A Visitor's Ramblings and Jottings

Programme note 30 Apr 2003English

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Contextual note
This program text was commissioned by Damaged Goods and written in April 2003 during a studio visit, a few weeks before the première.

Who invited me? I can no longer remember. My memory has let me down on that one. I am simply landed here for a visit to the studio and the creation process of Visitors Only, a few weeks before the première. Probebühne 2 at the Schauspielhaus im Schiffbau, Zürich. A big concrete box, almost a bunker. Technically well-equipped for making plays, but not a hint of daylight. For most of the day work goes on inside these four walls. Several times a day the outer doors open to let in some fresh air. It’s snowing outside.

What can I do to improve my memory? Make A ‘To Do’ List. For example, you may have a number of chores to do around the house but none of them in any particular order. What you can do is get a small pad of paper and write down the things that you have to do. Once you have this list, decide which task to do first, second, third, and so on. This will work if your list doesn't get too long. If the list gets too long, you're going to run into problems. (Traumatic Brain Injury Survival Guide by Dr. Glen Johnson, Clinical Neuropsychologist)

Before I can form a proper picture of the studio I am cajoled along to the workshop where the set is being built. “This is real Swiss design, not a fake. You could live in it. Actually they should have brought a container and installed the whole house inside it, and then put it out to let. This has not been made for one single theatre production.” The upper floor has just been completed and they are already clearing up. One object draws my attention: a chainsaw. That was used for the finishing touches. A chainsaw! Who would not want to have a go at that? Two days later in the canteen I find out I am not the only one who has the wildest fantasies about this machine: the chainsaw is a hot topic there.

Back in the studio I see the whole set, this time in the ‘fake version’: a house with eight rooms on two floors, constructed out of wooden frames with unbleached cotton stretched over them, everything life-sized. I wonder whether there are degrees of fakeness: this may be a fake set, but surely the real one is no less fake? What is more or less fake? An imitation set of an imitation house? Imitation that shows that it is false? It’s true that the actual set is shamelessly illusionist, but apart from its appearance, its durability seems to be no less than that of a real house. Why do we so much like to consider as fake a house that happens to have been built in a theatre? And is there actually an original of it, or is that constructed only in our mind?

Whether you are a homeowner cleaning up a few trees and limbs in the yard, a farmer cutting firewood and keeping the pasture clear, or a firefighter cutting a firebreak for a forest fire, you know how handy a chain saw can be! Chain saws are also great when you are interested in getting up close and personal with gasoline power. If you want to see a basic two-stroke engine in its simplest application, then a chain saw is the best place to start! (How chain saws work, by Marshall Brain, engineer)

So as to get used to my new surroundings and collect some documentation I start mapping out the whole studio space, which produces several pages of lists. They are virtually endless. On the walls there are photos from family albums, advertising magazines and newspapers, and art books. Portraits, models, pop stars, performances, twins, dolls, people from every continent. Domestic scenes, interiors, household altars, graffiti, photo collections. Stacks of books, reference works, articles and internet downloads on the working of the brain, perception and memory. Neurology, cognitive psychology, logic, mysthicism, psychoanalysis, philosophy, occultism, artificial intelligence, religion. Fiction, art criticism and film scripts. Boxes full of video tapes, with films, documentaries, interviews, lectures, recordings of the working process. Inventories, possible scenarios, dramaturgical notes. And, inevitably, lists. Errands, coffee consumption.

I write it all down. Making lists is one of my favourite activities, it never ends. Enumerating things to be dealt with gives one the feeling of having them under control. Whether they thereby actually get done is another matter, for which you start another list. Making plans. Lists of books to be read, lists of books to write. And also individual notes of descriptions, thoughts. Naming, noting, enumerating. That is sufficient, no great ideas or deeds need ever emerge from them. Arrange and rearrange, that’s what it’s about, equivalence of ideas comes into being through juxtaposition. Pop culture, science, trash, art. Every entrance or connection grasps reality in a different way.

The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts. Given the syntax of language, the meaning of a sentence is determined as soon as the meaning of the component words is known. In order that a certain sentence should assert a certain fact there must, however the language may be constructed, be something in common between the structure of the sentence and the structure of the fact. This is perhaps the most fundamental thesis of Mr Wittgenstein's theory. That which has to be in common between the sentence and the fact cannot, he contends, be itself in turn said in language. It can, in his phraseology, only be shown, not said, for whatever we may say will still need to have the same structure. (Bertrand Russell, introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922)

THE WHOLE CONCEPT OF EITHER/OR. Right or wrong, physical or mental, true or false, the whole concept of OR will be deleted from the language and replaced by juxtaposition, by AND. This is done to some extent in any pictorial language where two concepts stand literally side by side. These falsifications inherent in the English and other western alphabetical languages give the reactive mind commands their overwhelming force in these languages. Consider the IS of identity. When I say to be me, to be you, to be myself, to be others – whatever I may be called upon to be or to say that I am – I am not the verbal label ‘myself’. The word BE in the English language contains, as a virus contains, its precoded message of damage, the categorial imperative of permanent condition. To be a body, to be an animal. If you see the relation of a pilot to his ship, you see crippling force of the reactive mind command to be a body. Telling the pilot to be the plane, then who will pilot the plane? (William S. Burroughs, The Electronic Revolution, 1970)

Amongst the numerous photos on the wall of the studio there is a whole series by the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who mutilated abandoned houses with a chainsaw, making big holes in them. Cut-outs, view-holes, entire volumes removed, strange perspectives that turn a house inside out. The house on the stage now seems like a collection of quotations, the big rectangular openings a sort of readymade. An abandoned house in which no private space can any longer be distinguished, an abandoned house whose stories and memories leak out through the holes. Wherever it is located, it is draughty.

Windows are too low, doors are halved, the floor is full of holes, the course of our observations uneven, expectations thwarted. Is this actually still a house? Browsing through literature on the working of the brain, I learned that the concept of the ‘house’ must be stored somewhere in my memory as a set of encoded neural connections. Perception is also trained by an accumulation of experience, whereby superfluous information is systematically forgotten and habits arise that reduce the need for precise observation in order to achieve recognition. Nevertheless, a radically different arrangement of reality, such as a deformed house, requires creativity and neurochemical activity to bring about new connections. It is also fascinating to know that in the brain, memory, false memory, hallucination and fantasy all have a similar structure, and it is only the context in which they appear that enables one to distinguish whether they are true or false.

A ghost is the alleged spirit of a dead person. Ghosts are often depicted as haunting places, especially houses where murders have occured. (…) It is not clear why ghosts would confine themselves to quarters, since with all their alleged powers, they could be anywhere or everywhere at any time. If they really wanted to terrorize the neighbourhood, they could take turns haunting different houses.
There are those cases where otherwise normal people hear strange noises or have visions of dead people or of objects moving with no visible means of locomotion. Hearing strange nioses in the night and letting the imagination run wild are quite natural human traits and not very indicative of diabolical or paranormal activity. Likewise for having visions and hallucinations. These are quite natural, even if unusual and infrequent, in people with normal as well as very active imaginations.
Many people report physical changes in haunted places, especially a feeling of a presence accompanied by temperature drop and hearing unaccountable sounds. They are not imagining things. Most hauntings occur in old buildings, which tend to be drafty. Scientists who have investigated haunted places account for both the temperature changes and the sounds by finding sources of the draftsn such as empty spaces behind walls or currents set in motion by low frequency sound waves produced by such mundane objects as an extraction fan.
(Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptic’s Dictionary, 2002) .

At the moment when someone pushes some stuff aside just before a run-through, I realise that the studio space itself is highly organised. Does a set of regulations apply here? In an attempt to see the hierarchy more clearly, I draw a cross-section of the studio. It is of little significance, and apart from the fixed differences in height, just about everything on each level can be moved. There’s a lot of stuff lying around, all traces of intensive use. After all, everyone involved has appropriated the space and made it into a familiar place. Everyone knows the protocol. Nevertheless, minor transformations take place during every movement from A to B, and the space and the people who move within it define each other. If there are visitors the transformations are a little larger, the joins rearrange themselves, new connections come into being. I sit at a table where there is still a space free. In the days that follow I return there again and again, already a habit, my own domesticity in the studio.

Despite the black line that suggests the boundary of the stage, I begin to doubt whether the house is so ‘fake’, compared to the studio as a ‘real’ space. Anyway, after all these weeks the house is just as familiar as the studio itself, and at lunchtime soup is drunk in the same way on both sides of the line. It makes no difference, the house is well and truly lived in. During the rehearsals themselves the performers regularly pick up information from situations taking place elsewhere in the studio, and it is integrated on the spot by means of improvisation and instant jokes. In the opposite direction, the working process undoubtedly has an influence on reality too – is my behaviour on this side possibly permeated with theatricality?

The air is still here, the air between the objects in the room. But the objects themselves are not there. Sometimes I have to think about the various objects in order: the bed rail, the pillow, the wall, the window, etc. And each time the thing of which I am thinking goes away. An empty space is added to the others, and then everything is there all the same. Sometimes, also, everything is empty. The whole sea that the universe is, is emptied too, and I am afraid. (Eugène Minkowski, Le temps vécu, 1933)

I am interested in the objects we leave behind, the marks and signs of our use; like archeological findings, they reveal so much about us. (Zoe Leonard, visual artist) .

“Hello, we haven’t met yet.” In the corridor I bump into one of the dancers. “It’s good to know you’re here, like a little ghost somewhere in a corner of the studio,” she says. No, I am not imagining things, she has warm hands, mine are cold, I can feel that. A ghost? I lose my thread. How much I would like to see myself as I wander round the room.

The possibility of observing oneself from the point of view of an outsider regularly occurs in dreams, daydreams and recollections. A more spectacular way of leaving one’s own a physical body is the famous OBE or out-of-body-experience. Rituals and other practices which aim for unfamiliar experiences are also often a matter of division, but then into a sort of duplicated consciousness.

In the documentary Les maîtres fous (1955), the anthropologist and film-maker Jean Rouch witnessed a Haouka ceremony. From the nineteen-twenties to fifties, there was a popular West-African sect whose members were mainly miners, building labourers and other urban workers with a rural background. For the ritual they gathered on a remote farm where, in a state of trance, they became possessed by spirits associated with their colonial past, such as the governor-general, the engineer or the doctor’s wife. The roles were apportioned beforehand, and there were witnesses. Foaming at the mouth and with rolling eyes they also ate sacrificial dog’s meat and scorched their bodies as proof of their possession. An altered state of consciousness, an intense and lucid mixture of reality, traumatic reality, paranormality and theatricality.

At seven-thirty he gave us the mushrooms in crystalline form washed down with water and, at eight, began turning out the lights one by one, while we settled down in easy chairs. Soon no sound was heard except the swish-swish of cars passing in an endless stream along the Drive between us and the river: a noise not unlike the sound of waves on the beach. (…)
Since even the half-light had become uncomfortably strong for my eyes, I kept them closed. I knew that the road to Paradise often begins under the sea, or from a lake-bottom; so the greenish water now lapping around me came as no surprise. I entered a marble grotto, passing a pile of massive sunken statuary, and found myself in a high-roofed tunnel lit by brilliantly coloured lamps. The sea lay behind.
This was perfect schizofrenia. My corporeal self reclined in a chair, fully conscious, exchanging occasional confidences with friends: but another ‘I’ had entered the tunnel – perhaps the same tunnel through which, four thousand years before, the epic hero Gilgamesh made his approach to the Babylonian Paradise? (…)
I reached for a notebook and wrote: ‘9 p.m. Visions of…’ but got no further: things were happening too fast. Besides, the pen felt strange in my hand, and its scratch on paper sounded offensively loud.
(Robert Graves, The Poet’s Paradise, 1961)

In the canteen at lunchtime someone from the team asks me what I am eating. Rabbit stew. “Rabbit?” she replies is amazement, “the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, that’s what you are eating.” What a twisted idea. Maybe she would like to follow it, through all those strange passages and chambers in my body? Let alone all those strange passages and chambers in my head? Who knows, they may already be swarming with visitors? Oh come on, just let me eat my lunch.

In another moment down went Alice after it, never considering how in the world she was to get out again. The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well. Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. First she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything: then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves: here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs. (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)