August 20, 2009


[Spoiler alert: This post could spoil the experience for you, which may be the most important part. If you think you might have a chance to participate in GuruGuru, please look for the warning below re- when to stop reading.]

GuruGuru (2009), by the collective, Rotozaza, was commissioned by the Fusebox Festival in Austin, Texas. It's a participatory, "directed acting" production – the artists call it "Autoteatro" – and was one of the most exciting works I've encountered this year. At this moment, it's being conducted again as part of the British Council's Edinburgh Showcase 2009, at the Forest Fringe, through August 29.

I experienced GuruGuru in April-May of this year, and at that point, the artists were still refining it. So please accept my apologies for any discrepancies between my recount of the work below and its current version, whether due to any changes in the work or my defective memory.

GuruGuru lasts 50 min. and permits and requires 5 participants at a time, so you have to sign up in advance or just show up and get lucky. Participants were greeted by one of the artists, Ant Hampton. He was sufficiently slim and pale that "wraith" came to mind, though mentally highly substantial (and I understand he's picked up some color since). He quickly sized us up and cast us, passing out name labels hand-written on pieces of white bandage tape.

Hampton then led us to a locked side door into the building and gave us our instructions. He would leave us in order to open the door from the inside; when we saw it open, we were to enter, find our assigned names on the backs of five chairs, put on the headphones lying on the seats of the chairs, and be seated. The headphones would then give each of us different instructions for what to say and do. We should try to follow our instructions, but if we muffed or missed anything, we shouldn't worry, but just keep trying. We need not say our lines in the same way they were spoken to us, but we should feel free to "have fun, 'color' the character." There would be no audience, other than ourselves, and the experience would not be recorded.

[If you think you might have a chance to experience GuruGuru, stop reading now!]

After we entered, we found our chairs in a semi-circle facing a television flanked by two identical, large, fake potted plants. You could only hear your own instructions (through your own headphones), and not anyone else's. You could easily hear what the other participants were saying in accordance with their instructions, as well as sound from the tv.

On the tv there appeared a simplified, animated mouth that began speaking to us, inviting us to choose whatever appearance we preferred for it, as it cycled through various possibilities: large or small, thin-lipped or thick-, bow-shaped or not, variously colored. We made a selection in accordance with our headphones' prompts; we then went through a similar process to select a voice as it spoke in various pitches, textures, accents, etc.; then eyes, a nose, and so on, until we'd constructed an entire face and head, enjoying the consumerist experience of designing our ideal, computer-based group therapist from among a plethora of choices.

Trying to listen to and perform your instructions – while also interpreting what you and the other participants and the tv therapist were saying and doing – was disconcerting, demanding, and hilarious. You're playing an extra-detailed game of "Simon Says," in which not only your movements but your every word is dictated by a voice "in your head"-phones. Your instructions are clear but occasionally drowned out when another participant is talking, and they offer no explanation of your motivations or feelings. You're trying to get into a character that has been imagined for you – and it becomes evident that the 5 characters have been very distinctly imagined by the artists – but you've had no prior opportunity to learn what the character's supposed to be like; and you have no prior understanding of the character's circumstances, although the character does – you have to figure it all out on the fly, while trying not to act bewildered. (E.g., when at one point I was directed to start breathing hard, I wasn't sure if I was meant to be anxious, angry, aroused, or asthmatic.) This experience is in itself both viscerally unforgettable and highly thought-provoking.

As the group performed in accordance with our instructions, our words and actions often seemed both emotionally "off" and ill-timed – exchanges between characters were virtually always out of sync – this aspect seems to me to reflect interestingly on the subjects of timing, rhythm, the sometimes-awkward "dance" of interaction with others, psychological wavelength interference, etc. Nonetheless, we managed to understand the gist of what we were supposed to be trying to say.

Gradually, our "identities" were revealed. Evidently we're all actors, and we've been "on the headphones" for varying lengths of time – in some cases, years – as part of our treatment for the problem that was presumably the basis for grouping us together, stage fright. For now, we don't have to worry about forgetting our lines or, for that matter, making decisions; the headphones make all the decisions for each of us – decisions that, we're told, we'd each have made anyway, right down to when to roll our eyes (though whether in exasperation or skepticism may be unclear).

Of course this system is mind-bogglingly circular – did we ever really have stage fright, or have we just been programmed to believe that, as a justification for the whole exercise?

All kinds of issues are implicated regarding identity, role play, the need to free oneself from parental and other voices in one's head, the existential anxiety of freedom and its fruits, power, control and being controlled, brainwashing, gestalt theory, systems theory, etc. (Among other things, as Shakespeare said, "Life's but . . . a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more" {Macbeth, Act v, scene v}; I've certainly got stage fright.)

Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that our computer-based therapist has a few bugs. "His" voice and appearance are disrupted by increasing static, his voice reverts to one the group previously rejected, and aspects of his appearance revert to a default selection; he even briefly appears monstrous.

As all this unfolds, it also becomes apparent that this therapist has a substantive conflict of interest. Despite his benign veneer and the multitude of superficial choices offered to us regarding his voice and appearance, clues accumulate that he's working not primarily to help us but for corporate, commercial interests. It's more mining than ministration; who- or whatever runs the headphones already knows a lot about us; but the tv's real clients want to know more. They want to hear our dreams, not to serve us but, perhaps, to expand their control over us yet further.

Before the end of the "session," one of the participants' characters, "Angel," apparently gets a glimmer that this "therapy" isn't really helping her/him, and (per instructions from the headphones) actually takes the headphones off and walks out of the room. But (as instructed before removing the headphones) s/he returns after a brief hiatus – possibly not quite able to completely detach from the tv, the group, or both? In any case, even Angel's impulse to rebel has apparently been anticipated and co-opted.

Though the tv therapist is re-booted, the glitches quickly compound again. At one point, I think I heard a suggestion that the two systems – the tv therapist and the headphones – were separate. The headphones system seemed perhaps more reliable, both in that it continued to function even while the tv system was "crashing" and in that it lacked the most sinister aspects revealed in the tv system. At the same time, it's notable that at one point, the headphones collaborate with the tv system when, in response to the tv therapist's request that Angel describe a dream, the headphones direct her/him/(me) to tell a real dream or fantasy not dictated by the headphones.

Despite being rebooted, the therapist's performance finally degrades to the point that the session has to be terminated – but our 50 minutes of "therapy" was up anyway, wasn't it?

What is the effect of having an animated, inanimate interlocutor in the mix? We all know the "therapist" is fake. We go along with the game, but we don't worry about him, what we tell him, what he makes of it, or how he influences us – at least, not until he starts seriously degrading. We don't think about the fact that he is a front for live participants who prefer to remain hidden, whose agenda remains undisclosed but who, it becomes apparent, hope we'll help them deploy us to help them. (How many of Facebook's quizzes have you taken?)

What about the second inanimate participant, the headphones? Technology's made it vastly easier and more efficient to access more information and connect with more people who share our interests, but such relations are mediated by technology. Indeed, we often e-mail rather than phone, or otherwise use technology to avoid more intimate contact – some of us even use it to distort or falsify our appearances. Interactions among the participants in GuruGuru are thoroughly mediated not just by the "therapist" but primarily by the headphones. We get to share our "real" responses only if we hang around afterward.

And being on the headphones was akin, it seemed to me, to life in general, in that, once we're born, we truly do have to discover ourselves, to learn what various sensations mean, how to operate our bodies and manage our emotions, what our strengths and weaknesses are, our preferences, etc.

Morever, as the artists have explained, the headphones system "is an advanced version of the same brain currently driving things in our world, the brain which reads your emails and offers you products accordingly, the robot on the phone in the morning calling you by your name, the device in the supermarket tracking your eyeballs as they scan the shelves." Or, as William J. Mitchell might put it, Me++; or as Star Trek, the Next Generation put it, the Borg. What happens, the artists ask, when the system in which we've embedded ourselves makes mistakes or even fails? "At what point should we stop trusting?"

What about the role of the real, animate artists – the mad scientist creators of both the tv and headphones interfaces?

After experiencing GuruGuru, I asked Hampton if he'd seen Adam Curtis's BBC documentary, Century of the Self. In Century, Curtis used original vintage footage and recent interviews with people directly involved in the events recounted to show how, beginning in the 1920's, theories originated by Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, gave rise to psychoanalytically-derived public relations techniques used to uncover people's primitive, often irrational or self-centered motivations, so as both to cater to and to manipulate whole populations. These techniques have been used not only by businesses in selling products but also by politicians (and, I might add, by religious leaders – see, e.g., Brands of Faith). Some using these psychoanalytically-derived techniques believed they were helping to bring about a more democratic system in which the consumer or voter was "king." But as Curtis reveals, the point of a "focus group" was never to hear our stated opinions or preferences but rather to create a situation in which we might, through body language or other clues, betray the more primitive desires and emotions that drive our behavior without our conscious awareness. Curtis warns that decades of immersion in P.R. have transformed us from communities of citizens capable of organizing to help ourselves as well as those less fortunate into an atomized mass of consumers who look to the marketplace not only for instant gratification but also for psychic support and our very identities. The doc covers much more; I'd found it so valuable that I'd watched its 4 hours through 3 times. (As of this writing, you can find links to the 34 segments on YouTube, in order, in my previous post here; and I understand Curtis plans to make all his docs viewable here soon.)

Hampton confirmed Century had in fact been a primary inspiration for GuruGuru. Among other things, the selected appearance of the tv therapist was based on that of psychiatrist Fritz Perls, featured in Century, a key proponent of gestalt therapy and a practitioner at the Esalen Institute back in the '60's.

The artists have also explained that they share a "love for exploring systems crumbling under duress or through crisis: be they mechanical, political or belief systems, it's in the debris of their failed operations where [the artists'] ideas find expression, there in the terrible gap between human aspiration and 'how things turned out.' This gap often unfolds into a potent mix of the strangely familiar with the unidentifiable other. . . . The act of piecing together a face which eventually begins to speak and address its very creators produces highly uncanny results. It also begins to reveal a reverse-history of how psychoanalysis evolved into advertising and consumer research . . . . It is through Freud's notion of the uncanny that the story of modern man's relationship with the self is explored and unpeeled, revealing failed experiments, skewed intentions and, ultimately, a mindset stuck on consumer-led priorities. The piece isolates the moment when our optimism and 'good faith' in systems takes a nose-dive, where the hollow core of Freud's misappropriated ideas opens up to swallow us, and asks . . . . At what point do we have to think for ourselves?"

I was sorry to think relatively few people might have the chance to participate in GuruGuru and asked Hampton about the possibility of putting a version on the 'net, perhaps as a multiplayer online game for participants with videochat capability. He was emphatic that this would not be consistent with the purposes of the piece.

This post is part of a wider-ranging conversation I think I'd like to have about relational art (a.k.a. participatory art, dialogic art, discursive art, etc.). Jumping ahead . . . a few writers seem to have suggested that artists have become more interested in in-person exchanges, avoiding new media, perhaps partly in reaction against the alienating effects of media and the use of media by businesses and governments to manipulate mass markets and other populations, and some have even suggested that "good" relational art should give rise to interactions that have particular qualities, such as being empathy-enhancing, or building community without suppressing individuality. I think this view is too limiting. It seems to me that artists are exploring ALL kinds of relations, whether in-person or mediated by technology, and whether community-building or manipulative or even abusive. I wonder if the defining characteristic of relational art isn't simply that it focusses on the interactions, the relations created in the course of the project, as the primary art object. I think artists are asking, what conditions lead to what kinds of relations, and to what kinds of effects do those relations in turn lead?

In 1975, I wrote a paper on John Milton's dramatic poem, Samson Agonistes. The method of analysis I used then was much the same as the one I apply now in studying art works. In that paper, I concluded that part of the meaning of the poem was that "meaning resides in relatedness."

GuruGuru ingeniously combines and contrasts a wide variety of kinds of relations. In this piece, even our relationship to ourselves is mediated by technology – yet at the same time, we can only experience the work in person, in real space and real time, and we have the chance to continue our new in-person relationships elsewhere in space and time. Indeed, Hampton tells me, one member of a group of participants who decided to hang out together for a bit afterward noticed they had to go though a process of "un-learning" what they'd projected onto one another as GuruGuru characters.

GuruGuru is a collaboration among writer, director and performance maker Ant Hampton, musician and composer Isambard Khroustaliov, and filmmaker, animator and graphic artist Joji Koyama. (The three artists also presented some of their individual works in an evening program at Fusebox, which was also terrific.) More details about GuruGuru and these particular artists here, and more info on the Rotozaza collective here.

UPDATE: I understand GuruGuru's booked more or less solid in Edinburgh (but do try to get in) and that Adam Curtis is planning to attend.

FURTHER UPDATE: Century of the Self is now viewable here.

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