Enigma Alignment: a theory and practice for creating performances which leans upon a psychoanalytic understanding of the human condition
The Oxford Dictionary of Current English is a thick but practical paperback and does not linger over etymology or historical moments of emergence and usage. Lucky you. It merely states that an enigma is a “mysterious or puzzling person or thing.” It does add one etymological tidbit in this case: from the Greek word for riddle.
To gain a psychoanalytic understanding of the person and why he or she creates art, you have to imagine a doughnut. A doughnut is an object with a hole. You could say a doughnut exists to illustrate what a hole is, since without the doughnut you would have no hole. And without the hole, you’d have no doughnut. The existence of the doughnut depends on the existence of the hole. It depends on the lack of a center. It depends on nothing. Or it depends on something, but that something is missing.
One could argue a doughnut is what it is and is not missing anything. The hole, the missing center, is just a projection on our part. We attribute a hole because we are comparing the doughnut to something else, to a baseball or a cube, for instance, both of which are “whole” objects with nothing “lacking.” Couldn’t the doughnut also be considered whole, w(ithout) hole? Sure. We can choose to see it as an object like any other object, lacking nothing. We can think that. Just as we can think it with a hole. We can think either thing. Imagination is a great asset and allows us to dream a dream of wholeness for the doughnut. After all, why exclude the doughnut from the whole thing club? Why see through the eyes of petty prejudice? But at the level of structure, a doughnut is a torus, which in the mathematics of topology (surfaces) means, sidestepping the math, you cannot traverse its surface in the same way you might traverse a ping pong ball or a box or a can of fruit cocktail. Visualize it: you can sort of imagine being an ant and setting out upon a journey on a basketball, knowing if you stay the course on a certain line of travel, you will wind up back where you began. Any “whole” object will guarantee such a direct and complete journey. With the doughnut, however, if your ultimate goal is to return to the starting place, the hole is always going to complicate the journey. To have a straight, unswerving journey you would have to avoid the hole entirely and set a course around the outer rim, trying to act as if the object were not a doughnut. So for our purposes, let’s contend with the hole as a real thing, a structural presence (or absence), something which complicates the game.
The initial psychoanalytic wager involves seeing the person as a doughnut, as a thing which lacks something. And the lacking makes living somewhat complicated as well as somewhat interesting, to understate the situation…somewhat. To read more deeply into the whys and wherefores of this lack would take us into psychoanalytic writers like Freud, Jung, Lacan, and others. For our purposes, let’s jump the student immersion stage, assume we’ve done the reading, undergone our own analysis, even, and move to the implications for artist and audience.
How does an artist contend with the hole in the doughnut? In an initial flood of comprehension you might assert: Fill the hole with the work of art! And the short response to that is: Yes! But the artist has spent some time contemplating his or her own hole and knows nothing is quite that simple. But thinking this way has given us two provisional parts of a structure. The artist wants to fill the hole in the doughnut, yes, but whose hole? The artist has a hole which the process of creating and the object created try to fill…somewhat. And the audience for the artist’s work is attempting to fill a hole through the encounter with the work. You, as an appreciator, as an audience, are bringing the object to the place of your lacking, your hole. Artist and Audience. Two doughnuts, two holes. Is that it?
Clearly we are being led to something else. After all, another psychoanalytic wager involves saying two is…somewhat insufficient for a complete structure. With art making we must include the work of art itself. The third thing is the object. A third object? We already have two doughnuts, don’t we? But artist and audience aren’t really doughnuts, are they? For the sake of making a structure, let’s continue to see them as doughnuts and add the third object, the art object. The art object is serving to fill two holes in two doughnuts.
Let’s try to make this all a bit more meaningful as far as the work of the artist goes. Let us assume we are performing artists who might work in the realm of the drama or might not. We may or may not be engaged in telling a story, but we are without doubt engaged in producing a performed event for an audience. We do, without doubt, occupy a dimension of meaning in our performing. Even if we set out only to produce sensations which frustrate sense, we have to use the dimension of meaning to establish some kind of connection with the audience, a basic contract if nothing else. Now think about this hole in the doughnut. Think about the ways this hole is experienced by a human being. Think about how an experience of a hole can be communicated. In the realm of meaning, what is the most fundamental way such a lack can be represented? What is this hole? How is it experienced? Why is it there? Where does it lead? When does it appear? What? Why? How? Where? When? ? ? ? Another wager of psychoanalysis (and of many expressions of dramatic theory, too, by the way) is that the question is the fundamental symbolic structure for expressing our constitutional lack, that inside the hole in the doughnut is a question mark. The artist, then, in contemplating the hole in the doughnut, is contemplating a question. The performing artist, when engaged in working with the hole, with somehow filling it through an act, is engaged with a question. Every creative act is rooted in a question. If this is true, then every created object is built upon a question. And if this is true, then every art object, every performance in our case, can be seen as having a question at its constituted center. Voila. Like the artist and the audience, the object is a doughnut. Now we have three doughnuts. Three holes. Three questions. Our art of performance works with these three structures, whether we are engaged in dramatic storytelling, improvisation, temporal image making, musical expression, playing games, or anything which involves an audience, an artist, and creating an object (or event or story or…).
Already we have a very complex structure, but it can be complicated even further. Our three doughnuts are brought together through convention, custom and culture–three forces which create, protect and guarantee our basic opportunity to attempt art for an audience. Think of these forces as shaping a privileged arena in which we are able to ask our questions. We have to acknowledge a fourth thing which assures meaning for our three doughnut questions. Think of it in a wider sense as the very words and ideas we use to ask our questions. Think of it as the place where an audience can meet us halfway and gain some understanding. We are given meaning and structure through it, our names and family networks being two concrete examples. We are led to understand ourselves as doughnuts because of it. We experience the possible and the impossible because of it. We exist in it knowing our questions will not always get answered. Let’s call it…not another doughnut, even though it can seem like a doughnut at times, with its own set of human qualities and lacks. Let’s just call it a place, with the existence of artists and audience and objects holding a position in its midst. And it does have holes, this place, because the artists, the audiences and the objects have holes; we are a part of the place and we have holes, and the holes seem to go all the way through. But we cannot call it a doughnut with 100 percent certainty since we are uncertain if it is being seen from a sufficient distance by someone or something with the ability to identify doughnuts. There’s a question there. A hole in our knowledge.
So we have established some kind of outer boundary for our structure, where we confront a question and are taken back to our hole, our lack, our own question. And so let’s ask how our little model can help us as artists as we contemplate the question and create new work. It’s important to understand this question in the center of the doughnut as a fundamental question, as an intimate question. Not necessarily something you would readily chat about at a party. And it helps to know that for the audience, the same intimate interior is at stake. The artist must bring an inner experience of the question into alignment with the audience’s experience of its own intimate interior (and the audience is really a collection of individuals, each with an intimate interior, mass effects arise from various co-ordinations of the truths we have in common). Intimate questions touch upon desires, needs, wishes, fears, fantasies, dreams, death, God, the future, evil, non-existence, the past, the body, love, appetite, obsession, enjoyment, and fulfillment. You get the idea. And keep in mind that the contemplation of the intimate interior can produce a variety of responses from the sublime and sorrowful to the giddy and ridiculous (in case you think that our model is insisting a performer’s art has to be perpetually serious and profound). The object, then, can be seen as a way to frame the possibility of asking the intimate question or of experiencing the intimate interior. Or the object could represent the intimate question. It could stage the question, amplify the question, modify the question. The object might be offered as an answer. It might attempt to stage an answer. And most audaciously, the object could fill the hole and bring an end to lack. Bah-dah-boom. Certainly more than one performer has presumed to attempt as much. The most dangerous of games. Why not try? An intimate question to be sure.
Two proposals based on the above:
The artist brings an audience through time (performance art involves time) to the intimate interior, to the question, to dwell there in a manner of the artist’s choosing.
Alternatively, the artist produces an event out of the intimate interior which affects an audience’s intimate interior.
These are just two propositions. You can use the doughnut model to make any number of proposals about art. Think of one which will take you somewhere.
Contemplate the model with the idea of the object as a performance. Try drawing provocative conclusions. For example, you could see the audience and artist doughnuts as being in a mirror relation, with the mirror plane resting at the place of the object. Hold, as twere, a mirror up to nature…Hamlet’s advice to the players. We see how a performance event can involve a mimesis of some kind. Or we can imagine artist and audience both looking into a mirror and gasping, “That’s me!” The act of identification is possible. The mirror captivates. Or consider the alienation of the image in the mirror: “That’s me, but it’s not me, and it’s not how others really see me; it’s reversed.” For Alice the mirror was a portal to some other place, familiar and unfamiliar. Or think about what it means to capture a reflection of a question. Or think about the object as transparent, then as reflective, then as some kind of blot which gets in the way. Any thought can lead to a strategy for developing a performance event. Any thought can be brought to bear on an intimate question.
A performance event is a temporal event. Time passes. Something is moving. Can we see the possibility of movement in our model? We can see our doughnuts change over time if we wish. Perhaps the holes get larger. Perhaps the doughnuts take shape over time. Do we see the object take shape as a doughnut or as the filling for a hole. Is the hole in the doughnut disguised? We can see something transmitted among the three doughnuts over time. What is transmitted? Something shaping the rim of the interior. The intimate question. An intimate transmission. What circulates? How? Something involving the eyes, the ears. Voices. Bodies. Movement. Meaning. There’s something very private and non-negotiable about what transpires at the place of the question. Some bodily truths are absolute. Seeing and hearing, sounding and showing, all of the fundamental elements which carry messages, questions and answers, emerging through the agency of the body, taking up residence in the place where something lacks. Meanings, too, fulfill and frustrate, traveling the perimeter of the question. To think it in this way is to see the work of art as a system of relays. This is just one way to think it, of course.
Perhaps you want to focus on the wide, embracing fourth realm. Think about how this place of encyclopedic abundance gives shape to our intimate questions. What is the world and who are we? Here, of course, is the terrain of the great playwrights, of our storytellers. Every conceivable situation is granted possibility through the agency of the fourth thing. It’s somewhat inescapable. As artist, how do you want your alignment of mysteries, artist, object, audience, to sit with respect to what is? What about this world you, the artist, are creating? What conventions will you adopt or overturn? What social dictates will you knot into the event and toward what end? What great strands tangle in such a way as to produce your intimate question? And the actor is perhaps a masterful tangler and un-tangler of knots? Or think of the actor, perhaps, as someone who can focus very specifically on what it is to exist with respect to this widest realm and who uses the three doughnut orientation to decide upon what to do in the world of the story. To quote Dr. Suess: “O the things you can think…”
Things to make and do. Use our enigma alignment model to create some simple improvisation games or a scheme for writing. For instance:
The intimate question will remain unspoken.
Try answering a question through simple symbols and bodily expression.
What does the other wish me to do? Who does the other wish me to be?
Create a point of obscurity.
Make a place where the answer to the question is Death.
Elaborate and enjoy a private joke.
Tantalize, provoke and withhold.
Use a translating medium. Success or failure. Warmer, colder.
What is lacking? Try to respond.
And all responses are welcome at the Performance Group Potlatch.