Integration: Thomas Capogreco et. al.
by Stan Mahoney
The pre-show briefing isn’t especially useful. You could make the case that the instructions – unamplified, incidental – serve only to increase a faint anxiety that something has been missed. Is this the queue? Did you hear that last part? What was that URL? Do I need the URL? Do you have your phone? Among the instructions, I hear the phrase “the floor is lava” uttered with some gravity. The URL offers little – a blank screen, rolling through featureless colours. Still, this is the third night. And this isn’t Capogreco’s first rodeo, nor mine. I adopt a knowing air.
We are ushered into the hall in small groups. The Waterside Workers Hall is cavernous, dotted with furniture and various audio visual effects. Figures make their way through the half light. Rolls of decorative sticky tape are arranged in piles on various surfaces. Audience members are using the tape to forge pathways through the “lava” – an instruction I must have missed while cultivating that knowing air in the foyer. Almost everybody is laying down tape. I follow suit.
(Recalling the situation makes it seem like a deliberate parable; heavy-handed, didactic. Are we not born innocent, into a half-lit world of becoming, issued with few if any useful instructions? We cast about for purpose where there is none, find ourselves following vague convention in the absence of certainty. We are compelled to find meaning, but find only absurdity, guess-work, a discursive half-rhyming world of mysteries. Et cetera. What’s curious is that little of the show seemed especially allegorical at the time. At the time, immersed as we were, the ambiguity of it elicited only a mixture of curiosity and confusion. The show seems to yield more in hindsight than during the experience itself. This, too, lends itself to the allegorical. The meaning of a life, if it comes, comes posthumously.)
Coloured plastic balls are arrayed at the far side of the hall – the kind you might see in a ball pit at an amusement park. It’s unclear at first whether they are meant to be touched. At the centre of the hall two lovers (played by Hen Vaughn and Jae-Bowie Down) sit facing each other. The two are improvising a kind of freeform interaction, their movements garbled and exaggerated by dazzling colours and shapes projected directly onto their bodies. They constitute a centrepiece, setting a quasi-erotic tone around which everything seems to revolve. Throughout, costumed in bizarre retro-robo Matea Gluscevic outfits, wander Lauren Abineri, Marcus Kym Louend and Jodie Guidolin. They interact with the lovers, each other and the audience in a mode of exaggerated curiosity. Wide-eyed and seemingly unhinged, Jodie in particular recalls a familiar manic pixie trope, investigating objects and situations in modes that switch between the liquid economy of a dancer and a sort of feline twitchiness. I suppose the main function of these players is one of mischief. They provoke the odd audience member, make sure at least some take advantage of their sandbox freedom. They appear to discover and distribute the coloured balls, rolling them towards those of us still absorbed in the sticky-tape pathfinding, which by this point I’m certain is a kind of teleological red herring.
The balls lack bounce – not much of an alternative to cigarettes, but sufficient. I hand one to Bowie, drop kick another across the hall to get the attention of a friend. She doesn’t notice.
The only other feature is a large screen to the right of the main exit with footage of Guidolin jump-cutting between various emotional states – mirth, terror, ennui, rage. Alone, the work is as jarring as it is arresting; in the broader assemblage of the show it adds to the overall sense of interior confusion. We are inside a skull, blown up to the size of the Waterside Workers Hall, synapses firing in all directions, unsettled, between-thoughts, cycling through choices, attitudes, mental states, manifold ways of being. There is a bar serving drinks, saturated in red light, but otherwise operating normally. People seem comfortable enough to talk to each other, although there is a palpable sense of anxiety – admittedly mild – manifested in quizzical, occasionally mock-knowing looks.
And that’s it. Here we are, immersed, to make of it what we will. Forty minutes, or thereabouts, of wandering around a dimly lit hall, occasionally bumping into the artifice and schema of ‘experimental theatre’ (I ought to stand here and examine this for a moment; I ought to lay down more sticky-tape; I ought to smile politely, indulge this player, who is, after all, a real person doing real work inside a real system of rules), but for the most part we are completely adrift, without narrative nor ostensible purpose.
What strikes me most about the experience is its irresolution. At no point am I certain about how I ought to consume, to interpret, to be. To smile at someone I know, to seize control of the situation, to ignore or bend the implied rules, to find a spot on one of the couches and ‘merely’ observe – the options are myriad, and nauseatingly so. It is this nausea that, I think, makes this work a success. Instead of a mawkishly feel-good object lesson in the value of liberty, we are confronted with a mild sort of frustration; that which Kierkegaard called the ‘dizziness of freedom’.
Nevertheless, we are not beyond interpretation. Both at the time and in retrospect, the relational quality of a work like this makes it hard to escape the didactic. We are trained, maybe by consumer capitalism, maybe by something innate, to look for narrative. There is, after all, no such thing as silence. When the artist offers only ambiguity, we nevertheless attempt to find an ethics therein – what are Capogreco and his troupe “saying” by saying nothing? This dim light, this lack of dialogue, structure, narrative drive – what are the artists trying to prove? This sounds like a reductive “but what does it mean?” type response, but it becomes less trite when we consider the true impossibility of a creative silence. Sontag, in The Aesthetics of Silence:
A genuine emptiness, a pure silence is not feasible — either conceptually or in fact. If only because the artwork exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue.
In art, silence is always gestural. After existentialism, a non-narrative text becomes, for me at least, a synecdoche of the rambling indifference of the cosmos. Occasionally there is a hint of meaning and purpose – an arrangement of coloured balls, a pile of sticky tape, a festival program, a ticket price – but the rhyme and the metre always break down; the meaning becomes garbled, ambiguous. For the existentialist, meaninglessness takes on meaning, if only in as much as we find ourselves obliged to make our own. Sontag again:
Perhaps the quality of the attention one brings to bear on something will be better (less contaminated, less distracted), the less one is offered. Furnished with impoverished art, purged by silence, one might then be able to begin to transcend the frustrating selectivity of attention, with its inevitable distortions of experience. Ideally, one should be able to pay attention to everything.
So in the absence of narrative we resort to phenomenology. We are forced, in a writerly sort of way, to pay attention to the thingness of the furnishings, to the ambiance, to the behaviour of self and other, object and subject. This is de Beauvoir’s brand of intersubjectivity writ large in the language of theatre – a kind of recognition of our shared condition, and the fact that this condition is itself unsharable except through the oblique; the strange and ambiguous. From de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity:
I should like to be the landscape which I am contemplating, I should like this sky, this quiet water to think themselves within me, that it might be I whom they express in flesh and bone, and I remain at a distance. But it is also by this distance that the sky and the water exist before me. My contemplation is an excruciation only because it is also a joy. I can not appropriate the snow field where I slide. It remains foreign, forbidden, but I take delight in this very effort toward an impossible possession. I experience it as a triumph, not as a defeat.
I decide what to make of this – that which is meaningful, significant, worthy of attention; whether to participate or abstain; how to react; how to interpret; how to be, because at the centre of this exercise is a shared sense of freedom, which is to say, a lack of shared meaning. The nauseating freedom with which I am forced to approach the situation is, I’m fairly certain, its essence. Herein lies the potential for a tedious irony, one that circles any work of art that deals overtly with the existential. Didactic, moralistic, bordering on hypocrisy. To teach the dictum that there is nothing to be taught has itself the whiff of a moral lesson. Do we recoil from this lesson? de Beauvoir, again:
Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence.
The wiser option is to take Integration as an opportunity, rare as smoke, to stand outside the seemingly hopeless rambling of our condition and examine it. Very quickly, consciously or otherwise, we catch glimpses of our fellow agents doing the same. Discursiveness becomes recursiveness, especially when it is shared with another. For all its ambiguity and irresolution (Capogreco himself insists the we hold our applause at the ‘end’ of the performance), the experience of Integration is one of delight – ambiguity grants us the opportunity to examine, to recognise ourselves and make what we will of the Other, to pour meaning into the infinite chasm between subject and object. My contemplation is an excruciation only because it is also a joy.