The Power Plant

Acting Styles: Anja Kirschner and David Panos's Recent Works

DEC 20 2011
by Melanie Gilligan

In the week before I saw UK-based artists Anja Kirschner and David Panos's exhibition living truthfully under imaginary circumstances at London's Hollybush Gardens gallery, I had been watching a lot of American television drama, relishing what many would regard as passive viewing of an escapist medium. At the exhibition, I was surprised to find a two-screen video projection showing actors performing in the same style, laden with feeling: anger, desire, pathos, disgust, hope, fear, the whole spectrum of naturalistic melodrama, as if it were meant to be taken at face value. The actors were running through an exercise developed by Sanford Meisner, a major figure in the development of Method Acting. In this exercise, one actor states a simple phrase about herself such as "I'm happy," and the other simply mirrors it saying "you're happy." At first the lines were delivered with affectless neutrality but as things progressed, the actors increasingly loaded them with personal, emotional significance.

Since Kirschner's 2006 narrative video work Polly II: Plan for a Revolution in Docklands, Kirschner and Panos have been making challenging video works that muddy the divisions between artists' film and video, and the industries of mainstream and art house cinema. As artists, they are my contemporaries, and they are also my good friends. To understand living truthfully... one has to see it in the context of their most recent feature-length video The Empty Plan. This thought-provoking film1 focuses on Bertolt Brecht, depicting the relationship of his plays and writing to the revolutionary politics of the twentieth century, and explores how aesthetic and dramatic form can define a political position.

Historical and political changes throughout Brecht's life molded the way that his plays were interpreted over the years. The film jumps from the period of 1941–47, when Brecht was exiled and living in Los Angeles, to three other moments when his play The Mother was being produced: the late Weimar Republic, New Deal America and postwar East Germany. The performance style of German agitprop theatre – the manner intended by Brecht – is juxtaposed with the American, naturalistic interpretation, showing how these two competing aesthetics of acting expressed profoundly different thinking and political positions. The agitprop performances appealed to the minds of the audience rather than their emotions, turning attention away from the character's subjective states, eliminating the representation of feelings and character detail, and instead focusing on their positions within a wider political structure. It was a theatre that strove toward the collective goal of transforming society, so it did not focus on the individual. This could not be more opposed to the behaviour-focused acting styles of Stanislavski and Meisner, concerned with the individual's inner world, their experiences and motivations in a scene. Brecht's intended style of delivery allows the audience a critical distance through their awareness of the artifice of the play and the acting. This mode of theatre, itself a reaction against earlier theatrical "naturalisms," rejected feeling and leaned toward rationality instead, as we hear in The Empty Plan's fictive dialogue. Brecht says "incidents were to be shown without going into their [the characters] inner lives. The outworn sphere of subjective emotions was meant to make way for new manifold socially productive emotions." Brecht is speaking here as a political rationalist, but also as an artist, who wants to reject outworn aesthetics and embrace the new. He wants his theatre to make way for "new feelings" that would "take the place of old ones."

In contrast, living truthfully... indulges in an internal, subjective Method Acting style to the fullest degree. In simple, self-inventing statements such as "I'm here," echoed and made self-contained in the other's "you're here," the scenes develop while the camera's close focus shuts out most other details. This means that the world of the film pivots and fluctuates wildly based on the emotional accents and tones that the actors give to their lines. However the result is also that, as in Brecht's theatre, our awareness intermittently flips to become conscious of the empty – because contentless – emotionalism of the performances. Feeling that I know Kirschner and Panos's work inside out, I was bemused and frustrated at first, but then, as the work still nagged at me the following day, I realized that it was precisely the qualities that bothered me that made the work interesting. Initially, I thought that the reductio ad absurdum approach of using this Meisner technique was a typical art strategy – strip a thing down to its structure and this somehow is enough. But I realized that, in this particular case, the simple form – so effective for actors because it gets them straight to the nuts-and-bolts of emotional "reality" without the encumbrance of narrative or contextual details – is also what makes the piece so powerful and resonant. It throws us a torturous curve-ball: So, you don't like watching this acting? What is it you don't like? What is it about being face to face with the emotional palette – the depiction of experience – pervasive in contemporary American (and so global) media that you don't like? It asks the thinking viewer to pin it down. Do they, like Brecht, consider a focus on emotions to be reactionary (a belief which remains unquestioned in much discourse around contemporary art)? Rather than opposing the two positions – the focus on a character's structural position or the attention to his or her subjective life, as if one can only side with one or the other – it makes sense to ask what Method Acting assumes about one's individual relationships to power structures and to collective social forms and how these are communicated through its style. Are there kinds of acting that can create a critical view of one's social roles, while allowing us to perceive the subjective complexity in characters? That can combine the distanced – critical – remove of thought with the immersion of affects?

A great deal of film and video artists in the UK and elsewhere have been drawn toward narrative film as a form of late, and because of this, these kinds of questions will need to be addressed. Today more than ever, it is time to stop regarding emotion as counterproductive in avant-garde art and in politics, while continuing to challenge and undermine the contemporary framework of individualism.

1. I call the work a “film” despite it being shot on video because its particular narrative form links it to the history of cinema, and this seems to take priority over the work's physical medium.

Melanie Gilligan is an artist born in Toronto in 1979. Gilligan studied at Central Saint Martins and the Whitney Museum of American Art: Independent Study Program and currently lives and works in London and New York. Her multi-episode, future-set drama Popular Unrest premiered at the Chisenhale Gallery, London, before touring to venues in Germany and Canada. Her single-channel film Self-capital (2009), commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, was shown in Toronto at Interaccess in Spring 2011.