Performance as retrieving reality

Following article concerns my performances which are a combination of text, sound and image.

I prepared and premiered my first performance in 2003 during my scholarship stay at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California. I named it The Mother of Harlots. It can be said that the main theme of the performance is overlooking the needs of certain minorities by the majority leading to isolation and often to death. The performance itself consisted of the recitation of segregational texts taken from the Old Testament, the Revelation of St. John and my text inspired by the Confessions of St. Augustine, with the use of a sound effect creating the impression of a cathedral and with the use of costumes, theatrical blood and accompanying video projection. In the performance, I used two costumes – one evoking the figure of Moses from the Old Testament, or simply the Old Testament “preacher,” the other one evoking a woman in a red dress from the Revelation of St. John. After the words “now I will make present body and blood” recited in Latin as at Catholic Mass, I tore a white robe that revealed a red dress and covered my face with blood. The performance was complemented by the projection of a video showing a figure in a red dress standing on the shore of the sea with its back to the audience. The performance was a call to reconsider the role of the Church in modern society. It ended with a conciliatory text calling for compassion or rather a greater understanding of people with any differences from the majority.

My goal was to draw the viewer into an environment in which he is intensely confronted with visual perceptions and digitally manipulated sound and thus force him to more intensely perceive the content of the recited texts. The aim was to evoke in the recipient a feeling related to the state of mind of the isolated person. Antonin Artaud, whose ideas have been developed by artists mainly in the USA since the 1950s, has tried to apply a similar principle in his theatrical productions in the 1930s. Of all the artists, I will mention at least the theatrical formation Living Theater, which tried to provoke the visitors of their performances directly to physical action, so the performances often ended with a physical attack on the actors and subsequent arrival of the police. However, it is controversial to derive anything from Artaud, because his theoretical writings should be seen rather as a poetry or a lyrical prose, his ideas lack a precise definition (which, however, does not diminish the quality and meaning of his work).

The Mother of a Harlots changed in the following years, just as my understanding of this medium and my experience with it developed. In 2004, I omitted some passages from the performance, while its content remained unchanged, and together with Dušan Kopčov, I created several musical compositions for it. I presented it in this form at the Elbefest festival in the Zero Space A4 in Bratislava in the same year. When I started working with digital sound myself a little later, the performance underwent several radical changes and I presented its final version at the Intermedia festival in Banská Bystrica in 2009. In this version, I only worked with excerpts from the Revelation of St. John using a real-time sound manipulation device that I controlled myself during the performance.

In parallel with the work on The Mother of Harlots, a Hyaena performance (premiered in 2005) has been developed. While The Mother of Harlots was more of a “theatrical” piece, where I performed to some extent as an actor with an emphasis on stage production (candles on the ground, preaching desk, candles on the table together with blood vessel) and using a more or less minimalist soundtrack in background, Hyaena works much richer with the video and pre-recorded digital sounds, while working with voice is essential. During the performance I try to make full use of my vocal possibilities, change the color of the voice and since some of the lyrics I work with have a special melody, I move on the border of singing. At the same time, I use two microphones, while the voice from one microphone is reproduced with an gentle delay and the voice from the other uses a different type of digital modulation for each composition. For a stronger performance effect, a quadphone sound reproduction system is very important, in which the audience finds itself “trapped” in the middle of a multi-layered sound environment.

As far as the content of the performance is concerned, the topic of isolation is understood much broader here than in the case of The Mother of Harlots. In Hyaena, I no longer act as a preacher, or “punishing hand of the law,” but as a person in isolation. My texts can be seen as a free flow of thoughts of a person who, as a result of long isolation, suffers from ideas of persecution and conspiracy. In addition, the performance contains lyrics by Rainer Maria Rilke (an excerpt from the Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge recited in German) and Henri Michaux (poems Agir, is viens and Contre recited in French). In the background videos I use the alternation of the image on the principle of a strobe, and at the same time I work with the motif of blood as a symbol of life. I often performed Hyena with another performance called Litany, which deals with involuntary death. For the Litany I used texts from the book of the prophet Isaiah and the book of Job, a poem by Francis Jammes and R. M. Rilke.

Latest performance prepared and presented by me is called The Emerald City. The backbone of the performance consists of my own texts, in which I return to the theme of isolation, and which are freely inspired by the work of A. Artaud. These are complemented by short excerpts from dialogues from the well-known book by L. F. Baum, The Wizard of Oz and one dialogue from K. Kesey’s book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In this performance, I go over the boundaries of articulated speech. Words are sometimes deliberately pronounced on the border of intelligibility, and dialogues are often interspersed with unarticulated sounds, giving free rein to emotions (although only pretended). At the same time, a kind of universal language is created, which the viewer is able to understand at the level of his or her own experience. I no longer use pre-recorded sounds in the performance, I work with a device that allows digital voice manipulation in real time and creating samplers that are recorded during the performance and played in loops in several tracks or layers, thus multiplying the feeling of human body presence and suffering.

There is also a difference between previous performances in the use of video. In The Emerald City, I use two video projections – one shows the movement of the Moon in the night sky as a symbol of loneliness, the other includes several shorter videos referring mainly to the body and corporeality. However, the individual videos no longer have an audio track associated with them, as was in the case of Hyaena or the Litany. In addition, videos can be played in a loop, which gives me, as a performer, much more freedom when working with voice and sound processor.

An important part of the performance is also the African-American spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, in which hope for a better future is expressed.

It can be said that what interests me most as an artist and what I try to process in my work are borderline states of mind in which one redefines oneself. Such states may be conditioned by the experience of oneself, torn apart or isolated from the rest of the world, when a minimum of external stimuli enters the mind. My texts are also conceived in this sense. In essence, these are internal monologues and descriptions of visions and fears of possible events. These are supplemented by monologues of rambling characters from the works of L. F. Baum and K. Kesey. My goal is not to tell a story – the viewer does not know who the character is, through whose mouth the performer speaks to him or her or where the character is closed and why – but to evoke the state of mind, to create an “event” of which the viewer becomes an immediate witness.

I am currently preparing another performance, which I am building from the beginning with regard to the possible presence of other performers. I was inspired by the real story of Bobby Griffith, edited by Leeroy Aarons in the novel Prayers for Bobby. The Griffiths are representatives of middle class rural America family which is unable to deal with different sexuality of one of its members, thereby inderectly causing his suicide. At the heart of the story is the relationship between a mother, a devoted Presbyterian, and her “different” adolescent son, who is experiencing isolation in his own family circle. Bobby, who loves his family above all, reconsiders his faith, to which he has been led since his childhood, but at the same time has to confront his family’s inability to accept his difference. This discrepancy eventually inspires him to commit suicide.

My goal is to show the totality of certain systems, to which we are consciously, but more frequently unconsciously subject. In addition to criticism of the passive attitude of the church to address the current social problems, I also attempt to revise the myth of the family, which is often unable to fulfill some of its functions.

Maroš Rovňák, March 2010 (Some passages have been translated by Frances Bathgate)