3t Design:
Products of Play

Henning Skarbø GUI Design
The Uncanny Art of Meg Stuart & Damaged Goods

Rudi Laermans

In 1991, Meg Stuart presented her first production at Klapstuk, a two yearly dance festival in Leuven, Belgium. Disfigure Study staged distorted, fragmented, even ‘dystopic’ body images that gave evidence of an unusual – at least within the performing arts – interest in the sculptural qualities of the human body. The production was a not-to-be-misunderstood statement: against every form of noncommittal dance or pure choreography, for the transformation of the stage into a critical visual space, a show-box in which the dominant body rhetoric was effectively deconstructed. When two years later, No Longer Readymade premiered at the Klapstuk festival, it became clear that Meg Stuart’s initial statement referred to a more general research programme. After her second production, Meg Stuart has given shape to this programme with her own company Damaged Goods, which was officially established in 1994. The years that followed did, indeed, confirm that Meg Stuart was from the very outset interested in fundamental, radical research into the diverse explicit and – especially – implicit premises of the performing arts in general. In the work of Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods, these presuppositions are not so much indolently breached or transgressed as they are cautiously explored and redefined, carefully manipulated, and deliberately reframed.
The modern performing arts are based on a particular relationship between the stage and the public, between the performers and the spectators. Already in Disfigure Study, Meg Stuart used sophisticated articulation of light and sound to explore an indirect but nevertheless binding choreography of the audience’s gaze. In the aptly titled production, No One Is Watching (1995), her redefinition of the spectator’s presence was paradoxically achieved through a consequent radicalisation of the notion of the ‘fourth wall’, which is undoubtedly the cornerstone of modern theatre and dance. The convention of the fourth wall implies that the stage is a self-enclosed monad for the performers, a private space in which they behave as if they were at home and, indeed, no one is watching. The production of the same title took this convention literally and staged intimate situations, intimate bodies, intimate idiosyncrasies. No One Is Watching thus placed the spectator explicitly in the rather uncomfortable position of a visually omnipotent but caught-the-act voyeur. In the recent site-specific project Highway 101, Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods go one step further and carefully dismantle the simultaneously imaginary and real fourth wall that separates the performers from the spectators. The fourth wall is now replaced by different modes of interaction that range from long distance video clips of the performers to direct contact between the performers and the audience.
Meg Stuart’s research-oriented attention for the ‘spectrographic’ relationship that connects every kind of staged performance activity with a public gaze is embedded within a broader interest in the visual arts and, more generally, in ‘the visual’ as an autonomous aesthetic medium and as the inescapable hallmark of our existence within ‘the society of the spectacle’ (Guy Debord). In more than one way, her many-sided experiments with the public’s visual and affective involvement do, indeed, indicate that she has a fine-art view on the performing arts. We can detect this interdisciplinary, ‘hybridising’ outlook in Stuart’s sculptural approach to the spatially situated human body, in the plastic and picture-like quality of her productions, and in the more than once joyful play with the dialectic between the performer’s bodily presence and his or her mediated absence in video images of all sorts. The most direct indication of Meg Stuart’s interest in contemporary visual art is, of course, her collaboration with renowned visual artists, such as with Vincent Malstaf (in Insert Skin # 1 – They Live in Our Breath, 1994), with Bruce Mau (in Remote, 1997, a piece of choreography for Mickail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project), with Gary Hill (in Splayed Mind Out, also 1997 – an abridged version of which was shown during Documenta X in Kassel), and with Ann Hamilton (in Appetite, 1998). For that matter, in the near future, Meg Stuart plans to do an installation project with several visual artists (probably with Ann Hamilton, Mona Hatoum, and the duo Fishl & Weiss).
As I’ve pointed out, Meg Stuart’s interdisciplinary approach refers to a more general interest in ‘the visual’ and, connected with this, ‘the imaginary’ (in the Lacanian sense of the word). In the work of Damaged Goods, the articulation of ‘the visual’ as an autonomous aesthetic medium is often based on a well-developed and well-considered use of other mediums, particularly light and sound. Especially in the recent productions, this ‘differential’ play with different mediums results in inter- or rather ‘transmedial’ cinematic images that simultaneously absorb and deceive the public gaze. Or to paraphrase the famous dictum of the painter Frank Stella: what you see is not what you want to see. For although the observed actions (or non-actions) appeal to the spectator’s mind’s eye, they also block every direct identification with the staged bodily movements (or non-movements). This particular dialectic of perceiving has a lot to do with Meg Stuart often publicly staging private phantasms in her productions. The spectator does, indeed, recognise these intimate movements or gestures, but she or he cannot acknowledge them – or is unwilling to do so - as personal possibilities, as part of her or his individuality. We may refer here to Freud’s notion of the uncanny (‘das Unheimliche’) and his thesis ‘that the uncanny is uncanny only because it is secretly all too familiar, which why it is repressed’. Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods make ‘uncanny art’. Again and again, they show us images in which familiar movements, gestures or words suddenly become unfamiliar and unreal, as in a disturbing dream that confronts us with something we avoid during our waking hours. As such, their work has more in common with the paintings of Francis Bacon, the writings of Samuel Beckett, or the films of David Lynch than with most contemporary performing art.
In her many-sided explorations of ‘the visual’ and ‘the imaginary’, Meg Stuart also successfully combines aesthetic with cultural concerns, fundamental research with social commentary, artistic autonomy with a critical stance towards the environment that surrounds the artistic subsystem within contemporary society. It is precisely her interest in the primarily visual relationship between performers and spectators, in contemporary visual arts and in ‘the visual’ as a particular aesthetic medium that may explain Meg Stuart’s marked sensibility for the reign of visual technology, i.e. for the ‘modelling’ of daily behaviour and communication through television. In the productions of Damaged Goods, the spectator often stumbles on scenes that refer her or him back to previous scenes – to the codes of, for instance, the television interview, or the common representation of men or woman in soap operas, talk shows, or ‘confession programmes’. These ‘images of images’ are easily recognised by the spectator, but at the same time she or he once again feels uncomfortable. For the spectator, and this regardless of gender, is confronted with – to borrow an expression from Jean Baudrillard – a ‘precession of simulacra’ that also ‘inform’ or ‘format’ her or his own life. Particularly in her most recent productions, Meg Stuart visually imitates the codes of ‘the tele-visual’ in such a way that the audience is confronted with a mirror in which it recognises itself as a manipulated multitude of inhabitants of ‘the society of the spectacle’ (once again: Debord), as a mass of individuals who identify with the ongoing subjection of the individual within the dominant mass culture in order to present themselves within public interactions as individual subjects. In the productions of Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods, this identification is mirrored in a way that makes room for dis-indentification, by way of reflections that invite one to reflect upon ‘the power of the tele-visual’.
These considerations justify the conclusion that Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods are performing artists in the broadest meaning of the word ‘performing’. Movements and, particularly, movement research remain the starting point and the firm foundation of their productions. Nevertheless, the ways in which the movement material is generated and presented, composed and combined, situate the work of Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods on those edges where dance or, for that matter, choreography is redefined in terms of ‘performance art’. In this respect, particular attention should be paid to Meg Stuart’s interest in improvisation, witness Crash Landing, the improvisation project she initiated and directed between 1996 and 1999 in Leuven, Vienna, Paris, Lisbon, and Moscow. This series of performances is evidence of Meg Stuart’s historical consciousness as a performing artist, particularly of her interest in the work of the Judson Church collective and related experimental performing initiatives during the 1960’s. As in these by-now famous re-framings of the performing arts, the Crash Landing series was, once again, an interdisciplinary project, involving performers, musicians, and visual artists.
Improvisation or, more precisely, movement research and ‘physical tasks’ are also Meg Stuart’s preferred way to bring forth material when working on a new production. During the second phase, the produced material is, of course, tested for its connotative richness, selected and refined, and, if need be, ‘freshened up’. As every Damaged Goods production immediately demonstrates, the combination of the withdrawn movements and gestures does not so much obey a formal aesthetic logic but rather refers to a preceding process of montage that is comparable with the way a film maker finishes her or his work. Indeed, the visual art of cinema and not choreography in the ongoing meaning of the word seems to be the primary model for the way Meg Stuart weaves together the different materials – besides bodily movements or gesture also props, lightning, sound, and so on – into a performance.
A final word or appreciation – for the performers. Meg Stuart very obviously has a keen eye for the bodily particularity and singular presence of her performers. She exploits their individuality aesthetically up to the point that they are no longer just performing (in the sense of executing) artists but become creative artists in their own right. At the same time, this transformation can only occur thanks to their personal strength, their individual engagement, and, particularly, their sometimes fascinating ‘presentness’. I borrow the last term from Michael Fried, who used the notion in order to circumscribe the visual impact of a great work of art. ‘Presentness is grace’, thus Fried writes at the end of his famous article on ‘Art and Objecthood’ – and this very same ‘presentness’ is strikingly often the basic quality of the stage presence of the performers who are or have been members of Damaged Goods.

This text was conceived in view of the official laudatio which the author delivered on occasion of the award of the Culture Prize 2000 of the Catholic University of Leuven to Meg Suart & Damaged Goods.