Research tracks

Studies in Performing Arts & Media (S:PAM) is the research centre of the Theatre, Performance, Dance and Media Studies team of Ghent University, led by professors Katharina Pewny and Christel Stalpaert. S:PAM's research practice is clustered around five main focuses: Technologies, Memories, Traumata & Conflicts, Histories and Dramaturgies & Practices. These research practices include doctoral and postdoctoral research and doctoral research in the arts. A number of research projects are also conducted in close collaboration with other university departments, research groups and partner institutions.

Technologies

The interdisciplinary research conducted at S:PAM embraces modern and new media.1 The development of photography and cinema has marked an era of technical reproduction and has consequently challenged formerly accepted artistic criteria. S:PAM not only focuses on the impact of modern and new media on the performing arts, but considers it one of its core challenges to investigate the intermedial and transartistic consequences of these new procedures. Some of the key questions deal with how different media may or may not transform each other; and how the invention of new technologies influences our visual culture and our conception of the body. Performing artists who employ new technologies in their work can pave the way for a more general or critical use of them, and thus contribute to a cultural retraining of our senses. Theatre and dance performances not only use modern and postmodern media in intermedial ways, they are also translated into new technologies. Classic theatre texts appear as interactive video games and thus at the same time translate and alter classic Greek dramaturgies and Elizabethan dramaturgies. The multimodality made possible by developing technologies opens new lines of research for theatre studies following the so-called 'pictorial' and 'performative' turns in cultural and art studies in the 1990s.

 

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Memories, Traumas and Conflicts

This research cluster connects conflict, memory and trauma studies with aesthetic theories of film, theatre and performance. In modernity, cultural memory functions as the creator of order that forms the basis for tradition, continuity and identity. Statues, archives and national museums seek to sustain a homogeneous and coherent cultural memory and national identity. The increasingly discontinuous, fragmented, polycentric and almost kaleidoscopic socio-spatial structure of postmodern times reconfigures these notions of memory and identity. Films, theatre and dance performances comment on the shift in how national and cultural identities are shaped, and hence on the shift in the function of trauma and memory in these processes. Questions addressed here include: how to perform cultural trauma in postdramatic theatre and film? In what ways do artistic and cultural representations of violence relate to political phenomena? How do performances indicate a need for a relational aesthetic and the creation of a sustainable relation between collective and individual memories and identities in a multicultural society? How does a poetics of failure articulate the "unrepresentable" of cultural traumas? Also, when transferred into a performance situation, how is the audience called by and confronted with the 'Other' in 'posttraumatic' theatre, as in the 'Theatre of the Precarious'?

 

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Histories

Within contemporary theatre, there are many restagings of canonic texts such as Greek and Elizabethan tragedies. Since the 1980s, there has been a boom of restaging Greek tragedies worldwide. The seemingly European origin of theatre is increasingly being seen in transcontinental contexts. While the classics, philosophy, psychoanalysis and postcolonial studies are constantly producing research on Greek tragedies; the study of Greek tragedy in contemporary performance is still to be expanded both in Theatre Studies and in Performance Studies. These restagings show the aesthetic variety that currently exists within the performing arts, for example, in dance. Other aspects of theatre historiography are the mutual influences of aesthetic tendencies, as in the influence of absurd theatres on Dario Fo.

Specific challenges for S:PAM in this area of research include dealing with the changing aesthetic implications of the performing body throughout history; and with the notion of history in relation to the ephemeral nature of performing arts. Its live quality marks an obstacle in its development towards obtaining historical value. The boom of re-enactments in contemporary performing arts suggests an obsession with, or at least a greater interest, in the past, in sites of memory, and in the constellation of archives. The explanations that accompany the rise in re-enactments are seemingly contradictory: on the one hand re-enactment is said to be symptomatic of the memory crisis in contemporary culture, while on the other hand it is considered to be a significant expansion of traditional notions of cultural memory and archives. While the former position argues that the abundance of institutionalised memories in museums and archives has resulted in a loss of spontaneous collective memories based on communal exchange and social interaction, the latter primarily attempts to revaluate the mnemonic capacities of the human body. Indeed, the body itself might also be considered an archive: it stores dance techniques, choreographic phrases, movements, gestures, habits, tics and bits and pieces of repertoire to be reactivated and applied later. However, the body is a precarious archive. When the living body ceases to function or dies, its archival function disappears. The precarious status of the body-as-archive and its inevitable erasure should not be considered a lamentable, negative issue, however, but rather as a creative force within a poetics of failure.

 

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Dramaturgies

Within the production process, it is the dramaturge’s perception that precedes the audience’s perception of the performance. A dramaturge often not only works within the theatre team, but also functions as the first audience member, and as witness to a fragile artistic process. The dramaturge is a facilitator or mediator of communication in production processes. Particularly in light of performances traveling worldwide and intercultural productions, transnational and transcontinental communication processes as mediating practice becomes an important and necessary task for dramaturges to fulfill, particularly within the shared worlds of theatre, performance and dance. The ability to facilitate communication, to translate one's own perception (of a rehearsal) into speech, opens up the practice of dramaturgy for many more forms of theatre than 'just' dramatic theatre, or theatre of the spoken word.

Dramaturgy is, thus, ultimately cut loose from its traditional attachment to a pre-written dramatic text. The job of the dramaturge has changed as the status of the pre-written text as the primary source of theatre has given way to improvisation and to other means of theatrical composition and creation. The dramaturge's 'external gaze' has expanded to encompass an external body, a corporeal 'tryout' of the spectator's bodily capacity to read and make sense of an aesthetic of intensities. It has become a dramaturgy of texts, bodies, media, sounds and images. The development of the so-called postdramatic theatre has also posed new questions regarding the social, political and ethical impact of dramaturgy. Dramaturgy also covers the organization of relations among performers and audiences, theatres and the public, prescribed texts and their stagings, relations of spaces and bodies, relations of visuals and acoustics of the so-called 'live' and 'mediated' nature of performances and, last but not least, the working relations in performance teams. In this context, the dramaturgy of economy, resp. the aesthetic strategies artists use to perform their unstable working situations in the 'Theatre of the Precarious' are crucial.

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  • Joint Research group THALIA (Theatre, Literature & Media in Performance) is a collaboration between scholars from UGent and VUB, aiming at collective, intellectual exchange in regard to intermedial constellations of theatre, text and performance. The theatre text/theatricality, performativity, dramaturgy and (inter)mediality are key to the research activities of THALIA.
  • Dramaturgy as an artistic practice and as a profession is being debated in the Working Group Dramaturgy within the Society for Theatre Research (convener: Katharina Pewny et al.). One of the outcomes of the activities of the working group is the volume Dramaturgies in the New Millennium. Relationality, Performativity and Potentiality (Forum Modernes Theater Schriftenreihe, vol. 44, Narr Francke Attempto Verlag, 2014), edited by Katharina Pewny, Johan Callens and Jeroen Coppens.
  • EASTAP (European Association for the Study of Theatre and Perofrmance)

Practices

'Practice as research' has become an important issue for research in theatre and the performing arts. PhDs in the arts might address questions, such as: what do, for example, postdramatic theatre texts imply for acting practices and styles? Developing theory is, of course, also a specific practice of its own. Contemporary performance is a site of encounter for these practices, e.g. in the format of the 'lecture performance'. This 'dialogic' form, which takes place on stage, is enacted in cooperation with our university colleges and their members.

In presentations, reading seminars and individual tutoring sessions, we search for textual formats that meet academic standards and further develop the specificity of artistic work. The articulation of artistic practices in the academy might call for textual formats such as interviews, diaries, and protocols of artistic processes. However, the format of the academic text also allows the author - thus, the artist - to step back from and reflect on the artistic process. We do not believe that there is one standard recipe for researching artistic practice, but we do know that - as in the theorists' practice - each research question calls for its own methodological approach.

Performance studies are currently broadening their scope of research, taking into account production processes and thereby expanding their methodological approaches. Part of this methodological shift is the discipline of dance sociology, of which the interdisciplinary project Choreographies of Precariousness is a prime example. Within this project, we expand the notion of the 'precarious', i.e. unstable working and living conditions, to include close research on economic aspects of production processes.

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Footnotes

1 Media art is generally defined as those works that use the 'new' technologies that have emerged since the 19th century. 'Modern media art' includes photography and film, whereas 'new media art' employs more recently developed digital technologies and includes video art and audiovisual installations, CCTV art, sound art, net art, artistic computer game modification, electronic art, etc.