Sometimes a show really upsets you, for no other reason that, despite its obvious quality and technical skill, (or perhaps precisely because of this), it operates directly against your own objectives for theatre.
As a spectator, I want certain things from theatre, and they're not rocket science. I want to feel human again. I want to understand human struggle. I want to feel empathy. I want to learn. I want to be free - even if it's just for a moment - from the restraints and oppressions which govern me. I want someone - if they are going to perform for me, and make me sit there in silent contract - to do these things on my behalf. Or to try, in a human way.
As a spectator, I want these things. As a critic: I demand them.
Pulse is an experiential light and projection performance from Teatar Rubikon, from Rijeka, Croatia, exploring physics and the limits of the human being's understanding of nature. The audience is taken on a journey through oceans, through outer space, through the history of art, and deep within the mysteries of the human body. All areas unexplainable. Presented as images, as spaces, as objects, these elements of the unknown collapse, wobble, and fold in on each other like a mutating virus, or perhaps one of those floating multi-coloured boxes that made up Windows 95’s standard screensaver.
The show is littered with references to problems of physics and its attempts to map, document, and extend the limits of human knowledge. Small things become fascinating - the human hand bathed in light, a human heart grows branches and transforms into a tree-like structure, or a human being moves across the stage in a robotic spacewalk, sits in total contrast with the all-too-human chaos of a light dancing across a stage. The view shifts suddenly from microscopic to a zoomed-out awe, jerking our position from one to the other as if in some kind of washing machine for astrophysics.
There is an innate curiosity on display here - not only in the journey through different worlds, but in the scientific process of dissection and examination. The key concern of the limitations of what we know about the environment and the legitimacy of the self-designated central place of the human being within it is also a key concern of recent Anthropocene theory, and indeed, the show if anything presents an unproblematic erasure of the human being, dwarfed - literally in the case of the spectator - in comparison with the sheer complexity of its surroundings, with its attempts to model and describe them granted at once a totalising power, and at the same time rendered somehow ridiculous.
It’s in the context of these debates about the Anthropocene that I being to encounter fundamental problems. Sitting amongst the Smederevo crowd, sensing them at once immersed and in some way hypnotised by the experience - as if in a kind of techno folk trance - it was difficult to pick the rationale. Why make this argument? A kind of communal sharing of anxiety about the human position? An empowering tool for elevating the spectator to some bird’s eye view, like a scientist staring into a microscope? Promoting interest in physics? A simple meditation? And yet such a question points to the very absence of emotion at the heart of the work. It's all very well to present the complexities of physics and the natural world, to time and space, and to point at their complexity and render feeble (and wonderful) our attempts to understand it. But without a human argument running through it, Pulse erases its most powerful agent, and the most powerful agent of theatre – the human.
There is a definite challenge in this – and it’s not entirely illegitimate. If you read any post-humanist theory or Anthropocene speculation you can quickly understand just how challenging the re-centring of the human and simultaneous collapse of humanism can be - but it's also a retreat from a key question. Furthermore, there are consequences - primarily: Without a position in the work, the spectators are left not only without speculation, but lost, floating in some an ethical void. As much as it is commonly granted neutral status, along with economics, Science is not neutral - our attempts to understand the universe are absolutely human and dependent on human factors and human limitations. The assumption that physics is somehow enough unto itself is an assumption akin to a realignment to the authentic position of the human as a kind of paradoxical agent and spectator, at once in total control of its natural environment, and absolutely its non-participatory witness.
A physicist would perhaps say – “yes, but this is in fact our natural state”. The social, cultivation, and so on are fabrications - the authentic position is one of wonder, of study, of speculation, and of a kind of nothingness. To which I would have to counter: Ah - but of course, so is science. How ridiculously abstract your scientific models are. How totally absurd to present this as ‘fact’ - it has nothing to do with reality, as anyone on the street outside of your laboratory would tell you.
This is a conversation about the power of science - where I think giving too much weight to this scientific position of modelling, mapping, and measuring is to base ourselves on a set of assumptions that are themselves fabricated. The point being - theatre is a human experience; it absolutely requires a place for the human being. If anything, in a world becoming increasingly saturated with immersive media environments, with escape from problems and with pursuits undertaken within the safety of a separate sphere, the challenge for theatre is not to erase the human being - it is precisely the opposite, to restore its innate humanness, to provide some resistance to this disconnection. To generate a critical position, to create love, to attempt to care again.
To fight for this is certainly difficult, and contains its own complexity and its own abstractions - but to try doesn't seem like too much to ask, and the theatre is one of the few places left where such territory might be reclaimed from its slow, unconscious, corrosive erosion.
Video and set design: John Dobran
Video and set design assistant: Iva Milaković and Daniel Horvat
Movement director: Frane Meden
Costumes: Kristina Nefat
Music: Ivan Sarar
Sound Effects: Tomislav Nakic Alfirević
Hair and makeup: Ksenija Nakic-Alfirevic
Publicity design: Vesna Rožman