Experiences that cause the body to question the mind
Gisèle Vienne (1976, Charleville-Mézières) is a Franco-Austrian artist, choreographer and director. After graduating in philosophy, she studied at the puppeteering school École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette.
In her work, many elements come together. The same myriad elements that comprise reality can exist on stage: visuals, bodies, movement, sounds, lights, words… Vienne uses an eclectic assortment of techniques to do justice to all these aspects.
Particularly striking is the characteristic and imaginative way in which she has all kinds of figures – from puppets and marionettes to musicians and actors – appear on stage together at the same time. This gives her work an element of defamiliarisation so that distinctions between presence and absence no longer go without saying. Her work leaves audiences deeply affected, its effects often lingering for some time afterwards, and is often described as a ‘trip’ of sorts.
Her work questions our perceptive systems and social constructs, and tries to shift these perceptions. In A world that needs ceaseless reconstruction (published as a part of Milo Rau’s book Why Theatre), she writes:
‘Art, including theatre, must be a place where we dissect signs, their articulations and everything that makes up our perceptions, where we can question and shake the constructed reality, a pseudo-reality, the product of a shared creation of the representation of reality, ranging from social norms to the very construction of our perceptions. This dissection and deconstruction must allow for new hypotheses and possible interpretations of the world to be invented, while constantly questioning our relation to the moving world.’
Vienne works in close collaboration with a great many artists and, as a director, considers every work she makes a collaboration of sorts, placing great importance on the input of everyone involved and how they influence each other. For example, she has a longstanding collaboration with the American writer Dennis Cooper and the musicians Peter Rehberg and Stephen O'Malley, among many others. Her performance work has led to various publications and the original music of her shows was recorded on several albums.
Vienne’s great love for and knowledge of music, which she developed as a child when she was trained in contemporary and classical music, later developed to include industrial music, as well as experimental and electronic music. The latter, for example, is reflected in her recurring collaborations with blistering metal and electronic musicians. The band KTL, consisting of Peter Rehberg and Stephen O'Malley, was formed during their first collaboration (Kindertotenlieder). They themselves describe this live music component of Vienne’s pieces as a ‘new collaboration taking in parallel worlds of Extreme Computer Music and Black Metal’.
Together with Dennis Cooper, Vienne explores our perceptual systems through stories in which violence, sexuality and death play a central role. After I apologize (2004) they created Une belle enfant blonde (2005), Kindertotenlieder (2007), Jerk (2008), Last Spring: A Prequel (2011), The Pyre (2013), The Ventriloquist Convention (2015) and Crowd (2017) as well as two books, Jerk / Through Their Tears and 40 portraits.
In exploring our culturally constructed perceptions through the artifice and construction of theatre and dance, it is also the power that such perceptual systems create and naturalise that is questioned and that we wish to shift. Art reproduces the hierarchy of what can be seen/understood, heard or not, what is deemed important, major and minor. But the arts, like all sciences, are also a place where this hierarchy and its accompanying systems of domination can be fundamentally questioned to think about how we might bring about social change.
Vienne’s art reflects her interest and background in philosophy. She explores the development of knowledge through physical experience, sensing the limitations of theoretical knowledge to further explore her ideas through intuition and physical work. Vienne: ‘the sensory experience of the world brings great critical tools to expand our knowledge and challenge its authoritarian abuse’.
Almost immediately after finishing her studies, she ended up in the world of dance, an environment where philosophical questions about the body and its representation are at the forefront. For example, on society’s distinction between mind and body she says: ‘Thinking arises from the body. This view - and the Western belief that thought is superior to the body - causes people to cease listening or to have lower consideration for or be suspicious about what their body expresses, though it has much to say, and to restrict our field of knowledge, both historically and currently way’.
‘It is a matter of letting the body and the emotions express, of thinking about the development of our intelligence by drawing on consideration the intelligence of the body and its subversive relationship to authority and domination games that stem from social norms and structures, which may cause suffering. This, in order to understand more about the authoritarian relationship that may exist between the mental and physical cognitive system. It is through such dialogues with the body and our emotions, and by dismantling this authoritarian relationship, that we can develop our knowledge.’
The experience of time
Time is a recurring philosophical concept Vienne explores throughout her work. Her sources of inspiration include the philosopher Henri Bergson, whose Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (‘Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness’) and Matière et mémoire (‘Matter and Memory’, essays about consciousness and change) explore different dimensions of time. In the present moment, the memory of the past and fantasies about the future exist alongside the experience of the moment itself. In our experience, all these different times simultaneously exist.
The different temporalities coalesce in the layered compositions that constitute Vienne's work; this allows for their formal articulation and the deployment of the experience of the present, between the real and the imaginary, constituted in particular by memory, the past, and the anticipated future.
Puppets & body representations
Human-like figures such as marionettes, mannequins, masks and dolls are a recurring feature in Vienne's work. The way puppets stand or sit makes them seem a lot like the actors they share the stage with, except for the fact that they are motionless, which creates an intriguing tension between life and death, presence and absence. Apart from in her theatre work, the puppets also feature in Vienne’s installations and photography.
By blurring the boundaries between human presence and absence, fiction and what is seen as reality in her work, all these different interwoven layers that are part of the experience of reality, she draws attention to the complex reality outside the theatre, where social conventions create a cultural construction of our identity and relationships to each other.
‘Theatre begins with that which we have so intimately integrate in ourselves. We can practise it as such, consciously, or without considering it, without ever really being aware of it. (…) My relationship to the staging of the bodies, appearances, voices, movements, the quality of their embodiment or disembodiment, their presence and absence, allows me to enter into a dialogue with the cultural constructs that shape us on an intimate level.’
Identity is a key concept in Vienne’s work, which shows how our identities are an essentialised and naturalised cultural creation, whether or not we are aware of it, created in the social and normative theatre we all live in.
In her text for Milo Rau’s Why Theatre, she describes society as a ‘social and normative theatre’ and our identity as an ‘institutionalised and naturalised cultural creation’. What she means is that our identity - constructed from elements like gender, social class and racial identity - is not natural and autonomous. Rather, it is a structure that arose from norms and external social pressures, a perception shaped by culture, a pseudo-reality: A common constructed perception is necessary in order to express and share our experiences with others. However, it is still a hypothesis, and hypotheses can shift and change into different hypotheses that are no less real or valid. This can open up other possible societal structures. Culturally constructed perceptions can be presented to us as natural, and thus create a system of power structure-serving political interests. She sees theatre as a place that questions the constructed ‘pseudo-reality’ outside the theatre and as an opportunity for creating movements and changes in perceptive systems, as this is what art excels at.
Vienne’s concern with social identity and emotion is in line with her interest in youth culture and corresponding music cultures like the techno scene in Crowd or the metal scene in Kindertotenlieder. She sees adolescence and early adulthood as a moment when social pressure increases and identity begins to impose itself. At this age, people are made to follow established lines and easily create false expectations for themselves. Vienne: ‘People always talk about adolescents’ raging hormones, but the real problem lies in the external societal pressures invading your intimate space and identity that you find yourself having to contend with at this age’.
Vienne notes an increasing awareness of this. ‘Today’s younger generations in particular are increasingly aware of the intersectionality of social and political identities. They grasp things that older generations may still have a hard time understanding because they are so deeply engrained and internalised’.
Vienne is inspired by two present-day philosophers with a similar interest in these developments: Wendy Brown and Elsa Dorlin. Brown’s political philosophy aims to diagnose modern and contemporary formations of political power, and to discern the threats to democracy such formations pose. Dorlin analyses the disarmament mechanisms of certain bodies relating to historical racial and gender domination relationships.
Examining emotions and assumptions
In her art, Vienne focusses on particular aspects of human identity and interrelationships. By choosing stories and subjects that involve intense emotional states and creating formal works that challenge our perceptive systems, Vienne invites her audience to examine its own emotions and assumptions, which may be both disconcerting and exciting, through the intimate shifts in perspective it can provoke. In researching questions of human perception, she is also exploring how various sensory experiences can cause altered mental states. The work’s intensity leaves the audience deeply affected and encourages us to develop our knowledge. ‘Inventing new artistic forms means trying to invent new languages that would allow us to read and relate the world differently.
Vienne: ‘I try to achieve this by juxtaposing different levels of interpretation, which may even conflict or contradict each other. By juxtaposing different formal languages. By encouraging us to question the signs deployed at the very heart of the staging and in its development. By undergoing experiences where the body questions the mind, by experimenting and provoking flaws and fissures in our reading of the world because, as Bernard Rimé analyses the issue in his inspiring text Emotions at the service of Cultural Constructions: “(…) emotions are states that signal flaws in the subject’s anticipation systems, or in other words, in aspects of the subject’s models of how the world works.”’*
*Quotes taken from Gisèle Viennes text: A world that needs ceaseless reconstruction, her contribution to the book Why Theatre, edited by theater maker Milo Rau.