Installation Overview: Preconceived notions…

An admission: I’m writing this pretty late in the process. But, process, as we come to understand in the creation of art, is an interesting thing…

In the spring of 2014, in my next to last semester of PhD (in the arts and humanities) coursework at the University of Texas at Dallas, I signed up for a class taught by one of my primary mentors, Thomas Riccio, called Installation Performance.

I enrolled in the class primarily for the fact that it was taught by Tom, someone I look to as a mentor and advisor. The man who talked me into continuing my education at UTD after a tumultuous time in my masters degree. Other than the fact that it was a performance class (my primary academic and artistic focus) taught by Tom, I admittedly had little interest.

Tom runs a theater/performance group in Dallas called the Dead White Zombies. And like with Tom, I admire their work. However, Tom and I diverge when it comes to the definitions of theater and performance in today’s age. In a pre-semester meeting, specifically, as we talked about my future, interests, and various other book keeping matters, Tom had said to me, “Theater is dead.”

Now, my masters in in Performance Studies. Within that program, our practical application of the scholarship is in performance art. And I’ve done plenty of performance art over the years. That said, I come from a traditional theatrical background, and still have a great affinity for what I call “the box”. The classical design of the theater as we know it. A proscenium stage facing rows of seats. While I acknowledge the staleness that holding closely to a form can bring about, I still have a great deal of affinity for the classic craft. Put it in a thrust, or the round, or otherwise, I still like the stage and the rows of seats. I think it’s important.

Of course, the declaration that “theater is dead” isn’t necessarily an absolute statement. Clearly, theater is not dead, and that’s not what he meant by the statement. I think what he meant is that it’s stale. Hackneyed. Dare, cliche. It’s been done. And we live in a different age. Some odd postmodern, or post-postmodern age where relativism reigns and objectivity is thought to not exist in most respects. There is no “big T” truth, as it were. Therefore, theater itself has to change. We have to reject (deconstruct?) the traditional theater space in favor of something more visceral, more personal, and specifically, site specific.

Site specific is a catch all term, in my opinion, for any performance that takes place in a non-traditional setting. So, Dead White Zombies perform in warehouses and former crack houses, as opposed to theaters made to look like these places. There’s a certain emphasis on the agency of the space that, perhaps, didn’t exist in the same way in the past. Not that DWZ were the first to employ this tactic. After all, the Donmar Warehouse is one of Britain’s National Theatre’s primary performance spaces. But, in my own personal experience, in a city with a thriving and surprisingly experimental theater community, DWZ was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

And so, Tom tells me over breakfast, “Theater is dead”. Mind you, I’m in process for a one man show set to debut in a proper theater in Dallas later this year. And, at the time, I thought my creative dissertation project would also be a one man show on my favorite research topic, humor. Imagine my world crashing down moment of being told by the man I consider a mentor that all of my designs for a career in theater are bunk because the form is dead.

That serves as a primer for my mindset going into his class on Performance Installation. I’d asked him at breakfast that day, “Is this essentially like a how to on what Dead White Zombies does?”

“Yeah.”

So, I thought I’d at least get some exposure to this world that was trying to destroy all of my designs on a creative arts career.

What exactly was this Performance Installation stuff all about?

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