And so I have been working to discover what other puppeteers think of this subject. One person I truly wanted to meet was Jan Švankmajer, whose work inspired Gravity From Above, my exploration of puppetry in Europe. His work is filled with textures, purposely distressed surfaces, rough fabrics, objects rendered impenetrable by his tampering with them. During the period when the Czech communists refused to allow him to make films he began to experiment with tactility, going as far as to make boxes that one put one’s hands into as portraits of individuals. His wife Eva never was able to put her hand into the box he made for her. These were not safe textures. Yet it shows his commitment to the tangible and tactile which informs all of his work.º
Likewise the films of the Brothers Quay are filled with physical features that impede the rapid consummation of their art. And this emphasis on texture comes from their immersion into puppets and their connections with older puppet traditions like the Toone Marionette Theatre in Brussels and the early puppet films of Ladislas Starewitch. They also understand the importance of textures in life whether it be lacemaking or furniture. That somehow in ways we don’t fully understand we are fed by textures in a way that flat sterile surfaces cannot do.
My interviews for Gravity From Above have led me to conclude that often puppeteers are more sensitive to these tactile worlds. They raise questions about the nature of digital representations versus the tangible realms of the puppet theatre. In discussing these things in Warsaw in 2012 with the late Polish puppet historian Henryk Jurkowski he told me that: “I think that this, what is on the screen, I mean on TV and on film also, it is not real: Puppetry is real. It’s a reality. And I believe that the puppet with this ambiguity of its existence and non-existence, belongs to my reality, to my world. I can invest some belief in it. I can play with it. I can admire it, but it’s something real. I can touch it. I can even touch it. I think that puppets, and some kinds of sculpture, are real. They are speaking to us. And we can, vice versa, answer.”*
Think of that reaction to puppetry as opposed to the kind of endless fanatical devotion that the products of big budget science-fiction films and video games engender. The puppet leads us into physical reality, the tactile four dimensional universe where things are affected by the passing of time. The puppet is completely mixed up with tactile reality. As Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppets wrote some years ago: “Puppet theater is does not only consist of things – it is overwhelmed by things and lives in this obsession. In its practices it knows the typical otherworldly qualities of things and in its productions it remains indebted to them. And indeed the soul of things does not reveal itself so easily. What speaks out of a puppet’s gesture is mostly uncontrollable and in any case not suited for the specific targeting with which modern audiences get bombarded.”§
Thus the puppet as a material object contains in its essence a contradiction to this world of endless digital imagery, of the flatness of the new commercial world to which we seemingly have little redress. That is why I have often said that puppetry is an antidote art, and antidote to the fixations of this strangely empty 21st Century. In a time when human communications have been reduced to ‘memes’, or to social media, what Jacques Ellul called horizontal propaganda, to multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbusters, to computer games where, as Alexis Blanchet wrote, “the player is only a puppet manipulating an avatar.”• The tactile, tangible, multidimensional puppet made of textures performed in real time offers a humble resistance to the epic spectacle of our age.
A younger French puppeteer, Paulette Caron, in discussing the issues related to this new virtual age: “But live performance is different! And you can go and see the same show twice, and it won’t be the same. You can feel the objects breathing. Actually seeing the tension inside of someone, between someone and the object, whether it be a puppet officially or not. What happens between the two? What happens inside the puppeteer? It’s something that you don’t really see on film, I think. Because you have a certain point of view that’s given to you. And your eyes aren’t free to focus on what the puppeteer will tell you to be focused upon.”*
And that ultimately is the question for today’s puppeteers. What will you focus upon? And what will the puppet mean in the 21st Century? Will it end up as one more digital obsession? Will it simply add to the arsenal of various propagandas? Or will the puppet point, as it naturally does, to the meaning of being an embodied creature in a world of real things?
When I gave this lecture Puppetry and Texture was already on my mind.
Thanks for reading along… Do let me know what you think.
November 3rd 2019
Puppetry and Texture Part 3 coming within the week.
And hey we could really use your support in our continuing effort to try to get this documentary finished. Use PayPal from anywhere you are and contribute to Gravity From Above: A Journey Into European Puppetry
* – Interviews conducted in 2012 by Byrne Power for the forthcoming documentary film Gravity From Above ©2017
– Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art by Jan Švankmajer © 2014 International Library of Modern and Contemporary Art
§ -The Old Art of Puppetry in the New World Order by Peter Schumann ©1993 Bread + Puppet Theater
• – La vie filmique des marionnettes Ed. Laurence Schifano ©2008 Presses Universitaires de Paris 10 (L’avatar vidéoludique, nouvelle forme de marionnette numérique? by Alexis Blanchet)
This essay was originally commissioned for a book. Alas it was not accepted. Please accept it here in three parts. You’ll notice that the style is slightly more formal than usual. That shouldn’t be a problem should it?
I think puppetry is magic. Because you animate matter, make it alive. It’s the process of animation. You take a piece of wood, or whatever you’ve found, you are able to do some theatre with it. Or any kind of art. The process for me is the most interesting and important thing. I still feel like it’s magic. It’s like the photograph. You have traditional photography and it’s still connected to alchemy, because you literally capture the light by means of a chemical process. It’s all very tactile and physical. And digital photography, it’s all about watching these small screens. And it’s just about information. It’s completely virtual. And puppet theatre for me is about the physical experience, about the tactility, about how you change things by touching them. So for me it’s very physical.
Tomáš Procházka, Puppeteer with Buchty a Loutky, Prague 2012* (Later with Handa Gote)
Puppets have texture.
It doesn’t sound like a radical notion. Not too long ago such a statement could easily have been put into the category of obvious, so obvious as to be unremarkable. Today it stands out as almost something of a miracle. In a world of dead surfaces: the flatness of glass on the sides of buildings, stainless steel walls, enamel refrigerators, plastic tables, white painted walls, faux materials and, most of all, the unbroken smoothness of the screens engulfing our imaginations, to say that puppets have texture suddenly seems like a mighty contradiction of the realities that have been created for us to inhabit. And yet we can now say it with courage: Puppets have texture.
We often ask questions of ecology. What is the proper environmental habitat for creatures to live in? Humanity is something that we often assume should fit into this imagined ecosphere the way a frog does. And yet this only demonstrates a paucity of imagination. We rarely ask this question: What is the proper environment for a human being to live in? Yet without asking this question we often end up in such contradictions as the creation utopian communities which lack much of what makes the human experience worth living. Or we find people who lament the loss of natural habitat for snails and swans while simultaneously living themselves in cramped apartments, in crowded cities, in suburbs designed for automobiles, in universities of sterile modern architecture, eating processed instant food, injecting coffee into our veins to stay alive, turning music into the interpretive background score of our personal film through headphones, selfies taken to validate our passing through an unmemorable landscape, cruise ships that seem to keep us in one place as we move through space, endlessly addictive flickering images on our screens, which now are held in our hands. We don’t ask how much of this new environment is the place where a human can flourish. (And it really has appeared like lightning out of non-existence less than a hundred years ago.)
The world we now live in is a rapidly changing unknown moving towards a total encirclement. It is a product of the more reductive experiments of Modernism (Bauhaus, Pop Art, Minimalism, etc) in an unholy commingling with the commercial forces of this world. While those art movements meant to focus us upon uncluttered form, the market realized very quickly that to eliminate the last vestiges of bourgeois ornamentation would be a boon to economical production. Thus by the 1960s most industries that crafted home merchandise had begun the shift from the solidly manufactured products of the 1950s to the more cheaply made and far more disposable world we now inhabit. Skyscrapers were made to look eternally new. Kitchens were made to be the most sanitary and empty rooms on the house. Art galleries objectify their wares by hanging them in utter isolation on blank walls. Shopping mutated into a journey into the deadest of spaces devoid of humanity, all utility, all prosaic shapes and angles in ‘big box stores’. Plastic was molded to look like any number of materials. ‘Contact paper’ with photos of wood grain was glued to the pressed debris of the lumber industry to imitate planks of oak or pine. The car became another dead zone waiting to be filled with the waste products of the fast-food industry. And into this toxic antiseptic landscape the screen increasingly was placed to mediate our nullity. Think of the last airport you spent much time in. Think of the GPS navigators in your vehicles. Think of your white living room wall punctuated by a flatscreen television. Look to your palms. A device so insidious that it keeps you from noticing the world, the trashy, dead, horrifically colored, brutally designed, world around you.
Oliver Grau and Thomas Vogel in the Introduction to their book, Imagery in the 21st Century†, have written: “Never before has the world of images around us changed so fast, never before have we been exposed to so many different image worlds, and never before has the way in which images are produced changed so fundamentally.”
And again: “The historical development of images, between innovation, reflection, and iconoclasm, is reaching a new level of global complexity in the twenty-first century. These transformations have hit a society that is to a large extent unprepared.”
And then there is the puppet. Not the puppet as toy, another cute entity for distraction, but the puppet, handmade, conceived as performer, as solitary three dimensional presence, made of wood, papier-mâché, bone, fabric, metal, etc. This figure does not fit into the flat landscape. It sits in the corner cautiously. There is a mystery to it. (Which is why some people fear the puppet.) Questions emanate from it. Questions about why we make our mirrors of such rough textures.
The texture of the puppet. That is what in inspired me to begin to investigate puppetry back in the late 90’s. I had seen the odd puppet films Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay. And while I was impressed by their techniques, something else was speaking to me. The puppets themselves. Švankmajer seemed to go out of his way to add texture upon texture in films like Rakvičkárna (The Coffin Factory or Punch and Judy) where his two malevolent hand puppets smack each other silly in an environment of burlap, pages from old books and newspapers, badly painted automaton monkeys and a live guinea pig. Even the two puppets, not Punch and Judy but rather a Kašpárek and Harlequin, are purposely stressed and corroded in their appearance. And their puppet smocks likewise are texturally alive. The Quays likewise would use textures like a musical score: iron shavings, meat, dust, rubber bands, scissors, light bulbs, dirty glass, and old doll parts. And while their work hearkened to a gray (now mythic) Communist age, nevertheless in these evocations one could see the value of that grayness in contrast to slick illusions of high tech hypermodernity. (More than one puppeteer who had operated behind the old Iron Curtain has expressed a strange nostalgia for the gray, in contrast the ‘bright’ shiny present.)
This set a beacon for me to follow.
To be continued…
November 3rd 2019
Puppetry and Texture Part 2 coming within the week.
And hey we could really use your support in our continuing effort to try to get this documentary finished. Use PayPal from anywhere you are and contribute to Gravity From Above: A Journey Into European Puppetry
* – Interviews conducted in 2012 by Byrne Power for the forthcoming documentary film Gravity From Above ©2017
† – Imagery in the 21st Century Ed. Oliver Grau w/ Thomas Vogel © 2011 The MIT Press
And so my six month long journey is over… or at least at a stopping point until October. And I feel the need to summarize something about it. To look for a pattern in the ineffable. Without a doubt this journey was quite different in many regards to many trips I have taken over the years. It can’t be an accident that journeying to Europe has, over the years, often been the catalyst for great change in my life. I have been to Europe on nine different occasions. And three of those times have brought monumental alterations in my life’s direction. Europe certainly hasn’t been the only proving ground for me. And every visit hasn’t had the same kind of effect upon me. But this was indeed one of those demarcation points for me, beyond which I am forced into the next square on the chessboard. And that is quite clear.
For one thing this moment comes at a time when my life seemed at a crossroads. In 2015 my mother had passed on after having lived ten years in Alaska. This brought me to a point of questioning many things and of reaching out artistically into new zones, whether successfully or not remains to seen. Something seemed to be coming to an end by June of 2017. I felt I was looking out at the universe through a microscope instead of a telescope. And yet I couldn’t see that I was in the wrong or a terrible place. But I saw that I had to simply continue to walk on down the trail laid before me however uncertain. By early July I had been informed that my life in the Quonset Hut where I lived for over 20 years was over. The previous December I had been accepted for a three week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. And the only thing I knew for certain was that I had to get there. For a few minutes I thought about doing the practical and safe thing, to start looking for another place to rent and setting up a new situation for myself in Haines. But I realized two things instantly. One was that doing so would by necessity mean radical changes in my life in order to make the money to do that. And two, if I wanted to get anywhere playing it safe was definitely out of the question. And so I gambled on getting myself to France, closing my life in Haines down as soon as possible and putting everything into storage.
By October I had passed through one of the most tense periods of my life to find myself flying to France once again to try to do something with this ragged documentary that quite frankly I have been working on for far too long. By the middle of the second week in Charleville I was told potentially good news by the Institute. Very good news indeed, news that I had not been planning on. And thus many things occurred to me at once. I immediately knew that my decision had been the right one. If I had done the obviously ‘responsible’ thing and stayed home to organize my life anew I stood a good chance of dragging Gravity From Above out to the point of absurdity, and probably at the cost of my own sense of purpose. I also knew that this had happened far too early in this excursion, this exile, to be the deeper reason for the journey. This stroke of fortune had to be the hors d’oeuvre not the main course. I had planned on also visiting more puppet theatres and countries and then ending up for three months in Tbilisi, Georgia. And so maybe, I thought, something was awaiting me in Georgia.
Meanwhile as I moved on I can’t say that everything was simply a photo album of great moments of puppetry. That sense of muffled unease that had surfaced in June followed me around as well. I won’t belabor it or the specific reasons why here. But it was a serious concern that would pop up from time to time. And in a way I suppose I was also reflecting on my own mortality, and whether I had accomplished much at all in this strange life of mine. Sometimes it’s easy to see the cracked shards of endeavors to produce something of worth. I’m not one to be satisfied with cheap tokens of positive esteem. I am not looking to be validated by Facebook ‘Likes’. And so one of the places I most wanted to go was to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. A place with over 8,000 desiccated corpses on display. I wanted to look into the face of death and to both accept it and to gather my courage for the next chapter of my life. This questioning was not about feeling self pity. It was about seeing clearly what it means to be human in this dark world. It was about finding new resolve in face of personal dead ends and failures.
And I was having excellent conversations along the way with Lori, Gilles, Julien and my dear friend Paulette in Paris, with Māra Uzuliņa, Estefania Urquijo, Yanna Kor, Coraline Charnet and Raphaèle Fleury in Charleville-Mézières with Nicolas and Jose Géal, Dmitri and Biserka in Brussels, Mary and Simon in Lyon, the Quays and Matty Ross in London, with Per Ole, Greg, even Ellis Potter showed up in Switzerland and L’Abri students like Jessica, Jim and Sophia. And so many more.
And then there was art. I saw the artwork of Italy for the first time Palermo and Rome. I noticed the statues everywhere. I was particularly sensitive to the meaning of beauty in the museums I passed through. In Brussels, in Paris, in London, and in Rome. Tarkovsky had been right. “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” And so did so much of what I saw, the elaborate effort put into so much art. To see a Bernini or Michelangelo statue is to weep over the loss of beauty in contemporary art today. To realize how much work has been put into expressing that which is always just beyond our grasp is to look back at our cheap broken fragments today, the big eyed cute fanart kitsch, the postmodern ugly uselessness, with a sense of utter loss. And yet to see the wonder of the paintings and sculptures of the past is to marvel, to truly dream, to hope in something that we could achieve were we not running away from meaning at every turn in this virtual age. I found myself stopped by Michelangelo’s Pieta, tears came to my eyes as I beheld the holy sense of comfort exuding from his depiction of Mary, young face, old hands, holding her dead son. It spoke to me of everything missing in life. Of sacrifice beyond our comprehension. Of tenderness, a tenderness I’ve certainly never known, that must exist somewhere.
And of course there were puppets… And puppets to me seemed to speak of humility in this tawdry shallow world of geeky images and toy electronic music. As I watched the politically correct failure of the most recent Star Wars film I contrasted the massive budget and expert special effects with the hand shadow ballets I saw in Georgia at Budrugana Gagra. The one was an overpriced over-hyped film franchise with plenty of agenda, yet without a soul. The other could literally be made for free. And yet the dedication of the low paid performers to the perfection of their movements spoke of deeply spiritual longings in the deepest sense of the word. Everything missing from our shiny, noisy screens.
Guignol, Woltje, Gnafron, Orlando, Punch and clowns (!) seem to follow me around. As did much more mysterious creatures, like those found in the films of the Brothers Quay. And somehow there was a continuity between the puppets found in the Palermo and Brussels and Tbilisi museums, the statues in Italy, France and England, the skeletons and corpses of Italy. And the textures (another big theme) found in exhibitions about Christian Dior and Balenciaga, the dresses in the V & A and the many traditional costumes of Georgia. Artistically everything seemed of a piece.
And yet none of this was what I suspected might happen.
And the first few weeks in Tbilisi Georgia were good yet curiously uneventful. It was the holiday season that lasted until the eastern New Year celebration around mid-January. A few connections were made but particularly around January 1st I seriously began to wonder what I was doing there. But then there was a shift which I can date to a conversation on January 3rd which began to change my perceptions of what I was doing in Georgia. It wasn’t a big revelation, just a subtle recognition that there were people I could really talk to. Later after the second New Year everything began to open up again. And more conversations opened up more doors. There was the art I was discovering in museums. There was my time with Budrugana Gagra, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, the National Folklore School, the Marjanishvili Theatre, and especially my time with Erisioni that convinced me beyond a doubt of the artistic inclinations of the Georgians, which was important for me. And it was in conversations with Nini Sanadiradze, Ana Sanaia, Salome Berikashvili, John Graham, Eka Diasamidze Graham, Vladimir Lozinski, Elene Murjikneli, Gela Kandelaki, Tinatin Gurchiani, Natia Vibliani, Mariam Sitchinava, Koté Khutsishvili, Nata Zumbadze, Otar Bluashvili, Daro Sulakauri, Giorgi Kancheli, and especially Nino Vadachkoria, that I realized that I had the potential of having true friends in this country as well as the infrastructure of a community to help me navigate my way through this new landscape. I was nearly convinced of moving there when Nini Sanadiradze offered me the job of helping to design and create the puppet and doll museum from scratch.
And that was it. That was the real point of this journey in the end. I had often thought I might end up in Europe for the last chapter of my life. Yet I had no idea it would be a place like Georgia, which I had no real idea even existed before 2012. But now I will be returning there to set up a new life. I made sure I explored some darker corners of the town before I left. That I had a clear eyed idea of the place. (And I recently explored this theme here.) But now this small country in the middle of the world was to become my home. Talk about a dizzying beautiful experience. And the farewells were warm and meaningful. And more importantly I felt I was coming to a place where my gifts would mesh with the environment. Unlike New York, which always felt too embattled. Unlike Alaska, where most of my talents lay under wraps. Now I would be coming back to Europe to finish my documentary and then to stay. And that’s an incredibly large event in one’s life. This wasn’t going to be a temporary experiment. This would be me shedding my last skin to see what kind of creature this life has made of me. We will have to see.
I’ve discovered a lost world just this week.
And I mean that. I’m not talking in hyperbole.
I was ushered into a room that had the puppetry equivalent of King Tut’s treasures in it. Collecting the dust of years. Made by a name seemingly opaque to the world of puppets, puppet films, puppetry animation, never mind the big world. More than once my jaw was firmly resting on the floor with the miniature spectacle being revealed to me. I found a lost world this week, the world of forgotten Georgian puppet animator Karlo Sulakauri.
I originally visited Tbilisi Georgia in March of 2016. One of the tiny museums I tried to get into was what the Georgian Museums site called the Animated Puppet Museum. I had dutifully, eagerly hunted it down, going so far as to navigate the cryptic bus system to end up at 23 Amagleba Street. All I found was a locked door, the most paint cracked door imaginable, with an old rusty plaque on it that read ‘Karlo Sulakaure – Puppetton (?) Animation Doll Museum’. A ringing of the bell and knocks on the door produced no sound. Trying to peer into the windows proved impossible. The other puppet folk in Tbilisi didn’t even know of the existence of this place. I wrote to the email addresses listed on the Georgian Museums page. Silence.
I wrote a note to the Quay brothers about it. They immediately saw the extreme possibility of what might lay behind that door. They wrote back: “The plaque of the Puppet Museum is very moving and poignant. Somebody probably walked out, locked up, and then passed away and that person had the only key and he/she was buried with it, and the museum as well. But you must try to get into it.” I took that as a command. But to no avail. Like the spectral house in Shirley Jackson’s Daemon Lover, no one ever came to the door. Whenever I mentioned it to people who might know something they just looked at me with a puzzled hopeless expression. And so I left Tbilisi and all I had was the mysterious plaque in a photograph.
I arrived back in Tbilisi in late December of 2017 for an extended three month stay. I would meet more people. Occasionally I asked about the museum. No one knew anything. Then at the beginning of February, reflecting on the older photo, I thought again about the museum and then remembered the Quays command. I thought let’s give it one more try. So I wrote to the email addresses still listed on the museum website.
A few days passed.
And then I received a response from someone named Daro Sulakauri. Originally I thought it was a man, but it is hard to tell male and female names apart in Georgian. Tako is girl. Toko is a boy. Daro proved to be the granddaughter of Karlo Sulakauri, who had made animated films from the 1950s until the 1980s in the old Soviet Union. The little museum featured his work exclusively. Daro would be happy to open the door to the ‘Puppetton Animation Doll Museum’ and to give me a private showing. I had no idea what to expect. But it would take longer than I expected to get in. Daro is a photojournalist who works for international magazines like National Geographic or Georgian Journal, etc and she was often out on assignment. I had to wait. But what else is new? This is Georgia. I’m getting used to it.
Eventually Daro’s schedule proved favorable to a visit. And so I took the bus up to Amagleba Street and stood again at the decaying door. I pressed the doorbell. No answer. But I assumed that she would be coming from somewhere else. I was wrong though. Shortly before the appointed time a pleasant curly haired young woman wearing glasses opened the door with a friendly smile. She didn’t know I was there. The doorbell didn’t work. I should have knocked.
But as I stepped in I was suddenly presented with a very tactile colorful artistic stairway leading up to the first floor. But we stepped under it and back passed piles of stored boxes and other debris. Daro opened up a door and flipped a light switch. I was sidetracked by some art on the wall. And then I turned my attention to the room. And as we entered I must have gasped. I had expected some children’s puppetry. It turned out that Elene at Budrugana Gagra did know about this place. In fact they used to practice underneath in the basement, in what is now a restaurant. (This happens all the time here. Someone says they don’t know what you mean. Then it turns out they know much more than they said.) Elene had shown me a couple of pages in a book on Georgian animation. A thick book! And it seemed like pleasant work. But none of those images prepared me for what I was about to discover. Karlo Sulakauri wasn’t just an animator, he was an artist with a complete aesthetic vision. And no one seemed to know anything about him.
But Daro knew a lot. We spoke as she pointed things out. I waited a moment before beginning to photograph the collection. I was just trying to take it all in. Once my eyes adjusted I began to see images of creatures and people that I had never seen before. There was an old man in a wagon. I saw strange assemblages on the wall made many years ago that looked like they could have been found in a Soho gallery today. There were strange figures with even stranger lips. A tree man, I think, made of of wood. Look again and that old man had a strange grin. There were old posters of puppet shows from the mid-20th Century. Photos of Karlo and his film crew. Deformed asymmetrical puppets. A wicker figure. A large spider with a weird painted abdomen. A wooden flute with insectoid notes emerging from it. And most impressively, even eerily, of all I was struck by an insect/bird/moth/fairy that was battered with age and set against a ragged aquamarine background.
And as I spoke with Daro fragments of Karlo’s life began to revealed. And I soon recognized an absolutely dramatic story in the telling. And later I would hear even more of the tale from Daro’s father, Karlo’s son, Dato. Meanwhile I began to discuss even more with Daro, which eventually settled upon the topic near and dear to many Georgians – music. Then Daro introduced me to her husband, an electronic DJ, Giorgi Kancheli. And soon we were sitting in his studio listening to music and discussing the vinyl LP, of which he had a respectable collection. And I realized that there was something in the way Georgians talk that is at once open to new ideas, yet simultaneously respectful of traditions. Meanwhile I was smitten by the art all over the house. Much was by Dato. One wall tapestry arrested me for its use of textures. This was made by Daro’s mother, Nino Kipshidze. Then Daro pointed out a portrait of her mother in her youth as drawn by the famous Soviet Era filmmaker, Tbilisi born Armenian, Sergei Parajanov. In fact the creativity of this lineage of human beings was quite something to behold. And soon I would see just how much more there was.
Daro drove us through the back streets of Tbilisi until we arrived at a building not too far from Rustaveli Square, yet complete hidden. A gently aging ornate wooden house similar in color to the paint behind the moth fairy. We were met at the door by Dato Sulakauri, who it turns out is a very respected painter in his own right, and his wife Nino Kipshidze, who actually runs the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art that I described in my last essay, and does fantastic patchwork art of her own in tapestries, based on traditional Georgian motifs. And the part of me that is desperate for texture really connected to one of her works back at the museum / Daro’s house. But it was Dato’s work here that caught me. His work too was often inspired by Georgian themes. And his encaustic (waxed based) ikons were beautifully rendered, being both primitive (you could see ancient Roman art in his paintings), contemporary (technique, style, intensity) and yet there was gratefully no trace of postmodern irony. I was so impressed that Dato noticed and eventually handed me a copy of a book of his work.
But I was here to discuss his father, Karlo. But not until Nino laid a small but wonderful table setting of wine, tea, cookies and jam. Eventually it was time to set up the camera and train the lens on Dato, who then through Daro, an excellent interpreter due her time spent in the USA. (But that’s a long story better left for another time.) Then came the story of Karlo Sulakauri, which touched me in its complexity, heartbreak, drama and epiphany. How can I possibly do it justice? Perhaps a few details.
Karlo left Georgia to work in puppetry under the great Sergei Obraztsov. Obraztsov soon recognized his talent and sent him back to Tbilisi to work on animation films. He made a series of animated films including Soviet childhood classic Bombora, Salamura (a serious and impossible to classify hour long film based on the work of poet E. Kipiani), Dolls Laugh, and a unique film whose title translates into Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale. Sadly the only copies of these films available for anyone to see are muddy copies on YouTube in the Georgian and Russian alphabets and certainly no subtitles. Supposedly at least some of the films still exist in vaults in Moscow, but who knows in what condition. (I’ve linked Salamura and Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale which are highly worth watching even in this form.)
But that’s only the beginning of the issues surrounding these films. The Soviet apparatchik producers were playing a strange game with the puppets, which involved destroying the figures in front of Sulakauri at the end of production in order to embezzle the money needed to produce more puppets. Sulakauri was able to smuggle out duplicates of many of the puppets. But many precious originals were cut in half before his eyes. And then there was a fire that swept through the Tbilisi studio. Sulakauri actually risked his life to rescue the puppets that now live in this museum. There were strange issues with the censors. Sulakauri would put in ambiguous images like a red Kremlin shaped building that was filled with clowns. Hmmm. What kind of symbolism could that contain? When asked, he waved away their correct suspicions by saying it was just the clown house. They made him paint it white. But the point was still being made. In another episode Sulakauri put a subliminal image of St. George. But they caught it when they happened to freeze frame the film accidentally in that exact spot.
After the end of the Soviet Empire, in the early 90s, when Georgia was independent but caught in an internal civil war, fighting spread to the streets on Rustaveli Avenue. Sulakauri watched on helplessly. The main body of his work was finished. Yet he was inspired to make a new piece. He worked on it for over a year. He wanted the strife to end. This was to be his masterpiece. When it was finished he took it to be developed. As it was running through the developing machine the electricity suddenly failed, as happened often in Georgia in the 90s. The entire film was ruined. Sulakauri was devastated. He gave up on filmmaking, never to make another film. His depression was serious. It was the birth of his grandchildren that brought joy to his final days. He died in the year 2000.
And so his collection has remained pretty much where he left it ever since then. Collecting dust. Awaiting rediscovery. This small museum was occasionally open. But not for some time. And it was his granddaughter Daro, now living in that house, who opened the door for me to see these treasures. I told her that I was absolutely stunned and honored to be able to see these things. I also told her that puppet animation history needs to be rewritten to include Karlo Sulakauri. My time with the Sulakauris was deeply moving on many levels. And I felt grateful to be allowed a step into their world.
When I arrived at my apartment on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue I did a little online homework. I accessed the archives at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. Not a mention of Sulakauri. Nothing on Wikipedia. He is listed as Carlo (sic) Sulakauri in IMDb. I guess someone thought he was Italian. There was very little information there. Not even his dates (1924 – 2000). I was more convinced than ever that others, especially animators, need to know who he was. And so this essay along with my photos is a first step to informing the rest of the world about him.
There was one final thing that Dato told me that said me everything about his father. When he was just a six year old boy a traveling puppet troupe had come through his village. Later the family realized that Karlo was missing. Everyone searched the village. Karlo was nowhere to be found. The whole village was worried. Eventually it was discovered that young Karlo had stowed away to join the traveling puppet show.
Many more discoveries are awaiting. So come back again soon. (Or stop now and read our past encounters with European puppets, filmmakers, musicians, dancers and more.)
For more information about Dato Sulakauri’s art:
For more information about Daro Sulakauri’s photojournalism:
I’ve written more on the unique world of Georgian artists here:
And remember we are still funding this project from the bottom of very shallow pockets and can still use all the help we can get. We are grateful for recent PayPal contributions that really meant much more than can be expressed here. If you wish to help out please feel free to make a contribution. You can also share this story with others. Thanks for the continuing encouragement.
One of the things I’m attempting to do while in Georgia is to explore the culture to understand where the music, the dance and the puppetry comes from. In order to do this I find myself haunting some fairly out of the way locales. And that means finding museums that are not only ‘off the beaten path’ but almost abandoned. It’s weird to find yourself being the only person in a museum for over an hour. And these are ‘national museums’ and certainly listed as such. And yet when I arrive it seems that the main job of the friendly museum staff is to care for the treasures that they are sitting on. I’m also imagining that in the summer they get a bit more traffic than I’ve seen so far. And I hope they are getting school field trips and other purposeful visits as well. And yet as I open these cabinets of curiosities I am frankly entranced by what I find. And when I pay a few lari more I can get a personal guide to walk me through the collection and explain everything to me in the most knowledgeable ways.
The Quay Brothers once told me that it wasn’t simply that they were attracted to puppets, rather it was the discarded things found at the fringes of art and society, the cultural marginalia, that inspired them. And I seriously understand this. To say you’ve been to Europe and that you’ve seen the Mona Lisa means almost nothing. Especially when you’ve entered the Louvre along with thousands of other visitors only to stare for a few moments at the small painting ensconced behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by endless quantities of tourists taking videos and selfies of the experience rather than actually seeing the thing itself. I get the same feeling when someone tells me they love films, then go on to list popular fantasy and science fiction films that quite literally 90% of earth’s population has seen. It all becomes part of what Walker Percy describes as a preformed symbol complex, making it nearly impossible for the average person to actually see the Grand Canyon or the Colosseum, even while standing before them. Thus those who really are able to grasp meaning from art or culture are not those who will wait for hours at the most recent super show at the Met, rather it is those who can stop and gaze at the patterns of embroidery on a regional costume. Those able to see through the musty scratches of an old silent film. Or those willing to find arcane treasures in forgotten museums.
In some sense every museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, is already obscure by the standards of present day art and relic consumption. How many Americans could tell you who Niko Pirosmani is? And he is the most important artist from Georgia. Not to mention Lado Gudiashvili or Davit Kakabadze? Few indeed. But then again how many of my fellow citizens could even name a living artist? So even the most prestigious galleries and museums in Georgia are, by definition, marginal outside of Georgia. But I will save a discussion of the art for another essay and will only incidentally mention it here. (For more on Georgian art and culture follow this link.) (And since I have already written about my encounter with the Stalin museum elsewhere I leave aside that visit here.)
So let’s dive off the edge!
One of the most consistent features of these strange little Georgian museums is the fact that they are rarely advertised or even well advertised, even on the buildings they inhabit. Consider the most recent museum I discovered: The State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments. Sounds pretty interesting no? Especially if music interests you. So I walk up a street out of the way off the main tourist route. I’m looking for a sign. I see a little sign. So I turn towards the sign. Nothing. I walk a little into a passageway. What would you expect if you were looking for a museum? Not what I found. I basically entered a backyard, descended steps, and did not feel at all that I was about to enter anything resembling a museum. (See photo below.)
I enter the building to find what I always find in these odd museums. Police guards. Who seem to be on the most boring duty imaginable. No one else. Nothing that immediately suggests museum. Just police. It was the same at the silk museum, and at the various small art museums. They must be there for a reason! But they usually look at you as if to insinuate ‘What are doing here?’ When I say something like ‘Museum?’ they point further back into…. what? I never know. I don’t know which way to turn. I am obviously the only person there who isn’t being paid something by the state. But then this is where the interesting stuff starts to happen. I find a closed door with people behind it. I motion at them. I hate to disturb them. Then they look at me as if to say ‘Did you want something?’ I say ‘Gamarjoba’ (‘Hello’ but literally Victory!). And ask if they speak English. Then offer to pay the entry fee. Which sometimes leaves them scrambling for something resembling change. Am I the first person today? And it’s an hour and a half until closing time! The fee is usually about 3 to 5 lari; less than two dollars. This time they asked if I wanted a guide. And this time I said Yes! And so they asked for 5 lari more. And so at the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments my guide was a friendly and knowledgeable woman named Eka.
She started to walk me through the exhibits explaining to me the various instruments, how old they are, where they are from, and what they do. And then she is pleasantly surprised to discover that I am not your average tourist. But then again what on earth would the ‘average’ visitor to this museum be like? Nevertheless it is clear that I already know more about Georgian music than 99.9999% of all non-Georgians. So she gives me even better information than I was expecting. And then she stops and plays an old 78 rpm record of the song Tsintskaro on an ancient wind-up Victrola. Later she starts the mechanism of a street barrel organ, opening it to show the barrel and pin as it plays. Eka even sits to play an ancient Georgian church melody on an antique wheezy German foot pump church organ. Now that is five lari well spent!
I also managed to locate the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art in the old town. Again I enter it takes fifteen minutes to make change for 20 lari. They did let me start looking at the museum as they were sent into a spiral of questions amongst themselves. (Am I the day’s only visitor again?) But soon I find myself drifting through Georgian carpets, traditional costumes, intricate parasols, and beautiful porcelain tea cups. And they were featuring a special exhibit of primitive paintings by random Georgians of Shota Rustaveli and Queen Tamar from the Golden Age of Georgia’s Medieval Period. Fascinating stuff. (Click on the photos to open up the images.)
By far one of the most unusual experiences I had was at The State Silk Museum. First of all read that title again: The State Silk Museum. What could that be? Are they showing silk fabric? Well yes. But you see Georgia was a major stop on the Silk Road. And like Lyon, Tbilisi was a silk manufacturing town. And so not only was this a demonstration of fabric… It was also a display of silkworms! And all things sericulture. This is the kind of place Guillermo del Toro could only dream of. The lights were off in the cold museum and they turned one on and told me how to turn the rest of them on. Half of this museum was dedicated to silk cocoons, silk caterpillars in glass, and strange devices for silk harvesting, all in dark wood and aging glass cases from the museums opening over 125 years ago. And there was a whole room dedicated to mulberry shrubs, the silkworm diet. And did you know that silk quality depends on the mulberry quality? I didn’t. But my faithful guide Mariam did. She knew more obscure facts about silk than I could possibly ask. But somehow we ended up talking about music. It is Georgia after all. And not only is she conversant sericulture but she is a musicologist as well. And as our conversation veered from Jimi Hendrix, to Bach, to John Cage, to Bernard Herrmann she kept up eagerly with all of the twists and turns. I can’t even begin to tell you how many discussions about music I’ve had here. Worth all five lari I spent on the day!
Oh and speaking of obscurities, while visiting the musical troupe Erisioni (Be patient for that one!) I met a former BBC, NBC, etc cameraman, documentarian, an Australian of Ukrainian heritage named Vladimir Lozinski, who would later fill me on the turbulent politics of Georgia’s post-Soviet history. He had heard that there was a locked door in the building Erisioni rehearsed in. So he managed to get the room opened up while I was there. And we entered. This was genuinely a surprise. The vast chamber had been a movie theatre prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Ornate designs were encrusted on the walls. But in the 90’s the Georgian Civil War, raging on the streets of Rustaveli Avenue below us, had destroyed it. The floor was dirt and debris. But the walls remained magnificent. We were allowed to take all the photos we wanted. And I could only hope that someday this along with many other structures would be restored… And not removed by the powers that be to build some hideous postmodern monstrosity.
And of course the most mysterious museums of all were the ones I most want to see. The puppet museums! A few days ago I sought for the illusive Tbilisi Puppet Museum, which supposedly was not too far from the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I didn’t find it. Today my friend Elene Murjikneli from Budrugana Gagra explained why. One day it was simply emptied out. Then the building was torn down. And now in its place stands sterile contemporary architecture housing a hotel. And what happened to the puppets? No one knows. The puppeteers didn’t know. Were they stolen? Hidden? Buried? Sold?
And finally there is the most mysterious museum of all which I discussed in my first visit to Tbilisi in 2016. The Animation Puppet Museum. Does anyone know that Georgia used to make puppet films in the Soviet Era? All I ever found was a corroding sign on the door. But!!! Now I have good news. The daughter of one of the animators has contacted me. And will open the doors of the museum soon… Just for me.
Speaking of the marginal and magical: Really I don’t need anyone else to come find me here. I’m fine. I’m happy with empty museums in this mysterious place.
But do come back soon to read my next adventure.
16 / 2/ 2018
PS. The way things are going I’m pretty sure I’ll be counting my tetri (Georgian cents) in March. The financial losses I took at the beginning of my journey are starting to become apparent. If you are appreciating this reportage from the other side of the world then you can be a part of it by using my PayPal account to contribute. It’s safe and easy to do and anything would be helpful. Thanks! Byrne
I jumped up on the all night train from Milan to Paris. I tried to open the door to my three person birth. It was locked, then undone, and I was welcomed to share the compartment with an Italian IT technician named Filippo on his way to Paris to work on a job. He and I were fortunately the only two sharing the room. He took the darker top bunk on the mistaken, we discovered in the morning, notion that some of the lights didn’t turn off. I was happy with the bottom bed, after taping something on the lights to cut down the glare. In the morning we had a interesting discussion about video games and fiction. After I told him about some of my stories, one will be self-published this summer. He demanded I give him contact information so that he could read my work and follow my progress. That was somewhat flattering I must say. Now let’s make good on that.
I arrived in Paris and rode the metro and bus out to my European home with the Carons out in the Ile de France. I had picked up an annoying, but not debilitating, minor cold in Rome that would linger for over a week. And so I used my down time in Paris to rest, see a movie (Les Gardiennes was a French World War I film that met my hunger for something grown up in this childish age.) and basically take it easy before going to London to visit the Quay Brothers. Before I left I dropped in on a store near Place de Republique called Heeza that I had bought a few odd items from online. Back in 2016 I had come here to search Heeza out but they were not open. But this time after a little effort I managed to get in. (There is no storefront.)
Once inside I met the owner Pierre who was an affable Frenchman who had very eccentric and intellectual interests in things like old silent film, primitive cinema, odd animation (lots of Švankmajer and Starewitch), a limited choice bandes dessinées (French and European comics), not to forget strange postcards, old fashioned games, and flipbooks. More importantly he stocks recreations of pre-film optical devices like the praxinoscope, the thaumatrope, the zoetrope, the phenakistascope, the camera obscura and of course the magic lantern. (If you got even two of those names you’re doing well. Go check out his site. Fantastic stuff.) Plus books on all of this. We discussed puppets in animation. And he was curious himself why he didn’t have more on the puppets. I ended up buying a mysterious DVD by Patrick Bokanowski call L’Ange (The Angel) a favorite it turns out of the Quays.
As we were talking a couple of Ukrainian clowns walked in. (You really can’t invent this sort of thing. And what is it with clowns on this journey?) Now they weren’t dressed up! And they were on their way to Bordeaux to perform. Nevertheless we had a fascinating discussion about clowning techniques and how this little store was a perfect lure for truly intriguing people. I told the Quays later in London that they had to drop in sometime. You get the point. (Look them up online!)
Well eventually it was time to grab the old Eurostar chunnel express and zip over to London. I arrived on a wet London afternoon. And cursed the whole payment system for the London Underground. (Less than three days and more than $45 on spent on the Tube.) I was scheduled to drop in the next morning on the animating brothers so I did the appropriate thing. I went to the IMAX theatre where they were still showing Dunkirk. Since I had missed it in Alaska, this was my chance to see this perversely adult summer World War 2 epic with massive sound and huge screen. And I was duly impressed. I’m still weighing my thoughts about the film.
There was an degree of pressure at the Quays Atelier Koninck QbfZ. A mysterious benefactor had about a year and half earlier commissioned the Quays to make a film. Not a specific item for him personally. But, generously, to do what they did best. Make their own idea into a film. Institutions around the world aren’t exactly lining up to fund their films in this age of bottom line financial mania. The Quays were actually mid-way through another project when this person approached them. But since it was digital and he being interested in film rather than digital creations, he wasn’t so keen on it. One of his stipulations was that it be shot on 35mm film stock with their old cameras. But he basically said here’s a certain amount. Would you like to make a a real film out of it? What could they say? Why, yes! And now he was coming to check out what they had done on the 19th of December. And I had arrived on the 12th. So essentially my visit was a break in round-the-clock filming and editing (digitally then transferred back to film stock).
Well the brothers carved out a couple of hours in the morning. As they said in an email “Why don’t you come at 10am and we’ll throw you out at noon.” Sounded fine to me. We met as old friends and immediately traversed a wide variety of subjects from Sicilian marionettes to the Symbolist works of Marcel Schwob, whom I had been reading. We mentioned Bulgakov’s Heart of the Dog as an opera with puppets. There were storage problems for their arcane studio, moving things up into the rafters to create something like a balcony. Evidently Švankmajer’s new film Insects is finished and will have a special Vimeo showing soon if you look for it. We also passed through subject of texture. They discussed their project, which at this moment officially is being called A Doll’s Breath. And the music for it is being done by Michèle Bokanowski, Patrick’s wife. And they seem quite pleased with her style.
Well time was passing and the hour of my ejection was coming. (Not exactly at the stroke of noon.) So I began wandering through their studio to photograph their oddities. It was something I’d always forgotten to do before. Several of the puppets for A Doll’s Breath were on hand. And I was allow to capture them. And there was a small set where they were still filming. I also was granted access to photograph that as well. Their place is quite thronged with strange little visual discoveries. Like the framed piece that they have had for many years that they never clean, except for one spot revealing a small face. At one point I realized that they had turned off the light for their little set. Rather than ask for the lights back I decided to take a picture in the darkened conditions, which seemed more appropriate.
Finally it time allowed us to talk a bit more while sharing a bottle of very dark wine I had brought from Sicily and some potent brie interlarded with truffles from France. For a little creative inspiration I promised to bring them a dried salmon head back from Alaska next time I visited. Alas it was time to leave them to their metaphysical activities. We would indeed see each other in the next year. After a fond farewells I ambled out into the gray London weather gladly satisfied that I’d crossed the channel to catch up with the Brothers Quay.
Next time we wrap things up in London and Paris before the big journey to Georgia
From the Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland waiting for a flight to Tbilisi
PS. An abscessed tooth, London Tube costs, all the other stuff I’ve mentioned in my earlier postscripts. After doing my budget its clear things have become tight for Georgia. So really if you can thrown in a few coins in my PayPal account that would be greatly appreciated. It’s simple and effective. Click here.
Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
The season changes. The unknown beckons. It’s been a short time since I wrote to delineate the developments in our Gravity From Above documentary and the coming major journey. And there have been several good reasons for that.
First of all last I wrote it was mid-fundraiser. And I haven’t wanted to keep writing after going through the endlessly necessary and annoying task of pleading for donations. It was time to give you all a break. Now on the sidebar here I have written to thank everyone, as I have through Facebook, for helping us to achieve our modest goal for this trip. In a nutshell, we received enough money through Indiegogo to let you know that we took home about $3,700 after they took their cut. Besides that we received more money through a live fundraiser in Haines and another $1,100 through donations on my PayPal account through this site here. (Hint. Hint.) bringing us over $5,000 for this site. The PayPal contributions here are actually more beneficial since they only take 3% away versus Indiegogo’s 8.5%. So if you choose to add to our funds as we travel then please feel free to do so. I can say this with absolute conviction we are traveling on the cheap here and will be counting our pennies, cents, centimes and tetri.
The second reason for the delay is that I have also been packing my entire life into boxes and taking them over to a nearby storage facility. And this will involve as many as five hundred boxes. Acquaintances will often commiserate and tell me how they know that moving takes a while. They mean well. I usually don’t disabuse them of the difference between what I mean when I say moving as opposed to what they mean. I will simply say this: When I moved up to Alaska 20 years ago my library weighed over 10,000 lbs (over 4500 kgs). That is most likely on a different order than what most people mean by the minor difficulties in moving. It takes two months simply packing everyday.
Thirdly… Oh yeah, I’ve been planning for what is now a six month journey into Europe. And that requires plenty of planning all by itself. I’ve been writing back and forth to puppeteers and friends. I’ve been trying to stay with people as much as possible and trying to reduce my costs as much as possible. I’ve been wrangling with Polish airlines and hotel booking sites and the inevitable mistakes that arise in undertaking such an intense endeavor. And since I am effectively in a form of exile during this time I must fill up my entire schedule. Returning for a month for Christmas and New Year isn’t an option. So there have been plane and ferry tickets, several hotel rooms, an apartment in Georgia for three months, and train reservations to make all requiring serious expenditures and much forethought. There are calendars to fill, itineraries to write, schedules to consult, maps to study, researches to follow, guide books to read. How do I travel from the train to the hotel? From the hotel to the puppet theatre? A journey this vast takes serious thought and time to construct. Especially if I want to have a meaningful trip and not just a series of random encounters. (Sometime soon I’m going to write about my traveling philosophy and how I really do manage to have such meaningful experiences.)
And now the good news… With the funds raised recently through my crowdfunding campaign I can now add Italy to my itinerary for the first time ever. (By the way without friends acquaintances and former supporters I would have made almost zilch from interested parties with whom I have had no previous contacts. Please prove me wrong! I have in the past been the recipient of a few very generous strangers’ largess. But not this time.) And I am very excited to finally get down to Italy. I will be going to Sicily to see the Sicilian marionettes in Palermo as well as a great puppet museum. And I will be going to Rome for the first time ever to see a puppet theatre with figures based on the commedia dell’arte. These two styles are some of the most foundational in European puppetry and I am privileged to finally witness them.
I will also get to spend more time in Brussels with the Toone and Peruchet marionette theatres. And this time I will be lodged with Toone. So I’m really looking forward to that. I will be able to visit Pascal Pruvost and Guignol again in Paris. And spend time with a new troupe in Lyon with my dear friend Paulette Caron. Plus I’ll be staying with her folks in the Paris area which will help save funds and allow me to dive more deeply into French culture. Plus there is the three week sojourn in Charleville at the International Puppetry Institute, which is what kicked this whole journey into gear in the first place. I’ll see the Quays again in December. Stay at L’Abri in Switzerland for a couple of weeks in November where I’ll give a couple lectures. And then there is the huge three month chunk of time in Georgia, which I know will produce cultural experiences that I can’t even begin to measure; puppetry, music and dance. And there will be much more. There will undoubtedly be more puppetry experiences, particularly in France. And there will be surprises. There will of course also be illnesses, stomach problems, sore feet, strange scenarios, missed connections, frustrations, misunderstandings and the usual headaches of real travel. These things come. You just bite the bullet and accept it.
But I can’t wait. Except for around two hundred more boxes to pack, some furniture to sell, serious cleaning up to do, a work season to finish up and too many last minute tasks to mention, except for that I’m ready! I’ll be writing much more regularly now. So stick around and travel with me. And thanks to all those who have helped me with this journey… And those who will help in the months to come.
To continue with my accounting of my Gravity From Above journey thus far we come to 2015, the first half of which was consumed with the declining health and finally the death of my mother. And that concluded with my building her coffin (our laws here in Alaska are probably different than yours) and holding a service for her after selling her furniture and belongings. It was as you might expect an emotionally draining period of my life. I didn’t think about anything else for about seven months. And I had a chance to see death up close and personal. And that has an effect upon a person. You either shrink back or gain wisdom while simultaneously understanding the impermanence of everything that surrounds you. And yet in the timing of this I could feel the presence of God. Not in a romantic spiritual way. But with a certainty I can’t or won’t explain in such a public forum.
And when it was over I found myself with a modest insurance claim and enough money to get back to Europe. And I was faced with a choice. I could take that insurance money and invest in my life in Alaska, to seek security and comfort. But I decided against that for several reasons. First: I had promised myself several years ago that when my mother died, I would go to Georgia. And I needed to go there to started something new. And second: I knew that I needed to get back out into the world. To begin working again to try to get Gravity From Above finished, to see my puppeteer friends, my friends in Switzerland and to meet people I didn’t know yet. And so I chose a three month journey.
In January of 2016 I embarked on this next Gravity From Above journey. I met new people like Dimitri Jageneau in Brussels, met guignolistes in Lyon, spent more time with the Quays and Buchty a Loutky. I was often accompanied by my good friend Paulette Caron. And then I ended up in Georgia, which had an incredibly strong effect upon me, being both completely outside of the realms of my experience and yet somehow deeply touching in an almost dreamlike and familiar way. And that has effected my life to this day. (You can scroll through the older entries on the right to follow the actually journey.)
And yet I still didn’t obtain the performance videos I needed to begin to assemble the my material into something like a documentary. I have dozens of hours of footage. I don’t yet have the images to bring it all together yet. But I think I know where most of these images are now. And enough time has gone by where I think I might be able to capture these images myself. Though I really would like a small film crew. (But I’m getting itchy to finish this and get it out in some manner.)
And then at the end of 2014 came another period of intense wrestling and self reflection leading up to my home of 20 years being sold by my landlords. This was something I wasn’t simply going to get around. And even if I had had that insurance money still it wouldn’t have helped. And as I thought about it I realized I could use this to get back to Europe by minimizing my expenses and putting everything into storage rather than paying more rent. And so once again I’m putting everything down on this project. And I’ll be spending 3 months in Georgia this time, which wouldn’t have happened had I not gone in 2016. All in all I’ll be in Europe for six months. And this both exciting and filled with unknowns that I’ll just have to deal with when I get there.
Someone talked with me recently having read about my journey in the local paper. They were happy for me of course. But then I realized that they thought I was essentially taking an extended vacation. It sounds so romantic! And yet for me there is much that is quite fraught with uncertainty. I explained that this is work. And it really is. More than once in 2012 I had to double back to meet an important puppeteer, who wasn’t available when I was. That meant returnihttps://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gravity-from-above-documentary-european-puppetry/x/17029105#/ng from one city to another by train, carry about 50 pounds (25 kg) on my back. Racing the clock all the way. Reading schedules in French or better yet Czech. That is not a pleasant restful holiday outing. And I’m not staying in four or even three or even two star hotels. Yes there is much of joy and wonder. But that comes from the satisfaction of having made the immense effort. And financially. I’m always counting euros, kroner and lari to make sure I get home.
And this trip is no different. I’m spending three months in Tbilisi again because I really want to, but also because that’s the only place in Europe where my money will stretch far enough to make my budget workable. And since most of my finances will come in during my last month here I only bought a one way ticket to Paris three weeks ago (under $600 from Juneau to Paris!), because I can’t yet afford the return ticket. And that’s why I’m doing this fundraiser and that’s why every $10, $50, $100, $1,000 matters. Right now I can’t even finalize my plans for three weeks in the middle of the journey until I see if I get enough money to even travel any further. (It’s iffy if the fundraiser doesn’t get the my minimum goal.)
So why do I do this? I can tell you that money has absolutely nothing to do with it. A truly prudent person would have saved as much money as possible. They would have prepared for inclement weather ahead. But I’ll tell you a little secret. I held my mother’s hand alone in her bedroom as the last breath escaped her body and her hands went ice cold. I’ve looked death in the face. And I’ll tell you what I know. Getting to the end of your life with a nice safe life and healthy bank account has nothing to do with meaning of life. Life is about trying to give something back to others. As the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said:
“The artist is always the servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of the self can only be expressed in sacrifice. We are gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitably, losing all sense of human calling.”
What does puppetry and a documentary about it got to do with this? Well you know what? You won’t know until you see the finished film. That’s why I need your support. This Indiegogo fundraiser may end soon. But you want to know something? While you are rest comfortably in your beds at home I will, in a very real sense, be in exile, all my possessions locked away, no home, trying to finish something that is very important, not so much for me, I already know the message I’m trying to communicate, but for you. If you read this after August 21st 2017 remember I’ll be out there until April 1st and would react with incredible gratitude for any PayPal contributions you might choose to make. (See button above on the right.) BUT UNTIL AUGUST 21st PLEASE HELP DONATE TO GRAVITY FROM ABOVE ON INDIEGOGO. (CLICK HERE.)
You have my deep thanks for actually reading this and for anything else you might choose to give.
(Loading up my storage room)
I decided to go back to Europe in 2005. I had been working at our local radio station steadily for years and I decided I needed a three month leave of absence. And so I thought “Let’s go back to Europe with a purpose.” Just going from country to country and town to town seeing cathedrals and museums gets a bit alienating and repetitious. I wanted to learn. I had two possible modes of interest. One idea was to do serious research on puppetry. The other was to visit World War II sites. The more I looked at the logistics, the more I realized that I could only pursue one of these courses. I chose puppetry. And though a few WW2 locations survived my planning (Auschwitz, Berlin) it was puppetry that spoke the loudest. In 2000 the burgeoning internet was fairly helpful in planning my journey. In 2005 it was essential. But by today’s (2017) standards it was still quite primitive. So much so that although I could tell that some kind of performance was occurring at the French puppet school (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette) in Charleville-Mézières, I couldn’t quite interpret exactly what it was. Much of my journey was laid out before me. But I really didn’t know what to expect. What I found would alter the direction of my life in many ways. (You can read a more complete version of the tale starting here.)
I was constantly surprised by what I was finding. The Guignol show at Parc Des Buttes Chaumont was much better than the show I had seen at the Luxembourg Gardens in 1996. The student performances at the International Puppetry Institute completely altered my notion of both puppetry and what could be a puppet. The mysterious beauty of shadow puppetry in Germany could not be denied. The stories I heard of puppetry behind the old Iron Curtain countries in East Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow and Chrudim were inspiring. Seeing Czech culture through the eyes of puppet theatre was a window from which I did not need to be defenestrated. The Buchty a Loutky troupe in Prague gave me the idea that we could make an attempt at puppetry ourselves in Alaska. And the marionettes in Salzburg demonstrated the complexity of the art. I broke my wrist the week before I embarked upon this journey. By the time it was over I discovered I had lost my job in Alaska due to nefarious scheming while I was gone. I stood at a bridge in Salzburg and asked myself, if I had to do it all over again, including the broken wrist and the lost employment, would I do it again? Absolutely. Sign me up. It was that crucial.
What was it that I saw? Puppet shows obviously. And yet that isn’t what I saw. Having followed 20th Century music history quite intently I knew that the power of music had diminished by the year 2001. And what steamrolled over everyone now was the computer, the internet, and in 2005 the cascade of social media was just beginning. Yet it was already clear that the 21st Century needed an art that could challenge the digital hegemony. An art that could possibly break through to the real. And what I was convinced of was this. Puppetry was one art form that could do that. Whether in the real interactivity of a Guignol show in Paris, the illumination of objects like stone or grape branches in France, or the full grammar of puppetry in Prague, I knew that here was an art that could point one back to the tactile, the true senses. Even Švankmajer’s puppet films were soaked in the textures of materiality. Puppets could remind us of the world that existed beyond the screen.
Back in Alaska I started work on a small ad hoc puppet entity called the Lilliputian Puppet Sideshow based partially on what I had seen in Europe.. My chief issue was how to expose my recruits to the kinds of puppetry I had witnessed. I realized very quickly that there was no documentary on the subject worth it’s name. I used bits and pieces from a variety of sources. I have collected over 70 puppetry related DVDs since then. I can speak with some authority. There is no good overview or introduction to the art. By 2006 I began to muse over the concept of a documentary and the title , Gravity From Above, had already come to me, inspired by Heinrich von Kleist’s Romantic Era essay on the marionette theatre. Little did I know how much commitment Gravity From Above would take from me. Had I found the resources and the funds right away I would have put this behind me long ago. But that was much easier said than done. Funding has dogged me every step. I think people hear that I’m going to Europe and assume that I must be living the life of a well-heeled roué. Far from it. I’m always counting my pennies. Always completely drained of resources when I come back. (And I will be this time too unless you help.)
In 2007 I attracted the attention of a young producer from Switzerland. I met him in Los Angeles in late 2007. We discussed the project. Ideas were exchanged. Not much happened in the next year or two. In 2009 I was given an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation in Alaska for my puppet work. I took that money and formed a new puppet troupe called Reckoning Motions and spent two months on the American road in October and November. My goal was to present this strange new/old puppetry to people who had never seen it before. Financially, we lost money. But in terms of reception? Everywhere we went we surprised and intrigued folks with our curious and difficult little entertainment It felt good. I had proved something to myself. Puppetry could indeed shoot past the virtual and hit the audience on a different level. And so with that under my belt I decided to start thinking about the documentary again.
In the summer of 2012 I made my first foray into crowdfunding. And with a bit of help from the Rasmuson Foundation and USAProjects I made it to $10,000, just enough to get me back to Europe and start the interviewing process. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. That helped with transportation and lodging. But I didn’t have a good camera. I was essentially flying by faith on the seat of my pants. (How is that for mixed metaphors!) Re-enter the Swiss Producer. He had moved back to Switzerland and had some idea that the Swiss funding agencies might like my project. So he decided (along with his wife and producing partner) to help out a bit. They said they had a camera for me. And sound equipment. And that sounded right. And so in October of 2012 after a very long bout of transportation I arrived in Europe, Poland to be precise, again. Eventually they met me and passed me the camera. Alas! This was some archaic digital video camera that had pixels large enough to count. It would never work. But fortunately they sprung for a new Canon DSLR camera while I was visiting friends in Berlin, thus saving the trip.
Now I had another issue. I had to get up to speed on this device before I arrived in Prague to interview Jan Švankmajer. And I think I just barely got there. My footage was passable for a documentary as long as my skills kept improving and my final cut was poetic enough. The trip was both tiring (dragging heavy tripods and other unneeded equipment) and satisfying. By any stretch of the imagination this was work NOT a vacation. Finding myself several times doubling back on train trips to interview someone on their schedule rather than mine. (You can read about the whole journey in the early Gravity From Above posts.)
Upon arriving at home I lived on crumbs of hope coming from Switzerland: That soon they would submit the project. Fortunately I had made a good friend in puppeteer Paulette Caron who came to visit Alaska twice to help with Reckoning Motions puppet productions in 2013 & 2014. But the delays for continuing the project seemed endless. Finally I just decided to give up on waiting and get back to Europe on my own. In 2014 I made another campaign run through USA Projects, which had changed its name to Hatchfund in the meantime. I made several tactical errors, like starting in the autumn. Also their was no matching funds from any other source. And it was a lot of work and time (three months)and serious personal stress for just $5000. Not much, but enough to buy a new laptop and to get the Final Cut Pro X software to make my promotional images shine more. My mother passed away in 2015 and I was left with an insurance claim. I decided to to take that money and get back to Europe. And so I prepared to make the journey again. I knew this wouldn’t be the end. But I was determined to honor the faith put in me thus far by the people who had put in as little as $10 or as much as a $1000. It’s passion, yes. But more it’s about commitment. And just wanting to get this done.
Next time we finish our brief history of Gravity From Above with our 2016 trip bringing us up to the present moment. Come back. Better yet. Do you see yet that I’m really in need of your help to get this finished. Won’t you give today?
So if you’ve read this far please help us by giving before August 21st to help try to finish up Gravity From Above. Follow the link below.
And so we come to another crossroads in our our efforts to complete Gravity From Above. Maybe it’s time to give you folks a summary of the origin and history of this project thus far. And why I’m determined to try to get this done… in my lifetime.
I did not grow up around puppetry. The most exposure I had to puppets was in watching the occasional Davey And Goliath children’s show, the odd early pre-Sesame Street performances of the Muppets on the Ed Sullivan show and other variety acts seen on television during the 60’s and, of course, televised reruns of the 1933 King Kong. As a child I never once watched a live puppet performance. Music grabbed my attention much more fully.
And recently as I began to wonder when I actually saw my first puppet show, I realized that it wasn’t until I was 32 years old in Paris at Sacre Coeur in 1987 where I watched an unusual street performer who brought various sculpted heads out from under a large red velour curtain of sorts on the steps of that cathedral. They interacted with each other in pairs. All the while a recording of Pachelbel’s Canon in D played from a boom box. It was a moving performance, but I did NOT even recognize until only a couple of years ago that what I had been watching was indeed puppetry. What an astonishing first performance!
Near the end of the 1980’s I ran into my first Jan Švankmajer films and then the Brothers Quay at the Film Forum while I lived in New York City. But even then I was more attracted to the curious animation techniques of the films than I was to the puppets they used. By the mid-Nineties I had been working in the New York art world for a while and I was puzzling over the defects of much of the contemporary art scene. I was writing a few notes down for some kind of new art that would use forgotten elements from the past in a different configuration. I wrote ‘puppets’ down. I had been thinking about the Brothers Quay and Švankmajer’s use of puppetry more. I made it through most of the first half of the Nineties without a television set or VHS player. But I did decide that I needed a couple of VHS tapes. The first I videos I bought were by Švankmajer and the Quays. And I was just beginning to suspect that it was Eastern European puppetry that was a key to apprehending their unique qualities.
By 1996, my last year in New York City, I had begun to articulate a serious interest in puppets. I visited a Guignol show in Paris early in the year. I watched Vietnamese water puppets at Lincoln Center. I sat through a boring student performance in NYU that was more noteworthy for the anticipation of the show than in the loopy postmodern politically correct posturings of the actual show/diatribe. And I was accumulating more animation videos in anticipation of my move to Alaska.
In the year 2000 I took my first true steps to find puppet theatres in Europe as I spent two months visiting friends and traveling by train. I did not get to see the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, which was on tour, but I did run across a seasonal Christmas marionette entertainment in Vienna. In Romania I came across puppetry that mixed jovial full sized actors with various hand and rod puppets . And then I arrived in Prague…
Prague was a revelation. I came seeking to encounter some kind of puppetry. After checking into what would be last cheap hotel I could ever frequent in Prague, I wandered into the night and quickly discovered why it was called the ‘Golden City of a Thousand Spires’. As I walked into the Staré Město I turned around catching the towers of the Tyn church and other structures. My mouth was agape. With abrupt understatement I realized I was in PRAGUE! And I was there to look for puppets and other odds and ends of theatrical culture. I saw my first Don Giovanni show at the National Marionette Theatre. I visited Lanterna Magika. I took in a black light show. I saw a strange play that also featured puppets and masks. I was also obscurely aware that I was only scratching the touristic surface of Czech puppetry. I would need to come back someday.
Now I didn’t go home and start a puppet theatre. Nor did I even become particularly obsessed with puppets. And frankly to this day I’m not overwhelmed by puppets qua puppets. Just because something is a puppet I don’t immediately go gaga. Cute puppets, Muppets, many children’s puppets, ill conceived and textureless puppets don’t grab my attention is all. (Which largely explains why so many features of American puppetry don’t interest me.) But I saw just enough to know that there was much more to see and to know. And so I began reading more about puppetry, began my library on the subject, puppet books were hard to find for me at that point. Found DVDs and online interviews with the Quays and Švankmajer. Picked up more animation videos. Names like Starewicz, Trnka, Barta became second nature. In late 2003 and I performed a shadow play with a student of mine for a few friends: A version of The Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman. (A small figure was the normal size, a full human in silhouette was the giantess.) But I wasn’t rushing to get back to Europe to see more puppet theatres. I hadn’t really seen enough to convince me yet. I hadn’t seen enough of the right kinds of performances yet. But all of that would change in 2005.
Next week we’ll discuss how that happened. Come back soon! Meanwhile click this and do help out.
And while you’re here seriously if you have been following this journey at all do help us get back to Europe. It’s quite possible that we’ll get enough footage to finally wrap up the journeys for a while and start editing everything together. Wouldn’t you LIKE to see what this is going to look like? (If so watch the video directly below this.) Any amount would be appreciated. Help us to avoid being stranded overseas! And thanks to all of the supportive folks along the way!
This Gravity From Above trailer is the best demonstration of this documentary project.
Interview with Kevin Titzer
Kevin: A couple of years ago an artist named Kevin Titzer contacted me. An American living in Quebec in a small town called Saguenay, he mentioned influences from Švankmajer and the Quays and that was enough to pique my curiosity. This is an interview about his art and his newfound experiments in puppetry that might find eager interest here.
Byrne Power: When did you start making these figures?
Kevin: I first started making figures when I was in University. I had a woodworking class and a clay class. I wanted to save time, or I was just lazy, and decided to start a project that I would cover an assignment for both courses. So I made these sort of puppet figures with wooden bodies and clay heads. I really enjoyed making them, so I kept exploring what else I could do with them and just never stopped. That was around 1995.
On a side note, people often think the heads of my figures are still made out of clay. They haven’t been clay since I left school and lost my access to a kiln. Since then they have all been carved from wood. Although I surface them with many layers of paint and varnish which gives them a very smooth look.
Byrne: Why figures? Why not paintings?
Kevin: I do a little painting every once in a while, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever been very good at it. I always feel like there’s a barrier between me and the work. The same feeling when I have to create something in a computer. It’s like I’m a scientist working behind glass controlling mechanical arms to do a task. I feel really detached when I can’t manipulate a material more directly.
As far as why figures in particular, I’ve found it’s much harder for me to make art that doesn’t have a face or at least eyes. I have some pieces I’ve been working on currently that are prosthetic arms. I really enjoy making them but there still feels like something missing.
Byrne: The puppeteer in me sees a relationship with puppetry. Is there a conscious connection there? Did it start off consciously?
Kevin: Since I was a little kid I’ve had a fascination with puppets. Yes, I think there’s a definite influence on all of my work.
Byrne: I notice that you are inspired both by music and stories. I find that fascinating in a time where quantities of art reek of a suspicion of narrative. Where does that come from? Does puppetry come into play in this aspect at all?
Kevin: There’s always a thread of narrative in my work. I feel that I’m presenting a show or performing with my work. Or at least showing a sliver of a show. I think I’ve always been a frustrated performer and I express that part of me within the presentation my art. I’m not always in a situation where I can dictate the atmosphere of a venue or gallery space, but when I can try to incorporate the space into the viewing experience of the show. Kind of setting the stage as it were I suppose. I think this is going to become more prevalent in my exhibitions now that I’ve started doing more work for the theatre recently.
Byrne: What puppet influences are you drawn to?
Kevin: I love the Eastern European style and aesthetic of puppetry. I would really love to travel to that part of the world.
The French puppet group Royal de Luxe does just mind boggling stuff. I just had the opportunity to see them for the first time in Montreal and it was amazing. I also love the company that split off from them Les Machine. They will be coming to Ontario soon and I hope to make the drive over to see them as well. That would just make my year.
I had an opportunity to visit the Bread and Puppet property in Vermont a couple of years ago. They have a big barn full of old puppets they’ve made going back to the 60’s. It was a breath taking collection of work.
Byrne: If you are ever Vermont again you must visit the Sandglass Theatre. Ask to visit the older puppets. I think you’d find some real inspiration there.
Also if you ever get to Europe there are so many places I could recommend. But research this site more for that.
Are you familiar with Jan Švankmajer or the Brothers Quay? Any other puppet filmmakers?
Kevin: I really enjoy the films of Jan Svankmajer. He’s such an inspiring man. I find it so bitter sweet that he is currently working on his last film. I so respect that he’s leaving fully on his own terms. The looseness, chaotic quality, the bluntness are all aspects of his work I connect with wish I could be more like in my own work.
I enjoy the Quay Brothers also but for different reasons. The Quays have been more about atmosphere for me. They are much more moody and ambiguous. Both have been influences on my work. If an artist works with rusty dusty found materials, it’s a safe bet they’ve seen “Streets Of Crocodiles” at least once .
That movie is the gateway drug for that whole aesthetic for loads of people.
I love the movie “The Mascot” (1933) by Ladislas Starevich.
I think Robert Morgan is doing some of the most interesting and adventurous work right now. I walked into a screening of one of his shorts a few years ago titled “Bobby Yeah”
I saw it totally cold with no idea of what I was about to sit though. I felt punch-drunk when I walked out. I can’t recall the last time a film had that kind of effect on me. It was wonderfully disturbing.
Byrne: Your faces are often quite perplexed, bewildered even a bit glum. Comments?
Kevin: Yeah, they’re kind of bummers. My guys never get invited to cocktail parties.
Byrne: What’s with things growing, popping, from holes in the head?
Kevin: Hmm, I don’t know. What’s your interpretation?
Byrne: Something’s happening in the brain evidently, probably something trying to get out. Hopefully not the physical gray matter itself. Then again it could be somehow related to trepanation, an antique medical practice involving cutting a hole in the skull to relieve the pressure.
I also love the materials and texture of your work. What kind of materials do you prefer? What is your approach to texture?
Kevin: I use a lot of recycled materials. Wood, cloth, whatever. I like to use old hardware, screws and washers as well. I buy up whole boxes of that kind of stuff any time I can. I can’t make them look as good as they already do.
Byrne: I’ve often found hardware stores a source of fascination, not to mention Salvation Army stores, junkyards, etc.
Kevin: I’ve always been drawn to objects with a history or a timeless feel. I’m from Southern Indiana originally and there was always lot’s of things that feel like that around. I guess I’m also just naturally nostalgic.
Byrne: I’ve often found that in the art world one is often given a stark white wall as a context. I find that this objectifies the work. Abstracts it into a kind of thing it may not have meant to be. In my own puppet work I find we have to totally colonize the space to communicate. Putting our puppetry onto a modern stage turns it too much into ‘theater’, thus rendering it only theatrically communicative. I worked for years in New York City moving art from artist studios to galleries and office buildings. I was always sad to see the work in dead white space, usually the artist’s own studio was a much more human and unsanitized space. What does your studio look like? What is the best environment for your figures?
Kevin: My studio is pretty much a packrat nest. As far as presentation of artwork, it all depends on the context and the intent of the artist. I’ve taken many different approaches in different kinds of venues in the past. Some times white walled galleries are very good to focus the viewer in on detail. If the intent is to construct a little world in a box, that is a good presentation. There have been other times where I wanted the world to be the whole space. To set a mood for the viewer as soon as they walk into the room. I’d actually like to do more installation work where the room is the art. It’s interesting to extend the world of the art like that sometimes.
Byrne: What do hope people see in your work when all is said and done? Obviously everyone will see something different. But what’s the minimum you hope they take away from your figures?
Kevin: I hope they take away anything. I don’t expect everyone to like what I do, but the worst reaction there is, is indifference. I’d rather someone hated my work than to have no reaction at all.
Byrne: You seem to have a storytelling aesthetic. How far are you willing to take your work in that regard? Have you ever thought of collaborating with a puppet troupe to make your figures move? Or to make them with armatures for puppet films?
Kevin: My newest work has been for a new stage production called “Mémoires d’un Sablier”. It’s a cross cultural collaboration between two puppet theatre companies. La Torture Noir from here in Quebec and Luna Morena from Mexico. I did an art exhibition at a puppet festival two years ago and they saw my work there and later brought me on to the project. My sculpture work often references puppetry, but this is the first time I have actually worked in the theatre and made functioning puppets to be used night after night on stage. It was a very different experience for me. There are many different things to consider in construction and it was very technically challenging. I built props and two puppets for the show. One was life size and probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever made.
Byrne: What part of it was so challenging. Was it the translation of your puppet art into functioning puppets.
Kevin: Yes, it’s very technically different. In my own work I only have to worry about the aesthetic. It’s much easier designing improbable things when they don’t actually have to work for real. So I kind of had to work in reverse for this project and focus on the function first. If the puppets and props don’t work on stage it doesn’t matter one bit how good the look. All told it took a year to finish the production and I’ve also never worked in that kind of time frame before. Theatre is a much longer process than I’m used to and that took some adjustment. It’s very easy to frustrated that everything is not moving faster but that has more to do with me being use to only working alone for the last twenty years. Coordinating a whole company of people takes time and much more work. I just had no experience with that. Being a part of a whole took some getting use to, but in the end I learned so much more and created work that I never would have thought to make or technically could have made working by myself. I even had the opportunity to travel down to Mexico and work in the Luna Moreno studio where I learned more about traditional puppet construction.
Byrne: Well Kevin thanks for your time and work. It certainly does provoke a reaction in me. Continue!
Time for an update on the progress of Gravity From Above. I’ve meant to write sooner but I’ve been intensely busy trying to finish the editing for my short feature film Arca. (And that will be worth watching!) Nevertheless things haven’t stayed still.
So I will be going, by hook or crook, to Charleville-Mézières France for a three week residency to the International Puppetry Institute and ESNAM, their school, in October. And I have decided as long as I am there to visit a few puppet theatres and friends and try to get so more filming done. So far here’s what I know. I’ll be visiting Paris, hopefully to reconnect with Pascal Pruvost and the Petits Bouffons de Paris. I’ll will of course find my good friend Paulette Caron, who’ll help at ESNAM as well. I might drop down to Lyon. I will certainly get back to Brussels to visit Dimitri at the Théâtre Royal du Péruchet and Nicolas at Le Théâtre Royal de Toone.
In London I will have a chance to visit the Quays, who are working on a mysterious project on actual film again. While there I’ve also been invited by filmmaker Matty Ross to consider making a puppet sequence for a rather intense half hour film of his. So I’ll pop round and officially make his acquaintance. And there are other possibilities as well. (Of course I must get back to Georgia again sometime as well!)
A lot will depend upon financing. If I get the Rasmuson Foundation grant I’ve applied for that will help. But you can never count on grants until the money is in the bank. If I can get more support I’ll try to film the final stages of the documentary. Even if I can only get a few more clips it will make the work left to be done that much less.
(That PayPal donate button above this somewhere has come in handy so far, and right about now it would be a real encouragement to know that some of you are willing to contribute a bit more. I truly can’t go back to crowdfunding for quite a while. But why go through a middle man (Well PayPal does take its cut too.), when you can donate directly to this project today. Think about it.)
Meanwhile back in Haines I’ve been teaching a class of five students a serious course in puppetry studies. We are studying puppet techniques, history, films, materials etc. And at the end of it in late April we will be putting on a comic 21st Century version of Faust. It’s a step towards more puppetry education.
Speaking of puppet education. Very soon I will have a new YouTube video to share with all of you of the Brief History of Puppetry lecture I gave in Switzerland at L’Abri last March. Stick around and you’ll have a chance to watch another hour and a half video. (The last lecture Puppetry As Antidote Art is linked below. And so far it has received 15,500 views. Not bad eh? Now if each of them had contributed five dollars….)
I’ll be back very soon with A Brief History of Puppetry.
Long Time Readers of GRAVITY FROM ABOVE might be curious about the trip that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the final part. We stop in Salzburg Austria. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)
I was awakened in my converted medieval hotel room by bells pealing loud and long enough to wake the dead. I’m not talking jingle bells either. These sounds were deep, rolling, earthshaking. It was Ascension Day in Salzburg, Austria. (Follow the link below to read the whole essay.)
Well while I’ve been sidelined on Gravity From Above I haven’t been idle. Now I just have to get to where I’m going by a new route. I’ve exhausted the crowdfunding route. I just don’t have the name recognition, a big enough pool of acquaintances or friends with deep enough pockets to be able to go through that again in the near future. But still it was good to know that I could raise the funds, twice(!), to help me get this far.
But here’s what I have been doing… Someone did get in touch with me about an idea. It didn’t quite work out but it was a good connection. I’ve also been going through documentaries from the last 20 or so years that I have appreciated to see if there’s a producer who might be worth contacting. I did come up with about 10 solid names.
I realized that I need to make a new trailer to give this producer and new backers an idea of what exactly I’m up to. And so I spent about 50 hours working on a this small feast for your eyes.. This trailer is not meant to announce the film. But it does serve to show how much work I’ve done so far. Some of the images are from animated and live puppet films that I wish to use in the documentary, but will need to obtain the rights in the future. There are many images from interviews which I’ve already conducted. What’s missing is great footage from a few puppet shows to bring the whole project home. But consider this a taste of what’s to come. This is somewhat the mood of the forthcoming film. More poetic than didactic. But let me know what you think of it? I’d appreciate your thoughts.
And here is where I could really use help. Who do you know who can help get Gravity From Above made? Do you know a hungry producer? Do you know someone who’d love to donate and get involved? (We can even work it out to make it a nonprofit contribution if that’s an issue.) Do you have or know someone with ideas? Think with me on this. I need to get back out there as soon as possible. And one of you might have the key.
In the meantime enjoy the new trailer!
Thanks to those who have contributed by using the PayPal ‘Donate’ button up above.
While I am trying to chart my own course forward on Gravity From Above (update coming soon), allow me to direct your attention to the project of a good friend of mine Genevieve Anderson who is at this moment trying to finish her Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for European inspired puppet film Too Loud A Solitude based on a novel by Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal.
I have appreciated Genevieve’s work since at least 2008. And her live puppet films certainly have Central European roots. Back in 2007 Genevieve made a 17 minute segment of Too Loud A Solitude about love and a man responsible for crushing books in the totalitarian era. It’s interesting that works from behind the old Iron Curtain still hold up as tributes to the exploration of truth and freedom, while works since that age are hardly discussed. Is it that we no longer are exploring?
Her film segment reveals a depth of thought and feeling that immediately connected me to her as a fellow traveler. In 2009 I stopped in to actually meet her on my way through Southern California with our Reckoning Motions puppet show entitled The Great Ziggurat. Since then we have remained in touch as friends. And I kept prodding her to continue with Too Loud A Solitude. After a period of personal upheaval and transition Genevieve finally decided it was time to return to the project. And I breathed a sigh of joy.
And we, you and I, need her making her deep little puppet films.
How much do I respect her work? I’d easily say that her meditation on her grandmother’s life, Ola’s Box Of Clovers (which does not appear anywhere on line) is one of the ten best puppet films I’ve ever seen.
Too Loud A Solitude, which is being made over from scratch, will also be worth every dollar she is trying to raise. Her crowdfunder will last about a month and end on midnight October 31st 2016. At the moment she is doing well. But she is still nearly $10,000 away from her goal of $35,000. And I know from experience that that is a very tough slog. This is a pledge drive, meaning no money is extracted from your bank account until she raises the funds. At this moment she has done well enough that it would be a crying shame if she didn’t get there and lost that money. Crowdfunding is always stressful. And often surprising.
Jan Švankmajer recently had a fundraiser on Indiegogo for what is to be his last film Insects. He made over $280,000, which sounds great and certainly will help. But this was Jan Švankmajer!! As the Quays pointed out to me, if everyone who had ever appreciated a Švankmajer film had contributed a few dollars he would have had far more. Nice as $280,000 sounds. For a feature film by Švankmajer that’s a really stingy budget.
So when an artist as worthy as Genevieve Anderson comes along you’ll have to trust me on this: Just donate something. There are perks. There are updates to read. Blah blah blah. If you are any sort of reader of Gravity From Above? If puppetry means anything to you? If you care about real cinema and not genre pablum. If the fact that the world is getting trashier as time slips through our fingers? Then by all means you MUST go now to the link here and support Genevieve’s Too Loud A Solitude. And don’t think someone else is going to do it. (It’s much easier to do this for someone else than it is to do this for myself.)
Will puppetry save our culture? No. And yet maybe.
Time for a little disheartening news. After my long journey to Europe this year to gather more interviews I find myself at a serious temporary roadblock. It’s not the first it won’t be the last. But this time it’s particularly frustrating since I’m much closer to the finish line than I’ve ever been before. I can see it ahead. But that pesky old devil, money, stands in the way.
What happened? Well I heard from the Swiss folks that the Swiss funding sources liked the idea of a puppet documentary but would rather have it focused on one person or troupe trying to accomplish “something”. Now this is precisely what I haven’t wanted to do. The whole point of Gravity From Above has been to introduce people to puppetry by showing what it is through a cornucopia of European sources. There is no way a documentary about one person, group, stop motion animator, etc. can show the spectrum. And it is the spectrum of puppetry that most folks need to see. Now I’ve let the Swiss producers know that I will certainly help get this smaller idea accomplished as per our agreement. But I’ve also let them know that this isn’t Gravity From Above, which remains as a title and a concept fully in my control. So we’ll see.
The way I look at it, a documentary about one puppet troupe, while certainly a noble idea in the abstract, is like a documentary about Field Marshall Rommel, when nobody knows anything about World War II. I’m sure it would be fascinating, but what’s this larger war they keep alluding to? What’s that about? That sounds even more intriguing. Well there is no World At War for puppetry? There is no serious introduction to the breadth and depth of the subject. And THAT has always been my goal. Europe was my focus because it was compact. A documentary on Švankmajer, Toone Marionette Theatre, Buchty a Loutky, the Brothers Quay, Josef Krofta, etc are all quite worthy subjects. But I’m interested in what holds all of their work together. So I’m left with no choice but to go back a couple of paces and try to find another source of financing. I’m now looking at whatever I might do in relationship to my Swiss contract as a gun for hire. But I need to make Gravity From Above.
So what needs to happen next? First of all I need to find either a producer or financial backer who gets what I’ve been trying to do for the last ten years. Someone who will either comprehend the project enough to go to bat for me, or someone who will invest enough money to allow me hire the film crew to shoot the performances, to edit, to pay for film rights and commission the music. That’s still a sizable chunk. And I’m not releasing anything until I can get this done as it should be.
The problem with the film industry at any moment is that they get stuck on one model of how things should be done and won’t consider other ways. At the moment the only way to make a documentary is to focus on “someone” trying to accomplish “something”. With the drama being squeezed out of whether they succeed or not. Now good documentaries have been done in this mode. But to say that’s the only way to do a documentary is purest unrefined bullshit. Off the top of my head I can think of dozens of documentaries made in other ways. Some are pure research (Children Underground about Romanian street kids), or biographies (the list is endless here) or about a subject (Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Les Blanc’s film about garlic) or about genres (only think of Martin Scorsese’s documentaries about film) or historical eras (does the name Ken Burns ring a bell).
Well Gravity From About is a documentary about European puppetry. Too big a subject? That’s what I’m told. Well it’s an introduction to the meaning of puppetry with enough examples from European puppetry and interviews to make the point. It’s exactly the documentary that I want to see. And I suspect I’m not alone. That’s what my readers here and fellow puppeteers want to see. That’s what people have been supporting.
So I’m asking you folks, whether puppeteers, filmmakers or interested readers, to see if you know anyone who can help get Gravity From Above finished. The interviews are pretty much done. Now I need a very small film crew and backing. Do you know producer who can help finish this thing? If you do get in touch. If you have any ideas get write me. Though I started this on my own, and 99% of the financing thus far has come from my own shallow pockets, I can’t finish it on my own. The two things I need right now are a producer who will believe in this project and backing or a backer or two. (Crowdfunding isn’t going to be an option again for quite a few years. See my older posts on that.)
Well I had an amazing journey last winter and spring. And I know that I will finish this, hopefully soon. Thanks to all of you have followed me on my journeys. And especially those who have dug a little deeper in one way or another. I do have a PayPal button here. Think about that. But more than anything help me to find the people I need to bring Gravity From Above to fruition.
From a pleasant sunny autumn day in Alaska
With gratitude and courage
I’m told that if a person is born blind and later in life has an operation to see that what happens when they finally look around is that they are assaulted by colors and shapes that make no sense. It is a riot of chromatic sensations, not a moment of clarity. Arriving in Tbilisi , Georgia was like that for me. Not that it was a disarray of bright colors. Oh no it wasn’t. It was indeed pure darkness.
The Polish Lot plane landed at about 5am Georgian Time. The formalities at the border were the nearly non-existent. I looked and found a thin man, perhaps in his fifties, who was holding up a sign that had the words BYRNE POWER scrawled on it. I saw him and tried out my first Georgian word on my first Georgian. “Gamarjoba.” (Hello.) He nodded and silently motioned me to follow him to a small worn gray car. I put my bags in and we drove silently through the Georgian night. I turned back to look at the airport. Tbilisi was a city of well over a million people. The airport was over twice the size of the one in Juneau Alaska, a city with a population of 35,000. I guessed not that many people were flying.
My driver didn’t say a word during the entire trip, about a half hour ride. A small radio was on, but just barely. It sounded like insects rasping. I’ve heard occupied headphones on the London tube that were louder. At first as we drove through the darkness, things didn’t seem too different. The road was essentially a low grade four lane highway, in need of a little repair. Eventually we started passing commercial buildings with Georgian script on them. Eventually we were surrounded by one, two or three story structures as we turned off the highway onto the city streets. As I looked out at the bare trees and crooked lanes and deteriorating buildings under the yellow street lamps I noted the endless indecipherable Georgian alphabet adorning so many buildings. A sense of the alien was creeping upon me, infiltrating every pore of my scalp.
Turning onto a narrow side street we passed darkened houses. But they didn’t really look like houses. Maybe warehouses? My silent guide pulled the car over and I hefted my stuff down the road a little piece. I looked over and saw a glowing green sign and said under my breath, ‘Aha, that must be it.’ It wasn’t. We arrived at a menacing looking gate, with the words GUESTHOUSE painting on a board. Beyond it only inky blackness. This was my destination. We walked through the iron gate into what at first seemed like a garage, but was only a passageway. We entered the courtyard, which was illuminated by a single light from two floors up in an old structure with ramshackle wooden balconies with another painted sign reading TaMaR. I had arrived at Tamar’s Guesthouse. I walked up met Tamar, a pleasant lady who was concerned for my journey. Evidently my quiet driver was her husband. She spoke passable English and introduced me to my tiny room. I was staying in a room in their flat. I put my heavy luggage down. Laid down in the dark and and wondered where on earth I had actually landed.
The morning light came with the cheeping of hundreds of birds, but I was about three hours off from European time. I lounged around in bed listening to the sounds nearly right outside my door of Georgians moving around and talking. It wasn’t early mind you. Georgians don’t seem to get going till around 10AM. And not just these Georgians either. Most Georgians! Georgian streets at 8AM are still quiet.
At last I stumbled out into the Georgian daylight sometime around noon. I started walking with a rough idea in mind of getting to an ATM for Georgian lari, of getting a metro pass stocked full, of finding food, of seeing where I was. The first disorientation came as I started walking down my street, a street with a name I still can’t pronounce two weeks on. Try it! ‘Tsinamdzghvrishvili Street’. It’s tough for Georgians! The sidewalk, if that’s what it is, is about as even as the sidewalks in Anchorage after the 1964 quake. Tree roots, unfinished sections, cars parked on the lumpy asphalt walkway. And then the real problem came when I had to start crossing the streets. The concept of the traffic light has been slow to catch on here. Very slow. (See escargot.) And so you just take your chances. The cars don’t really stop. You walk out into the traffic judging whether you can make it or not. If you look at the cars, trying to stare them down that doesn’t work. Then they assume you see them and that you will get out of the way. You have to step out without making eye contact. When I tried to cross at one point I was utterly baffled. It was a four lane highway. No one was even thinking about slowing down. I surveyed the landscape for some way across. No way. Finally a woman stepped off the curb and I followed her. They wouldn’t kill us both I reasoned. As we crossed the bridge over the Mtkvari River that same woman turned towards a church and made the sign of the cross.
I was getting sweaty in the humid air. It wasn’t summer yet. But by Alaskan standards it certainly was. And everyone was wearing black coats like it was a chilly spring day. I found a tourist information bureau and stepped in and asked where the nearest bank machine was. Two pleasant black haired girls pointed down Rustaveli Street and I thanked them ‘Madloba.’ and turned to walk away as I did they both called out in English, ‘Where are you from?’ I said ‘Alaska’ and they were suitably impressed enough to ask a few questions and smile quite welcomingly at me. My first taste of Georgian curiosity.
I did indeed get my lari and fill up my metro card. The metro itself was a relic of the Soviet Era and was buried deeper than any public underground transport I’d ever been on. The escalator ride down took about two minutes. Some local kids would just sit on the descending stairs. Other folks would practically trip over them on their way down into the tepid windy tunnels.
Fortunately in many public places besides the Georgian alphabet there was often English. And so I was not completely bewildered. But as I waited to hear from my contacts in Georgia I spent a couple of days sightseeing. I got thoroughly lost looking for the outdoor ethnographic museum. I found myself wandering on a highway in the hills as I tried to descend from the statue of Mother Georgia down into a botanical garden, that I never did get to. I sampled the Georgian cuisine, discovering some unimagined use of certain spices that I couldn’t put my finger on. But in the swirling confusion of those first few days I was often completely askew. Yet the disorientation often had me admiring ruins of elaborate structures from a forgotten time.
One morning I went seeking what an official Tbilisi website designated as the ‘Animated Puppet Museum’. It was considered a national museum. I had no idea that Georgia even made stop motion animation films. Yet my peripatetic wanderings only led to the street address number 23, only to find myself staring at a rusting plaque on a wall reading ‘Karlo Sulakaure – Puppetton (?) Animation Doll Museum’. In a note from the Quays, they immediately conjured up a story about this. One can only most see their film. “Somebody probably walked out, locked up, and then passed away and that person had the only key…” Meanwhile what lay beyond that decaying sign? What indeed?
Sweaty lost wanderings, past indecipherable script, past faces I had never seen before in my life, began to create a sense of real dislocation. And I had really studied up on the culture. And I had lived in New York City for 16 years, I’d seen many types of faces. Nevertheless the I felt I had landed on Mars. Where were the puppet theatres? (One was on tour. Another had vanished.) Where was the Georgian music? McDonald’s blared American pop music into the streets. And I was beginning to wonder if perhaps I’d made some sort of mistake in coming here. And I had signed up for three weeks of this.
Then singer Mariam Elieshvili contacted me. (We’ll spend more time with Mariam soon.) And I met her and her mother down at Marjanishvili Square, near where I was staying. She was on her way to a television station to do her show. But we spoke for almost a half hour. She was open faced and very glad to finally meet me. She had ideas about musicians for me to meet. She was the embodiment of charm and courtesy. And with that the spell was broken. My Georgian experience was about to burst wide open.
You must keep reading…
Tbilisi, Georgia (Sakartvelo)
Upon returning from a very full three days in Brussels I met my friend Paulette, who had been working behind the scenes to set up time with Leona-Beatrice Starewitch Martin, the granddaughter of Ladislas Starewitch (also spelled Vladislav Starevich, in Russian: Владисла́в Старе́вич, in Polish: Władysław Starewicz). (Always pronounced Star-a-vich.) Because we are in France we will stay with the French version of the family name, which is also helpful in trying to buy is DVDs (region free playable anywhere). After a meal in a French café, wherein I almost lost the multicolored checkered scarf I’d had since the 70s (!), we took off by train to the Val-de-Marne area where Beatrice and her husband François Martin were waiting for us.
Ladislas Starewitch, for those not aware, whom I must consider to be most folks conscious at present in the world today, is considered to be the first person to make and show publicly stop-motion animation films in 1910 in Lithuania. There are whispers of another, a Russian named Aleksander Shiryayev, a principal dancer in the Imperial Russian Ballet, made a few animated puppet ballets in 1906. He only showed his work privately and they were completely forgotten until their rediscovery in 1995. Nevertheless Starewitch is the man who discovered animation independently and became a master of the art.
We were taken by car over to Le Musée de Nogent-sur-Marne where they were currently showing an exhibition called ‘La fabrique du cinéma’, a look at the history of movie studios in the Val-de-Marne region from the early silent era till 1970. Walking through the many photos and memorabilia from the active area of film production one is suddenly arrested by the encased puppets of Ladislas Starewitch for Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox). These are the actual figures made by Starewitch, including the Lion Queen, the singing cat and other strange creatures. (Unfortunately the lighting and the glare of the glass made good photography difficult, but I did manage to locate a couple of worthy angles.
Also in the museum were several of notebooks and animated beetles that indicated Starewitch’s abiding commitment to entomology. In the early 20th Century Starewitch had been the Director of the Museum of Natural History in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he sought a way to demonstrate a couple of stag beetles in action. He had been making live action films of other insects for pedagogical reasons. But putting any light on the beetles effectively killed them. And so, inspired by French pioneer Emile Côhl he came up with idea of animating the carcasses of dead insects. And then he began to focus more exclusively on animation to tell stories. So successful and unusual were these strange little films, including gems like the Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), that even the Tsar took notice.
After our time in the museum we were taken back to Madame Starewitch’s home where we spent more than an hour discussing her grandfather as well as looking at curious books (like the one from the Metamorphosis exhibition from Barcelona that featured Starewitch, Jan Švankmajer and the Quays that I must find for myself) and sipping on tea and eating madeleines. I recorded audio of the conversation, which Paulette translated, but it was decided not to film until later in the year or the spring of 2017.
After the generous time and hospitality from the land of Starewitch it was now time to move on to Lyon to discover Guignol on his home turf. Meanwhile if you haven’t seen any of the films of Ladislas Starewitch… what are you waiting for? I mean it. Go look you can find them. Start with Mascot (Fetische) or the Cameraman’s Revenge. Look for The Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard) and discover a truly enchanted world.
On my last day in Brussels I had been invited to visit the Théâtre Royal du Péruchet by Dimitri Jageneau. I must confess I didn’t quite follow his directions and so explored a little more of Brussels than I had expected to both on foot and by tram. Fortunately I had given myself plenty of time to get lost (a good stratagem for finding new places by public transportation) and so arrived just in time to set up for the children’s show of the Three Little Pigs. It was a rather cozy old theatre with wooden seats in an old farm house surrounded by industrial apartment buildings. As the performance was about to begin an older French woman came out ringing a bell and introduced the play, this would turn out to be Biserka Assenova, Dimitri’s mother, once upon a time Bulgarian, a theatre student in Prague in the 60s, a puppeteer in her own right and working several of the characters in this play.
The story began with a little parable about the rain, the wind and the sun that worked together to become a rainbow and then shifted into a marionette version of the classic little piggies. Now the winsome star of this fable was the rather louche wolf. He would enter the stage with a strange monotone song with lyrics that went something like this: ’Youp-La-La-La Youp-La-La Youp-La-La-la Youp-La-La’. And so bizarrely infectious was this that I heard several kids afterwards chanting, ‘Youp-La-La-La Youp-La-La’. And of course the wolf tries to blow the houses down, the straw, the wood and the brick. But he does it by turning around and around and becoming a mini-hurricane. By the end I was caught up in the story myself and was almost rooting for the unsavory canine.
Apres la spectacle, I met Madame Assenova who was a sweet charming lady with much insight into the art of puppetry. She consented to be interviewed. I also met the two others members of the cast, a couple of younger women just beginning their life of puppetry. I was shown the adjoining museum which was chock full of puppet upon puppet with many from Asia, evidently Dimitri’s father, Franz Jageneau, had become passionate about Indian puppetry in particular and other countries puppets as well. Also gracing this collection were many unusual European puppets as well, including a few by famous Russian puppeteers Nina Efimova and Sergei Obraztsov. I was quite astonished by the depth of the collection. Dimitri demonstrated several of the older puppets from the Péruchet theatre.
Finally I sat with Biserka (a strange name given to her in World War 2 as a tribute to a woman who helped her mother deliver her and died shortly thereafter) for an interview. We spoke for about 40 minutes about her time in Prague, her discovery of puppets and mostly, a common theme for many puppet folks, the unleashing of the imagination. And she was quite eloquent about how the current tendency toward all encompassing storytelling and media, actually stripped away the imagination rather than feeding it. The puppet leaves room for the spectator to create their own version of the story and characters. Again something similar to the Quays’ concept of reading the mask/puppet face which is incomplete. The incompleteness invites completion through an act of imagination.
And then Dimitri sat down for around 50 minutes and spoke again about many subjects related to puppetry. He had inherited the theatre from his father. He had never intended to go into puppetry. And in fact he had a degree in European political studies. But during the course of his father’s decline and death due to cancer he had assumed the mantle of puppeteer. And had done a fine job in continuing the profession and researching puppet history. I’ll save much of what he said for Gravity From Above, but in the end, when it came down to it the point of puppetry in the 21st Century, it was ultimately about simplicity. Another theme that had recurred in my various interviews. We live in a time when things are so abstract that only the simplicity of a handmade creature made of a wooden or some other tangible substance could help us rediscover the value and mystery of the material world.
In the end I left Dimitri, Biserka and Péruchet feeling I had made friends. As I returned through the rain soaked streets of Brussels I felt I had understood more than when I had started. The two main puppet theatres of Brussels Toone and Péruchet were traditional in many ways, though also in their own ways remaining contemporary. They were friendly contemporains on a field without many players. Yet neither of them could claim to be hip or cool. And that connection to the past is what gave them a rich life. Each were multigenerational dynasties and in Toone’s case with a very long history as well. And yet they seemed to be on a battlefront, maintaining the classic style of European puppet art into the heart of the 21st Century. (Even as I write Toone’s future is hanging by a thread. To support them sign a petition. You don’t to be from Belgium or speak French. Just run this link through translation tool.)
And so after an early morning bus to train to TGV run I arrived at Charleville-Mézières with my French friend and translator Paulette Caron. The point of this trip was simply to present the idea of our Gravity From Above documentary to the Director of the Institut International de la Marionnette (International Puppetry Institute), Eloi Recoing, which is also directly connected with ESNAM (l’École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette) (The International Puppet School). We arrived fairly around 10AM and met Brigitte Behr who was quite happy to see me again. At that point I also met Eloi (for non-French readers that would be pronounced Ehl-Wa.) And Raphael Fleury, la Responsable du pôle Recherche et Documentation, the woman in charge of research center and the library.
Unfortunately the library was under reconstruction and so was closed. And the students were having rather uneventful classes. But the purpose of this particular journey was twofold: to get permission to film the students and classes as well as teachers later in the year (financing allowing), and to interest the Institut in any possible support for the project. Some of this I had discussed with former Directrice Lucille Bodson back 2012, but one must recalibrate with changes in administration. (A similar situation has occurred with the museum in Lyon.)
Well our official meeting was to be help at 17:00 (5PM for you Americans) and Paulette and I drifted through an afternoon of French meal (I am suffering as you can see), wandering the streets of the charming, yet unexciting, streets of Charleville, performing a few chores and finally ending up at the Musée de l’Ardenne (Museum of the Ardenne region).
For those wandering the puppet trail, the Musée de l’Ardenne actually has a great exhibit dedicated to puppetry, where we encountered a voluble class of students who were being given the museum tour in both French and English. (All of the puppet images here come from the museum.) The exhibit has a very good survey of the history of puppetry in France, not as detailed or thrilling as the Gadagne Museum in Lyon. But certainly worth the price of admission. The rest of the museum has its charm as well with antique guns, paintings and a glimpse inside the Grand Marionnettiste, the giant outdoor clock that is in the shape of a puppet with a little marionette show at the top of the hour. (See our previous trip to Charleville.)
At 17:00 Eloi took us into his office where Paulette had her first real workout translating between French and English. Although I would occasionally surprise myself by understanding more than I realize that I do. I presented the basic idea of Gravity From Above, which should be familiar to anyone who has been following this site for a little while. But just in case, a reminder might be helpful, the point of Gravity From Above is to investigate the art of puppetry in Europe to unveil its meanings in the past and its possible connections to the 21st Century. (I’ve got to watch myself, this is almost beginning to sound like a mission statement.) Eloi found the idea fascinating and was very much in favor of the project. I think also the fact that I had already captured interviews with folks like Jan Švankmajer, Josef Krofta, Henryk Jurkowski, the Brothers Quay, etc meant that I was also seriously interested in archiving this material for future use, which is certainly in line with the purpose on the institute. (Especially since two of those figures have passed away since I filmed them.)
We also breeched the subject of possible financial support for the project. While it wasn’t out of the question Eloi made it clear that he couldn’t promise anything. Yet I had the feeling that this was exactly the kind of project that that he heartily endorsed. And wanted IIM to promote. He talked about his idea of Poétique de la Trace, of a poetry of the traces of the history of puppetry, and of ESNAM & the institute. And the fact that I was already collecting a few those poetic traces that puppetry so naturally leaves in its trail. One of the intriguing aspects of puppetry is its long yet fragmentary and evocative history. And even in the present so much goes undocumented unrecorded.
Raphaele Fleury also made it clear that I could easily submit a proposal to stay for anywhere from a few days up to a couple of months in the apartment building we stayed this time as residency. And so I felt that they were completely aligned with the nature of this project. We will see what develops.
Speaking of the apartment a very odd occurrence woke me in the middle of the night. There had been some noise from students in the late evening, including evidently some singing, perhaps karaoke style of rather pointless French pop songs. These echoed in the classically echoey European building. Eventually I fell asleep but was wakened again at perhaps one in the morning by some other musical sounds. Generally I have a good idea of where any style of music might originate. But not this time. It sounded as if Moroccans had become Pentecostals and were playing eerie repetitious harmonic praise songs with a droning organ and electric guitar. Having described it that way does no justice to the strangeness of the sound and melodies. I drifted off to sleep again and awoke around 3:30 in the morning to more loud strange musical sounds. Were I not sure of what I was hearing I would have assumed it was a dream. Paulette who was in the next studio apartment, slept through the odd part. But it was no dream. I woke up and made a sound recording of my thoughts in a voice that Tom Waits would have envied with shards of the music in the background. Unfortunately, for the sound recording, the music had settled down a bit and is not too clear in the recording. And then I could tell that this interlude was finally coming to a close as the music played a hymn-like dirge at the end. And then silence. I have no explanation for any of this weird event.
But this is why I travel!
After a fond farewell to Brigitte at lunch it was time to depart Charleville; again much too short a stay.
Now on to Brussels…
I knew that the journey was finally beginning in earnest as I talked to a French man, Baptiste, on the Chunnel train from Paris to London. It was one of those conversations you can only have while traveling. I was beginning to leave the stomach bug behind, though the queasiness and muscular soreness did not disappear instantly. Nevertheless I was in London to see the Quay brothers and I’d moved into the next square of the chess game.
Not that this square was simply thrilling. I was in London. Over the years London has become less and less interesting to me, Quays not withstanding. Paris always retains its fascination, likewise Prague, Krakow, Lyon. But London seems expensive and overrated. And all of the new South Bank features; the Walk, the London Eye, the new architecture, the Millennium Bridge seem more designed for tourists and the business world than for my own human interests. That isn’t to say London doesn’t have its charms. Its just that they’ve more or less worn off of me. And I really liked London when I first visited in 1978. It still seemed like London then. There were still gents in bowler hats and original 77 era punks on the streets. But now, the population seems too predictable to me. The Starbucks, Burger Kings and American movies not worth the comment. And it seems like I paid close to $40 US for about 7 Underground trips in Zone 1 in three days. London is far too expensive considering the return on investment.
All off which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy myself. And a great chunk of that enjoyment came from spending a couple of days with the exquisitely eccentric Brothers Quay. I had come to meet them before on my 2012 trek, where I manage to convince them that I was indeed serious about this Gravity From Above project. (You can read that meeting here.) This time I felt like I was meeting old friends. On the first afternoon conversation ranged from shared Slavic roots, to the foibles of travel, Georgian culture, the glory of Gewurtztraminer wine, Jiří Trnka’s unreleased films and to Jan Švankmajer’s being stopped at the Czech border hoping to bring a shrunken head into the country. The second day was the serious interview, which I recorded, and I focused more on their connection to puppetry than in the hows and whys of their films. I had seen several decent interviews covering many subjects but none had got at the kinds of issues I had been wondering about. So for two hours I had a chance to pretty much ask what I really wanted to know personally. And so I have captured a fairly in-depth discussion from the Quays’ on the puppet, its meaning within their work and in their influences.
(Unfortunately I was so involved in the filming process that I forgot to get the stills of the Quays studio, a warren of strange figures and odds and ends. Well that would be a good ‘excuse’ to return if I needed one, but I don’t.)
Meanwhile… my bowels had recovered enough, with the help of a Chinese herbal remedy picked up in the rather compact London Chinatown, to eat normally and to gain my strength for the next phase of my journey to visit my friends Carsten and Rebecca and their new baby Zella up in Edinburgh. The train ride north was enjoyable and uneventful. Carsten greeted for me at the Waverley Station while proceeding to introduce me to the Scottish capital.
Now this wasn’t to be a puppetry stop. Rather simply a friendly visit. Edinburgh isn’t really a serious puppetry city as far as my research indicates, though occasionally homunculi will appear during the summer Fringe Festival. Nevertheless it was a fascinating city swirling around the old dark castle of the rock that makes up central Edinburgh. Carsten, if you remember from my 2012 trip, was working on his doctorate in Divinity (to use the British term). Rebecca was now an English teacher in the Scottish school system. And Zella bubbled and gurgled gleefully most of the time.
One day Carsten walked me across vast chunks of the old city allowing me to peak into nooks and crannies of the wet brooding streets. I happened upon an excellent bookshop, The Edinburgh Bookstore, a dangerous place, especially for a George MacDonald reader. I limited my shopping to a classic 1925 Oxford University Press two volume set entitled ‘The Medieval Stage’ by E.K. Chambers, and excellent history of the British theater, with fascinating information about puppetry, the origins of Christmas (not the solstice), and the Feast of Fools, among other subjects.
We ended up at the National Museum of Scotland, which led to some curious discoveries; including the 1500 year old Orkney Hood, the strange expression on a bronze bird podium and most intriguingly the scarily textured mask worn by Covenanter rebel preacher Alexander Peden in the late 17th Century. An idea I have a use for…
On another outing we visited the University of Edinburgh’s rarely open Museum of Anatomy, which unfortunately didn’t allow photographs except for the elephant skeletons at the entrance. But the display was everything you could ask for; gorilla bones, a complete bat skeleton , antique anatomical learning aids, fetal remains, enough sliced brains in glass to make Damien Hirst salivate and the entire bony corpse of the last murderer in Scotland hanged by the neck until dead.
Alas, it was time to leave the British Isles and to get back to what was now looming ahead of me as a rather busy two weeks on the Francophone section of the puppet trail. I had enjoyed a venison burger, haggis balls, 18 year old Scotch, homemade bread and good company. Now it was time to confront what Henryk Jurkowski called our mirrors, the puppets. Time to get back to France.
And so I am in Paris, which was not meant to be a real stop on the trip but more of what the French call as ‘sas’, not really a place in itself, rather a place between places like the double doors with a little space as you enter a bank, or my mud room in Alaska. A place of decompression, an airlock. And that has certainly what Paris for me has been this time around.
I walked around, soaked in the ambiance of the 5th and 6th arrondissements, sometimes soaking in the rain. I rediscovered the French food I had been craving. There is a world of difference between an actual croissant in France and what passes for a croissant in small town Alaska. Then there is the inscrutable working class charm of the croque-monsieur. There are items in the average store that simply aren’t items to be found in the average American establishment, take Saint Marcelin cheese for instance. Or a bottle of Alsatian Gevurtztraminer wine. Both found in a Carrefour Express, the closest thing I’ve ever found to a convenience store here.
Then there are simply the streets. Even the humblest bit of architecture in old Paris is better than the best structure at present in Haines, Alaska. I spent my second morning, far too wakeful to sleep, strolling the still dark Paris winter streets, practically alone, at 7AM. I’ve spent enough time in France over the years, now making only the occasional cultural goof. Like not quite waiting for everyone to get off the Metro before I get on. Old New York habits die hard.
I met my dear puppetry friend, Paulette Caron, who escorted me around the 5th and allowed me to explore the Pantheon, the incredible mausoleum dedicated to the greats of France: Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas, Diderot, Victor Hugo, etc. etc. The crypt below did its work on me. It was low vaulted and labyrinthine in a darkened stone conclave. Meanwhile above, at ground level, the massive vaulted temple itself, the statues and paintings, including a few by Symbolist painter Puvis de Chavannes, had a strange funereal majesty.
I stopped in a couple of odd stores and sat at few cafés with Paulette on a rainy Parisian day. But all was not crepes and cheese.
Several forms of uneasiness all seem to descend on me together. First there was the time zone difference. And I still felt sluggish and exhausted. My body did not know what time zone it was in. And when it did remind me it was graceless. Then I had developed a sore back from all of the crammed sitting in jets. And being as I am no longer a youngster, the pain doesn’t just leave at will. And finally, worst of all, I had been discovered by some French bug that had been going around, which turned my already confused insides to soup. At first I thought it might be the food but then after mentioning it to Paulette she told me that some gastrointestinal infection had been going around.
Meanwhile with Paulette’s help I managed to nail a few more stops down. I will be visiting Charleville Meziérès and the International puppet institute for a conversation on February 2nd and 3rd. And I will be hanging out with guignoliste Pascal Pruvost again February 9th. And to complete a week of Guignolism the Gadagne museum has set up three full days on the 10th, 11th and 12th. But there weren’t many puppets for me yet.
Alas, I did get taken to one theatrical presentation called Lady MacBeth. This was a version of Shakespeare’s MacBeth as told in a one woman show as object theatre. Object theatre is sort of the mutant offspring of puppetry and the avant garde. And so; little crystal glasses represented people, moving curtains evidently represented some sort of sexual encounter and there was no actual stage blood to be seen, or at least that’s what I’m told. I missed the murder scene thanks to the bowel bug. And evidently you do not even dream of leaving mid show in France, even for a bodily nightmare. As, yes, the doors are locked from the outside. And some poor usherette, who could not quite understand why I had to leave and then had to stand outside waiting for me so that she could let me back in. She even poked her head in the restroom at one point to say “Quel’un?” (Anyone there?) I said ‘Allo!’ Unthinkable. But in fact it has to happen at some point. Such is travel.
There were actually a few puppetoid creatures made from a table cloth at one point. That was indeed interesting. But by and large the play did not add anything to Shakespeare’s MacBeth, except a rather facile comment at the end that the real villains were the witches who more or less seemed responsible for Lady M’s actions. Um?
And so I’m in the ‘sas’. Hoping to get settled into European existence as I cross back into England today to visit the Brothers Quay.
So it’s time to give an update on the upcoming Gravity From Above journey back to Europe to look for puppets and other curiosities.
First of all let me get a bit of news out of the way. The Swiss producers, you might vaguely remember them, have with good timing once again stepped back into the scene. And they have found the missing ingredient for applying for Swiss funding, they have actually located a viable director to help me with this project. I have already spent some time talking with him and he has indeed got a decent grasp of what this project means. Now I won’t give you his name yet. And there’s a good reason for that related to our seeking the funds. But I can tell you. He’s on board and we, the director, producers and myself, will be submitting our proposal to the Swiss funding agency in January. Alas we won’t hear back until March or April so they can’t help me too much with the project. But that is good news. (And it does mean if you care to donate to this project through PayPal I would definitely appreciate any support you care to give.)
And since getting the funding isn’t exactly 100% certain yet, though I’d say we are setting ourselves up nicely, I need to continue with my journey as though I were NOT getting any outside funding yet. It would be horrible to delay all of this then to get a rejection. I’d much rather have at least the interviews I’m going to make, though they might be a bit ragged technically, than to continue to have little to show for all of this effort. No matter what the fate of my personal interviews it can’t hurt to get them, they can at least be extras on a DVD someday. (Always my plan.) And I’ve already interviewed a few people I might never have a chance to interview again.
So where am I? Well I’ve connected with my dear puppetry friend Paulette Caron and she will be assisting with on site translations. I’ve contacted Nicolas Géal at Toone Marionette Théâtre and Dimitri Jageneau in Brussels, Belgium. And will be setting up a real date in the first ten days of February. The Brothers Quay have already agreed. And I’m waiting to hear back from from the Gadagne Museum in Lyon, they’ve changed directors. Sadly I won’t be visiting Nantes to see the giant puppets of Royal de Luxe. They will be performing a show elsewhere. I’m also still debating whether I should stop in at Charleville-Meziérès to catch up with the International Puppet Institute and the school there (ESNAM). I’m definitely leaning towards doing so. And I’m also going to try to talk to folks at the Little Angel Theatre in London while I’m visiting. Not to forget visiting my guignoliste friends in Paris and few other possibilities.
I also have now definitely arranged a stop at my old stomping grounds in Huémoz Switzerland for a few weeks where I will be giving several lectures. One will be on puppet history and will be a follow up to the puppetry lecture on YouTube that has garnered nearly 9,000 hits thus far. (Not bad for something an hour and a half long!) Other lectures there will include survey of the world of Georgian music and dance, which tends to explode unsuspecting brain cells. A lecture about social networking and what Jacques Ellul called Horizontal Propaganda. And lastly a crazy audio visual display of the new and questionable idea of Conceptual Humanity, which will range from cosmetic surgery to hyper-real dolls and beyond.
Also while I’m in Switzerland I’ll stop into to see “The Swiss”. And discuss the project.
Next after a personal stop in Berlin, which should also include puppets. In March I’ll end up for ten days in Prague and a couple of days in Plzeň in the Czech Republic. This will of course be a serious puppetry stop. But it’s far enough away that I haven’t arranged it all yet.
Likewise I will then fly to Georgia and capture a few puppets in Tbilisi and begin my more serious exploration of the musical culture there. But that’s too far ahead to give many details… but soon. I will then return to Paris in mid-April after three weeks in Georgia.
So what’s definite? I have the airplane tickets from Alaska to Paris and back. I have the plane from Prague to Tbilisi and back to Paris. I have hotels in Paris and Prague. I have places to stay near Paris, in Brussels, London (most likely), Plzeň (most likely), all of Switzerland. Hotels are needed for Lyon, and a few other stops. Lots of food. And the entire Georgian part of the trip is still a mystery… but there are good reasons for that. I still have to buy train tickets and that’s an expense. DO I have enough cash? That’s a good question. I think so but it will probably get tight. But essentially unless something very serious transpires prior to my journey I’m on my way January 18th and will return on the ferry to Haines, Alaska April 21st. How serious? Well back in 2005 when I started these puppet journeys I slipped on the ice and broke my wrist. I was on the plane with a cast in a week. That’s how serious. Follow us here on Gravity From Above. And thanks to everyone who have in many ways, both big and little, encouraged this project.
Keep your eye on this site. (Sign up for emails to your right.) I’m sure that given the problems that plague Europe right now this will be an eye-opening trip.
Good News for Continuing Gravity From Above!
After a period of intense family issues that are now resolved I have discovered just enough extra money to get me back to Europe to continue the project. And I have already committed myself to traveling between January 20th 2016 and April 17th: A good three month stretch. It won’t be 100 percent puppet interviews and exploration. I do need a bit of a break as well. Plus I had promised myself to get to the country (never to be confused with the US state) of Georgia. So my traveling time breaks down something like this. About 45 days on the puppet trail between the UK and Poland. Three weeks in Switzerland visiting friends and giving lectures. And 25 days in Georgia, which will include three puppet theatres and a beginning to my explorations of Georgian music and dance, which have fascinated me for a while now.
None of this is written in stone yet. So my itinerary is somewhat open. But essentially I must go to London interview the Brothers Quay. (By the way Christopher Nolan has recently made a short documentary on the Quays.) I will go to Brussels to visit Toone and Péruchet. I will get back to Lyon. I’m going to try to get out to Nantes in France to see Royal Deluxe. I might go back to Charleville-Meziérès. I will definitely get back to the Czech Republic. And I’m debating other places. In Georgia I will go to see the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre, another puppet theatre called Fingers, as well as visits to the Ballet, Folk and modern dance troupes. And I’m sure I will find more.
So that’s the announcement for now. If you think I really should visit your corner of Europe I can’t promise I’ll get there this time around. But make a good case for something unusual or traditional and I’ll certainly consider it. (Write me at reckoningmotions (a t ) y aho o d ot co m) Meanwhile I’m excited to get back on the road.
This is still not going to finish the documentary. I still need your support. I really need to get a crew with a serious director of photography. I’m going to have to spend more on equipment. And I will be approaching various nonprofits. But any donations made through this page will indeed go to getting me out on the road. I’d like to get help on this trip. But no matter what I’m going back to Europe!
Thanks to everyone who has been following me thus far. You will be hearing from me more regularly now as I prepare for this journey into puppetry and beyond.