Material matters

What is happening to me? Is there something I can do? Doctor, am I sick?

Here are my symptoms. With each passing year, I seem to become one shade more materialist, and one shade less idealist.

Increasingly, I think that in performance, it’s the material that matters. Ideas are secondary. Ideas are, in and of themselves, literally immaterial. Whatever ideas you get from a performance, you get from the material: what happens, how it’s made, how it’s presented.

I’m not saying that ideas don’t matter in creation. I’m saying that if you don’t attend to the material of performance, then your ideas don’t matter in effect.

The converse, by the way, is not true. The material of a performance “speaks” in ways that its creators and performers had not conceived. The ideas that a performance produces are more than, different from and unlimited by the ideas by which it was created.

Last year I had a conversation in a café with a performative artist, and she said to me, so you’re an anti-conceptualist, and I was like: yeah, I think I am. If the value of a performance lies in its conception, I said, it would be quicker and simpler if the artist just told the audience what the concept was, then none of us would have to bother with all that performance palaver.

And here I am at Spring Forward, thinking: all that performance palaver is exactly what does bother us. The man hugging his teddy bears and the light bulb being winched to the ceiling and the woman synching herself to a laptop and the giant inflatable pillow floating around like a black leviathan leaving naked people beached on the stage. And so it should bother us. It’s the material. It matters.

None of this, of course, makes material good in and of itself. (I could have happily not bothered with the teddy bear hugging, for example.) But it does make the material primary. (I don’t doubt for a second that behind those bear-hugs lay a perfectly good idea.)

Perhaps, my sickness is an endemically British case of anti-intellectualism. It’s a diagnosis I’ve certainly been offered, more than once. All I’d say is that I guess I’m with Susan Sontag when she called for a “theatre of the senses” (1), and Roland Barthes when he argued that the meaning of a text lies not in its source, but its destination (2). And I’m okay with not being cured of that.

1 In Against Interpretation (1966)
2 In The Death of the Author (1967)

Sanjoy Roy