Ayusaya Puppet Theatre Lab participates in Selfie Automaton project, the Romanian contribution to the 15th Mostra Internazionale di Architettura (Venice, May-November 2016). 45 wood carved puppets in 6 automata - compositions in which the visitor takes the place of the driving force in a conversation with them.
(φωτογραφίες από τη διαδικασία παραγωγής -production Photos)
Κείμενο του Σ. Μαρκόπουλου για τον κατάλογο της έκθεσης
Article by S. Markopoulos for the Catalogue of the exhibition
Mech-anima: Machines laughing at the human race
(Notes on the comic relation between puppets and humans)
The millions of things that surround us, objects which are generally perceived as inanimate, under certain circumstances come "alive” and we treat them as such, developing a relation with them. What is the essential characteristic of "life"? Biology provides us with some criteria (among them are the ability to reproduce, the ability to grow and the ability to metabolize).
In puppet theatre, the essential characteristic of "life" is the freedom of choice and the deliberate action emerging from this freedom. In order to animate a puppet, the puppeteer must make it seem autonomous, self-feeling, self-deciding and self-acting: all movements (expressing certain activities or emotions, thoughts etc.) must seem to emanate from the puppet's own body (or “soul”): The energy needed for these movements as well as the application of forces that produce the final action must seem to be inherent to its body and not supplied externally by the God-Puppeteer.
It is very interesting that in everyday life we recognize things as "living" not based on the biological definition of life but on the theatrical one.
We drive our cars and do not perceive them as living, but in case they suddenly break down when we are in a hurry, we start speaking to them, pleading them or even beating them in an attempt to make them change their decision to stop. We recognize purpose in their behavior, a purpose beyond our control!
A leaf that the soft wind moves delicately is not perceived as “living”, but in case the wind suddenly blows harder for a moment and the leaf turns abruptly towards us right at the moment we had spoiled a cup of coffee on our dress, then we perceive the turn of the leaf as a clear reproach to our carelessness and thus the leaf as a living, thinking and criticizing creature. That can prove really scary!
Animism, the belief that all things have a soul and can potentially act, is deeply rooted in human culture and is still guiding unconsciously our perception and reactions. Puppet theatre takes advantage of this. It’s all a matter of signs transmitted to the audience. The key to puppet theatre is the spectator’s mind. The triangle “puppeteer-puppet-audience” is usually thought of as: the puppeteer animates/ manipulates the puppet, the puppet animates/ manipulates the audience and the audience communicates with the puppeteer. The truth is that the puppeteer is manipulating the audience, the audience animates the puppet and the puppet is manipulating the puppeteer. Outside theatre, in real life it is very common that the puppeteer and spectator is the same person (e.g. a child playing alone with its dolls). Animation techniques are used in many other applications such as religion, propaganda, education, advertisement, therapy, or even architecture.
Puppets are a special kind of objects: they are inanimate devices invented, designed and constructed to provide the signs that will help make this fakery easier, more lasting and much stronger. They are a convention making full use of our animistic habits for the sake of our existential questions, needs and anxieties. Puppets can be thought of as tools: like the lever extends our arm's strength and the computer extends our brain's capacities, puppets extend our ability to mock ourselves and/or communicate theatrically with powers we cannot control otherwise. They are probably one of the most ancient technological inventions of humans (dating back at least 25.000 years), suggesting that the needs they serve have been more important than others in the process of self-development of mankind.
An interesting aspect of puppets’ uncanny service to human self-awareness, is their tragic-comical effect which derives from their dead and yet so alive nature. Simplifying Henry Bergson's theory, the “comic” is produced every time a living creature “loses its life” and turns into a mechanical one (laughter is the social criticism against this “fatal” mistake/ carelessness).
Puppets are the materialization of this definition of the comic as well as the reversal of it: they are naturally born mechanical and are given an artificial life which they lose at any time and gain it back again, playing happily between life and death. They are comic by this nature but actually they make fun of the humans' comic (or tragic) relation to life and death. Extending this to other inanimate objects (potentially animate), one can imagine (or even experience) the unpleasant situation where machines and all kinds of things are laughing at us: a cultural mirror reflecting our own perception of life and reality.
Automata are a special kind of puppets: the eternal repetition of a rather sort action or movement defines them as “totally dead" or “mechanical” because variety and endless heterogeneity is another typical characteristic of life. They enjoy not even the artificial life that marionettes and other theatrical puppets have. The freedom of choice has vanished completely. We no more recognize “life” to them as their mechanical nature is clearly declared by their behavior. We recognize an unsuccessful intention of imitating life and this honesty makes them even more comical since -as puppets- they should have life... Automata are related to puppets in a similar way puppets are related to humans. They are puppets of puppets...
Statues and still images are off course even more restricted puppets but in their case, the fact that we do not expect them to move frees them and creates a different context, a different world of imagination/ animation.
Puppets and automata have been a kind of collective “selfie” picture of humanity through the ages. Digital photography has made very easy and handy the fast creation of a self-portrait, or a self-puppet through which we communicate with our inner self and share our theatrical relation to it with the outer world. From the archaic tribal ritual (with or without puppets) to the modern selfie picture, we seem to have reached the most self-oriented moment of our evolution.