OPINION | Jonathan Marshall responds to Steamworks Arts’ Trigger Warning

Posted by Thom Smyth, August 23rd, 2016

In the next installment of our Opinion section on the blog, we’ve commissioned Dr Jonathan Marshall, Senior Lecturer at WAAPA, to provide his thoughts on Steamworks Arts’ recent interdisciplinary performance Trigger Warning that premiered at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts last week.

In her account of choreographer Douglas Wright’s production Black Milk (2006), Suzanne Little notes that the piece begs “the question of how does one, or indeed, should one represent the ‘real’ suffering of others in artistic works and to what ends?” Director Sally Richardson’s collaboration with Cat Hope (sound/music), Hayley McElhinney (performer) and Joe Lui (lighting) insistently raises the same question to the point that this would seem to be the central topic of the production itself. The achievement and strength of Trigger Warning as a piece of performance art therefore lies precisely in the manner in which the piece confronts the audience with such problems. Convincing strategies to deal with these representational and critical dilemmas mark sections of the work, but I would venture that no entirely satisfactory solution can in fact arise, so one is left with questions. Trauma, which is the subject of this production, lies at the margins of what it is possible to represent, and hence it is unlikely it can in fact be accounted for or even fully dealt with via art. Trigger Warning asks us to consider this conundrum.

The production uses a personal account of violence and survival as a springboard to explore the traumatic more generally. The authority of the witness and the practice of retelling is foregrounded. McElhinney stands forward and slightly to the left for much of the piece, resting in front of a microphone into which she slowly and hesitantly relates events, pains and questions. She parallels however the witness Ka-Tzetnik from the Eichmann trial, who famously passed out in the stand unable to deliver any more testimony. The unadorned nature of her tale, its recurrent enunciation, and her only partially successful attempts to go further than a simple literal retelling, dramatizes both the power of testimony, and its limits. True horror remains somehow unspeakable even as it is given voice.

Testimony is therefore insufficient in itself. The central conceit of the production is to translate diverse affective states into sonic, musical and scenographic effects. Hope plays electric bass and electronics, at times offering a low, grainy noise which reflects the grating nature of the testimony, whilst at other points heavy metal / industrial music rifts seem to break out of the pain to signify transcendence and pleasure. McElhinney holds the microphone in the air in something like a moment of self-destructive ecstasy, as the sheer force of the aesthetic response here takes us far from scenes of literal violence. Lui has a grid of lights behind the performers pointed at the audience, and these flash and move in lines, adding luminal drumbeats, or moments in which the harsh glare of affect and its electric beams seem to burn away everything else. These moments of oscillation between where sound and light represent pain itself, before becoming something else, serve as the highlights of the performance. Some of Trigger Warning’s most subtle moments occur in the delicate nuancing of these transitions, as where Hope sings quietly, poetically and with a hint of tragedy into her own microphone, adding the merest of accompaniment with her guitar.

Despite the centrality of voice within the production, such aural poetry seems untrustworthy at almost every turn. McElhinney’s speech is inflected by a range of accents. After I had seen the performance, I read in the program that the original speaker had survived the Balkan wars. The phrasing however places us within the US or Britain. Trauma here becomes a horrific, fantasmic space which infiltrates all others. In a particularly affective monologue, McElhinney describes the city which one of her characters inhabits, one which is utterly and irredeemably corrupt. Trauma moves here from a warzone experience, or one particular in its nature to women (again, the program notes that the piece came out of initially exploring women’s trauma) to become the Existential state of contemporary modernity. In the lands where airplanes can collide with buildings at any time, where pandemics threaten, where human movement across borders has been reclassified as a threat rather than escape, traumatic anxiety infects our every moment.

I have therefore two concerns myself regarding the production, despite its manifest technical virtuosity and supremely effective staging as a sound and light event. The first of these is how explicit should the representation of traumatic states be, particularly when there is a very real possibility of actually traumatising the audience on some level? As Little and others have noted, to depict trauma can in some sense make one complicit with those who first inflicted it. There is an extended passage, presented to the audience as in-your-face direct address, which outlines in detail and at length acts of sexual violence. The audience is thereby placed in the position of the rapist, being spoken to by his (or her) victim. McElhinney’s character delivers this flippantly, as though to suggest the tale is too appalling for even her to fully acknowledge, which somehow makes it worse. I for one wonder not only whether one has the right to position the audience as a perpetrator of sexual violence, but more specifically what one possible outcome there is for actively upsetting the audience through such an address? I know of at least one audience member who was deeply disturbed by this material, and at least in this case, I do not think that anything positive eventuated from producing such a response. The issue is of course a very difficult one, and everyone’s threshold to hearing such material is different. This is therefore a question which it is not only I who ask, but which the production urgently asks of its audience members and of itself. I will be interested to see how or if this scene is modified as creative development continues.

As a trained historian, I also query the stripping away of cultural and historical specificity. By making it impossible to place the events or emotional states depicted here within any particular site of violence, be this the Balkan Wars, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, S11, or domestic abuse, the piece becomes more of an Existential exploration of the contemporary zeitgeist as inhabited by Western subjects today. This is of course a fascinating and important topic in and of itself, but the program blurb suggests the artists began by seeing the piece as a work of political commentary. Without a clear target, even in an abstract sense, I am not sure how Trigger Warning functions in this manner—which is not to say that it does not, merely that it remains an open point. Perhaps it is best to think of Trigger Warning as a response to the wave of increasingly abstract and unquantifiable wars which we have been waging over the last 50 years: the war on drugs, the war on terror. Perhaps Trigger Warning shifts us into mounting a new war on trauma, fought in this instance through sound, light and text; a battle of affective mourning and aesthetic intensities.

SOURCES
Suzanne Little, “Re-Presenting the Traumatic Real,” in Alexandra Kolb, ed., Dance and Politics (2006).
Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1965).
Shoshana Felman & Dori Laub, Testimony (1992).
Monica Casper & Eric Wertheimer, Critical Trauma Studies (2016).
Cathy Caruth, ed., Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995).

BIO
Dr Jonathan W. Marshall is coordinator of postgraduate study at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University, Perth. He and Cat Hope are the supervisors of Sally Richardson’s PhD at WAAPA. Jonathan has published on various matters related to trauma and hysteria (see https://edithcowan.academia.edu/JonathanWMarshall). His monograph, “Performing Neurology: The Dramaturgy of Dr Jean-Martin Charcot” is available through Palgrave Macmillan and Springer.

Filed under Sally Richardson