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Evolving Creative Approaches and New Media Installations

by Tania Etienne

In my previous work, I have used a more traditional approach to theatre for either studio settings or proscenium theatre. For these productions, I created sets, props and costumes in order to best tell a story, to evoke a sense of place, and to bring characters into a fully rounded world of their own. This work evolved into exploring and exploiting specific aspects such as set elements and props for their visual potential as well as for their potential to create and to integrate with the production’s sound design.

However,through my use of installation and new media, I am able to explore the idea of transformation through the environment, materials and objects, as well as the sympathetic live responsiveness of these aspects to eachother and to the audience’s presence. The audience is surrounded by the environment and the events, allowing for an immediate and individual engagement with the environment, thus opening up avenues for deeper personal meaning and participation. They become more than an “audience.” They become both “performers” transforming the environment with their presence, and active “spectators” finding the story. The theatre’s fourth wall is removed. The participants are not merely watching the play, they are part of it. They are not simply listening to the story, but, rather, actively finding it.

The experience of working on theThe Hairy Ape, Shinju No Niwa, and That Time, have shaped my approach to the creation of installed work. I see it as a deepening of my desire to present the audience with an unmediated experience which still contains a narrative, but one with an open ended meaning. My arrival at the crossroads of the disciplines of storytelling, new media, installation art, sound art and theatre is a natural progression which has yielded new areas of creative exploration in my artistic practice.

In the production The Hairy Ape, with Threshold Theatre in 1998, the use of metal rods in the set and metal furniture and props, reinforced the desired image of a prison interior. The metal rods also served as objects which transformed into musical instruments with a particularly strident sound potential that reflected the character’s isolation and anger. This use of multiple roles for the props or set elements lead to a deeper exploration of the transformative possibilities of design elements. It also reinforced the many aspects of a production’s design as objects ‘transformed’ from one scene to the next, multiplying their meaning. I continued this exploration, looking more closely at materials for their potential to transform through time and to reinforce other scenographic elements. For example, in 1999, I conceived and created the dance production Shinju No Niwa in which I utilised a mirrored floor, reflections and lighting to create evolving environments–from a seascape, to the shoreline, to an underwater world–all created with minimal set elements.

Site Specific Work

I am similarly exploring site specific work as a means for creating a strong concept and context for the audience–from the moment the audience sees the show right to its end. Site specific work breaks down the barrier between the audience and the work itself, enabling them to feel fully engaged and thus creating a strong framework through which the audience interprets the work itself. The production That Time (2000), with Threshold Theatre, was a site specific piece that was set in an abandoned building. In this piece, the audience had to walk the same path as the character in order to join him in his world, where he shared his memories of the past and alluded to the circumstances that lead to his homelessness. This setting highlighted the immediacy of the event for the audience which created an intimacy between performer and audience–fusing real and theatrical elements. Elements of the production ranged from real to performed, the space from real to installed work, and the sound design from real environmental sounds of the site to sounds transmitted through speakers. The combination of these real and theatrical elements imbued the performance with the sense of transformation I was seeking–through the layering of meaning and perception–into one unified experience.

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The site, location or placement of a work can be utilized to reinforce the content or themes of the work. Whether or not an artist chooses to acknowledge the surroundings and its impact on audience perception does not change the fact that it does indeed frame the performance or event. I believe the impact of a site and its surroundings should be acknowledged and exploited for its potential to complement a work and its content. For this reason, I consider it of primary importance to consider the context that the surroundings dictate or imply when choosing a site.

Visual Aspects of New Media Work

The visual aspects are a key component in The Walls are Still Weeping (my new media installation scheduled for the Fall of 2002). This work will provide an immersive environment in which the exploration of its tangible and intangible aspects will allow participants to explore and discover stories through a combination of their live experience, their personal memories, their associations with the environment, and visual imagery. The use of new media–created especially for this production–enhances the visual aspects through its ability to create a ‘responsive’ reaction between objects and audience. This responsiveness heightens and expands the meaning of the event for the participant, providing an interplay between the concrete and the suggestive, and engaging them in a rich field of imagery and experience.

Aural Aspects of New Media Work

The aural aspect is also integral to “The Walls are Still Weeping,” reinforcing and extending the visual scenography, and creating an immersive space for the participants. A soundscape is created which surrounds the participants in the space, creating an aural complement to the visual imagery. Through the use of new media, the sound design is simultaneously physically linked to the materials in the space. The transformation of the environment through time creates an evolving soundscape that is as dynamic as the visual changes it undergoes. The stories are transmitted primarily as sound, encountered physically as an event in relationship to the environment and objects.

The aural and visual aspects are intrinsically linked through the new media, transcending the traditional static relationship of the audience to the story and creating a sympathetic relationship of responsiveness that strives to enrich the experience and evolution of the work. The participants will gain a new perspective through time, as meaning emerges from the intertwined images, stories, soundscape, and experience supported by the visual, aural and interactive components of the work.

Contexts for Site-specific Works

The production The Walls Are Still Weeping is ‘site specific.’ The presentation of the work in a gallery setting will convey a different set of expectations for the audience than presentation of the work in a heritage site. The white interior setting of a gallery will form an abstract visual backdrop, highlighting the installalled form contained in its interior. A presentation of the work in a heritage building will have a different, perhaps more public audience, with a different set of expectations. The historical significance of the place can evoke the content of the piece, specifically its themes of memory, local history, community and the links between the past and the present, and between the environment and its activity. A presentation of the work in a theatre would again alter the type of audience expectations, and perhaps dictate a particular idea of the style of presentation for the production. The work may be viewed as being closer to a theatrical presentation, with a stronger importance attached to the narrative and traditional production elements by the audience.

The Walls Are Still Weeping

The Walls Are Still Weeping is a work which represents a sharpening of my focus and interest in the key elements of a scenographer–environment, objects and processes through time–which act as receptacles and objects of transmission for memory and stories. I am fascinated by the traces which we leave behind and what they can imply, and by the transmission of energy we grant to objects–as stand-ins for people, places, events or ideas. I am striving to exploit the latent meaning and memories these elements hold for us all. In fact, these traces are “performers” of a sort, relaying a story of their own. I regardThe Walls are Still Weeping as a deepening of my aim to tell stories which continues to be an evolving creative process for me as an artist.

 

Tania Etienne is a scenographer whose self-produced work integrates artistic disciplines to create contemporary forms for storytelling. Tania also designs sets and costumes for theatre and dance. Her installation The Walls Are Still Weeping is scheduled for a future Sign Waves event in the Fall, 2002.

photo : Tania Etienne,The Hairy Ape, 1998