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The Builders Association and dbox, SUPER VISION: full text for Marianne Weems, SUPER VISION interview

NYC, 5 December 2005.

Nick Kaye: How did SUPER VISION begin?

Marianne Weems: The project began with James Gibbs and myself. dbox had contributed in a limited way to some of our past projects and I was eager to ‘raise the bar.’ We had a couple of conversations – mostly between myself, Dan Dobson, Jeff Webster, and then James, Matthew Bannister and Charles D’Autremont from dbox. So it started as a kind of big think tank. James had suggested doing something about surveillance and the panoptical relationship to the theatre – an audience looking at the stage, and turning that back on the audience. But I felt that surveillance had been completely thrashed through - not in theatre per se, but certainly in the visual arts world since the 70s. So at that point we were doing a lot of research about surveillance – John Hanhardt, who is the curator of the Guggenheim, came in and gave us a kind survey of artwork in surveillance over the last 25 years and showed us an interesting film called The Giant from Berlin. It was very an early example of using footage from the surveillance cameras that were all over Berlin at the time - a very beautiful art film. I finally came up with the idea of doing a piece about the invisible world of dataveillance. I think partly because there was so much in the air at the time - post-9/11 - about chatter and data and identity. So I brought that to the table. And one of the first books that I found really exciting – I mean there are millions of articles about identity theft - but I read John McGrath’s book Loving Big Brother (Routledge 2004) in manuscript and I really enjoyed it. I felt some of it - for instance the section about 'reality television' and the viewer’s almost activist desire to occupy the televisual space in a positive way as opposed to the typical, negative slant - was really smart and interesting. McGrath also mentioned, although it wasn’t his primary focus, the phrase ‘data body’ and the idea that we are shadowed by an electronic doppelganger - that really grabbed me very, very strongly. Then I started looking at his sources, mostly David Lyon, a sociologist from Queens College in Canada, who coined the phrase data body in the 70s - and the whole thing sprang from there. One of the ways McGrath described the databody, or rather the results of the body under surveillance, is as ‘a disjointed, hybrid, prostheticized, multiple body, appearing and disappearing in the irregular, contradictory landscape of surveillance space’ which is one of the quotes I brought to my collaborators to evoke the feeling I wanted in the piece.

Uploaded Image

Rizwan Mirza, the traveller
Image by dbox

Nick Kaye: What was it that drew you towards dbox’s work?

Marianne Weems: Well, probably their ability to manufacture reality - the idea that what they enjoy the most is creating virtual spaces rather than actual buildings. It is very apt for this kind of work and very much about utilizing electronics to create a rich parallel world. James Gibbs and Matthew Bannister are incredibly smart and very forward thinking, probably because they are not burdened with the history of avant-garde performance, and their practice hasn’t been hemmed in by the non-profit lifestyle - so it’s fun for me. What we created was a virtual world that could be staged to interface with live performers in a convincing way. Specifically, what was so potent in this idea was that the live performer could be shadowed by their data body. That seemed like a great place to start with dbox.

Nick Kaye: In this context, I think the combination of different kinds of projection in SUPER VISION, is very interesting. In the family scene you have, simultaneously, a room that is entirely a simulation rendered by dbox and the film recording of a real garden, projected so that you can see it through the windows and doors of the synthetic architecture. This seems to me important to the way the performers were integrated into the scene - and in relation to the theatre lighting. In the family scenes, it seemed as if the performers had a certain sort of luminosity that brought them into relationship to the light coming from the video.So we see different qualities of projection and light that plays between the real bodies of the performers and the simulated environment that they are in.

Marianne Weems: That’s very true. In the family scenes, there is a nice layering of the real body and then the completely manufactured living room environment, and then the real photographed environment (the ‘back yard’) seen out the windows behind them. And of course there’s the insertion of the video boy actor moving between the animated and the photographed environments –- and the live actors relate to the video boy as he moves between those various planes.

Nick Kaye: And the projection of the boy in front of the real performers. I also thought it was very interesting that SUPER VISION employed an explicitly cinematic frame, but unlike other Builders Association performances where the screen is usually above the performer – here it is dropped down to frame the live performers. How did that evolve?

Marianne Weems: Well that was a huge point of discussion and the ultimate contribution of Stewart Laing, who I think knows all our work and actually contributed to the set design for ALLADEEN partially -- his suggestion was to bring the screen forward, but still above the actors. What I wanted to do in SUPER VISION - and what I kept saying to anybody who would listen to me - was that I wanted to enmesh the performers in the media. That was my goal - and Stewart did that brilliantly by collapsing the video space into the stage space. So there wasn’t feeling that you had in our other performances where the viewer is tracking back and forth between the real live performer and the mediated image. It was really was about trying to combine those as intimately as possible.

Nick Kaye: Is that integration the kind of direction you will continue to go in - or is it something specific to this show?

Marianne Weems: If I wanted to keep going and I had all the money in the world? Yes, that is the direction I would go in. This complicating the presence of the performers has always been our direction, and this piece in particular succeeded. And it was also made very palpable for the audience - you could feel that the performers were really being extended into the media and vice versa, because of the way that they are lined up on a one-to-one scale.

Uploaded Image

Rizwan Mirza, the traveller
Image by dbox

Nick Kaye: Did you specifically think about this as complicating presence?

Marianne Weems: I did. I am just a perfect subject for you! Again, what came first in SUPER VISION was the idea that we are dragging another body behind us - this electronic network that is extending out of us in some way or flying around us constantly - and how to make that palpable and visual. The more it seemed like the performers were really being invaded by that - or overlapping with the electronics – the more interesting it became.

Nick Kaye: It was very interesting that you could see the performers through the projections of the furniture. I thought that translucence was very important to the integration of the performers into this virtual environment.

Marianne Weems: Yes, the translucence was fun. Everybody knows that it is a chair and a table, it’s a 'prop' in a 'theatre set.' But with these animations, the backdrop is so real, you can have other things floating in and out of it - and they can remain just a sign of what they should be.

Nick Kaye: Peter Flaherty talked about the relationship between the set and various kinds of paintings. In particular, we discussed Edward Hopper and his setting of encounters in architectures that seem to be without blemishes - and although the family room does not specifically reference Hopper, this did seem to have a relationship to the simulated room. Is this quality something that you were specifically thinking about?

Marianne Weems: Oh very much so. James and I spent a lot of time talking about the background and class of these people - we called them Bobo’s - Bourgeois Bohemians – i..e upper-middle class people who have money but still like to think they are a little bit funky. It is about the right granite and slate and hardwoods and the right cappuccino maker and this absolutely pristine - I consider it somewhat sterile - but perfectly laid-out environment. And in fact that is how dbox makes money - by creating these virtual spaces (interiors and exteriors) as sales tools for architects. So to have the right subzero freezer and the latest flat screen tv in those animations is incredibly important. And when we started to put together those rooms we were pulling from all the generic icons that dbox has at their disposal to create different living room environments. It was quite funny, because they had started to sketch the rooms and I had to say - don’t you want Stewart Laing to be part of this? I mean it quickly became a large element in the set design.

Uploaded Image
Onstage: David Pence
Photo by dbox

Nick Kaye: Were there specific visual sources other than dbox’s work for the family scenes?

Marianne Weems: The 'grid' which appears as an abstract space whenever the father is on his computer is a key component of the family scenes. As well as the floating credit card icons and all of the text that surrounds the father’s computer activity. That came from a long set of discussions about representing data and what could be the signs - in this show - for data. It took a very long time for us to come up with that very simple image of the grid - a long time, let me tell you. Other visuals in the family scenes included the Arctic images which were actually manipulated and animated photos that James Gibbs took in the Arctic. We did a lot of research into early Arctic explorers and photography in that era – and tried to think about that – you know everything from Frankenstein to Shackleton.

Nick Kaye: What was the process by which the work came together?

Marianne Weems: The process was very typical, and quite attenuated – it basically takes about two years from the first concept meeting to the actual premiere. I usually begin with a month or two of infrequent meetings with the main collaborators (in this case James Gibbs, Matthew, and Charles from dbox, and my long-time collaborators Dan Dobson, and Jeff Webster) where things are kicked around, and, after much discussion we come up with a central idea. Then my job is to try to articulate that conceptual frame, over and over again to a larger group of collaborators, and basically to anyone who will listen. After first developing the idea, I put in a good deal of research – in this case about data, identity, and many stories drawn from the datasphere. We had our first big design/concept meeting July 2004 at the Wexner Center, which was about nine months after we came up with the concept. In that first, big ten-day session, all of the tech people and designers were present, James Gibbs was there, and the video designer Chris Kondeck, Joe Silovsky, Dan Dobson, Allen Hahn, a couple of key performers (Tanya Selvaratnam and Jeff Webster) , and two writers. So I brought all of my research to the workshop, and we tried out various stories, various softwares, various set sketches, various representations of data -- all of it all at once. We even looked at the surveillance systems in place at Ohio State University where the Wexner Center is located. Those 10 days we were just thrashing through the ideas and trying to find a story - and also focus on the central ideas that we wanted to play out in the show. It was mostly rejected material, and struggling with how to represent ‘data’ outside of ‘The Matrix.’

Then, after the Wexner, there was a little bit of regrouping - as there always is. Peter Flaherty (video designer) came on the project, as well as Hal Eager. And (I) started to cast the show from the pool of performers that I work with. In that time James Gibbs and I worked with writers Jed Weintrob and Andrew Osborne, then hired Constance DeJong - and there was a huge push for the next nine months to try and clarify what the stories were going to be. We held a “script-development” workshop about five months after the Wexner free-for-all (November 2004) where I worked with the specific performers and tried to focus the stories. Then once we had nailed the basic stories we went back to a big design workshop at The Kitchen in April 2005 and the content and form began to coalesce pretty quickly during that.

After a good deal of cross-Atlantic discussion Stewart Laing came up with the design - we mocked it up at The Kitchen – at that time we also went throught the exercise of storyboarding the whole thing. Of course that changed a lot, but this was the first time that I had had eight collaborators sitting together carefully marking through the stories with this a mock-up of the set - and Peter Flaherty and James Gibbs throwing in visual ideas all along the way. That was the first gesture towards really setting the design and the flow of the show. There was still a lot of throwing in of ideas, and a lot of editing on my part. Then from May at The Kitchen to the premier was a big drive just towards finishing the fundraising, building the set - and then James Gibbs and Peter Flaherty really working with me and with each other on trying to get the video more or less ready for rehearsal.

I think this distinguishes this company more than anything else - that there is no way that you could walk into the process saying: ‘OK, the video is set – lets start rehearsing’. It is an incredibly fluid, interactive process. Every day Peter Flaherty would make things and James Gibbs had a whole sweatshop of guys in there, rendering. That was an incredible part of the process and we were very privileged to have them and their resources at our disposal - because we were remaking 3D environments on a daily basis.

Also, what ultimately was spectacular in this project was the level of all the collaborators - it was really well matched and very accomplished group of designers.

Nick Kaye: It seems to me that you are looking for a very specific quality of narrative in the work.

Marianne Weems: What quality would that be?

Nick Kaye: On one level the narratives are immediately understandable and engaging and at another level the three stories hold something back in some way – they don’t come down to a complete resolution, so something is left hanging. Also, in the emotional quality of the narrative there is an important level of ambiguity.

Marianne Weems: Interesting. Yes, I think that is all true. At the same time it was a goal of mine to try to have stories with beginnings, middles and ends. These three stories resolve more than stories in our other shows, but they don’t resolve each other, or fold into each other, which of course is always a wish from an audience. I am not sure if that really means that there is resolution, but they land somewhere identifiable at the end of each. Don’t you agree?

Nick Kaye: Yes they do, they just don’t expend themselves completely. So - in one sense - the end of the performance, where the traveller Rizwan Mirza is allowed through the border, is completely conclusive. He has told them everything. They have accepted it. They knew it all already anyway. So it is ok. This isn’t necessarily entirely what you would expect from that story line. Then he passes through the border. So on one level it seems fine.

Marianne Weems: I am not sure that the conclusion is fine. The conclusion that you are “free to go”, free to travel, as long as you are willing to expose all of your information, isn’t fine. It’s clear that this man remains under surveillance and meanwhile he is dragging a huge amount of personal data behind him. We aren’t saying that this is fine, but we are saying that this is the state of affairs at this moment. We are all walking around with those trails of information floating behind us and that is where we wanted to leave the audience - to feel ultra-aware of that.

Uploaded Image

left to right: image of John Jr. on screen; Kyle deCamp, Carol onstage; David Pence, John Fletcher Sr. onstage and mediated in close-up
Photo by dbox

Nick Kaye: One of the interesting things that has come up when I talked to some people, David Pence in particular, is this sense that he is very aware of his performance being extended into the media. He is very aware of the extension and modulation of himself and his performance through the technology.

Marianne Weems: Well besides the obvious factors of mediatization, one thing I have noticed about a lot of the people I have worked with over and over again - performers and technicians - is that people who have a musical background understand this. David is a rock and roll player and that is why he has a sense of this. Certainly, with the operators, I can tell in seconds if somebody has a musical training, because the way you play the technology in performance has so much to do that.

Uploaded Image
Onstage: Joe Silovsky, the TSA agent (mediated, left); Rizwan Mirza,
the traveller (right). Forestage: Joe Silovsky, far right.
photo by dbox

Nick Kaye: I wanted to ask you specifically about the importance of musical structure to the performance. As a metaphor for the way the piece is put together, references to the cinematic don’t seem sufficient – although SUPER VISION clearly has cinematic elements, the piece as a whole seems to work firstly musically, and explicitly so when you see more than once.

Marianne Weems: Let me say something about the cinema and what I am so attached to as a theatrical idea. In every performance, in all of our shows, for me it is about the performers being really isolated physically, but we are mediating them electronically and so what the audience sees is the network that is joining them all. None of the performers ever really look at each other – Joe Silovsky and Rizwan Mirza are a perfect example of that in this show. What is being staged is the network. They are in very isolated worlds, coming together in that bigger stage picture - that is really key.

So tell me about the musicality. What do you mean - more than once? You mean on repeated viewing you feel it more? You see it more?

Nick Kaye: I think it is very pleasurable as an experience because - bearing in mind that I have no background in music - as a viewer one of the most important things is the rhythm and the layering of elements coming together in performance. It is seductive and very engaging. In seeing the performance three times, I find myself listening to it as I might listen to a piece of music. There is also a very musical aspect to the tone, to the use of tone of voice between Kyle deCamp and David Pence, for example, which seems almost like a separation of the voice from what you see in the performance - it is quite a specific tone that plays on the microphone very strongly, and that plays on a kind of lilting, almost domestic, film-like quality. It is like watching a film where the narrative is in recollection, like a soundtrack. David Pence was talking about the process by which he had come to place what he was saying, quite a complex process of working out precisely who he was speaking to. This is because there is a lot of ambiguity in his monologues: is he speaking to himself? Is he speaking to his son, John Jnr? I think in part that his placing of his speech has produced this effect, as if his voice is recollecting – as if he is performing a film score over a set of images.

Marianne Weems: I think that is brilliant. It definitely does have to do with it being a kind of subliminal, emotional, cinematic sound score. Ultimately I don’t know if Dan Dobson sees it like that, but I perceive the final tracks in that way. Also, I have heard David Pence rhythmically repeat lines until he and Dan have -- over time -- created very complex scores in terms of the measures where he starts certain line. ‘She knows’ is this big moment at the top of the “crush” scene, where the video and lights come up, and an underlying beat, then David places the line “she knows”, then Dan sneaks in an eerie electronic guitar loop. It took them four months to work out -- semi-consciously -- the exact, musical placement of that line. But it wasn’t like anybody ever consciously said anything.

Nick Kaye: Linked to this, Norman suggested that when you are given the choice between playing the technology live or running sound or images as recorded elements you always choose to play them live.

Marianne Weems: Absolutely. That is one of the key things that distinguishes this from a movie or some other ‘fixed’ mediatic experience. With any multimedia performance, one can certainly tell when somebody is doing something to a pre-recorded track. It has a kind of deadened quality, I think, that you can sense as an audience member, and there are inevitable glitches, or moments out of synch, etc. As an ensemble, I think that’s why people stick with these shows even though they tour for years and constantly disrupt everyone’s lives. It’s the pleasure of being in an ensemble – of really playing this new set of ‘instruments’ live, from night to night. It is also the terror of it.

Nick Kaye: John Cage said of his early electronic music - which he could clearly have run on tape - that you must always play it live, because when it is live it gains presence.

Marianne Weems: Really. It’s absolutely true. Isn’t that the indefinable aspect of this project?

Just one other thing about the musicality. I think, particularly in ALLADEEN, so many people objected to the narrative structure because it was an episodic series of vignettes or, really, I thought, a series of songs. It was series of meditations on the theme of global outsourcing, particularly the distance between laborer and consumer. To me, the more we ran the show, the more night-to-night the songs were nuanced more fully by the performers and the technicians.

Nick Kaye: It is very interesting because you have a strong musical background. Do you think in terms of rhythmic structures? Because there are certainly very different elements that seem to be tied together by the rhythmic structure.

Marianne Weems: Absolutely. It is partly my training, but also Dan’s sound is the underpinning, the emotional foundation of the whole piece and also each scene. The sound is in ‘dialog’ with the content of each scene – not just reinforcing what the audience ‘should feel’. It is also is something that fills and drives the scene so that when we are rehearsing we really can’t stand to run any rehearsal without the music. Which, of course, drives Dan Dobson insane because he has to have something basic to lay down at the very beginning of rehearsal But it is a very important part of sustaining feeling and focus in these rehearsals, and also of course why the sound is so thoroughly integrated with the video and with the performances. Everything is scored to the music, and Dan is constantly changing and adding based on what happens in rehearsal.

I used to play the viola, I was in a quartet and I studied composition. But it is not that I think of that consciously. I think that my obsession with threading things together comes from that to some extent, but it’s not a conscious connection.

Nick Kaye: No, but one of the things that you are clearly able to do is to bring to people with a very strong sense of their own work together to create something which is very coherent – which is synthesised. I wonder if the capacity to think of things in terms of those structures is one of the things that permits or facilitates these strong collaborations.

Marianne Weems: That could be because there is something about composing discrete lines into these larger movements, where they are not expected to mould into each other or merge. Each line of information is very discrete, each part of the picture. Perhaps that’s partly why we also manage to do this with a variety of different types of egos, because I think people still feel that their contribution is has some internal consistency, but is being staged in relation to a bigger frame of other material.

Nick Kaye: So the contributions have identity, but they work with each other. Constance DeJong was describing it as a series of structures that nest, one into the other.

Marianne Weems: I guess that is one way of looking at it. I think it is really about what takes primacy at what time – at each point. At one point in the show, I think you could say: OK, this is really about the visual, and this was really about the sound – or there the text stood out a little more. But so they are not always in the same dynamic.

Nick Kaye: No, they are not. But they do very consistently draw you through the narrative, or modulate the narratives in relation to each other.

Marianne Weems: Well, my constant cry in rehearsal is trying to focus on what the meaning of that particular moment is - and to make everything come into alignment with that. It is about constantly coming back to what you are trying to say in that section, in that moment.

Nick Kaye: The other thing that I wanted to ask about is architecture. You have worked now with at least two architectural partnerships or groups, dbox and, in JET LAG, Diller + Scofidio. Why architecture?

Stewart Laing is really the first set designer I have worked with. In the 80s, there was this whole rhetoric that had sprung up about a kind of architecture that was beyond building. In fact, it had very little to do with actual buildings and much more to do with bodies and the perception and manipulation of space and how space is a system that is ideologically configured. So that was really where my interests started. So with MASTER BUILDER (1994) - have you ever seen any pictures of that?

Nick Kaye: Yes, I have a tape that you gave me with a short extract -

Marianne Weems: Well, it truly was a ton of work – our designer John Cleater (and many others) built a three-story house. But it was an endless delight for me, staging people in that actual house. It was a dream-like, super-voyeuristic experience. And the house was lined with video and sound triggers which the actors activated. After that, and in each succeeding project since then, my interest in physical edifices has receded, and what has emerged is the interest in the electronic network and how that too is a kind of architecture. And how staging people can have architectural resonances as well. So what is your theory about architecture?

Nick Kaye: Well, architecture seems somehow to relate to this idea of rhythmic structure. Architecture creates spaces for other things to be in. Architecture can also be spatially multiple and multiple in its use.

Marianne Weems: Yes that’s right – that is a great point.

Uploaded Image

Moe Angelos, the Grandmother, left on forestage and mediated in close up; Tanya Selvaratnam, Jen, the Granddaughter, live centre-stage and mediated to window, left.
Photo by dbox

Nick Kaye: Is an address to presence an explicit part of your thinking in your work with The Builders Association?

Marianne Weems: Yes. So many people have asked me - why don’t you just do film? But clearly it is partly the pleasure of staging the idea of presence - and what is happening to these very strong performers in a very strong media environment, and how their presence is either – as you say – extended in some ways and amplified or compromised or endangered. And the frictions in there are really what to me is the most fascinating thing about presence on the stage. No performer in this project, I think, is ever really fully present in an unmediatized way. There is always some encroachment. And some audience members receive that as being very cold. But there is a kind of virtuosity in the play between image and performers, and the tension and excitement of unfolding this mediatic spectacle live in front of an audience.

There is a kind of a Brechtian moment where you get to see the live performer and then you see the tools that are being used to complete the magnification. For me, the pleasure is in looking at both of those things. The skill that the performers bring to using the technology is quite virtuosic - the way that Joe Silovsky can actually ‘talk’ to Rizwan Mirza on camera even though his live face is two inches from a wall. It’s an added layer of performance that I find very entertaining –actually seeing the tools of the production constantly being used. The real team players, the people who are in this ensemble, understand that they are a part of this larger stage picture and this stage picture is contributing to their performance.

Nick Kaye: I think it tends to heighten the presence of the performers.

Marianne Weems: I have worked with people who have said: ‘Nobody is going looking at me, they are just going to be looking at the screen…

Nick Kaye: That is often the assumption, but I think curiously, also, when, Moe Angelos has her back to you, yet the screen refers to her, it seems to amplify her live presence, or your focus on her live presence.

Marianne Weems: Yes, absolutely. The subtlety of her live presence draws your focus because she’s not jumping up and down saying ‘look at me!’ What distinguishes this work, as you say, is the that the performers are engaged in the whole web of making the show; every thing around them brings them out, brings their “humanness” out in a different way than if they were just on stage alone. It is in dialogue with whole machine that surrounds them - their presence does become more articulated and magnified.


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