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Glow: an interview with Gideon Obarzanek: Cristiane Bouger

Glow: an interview with Gideon Obarzanek: Cristiane Bouger

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Figure 40.1 Glow, performed by Kristy Ayre.

Figure 40.2 Glow, performed by Kristy Ayre.



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



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/



Part V


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,

They said.

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.

Stevie Smith

“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

own work.



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

own conclusions.

(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

just confuses.

“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.



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

human consciousness.

(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.



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.”

Beyond words

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


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