His answer was that I must not imagine each limb as being individually positioned and moved by the operator in the various phases of the dance. Each movement, he told me, has its centre of gravity; it is enough to control this within the puppet. The limbs, which are only pendulums, then follow mechanically of their own accord, without further help. He added that this movement is very simple. When the centre of gravity is moved in a straight line, the limbs describe curves. Often shaken in a purely haphazard way, the puppet falls into a kind of rhythmic movement which resembles dance.
"On the Marionette Theatre", Heinrich von Kleist
I/II/III/IIII is a new theatrical installation by performance artist Kris Verdonck. Analogously to a puppet theatre, the stage is transformed into a cabinet for 'human marionettes': four 'identical' (female) dancers are suspended in a large 'machine'.
In the work of Kris Verdonck the 'actors', the characters appearing on stage or in the installations, are always 'in-between beings': figures that dwell in the twilight zone between man and machine. The work process of I/II/III/IIII was focused on finding ways in which the dancers could attain a maximum degree of freedom in relation to the machine. In directing the piece Kris Verdonck attempted to join the opposite forces of freedom and determination: how to give space to the dancers and simultaneously staying functional within the demands / the limits of the object? Because sooner or later the machine will send the performers in a direction it has determined for itself. So the research that was done in I/II/III/IIII - just like in Kleist's tale of the puppeteer and his puppet - consisted of getting to know the machine maximally and subordinating the process to the potential movements it is able to execute. What emerges in the end may very well be "a kind of rhythmic movement which resembles dance"...
I/II/III/IIII is set in an atmosphere of 'Unheimlichkeit' (the uncanny) which characterizes our life as modern human beings conditioned by technology.
'Unheimlichkeit' - the expression is taken from Freud - refers to a situation in which anything familiar to man disappears, in which he no longer knows what is happening to his mind and/or body. Only approximated by 'uncanny', the word 'unheimlich' is difficult to translate: strange, incomprehensible, mysterious, frightening, connected to supernatural forces. Literally un-heim-lich signifies: who doesn't have a home (heim) anymore, who doesn't belong anywhere.
Throughout the ages humankind has constantly been exploring the possibilities of creating a perfect, identical copy of himself and thereby unveiling the secret of the origins of life. Today this quest, of which the Golem, Frankenstein and a variety of mechanical puppets or robots all have been stages, finds its provisional end point in the development of the (until now) theoretical possibility of cloning a human being. This possibility of creating a being which is completely 'identical' to an already existing being, provides us with a new, hitherto unknown feeling of the uncanny: because the identical character of two beings signifies that they - each for themselves- are no longer unique. One who is completely similar to another can no longer claim a proper and inalienable identity, because he/she must share this identity with another.
Does this bring to an end our 'humanness'? Where does man end and where does machine, the artificial, begin? Are we even capable of dealing with 'the pure repetition or copy' of ourselves? Or is it in ultimately, as French philosopher Gilles Deleuze analyses, impossible to disconnect the notion of 'repetition' from the notion of 'difference'? Each repetition does introduce a difference in time and/or space. And one can only speak of 'difference' if there is repetition: for the notion of difference implies the comparing of one thing to another, so of at least two beings, things, phenomena etc. To talk about difference is to talk about duplication.
Through the possibility of unveiling the secret of the origins of life we enter the realm that used to be reserved only to god or gods, the realm of omnipotence, of total control and of perfection. This desire for omnipotence too is as ancient as human history. Nowadays we have the help of technology at our disposal but still we try to reach 'divine perfection' on our own, without technological help. In the perfectly synchronous movements performed by a coryphée of ballerinas in a classical ballet like 'Swan Lake', for instance. Or in the exact synchronous marching steps performed by a cohort of soldiers in the North Korean army. Or in synchronized swimming, the swimmers' legs having to disappear underwater at precisely the same moment...
What strikes us first in observing these phenomena, is the synchronicity of the movements and the uniformity of the persons. On closer examination small differences become visible. One ballerina being a fraction of a second slower than the others. One soldier's step seeming slightly heavier than that of the others...
Who is 'out of tune', who doesn't 'walk in line', gets noticed, visualizes a proper identity. These 'odd men out' undo uniformity, contaminate order and break through the perfect symmetry or the perfectly synchronous movement. By these exact means the 'human' regains its visibility within the perfectly oiled 'machine'. Can the 'human' be defined then, as 'making mistakes', as failing, stumbling and stuttering? Can one reduce the essential difference between man and robot to the fact that a human being can fail and a robot cannot?
For I/II/III/IIII, the dancers suspended in the machine collaborated in the developing of a choreography: in succession a solo, a duet, a trio and a pas-de-quatre. The images evoked in I/II/III/IIII are multi-layered and bewildering: classical ballet, puppet shows, 17th century theatre machinery, the marionette-like actors of Dadaist theatre at the start of the 20th century... A spectrum of associations ranging from floating angels to carcasses dragged along. The structure of the performance furthermore confronts us with the very primary, and therefore probably 'pure' emotional interpretations of the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 as Greek philosophers and scientists formulated them long ago. 1: the indivisible unity, the primal number, the monad, which also refers to solitude. 2: the first number with a beginning and an ending, the duo, the couple, the most common form of symmetry, the number of elegance and simplicity, of reflection and duplication. 3: the first number with a beginning, a middle and an ending, the number of the divine Trinity, the number of the degrees of comparison. But also the number that produces the first inconsistency and chaos. 4: the number of the square, Pythagoras's 'even-even' number, the number of harmony and justice, the number of the four elements, the four cardinal directions... But also the number that brings closure to the world through its perfection and thus refers more to death than to life...
I, II, III, IIII: the point, the line, the surface, the body...
text: Marianne Van Kerkhoven