Meta-technological, performative, spectacular, schizophrenic, and trans-situational connotations of the puppet-body
Associations with the puppet: mechanical, robotic, animated; the symbiosis between human and marionette; that which wants to be (or come) alive or, better said, to move, the potential for movement without an a priori motor to drive said movement; idolatry; puppet theatre, Barbie and Ken, teddy bear, sex doll, voodoo doll, scarecrow, CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) training manikin, the figure of Jesus on the cross, the sitting Buddha, the mouth in Beckett’s play Not I, mannequin, wax figure, crash test dummy, the android Sophia, robot R2-D2 from the Star Wars films, etc.
The analogue or digital puppet as an object of animation, assembly, a set of parts (not yet organs); as a mechanism, a machine, not as a body (in the sense of something that is, presumably, exclusively organic, sensual, that is non-machine) or, nonetheless, as a body. The puppet as deceit, as something neither 3D nor 2D that easily transitions—or, rather, is constantly in a state of transitioning—into an animated image, into, almost literally, the movement-image, a “decentralised multitude of changeable elements, which affect and react to each other” /G. Deleuze/, all the time retaining its anthropo- or zoomorphic connotation. The simultaneous drives toward decentralisation and corporeality cause a tension, and that tension is what interests us: the puppet that both is and isn’t a puppet, that is more than a technologically animated and artistically functional, aestheticized, zoomorphic object.
More in the sense of more than the generic, more than the physical linking of individual elements—a torso, body, and extremities, to give the cliché, though not necessarily those particular parts—into a sort of functional and purposeful corporeality or corpovirtuality. More, too, than can be ascribed to the “upgrade” that arises from a particular procedure, an artistic/creative process. It is that very upgrade, or rather the act of upgrading—an act of utmost artificiality, yet at the same time entirely subjective, an emotional gesture, a move toward, a step, an investment—that manifests the anima that, let’s imagine, might finally transpose the “unliving” (the puppet as a machine mechanics) into the “living” (the puppet as psychosomatics, as a body).
And yet this transposition only reveals the banal fact that the “unliving” is never (entirely) unliving. The machine mechanics do not imply an absence of life, nor every psychosomatic manifestation its presence—if we were to take this as given, we would affirm our fixation on life and, consequently, our fixation on death. We certainly cannot say that the unliving is merely some potential from which life may spring, because the potential of the unliving is generic (a neutral notion) and the same applies to the potential of the living. In the unliving there is the potential for emergence of life (manifested as movement, pulsation, an exchange of fluxes…); it actually nests life itself if we understand the logic of life’s existence in an infinitesimal sense. In the “unliving” we find the mechanics of its embodiment (the mineral, substance, or “inorganic” fluid as a conglomerate/system of connected atoms and molecular chains, which are constantly in certain motion), which is capable of communicating with its environment because, as a potential reagent, it is able to take part in chemical reactions and physical interactions with other potential reagents and “organic” bodies.
I speak here of the absence of a boundary between unliving and living, or rather of the superfluity of such a distinction. The distinction is discarded; there is no living and unliving, only life as a thing of fluxes /G. Deleuze and F. Guattari/ and impulses /G. Bataille/. The absence of a dividing line does not imply the absence of other demarcations and delimitations in a creation which arise from the necessity of interaction (all derived realities are a product of division, where the “divine” is merely the character of the energy of delimitation /Deleuze and Guattari/ as a manifestation of the artificial in an act of creation).
Demarcation is the basic method for establishing hierarchies (in the relations between subjects, groups, or fields, for the purposes of the governing and administrative systems), but it is also the basic method for every creation: defining spatial co-ordinates, reducing substance, reducing activity, distilling the essence in order to create the conditions for a certain kind of “boiling over”, which arises from the tension between the delimitated “unliving” or “living” embodiments, fields, “mechanical” and so-called biological bodies—or rather, from the over-saturation those bodies produce. Reduction as a directorial method or as part of a staging strategy in theatre is nothing more than a demarcational way of establishing (magnifying, emphasising, distributing) tension, of potentiating the libidinal to the level of the visible, audible, and sensible in general. A well thought-out reduction—of, for instance, a motion—typically increases the strength of the performative.
In the performance No.1 (showed in 2018), Lana Zdravković uses a reduction of motion to translate her hypersexualised figure into the appearance of a model that borders on the aesthetics of a mannequin, while in the Kitch tandem’s performance-action XXX Sale (2001) she literally poses as a mannequin in the display windows of shopping centres. I participated in both performances. In the first, the living flirts with the unliving; in the second, the living is provocatively tied to the unliving. A passer-by, unsure whether she was looking at a performer or a plastic mannequin, and therefore unsure whether Lana was alive or not, even asked (herself), aloud: “Is she alive?” A reduction to that which is typically regarded as unliving does not necessarily have to contextualise some kind of life (as art)—it can also contextualise death (as a part of life). In the concept for the XXX Sale action, the living puppet (the performer) is planned as subject-object, the symbol and executor of a specific act, which contextualises a social phenomenon of necro-character. The action is a commentary on hyperconsumerism in the time of necrocapitalism /S. B. Banerjee/, that is, morbid capitalism, in which the body is a machine for work and shopping, is for sale, is commodified, appraised, measured, inoculated, registered, quantified, enrolled, erased, counted, enumerated (tax number, registration number, ID number, bank account number…), included, excluded, legislated; is literally necrophilised, embalmed, so to speak, in its own hyperfunctionality and its own nothingness, with the symbolic and material obligations and effects of the evaluation prescribed by the system within which it functions.
This apparently living—but not dead—body, this zombie, reinforces the paradigm of freedom as a phantom, a paradigm that can be subverted. A rejection of the delimitation between living and unliving means, in the final instance, a rejection of the zombification of the body of the contemporary human and non-human animal.
The Limitlessness of the Puppet-Body in Trans-situation
Here we speak of the puppet in a broad sense: as an object of manipulation (a marionette, literally or figuratively); as an animated, reactive image (Adrien M & Claire B’s performances, such as XYZT Les paysages abstraits, are good examples); as an animated function of “unliving actor bodies” (the robotic reflectors in Vlado G. Repnik’s Luftballett II creating a dance of light; the robot central actor in Michel Ozeray’s solo performance Ça vous regarde); as a human body in the function of the puppet movement regime. When an actor moves, operates, animates the puppet-object; or when someone internalises and fully realises—not depicts—the mechanics of its movement, which should by no means be understood as merely moving in a “robotic” way, her body is something other than a mere human body. It is neither body-as-puppet nor puppet-as-body, but rather a puppet-body.
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I do not mean expansions or extensions of the body in the cyborg sense—in the sense of extending the living with the unliving, realised with the help of prostheses and implants—or in the sense of a hybrid “living machine” (a product of biotechnology), or even in the sense of the mechanics of puppet, which are supported, driven, and given thought by the human body. Rather, I have in mind a mutual integration of concepts: the body is in the puppet to the same extent that the puppet is (with)in the body. The body is the puppet and (that) puppet is the body, not as a hybrid, but in the sense of rhizomatic decentralisation, which implicates a limitlessness that makes it impossible to ever identify the border or seam between the living and unliving, between artificial (made) and anthropomorphic (born); limitlessness that doesn’t imply even a fluid, changeable sort of border, a border which is absent even at the transition between two (aggregate) states, but rather a seamless limitlessness, limitlessness as such, as the realised apotheosis of being (to be), of existence, which does not arise from the transition between living and unliving but is “freed” from the false dichotomy of those two absolute modes, modes which are, after all, the foundations of biopolitics.
This limitlessness, inherent in the puppet-body, is a quality that counteracts the administrated inhibitions arising from socially mediated (biopolitical) standardisation of bodies. It is this limitlessness that gives puppet-bodies the ability to (co)create trans-situations: situations in which the sensible distributes (in the politically emancipated sense advocated by J. Rancière) not only between living individuals—who are, in the most obvious sense of the word “living”, being so designated by the dominant discourse—but, as I have previously written, simultaneously establishes and distributes between (revived) objects as well, which otherwise serve primarily as carriers or rather instruments for the interpretation of messages. “This kind of distribution could be perceived as bridging the radical discontinuity between potential contentedness and (available) parts of the body.” (Puppet-body (Trans-situation), 2014)
In this way, the puppet-body, insofar as it bridges that radical discontinuity, cannot be an artist; but it is an artist in the sense of a qualitative deviation from the standardised model of artistic working—in the sense of a rejection of art (here meaning an activity within, and adhering to the rules of, the field of art /P. Bourdieu/, which is itself a subsystem of the field of cultural production or cultural industry /T. Adorno/) for the sake of opening possibility of situating a particular (act of) creation.
The puppet-body is necessarily a non-artist. The puppet-body de-identifies within and beyond its own puppet-body. It does not, so to speak, have gender trouble /J. Butler/—it is metagendered—it is this and that, everything and nothing, art as the act and the trash all at once. We cannot reduce the puppet-body to merely a puppet or merely a body; it is both puppet and body, neither puppet nor body.
It is, first of all, an artificial machine—it modifies itself in a radically individual way and only in a radically individual way is it autonomous, only insofar as it (acting as auteur) defines its own autonomy, its expression, but not its own territory. It does not have—in fact cannot have, nor wants to have—its own territory. (It is precisely in this way that its autonomy differs from the autonomy of the activist, who advocates for autonomous zones, even if they be temporary.) It functions only beyond the territorial (demarcated) paradigm; its modification is a changeable constant, its transformations are its own creation (which we might call artistic) and the very artificiality that emerges from those unceasing transformations is what tears it away from the regime of the ordinary (the boring, the predictable, the zombified), without truly transposing it anywhere else but rather articulating within the ordinary the power of the performative and, in so doing, transforming it into the unordinary (a realisation, not a staging, of defamiliarization);
of the performative that can but does not need to be artistic, can have a wide presence, and can speak during a direct action in the context of the politics of emancipation, or during a staging (theatre), a projection (film), or a happening. In this way, the puppet-body with its inherent limitlessness inscribes the performative into space-time like lines of discourse, like experimental acts of its own emancipation, self-empowerment, without fearing collisions with other bodies.
The Radical Actor/Actress—Protagonism—Anima and Pleasure
Being inherently limitless, the puppet-body is a radical actor, an actress who does not act but intends to play what she does not know how to play but wishes to do so. This is not a paradox but rather an experiment par excellence, a play with a flaw – and an actor who knows how to invert that flaw and invest it in the situational performative.
The radical actress is a protagonist who (co)creates a performative where to do so is not allowed, where it is not expected or permitted—a performative in the sense of a strategic decomposition of the pairing between presentation discourse and production context into a situation where it is possible to construct trans-situation, within which the actress may then perform and simultaneously live her own desire in collaboration with those present. To perform and to simultaneously live the performed material in a trans-situation is qualitatively non-art—no longer in the sense of a cut through or an incision into the paradigm of the corrupt art system but in the sense of operating beyond it.
Trans-situation does not rely on interdisciplinariness, which claims to create a new quality of integration through the mere crossing of disciplinary boundaries and not by their abolishment on a conceptual level and a level of desire. Interdisciplinariness—which has, incidentally, been canonised as just another scientific and artistic discipline—maintains boundaries and promotes their crossing, promotes connections across obstacles without really interacting with them in a political sense, all while essentially maintaining disciplinary purity. Trans-situation, on the other hand, is non-disciplinary and demands radicalness of expression of desiring machines that have dis-identification inscribed on their skin. Function-contexts, rather than roles, are relevant here. Such desiring machines are radical actors. As performers, they interact in ways that are always essentially experimental.
The auteur-anima-autonomy triangle of axiomatic contexts provides the basis for the protagonism of the puppet-body. The auteur as appearance and activity with an attitude about reality but transforming that reality into madness, or rather revealing madness as its reverse; the auteur who invents and materialises points of departure that might encourage the distribution of sensible among those present in the space-time of the happening. If anything can be said to be art, it is precisely the invention and realisation of these points. In this space, the potential of the performatives is revealed and manifested as a kind of anima. That potential can arise from various processes—from the exceedingly technologically oriented animation of images, ambients, and objects, to the entertainment dance and its trash variation—which are part of the strategy of performing, staging, and filming. Here, anima is another name for a potentiated sensible that has many faces but is the matter of every individual creation, be it on the part of the auteur or of all those present and engaged, a creation that is radically autonomous: that is, based on decisions that arise from the desire for dis-identification. Therefore every protagonism always and necessarily arises from the abandonment of phantom identities or, better said, is that abandonment.
At first glance, the aspiration of the puppet-body towards protagonism is paradoxical (here we limit ourselves to artistic creation), because the realisation of protagonism is in its essence readymade—an articulation of its own existing potential for dis-identification. Here, in fact, we encounter the need for reduction (as a creative method)—a reduction that can never end, its conclusion being projected into that readymade, that is, into the essence of the protagonist’s dis-identifying. All clutter is hereby discarded, all props, production protocols, technologies—here we speak of the meta-technological.
The puppet-body ultimately “performs” in and for itself: it animates itself, so to speak, in its own anima. It is the very awareness of this moment that makes it effective as an (artistic) endeavour in the “real” world, in which it is mostly impossible to entirely avoid the aforementioned clutter. In that world it is necessary to overcome the diktat of animation as a function of the economy of spectacle and attain the possibility (open up a space) of animation in trans-situation—not by exempting ourselves from the paradigm of spectacle but by harnessing it in favour of the economy of desire, which wants to be performed as (or inverted into) pleasure; which wants to be manifested as pleasure.
The Idol We Want to Have
If we have internalised the paradigm of the puppet in a biopolitical /M. Foucault/ sense (surveillance, clinical, and apparatus-like dimensions in combination with a cyborg aesthetics and economy) the question becomes how we should treat it. It’s not so much a question of how we might react to potentially obligatory subdermal chips (with, say, integrated GPS and other networked sensors), how we might modify our bodies in a prosthetic sense (beauty and therapeutic implants and surgeries), or how we might accept or reject increasingly automated modes of surveillance and the spread of artificial intelligence. Rather, it’s about placing the concept of the puppet-body within the circumstances given by the system, the system in the sense of the empire /M. Hardt and A. Negri/ and also in the context of rhizomatic /Deleuze and Guattari/ structures of socialisation, resistance, and production. The answer to these dichotomies may arise from the distinct schizophrenic aspect of the puppet-body.
It’s not distinguishing between idol worship (again, in the broadest sense of puppet: from superstar who look like Barbie to the latest ultrapopular toy) on the one hand and the use of puppet as idol (as, say, in a theatre performance) on the other; rather, both have connotations of spectacle. Spectacle as a tempting promise of schizophrenia as an escape or exit from the system, an escape or exit that never truly manifests—and (within the spectacle) the schizophrenic puppet-body, which manifests (its own) schizophrenia; which believes in idols of its own volition and is its own idol; which can also be self-destructive (association: voodoo doll); which can animate itself in its own anima and take pleasure in its own idol. Pleasure is the thin line that separates it from mere egocentrism, and it is pleasure that truly enables the realisation of that escape, or diversion, or passage into art(ificiality). The seed of that passage is always internal. It arises from the decision to be “positively schizophrenic” /J. Rancière/, but it can also manifest externally as what I am calling art.
We are, ourselves, the idol we want to have. That idol, that puppet-body, is a body without organs first in the Artaudian sense of having done with the judgement of god (“When you will have made him a body without organs, then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions and restored him to his true freedom.”—A. Artaud), then in the condensed Deleuzian and Guattarian sense, of which, in this instance, the most important connotations are those of anti-production and of the body without an image.
We have, therefore, a potential radical actor who is key to some other spectacle, a meta-spectacle—within which operate meta-images of the body without an image—which demands an awareness of the difference and connection between function and context /W. F. Haug/ and of the paradox of the spectator /J. Rancière/. We have the possibility of some other or, better said, limitless animating of function and situating of context.
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Subhabrata B. Banerjee. Live and let Die: Colonial Sovereignities and the Death Worlds of Necrocapitralism. Borderland e-journal, 5, 1, 2006.
Georges Bataille. L’Érotisme. Éditions de Minuit, 1957.
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Judith Butler. Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death. Columbia University Press, 2002.
Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 2006.
Gilles Deleuze. L’Image-mouvement. Éditions de Minuit, 1983.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Capitalisme et schizophrénie: L’Anti-Œdipe. Éditions de Minuit, 1973.
Michel Foucault. Rojstvo biopolitike / The Birth of Biopolitics. Krtina, 2015.
Wolfgang Fritz Haug. Kritika robne estetike / Critique of Commodity Aesthetics. Istraživačko-izdavački centar SSO Srbije, 1981.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Empire. Harvard University Press, 2000.
Nenad Jelesijević. Puppet-body (Trans-situation): International puppet festival Lutke 2014. Maska, 31, 179/180, 2016, 146–153, and Lutka, 59, 2016 (joint release).
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Hard copy of the article is available in Lutka (Nr. 60 (2019), pp. 72–76), a journal published by Ljubljana Puppet Theatre.