The Slippery In-Between
January 30, 2014
On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival commissioned Placemaking: A Decade in the City, a collection of essays from artists and writers to explore the Festival’s ‘place’ in the public life of Vancouver. “The Slippery In-Between” by Maiko Bae Yamamoto is one of these five essays. You can read the full collection as a PDF online.
I guess I’ve always thought of myself as a person who lives in between. A hybrid, if you will.
Hybrid: biologically speaking, an offspring resulting from crossbreeding.
I seem to be most comfortable straddling things—worlds, opinions and everything in between. I think in my youth it was something I did as a kind of defence mechanism—a tactic that allowed me to avoid being categorized or pinned down. Or recognized in some way that could hurt.
Nowadays, in my everyday life, this caginess around categorization manifests itself in being the black sheep of the family or, more commonly, the eccentric friend. “Oh, meet Maiko, you’ll like her, she’s an artist.” While it can lead to some awkward dinner conversations, as an artist I’ve preferred to reside in the slippery in-between places. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve always been quite comfortable with ambiguity, particularly in my art-making. This is what perhaps makes my work a little strange. Although communication (to an audience) is of the utmost importance to me, I am not necessarily anchored by words. Language, yes (accepting that there are all sorts of other languages humans use to communicate); making meaning, yes; but words, not entirely. Words, as we all know, can be boring. This has, of course, resulted in some serious growing pains—the in-between doesn’t always lend itself to being the most reachable, and this can be alienat- ing—but it was also a good reason to hitch my wagon to a festival like PuSh.
A self-proclaimed “PuSh baby” (my company, Theatre Replacement, has presented work in or partnered with PuSh most years since it began—and incidentally we are also turning 10 years old), I can say things really started to change for me around the first few years of the Festival. Of course there were other things that helped this along, but, significantly, the opportunity to see work from other places made me realize there was more work happening out there that looked like the work I wanted to make—also work that seemed to be OK with looking like a hybrid of some kind.
Around this time PuSh helped me to get out of Dodge and travel across the pond to make and see art. I started to become more and more aware of work that called itself theatre but didn’t look like the theatre I was used to seeing back home, work that called itself performance art and didn’t seem as inaccessible as some of the performance art I had encountered, and work that called itself “live art,” which looked like a bunch of different things that were all pretty cool. In that unwieldy adolescence, I stopped calling my work theatre. I called it performance instead, although I blush a little to think of it now.
I have since learned that performance is a thing unto itself. According to noted performance scholar RoseLee Goldberg, historically “performance has been considered as a way of bringing to life many of the formal and conceptual ideas on which the making of art is based. Live gestures have constantly been used as a weapon against the conventions of established art.”(i) Turns out performance has done a great deal to further contemporary art practice. I, perhaps too naively, brandished the word on grant applications and manifestos. Turns out I still make theatre. But that’s not to say the theatre I make is not included in this definition of performance, and does not attempt to break with convention. I would like to think that it is included. And one of the reasons I find the hybrid form so full of potential is that it allows me to see where—in all my liminality—I fit in. As an artist and, to some extent, as a person. The in-between space is a completely acceptable place to be, and, for me far more interesting than the alternatives.
And as PuSh brought more and more work of the like to our city, and more of our artists went out and brought back new ideas, suddenly there were others around me, and we were now creating contexts to make this hybridized work. I felt a little like Alice, new to the rabbit hole—there were massive toadstools and tea parties and we were all sitting at the table. And like art should, the work responded to this place. Location made the hybrid forms from elsewhere look like something new, something here. And something that, to me, seemed pretty damn exciting.
… suddenly there were others around me, and we were now creating contexts to make this hybridized work.
I should clarify what I mean by hybrid, lest my ambiguous tendencies get the better of me. I guess I’m referring to the work I’ve seen that seems to draw upon different modes of performance to unfold a narrative, and not necessarily a linear one. This is the kind of work that I tend to choose to spend my money on. Generally it is more experiential, more interested in time in an immediate way, more (although I loathe to say it) “image-based” and less interested in portraying reality, although for me there is more realness to this work than in any Shakespeare I’ve seen.
Works like Forced Entertainment’s Exquisite Pain (PuSh 2007), an adaptation of artist Sophie Calle’s book by the same name, which documented, in the artist’s prolific and signature way, a “heartbreak” in which a lover never came to meet Calle at a hotel in 1985. The very interest in basing a work on this book (filled with text and images) certainly illustrates Forced Entertainment’s affinity for conceptual art, and their desire to intermingle forms.
Romeo Castellucci’s Hey Girl (PuSh 2008) is described in the program guide as a work that “takes place on the border where theatre, visual art, and self-awareness meet”—certainly evidence of performance that reveals itself through spectacular images and argues for the superiority of live theatre over other visual mediums.
In Looking for a Missing Employee (PuSh 2012) theatre and visual artist Rabih Mroué combines newspaper clippings, notebooks, photos, live projection and drawing to unfold a “performance puzzle.” This piece illustrates another hybrid trait: the willingness to deconstruct traditional ideas around the space a performance takes place in. Mroué spends most of his time in the back row of the audience, as a live image of him and what he is looking at is projected on stage. A sketch artist who adds another dimension (projected live) to the timeline of the piece also sits in the audience.
Each of these works is arguably the offspring of crossbreeding theatre and, most obviously, visual art, although there are clearly levels of other delicious ambiguities within.
And although PuSh has done much of the heavy lifting to present these hybrid works, they are also being fostered locally by other organizations, too many to mention here. All this goes to show that there are many of us who believe our theatre to be more akin to conceptual art practices and experimental dance than to traditional theatre. And rather than rehash that tired argument of traditional versus experimental theatre or plays versus image-based work, I myself would rather just recognize that there continues to be a different category of work that has been emerging for some time in this country. And that we don’t need to be defensive or afraid that the rise of this kind of work means the death of the other kinds of work. It’s not so black and white. If anything it just confirms why I want to keep making theatre that sits in between.
Maiko Bae Yamamoto
Maiko Bae Yamamoto is an artistic director of the Vancouver-based performance company Theatre Replacement. She also directs, writes, teaches and creates performance for a diverse range of companies and venues. Maiko is a graduate of SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts, and is currently a Masters candidate at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.
(i) From Performance Art From Futurism to the Present, third edition, RoseLee Goldberg.