulation are altogether different
from the laws that govern language. The most radical difference is that visual
forms are not discursive."139 Though Langer deals with visual perception as if it
were an instantaneous event and not a temporal process, she does, however,
focus on a fundamental difference between language and vision. The discursivity
of language as it unfolds through time is not replicated by the temporal aspect of
vision. There is a contiguity of visual forms that are apprehended simultaneously
within the field of vision, that are then addressed as discursive units.
138
139

Langer, 223.
Ibid., 93.

75
In his essay "The Semiology of Language" Benveniste illuminates this
problem by discussing the role that various colors play in painting, design and
sculpture. Referring to semiotic capacity of color as a system of units and not
individual signs he writes:
They are designated, they do not designate; they neither refer to
anything, nor suggest anything in a univocal way. The artist chooses
them, blends them, and arranges them on the canvas according to
his taste; finally it is in composition alone that they assume a
'signification' through selection and arrangement. Thus the artist
creates his own semiotics; he sets up his own oppositions in
features which he renders significant in their order ... Color, the
material, comprises an unlimited variety of gradations in shade, of
which none is equivalent to the linguistic sign.140
Or, to reverse the focus, the infinite variety of colors are not matched by the finite
system of verbal labels. By citing the fact that it is within the frame of the
composition that all of these elements take on a signification Benveniste
suggests a logic predicated on a structure essentially different from the semiotics
of language. The artist is able to create his or her own semiotics by virtue of the
fact that the units of composition are not governed by the same discrete
signification that the units of language are. Conveying meaning through the
simultaneous relational aspect of the composition, any semiotics based on visual
expression must focus on movement, on interrelations, on the dynamic, shifting
process of signification created by the individual elements as they interact within
a temporal framework. In short, this study must focus not on signs as they exist
synchronically, but like Calvino's city of relationships, on the diachronic
associations that provide a context within which they assume significance.

140

Benveniste, "The Semiology of Language," 238.

76
This observation is echoed by Meyer Schapiro in his essay "Field and
Vehicle in Image-Signs" in which he describes the process of removing individual
units from their spatial context. "Taken out of the image, the parts of the line will
be seen as small material components: dashes, curves, dots which, like the
cubes of a mosaic, have no mimetic meaning in themselves. All these assume a
value as distinct signs once they enter into certain combinations, and their
qualities as marks contribute something to the appearance of represented
objects."141 Schapiro supplements this description by providing the example of a
dot that can be viewed as a nail head, a button, or the pupil of an eye, depending
upon its relation to the other elements within a specific context.

Figure 13: "Cross-Frame" Bicycle.

Figure 14: Sophie

Taeuber-Arp.

Meyer Schapiro, "On Some Problems in the Semiotics of the Visual


Arts: Field and Vehicle in Image-Signs," Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology,
ed. Robert Innis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 222.
141

77
This process of a self-contained semiotics, or a dynamic semiotics based
on the arrangement of elements within the composition, is illuminated by
Umberto Eco in his description of combinational units.
In this case the establishing of pseudo-combinational units does not
precede the making of the work itself; on the contrary, the growth of
the work coincides with the birth of the systems. And, provided that
these forms convey a content (which is sometimes identical with a
metalinguistic account of the nature of the work and its ideological
purport), an entire code is proposed as the work is established.142
This establishment of a code created by the work itself is paralleled in Christian
Metz's The Imaginary Signifier through his description of the compositional
structure of film.
Natural language is made up of words (and lexemes); whereas film
language has no semiotic 'level' that would correspond to these; it
is a language without a lexicon (without a vocabulary), in so far as
this implies a finite list of fixed elements. This does not mean that
filmic expression lacks any kind of predetermined units (the two
things are frequently confused). But such units, where they do exist,
are patterns of construction rather than pre-existing elements of the
sort provided by a dictionary... a pattern of construction is itself a
fixed unit (only on a higher level), and the word, conversely, is
nothing other than a construction (but one stage further down: a
construction of phonemes or graphemes in the case of the written
word).143
By illuminating the contextual activity of signification in visual expression it
becomes apparent that a semiotics of this type must reject the search for discrete
Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1976), 244.
143 Metz, 212.
142

78
signs and invest energy in the synthesis of elements contained in the visual
plane. As Jir Veltrusky discusses,
The difference between the pictorial and the linguistic sign consists
in that the material of language has the differential values
irrespective of any specific utterance because it is integrated in the
linguistic system, while the material of the picture, due to its
naturalness, acquires them only when it is used in a picture.144
Language is a system based on a finite repertory of discrete units, and
while it is possible to vary the meaning of these signs depending upon the
sentence into which they are placed, this meaning is contained within a catalogue
of possible meanings. As a collective communication system this is the only way
in which it is possible for verbal language to operate. Visual units, on the other
hand, even those that exist as symbols complete with a specificity of expression,
are always dependent upon their spatial or visual context for meaning. As
Arnheim states, "A figure perceived in comparison with another may look different
from the way it would appear by itself."145 It is this fact that was at the center of
what Dada artist Marcel Duchamp described as "Readymades." An object or
image essentially already made and able to be placed into a variety of spatial and
visual situations. This re-contextualization was implemented, much to the
consternation of "serious" art critics, when Duchamp signed a urinal with the
name R. Mutt and placed it in an art gallery as an artistic specimen.

Jir Veltrusky, "Some Aspects of the Pictorial Sign," Semiotics of Art.


eds., Ladislav Matejka and Irwin R. Titunik (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT
Press, 1976), 260.
145 Arnheim, Visual Thinking, 68.
144

79

Figure 15: Fountain.

Figure 16: L.H.O.O.Q.

In another of Duchamp's Dada stunts he took a reproduction of the Mona


Lisa, a somewhat fixed symbol or image, and drew a mustache and goatee on da
Vinci's smiling lady along with the letters L.H.O.O.Q. at the bottom of the picture.
The result significantly altered the fixed image. Basically Duchamp was taking
advantage of the manipulability of the visual world as it was contained within a
specific reproduced image. It is this process that Walter Benjamin summed up
quite well when he wrote that "Technical reproduction can put a copy of the
original into situations that would be out or reach for the original."146 Visual
elements, be they objects or images, can be moved from context to context, and
by virtue of the elements they are surrounded with, they are transformed. The
curious aspect of this is that due to their iconic nature they do not lose their
original meaning altogether. Just as the image of the cross carries with it a
certain culturally determined reference despite how it may be used within a
specific composition, the Mona Lisa is still the Mona Lisa even with mustache

146

222.

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, (New York: Schocken Books, 1969),

80
and goatee. The urinal is still a urinal despite its placement in a museum. The
visual world continually takes advantage of Barthes' system of second order
signifiers, building on previous information to move from denotation to
connotation.
Within this structure of elementary units it is possible to distinguish certain
fixed images or icons. While it may not be possible for me to look up the meaning
of a line or color in the dictionary, I can apprehend the meaning of a picture of a
cow or a well known person. These images stand as signs by virtue of the fact
that they are completed by a mental concept. The photo or drawing of a cow in
Peirce's system is a sign because it resembles a cow. This imagistic process of
signification at the level of the icon can be drawn to the level of the symbol. If I
show you a photograph of Abraham Lincoln, distinguished by the recognizable
stovepipe hat and beard, it has the iconic function of visually resembling the man,
as well as the symbolic function of conveying a great deal more information. The
image of Lincoln has become a symbol of the civil war, his assassination, the
struggle for equal rights, etc . . . The photograph, composed of individual units of
highlight and shadow, shape and line, coheres to form a discrete visual sign
complete with a specific signification. In this respect, the previous definition of
visual expression exclusively as a dynamic activity begins to take on the
characteristics of a stable dynamic system, similar to the process of verbal
language.
This statement foregrounds the difficulty of a visual semiotics. Unlike
language, vision is composed of both predigested signs and elementary units
that signify within the boundaries of composition. Yet, even a discrete sign like
the photo of a cow or Lincoln or an object like Duchamp's urinal can take on a
completely different meaning by virtue of the visual context into which it is placed.
Although it is possible, through verbal language, to imagine a visual element cut

81
off from all other visual elements, it is impossible to physically see anything in
isolation. There will always be a visual context, a space in which images are
contained.
What this string of citations and examples illuminates is the fact that the
problem of a visual semiotics, as it relates to the structure of the linguistic sign,
has a history of discussion and application. What each of the preceding theorists
brings to bear upon the world of vision is the process captured in Saussure's
distinction between synchrony and diachrony, and in James' analysis of concepts
and percepts as static and dynamic systems. These studies indicate that there is
a process of thought and perception that transpires outside the realm of linguistic
communication, while remaining resolutely entrenched in a system of
signification. This is Barthes' third meaning and second-level signifying system in
which the combination of denoted signs results in a connotation that can only be
talked around, but never quite caught within the structure of language. It is
imperative that these questions of composition, of context, of the relational
aspects of the visual sign be addressed in order to build on these observations
and begin to formulate a coherent system. Peirce's work on the sign becomes a
crucial turning point in this argument. "For Peirce a sign has meaning not as it
denotes a thing or a concept in any referential reality outside the system, but as it
refers to other signs within the sequential context of the message."147 The
interaction of the visual sign with the linguistic one, balanced against both
memory and the process of information filtered through learned modes of
perception, certainly complicates any discussion of visual signification.
Every system devised to analyze the visual plane must address the
problems of signification inherent in a process dependent upon context. The lack
Susan Wittig, "Toward a Semiotic Theory of the Drama," Educational
Theatre Journal, (December, 1974), 443.
147

82
of a definitive vocabulary, the simultaneous revealing of information, the
contextual aspect of the interrelation of elements, and the ability to recontextualize discrete visual signs only compound the problem. As Saint-Martin
describes, "Visual semiotics proposes that the composition, or rather the
structure of the work, can be deduced only from a series of equilibria established
between the elements."148 Building on the linguistic notion of the phoneme, she
identifies the "coloreme" as the basic unit of visual language.149 Saint-Martin finds
that the coloreme, like the phoneme, is the smallest, irreducible element. Line,
shape, and texture are all distinguished through color, "In effect, visual perception
can be realized only by the mediation of colors which correspond to different
quantities of reflected light."150
Though Saint-Martin's search is designed to identify the smallest visual
unit, ultimately her definition privileges context over content, movement and
interaction over stasis and separation. The coloreme, as the basic visual unit,
does not exist in isolation, that is synchronically, but only as it is constituted in
relation to other elements, diachronically. As an isolated minimal unit it exists
only in the domain of language, a concept that demands to be addressed as a
percept. What Saint-Martin has pinpointed is not a minimal unit of visual
communication, but a system of minimal relationships dependent upon the
interaction of colors subjected to the animating properties of light. The coloreme
is not a completely isolated substance, but one that can only exist in and through
its interaction with other substances.
It is through the different gradations of color that we are able to perceive
the visual world. We can distinguish highlight and shadow, warm tones and cool

148
149
150

Saint-Martin, 189-90.
Ibid., 5.
Ibid., 8.

83
tones to enable us to see the difference between a chair and a table, a Picasso
and a Dali. Yet, since the properties of color are not innately contained in these
objects, radiating from within, but composed by the reflection of light off of the
surface of these elements, it is impossible to discuss color without also
discussing the properties of light. As Arnheim points out, "No object can show its
local color without being illuminated by some light source, which has a color of its
own."151 It is the interaction of light and reflected color that play over surfaces and
crevices that enables us to apprehend the visual world. Color relies on light to
reflect it, and light relies on a surface to animate it. They are mutually dependent
upon each other, similar to the description of units in composition. Drawing this
notion of an elemental unit into the realm of sculpture and architecture, Dora
Vallier in her essay "Minimal Units in Architecture," believes that the two spatially
produced arts are grounded in the opposition of solid and hollow.152 What is
striking about this definition is how well it resonates with the notion of the
coloreme. Both solid and hollow, though spatial categories, are constituted
visually through the interaction of light and shadow upon the surface of the
object. As with the description of the coloreme, neither category can exist without
the presence of light.
This complex interaction of elements is intensified by the reception and
processing of visual information by the human mind. The eye as a receiver
provides bits of raw data that are synthesized and interpreted by the dynamic
system of memory and perception. This process of visual observation that relies
on the physical as well as psychological reception of information is contained in

Arnheim, Visual Thinking, 44.


152 Dora Vallier, "Minimal Units in Architecture," Image and Code. ed.,
Wendy Steiner (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate
Studies, 1981), 139.
151

84
the contrasting color theories of Newton and Goethe. Certainly Newton's
examination of the properties of color in light through the process of refraction are
apparent to anyone that has ever seen a rainbow. Yet Newton's color theory is
based primarily on physical, not psychological principles. Rather than explore the
properties of light in an uncontrollable environment, he opted for the solitude of
his laboratory to isolate the elements of color under strictly regulated
circumstances. Though he relied on his own perceptual observations to
synthesize his color theory, his isolationary technique addressed the
phenomenon of color in the laboratory and not in the vast world outside his
doors. Through isolation and fragmentation Newton dissected a beam of light and
concluded that "when any kind of ray has been well separated from those other
kinds, it has afterwards obstinately retained its color, notwithstanding my utmost
endeavors to change it."153 Newton's theory of light and color has certainly been
validated by scientific instruments developed to measure the waves of light and
calculate the specific "vibration" of various colors irrespective of how the mind
interprets them. Ultimately, however, Newton's color theory is based on a
physical investigation and not a psychological analysis.
Opposing this material method was Goethe, who focused on the
psychological or phenomenological aspect of color relations. While Newton opted
for the darkroom, Goethe explored light and color in a more natural environment.
As he wrote in a letter to Samuel Thomas Sommering, "The phenomenon of
colors is by far more psychological than is thought, but here the difficulty is even
greater than in other cases to differentiate between the objective and the

Isaac Newton, "New Theory about Light and Colors," Sources of Color
Science, ed., David L. MacAdam (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press,
1970), 13.
153

subjective."154

85
Focusing on the interactive nature of color through light he wrote,

"Light can never be thought of as an abstraction. We become aware of it as the


activity on a specific object, and in turn made visible by this activity upon other
objects found in the same space. Light and darkness engage each other in
continuous contest."155 Although there is certainly a difference between Goethe's
exploration of light and dark and the spectrum of perceivable colors isolated by
Newton, the contrast of the two theories offers a metaphorical similarity to the
correlation between concepts and percepts. One system classifies and isolates,
while the other explores interaction and simultaneity. Although Newton was
unable to scientifically alter the coloration of his refracted beams of light, color
theorist Josef Albers has described the fact that "we almost never see a single
color unconnected and unrelated to other colors. Colors present themselves in
continuous flux, constantly related to changing neighbors and changing
conditions."156
The perception of color is a complex psycho-physical process that is
complicated by both the quirks of optics and certain cultural uses of color. Color
is embedded in the tradition of symbolism that began when the first human
identified him or herself with a specific color by way of a flag or bit of clothing. It is
embroiled in a history of representation that includes national identification and
religious pageantry. Yet, as Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy points out,
"contemporary painting tries to free us from such fixations by emphasizing again

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe's Color Theory, (New York:


Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1971), 38.
155 Ibid., 20.
156 Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, (New Haven: Yale University Press,
1963), 5.
154

86
the direct sensuous perceptual impact of color upon the spectator."157 On one
level this attempt to free color from predetermined meanings seems impossible
since they are conditioned by a specific cultural system that constructs a schema
or framework for color perception. People are "programmed" to react to certain
colors in certain ways. On the other hand, since these are culturally determined
modes of reception they can be changed. What can't be altered, however, is how
the eye, mind, and body physically react to certain colors.
It is a fact that cool colors appear to recede whereas warm colors seem to
advance. Beyond this the complex structure of the eye provides complementary
colors in the form of an after-image. Stare at a red surface for a minute or so,
then focus on a white surface, the eye will produce a green tint to the white area.
Is it possible to consider this type of unavoidable reaction to color as a law of
visual perception, analogous to the grammatical structure of linguistic
communication? The problem with this comparison is that it defers to the oft
repeated argument concerning static and dynamic systems. The rules of
grammar are determined by a social convention, and therefore alterable, while
optic responses to visual stimuli are conditioned by the organism and are
unavoidable.
To further compound this problem of visual experience as it relates to the
process of language, Wittgenstein, in his Remarks on Color, posits, "To be able
to name a color, is not the same as being able to copy it exactly. I can perhaps
say 'There I see a reddish place' and yet I can't mix a color that I recognize as
being exactly the same."158 The classification of language in relation to images,
due to its finite nature, is not capable of capturing the whole of the visual

157

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion, (Chicago: P. Theobald, 1947),

158

Wittgenstein, Remarks on Color, 50.

155.

87
environment laid before us. It can only indicate, by virtue of conventional signs,
what is taking place.
One of the complexities of developing a system of visual semiotics is that,
like language, it must be related to a specific cultural system. As Clifford Geertz
has written, "It is out of participation in the general system of symbolic forms we
call cultural that participation in the particular we call art, which is in fact but a
sector of it. A theory of art is thus at the same time a theory of culture, not an
autonomous enterprise."159 While a work of art may create a unique context
based on its own logical structure (like Witkiewicz's theatre of pure form), the raw
material to construct that form is drawn from the cultural system in which the
artist is working. Put Duchamp's sculpture in any men's room and watch its
artistic symbolism vanish in the wake of a more immediate signifying function.
This foregrounds the problem of cultural memory. There are certain images of
people, photographs, paintings and films circulating in our society that carry a
specific semiotic weight. Duchamp's Mona Lisa is a perfect example. While the
addition of the goatee and mustache alter the contextual frame in which this
image is read, the image of the Mona Lisa, complete with its reference to
Leonardo da Vinci, is still visible. If, for example, I show you a particularly well
known media image,

Clifford Geertz, "Art as a Cultural System," Local Knowledge: Further


Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers,
1983), 108-9.
159

88

Figure 17: The Brady Bunch.

your reaction is shaped by more than what the image may denote on the surface,
namely a photograph of a prototypical American family. As a symbolic entity
drawn from the world of American television it communicates on a specific
cultural level. It would be impossible to assume that this image would signify the
same thing if used within a different cultural framework. This argument can be
extended to the visual frame that conditions the spectator's reception of the
image. If, following Duchamp, I re-contextualize this photo of Mike, Carol, and
their clan by adorning their smiling faces with goatees and mustaches, your
perception of the picture would most certainly be altered.
Discussing contemporary painting techniques in his work The Theory of
the Avant-garde, the Marxist-materialist critic Peter Brger draws a distinction
between what he calls an organic work of art, in which the parts are integrated
into a unified whole, and non-organic art, where the parts have a much larger
autonomy. "They are less important as elements of a totality than as relatively
autonomous signs."160 Brger's primary focus is on the disruption of classical
unity by the advent of Cubism. "The organic work of art is constructed according
to the syntagmatic pattern; individual parts and the whole form a dialectical unity.
(hermeneutic circle) ... This precondition is rejected by the non-organic work of
art. The parts 'emancipate' themselves from a superordinate whole; they are no

Peter Brger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, (Minneapolis: University of


Minneapolis Press, 1984), 84.
160

longer its essential elements."161

89
His belief is that the parts of a non-organic work

of art lack necessity and can be replaced. Yet the fact remains that with a visual
work of art if I change a color or substitute one object for another, the overall
structure, one based on relationships, is significantly altered. Even within a work
composed of autonomous signs there is a unity - - a merging of elements within
the same visual plane to form the image as a whole. It is not the units themselves
that take precedence, but the patterns that are created by their combination.
Analyzing the process used to create the non-organic works of art, Brger
states:
What distinguishes them from the techniques of composition
developed since the Renaissance is the insertion of reality
fragments into the painting, i.e., the insertion of material that has
been left unchanged by the artist... The insertion of reality
fragments into the work of art fundamentally transforms that work.
The artist not only renounces shaping a whole, but gives the
painting a different status, since parts of it no longer have the
relationship to reality characteristic of the organic work of art. They
are no longer signs pointing to reality, they are reality.162
He is dealing with the complex interaction between the (external) world of reality
and the (internal) logic of a work of art. Like Duchamp's Readymades, there is a
sense that these predigested signs somehow contain "ghosts" of reality past.
They carry their original signification with them, even into the new frame. This
residue of meaning is an essential element in all visual experience. The visual
plane is based on the circulation of objects, images, colors, and shapes that
signify according to the context into which they are placed. This is the logic of the
dream, using signs and symbols to express something in a fluid manner
161
162

Ibid., 79-80.
Ibid., 77-78.

90
unregulated by the matrix of verbal expression. However, visual collages, while
unified into an artistic whole, show their structural seams. It is possible to detect
an original context, as with Duchamp's Mona Lisa, whereas language is
composed of units intended for multiple combinations that conform to certain
structural patterns (i.e. the movement of a sentence from noun to verb...).
While it can be argued that a language is not composed of static units of
meaning, but shifts and changes through the process of its use, it represents a
stable dynamic system. Caught within the parameters of a specific cultural order
the individual signs that makeup a language must have established meanings to
be useful as communicative tools. This temporarily fixed state should not imply
that language does not move and change, but the flexibility of its units remain
conditioned by a social agreement. As a culture we agree that a word will denote
a certain meaning. As language unfolds through the sequential act of
communication, the individual units correspond to specific meanings which in turn
add up to more complex meanings (the overall intention of a sentence, a
paragraph, or a text). While the field of vision is composed of discrete units of
signification (individual signs, symbols and icons), it also includes elements that
take on signification only as they are judged against the whole.
It is this assessment of the whole that makes the problem of meaning with
respect to a work of art more complex than the mere identification of individual
signs and symbols. Meaning consists of a synthesis of vision and language, of
concepts and percepts within a specific cultural system. As Brger writes, "The
positing of meaning is always the achievement of individuals and groups; there is
no such thing as a meaning that exists independent of a human communication
nexus."163 This echoes Saussure's conception of language as an actively
negotiated structure that circulates throughout a culture. Meaning must be
163

Ibid., 66.

91
negotiated. Responding to the question, "what does to mean mean?" LeviStrauss states that, "It seems to me that the only answer we can give is that 'to
mean' means the ability of any kind of data to be translated into a different
language."164 If we assume that meaning is located in the communication nexus
of the culturally determined linguistic system, then any visual perception must be
filtered through verbal language to acquire "meaning."
Weaving together the topics of perception, memory, and schema, meaning
cannot be considered a static property innately hidden within the recesses of the
visual world. As Ulric Neisser has discussed, meaning " is added only later, by
contributions from memory."165 Meaning, then, cannot be viewed as an
independent function, but as an activity located at the intersection of the object
and the perceiver. Perception is filtered through memory, through linguistic
categories, and meaning is subsequently determined through this dynamic
process. Meaning is not something contained within the work of art, but actively
negotiated between the object and the viewer. This can be said of both an
essentially static piece of art like a painting or a sculpture, animated by the
viewer's gaze, and a temporal work like a theatre or dance performance. The
artist can shape the elements used to create the art work to lead the receiver in a
particular direction, but ultimately it is what the viewer receives from the work
combined with his or her own individual memory that determines the overall
meaning. Building on the notion of a fusion of horizons, Hans-Georg Gadamer
writes that, "Understanding is to be thought of less as a subjective act than as
participating in an event of tradition, a process of transmission in which past and

Claude Levi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning, (New York: Schocken Books,


1979), 12.
165 Neisser, 72.
164

present are constantly mediated."166

92
Understanding, then, "is not merely a

reproductive but always a productive activity as well."167


This intersection of the work of art and the receiver is captured by Roland
Barthes in his essay "From Work to Text." Barthes draws a distinction between
the object of art, in this case a literary one, and the product of viewer interaction
by stating that "the work is a fragment of substance, occupying a part of the
space of books (in a library for example), the Text is a methodological field."168
Relying on a musical metaphor to capture the elusive intention of the text,
Barthes posits it as a kind of musical score that "asks of the reader a practical
collaboration."169 While the work itself is a complete entity, the text asks the
viewer for collaboration to complete its meaning. "The Text is that social space
which leaves no language safe, outside, nor any subject of the enunciation in
position as judge, master, analyst, confessor, decoder."170 Barthes' "Text,"
though perhaps borrowing from the vocabulary of linguistics, also embodies the
shifting plurality that is indicative of visual expression. It requires a synthesis of
elements in order to exist; a collaboration not only between the individual
elements, but between the viewer and the work.
Ultimately, however, any form of expression, be it linguistic, musical or
visual, is more than the sum of its individual parts. The signifying capabilities of
verbal language are contingent upon an interaction with vision, and vision on its
interaction with verbal language. The constitution of human perception is
dynamic, and the analysis of a work of art can never be closed on a single
interpretation, a single meaning, or a decisive reading of individual units. Like the
166
167
168
169
170

Gadamer, 290.
Ibid., 296.
Barthes, Image, Music, Text ,156-7.
Ibid., 163.
Ibid., 164.

93
process of memory and schema, any analysis of a work of art must take into
account a process that never ceases to be in motion. Individual elements collide
within the frame of the art work, which in turn are conditioned by a specific
cultural system, as well as personal perceptual and conceptual experiences. This
study is dedicated to the process of seeing as it relates to the activity of the
theatre, and, keeping this diachronic system in mind, the following chapters will
attempt to analyze three unique theatrical practitioners. Svoboda, Monk, and
Wilson are not unique because their work is primarily visual, but because through
their artistic expressions they have made the complex operation of vision more
evident by toppling the verbal hierarchy inherent in conventional theatre.

Chapter Two: Josef Svoboda: The Context of Design:

The Context of Design:


The remarkable career of Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda has
continued to evolve for over fifty years. In that time he has remained dedicated to
the art of theatre with an unparalleled vigor and curiosity. Building on skills as a
master carpenter, developed at his father's woodworking factory, and a degree in
architecture earned at the School of Industrial Arts in Prague, Svoboda brings to
the theatre a level of craftsmanship and ingenuity that is rivaled by few in this
century. Frequently compared to Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, he
stands as an innovative theatre artist and profound theorist. Though universally
acknowledged as one of the world's leading stage designers, little other than
survey material has been published on his work in English. Best known for his
combination of multi-media technology1 with live action, it is Svoboda's attention
to the overall construction of the stage space that provides a grounding point for
a discussion of visual imagery as it is displayed in theatre practice.
The inclusion of Svoboda in this study of visual theatre exposes an
avenue of thought that is generally overlooked in favor of critical response to the
text or to the actor's performance. His work as a designer is dependent upon the
cohesion of all stage elements, a process that forces a discussion of theatre to
address the entire scope of visual imagery as opposed to a single ingredient.
While the field of design functions as an appropriate starting point, primarily
because the visual choices tend to be more obvious, the same analysis can be
extended to the work of the director, the actor, and ultimately the playwright. It is
a way of "working backward" from traditional methods; initiating the analysis with
1 The term multi-media technology refers to the combination of light, slides
and film.

87
the image as it is presented in the theatre, not as it is conditioned by a
predetermined text. This inquiry is geared toward creating a form of analysis that
engages signs as they appear in context, in performance, in motion, and no other
aspect of theatre study provides as advantageous a foundation as does design.
The question of design itself remains an elusive and complex one. Each
artist will approach a production differently, with unique skills and a varying
emphasis, yet one thing remains constant: they all work within a vocabulary
structured by color, form, shape, line, texture and rhythm. As was addressed in
the previous chapter, the combinational possibilities afforded by these elements
is simply endless. Every visual component, every object on the stage, is
invariably conditioned by the elements that physically surround it. This
modulating spatial context is enhanced by the temporal structure of performance.
Since this structure engages the activity of memory by proceeding from image to
image, elements are placed in contact with those that have preceded them as
well as those that will follow. Using the process of design as the underlying
mechanism, this analysis foregrounds the combinatory activity of the theatre
through a discussion of its spatial and temporal structure. It is again not merely a
question of the individual parts as opposed to the whole, but what effect is
achieved by their interaction. Reflecting on this aspect of the theatre, noted
Svoboda scholar Jarka Burian writes:
Svoboda is fond of illustrating his concept of the very essence of
the theatre by referring to a single chair set on the stage, as a
result of which the chair already acquires a new and special
identity; it does so all the more when it is lighted in a certain way,
and especially when it is juxtaposed with other objects. Such
objects may in themselves be quite banal, but when imaginatively
placed as illuminated, they may reveal new aspects from their
being and perhaps even their poetry. It is this highly charged

88
potential - this 'contrapuntal accord' in even the most ordinary of
theatrical configurations - that Svoboda loves and that forms the
basis of his inherent sense of theatre.2
By addressing the overall impact of the stage picture, Svoboda believes
that "each of these elements must be flexible and adaptable enough to act in
unison with any of the others, to be their counterpoint or contrast, not only to
project a two or more voiced parallel with the other elements but to be capable of
fusing with any of the others to form a new quality."3 This description of the
creation of a new quality captures the semiotic basis of visual theatre with
respect to the spatial and temporal conditioning of individual signs. Svoboda's
reliance on the fusion of elements into something new, his juxtaposed chair, his
contrapuntal accord, implements Barthes' system of second level connotative
signs, as well as Beveniste's elementary units assuming signification only
through their use in composition. These systems of representation are not
predicated on the analysis of fixed units of signification, but on dynamic
structures created by the arrangement and juxtaposition of visual elements.
While it may be presumed that this process is composed of individual
units, indicating the need for a synchronic analysis, the reality of the situation is
that the signifying qualities of visual expression can only be dealt with
diachronically. Design is ultimately an operation based on relationships in which
the continually shifting tension created between elements defines the shape and
movement of the performance. As a designer, Svoboda has invested his entire
career in this ideal. "I don't want a static picture, but something that evolves, that
has movement, not necessarily physical movement, of course, but a setting that
Jarka Burian, The Scenography of Josef Svoboda, (Middletown:
Wesleyan University Press, 1971), 29.
3 Ibid., 30.
2

89
is dynamic, capable of expressing changing relationships, moods, perhaps only
by lighting, during the course of the action."4 Like William James' distinction
between concepts and percepts, and static and dynamic systems, Svoboda's
understanding of the theatre emphasizes the dynamism inherent in the
interaction of visual elements mediated by time. Embodying the intricate process
of perception and memory, it is the convergence of past, present and future
within the theatrical frame that underscores Svoboda's discussion of the shifting
identity of the chair as a visual stage object.
This expression of changing relationships is not merely something that
Svoboda expects his settings to capture, but evolves from the interaction of the
performance as a whole. Cognizant of the fact that the theatre is a collaborative
art form that draws on many different artistic areas, Svoboda does not view the
work of the director and the actor as independent from the contrapuntal accord of
the spatial arrangement, but as integral components of the dynamic assemblage.
Scenography only makes sense when it becomes an instrument
in the hands of a director, when it becomes a space for
inspiration, a kind of technical design and plaything. Production
space should be a kind of piano, on which it is possible to
improvise, to test out any idea whatever, or to experiment with the
relationship among the various components. Only so, by means
of concrete experiment, is it possible for everyone's words and
concrete ideas to share the same objective reality.5
Though the demands of the professional theatre generally inhibit complete
physical collaboration from the beginning of the rehearsal process to the end;
that is, there must be time for the setting and costumes to be constructed, and for
Ibid., 27.
5 Josef Svoboda, The Secret of Theatrical Space, ed. and trans. Jarka
Burian (New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1993), 20.
4

90
the actors to learn their lines and blocking. It is only when all of the elements are
drawn together that the interactive nature of the theatre is truly evident. Despite
this divisionary aspect, Svoboda believes that "the theatre can never be anything
other than a constantly evolving creative workshop, in which everyone is totally
committed to the same goal."6

Dynamism and the Visual Language of Scenography:


The training of designers for the professional theatre in the United States
is generally divided into a number of distinct disciplines. The student will chose to
focus on one of the major design areas (set, light, costume or sound) and work
toward a certain proficiency within this particular segment of the craft. While there
may be some cross- over in training (a lighting designer may take costume or set
classes for example) by and large the student is encouraged to perfect his or her
skills in only one area. The nature of Svoboda's training, however, as an architect
and craftsman, places him in a unique position. Transcending the division of
labor into separate camps, he deals with the structure of the performance
through the convergence of light, movement, and concrete elements. It is for this
reason that he prefers to be called a "scenographer" rather than a decorator or
stage designer.
While this may be considered merely a semantic difference, scenography
entails a philosophical approach that is concerned with the creation of an
atmosphere that conditions the entire look and feel of the production. As Jarka
Burian points out in his preface to the recent English translation of Svoboda's
memoirs, The Secret of Theatrical Space, "Conceptually, a scenorgrapher is not
merely a visual artist interested in the theatre, but one who has mastered the
principles of design in relation to one of the 'harder' disciplines, such as painting,
6

Ibid., 42.

91
sculpture, graphic art, or above all architecture, for the scenographer's primary
challenge is that of defining, controlling and transforming space."7 As this
description indicates, Svoboda's concern with the composition of the stage space
is founded on the creation of a structured instrument that will continue to evolve
and change as the interaction of the director and actors complete the organic
whole. For Svoboda,
The goal of scenography cannot merely be the creation of a tangible
picture... and in itself [scenography] is not a homogeneous totality. It
separates into a series of partial elements, among which certainly
belong form, color, and also tempo, rhythm - in a word, the elements
that are at the disposal of an actor. And it is precisely by means of
these elements that the scene enters into close contact with the
actor, becoming capable of dynamic transformation, and can
advance in time just as the stream of scenic images created by the
actor's performance. It can also transform itself synchronously with
the progress of the action, with the course of its moods, with the
development of its conceptual and dramatic line.8
It is through this emphasis on the interaction of the actor and the stage
space that Svoboda's work echoes that of the Swiss scene designer, director,
and stage theorist Adolphe Appia. While Svoboda does not list Appia among his
major influences, the widespread dissemination of Appia's ideals has touched
nearly every corner of Western theatre practice. The main focus of Appia's
approach was to eliminate the two-dimensional trappings of theatrical convention
and begin construction of the setting with the three-dimensionality of the human
form as the guiding factor. In his rebellion against the artifice of painted scenery
and one-dimensional space controlled by the spoken word, Appia was attempting

Ibid., 7.
8 Burian, The Scenography of JS, 30.
7

92
to overcome a tradition of stage practice in which the living, breathing actor was
subjected to a lifeless, flat, painted background. Appia felt that "our stage
directors have long sacrificed the living bodily appearance of the actor to the
lifeless fictions of painting. It is obvious that, subjected to the tyranny of painting,
the human body has not been able to develop its means of expression
normally."9 He saw the danger of limiting the expressiveness of the human form
by forcing it to fight against an illusionistic background and chose as his
governing maxim the phrase "man is the measure of all things."10 Appia
understood that stage design must not function merely as a backdrop to the
action, but as a three-dimensional component within which the shape, form and
movement of the human figure is able to express its fullest potential.
Like Appia's devotion to the human form as the controlling spatial element,
Svoboda's scenographic approach is built on the ideal of a dynamic space that
functions only through its interaction with the movement and action of the actors
and the text. Opposing the concept of a static background, Svoboda's design
work is founded upon a principle of movement "which works with kinetic images
distributed in space and in the flow of time."11 This distribution creates what he
calls "psycho-plastic space: three-dimensional, transformable space that is
maximally responsive to the ebb and flow, the psychic pulse of the dramatic
action."12 It is this attention to the spatio-temporal aspect of the theatre as it is
constituted by the interaction of visual elements that illuminates the basic
difference between theatre and other art forms. The static nature of painting,
Adolphe Appia, 1862-1928: Actor - Space - Light, (London: John Calder
Publishers Ltd., 1982), 59.
10 This statement appears a number of times in Appia's writing, most
notably as the title of one of his most celebrated essays.
11 Svoboda, The Secret of Theatrical Space, 14.
12 Burian, The Scenography of JS, 31.
9

93
sculpture and architecture, animated by the viewer's interaction, is primarily
focused on the arrangement and distribution of space. Music and language, on
the other hand, are conditioned almost entirely by their temporal structure. By
providing a spatial experience through a temporal framework the theatre
combines the complexities of these individual art forms to create something with
the psychological depth of a novel and the structural integrity of a sculpture.
It is this dynamic aspect of the theatre that permeates virtually all of
Svoboda's design work. While there is a supreme architectural sense to his
designs, determined by his devotion to the arrangement of the spatial
composition, he is fully aware of how this visual arrangement affects and is
affected by the dramatic action of the text. There is always an interaction of
theatrical elements contained in his visual constructions since he understands
the implications of the relationship between space and the temporality of the
lighting and the movement of the actors. Examine this two sketches for a
production of Saint Joan .

94

Figure 18: Saint Joan

Figure 19: Saint Joan

95
While the essential architectural arrangement of space only marginally shifts, its
combination with light and movement provides the kinetic experience of space
unfolding through time. These sketches illustrate Svoboda's process quite well.
There is no sense of separation between the setting, the lighting, and the
movement of the human form; between the spatial arrangement and the temporal
process. Both are conceived and presented simultaneously, each dependent on
the other for existence. Corresponding to the example of Saint Martin's search for
the minimal unit of vision outlined in the first chapter, in which the coloreme is
conditioned by its interaction with other elements, the dynamism inherent in
Svoboda's design work relies on the collaboration of visual components: the
minimal relationship of space and time.
Upon investigating the series of Saint Joan sketches, I discovered that
the small platform to the right side of the stage offered a perfect example of
dynamic contextuality. As a structural entity used to compose the stage space it
represents little other than itself. It is a square platform in physical proximity to a
triangular wedge. Beyond its simple structural form, the manner in which the
platform is interpreted is dependent upon what elements condition its reception.
By placing a table and stool on the platform it is able to signify a dining area. A
bed and small end table allow it to represent a place to sleep. The addition of
these simple objects to the performance space contextualizes and recontextualizes the square platform. These gestures are purely mimetic, however,
as the area becomes the stage representative for living spaces culled from daily
life. It exists as the sign of a sign, indicating a familiar dinning or sleeping
chamber.
Yet, in another scene, the platform moves from a purely mimetic function
to a symbolic one. Covered with what appear to be drops of blood, it connotes an
entirely different type of space, one not exclusively physical. It is the psycho-

96
plastic space of Saint Joan, in which the platform and the drops of blood
combine with the flowers and the lone flag in the distance to evoke a somber
atmosphere. As in Barthes' combinational system of second level signs, the
denotation inherent in the simple square structure conjoins with other simple
denoting elements to produce a gesture connoting human loss. This is obviously
an interpretation of this visual structure of the stage space as filtered through the
narrative of the play. If placed in a different narrative context it might signify
something completely different. The reading of loss transpires through a true
synthesis of verbal and visual language that produces a specific connotation by
virtue of the interaction of discrete elements.
Like painting, sculpture, and architecture, theatre has worked to develop
its own distinct visual language to communicate with its audience. Describing
what he considers to be essential to this process, Svoboda states that "All of this
is expressed by form ... formally . . . Quite simply, my motto is that each art must
be expressed by its own means, its own form."13 Taking into account the spatial
and temporal differences between independent art forms, Svoboda remarks that
"The ideal is a scenography that will not borrow expressive means from other
disciplines of visual art but will evolve its own creative alphabet."14 Svoboda's
reliance on a linguistic metaphor to express the basic components of the
scenographer's craft should not be taken to mean that the visual plane is
confined to the logical structure of language. There is an accumulation of tools
and images that comprise a visual vocabulary independent of a linguistic
vocabulary.

Jarka Burian, "Josef Svoboda's American University Tour 1972."


Theatre Design and Technology, (May, 1973), 11.
14 Jarka Burian, Svoboda: Wagner: Josef Svoboda's Scenography for
Richard Wagner's Operas, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), 99.
13

97
Like any visual phenomenon, a scenographic "alphabet" cannot be
contingent on a set of units with a limited scope of combinational possibilities. It
is this "visual alphabet," moreover, that unlike the collectively determined
principles that govern the process of Western linguistic communication, continues
to change and evolve with each new technological discovery. From etched clay
tablets to papyrus to the advent of the printing press written language has gone
through a period of adjustment and refinement. Once established, however,
various technological advancements have altered its printed form very little.
While it is possible to foresee the evolution of written language through
advancements in the field of artificial intelligence and computer generated multimedia environments, the typewriter and the computer have merely picked up
where the scribe left off. While a similar comment can be made about the
structure of the theatre in relation to technology (the presentation of a live event
before a spectator has changed very little since the theatre's inception), the same
cannot be said about the form of the theatre's scenographic alphabet. It is a
system that continues to evolve with each new technological advancement.
Discussing the role that these new developments play in relation to the past,
Svoboda commented:
We have to make an inventory of all the things which have been
used in the past, look at them from a contemporary viewpoint and
use them again. But not passively, like our ancestors of two
hundred years ago. Instead we have to include fresh materials or
openly admit that they have been used and thus present them as
quotations. With the development of techniques and technology
this alphabet has expanded.15

Helena Albertova, "Even a Disciplined Stage Designer Has His Dreams:


An Interview With Josef Svoboda," Theatre Czech and Slovak, (Vol. 4. 1992), 63.
15

98
While the metaphor of a scenographic "alphabet" conditioned by past and
future discoveries is a useful starting point, the comparison with the structure of
language extends only so far. Theatre is a visual art form that is continually
defining and re-defining elements dependent upon their spatial context. Recall
Svoboda's example of the chair in which a seemingly static visual object is
conditioned by its surrounding elements. The temporality of the theatre indulges
continual spatial change, allowing an inanimate object like a chair to
progressively express something different. Granted, the physical appearance of
the chair remains stable, but the spectator's interpretation of that stable image is
affected by the visual context into which it is placed. This is the distinction
between the system of verbal language and the system of visual perception.
While the first chapter expressed the inability of the human mind to think and
communicate without the interaction of language and vision, it also explored the
independent functions of each system. Due to its use value as a communicative
tool, verbal language must be founded upon components that carry with them
discrete meanings, whereas the visual plane creates shifting patterns of meaning
through the interrelationships of pre-digested images and elemental units.
Emphasizing the fluctuation of visual alliances, Svoboda discussed his
composition for a production of Gorki's The Last Ones by stating that "It's all
structured like music, and a law is present. Break it and a new one is set up. This
is what attracts me - leitmotifs and repetitions, then sudden contrast."16
Kinetically moving through time like a piece of music, the visual aspect of the
theatre is founded upon the ability to set up perceivable relationships and then
alter them in the wake of a new context. This was demonstrated by the example
of Svoboda's design for Saint Joan where the basic spatial structure remained
fairly stable, but the emotional resonance of each scene changed according to
16

Burian, The Scenography of JS, 103.

99
what had been added or taken away. The combination of lighting, color,
movement, and the arrangement of objects within the overall spatial composition
established and then re-established certain visual laws and relationships.

The Isolation of Architectural Elements:


Although Svoboda contends that he came to the theatre as an architect
and craftsman with little knowledge of the theatre's traditions, he has
nevertheless built upon methods of production that preceded him. Like the long
line of Shakespearean actors that resonate in the voice of John Gielgud's
performance of Prospero in Peter Greenaway's film Prospero's Books ,
Svoboda's work carries with it the legacy of stagecraft as it was developed in
Europe and America in the early part of this century. During the mid 1940's as an
architecture student at the School of Applied and Industrial Arts in Prague,
Svoboda encountered Czech scene designer and architect Frantisek Troster. As
Svoboda has commented, "everything I've learned about spatial composition I
learned from him."17 Focusing attention on the subject of space, Troster explains
that "The foundation of stage action is space. The stage itself is a hollow cube
into which it is necessary to place artificial space, dramatic space."18 Discussing
the future of theatre practice, Troster captured the complex path that his student
would take when he wrote that "Film reveals the details of a tear-drop. The
theatre discovers the same - insofar as it is possible in terms of its technical and
dramatic essence. An originally flowing action is interrupted. The action, actor
and even property approaches or withdraws. It is a pervasive sign that the

17Svoboda,

The Secret of Theatrical Space, 36.


18 Jarka Burian, "Czechoslovakian Stage Design and Scenography, 19141938: A Survey-Part 2," Theatre Design and Technology, (Fall, 1975), 27.

100
evolution of the theatre space will be influenced by new technical innovations in
optics, lighting, as well as discoveries of new materials."19
While Svoboda cites both his architectural training and Troster's influence
as important to his conception of space, he admits that the person who made the
greatest impression on him with regards to the theatre was the Czech stage
director E.F. Burian.20 As a director Burian carried with him the traditions of
Russian and Central European staging techniques. A one time pupil of the
eclectic German producer and director Max Reinhardt, his deepest influence
came from the constructivist work of Vsevelod Meyerhold.21 According to Jarka
Burian (no relation), E.F. Burian's attention to the stage not merely as a place to
present physical action, but the physical manifestation of psychological action
through technological means, influenced virtually all Czech theatre artists
between 1930 and 1950.22 As Svoboda put it, "By watching his rehearsals and
productions, I learned how to direct lighting, how to provide it with a score."23
Burian's chief designer was Miroslav Kouril, with whom Svoboda would
eventually found the Scenographic Laboratory, a workshop dedicated to
investigating and creating the necessary performance space and equipment
needed to promote technologically advanced theatrical experimentation.24 Burian
and Kouril collaborated to create a mixture of live action and projections which
they called "Theatergraph." While Erwin Piscator had previously experimented
with projections to provide specific locations and backgrounds for his theatrical

Ibid., 29.
20 Charles Spencer, "Designing for the Stage," Opera, (August, 1967),
19

631.
Ibid.
22 Burian, The Scenography of JS, 6.
23 Ibid.
24 Svoboda, The Secret of Theatrical Space, 54.
21

101
stagings, Burian and Kouril did not use projections to provide documentary
information but to create visual metaphors that permeated the narrative world of
the play.25 Their focus was on psychological and not physical stage
representations presented in a multi-media environment.26 Though working in a
very technically limited atmosphere, Kouril and Burian's attention to light and
projections laid the ground work for the further development of multi-media
theatre.27
Frequently compared to Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, it is Svoboda's
focus on the simplification of spatial arrangements coupled with a synthesis of
visual elements that also places him in direct relation to Lee Simonson, Robert
Edmond Jones, and other proponents of the New Stagecraft. Originally used in a
1912 article by the critic Walter Prichard Eaton to describe the work of Craig and
Max Reinhardt, the term "New Stagecraft" would eventually embody the
movement toward the unification of all stage elements into a complete dramatic
whole that was taking place in both Central Europe and America theatres. As
Simonson describes it,

Frantisek Cerny, "Lighting That Creates the Scene and Lighting as an


Actor," Innovations in Stage Design, ed., Francis Hodge. Papers of the Sixth
Congress International Federation for Theatre Research. Lincoln Center, New
York, NY. October 6-10, 1969. (Austin: Published by American Society for
Theatre Research and Theatre Library Association, 1972), 139.
25

For a more complete overview of Burian and Kouril's work see Jarka Burian's
"Czechoslovakian Stage Design and Scenography, 1914-1938: A Survey - Part
II," and Frantisek Cerny's "Lighting That Creates The Scene and Lighting as an
Actor."
27 The present study is focused on the examination and analysis of select
aspects of Svoboda's scenographic technique. For a comprehensive overview of
his life and training see Jarka Burian's study The Scenography of Josef Svoboda
and Svoboda's The Secret of Theatrical Space.
26

102
The actual revolution achieved by modern stage production, both in
direction and design, was nothing less than a new conception of a
dynamic theatre accompanied by a complete change in our ways of
seeing - the balance of speech, gesture, form, and light, fluctuating
in their continuous interplay but at all times achieving a continuous
unity of effect at every moment of a sustained and coherent
performance.28
This unity of effect created a model for play production that undoubtedly
conditioned Svoboda's approach to stagecraft. Though coming to the theatre
from the perspective of an architect with the understanding that the foundation of
stage action was space, it is the movement toward a complete synthesis, a
fusion of color, light, set, costume, actor and text, that has always been at the
heart of his scenographic ideal. Examining the arrangement of Svoboda's spatial
compositions, it becomes apparent that he has regularly relied upon simple
architectural elements (doors, platforms, ramps, windows) to construct his stage
space. This attention to minimal visual units echoes the work of Max Reinhardt
and Leopold Jessner.
The business of these artists, whether working on a realistic play or
an imaginative one, was to evoke the atmosphere of the piece in
setting and in lights. They fell back on three general principles to aid
their sense of line and color in visually dramatizing the action. They
simplified the stage picture. They subordinated or eliminated detail.
They put as little as possible on stage that might distract the
spectator from the meaning of the general design (which was the
meaning of the play), or from the actions and speeches of the
characters.29
Lee Simonson, The Art of Scenic Design, (New York: Harper and
Brothers Publishers, 1950), 19.
29 Kenneth Macgowan and Robert Edmond Jones, Continental Stagecraft,
(New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1922), 43.
28

103
Although both Reinhardt and Jessner continued to work with a number of scenic
designers, their innovative strength as directors was their ability to pull all of the
elements together into a coherent, dramatic whole.30 Emerging from the ideal
that the director must be in control of every element, these simplified stage
images became organic machines composed of the interaction of the set, the
lights, and the movement of the actors.
Building on the practical ideas of these two directors, combined with the
theoretical work of Appia and Craig, the designers of the New Stagecraft worked
to capture the "soul" of the play through visual means. Elements were reduced to
a suggestive atmosphere that would surround and support the images the
designer found in the written script. Robert Edmond Jones described the process
of design as creating "a shell of light and color so arranged as to express the
intensity of the playwright's vision."31 No longer conceived of as a mere static
backdrop, the stage setting began to be regarded as a delicate cortex within
which the action of the play could evolve. There is a dynamism inherent in Jones'
description of the interaction of stage space and the dramatic space conceived of
by the playwright. Extending this interactive ideal to Svoboda's conception of the
stage as a spatial entity, the dynamic nature of his process is evident in the
frozen photographs, sketches and models he uses to document his work.
Composed of dynamic elements, like Saint Joan's platform and drops of blood,
these images seem poised on the edge of movement, ready to instantaneously
transform to achieve the desired dramatic effect.

An end result for which they were, more often than not, given full credit.
31 Robert Edmond Jones, "The Decorator," The New York Times,
(December 10, 1916), No pagination.
30

104
Steadfastly working to create a kinetic environment, Svoboda appears to
have inherited the philosophical thrust of the New Stagecraft movement.
Although designers like Simonson and Jones were concerned with synthesis and
suggestion, their shells of light and color ultimately deferred to the intensity of the
playwright's vision. Svoboda's work, however, while still influenced by the
structure of the text, moves beyond an illustration of the script to create a
completely dynamic spatial and psychological atmosphere. His unique talent as a
designer is his ability to produce space that does not just support the language
of the text, but equals the expressivity of the text. This design process can be
divided into two specific compositional forms; the architectural, with its focus on
physical objects in space, and the imagistic, centering on his use of multi-media
technology. While the two terms are useful linguistic categories to establish
discreet groupings to address the scope of Svoboda's career, they are not
mutually exclusive.
It must be remembered that in conjunction with his work as an architect of
the stage space Svoboda is also a craftsman deeply concerned with
understanding the tools at his disposal. He approaches the theatre like a
carpenter would approach the fashioning of a chair or a cabinet. If the
craftsperson did not fully understand the properties of the wood he or she were
working with, or how to use the tools to manipulate that wood, the product would
be remarkably inferior. The make-up of Svoboda's scenographic alphabet, the
collection of tools at his disposal, is as imbued with the familiar materials of paint
and lumber as it is with more contemporary technological gadgets like the
computer and the slide projector. There is no true division between his use of
doors, ramps, platforms, and projected images; they are all elements in his
scenographic toolbox. Like all aspects of his spatial creations there is an
interdependence and collaboration of all stage elements. His use of projections

105
owes as much to his concept of spatial composition as his attention to space
does to technology.
Keeping this in mind, I would first like to examine the architectural quality
of some of his more well known stage settings. Created from an arrangement of
doors, platforms, windows, ramps and stairs, these designs do not exist as static
spatial arrangements, but provide the actors and the director with a machine for
performance. A kinetic psycho-plastic instrument responsive to the ebb and flow
of the dramatic action. As indicated by this photograph of his famous 1963
Prague National Theatre design for Romeo and Juliet , the stage is composed of
isolated architectural units.

Figure 20: Romeo and Juliet.

106
The balcony, the stairs and the platforms, while defining the space of the stage,
are inanimate objects left to hover amid a visually ambiguous context. As
elements of the production's visual language, they are like artistic units assuming
signification only as they are utilized by the composition as a whole. They are
dependent upon the interplay of light, narrative, and physical action to
contextualize them as elements of the production's dramatic atmosphere.
Combined with the movement of the actors and the lighting, these isolated
elements were able to shift horizontally and vertically along the depth and width
of the stage. By using a series of small motors, pulleys, belts, jacks, and springs,
Svoboda literally created a dynamic machine capable of expressing the
emotional content of the play. Elements were not only re-contextualized by their
interaction with the actors, but by their change in physical location. While it can
be argued that a bench merely signifies a bench regardless of its theatrical
context, the perception of these physical objects continually shifts as they are
used and re-used throughout the performance. Taking full advantage of the
manipulable quality of visual perception, Svoboda points out that "it wasn't only a
matter of kinetic architecture; its individual elements also had to be
transformable. For example, the fountain wasn't merely a meeting place for the
youth of Verona; it was also transformed into the lovers' wedding night bed as
well as their tomb."32 The key to the dynamism of Svoboda's design work is in his
manipulation of these transformable elements; and it is this transaction that must
be considered in any discussion of the semiotic possibilities of a visual
perception. The visual transformation and audience reception of these objects is
ultimately conditioned by the specific context into which they are placed.
Svoboda's 1971 design for Otomar Krejca's examination of Sophocles'
trilogy entitled Oedipus -Antigone , offers another example of kinetic space
32Svoboda,

The Secret of Theatrical Space, 62.

107
dependent upon light and action to create a dramatic whole. Consisting of eight
large wooden cubes tracked to allow movement upstage and downstage, the
composition of the stage space was continually re-defined throughout the entire
performance. The cycle opened with the audience facing an impenetrable wall
completely filling the proscenium opening. As the action began, a portal opened
to emit a great shaft of light followed by the entrance of the actor portraying
Oedipus. This modular wall then fragmented into a series of ever changing
platforms, doorways, and stairways.

Figure 21: Oedipus-Antigone.

As a kinetic space this design relied upon the interaction of the movement
of the actors and the lighting to sculpt and define the environment. After
presenting the horror of the lives of Oedipus and his family, the production
culminated with the proscenium opening being once again walled up by the
imposing wooden cubes. Svoboda created a kinetic spatial environment that
moved and interacted with the dramatic and psychological activity of the
narrative. At the conclusion of the performance of Sophocles' Antigone, with the
cycle of death complete, Svoboda employed a brilliant visual metaphor for the

108
monumentality of this tragedy by leaving the audience staring at the same blank,
impenetrable wall that had greeted them upon their entrance to the theatre. This
gesture of creating a barrier to the stage space with the wooden blocks was at
once a cyclic return to the beginning of the story as well as a visual
representation of its finality.
This technique of placing isolated elements in various contexts is replicated
in Svoboda's design for Brecht's Mother Courage . Simplified to an even greater
extent than Romeo and Juliet , the spatio-temporal structure of the play was
captured by a single suspended metal platform. One side was crumpled, torn, and
corroded to represent the
battle-scared earth, while the other was
polished to a shiny silver, "a suggestion
of glistening armor, the other side of
war's coin."33 Throughout the
performance the single set piece was
tilted, raised and lowered moving in
conjunction with the dramatic action. In
one respect, the design functioned as a
visual metaphor
representing the complexity of Brecht's text,

Figure 22: Mother Courage

but in another it provided a kinetic landscape that continually shifted to help


define the emotional atmosphere of the performance. In Brechtian fashion, the
hovering metal platform was more than just a mere presentation of a spatial
environment, but commented on the action as it moved from moment to moment.
Alternately revealing its corroded and polished sides, this kinetic platform

33Burian,

The Scenography of JS, 160.

109
embodied the social dialectic inherent in Brecht's work, visually echoing the
continual moral and physical junctions encountered by Brecht's characters.
Like the acting technique that Brecht promoted in which both the actor and
character are to be simultaneously visible, Svoboda's setting did not fade into the
background, but continually made its material presence known. "Like a soaring
bird or a cloud, it sometimes tilts toward the audience and lets us read into its
contours what our own imagination projects. And when the soldiers rattle across
it, the effect is absolutely that of musique concrete - it becomes a musical
instrument . . . A marriage of utility and aesthetics in scenography."34 This
deliberate simplification and isolation of spatial elements is indicative of the stage
language that Svoboda has developed over the years. Ultimately it is the
convergence of performer, lighting, and setting that distinguishes the difference
between the work of a decorator and a scenographer. One provides a backdrop
in front of which the action is played, the other a kinetic space within which the
action evolves.

The Move Toward Multi-Media Images:


The isolated physical elements continuously re-contextualized by the
dramatic action in Romeo and Juliet, Oedipus-Antigone, and Mother Courage ,
while offering good examples of kinetic scenery, were limited by their material
properties. As mobile as the hovering platform in Mother Courage may have
been, there was a limit to how far and at what speed it could be tilted, raised, and
lowered. Svoboda's desire to create kinetic images to interact with the dramatic
action of the text and the movement of the performers suggests that the flexibility
of multi-media technology offered him an expressive alternative to the physical
limitations of his architectural designs. Light- projected images are capable of
34

Ibid., 161.

110
changing instantaneously at the push of a button, and of accommodating an
unlimited number of choices with an endless number of possible combinations.
Svoboda's imagination was no longer tied to the constraints of the material world,
but could unfold through the intangible medium of light. As fluid as music or
water, projections are capable of supporting the action by ebbing and flowing
throughout the entire performance. What is important to remember is that
Svoboda did not withdraw from the theatre in favor of film, but worked to
incorporate this new technology into his concept of spatial composition.
Called upon to create a performance for the Czechoslovakian Pavilion at
the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, Svoboda collaborated with director Alfred
Radok on an exhibition that was to be the hit of the fair. They devised a form of
presentation called "Laterna Magika," which reflected Svoboda's desire for the
complete integration of all dramatic elements. In an interview published in The
Drama Review in 1966 Svoboda defined the technique as a "theatrical synthesis
of projected images and synchronized acting and staging."35 The Laterna Magika
is a method of production that works to eliminate the hierarchical nature of
performance and strike a balance between the live actors and the prerecorded
film sequences. Referring to this combinatory process Svoboda comments that
"The play of the actors cannot exist without the film, and vice-versa - they
become one thing. One is not the background for the other; instead, you have a
simultaneity, a synthesis and fusion of actors and projection. Moreover, the same
actors appear on screen and stage, and interact with each other. The film has a
dramatic function."36

Josef Svoboda, "Laterna Magika," The Drama Review, (Vol. 11, #1


(T33), Fall 1966), 142.
36 Burian, The Scenography of JS, 83.
35

111
It was with this emphasis on dramatic function that Svoboda and Radok
were working in the Theatergraph tradition of Burian and Kouril. The combination
of live actors and multi-media did not merely present physical locations, but was
free to express the psychological atmosphere of the piece. Though the Laterna
Magika of 1958 was primarily a propaganda production expressing the beauty of
Czechoslovak life, the overwhelming interest in this production was not centered
on content but on technique. Quite simply, the interaction of the various media
was as entertaining as it was technologically complex. At one point a filmed
woman stepped through a filmed doorway and was miraculously transformed into
a live actor on the stage. At another point the same live actor was accompanied
by a projected band composed of five filmed images of the same man, each
playing a different instrument. Svoboda and Radok had succeeded in capturing
the new art form that New Stagecraft designer Robert Edmond Jones had called
for in 1929 when he wrote that "[With] the simultaneous use of the living actor
and the talking picture in the theatre there lies a wholly new theatrical art, an art
whose possibilities are as infinite as those of speech itself."37
While Jones believed that the integration of live action and film would
undoubtedly create a new theatrical art, Svoboda's performance technique is not
completely divorced from the ideology of synthesis and simplification inherent in
the New Stagecraft tradition. By utilizing his knowledge of spatial composition
Svoboda used the integration of this new technology as a way of expanding his
scenographic alphabet.

Robert Edmond Jones, "Theory of Modern Production," Encyclopedia


Britannica, (14th Edition. 1929), 40. For a more complete examination of Jones'
theories of this new theatrical form and how it has developed through Svoboda
and other's work, see Delbert Unruh's "The New Theatre of Robert Edmond
Jones," Theatre Design and Technology, (Winter 1988), 8-15 + 46-52 + 57.
37

112

Figure 23: Kta Kabanov, 1943.

During my personal interview with


him in the summer of 1993, Svoboda
placed photographs from 1943, the
beginning of his career as a stage
designer (top right), alongside
images from the Brussels exhibition
(bottom left)."The same," he said.
Although the Laterna
Figure 24: Laterna Magika. Brussels, 1958.

Magika performance is

considered a
pivotal moment in the evolution of Svoboda's career, the concept of the
integration of projections, whether they be controlled shadows or more advanced
film images, has continued to remain the driving force behind his scenographic
creations.
The earlier image was composed of shadows created as light interacted
with an architectural setting, and the latter, through an arrangement of projection
surfaces and slides. What is significant in both of these examples is that light is
an intangible substance that is dependent upon interaction with physical

113
elements to allow it to be seen. Laterna Magika is not merely slides and film
projected onto the stage, but projected onto something tangible.38 Whether these
tangible elements are a projection surface, a set piece, or an actor, light must
interact with a physical component that defines the space of the stage. As a
designer Svoboda is continually expanding his vocabulary by incorporating new
techniques and new ideas, yet each of these new acquisitions is filtered through
his architecturally determined dynamic approach to spatial composition.
Though concerned with the interaction of light and space from the
beginning of his career, it was with the culmination of live action and projections
in 1958 with the Laterna Magika that Svoboda made his most influential mark on
contemporary stage design. A marvelous example of the sum revealing more
than the parts, this technique offers a level of visual manipulability that enables
the designer and director the freedom to shift both visual and temporal contexts
in the blink of an eye. This dynamic process is imbued with the qualities of visual
perception that enable to viewer to examine the world from a variety of
perspectives. As Czech theatre critic Jan Grossman wrote, the scenic forms of
the Laterna Magika were capable of "seeing reality from several aspects, of
perceiving a situation or a person in the usual relations of time and space, and of
seizing them in a different manner, for instance, by confrontation with an event
set in a different time."39

What needs to be kept in mind in this discussion is that "Laterna


Magika" defines both a technique of design that combines live and filmed action,
as well as a producing theatre organization that Svoboda has headed since 1973
- hopefully the context in which I use it will make the difference between the two
clear.
39 Reprinted from the Journal Divadlo in Laterna Magika 1958-1983.
Souvenir Program issued by the Laterna Magika. Prague: Czech Republic. 1983.
38

114
While dominated by the tapestry of projected images, Laterna Magika
productions ultimately rely on the architectural arrangement of projection
surfaces, a synthesis of light and space. For the original 1958 production
Svoboda devised a series of movable geometric screens that continually redefined the performance space. As the stage and film action shifted focus, so too
did the geometry of the space. The 1991 production of The Play About the Magic
Flute combined a static background surface, similar to a cyclorama, with a
textured, crumpled surface designed to move vertically in front of the cyclorama.
The 1977 production of The Wonderful Circus framed the stage with movable
white drapery.

Figure 25: The Wonderful Circus.

This type of kinetic, surrounding element was also used for the 1987
Laterna Magika production of Odysseus. Providing a shifting canvas on which to
project a collage of images Svoboda has referred to this blank, manipulable
surface as fabion. "Builders use the term to describe a rounded connection piece
between the wall and the ceiling. For me it is a sheet of paper with nothing written

115
on it. A4 format, lightly bent into a curve with a folded corner. This is the tabula
rasa on which the story will be written using the stage techniques."40
At its best the Laterna Magika technique embodies the ideal of dynamic
collaboration between live and filmed images. The Wonderful Circus ,41 even
seventeen years after its premiere, remains a delightful use of multi-media
technology. With little narrative structure, the piece involves the relationship of a
magician/ringmaster and two rather goofy clowns. This relationship is
compounded by various circus tricks and an amorphous "love interest"42 that sets
up a rivalry between the ringmaster and the clowns. The interaction between the
live performers and filmed images is remarkably well choreographed. At one
point the live actors pull a rope that raises filmed curtains, at another point the
two clowns attempt to put out a filmed fire through mimed urination. Perhaps the
best example of the use of this technique is the scene in which the two clowns
and the woman climb into a basket and appear to be floating above the earth.
The combination of their live actions with the projected images is as disorienting
as it is beautiful. Much like the confusion that occurs between a ventriloquist and
his or her dummy, while we may consciously understand that it is merely an act,
we are drawn into the stage illusion. In a sense we believe that they are indeed in
the basket of a balloon, and time and space become mutable properties as the
blending of live action and film allow for a complete shift in location, perspective,
and perception.
At its worst, however, this technique becomes a hollow shell in front of
which the performers merely perform. The best example of this division between

Albertova, 65.
41 Still in repertory at the Laterna Magika in Prague - with new cast
members continually replacing older ones.
42 Who initially appears as Aphrodite, and then becomes a ballet dancer.
40

116
the actor and the setting is a production that Svoboda himself directed for the
Laterna Magika of Friedrich Drrenmatt's poem "Minotaurus." While the
construction of the stage space was visually engaging, there were only a few
instances where the live action and filmed action interacted as well as in The
Wonderful Circus .

Figure 26: Minotaurus.

Despite the three-dimensional tunnel-like environment that surrounded the


actors, there was a complete separation between actor and film, between
foreground and background. Perhaps this is due to the brevity of the actors'
costumes. As can be seen from the photograph, the three-dimensionality of the
performers is emphasized by a continual awareness of their physical bodies. The
Wonderful Circus manages to significantly limit the spectator's awareness of the
performer's body by covering it with make-up and costume. This is not to say that
the "body" of the actor completely disappears within the fabric and grease-paint,

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but they allow the human figure to be masked in order to provide a point of
convergence between the three-dimensional actor and the two-dimensional
projected images.
By examining this rupture of synthesis between live and filmed action, the
difficulty in combining flat projections and the three-dimensional human form
becomes more apparent. The two media exist in very different spatial and
temporal contexts, as is obvious by recalling any film in which the "live" action in
a moving vehicle is backed by the moving "filmed" roadway. There is an inherent
conflict in juxtaposing a three-dimensional form with a two-dimensional
projection. As unsuccessful as the interaction of performer and projections were
in Minotaurus , it proved to be extremely helpful in illuminating certain techniques
that Svoboda has developed to blend live and filmed action.
The Laterna Magika technique is not as simple as turning on a film or slide
projector and expecting that an integration between live and filmed action will
magically transpire. The two exist in very different spatial and temporal realms.
The three-dimensionality of the human figure can only be marginally represented
by light projected images. The flexibility of the film to change perspective and
location with the push of a button cannot be replicated by the materiality of the
actor. The film, though unfolding through time, repeats its actions with the
precision of a painting or a sculpture. The images are fixed, segmented and
arranged for maximum dramatic interest. The live actor, on the other hand,
recreates the images anew each time. As rehearsed as the actions may be, the
actor stumbles, sweats, speeds up, and slows down, responds to the audience,
and adjusts his or her performance to individual rhythms that the film is not able
to compensate for. All of this works toward revealing the seams of the
construction and dissolving the union between these disparate elements.

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This problem of spontaneous live actor and unchanging filmed image was
addressed by the 1965 Boston Opera production of the Marxist composer Luigi
Nono's Intolleranza . As an adaptation of the Laterna Magika technique this work
remains a landmark in Svoboda's career for two very distinct reasons. First, it
was his American design debut, and second, Svoboda believes this piece to be
"the biggest, most complicated and best production I have ever done. It has not
been surpassed since."43 One of the crucial adjustments to the 1958 technique
was a removal of the strict adherence to prerecorded images. Instead of relying
on film to provide the projected images, Svoboda used television techniques to
project a TV image onto the series of screens that comprised the spatial
arrangement of the stage.44
He was now able to transmit actions performed in studio spaces adjoining
the theatre and as far as three miles away, of delaying the actions by preserving
the image on tape to force the actor to confront his/her former self, of reversing or
producing negative images of what was being presented live, and finally, of
projecting of the audience into the theatrical space.45 Svoboda explained that he
had used "TV in this second. TV from the city. TV of the actual protesting of the
production that was going on outside the theatre."46 As a convergence of various
locations, images and stage actions, Svoboda drew on terminology used to
describe some of John Cage's theatrical experiments by commenting that above
all Intolleranza "was a directed happening."47

Personal Interview with Josef Svoboda. Prague: Czech Republic.


September 15, 1993. (Subsequently noted as "Interview").
44 Burian, The Scenography of JS, 103.
45 Ibid., 103-4.
46 Interview.
47 Ibid.
43

119
Although the use of closed-circuit television and video was a major
element of the production, Svoboda also employed static images and slogans
projected onto the series of moving surfaces. Recalling his access to the New
York Times' archive of filmed and still images, Svoboda stated that "the
experience was miraculous. It was great to get all of this material. It was a
paradise."48 Beyond these technological and artistic developments, the Boston
production remains important because Svoboda was able to complete work he
had begun with Nono in 1961. The two had originally collaborated on Intolleranza
's Venice premiere, but unfortunately, the projections designed by Svoboda were
never seen since the producer of the festival was intimidated by the political force
of Svoboda's material and substituted slides of abstract paintings by the artist
Emilio Vedova.49 Although Svoboda's spatial arrangement of screens was still
used for the original production, it was the Boston version that provided evidence
of his scenographic philosophy through the close collaboration of Nono's score,
the stage action, images, and the composition of the stage space.
Nono's work is confrontational on both artistic and political grounds, an
energy reinforced by Svoboda's projected imagery. Combining an atonal score
with Nono's theme of intolerance, the dramatic thrust of the opera illuminates the
horrors of twentieth- century civilization. Displaying the brutality of human
interaction one scene unfolded through a "nightmarish montage of 'scenes of
injustice' - - a Negro lynching, street riots, the desolation of Hiroshima, decaying
bodies stacked in graves."50 These images were juxtaposed with televised shots
Ibid.
49 Janet Monteith Gilbert, Dialectic Music: An Analysis of Luigi Nono's
Intolleranza, Unpublished Dissertation. (The University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign, 1979), 28.
50 "Swatches and Splashes," (Review of Intolleranza ), Time, (March 5,
1965), 66.
48

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of the audience projected into the theatrical space. Through the combination of
music, live action and projected images, the spectator is implicated in the horrors
of twentieth-century life.

Figure 27: Intolleranza. Boston, 1965.

Intolleranza illustrates Svoboda's use of multi-media technology to create


a scenographic atmosphere that best supports the dramatic nature of the script.
The beauty of his manipulation of visual elements, however, is that it tends to
move beyond the psychological implications of the narrative. He works with visual
metaphors that rely on the dynamic interaction of all dramatic elements. Like the
architectural design for Oedipus-Antigone or Mother Courage, the projection of
the audience onto the dramatic space of Nono's opera worked to shift the
perspective of the spectator. Projecting the images of those sitting in the theatre
within the context of lynching and the devastation of Hiroshima worked to
foreground the audience's responsibility for these actions. Like Wittgenstein's
description of a triangle that can be conceptually addressed in a number of
different ways but perceptually seen only one way at a time, Svoboda's
combination of projections physically, not merely theoretically, shifted the

121
audience's perspective. It is quite easy to understand that what one is witnessing
is morally wrong, and at the same time do nothing to change it. By forcing the
audience to see their own images within the context of these horrors Svoboda
made it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore them. Nono's opera may have pointed
the finger of morality at the spectators, but Svoboda's design visually wrenched
them from their seats and implicated them in the continuation of these atrocities.

Kinetic Compositions: Cords, Slats and Mirrors


In conjunction with his use of slides, film, and closed circuit television,
Svoboda's concern with spatial composition adds another dimension to the
collaboration between the design and the performer. Besides the series of screen
arrangements created for the Laterna Magika, Svoboda has developed a
number of additional approaches to opera and drama that allow the stage space
to interact with the projections. Sir Laurence Olivier's 1967 production of The
Three Sisters presented what Jarka Burian believes to have been his most
successful use of stretched cords.51 This technique of framing the stage with a
series of taut cords enabled Svoboda, through the use of projections and lighting
effects, to form "the impression of a solid wall, delicate bars, or shimmering
depths without precise limit."52 Not attempting a mimetic representation of reality
but an evocation of its emotional content, the shifting visual impact of the cords
animated the inner dynamic action of Chekhov's play.

Burian, The Scenography of JS, 48.


52 Ibid., 49.
51

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Figure 28: The Three Sisters.

Chekhov's verbal and emotional tapestry, a narrative constructed by his


intertwining of the lives of his characters, is embodied in the layers of Svoboda's
spatial structure. There is a translucency to Chekhov's story in which we can see
a suspended hope through the lives of these three sisters as clearly as if we were
reading the lines of hardship etched onto a weather-beaten face. Like the
monumentality of the wooden boxes for Sophocles' Oedipus-Antigone, the
ethereal stretched cords captured Chekhov's perpetual "golden chain"
suspended from an oak tree on a far sea shore.53 Both the chain and the cords
disclose a layered dramatic form in which images of the past and future
continually haunt the present. While never physically changing location, the cords
were always visible, propelling the dramatic action by offering a kinetic surface on
which the interplay of light and shadow could move. Although they were the
dominant visual element, the cords were supplemented by isolated and floating
doors and windows, significant elements of Svoboda's scenographic vocabulary.
The advantage of this technique is that not only do the cords provide a delicately

Anton Chekhov, The Three Sisters. Translated by Michael Frayn (New


York: Methuen Inc., 1983), 86.
53

123
infinite surface on which to project, but function as a spatial curtain or wall that
can be passed through, and interacted with, by the actors.
Svoboda's design for the 1974 Bayreuth production of Wagner's Tristan
and Isolde experimented with yet another pattern of stretched cords. As Burian
described it,
The production verified for Svoboda the efficacy of the strung cord
system as a new form of cyclorama in depth, one that has no
folds, can be walked through, can virtually disappear depending
on the lighting, and takes projections to create a feeling of three
dimensional colored light.54
Arranged around a conical ramp as
opposed to the more domestic settings
for The Three Sisters, these cords
offered the same type of dynamic
scenographic element. Visually altered
throughout the performance by the
lighting angle, color, and movement of
the performers the stage
became a kinetic spatial composition.

Figure 29: Ground plan for Tristan and Isolde.

Similar to the stretched cords is Svoboda's work with curtains and


projection surfaces strategically slit to allow the performers to pass through them.
The two offer the same type of manipulability as the cords, but provide a more
solid background. One of the most dynamic uses of this technique was in his
1982 Prague production of Hamlet . Gone were his trademark fragmented,
isolated elements and elaborate visual images; instead the stage space was

54

Burian, Svoboda: Wagner, 46.

124
defined through a simple arrangement of stairs and black drapes. Questioned by
Burian on the asceticism of this production, Svoboda referred to this piece as
embodying the concept of divadlo nula or zero theatre. He defines it as:
theatre returning to its own essence rather than relying on other
media. Not rejecting other media or means but making more
precise just how to use them . . . while starting from the beginning
again, from fundamental principles. In this Hamlet and other
productions I've tried to create space by minimal expressive
means, using the basic space of the stage and reworking it for a
given play with a minimum of elements, and with more emphasis
on the actor.55
Svoboda has always been careful to point out that he does not merely
use dynamic elements simply for flashy effects; rather they must support the
inner life of the play. He believes "It all depends on how you use technology: an
electric current can kill a man or cure him. It's the same in a theatre production:
the technical element can harm or it can be used to help prepare a
masterpiece."56 As discussed before, Svoboda is a craftsman who continues to
expand his scenographic vocabulary by acquiring new techniques.
Understanding one's tools is the basic credo of any craft, and Svoboda is a firm
believer that "knowledge of the technical makes creativity possible."57 He has
often commented that he has devised and experimented with some remarkable
elements within the confines of his laboratory space, but must wait for the right
opportunity to implement them on stage. Knowing better than to allow his tools to
dictate his art, he has stated that "I get these stage designing dreams, ideas, but

Ibid., 102.
56 Burian, The Scenography of JS, 23.
57 Ibid.
55

125
if I haven't got the right drama program or technical conditions, I keep it for later. I
am intelligent enough not to use it in folly. I wait until their time comes."58
Despite the stripped down look of the 1982 Hamlet , Svoboda's
remarkable talent for creating dynamic space was evident in the first appearance
of the court members. Alone on the bare stage surrounded by the void of black
drapery, the melancholy Dane sat silently awaiting his mother and new king. With
a flourish, the white-clad King, Queen and court members burst through the back
curtain from the slits that Svoboda had provided. The effect was stunning. By
invading the stark somber atmosphere of Hamlet's depression with the blinding
white costumes of the court the striking contrast in both their physical and
psychological states was profoundly evident. The visual juxtaposition of black
and white created by the confrontation of the immobile Dane with the suddenly
revealed jubilant court, make it clear that no other contrast would have had as
much impact.
Within the culturally derived system of Western representation, the visual
opposition of black and white constitutes a binary structure, the symbolic
meaning of which extends to an infinite variety of conceptual conflicts: light and
dark, on and off, alive and dead, good and evil. It was as if Svoboda had thrown
a switch to turn night into day, a wonderful example of a complete synthesis of all
theatrical elements into one crisp image. As the court members simultaneously
entered the stage through the slit curtain, the dynamism of Svoboda's work
combined with light, costumes and the movement of the performers to shift the
psychological mood and visual context of the stage space in an instant. It was a
kinetic collaboration of spatial and temporal elements.
With the final image of the play Svoboda again revealed himself to be a
master of kinetic space. Stabbed by Hamlet, Claudius collapsed backward,
58

Albertova, 55.

126
tearing down the curtain that had provided him with such a remarkable first
entrance. Behind the void was a seemingly unending staircase flooded with an
intense white light. The entire stage was transformed. What once seemed a
confining and encompassing space now stretched up infinitely. In the final image
of the play the inert body of Hamlet was carried up these stairs and enveloped in
the blinding white light. By framing the majority of the play's dramatic action
within a simple void, Svoboda took advantage of a single element, the black
curtain, to provide two remarkable dynamic stage images.
Faced with the confining void for nearly the entire production, the
revelation of the monumental staircase forced a re-evaluation of my perception of
both the dramatic space that represented Elsinore, and the performance space
enclosed within the theater's fixed structure. My assumptions about this dark and
confining world, based on the visual information provided by the setting, were
radically altered in the wake of this revelation. In a Genet-like turn of events, the
emptiness of the dramatic space was magnified and the hollowness of Elsinore's
rule amplified as that which had been hidden was now unmasked. Again
Svoboda's dramatic space relied on the opposition of discrete elements.
Supporting Shakespeare's narrative of sin and redemption with its visual
equivalent, the confining black area was countered by a blinding white expanse.
The constrictive nature of Claudius' reign was enveloped by the purging light of
death. Like Wittgenstein's question about an unrecognized appearance that
suddenly bursts into focus, Svoboda's design for Hamlet provided a shifting
relationship of visual elements that succeeded in completely altering established
perceptions.
In his 1991 design for the Czech National Theatre production of Rusalka,
Svoboda used a series of hanging strips, made from projection screen material,
to create yet another remarkable kinetic environment. Like the Laterna Magika

127
technique, the key to this design was the interaction between the live action and
filmed images. The strips of projection material hung like icicles above the stage,
and moved up and down depending upon the spatial arrangement of the scene.
Constructing the space from a simple arrangement of ramps and platforms,
Svoboda also added the dimension of projection screens surrounding the entire
perimeter of the stage. The effect was similar to some of his earlier work with the
Laterna Magika technique, but both the scale and depth of the space seemed
limitless, encompassing, surrounding, and immersing the performers in the
projected images.

Figure 30: Rusalka.

With a plot similar to Disney's Little Mermaid , Rusalka relates the story of
a water nymph who falls in love with a prince, and seeking human form enlists
the aid of an evil old witch. One of the most memorable scenes, with regard to
the combination of live and filmed action, was when the old witch conjured up a
spell to change herself into a lovely young princess. The dramatic action was

128
visually expressed by the combination of a lighting effect and a projected image.
The old witch moved in and out of the lowered strips of projection material as red
light and a film of smoke enveloped her. It was an enchanting combination of
kinetic scenery, projections, and a live performer. The strips swayed and danced
as the performer augmented their position by her movements. By using strips of
material as opposed to a fixed projection surface, the Laterna Magika technique
was expanded to provide a mobile environment in which the three-dimensional
human form was neither swallowed up nor separated from its background. It was
a true synthesis of disparate forms.
This synthesis foregrounds the temporal contexualization of visual theatre.
In true scenographic fashion the combination of the hanging strips and
projections enabled Svoboda to radically alter the atmosphere of the space.
Simply by changing the color of the light and the projected images, the stage
shifted from a delicately shimmering glade by the edge of a lake to the
tempestuous transformation of the old witch. This aspect of Svoboda's design
work illustrates the contextual manipulability inherent in the visual language of
the stage. By altering one or two elements the entire picture takes on a new
signification. Though the hanging strips and screens around the perimeter stayed
in the same position (that is, the spatial arrangement remained static), the
sequence of projected images succeeded in creating an entirely new
atmosphere.
In conjunction with cords and strips, Svoboda has used mirrors to
augment the spatial and psychological atmosphere of his productions. Like
Genet's whirligig of assumed roles metaphorically reflected in the surface of a
fun-house mirror, Svoboda has used reflective surfaces to compound his stage
projections and blur the distinction between what is on stage and what is off. His
design for the 1961 production of The Magic Flute had slightly distorted mirrored

129
surfaces that framed the performance space as walls, ceiling and floor. The
mirrors extended the space of the stage to include that which is generally hidden
from the view of the audience. As Svoboda describes it, "The mirrors were used
to reflect period objects off stage in the wings - flats, props and so on. Also a
ballet off stage, which normally might disturb or get in the way of stage
business."59
Used for dramatic effect in Gombrowicz's The Wedding , a series of
partially transparent mirrors divided the performance space into upstage and
downstage areas. The combination of elements visible through the mirror and
reflected in the mirror's surface created a tremendous depth and overall dreamlike feeling for the production. Though determined in part by the physical
properties of both the stage objects and the mirror, by combining projections,
reflections, and elements revealed behind the transparent surface, this design
took full advantage of the manipulable qualities of visual perception. Blurring the
distinction between the downstage and upstage areas, Svoboda "could place a
table and chair behind the mirror, plus another chair in front of the mirror and
align them in such a way as the front chair seemed part of the rear arrangement,
as well as being isolated in front of the mirror."60

Burian, The Scenography of JS, 44.


60 Ibid.
59

130

Figure 31: The Wedding.

Perhaps his most successful use of reflective surfaces was for the Capek
brothers' The Insect Comedy. Two huge honeycombed mirrors were erected over
the performance space that reflected the staged action as well as the changing
floor surface. The mirrors provided an alternative viewpoint for the audience,
distorting the action into a kaleidoscopic combination of live and reflected
elements. Accompanied by a "mirror shadow," the performer becomes an
element of both the background and the foreground. The mirror, while reflecting
the physical presence of the actor, also permits that presence to be manipulated
as an element of the overall stage design. As the phenomenologist Maurice
Merleau-Ponty observes,
More completely than lights, shadows, and reflections, the mirror
image anticipates, within things, the labor of vision. Like all other
technical objects, such as signs and tools, the mirror arises upon
the open circuit [that goes] from seeing body to visible body . . .
The mirror's ghost lies outside my body, and by the same token
my own body's 'invisibility' can invest the other bodies I see.
Hence my body can assume segments derived from the body of
another, just as my substance passes into them; man is mirror for
man. The mirror itself is the instrument of a universal magic that
changes things into spectacle, spectacles into things, myself into
another, and another into myself.61
This merging of live and reflected action reinforces the dynamism of
Svoboda's design work. The material actor is transformed into an intangible
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, (Evanston:
Northwestern University Press, 1964),168.
61

131
image as malleable and distortable as a projected image. As the mirror's ghost is
released from its earthly domain, it gains the freedom to become part of the
spectacle. Like the cords and slats, the mirrors work to dissolve the separation
between the performer and the kinetic space. What the mirrors are capable of
doing is transforming the actor into a formal element of the design. No longer is
the actor present merely as a conduit for the text, but the human body is
reflected, and in some instances refracted, to take on an entirely new spatiality.
As visual units rely on their context for signification, the mirror compounds the
possibility of these formal combinations. Separated from the physical body, the
mirror shadow is invested in the spectacle in a way that the live actor cannot be.
No longer tied to its materiality, the reflected human form is free to float within the
overall visual pattern created by the design. Providing the audience an alternative
viewpoint, the mirrors, like the strips and the cords, are animated by the
movement of the lights, the projections and the performers. The entire visual
arrangement is activated not merely by contiguous elements, but elements as
they combine within a kinetic framework.

Light as Form in Space:


The prominence of light as an element in Svoboda's scenographic
philosophy has pervaded all of my descriptions of his architectural compositions.
What is important to point out is that light continues to be the crucial element in
all of his designs. As Svoboda has stated, "Light has remained an inexhaustible
and unending inspiration for my work."62 Whether employed through projections,
white light, or colored light, this intangible substance unifies and contextualizes
all of his spatial arrangements. Light is not added into his designs as they move
from sketch to reality, but an integral component in his understanding of spatial
62

Svoboda, The Secret of Theatrical Space, 16.

132
composition. As an intangible substance it permeates space by infiltrating
crevasses and bridging the gap between the performer and other physical
elements. It is through this attention to light as a unifying substance that Svoboda
shares the most with Adolphe Appia.
In his theoretical writings Appia drew a parallel between the function of
light within a production and that of music. He believed that light could move
through the entire performance underscoring the action and creating the
appropriate atmosphere to encompass the dramatic text. He hailed light as the
ultimate synthesizing element, drawing together the three dimensional human
form with the surrounding performance space. As New Stagecraft designer Lee
Simonson wrote, "The light that is important in the theatre, Appia declares, is the
light that casts shadows. It alone defines and reveals. The unifying power of light
creates the desired fusion that can make stage floor, scenery, and actor one."63
By drawing on Appia's theoretical concerns with light that casts shadows,
Simonson realized that "the full value of any set, its form, color, its every accent
and the mood it establishes and sustains, depends on the balance of light on
it."64
As visual elements within the performance space, the actor and the
surrounding objects may comment on each other by virtue of their contiguity, but
the union of their physical orders relies on specific attention to the human body
as a form in space. In examining Svoboda's designs, either through photographs,
sketches, video or live performances, the presence of light must be considered
the overriding element. As discussed in the previous chapter, it is the different

Lee Simonson, The Stage is Set, (New York: Theatre Arts Books,
1963), 358.
64 Lee Simonson in Walter Prichard Eaton's The Theatre Guild: The First
Ten Years, (New York: Brentano's Inc., 1929), 203.
63

133
gradations of color created by the interplay of light and shadow that allow us to
perceive and relate to the visual world. Yet, as Goethe discovered, this
perception is conditioned by a variety of elements, both physical and
psychological. In any performance there is a unity of effect in the movement of
the actor, the language of the text, the sequence of images, and the interplay of
light and shadow that condition the overall perception of the dramatic action. All
of this is filtered through the memory and the personal and cultural schema of
each individual audience member. The reception of an image is conditioned by
past and future images as well as the psychological state of the receiver.
Perception is a dynamic process compounded by the temporality of the theatre.
Svoboda's scenographic objective is founded upon the creation of kinetic
space that defines and reveals the action of the performance. Distinguished by
his philosophical ideals as well as his design work, Svoboda's apprehension of
spatial composition is defined and conditioned by the presence of light. Color and
shadow are an integral component to all of his creations, often having more than
just an atmospheric function. Light can guide the audience throughout the
production as well as edify the dramatic action. It is through his use of light that
he is able to isolate and fragment specific physical elements, defining and redefining the entire spatial arrangement. Responding to an interview question
about his design for the 1965 Brussels production of Hamlet , he cautioned, "You
have only seen an exhibition model, which is misleading. In the theatre the
audience never saw the whole machine, only the parts presented to it, lit in
isolation."65 As evidenced in both Rusalka and Saint Joan, the physical space
remained fairly stable, with some slight modifications, but it was the movement of
light that propelled the dramatic action and transformed the stage from moment

65

Spencer, 634.

134
to moment. By changing color, angle, intensity and projections Svoboda is able to
continually alter the visual field, and re-contextualize all that is within it.
One of his most frequently used lighting techniques is what he refers to as
"contralighting ," or backlighting. By illuminating both the performers and the
setting with a strong light from behind, Svoboda actually carves the human form
into the space. This technique not only helps to establish the distinction between
the foreground and the background, but, moreover, allows the actor to exist
within the theatrical space as a mobile, structural entity. The focus is on nullifying
the differences between the organic human figure and the artificial stage setting.
By illuminating the actor from behind, highlights and shadow surround the figure
and allow it to be viewed not as a form in the space, but a form of the space.
This was Oskar Schlemmer's goal at the Bauhaus; to achieve a kind of "ambulant
architecture" in which the performer does not just speak and move in a hollow
shell, but assumes an active role in defining the space. Though incorporating
music and sound, Schlemmer's pieces functioned more like pantomimes or
dances than the narratively driven structure of conventional theatre. His was a
theatre of spatio-temporality in which he tested the boundaries of the organic
human figure as it related to the artificial architectural environment of the stage.
Pitting the human organism against abstract space, each with its own laws of
order, Schlemmer asked:
Whose shall prevail? Either abstract space is adapted in
deference to natural man and transformed back into nature or the
imitation of nature. This happens in the theatre of illusionistic
realism [the naturalistic or purely mimetic theatre]. Or natural

135
man, in deference to abstract space, is recast to fit its mold. This
happens on the abstract stage [the theatre of images].66
Schlemmer sought to transform the organic structure of the human figure
by its combination with light, color, shape and movement. In this respect, he was
creating a theatre that was dependent upon the juxtaposition of natural and
artificial elements to create dramatic tension. However, the tension created in
Schlemmer's theatre cannot be discussed in the same way as one might discuss
the dramatic tension in Sophocles' trilogy. Schlemmer did not rely upon narrative
to place elements into conflict, but physically placed conflicting elements side by
side to create tension through their visual contiguity. Reading Schlemmer's work
in the context of a visual semiotic analysis, it is evident that by subordinating the
natural order of the human form to the abstract stage he was working to combine
elementary units into signifying entities dependent upon the logic of the visual
structure to create a dynamic composition of pure form.
Like Schlemmer, Svoboda is concerned with form and space as they
relate to the movement of the human organism. Though Schlemmer sought to
transform the natural movement of the actor into a kind of "ambulant
architecture," and Svoboda follows the Appian notion of focusing on more natural
human rhythms, their work is parallel in terms of their attention to spatial
composition through temporal means. Both designers developed a form of
theatre that relied on human movement to animate the kinetic stage. Svoboda's
reliance on light to animate the human figure within his artificial spatial
environment allows the three-dimensional human form to function as a defining
component of the stage space. While he shares with naturalism a use of the
Oskar Schlemmer, "Man and Art Figure," The Theatre of the Bauhaus,
ed., Walter Gropius, (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press,
1961), 22-3.
66

136
physical presence of the actor to propel the dramatic action, his attention to the
architectural quality of that action via the manipulation of the human form draws
his work away from a purely mimetic representation of the world that lies beyond
the doors of the theatre.
In order to facilitate this incorporation of the organic human figure within
the artificial stage space Svoboda worked with lighting and optics specialist
Miroslav Pflug to develop a specific type of low voltage instrumentation that
would provide a narrow, intense, white beam of light. By arranging a series of
these instruments Svoboda was able to create remarkable dramatic scenes in
which the body of the actor was silhouetted against the background and used to
define the appearance of the performance area. The difficulty in dealing with the
actor as a structural element of the performance space is that the function of the
actor is generally thought to be simply the conduit for the text. While the human
figure is inevitably a visual component in the overall stage picture, by lighting it in
a specific way the designer can foreground the shape, line, and movement of the
actor; that is, utilize the human shape as a formal element of the design in the
same manner as he or she might use a platform, a chair, or a splash of color.
Similar to the technique of dance lighting in which the majority of the light hits the
body from the side to emphasize it as a spatial component, Svoboda's use of
contralighting works to sculpt the body via its interaction with highlight and
shadow. This approach illustrates the difference between the actor being
considered the only major force of a production, and the realization that the actor
is also a scenographic element equal to all other elements.
It is through this interaction of light and shadow that Appia's concern with
the convergence of various media within the theatrical frame manifested itself.
Angered by the conventions of painted scenery he wrote that "a plastic object
demands lights and shadows that are real and positive. Placed before a painted

137
ray of light or a painted shadow-projection, the plastic body stubbornly remains in
its own atmosphere, its own light and shadow."67 This is the problem that
Svoboda faced in creating the Laterna Magika technique. Drawn from different
media, the human figure and the projection stubbornly remain in their own
atmosphere. By manipulating the manner in which the actor is illuminated he was
able to significantly diminish the discrepancy between the forms.
While Svoboda's use of contralighting is important in dealing with the actor
as three-dimensional element of the space, its antithesis is important for
minimizing the difference between live action and projections. By illuminating the
actor primarily from the front, either by the projections themselves or by a
narrowly focused spotlight, the three-dimensionality of the human figure is
significantly modified. What this technique concedes in highlight and shadow it
more than makes up for in unification. Both the projected images and the human
body stubbornly retain their own spatial atmosphere, but by flattening out the
actor and projecting the images onto a series of movable surfaces the two media
find a point of confluence.
This convergence of disparate elements is reinforced by an extension of
the contralighting technique to allow the intangible media of light to be
transformed into a tangible entity. By flooding the stage with a specially designed
vapor composed of electrostatically charged particles, Svoboda created what he
describes as "light as substance, light materialized."68 This materialization was
facilitated by the interaction of light and the electrostatic vapor. A similar effect
can be achieved by flooding the stage with the mist from a block of dry ice or any
number of smoke or fog effects. The difference between these approaches and

Adolphe Appia, The Work of Living Art and Man is the Measure of All
Things, (Florida: University of Miami Press, 1962), 9.
68 Burian, The Scenography of JS, 65.
67

138
Svoboda's technique rests on the problem of dissipation. Most fog or smoke
effects tend to dissipate very quickly due to the air currents present in the theatre.
The smoke is simply pushed off of the stage. The ingeniousness behind
Svoboda's vapor is that it takes advantage of common dust particles, electrically
charged so that they refuse to settle in one place but continue to repel each
other. Some of the most frequently reprinted photographs of Svoboda's work are
from productions that have utilized this technique to great dramatic effect.

Figure 32: Tristan and Isolde .

This 1967 production of Tristan and Isolde worked through a combination of


light, vapor and stretched cords to create an ethereal column of light. As Burian
points out
Its method of operation is characteristic of Svoboda's creative use
of technology. A series of low voltage units were placed around
the center of the spiral, aimed directly upward. Ten or fifteen
minutes before the column or pillar was to materialize, an aerosol

139
spray of droplets was released above the lights to create a dense
atmosphere that would remain invisible until the desired moment.
Only when the lights were brought up to full intensity did the
glowing, burning column materialize as an impalpable substance
created by light.69
As an element of design, light is constituted and constitutes that which it
encounters, embodying the elusive properties of visual elements in relation to
their signifying capabilities. Quite simply, light permeates and surrounds every
visual element in our field of perception, but needs a physical context in order to
be noticed. As an element of visual expression it is contingent upon a relationship
with material elements for its existence. Like Josef Albers' description of "colors
presented in a continuous flux,"70 the intangible substance of light is dependent
on the dynamic structure of visual perception. What Svoboda achieved with his
aerosol spray was to establish light as a material substance wherever the light
and vapor interacted. No longer relegated to the function of mere illumination,
light could now be used as an enveloping and defining spatial force.
Looking closely at his design for the Metropolitan Opera's 1974 production
of Verdi's Sicilian Vespers , we can see that Svoboda again used the
combination of low voltage instruments and aerosol spray to create a haunting
atmosphere.

Burian, Svoboda: Wagner , 41-43


70 Josef Albers, Interaction of Color , (New Haven: Yale University Press,
1963), 5.
69

140

Figure 33: Sicilian Vespers .

Though stripped down in comparison to some of his other work, the design for
Sicilian Vespers achieved the scenographic ideal of offering a striking visual
experience that captured the dynamic action of the opera. Svoboda's technique
of illuminating mist does not provide a mere backdrop to the dramatic action, but
a tangible space with which the human figure can interact. The projections of light
on mist create a three-dimensional quality to both the light and the air. The
performer moves through the mist as he or she would move through the cords or
the hanging strips of projection material thus creating a physical connection
between the kinetic space and the dynamic actor. It is this fusion of all of the
elements on stage (light, air, mist, spatial composition and performer), that
reveals Svoboda's scenographic genius.
It is this collaboration between elements that supports the "pure form"
dreams of Witkiewicz examined in the first chapter. The reality external to the
stage should not be slavishly imitated, but used as raw material for inspiration.
The artistic product presented within the confines of the performance space
emerges with its own rules of order and its own logic of composition. This is an
approach to the theatre that foregrounds design by emphasizing the complexity
of visual expression. Images, objects, and symbols can all be transformed by

141
their visual context. Used as artistic signs they are dependent upon their
relationship to other elements to incorporate them into the composition as a
whole. As Svoboda points out,
I'm not interested in making a burning bush or an erupting volcano
on stage, in creating an illusion of reality, but in acknowledging
the reality of theatrical elements, which can be transformed nonmaterially into almost anything. I've called them 'space in space.'
For years this possibility of infinite transformation has fascinated
me, as has the research for the real, authentic, and inherent
reality of the stage. 71
This possibility of infinite transformation depends upon the interaction of
visual elements to create an artificial world of dramatic action. Svoboda
addressed this process of visual fusion in his own work when he wrote that
"visual images of the stage and of external reality were to be placed in new
relationships and create new dramatic elements and a new theatrical reality. The
idea reached its full realization in 1958 with Laterna Magika at Brussels."72 As
discussed before in relation to this technique, it is the collaboration of live action
and filmed action that makes the Laterna Magika process effective. The formal
barriers that exist between these elements break down through the use of
specific lighting techniques, and unification is achieved via visual and physical
interaction. Pure form is established when all of the elements work together for a
specific dramatic effect. Remove or alter one component and the internal
structure collapses in the wake of a new set of relationships. Not attempting to
replicate an external reality on the stage, Svoboda uses various techniques

Svoboda, The Secret of Theatrical Space, 18.


72 Burian, The Scenography of JS, 53.
71

142
(contralighting, mist, projections, strips, cords, simple spatial arrangements, and
mirrors), to work toward the complete fusion of all performance elements.

Photographs vs Live Performance:


One of the curious things in relation to studying any dynamic system by
analyzing still images was addressed by Svoboda's warning that "There's a
danger in seeing my work in photographs. All the elements tie in with each other
and depend on the principle of kineticism; a photo can't capture this, even when
nothing mechanical is involved."73 While I completely agree that the component
of movement is lost by the static nature of the photo, there is another aspect to
this process that I have found to be quite intriguing. After living for about a
decade with the multitude of published still photographs of his work, I was
recently able to witness a few of his designs in performance. I must admit that the
experience yielded a combination of awe and disappointment.
While Svoboda is correct in stating that the principle of kineticism is lost,
what is gained by the freezing of the image is the flattening out of all of the
elements, including the three-dimensional human form. Photographs of
Minotaurus, The Play About The Magic Flute, and The Wonderful Circus are at
times infinitely more interesting than the live performances. The photograph
almost completely eliminates the tension between the foregrounded actor and the
shell into which he or she is placed. True, the temporal aspect is gone, but so is
the depth of space that creates the tension between these two media. A pure
form is created by this static representation of the live event as all of the
elements fuse into a two-dimensional image. While the visual fusion is complete,
what must be remembered is that as striking as the photo may be, what makes
the image theatre is almost wholly lost.
73

Ibid., 121.

143
As the kinetic context is frozen by the photograph the images no longer
exist in the same spatial plane. The relationship between elements changes and
the image becomes something completely different. Theatre is a diachronic
system and cannot be analyzed as if it were able to be frozen and dissected like
a script or a novel. The signs presented within a shifting visual context by a live
performance demand to remain animated, demand to be addressed as they
unfold through the temporal process of the theatre. Though this study has used
photographs to explore various techniques and elements of Svoboda's design
vocabulary, I have continually tried to supplement them with a description of the
staged action. Ultimately, scenography is not about how striking the images are,
nor how complex their technological basis is, but the effect that the expression
composed of images, text, performer and motion has on the entire, dynamic
stage picture.

Signs, Symbols, and Icons:


What is evident in all of Svoboda's design work, opera, drama, and
Laterna Magika, is his dedication to the manipulation of individual elements to
create a scenographic space in which the action unfolds. Though he contends
that "I hate symbolism; I have no desire to make my set mean anything. I aim at
atmosphere,"74 his use of simple visual elements fragmented and isolated take
on a great deal of symbolic significance. Yes, an atmosphere is created, but not
without involving the complex process of signification embedded in the act of
perception. Examine this sketch for his Laterna Magika production of The Tales
of Hoffmann .

74

Spencer, 633-4. Italics mine.

144

Figure 34: The Tales of Hoffmann.

The construction of this image relies upon the combination of elements within a
specific context. The surrounding water may provide atmosphere, but it also
carries with it a certain symbolic significance. The combination of the poles and
the water have such a Venetian connotation that my reading of these images is
conditioned by my own personal interaction with them. The meaning and
symbolism that I as a viewer derive are created by the interaction of color, light,
shape, texture, modes of perception, and memory. While a meaning may be
indicated by the specific combination of elements in this image, ultimately
interpretation rests on the spectator's animation of it. If the combination of poles
and water did not connote Venice to the viewer, then the reading would be
entirely different.
This individual or even culturally conditioned aspect of the visual medium
has not been ignored by Svoboda's design philosophy. Certainly it is impossible
to take into account all possible interpretations of a given work, but his choice of
images reflects his attention to the cultural framework into which a given
production may be placed. Indeed, commenting on the pre-production planning

145
for Odysseus he stated: "In selecting our means we had to keep in mind the
public [various European cities to which the production was scheduled to tour]
which is not so used to making associations in the theatre as our public [the
Czech public] - since we had behind us years of having to understand puzzles
and secrecies."75 Each public, it was assumed, was conditioned to see things in a
different way and would bring a different cultural perspective to both the art of
the theatre and to the performance.
While not invested in symbolism, Svoboda has stated that one of the most
fundamental principles of the Laterna Magika is "the necessity of creating familiar
emotional situations with several layers of meaning, filling them with
contemporary, equally familiar signs derived from stage, music, and film."76 Quite
simply, the success of such pieces as The Wonderful Circus has relied upon
easily identifiable signs in combination with other images. This is a system of
visual relationships between the live and filmed segments that is built up over the
course of the performance. Obviously this is not a process specific to Svoboda,
but to perception itself. The Wonderful Circus has been able to continue running
for almost twenty years, with the original filmed segments intact, because it takes
advantage of easily identifiable signs. The icons of the costume and the makeup
are enough to allow the blending of the projected elements and the live
performance to remain remarkably similar over time despite the changes in the
cast. As audience members we identify the clown on film as the clown on stage
because they are both wearing the same costume and makeup.
This creation of specific "laws" of visual perception necessitates a
discussion of memory in relation to a shifting theatrical context. Commenting on

Albertova, 65
76 Svoboda, The Secret of Theatrical Space, 120.
75

146
the Laterna Magika technique, Svoboda captured this operation brilliantly in a
statement from his recently published memoirs:
The essence of film's artificial reality was also found to lie in the
perception of simple signs and in the viewers' need to become
accustomed to their patterning and significance and to learn how
to look more deeply. The very style of the film seemingly
enveloped the characters of the film with its own, further
significance.
We also verified that as soon as the same psychological or logical
actions - that is, aggregates of certain signs - are processed
several times in the same manner, the manner itself begins to
bear a further, distinct meaning.
After all, our affective memory, which draws from realities of daily
life as well as from various non-objective or imagined realities, is
capable of expanding their meaning to form patterns of affective
association, which in a special way deepen and enrich those
realities with added significance.77
This description relies on the fact that elements on stage are conditioned
both by their external reality, or context outside the theatre, as well as their
relationship with other stage elements. All of this is filtered through the dynamic
system of memory. Laws are invariably being set up and destroyed as the
signification of certain visual signs shifts according to their context in the flow of
dramatic action. Like Eisenstein's theory of montage and Pavio's description of
backward masking, the entire production of Hamlet is conditioned by the
revealing of the hidden staircase in the play's final moments. Elements of
memory and divergent perceptual approaches condition and encompass visual

77

Ibid., 115.

147
signs within a production like the combination of Svoboda's mist and intangible
light. Both may be present, but it is only during their selective interaction that it is
possible to be consciously aware of them.
Finally, the goal of this discussion of design has been to point out the
impossibility of segmenting the visual language of the theatre into its constituent
elements (As Kowzan and others in his wake have attempted to do). One cannot
discuss the performer without also addressing the costumes, the setting and the
lighting. Nor is it possible to single out one visual element and not deal with the
visual context into which it is placed. Theatre is a dynamic process that cannot
be halted by a methodology predicated on a diachronic approach, but demands
that the "contrapuntal accord" created by the convergence of all visual elements
be central to any discussion. It is this multi-layered approach derived from my
analysis of Svoboda's design work that I will use to examine the work of Meredith
Monk and Robert Wilson.

Chapter Three: Meredith Monk: The Art of Excavation:

Monk and the Question of Design:


Meredith Monk is a unique figure on the landscape of contemporary visual
theatre. Combining the skills of composer, director, choreographer, performance
artist and film maker, her work, like any visual phenomenon, is always more than
the sum of its individual parts. Building on these distinct disciplines she has
created a multi-media, multi-layered technique that draws on the scope of history
to create fully contemporary works of art. Monk's approach tends to be more
overtly political than either Svoboda or Wilson, since beneath the surface of her
stage and film work lies a fascination with uncovering, exploring and reevaluating historical events. Unlike Svoboda who uses historical elements as
quotations in his scenographic alphabet and Wilson whose research techniques
tend to de-historicize images into segmented raw material, Monk's conception of
history is predicated on her belief in a "psychic legacy" that connects
contemporary society to preceding ones. This metaphysical bond is supported by
the stories, myths, and images that pervade and define our culture.1
Monk does not allow these stories and images from the past to remain
confined to antiquity, but uses them to tell the audience something about
themselves in the present. Embracing such themes as the Civil War, plague,
World War II, Joan of Arc, and the process of American immigration, she
questions the traditional chronicling of these events to offer a unique perspective
on them. Not relying on dialogue or linear narrative to tell or retell these stories,
she eschews a documentary style of performance in favor of transporting the
spectator directly to the event. This allows historical figures and objects to be
1 Meredith Monk, Lecture/Demonstration. Amherst College, Amherst MA.
February 26, 1990.

143
(re)animated within her contemporary framework. Above all, Monk operates like
an archeologist, cutting through the strata to excavate lost information and
present it in a modern context. Like any artistic process this involves an
interpretive act on the part of the creator, but by mining the past she is able to
comment simultaneously on its construction as well as how it affects present and
future readings.
This shift from the work of scenographer Josef Svoboda to the multimedia
artist Meredith Monk is not as abrupt as it may initially seem. As artists they
share a reliance on visual material to create atmosphere, setting, and mood.
Though Svoboda is essentially a designer who sometimes directs, while Monk
transcends the traditional boundaries of theatrical categories, an attention to the
optically constructed rhythmic pulse of the theatrical space connects their work
as visual artists. Although she negotiates various artistic media, Monk's theatrical
language is firmly grounded in her presentation of the visible. She uses gesture,
movement, objects, archetypes, film, music, and space to structure a visual
environment in which to examine habitual perceptions. Choosing and arranging
from the vast spectrum of images, colors, shapes, and patterns that dominate
visual expression, both Svoboda and Monk are artists that have helped forge a
tradition of visual theatre.
Though they converge on a common ground, their philosophies of visual
construction widely differ. As noted by Svoboda's example of the scenographic
chair conditioned by its physical context, he is invested in a process of visual
expression that works toward a complete fusion of all visual elements. Monk, on
the other hand, is invested in the perceptual friction between juxtaposed
elements. As she points out, "It's a matter of the overall composition, how these
things counterpoint and how they resonate so that each element makes the other

144
elements resonate and yet remains itself."2 With Monk, there is no sense of
elements sacrificing their individual integrity for the whole; rather it is her use of
images in contradiction that comprises the whole.
Unlike Svoboda's work, the mutual dependence of elements is
underscored by a mutual tension, in which a relationship between an object and
a character is shaped not by how they complement each other but how they
recondition each other. This process is similar the dadaist notion of simultaneity
embodied in the "poeme simultane" by Huelsenbeck, Marcel Janco and Tristan
Tzara entitled "L'amiral cherche une maison louer." Composed of overlapping
discrete layers of sound presented in three different languages (four if you count
the non-sense sounds), the resulting structure of performance was not focused
on the acquisition of each layer independent of the others, but the cacophony of
sound that was created through their aural interaction.
As discussed in the first chapter, the apprehension of all elements within a
visual field transpires like the simultaneity of the dada poem. As elements are
combined through spatial contiguity they retain their own form as well as
becoming part of the whole. In this respect, both Monk and Svoboda create
theatrical experiences that present unified images cohering into a specific
dramatic atmosphere. They rely on a theatre of "pure form" in which the reality
external to the stage does not necessarily have a direct mimetic connection. The
themes and events that Monk uses as starting points for her work merely provide
raw material for her creative process. By using images, sounds, movements, and
objects in the same manner that Svoboda uses cords, color, light, shape, and
projections, Monk is as much a designer as he is, shaping and constructing her
stage images.
Transcript of a 1993 interview obtained through Monk's producing
organization, The House. No author or date listed.
2

145
The Art of Excavation:
Monk's career as a theatre artist spans almost three decades, and in that
time she has relied on a variety of metaphors to describe her artistic process.
One of her most frequently quoted images has been the act of making soup.
"You get the ingredients together for the soup. You have to let it sit for a while for
all the ingredients to blend. Then you've got to let it boil until it boils down to what
it ultimately becomes. It becomes what it's going to be."3 On other occasions she
has described her combination of movement, music, and visual images as "a
mosaic which will hopefully form as full a perceptual, emotional, spiritual, kinetic
entity as possible."4 Ultimately, her goal is to allow each particle in her theatrical
tapestry to maintain its own integrity, yet combine with other particles in a specific
way to lead the spectator toward a new experience. Through the combination of
discrete elements her stage and film works offer "a possibility of opening people's
eyes and ears and showing them reality in a fresh way."5
This fresh perspective is metaphorically embodied in the process of
excavation. While Monk does not physically unearth material fragments of
preceding cultures, she does mine historical narratives (the stories that we tell
about our past) for recognizable images and combines them with contemporary
images to provide an alternate viewpoint. She anticipates that the spectator will
approach her work with certain ideas conditioned by cultural or personal memory,

Randy Turoff, "Making Soup: An Interview with Meredith Monk," The San
Francisco Bay Times, (February 1990).
4 Robb Baker, "New Worlds For Old: The Visionary Art of Meredith Monk,"
American Theatre, (Vol. 1 #6, October, 1984), 6.
5 Marianne Goldberg, "Transformative Aspects of Meredith Monk's
Education of the Girlchild.," Woman and Performance, (Vol. 1, #1,
Spring/Summer, 1983), 19.
3

146
and hopes to open up a dialogue between these beliefs and what is presented on
stage. In Jamesian terms, her technique is founded upon a convergence of
concepts of the past with percepts of the present. She takes on familiar historical
events like World War II, and addresses them not so much as historical fact, but
as collective myths, stories to be examined and re-examined from a number of
different angles. Her mosaics vary from Wilson's theatrical collages since she
actively questions the construction of these myths, whereas Wilson passively
uses them to compose his own structural creations. The difference in
performance is that Monk asks us to examine why and how we know what we
know, while Wilson assumes we know what we know and is more concerned with
how the images fit together in the visual landscape of the stage.
The 1976 opera Quarry, hailed as Monk's masterpiece, provides an
interesting look at her process of re-examining an historical event from an
alternate perspective. Discussing this piece in 1979, Monk felt that Quarry "was
an attempt to take a mythic look at World War II. That myth with which we have
grown up and not really experienced. Trying to see it another way. Not a
documentary, but more dealing with unconscious images."6 In Quarry her focus
is not on the presentation of historical events, but the way in which these events
have been interpreted and mythologized by preceding and contemporary
societies. This is the distinction between simply using images of the past to tell a
specific story, as one might do in a documentary or a textbook, and urging the
audience to explore how these images have been used to tell those stories. As
one critic points out, "Monk's strength, her special concern and genius, has

Meredith Monk, Published documentation of an installation, concert and


workshop, (Seattle: A. Grosshans publication coordinator, March 18-31, 1979), 6.
6

147
always been not with stories but how we use stories of the past to tell and retell
our present."7
Fascinated by the stories that have circulated in the past, as well as those
still active in the present, Roland Barthes analyzes the cultural and historical
implications of the myth in his investigation entitled Mythologies. His examination
begins with the conviction that myths are a process of communication, something
that conveys a message. For a (post)structuralist critic like Barthes, the myths of
a given society exist as complex signs systems contained within the larger
systems of language and culture. Beyond the view of mythology as a system of
signification, Barthes believes that the first step of analysis is the understanding
that any myth should be approached as an entity deliberately constructed to
disguise its own composition and appear as a natural occurrence. Barthes points
out that "the very principle of myth [is that] it transforms history into nature."8 This
manipulation of historical elements is embodied in the confrontation between
language and the perceptual world. We learn to see things in a specific way and
can control that perception by conceptually altering the applied schema. This
apparent naturalization of learned modes of perception is the same process that
Barthes attributes to the myth.
The world enters language as a dialectical relation between
activities, between human actions; it comes out of myth as a
harmonious display of essences. A conjuring trick has taken place;
it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has
filled it with nature, it has removed from things their human meaning
so as to make them signify a human insignificance. The function of

David Finkelstein, "The Films of Meredith Monk," Ballet Review,


(Summer 1991), 67.
8 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, (New York: The Noonday Press, 1972),
129.
7

148
myth is to empty reality: it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a
hemorrhage, or perhaps an evaporation, in short a perceptible
absence.9
This perceptible absence is the hidden danger in any mythological
creation. The reality of an historic event, what may or may not have actually
transpired at some past time, is not important to the creation of the myth. What is
important is that the stories that surround and interpret the historical event are
accepted as genuine. The "naturalized" myths that circulate around such historic
events as World War II leave little room for alternative voices or alternative
readings.10 Created by media images filtered through cultural beliefs, these
naturalized myths are like acquired schema that generally go unquestioned. They
simply become a part of what distinguishes one culture from another. The
mythology surrounding World War II that circulates in Germanic culture is
undoubtedly different from that which circulates in American, English, and Italian
cultures. Myths simultaneously condition and are conditioned by the cultures that
they permeate, helping to establish a collection of beliefs or ideological positions.
This presumably closed system is confronted by Barthes' suggestion that "the
best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an
artificial myth ."11
By placing tales of the past in her (artificial) theatrical frame Monk attacks
the silencing of marginalized individuals by allowing historic events to be
observed through different eyes. Animating her personal vision of a bygone age,
Ibid., 142-3.
10 This is not to say that these readings are permanently fixed, never to
be questioned by the media again. I believe that the re-evaluation of Richard
Nixion's life and political career that followed his death offers a perfect example of
a re-examination (and a re-inscription) of a naturalized myth.
11 Ibid., 135. Italics Barthes.
9

149
Quarry is a work in which "Monk has laid private history against the history of an
era."12 This production began with a small child, played by Monk, crying out, "I
don't feel well. I don't feel well. I don't feel well. It's my eyes. It's my eyes. It's my
eyes. It's my hand. It's my hand. It's my hand. It's my skin. It's my skin. It's my
skin." Using the perceptions of the child as a (re)framing device, the audience
encounters the myths of World War II not in their "naturalized," that is
unquestioned, state but through the eyes of a sick child. While Monk does not
question the actuality of past events, her interpretation, tempered by the
perceptions of the child, allows for a Barthesian display of essences to be
transformed into an artificial myth.
Not grounded in an encompassing verbal narrative, this artificial myth
consists of a series of consecutive images: a parade of "dictators" in which each
is successively slain by the one that follows, a woman who constantly sweeps
the stage floor as if the dirt and dust are never properly expelled, a group of
people from no particular time period carry clouds and then model airplanes on
sticks.

Figure 35: Quarry.

Deborah Jowitt, Time and the Dancing Image, (New York: William
Morrow and Company, Inc., 1988), 101.
12

150
These are child-like images of war derived from the central character's
imagination nourished by her examination of picture books, stories, and fanciful
images conjured up by reports on the radio.
Unfolding from the perspective of the child, the physical space was
arranged to incorporate alternate viewpoints. Monk lay on a checkered blanket
center stage next to a small table with a radio on it and was surrounded by four
other settings, each with its own spatial and temporal atmosphere. Isolated by
pools of light these settings represented domestic environments from various
parts of the world. One area was composed of an overstuffed chair and end
table, another of a rug, floor lamp and rocking chair, the third, a dinning table and
four chairs, and the fourth a straw mat and baskets.

Figure 36: Quarry.

According to Monk, "I tried to get as many layers of content as I could into this.
You could say, I thought of the four corners of this piece as the four corners of
the world. It was as if you were looking through a window in London, a window in
NY, a window in ancient Israel, and a window in middle America

151
simultaneously."13 The initial vision of war conjured up by the sick child explodes
to encompass various time frames and perspectives, all contained within the
same spatial frame of the stage. In this respect, the multiple locations of Quarry
work to create for the spectator "the process of dreaming and waking and
dreaming again: real events, memories, pictures seen in a book, fantasies
merge; logic is absent, but everything can be believed."14
Drawing on recognizable images of war, like the parade of slain dictators
or the bombing raid represented by the procession of model airplanes, Monk
fragments the stage into a number of domestic settings to display the
consequences of these actions in a number of places and times. Scenes of
people gathering their belongings and fleeing, or removing and hiding their
valuables counter the depictions of the dictators and the airplanes. We can
identify these images from the myths that surround this conflict. Yet in Monk's
visionary world they are not emptied of history but resound with personal tragedy,
as animated by her perception of the past as they are by the theatrical present.
Images combine in the visual plane of the performance space to comment on
(and be commented on) by other elements. Evidenced by the multi-perspective
performance space created for Quarry, Monk takes full advantage of the
manipulability of the visual world to place familiar elements into new contexts,
thereby altering established viewpoints. As dance critic Sally Banes points out:
Meredith Monk's theatre is a place of transmutation and
transfiguration. Events occur, but their meanings shift and are
wiped away; time and space become shattered and rearranged;
objects shrink or become luminous and powerful. Inside the
magically real universes that Monk creates within the borders of
Monk, 1979 installation, concert and workshop, 6-7.
14 Deborah Jowitt, "Meredith Monk/The House at La Mama," The Village
Voice, (June 4, 1985).
13

152
theatrical space, simple and familiar things accumulate into dense,
resonant, fabulous images. Individual lives and actions, and prosaic
objects become symbols for larger systems through the spectator's
act of mediation and integration.15
As an artist, Monk relies on the strength of the visual world in which
objects and images are able to physically flow from one environment to the next.
These successive contexts are structured to force the spectator to reassess his
or her understanding of these visible forms. Like the organization of myth, visual
perception relies on the movement from conscious evaluation to unconscious
reaction. Perceptual frames are applied and information is filtered out according
to habitual approaches. Monk's theatre of transmutation and transfiguration is
designed to subvert this subconscious activity.
My work rearranges mental habits. It cannot be 'figured out' while
the audience is watching and hearing it. It is created to use the
mind in another way, and for me, that is the reason for making art.
Art facilitates an experience of another mental set so that you
become aware that you are usually thinking in a habitual way and
are not as alive as you could be.16
Foregrounding the subject of learned modes of perception, Monk has
continued to battle the accepted constructions of the world. She believes "we are
taught to think in categories. For me the joy is in breaking down categories;
finding new hybrid forms or discovering the place where things resonate with
each other."17 It is by focusing on the resonance of one media with another, be it

Sally Banes, "The Art of Meredith Monk," Performing Arts Journal, (Vol.
3, # 1. Spring/Summer, 1978), 8.
16 Meredith Monk, Mosaic, (January 9, 1980), 145.
17 Ibid., 135.
15

153
film, movement, or sound, that Monk counteracts the spectator's passive
acceptance of how he or she "normally" views specific objects and ideas. Just as
colors placed next to each other will psychologically affect how each is perceived,
Monk places a number of discrete visual elements in juxtaposition, thereby
creating new contexts, new perceptions. This process is composed of a series of
independent units, each complete unto itself, but tempered by the visual
contiguity of other independent units. This is the process that Peter Brger
addressed in his discussion of Cubism wherein the non-organic work of art is
composed through a collusion of relatively autonomous signs. The final product
does not demand that these signs give up their autonomy, but is contingent upon
the tension created by their interaction. Working to adjust her description of
Monk's work as a fusion of elements into a single image, dance critic Deborah
Jowitt writes:
In the past, I've compared the structure of Monk's theatre pieces to
that of a mosaic, of a jigsaw puzzle, of an amphora reassembled
from potsherds. None of these fancies is entirely accurate. True,
her works, however epic in scale, always appear to be composed of
small pieces - tableaux, actions, music, words, film, alone or
combined - but these pieces aren't fragments: each is polished,
clear, complete in itself. The point is that each of these modules
acquires heightened significance or resonance when it's juxtaposed
to other events in the work, set in particular contexts, repeated or
varied.18
Monk's approach to theatre has always been affected by her
interdisciplinary training. Her background in music composition and dance are
evident in the 1966 solo work 16mm Earrings . A combination of movement, film,
voice-over, and music, the piece evolved through a series of layered images that
18Jowitt,

The Dance in Mind, 96-7.

154
formed a complex visual tapestry. Like Svoboda's use of film, movement, and
space to create his Laterna Magika images, the layers built up in 16mm Earrings
were derived from the interaction of various media. At one point in the
performance a filmed close-up
of Monk's head was projected onto a globe
like surface that she held over her face
while a tape loop of chanted music
underscored the action. As she points out,
"It was very integrated into one, poetic form
that had a lot of resonance
which was created between the mediums and

Figure 37: 16mm Earrings.

what they did together. It was never a barrage of information . . . It was a very
precise and meticulous collage concept where one medium echoed the other
one and made the other one have more resonance. It was a meshed interweaving."19 The strength of Monk's work does not rely on a seamless fusion of all
elements into what Brger would describe as an organic whole; rather, she
discovered "the way these elements work against each other creates a
luminosity, a radiance."20
There is a subtle difference here between the concept of an organic and a
non-organic work of visual art. Both rely on a combination of color, line, shape,
rhythm, and texture, but the organic work demands that these elements give up
their individual integrity to compose the unified whole, while the non-organic form
depends on the interaction of the distinct qualities of these elements. The tension
between these two forms has been dealt with in Benveniste's description of
artistic units which assume signification only as they are utilized within the
Monk, 1979 installation, concert and workshop, 2.
20 Monk, Mosaic, 138.
19

155
composition as a whole. His premise is that the signifying properties of
something like the color red depend on how it is used, where it is placed, and
what surrounds it within the body of the composition. As examined in the first
chapter, this process is compounded by the introduction of what Brger refers to
as "reality fragments," or pre-digested visual signs. While these autonomous
signs do not concede their significance to the work as a whole, what is created by
their synthesis is always greater than the sum of the individual parts.
Though approaching every project with a multi-layered sensibility that
embodies Brger's description of a non-organic work of art, Monk is careful to
point out, "I'm not really a person who's very much into codifying and
systematizing a situation. I want to just be a very fluid worker, I want to always be
growing and changing, and I think that once you can put it into a system you've
already killed something."21 This should not be confused with the idea of working
without pre-digested signs. As stated above, her method has grown out of a
process of layering discrete pre-coded images from various media within a
theatrical framework. While it is possible to detect certain themes and techniques
that permeate all of her work, they are more dependent on her approach as an
artist than they are on any set formula or system. She does not simply "plug in"
music, movement and images to a fixed structure, like the creators of a sit-com or
a TV movie might do. While she may quote and re-frame certain pre-existing
configurations, like the myths that surround World War II, she has made it a point
to begin each new project unconstrained by the patterns created by these
structures. She allows each work to grow organically according to its own logic.

Peters, Steve, "Meredith Monk: Interview," OP, (September-October,


1982): 22, quoted in Jeanie Kay Forte, Women in Performance Art: Feminism
and Postmodernism, Unpublished Dissertation (The University of WA., 1986),
144.
21

156
Ultimately Monk asks the question: "What am I trying to get across to an
audience?" Her answer provides an interesting response in connection with her
method of construction. "I am trying to create a world with layers of perceptual
situations where people see and hear things in a new, fresh way. It is a way of
sharpening the senses by creating a world with its own laws. it takes an audience
some place else, while at the same time letting them be right here."22 Her work,
whether in theater or film, grows out of the logical structure created by each
visual construction to produce a world independent from, while at the same time,
connected to, that of the spectator.
Though composed of recognizable images, her performances are not
closed on a solitary meaning, but allow the spectators to bring their own
imagination and experiences to bear upon the work of art. While she does offer
us her "fresh perspective" there is an implicit interaction between Monk's
theatrical universe and our own. "I always want my work to have a clarity and a
logic - a luminosity from lucidity - but I also want the audience to have enough
room to be able to move around within the level of connotation and meaning. I
give them evocative nuggets that radiate."23 This luminosity is the result of her
combination of familiar elements in unfamiliar ways. One aspect of this process is
easily understood, while the other requires the spectator to re-examine his or her
own perceptions. Watching a Monkwork is comparable to shining a flashlight into
a well known room and discovering something that you didn't expect to find. The
disruptive experience may be luminous in terms of the flashlight's illumination, but
not necessarily immediately understood.

Music, Space, and Time:


Monk, Mosaic, 140-1.
23 Goldberg, 28.
22

157
Although I consider Monk to be a visual artist, it is impossible to discuss
her work without also foregrounding her musical compositions. For Monk music is
the dominant structuring tool. As she points out, "by 1970 it was clear to me that
music was developing into the center of my work. The nucleus of my work is the
voice and the music, everything else branches from there."24 Every image and
movement captured on film or presented on stage is conditioned by her musical
patterns. The rhythmically structured compositions weave their way through all of
her works like the medium of light does through Svoboda's. It is never, however,
"just" music; her "compositions" encompass the entire spatial, rhythmic, and
temporal structure of the performance. "Since I am musically oriented, the rhythm
of the piece is the primary concern in terms of my work. I am working with time in
the same way I am working with space: stretching it, compressing it, twisting it,
manipulating it."25
With any artist, it is difficult to trace the intertwined paths of influence and
inspiration that have led to his or her work, but Monk has illuminated, on a
number of occasions, one specific factor in her training. Coming from a
predominantly musically oriented family, the young (and, as she claims,
"uncoordinated") Monk was sent by her mother to study eurhythmics.26
Developed by Emile Jacques-Dalcroze at the turn of the century, eurhythmics is
an interdisciplinary method of teaching music through physically expressed
rhythmical structures. As Monk explains, it is "a system of teaching music
through very simple movement so that you actually see the relationship between

Jan Greenwald, "An Interview with Meredith Monk," The Ear, (Vol. 6, #
3. April/May, 1981).
25 Monk, Mosaic, 138-9.
26 Monk, 1979 installation, concert and workshop, 1.
24

158
rhythm, pitch, and space."27 The focus of this training is on the convergence of
time, space, and energy under the guiding force of rhythm. As described by the
stage theorist and designer Adolph Appia in a letter to Dalcroze from 1906, the
system of eurhythmics is devoted to "the externalization of music . . . Nothing can
save music from sumptuous decadence except externalization. It must expand in
space, with all the salutary limitations which that must have for it."28
Originally Dalcroze conceived of eurhythmics solely as a method of
musical training, and only gradually, under Appia's influence, did he come to
realize its implications for theatrical reform.29 Based on a system of movement
expressed in space through rhythm, the technique of eurhythmics is a significant
factor in the history of visual theatre. Like Svoboda's work with space, it is
founded on the interaction of the human form with the three-dimensional
environment. Though Monk submits the control of this three-dimensional form to
the rhythmical demands of her musical score, the final product is inevitably
expressed in spatial, visual terms.
Monk's affinity for Dalcroze and Appia's work becomes more apparent
when we analyze her concept of spatial organization. One of the determining
factors in Monk's approach to performance has been her use of various "nontheatrical" spaces for both her theatre and film work. Her loft in New York City,
the Guggenheim Museum, a parking lot, a quarry, Ellis Island, and a Medieval
town are but a few of them. As she points out, "I'm not interested in starting from
scratch and building a set, but the design element comes in very near the
beginning of each piece. I always choose the space early, and basically I feel that
Edward Strickland, "Voices/Visions: An Interview with Meredith Monk,"
Fanfare, (January/February, 1988), 2.
28 Adolphe Appia, Essays, Scenarios, and Designs, ed., Richard C.
Beacham, (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989), 119.
29 Ibid., 121.
27

159
I am having a dialogue with that space. It's a main structuring element."30 This
spatial dialogue, however, is always broached in terms of her understanding of
space as a dynamic entity. By positioning her performance within a predetermined, fixed place , she is able to create a theatrical space produced
through the interaction of physical forms.

Figure 38: Specimen Days.

This dynamic, space is evident even in a static photograph from her


production of Specimen Days . The unique split structure of the proscenium
opening allows Monk to juxtapose action from two separate places and times.
The piece is constructed around images of the Civil War as witnessed by a
Southern and Northern family simultaneously. On the left of the stage Monk
presents a family from the South eating, sleeping, and dealing with the aftermath
of the war; on the right hand side of the stage a Northern family was seen going
through the same process. While seemingly immobile, the photograph above
offers an active juxtaposition between the representation of the North and South
through the medium of the family portrait. This spatial dialectic was compounded

30

Baker, "New Worlds For Old: The Visionary Art of Meredith Monk," 33.

160
by the coloration of the costume and lighting choices for each area. The Southern
sector was primarily warm, while the North was primarily cool. As can been seen
from the simple description above, Monk was not only having a dialogue with the
space, but allowing the space to have a dialogue with itself and with the staged
action.
The physical presence of the actors in Monk's productions is another
factor in her formation of dynamic theatrical space. Similarly to Dalcroze's work,
there is a sense of rhythmicality to the patterns of movement that Monk creates.
She does not rely on pre-determined geometric spatial arrangements like Wilson
does, but rather structures the visual aspect of her work around the aural
patterns of repeated melodies that she composes either prior to, or during the
rehearsal process. Like her music, the movement of her pieces has a kind of
cyclical fluidity, spatially moving through time to return to where it began.
Expressing the convergence of memory and perception she declares, "I always
think of time in a circular way. That has to do with thinking that the now also
includes the past and the future. I try to make it so that the experience you have
is being aware as much as possible of being here at the moment. But the
moment 'now' must always include the past and the future in order for us to
appreciate it fully."31
Indeed, her awareness of the inseparability of visual images, space, time,
and rhythm is so acute that even the presentation of her music in concert is
caught within her visual expression. "When I am presenting my music in concert
format, I am meticulous about the visual aspect - the costumes, the lights, how
the piano or organ is placed on the stage and how we move when we are singing
and playing."32 A solo performance by Monk sitting at a piano and singing is
1993 interview.
32 Monk, Mosaic, 136.
31

161
always a visual experience. She rocks and keens, sways and stretches,
wrenching every ounce of expression out of her body and her voice. The body is
not assumed to be merely a physical presence, but becomes a conduit for the
expressiveness of the sound. "I don't think that the voice is separate from the
body. I mean, there wouldn't necessarily be gesture in every piece but there's
definitely a sense of the voice as a kinetic impulse or kinetic energy."33
There is a directness to this kinetic energy that exceeds the act of
classification afforded by verbal language. As Monk notes, "The voice is a very
powerful instrument; it is emotionally very direct. I have been interested in dealing
with shades of emotion - especially using the voice, where I am not using text, so
it can define these subtle shades of emotion that you can't verbalize."34 Illustrated
by the discussion of memory in the first chapter, the reception of visual
information is parallel, yet independent from, the reception of verbal material.
Extending this discussion to an analysis of the body as a sonorous conduit, it is
possible to infer that the body expresses as well as receives impulses apart from
the control of linguistic categories.

The Sounds of Monk: Moans, Cries, and Whispers:


My own first encounter with Meredith Monk was through her musical
compositions. I was instantly captivated by the power and resonance of her
simple melodies expressed by the human voice through sounds and not words,
and only occasionally accompanied by organ or piano. Her musical
arrangements have the precarious quality of seeming both old and new, familiar
and alien. Music critic Gregory Sandow describes her work as "scraps of melody

1993 interview.
34 Greenwald, "An Interview with Meredith Monk,"
33

162
that might be folk tunes of a culture she herself invented."35 The curious thing is
that if Monk has always been telling us about the past, present, and future of this
imaginary culture, a mythology as developed as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth,36 it
must be a very close cousin to our own culture.
Somewhere, at the heart of Monk's work, there exists a common ground, a
place of resonance that allows us to witness her creations as both different from
and remarkably similar to our own world. While this point of contact does not lie
outside the boundaries of communication conditioned by visible or aural signs,
the combination of signs she presents in performance adds up to something that
is not necessarily encompassed by the categorizing features of verbal language.
This resonance is captured by Wittgenstein's inability to describe the color red,
and Barthes' examination of the "third meaning" in which the signifier does not
have a signified and the reading "remains suspended between the image and its
description, between definition and approximation."37 This does not place Monk's
work outside the realm of signification as a process of communication, but, like
Borges's eidetically gifted character Funes, acknowledges elements beyond the
reach of verbal language.
Her fictitious folk tunes oscillate between celebration and mourning,
echoing the patterns of sound contained in hymns, chants, and rituals. In this
respect, they carry with them a history of musical expression, a cargo of
signification that causes them to seem instantly familiar. Yet, beyond this, there is
also an alien quality to her work. The tunes seem familiar because they express
Strickland, "Voices/Visions: An Interview with Meredith Monk," 2.
36 While at first this male dominated mythology may appear incompatible
with Monk's work, Tolkien's reliance on song to convey the history of his
fabricated culture offers a unique parallel to Monk's musical creations.
37 Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, (New York: The Noonday Press,
1977), 61.
35

163
familiar emotions, and seem strange because they express these emotions in a
wholly unique way. Composed of low moans, piercing screeches, and melodious
vibrations these tunes demand to be addressed through the body as well as the
mind. Like any aural experience there is a certain amount of perception that
transpires at the level of visceral reception, independent from the operation of
conscious subjection. As examined in the first chapter, there are various steps
through which perceptual information moves before it reaches short term, and
finally long term memory. My objective is not to imply that perceptual material is
not also dealt with in a conceptual (or cognitive) manner, but that the process of
perception and cognition are parallel , not identical, systems. Despite the
relationship between these systems there is a visceral aspect to the
apprehension of audible material that eludes verbal explanation. Like the
apprehension of the sound of a train whistle, brake screech, or dentist's drill,
there is a level of linguistic identification, but the immediate emotional impact is
not necessarily contained in these verbal labels.
What Monk has developed is a compositional style that reinforces Roland
Barthes' description of the "grain" of the voice. As he defined it, "the 'grain' is the
materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue,"38 it is "the body in the voice
as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs."39 The emotional
directness of the kinetic body present in the sound of Monk's voice is captured by
Barthes' description:
Listen to a Russian bass (a church bass - opera is a genre in which
the voice has gone in its entirety to dramatic expressivity, a voice
with a grain which little signifies): something is there, manifest and
stubborn (one hears only that), beyond (or before) the meaning of

Ibid., 182.
39 Ibid., 188.
38

164
the words, their form (the litany), the melisma, and even the style of
execution: something which is directly the cantor's body, brought to
your ears in one and the same moment from deep down in the
cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages, and from
deep down in the Slavic language, as though a single skin lined the
inner flesh of the performer and the music he sings.40
Barthes is describing not only the dramatic expressivity of the singer's
performance, but the reception of that information by the spectator on a physical,
as well as a cognitive, level. His narration of the "grain" of the voice illustrates the
dynamic process that is created by the interaction of the spectator and the
performer. Monk shares this interest with Barthes by dealing with material that
cannot necessarily be expressed by verbal language alone. Though heavily
invested in the process of signification, some of Barthes' most rewarding work
arose from his inability to linguistically capture what he saw or felt. His description
of the third meaning in relation to the visual experience of looking at stills from
Eisenstein's films combines with his discussion of the grain of the voice to take
the reader to a precarious ledge, beyond which there exists no words. Barthes
can analyze the individual signs that compose this process (the melisma, the
muscles, the membranes, the funny headdress, the old woman, the squinting
eyes, the fish), but ultimately he resorts to pointing at that which he cannot quite
grasp with the categories of language.
The "grain of the voice" is as close as Barthes is able to come in isolating
his reaction to the performance of the Russian bass. This analysis is centered on
the dynamic quality of a live art form in which non-verbal information is
transferred from performer to spectator. In Barthes' description the body is
present, the visual and aural signs are present, easily named, catalogued and

40

Ibid., 181-2.

165
discussed, but their combination yields, in Benveniste's words, an essence that is
both infra- and supralinguistic, complex images that are composed of compound
signs that cannot be separated into individual units. Like Monk's vocal kinetic
energy expressed by the body, Barthes is dealing with something outside the
boundaries of language that is communicated by the confluence of vision and
sound.
This kinetic grain is the same elusive element that the French theorist,
poet, and performer Antionin Artaud spent his entire life pursuing. Determined to
avoid a theatre that "was created to analyze a character, to resolve conflicts of
love and duty,"41 he sought to replace the theatre's reliance on verbal language
with a visual and aural equivalent. Like Monk he advocated a theatre that utilized
all of the concrete expressive means at its disposal. Placing his confidence in the
combination of music, dance, plastic art, pantomime, gesture, architecture,
lighting and scenery he worked to create a theatre "intended for the senses and
independent of speech," that would "treat the spectators like the snakecharmer's
subjects and conduct them by means of their organisms."42 The spectator is
affected emotionally by the reception of the visual and aural material transferred
from performer to spectator independent of the controlling aspect of spoken
language.
Artaud theorized a theatre of perception and emotion that provided the
spectator with a series of sensations, bodily shocks directed at the senses and
not the conscious mind, a conceptual stance that takes into account the
supralinguistic grain created by the combination of body and voice in Monk's
work. Framed within the idea of emotional and spiritual communication, her 1991

Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double, (New York: Grove Press,
1958), 41.
42 Ibid., 37 and 81.
41

166
opera Atlas offers a wonderful look at this non-verbal process. Co-commissioned
by the Houston Grand Opera, the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, and the
American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia Atlas is an opera in three parts
loosely based on the life of the turn-of-the-century female explorer Alexandria
David-Neel. With no recognizable words, only expressive sounds, Atlas
sonorously explores the boundaries of human communication. As one reviewer
noted, "We don't know this language, yet we understand its meaning. We can't
quite grasp the music, yet we feel its echoes in our bones."43

Figure 39: Atlas.

Complete with a "hero," companions, guides, challenges, thresholds,


alternate planes of consciousness, an attainment of a goal, and the final return to
the physical world, Atlas takes the spectator on a journey to the far reaches of
consciousness, a physical and spiritual quest that embodies the structure of myth
that Joseph Campbell describes in The Hero With A Thousand Faces.44 Part I of

Robert Sandla, "Dream Weaver," Opera News, (February 16, 1991), 8.


44 In fact Monk quotes Campbell in her program notes for Atlas , American
Music Theatre Festival, (The Annenberg Center, Philadelphia PA. June 5-8,
1991). "The sense of mystery, the gratitude for being alive, the sense of
43

167
Atlas , "Personal Climate," moves from the confines of the fifteen-year-old
Alexandria's homelife to the threshold of her journey. Staged primarily in the
domestic space of the living room and Alexandria's bedroom, this Part unfolds
through sections entitled "Home life 1," Home Life 2," and "Travel Dream Song."
We witness Alexandria struggling with her decision to leave her home and
parents and explore the vast wonders of the world. After interviewing and
assembling a group of companions45 at the end of Part I, Alexandria embarks on
Part II, "Night Travel."
Here the group encounters a number of unusual cultures who express
themselves through music and movement. "Agricultural Community," "Arctic Bar,"
"Forest Questions," and "Desert Tango" are all complete with their own physical
and vocal style. These connections allow Alexandria and her crew to experience
a spectrum of human culture. After visiting the supposedly "primitive" societies
presented at the beginning of the act, Part II culminates with a section entitled
"Possibility of Destruction." In this section, Monk examines the implications of
nuclear annihilation at the fingertips of contemporary culture. Poised on the brink
of destruction, Alexandria and her companions manage to escape the
devastation by ascending a ladder that is lowered from the flies to signal the end
of Part II.
Part III, "Invisible Light," is a radiant synthesis of Monk's theatrical ideals.
As the characters ascend the ladder they leave behind the violence and banality
of the everyday world. The narrative of travel that has controlled the first two
transcendent energy that unites all of us, coordinates our cities, coordinates our
lives - that's all been lost. The work of the artist is to interpret the contemporary
world as experienced in terms of relevance to our inner life. - Joseph Campbell,
An Open Life."
45 Who are judged to be useful to the group by the harmonious
compatibility of their personal songs with Alexandria's.

168
sections is replaced by an emphasis on visual form. Part III is dominated by walls
of sound that emanate from continually shifting patterns of male and female
singers dressed in black. There is no attempt to ground this section in a
representation of the physical world as parts one and two are; rather the images
issue from the nirvana-like plane that Alexandria has achieved. By escaping the
confines of the material world she is now able to explore a spiritual one.
Composed of sections transcendentally entitled "Out of Body," "Other
Worlds Revealed," and "Earth Seen From Above," Part III demonstrates Monk's
desire to elucidate that ethereal energy which is not generally addressed in the
consciousness of our daily lives. In fact, the entire opera is geared toward
illuminating this energy as inherent in our everyday experiences. Indicating this
in her program notes, Monk writes: "The Explorers are initiated and taught by
guides who lead them finally into a realm of pure energy. There, they become
aware of the radiance and resonance underlying what we usually think of as
reality."46 Focused neither on a verbal narrative nor a mimetic illustration of
reality, this section materializes Witkiewicz's notion of pure form, Schlemmer's
ambulant architecture, Appia's rhythmic space and Artaud's sensorial theatre.
Independent of the quest plot that dominated the first two sections, Part III
relies on the continual redefining of space through the movement of the
performer's bodies under the ever changing pulse of Monk's repetitive melodies.
There is no narrative to follow, no story to keep track of; instead the spectator is
free to visually absorb the patterns of movement created by the bodies of the
performers. No longer searching, Alexandria has discovered the realm of pure
energy, a landscape composed of absolute sound and movement. This elevated
state, represented physically by the traversing of the vertical threshold of the
ladder and psychologically by Alexandria's attainment of nirvana, is encapsulated
46

Monk, Atlas Program Notes.

169
by Campbell's description of "a dream landscape of curious fluid, ambiguous
forms."47 Abandoning the narrative logic of the first two sections for a logic
predicated on the spatial and rhythmic construction of the piece, Atlas moves
from the rationality of consciousness to the emotional fluidity of the unconscious.
Though the opera is centered on the travels of Alexandria, Atlas exists as a
metaphor for Monk's artistic process. Like Alexandria's journey from the domestic
environment of the first part to the visual fluidity of the opera's final section, Monk
continually asks her audience to move beyond the surface of the everyday to
embrace the inherent radiance and resonance of familiar experience.

Archetypal Images and Artificial Signs:


Relying upon a minimal amount of dialogue, Monk constructs her works
not from fully developed characters, in the sense of traditional theatrical forms,
but from images. Recognizable archetypal figures like the mother, the father, a
dictator, a madwoman all become elements in her visual palette. As Monk points
out, "I am working with archetypes to elicit in the audience memories and feelings
that are usually covered up by daily life."48 Like the patterns of her music there is
a strange familiarity about these characters, we know them from dreams and
myths, from folk tales and fables. As Bonnie Marranca writes, "Monk has
succeeded, as has Robert Wilson, in creating a pure theatre of images because
she deals with myth, archetypes and consciousness as subject matter . . . Her

Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, (Princeton:


Princeton University Press, 1949), 97.
48 Monk, Mosaic, 141.
47

170
structures of images embody a formal integrity that is always on the verge of
becoming allegory."49
The allegorical nature of Monk's work is conditioned by the fact that while
we recognize these archetypes instantly through movement, gesture, and
physical appearance, they are not as well defined as fully developed characters.
They are images, essences, or ideas of characters, but not the characters
themselves. By using these figures Monk provides a familiar visual frame drawn
from everyday life and allows the audience to fill in the specifics. In order to
facilitate this process there is a reliance on stereotypical images drawn from
mass or popular culture: the recognizable "Ward Cleaver" breed of father
complete with his pipe and newspaper, the "Donna Reed" mother with her apron
and long print dress, the madwoman's distant and erratic stare as displayed by
the local paper or the evening news.
The character of the Dictator, created by Ping Chong in Monk's Quarry ,
provides a wonderful example of this kind of media-driven recognizability.
Through movement, gesture and voice Chong did not become a specific dictator,
but in Monk's words was a "composite dictator character," embodying the
archetypal spirit of dictatorship.50 Not speaking a single identifiable word, at one
point in the performance he delivered a speech that quoted the tirades of Hitler
and Mussolini, combined with the impulsive anger of Stalin. He was
simultaneously all of these, yet none of them specifically. As Monk states,
however, despite the vagueness of identification with a specific individual, this
character was almost too defined. "That's already much more specific than we

Bonnie Marranca, "Meredith Monk's Recent Ruins: The Archeology of


Consciousness: Essaying Images," Performing Arts Journal, (Vol. IV #3. 1980),
45.
50 Monk, Amherst Lecture.
49

171
ever have done. But what we were trying for was still to get a more archetypal
quality . . . I'm interested in working with the timeless."51 The strength of Monk's
visual constructions, a process analogous to her musical compositions, is her use
of material that can be simultaneously seen as both old and new, familiar and
alien. As Monk's observation points out, the specificity of Chong's dictator
character began to affect the timeless quality of the production by grounding it in
a definite place and time.
As always, Monk is using these archetypal images to tell us something
about our past as well as our present. She is as astute at manipulating the
images that comprise our cultural mythology as she is at inventing folk songs of a
fictional culture. Both rely on familiar elements pulled from many sources and
combined in new ways. "I guess I think of myself a lot as an orchestrator.
Someone who's putting together images and perceptions to make a musical kind
of form."52 It is through these orchestrations that the allegorical nature of her work
becomes more apparent. Monk's works never completely reveal themselves
through the surface details; rather there is a depth of meaning produced by the
interaction of her recognizable images. By allowing the various elements to
maintain their own individual integrity, that is, their own physical and archetypal
reality, the components of her theatrical tapestry work to resonate with (and
against) each other.53
Carole Koenig, "Meredith Monk: Performer - Creator," The Drama
Review, (Vol. 20, #3 (T71), September, 1976), 54.
52 Laura Shapiro, "Games That Meredith Plays," Newsweek, (October 29,
1984), 124.
53 Although the term "resonate" connotes an aural example, I have not
been able to find a suitable alternative to describe this visual phenomenon. While
"juxtaposition" is an adequate term, it does not indicate the level of confrontation
that some of these contrasting images engage in. It is the visual equivalent of
striking two sequential keys on the piano. The sound produced includes a certain
51

172
In using imagery I try to compress the material in such a way that I
can get as many levels into one image as can be packed into it. I try
to make each image as evocative as I can, on as many levels as
possible, so that a person can hook into one level or another, or
more than one. It is like a mosaic with bits of information which can
be put together in different ways so that each person comes away
with something individually meaningful.54
Monk's attention to the structure of visual experience allowed for multiple
layers in her production of Specimen Days . Not working with something as
defined as "a dictator," Monk applied visual symbols to every actor to denote sex,
race, and age. Holding up each item in succession a narrator55 described the
symbols: black and white armbands denoted race, a yellow collar for male, blue
gloves for woman, and red shoes for child. The actors donned these items
irrespective of their race, sex or age. This visual system embraced the power of
the symbol as a denoting sign by virtue of a specific law or agreement. The
armbands and gloves are not "natural signs," carried by the actors through their
skin color or physical sex, but artificial signs created to signify within parameters
of the performance space. The visual representation on the stage created a kind
of Brechtian separation of actor and character. The "natural" image of the actor's
actual sex or race ghosted through the symbol, allowing both to exist
simultaneously.
One of the most striking moments in the production was a scene in which
the narrator/doctor verbally dissected a black male actor, originally labeled as a
level of tension as one tone fights the other for dominance. (See the Rilke quote
that is included in the introduction).
54 Monk, Mosaic, 139.
55 Ostensibly a doctor of some kind due to the fact that he was dressed in
a hospital gown.

173
white male adult, but now simply adorned with a black armband. The dissection
was further historically contextualized by the actor's position on a box center
stage. Certainly the image of a slave auction emanated from the combination of
visual signs, but due to the former labeling of the actor as white male adult, he
represented more than just a slave
submitted to verbal and physical scrutiny. This
single image assembled through the
convergence of natural and artificial signs
subject to a specific historical context resonated
on a number of distinct levels. Not as particular
as the dictator character from Quarry, the image
of this actor could be read as representing the
black and white race simultaneously. In fact, due
to Monk's system of visual labels, this black male
adult could theoretically represent any
combination of race,
sex, or age.

Figure 40: Specimen Days

Combining familiar images and archetypal figures with artificial signs Monk
is able to provide the spectator with an evocative depth that signifies well beyond
the information embodied in the individual signs. As Sally Banes points out,
"Because Monk's symbols and stylizations are self-imposed, rather than the
product of a historical process within a collective culture, there is a strange
visionary edge to the folk tale quality - it almost seems to be a metaphor about
making metaphors."56 While she does provide a visual structure, Monk's goal has
always been to allow the spectator the freedom to put the fragments of the
mosaic together themselves. There is no single correct "interpretation" of a
56

Banes, "The Art of Meredith Monk," 8.

174
Monkwork. Elements are used, not as they are in the traditional theatrical sense
to tell a specific story or support a closed narrative, but as fragments, as pieces
of the overall visual puzzle, drawn together by virtue of their contiguity.

Memory Part One: Objects and Monuments:


Perhaps due to her multi-discipline training, Monk has always conceived of
the stage as an arena to be filled both temporally and spatially. Combining music
with archetypal figures and physical objects she relies on the manipulability of the
visual world to structure her pieces. Like Duchamp, she finds "readymade" items,
and re-contextualizes them within the frame of her performance space. Although
these objects are visible entities, there is a tangible presence to them different
from the visible form of the image. They can be touched, held, looked at, and
physically moved from one spatial context to another. Though these objects are
drawn from the everyday world outside the boundaries of the stage, they "have a
special significance in Monk's world. They are the icons of human rituals, the
artifacts that link the past with the present. Objects cross international boundaries
and connect primitive societies with industrial ones."57 Explaining her use of
objects in the multi-performance spaced 1971 "Epic Opera" Vessel, Monk states:
I used them like notes in a musical score. There's a repetition of
certain objects that later serve different functions in different parts
of Vessel. There's a woman with a rake in the loft; then when you
go into the garage the King's scepter is a rake, and when you go
into the parking lot, the soldier's weapons are rakes. It's like using
the rake almost as you would use a note in a piece of music. Or it's

Joan Driscoll Lynch, "An Anthology of Monkworks," Millennium Film


Journal, (#s 23/24. Winter, 1990/91), 43.
57

175
like using it as an overlay, a transparency that gradually discloses
several levels of the object itself.58
These objects did not remain stable signifiers, but shifted and changed
visual expression as the scale and context of the piece moved from performance
space to performance space. "I was also working a lot with scale and with the
way objects transform. So in the first section of Vessel , the king throws down
real coins and then in the second section you could see that the miser had great
big wooden coins. Things shrink and expanded throughout the piece."59 Again
there is a sense of shifting perceptions, of altering the way in which the spectator
approaches viewing familiar objects as they are presented, and re-presented
within a series of alternate visual or spatial frames.
Monk's presentation of well-known elements in new contexts is something
she shares with other artists who were experimenting with new forms of
performance in the early 1960's. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College
in 1964 she moved to New York City to join the exploding experimental art scene.
Active as a performer in the loosely structured medium of "Happenings," Monk
was able to learn by working with or observing such visual artists as Claes
Oldenberg, Dick Higgins and Yvonne Rainer. "I was able to use myself not only in
terms of movement but I could talk, sing, build objects, play instruments. In other
words I could utilize a lot of information and try to integrate it as a performer . . .
And also the idea that I could give myself permission to utilize anything as
material."60 While Monk was able to mature as an artist within this active

Brooks McNamara, "The Scenography of Meredith Monk," The Drama


Review, (Vol. 16, # 1. March, 1972), 94.
59 Monk, 1979 installation, concert and workshop, 5.
60 Ibid., 2.
58

176
environment, she is careful to point out the difference between her approach to
performance and the work of such Happening artists as Oldenberg and Higgins.
In some ways the one thing that was weak about some of that work
was the time element. It was always very strong as far as the
images were concerned: materials, textures, visual textures. But
some of the artists definitely were not developing time based art.
They were evolving from plastic art. So it was difficult for them to
understand that time needed to be sculpted. So I took some of that
information and tried to integrate it into my work, which was more
structured in the sense of time, as I was from a performing
background.61
Monk's sense of time and rhythm that had developed from her eurhythmic
and musical training allowed her to create pieces that built on the plastic art
manipulation of the Happenings in temporally controlled ways. Creating a piece
with an extended time
frame, Monk foregrounded the
circulation of visual elements via
different spatial and temporal contexts in
her 1969 production Juice. Beginning in
the Guggenheim Museum, the two
subsequent parts of the performance
were staged at Columbia University's
Minor Latham Playhouse and Monk's
New York City loft. She describes the
activity of moving from the cavernous
space of the Guggenheim to her narrow

61

Ibid.

177
loft as functioning like the movement of
a zoom lens.62 In the first section, the 85
performers sculpted the generously
open space of the museum with their
bodies and movement,
creating various tableaux and shifting

Figure 41: Juice.

rhythmical visual patterns. Though the entire cast was visually united by the fact
that they were each wearing red boots, four individuals stood out from the crowd
by virtue of the fact that their entire bodies were painted red.

The second installment, presented three weeks later and across town from
part one, had only six performers, all painted red, and was situated within the
framework of a traditional proscenium arch theatre. The movement of the
performers was augmented by their manipulation of a variety of objects: a frying
pork chop, a rocking horse, a slowly dismantled log cabin, books, and a quart of
milk.
Finally, it was in the third section, presented "one month to the day after
part one,"63 in the confines of Monk's loft, that the movement of the zoom lens
was complete. No live performers were present, but interviews of the red people
from part two were played on video tape. This entire section consisted of an
exhibition of objects and costumes from the first two parts of the performance;
the red boots, the logs, books, the pork chop, the rocking horse, etc. Monk
focused the spectator's attention onto the role that specific objects had played
within various spatial contexts. With each successive move, as performers were

Ibid., 3.
63 Baker, "Landscapes and Telescopes: a personal response to the
choreography of Meredith Monk," 60.
62

178
eliminated, the objects themselves took on more and more the task of
signification. With each successive section the objects embodied and expressed
both the present and the past, not merely coded within their current frame of
reference, but within the frame of what had previously transpired. Upon reaching
the final installment in Monk's loft, with the absence of live performers the objects
were left to interact with each other and the memory of how they were used in the
two previous sections.
Moving through both space and time, these objects offer a comment on
the function of the various performance spaces themselves. The Guggenheim
was transformed from a museum to a theatre, and the loft from a performance
space/residence to a museum. Monk circulated these objects through time and
space, allowing them to function iconically as signs of themselves, symbolically
as the embodiment of both the Guggenheim and the Minor Latham, and finally as
visual objects contextualized by their contiguity with other elements in varying
spatial arrangements. Through the spatial manipulation of these objects,
transporting them from one context to the next, Monk was also sculpting the
temporal nature of the performance. Resonating with past actions and visual
contexts while simultaneously present before the spectator, the objects in Juice
united immediate perceptions with the dynamic process of memory.

The

subject of memory, not only within her performance spaces, but from a historical
perspective, remains an integral part of Monk's creative process. In this respect
she shares with Duchamp a focus on the manipulability of objects as they
circulate from one context to the next, signifying both within their original and
subsequent frameworks. Utilizing familiar objects and images drawn from popular
culture she is able to place into question not only how we culturally remember the
past, but what is lost in the process of that remembrance. Michel Foucault once

179
wrote that "history is that which transforms documents into monuments,"64 and I
believe this to be central to how we remember as well as how Monk uses images
of the past within a theatrical context. In analyzing Foucault's statement I arrive at
two separate conclusions. The first is that documents appear as those tangible
remnants of the past that depict a certain reality, signify that something has
indeed occurred. The second is that through the process of examining and
containing these documents they are condensed into monuments, lauded images
that stand for or represent something within a specific cultural framework.
This type of monumental representation has the dual role of conveying
specific historic information, like the Holocaust Museum's purpose to remind the
present not to repeat the horrors of the past, and providing traces of the past to
be examined within a contemporary ideological or personal framework. An
examination of a well known public structure like the Vietnam Memorial reveals a
convergence of documentation and monumentalization. The document recording
the names of those whose lives were lost in this conflict is conditioned by the
surrounding reflective surface of the polished black marble gash that cuts its way
across the Washington landscape. Was this monument erected to honor the
dead, or to work toward erasing the shame that we as a culture feel for the
horrendous treatment of returning Vietnam veterans?
Building on Foucault's distinction between the record and its use, we can
examine the seemingly fixed perspective provided by the document, the listing of
the names, as it is monumentalized by what each individual witness brings to
bear upon this recorded information. This process of turning documents into
monuments does not merely allow for the signification of a singular past event,
but functions as an ocular surface (like the reflective exterior of the Vietnam wall,
Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, (New York: Pantheon
Books, 1972), 7.
64

180
or the temporally and spatially circulated objects in Juice ) onto which ideas and
images are projected.
These projective surfaces, these objects, these monuments, exist within
our society as scraps of paper, fragments of pottery, photographs, simple images
that can signify a specific moment in time or represent an entire civilization.
Consider the signifying qualities of the Constitution of the United States, a
Grecian urn, a photograph of Hitler or Dachau. What becomes apparent is that
objects can embody memory, can carry with them specific information. It is
through this process of ideas projected onto material elements that Monk was
able to use the symbols of race, sex and age in Specimen Days . A convention
was established by the narrator's description of each article, and a collective
agreement allowed these images to represent certain data. The arm bands,
gloves and shoes by themselves do not embody what Monk has them signify, but
merely function as visual surfaces onto which the narrator's description is
projected. As Joseph Campbell points out, "Symbols are only the vehicles of
communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of the
reference. No matter how attractive or impressive they may seem, they remain
but convenient means, accommodated to the understanding."65 The symbolic
nature of the Liberty Bell, for example, though having historic significance due to
its age, is in physical reality little more than a cracked slab of metal. It is only
through a collective act of projection that this monument is able to signify what it
does.
Monk works to de-solidify these monumentalized images of the past within
her contemporary framework. Using visual images in the guise of archetypal
figures, she combines these elements with specific tangible objects in order to recontextualize them to provide the spectator with a different perspective. This
65

Campbell The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 236.

181
process creates a sense of subversion, of reinterpreting or re-reading solidified
historic events. This statement foregrounds the difference between an individual
reading of an event and its accepted cultural interpretation. While each of us may
approach an occurrence like World War II or the Civil War with our own
memories, a process that certainly involves the interpretation and filtering of
information, we are ultimately conditioned to see these events through a
collective lens.
History is something that is written, not merely recalled, and it is in the
collectively acknowledged "accepted" writing of these events that the most tragic
silencing of alternative voices occurs. History has traditionally been approached
through the lives of what Hegel referred to as "world-historical persons, the
heroes of their age."66 That is, prominent leaders or villains like General Grant or
Hitler used to establish a chronological periodization to the scope of past events.
We are generally offered a collective perspective that often silences lesser known
voices, many of which are ultimately lost in the Foucauldian shuffle from
document to monument.
Monk subverts the traditional construction of history by focusing not on
specific well known historical characters, but on more intimate, personal images,
generally structured around the archetypal family unit. Although she uses media
generated, or collectively defined images (the apron clad mother, the pipe
smoking father, and the inquisitive child), she works to avoid the representation
of a specific mother or father figure. Monk allows historic events to be reevaluated within the context of archetypal domestic situations visually framed by
conventional living room or dining room objects.

G. W. F. Hegel, Reason in History, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill


Company, Inc., 1953), 40.
66

182
At the beginning of most performances by Meredith Monk, one
enters the hall to find in a corner of the space a diminutive version
of a living room - two chairs, an antique pole lamp, a small rug - or
perhaps a kitchen - a sturdy wooden table, chairs, mugs or a
teapot. These essential elements of familiar domestic scenes never
occupy the entire performing area, as they would have in the early
twentieth century drama, but rather delimit a portion of the space as
the site of familial affairs. An awareness of family and ancestral
heritage is a consistent theme in Monk's work, but the diminutive
living room set is emblematic of the way in which this theme is
elaborated in performance.67
The opening act of Atlas, the spatial arrangements of Quarry and
Specimen Days are grounded by these emblematic domestic objects. Monk is
concerned with the moments in our lives when the family makes contact through
being drawn together in the same physical location. At dinner, reading the paper,
listening to the radio, these domestic arenas provide a stable base from which
Monk can create her theatrical mosaics. By framing her pieces in such a way
there is an undeniable personal and collective familiarity about them. Monk
provides a place where the audience member can "hook into" the images, a
grounding point for a new examination of well-known material. These images of
domesticity are so prevalent that, as Bonnie Marranca has written, "Scenes of
home life and childhood are an essential thematics in her theatrical narrative . . .
[so much so that] the institutional branch of her artistic company she named 'The
House."68

Susan Foster, "The Signifying Body: Reaction and Resistance in


Postmodern Dance," Theatre Journal, (Vol. 37, # 1. March, 1985), 56-7.
68 Bonnie Marranca, "Meredith Monk's Atlas of Sound," Performing Arts
Journal, (Spring, 1992), 17.
67

183
Building her constructions from everyday objects like lamps, tables and
chairs combined with archetypal figures, Monk is able to direct the spectator on a
journey to see historic events from a more individual perspective. There is always
a sense of "seeing" things in a different light; not that cast by the burning
buildings of Kristallnacht, but viewed from the glow of the familial hearth. "By
rearranging the elements of our perception within an apparently familiar context,
Monk reveals the extraordinary we sense as latent in the ordinary. Astonishing
metamorphoses take place not in the surface of an object (or movement) itself,
but as its function or spatial context or timing changes - in much the same way
that Lautreamount's 'fortuitous meeting' of a sewing machine and an umbrella
release new meanings."69 Monk relies on the strength of the visual plane and its
material manipulability to permit objects to be placed in new contexts. "Monk
wrenched quotidian movements and objects from the context of the everyday
world, transmuting rather than presenting ordinary things by presenting them in
new frameworks, forming within the theatre a separate world with its own logic."70
Though Monk's use of historical material is an important step in opening
up the "naturalized" constructions of history, she does not focus on it for nostalgic
purposes. Monk believes that "everything you do [as an artist] has always
existed; when you create something it is really a process of uncovering."71
Through her art, history is exhumed to affect future readings, and the distinct
layers of the past are disrupted as she excavates stories and images to present
them in her contemporary theatrical frame. Ultimately this creative uncovering is
a positive disruptive process, as her archaeological activity is devoted to the re-

Banes, The Art of Meredith Monk, 14.


70 Ibid., 4.
71 Baker, "New Worlds For Old: The Visionary Art of Meredith Monk," 34.
69

184
examination of what has past, and the way in which we are constructing the
present and the future.
Monk's 1988 film Book of Days offers an excellent example of the
confluence of past and present. The film begins with the screen filled with a
close-up of a modern red brick wall. Hands move into the scene and proceed to
chisel the stone. Explosives are set into the fresh holes, followed by a verbal
countdown "5,4,3,2,1," as an explosion uncovers a large opening in the once
solid structure. We now peer down a deserted fourteenth-century village street.

Figure 42: Book of Days.

The image slowly fades from color to black and white, as people begin to move
into view. They chop wood, shake out clothes, dump water, sweep. As the
introductory explosion of the contemporary brick wall implies, we have gained
access to their world by creating an opening in ours.
Like all of Monk's works, these ancient images are perceived through the
eyes of the present, a process foregrounded by an unseen interviewer who
circulates amongst the inhabitants asking questions like: "Can you tell me a
joke?" The "narrative" of the film centers on a young girl who is plagued by

185
visions, images of cars and planes, eyeglasses and suitcases which neither she
nor her grandfather can adequately explain. There is a sense of images from our
world invading the past. Yet, as the images cycle from past to present and
present to past Monk allows the past to "speak" for itself. As one critic observes:
The camera pans slowly past a long row of plates and spoons
bathed in light, each casting a deep shadow to the right. At first it
seems like an artfully photographed catalogue of artifacts from a
past culture. Then hands come into the frame, showing how the
utensils are used to serve, eat, etc. Soon we hear the sounds of a
family meal, and at the end, the camera pulls back beyond the
world-of-the-table to reveal the people who are eating, talking,
busily engaged in family life. It is a visual equivalent to the
archeological process, extrapolating backward from the artifacts to
the life that created them, with the limits of the film's frame
representing the archeologist's slowly enlarging vision.72
The most concrete example of this archeological process of recontextualizing the past within a contemporary frame is Monk's 1979 work
Recent Ruins . This piece was, as she states, built around the "notion of
archeology as a way of seeing."73 The work is not dedicated to the accurate
reading of past civilizations through their objects and images, but, in Monk's
words, depicts "The irony and folly of archeology and the fascination about
digging up other cultures and thinking that you may know something about
them."74 Her artistic process is devoted to re-examining the past in order to reveal
how our present reading of it has been constructed. Addressing this act of
excavation, Deborah Jowitt writes of Recent Ruins : "Meredith Monk has
Finkelstein, 61.
73 Sally R. Sommer, "Moving Through the Debris," The Village Voice,
(November 26, 1979), 105.
74 Monk, Amherst Lecture.
72

186
confessed to an interest in archeology. Is anyone surprised? I, for one, have
never seen one of her completely astonishing works without feeling that every act
excavates others. It's a question of resonance; she understands the cargo of
shadowy, fragmentary ancestors that accompany certain sounds, images, [and]
gestures.75
The structure of the piece allows for objects and images of the past to
mingle with contemporary figures, foregrounding the process of recontextualization that occurs through archeological excavation. On one side of
the stage there is a small platform on which two people sit at a table and attempt
to piece together pottery fragments. Above them are projected a series of
images, dates and diagrams drawn on an overhead projector by an unseen
character.

Figure 43: Recent Ruins.

Beginning with simple pots and jugs, the typical objects unearthed by most
archaeological digs, the drawings grow to depict vacuum cleaner parts, broken
pliers, a hammer, and an electric iron. Using the projection screen to juxtapose
Deborah Jowitt, "Profusion Within Tidy Limits," The Village Voice,
(December 3, 1979), 91.
75

187
elements from the past with images of the present, Monk not only grounds her reevaluation of these historical objects within her immediate theatrical context, but
questions the process by which they have previously been assessed.
While these images carry with them the fragmented cargo of their
ancestry, it is truly a shadowy resemblance. These objects, removed from their
original frame of reference, offer a dim reminder of how they may or may not
have been used in the past. Their presence on stage silently questions how we
can expect an electric iron to instruct future generations about our civilization,
while simultaneously asking how informative a pottery fragment is of the lives of
our ancestors. Cut off from their initial code these objects function as random
signifiers waiting to be examined, contextualized, written on, and finally
transformed into monuments. Monk visually underscores this continual process
of concealment and unearthing as each segment of the work culminates with a
fine rain of earth falling to the stage floor.
In conjunction with these projected images, the characters that Monk
peoples her theatrical space with add another dimension to her examination of
the historical process. She juxtaposes two Victorian explorers with two
contemporary backpackers, two eighteenth-century French dandies, two modern
archeologists, and a doctor and nurse clad in white lab coats complete with clip
boards and an interest in documenting whatever they come across. As is to be
expected each successive generation excavates that which a previous one has
left behind, but Monk allows this strict chronology to be overrun as past and
present interact regardless of temporal era. The Victorians stumble across
something from the present and vice versa. This "unearthing" activity is
intensified as each group scribbles on the stage floor in chalk relevant
contemporary phrases like "E=MC2." The chalk is able to connote not only
physical evidence, but philosophical residue, ideas left over from previous

188
cultures (in this case our own). Underscoring the archeological folly of these
discoveries, all of the time frames are united by a single image in which there
seems to be a moment of great (ironic) revelation as all of the characters
suddenly hold up spoons in unison.

Figure 44: Recent Ruins.

This process of juxtaposing images of the present with those of the past
was also a major element of her 1984 collaboration with Ping Chong, The Games
. As Monk assesses their combined efforts she notes that "Our collaborations
have a different quality than either his work or my own. They are a little less
music than what I usually do and less static imagery than what he usually
does."76 Despite the differences, the hallmarks of Monk's individual style are still
evident. The entire piece is focused on the subject of "collective memory," in
which people from our future attempt to maintain an image of their past (which is
our present). The framing device for this piece is not archeology, but "memory
games." Monk plays a master-of-ceremonies who leads a group of contestants
through a variety of games, all designed to help maintain a cultural perspective of
the past.
76

Monk, 1979 installation, concert and workshop, 6.

189

Figure 45: The Games.

The contestants of these memory games must answer strange questions


like "What does IBM stand for?" "Was religion an organized pastime or a form of
entertainment?" "What is a Monday?" Beyond this, a series of images are flashed
on a projection screen that dominates the performance space. Images of buttons,
a glove, a razor, a comb, a pair of pliers, channel locks, a clothes pin, a fork, a
knife, a spoon, a light bulb, all flash by in succession, begging to be analyzed.
What do they mean, these strange objects from our past? Tying these images
and objects into the whole of Monk's work, it is interesting to note that these are
domestic objects, things that one might find in a "utility" drawer in any home.
Through The Games we are permitted to see how a future culture might read
elements from its past, our present. This process asks the question: "How much
can one know about a culture from its objects?" "What do these documents of the
past offer in the way of describing or illuminating how a people lived?" There is a
memory implied, a collective act of writing the past on its tangible remnants.

190
Memory Part Two: The Photographic Image:
Of these tangible remnants no object is as unmistakably manipulable as
the photograph. Accessible to both cultural and personal spheres, the frozen
image provides a convenient projective surface which can easily be elevated
from document to monument. This is, of course, not just a collective action, but a
process that also transpires at the individual level. In his reflection on
photography, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes searches for a photograph of his
mother that captures the essence of who he believed she was. He analyzes the
process of looking for one single image that will allow him to "find" his mother.
Photography, for Barthes, was a special art. As a form of documenting the past
he found it to be unlike painting or writing because, "Photography's referent is not
the same as the referent of other systems of representation...In photography I
can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of
reality and of the past."77 It is the photograph that captures the real, that exists as
a document with a direct correlation between the original event and the image.
As Barthes points out, "It is as if the photograph always carries its referent with
itself . . . they are glued together, limb by limb"78
This process of capturing an image in a particular place and time
separates that image from history while simultaneously locking it within an
historical frame. The frozen image is free to transcend its original context, set
adrift within a sea of manipulability. In general, inextricably linked to its referent,
the photograph presents an undeniable documentation of what has passed, yet
as linked as the two limbs of the photograph are it also functions to separate that
image both physically and chronologically from the initial event. Wary of the

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, (New York: The Noonday Press:


Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1981), 76.
78 Ibid., 5-6.
77

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manipulability of the image reproduced through mechanical means, Walter
Benjamin summed this process up quite well when he wrote that "technical
reproduction can put a copy of the original into situations which would be out of
reach for the original."79 Like Monk's circulation of material objects, the
photographic document is free to be removed from its initial context and
monumentalized at will.
Photographic images, while sharing with objects a material presence, are
conditioned by an entirely different signifying structure. Historically the
photograph exists as documentation, not just of events and objects, but individual
subjects. This process of representation does more than just capture the image
of a person; to paraphrase both Barthes and Foucault, "Photography is that
which transforms subject into object."80 Physically the photograph can be cut up,
drawn on, catalogued, altered, in short, used as a document for the construction
of a particular reading of history. Seeing the real in Barthes' case was not merely
a process of finding just any photograph that documented his mother's existence,
but a distinct one onto which he could graft all of his feelings and memories of
who she had been, thus working to monumentalize her silent frozen image.
Barthes' search for the appropriate photograph of his mother illuminates
the tension between the subject and object status of the fixed document. By
endowing the frozen image of his mother with all of his memories, Barthes
succeeded in not only monumentalizing the document, but breathing subjective
life into an objectified image. Following Foucault it is impossible to view history as
simply representing that which has passed and not see it as an active process of
construction. It is this construction that Monk reveals with her theatrical

79

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, (New York: Schocken Books, 1969),

80

Barthes Camera Lucida, 13.

222.

192
excavations, illuminating the fact that as we examine the documents of the past,
as we read photographs in the present, we are also writing upon them. The
difficulty with this historic process is that as the silent image is resurrected, as the
document is re-contextualized, its meaning continues to shift and change,
plunging both the document and its reading into a Derridean cycle of infinitely
differed (and deferred) signification. While the image itself may be a fixed record
of an individual or an event, how we read or interpret it is not.
Rejecting a documentary style of performance, Monk constructs her
theatrical works by re-animating historical figures and objects within a
contemporary framework. She is able to accomplish this via her multi-dimentional
approach to performance. Combining archetypal images with sound, objects,
movement, and film she compels the spectator to examine familiar material from
an unusual viewpoint. Her process, like Foucault's, is similar to an archaeological
dig, in which the action of uncovering, re-evaluating and reinterpreting elements
of past civilizations proceeds from a purely contemporary perspective. She
excavates the patterns of history and re-contextualizes them in an attempt to
include those voices that, due to the narrow focus of traditional historical
construction, have been silenced. This is a process, that along with Foucault,
Monk shares with both feminist historians and those ascribing to the basic tenets
of "new historicism."
Though Monk does not deny that she is concerned with feminist issues,
she ultimately defines herself as a humanist.81 While the subject of her pieces
may reflect a humanist philosophy, it is her process of creation and choice of
subject matter that places her work into a feminist frame. By fighting the
monolithic universality supposed by a theatre dominated by male views and
Jeanie Kay Forte, Women in Performance Art: Feminism and
Postmodernism, Unpublished Dissertation (The University of WA., 1986), 157.
81

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voices, Monk opens up the restricted discourse of theatrical activity to include
otherwise marginalized voices and bodies. She works through a kind of
"revisionist history" that echoes feminist critic and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha's
evaluation of the act of writing. "Neither entirely personal nor purely historical, a
mode of writing is in itself a function. An act of historical solidarity, it denotes, in
addition to the writer's personal standpoint and intention, a relationship between
creation and society."82
Monk's historically framed creative function works against Foucault's
assertion that, "history now organizes the document, divides it up, distributes it,
orders it, arranges it in levels, establishes series, distinguishes between what is
relevant and what is not, discovers elements, defines unities, describes
relations."83 Her objective is to cut through the layers of established reading and
return the viewer to the initial event. She explores history through voices
previously silenced by the patriarchy's categorization of these events, and "revisions history by acknowledging the myth of heroic women in ancient times: the
woman warrior leading the community and the goddess defending herself from
human transgressions."84 It is through this process that Monk questions not only
how we as a society have created monuments from documentation, silencing that
which was not considered relevant, but the manner in which we read and write
upon traces of the past.
Following a similar pattern of historical reconstruction, "new historicism" is
defined by H. Aram Veeser's introduction to a collection of essays simply entitled
The New Historicism as having "a portmanteau quality. It brackets together
Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other, (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1989), 20.
83 Foucault, 6.
84 Marranca, "Meredith Monk's Recent Ruins: The Archeology of
Consciousness: Essaying Images." 47.
82

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literature, ethnography, anthropology, art history, and other disciplines and
sciences, hard and soft. It scrutinizes the barbaric acts that sometimes
underwrite high cultural purposes and asks that we not blink away our complicity.
At the same time, it encourages us to admire the sheer intricacy and
unavoidability of exchanges between culture and power."85
This deconstructive act is based on the interaction of previously
marginalized historical material with established central ideas. Allowing the
margins to re-interpret the center, new historicism guru Stephen Greenblatt recontextualizes Shakespeare's Henry plays within the context of a rather obscure
sixteenth-century document by Thomas Harriot entitled A Brief and True Report
of the New Found Land of Virginia . Concluding his essay "Invisible Bullets,"
Greenblatt foregrounds the juxtaposition of these two historical documents by
stating that, "Like Harriot in the New World, the Henry plays confirm the
Machiavellian hypothesis that princely power originates in force and fraud even
as they draw their audience toward an acceptance of that power."86 Like
Greenblatt, Monk juxtaposes contrasting elements, but in doing so she
illuminates the process of historical construction. While having certain points in
common with new historicism, Monk's creative function does more than simply
place dissimilar elements next to each other. Her productions exhume past
events, re-contextualize them within a new cultural or theatrical framework, and
disarm their mute monumentality. In this way she provides a means for the
spectator to compose an alternate reading of the historical past, or a new
approach to a collective myth.

85

H. Aram Veeser, ed., The New Historicism, (New York: Routledge,

1989), xi.
86 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, (Berkeley and Los
Angeles: The University of California Press, 1988), 65.

195
Throughout her career Monk has not only questioned the use of objects in
documenting the past, but also used photographs and photography widely in her
theatre pieces and films. In Quarry, a man, who is later revealed to be working
for Ping Chong's dictator character comes on stage and takes photographs with
a flash camera that instantly kills the captured individual. The process of
questioning the role of photographs in the construction of history was also an
integral part of her Civil War piece Specimen Days . One of the recurrent themes
of the piece is the isolation of a stray moment in time by the photographer's plate.
A character repeatedly carries a large antique box camera, complete with a tripod
and black cape, into the performance space. At one specific moment, as the
camera is set up and the photo is taken, all of those on stage fall dead. There is a
sense of questioning the freezing, capturing, and killing off of that which was
once alive through the process of photographic documentation.
Perhaps her most successful questioning of the use of photos as a means
of documenting the past is her film Ellis Island . Originally produced as a part of
Recent Ruins , Monk expanded the film in 1981 to be an independent work in its
own right. Filmed at the ruins of Ellis Island prior to the recent renovation, she
brilliantly surrounds characters dressed as early twentieth-century immigrants
with the late twentieth century decay; once again creating an atmosphere in
which elements from history are re-contextualized within a contemporary
framework. It is, as Monk states, "not a documentary . . . It is a poetic,
atmospheric look at a place and a time."87 As the images from the past mingle
with the ruins of the present, each visually comments upon the other creating an
atmosphere in which the immigrants seem to exist as ghostly forms haunting the
abandoned island.
Arthur Unger, "On TV: Meredith Monk," The Christian Science Monitor,
(Friday, January 28, 1983).
87

196

Figure 46: Ellis Island. 88

Reinforcing this juxtaposition of contemporary and historic components,


Monk makes periodic jumps between black and white and color. The early
twentieth-century characters dwell in the black and white ruins while the color
sequences present a park ranger leading a group of contemporary tourists
through the decayed site. The film begins with a color time lapse sunrise and
sunset over the island, and moves to what appear to be black and white
photographs of groups of detained immigrants. With the exception of the
decomposing background, the "photos" accurately depict images of the past
through both the costume and physical arrangements of the subjects, complete
with clutched parcels of sacred belongings and sober expressions. As Bonnie
Marranca noted of the film's inclusion in the stage presentation, "This section of

Note the use of the archeologist's staff for scale, as well as the ironic
evaluation of these living beings with a device generally reserved for inanimate
objects.
88

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Recent Ruins represents the modern obsession with codifying and documenting
everything in the world."89
The filmed photographs appear frozen in time, capturing and objectifying
the individual subjects, but with each successive image, some tiny bit of
movement breaks the plane of objectification. The seemingly static
representations of the past come alive as one person blinks, another slightly
shifts his or her weight, and a woman brushes a piece of lint from her husband's
jacket. With each break, the object returns to subject status, reminding us that
the representations of the past are merely frozen images of people that had once
existed. Like Barthes' personal investment in the photograph of his mother, Monk
is successful in breathing life back into the objectified image.
Though the film comments on the process of objectification through
documentation, these immigrants, these subjects drawn from our past, are
reduced to object status by the entire American naturalization process. Poked
and prodded by doctors and immigration officials these human beings are
catalogued and documented like so many objects in a warehouse. Similarly to
Barthes' mental writing on the image of his mother, Monk presents the faces of
men and women as they are written on by the visible hands of otherwise unseen
officials. Letters, numbers, the circling of select body parts, and words such as
"Serb," dissect and catalogue the human form. The living, breathing subjects are
reduced to objects to be filed away, used as documents in the construction of
history. Yet, as the customs officials scrutinize and label these individuals, they
blink and shift their weight, restoring the silenced object to subject status.
This work contains an active questioning of the historical process,
something that eludes Greenblatt's re-evaluation of Shakespeare's text. Although
Marranca, "Meredith Monk's Recent Ruins: The Archeology of
Consciousness: Essaying Images." 41.
89

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both Greenblatt and Monk use juxtaposition as a basis for their analysis, Monk
problematizes the act of historical construction by providing a close examination
of the process of documentation. There is a resurrection of the objectified
individual as Monk utilizes the dynamic technology of the film to combat the static
technology of the photograph. In this respect she is using the medium of the film
to question itself. As Trinh T. Minh-ha points out, "Filmmaking is after all a
question of 'framing' reality in its course. However, it can also be the place where
the referential function of film image/sound is not simply negated, but reflected
upon in its own operative principles and questioned in its authoritative
identification with the phenomenal world."90 The process of writing upon and
monumentalizing the documentation of the past is shattered as the dynamism of
the film destroys the static nature of the photograph to permit the objectified
immigrants to return to their animated human form.
How do we remember the past? How does the process of constructing a
history through images from the past function within our present context, and at
what cost? By extracting objects and images from their original frame of
reference and re-contextualizing them within her performance space, Monk, like
Foucault, has been able to draw attention to the organization of history not as an
unintentional arrangement of facts, but as a culturally determined construction.
By allowing previously silenced voices to be re-animated within her theatrical
excavations, Monk shares with feminism and new historicism the desire to
juxtapose overlooked or marginalized information to provoke a more diversified
reading of the historical past. Yet, beyond this, the critical nature of her work
exceeds mere juxtaposition to promote an analysis of the very nature of historical
construction.
Trinh T. Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red, (New York: Routledge,
1991), 43.
90

199
As shown in the example of Ellis Island , her manipulation of imagery and
technology works to break the plane of the static image in an attempt to reveal
the personal history behind the construction. As an artist, Monk examines how
history has silenced voices of the past by turning subject into object. Like
Barthes, Monk works to de-mythify naturalized myths and forces the spectator to
search for the elusive essence of the living within the frozen images of the past,
an apparition that lies beyond the reach of verbal language alone. Finally it is
through this process of visual re-contextualization that she is able to question the
museum of historic images and myths, reshape them, and subvert the
domination of a monolithic reading of past events.

Chapter Four: Robert Wilson: A Theatre of Form and Structure:

A Theatre of Form and Structure:


The career of theatre director, designer, and visionary Robert Wilson has
proceeded along a unique arc. Working outside the traditional methods of
theatrical creation he has moved from relative obscurity, to "genius" American
expatriate working solely in state-supported European theatres, to an in-demand
director both at home and abroad. By structuring his productions around visual
images rather than a written text, he significantly downplays the narrative aspect
of theatre to provide a truly visionary experience. Characterized by fragmentation
and juxtaposition of visual and aural elements, Wilson's theatre is more
concerned with form and structure than it is with plot or linear narrative.
By using a variety of techniques he is able to manipulate even the natural
qualities of the human actor to function as structural entities within his
constructed (artificial) stage environment. His attention to the organization of
dynamic space through the manipulation of familiar media images resonates with
the analyses provided by the previous two chapters. By working as the designer
of the stage space as well as the director of the staged action, he combines the
strengths of Svoboda and Monk. It seems appropriate that this study culminate in
an investigation of his work, because Wilson was an integral part of its inception.
Dominated by images, his form of theatre provides an excellent example for
visual analysis, but beyond this it is Wilson's desire to explore alternate modes of
perception that offers a unique perspective on the art of the theatre. As the
chapter on Svoboda served to lay the groundwork for a discussion of the
dynamism of visual theatre, and the chapter on Monk analyzed her novel, visual
remobilizing of familiar material, this chapter reflects an investment in the formal

195
properties of the physical theatre as it relates to a mode of perception not
dominated by the interpretive process of language.
Wilson's reliance on images as opposed to a narrative most certainly has
precedents, as evidenced by Oskar Schlemmer's work at the Bauhaus,
Witkiewicz's theatre of pure form, and Artaud's sensorial theatre. Like Artaud,
Wilson has always worked toward a theatre that supplants the narrative content
of the plot with the structural context of visual expression. Yet, unlike Artaud,
Wilson has been successful at implementing this idea in a practical way,
something that Artaud only dreamed of. Wilson's compositions remain the
cornerstone of my conception of visual theatre because by analyzing his work I
have acquired a new understanding of theatrical elements based on a philosophy
of visual perception and not on a psychological manifestation of the text.
Wilson's background is well trod territory, repeated by nearly every critic
who has ever written about him, so much so that his upbringing in Waco, Texas,
his former speech impediment, architectural study, and work with handicapped
individuals extends out like some biographical mantra. This study is not focused
on a detailed exploration of Wilson's background,1 nor is it invested in recalling
and evaluating his complete oeuvre.2 It is, however, geared toward analyzing
how, through various techniques, Wilson's approach to the theatre has taught
audiences to see differently.
Like Monk, Wilson is not concerned with presenting works that are closed
on a single interpretation. The spectator is free to interact with the images
presented, and come away from the experience having reassembled the

1 For further information see Stefan Brecht, The Theatre of Visions:


Robert Wilson, (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1978) and Calvin Tomkins, "Time to Think"
The New Yorker ,(January 13, 1975. pp 38-57).
2 With over 100 productions this would be quite a daunting task!

196
fragments on his or her own. Not intent on generating a single overriding
meaning with his theatrical works, Wilson encourages the spectator to focus on
the organization of the stage space and not the content of that organization. "Go
like you would to a museum, like you would look at a painting. Appreciate the
color of the apple, the line of the dress, the glow of the light ... You don't have to
think about the story, because there isn't any. You don't have to listen to the
words, because the words don't mean anything. You just enjoy the scenery, the
architectural arrangements in time and space, the music, the feelings they all
evoke. Listen to the pictures."3
It is this process of construction that caused semiotician and novelist
Umberto Eco to compare Wilson's work to his own exploration of the interpretive
process chronicled in The Open Work.4 For Eco, a work of art is "a complete and
closed form in its uniqueness as a balanced organic whole, while at the same
time constituting an open product on account of its susceptibility to countless
different interpretations which do not impinge on its unadulterable specificity."5 In
more traditional theatrical models the text and the image, Eco's form and product,
are woven together in a seamless process in which one supports the other,
pointing the spectator toward a specific interpretation. Wilson, on the other hand,
structures his works so that the two do not necessarily match up. Like Monk, he
allows the fragments of separate sign systems to exist independently of one

Laurence Shyer, Robert Wilson and His Collaborators, (New York:


Theatre Communications Group, 1989), xv.
4 Umberto Eco, "Robert Wilson and Umberto Eco: A Conversation,"
Performing Arts Journal ,(Vol. XV, #43. January, 1993), 87.
5 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1989), 4.
3

197
another facilitating what Patrice Pavis, echoing Eco, refers to as an "open text,
[that] which has no meaning at all before the interpretation of the spectator."6
At the heart of Wilson's process there is a separation of image and text
allowing for the convergence of the two not in the theatrical frame, but within the
mind of the spectator. "If I merely illustrate the text, as happens frequently in
theatre, with gestures or with decor or with the costumes, then ultimately they're
superfluous decoration and it's better to just stay home and read the text. You
must try to create a sense of 'I see this and I here that,' and what happens is that
in the mixing in the head something else happens."7 This process is very similar
to Sergei Eisenstein's discussion of montage as it relates to the sound film in
which "art begins the moment the creaking of a boot on the sound-track occurs
against a different visual shot and thus gives rise to corresponding
associations."8
Though defining his theory of montage as it relates to the collusion of
separate visual or aural images in film, Eisenstein captured the dynamic principle
of Wilson's theatrical compositions. Open to interpretation, the "permission to
spin our own play is one of the enduring pleasures of Wilson's spectacles."9 As a
work of art that uses icons, images, objects and the gesture and movement of the
human form to structure the stage space, Wilson's pieces comprise "an open and
explicit theatre, in that its components do not obey a code of signification

Patrice Pavis, Languages of the Stage ,(New York: The Performing Arts
Journal, 1982), 152.
7 Alisha Solomon, "Theatre of No Ideas: A Conversation with Robert
Wilson and Heiner Mller," The Village Voice ,( July 29, 1986), 39.
8 Quoted in Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, (New York: The Noonday
Press, 1977), 61-2.
9 Elinor Fuchs, "Robert Wilson's Alcestis : A Classic for the 80's" The
Village Voice , (July 29, 1986), 40.
6

198
associated with the plays, but are rather offered to the spectator as raw material
for his own reconstructions."10 Because they stress individual elements over
narrative structure it is clear, that, as one early critic pointed out, Wilson's
productions must "be experienced rather than understood."11
This emphasis on experience is a quality that Wilson seems to have
acquired from one of his acknowledged influences, the avant-guarde artist and
composer John Cage. Cage's philosophy of chance interaction of artistic
elements laid the groundwork for many of the artists that were to grow and
flourish in New York in the late sixties and early seventies. Pushing the
boundaries of artistic creation, Cage stressed the importance of all elements,
planned or unplanned, as part of the entire artistic process. One of his most
famous "musical" compositions, 4'33," was basically "composed" of complete
silence. As Roselee Goldberg described, "The work's first interpreter, David
Tudor, sat at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, silently moving
his arms three times."12 Cage's point was that everything the audience was
hearing should be considered music; that is, no elements were to be placed
outside the realm of artistic expression. His focus, like Wilson's, was on the
experience and not the comprehension of it. As Cage has stated, "I think that the
division is between understanding and experiencing, and many people think that
art has to do with understanding, but it doesn't. It has to do with experience."13

Luis O Arata, "Dreamscapes and Other Reconstructions: The Theatre


of Robert Wilson" Kansas Quarterly , (Fall, 1980), 85.
11 Tomkins, 39.
12 RoseLee Goldberg, Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present, (New
York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1979), 81.
13 Richard Kostelanetz, ed., Conversing with Cage , (New York: Limelight
Editions, 1988), 115.
10

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Beyond this, Wilson has stated that it was Cage's work with
choreographer Merce Cunningham that has had one of the most profound
influences on his conception of the theatre. Experimenting with chance
collaborations, the two would independently "compose" their own music and
dance patterns, and then put the two pieces together. The result would be a
chance collaboration in which the audience was responsible for finding
connections between the discrete elements. Since the work was not closed on a
single interpretation but unfolded through the interaction of elements that
commented upon each other by virtue of their contiguity in space and time, the
spectator was free to appreciate both music and dance separately as well as
their convergence within the plane of the performance. Ultimately, from this
interaction, the spectator would not derive an understanding, but an artistic
experience.
This process created its own flexible logical structure through the dynamic
interaction of its individual components. Each component, whether sound or
movement, was defined in relation to the temporal frame of the performance. Like
the individual elements of color, line, and shape in a painting, they signified by
virtue of what aurally, visually, and contextually surrounded them at any given
point. As dance critic and early Wilson collaborator Kenneth King points out,
"What Merce Cunningham actually discovered was how movement of whatever
mode or register can create its own contexts and, further, how those contexts can
flexibly shift the focus, perspective(s), and dimensionalities within the internal
logi(isti)cs and cohesiveness of a dance."14 This focus on shifting contexts
through temporal and spatial interaction is an integral component of Wilson's
artistic methodology.
Richard Kostelanetz, ed., Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and
Time, (Chicago: a cappella books, incorporated, 1992), 189.
14

200
Though he was influenced by the process that Cage and Cunningham
explored, it is important to emphasize that Wilson's works do not rely on chance
interaction as much as they do on his deliberate structuring of space and time.
Like the physical presence of Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor throughout
all of his works, Wilson's "hands" can always be seen shaping and manipulating
the overall physical structure. He is a supreme collaborator, taking in ideas and
images from many different sources and filtering them through his structural
sense. As costume designer for Wilson's 1987 American production of Alcestis ,
John Conklin pointed out, however, that "The stereotype is that he's a dictator
working with puppets. It isn't true. He shapes it but leaves an enormous amount
for others to do."15 Wilson thrives on the continual influx of fresh ideas, new
material from various sources. As he has discussed, "The best thing is to try to
contradict yourself, to find collaborators as different as, say, Tom Waits and
Heiner Mller. Listening to other people helps you find new ideas, new
windows."16 By continually drawing on new sources for inspiration he seems to
have taken the framework of the chance collaborations of Cunningham and Cage
and formulated it into a definite cohesive process.

The Architecture of Stage Space:


If architecture can be defined as a profession devoted to the design and
construction of space, then Wilson's flow of images reflects his investment in the
stage as an architectural plane composed of both space and time. Like Svoboda,
he is interested in dynamic compositions conditioned by the manipulation of all

Elinor Fuchs, ed., "The PAJ Casebook: Robert Wilson's Alcestis,"


Performing Arts Journal, (Summer, 1986), 91.
16 John Rockwell, "Staging Painterly Visions," The New York Times
Magazine , (November 15, 1992), 24.
15

201
visual elements within the theatrical space. Yet, beyond this, his shaping of the
temporal and aural aspects of production connects his work to Monk's
rhythmically derived compositions. Wilson molds both space and time by
manipulating the movement of images and sounds as they continually define and
re-define the spatial structure of the stage. While architecture can be seen as a
metaphor for his work, the fact remains that his attention to physical forms over
narrative content indicates that his architectural sense is the guiding force for all
of his productions.
As in the organization of a more substantial structure, like a building, the
disparate theatrical elements of sound, movement, color, texture and image
cohere to form a single structural entity. As Jan Mukarovsky writes in his essay
"On The Problem of Functions in Architecture," "When we say that the
architecture organizes this space as a whole, we mean that none of the parts of
architecture has functional independence but that each of them is evaluated only
according to how it forms the space into which it is incorporated and which it
delimits."17 The space that Wilson constructs, while characterized by a
fragmentation, juxtaposition and repetition of form, movement and sound, works
as an organized whole, leaving nothing functionally independent. He draws all of
the isolated pieces together fulfilling his role as the architect of the performance
space while working from an imaginary blueprint that he may or may not be
conscious of. Though there is always a molding and shaping process, Wilson
maintains: "I work out of intuition. Somehow it seems right...The work mostly has
some architectural reasons. This one's here because that one's there."18

Jan Mukarovsky, Structure, Sign and Function , (New Haven: Yale


University Press, 1977), 240.
18 Frances Alenikoff, "Scenario: A Talk With Robert Wilson," Dancescope,
(Fall/Winter, 1975/76), 15.
17

202
Unlike Meredith Monk's experimentation with alternate performance
spaces in which she continually changes the relationship of the spectator to the
stage, Wilson has almost always relied on the two-dimensionality of the
proscenium arch. In Wilson's theatre we are always held at a distance, watching,
as he manipulates the space that extends both horizontally across the front of the
arch and vertically back to the depth of the stage. Though these stage images
are open for interpretation, they are all carefully structured according to Wilson's
own intuitive spatial logic. Relying on this visually determined logical
configuration rather than its linguistic counterpart, Wilson's theatre reflects what
Robert Venturi describes in his landmark study Complexity and Contradiction in
Architecture. "It is the taut composition which contains contrapuntal relationships,
equal combinations, inflected fragments, and acknowledged dualities. It is the
unity which 'maintains, but only just maintains, a control over the clashing
elements which compose it. Chaos is very near; its nearness, but its avoidance,
gives . . . force."19 As Wilson is fond of stating, "I can never explain the way
something is done. it just seems right. Things aren't necessarily arbitrary, but I
can't say exactly why they seem to be so. I think it probably would have a logic of
its own if you spent enough time to figure it out."20
This logic that Wilson discusses is not determined by the requirements of
a pre-existing text, but by the logic of spatial construction. His is a theatre of true
dynamic quality. Elements take on meaning not as they are dissected and
analyzed individually, but through interrelations, tensions, visual confrontations.
As one critic assesses, "structure is thus inborn, that is emerges while the work is

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, (New


York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1966), 104.
20 Sylvere Lotringer, "Robert Wilson Interview," Semiotext, (Vol. III, #2,
1978), 23.
19

203
performed as the spectator spontaneously apprehends the relations obtaining
among images. Thus, coherence is not a result of any logical sequence of
images, but resides in intuitively grasped similarities among images derived from
a common motif."21
This coherence around a common motif characterizes Wilson's
multifaceted approach to stage space. In a more conventional theatre the stage
images are generally structured around an existing written script. Everything is
geared toward and determined by the organization of the narrative, and in this
sense language is always privileged over visible forms. In Wilson's theatre,
however, there is always the guiding form before the specifics. Rather than
begin with a script or description of a series of events, Wilson proceeds from an
array of black and white sketches that provide a storyboard of the spatial action
as it moves from moment to moment. These are not specifically detailed images,
but rather sketchy transient forms that display a sequence of spatial
arrangements.

Craig Owens, "Einstein on the Beach: The Primacy of Metaphor,"


October, (Fall, 1977), 27.
21

204

Figure 47: Wilson's sketches for the CIVIL warS.

With Wilson's theatre there is always an overriding geometrical frame that


privileges horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines into which the actor, objects, and
images are placed. Though he functions as both director and designer by
conceiving of the stage space in structural terms, he still needs to collaborate
with designers to help him realize these compositions on the stage. According to
an experienced Wilson collaborator, lighting designer Beverly Emmons believes
that "Bob himself does not know technically how to accomplish things."22
Continuing to closely collaborate with set, light and costume designers for
technical reasons, he is still very much in control of the final image, and, in the
traditional sense, more than just a director. As one time Wilson performer Stefan
Brecht notes, "the theatre of visions is a stage-designer's theatre, theatre of the
director functioning as stage-designer."23
Frequent set collaborator Tom Kamm explains more precisely that "There
are three basic things that Bob does. There's the back wall, the floor and the
elements within that. It's a very classical use of stage space. Very horizontal,
integrated, lack of decoration. Wing and drop, very little departure from that."24
There is the utmost control over how this geometric space is arranged and
divided. For his production of A Letter for Queen Victoria Wilson describes how
his arrangement of the stage was influenced by the structure of an envelope.
The stage was divided into diagonal sections. When the curtain
went up, Sheryl Sutton was standing tall upstage left and Cindy

Shyer, Robert Wilson and his Collaborators, 199-200.


23 Brecht, 9.
24 Shyer, Robert Wilson and his Collaborators, 165.
22

205
Lubar was in front of her down stage right. The line between them
traced the same diagonal line continued in Cindy's white dress . . .
In the second act the light coming through the windows fell in the
same diagonal line. In the fourth act the venetian blinds slant on the
same diagonal line. The line was traced or drawn through all the
acts. Sometimes it was the costumes, sometimes it was the
scenery, sometimes it was the lighting.25

Figure 48: A Letter for Queen Victoria.

This varied repetition of a specific geometrical form is a hallmark of


Wilson's structural theatre. Describing the preponderance of triangles in his
production of Einstein on the Beach he stated, "you find them everywhere: from
the train's cowcatcher to the triangular light coming down in the courtroom
scenes to the light streaming up in a triangle from an elevator shaft in the
spaceship scene."26

Bonnie Marranca, ed., The Theatre of Images , (New York: The


Performing Arts Journal, 1977), 47-8.
26 Barbara Barracks, "Einstein on the Beach ," Art Forum, (March, 1977),
33.
25

206

Figure 49: Einstein on the Beach.

As can be clearly seen from the above descriptions and photographs,


Wilson's productions rely more on the interaction of forms in space than a more
linguistically derived structure. Very often he manipulates the contents of these
spatial arrangements to induce a perpetual metamorphosis of a simple geometric
form. For example, in his production of Death, Destruction and Detroit ,
influenced by a photograph that Wilson had seen of former Nazi Rudolph Hess
raking leaves in his prison yard, the rake handle became a cane, a glowing rod, a
baton, a sword. In his monumental epic production of the CIVIL warS ,27 the
repetition of the triangular shape was seen as icebergs, tents, a shark fin, a
sailboat, and the mosquito netting placed over cots. As can be seen with the
example of the triangular form, these structural shapes are components of
Wilson's scenographic alphabet, continually used and reused in a variety of
different visual contexts. The triangles utilized in Einstein on the Beach
formationally differ very little from those used in the CIVIL warS. Due to his
Constructed from six separate operas created in six separate countries
(Holland, Germany, Italy, Japan, France and the United States) the opera was
originally planned to be synthesized at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
The combined presentation of all sections was eventually canceled by the
Olympic committee due to lack of funding. While each of the sections have been
performed individually, the entire opera has yet to be staged in one location.
27

207
reliance on the fluidity of visual expression, Wilson is able to re-contextualize
these geometric forms throughout the performance by augmenting the spatial
arrangement that surrounds them. While the triangular forms may remain the
same, or in the case of the rake handle may even be the same object, their
spatial contexts shift, altering the audience's perception and categorization of
these visual elements.
His stage images are an exercise in spatial control and visual modification,
and he often conceives of the stage space the way a painter might, as a portrait,
a still life, or a landscape. At one point the entire stage image may be confined to
a small platform at the edge of the stage, as he often does creating what he has
termed "knee plays." These articulated joints connect one section of the work to
another by introducing a change in scale, a close-up of the action. These closeup views are often juxtaposed with larger, full stage landscape images,
illustrating the fact that Wilson's theatre is one of size and zones. Through his
manipulation of scale and object placement, Wilson often destabilizes the
audience's sense of perspective, a process that can be seen here in this photo
from the CIVIL warS.

208

Figure 50: the CIVIL warS.

The image is basically a landscape, but with a skewed perspective. Placed


toward the front of the proscenium arch, the size of the little person should
indicate a faraway position, while on the horizon a normal sized person stands,
reversing the landscape perspective. Placed in between the two is the "largest
woman in the world." This image provides both a landscape with a skewed
prospective, and a portrait, or close-up of the world's largest female.
In another section of the CIVIL warS there is a shift in size of one of the
stage figures. In the opening of the Rome section the image of a huge Abraham
Lincoln is presented, towering over the stage. Later on, towards the end of the
piece, a "normal" human sized Lincoln is lowered on a ladder center stage. It is
as if in the beginning of the piece the spectator were right on top of Lincoln,
seeing him as a massive entity, but by the end of the piece, the perspective is
shifted. He is no longer a portrait figure, but an element of the landscape. This
perspectival shift is also evident in one of Wilson's earliest pieces, his 1969
production of The King of Spain . Ignored by all on stage, four large cat legs
silently walk through a musty Victorian drawing room, thus creating a tension of
size and perspective. Juxtaposed with the "normal" sized actors the cat's legs
seem huge, and against the huge furry legs the actors are dwarfed. In one instant
the landscape image of the drawing room is transformed into a close-up of a cat,
illuminating another of Wilson's theatrical techniques.

209

Figure 51: The King of Spain.

Hugging the plane of the proscenium, the cat legs were literally presented
in a separate physical and temporal domain from the rest of the action. In an
attempt to replicate the spatial structure of his drawings, Wilson has very often
divided his playing space into separate zones. As can be seen in this ground
plan for his 1970 production of Deafman Glance , the stage was divided into
discrete units, each with its own sense of time and spatial reality.

210

Figure 52: Ground plan for Deafman Glance.

The spectator is left to view the action through these zones, blending the
information that each provides. While all of the zones may have been conceived
as independent layers, they nevertheless become part of the complete visual
tapestry. Each of the images presented in these separate zones are contiguous
and impossible to read as completely isolated. As evidenced in the above
example from the CIVIL warS, while there may be a distinct foreground, midground and background, the composite image does not necessarily replicate the
logical pattern of traditional one-point perspective.
Commenting on the multiple layers in Wilson's work, critic Leo Bersani
noted that "As a result, we were continually discovering that we were in the
'wrong place' - or, more accurately, that there was no right place, or that there
were always other places."28 Though we can't "see" everything all at once, we
are still aware of the physical presence as elements invariably contextually affect
each other. While in no way does this layering of the stage images function in a
mimetic sense (that is, Wilson is not attempting to re-create on stage a specific
scene or dramatic moment taken from reality), it does replicate the process of
visual perception as it exists in reality. As we gaze out a window, there is always

Leo Bersani, A Future For Astyanax , (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.,
1969), 284.
28

211
a visual and temporal convergence of images that are not necessarily connected
by any other reason than that they happen to be transpiring at the same place
and time. This process of spatio-temporal layering reflects the dadaist notion of
simultaneity, in which the mind consolidates discrete information apprehended by
the senses into a contiguous whole. This spatial and temporal contiguity does not
provide a seamless "organic" whole, in the Brgerian sense, but a composite
whole assembled through the convergence of bits of visual and aural data.
In relation to the multi-dimensionality of Wilson's work he has the striking
ability to present images as if one were watching a single picture slowly coming
into focus. As Wilson pointed out in a recent lecture, The Life and Times of
Sigmund Freud was staged around the image of Freud experiencing the grief at
his grandson's death. In Wilson's work, however, we do not experience this as
we might in the traditional theatre, but rather we witness the depth of images as
they are layered over time. There is always a sense of depth to Wilson's work,
not just spatial depth but temporal depth, as if the whole of someone's life and
memory could be viewed in a single, stratified glance. Elements from one section
of the individual's life are juxtaposed with another without reliance on chronology.
Like the structure of the human mind in which a memory from many years ago
can be invoked by a recent occurrence. The two time frames collide as the past
and present intertwine.
Wilson's layered theatre images are not simply wiped away and replaced
in a linear sense, but converge to generate the overall visual structure as the
performance moves from moment to moment. A visual element may be displayed
for quite some time before the surrounding elements converge upon it, and
provide a more defined context. Wilson described Act 1 of Freud , "The Beach,"
as the early years of Freud's life. Within this image there was a chair that was
suspended one-third of the way down the proscenium opening. In Act 2, a

212
Victorian drawing room represented the middle years, with the chair two-thirds of
the way down. Act 3, placed in a cave, culminated in the death of the grandson,
as an actor representing Freud walked onto the stage to sit in the chair which had
now reached its final position on the floor next to a table. The image of grief was
now in focus, the chair and other surrounding images had finally reached their
concluding destination.

Figure 53: The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud.

This type of temporal layering in which the past, present and future are
witnessed simultaneously was also present in Einstein on the Beach. At one
point a scrim was lowered in front of the stage action and projected on it was the
image of a woman with her left hand positioned as if to suggest that she was
supporting something delicate. Behind the scrim, two actors that had taken their
positions quite some time before the scrim was lowered, appeared to be sitting in
her hand. Having frozen in these poses prior to the lowering of the scrim, the
visual objective behind their positioning only became apparent after the
projection completed the image. With this process of slow focus the location of a
person or set piece may be attained minutes, or, in some instances, hours before
it becomes evident what the structural purpose is behind this position. Wilson's

213
guiding spatial arrangement, the pre-defined geometrical form, governs the
position of these elements.
This process recalls Wittgenstein's question about a person not
recognizing something and ultimately interpreting it incorrectly. Assumptions are
made based on the information that is attained, and one alters these
assumptions as more information is gained and the image becomes clearer,
more in focus. With Wilson's theatre we see the stratified stage images, each
placed in its own zone and conditioned by a distinctive sense of space and time.
Yet these fragments cohere into a visual and temporal whole as they are
apprehended by the audience simultaneously. As the images move from point to
point, and it slowly becomes evident what the geometrically determined logical
structure is that controls their placement, the separate zones dissolve into a
single focused image.
However, this single image does not appear as unified as one might
imagine. Rather than replicate the Renaissance perspectival ideal of a single
point of convergence, Wilson distributes the focal point over the breadth and
depth of the stage to create an image that has the impact of viewing something
like a Bruegel painting. The single unified image is composed of a variety of
smaller scenes and images. To extend this idea into the dramatic realm, unlike
more traditional forms of drama that centralize the plot to focus on one or two
intertwined stories, Wilson de-centers the presentation of theatrical material. In a
deconstructive manner, the core of Wilson's productions are always contained in
the margins of his space. Nothing is central, and yet everything is; there is no
hierarchy of importance with regards to the presentation of images. Each element
is as important to the composition as any other. The smallest movement or visual
detail has the same essential purpose as the most grandiose gesture. The stage
is stratified, allowing elements to momentarily spatially and visually cohere with

214
other elements, only to move on to subsequent contexts. This marginality, while
having some points of convergence, differs from the work of an artist like Monk in
the respect that the former is spatial while the latter is more overtly political. Monk
works to reinterpret the past by resurrecting historical margins, while Wilson is
focused on the constitution of space through the manipulation visual margins.

Alternate Modes of Perception: The Convergence of Language and


Images:
Wilson's creative process is structured in a highly visual way. In his most
characteristic work, he shuns the organization of a verbal text and relies solely on
the juxtaposition of objects and images to carry the production from beginning to
end. Not concerned with the linear progression of a narrative moving from
exposition to climax to denouement, Wilson's theatre is characterized by a spatial
organization that relies on a completely different logical structure. Aside from
Cage and Cunningham, Wilson cites Raymond Andrews, a deaf child whom he
adopted in the early 1970s, and Christopher Knowles, born with severe "brain
damage" and diagnosed "autistic," as extremely influential on his conception of
art. What Wilson saw in these two was not an aberration or handicap, but an
alternative mode of perception; an approach to the world that was not
conditioned by the structure of linguistic communication. Due to their respective
impediments, Wilson discovered that both saw the world in unique ways. As he
discussed in a lecture in 1992, "Raymond would notice things that I wouldn't
because I was focused on words."29
Not exclusively relying on verbal language to communicate, both
Raymond and Christopher embody a thought process that psychologist Howard
Robert Wilson, Video Tape of Lecture on July 7, 1992 at The Laura
Carpenter Fine Arts Center. (New York: The Byrd Hoffman Foundation).
29

215
Gardner describes in his Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.
Gardner's theory is predicated on his observation that language is only one
structuring intelligence and that the human mind contains a number of alternative
modes of perception. Listing seven intelligences, among them linguistic, musical,
logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic and personal, he believes that
"each intelligence has its own ordering mechanisms, and the way that an
intelligence performs its ordering reflects its own principles and its own preferred
media."30
Basing his study on years of clinical work, he supports this claim by
referring to the way the mind is able to compensate for what is lost through
certain damaging illnesses. "Aphasic patients have lost their abilities to be
authors; and yet severely aphasic patients have retained their abilities to be
musicians, visual artists or engineers. Clearly, this selective sparing of
occupational skills would be impossible were language insidiously melded to
other forms of intellect."31 What Gardner has explored is the founding premise of
this entire study; the fact that language is but one of the ways to structure our
perceptions of the world. Wilson illuminates this through his reliance on certain
aspects of spatial intelligence, the structuring of the theatrical environment
around visual principles and not principles of narrative or linear verbal
progression. It is in this respect that his work must be experienced and not
understood.
As Prague School semiotician Jan Mukarovsky explains, language is
merely a sign-instrument, a tool that serves the instrumental aim of
communication. Evaluating the difference between two distinct types of sign

Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,


(New York: Basic Books, 1983), 169.
31 Ibid., 89.
30

216
systems, he argues that "The artistic sign in contrast to the communicative sign is
non-serving, that is, it is not an instrument."32 Artistic signs, according to
Mukarovsky, do not communicate images through language, but evoke images
directly in the mind of the perceiver. But, as Stefan Brecht is careful to point out,
"Wilsonian communication is not a transfer, but the making of something so that
others can make something of it."33 Though supremely structured, there is an
openness to Wilson's works. They are not closed on a single evocation, but, like
Monk's compositions, rely on the spectator to experience them on his or her own
terms.
Wilson's theatre has progressed from his early "silent operas," in which
the stage action unfolded with little or no sound, through a "transitional" phase in
which he began to incorporate more written texts, to his more recent interaction
with certain classical works.34 While he has moved through silence to the
incorporation of language, words have never been approached as
communicative signs, but merely as elements of the entire stage collage. This is
dangerous territory for someone who is attempting to avoid a specific
interpretation of his works, as "any use of language poses a problem for theatre
work built primarily upon images, simply because language represents a more
closed semiotic gesture. Implicit in any language act is an act of interpretation."35
Jan Mukarovsky, "The Essence of the Visual Arts" Semiotics of Art, eds.
Ladislav Matejka and Irwin R. Titunik (Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT
Press, 1976), 236-7.
33 Brecht, 212.
34 His 1991 productions of Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken and
Wagner's Parsifal , and his 1990 interpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear are
but a few.
35 Michael Vanden Heuvel, Performing Drama/Dramatizing Performance:
Alternative Theatre and the Dramatic Text, (Ann Arbor: The University of
Michigan Press, 1991), 166.
32

217
Indeed, so difficult is this gesture of incorporating language into his previously
silent works that Stefan Brecht feels that "Wilson's attempt to incorporate speech
independently of its syntactic and semantic essence into his theatre of visions
destroyed it."36
While Wilson's attention to the physical structure of the stage space is still
evident in the productions that incorporated words, this transition from silence to
language denotes a specific shift in his theatrical process. His collaboration with
Christopher Knowles caused him to place more emphasis on verbal language,
but not in a traditional narrative sense. "Through Christopher Knowles I became
more interested in words, the way he used words . . . mathematical, more in
terms of geometry."37 For Knowles, Wilson explains, "Words are like molecules
which are always changing their configurations, breaking apart and recombining .
. . Everything he does makes sense but not in the way we're accustomed to. It
has a logic of its own . . . Chris constructs as he speaks. It's as though he sees
the words before him in space. He uses language as much for its geometric
structure as for its meaning."38
The two met after Wilson had listened to a tape of Knowles' sound poetry.
He discovered that the young poet's "autistic" sense of language relied on words
more for their spatial and sonorous effect than as vehicles for communication. As
described in a study analyzing the linguistic capacities of autistic children,
research has found that "whenever words are used meaningfully, they tend to
refer to concrete referents. Consequently most autistic children do better when
concrete objects are labeled than they do when labels are used to refer to
persons and their actions...Similarly, they are often unable to respond

Brecht, 267.
37 Alenikoff, 19.
38 Shyer, Robert Wilson and his Collaborators, 79-80.
36

218
appropriately to yes/no questions because such answers require a verbal label
for referring to abstract relationships."39
Through Knowles' autism there is a sense of words being used as tangible
objects, existing within specific spatial contexts. Like physical objects, words
become very much tied to the continual present. There is no sense of
abstraction, no sense of removing the words from the context in which they were
initially acquired. Many autistic children communicate verbally by what is termed
"echolalia," or the meaningless repetition of a word or sentence that has just
been spoken by another person. While autistic individuals may be very gifted in
the area of logical-mathematical or spatial intelligence, the central problem in
childhood autism may be " a severe impairment in the normal human ability to
abstract concepts from experience, to give abstractions symbolic labels, to store
the concepts in symbolic form, and to draw on them for relevant associations
when thinking of the past, relating to the present and planning for the future."40
Perhaps, like Borges' remarkably perceptive character Funes, the scope of the
perceptual world overwhelms the autistic child's capacity to capture it in verbal
language.
The nature of Knowles' autism, however, seems to transcend the mere
repetition of words in a strictly imitative sense. He is an artist capable of breaking
down sentences into objectified elements and restructuring them as spatial sound
poems suspended in the air in front of him. His works, like Wilson's, have a
geometric structural logic to them, as this example of one of his typed poems
indicates.

Warren H Fay and Adriana Luce Schuler, Emerging Language in


Autistic Children, (Baltimore: University Park Press, 1980), 129.
40 Ibid., 122-3.
39

219
O
OK
AOKO
LAOKOK
LLAOKOKO
ELLAOKOKOK
WELLAOKOKOK
AWELLAOKOKOKO 41

It is this constructional aspect of Knowles' approach to words as objects that


Wilson admired. According to one of Wilson's frequent collaborators, German
Playwright Heiner Mller, "Bob treats a text like a piece of furniture. He doesn't try
to break it up or break it open or try to get information out of it or meaning or
emotion. It's just a thing. That's what I like about his way because a text can
stand for itself. It doesn't need support, it doesn't need help."42 This treatment of
verbal language as a series of tangible structural units parallels his exhibition of
visual material in discrete zones and layers. Each image is complete unto itself,
yet conditioned by the surrounding elements.
Specific to Wilson's manipulation of the functional properties of linguistic
communication, his work with text has been characterized by the removal of
elements from their original context and, through repetition and juxtaposition, a
reduction of language to a series of unconnected words and phrases. As shown
here in this exchange from A Letter For Queen Victoria, a piece co-written with
Knowles, Wilson's use of words as objects, as artistic signs to be contextualized
within the body of the moving stage production, is evident. Not assigned to any
specific characters but to individual speakers, the text reads:
1. It's Better. Details at ten.

Marranca, The Theatre of Images, 108.


42 Shyer, Robert Wilson and his Collaborators, 123.
41

220
2. Good luck anyhow.
3. OK, lets see how it works.
4. A red giant it has happened elsewhere it has no pattern except
from spring. 43
The individual communicative signs themselves are recognizable, but their use is
not. Indeed whole phrases are taken from their original context and through
juxtaposition with other words and phrases become re-coded within the frame of
the performance. "Details at ten," while retaining its external reference to the
evening news, is somehow left stranded in Wilson's piece, independent of this
reference. As Bonnie Marranca points out in her introduction to Queen Victoria,
these signs are "used merely for their sound and music value; language is
completely throw-away and meaningless in content...Disconnected from their
usual meanings, words lack signifying structures, and instead, organize
themselves into sound poetry."44
In his Performing Drama/ Dramatizing Performance, Michael Vanden
Heuvel argues that "Speech is not so easily translated into meaninglessness;
both in referential meaning and its gesture (intonation, rhythm, pitch, 'grain'),
speech contains the potential for presence and its investment in meaning and
power."45 As Vanden Heuvel points out, the use of language, or in Wilson's case
words, is not an isolated system of signs but directly influenced by the natural
vocal qualities of the actor. Addressing this complex process of vocal "coloration"
of language, Wilson has fought against this potential presence by physically
dissociating the sound from the human form. By separating that which we

Robert Wilson, A Letter For Queen Victoria , The Theatre of Images, ed.
Bonnie Marranca (New York: The Performing Arts Journal, 1977), 87.
44 Marranca, The Theatre of Images, 41.
45 Vanden Heuvel, 169.
43

221
naturally integrate he forces the spectator to perceive the word as independent
from the actor. Commenting upon this action Wilson stated that "I am attracted to
the mask. With the Greek mask we have an image and we have a sound...That's
one reason I use microphones, to create a distance between the sound and the
image."46 Through the electronic medium of amplification, something he has
been experimenting with since the 1970's, he separates the form of the human
voice from its function as a communicative entity, thus working toward the use of
words for their sound and rhythmic value independent of meaning.
Contrary to more conventional theatre artists, Wilson does not work to
fuse the disparate elements of the human voice and the movement of the actor,
but purposely segments them, allowing them to exist autonomously within his
constructed environment. This replicates the division of the stage space into
discrete zones. Long time collaborator Sheryl Sutton observes that "He's always
been interested in layers and that's how he builds his stage in a way - the images
are one layer, the sound another layer, the language another."47 Not closed on a
single interpretation, he is invested in the belief that "You have to be able to say
the text in a way that one can think about many sorts of things. If you say it in
such a way that you have to pay attention to every word you'll go crazy because
one thought doesn't follow another thought logically. One thought can set off
many thoughts."48 This is language used, not for its signifying properties as a
communicative sign, but as concrete elements deployed within the structural
arrangement of the space.

Fuchs, "The PAJ Casebook: Robert Wilson's Alcestis ," 102.


47 Shyer, Robert Wilson and his Collaborators, 11.
48 Laurence Shyer, "Robert Wilson: Current Projects," Theatre,
(Summer/Fall, 1983), 87.
46

222
Wilson's attitude toward the text has been influenced by a variety of
people, most notably sound designer Hans Peter Kuhn. Since their first
collaboration, the 1978 production of Death Destruction and Detroit , Kuhn's work
has become an integral part of Wilson's theatrical vocabulary (recently they
collaborated on the 1986 Alcestis and the 1991 When We Dead Awaken ). On
DD&D Wilson made two requests of Kuhn, "The principal performers should all
wear body mikes and their voices should seem to come from somewhere other
than their mouths."49 Kuhn felt that "Just separating the voice from the performer
is not very interesting. It's like having a TV with the speakers on the side, after
awhile you hear the sound coming from the images anyway... So I said why don't
we make something more complicated, something that makes a complete other
space."50 The end result was to disperse the actors' voices over ten separate
speakers located throughout the theatre. The words themselves, separated from
the action of the body, hovered over the action and combined with other sounds,
music, words and phrases to form a complex sound collage. This allowed the
aural element of the production, the text, to be fractured into artistic signs rather
than used as a system of communication. In Wilson's theatre, physically,
temporally and spatially distanced from the body of the actor the words resist
potential combination with the movement and function not as a narrative or
commentary on the action but, as Wilson observed, "like the weather, something
that creates an atmosphere."51
Through the act of amplification and electronic combination with a variety
of sonorous elements, he is able to manipulate the actor's inherent signifying

Shyer, Robert Wilson and his Collaborators, 235.


50 Ibid., 235.
51 Robb Baker, "The Mystery is in the Surface: A day in the mind of Robert
Wilson," Theatre Crafts, (October, 1985), 91.
49

223
capabilities and significantly alter the natural fusion of the text and the images. It
is a process that replaces the voice's "natural" resonance with an artificial
coloration. As Helga Finter observed, "the voice has no grain: amplified by the
microphones worn around the performers' necks, the voice is an external
object."52 Unlike Meredith Monk's complete investment in the body of the actor as
a conduit for the emanating sounds, Wilson nullifies this Barthesian grain in the
wake of his electronic sound collages. Mixing the physical presence of the actor
with a disembodied voice, Wilson creates a kind of Derridean absence/presence
of the performer. According to Derrida,
The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive
reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of
a chain. Play is always play of absence and presence, but if it is to
be thought radically, play must be conceived of before the
alternative of presence and absence. Being must be conceived as
presence or absence on the basis of the possibility of play and not
the other way around.53
Watching Wilson's spectacles live, one is never sure at what point the
actor stops and the tape machine begins. This play of absence and presence
was addressed by actor David Warrilow who commented on the amplification of
his own voice in Wilson's The Golden Windows . As Warrilow points out, at times
even he wasn't sure of his own presence, unable to distinguish whether he was
listening to his voice on tape or merely amplified.54 Ultimately these amplification

Helga Finter, "Experimental Theatre and Semiology of Theatre: The


Theatricalization of the Voice," Modern Drama , (Vol. xxvi, 1983), 509.
53 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1978), 292.
54 Susan Letzler Cole, Directors in Rehearsal, New York: Routledge,
1992), 157.
52

224
and collaging techniques provide a blurring of the presence/absence of the stage
performer inducing a "real-life" observation of the clich, "It is live or is it
Memorex?"
Wilson's treatment of language as objects relies heavily on the logical
structure of visual perception. The organization of his pieces does not correspond
to any pre-existing linguistic structure, but relies on an intrinsic logic similar to
that of a painting, an architectural arrangement, a dream. In fact, as can be seen
with his earlier works, Deafman Glance, influenced by the drawing of Raymond
Andrews,55 The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, The Life and Times of Josef
Stalin, and his landmark operatic collaboration with Philip Glass, Einstein on the
Beach, even the biographical specifics and chronology of the lives of these
individuals do not serve as dominant logical frames, merely points of reference.
These works are not so much about the lives of these people, as they use
certain elements of their lives for raw material. There is no sense of telling a story
about Einstein or Stalin, but merely using elements of their lives as visual images
to be re-contextualized within the theatrical frame. As Edwin Denby points out
about Stalin, "You can describe those images one for one, you can describe 30
or 40 of them, if you have the time, perfectly clearly, because you can remember
them. But what you can't describe is the logical narrative connection. And the
psychological connection. But you don't have to describe that. That's not what
he's showing you."56
Wilson functions like a painter of the stage space, creating works with their
own inherent logic in which all of the individual elements (images, objects,
costumes, movement, gestures, and sound) rely on the process of visual

The deaf man in the title.


56 Edwin Denby, "You Never Heard of a Silent Opera?" The New York
Times, (December 9, 1973), D-10.
55

225
contextualization to incorporate them into the overall geometrical structure. Like
colors conditioned by surrounding colors, everything on Wilson's stage becomes
an artistic sign dependent on its visual contiguity with other elements to create
dramatic tension. As one of Mukarovsky's colleagues, Jir Veltrusky writes, "The
difference between the pictorial and the linguistic sign consists in that the
material of language has these differential values irrespective of any specific
utterance because it is integrated in the linguistic system, while the material of
the picture, due to its naturalness, acquires them only when it is used in a
picture."57 This use of all visual elements as pictorial signs replicates the mental
process controlled by Gardner's spatial intelligence, and "the result is a
s(t)imulation of an alternative mode of perception, with perhaps a sense of its
tenuousness and fragility in the face of adult rationality and repression."58
Wilson's obsession with providing an experience for the spectator that is
different from traditional modes of perception is supported not only by his
involvement with Andrews and Knowles, but by the work of Columbia University
professor Daniel Stern. Stern's work is concerned with the field of kinesics, the
study of human communication and interaction in physical and often subliminal
ways. As Stern points out, "what you can see with your eyes isn't everything."59
Stern's studies have included filming human interaction and then analyzing the
film frame by frame to reveal generally hidden acts of communication. Wilson
was particularly struck by Stern's slowed down films of mother and child in which
the momentary aggressive reaction of the parent to the crying child triggered a
Jir Veltrusky, "Some Aspects of the Pictorial Sign," Semiotics of Art,
eds. Ladislav Matejka and Irwin R. Titunik (Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT
Press, 1976), 260.
58 Vanden Heuvel, 163.
59 Rickel Twersky, ed., "A Discussion with Daniel N. Stern," The Drama
Review, (Vol. 17, #3. September, 1973), 114.
57

226
fearful withdrawal on the part of the infant. "So many different things are going on
and the baby is picking them up. I'd like to deal with some of these things in the
theatre, if that's possible. I guess what I'm really interested in is
communication."60
Providing an alternative to conventional theatrical communication,
Wilson's theatre is characterized by slowed down movements and gestures, as
well as images unfolding at an almost glacial pace. He has often pointed out that
what he dislikes about more traditional forms of theatre is that there is never
enough time to think during the production. Images move by at such speed that
the spectator is left struggling to keep up with the story line. Interested more in
form and structure than content he has stated, "I love the abstract, fluttering
visual patterns of ballet, and I think that is basically what I've done in theatre:
architectural landscapes that are structured."61 His feeling is that most Western
theatrical actions proceed at a speeded up pace, and that his works, while
characterized as moving slowly, actually function in a more "real" time.
Wilson's real time has the quality of deliberately extended time due to the
spectator's expectations conditioned by previous theatrical experiences. Quite
simply, we are taught to witness drama at a particular speed, a rate that allows
for a complex story to be told in approximately two to three hours. When this rate
is varied, the time of the production appears to be aberrant. Not grounded in
traditional character, plot or dialogue, Wilson's pieces do indeed proceed at the
tempo of the world outside the boundaries of the theatre space. In fact the
leisurely pace at which some of his more mammoth works progressed, the fourhour Deafman Glance, the twelve-hour Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, and the

Tomkins, 45.
61 Quoted in Katherine Arens, "Robert Wilson: Is Postmodern Performance
Possible?" Theatre Journal, (March, 1991), 29.
60

227
one-hundred-and-sixty-eight hour KA Mountain and GUARDenia Terrace,
somewhat painfully underscore the theatrical event as transpiring in the same
time frame as the spectator's. There is no sense that the events on stage reflect
some artificial dramatic time, but move like the establishment of time in Peter
Handke's Offending the Audience. "This is no make-believe which re-enacts an
action that really happened once upon a time. Time plays no role here. We are
not acting out a plot. Therefore we are not playing time. Time is for real here, it
expires from one word to the next . . . The time here is your time . . . Here you
can compare your time with our time."62
Despite the fact that time is non-theatrical or "real" in Wilson's productions,
it still appears to move quite slowly. Through the combination of slow movement
and seemingly fragmented visual and aural imagery the spectator is allowed
room to mentally wander, to daydream, to sleep. I have always felt that Wilson's
theatre should really be categorized as a theatre "after boredom." There is a
process that transpires while watching his works in which the level of frustration
and boredom mount as I attempt to make sense out of the sweep of images. The
culmination of this process is a relaxation of consciousness and the desire to
"know what it all means." By relaxing the conscious desire for meaning, there is a
sense of narrowing down perception so that even the tiniest detail, the smallest
gesture, the most obscure object is seen as structurally important. Similarly to
Cage's 4'33" which demonstrated that sometimes when we are quiet we are
more aware of sound, Wilson comments on his own work that "sometimes when
we don't move we are more aware of movement."63

Peter Handke, Kaspar and Other Plays, (New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 1972), 15.
63 Wilson, 1992 lecture.
62

228
Often Wilson has discussed the division of human perception into two
distinct halves, the "exterior screen" dominated by consciousness, and the
"internal screen," open to the unconscious. In his theatre he believes that "for the
audience there's a chance for them to blink their eyes, to daydream, to let things
play on their interior audio-visual screen."64 The lack of a psychologically
determined rational linguistic structure, the juxtaposition of elements, and the
seemingly slow pace all encourage the spectators to succumb to the images
produced both on stage and in their heads. The ideal state in which to witness
one of Wilson productions seems to be that half-awake, half-asleep condition in
which the ability to distinguish between what one is hearing and seeing in reality
and what one is imagining is completely dispelled.

Light as an Essential Element:

Figure 54: Sketches for Einstein on the Beach.

As can be seen in these black and white drawings, Wilson's design


process is conceived in terms of the interplay of light and darkness. Comparable
to Svoboda's description of his artistic process, Wilson has remarked that, "Light
is the one essential element in all of my pieces . . . It's light that allows us to hear
and to see, it's light that is the basic element of existence, it's light that keeps the

64

Alenikoff, 17.

229
edges undefined - the edges of a theatre piece, the edges of the universe."65 As
he points out elsewhere, "Without light there is no space. Light is the essential
element in the theatre, because it lets us see and hear. It's what produces color
and emotion."66 Light helps define and control space, and has the curious
property of being both intangible energy and a necessary element of visual
perception. Plainly stated, without light we cannot see. Yet, as explored in the
first chapter, the intangible qualities of light demand an interaction with material
substances in order to manifest its existence. Without encountering some
physical object, be it the floor of the stage, an actor, or Svoboda's ionized mist,
light simply permeates space as an invisible entity. It is through this interaction
with spatial elements that light becomes a visible property, shaping and
contextualizing space.
Wilson composes his stage images by manipulating both light and the
physical objects it encounters. Light is not incorporated into his work as it moves
from his imagination to the stage, but is always present, helping to sculpt and
define the architectural space. While he has often used light as a structural
element (the train and bus headlights cutting triangular patterns across the stage
in Einstein and the triangular shaft of light in A Letter for Queen Victoria ), he is
also invested in allowing light to exist as an active "character" in his spatial
constructions.
I want audiences to see certain things. Light adds commentary to
the visual text, just as music or voices on tape underscore or
contradict the verbal text. For example, there may be a glass of milk
on stage. I might allow the space around the milk to be entirely dark
and light only the milk. People would listen to the text and watch the
Jeff McLaughlin, "The Robert Wilson Experience," The Boston Globe,
(March 9, 1986), 60.
66 Rockwell, 25.
65

230
object, and in that way the light becomes an actor. It creates a
space, an image, a shape. Light has its own laws and its own
texture. It can actually exist by itself.67
Using light as a character in his spectacles, Wilson is notoriously meticulous
about the lighting for his productions, spending at times weeks to cue a show
properly. This application of light to produce a specific atmosphere is evident in
his production of Death, Destruction and Detroit , produced at Peter Stein's
Schaubhne in Germany. Notable in this production was the amplitude of time,
equipment, and labor made available through this state supported theatre that
had a tremendous impact on Wilson's conception of the lighting process.
The light used for this production was very precisely placed and had an
odd, "unnatural" quality to it. Even though Wilson's fragmented dialogue and
gestures had a certain "naturalistic," albeit structured, integrity to them, the
lighting made what seemed a domestic situation into something quite different.
The sense of "non-reality" that permeated this work was due to the unusual focus
of the lighting in which a hand or object stood out from the uniform grayness in a
stunning white light. This effect was replicated in his production of The Golden
Windows . At one point a handkerchief and gun held by one of the actors were
both brightly lit, glowing, drawing attention to themselves not solely as objects,
but in Wilson's sense, ghost-like characters. As Emmons points out about his
lighting technique, it is similar to his structure of the stage space. "He wants the
floor treated as a whole unit and separately painted with light. He wants the
background treated as another whole . . . but what's happening on the drop
shouldn't affect anything going on the stage. Then he wants the human figure

Margaret Croyden, "Mystery and Surprise Impel Golden Windows," The


New York Times, (October 20, 1985), 12.
67

231
etched out . . . Occasionally he will pick out and isolate objects on the floor in
rectangles of light."68
The coloration of Wilson's light is inclined toward minimalist gray, with
specific elements brightly illuminated to help define the spatial structure. "The
color he wants to see is the color a painter might apply, that is, the color of the
surfaces. He already painted the drops. He doesn't want me to change them - he
painted them the color he wanted."69 He rarely uses lighting instruments with no
color in them, since that tends to produce a yellowish hue at the low intensities
he favors. Rather his instruments are generally colored with pale blues. This
choice of coloration allows the light to remain dim, yet cool, austere. This uniform
grayness provides an almost unrealistic quality to all of his work, as if a kind of
visual haze had descended onto the stage. In conjunction with this grayness his
pieces are punctuated by sudden blackouts. At certain times, as the lights are
restored, the scene may have completely changed. At other times the stage
picture has either not changed at all or changed very little, perhaps with more
actors or set pieces removed or placed on stage.
This use of light also plays a part in the shifting of his stage images. Along
with sudden blackouts, certain works have contained abrupt shifts of the angle or
direction of the light. In the Rome section of the CIVIL warS, presented at the
American Repertory Theatre, the physical space shifted because the focus of the
light changed to reveal a great expanse above the action located on the stage
floor. A large triangular structure, perhaps the outside of a space ship covered
with rivets, was revealed. Previously invisible, it was illuminated, and then slowly
faded out again, leaving only the memory of its presence. Like the transposition

Shyer, Robert Wilson and his Collaborators, 192-3.


69 Bill Simmer, "Touring Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach ," Theatre
Design & Technology, (Spring, 1978), 18.
68

232
of the space in Svoboda's production of Hamlet , this massive object, though
hidden, continued to permeate my perception of the entire piece. The space took
on a new atmosphere once I realized that there was a large hidden object
hovering silently above the stage.
Wilson also used the angle and coloration of light to shift the audience's
perception of the setting for The Golden Windows . Lit primarily with his
minimalist gray pallet, only occasionally punctuated by the brightly lit glowing
objects, a momentary flash of red light on the background revealed the entire
setting in silhouette. The transformation was striking due to the change in color
and perspective. Like Svoboda's manipulation of projected images with the push
of a button, the cool gray and the monocular view of the stage solely from the
front were modified instantaneously.
In both examples the same images were continually present, but a sudden
shift in the focus of the light caused the images to be re-contextualized and to
appear different to the audience. The images themselves were consistent; merely
the illumination changed the audience's perspective. By altering the angle and
color of the light, Wilson drew upon one of the chief components of the visual
world. Light conditions the way in which visible elements are received and
interpreted. Nearly any object will appear different when viewed in shadow as
opposed to bright daylight. The quality of light present will directly affect the
nature of the visual information provided; just as the incorporeal properties of
light as energy are affected by the concrete material it encounters, so too is the
appearance of that substance affected by its encounter with the light.
Wilson's attention to light as a structural entity and a tool for shifting
perceptions is also extended to his use of light on the actors. Acknowledging the
influence of Adolph Appia, he approaches the physical form of the actor as a
three-dimensional stage element. As Beverly Emmons explains, "It's extremely

233
high contrast lighting. The figure in space is always sharply lit...In Bob's pieces,
the instruments are always placed low, and focused to sharply strike the body
and then disappear into the wings. So the light really etches the figure in
space."70 Because the light strikes the figure primarily from the side, rather than
the front or the back, the figures neither recede nor separate from the space, but
become a structural element of the space. Like Svoboda's use of back- lighting or
contra-lighting, Wilson etches the figure into the structure of the environment,
allowing the human form to be removed from its external field of reference; that
is, conditioned as it would be in reality, and, in a Bauhausian sense, reconstituted
as a formal element of the landscape.

Figure 55: When We Dead Awaken.

Further isolating specific forms, "There are also moments when [Wilson]
wants different parts of the performers etched out. Sometimes the hand is
brighter than the rest of the body."71 This fragmentation of the human figure is
Shyer, Robert Wilson and his Collaborators, 193.
71 Ibid., 194.
70

234
analogous to the separation of the voice from the actor, the movement from the
text. The hand is isolated, removed from the system of the body, and while it
does not cease to be a hand, it is permitted the freedom to function as an artistic
sign, independent from the rest of the figure. Through his manipulation of the
actor's natural signifying properties, Wilson deconstructs the environment of the
traditional theatre only to reassemble it in a specific, controlled way. He is able to
structure a performance space where the natural signs of the human form are
removed from the spectator's system of signification and redefined within the
frame of his structured environment. This process should not be considered the
mere lumping together of seemingly unrelated elements, but the deliberate
construction of a space where all of the separate components, both natural and
artificial, are conditioned to function as structural parts of the visual whole.
In a mimetic, or purely representational form of theatre, as signs are drawn
into the realm of performance they retain their referents to the external world of
the spectator. If we expect that objects on stage refer to objects in reality, the
same is true for the human figure and for verbal language. The viewer can
comprehend these signs, for both their form and use are culled from a
recognizable coded system. While a fact of the representational theatre, this
statement does not fully apply to Wilson's work. Wilson does not attempt to
reflect exterior reality, but through fragmentation, repetition and juxtaposition of
visual and aural elements, combined with the use of words for their sound and
rhythmic qualities rather than as a tool for communication, he creates an artificial
"reality." He extracts signs from the external world of the spectator only to recode them within his synthetic environment. While we may recognize the sign,
Wilson does not feel compelled to use it in a recognizable way. By ignoring the
connection between the sign and the code, his use of these elements reflect

235
Emile Benveniste's idea of elementary units that assume signification only within
the context of the composition.
Though organized within Wilson's compositions as units, these signs,
however, are not as Erika Fischer-Lichte has concluded, "desemiotized" or
completely cut off from their external referents, but rather, are "resemiotized"
within the frame of the performance.72 Wilson employs identifiable signs like the
images of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, and individual words and phrases,
in completely unfamiliar ways. Comparative to his use of the human figure as a
structural element of the stage space, we recognize the form, but the function is
changed. By forcing new relationships the sign is compounded, left to straddle
the area between the world of the performance and the world of the spectator.
Existing simultaneously as units that assume signification within the composition
and signs drawn from the coded system of the spectator, these elements reflect
what Patrice Pavis describes as signs that must be identified by the receiver
within the frame of the work, as well as within their larger social context.73 That is,
they must be addressed as signs within the world that exists outside the doors of
the theatre, as well as within the confines of Wilson's artificial stage space.

The Actor as Form and Substance Through Movement:


Discussing his constructional process in relation to his use of actors,
Wilson notes that "what is disturbing for most actors when they work with me is
that I usually start with an effect, and I don't know why. I say can you do this, can
you move your hand in sixteen seconds, and they say why? I don't know. I
Erika Fischer-Lichte, "The Quest for Meaning," The Stanford Literature
Review, (Spring, 1986),152.
73 Patrice Pavis, "Production, Reception and the Social Context," On
Referring in Literature, eds. Anna Whiteside and Michael Issacharoff
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987),129-30.
72

usually start with an effect, and I don't know the cause."74

236
In this respect, Wilson

works in opposition to the traditional theatrical process in which the physical


effect is the result of the textual cause. It is interesting to realize that all theatrical
activity has at least some type of visible physical structure, generally achieved by
accident or some minimal planning, but rarely to the extent that Wilson controls it.
While his career has moved from the creation of original stage pieces to the
interpretation of classical material, he has retained a method of working in which
he "does not deploy an action in space; he constructs his space by actions."75
It was this arrangement and distribution of space structured around a
guiding geometric ideal and conditioned by the movement of the actors, that was
present in his approach to the more "conventional" text, When We Dead Awaken
. The unfortunate occurrence that has transpired in Wilson's movement from
silent operas to conventional texts is the development and subsequent
application of a strictly defined method of theatrical creation. Unlike Monk, who
creates each piece unencumbered by a solidified process, Wilson approaches all
material in the same manner. First he establishes the geometrical frame around
which the action is staged, followed by the incorporation of the text. As can be
seen in the examples of the repeating shapes that dominate his scenographic
alphabet, combined with his focus on form and context over content, all of his
work has a very similar architectural quality. This is not to say that the experience
of watching the Ibsen piece was dull, but it moved as if by motivated by an
unseen force - Robert Wilson's. Though generating a disturbing atmosphere to
surround the story of the aging artist, Wilson's staging only marginally intersected
with Ibsen's text. The actors spoke as if in a dream and moved as if their physical
presence were forging a solid structure. As Bonnie Marranca describes, "one
Fuchs, "The PAJ Casebook: Robert Wilson's Alcestis ," 100.
75 Brecht, 213.
74

237
confronts spatial and gestural motives instead of dialogue. Looking at the
performers in their surroundings, one realizes how much of an architect Wilson
is."76
Wilson's attention to the movement and form of the actor in space is
certainly an interest that can be seen in the work of Svoboda, Appia and
Bauhaus stage director Oskar Schlemmer. In his essay "Man and Art Figure,"
Schlemmer agues that "the history of the theatre is the history of the
transformation of the human form."77 Nowhere is this more evident than in
Wilson's spatially constructed works. Through his manipulation of the human
figure he converts the role of the actor from a mere physical, psychological
manifestation of the text into a structural entity, integrated within the spatial
arrangement of the performance. By exploiting what Schlemmer described as the
actor's own material, voice, movement, body, and gesture,78 Wilson dismantles
the natural shape and function of the actor and reassembles the form within the
framework of his constructed environment. The actors become not elements
inhabiting the space, but structural elements constituting the space. Like his work
with the text in which the voice of the actor is separated from the human form and
re-contextualized as an element of a sound collage, the natural form and
movement of the actor is conditioned by the guiding spatial composition. Not
closed on a mimetic recitation of external reality, Wilson believes that "the theatre
is, by definition, an artificial form, and the sooner we can accept this the better."79

Bonnie Marranca, "The Avant-Guarde and the Audience," Theatre,


(Spring, 1977),145.
77 Oskar Schlemmer, "Man and Art Figure," The Theatre of the Bauhaus,
ed. Gropius, Walter (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 17.
78 Ibid., 20.
79 David Rieff, "The Exile Returns," Connoisseur, 30.
76

238
Addressing the signifying properties of the human figure within a theatrical
framework, Veltrusky notes that while it is possible to manipulate the signs of the
set, costume and lighting, the theatre can retain what is necessary to create the
environment and discard superfluous information, "The actor's body enters into
the dramatic situation with all of its properties. A living human being can
understandably not take off some of them and keep on only those he needs for
the given situation."80 Wilson's theatre confronts this observation by constructing
artificial landscapes that not only exploit the signification properties of the
synthetic elements of the theatre but manipulate the natural qualities of the
human form as well. This is a replication of the process that was noted in his
treatment of the human voice. Wilson fragments, isolates, and transforms
everything that enters into his theatrical domain to service the overall spatial
composition.
This process of transformation is evident from the example of the huge
Abraham Lincoln and largest woman in the world in the CIVIL warS. As another
example of the manipulation of the natural human form, in A Letter For Queen
Victoria, actress Cyndi Lubar's shape was drastically altered by a long white
triangle of fabric, inducing a structural transformation of her physical presence.

Jir Veltrusky, "Man and Object in the Theatre," A Prague School


Reader, ed. Paul Garvin (Georgetown: Georgetown University Press, 1964), 845.
80

239

Figure 56: A Letter for Queen Victoria.

Through costume Wilson altered the size and shape of a primarily delineated
form. By the fusion the artificial shape and size of the costume with the organic
body of the actor, he is able to create a hybrid form that exists as an element of
his stage vocabulary. The distinction between the organic and constructed forms
are dissolved as Wilson dismantles the actor's body and then reassembles the
figure within the structure of the environment. The natural shape and properties
of the actor are altered as the form becomes, in Schlemmer's words, a kind of
"ambulant architecture,"81 a functional part of the space.
Though Wilson manipulates the movement , voice, and form of the actor,
Susan Letzler Cole writes in her Directors in Rehearsal that "in a paradoxical
way, [he] is the most actor centered of all of the directors I observed in that the
individual actor's presence is the only character his scripts ever legitimate."82
Wilson does not populate his pieces with psychologically motivated characters,
but images, forms, moving shapes. Often accused of using actors like puppets, it
is in this respect that Wilson has most often been compared to Appia's
contemporary Edward Gordon Craig. While tremendously influential on the
development of a new approach to stage design, Appia was not alone in
revolutionizing the art of the theatre by calling for a synthesis and simplification of

Gropius, 26.
82 Letzler Cole, 159.
81

240
the process; Craig was developing a similar conception of theatre. Craig was a
brash showman who demanded that the process of producing plays be
dominated by one single voice, A guide that functioned like the captain of a
theatrical ship. Appearing to foresee Wilson's combination of director, creator,
and designer, Craig's theatrical captain would encompass all of the various skills
needed to mount a unified production. In support of this he is credited with stating
that "it is impossible for a work of art ever to be produced where more than one
brain is permitted to direct."83
In keeping with the theme of unification, one of Craig's most controversial
developments was the notion of the ber-Marionette. Advocating a kind of
actor/puppet, subservient to the director/captain, Craig discussed the inherent
artificiality of the process of theatre. Like Appia, he worked against the
illusionistic tradition of mimetic theatrical techniques, pronouncing that, "actuality,
accuracy of detail, is useless upon the stage."84 Craig's desire, like Wilson's, was
to have the role of the actor subservient to the production as a unified whole. He
pronounced that, "Art arrives only by design. Therefore in order to make any work
of art it is clear we may only work in those materials with which we can calculate.
Man is not one of these materials."85
In Wilson's theatre, however, the human being is considered part and
parcel of the theatre's most primary materials. Contrary to more traditional
methods of staging, in which the actor is centered in his or her own circle of
attention only addressing the interaction with other elements as they become
necessary, "in working with Wilson, it is crucial for an actor to be constantly

Edward Gordon Craig, On the Art of the Theatre, (New York: Theatre
Arts Books, 1956),99.
84 Ibid., 27.
85 Ibid., 55-6.
83

241
aware that through every sound that he produces, every single attitude, every
gesture, or change in position, he is linked to everyone and everything else on
stage."86 Wilson's actors are not individual egos interacting with each other, but
structural elements of the stage composition. In actuality, this statement is true of
all forms of theatre. Though generally subordinate to the narrative, each element
on stage is always visually linked to the surrounding elements. In foregrounding
this process by paying strict attention to the placement of the objects, the lighting
of the space, and the form and movement of the actor, Wilson is successful in
de-hierarchizing the conventional approach to theatre.
By focusing on the interrelationship of material forms within the space, the
actors' movements are generally slow, precise, and developed through an
arrangement of non-naturalistic gestures. As noted by a reviewer of his recent
Parsival, presented by the Houston Grande Opera, the actors "were obsessed
with their hands: they stretched them out, spasmodically jerked them in the air,
gazed at them in fascination, and posed with them in imitation of ancient
Egyptian wall paintings."87 Wilson structures these stylized movements
independently from the text. As he has stated, "I like mute work rehearsals. The
visual book should be able to stand on its own. Space is texture and structure something that can't be talked about."88 This process of physical action, however,
does not reinforce or explicate character or motivation. In fact Wilson has stated

Janny Donker, The President of Paradise, (Amsterdam: International


Theatre Bookshop, 1985), 25.
87 Edward Rothstein, "Robert Wilson's Metaphysical Vision of Wagner's
Parsifal," The New York Times, (February 20, 1992), B1.
88 Jennie Knapp, "Wilson Meets Ibsen," American Theatre, (March,
1991),11.
86

242
that "how an actor fills in a gesture remains mysterious. You never know how a
line is drawn."89
There is always a mathematical structure to support the geometrically
conceived spatial structure. As Wilson discusses the movements of actress
Sheryl Sutton enacting the prologue to Deafman Glance he is very specific about
the angle of her eyes, her head, her arms. He describes her movements as they
were conditioned by degree: 45 degrees, 22 degrees, 90 degrees.90 In relation to
this method of physical structuring there is always a temporal pattern to match.
"Cross to the chair in 37 seconds, raise your hand in 52, turn in 29," were typical
instructions during the rehearsal process of his 1990 production of When We
Dead Awaken .91 The movements are executed with mechanical precision, as the
focus is on the locomotion of forms in space and not the illustration of the text by
the movement. In fact, as his valuation of mute work rehearsals indicates, he
generally stages the physical frame of the piece only to add the text in at some
later point. This process has simply moved one step beyond the staging
techniques he had developed with his earlier silent operas. While staging Heiner
Mller's Hamletmachine at NYU in 1986, Wilson discovered that, "questions like
'Should I move my hand a few seconds slower Bob?' had completely replaced
traditional ones like 'What's my motivation."92 Thus, the movement is not
conceived in terms of communicative signs to support a narrative plot structure,
but a series of precise gestures focused on a structural effect.
Like his use of light and sound to affect the reception of the images,
movement in Wilson's works always seems to be outside of reality. There is a

Solomon, 39.
90 Wilson, 1992 lecture.
91 Knapp, 11.
92 Solomon, 39.
89

243
certain artificiality to the mechanistic progression of the actor in space. While
these movements are not considered "natural;" that is, one would not expect to
see them in the course of daily life, they are, however, locked into the system of
possible human gestures. Wilson does not force the body to perform movements
that it is structurally incapable of performing. Rather he focuses attention on the
difference between movement within his constructed space and movement in the
world of the spectator. The gestures themselves exist as possible signs of the
human form but are re-coded within the frame of the performance space.
Functioning as artistic signs they signify both within the world of the spectator
and that of the stage, again creating a hybrid form composed of natural and
artificial elements. Like his control of language, the focus is shifted from a series
of communicative signs to a series of artistic signs concerned with form and
structure and not emotional or psychological content. Wilson's is a theatre of
effects, and it is up to the spectator to determine the cause.

Semiology in Action: The Collusion of Images, Icons and Objects:


Wilson's attention to form and structure over content is compounded by
the process that transpires in researching his productions. As a supreme
collaborator he relies on information that others bring to him to manipulate within
the frame of his artificial stage structure. Generally he builds stage images by
controlling and re-contextualizing images derived from photographs and
paintings, a pre-digested form of reality. As Janny Donker observed in her
chronicle of the CIVIL warS, "reality is admitted to Wilson's theatre only if suitably
disguised. His material, derived as it is from a multitude of pictures, is presented
in such a way as to lose all direct relationship to historical reality."93 Wilson does
not deal with images in the mimetic sense, nor does he attempt to replicate that
93

Donker ,82.

244
which he views in daily life, but rather he works to form and shape that which is
already, in a Platonic sense, one step removed from reality.
Influenced by working in European theatres, Wilson has grown to rely on
dramaturgical assistance in collecting his research. "I've since learned to work
with dramaturgs and now I think its almost essential to have one because I am
not scholarly. I don't have a strong background in history or a lot of formal or
classical education, and anyway it's very helpful to have someone like that to talk
to . . . I really like working with a dramaturg and I think they're underestimated - in
terms of my work anyway."94 As attested to by the breadth of material collected in
the archives of Wilson's producing organization Byrd Hoffman, and The Robert
Wilson Collection at Columbia University Library, the visual research for his
productions is truly massive. Each package of information, divided by production,
contains a series of photographs, paintings, sketches, and postcards, all
variations on a specific spatial or historic theme (the life of Albert Einstein, the
Civil War, classical Greek architecture . . .). Wilson does not confront reality as
Monk does, using photographs to point out how we write and re-write history;
rather he uses images as raw data to be shaped within his theatre of pure form.
In a Baudrillardian sense, he works with the pre-digested simulacra of reality. "It
is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even parody. It is
rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself."95
As discussed above, Wilson's use of identifiable characters such as
Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, and Sigmund Freud are merely jumping off
points for the construction of his artificial worlds. Einstein on the Beach is no

Shyer , "Robert Wilson: Current Projects," 90-91.


95 Jean Baudrillard, "Simulacra and Simulations," Jean Baudrillard:
Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
1983),167.
94

245
more a work about the life of Albert Einstein than the "life and times" plays are
about Joseph Stalin or Sigmund Freud. While containing oblique references to
the lives of these people, the bulk of the presentation places their image amid
objects and situations divorced from the reality of their lives. The form, the image
of Albert Einstein, directly corresponds to the image from the world of the
spectator, while its function is reconstituted within the frame of the performance.
This split between the form and the function is characteristic of Wilson's
treatment of all of his stage images. These images are, as Wilson points out, not
fully developed, psychologically driven "characters" in the traditional sense, but
icons from history.
They are mythic figures, and the person in the street has some
knowledge of them before he or she enters the theatre or museum
space. We in the theatre do not have to tell a story because the
audience comes with a story already in mind . . . An artist recreates
history, not like a historian, but as a poet. The artist takes the
communal ideas and associations that surround the various gods of
his or her time and plays with them, inventing another story for
these mythic characters.96
What is unique about Wilson's theatre, in relation to the way in which
Meredith Monk uses history, is that Wilson's theatre does not contain an explicit
political message. There is little sense that he is manipulating images in an
attempt to overthrow the traditional modes of historical process. Rather, he is
using these images, these symbols, because they carry with them a predigested story. He does not attempt to re-evaluate that story, as Monk does, but
builds upon it, allowing each spectator to inform the work through his or her own
historical memory. Like Svoboda's reliance on the signifying properties of clown

96

Eco, "Robert Wilson and Umberto Eco: A Conversation," 89.

246
makeup to facilitate the interaction of live and filmed action in his Wonderful
Circus , Wilson relies on the same type of recognizable iconic aspect of
signification; Lincoln's beard and top hat, Freud's goatee, Einstein's wiry gray hair
and mustache. They are stage figures, images not characters.
These images, though used like all of Wilson's stage elements as a
functional part of the spatial arrangement, carry their own narratives with them.
They contain a certain symbolic weight, as can be viewed by his use of the image
of Albert Einstein in Einstein on the Beach. The physical image of Einstein,
shown both through slides and a live actor dressed up to resemble Einstein
(complete with violin, wiry gray wig and mustache) is captured on stage as an
iconic representation of reality. The stage image is linked to the image of reality
by virtue of the fact that it resembles the real Albert Einstein. Beyond this, since
Einstein is considered to be the premier thinker of his age, his image takes on a
symbolic function. It embodies the ideas of time, space, and motion, symbolically
linked, through memory, to his work as a scientist. These images carry a certain
semiotic weight. Like the inclusion of Einstein or Freud, the image contains a
specific historical or cultural meaning. As these forms enter the stage they alter
the visual context that surrounds them. Wilson reinforces this aspect of Einstein's
symbolic value by filling his opera with images of clocks, trains, buses, and
spaceships. Yet, in addition to this, Wilson uses these pre-digested images as if
they existed as elementary visual units, meant to take on signification as they are
constituted by the surrounding elements. While the image of Einstein never loses
either its iconic or symbolic value, its function as a first level denotative sign
allows it be read connotatively as a component of the visual semiotic field; that is,
within the context of the performance as it is in motion.
This opera provides a rich source of visual imagery that is allowed to
signify independently of a unified, overriding text. The opera has a fragmentary

247
libretto, composed primarily of numbers, solfege syllables (do, re, mi), bits of
advertising discourse (TV and radio), and a few original "monologues."97 Einstein
does not provide a safety net of meaning woven through language that is able to
dominate and control the visual imagery. Responding to the use of the image of
Albert Einstein as a point of departure, Wilson collaborator and composer Philip
Glass recalls,
It never occurred to us that Einstein would contain anything like an
ordinary plot...It seemed to me that in Bob's previous work, the title
merely provided an occasion for which a theatrical/visual work
could be constructed. It functioned as kind of an attention point
around which his theatre could revolve, without necessarily
becoming its primary subject.98
The opera does not present a replication of or story about Albert Einstein's
life and works, but rather uses the symbolic nature of the image to provide an
atmosphere within which the work can exist. The image of Albert Einstein is
merely the frame into which this dynamic painting is placed. As Craig Owens
pointed out, the images in Einstein on the Beach "coalesced to form a complex
portrait by association."99 The curious thing that Wilson does with this image is to
key into a specific photograph of Einstein in a white shirt, tennis sneakers, and
suspenders. It is an image that is defined by the cultural construct from which it is
taken, and coded within a reality independent of Wilson's piece. As Wilson
manipulates the image it signifies both within its original code and within the
artificial structure that he has created. He fragments and distributes the image

Most notably the sound poetry of Christopher Knowles.


98 Philip Glass, Music By Philip Glass, (New York: Harper and Row
Publishers, Inc., 1987),32.
99 Owens, 24.
97

248
throughout all of the actors on the stage by dressing everyone like Albert
Einstein. By fragmenting this image and placing it within innumerable visual
situations, Wilson allowed the image to move from denoted status, through
combination with other elements to rise to the second level of connotation.

Figure 57: Einstein on the Beach.

Though on one level it still maintained the iconic and symbolic function of
Einstein, the image responded to and was conditioned by the elements that
surround it. Cradled in Glass's hypnotic, mathematically determined, numberfilled score,100 the images combine to connote something like "Einsteinicity", an
elusive atmosphere that permeated the contextual structure of the performance.
It is through the combination of these elements via the temporal
movement of the production that Wilson constructs a reality independent from
that of the spectator. By placing objects, images, words and the human form into
100

Typical lyrics are: "1,2,3,4, ,2,3,4, , , 1,2,3,4,5,6."

249
various spatial contexts, he is able to manipulate and thus re-codify these
components within the artificial frame of the performance space. This is a
process that he likens to verbal communication, noting that "If I make a gesture
and that is associated with a sound, in a sense I am creating a language."101
However, this is not a stable language but one that is continually in flux, changing
its very medium the moment the contextual association is altered. At one point in
the production of Einstein a large glowing rod was lowered vertically from the
flies. The movement of this illuminated element was closely followed by an abrupt
blackout, at which time the rod was removed. This action was repeated, again
heralding an abrupt blackout. Wilson had created a language in which the
movement of the glowing rod signified imminent darkness. The third time the rod
descended, however, the stage remained fully lit, thus severing the
communicative tie to darkness.
This manipulation of signs allows Wilson the freedom to structure an
environment where "the actant, the action, the time and the space have no preexistent and predetermined referent."102 While this statement appears to
encompass all of Wilson's work it may only be applied to signs within the frame of
the performance space. By using recognizable images, like Einstein, once the
reception of these signs is addressed they are seen to be coded both within the
world of the spectator and within Wilson's artificial structure. They exist
simultaneously as artistic signs or elementary units cut off from all external
referents, open to the process of re-contextualization, and communicative signs
locked within a specific coded and cultural environment. This process of
theatrical contextualization reflects what Pavis has referred to as "semiology in

101
102

Fuchs, "The PAJ Casebook: Robert Wilson's Alcestis ," 92.


Finter, 502.

250
action, which more or less wipes out the traces of its own labor but reflects all
the time on the placing and deciphering of its own signs."103
This "semiology in action" is a product of Wilson's visually derived stage
pictures. By combating the signifying capabilities of language and the human
form Wilson relies on a fundamental concept of visual perception in which the
dynamic interaction between elements produces a kinetic semiotics. It is the
placement and juxtaposition of visual elements that determines the signifying
process of visual perception. As Wilson is fond of saying, "If you take a baroque
candelabra and you put it on a baroque table, that's one thing. But if you take a
baroque candelabra and you place it on a rock, that's something else . . . This
theatre is about that."104
In this respect Wilson's theatre relies on what Roland Barthes describes
as a second-order semiological system in which "a sign (namely the associative
total of concept and an image) in the first system becomes a mere signifier in the
second."105 By placing an undivided sign (in the Saussurian sense of the
collusion of signifier and signified), like a baroque candelabra in the spatial
presence of another undivided sign, like a rock, a new context is created from the
interaction of the two. In this system the complete signs act as signifiers to create
a new "sign." While this description offers an interesting perspective on Wilson's
theatrical juxtaposition, Saussure's binary system does not offer the full value of
interpretive possibilities. Though Wilson's compositions are a deliberate act, it is
impossible to close the interpretation of this new signifying context onto one
Pavis, Languages of the Stage, 19.
104 Wilson in Mark Obenhags, "Einstein on the Beach: The Changing
Image of Opera," Documentary produced for PBS and aired as part of its Great
Performances series, 1985.
105 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, (New York: The Noonday Press, 1972),
114.
103

251
specific meaning. The spectator is always implicated in the process, indicating
Peirce's three-fold semiotic system. While Wilson is not interested in what
particular meaning is generated by the interaction of the two signs, there is an act
of interpretation that coheres in the mind of the spectator. Wilson provides the
experience, the witnessing of the dynamic interaction of separate elements, and
it is up to the spectator to fuse these images into something new.
In combination with his use of recognizable icons, Wilson's stage designs
tend to be fairly sparse with a few formal elements used to define the space.
"Within the usually unbroken rectangle of the stage floor Wilson tends to place just
a few carefully chosen scenic elements, among them wood and metal furniture
pieces that have figured in his
work since Queen Victoria and reflect his early
background in interior design."106 At times this
furniture may have a specific intention or logic to its
structure or material. Reflecting on some of the
furniture constructed for Einstein out of plumbing
pipes, Philip Glass recalls that "Bob told me that
Einstein had once remarked that, if he had his life
to live over again he would have been a
plumber."107 It is this type of contextual logic that
dominates Wilson's work. A logic based on oblique
references to historical figures was also extended
to the matching fabric-draped armchairs present in
Stalin . As Wilson explained, "Stalin had two

Shyer, Robert Wilson and his Collaborators, 165.


107 Glass, 34. In connection with this reference it is interesting to note that
Glass himself once made a living installing dishwashers.
106

252
identical apartments, Everything was the same: the
same furniture, the same stoves, everything down
to the smallest detail. In each of these apartments
there were two armchairs that were
always draped in fabric."108

Figure 58: Chair from Einstein on the

Beach.

These synthetic objects, juxtaposed with the organic shape of the human
figure, force certain movements and physical relationships structurally different
from the world of the spectator. At first glance the furnishings appear to be
somewhat normal; they do resemble furnishings from the system of reference of
the external world of the spectator, but as one notices their peculiarities, the
shape, the material they are constructed from, they are removed from this system
and placed into Wilson's artificial one. Examine the above photograph of the
specially designed pipe chair for Einstein on the Beach . It would be impossible
for an actor to approach a furnishing like this the way he or she would an
"ordinary" chair. As Heiner Mller stated during a post-show interview, "Look at
this chair I'm sitting in. It was designed by Bob, made by Bob. I'm sitting in one of
Bob's chairs for the first time, and this chair demands a special attitude. It is a
frame, and this frame is a precondition."109
In order to exist within the world of the performance, one that is spatially
defined by these objects, the actor's natural movement and gesture, that is the
signs locked within the spectators' coded system, are altered to become part of
the constructed environment, leaving nothing functionally independent. One critic
has even gone so far as to state that Wilson's furniture is the "Platonic idea of a

Eco, "Robert Wilson and Umberto Eco: A Conversation," 91.


109 Arthur Holmberg, "A Conversation with Robert Wilson and Heiner
Mller," Modern Drama , (#31, 1988), 455.
108

chair, completely unsittable."110

253
While Larson's observation is an interesting

conceptual one, the fact remains that Wilson constructs these "Platonic" chairs
from tangible material, not philosophic ether. They can be touched, moved and
interacted with, but more importantly they can be seen. This physical quality
forces Larson's conceptual idea into the province of the percept. What is curious
about Wilson's created objects for his productions is that they are treated exactly
the same way as objects and images drawn from the external world of the
spectator. In this respect he is truly the painter and architect of this world, using
all of the elements at his disposal (actors, props, sets, costumes, light, words,
and music) as controlladly as if he were drawing them from a palette.
One of the interesting ways in which Wilson deals with certain inanimate
objects in his works is that he animates them, giving them a motive force and
"life" of their own. As can be seen in the example of the slowly descending chair
from The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud . Objects change positions and
perceptions shift as these seemingly inanimate objects become animated,
implying some sort of external force. Again in Freud a chair inched its way
across the stage as a woman slowly began to sit at the point of its destination.
Once the chair had completed its movement, the woman had something to sit on.
An animate, inanimate object used within the spatial construction to show an
image slowly coming into focus.
There is an exchange of qualities that transpires in Wilson's theatre. By
fragmenting the human form and movement to become a structural element of
the spatial landscape while simultaneously animating inanimate objects, the
objects become actors and the actors become objects. Like the non-Platonic
chair above, both rely on physical presence for this process to occur. In this
respect Wilson has devised a theatre of conscious artistry and technique. These
110

Kay Larson, "Robert Wilson," Art News, (March, 1978), 172.

254
collaborations of visual elements are not haphazard, but spatially derived, as he
is working toward a specific form and not a specific content. As evidenced by his
treatment of the human voice separate from the body, he breaks down unified
elements into their constituent parts only to re-assemble them within his
geometrically derived space. Summarizing the breadth of his techniques Stefan
Brecht writes:
The lighting is strikingly unrealistic, - artificial, unreal. Any one
tableau is apt to present incongruences, implausibilities: what would
not co-exist and discrepancies of scale. Stage-technique is utilized
for effects of discrepancy, estrangement: slight uncanny
movements by objects, slightly uncanny amplifications of sound.
Animals wander through. An audience-disposition against realistic
interpretation is set up. Dispositions toward realistic interpretation
are not absolutely discouraged: the spectator's desire to settle
down into a fantasy-reality, accepted as real is frustrated.111
All of Wilson's techniques, his use of light, costume, language, gesture
and movement exist as variations on a theme, all designed to shake up the
audience's traditional perceptions. Again, the brilliance of Wilson's theatre is that
elements are not completely cut off from their external referents, nor are they
completely desemiotized, but straddle his stage reality and the audience's
external reality. In this way his pieces can not be fully embraced nor fully refuted.
He strands the spectator between signifier and signified, between reality and
fantasy, between form and function. In this respect, though his theatre reflects
the process of signification in action, it more closely embodies Derrida's
conception of infinitely differed signification contained in the term differance.

111

Brecht, 239-240.

255
differance, then, is a structure and a movement no longer
conceivable on the basis of the opposition presence/absence.
Differance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of
differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related
to each other . . . This is why the a of differance also recalls that
spacing is temporization, the detour and postponement by means
of which intuition, perception, consummation - in word, the
relationship to the present, the reference to the present reality, to a
being - are always deferred.112
The strength of Wilson's work as a director and stage designer rests on
the fact that while he is in constant control of the images presented on stage, he
refuses to limit the reception of those images by impossing a specific
interpretation. As Dallas Pratt, an actor in Freud believes, despite the fact that
"the play had very little to say about Freud," and the action was so "delightfully
lunatic . . . still, there was nothing haphazard about it; every moment, every line
was rehearsed over and over again, until, timed to the second, it satisfied our
meticulous director."113 Wilson theatre is one of form and structure since he
conceives of the geometric spatial arrangement of images before they become
solidified on stage. The key to his theatre of alternate perceptions is not that
things are allowed to exist in a haphazard manner as the chance compositions of
Cage and Cunningham, but that:
The imagery-flux has the character of a free process of awareness.
Wilson has so designed it: free from the constraints of logic, reality,
and psychology . . . The flow of imagery is free in that the images
seem to devolve and proliferate according to their own nature: no
Jacques Derrida, Positions, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,
1981), 27-29.
113 Dallas Pratt, "Robert Wilson - The Early Years," Columbia Library
Columns, (Vol. xxxviii, #1. November, 1988),6.
112

256
extrinsic, esthetic or other ordering scheme is in evidence, there are
no interruptions or discontinuities suggesting the interference of a
conscious artist. This freedom is evidently illusory: an appearance
created by conscious artistry.114
Wilson's intent is not to provide a seamless, unified entity, where text and
image, voice and movement match up point for point, but rather separate layers
operating concurrently to be synthesized within the mind of the spectator. While
composed of recognizable signs, his works are not closed on a solitary meaning.
Wilson's theatre is one of alternate perceptions because he challenges not just
the reception of well known images, like Lincoln and Freud, but because he
deconstructs the patterns of conventional theatre. He alters the time frame of
performance, the use of language, the reception of inanimate objects, as well as
the manner in which the actor speaks, moves and appears. Ultimately, it is
Wilson who encourages the spectator not to search for meaning, but to simply
experience the scope of images. With this visual form of theatre Wilson is able,
like Svoboda and Monk, to consciously apply artistic techniques to alter the way
in which the spectator approaches the dramatic environment as well as receives
and interprets the staged material.

114

Brecht, 245.

257
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Chapter Four: Meredith Monk:


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