Julian Juhlin is prostrate in a rotating Perspex box surrounded by neon tubes. At 2pm every day, he undergoes a bloodletting. You can win the blood, flattened within clear keyrings into rusty Rorschach blots, at a chirpy pink tombola cart. The exhibit’s description tells you that Juhlin is thirty-one, Danish and a virgin. It doesn’t tell you that he is one of Europe’s most exciting performance designers. (The Virgin Tour, Julian Juhlin, Denmark)
Prague Quadrennial is perhaps the most exciting, dynamic, form breaking international theatre festival that you have never heard of. To tell you that it is a ten-day festival celebrating and parading the best of global scenography probably doesn’t illuminate it much. Perhaps if I describe it as cross between the Venice Biennale, Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the TEDX tent at Latitude? How about some facts and figures? PQ features 150 expositions from 78 countries and over 600 events. The theme for 2019 was ‘Imagination, Transformation and Memory’, which meant to encompass three stages in designers’ careers. The imagination of the early days, transforming and instigating transformation throughout, and remembering icons. ‘We were looking’, says curator Markéta Fantovà ‘for scenography that you can feel. That is live’.
We walk through Stromovka park listening to snatches of conversation, weather and birdsong through headphones. We are here but we are not here now. (Entangled Formations, Anne Cecile Lie, Norway)
Prague Quadrennial disrupts the Anglo-Western theatrical tradition. There is no clear hierarchy in this work between text, direction or design. Some works are visually led narratives – a multi-layered, live recorded Medea (Georgia), or Microcosm, where materials seem to dance of their own accord in a smoke-filled room (France). Some focus on pure sensation – ZRwdZ traps you inside a giant music box (Latvia). Others redraw the boundaries of space you thought you understood; by asking you to see it through your skin via a temporary tattoo (Porous City, UK) or disrupting it with an exploding watermelon (Dictionary of Chaos, Taiwan).
The performances range hugely in scale from ‘vertical dancers’ (The Flock Project Hungary) abseiling down the side of a skyscraper hotel to a one-on-one storytelling encounter in a tent (Trophy, Canada). The Blue Hour (led by French designer Romain Tardy), showcases the latest LX and sound in an installation that takes over a massive sports hall. Moving lights swing through metal three storey stairways populated by clanking silhouettes. It is like being in a city-scape from Blade Runner, a space built from light and mirrors and impossibilities.
There is a fine line between work that is impressive in a ‘look what we can do’ sense, and that which locates the right scenographic tools with which to convey exactly what the artist wants to say. Countries typically make a choice with their exhibits; to display a mix of the ‘best’ work by their ‘best’ designers over the last four years, or to create a singular exhibit that makes a statement.
I sit in at a round table set like a Warhammer-style table top game with headphones on. The disembodied voice of a Catalan designer tells me to take the objects out of the white Formica drawer in front of me. I lay a table. I make a barricade. I watch a video of Spanish police brutally beat Catalans trying to vote in Barcelona. I look across to see my neighbour arrange pins in felt to mimic the groupings of protestors. There are six of us sat at this table, each meditatively engaged in minute tasks that re-enact Catalan politics, six social conflicts over the last 15 years with nothing more complex that balloons, stickers, tableware and pins. (Prospective Actions, Catalonia)
Maybe it would be helpful to attempt to define scenography, something that others have taken entire books to do. In my own PhD I nailed my colours to the glossary in defining scenography as the composition of the visual, spatial and sonic elements of production including set, costumes, lighting, the movement of the actors’ bodies through space and the temporal process of their change and transformation. It is making sense of stories by wrapping them in sensory elements. I can tell you about what I feel but what if I made you feel it instead? What if I, just for a moment, put you into that world? Several exhibits and performances (Ireland, Bulgaria, Poland, USA) made use of Virtual Reality, but what is scenography if not VR live?
It’s over 30 degrees and the air is greasy with a mix of sweat and dirt and joy. The artists in their orange boiler suits and Prague Quadrennial visitors switch in and out of the large hole they are digging in the exhibition grounds. The hole has no purpose, but it has technique. The hole has no use, but it requires labour, cooperation and communication. The hole has no function but is strangely compelling to gaze on, a perfect circle hole-punched in the landscape. A teenage boy cycles past, doubles back and joins. He is a Syrian refugee and none of us, a very international crowd, can find a shared language apart from digging. He stays all day and returns the next. The artists worry how he will react when time comes to fill in the hole, but he does so with gusto. He plants some uprooted wildflowers in the re-laid turf before he leaves. (The Hole Collective, Australia)
Drawing on her book Beyond Scenography in her PQ talk, Dr. Rachel Hann called for a shift in thinking, to stop concentrating on what scenography is but instead what it does. The space we are in affects us, it shapes our perceptions in subtle and obvious ways. Fast architecture is scenographic – an environment quickly thrown up, constantly shifting and forcing us to reconsider our relationship to where (physically, emotionally, politically) we are.
A black cube slowly rotates. One side is cut away to create a ‘screen’ through which people inside are observing the surrounding parade ground. Music blares as festival goers are coerced by a man with a golden megaphone into performing for the frame, sneaking along the edges of the box so as to remain unseen before their ‘turn’ on ‘screen’. From the inside it seems everyone, whether involved or not are transformed into actors in a cinematic daydream. The opening credits of a feel-good movie. Reality is initially imperceptibly interrupted – a party hat here, a dance move there – before we are brought together for the big closing number. It is the everyday transformed into a fantasy, the music video we all secretly direct whilst lost in the mental space between our headphones. (Panorama Kino Theatre, Tomoskar Productions, Switzerland)
This year Prague Quadrennial returned to the Industrial Palace where it has taken place every year since 1967, after being forced into the city centre last Quadrennial due to the Palace partially burning down in 2008. It’s a slightly strange place. On its edges are the Pyramida Theatre (exactly what it sounds like) and the imposing giant black oil drum of the closed Spirála Theatre – both almost Vegas-esque monoliths to performance. It’s also home to Křižík’s fountain, an 1891 construction that rivals Bellagio’s famous streams. Once so popular that locals were bussed in to observe its glory from the stadium-like seating, it is now permanently turned off. We gather on those seats nightly, sheltering from the Czech Republic’s rainstorms with our cheap beer to watch a show that never starts.
We dance to the tunes of Japanese marching band (a Chindon’ya) Junmakidou, wearing paper masks and following the moves of three giant eggs, across the roof of the far pavilions. One of the eggs has betrayed the other and we invest in this strange narrative as the cymbals crash and the performers paint first their paper set, then us, with Japanese characters in broad brushstrokes. It is messy, beautiful and somehow, I want to cry. I don’t need to be told the story; I feel it. I feel it in my bones. (ENGI-MON, Scale Laboratory, Japan)
The Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space took place between the 6-16th June. You can read more about the exhibitors at http://www.pq.cz