Cyborgs in Mutation: osseus labyrint
The subjects are cyborg, nature is Coyote, and the geography is Elsewhere.
October 2, 1999: A crew with heavy-duty cables, electric generators, sound and lighting equipment, and video cameras gathers in Los Angeles River'sconcretefilled riverbed for a location shoot. This rather frequent sight in L.A. is the cover for an impending live performance, which doubles as the filming of a documentary byosseus labyrint, the multidisciplinary ensemble founded and led by Hannah Sim and Mark Steger. Sim and Steger had tried without success to obtain a permit for an on-site live performance here underneath the First Street Bridge. They changed their strategy to apply for a film permit
September 22, 1999 [Backtrack]: An air of L.A. confidentiality begins to generate ten days before a planned live event in the downtown section of Los Angeles River. osseus labyrint announces the coming of THEM with a postcard, which displays what appears to be a classical perspectival painting of the First Street Bridge astride its postindustrial site, flanked by railroad tracks on both banks. At the center of the postcard a pale spectral figure walks on all fours; on the postcard's lower edge a series of cryptic lines and dots look like a mixture between a barcode and telegraphic signals. “A Scout from Mars snooping in L.A.!” flashes the image's subtext, an almost compulsive “reader's response” in this sci-fi-fed, tabloid-news-jaded metropolis. “The truth is out there.” And we must go find it! So prods the cryptic postcard from osseus labyrint, which omits most details but lists an information number. At this number a three-minute recorded message instructs the caller where to meet, what to wear, how to get down to the riverbed, and when to call again for contingencies. The scent of a semilegal clandestine affair lingers.
October 2, 1999 [Fast forward]: In the late afternoon osseus labyrint arrives at the side alley next to the First Street Bridge to find its planned entrance to the riverbed blocked by a mile-long train. The railroad police exacerbate the situation by forbidding anyone to cross the track because of an accident that killed two people the day before. The company has to change the performance site to the opposite bank, while improvising a human map by stationing attendants at strategic spots to guide the audience through the urban labyrinth of downtown L.A.
October 2, 1999 [Five hours later]: The audience arriving in cars is rerouted by guides in orange night-glo jackets, swinging flashlights. More than a hundred cars trail each other, circling around factory lots and downtown shops and then diving through the storm drain that plummets into the riverbed. We spectators are instructed to drive close to the bank, cross the water that slightly hugs the tires, stay away from the central current, and triple-park on the riverbed. We then climb up the concrete bank and cautiously hold onto the barbwire that divides the river from the railroad track as we trek toward the performance site for THEM. There are already people sitting on the sloping bank underneath the concrete bridge, waiting.
All this is the circumstantial drama preceding osseus labyrint's THEM, a project that both marks the group's return to open-site performance and signals its closer relationship with the geography and culture of L.A. Before Sim and Steger moved to L.A. in 1994, they spent a lot of time abroad enacting
In conceptual terms, I regard the performance of THEM as beginning with the dissemination of the postcard that invites audience participation. The information “hotline” urges callers to reconnect at a later date—preferably an hour before the designated event; potential spectators become enmeshed in a psychic theater that attracts their consensual actions with a promise tantalizing in its mystique. Since there is no advertisement for THEM other than the postcard and since the performance is free and its site unusual, callers for information become messengers carrying the clues to a treasure hunt. Word of mouth spreads these lures among potential viewers like self-generated rumors hatching a cult. The condition of exchange—free spectatorship for volunteering as an extra in a film—heightens the excitement, even in a city where being in a movie is as “impossible” as eating a takeout pizza!
Considering both its circumstantial drama and the impact of its environment, I may best describe THEM as a “habitat performance.” A habitat is a unique locus where certain organisms survive and thrive; a habitat performance is then a new species of performance that lures the audience to a specific (open) site to observe the bio-activities of rare creatures. The highlight of a habitat performance arises from the dynamic interplay between the performer, who assumes the roles of the biota (flora and fauna) in the given habitat, and the habitat itself, the time/space within which the bio-performance occurs. Biology and ecology, in short, are the major themes of a habitat performance. Inall likelihood, the audience for a habitat performance resembles avoyeuris-tic theater audience once the action starts. The bio-ecological context of a habitat performance, however, places its audience by default into the positions of
48 osseus labyrint, Gordian(not), 1997, performed at Highways, Santa Monica, California. Hannah Sim and Mark Steger's bodies as habitat. Photo © 1998 Richard Downing. Courtesy of osseus labyrint.
The intertwining of biology and ecology has been a predominant feature in osseus labyrint's numerous performance sightings in L.A. Before they were able to stage their “biology” within a found “ecology” in a project like THEM, Sim and Steger managed to conflate the two themes in their choreography, creating their habitat through their bodies (fig. 48). There is a direct correlation between their corporeal formalism and the fabrication of their habitat. In a metaphorical sense, one may suggest, every theatrical environment is a simulated habitat and the players in it, caught in the sound and fury of that artificial microcosm, are histrionic creatures worthy of our curiosity and scrutiny. What makes osseus labyrint stand out from this theatrical/metaphorical usage is that the group literally constructs its habitat out of the performing bodies, thereby fusing the bio-ecological topoi of ethology and habitat.
Sim and Steger invent a formal language with little else than their bodies. They start with the visual design of their stage presence. Skin as uniform: the couple's standard costume is their naked and clean-shaven bodies. Their convention of not wearing any clothes in performance emulates the natural state of other animals, while reinforcing the ethological dimension of their choreography.
While osseus labyrint's performances are rife with allusions to the natural world, the company's aesthetics belongs more precisely to the liminal zone where the natural, the artifactual, and the paranormal converge. Such an intermixture may be partially ascribed to the prevalent postmodernist tendencies of aesthetic hybridity and fragmentation. It is also a studied result of Sim and Steger's joint quest, specified by their mission statement as “a laboratory of random mutations.” Central to osseus labyrint's art, then, is the continuous experimentation with ideas and acts of mutation.
To start with, Sim and Steger routinely print their company name in lowercase bold type as osseus labyrint. This typographical design shows a mild mutation, for it diverts from the customary practice of capitalizing a proper noun. Etymologically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “osseus” is a Latin adjective for “bony”; it has evolved into the English adjective “osseous,” meaning “resembling bones; hard or firm as bone,” and it can be used to qualify a geological deposit as “containing many fossil bones.” Bones have a major significance in understanding the history of life because they virtually document the evolutionary process by leaving fossil records. In addition to this biological implication, “osseous” seems a visually precise term for capturing my immediate perception of Sim's and Steger's bony physiques. By adopting the word's archaic Latin form, the artists give priority to the sense of unfamiliarity in tandem with the effect of mutation.
“Labyrint,” is related to the noun “labyrinth,” indicating a complex structure like a maze or an intricate system. In anatomy and zoology, “labyrinth” denotes “the inner ear,” which is, according to Gray's Anatomy, “the essential part of the organ of hearing, receiving the ultimate distribution of the auditory nerve.” Sim and Steger found their company name in this nineteenthcentury medical textbook, which notes that the labyrinth consists of two parts: the “osseous labyrinth, a series of cavities channeled out of the substance of the petrous bone, and the membraneous labyrinth, the latter being contained
The current usage of “osseus labyrint”came about when, during their 1990 tour to Czechoslovakia, the local press happened to drop the “h” from “labyrinth.” Sim and Steger decided to accommodate this accidental slippage— a move that exemplifies the artists' affinity for mutation, which is in essence a radical alteration through chance or design.
This affinity for mutation also fosters Sim and Steger's kinetic style. I like to describe their movement style as “alien body art” for two reasons: because Sim and Steger have half-seriously identified themselves as “aliens” and because I've never seen anything quite like it—a hybrid between dance, acrobatics, body art, and extreme sports. Predictably, the artists themselves resent fixing their art in a definite category. They object especially to my labeling of their work as “dance” and complain that they have frequently suffered from the press'smisidentification of their work as “Butoh.” Ikeep the term “dance,” however, as a viable reference to their work in the light of the many nontraditional movements developed in the dance field since the 1960s.
To the untrained eye, certain traits in osseus labyrint's performance, such as nudity, strenuous movements, or hanging upside down, do resemble Butoh. These superficial resemblances dissolve under scrutiny. One formalistic difference lies in osseus labyrint's neoclassical approach to balance. Whereas most Butoh styles privilege asymmetrical movements, osseus labyrint features an overall emphasis on symmetry, without excluding some asymmetrical moments. As I surmise, this difference results from the different bases of kinetic mimesis. The philosophy of animism in Butoh allows the dancers to express the spirits of both animate and inanimate beings (such as animals, deities, plants, minerals, and natural elements). I find that osseus labyrint has the different objective of creating forms for animate and animated beings (such as animals and machines), which commonly depend on symmetry for locomotion and spatial orientation. Thus, whatever kinetic patterns Sim and Steger have learned from Butoh, they have sifted them through a process of mutation to issue a product stylistically alien to Butoh.
Infact, Steger and Sim have had only limited encounters with Butoh. Both artists believe their performance style has more to do with other factors from their personal backgrounds than with Butoh—although Butoh was considered postmodern chic when they first started osseus labyrint in the Bay Area.
In biology, mutation is considered a mechanism of evolution. Mutation and genetic recombination produce variability among individuals and this variability is then subject to natural selection: a certain variant may increase the organism's adaptability and potential for survival and reproduction or it may be de-selected as unfit. In genetics, mutation denotes an inheritable change in genetic information in an organism's chromosomes. Mutation may occur spontaneously, through errors in DNA replication, or result from exposure to radiation or physical or chemical agents. Mutation may produce harmful effects and eventually be eliminated; or it may enhance an offspring's adaptability; or it may be inherited without any apparent benefit to the species' survival.
Although mutation is implicated in the evolutionary process, we may distinguish the two phenomena bytheir temporal span and thematic accent. Evolution traces the extended line of development based on natural selection and on all living beings' instinctive drive for survival. Mutation is often perceived as abrupt, aberrant, and intractable, for it may happen accidentally or with-out easily discernible reasons. While evolution encompasses both the conservation and change of certain genetic traits, mutation has a singular stress
In Woof (1998) Sim and Steger interpret mutation as an evolution hastened by the desires to learn, to play, and to mate. The action begins with Sim slowly descending onto the stage by tilting her head backward and resting her nape on a strap with a loop hanging from the ceiling. From the wing Steger crawls in, mainly by contracting his shoulder and waist muscles to propel himself forward. Sim lies prostrate on the floor, struggling to climb up, beating her arms against the ground. She encounters Steger, a random meeting that occasions series of changes to both their bodies, intimating mutations across the species line. They make first contact by smelling each other out, gradually raising their upper torsos. They establish further communication by imitating each other's body languages. Their flirtation ends with a simple ritual of layering their bodies on top of one another. After their union, they seem to climb “up”the evolutionary ladder to walk on all fours, bobbing their heads around in an osseus labyrint routine that Sim and Steger call “pachyderming” (walking like a large, thick-skinned, hoofed mammal such as an elephant, with the neck waving like an elephant's trunk). The piece culminates in a humorous tour-de-force when Sim, in her pachyderming posture, lays an egg in plain sight! The evolutionary “woof” has gone awry, mating a vulture-ermine with a slug-lizard and letting an amphibian hippopotamus lay a single bouncy egg.
Evolution as motivated mutation coordinates the action of Woof, which stars two phenomenally adaptable creatures rooting for pleasure, procreation, and survival. Yet, more often than not, mutation is an involuntary act, producing consequences beyond the control of the mutated subjects and their others. The crisis of mutation becomes a pre-text for THEM, evoking a pre ceding text —a 1954 sci-fi movie Them! —and serving as a pretext for osseus labyrint'slargely plotless action. The Gordon Douglas movie takes its title from a scene in which a horrified little girl barely identifies the killers of her family by blurting out, “Them! Them! ” The homicidal “them” is a horde of nuclear-mutated, carnivorous giant ants, escaping human prosecution from New Mexico to California, while preying on people, destroying property, and stealing sugar. The movie's final countdown spectacle takes place in the Los Angeles River's drainage system, where an army directed by entomologists overtakes the mutant ants in their new nest.
The preexisting narrative framework from a cult Hollywood movie adds an inflection to the circumstantial drama of THEM. Byanalogy, wewho come to wait and watch become either the worker ants attending the queen's mating dance, or the human defenders who seek to sabotage the habitat of them: the antenna-sprouting aliens. In either scenario, we have entered their territory,
To some extent, the movie reference also exists as a pretext, considering that it only reinforces osseus labyrint's recurrent motifs of alienation, mutation, and migration without supplying THEM with a search-(the monsters) and-destroy-(them) plotline. In fact, there is no program note citing the scifi movie as a pre-text, an inter-text, or a post-text. Knowing about Them! is by no means a prerequisite for enjoying THEM, although awareness of the movie may add some provocative nuances to the event. THEM unfolds in and of itself more like a hyperdance, a happening, and an extreme spectacle than a narrative drama. A tightly constructed visual opera, the piece consists of three distinct acts. Each act happens in an isolated microlocation within the habitat and progresses through a sequence of effervescent movements.
The first act might be called an acrobatics of flight, echoing the giant ants' escape through the air in Them! The action begins with an electronic auralscape of natural and mechanical sounds (the wind, the water flowing, a train) prerecorded from the river environment and recomposed and performed by Daniel Day and Ann Perich. Sim and Steger enter in their standard costumes: hairless and bare despite the chilly river wind. The duo swiftly strap themselves on foot harnesses, pulling their bodies up on two ropes that hang from the bridge (fig. 49). Suspended about thirty feet off the ground, without a safety net, Sim and Steger loosen their harnesses to hang upside down bytheir ankles. They keep their chins tucked and their arms upside down to pause in midair, like bats in hibernation. Their stillness and apparent ease induce the perception that they operate on reversed gravity. The only telltale sign about their “unnatural” postures appears as the subtle differentiation of colors: their upper torsos look slightly redder (bloodier) than their lower limbs.
The twinlike body artists, illuminated byasearchlight, cast mammoth shadows on the skein. The uncanny similarities of their physiques and bodily surfaces elude sexual differentiation, even individual distinction. Such similari-ties are fortified by their symmetrical choreography, which renders their shadows virtually identical and synchronized in motion. At times they modify
49 osseus labyrint, THEM, 1999, performed at the Los Angeles River, underneath the First Street Bridge. Photo: Eric Tucker. Courtesy of osseus labyrint.
50 osseus labyrint, THEM, 1999. Photo: Eric Tucker. Courtesy of osseus labyrint.
The second act proceeds as an alien tango with the ground, evoking images of earthbound insects. The duo, with their backs toward us, descend into a pool of red light. Keeping their faces averted and legs bent, their backs are canvases for transient muscular forms. They extend their spines and lie prostrate, inching forward, allowing their flesh to rub on the hard surface. Crawling in a horizontal motion, they twist and thrust their arms backward, circling their fingers and turning their hollowed fists around inquisitively like diligent antennas. They raise their whole bodies upward by resting on cheeks and necks; their legs branch out, testing the air (fig. 50). Who are these creatures? I can't help wondering. Sim and Steger are able to transform their anatomies to such adegree that their movements often appear directionless—
While the duo adopt symmetry to produce doubling between them, their kinetic art follows a linear structure to create a flow of metamorphosis: their torsos and limbs mutate in progressive variations without much cyclical repetition. This choreographic linearity formally represents the successive course of evolution; it also emulates the seriality of animation frames. The two artists move through fluid configurations unhindered as if they were projections in a program on “Liquid TV.” Their somatic gestures are both rhythmic and jerky, attenuated and proficient, volatile and rigorous, presenting angles so exaggerated and shapes so difficult and outlandish that they seldom look human. Like hybrids between bugs and engines, reptiles and robots, Sim and Steger evolve from one species to another, or rather, they morph from one animation trope to another. Then, they end the state of constant motions to become ossified specimens. Are they aliens poisoned by human pollution?
The music stops. Two men in plain clothes approach the pair. Jointly they move Steger from the dry concrete to the shallow water about fifteen feet away. They return to move Sim to the water. Some people sigh in disbelief. One guy behind me mumbles, “They are crazy!” But most of us spectators run quickly to the waterfront. Pushed by the two men, the frozen bodies start rolling slowly on their own toward deeper water. Before I can register what is happening, the performers drop into the central current and their twin figures are instantly carried away by the rapids. Against the moonlight, we see only two heads plunging into darkness, oceanward. THEM disappears with this breathtaking exit.
Precisely because of their daredevil courage, prowess, and physiological aptitude, Sim and Steger appear to embody postmodern sci-fi visions of the cy borg, a cybernetic organism compounded of the animal and the machine. Celebrated by Donna Haraway as “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction,” a cyborg is—in my lexicon—a homi-xenological invention that symbolizes the human's cohabitation with and assimilation of the intelligent machines in our thoroughly technologized existence. According to Haraway's elaboration in “A Cyborg Manifesto,” cyborgs are post-Second World War hybrids with two contemporary guises: first, cyborgs are “ourselves and other organic creatures in our unchosen ‘high-technological’ guise as information systems, texts, and ergonomically controlled labouring, desiring, and reproducing systems”; second, cyborgs are “machines in their guise, also, as com-munications systems, texts, and self-acting, ergonomically designed apparatus.” I suggest that Sim and Steger'sperformance personas recall a third type
The context of cyborfication offers another rationale for the near-mirror images of Sim'sand Steger'sclean-shaven, nude, and smooth surfaces. As Haraway observes felicitously, “The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity.” Given their sexual difference, Sim and Steger have downplayed their anatomical divergence in performance. Their stress on back movements, for instance, is an overt strategy in masking their sexuality. The equivalent difficulty in the two's choreographed movements also turns their genital dissimilarity into a nonissue, while heightening their machinelike efficiency and exactitude. Seemingly beyond gender and beyond gravity, the androgynous couple out-trump the high-tech cyborgs with their own low-tech performance magnetism, a mega-science hu manly powered by little more than their technology of the body. (Unless I am tricked by my suspicion that Sim and Steger cannot really be, as they profess, aliens.)
The technology of the body is the central appeal of osseus labyrint's art. Understandably most of their performances are wordless dramas of high athleticism. But even this tendency is subject to mutation. In a 1999 adaptation of Macbeth, osseus labyrint throws Shakespeare's tragedy of premonition, usurpation, and damnation off in a spin. Interestingly, the title of this piece has inadvertently endured successive mutations. Sim and Steger named their project The Tragedy of Macbeth, which appeared as the title in its performance at Highways. But, from a prior miscommunication, the work was advertised on Highways' performance calendar as Something Wicked This Way Comes. Most recently, in promotional literature prepared for an exhibition of Sim's installation/performance Unsex Me Here (2000), the project was identified as Mac Beth. Considering the central role mutation has played in osseus labyrint's corpus, I have decided to take Mac Beth, my favorite title among the three, as a shorthand for identifying this project.
The text of Mac Beth includes many of Shakespeare's words, albeit freely shorn and reassembled. The project employs six actors, one runner billed as
Like THEM, Mac Beth presents a gestalt experience, accomplished by osseus labyrint's comprehensive design for the event. This design typically encompasses the program brochure, the production concept, and the fabrication of an altered state of existence. Moreover, it is through the company's kinetic dramaturgy that the mutant theatricality of this multisensory experience is fleshed out.
The program for Mac Beth is a slender booklet tied with a cotton rope. The cover features The Tragedy of Macbeth in chiseled letters, illustrated by the image of a dagger sliding through two tumbling figures conjoined at their thighs. A symmetrically folded insert in the brochure opens to a distorted anatomical picture of a skull, stretched to link to a trumpet-shape channel/tunnel. The caption reads: “The Right Membranous Labyrinth with Cerebral Hemispheres exposed.” The picture is divided in the middle, opening to reveal a circular map of a brain. The brain map doubles as the diagram of a feudal castle with six compartments, marked respectively “Crown; Letter; Dagger; Vessel; Candle; Wood.” Its caption reads: “The Base of the Cranial Cavity as seen from above,” followed bysix quotations from Shakespeare. Each quotation in turn refers back to an emblematic object outlined in the brain-castle.
Like the Witches' riddlelike oracles, these quotations allude to six paradigmatic scenes in the source play, further mapping the adapted course of Mac Beth: (1) “fair is foul, and foul is fair”—the prophecy from the three Witches, who promise the future crown for Macbeth; (2) “come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty”—the ambition of Lady Macbeth ignited by the let ter she receives from Macbeth; (3) “light thickens, and the crow makes wing to th' rooky wood, good things of day begin to droop and drowse, whilst night's black agents to their preys do rouse”—the assassination of Duncan by Macbeth and the dagger with which he commits regicide; (4) “blood will have blood”—the appearance of Banquo'sghost to haunt Macbeth, who breaks his wine vessel at the banquet; (5) “and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death”—Lady Macbeth's candle -lit sorrow before her suicide; (6) “peace. The charm's wound up”—Macbeth's stabbing by MacDuff, who
Sim and Steger sum up their concept for Mac Beth in one phrase: “an archeological ghost story.” The concise phrase captures the gist of osseus labyrint's reinterpretation of Macbeth, which lies in interpolating a narrative perspective through the figure of an Archeologist. This framing character (played by Marianne Magne) functions much like a surrogate for the spectator and a catalyst for the performer. Her periodic entrances into the scene thread together the six disparate sections noted in the program. Her action, moreover, is defined byher interactions with the six emblematic objects in Macbeth'sbraincastle, offering crystallized titles to the episodes dramatized in Mac Beth. The Archeologist, for example, finds a candle and takes a snapshot of her find, thereby triggering the episode in which Lady Macbeth (played by Sim), lit by that verycandle, washes her hands repeatedly in a ritualistic swan song of madness before death. The action of Mac Beth is therefore not exactly propelled by the plan of a usurper, but rather by the adventure of an explorer. The explorer's meddling with the past accidentally awakens the ghosts condemned to rehearse once again their erstwhile passionate moments. Inview of this concept, our opening of the folded program takes on another significance: like the Archeologist, we are excavating an ancient site, terrain by terrain, in order to consort with lingering shadows in the cave.
And in the cave we find three bald and naked figures sitting still in foot harnesses hoisted up in midair. On a platform further back stands a similar naked figure, tilting his head toward a big horn hung together with a speaker. Two musicians with noise instruments and synthesizers are installed in a corner to the east. Blackout.
Some strange clunking sounds enter the space, followed by the click of a switch for a tiny spotlight. The light comes from a headlamp worn by a figure fully wrapped in bulky attire, consisting of a miner's helmet, a pair of goggles, a mouth-muffle, rubber gloves, a jumpsuit with assorted tubes plus mountaineering gears, and hard-shelled boots. Moving clumsily about and peering through a magnifying glass, the Archeologist creates a first impression of an astronaut-cum-bounty hunter, sporting her thrifty-store fashion from the future. By her infection-proof costume and by the way her boots clunk and suck on the floor, I sense that we have been transported to another planet or to a remote space/time zone where a different gravity is at work.
Lights come up on the three Witches (played by Sim, Carol Cetrone, and David Hardegree), who gradually unfurl from harnesses to dangle upside down by ankle straps. Their belly muscles contract in full spasms, while musicians speak their greetings amid a prerecorded chorus loop that sounds like ethereal omens. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, / Hover through the fog and filthy air.” Lights cross-fade to the platform with MacDunquo (played by Peter Schroff)—a hybrid character fusing together Shakespeare's Duncan, Banquo, and MacDuff—listening to battle sounds from the speaker and holding onto the horn, a blown-up “Eartrumpet” that conveys tidings concerning his kingship. But his Crown, as the Witches foretell, is about to be ripped from his forehead to land on his victorious subject of the moment, Macbeth.
Released from their harnesses, the Witches slug-crawl toward the center to meet Macbeth (played by Steger), who enters from the east, unsteady and wavering like, in Ron Athey's keen description, a “graceful gimp, each foot turned out at a disfiguring 135-degree angle.” In a snappy cartoon voice, Macbeth announces his confusion:
|What are these,|
|So withered and so wild in their attire|
|That look not like th'inhabitants of th'earth …|
|You should be women,|
|And yet your beards forbid me to interpret|
|That you are so.|
Hailed as he “that shalt be King hereafter,” Macbeth is now surrounded by the “weird sisters,” who have transformed from sluggish snakes into pachyderms. The manner of Steger'sdelivery heightens the humor of his questioning, for the pack of pachyderming Witches, in their sleek nakedness, surely have neither haggard “attire” nor “beards.”
This opening segment encapsulates all the dramaturgical strategies of Mac Beth. Two levels of reality are staggered across its phantasmic terrain: the reality of the Archeologist, who exists in an indefinite future, and that of the labyrinthine ghosts, who haunt a prehistoric limbo. The juxtaposition of these two “realities” complicates the sense of time and space constructed by Mac Beth. The Archeologist's paced survey of the relics creates an event-structured frame for the spectators, who witness her action slowly progressing forward inside a ruinous space much as a theater audience does for a play. The Archeologist's (linear) quest periodically launches Mac Beth into six exhibition cycles,
The theatrical matrix engaged by osseus labyrint revolves around the interactions between the versatile performers and their conceptually and visually provocative action. In Mac Beth this action unfolds as an intense poetry in space and a sonic mishmash comprising the characters' dialogues delivered live by actors or musicians or mediated by broadcast, in addition to music and sound effects looped and performed live. Some presentational dimensions are more successful than others. Tweaked by the patented osseus labyrint choreography, Mac Beth 'spoetry in space retains my visual interest throughout— this despite and because of the actors' different levels of kinetic expertise. But I find the sonic dimension less resolved. As Macbeth, Steger delivers most of his lines live, in an eccentric cartoon style that at times undercuts the tragic tension. Most of Sim's speech as Lady Macbeth is recorded, flowing in like faded memories. I hear pathos in her soft mediated voice, but the audacity of a woman who vows to be “unsexed” escapes me. At the same time, I have to wonder if my hunger for dramatic flair isn'tareaction from a habitual Shakespearean spectator, who feels both charmed and ill at ease confronting these phenomena of incomprehensible mutation. Am I not searching for an already fictionalized Scotland in an irretrievably mutated Mars?
Two choreographic segments in the “Letter” episode, however, stand out as exemplary scenes where visceral poetry, twisted anatomy, and semiotic rigor do join.
Holding a dusty parchment by pincers, the Archeologist begins reading a letter from Macbeth to his partner in conspiracy, Lady Macbeth, who is now resolved to be queen. Steger reasons out Macbeth's conflict and hesitation by walking a circle in an even pace, while Sim dramatizes Lady Macbeth's simmering anger and deliberation by a complex dance in the middle of the circle. She twists her arms to lock in her head and chest, gradually lowering her stature by spreading her legs, while rocking her body softly back and forth. When Macbeth reaches the pinnacle of his fear of “vaulting ambition,” this osseous Lady Macbeth also sinks to the ultimate reach of her splits, parting the legs laterally to 180 degrees on the ground (fig. 51). Such is the extremity of her resolve!
The persuasion of her gifted body continues. Lady Macbeth kneels in a fetal position; her voiceover whispers seductively,“When you durst do it, then you were a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so
51 osseus labyrint, The Tragedy of Macbeth, 1999, performed at Highways, Santa Monica, California. Hannah Sim as Lady Macbeth. Still from video document. Courtesy of osseus labyrint.
The dialogues between Sim's and Steger's body languages leave some of the most indelible impressions behind the ruins of Mac Beth. I may cite their hypnotic doubling in the piece as graphic evidence why Mac Beth is the most pertinent title for this performance. Its story morphs from an Archeologist'slucky dig, through a baroque warfare among unforgetful ghosts, to an intemperate affair between Mac and Beth. Marianne Magne, as the Archeologist, humorously captures this realization in her program note, written as a Memo by her character:
Findings on site 66, Cawdor, Scotland. Palimpsest #3, deciphered as follows: “I've been bald once” He said. “I've been bald twice” She said. “I've been bald
52 osseus labyrint, Liquor Cotunnii, 1991. The twin figures conjoined at the thighs represent Sim and Steeger's partnership. Photo by Kathy. Courtesy of osseus labyrint.
Mutation is the absurd made flesh.