What is the difference between a concept and an event? (Seriously.) Well, you might start by postulating that an event is a concept but a concept is not an event. All right. It might be true that an “event” is an abstract notion, i.e. a concept, but it also takes place in the three-dimensionality of space, which a concept like “happiness” does not by definition. Ok… You might also consider that an event has a duration, that is, it takes place over time, and a lot of concepts like happiness also exist experientially, over minutes, hours, days. Hmm… Wait, you might well ask, does this have any bearing on a theater review?
Actually, it does because the question and that kind of questioning lie at the essence of Germinal, a genial hour-long philosophy practical that trains a slightly cracked (as in crazy) lens on some basic notions of human consciousness. This Franco-Belgian production that opens The Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival struggles, deliberately and with relish, to differentiate between concepts and events, between things that “are” and things that “happen,” and between things that exist in the material world and abstract notions. It can look and feel rather facetious at times, but its argument about why we should care about these ideas is all the more convincing for that.
Germinal is the brainchild of Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort, who are “Artistic Coordinators” of L’Amicale de production, a Lille-based theater collective that creates installations, performances, lectures, treatises and “comparative advertising campaigns” on topics like variation, intellectual property vs artistic creation, “the art of the ricochet” and why poverty is akin to elegance or rock concerts are better than modern dance. These works make abundant use of flowcharts, mindmaps and drawings to help us non-philosophers follow the complexities of their arguments. I don’t know how Goerger and Defoort met but I’d guess it was in a high school philosophy class: Germinal could just as easily be a late-night study session with a group of French teenagers studying for their philosophy baccalaureate, gone wacky.
The show begins with four actors, Antoine, Ondine, Sébastien and Arnaud, in an empty space except that each of them holds a control panel. After fiddling around with these for a few minutes, they gradually discover that they can use them to project what they’re thinking onto the upstage wall of the theater. Next, they find a microphone under the floor and after figuring out that it amplifies sounds, they eventually learn how to speak. Now that they can communicate easily (those control panels were clumsy!), they set about classifying things in their material world according to whether they go “poc-poc” (whether they make a sound when you hit them with the microphone) or not. So, the floor and the walls and the rubble from tearing up the floor go “poc-poc” whereas “confusion” doesn’t. Aha! Next, these and other terms are classified in a big diagram that suddenly materializes upstage, with the headings “POC-POC” and “NOT POC-POC,” But since Antoine’s head not only goes “poc-poc” but also “ouch” when it’s hit, the need for subcategories of “POC-POC” soon presents itself.
It sounds like madness; the foursome’s discoveries are expedited by the fact that Goerger and Defoort don’t mind putting helpful props in the cast’s way: from the control panels and computer to an intercom by which they make unauthorized contact with the outside world (they are in a “closed universe,” we learn, in a stage of arrested development: “germinal” meaning in a phase of germination). A lot of Germinal’s humor also comes from the fact that the actors use both very rudimentary and quite sophisticated language to express themselves. For example, as Antoine discovers how to make sound and turn it into speech, the others throw around anatomical and linguistic terms without hesitation. He has to close his glottis and lift his larynx, they tell him, and when he does, they congratulate him on his skill at creating phonation (you and I would say “talking”). Confronted with a computer, however, all they can find to describe it is “cuboid” and while they can use it just fine, they struggle with the “reality” of the images it projects onto the walls.
But there is method to that madness, too. It’s not a coincidence, for example, that after discovering speech, they begin to classify everything around them as a function of its ability to elicit sound. Even when they are still sharing the microphone to speak in turn, the question is raised immediately as to who controls speech and the dangers of this. And they don’t just talk, they “externalize thought.” At times, I would have liked them to stop listing things like walls and hooks and curtains but rather the philosophical notions that they cruise through and by, seemingly unwittingly.
However, it’s when they leave concepts behind and start to focus on events (thanks to some low-tech computer magic), that the characters’ world – and the show – comes to life. The difference between the two can be expressed, it turns out, in more accessible layman’s terms: it’s the difference between identifying and telling, between being and existing. In the end, Germinal is concerned not with what goes “poc-poc” but rather when it goes “poc-poc”, and what that leads to and changes. It’s ultimately about storytelling (sound again) as a way of making sense of living and about how consciousness perceives its world. A deceptively simple philosophy demonstration, Germinal is both concept and event, or rather the event of a concept that could be described as thinking made joy.