The Expanding Notion Of Scenography And The Swiss Contribution To The 14th Prague Quadrennial
Scenography is generally considered an element of secondary importance in theatre since its main function is to represent the settings for dramatic works. It is not surprising, therefore, that it has long been associated with the depiction of an illusory idealized world within a carefully organized theatrical environment. However, in these last years, scenography has developed the ability to operate not merely as a backdrop or as a by-product of theatre but rather as an element independent of the performance or text.
According to Sodja Lotker and Richard Gough, scenography can have many faces and happen anywhere.
“Everything we do and almost everything [involves] scenic formation–landscape, site, and setting–but also a way of constructing the physical, perceptual, and emotional environment of/for the event”. [i]
The concept of “expanded scenography,” indeed, is used to indicate a new and malleable aesthetic field, a wider hybrid and transdisciplinary practice merging theatre, visual art, architecture, and performance. It means that scenography is now considered an autonomous art form that, operating outside theatre buildings, engages with reality. Its spatial dimension is thought of no longer as a traditional theatre space but rather as a cultural and social one. It is an aesthetic principle that eradicates traditional frames and subverts conventional notions of spectatorship and performance.
The Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space (PQ)–the most eminent international festival of theatre and performance design–best exemplifies the significant shift from traditional notions of scenography to an expanded form. Since its foundation in 1967, the main cultural function of the PQ has been to display the best in scenic design. Especially under the Communist Regime, the PQ represented for the artists an important and vital point of contact and exchange with the rest of the world. However, while its first exhibitions focused mainly on static displays of scale models of theatre set designs, costumes and associated drawings, since 1991 the PQ has shifted its attention towards environmental exhibitions “somewhat reminiscent of the art installation of the 1950s and of the Happenings of the 1960s.” As Arnold Aronson has pointed out, the result has been the creation of “spectator-engulfing mazes and labyrinths, conceptual environments, and evocative and atmospheric surroundings that transformed the spectator in participant.” [ii] In the 1991 edition, for example, the Swiss artist Marianne Mettler presented Dialogue En Route, a project that was part performance art, part site-specific work, and part audience-participation environmental theatre.
National exhibits, thematic exhibitions, architecture, and student work are the main sections of the PQ’s programme. Nevertheless, during the quadrennial, site-specific performances, immersive interventions, and performative installations enliven Prague and its streets.
Under The Tail Of The Horse, the Swiss national contribution, commissioned and presented by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia at the last edition, perfectly exemplifies the event’s heterogeneity and liveliness. The project–curated by Eric Linder, Markus Lüscher, Barbara Zürcher, and Imanuel Schipper–grouped together different events, such as Podolí Wave–part singular audiovisual art installation, part concert by the Swiss bands OY and Sunfast at the Podolí Swimming Complex–and Reception, a photographic exhibition by Iren Stehli and Rishabh Kaul. The centerpiece was Wenceslas Line, by Markus Lüscher and Erik Steinbrecher, a several-hundred-meter construction that temporally altered the space perception, by both unifying and dividing Wenceslas Square. This heterogeneous project amplified the performativity of space; it affected both its aesthetic and socio-political meanings. It showed that “scenographic interventions” in urban and public space can alter the perception of space itself and consequently enable new perspectives and experience.
Because it is a stratification of memories and political and cultural influence, space is not objective and constant but a variable and changeable system. A reflection on this aspect is proposed by Artificial Arcadia: Measured And Adjustable(?) Landscapes, the project that Pro Helvetia has chosen to represent Switzerland at the14th PQ, in 2019. It is the result of collaboration between the art collective Fragmentin (Lausanne)–consisting of Laura Perrenoud, Marc Dubois and David Colombini–and KOSMOS architects, a network of international collaborations bringing together partners based in Basel, Moscow, Bangkok and New York. Their common ground is their fluid approach to their work. Both groups propose unconventional ways of exploring our environment in order to read, between the lines, its unrevealed aspects.
In Fragmentin’s research, for example, the application of technology has no practical purposes. It is rather conceived as a flexible tool to rediscover the unexpected, the random, and the accidental of everyday life. KOSMOS’ projects, instead, often question the role and value of public space in an age when the ubiquitous and virtual space is constantly evolving. Some of their works might be defined as “event space”: as ephemeral architectonic interventions aimed at creating and nurturing a sense of collectiveness–such as EMA (2016), a project that temporary revitalized an ex-industrial territory in the center of Moscow.
Inspired by the natural and artificial aspects of the Swiss landscape, Fragmentin and KOSMOS have conceived Artificial Arcadia: Measured And Adjustable (?) Landscapes as a digital scenography and a protean spatial platform. One of the main elements of the project is, indeed, the audience participation. In other words, the spectator, by interacting with the installation, will contribute to temporary change and alter the shape of the space. Throughout the PQ, the artist Camille Alena, instead, will create a series of different performances whose sources are Swiss “collective phenomenons, popular tales, and urban legends”. Both the audience interaction and Alena’s performative contribution will make Artificial Arcadia: Measured And Adjustable(?) Landscapes a living and fluid organism reflecting the mutability of our natural environments.
According to the malleable concept of expanded scenography, then, space becomes a common denominator that–by twisting, stretching and kneading theatre, performance art, visual art, and architecture– generates the “retheatralization of theatre”, that is to say, the crossing of the limits of the proscenium, and the “theatralization of arts”, namely the sculpture that no longer needs its pedestal, the passing of the threshold of the painting frame, and the “architecture that ceases to be a backdrop, becoming the action itself”.[iii] Now, more than ever, space might be considered an “aesthetic praxis” that, rather than delineating spatial boundaries, allows the viewer to “experience experience”, to become both a physical and an intellectual player, to extend the perception of space itself. [iv] In other words, space has become the yardstick of the passage from medium-specificity into medium multiplicity. [v]
i Sodja Lotker and Richard Gough, “On Scenography: Editorial,” Performance Research 18, no. 3 (2013), p. 3.
ii Arnold Aronson, “The 1991 Prague Quadrennial,” TDR 37, no. 1 (Spring 1993), p. 63.
iii Bernard Tschumi, “Space and Events,” in Architecture and Disjunction (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), p. 143.
iv Rose Lee Goldberg, “Space as Praxis,” Studio International 190, no. 977 (September–October 1975): 130–35.
v Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8 (Spring 1979): 30–44.