Musings about Puppetry and Photography
(included in Bread and Puppet's 30th Anniversary 1993)
I’ve always contended there are inherent contradictions in the act of photographing Our Annual Domestic Resurrection Circus and its underlying participatory nature.
The separation between subject (puppet, puppeteer) and object (camera, photographer) is a tremendously wide golf. Each is born of a different perspective. Photography chases the myth of objectivity while puppetry seeks to interpret the reality of the subjective. While the puppeteer strives to understand the diversity of the world, the photographer tries to possess it, or produce the illusion of possession. When the photograph tries to objectify puppetry, it fails, why?
The photographer is attempting to frame a world that cannot be framed. The regular world is specially tailored to fit within the two dimensional illusion of a photograph; the skyscraper and the photographic frame were born of the same obsession with the neatness and facade… control through linear appearance… comfort through straightness, while the puppetry of Bread and Puppet traces the twisted lines of the landscape, emulates chaotic forums and the dynamics of the natural world. The camera tries to compress the puppet theater into the narrow confines of the photographic frame, forcing an infinite world into four rigid corners, unable unfurl. This is the confining power of photographic illusion. Yet the depth and dimension of the simplest puppet show cries out from every angle to be seen. Every hanging thread is a different perspective, but the camera fails because it is trapped within the prison of the frame. If it could only produce a different shaped image for each scene, extend beyond its borders to include the expansion of a puppet’s often asymmetrical being.
Or the image could rise above the paper surface in bas-relief and we could feel it textured surface; or perhaps the simplest solution: the camera should be made of cardboard, with the end of a broken bottle for a lens and painted leaves for film. Then perhaps it could bridge the gulf with puppetry, escape it’s chemical-mechanical limitations in claim the right to be part of puppet theater. Of course this would no longer be photography.
This opposition of purpose can also be extended to include the photographer who attempts to be a puppeteer. Immediately an inherent contradiction arises and shared loyalties come into conflict; the realization that you cannot adopt a dual consciousness; to watch and be watched; to possess the meditative stance of performance while being an observer. The photographer never really becomes part of the spectacle on the field as the lens becomes a device that inevitably interprets the experience… And of course to be reminded that every picture you take and waste pollutes the world in the very water that is like blood in the veins of papier-mâché. The photographer can only enter the world of puppetry in short bursts of elation and is continually drawn back into the world of observation and thus never fully experiences is the diverse activity of the puppeteer.
Forced by this dual relationship to find solutions, I dared to imagine a simple papier-mâché mask with a built-in photographic eye, and wondered when these master mask makers of Our Domestic Resurrection Circus would fabricate a mask that would contain a camera. The photographer could then cross into the world of puppetry free from contradiction. The two actions could be fused into one. But would this merging of opposites be a healthy combination? Would the genetic code of clay and cardboard and paint react favorably when forced to contain a camera? Doesn’t the camera promote a different agenda, one that resembles a process of surveillance? Were puppets even went to see? Perhaps tampering with these sensibilities could create unwanted hybrid puppets… Concepts of the first public panopticon… as the first self-conscious puppets forced to survey themselves while they act. Wouldn’t a pointer puppet with a camera attached to the end of its extended finger change the very urgency of the action of pointing into the urgency of an aggressive tourist? So far solutions to bridge this gap remain evasive.
Our Domestic Resurrection Circus is an event that depends on the annual participation of hundreds of people who use their assorted talents as artists musicians and builders, giving their best efforts as puppeteers, so as to make circus time a memorable experience for everyone. As a photographer and observer, crossing into the world the puppetry remains mostly a fleeting experience, like a privileged spectator with seat on the stage, because photography is not a prerequisite for puppetry. Thus it seems to extend the function of the photographer by distributing among the participants a portion of the photographs taken during their performance. The act of taking a photo itself is actually a solitary, non-participatory act.
Sharing the photographs is the next logical extension if the photographer truly wishes to participate and remain an observer.
So one way to satisfy these shared loyalties is to distribute the selection of the photographs into the puppeteers domain. Let these photos provide affirmation of the past, inspire memory, and ideas; let them wind their way into the world, into binders and onto bathroom walls; let them provide a shared record, an educational archive, and contribute to the concept of cheap art, so as to undermine the regular and more often up repressive workings of the photograph in the modern world.
And we must not forget the puppets, who have been so patient in front of the camera. Their patience teaches us to respect the efforts of every participant.