Theatre of Communication

Cristina Maldonado’s Blurred Genres

Section

Grant Program

Classification

ArticleEssay

Artist

Cristina Maldonado

Beginning with the title: Cristina Maldonado describes Interruptor as “an interruption in the way that we perceive, and that we relate.” It’s an appropriate name for an installation–performance that plunges individuals into a disorienting virtual environment, upsetting their modes of perception and communication. Yet Interruptor also facilitates a visual conversation between two strangers, aiming to flip a “switch,” explained Maldonado in an interview. “In these 40 minutes … the way that you are with another person is totally different in the way you are in daily life.” The peculiar scenario she sets up precipitates not so much interruption, but rather inspiration and flow.

 

Maldonado performs Interruptor with one “guest” at a time, with whom she never interacts face-to-face. A third person seats the guest at a table covered with tools and props—scraps of paper, scissors, markers, a magnifying glass, among others—and a set of directions, indicating that the materials are to be used in a lighted area at the centre of the workspace. Unseen behind a cloth barrier, Maldonado sits at an identical table, waiting for her guest to initiate the performance. Anything the guest places in the square is filmed and projected into Maldonado’s workspace, and vice versa, creating composite images that give both individuals the sense that they are interacting with one another. A hand in the lighted square signals that the guest is ready to begin, but Maldonado waits for her guest to initiate their visual dialogue. “Improvisation can happen if I am passive,” Maldonado explained. “I wait for the other person to show what they are interested in, and then react to it.”

The interaction between the artist and her rotating collaborators is personal and intimate; there is no audience but the other person. Three or four “cycles” elapse over the course of a performance, Maldonado explains, each typically longer than the last. “There is the beginning of something that starts to develop, and you find the conclusion. And then there is an emptiness, where we don’t know what to do, because something evolved and concluded. So then there is a pausa, and then another cycle starts.”

Interruptor is part of the Stranger Gets a Gift Project, a series of performances Maldonado has developed over the past several years that strives to deliver a service to its audience–participants. In Reminiscencia, the “Stranger” receives a cup of coffee, a haircut, and a souvenir, as well as a disorienting audiovisual experience that obfuscates or erases the lines between reality, memory, and technology. For the project The Stranger’s Message, Maldonado pairs each participant with the mobile phone number of a stranger, encouraging the exchange of anonymous SMS messages over the course of a two-day period. Participants report feeling connected to their “strangers,” and their messages to one another, collected by the artist, range from the banal to the startlingly intimate. Interruptor, like The Stranger’s Message, delivers the “service” of facilitating a feeling of personal connection between individuals who never meet face-to-face. Like Reminiscencia, it employs technology as a means of disorienting the guest and of creating a space in which the isolated senses of sight (Interruptor) and sound (Reminiscencia) alone foster a connection between total strangers.

But Maldonado’s history in theatre and dance, and the inclusion of Interruptor in Vs Interpretation, beg an audience to reconsider the terms under which her work is classified: Is it theatre, if it takes place in a projected image (or on the screen of a mobile phone)? Is it performance, when the performers are their own and only audience? Is it improvisation, any more than a conversation between friends is improvised? Maldonado says that “[the performance is] complete if the person makes something.” But certainly as compelling as what a guest “makes” of forty minutes at the table, or how cleverly he or she manipulates the objects on hand, is the mode the guest discovers or devises for entering into a dialogue with Maldonado and the basis on which that dialogue is sustained. Rather than holding “the mirror up to nature,” Maldonado’s “services” put the elements into place for her guests to hold up their own mirrors, to reveal themselves to themselves, such that their collaborations with Maldonado perform an experiment in the realm of the social sciences as much as an act of poiesis in the theatre.

Of course, these lines are blurred; the distinction, if slight, is meant to address the mode through which individuals find lines of communicating rather than simply the content of their communication. The work in Maldonado’s Stranger Gets a Gift series performs a sort of symbolic anthropology, in which the artist–anthropologist engages her subjects in order to study the way they interact with new materials and with a stranger—participant observation, perhaps, only in reverse. As the only “audience,” the guest likewise performs for him or herself. The symbolic anthropologist Victor Tuner springs to mind:

If man is a sapient animal, a toolmaking animal, a self-making animal, a symbol-using animal, he is, no less, a performing animal, Homo performans, not in the sense, perhaps that a circus animal may be a performing animal, but in the sense that a man is a self-performing animal—his performances are, in a way, reflexive, in performing he reveals himself to himself.

The experience of discovering and performing a new mode of communication in the space of Maldonado’s composite image creates a shared community, or perhaps Victor Turner’s communitas: the shared sense of community emerging out of a state of liminality (a state Turner describes as a “moment in and out of time”). Communitas, Turner explains, acts as an equalizing force upon individuals, who, suspended in the liminal passage of a rite or ritual, “form a relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals.” Maldonado has described the experience of flow that emerges after a few minutes of collaborating with her guest as a series of “beautiful agreements”; she speaks of discovering the “game” between people. “That is something that keeps me in total awe,” she explained, “that you can do that with people you have no information or reference to. And of course,” she adds, “It would be even more surprising if you could do it with someone you know very well.”

But beautiful agreements don’t always flow naturally. William O. Beeman describes performance as “cooked” in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s sense of the word, meaning that culture renders it into intelligible symbols. Performance, Beeman suggests, is communicative; when a performer is inhibited, by his or her own nature or due to outside forces, so, too, do symbols become unintelligible and communication blocked. Beeman teaches his students that performers—on the theatre stage, and in the broader sense—share a set of “universal difficulties” that infringe upon the effectiveness of their performance. These difficulties include

  • pushing, which Beeman describes as the display of effort in representing symbolic materials, distracting others from the message of the performance;
  • losing concentration;
  • underpreparation, which hampers the performer’s ability to present material “in a smooth and spontaneous way”;
  • overpreparation; and
  • miscalculation of context, marked by the performer’s presenting something that bores the audience or that “is so esoteric that they cannot comprehend it.”

Beeman argues that these six pitfalls of performance are the sources of crossed wires in the fields of anthropology and theatre studies (he teaches the same notion of performance in both). The variable character of Interruptor—its cast, of course, revolves from hour to hour—produces variations in communicative flow, from fluidity to stagnation. Having interacted with many different guests in the unusual environment and learned the “tricks” of her technology and props, Maldonado admits that “it can easily become a kind of show” in which the artist dominates the interaction. To resist Beeman’s hazards, Maldonado follows her guests’ lead, reacting to their interests, being careful to engage and contribute where appropriate and to hold back where necessary. “We are on the same level because we are having a conversation,” the artist explains. “Sometimes I do see myself saying, ‘This was totally wrong, I did not see this thing that was so important, I didn’t follow it. Okay, I hope he will be patient with me.’ I also go through these episodes of self-criticism.”

The provocative title of the Vs. Interpretation festival suggests that scripted performance comes in a form that can be translated into the comprehensible, and that performance developed on the spot resists interpretation. Yet the collaborations in Interruptor offer something in between. If performance is indeed “cooked,” as Beeman argues, Maldonado’s movements and use of props must be transformed into something intelligible; they must be reframed in such a way that they become “palatable” as symbols, and the same is true for the performance of the guest. To establish a visual language, Maldonado and her guests must share an understanding of the symbols they employ. To borrow Clifford Geertz’s famous analogy, they must be able to distinguish winks from blinks, blinks from twitches.

Where performance ends and theatre begins is anybody’s guess; if anything, Interruptor is a drama of communication, for which the social sciences have found ample metaphor in theatrical language. But “a dramatistic perspective in the social sciences needs to involve more than pointing out that we all have our entrances and exits, we all play parts, miss cues, and love pretense,” argues Geertz in his essay “Blurred Genres.” Maldonado’s embrace of the table-as-stage, headphones-as-stage, mobile-as-stage suggest the ubiquity of theatrical “play,” or perhaps, conversely, it argues that big-t Theatre simply serves as a useful metaphor for what unfolds on those stages. “At a time when social scientists are chattering about actors, scenes, plots, performances, and personae, and humanists are mumbling about motives, authority, persuasion, exchange, and hierarchy, the line between the two […] seems uncertain indeed,” writes Geertz. Any interpretation—or none at all—will do.