There’s an unkind popular notion of mime at work on these shores, one that we’re all familiar with. Continental loons in abstruse convict getup and melodramatic makeup. Who, clingy and detached, piss into the wind for tourist change. Harlequin cuckolding Pierrot on centuries-old loop. A Comedia with tired punchlines. Marcel Marceau shuffling about incomprehensibly. A silent bourgeois lament. An artform of limits and hours of mute, staring boredom.
Well it’s not all like that, as evidenced by the International Mime Festival which has descended upon London with a colourful account of the form in the twenty-first century, incorporating contemporary dance, puppetry, animation and sophisticated automation. Sans Objet, taking Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times as inspiration, concerns itself with the latter, approaching the story of human spatial relationship with machines as a dark mimetic parable.
As the piece’s director and designer AurÃ©lien Bory writes “man will be forced to become technologised if he wants to stay in the race. In the past to test his capabilities he measured himself against animals. Today the challenge is technology.”
The retrograde use of the masculine pronoun is significant. This is a story of domination and subordination, of closed-built worlds, queasy biopower and homoerotic fetishisation of the machine. The star of the show is an enormous, prehensile, phallic, steampunk articulated robotic arm – of the type you might find in an anime vision of a dark Satanic mill. Quite something to behold, it pulls up the stage and rearranges it as skyscrapers, it creates enormous tarpaulin vistas, regards itself with an industrial lantern, looks gentle in repose like a fibrous muscular lover. If this is in some ways a masculine world, invoking the mindless demon of a de-contextualised physical power, it is an entirely compelling world. In the cleverness of conception and design, Sans Objet represents a triumph of stage automation.
Around the powers of the robot the two actors, dressed in suits and ties, try and build their lives. Dragged and and manipulated they are buried in the box floor, stretched, enclosed and generally distorted. As the robot slides the stage from under their scrabbling feet someone next to me squeaks “jump”, yet it’s quite apparent there’s no safe ground to reach. At another moment they clamber gently over the slowly-rotating arm like children exploring a tree, reminiscent of gentle nights bathed in the cathode glow, sifting the network, perfectly alone, deep surfing.
And therein lies the challenge for Sans Objet, a challenge never quite overcome. The machine as metaphor is an old one. Technology has shifted since Mario Savio could urge us to throw ourselves into the gears, since Chaplin could curl around them in one of the most resonant cinematic images of the 20th century. Fordism, that manufacturing ideology that split, carved, and scientised our working lives, that made clear a centralised relationship of domination is now a dispersed Post-Fordism. The factory floor has been outsourced to the global South. It’s the deadline, the target, instability and pseudo-autonomy that make up the working currency of the West. The technocracy is no longer a Luddite monolith but plastic, jargonised, bureaucratic intangible.
Perhaps there is some sense that in giving the machine “a soul”, with figurative Wall-E eyes and anthropomorphic cocks of the head, Sans Objet draws attention to the presence of technology we rapidly consider to be invisible, even as it shapes our world. The final scene, in which an enormous tarpaulin is spectacularly butted and punctured by the robot, who then from behind it shines beams of light at the audience, carries a sense of the fractal surveillance of a networked life. But this beautiful, elegant and at times sublime play, feels somehow like a period piece, its Western aesthetic harking back to the concerns of the machine age, largely falling silent on our technologised lives.