CAN WE STILL PLAY? IN THE (POST) AGE OF MANUFACTURING?: ENJEUX by Kondition Pluriel (Marie-Claude Poulin & Martin Kusch) Theatre de la Chapelle Nov 25- 27

The french word “enjeu” often used in its plural form “enjeux” has a naturally plural and complex texture to it. In “enjeux”, one can describe a set of ideas, a set of conditions, the set of a “whole context of what is at stake”, or even more within its complex texture, “enjeux” can be defined as “the games that are at stake”. In that word, the plurality often comes in describing not one game, not one set of stakes, but the whole vista, the whole of what is at stake, the set and subset of games – in this case the games that make up the system of contemporary power and the way it is structured.

This is precisely the means and ends of Marie Claude Poulin and Martin Kusch’ s latest dance theatre installation piece “Enjeux”, at Theatre La Chapelle. Enjeux points at the offerings, the givings, the takings, the machinations, the complete workings, the “games that are at stake”, within our present world, more particularly with an eye on the “games that are at stake”  within what some might consider our present world’s “manufactured lives” and in the very mode of manufacturing – looking at what had “once been”, the assembly line, and now within what is now the world’s version of the “assembly line”,  and the present “assembly line’s” animate (1) “life”  and trajectories.

Poulin and Kusch use and exploit “the life of”  the most banal everyday object used in the manufacturing world/ “assembly line” by such beacons of our contemporary world like Amazon- the all purpose heavy duty gray storage bin made by companies like Akron Mills and sometimes referred to as “round trip totes”. These plastic storage bins can be seen everywhere from Amazon’s shelves holding the products on their way to a global market to being mini versions of large shipping containers. I am not sure if  a history of the container has been written yet, but it’s importance with understanding our historical period  cannot be underestimated, especially when one thinks to our humble homo sapien beginnings of innovation, having as one of its most important “innovations” our ability to not just “break off objects”, but to compartmentalize and separate “things”.

As we see in Enjeux , the elegance of placing things into sections never quite leaves the more rough hewn activity of simply breaking things off. Enjeux starts with almost autorobotic beings caught in a graymatter field of these gray plastic storage bins. They are overbudenned by the bins, trying to reconfigure them but also at once tied to them and almost slave to the bins. There is the impression that there is a kind of attachment to the gray plastic storage bins – they hang on to them, labour to move them, and try and pull themselves away from them. One gets the impression of a group of automatons pleasantly licking frozen metals with real tongues, not caring about the outcomes of their tongues. I thought of a film like Michel Haneke Benny’s Video in watching this first section of all purpose followers of some sort of authority. After rummaging and laboring to configure the gray plastic storage bins, the automatons finally cease their activity, exhausted (“epuiser”). Notably Audrey Rochette really communicated the attachment of the beings to these objects, almost unable to let go of the gray plastic bins, almost in an erotic relationship with them. Some of the gray plastic containers shined with flat LEDs on their surface giving the stage the air of a neon graveyard.
The next section brought the automatons back to their everyday lives as humans interacting with the (graymatter) gray plastic bins, but now with a sense of play, although the play, like that of children often came close to a terror filled one (see Haneke Benny’s Video again). Games like “go cart”, “make-a-building” and battle games permeated the stage’s world  of gray plastic bins, at times coming close to the violence children never see as violence but just as mishap (2) – columns of storage bins falling on unknowing victims, all as it were, as the saying goes, “it is all fun and games until…” (or is it?)

The next section was extremely creative in its use of video mapping to tell a larger story of the storage bin and its near cousin the shipping container. Here we began to understand the larger geopolitical implications with videos of shipping yards and sounds of the transport on oceans. One might of thought of the geopolitical video art piece the MAC recently acquired by Adrian Paci which tells the story of how one marble column makes its way from its white on white quarry in China across the ocean- the modes of transport and the life of what is being transported. In the next subsection, we saw Poulin and Kusch’s dancers (”movers”) crawling along the dirty floor among the now flatly laid out containers, perhaps mimicking a shipping yard,  as though they were the “lost crawlers” of Samuel Beckett’s Lost Ones or perhaps like comfortable digital worms mischievously miscreant among their digital forest.

One got to really understand the allegory, the enjeux, and the geopolitical, if not existential implications of this contemporary object (”these packages”) (the gray bin)- its life(3), relations to “living” beings, and its ability to be transformed for better or for worse. Poulin and Kusch’s video mapping section ingeniously used animation to paint these pictures- animated illustrations of shipping containers on the storage bins, traveling and living the precarious life. The use of sound gave voice to the gray bin, highlighting its contexts,  and emphasizing the mysterious animacy of these objects and their global social and political context. The next and concluding section brought it all home with more video mapping again painting the existentialist dilemma of people and their relation to things. The videomapping now painted the disintegration using animated black holes on the dancers bodies as they moved and battled with the “hegemony” of the gray bins.  Perhaps some might have seen this dark message but other levels of interpretation definitely could be construed from this very well executed, choreographed, and designed dance theater performance whose use and arrangement of the gray bins made it an installation.  Kirstie McCallum from the Canada Council saw more agency among what could be seen as these crawlers lost in the the digital field of graymatter, “ I saw the dancers…more like catalysts for change, the towers of boxes began to look like information units that were interchangeable. I suddenly had the algorithmic metaphor in my mind of – boxes = data and dancers =agents of transformation. “ One could in that sense see the piece as a platform for transformation or at least as a platform for thinking through some kind of transformation. Whatever one’s take on Enjeux, there are the rapports between opposing elements like metal against skin, and as Poulin and Kusch have said in the performance programme,
“In this performance, bodies and objects act like extensions and tools, but also like limits and constraints, one for the other. Between soft  and hard bodies, shell and flesh, operates an ensemble of games of roles, of  sculptural compositions and poetic evocations, mixing childhood and errancy in a global world to be reinvented. “ The rough hew against silk or silk against the rough hewn.

Ultimately these gray plastic bins could be much less than they actually are in this real manufactured world and be imaginatively recycled and imaginatively appropriated into a anti theology of  a contemporary animism. Can play be employed in the neon graveyard?

“Symbolic objects for adults like for children, the boxes of Enjeux, send us back to our way of playing a social role, across the spectrum of our functions, or simply our way of living (facon de vivre).” (performance programme) Thus in that sense the enjeux, may not have to remain the property of an authority, but perhaps can be ours to claim back, appropriate and transform:

“Each environment, its pieces, and their relations that deploy themselves constitute an enigma, a mystery to pierce, a space to understand….How to read a place…What decisions to make, what actions to do, what rapports to have….”  (performance programme)

(1)The strange, possibly even dark  “animism” that one might find within the machines of the contemporary machine manufacturing/ surveillance world can be partly be seen in the film Abenland, “Does the telephone effectively bridge the distance between two people, or merely underscore their estrangement? Abendland unsubtly provides ammo for both interpretations of man-made tools… Cameras, computers, and transportation systems become a hegemonic arsenal that anonymizes and manipulates victims, and yet the film’s own detached dualism also fades its human subjects into the background…”

(2) See recent confessions of US Military drone operators:

(3) The filmmaker Quentin Dupieux has interestingly studied the life of objects like a rubber tire in his film Rubber. Yorgos Lanthimos has touched on a new kind of authoritarian animism employed by his father to his kids in his film Dogtooth. The “wall” around the house, in the film, becomes the “kid’s” brother. Objects in the house are also renamed since the kids are young adults who have never been allowed to leave the house. The father creates a theological regime of signs and play according to his needs to control his “kids”.