Supplement 4 — grupa o.k.: Stagelessness

Stagelessness (Introduction)
grupa o.k.

Historicizing the stage is a challenging premise, maybe even a quixotic one. It would be easier to compose a history of things that have inhabited stages, like dance, music, or theatre. There are many histories of sleep, but rather few of pillows; in the same way, there are countless histories of opera and drama, but rather few of the platform on which they happen. A stage is a mediating structure and means of appearance; a stage is hardly meant to appear on stage.

Nevertheless, our purpose is to put across, using the means available to us, one version of that history. Those means, we should qualify, include little knowledge or expertise in, say, the history or theory of theatre. We are an art historian and a curator, and art history and exhibition making are what we know best. The images presented here therefore include contemporary art that relates, self-consciously or not, to the history of stages that we have assembled.

We understood early in our process that this history could not take the form of an explanatory piece of prose. That is, we understood that we required a visual medium, one that allowed us the leaps and condensations of montage, a medium through which fragile connections could be tested. We used disciplinary tools we had close to hand: the image archive, the slide table and slideshow, and the exhibition checklist. We assembled a file of JPEGs and began sorting them, printing them out, and spreading them across the floor to find constellations among them.

We built up a sequence of pictures. Some we left as we found. Others we rephotographed, enjoying the generation loss and aesthetic unity that resulted from this transcoding. When we did, we photographed them without cropping out our sorting activity, allowing other pages to peek from beneath the ones we were picturing. Some of these games of image processing resulted in something temporarily more collage-like, which we duly photographed. Several of these are included here as an interval between the two main movements. More appear interspersed within the larger series.

Our sequence is better encountered than explained. A few notes, however, may smooth that meeting. There are seven sections. The sections are not chronological, but even if the timeline is all over the shop, the order of images is nevertheless historical; it describes the stage’s shaping of art and social life as it changes over time.

The first movement (pp. 5–31) begins with a snapshot of a party, a common scene. Two women stand to dance together, to enjoy themselves and each other, and to be seen. Others will soon join them, or maybe the women will sit and some of their friends will take their place. The three sections that make up the first half observe a temporary separation—the dance circle, where individuals claim attention before whirling back into the group pattern—crystallizing into a social convention and an architectural form. The orchestra (from the Greek, orkheisthai + -tra, “the dancing place”) was the centre of the earliest theatrical order. Around the orchestra was placed the auditorium, where sat the audience (with the Latin root audire, “to hear”). And finally, there was the skēnē, a scrim dividing the performance area from the world beyond.

Performances happened in front of the skēnē. In later theatres, this area—called the proskenion—became a raised platform. This was the stage as we know it, and it was defined by two manoeuvres: bounding a territory, and elevating it. This elevated platform, we argue, formalized a separation in the social realm: between spectacle and spectators, orator and audience, performers and those-performed-for, actors and those-acted-upon. This difference hardened into architecture, dividing social classes. Over time, those divisions were guarded with force.

When discussing these ideas one night, we had a hallucination, or dream-image, a stage sprouting a “beard” of spectators who, before they were addressed, were no audience at all, but rather a heterogeneous group that perhaps had little in common. The stage was that commonality. Behind the stage-face would there be a backstage-braincase? Whatever: across these sections, stages breed buildings and people in ever stranger and more massive arrangements. An aerial photograph of a concert looks like a beard of bees.

After the intermission, we enter the second movement (pp. 40–64). We sidle backstage, understanding that any performance requires a semi-private area of preparation and assembly. Those assigned to enter the zone of presentation must exile themselves for a period to return as different, elevated, and other. Elsewhere, the extraordinary presentation machine swings disconcertingly into view.

Next, by contrast, we observe attempts to attack or reverse the order of the stage. The players lift the veil between public and private, reunifying the space, or they transgress the proscenium arch, closing the hiatus between performers and audience. They run wild and naked through the theatre and into the street. Fans breach the football pitch. Killers invade the Bataclan.

History does not sort itself into neat chapters with titles and summaries. The final passage seems necessary to include but is difficult for us to explain, even to each other. We have at different times called it “infinite stage” and “mirror world.” For us, there is no stage without a crowd, and no performance without a backstage arcane. What follows the breakdown of this structure? It will not be the return of some unmediated, pre-theatrical communism of shared performance, which has not disappeared from life in any case. But we are facing a situation where the traditional theatrical zones are bleeding together. The old roles are becoming ever more ambiguous. Call it stagelessness? Or something about catching oneself in a mirror.


Please note that the full text and visual essay are available for purchase via the Supplement 4 webpage.

About the Author

grupa o.k. is the collaborative endeavor of Julian Myers and Joanna Szupinska. Their practice includes editing, curating, writing, and research, with a focus on contemporary art, the history and future of exhibition making, and the forms and complexities of collective organization. The name is a mischievous borrowing from grupa a.r. (artyści rewolucyjni), the Polish avant-garde group founded in 1929 by Władysław Strzemiński, Katarzyna Kobro, and Henryk Stażewski.

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