I guest lectured at Fanshawe College this morning. In presentations in classroom settings, I have recently found myself opting for the whiteboard and marker over the projector and slidedeck. I have an untested, anecdotally-based hypothesis that people are getting tired of looking at screens all the time. Maybe we are unconsciously intrigued (and reengaged) when someone starts doodling, scrawling something imperfect in real time? I wonder if there is a tipping point where the ‘non-digital’ becomes a ‘special, attention-grabbing feature’ in education and communication?
Put a group of people in a room. Give them a whiteboard, pens, and markers. Ask them to develop an idea.
Put the same group of people in another room. Give them pipe cleaners, Play-Doh, a stage, a guitar, and LEGO. Ask them to develop an idea.
How different will the ideas be that emerge from the two different rooms? Do these rooms represent a shift from semantics to somatics? Does each room favour a different ontology above the other? Are we culturally enslaved to a kind of linguistic-bound epistemology at the expense of other ways of knowing?
I know many people who are more than happy to play with bristol board and post-it notes who, when invited into the other room, tend to flee in terror. This observation isn’t a value judgment about them as people. It is interesting to me how culturally conditioned we are to ‘think out loud’ with pen and paper, but not so much with just about everything else. Our culture is so deeply embedded in written language that we seem to equate ‘meaningful thinking’ to ‘letters on a page.’
At a panel discussion at The Grand Theatre on Thursday, playwright Trina Davies said that the distinctive difference between theatre and film is that the experience of a live performance is co-created with the audience. At the movies, the actors don’t know you are there. There is no relationship whatsoever. In theatre, the experience is produced together. A production without an audience does not ‘produce’ an analogue experience to what happens in an auditorium full of humans.
Davies described the difficulty of writing Shatter, a play set in the aftermath of the Halifax explosion of 1917 — the largest human-produced explosion before Hiroshima that killed 2,000 people. How can you reproduce the sense of a blast of this magnitude on a stage? You can’t do it physically. It defies even the biggest special effects budget (unless, I suppose, you have an extra half-mile radius of city blocks to incinerate at each show). The ‘experience’ of what the explosion looked, felt, and sounded like could only be recreated through the words and actions of her characters. The audience could only ‘feel’ the size and devastation of the disaster in their minds, not their eyes.
With CGI, of course, you could visualize a 2.9 kiloton explosion convincingly. (But it’s only one vision, and it probably belongs to the executive producer.) The profundity of live theatre lies in this act of joint imaginative production — a kind of collective make-believe. We’re not convinced of the explosion by the clever arrangement of pixels on a screen — or because we somehow forgot about the curtains — but because we empathize with characters in a narrative. This participatory group empathy session yields something that is more ‘real’ than even the most convincing special effects on a one-dimensional screen. This is why live theatre can never be supplanted by Netflix.
Dennis Garnhum — who I recently interviewed about the connection between theatre and civics — was also on the panel. He observed that producer Cameron Mackintosh’s visions for plays like Cats (1981) and Les Misérables (1985) mark the beginning of a trend towards evermore elaborate staging expectations. But with the demand for greater effects comes the demand for bigger budgets, which subsequently drives the cost of experiencing theatre into a distinctive and exclusive socioeconomic class of its own. (One of Garnhum’s initiatives is recalibrating the cost and accessibility of live theatre for high school students.)
Listening to the panel, a few things ‘clicked’ for me. I have always loved the ‘flesh and blood’ dimension of theatre. In an entertainment landscape dominated by prefabricated, play-on-demand experience, a live stage is a place of attention tuning: at this time, in this place, we will ‘story’ with one another. Here the actor is a human, without digital enhancement. What I wasn’t able to articulate before was the co-creative dimension of the experience. In a way, going to the theatre is like reading a book: the explosion is only ‘real’ to the extent it exists in the imagination of the reader. But in the imagination, the explosion goes far beyond the mere words on the page. So too in theatre: the experience of the explosion goes far beyond the raw mechanics of the set design, costumes, and script. I am beginning to think of live theatre as a kind of ‘mass reading’ of a text — it is like having a book read to you along with an auditorium full of people imagining and feeling the scene together.
Eventually, we might get tired of watching pretend explosions on three-story screens. We might discover that being in the same physical room as imperfect, dynamic, adaptive storytellers makes for a richer experience than watching the carbon copy reruns of the ‘perfect takes’ spliced together.
Imagining the explosion is more impactful than seeing it.
According to the quote meme on the internet, the musician John Butler once said, “Art changes people and people change the world.” It also seems evident that events in the world inspires the art that people create. This reciprocal nature of society and human expression has mesmerized artists, researchers, activists, historians, and ethnographers for a long time.
So, let’s talk about art and society. How are artists of all kinds describing the world right now? How are art-based strategies helping researchers better understand the experiences of individuals and groups? How does the present shape art, and how does art shape the future?
Eugenia Canas (@EugeniaCanas) co-coordinates the Centre for Research on Health Equity and Social Inclusion (CRHESI). She is a Health Information Science PhD Candidate, where she uses critical, participatory and art-based research approaches to understand issues of epistemic justice in the engagement of vulnerable populations. Eugenia holds clinical experience as an art therapist in child/adolescent oncology, working in hospital and community settings. She is a Doctoral Fellow with the ACCESS Open Minds Network at the Douglas Institute of Mental Health. She serves as mentor and facilitator in local and national research and knowledge translation initiatives, including the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s SPARK Program, the Wisdom to Action Network, and the Collaborative RESearch Team to study psychosocial issues in Bipolar Disorder (CREST.BD) .
Tom Cull (@waltercull) is the current Poet Laureate for the City of London. He grew up in Huron County alongside the Menesetung (Maitland) River. He teaches creative writing and American Studies at the University of Western Ontario, and runs Thames River Rally, a grassroots environmental group he cofounded with his partner Miriam Love. Tom has also served on the boards of the Urban League, Poetry London, and WordsFest. His chapbook, What the Badger Said, was published in 2013 by Baseline Press and his first full length collection of poems, entitled Bad Animals, is forthcoming from Insomniac Press (Spring, 2018). His writing has appeared in journals, anthologies, and he is the co-publisher of WordsFest Zine, an “instant” zine of occasional poetry celebrating London’s literary festival, Words.
Holly Painter (@HollyPoetry) is a spoken word artist, public speaker, and certified teacher. She is passionate about sharing her stories, inspiring audiences, and advocating for important causes through poetry. Holly has spoken to over fifty thousand youth in school and community settings and performed on stages across the country. She is the National Director of Spoken Word Canada, Director of London Poetry Slam, and a former Artist in Residence with Thames Valley District School Boad and London Arts Council.
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp went to a store and bought a porcelain urinal. He signed it, “R.Mutt”, and poetically titled his creation the Fountain. Then Duchamp submitted the urinal to an art exhibition held by Society of Independent Artists, who, backtracking on their own policy of inclusion, flatly rejected the piece. Clearly, a readymade urinal is not artistic artifact, they insisted.
In 2014, acting on an idea by Chuck Wendig, a Twitter user named @phronk published an ebook on Amazon that simply contained the word “fart” repeated 100,000 times. It was titled, Baboon Fart Story. Despite promising initial sales, Amazon removed the product.
Duchamp’s Fountain is considered by many to be a masterpiece of avant-garde art. What will be the impact of Baboon Fart Story?
Potty art seems to be a timeless way to rile up the gatekeepers of creative society. And, perhaps, what makes toilet humour art is the very fact that it is rejected. Would we know about Fountain if it had been accepted in the 1917 art exhibition? Would we be talking about Baboon Fart Story right now if it hadn’t been rejected by Amazon? This is the mystery that makes it worth discussing.