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by Ralph Bingham
It’s a sunny Spring evening. I’m in the warehouse that houses the office and work space of the Electric Company in East Van to interview its Artistic Director, Kevin Kerr. I’m here mostly to talk about Kerr’s 2006 play, Studies in Motion, based on the life and work of the revolutionary photographer-scientist Eadweard Muybridge, whose photographic studies of human and animal locomotion stand at the dividing line between still photography and film. The conversation ends up roving far and wide across theatre, art and truth.
While he speaks, though, my eye keeps being drawn to two items on the overstuffed shelves behind his head: a book entitled Lucid Dreaming, and a box for the game Twister. There’s something about these two artifacts that sum up what Electric Company is. Dreams. Memory. Pure physical energy.
Muybridge was, as Kerr puts it, ‘an enigmatic character’—landscape photographer turned scientist, his photographs were produced using a series of cameras shooting in sequence. He produced approximately 100,000 images between 1883 and 1886. This body of work (of which 20,000 images were published in plates available to subscribers) revolutionized the way that physical locomotion was understood.
But, though this was what Kerr stumbled upon originally—in the form of a series of VHS cassettes containing strung-together animations of the plates—it was Eadweard Muybridge the man that drew his attention to the ‘theatrical possibilities’ of his story. As Kerr watched the cassettes, he felt that ‘a sense of obsession began to emanate from’ them, which he initially put down to some kind of Walt Whitman-esque fascination with the human body. What he found couldn’t have been further from that impression. He discovered an awkward, intensely serious man with a failed marriage who had murdered his wife’s lover (an act followed by an acquittal on the basis of justifiable homicide)—‘It just felt like melodrama,’ says Kerr.
He goes on to describe his fascination with ‘this interesting duality between these motion studies which seemed to be very clinical…everything stripped away from the actions. Everything’s sort of— All sorts of indicators of intention are stripped away… They seemed to be very anti-narrative. They were just actions, raw.’
At this point Kerr seems lost in the world of the ideas for a moment. ”There’s this curious sort of choice of actions’—action that, in the human studies, contain substantial themes of ‘sensuality, eroticism, humor, and violence’. Kerr realized that the ‘photos felt like a metaphoric attempt to atomize life’—actions that weren’t ‘corrupted by emotions’. An attempt to get to some kind of unadulterated truth about the violence in Muybridge’s past by fragmenting the complexities of similar motions until each moment could be studied individually: ‘rearranged and assembled to suit yourself’.
What does all this say to a modern theatre audience looking for a meaningful experience? Kerr observes this moment in history as ‘a point in the ongoing birth of a really visually oriented culture… We’re pretty skeptical about our physical perception of the world as being a source for our understanding of our total truth. Or the idea of truth being outside of us, I guess—it’s the contemporary kind of thing—you separate the human subjective experience from the notion of truth. And Muybridge’s work was one big part of an ongoing series of events that convinced us that truth was not available to us except through science and technology. So that there are things that we can’t—we’re not afforded the ability to see without some sort of mechanism or medium that will lift the veil off of nature and give us insight, and so today we are all about the things that we use to negotiate our world and that we turn to, to give us truth, like MRIs or some Google algorithm.’ Or a photograph. Evidence.
I ask him, ‘As an artist, are you creating something that replaces people’s ways of processing events for themselves?’ This is not a new question for Kevin Kerr, or for Electric Company. He counters: ‘Art can be one of those agents that installs itself into your being’—‘art that sedates us and assures us… On the other hand, the other version of art is the art that shocks and stimulates us; that tears that membrane open and allows us to see the world in a new way…’
Kerr articulates for himself and for us that ‘art is experiential at its core’. The vibrant, image-rich, site-specific theatre for which Electric Company is well-known demonstrates this concept to its fullest. The upcoming ‘You are Very Star’ at the H.R. MacMillan Planetarium, following last year’s (now touring) ‘Tear the Curtain’ devised around Vancouver’s historic Stanley Theatre, promises an opportunity to enter a lucid dream with Electric Company. Let’s just hope that Twister stays up on the shelf behind Kevin Kerr’s head.
This piece first appeared on Sad Mag (online) on June 23, 2012.