Thursday, September 29, 2011

Invisible Theater

Augusto Boal in the city,
photo in New York Times May 9, 2009

I've been reading about Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed (a name that does not reflect the broad humanity of his work).  In particular, I'm struck by Boal's 'invisible theatre,' in which performances subtly appeared within the movements of everyday life, such that ordinary life became visible in a critical frame.  People walking by saw something happen that might stick in their mind as a metaphor or mark of a larger social issue, and they might talk about it later, but they usually did not know that it was a planned event.  Boal developed invisible theatre as an under-the-radar form of protest in the extremely repressive Argentina of the 1970s, so his performances were politically charged and personally dangerous. 

I'm interested because invisible theatre opens up the ephemeral boundary between everyday life and self-conscious action.  Boal's acts of theatre-in-life made people aware of the realities of their situation - in his case politically - so they might think and feel and act more fully human.  Isn't that what good architecture does? 

Invisible theatre grew out of political theatre, which was the core of Boal's work, and 1960s happenings, particularly Alan Kaprow's insouciant provocations.  In all performances Boal's theatre acts in real life.   In many of these actions, he cast the joker (provocateur) and the witness (teller of true stories) to engage spectators as actors in real life, spect-actors he called them, so that by means of theatre they might become witnesses to their own actions. 

Effective architectural performance is invisible theatre.  Acts of architecture are woven into and out of the fabric of everyday life, without distinction between life and art.  And they can offer moments of clarity, when spect-actors (inhabitants) glimpse a reality of their situation and an opportunity to act as real people in real places.  Acts of architecture can provoke or witness or joke, with the intent to engage our situation - ecological, social, urban - in a fully human way.  

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Charlie Chaplin's Cane or What is the role of objects in a post-consumerist society?

Charlie Chaplin's bamboo cane was at once a cheap, generic object and a highly responsive partner in performance.  The cane was integral to Charlie's gait, his gestures and his persona as the little tramp to the point that it was less an object or symbolic 'attribute' than a wholly subsumed part of the character.  An iconographic analysis would reveal the cane as the baton of a harlequin descended from the Commedia dell'Arte, yet no one cares, since in Charlie's hands its power is less in symbolic 'meaning' than in what he does with it.  Without Charlie, the cane is just a stick.

I argue that Charlie Chaplin's cane offers an example of a post-consumerist object, something that performs with us - not for us.   The cane does not represent Charlie, nor give him special powers.  It does not work for him, rather he works it - or more precisely plays it.  Chaplin animates the cane by his motions to create multiple roles for Charlie.  With the cane, he struts like a dandy, hobbles like an invalid, fights like a swordsman, pokes his rivals and hooks the beauty.  In one scene he uses it to catch a fish.  

Chaplin performs with the cane in a relationship that has built over many years through continuous improvisation.  The novelty resides in his continuing discovery of new moves and meanings that remake his identity again and again.  The spareness of the means strengthens the force of imagination, transforming the cane and Charlie into artistic partners.

Might the objects in our lives be thus recast?  If we are mere consumers of objects, which reside as objects apart from our precious selves, then they are mute machines that do a single task until they can do it no longer and are cast aside.  If, however, we come to know them better, their role grows richer, perhaps fetishistic, more curious, and more humane.  Novelist Milan Kundera lists 'magic objects' including hats that do more and mean more.  Roland Barthes poetically revealed the modern mythology of the Peugeot and the Eiffel Tower.  Their semiotic investigations reveal the resonant and shifting meanings invested in well-imagined objects.

Charlie Chaplin's performance however centers on action, not object.  He shows us what he can do with the cane physically and expressively.  Like a favorite pair of dancing shoes, or a well-traveled bicycle, or an old car that is part of the family, the objects are not apart from us, they are partners in our lives.  They are well-made, well-used and deserve better than to be simply thrown away. 

My husband had an old Volvo station-wagon that he had driven and repaired for years.  When it came time to part ways, he couldn't bear to simply sell it or junk it, so he gave it to a local man who had several old Volvos and liked to restore them.  
As far as I know it's still on the road.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Rules of Improvisation for architectural design

Improvisation is a creative interpretation of a given situation that tells a new story.  It sounds like architectural design.  The rules of interaction that make improvisation work seem to be useful to the creative design process.
(These rules came from the improv encyclopedia:

1. Don't Deny.  Always say yes
Accept the situation that is given.  Embrace it, interpret it, move it forward.

In acting, scenes die when an actor refuses or ignores a situation proposed by his or her partner.  Example:  Player A: I'm at a zoo looking for my lost ferret.  Player B: This isn't a zoo, it's an airplane and I'm a pilot.

In architecture a design dies when the architect denies the situation of site and inhabitation.  Situation: The site faces south on a busy street with traffic.  Architect: I'm going to design a sculptural form for quiet contemplation.

2.  Don't ask open-ended questions
Make proposals, interpret, ask 'What if..."

In acting, asking questions like "Who are you?" add nothing to the scene and put the burden on your partner to answer.  It's a form of wimping out. 

In architecture, entering a discussion empty-handed with open-ended questions like "What do you want?" puts the burden on the client to design the building.   It's wimping out.  Always have something to show, something to offer, a conversation starter, even if you have very little information and are asking for more.

3. You don't have to be funny - or original.
Think hard and be honest.

In acting, the harder you try to be funny, the less funny the scene is. 
However if you interpret a scene thoughtfully to find the true ironies within it, the funny will come out all by itself.

In architecture, the harder you try to be original, the more trite your design.  However, if you interpret the situation thoughtfully to find its true potential, the originality will come out all by itself.

4. Make your partner look good
The better you support your partner, the better the scene and the better you look.

In acting, creative dialogue is the goal.  The more you support your partner's creativity, the more you will have to draw on.  Usually, this means picking the good bits out of your partner's contributions and building on them, even as you leave the less good bits behind.  A good partner will do the same for you.

In architecture, when everyone else looks good, you win.   If your design makes the client's decisions smart and the contractor's work skillful and the inhabitant's actions gracious, then you succeed.  Usually this means intense dialogue that builds on each other's strengths.

5.  Tell a story
Improvisation works magic when the actors can make sense of a random set of circumstances and tell an interesting story (a shoe salesman and a lawyer driving a cab in the forest).

In acting, each partner proposes a narrative that the other accepts and builds on, so that a story emerges, which neither partner conceived beforehand.

In architecture, the situation of site, program, environment, and budget present a complex set of circumstances.  The architect leads the design process by proposing, modifying, redesigning, clarifying and rethinking in discussions between all partners until a project emerges that makes sense of the circumstances.  If the partnership works well, the project sings.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Farmers' Markets don't fit modern city codes

Farmers' markets and street vendors with carts undoubtedly defined the streets of Ur, the biblical city where civilization began.   Certainly the vegetables were organic, and they were grown locally – how far can one carry a fresh fig on a donkey?  And people met and talked and ate small treats prepared on the spot.  Perhaps musicians played for tips, but I doubt the markets of Ur offered Qigong classes on the lawn like our new Farmers Market in South Miami. 

The farmers markets opening up everywhere around the country are part of a movement to strengthen local agriculture and local businesses on a shoestring, so towns become more ecologically and economically sustainable.  Local government, however, has to catch up.  Modern zoning codes have trouble categorizing the function of something that is both public and private, both temporary and permanent, with a shifting set of vendors who sell raw food like a grocery store and cooked food like a restaurant, and perhaps clothing and crafts, as well as occasional entertainment.  Are musical buskers running a business or begging?  Is a farmers' market an event or a food court?  Is it a public service or a private enterprise?  What sort of license does it need anyway?

It turns out that many of the inventive strategies for sustainability run afoul of the rigid building and zoning codes that structure towns into discrete properties and uses.  Codes depend on separating land into lots and activities into categories of use.  Ecological thinking however recognizes connections across categories rather than separations between them.  Felix Guattari offered a famous example of the interdependent orchid and its bee, which evolved together, each taking advantage of the other by serving the other's needs.  A bee feeds on nectar while carrying the orchid's pollen, so both benefit.  The arrangement sounds a lot like Adam Smith's capitalism in which people create small businesses to support themselves by serving the needs of others so everyone's life improves through the efficiencies of specialization.  The next leap is to include ecological health in economic calculations, so the ecosystem benefits as we support ourselves.  A market supporting local, organic farms is a fine place to start.

So is a farmers market an example of pure conservative capitalism or eco-huggy liberalism?  Perhaps "yes" is the best answer.  Perhaps cities can figure out how to rethink codes so they can say yes to ecological innovation that depends on building relationships across categories.  It beats the heck out of "no". 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Spatial Improvisation for Architects

Spatial Improvisation
©Gray Read

Improvisation games are often used in training actors to respond quickly and imaginatively to each other and to situations around them.  Through practice, actors strive for a creative flow in which they feel immersed in a spontaneous and evolving set of relationships in real space and time that emerge as performance.  By shedding the distance of self-consciousness, they are able to act from within the imaginary situation, feeling 'in sinc,' with each other.  In preparation for a public performance, they practice improvisation skills rather than rehearse a script, so the performance is framed as 'play' in the sense of a game, rather than 'a play' in the sense of a complete, repeatable drama.

If we, as architects, are the artists of spatial situations, might we also hone our skills through similar inventive games, which might bring us toward a more integrated practice of our art?  I worked with a group of students to develop a series of architectural games based on acting exercises and performance techniques. We drew in particular on the work of theatre director Anne Bogart to develop a series of spatial improvisation games, which we played several times in preparation for a performance and as a practice of the skills of architectural design.

In the 1990s Bogart devised a series of improvisation exercises for actors based on work by dancer Mary Overlie, "Viewpoints." (1)  Bogart emphasizes space over story, and movement over emotion to train actors to respond to the real space they occupy and to each other's movements.  Before they take a role, she asks actors to physically explore and use the architecture around them, to move in and through the space, to feel its form and innovate body movements with full awareness of the room and other actors as partners in action.   Her work stands in opposition to "method acting" developed by Lee Strasberg in New York, which emphasizes introspection and memory.  Bogart criticizes this approach as solipsistic and limited.  She trains actors to look outside themselves rather than inward, to become intensely aware of their surroundings and other people, rather immersed in a character.  This shift of focus parallels a shift of architectural attention from inward toward the object to outward toward the city, a shift crucial to rebuilding cities attentively.

The signature exercise of Bogart's Viewpoints is "The Flow."  It works like this: Move through a room, become aware of the space around, above and below you.  Notice the details.  Look at the people around you, make eye contact, and notice things about them, while continuing to be aware of the room.  Bring your awareness to include more things and people, using peripheral vision to hold the shape of the space and the motion of others in view.  Bogart calls this  'soft focus.'  Move in relation to the space and the other people, then choose one person or thing to track while maintaining awareness of the entire field, then choose two people and move in relation to them.  The exercise continues with intense attention and purposeful motion that emerges into intelligible coordinated action, yet without a leader or predetermined pattern.  The thrust of this and all of Bogart's exercises is to develop awareness and response to the point that one loses oneself to the fluidity of the situation in real time and space.  Bogart says, "Choose death," move past self-consciousness into a fuller awareness of the situation outside.

In all Bogart's exercises architecture is included as a body among bodies, a physical presence integrated in all action.  Some exercises focus on physical responses to walls, floors, and the features of a room, stairs, doors, and windows to explore with spontaneously creativity both how one engages them and how two or three people might use them socially. 

Bogart's work begs a response from the room, or from the makers of spatial situations: architects.  Her work suggests a fresh approach to architectural design through developing awareness, encouraging physical engagement of spatial situations, and design play in real space and time.  Or more immediately a question: might architects invent parallel exercises or games that set the conditions for a flow between people and architectural space? 

Over the last few years, my students and I have invented several exercises for architects based on Bogart's work and on theatre improvisation games.  Most are fast-moving situations that ask for spontaneous response and in most, the quality of play improves with practice.  Games are played by the cooperative principles of all improvisation, which can be summarized as: Create opportunities for each other, make everyone else look good, and keep the energy moving. (2)  The following four exercises emerged from discussions and experimentation with students over the last two years.  They represent a nascent approach to design that merges the design of space with the 'use' of space, recognizing both as playful, creative, social and inherently theatrical. 

Game 1. Where do you go when you are...
This introductory awareness exercise asks participants to walk through the building they occupy habitually.  Each person is asked to find specific spots he or she goes in several situations: when happy and wanting to share good news, or bored, or angry, wanting to check out what's going on, or wanting to have a conversation.   It asks each person to describe and draw the spatial qualities of the places he or she seeks in each instance.  The purpose is to become aware of a daily environment in personal terms, to notice things about the places that we frequent and how we use them socially.

Game 2. Come in and take a place
This exercise relates closely to one of Bogart's exercises. The game asks that each person in turn enter a room, move a piece of furniture, and take a place in relation to the space and to those already there.  Each player must read the social potential of the space and choose a position that nonverbally projects a purpose and a message for others.  For example, a position and a stance may say:  "I'm on my own, looking out the window, don't bother me," or "I'm in the center of the room so anyone coming in will engage me," or "I'm watching what's going on from the corner."   When all players have entered, a new cycle starts and each takes a new position in turn.  Afterward, each person describes the differences between the first and second reading of the room, which are often vast.  The goals of the exercise are to become more aware of the role architecture plays in everyday social situations and to invite creative interpretation of space.

In Bogart's version, each person in turn takes a position in relation to the room and to others already there in order to define a plausible scenario.  Each person that enters shifts the previous set of relationships and a new story or potential stories emerges.   When all are in place, the arrangement is designated #1.  In the next phase, each person moves in turn to change the relationships until a second arrangement is reached.  The group moves through a third and a fourth arrangement.  Finally, the group moves in unison through the various arrangements, at first called by a leader, then spontaneously.  One participant noted that when it works well, "it's Chekhov or Pinter."  When the spatial relationships are vague, "it just looks like bad experimental art."(3)   Bogart's exercise emphasizes spatial relationships between people.  The actors participating are trained to create stories in their motions so the game invokes a changing sequence of implied narrative.

Collaboration between architecture and theatre students, Florida International University 2006
For architects, we shifted the emphasis toward engaging space.   Even if we play Bogart's game exactly, it emerges with an architect's sensibility.  Participants take positions in relation to the features of the room as much as they respond to each other.  A heightened version adds 4' x 8' foam panels as moveable elements in the room that can significantly change the space, so the room transforms as it is occupied.  Players interpret the underlying architectural features in each move and reinterpret them in succeeding configurations, each with several potential narratives.    

Music video
Game 3. Music Video 
The game asks players to choreograph movement (not dance) in a specific place to a short piece of music.  Players choose a built place such as a set of steps, a doorway or even just a wall, and select about 15 seconds of music, then make up a movement sequence, practice it and perform it.  The exercise is not strictly improvisation, but it encourages players to see architectural space as the raw material for inventing movement.  It was based on "Parcours," ninja-like gymnastic leaps in found places: jumping off roofs, over railings, etc.  The architect's game is less athletic and adds music, but requires a similar reading of a found space through motion.

F8 Game 2009
Game 4. F8
In this game, eight architecture students, each with a rectangular panel, improvise an evolving spatial composition, by placing the panels one by one in relation to the others, while a dancer (also an architecture student) moves around and within the changing spaces.  In this version, the dancer records gestures in magic marker on the boards.  The game is best played with music and a regular interval between changes, so each player repositions his or her panel in sequence and in time.  For clarity, we ruled that panels must be oriented orthogonally, no diagonals.  Players made spatial decisions spontaneously in relation to the other panels, to the surrounding architecture and to the dancer's motions.  After several rounds of practice, players discovered the potential of the game to create passages, rooms, low spots, corners, narrow entries and spatial tensions over a distance, which the dancer can use expressively.  We began to feel a sense of flow with each other in the game, to recognize spatial opportunities and try out ideas quickly.  This game depends on a cooperative spirit among the group, so players respond to each other's spatial propositions.

This game grew out of elements of the other games, emphasizing spatial play as the moving panels define and redefine space.  The sequential movement allows each player a turn to act in and on the space in response to the moves of others.  The music adds rhythm and the dancer integrates movement with space.

Each of these four exercises merge space and movement into a spontaneous flow that players feel bodily.  Action and response are indistinguishable, while the use of space and the making of space intertwine.  The flow of the game impels spatial decisions forward and there are no 'wrong' moves.  The effects of each decision on the space and on the movements of other people are seen immediately, so the feedback loop is tight, contributing to the sense of flow.  Players develop spatial sensibilities tied to movement and to relationships between people, skills that can contribute to the design of social space.

Bogart devised the Viewpoints exercises to locate creative invention not in the individual, but in the interactions of the group.   Each player is called on to act in the context of the evolving situation, so imagination is lodged in the play of the group.  She writes,
Viewpoints relieves the pressure to have to invent all by yourself, to generate all alone, to be interesting and force creativity.  Viewpoints allows us to surrender, fall back into empty creative space and trust that there is something there, other than our own ego or imagination, to catch us.  Viewpoints helps us trust in letting something occur, rather than making it occur.   The source for action and invention comes to us from others and from the physical world around us. (4)    
This displacement of attention from oneself to the surrounding situation is one of the elements that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described in 1990 as essential to creative flow. (5)    He focuses on the interior, psychological qualities of flow that lead to individual engagement in art, and often points to the solitary painter or writer engaged in his or her work as the characteristic example.   In part, his ideas grow out of a larger philosophy of social dialogue and polyvocality, the presence of many voices in any statement. (6)  In the 1950s, Mikail Bakhtin wrote that imagination must be defined as dialogic and that any work of art originates in and speaks to a cultural conversation as a social event.  Bakhtin's work on the medieval carnival provides a metaphor of social creativity, which absorbs many people into a flow larger than the sum of its parts.  The event includes multiple imaginations, drawing them not inward toward unity or collectivity, but outward toward further complexity, engagement, and invention. 

A reflection of the generative chaos of Bakhtin's carnival appears in all improvisation.  It defines a successful creative move as one that supports and enlivens the group, while the players seek flow in and through interaction.  Anne Bogart' exercises set up the conditions for dialogic imagination that engages space as well as other people.  Architects and architecture might also play, architects in the process of design, and architecture in the social life of the city.  In this sense architecture might be redefined, not as a fine art or object, but as one of the performing arts that is manifest in time.  At its best, architecture is part of an ongoing flow that engages people and natural systems in improvised events that are ordered and reasonable, yet play out differently every time.

 1.  Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition (NY: Theatre Communications Group, 2005).  The viewpoints are space, shape, time, emotion, movement and story.   The Space viewpoint includes architecture and position.  Shape includes gesture and the shape of the body in place.  Time includes tempo, duration, kinesthetic response and repetition.
2.   Chris Johnston, The Improvisation Game: Discovering the Secrets of Spontaneous Performance (London: Nick Hern Books, 2006).
3.   Leon Ingulsrud, quoted in:  Ginger Eckert "Time and Space in the SITI," Theatre Bay Area, 29 November 2007. (;jsessionid=B61FE5CC0F0853AA0C658E5EC0A4BA44?thispage=archives.jsp&id=2&hi=1)
 4.  Bogart & Landau, p. 19
 5.  Mihaly Csikszentmihali  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (NY: Harper & Row, 1990) p. 92
 6.  Mikhail M. Bakhtin, 'The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin', translated by Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981)