“Germinal’s utopian seeds propose that direct communication and harmony are the keys to creation, and that all of us contain the capacity to build a new world.” Theater scholar Kate Bredeson shares her thoughts on Germinal, a performance work by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort, presented as part of Out There 2016.
Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort’s Germinal begins in a black void and ends in an incandescent pool in which a quartet sings harmony. At the core of its journey from nothingness to this lush state of being are the questions: How do we communicate? What modes work best, and why? And why and how do these modes dictate how we live together? Further, what does human communication mean in the twenty-first century, when so many of our interactions are mediated through technology? To contemplate these questions, Goerger and Defoort–who co-conceived and directed the production, as well as appear as two of the four performers in it—use actors alongside stage tools that create light, projections, and sound. Germinal’s technological landscape invites communication and ultimately the building of a new world. This from-scratch construction is an enactment of community and dialogue, and further, a love letter to the ephemeral beauty of theater and human life.
All of the tools used to create the world of Germinal are unearthed and discovered in real time in front of the audience. The performance’s structure follows the discoveries of stage layers and objects, all of which are considered, then used or rejected in this construction of something from nothing. In my September 19, 2014 interview with Goerger and Defoort at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Defoort explained that Germinal came about after working on—and ultimately rejecting—an idea for a different performance:
… we decided to start again from scratch. And then this itself became the starting point for what would become Germinal. This would be a piece that would build itself. Everything we would need to do the thing would come from the stage. It would be self-generating.
Theater as a form, and the explicit use of technology, were key to the director-creators in this “allegory” about communication. Defoort explains:
In the process of writing the piece, we wanted to address big issues: agriculture, food, energy, but we had to consider how to represent these things on the stage. So we ended up with an allegory about the history of communication in human society. So on stage, first, we know how to think, then to speak, and so on, and to categorize, and to progress. So quite naturally we ended up with computer tools—the most recent ways to help us communicate.
Germinal opens in pitch darkness. After an initial silence, a clunky maneuvering reminiscent of an Atari joystick echoes. Lights flash, and through the intermittent pools two human figures emerge, each seated on the floor hunched over a controller. With the opening soundscape, Goerger and Defoort begin guiding the audience through a process of discovering the theater’s physical space, along with the elements that go into mounting a stage production.
As the lights come up, Goerger, Defoort, and the other two performers, Ondine Cloez and Arnaud Boulogne, are revealed to be manipulating small light boards. As they wrench the controls, more lights flash—from bright washes to colorful traveling gobo specials. When the lights come up more fully, the empty stage is revealed, a large proscenium black box with thick, dark curtains along the upstage wall, all four people sitting on the floor working with their boards. From this earliest moment, Germinal is rooted firmly in the recognizable world of the theater, revealing aspects like technical equipment and the bare stage that are not often seen by spectators. That the actors onstage are using actual boards to manipulate lights adds to the palpable energy of revelation; this sense of real-time discovery is key to Goerger and Defoort’s vision. When, shortly after the opening, a red swirl zooms across the stage, performers and spectators audibly share their wonder. From the audience’s vantage point, these opening light games look like a glimpse of a theater technical rehearsal.
Germinal’s main preoccupation is this journey through different ways of communication. As the four onstage realize that they are the ones who can control light, they also learn that their thoughts can be projected on the upstage wall. The first lines of the production appear in white letters on the black wall. Each sentence spells out the inner thoughts of someone onstage and is located near the actor whose thought it is. No words are spoken aloud. Goerger and Cloez exchange the following transmission of thoughts:
And what’s that?
Never tried that one.
Doesn’t seem to do much. What’s it assigned to?
Nothing by the looks of it.
But hang on.
Am I the one doing the … So every time I …
Goerger discovers that he is the one making the lights go.
Every time I … It displays …
So I can express myself. I can go abstract.
I can conceptualize
Ondine, look, we can transfer thoughts outside our head.
In the world of Germinal, it is a revelation that thoughts can be made manifest and shared, a step towards dialogue and understanding. Goerger articulates that he and Defoort were interested in making art that was not based in conflict: “Drama is over-represented in art. The dynamics of writing conflict are easy. It’s a challenge to write something that does not go in this direction without being too hippie-ish.” Defoort agrees: “We decided to put the heat on consensus.”
Goerger and Defoort are longtime collaborators from France and Belgium, respectively, who currently live and work in the northern French hub, Lille. Germinal is a provocative title choice in French, where, inspired by the Latin word germination for the first month of the spring quarter, the Revolutionary Republican calendar took its name for the seventh month. This, in turn, inspired a popular nineteenth-century French novel by Emile Zola about an 1860s coal miners’ strike. Zola’s novel tells the tale of the strikers’ hope for a better world. In Industrial Revolution France, the naturalistic novel became an inspiration for socialist and other causes—to the point that the title today still has strong political associations. In French and English, the root “germe” means “seed,” and “germinal” also shares an association with creativity; in English it indicates something in the earliest stage of creative development. Defoort explains the title’s origins:
For French people it is clearly related to the novel. We knew it was going to cause confusion. … It was one of the reasons we chose the title, it was a kind of joke. It’s a good title. We liked the ideas of reusing a known title. Plus, it was related to the basic structure of Germinal. In Germinal we are planting seeds in this floor, and they are growing and evolving.
Other titles they considered included The Entire Universe, Socialism, and Civil Code. Goerger elaborates: “The way we deal with titles is the way modern art dealt with the problem, calling a work Untitled or Fish, when it’s not a piece about fish, which is something we’re fine with.” While the co-creators say they did not take the title because of the French Revolution or Zola, the association is inescapable, and even supports the utopian resonances of Goerger and Defoort’s creation about people who create a new society from rubble.
Like the title, every word in Germinal is carefully chosen. Goerger elucidates: “With language in this piece we tried to have a very small vocabulary. Should we call this object [gestures to microphone] a microphone or a stick? We had to make choices about everything; this is the core of the work.” Throughout Germinal, the four performers all exhibit great wonder, as well as frustration, as they make discoveries of language, of new tools and modes. The production’s communication cascade grows more complex as it progresses. Revelations literally open up Germinal’s landscape: when Cloez uses a pickaxe procured from within the upstage wall to impale the floor, she opens up for the first time the stage landscape to something beyond the basic black box. Under the floor, she finds a microphone plugged in to somewhere below. The microphone helps the group gain the abilities to communicate vocally and with amplification. As the physical space cracks open, the humans move from seeing each other to reading and speaking to each other. Later, they sing, and, ultimately communicate via a discovered laptop, which they initially mistake for a “control manual” for their new world: “But it only has two pages!” Cloez exclaims when opening it for the first time.
Following the acquisition of speech, an extended conversation forms Germinal’s core. Cloez asks the others, “What were the other communication modes we had before?” Goerger responds, “Sur-titles, phonation, phonatory transfer, and clip-on mics.” They then begin to project these words onto the upstage wall. Discovering an impulse to create order, Defoort exclaims: “Hey, I know. Let’s make a big list. A list of everything.” After enumerating the communication forms they’ve used so far, the quartet writes down everything else in their world: “Hole, pickaxe, cable, floor, mixing deck, Halory, Antoine, Ondine, rubble, Arnaud, ambiance, idea, heap, hand-holding, corner …” When Defoort asks them to circle up and join hands, the list continues: “Cheerfulness, insistence, conspiracy,” and, when Boulogne does not follow suit, “stubbornness.” As the wall grows too full, the group subdivides the list. Here, Germinal highlights the human impulse to categorize; what follows takes that impulse to an absurd level as the group arranges and rearranges the categories, changing labels and shuffling things. Soon everything is divided into things that go “poc poc” and things that do not go “poc poc”—“poc poc” is the sound made when a microphone hits an object. When the ability to go “poc poc” is determined by hitting things, Goerger asks if “the joy of being together” counts. After Defoort tries to tap the microphone on the air in between the group, he determines: “Not poc poc.” In Germinal, the division of the world into “poc poc” and “not poc poc” makes perfect logical sense, and at the same time is deeply funny.
Throughout Germinal, and the extended categorization episode in particular, Goerger and Defoort’s nouveau théâtre predecessors Ionesco and Beckett, and the historical/philosophical theater explorations of Stoppard and Parks haunt. Goerger and Defoort particularly excel with language and implements of the stage, and a delicious theatricality despite a lack of spectacle. This is all the more striking given that Germinal is Goerger and Defoort’s first theatre production, and that they are adamant that they know nothing about theater. Goerger notes: “We wanted to build something that did not rely on the contract of what is usually obvious between the audience and what is happening on stage.” Both co-creators identify primarily as visual artists who have strong solo careers, and they have collaborated on several large scale interactive installations, such as Les Thermes (2012) and &&&&& & &&& (1999). In all of their work, “Our bodies are always on the line. We love to perform, that’s where we come from,” Goerger says. Germinal takes these interests to a more presentational place. Theater was the only possible medium in which this story could be told, partially because of the subject matter and also because of the opportunity it provided the artists. Goerger notes that theater “became a subject of investigation, of reflection. And that’s the very way we work. We have new interests, and we try to make them into something that is of interest for a larger audience. That is what drove us.”
Goerger notes that his and Defoort’s process is like making ceramics: “We tend to spend a lot of time talking. It’s very related to psychoanalysis. We try to make something. It’s like using a potter’s wheel. You think it’s going to be great and the clay is going to build up and then … shit … it’s bad … it’s falling. That’s the way we work.” Defoort continues:
To go on with this awkward metaphor, at one point this clay thing tells us how to deal with it. “I want to be an installation.” So we try to become its servant. It’s not the text first—everything is put on the same level, including our bodies. So, basically, we ask “what do we want to work with?” … In Germinal it was about having other people onstage besides us. We wanted to work with actors. And so we discovered in a way directing. … For Germinal it was the first time we worked as directors with actors.
While Germinal stages a technologically-driven world, it is not a particularly sophisticated one. On one level, the production looks like a time capsule of 1990s theater technology. The light boards look old, as do the microphone and amp—both are attached to cords. The image projected upstage towards the end is the iconic “Bliss” default wallpaper from Windows XP (2001). Packing peanuts fill the pool under the stage. Instead of “File, Edit, View, Go, Window, Help” on the toolbar of the projected computer, the toolbar reads “Display, Transfer, Recover, Light, Wall, Language, and Environment” and allows users to select options including “with” or “without trees.” When the desktop illuminates the upstage wall, Cloez explains, “It’s like the hole, but inside out,” offering a Beckettian glimpse into the outside world beyond (and in this case under) the stage.
By drawing attention to the tools used to craft the performance, Germinal offers a microcosm of the theatrical experience. But in the end Germinal’s technology highlights the four performers and their relationships. In the production’s denouement, the quartet lounge in their discovered pool. Goerger plays percussion; Boulogne, the electric guitar. Cloez sets the pace and beat with a computer music program, and she moderates the lighting. Their shared song is a recap of the entire show, put forward in single words strung together on the wall above them:
While they start a capella, they end—thanks to Cloez, who selects “double singing mode” on the operating system—in beautiful harmony. The world—physically small and minimal—comes alive. Beating drumsticks cause packing peanuts to fly up out of pool. When Cloez activates “weird” mode, neon lights undulate. “Mega weird” provokes more saturated colorful lights. The four sing: “Thanks to a little ritual. We think we managed to create a series of events. Answering to coherence criteria regarding space and time.”
It is oddly moving to experience this recap of the previous ninety minutes in writing and song. The quartet finds melody and grace in such clipped and formal language. The harmony invites an awareness of time and linear progression. Here, Goerger and Defoort part ways with their absurdist predecessors and settle into synchronization and lyricism. As Germinal’s structure barrels towards its conclusion, the pool is lit blue and then white. A wash of light engulfs the stage, then funnels down around the pool as “End” comes up over the actors’ heads. Out of darkness and nothingness, this lush moment of coming together emerges after a detailed exploration of how and why we communicate and make. Germinal’s utopian seeds propose that direct communication and harmony are the keys to creation, and that all of us contain the capacity to build a new world.
Kate Bredeson’s essay “Germinal’s Brave New World” is reprinted with permission from PAJ: A Journal of Performance Art (September, 2015), @2015 Performing Arts Journal, Inc.