We are told, or asked, or invited, or implored, to remember.
To be sure, most memories that we search for come to us as visual images. Even the free-floating forms of the mémoire involontaire are still in large part isolated, though enigmatically present, visual images. For this very reason, anyone who wishes to surrender knowingly to the innermost overtones in this work [Proust’s Recherches des Temps Perdu] must place himself in a special stratum—the bottom-most—of this involuntary memory, one in which the materials of memory no longer appear singly, as images, but tell us about a whole, amorphously and formlessly, indefinitely and weightily, in the same way as the weight of his net tells a fisherman about his catch. Smell—that is the sense of weight of someone who casts his nets into the sea of the temps perdu.
—Walter Benjamin, “The Image of Proust”1
This performance is heavy and stinks.
—Excerpt from Laure Prouvost’s artist’s statement for They Are Waiting for You2
A voice, a woman’s voice, probably the voice of Laure Prouvost, is asking, text is instructing on the screen. Remember that this image means that. An image of a mallet pounding a stake means no. An image of an iguana means yes.
This is where we begin They Are Waiting for You, film and installation artist Prouvost’s first fully realized stage performance—with a simple, fast-moving game of images and words, made interesting by playful mistranslation and malapropism. The word games play across written text and spoken lines, with Prouvost’s strong French accent.
Prior to this—maybe this is actually where we begin—as we take our seats, the lights in the theater slowly brighten and dim, and we hear the sound of rhythmic breathing. At their dimmest it’s hard to see anything, especially the letters and numbers on the rows and seats, so there are a number of brief interactions with strangers. “Is this four?” “Is this C?” “I think it’s over there.”
The darkness gets darker with each dip, the breathing gets louder, and there are whispered words: “This room is smelling you,” says the voice, and there’s a murmur of laughter. I do smell something, a sweetness of perfume. I’m not sure if it’s a neighboring audience member or the theater itself.
Then prerecorded video images fill a scrim at the front of the stage, from someplace else, someplace summery and tropical—including the repeated instructions to remember, and what means what. A wrench is “father.” A clementine is “love.” We are re-instructed in sign/signifier relationships; objects and their associated word are detangled from each other, and we are re-taught language.
There is some repetition, and the woman seated behind me is better at this game—an image flashes on the screen, and she says the correlated word or idea or memory aloud.
Memory is never simple. A knife means illusion, and a blue cup means mother, not arbitrarily—for me at least—but because of some link, some story, in the artists’ past or my own. Narrative wants to spill out of these referents.
As in Walter Benjamin’s reading of Proust, there is a quick accretion—no single memory thread is privileged in They Are Waiting for You. There isn’t time given to sit with any of these images singularly: they immediately interlace and interlace again, and all of the intimations and connotations gather, layer, gain mass and density, each in relation to the others. And their relationships seem to exponentially thread through the audience as well—because we’re not talking about Prouvost’s blue cup mother alone—presumably, all of my blue cups, and all of my mothers, are in the room as well—and those of the person next to me, and the person next to her…
From here it’s easy to see, for me, how we arrive at the weight of the fisherman’s net alluded to by Benjamin, and the smells that are so prominent in the work of Prouvost and Proust. It can be impossible to articulate the impact of a torrent of images, but we in the audience know well from our own experience the sensation of an overwhelmingly intense smell or weight.
I remember, remember… an iguana, two iguanas, in an apartment in New York City, in Greenwich Village. A girlfriend and I were staying in her aunt’s apartment for the summer. One of our only chores was to clean her son’s iguanas’ small glass aquarium. They had outgrown it and barely fit, lengthwise. We took them out and they would thrash around the empty bathtub while we scrubbed out iguana poop. I remember the acrid smell of that aquarium and the sound of their long claws on porcelain. So: yes.
The similarity of one thing to another which we are used to, which occupies us in a wakeful state, reflects only vaguely the deeper resemblance of the dream world in which everything that happens appears not in identical but in similar guise, opaquely similar to one another.
—Walter Benjamin, “The Image of Proust”3
Gradually these prerecorded images are replaced with live projection of hands holding the named objects, and we can see through the scrim a table set up, with a light, upstage. Two figures are barely visible, silhouetted and masked; one hands over the objects, and the other holds them under the camera, turning them over, caressing them. Prouvost’s murmuring, intermittent spoken words continue.
What the video shows us (live or prerecorded) is sharp, close-up, full of detail and specificity. But the voice and the figures inhabit another plane, where information is withheld: the figures are faraway and dim in the shadows, the voice addresses us directly, as “you,” describing dreamlike transformations and surreal compositions.
This juxtaposition, the brief digital bursts with the lulling voice, unsettles me. The video takes me somewhere very specifically elsewhere and unfamiliar, and my attention feels snapped back and forth between that world and the dream theater, where we are together, but where explicit connection with these performers is withheld. Only the voice feels safe to me, familiar, and somehow trustworthy.
Lights come up behind the scrim, and we see many of the objects that were in the video elsewhere, actual bread, an actual clementine—mounted on sculptural forms that look like oversize human stick figures made from steel rebar. This presents another full degree of realness, of specificity. I liked the spoken words better than the text on screen, better than the video images, better than the objects themselves, spotlit and tiny, far removed from my own, subjective, internal relationship with the platonic memory of clementine. I feel I’m getting further and further away, and I’m more and more isolated.
Silhouetted, masked figures move about the stage, behind the scrim at first, and one—probably Prouvost—handles a video camera that intersperses live images of the objects with the prerecorded images of the objects from elsewhere. Bizarrely, I experience this as another level of remoteness—because now the real (distant) referent is re-mediated through another set of hands and technologies, taking it even further away.
I think about the video camera as an object, which is at once outside of this constellation of objects and central to it. We, the audience, can see light from the camera, its LCD screen and glowing buttons, as it moves about the stage. I think about camerawork as performance, about the stress of moving around a stage and composing a shot live, in front of people. I wonder who controls the switcher that determines whether the image on the scrim is prerecorded or live, and I guess that it is not the cameraperson, but someone hidden offstage. I think about agency, power dynamics, editing.
The camera recedes, though the whispering voice persists, and a trio of figures, masked, clothed in dark colors, dance alone and together, to what seems to be live, improvised percussion, and move the heavy sculptures offstage.
The dancing too seems far away to me. The light is never bright on the dancers, they are dressed darkly, and though they interact with one another, their movement rarely seems addressed to the audience. One performer stands and vapes theatrically behind his mask.
In time, the stage goes dark, the visual element of the performance is reduced to nothing, and we are left with the voice, murmuring intimately to us. All of those layers of mediation collapse again, to one voice in the darkness, whispering in our ears. The voice tells us to close our eyes, addressing us as “you”—and she tells me what I see, what I experience, describing scenes with my family, my brother, my uncle, and a surreal series of images including “a small goat” (or ghost or god?), “a flamingo inside a bread,” “a big big clementine…”
There are visual moments interspersed with these verbal images, including a performer (my uncle) dancing strangely in a hard red spotlight and blinding lights flashing painfully in our eyes, but mostly we are in the dark listening.
It’s hard to say how long this part of the performance lasts, but I am aware that I feel quite content, and moreover, I feel near during this part, unmediated—near to this performer I’ve never met, near to a shared experience with the rest of the audience as we contemplate our shared uncle, and all of it is for you (me): “They caught that fish for you.” For a few lovely minutes I’m the fish, free to swim in the ocean of the collective unconscious with the rest of the audience, free of the weight of the mass of flopping slick fish bodies, hauled up gasping in the net of interdisciplinary mediation. It’s so simple, and so nice. This is enough for me.
The eternity which Proust opens to view is convoluted time, not boundless time. His true interest is in the passage of time in its most real—that is, space-bound—form, and this passage nowhere holds sway more openly than in remembrance within and aging without. To observe the interaction of aging and remembering means to penetrate to the heart of Proust’s world, to the universe of convolution.
—Walter Benjamin, “The Image of Proust”4
And then that reverie is broken, we are caught up again in the net and dumped on the deck under the bright lights, in the busy convolution of the McGuire stage. There are figures in motion, more projections, a human-sized clementine costume, a fog machine, more text. This is an interdisciplinary commission by the Mellon Foundation, and almost every discipline I can think of is incorporated—sculpture, moving image, text, voice, music, movement, even a passage from Shakespeare.
The eternal recedes from view, and I feel… old. Weary. Ready to be rocked to sleep in the dark. This is an uncomfortable part of the performance for me. Not uncomfortable in the sense that my expectations are being nudged in new and troubling directions, but uncomfortable in the sense that something is lost, some opportunity for connection and shared experience has passed through our grasp, collectively, artists and audience alike.
The video images are beautiful and lush, and flash past for the most part in short cuts of a few seconds at most, and then we’re elsewhere, and there’s text, and speech, and dancing, and those little snapping firecrackers that kids would get somehow, thrown on the floor in handfuls, a shower of sparks in the dim light.
I think about what those squareish video clips remind me of, and what comes to mind is Instagram, a series of glimpses into scenes of a beautiful life, shorn of context and recontextualized together, and it makes me feel old and crabby because I just can’t keep up. I want at most one image to dwell upon, to take a breath, and then another. All of this started with breathing. The theater is smelling us. We are breathing each other.
The audience is one Neuron connecting feelings with each other…I would like to create the sensation that the audience is one, large, breathing phenomenon, a lung. The room starting to breath up and down with its audience.
—Excerpt from Laure Prouvost’s artist’s statement for They Are Waiting for You5
I want for us to be together. I want to know this artist, Laure Prouvost, and her collaborators. I want to feel safe, like all of this is for me. In a way, I want so much less than I’m being given: I want performers without masks, I want to continue to be lulled by that voice, I want a clementine.
Perhaps this is what the show is striving for, creating for me (and us)—the immense disorientation of our fragmented, post-postmodern experience, the feeling of craving closeness and experiencing it in all too brief intervals, intermingled with a numbing, confusing digital overwhelm. Perhaps the interior of this theater is a perfect microcosm of my experience of the world outside, where connection is always temporary and conditional, always promised, occasionally granted, only to be whisked away abruptly by the next video clip, the next verbal cue.
The final image of the show is a strong video projector pointed toward the audience from upstage, projecting two planes of light, one at the bottom of the seats (just under the chins of audience members in the front row) and one above our heads. A smoke machine is liberally deployed to fill the space with swirling clouds, which catch the planes of light and glow beautifully in continuous, churning motion—a sea below us and a sky above. The performers enter this lower plane of the sea, swimming or rowing through it, puppeteering a fish through the waves. This section is playful and goes on for a long time, there is some singing or humming, the performers move up the stairs past the audience, and the lights slowly come up.
We all gradually realize that this is one of those shows that ends when the audience has to make the decision to get up to leave – the performers never come out to bow, there’s no cue for applause. Some people in the front row play with their fingers in the bar of light shining from the projector onto their bodies. One guy from the audience claims an abandoned bag of clementines and starts distributing them. I take two and leave.
There has never been anyone else with Proust’s ability to show us things; Proust’s pointing finger is unequaled. But there is another gesture in amicable togetherness, in conversation: physical contact. To no one is this gesture more alien than to Proust. He cannot touch his reader either; he could not do so for anything in the world.
—Walter Benjamin, The Image of Proust6
I think a lot about the potential for video and the moving image to bring us together as an audience and, conversely, to make us feel more isolated than ever. Video images are profoundly digitally specific, to a time and place, an angle of the light, a wavering of the hand of the cameraperson, an auto-focus mechanism. This iguana is not the iguana I remember.
Words, though, somehow have the magical, incantatory ability to be for all of us equally, at once. Your uncle is dancing strangely. You have become a small goat.
All of this is waiting for me. Yet, for the most part, I feel untouched, unmarked by any of it. What I really want is for us to just be together, to share an experience, to see the faces and hear the voices of these artists who have come all this way to be with me. Which is at once so much less, and so much more, than is promised by the interdisciplinary, multisensory, multimedia pageant of our art—and our lives.
The smell we are left at the end of the show is the sweet and bitter thick odor of the swirling smoke from the smoke machine, but the next day I discover the two clementines in my pocket and eat them alone—and their sweet citrus smell fills my cold car in the early morning light.
1Walter Benjamin, “The Image of Proust,” in Illumination, trans. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 2007).
2 Excerpted from the performance program at the Walker Art Center.
3Benjamin, “Image of Proust.”
5Excerpted from the performance program at the Walker Art Center.
6Benjamin, “Image of Proust.”