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Glow: an interview with Gideon Obarzanek: Cristiane Bouger
Figure 40.1 Glow, performed by Kristy Ayre.
Figure 40.2 Glow, performed by Kristy Ayre.
G L OW: A N I N T E RV I E W W I T H G I D E O N O B A R Z A N E K
How long have you been researching this speciﬁc possibility of motion-tracking
Gideon: I had been working a little with video projection in the past and this has
always been pre-rendered, often on screens and rarely on bodies. I wanted to use
video projection as a lighting instrument to see the body rather than being
concerned with the images projected. Originally I imagined this could happen
with pre-rendered video; however, I met Frieder at a forum in Monaco and he
showed me some of the tracking results he had been working on. This was far
more exciting and without the tedium of the dancer having to respond accurately
to pre-rendered video.
While Frieder made some detailed advances in his software, we essentially used
the program that he had been developing over a number of years and really
pushed its detail and sensitivity. We tried to make our work equal partners, so it
was not just the projection supporting the dancer and her movement, or, conversely, the dancer just demonstrating the possibilities of the machine.
Cristiane: Can you talk about how the interaction between the dancer and the
motion graphics happens?
Gideon: The dancer and the ﬂoor she performs on are lit by infrared light. A video
camera from above seeing the image only in the infrared spectrum sees the
moving dancer as a black shape against a white background. The continuing
displacement of her outline and also its rate of movement are fed into a computer as data. The computer processes this information through a series of
algorithms that generate real-time video responses. These are projected back
onto the dancer and the ﬂoor via a data projector situated and aligned with the
video camera from above. Because video projectors do not emit infrared
light, the camera only sees the human body and not the projections. This loop all
happens in a split second, giving the impression that the relationship is
[. . .]
Cristiane: How was the choreography developed in relation to the software? Did
one thing come before the other?
Gideon: On Frieder’s ﬁrst visit to my studio in Melbourne, Australia, we spent all
our time looking at possible tracking relationships between his software and a
moving body. I don’t think we choreographed anything. From this period I had
documented a detailed menu of possibilities between the machine system and a
single body. I wanted to see the inherent aesthetic and kinetic qualities of the
machine. While most of the relationships resulted in quite spectacular visual
outcomes, on their own they were quickly reduced to beautiful gimmicks.
Without Frieder I started to explore the idea that the body was not yet fully
formed, naively searching for what it may become, a progression of constant
evolution. In doing so I came up with new suggestions for interactive relationships
as well as reﬁning and reshaping some things we had already done. So choreography and software development was in a state of constant back and forth ﬂow.
Cristiane: Seeing the space of the body mapped by light patterns was really
meaningful to me . . . Somehow it led me to think about energy ﬁelds and
quantum physics. Did you think about something related when you ﬁrst conceived Glow?
Gideon: We just concentrated on movement and behaviour with light and image
that was complementary to each other. The main considerations were things that
actively came out of the body, what the body left behind, and light and image
that were outside pressing onto or surrounding the body. The idea was that the
body is really not separated from the space around it, that there is a constant
exchange and inﬂuence going on.
Cristiane: In most works of dance and theatre the light design is treated as the last
element on the stage to be thought about. Glow revealed to me a new approach of
the usage of this element because for me the light pretty much deﬁned the
dramaturgy of the piece. Can you elaborate on the dramaturgy of Glow and how
it was centred in the light design controlled by the motion-tracking software?
Gideon: The paradox about Glow for me is that while it uses very sophisticated
interactive technology the work is really not about technology or our relationship to it. It is deeply human from beginning to end. The journey of the work can
be seen as one of evolving, a sense of coming into one’s own awareness. The
lighting and images are a way of literally seeing mood and motion, and deﬁning
the human body as both autonomous from its surrounds and also inextricably
bound. The whole performance space resonates by the dancer’s actions and also
alludes to what may be happening internally, a sense of haunting. In the ﬁnal
seconds of the work the performer separates and breaks the relationship from
the graphics and stands autonomously. The light is big and white and covers
everything. The radiating light bouncing oﬀ the ﬂoor even illuminates the entire
audience sitting around. It then zooms into a tiny dot where she is staring and
with a ﬂash it disappears leaving the performer standing upright.
Cristiane: I can read in Glow an old idea of light and somberness inherent to the
human being, but you brought a very eﬀective approach to it through the light
usage. For me, it was like an aesthetic update of some of our everlasting existential staged questions. Beyond the technological impressive impact of the piece, as
I said before, it made me think about the quantum awareness moment in human
development and about how so many writers have been creating approaches
between science and other ﬁelds in the attempt to understand our connection
with everything else in the world . . .
Gideon: I build from very small pieces. So development is inherent in how I work.
The direction of most choreography is sophistication and the dramatic direction
is the highlighting of the performer’s awareness of their own evolution.
Cristiane: Something really sophisticated in Glow is the fact the work brings a realtime graphic response to the dancer’s movements and it is not based on a video
timeline playback in which the dancer has to ﬁt her choreographic timing . . .
and because the choreography is also inﬂuenced by the software patterns in
G L OW: A N I N T E RV I E W W I T H G I D E O N O B A R Z A N E K
speciﬁc moments, I think it can allow a parallel to our daily relationship to
technological sources and how they redeﬁne our daily movements as at the same
time they are more and more conceived to answer to our bodies. Somehow
issues like that have been over-explored in the ﬁlm industry, but you brought this
interaction in such a formulated and yet simple way to the stage.
Gideon: I didn’t give much consideration to our relationship with technology in
making this piece even though it is the fundamental practical relationship
between the performer and machine.
There is something quite diﬀerent about the live work and our experience of it
compared with watching ﬁlm. Things that we take for granted on ﬁlm are often
shocking or amazing live. We know that ﬁlm is highly mediated while live events
still have a sense of truth, so when we witness such things as struggle and beauty
live, it is a very strong experience.
We videoed Glow very well and people who watch it without appreciating that
this is a recording of a live event on stage are not amazed by it at all. Most assume
it’s just basic after-eﬀects graphics.
[. . .]
Cristiane: I am interested in the way you blur the frontiers of dance, developing
Chunky Move’s work in a wide range of forms including installations, ﬁlm, sitespeciﬁc and stage productions. After researching about some of your works it
becomes clear that you are very engaged in a theatre and not only choreographic
understanding of each work. For example, this is very clear in Tense Dave. Where
does this inﬂuence come from?
Gideon: I am not a lover of dance performance. On the contrary I often doubt it as
a legitimate and strong medium of expression. Most of my works are partly
exercises for myself to prove its worthiness. It’s a strange relationship as my
doubt is also my drive. Within that my interests are like most people – trying to
understand myself and the world around me and trying to ﬁnd meaning in what
we do and who we are. Ultimately trying to understand what it is to be human. I
know this is broad and somewhat trite but that is the only thread that I can
identify which ties my eclectic works together.
Cristiane: One thing that seems clear to me is your real concern about the
perspective the spectator sees your work from. Your works seem to deal with
perspective as a major principle. The way the stage turns around in Tense Dave,
the proximity and interactiveness of the audience in Closer and the way we have
to look at the ground in Glow. Could you tell me more about it?
Gideon: I have often been resistant to use the conventional stage and therefore its
more conventional relationship between the work and the audience. The original
idea for Tense Dave was a walking tour by the audience into a series of rooms . . .
however, pressures from my producer to tour some of my work led to Dave being
on a conventional stage walking into rooms on a revolve, while the audience
looked on in their seats.
I guess I just want people to be sensitive to what they see and often have a
conscious sense of themselves being there, witnessing. In the darkness of the
theatre auditorium the still viewer ceases to exist in a corporeal way. If they see
the audience on the other side of what they are watching also looking on then
they become aware of themselves, what they are doing, what they look like and
their role. It feels important to me that the audience can see the work and the
rest of the audience watching too. I also like the audience to be very close to
dance performances. I think they can get more out of the experience.
Auslander, P. (1999). Liveness: performance in a mediatized culture. London: Routledge.
Berghaus, G. (2005). Avant-Garde Performance: live events and electronic technologies. London: Palgrave
Chapple, F. and Kattenbelt, C., eds, (2006). Intermediality in Theatre and Performance. Amsterdam:
Giannachi, G. (2004). Virtual Theatres: an introduction. London: Routledge.
Thomas, H. (2003). The Body, Dance and Cultural Theory. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
C. Bouger (2007). Glow: interview with Gideon Obarzanek. Available from: http://idanca.net/
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
“Not waving but drowning”
Smith gives us an enduring image of the problems inherent in interpreting the signals of
others. The drowning man’s gesticulations have an ambiguous theatricality about them
leaving them open to diﬀerent interpretations. Can the audience on the shoreline be blamed
for not reading the signs as they were meant to be read?
This section is concerned with the way we make meaning, or more accurately “meanings,”
in performance. We look at the changes wrought by mechanical reproduction on the meaning of artworks; examine the aesthetics of production and reception; introduce the debates
around authorship, authority and the control of meaning; consider the relationship between
meaning and interpretation, and discuss and delimit the value of semiotics as a tool in
performance analysis. In addition there are essays by practitioners who have challenged the
prevailing orthodoxies of production and reception, and an insight into the working practices
of three inﬂuential visual artists who describe the process of “making meaning” in their
PA R T V
Does a work of art have to “mean” anything? In a conversation between Robert Wilson
and Umberto Eco on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition of Wilson’s work at the
Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1991, Eco opens the dialogue by establishing:
It’s always silly to ask an author, “What did you mean by this or that?” It also
happens to me and I answer: “If I meant something more, I would have written it.”
(Wilson and Eco 1993: 87)
Wilson’s work on stage and in the gallery is renowned for its “open structures” and the
“inﬁnite possibilities” it oﬀers for interpretation. Eco wants to know if this means that
Wilson would never sanction or qualify any of the interpretations or “uses” to which his work
might be put. Wilson is emphatic in his reply:
My responsibility as an artist is to create, not to interpret. This is true of both my
work in the visual arts and in the theatre . . . We create a work for the public and
we must allow them the freedom to make their own interpretations and draw their
(Wilson and Eco 1993: 89)
From the above we adduce that “meaning,” the idea(s) conveyed by something, has no ﬁxity,
it is always in process, in a constant state of revision and redeﬁnition. The notion of works
being open to multiple interpretations is certainly borne out by the lengthy discussions over
the centuries as to the meaning of a play like Hamlet for instance. Indeed many people would
argue that the mark of a great play is the fact that it can be perpetually reinterpreted.
Like the drowning man in Smith’s poem, the meaning behind Hamlet’s actions is often
ambiguous; ambiguous but not vague. Ambiguity gives the audience choices – vagueness
“A text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (Barthes 1988). Barthes’
assertion in his essay “The death of the author” articulates the change of attitude throughout the twentieth century towards the role of the author in works of literature. In the
early part of the twentieth century the author was considered as the originator of meaning,
and literary studies focused on analysing “authorial intention.” Over the years this shifted,
with the production of meaning being understood as an interactive process between the
text and the reader, with the “author” no longer seen as a valid object of study. As Tyson
We focus, instead on the reader; on the ideological, rhetorical, or aesthetic structure of the text; or on the culture in which the text was produced, usually without
reference to the author. So, for all intents and purposes, the author is “dead.”
(Tyson 1999: 2)
This shift of the locus of meaning making from author to reader had a major impact on the
study of plays as works of literature and inﬂuenced the move towards the analysis of plays in
performance. This implies of course not just the analysis of the “mise en scène” unfolding
moment by moment but a detailed study of the way meaning is generated through the
interaction of the events on stage and among the audience. Further, if making meaning
shifts from author to audience, who takes responsibility for what is produced? Is everything
in the eye and ear of the listener and beholder? Also, are the aural and the visual senses the
only means through which we perceive a performance or does the experience extend to
the other senses?
The scope of this Reader can oﬀer only limited access to this complex ﬁeld, but the
writings we have chosen introduce a number of key theorists and practitioners, all of whom
have informed, contested or sought to inﬂuence the way meaning (meanings) are generated
and understood in a western performance context.
Some theories of production and reception
Walter Benjamin’s (2008) seminal essay, written in 1935–6, looks at the phenomenal cultural impact of photography and ﬁlm on the way we perceive works of art. The mass
reproduction of images “emancipate[d]” artworks from their foundations in magic and ritual
and moved them, according to Benjamin, into the domain of politics. Benjamin sets out
to explain how, when art loses its religious signiﬁcance, it enters the realm of commodity
exchange with the eﬀect that, “the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work
designed for reproducibility” (Benjamin 2008: 24). Benjamin’s analysis of these changes in
the nineteenth and early twentieth century presages the impact of digital technology on
contemporary art in the twenty-ﬁrst. Just as the meaning of artworks was irrevocably
changed by the ubiquitous spread of the “copy,” so our perception of what we understand as
“original” and “live” becomes increasingly complex in a mediatised culture. Cross-referencing
between ﬁlm, television, the internet and live performance is now commonplace, and the
material practice of scenography has expanded into the ﬁeld of the virtual.
So, an audience whose sense of performance and entertainment, and in a certain
sense reality, is shaped by cybernetic forces expects all scenography to look like this
. . . For designers, the fact of moving among several media encompassing both real
and virtual is not only acceptable, but also unremarkable. The boundaries that
previously existed have disappeared.
(Aronson 2005: 37)
We have reached a state where the aesthetics of “virtual space” have now become part and
parcel of the “performative imagery” of the twenty-ﬁrst century.
Reader-response theory provides a useful starting point for a study of the ways in which
meaning is generated in the theatre. Iser (1978) tells us that a literary work is always “virtual”
in the sense that its aesthetic value does not exist independently but is produced through a
process of interaction with the reader. He argues that this interaction between text and
reader is regulated by “revelation and concealment” through a series of structured blanks. It
is these blanks which stimulate the reader to ﬁll in the “gaps” with their own imaginations.
PA R T V
However, as Susan Bennett (1997) points out, we must be wary of applying literary
models of reception uncritically to live performance. “The multi-layering of scenic components . . . creates an onstage ‘text’ which is far more complicated than its printed equivalent” (Bennett 1997: 67). Also, the literary model doesn’t take into account the temporal
aspect of live performance or the potential eﬀect of this “interactivity” on the performance
itself as well as on the audience:
Unlike the printed text, a theatrical performance is available for its audience only in
a ﬁxed time period. Furthermore, the event is not a ﬁnished product in the same
way as a novel or poem. It is an interactive process, which relies on the presence of
spectators to achieve its eﬀects. A performance is, of course, unlike a printed work,
always open to immediate and public acceptance, modiﬁcation, or rejection by
those people it addresses.
(Bennett 1997: 67–8)
Iser is associated with the German school of Rezeptionsästhetik (reception aesthetics)
founded by the German academic Hans Robert Jauss in the 1960s. Jauss introduced the term
“horizon of expectations” to describe the range of socio-political, cultural and philosophical
assumptions that readers, listeners and viewers bring to their encounter with an artwork.
These “expectations” will aﬀect the meanings that the viewer draws from the work. The
more in tune the artwork is with the “horizon of expectations” of its audience the easier it will
be for the work to be “read.” Inevitably diﬀerent social and cultural contexts will produce
diﬀerent “horizons” and these will also be subject to change over time. A book we read as a
child will have diﬀerent meanings when we encounter it again as an adult; each time we look
at a painting we view it slightly diﬀerently. The reception of performance as a temporal
medium will always be contingent upon the particular conditions which prevail at the
moment of its delivery.
Semiotics, a branch of structuralist criticism that deals with the study of sign systems, has
been immensely inﬂuential in the analysis of performance. Tyson (1999) deﬁnes a “sign
system” as “a non-linguistic object or behavior (or collection of objects or behaviors) that can
be analyzed as if it were a language” (1999: 205). Structuralism is concerned with identifying
the underlying principles which govern all human behaviour and endeavour. It is a way of
understanding and organising the world, of making sense out of chaos. However, these
structures do not pre-exist: they are a product of the human mind:
Where do these structures come from? Structuralists believe they are generated by
the human mind, which is thought of as a structuring mechanism. This is a radical
idea because it means that the order we see in the world is the order we impose on
it. Our understanding of the world does not result from our perception of structures that exist in the world. The structures we think we perceive in the world are
actually innate (inborn) structures of human consciousness, which we project onto
the world in order to be able to deal with the world; it’s not that there is no factual
reality; it’s that there are too many facts to be perceived without conceptual
systems to limit and organize them. And those conceptual systems originate within
(Tyson 1999: 199)
By interpreting the sign systems that operate within our culture we begin to understand the
conceptual frameworks that underpin them.
One of the problems presented by a semiotic approach to performance analysis is that our
perceptual encounter with theatrical performance cannot be dissected into its component
parts, because we experience a performance in its “wholeness,” or as States puts it:
The problem with semiotics is that in addressing theater as a system of codes it
necessarily dissects the perceptual impression that theater makes on the spectator.
And, as Merleau-Ponty has said, “It is impossible . . . to decompose perception, to
make it into a collection of sensations, because in it the whole is prior to the parts.”
(States 1985: 7)
Pavis (2003) proposes a new paradigm which takes into account the limits of structuralism
and the limits of subsequent deconstructive criticism as espoused by the French philosopher
Jacques Derrida, known as post-structuralism. Derrida put forward the notion that human
language is innately unstable and any utterance is subject to a multitude of diﬀerent interpretations. Therefore any ideas, including structuralism’s “innate (inborn) structures of
human consciousness” (see Tyson above), cannot be consistently relied upon as they are
concepts constructed through language and therefore subject to its ambiguities. Pavis identiﬁes the need to move away from the visual and the auditory, the conventional realm of
semiotics, towards a perception that embraces all the senses.
Ross Brown (2005), and in his new essay in this volume, asks us to consider sound design
as part of the complex matrix of perception that constitutes “audience practices.” The
theatrical soundscape is a product of all the auditory phenomena, intentional and
unintentional, experienced in the course of a performance. Brown introduces the notion of
“dramaturgical noise,” a soundscape that rather than supporting or harmonising the “programme” or the object of the gaze oﬀers instead a “dialectical distraction.” This includes
drawing attention to “circumstantial” noise, the sounds outside the auditorium, for instance,
and blurring the distinction between intentional and aleatory sounds, immersing the
audience in “uncertainties.”
Banes (2001) suggests that the current revival of interest in “aroma design” in performance may be a reassertion of the “immediacy” of theatre as a medium and a reaction to the
ubiquitous spread of the mediatised. It is interesting to note that Banes speculates that the
“deodorization” of the modern theatre was perhaps “a conscious move away from – even an
antagonism toward – religious ritual” and tied up with “the scientiﬁc ambitions of naturalism.” This point is re-enforced in the next three extracts as we consider three artists all of
whom in diﬀerent ways have challenged what they perceive as the reductive limitations of
“naturalism” and sought to reinvest the theatre with the blood, sweat and tears of human
endeavour in all its visceral materiality.
PA R T V
Swimming against the tide
As a stage director, Meyerhold (1977) was driven by the compelling need to reinstate
“theatricality” into the art of the stage in the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century. In his early
career he worked with Stanislasvki, with whose methods of naturalistic production and actor
training he vehemently disagreed. Fifty years before Iser’s writings on literature, Meyerhold
lays out the problems that the “exact representation of life” poses for the audience, recognising the importance of leaving “gaps” and “blanks” to engage them in the process of making
meaning: “In the theatre the spectator’s imagination is able to supply that which is left
unsaid” (Meyerhold 1977: 25). The problem with naturalism, according to Meyerhold, was
that nothing was left unsaid.
In The Theatre and its Double, Artaud (1970) calls for a “theatre of cruelty” in which the
locus of meaning shifts from the intellect to the senses. He demanded an immediacy of
engagement between actor, audience and space, taking performance back to what he
believed to be its communal roots in ritual and “the violent concentrated action” that ritual
invokes. His notion of a “theatre of cruelty” is a complex one and should not be reduced to
simply meaning the inﬂiction of pain:
With this mania we all have today for belittling everything, as soon as I said
“cruelty” everyone took it to mean “blood.” But a “theatre of cruelty” means theatre
that is diﬃcult and cruel for myself ﬁrst of all. And on a performing level, it has
nothing to do with the cruelty we practise on one another, hacking at each other’s
bodies, carving up our individual anatomies, or like ancient Assyrian Emperors,
posting sackfuls of human ears, noses or neatly dissected nostrils, but the far more
terrible, essential cruelty objects can practise on us. We are not free and the sky can
still fall on our heads. And above all else, theatre is made to teach us this.
(Artaud 1970: 60)
The publication of Artaud’s radical ideas inﬂuenced a generation of theatre makers, including
the Living Theatre, Grotowski and Peter Brook.
Writing at the end of the twentieth century, the playwright Howard Barker (1993)
bemoans the commodity-driven state of the theatre and the preoccupation of producers,
audiences and critics with “accessibility” and “instant meaning.” His ﬁercely anti-establishment
stance rejects the “moral certitudes” of liberal-humanist theatre, calling instead for “a suspension of morality” and an assertion of the power of the imagination, which he sees as the
nature and function of art.
Barker calls for a theatre of moral ambiguities and obscurity in which images are “experienced” rather than “read” and there is no hidden meaning “in the undergrowth of the text.”
Rae Smith reminds us of the importance of drawing in rehearsal as a way of making meaning
in the moment, as a means of communication, and of reﬂection. Robert Wilson (in Brecht