The Prop as a Tool for Recognition
Kjetil Røed, 2018
Text from the book Old Laughter and Synonyms for Actors.

In Lars Nordby’s most recent video piece we observe a man moving through a theatre, both behind and in front of the stage. He is building up – testing out – stage sets. He is tinkering. In the voice-over we hear – probably his own – thoughts on theatre, in the broad sense. “In each man there is a dark spot that needs to be covered”, he says. This man is philosophically and poetically minded, that much we gather instantly, because the theatre is not just a theatre in this video piece. Perhaps we could best perceive the piece as a kind of interface between life, the roles we enact within it, and the world of theatre?

Throughout life we perform countless roles and participate in a series of dramas that shape human life. We may be artists or critics, or perhaps we play the role of baker, lawyer, or why not even a convinced supporter of the Ku Klux Klan or the football team, Rosenborg. But more importantly, we are father, son, mother, brother, friend; these are roles that we cannot avoid, that we cannot shy away from, if we are to live in a world directed and authored by us humans. In many of these roles we master the script so emphatically that we forgot we once had to learn the lines and receive instruction – often because it was our friends, or teachers, or parents who conveyed them and functioned as directors, stage designers or producers. It is true that this point has been made countless times before – that we play roles – but it cannot be said enough, for the simple reason that we necessarily have to forget the role-play of life in order to play those role well. The classic formula of going from ignorant to insightful doesn’t work in reality when it comes to the connection between recognition and the fundamental theatricality of life. There is for example no position from where you can deconstruct love and perceive it as theatre. Because if you really are supposed to be in love – live a life of love – you must, unless you want to be a manipulative cynic, forget such insights. You have to, in short, “play dumb,” in order for the infatuation to take hold of you and not be false. What is then the connection between insight into love, to stick to this angle, and the theory of love?

As has been pointed out by Slavoj Žižek, our view of the world and of ourselves is dependent on a parallactic gaze where opposites have a functional position in relation to one another, yet without the possibility of uniting them as either alternatives or competitors. It is not a matter of two differing perspectives on one issue, he says, but about the blind spots in viewpoints that we grow wiser from embracing, and where one viewpoint compensates for where the other fails: “We do not have two perspectives, we have a perspective and what eludes it, and the other perspective fills in this void of what we could not see from the first perspective.”

Nevertheless, it is still problematic to get too immersed in one’s character, as the sociologist, Erwing Goffman, points out. Though it is the degree of engagement that makes a character believable, the fact that we rely too heavily on a script, deprives us of the ability to critically examine how we play the role; when we immerse ourselves blindly in the drama we are a part of, there is no longer any separation between the artificial and the natural. Forgetting one’s role will in such instances become a social machine, a mechanism that plays us for ourselves through our own thoughtless performance. The act of forgetting lays the foundation for, to borrow a term from Robert Pfaller, the role-play to become an interpassive arrangement where the assigned roles live our lives for us. Even when laughing it isn’t us who do it if we have forgotten that it was once the stage directions that facilitated the laughter. This can also suppress that which could renew the role, deeds that could lead us to another drama, transforming qualities such as curiosity, hope, doubt and faith. If we lose the sensitivity for that which could disturb the role, and from that bring with it new elements to the theatre of life, we can also become arrested in an understanding of a role which isn’t just incongruous with the drama we exist within, but also with those around us and how they enact their roles. If we observe human life as both an ethical and theatrical concern, we could say that the extreme racist and nationalist – two associated roles here – has become too immersed in his character, because he is not open to the obvious perspective that “fills in this void of what we could not see from the first perspective,” when he for example observes people from a different culture or skin tone as inferior. The argument regarding the inferiority of the other is founded on a mythical, simply irrational way of thinking, which is at odds with human rights and democracy, and cannot be united with how humans perceive their roles. There is a cognitive dissonance in the existence of racism in that it suppresses the similarities that connect people in more fundamental roles as equal human beings; as fathers, sons, brother, mothers or simply as fellow human beings.

In Nordby’s video work we are situated in an environment where there is no apparent role being acted; on the contrary, we find ourselves in the midst of fragments of absent dramas – or to come, perhaps, as the play that is about to be put on – except for the reality of the venue. We could say that a lingering contemplation regarding this place could also be a conjuror for reflection about our own character comprehension, because the visual room, the theatre in this context, acquires a cognitive value as a backdrop for a possible parallactic view. Here, the idea of the memory palace could be an indicator, because even though mnemonic techniques often formed the incentive for these constructions, they also had an essential connection to both life and thought. The technique is designed so that one memorizes the details of a selected place – for example a house with rooms that you know well – with as much accuracy, so that when envisioning this place you are able to wander through it and know exactly where everything is located. In order to remember something you would then “place” the thing to remember at different places within this imaginary room. In order to remember it again, you would repeat this walk through the internalized room and decipher that which needed remembering based on the placement of mnemonic objects. “In order to form a series of places in memory, he says, a building is to be remembered, as spacious and varied a one as possible, the forecourt, the living room, bedrooms, and parlours, not omitting statues and other ornaments with which the rooms are decorated,” as formulated by the Roman rhetorician Quintilian (35-96 CE) in Institutio Oratoria. But we don’t need to imagine internalized memory palaces purely as sets for mnemonic techniques; they could also be a mental architecture in which exterior and interior rooms are adjusted according to each other. In the case of Nordby, we can imagine the theatre as a visual field that can place our role-plays in a location where suppressed aspects of life’s theatricality returns to an experience of “not being able to act the part”, and thereby also a return of the void in the symbolic drama we are usually so wrapped up in.

In the video-piece we see the protagonist placing a door, or rather a door prop, upstage. But there is no drama for it to become included in, no one walks in and out of the door, neither is there a story that could create an illusion of life, of chronology, of fates, a prelude the viewer could become engrossed in and forget that this is a stage, that the door is a prop. As such, there is also no narrative for us to lose ourselves in, because the door is standing there alone, as an image of a door, not an actual door, and is therefore deprived of its most basic function, its usefulness. The use here, in Nordby’s memory palace, is that it reflects us and the props in our lives; something we also see in this exhibition, where paintings repeat the gesture within the film, but this time as doubly artificial: paintings as doors, useless as something we can walk through, but very useful as mirrors for understanding our own roles. Because the exhibition space is also a stage, as much as the theatre is stagey, and the whole exhibition functions as a double exposure of props deprived of a story, a narrative connection, a failure to remember or an omission, so that we get the opportunity to remember ourselves as actors on our own.

Couldn’t we, with Nordby, therefore say that art’s function isn’t about bringing us through to a position where we have come to a worthy recognition of something, but rather that it is a field where we can experience fragments torn from the narrative that we are otherwise so blindly absorbed in? The parallax view isn’t a matter of maintaining an interaction between remaining insight and complete immersion in the character, but rather an openness to that which evades your concept of the world and yourself. This exhibition is in that regard not about understanding, but about parallel preambles that become interconnected in a way that ties together how you live and how you view art. There is something disturbing about props without a story, especially when they are doubled up as paintings, because they remind us of something we know well, but have lost contact with. This can be both an interesting, touching or terrifying experience. Such an uncanny experience - to borrow an expression form Sigmund Freud – is disconcerting; not because it is something unfamiliar you feel threatened by, but because you experience something you once had – and maybe still, unconsciously have – an intimate relationship with, but that you have suppressed. From this point of view Nordby turns the uncanny into an acknowledging tool intimately connected with art as form and life as form. Because even where a complete understanding has not yet taken root, the appreciation of that which escapes you can capture you, at least in the interim, on a different stage, in a different drama, than the one you find yourself in now. In this snare, this place where you have one foot in a different memory palace, you see the outline of a different role than the one you are already acting.

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Translated by Hanna Gjelten Hattrem