PQ 2011 – Treading the Path of Risk (abridged for Blue Pages)

Kristen Delholm of Hotel Pro Forma, with ‘The Algebra of Place’


During the heady days of this year’s Quadrennial, T.S. Eliot’s immortal words “still point of the turning world” were to be seen everywhere, from exhibition t-shirts to the lips of erudite guests.  Where is this ‘still point’? former Commissioner Arnold Aronson asked, for around us ideas were spinning from 60 nations, exposing meanings of scenography beyond the periphery of convenient comprehension. With the fire at Výstaviště and the need to relocate to several sites, PQ had at once blossomed into the city and become deliciously intangible:

“PQ cannot be easily described or understood – it is about learning, meeting and searching. PQ swallowed up all my original ideas and opened the doors” – Michaela Stránská, Scenofest Manager

During a vigorous panel discussion on PQ’s evolution, partly in regard to its new tagline of ‘Performance Design & Space’, Sodja Lotke, PQ Artistic Director, asserted that it was not about providing answers: “PQ is questioning contemporary scenography – exploring when and where it is and what shape it takes. Questioning things is not about doubting them: questioning creates possibilities to make things stronger. A dialogue with [other] disciplines that have scenographic elements creates possibilities for new views on our own practices.” 

While Lotke’s words speak to me of risk, my own answer to Aronson’s question is that each of us finds our own still point, that delicate and personal ‘hub’ where the world feels appropriate to us. The myriad of encounters that PQ throws up, falling like dice in unpredictable combinations, presents us with the opportunity to realign and reassess where our own centre lies.


It was also the first time PQ had created a curatorial stance. Lotke’s Intersection project commissioned 30 installations from practitioners in a range of fields. This stance was also reflected in a series of talks involving international figures. Moreover, the majority of national exhibits themselves got the hint, and it became rapidly apparent that this year’s PQ was to be a creative view of the world – not restricted to theatre genres – as interpreted not only by theatre artists but by others, e.g. US composer and inventor Tod Machover and product designers Numen/For Use. This Vienna/Zagreb-based company have explored aspects of scenography as a flamboyant extension of their practice – and in doing so won Gold Medal for Best Set Design for a “clarity of vision that challenges stage directors to see their art in new ways”.

PQ had certainly moved its centre from pavilions towards exploration. At the RWCMD exhibition, scenographer Gudny Sigurdardottir told me her most influential experiences of PQ had been the talks, especially Hans Peter Kuhn’s (pictured with Lichterfeld F60), the Berlin-based artist whose path emerged working as a sound designer in theatre. He is known for past collaborations with Robert Wilson (e.g. HG for Artangel) and now for solo installations using sound and light.

2011 was indeed the year that sound made a big impact, from the appointment of Steven Brown as PQ’s first Sound Design Curator, to the first award given for Sound to UK’s Dan Jones and Kathrine Sandys.

The award to Sandys (pictured with Czech director and Juror, Viliam Dočolomanský) is significant. International recognition for her work, which uses resonance and vibrations rather than traditional composition, suggests that the UK theatre sound scene should similarly seek to redefine itself more expansively.

The debate continued how to represent sound design – some said it shouldn’t be attempted, others couldn’t wait to experiment. Sandys’ own exhibit consisted of little more than photographs, prose and a recording of low freqencies: our brains did the rest. Presenting work in new ways in a museum context does throw up problems of museology. It would seem that scenographers must master a related but different field in the presentation of their work. Lotke noted that when scenography is transposed to a new context, the dramaturgy must also evolve for the exhibit to work on its own terms.


The concept of risk was on the lips of many of PQ’s guests. “I like that risk element“, said Robin Rimbaud (Scanner), a global travelling explorer of sound and image, fascinated by possibilities and encounters’, “I’m drawn to eccentric projects where I don’t know what I’m going to do”. Meanwhile a rapt audience gathered at the ‘Open Spatial Laboratory’ to hear Charles Renfro of NY architects Diller Scofidio & Renfro – who tease our perceptions of how we use space.  “We are not just interested in being provocative” he said,“but in making people upset”. An artist insistent on upsetting herself , is Kirsten Dehlholm, of  Hotel Pro Forma, Copenhagen. “Sometimes I need to be surprised – to put things that don’t obviously belong together. There are many meanings and audiences can find them.”

jesus_c_odd_size, was performed by real people chosen for their qualities appropriate to the biblical personae they represented. “The grandmothers of the disciples drank tea and told you stories about their disciple grandsons”, Dehlholm explained, “Virgin Mary – she has two rooms – one for men and one for women – when she goes she leaves a note – ‘back soon – Virgin Mary’.”  


Tod Machover,  Professor of Music & Media at the MIT Media Labobserved that most young people experience the world via computers. “We have to rebuild public experiences from the ground up and new reasons for people to come together. You can no longer assume that people will want to go to a normal theatre.” Machover’s descriptions of Hyperinstruments as well as his robotic opera Death and the Powers, demonstrate how technology can be used to extend and empower us as human beings. He uses physical movement picked up by sensors in order to control technological devices. If theatre is a machine, the outward expression of the human being, we should seek new models in step with the minds of our young people.

Italian director Romeo Castellucci finds other reasons to take risks and ways of finding that still point. “Communication is our daily disease – art is an interruption of this string of images and words. Theatre could be just a moment of thinking I want strongly to be lost – to be seen by the art, this is the biggest risk“. This recalled a Guardian article where he’d said “I need to be crushed … to reach the point where I don’t trust theatre or even myself.”


Castellucci described a sequence from Tragedia Endogonida which involved actors as priests playing basketball on a stage behind a glass screen: the voices are muffled . This is a sensory theatre of image and sound, but not word – the quality of sound is the cipher. For Persona, a PQ installation, Castellucci created an unbearable mask. The tongue had a heavy metal mechanism that whirred away at a high metronomic pace – appalling in both the noise it made and the thought of putting your fingers in. We are in the land of Greek myths, of oracles, of cruelty.

Portugese artists Borralho & Galante took us to the micro end of the scale with their World of Interiors (in a Box)Rodrigo Garcia’s theatre writings were whispered by two figures lying in stillness. You could lie next to them if you wanted and lose yourself in the the texture of the sound and intimacy.

Meanwhile, Professor Dorita Hannah, Commissioner for Architecture, talked of Diller Scofidio & Renfro’s “ability to walk across scales” starting from the micro experience of “mist on skin”, a reference to the Blur Building  ‘made’ of fog on Lake Neuchâtel.

In projects such as Arbores Laetae (pictured) or the High Line park project in New York,  public space becomes performance space. Renfro explains “a Frame is one-way in theatre; in a public space, it’s two-way – there’s a confusion about who’s looking at whom”. He employs great processes to achieve this: he ‘tips’, ‘slices’, ‘floats’ and ‘exposes’, leading Hannah to observe his architecture as a “framing of the marvellous” and Renfro to remark that “the passers-by ARE the theatre”.

You had to look no further than Kotcích Street where passers-by indeed became the theatre in Rolf Abderhalden’s Fourth Act (pictured), or Árpad Schilling’s Krétakör ensemble, where participants played an immersive theatre game involving extreme risk and self-regulation at the derelict site of Rudé Pravo newspaper.


All of which left the main international competitive exhibition in uncertainty. What you have to do in order to win those coveted prizes can no longer be taken for granted. There’s a general sense of new directions, of scrapping the rule book. I nonetheless found exquisite engagement in Red Cliff  for Peking Opera, designed by Gao Guangjan. Each of these little missiles was adhered to a thin acrylic flat.

And this is Dream of the Red Chamber, for Kunqu Opera designed by Liu Xinglin, (WSD Gold Medal winner for Stage Design). This was actually a collage made up of different scenes pulled together by imaginative layering.

And here is Paul Brown’s design for Aida at Bregenz, so big you can’t even see the edges of the casing.

Maybe it’s no longer enough to show simple modelboxes! Delight in low technology, textural richness and a range of performance genres was almost universally reflected in the choices of the Jury – as in this detail from a dress designed by Luciana Buarque for the Gold Triga-winning Brazil entry.

In a complex dramaturgical world, it isn’t necessary to abandon principles of scenography, even when that world is much transformed and challenged. Es Devlin, pushed by Roni Toren to defend this very point in reference to stadium performance, had no problems in identifying that ‘text’ is always the starting point and the ‘idea’ of text can be interpreted in many ways:

“Where I can, I start with the words. Whether it’s Greek tragedy or Kanye West it’s all about storytelling. Working on a text with a director, you have stage directions;  [with Lady Gaga] it’s how she feels when she wakes up in the morning – that’s the text and those are the stage directions, they don’t get stuck in the 19th century, and it’s different every day.”

Devlin also urged us not to keep hold of ideas.  “I never say hold on –  if directors don’t want it, move on, there’ll be a better one – let someone else have that one.”


I return to Lotke’s assertion that PQ is a question, a title, that theatre is just one mode of performance, that scenography perhaps deserves the context of ‘full body performance’ in order to fully represent itself.

Intersection was supported by an academic framework of institutions that included the V&A. The UK is at a disadvantage. Bound by tradition, the method of representation changes little. This year’s exhibit pushed as far as it could within the existing formula (of membership, selection and so on) to respond to the ambitions of PQ’s multi-disciplinary brief. The way we do things was once again reflected in an exhibition design presentation of 8′ x 4′ panels (even if evolved to gold frames for PQ itself).

PQ2011 suggests that it’s time to readdress this formula. It has offered UK scenographers, including all disciplines, a golden opportunity to start to think about PQ2015 as an open brief, a blank space, to be able to ask – as other countries do – What Shall We Do This Time?