Modernist Afterlives in Performance
My son sits at the desk, knee propped on its edge, keyboard in lap. Nearby, a television bolted to the wall displays a high-definition humanoid, clad in luminous armor inscribed with obscure heraldry, dancing with ecstatic abandon. Were it not odd enough that they are dancing in the lugubrious depths of a biomorphic dreadnaught inhabited by a terrible and hostile alien race intent on destroying the earth and everything upon it, the dance they dance is the “Carlton,” made famous by actor Alfonso Ribeiro on the 1990s sit-com The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Vegard Vinge and Ida Müller’s performance series, the Ibsen-Saga (2006–), is an extraordinary limit case for staging Henrik Ibsen’s expansive internal temporalities. The Saga uses Ibsen’s works, in the words of Heiner Müller, as “an instrument of deceleration against the general acceleration of life” (Barnett, “Müller’s Hamlet/Machine,” 197). The Saga slows the sense of the present through a dramaturgy of open-ended performances in which the content and length are rarely predetermined, with works lasting upwards of two weeks without intermission or ending after forty-five minutes. The unpredictability of the Saga’s performances—inspired by the latent Romantic idealism of Ibsen’s plays—challenges the ability of institutions to regulate time in relation to labor and the larger economy. The Saga declares art’s autonomy from institutional oversight by confronting the temporal limits of theatre production in the twenty-first century. Like its antecedent in the historical avant-gardes, the Saga employs time as a tool to differentiate itself—and art—from the realities of the world. Attending to the idealism of Ibsen’s plays, the Saga conjures the avant-garde inside Ibsen to challenge the institutional regulation of time, illuminating the limits of contemporary theatre.
There is a striking moment about two-thirds of the way through Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film Get Out (2016). While visiting his white girlfriend’s family estate for the weekend, the film’s black protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is approached by one of the family’s African-American servants, Georgina (Betty Gabriel). At this point in the film, the audience is aware that Washington has been uneasy about the visit since before the couple arrived, in large part because his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) had not disclosed his race to her family before their visit. As a black man surrounded by the white family and their mostly white friends, Washington’s discomfort increases despite the reassurances of his girlfriend. In this brief exchange with Georgina, he attempts to find some commonality in his discomfort. Structured as a series of slowly tightening counter-shots between the two characters, the sequence depicts Georgina approaching Chris to explain why she has unplugged his cell phone (repeatedly). When he confesses to her that “When there are too many white people, I get nervous,” Georgina responds with a repeated, “No. No. No.” It’s a phrase intended as comfort, but the moment instead conveys a sense of the uncanny that is, indeed, the key to understanding the film as a whole. It is also a moment deeply indebted to the interwoven histories of acting and media in modernism.