Review: 'Pragmatists' experiments with digital music and virtual reality

by Betty Kim | 2/20/18 1:05am

At the Hopkins Center for the Arts Garage this past Saturday, digital musics graduate student Andrew Maillet and filmmaker Zbigniew Bzymek gave two work-in-progress performances of their multimedia adaptation of Polish artist and philosopher Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s play “Pragmatists.”

According to Maillet, the self-described “performer-technician” pair chose to work with the text because they were interested in the themes that Witkiewicz, who wrote during the interwar period between World War I and II, brings up. The play which debuted in 1919, asks questions about what it means to be an artist, to be bought and sold as an artist and to be exoticized, Maillet said. The play also includes characters described as genderless or androgynous, a rather unusual characterization for a work of its time and place.

Artist characters in the play build imaginary virtual worlds and escape to them, a concept that, around a hundred years later in a world that has achieved forms of virtual reality technology, still seems somewhat like uncharted territory, Maillet said. The play also raises themes that are missing in today’s engagement with emerging technologies acknowledging that human impulse toward the virtual have been with us for a very long time, even without the actual presence of virtual reality technology.

Byzmek, who works with film, experimental theater, music videos and virtual reality/AR, noted “backlash against technology” that sone people experience.

“[Maillet]’s totally obsessed with treating technology like religion, the spirituality [of sorts] that people put on their devices … he’s one of the tech-literate Luddites I know,” Byzmek said. “He just refuses to have an iPhone, but he can code the whole show in Python, so it’s interesting … I kind of joined up in exploring that kind of attitude.”

Both Bzymek and Maillet directed the play and worked together on the translation and adaptation of the original text. Maillet was responsible for the sound design, and Bzymek did the video design.

The multimedia aspect of their play served to accentuate such themes regarding technology and the virtual. In their own description of the performance, the artists said they used “sound and projections as mutual-mutable ‘costumes’ in a proto-VR mixed reality environment.” Bzymek said the virtual reality used in their performances played a concrete role in that the characters are still played by people, but by projecting videos and moving images onto the characters, “polygonal characters” are created.

Many engaging sonic and visual elements were used, with additional projections and lighting done by digital musics graduate student Camilla Tassi. The show was sound-based, and the videos queuing and programming were related to the sound, Maillet said.

The performance began with the character Mammalia Mimecker, played by Bzymek, in an inflated white “costume” on which moving images were projected. Later in the performance, moving images were also projected onto both a large static wall and moving walls. Toward the end, Bzymek and Maillet knelt in front of a screen on which a virtual reality-like video of a man was projected and interacted with them. Throughout the performance, robotic voices were played, either becoming the voice of the parts played by the two performer-technicians or speaking to them.

“We’re able to feel out themes about VR and issues from VR but still on some sort of edge between VR and multimedia theater,” Bzymek said.

The multimedia adaptation also plays with the idea of form and the way that it renders reality, which is a concept that interested Witkiewicz. Witkiewicz was associated with the formist movement, which was formerly known as Polish expressionism. Artistic movements also prominent at the time include surrealism and dadaism, avant-garde movements that resisted the more conservative realist and impressionist movements of the time.

“From what I understand, [“Pragmatists”] is the work in which Witkiewicz achieved his idea of theater of pure form … Witkiewicz was really interested in making a formal world on the stage that he calls ‘the Dada of real life,’” Maillet said. “He didn’t want the theater to have a kind of lesser status of reality than everything else, and he wanted to accent the pure aspects of human interaction … he wanted to control all of the elements of theater and create this kind of life-environment that’s possible to live in.”

Byzmek and Maillet found it exciting to pull such formalist gestures into today’s world through their adaptations. Technological developments have made it possible to extend the elements of theater with sound, color and projections, Maillet said.

“There [was] always something visually entertaining going on,” computer science postdoctoral student Josh Davis said. “I think I sort of fell inside the internet, and I’m meeting the humans that actually live inside the internet.”

Davis was credited as “Props Genie” and placed a mass of entangled cords on the floor to create a “mad scientist lair” effect for the show.

The artists spoke about another important aspect of their adaptation of the performance, a gesture they called “requeerifying.” Bzymek and Maillet met at the Wooster Group, a theater company in New York, where they began dating. They spoke about their personal relationship and the way that it translated to the relationship that they convey as Plasfodor Mimecker and Mammalia Mimecker onstage.

“Because there is tension between the creator figure and the muse, a mute woman that Plasfodor Mimecker is trying to form in his artistic project, the sexual politics of that are of a certain time, we’re working on ways to stage that relationship in a way that registers in our real relationship,” Maillet said.

Byzmek noted the stagings of “Pragmatists” in Poland were heteronormative, so his and Maillet’s adaptation is an attempt to “requeerify” the work.