THERE'S NO SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE:
Notes from the Scenography elective.
Being outside of the inside
Since I have begun this master’s degree I have become obsessed with fog. I think it started one day when I awoke to see that the church tower outside my window had completely disappeared. Something so heavy, so solid, so unmovable, made of stone and bricks and mortar had, from my perspective, vanished. Fog. The wonder.
I reflected and continue to reflect that fog contains power.
Fog become the entry point to this elective on expanded scenography. I was keen to experiment with and investigate the power and spectacle of fog. I knew for my final research project that I wanted to use theatrical fog coming from a smoke machine. The underground ArtEZ theatrium building comes with strict fire safeguarding restrictions; one of them being the usage of smoke machines can only happen in a theatre space. As we were working in a studio space for the elective, my ability to use a smoke machine inside became an impossibility. However, this restriction led me to think about other ways of producing smoke and question ways of presenting it inside. Vaping begun to fascinate me and became a link to a strand of my research I’ve labelled: “Finding the Joy in the ordinary” or “moments of Joydinary”. This joydinary has developed into a writing style that describes small vignettes I have seen in the streets and places these descriptions next other descriptions of vignettes to create a poetic patchwork of ordinary (and joyful) encounters.
After seeing a few people vaping outside – producing large plumes of smoke from their own lungs and tiny machine – I decided that vaping could become a connection between joydinary and fog. There was still the issue of vaping inside the studio. I could take the audience outside and they could watch me vape but this felt uninteresting.
The conclusion for the first showing was to collaborate with Fay who was interested in a practice of walking in circles. From our discussion we highlighted the interest between outside and inside and so I livestreamed myself vaping outside whilst Fay walked in a circled route around the studio space.
Without time to rehearse the collaboration would be a surprise . From the feedback with our peers, it seemed our collaboration were two separate parts with one moment of Fay walking a the exact time I exhaled some smoke being a small, fleeting moment of spectacle.
I understood immediately that live streaming outside meant that I couldn’t experience the work from the inside – I had no idea how the thing looked or felt and as a person working with live performance this relationship to the audience is profoundly important.
The lack of control from being outside was also problematic. The smoke that appeared from my lungs would almost immediately dissipate into the strong Dutch winds.
Form this exercise I realised I wanted to better control the smoke and to be inside it somehow.
Video of installation from the scenography elective
The power of the Fog
The solution came to me from reading some articles over the last year in The Guardian. In the articles there is some discussion about a trend of immersive art exhibitions. Classic art works are reimagined into large scale moving images, which are then projected into massive spaces with works by Van Gough and Klimt leading growing trend in art museums to produce ‘immersive’ exhibitions. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/apr/20/immersive-exhibitions-the-future-of-art-or-overpriced-theme-parks
As I read another article about a planned David Hockney immersive exhibition in London, (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/nov/16/david-hockney-joins-immersive-art-trend-with-new-london-exhibition) it struck me that this was a way to control the smoke within an inside space. I would film the vape in use inside and then project it with 4 projectors onto the 4 walls of the studio. Following the feedback of this showing, a reference to the work of Olafur Ellison appeared – with his invitation for audiences to play with shadows in the work: ‘Your Uncertain shadow”. Another of Ellison’s works ‘Your Blind Passenger’ which I was lucky enough to experience at Tate Modern in London some years ago, is a large straight tunnel filled with fog which people walk through. I think I have been interested in the immersive potential of fog in a theatrical setting ever since.
The thing about video is the fact that you can manipulate it. I decided to play with the effect of slow motion as it was something that I wouldn’t be able to do physically with smoke and something I wanted to investigate after the uncontrollableness of smoke in the first showing. The slow motion shots of fog gave an ethereal, dream-like feel to the room. The video was cropped and zoomed and then put through a projector and thrown big which made visible small details about the way the smoke moved. I also revealed how I created these shots, letting the audience see my figure looming over he blackness breathing the smoke into the frame of the camera. Maja recalled in our feedback session how this became an almost biblical reference – breathing life into the world bellow: the power of fog was evident again.
Rehearsal footage from Ummm Yeah Okay And?
Ummm Yeah Okay And?
I knew I wanted my final performance to use the materiality of smoke coming from a theatrical smoke machine. The work in this scenography elective has led me to consider the ephemerality of smoke and also the inherent immersive qualities of smoke. As such I have decided to put my audience amongst the smoke sitting them in the middle of the theatre space on individual chairs while clouds and plumes of smoke are created around them.
I was considering changing the audience configuration at the last rehearsal and Mar, who is helping create the project, reminded me that if you place the audience with their backs to a wall it loses a sense of immersive-ness, to fully embrace immersive-ness the audience have to know that something is happening behind them as well as in front of them.
It reminded me of a talk I had with my old lecturer Neil Mackenzie after we both watched a project called “Séance” by a company called Darkfield – it uses binaural sound to give the illusion that spirits and other entities are approaching from behind. However Neil felt the illusion was immediately broken by siting with his back to wall.
From the scenography elective I have taken away some practical considerations when working with smoke with some questioning on how to control or not control the wild path of the smoke. I have understood that the within scenography – the human experience is key. The experience of an audience moving through a project, the experience of how fog moves through a space. The experience of seeing something solid disappear.
After this elective, I went to a rave in Amsterdam and looked at how the smoke interacted with stage lighting. It was pure spectacle and just like audiences who want to go to art museums not just to see something spectacular but to experience something spectacular. In rehearsals, working with stage lighting and smoke it becomes relatively easy to create spectacle. I my old studies, like the word” entertainment”, “spectacle” was seen as something easy, something indulgent, a cheap and tacky trick that looked fantastic but felt vacuous and hollow.
However, after this elective, my interest in spectacle is growing. Spectacle is an effect which I want to lean into further– to work with dramaturgy to give it some substance, filling in the void, filling in the hollow.
Spectacle, like fog, contains power, it leaves audiences with a phenomenological sense of awe. I must embrace spectacle. I must embrace the immersive qualities of smoke, I must not forget the ordinary elements of fog and use them to create something extraordinary.
If there is no smoke without fire then I must let my thinking from this scenography elective become the fire to create my final work called Ummm Yeah Okay And?
Rehearsal footage from Ummm Yeah Okay And?