On Futurism 07.03.11

Posted on March 21, 2011


I suppose my interest in the Futurist movement was first sparked by a realization that its agitation towards mainstream theatrical forms and processes was similar to the questioning I had of popular current performance practices. Of course, in saying ‘current’, it would perhaps be more accurate to acknowledge that this ‘current’ is the result of values entrenched in theatre’s long history that has kept on to this day and age. More specifically, the divide between the visual and theatrical arts stood out for me as a detrimental inhibition to the potential prowess of a live performance. I found myself often readily distracted and upset by a lack of emphasis placed on scenic material, and a poorly managed and static sound system. I had for the most part, an uncomfortable reaction towards what I thought was superficiality in the dramatic action, that were, in the style of the performance material presented, more commonly and necessarily seen as a focal point in communicating the story and purpose.

It seemed to me that because the aim of recreating that dramatic situation realistically and articulating information as direct means of conveying thoughts and ideas, was paramount to the performance’s success, it became unavoidable that one should fail quite so often while relating the expansive experiences conjured during the writing.

In tackling the issue of mimicry as central to the theatrical experience, Futurism reacted with an aggressive effort to appreciate and extend the use of our psychological faculties. Michael Kirby identifies an aspect of this as synesthesia, which refers to “the hypothetical concept that the stimulation of one sense can cause a subjective response in another sense”. (p.100, Kirby) Artists like Wassily Kandinsky examined the relation between colour and sound in his paintings, and so did many others who looked upon intuition as a driving force in their artistic works. While Kandinsky did not formally identify as Futurist, his works were avant-garde and embraced the same spirit of anti-passéist, that is, being against old-fashioned attitudes.

In the popular conception of a production, there are several stages and an accepted hierarchical distribution involving the different people and components. The process is more sequential than simultaneously collaborative. The vision identifies a common end, but the process reveals a bias towards the vision of certain players. Thus, the need to give due recognition to scenography ranks highly on the movement’s agenda, ensuring that the elements of staging were not subservient to the cause of the actors. In fact, the mechanization of humans was encouraged to further create a level playing field where all elements of the production were desired as artistic entities on their own, actors now being seen as a part of the set rather than a focal point.

As a result of this stance, artists from diverse disciplines began associating with the movement.

“The movement programmatically attracted artists from all fields and brought them into contact with each other; the typical Futurist, no matter what his major area, tended to work in more than one discipline.” (p.8, Kirby)

“Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) was a painter and one of the five signers of the basic 1910 ‘Manifesto of Futurist Painting’ before switching his attention to music. Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Giacomo Balla (1871-1953), and Fortunato Depero (1892-1960), who primarily devoted themselves to sculpture and painting, also wrote plays. The painter-writer Arnaldo Ginna (1890- ) was responsible for the first Futurist film.” (p.8, Kirby)

The involvement and collaboration of different fields was integral to Futurism being a dynamic movement that challenged old ideals and bourgeois tendencies. As the point of convergence was its experiential emphasis rather than conceptual reference, artists could take liberties with this enabling vision.

Marinetti points towards Variety Theatre in his manifesto as embodying the Futurist spirit, although not an example of Futurist theatre. (p.20, Kirby) This was to ensure that the movement was not simply demarcated by stylistic tendencies. Rather, the Variety Theatre was celebrated as it had correctly identified the experience as central, being more concerned about the present, instead of maintaining a referential existence. Audience and performer would find themselves in a different relationship, as the reality of the stage is for the taking and is more easily accessed, being a “concrete” experience of its own. In essence, this means that the performance is more immediately grasped as it “maximizes the sensory dimensions and minimizes or eliminates the intellectual aspects”. (p.21, Kirby) The Variety Theatre also understood the impact of a spectacle and worked the different offerings of all possible media. It is also noted that while formal theatre then stayed within their tight structure, Variety Theatre was already utilizing motion pictures in its productions. (p.24, Kirby)

The Futurist movement had a clear idea of what it wanted from this battle against the passéist. It was sure of what had to be done, and the players that had to be involved for this revolution to happen. When it would, the effect was not just felt theatrically and artistically, but the social, cultural and political spheres involved would undergo their own turmoil and upheavals. Although Futurism had not lasted long, it positioned itself at a prominent place within the historical Avant-Garde theatres, paving the way for certain ideological commonalities to later movements, such as Surrealism, which embraced just as well numerous forms of artistic endeavors and glorified the psychological workings of the mind. More than any other movement, Futurism detailed clear expectations towards a revolutionizing of theatre, and in doing so, one may perhaps consider the movement as an ancestral body for contemporary performance works that still do after all these years, face the same eternal dreaded comeback from audiences – What does it mean?

Michael Kirby, Futurist Performance: Theory and practice in the drama, scenography, acting, costumes, film, and music of the Italian Futurists, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1971

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