We’ve been extra busy working on the next phase of Malevolent Creatures, so not much time to write a long post, but here are some photos of rehearsal as we get closer to refining the story of the Selkie. Enjoy and we hope you come see our workshop performance on March 2!
By Nina Budabin McQuown
Over the centuries, naturalists have described the fens as a landscape of extraordinary fertility and disturbing darkness. At once a place “of manifold horrors and fears, and the loneliness of the wide wilderness,” and a place of abundance, “plentifully endowed” (Merchant 169, 166).
Perhaps the most potent symbol of that overlap of horror and abundance is the conger eel, a fish native to the fens, congers can grow massive in proportions, the recent record is 20 feet in length and over 130 pounds after gutting.
Slimy, sharp toothed, and writhing, eels are also delicious. They were a central part of a local economy that depended on the land—including hunting, fowling, and cutting peat for fuel. Eel fishermen used baskets trap to catch them and transport them to markets.
For the fen landscape we’re building for Tiddy Mun, then, eels are an essential part, but in building our eels, we want to be sure that their movement communicated both size and slithering, abundance and slime.
I wanted a puppet that could move like a real eel, and as I planned it, I thought of the toy wooden snakes I’d had as a child. Those snakes are built of a large number of wooden disks connected by a cloth spine. The internet, beneficent in all things, has an excellent tutorial on how to make them from scratch, but I needed our eels to be five to six feet long and five to six inches in diameter, so wood would be far too heavy to use as a material. Instead, I went for lighter cardboard. Instead of flat disks (I tried it, it would’ve taken approximately three hundred of them, individually cut in graduating size, to get the length and shape we needed!), I bent strips of cardboard into thicker rib shapes to build a skeleton. The plan was to connect them with fabric, then cover them with shining black nylon skin. In the end, this method produced an eel-like body shape, but if anything it was too flexible. It would require four hands to operate, and puppeteers might end up obscuring the puppet when all was done!
Amy reminded me of another kind of toy snake:
These wider segments might hold up under the weight of the puppet and still slither, so I cut and bent cardboard into the shape of the segments, then built a frame for the eel’s face, tale and flippers:
For added strength, I used a cornstarch glue and cardboard paper mache to cover the body of the eel:
I painted the eel, then attached each segment with a vertical wire, allowing them to slide individually from left to right. Two glass eyes made the puppet live, and the final product moved like this:
So here I am finally, a proud eel fisherman with my catch (and my cat):
It’s been a year when I look back and many things blur together in my memory. So much happened–in the world, in our city, in our personal lives–that it’s hard to remember specifics. I know we did a lot of work. I remember the stress, the late nights, the many emails back and forth. But sometimes the accomplishments disappear in hindsight, so I think it’s important to think back and list the highlights of the year.
- Minneapolis tour! This adventure from last June was definitely the project that took the most planning, organization and money. It has been a goal of mine to go on tour with Saudade pretty much since I conceived the idea of the show, so this was truly a dream come true.
- Welcoming a new company member! Nina Budabin McQuown has added so much to our team this year. From their research and script-writing on Malevolent Creatures, to their thoughtful blog posts about trash and podcasts here, Nina has brought ideas, energy and enthusiasm to the party, getting us all more excited about our next projects.
- A focus on community! In our conversations as a company after Nina joined us, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to re-focus our time and energy not just on creating our own work, but on engaging and connecting with other artists as well. Pat came up with the idea of the Puppet Lobby as a way of facilitating those connections and along with the Puppet SlamNation organized by Genna Beth, it has been a great way to meet other artists, share ideas and learn more about our craft.
- Page to Stage! This is another milestone I’ve been wanting to hit for awhile. The Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival is a great way for local companies to try out new work in front of an audience. Our problem has always been that most of our work is wordless, and therefore not an easy fit for a staged reading. It was great to be able to share Selkie’s story with a sold-out house in the Israeli Room and get their feedback on the story. With any luck, we’ll be able to build on that experience as we go back to Selkie to prepare for our next workshop in March.
Despite it’s many challenges, 2017 has had good moments. As our politicians focus their energy on tearing down structures of equality and safeguards to the environment, we will focus our energy on serving our community, connecting with other artists and making the best puppet theater we can. If you were able to join us this year, thank you for your support! If you’re just finding out about our work, welcome and we looking forward to sharing puppets with you in 2018. Happy New Year!
By Cecilia Cackley
Our next Puppet Lobby event is scheduled for Monday, November 6 at 7pm. We hope you’ll join us at the Brookland Artspace Lofts for some great conversation and community-building. We are excited to start talking about a subject our company has been interested in from the beginning–stop-motion animation using puppets.
Stop-motion animation has a long history of artists using puppets very effectively from Jan Svankmajer to the Brothers Quay. At the Puppet Lobby we will hear from local artists Hamida Khatri and Noa Heyne about their experiences studying stop-motion at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).
Hamida Khatri works in a variety of mediums — from figurative drawings, to photography, to sculptural puppets, to animation. As well as an artist, she is also a writer, curator, arts educator, community activist, and a creative arts therapist. We were lucky enough to screen her stop-motion short film, Mom & Me as part of our Puppet SlamNation back in September.
Noa Heyne holds an MFA in Sculpture from MICA and has also studied in New York, Italy and Jerusalem. Her work has been exhibited in Baltimore, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and she will have an installation in CulturalDC’s Space4 mobile gallery next year.
In addition to a presentation on stop-motion animation, this Puppet Lobby will also include a conversation between Cecilia Cackley and Nina Budabin McQuown, both Wit’s End Puppets company members, about the challenges of writing plays specifically for puppets. Whether you are a puppeteer yourself or an eager audience member, the Puppet Lobby will give you a chance to ask questions, meet artists and find out more about this infinitely varied art form. See you on November 6th!
By Nina Budabin McQuown
Puppetry and podcasting belong together. Both are having a moment, as the journalists like to say, edging in on the big stage of American media. But if you search for “puppet” in the itunes podcast app, your top hit will probably be a podcast with helpful tips on writing modules in “Puppet,” which is a code you can write modules in. I’m doing that thing where you define a word with the same word like a beekeeper is a person who keeps bees or a puppet coder is a person who codes in Puppet and not a member of our secret sororal order with rings and cowls and handshakes and stuff. Anyway, it’s disappointing unless you’re super excited about software development. Which the ads targeting me on Facebook tell me I should be, but I am not.
I do however, like both puppetry and podcasts. So this week for our Wit’s End blog, I’m rounding up the few puppetry podcasts out there on the digital airwaves. As it turns out, the vast majority of shows with puppet in their name have nothing to do with actual puppets, so I’ve sifted them for you here, and I’ll be leaving out the defunct and disingenuous. Sadly, there’s no longer a Jim Henson Company Podcast, and Pension Plan Puppets is a hockey podcast about the Toronto Maple Leafs and not a puppet show taking place in a zany Nordic retirement community like I thought it would be. Ah well.
Part I: Puppetry Podcasts
The top of the list here is Grant Baciocco’s interview show Under the Puppet. Baciocco has worked with the Jim Henson Company, Sesame Street, and Mystery Science Theater 3000, and his guests display similarly impressive accolades. Produced by Saturday Morning Media, the show sounds good, with clean production values and good editing. The real pleasure here however is in Baciocco’s interview style. He manages to be both intimate and unobtrusive. He encourages puppeteers to get personal about their art, then lets them talk, so the great majority of the show is their stories. Guests also know they’re speaking to a peer audience, since this show is aimed at discussing the “art and business of puppetry” with “working puppeteers.” Guests are often generous—in the most recent interview, with Dan Milano of Greg the Bunny, for example, subjects range from the relationship between character and voice acting to the perils of puppet plastic surgery. Under the Puppet is a relatively young podcast, and it updates about once a month, so you’ll get through all of the episodes thus far fairly quickly. I’ve enjoyed every episode I’ve listened to, so far, and learned a lot about puppets on American television.
Getting Felt Up is another interview podcast featuring professionals in the big time of American puppetry—its hosts Nate Begle and Dan Becker interview puppeteers hailing mainly from Sesame Street and the Jim Henson Company, but also discuss stop motion animation and voice-over acting among other arts. It’s been going a while, with episodes mainly clustered in the Spring, so there are plenty to download. Unfortunately, in episodes I’ve listened to, the podcast tends to live up to its awkward and creepy name. If Under the Puppet is the Terry Gross style interview, with its sonic implications of intense eye-contact across a table, Getting Felt Up has the atmosphere of a morning show, with a bro-y bluster that makes it a tough listen despite the interesting work the guests do. Production values are also uneven—sometimes they’re studio quality, other times it can feel like you’re listening in on a three (or more!) way skype conversation between a bunch of people who are all talking at once and also making dinner at the same time. This is a favorite of Muppet and Sesame Street fans, since it often allows for a behind-the-scenes conversation with builders and puppeteers on these seminal shows. These dudes would definitely giggle because I used the word seminal.
Part II: Puppet Shows on the Radio: Before we even get to the podcasts, let’s admit that the idea of puppets on the radio rocks the very conceptual foundation of puppetry which is object theater is it not? With objects? How do you hear an object? I think it’s an interesting and not all that silly question for puppeteers who’ve spent their careers thinking about the ways that sound and voice give conviction to their object performances. Play on, puppets on the radio.
Lolly Lardpop’s Radio Playdate! I learned about Lolly’s podcast from an interview with creator Leslie Carrara-Rudolph on Getting Felt Up. It’s a podcast for children, and Carrara-Rudolph performs it for live audiences who sound like they’re having an excellent time singing and dancing. Lead by sock-puppet Lolly, this show emphasizes acts that work in both audio and visual forms simultaneously and does it well. Carrara-Rudolph does a lot of great voice acting and her years of experience as Abby Cadabby on Sesame Street definitely show in the strong production values, kid-friendly writing, and far-too-catchy-for-my-own-good songs (the theme music’s been playing on an endless loop in my head for twenty-four hours now). There’s lots of great stuff in these, but there’s also the occasional thing I think I’d want to discuss with my kid if I had one. I’ve only listened to a few of these, but there’s a character named Madam Velveeta, for example, who’s described as a “gypsy” in episode one, and while I’m sure my imaginary child would enjoy all the singing and dancing, I wouldn’t want them to come away thinking that was an alright thing to call somebody, or that Roma people are here to be our scarf-covered-stereotype friends. That’s what Stevie Nicks fans are for.
Radio Free Puppets is a radio variety show built in loving parody on the format of A Prairie Home Companion and performed as part of the Kansas City Fringe Festival. A neat idea, in practice this show feels incomplete. It’s kind of like being seated behind a really, really big pillar at the theater in question. As I mentioned above, I think the idea of a radio puppet show is a cool one, but these seem to be written with their live audience far more in mind. Audio production values are low, and punny conversations that might work if delivered by a physically interesting puppet aren’t enough to hold my attention when they’re all I have to focus on. That said, it’s a cool way to disseminate your show to audiences outside the theater. I’d rather hear more from host and puppeteer Justin Howe about creating his puppets, or hear a production from him designed only for audio.
Finally, in a class by itself is Puppet Hunt. It’s not a puppet show, it’s not exactly about puppetry. Instead, it’s a pastiche on golden-era radio series like Johnny Dollar and Dragnet, led by two detectives solving puppet-crimes in the burg of Large Neck, a town overrun with ventriloquists who frequently meet grisly ends. Like a lot of fictional podcasts here in the early days of the medium, this one has a framing device, where Puppet Hunt is supposed to be real old radio, recovered by a pair of archivists. It’s an enticing conceit, especially since the noir in these episodes is so much more feminist-friendly than 1940s radio generally was, but the sound quality ultimately gives it away. If you’re a Big Broadcast listener on WAMU, you’ll get all the forties radio references, but even if you’re just a connoisseur of stupid jokes about ventriloquists, this one is definitely worth checking out.
That’s it for puppet podcasts according to my searches—there isn’t much. If you know of puppet-focused podcasts that I’ve missed in the list above, definitely tell us about them here! In the meantime, happy listening.
by Nina Budabin McQuown
Fairies aren’t human. That’s been one of the key concepts we’ve kept in mind as Wit’s End Puppets has developed our current show, Malevolent Creatures. For us that’s meant spending some time thinking about what it means to represent non-humans. We’ve made some technical choices—representing adult humans with actors and fairies with puppets, for example. For me as a writer, trying to write non-humans with agency is one of the most interesting and important challenges that we might face as makers of art. We understand humanity as subjectivity, the capacity to say “I am,” and that’s why stories about the consciousness of trees and the memories of prairie dogs so often make people uncomfortable. If another being is understood to have consciousness, to know time, to feel pain, we have certain responsibilities toward it: maybe we shouldn’t be cutting down trees or shooting prairie dogs or boiling lobsters alive. What’s even more disturbing, of course, is that nothing really needs to change just because we understand trees to be conscious. Cognitive dissonance is always there to help us out. Humans are notoriously good at revoking the privileges of subjectivity from even their neighbors of the same species when it suits them to do so.
In European fairy-tales since the nineteenth-century, the question of humanity has been ditched entirely in favor of a display of morality, but that’s partly because these stories aren’t really about fairies at all. They’re about people, so they have good fairies and bad fairies. There’s Sleeping Beauty’s wicked fairy queen, and Cinderella’s good fairy godmother. These characters are “good” or “bad” according to human moral systems—do they encourage vanity or sex in young women, or do they reward the values of hard work and humility?
We tend to tell stories about the environment, too, as if they were stories about people: Owls versus loggers, pipelines and banks against native communities, cattle ranchers versus national parks. Human stories have good guys and bad guys, moral stakes and happy or unhappy endings that are based on human social structures and norms and timescales. Growing up on Captain Planet in the nineties (it played on Sunday mornings, when little Jewish kids like me got to watch cartoons), I was raised with that view of environmentalism. There were the bad guys who like to loot and plunder, and the “you” that the show referred to constantly, an us who held the power to save the world by stopping pollution. The world we were supposed to save was “ours,” just like the power to save it—and the environment that Captain Planet described was ours too, a common resource for human beings whose lives and health were negatively affected by pollution. To put it another way, Captain Planet told a story of environmental advocacy based in human rights. Because humans need the land (for water, for shelter, for energy resources, for enjoyment, for food production), it’s their rights we’re defending in conservation efforts. That’s also often the way that we describe conservation in law. Take Juliana v. U.S., a law suit currently being brought by young people to challenge the USA’s inaction on climate change. They’ve based their case on the constitutionally guaranteed right to life, liberty, and property. That means that to make a legal case, they have to bring the radically planet-altering changes of global warming—the sixth extinction, rising sea levels, dead oceans—down to an impediment in the way of a group of individuals’ happy human lives.
As we at Wit’s End now try to tell a story about environmental destruction for the sake of resource extraction, we find ourselves dealing with a story that challenges all of those features—that centers the inhuman in an even more prominent way than the stories of Black Annis or Selkie do. The third part of Malevolent Creatures focuses on Tiddy Mun, a figure from the folklore of the Lancashire and Cambridgeshire fens who represents the whole murky, flooded, malarial, fecund aviary of the fen ecosystem as it was before largescale drainage projects destroyed it starting in the seventeenth-century.
Yet though he’s certainly a defender of the earth, Tiddy Mun is hardly a champion of human rights. Instead of saving “our” world, he’s out to protect his own, and that means he’s ambivalent towards the humans who inhabit that world and are part of it. It’s Tiddy Mun who brings the floods that destroy houses and crops and lead to outbreaks of malaria, it’s also Tiddy Mun who listens when the people beg for those floods to end and Tiddy Mun who abates them. In the story that’s most often told about Tiddy Mun, he fights back against the destruction of the ecosystem he embodies by destroying the drainage equipment of the engineers who’ve come to drain the fens, killing the engineers themselves, and flooding everything until the common people appease his wrath.
The story of that drainage, which is a real historical event in seventeenth-century England, is a complex one. In it, the clarity of right and wrong—at least from the point of view of human beings—can be as murky as bog water. On the one hand, the drainage was a clear case of the wealthy and powerful destroying an ecosystem for their own financial gain. King Charles I wanted the fens drained to produce valuable farmland so that he could circumvent the financial control of a hostile Parliament, and local landowners just wanted to cash in. On the other hand, common people in the fens were not necessarily as mad about the fens’ destruction as they were about being cut out of their share of the profits and displaced by foreigners. Before the land was dried out, malaria was an enormous problem in the fens. The common people who lived there and made their living from fishing and fowling were displaced, but on the other hand, the Dutch engineers who performed the drainage were primarily refugees. As Huguenot protestants living in France and the lowlands, they had been persecuted with massacre and expulsion, and they found a sanctuary and a new life in the fens. The several sides to this story are reflected in its histories. In some of them, the fenmen are the heroes, fighting a losing battle against all the most powerful forces of their society. In others, Dutch refugees heroically persist in their drainage project in spite of the anti-progress and anti-foreign violence of the locals.
So from the human perspective, the story of the fen drainage is as complex at least as a modern day tale of gentrification or disaster capitalism. From Tiddy Mun’s perspective though, it’s something else. As the story is told (in dialect, unfortunately) in an 1891 article for the journal Folklore, Tiddy Mun’s rage is against all humans, at least for a time. As the fens dry out, he begins by kidnapping Dutch engineers, but when more engineers come to replace them, he starts to persecute the locals as well. Fevers spread, harvests and livestock die, and so do babies. The people perform a ritual of appeasement to Tiddy Mun, pouring out bowls of water and asking for his forgiveness. It’s interesting to me that the ritual is meant to show Tiddy Mun that “Car-folk wished un well, an’ that a’d give un tha watter back if tha only could.” They’re aware that the water they pour out is just symbolic. They can’t turn the fens back into swamps. They can’t save that ecosystem or the spirits that inhabit it: “that poor au’d Boggarts an’ Jack o’ Lanterns wor clean delved away.” It’s almost a mourning ritual, both for the dead children lost to fever, and for Tiddy Mun himself. The story teller in this article agrees that Tiddy Mun is gone by the time of her telling: “Tiddy Mun’s bin frighted away wi’ tha new ways an’ gear.”
That nothing is “saved” in Tiddy Mun’s story is part of what makes it so interesting to the company as we work on the third part of Malevolent Creatures. In recent studies of the rhetoric of environmentalist and “green” writing, critics have called out the way that nature is often treated as an object of human agency, something outside of human subjects that we act on to save or destroy. This idea of nature as “outside” is, as Timothy Morton has put it, “a fantasy.” We’re just as much a part of “the environment” when we’re sitting in our bedrooms at home or riding in climate-controlled airplane cabins as when we’re perched on top of a mountain, looking out at the clouds below. When it comes to the world we exist in, there is no below. We can’t really save or destroy “our” world, but with radical changes to the ways that we understand what it means to be human, people might be able to start participating in a world that belongs to everything in it. Tiddy Mun’s is an important story in part because it’s a story not of saving the environment, but of human entanglement with the processes of an ecosystem. It’s a story with no good guys and no bad guys, one that can, perhaps, represent the being and agency of inhuman things, the way that we understand some of what the land says to us not because it speaks in our language, but because it’s what we are.
This post was written by Nina Budabin McQuown and was originally posted on their blog Yes We Have No.
On the Bread and Puppet tour bus this spring, my young company-mate and I made up a song about our experience traveling. It started with woe over the aching back and stunted dreams of the traveling puppeteer, then abruptly switched styles: "Just kidding! My back doesn’t hurt at all, / we’re going to the mall, / and we’re gonna eat their trasht; The line refers with jubilation to dumpster diving in upstate New York, an enterprise that netted us, after alchemical transformation, an enormous pot of butternut squash soup and a pan of bread pudding.
It could, however, as easily be a reference to puppetry in general. Puppets, at least the kind I find myself most often behind, under, and within, are made of trash. My own car is filled with broomsticks, bits of stiff wire, and other likely materials. At Bread and Puppet, the foundational political puppetry theater of 1960s New York City and twenty-first century Vermont where I apprenticed last summer, the workshop is lined with boxes of reclaimed wire, bike tires, rope ends, bottle caps, scrap wood and, of course, all-important cardboard. Most of the puppets at Bread and Puppet are made of this most versatile material soaked, separated, and layered with cornstarch glue onto clay forms covered with more recycled plastic. They’re finished with paint much of which has, notoriously, gone bad, its oils rancid enough to smell sort of like raw beef but still good for making faces and bodies, buildings and landscapes of abstract capitalist destruction and transgressive revolutionary joy.
We were performing Faust 3, a show written by Peter Schumann and developed by his vast, amorphous company over the course of 2016 and 2017. Its series of scenes take up motifs of light, the movements of refugees in crisis, the surveillance state, the strange emotional relationships we as observers have to international crises, the idea of vacation and play as banal or revolutionary responses to capital’s exploitation of workers, and other stuff. In the show I was a door, a refugee, a two-dimensional horse, a snob, a gargoyle, a proletarian hand puppet, two gods, and a lower-middle- class un-employee.
I especially liked being a gargoyle. It’s pure rough kinetic pleasure. In Faust 3, the gargoyles are figures for state surveillance and law enforcement. On stage, I shielded my body with the giant cardboard face and comparatively little naked cardboard body of a big-eared, bright-eyed, lump-featured fellow, jumping, screaming, and body checking at full-speed the gargoyle trainer, who informs the audience that gargoyles are “excellent fearmongers,” ideal for instilling in the populace “manageable, custom-tailored satisfaction” during times of unrest. At the end of the scene we drop our faces on the stage for later. Painted side down, the gargoyles become a pile of trash: sticks, staples and wires, leprous layers of cardboard torn and patched and re-patched every afternoon with cracked grey pools of wood glue and staples that glint like piercings at the
corners of their torn mouths in the lights.
As trash, even when they’re piled center stage, the audience doesn’t see them anymore. Most of the time it seemed to genuinely surprise the crowd when we lifted and flipped the faces and became gargoyles again, hooting and jumping behind the gathered masses and terrorizing everyone off the stage.
The difference between a puppet and a pile of trash is movement and sound. As you create that movement and sound day to day, learning the subtle difference between demure gliding and sluglike trailing, or real horse and mechanical horse in your muscles if not in your mind, you get deeply familiar with your puppets—the angle at which you must hold the head so that the eyes are looking at something, the weight distribution of this gargoyle, the place not to put your hand on that one if you want to avoid arm-slicing wires, the heft and sightlines. In the show, for example, the blue mama was an enormous and regal or sometimes ragged and silly six-person puppet who carried us all offstage repeatedly in her healing arms. For the blue mama, the difference between a tower of rags that set the audience giggling and the compassionate world mother who made people cry was all about wing span and movement.
Then sometimes the difference between trash and art is lighting and space. I saw a lot of
transformed trash on our tour of the east, which was also incidentally a tour of east coast college art-school student shows. A barrel of bottles and electronics glued together with spray-foam in Maine, for example, reminded me of WEE Man, the giant tech creature at the Eden Project in Cornwall. It had a similar understory about the abundance of trash we produce, its plastic barrel spilling up bottles and foam, the art transforming the valence, but not the sheer material there-ness of the trash.
But trash art also creates a striking awareness that when we’re talking metal and especially plastic, this iteration of objects doesn’t stop the cycle. What will this student do with their art when the exhibition is over? Keep it in storage for a while? Decide it’s too huge and chuck it? Chip off the detritus and spray foam and turn it back into a rain barrel? What happens to the WEE man when Cornwall is under water? Art doesn’t suddenly create a final and coherent meaning out of an assemblage of trash. It’s a rephrasing. Trash art gives trash identity, but like a body made of immortal molecules, the art will eventually break apart. The bottles and rain barrels and computer monitor cases that make it up keep circulating forever, making new assemblages that may have to be interpretable—as shelter, as tool, maybe again as art, by other eyes after the human ones are gone.
Of course, there’s nothing new about art as an inadequate tool for self-preservation. The
relationship between art and immortality is one of those great themes. Shakespeare’s sonnets are all about it, following an artist’s effort to preserve in language the beauty and selfhood of a love-object who is ultimately completely eclipsed by the artist and his art. “The young man” as he’s often known in scholarly essays, ends up going down in history as an object without a name.
Shakespeare’s sonnets undo the self at the center of the idea of immortality—they’re concerned with what it means to represent a self in the first place, let alone preserve it forever: “Thou in this shalt find thy monument” he insists in 107, right after admitting in 106 that the artist has already failed to preserve the object’s beauty: “these present days, / Had eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise” At least Shakespeare lived in a moment when there was probably some chance of a human future. Even allowing for the apocalypse (always popular), there was still supposed to be some universal interpreter, a God that sees us and preserves us in his eye/I. Art right now is grappling with an end of interpretation altogether. What’s the point if there is no posterity at all? In that context, the stakes for making work out garbage that will ultimately just turn back
into garbage seem higher. A barrel of bottles and tech things and foam feels like an exercise in pointlessness. Just circulating stuff. Like breathing.
In her most recent performance art piece, “The Ship is Sinking” Emma Sulkowicz asks a
basically identical question inspired by Berthold Brecht, and maybe also by the great twentieth-century film Titanic: What’s the point of art if it’s hanging on the walls of a sinking ship?
Our world is the ship of course, sinking under the weight of people, carbon, plastic, capitalism, fascism. In her performance, she combines the imagery of the ship’s female figurehead with the practice of BDSM. And if you watch the video, you see that as much as it’s concerned with a coming apocalypse, it’s also about a more immediate kind of endurance: what it means to the body to be a figurehead and representative for women in art. Sulkowicz’s art (she first became well known for “Mattress Performance,” her performance/demonstration against Columbia’s handling of her rape complaint) is masterful at projecting shame all around it. It makes viewers squirm: “Is she bothering you” asks the dom Master Avery (playing “Mr. Whitney” in the show) of audience members who try to talk to her. They do shameful things—Master Avery’s looking
away when an audience member asks to slap Sulkowicz on the face. She requires bodily
endurance of herself and her audience, who have to figure out what to do with their bodies in the demanding space of the real-world room. So there’s the endurance of the artist’s person and personhood in the real world then there’s the endurance of the artist’s personhood as art, and that brings up the big Brecht question—why bother enduring so much when the ship is sinking and there’s no future to preserve you? “Aw you can’t take it? She can’t take it, she’s had enough. You don’t want to be an artist?” he lets her down.
Performance art exacerbates that question. Time-based and ephemeral, for most of us,
performance art only exists as leftovers—bits of video, stills, online discussions and anecdotes from those who were there in the room as they process their own immediate experience into a narrative they can hold and tell. It’s an art form that’s recirculating as new gatherings of reassembled bits and pieces even as it’s created. The people who were there walk away with some version of it in their minds. The rope and rig come down—a group of people, interestingly including the slapper, untie her body. The rope and rig go—somewhere else, too. Midway through the video, we see Sulkowicz arranging them, her eyes going over them with the confidence and experience of a person who has chosen these pieces to practice with, has been through this with them many times, knows how they work.
At the end of the tour, we unpacked the bus. Everything must go. The show was essentially being retired, the frenetic ever-changeful pace of productions at Bread and Puppet means it will rarely if ever be performed again in spite of all the meaning we’d packed into it. If you saw Faust 3, you are one of the few hundreds of people who ever will, no matter its creator’s storied centrality to modern political performance. No matter the show’s implicit grandiloquent claim to pick up where Goethe left off. Last year as we began the process of performing it, I remember another apprentice telling me that this was Peter’s opus, the work that draws a straight line between Peter Schumann and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe as unsatisfiable makers of light. But like all Bread
and Puppet shows it was written in a couple of weeks, performed for a year, and scattered.
Late the final night of tour we executed our last duties for the theater, helping to vet potential summer apprentices ahead of the deadline for acceptances. Essentially, we were upcycling ourselves, performing one more act towards the theater’s future before the touring company disassembled. In one letter, a potential apprentice delighted me by describing her art, in which she rearranges trash on the streets and then leaves it there. Sometimes it’s recognizably altered into art, sometimes, she said, it still resembles trash. There was a time when I would have considered those methods pretentious. Why make art no one knows is art? I remember, for example, feeling moved to enraged derision in an artist’s retrospective at the Whitney when a tour guide paused to discuss the meaning of a partially inflated balloon affixed to a wall some feet above a vertical line drawn in pencil. That didn’t feel like art to me. You couldn’t even see it if nobody pointed it out.
But now I know that interacting with things enlivens them, and leaves something behind—not a trace, not your name, not immortality, just a new assemblage. The garbage artist who rearranges and then leaves piles of trash is only acting as another anonymous agent. And while we could read her intervention, if we wanted to, as a kind of desperate human ploy to insert our agency everywhere, including into the apparently random distribution of objects on the street, I can also see it as an acknowledgment that human acts aren’t fundamentally different from other kinds of forces. In the long, long game we don’t control the effects of our arrangements any more than wind or water do.
How do we see ourselves as agents? That’s a central concern of protest art. I missed the climate March in April for the tour, but I hear it was a glorious event, especially as far as art, trash, and paper go. Enormous paper mâché puppets, masks, mobile parachute performances, and our now-requisite hordes of witty signs tweeting analogically at the lenses and the heavens. After the march, apparently, marshals went around with bullhorns encouraging people to throw their trash away, but as always, not everyone did. Part of this response, very likely, is that people are not quite ready to see their statements slough their meaning. An attribute of the ephemeral, singular and repetitive nature of protests, which like new cars, depreciate the moment they’re off the lot, is that their participants rarely seem prepared for this moment of abandonment. Hence shoals of
placards and stranded mobile sculptures left speaking out in national mall spaces zoned for more durable monuments expressing more sanctioned sentiments.
And in response to all this matter out of place, like the dark twin of my mother in law (who always, every time, comes in with the “lettuce eat” pun whenever we have salad), right wing news outlets trotted out their perennial response. There were pictures of overflowing garbage cans and signs arrayed on the street. There were articles about how hypocritical leftists want somebody else to come clean up their mess. Indeed, the strategy itself is recycled, from as recently as the raids on the camps at Standing Rock, and as distantly as the first big climate march in New York City in 2014. Back then, Jeff Spross, writing for Thinkprogress.org, took note of the right-wing garbage angle by drawing a parallel between it and right-wing attitudes toward climate change. Spross wrote that,
“This line of reasoning is basically individualist: it says that combating climate change and moving to an ecologically sustainable society requires adding up hundreds of millions of changes in individual habits and values. Under this frame, when the People’s Climate marchers demand policies to combat climate change, they’re seen as demanding more virtuous behavior from their fellow citizens as individuals. Which makes all their trash evidence of their hypocrisy.”
On the contrary, Spross continues, it is the fossil-fuel embedded systems that Americans inhabit that need to change, not so much the individual Americans. Even the least thing-dependent American has a greater carbon footprint than a wealthy European. Not littering can’t change the trajectory of climate change. Switching away from fossil-fueled agriculture and methane producing beef, from dirty engines and fracking as a society, can. This is not something that individual human agency can accomplish, no matter how virtuous the doer, except by insisting on a changed system overall.
That offers a little moral solace in its way, right? We ourselves did not travel particularly light on tour. After the suitcases, sleeping bags, food, books, knitting projects, games, instruments, and set pieces came off the bus, we unpacked the puppets. I had a gargoyle over one arm, the other holding one end of the blue mama’s central pole, with her cloth body and long hair wrapped around it. “She goes up in the loft,” our tour director told us, “you’ll see the place for the gargoyles. The blue mama goes with the other blue mamas. You’ve seen the brown papa, right?”
I hadn’t. Indeed, I’d always thought of her as a single mom, totally directed towards the nurture of frail humans, no time for a mate of her own kind. We carried her huge body as a series of sticks, mâché and rags—two other puppeteers having preceded with her great blue hands. We marched across the muddy springtime paths of the farm and back up through the winding stairs over the dirt-floor theater. There, sure enough, two other puppets in the same style leaned against the rafters. Back in the context of the storage spaces you can see it—a whole wooden rack of gargoyles, a colloquy of mamas and papas. There were some other shows for which these were conceived, their new context in Faust 3 was a reuse, another life. We broke them and put them back together again with salvaged boxes and paper bags from the co-ops and groceries we visited along the way. Some of these puppets have been around for twenty years or more, getting this treatment from generations of puppeteers. They aren’t trash up there, they’re honored configurations, waiting for their next context. Even here, it’s a matter of time. And if you’re imagining a wavering mountain of decomposing cloth and cardboard, clotted together, growing mushrooms, full of rat shit and mouse shit in the wind and rain, I am too, I am too, there’s nothing wrong.