Posts Tagged ‘Mayakovsky’

Miming the Metalzoic: Amit Drori’s Savanna, A Possible Landscape

September 10, 2013

Robot Savannah

Back in January of this year (2013), the Independent covered Amit Drori’s Savanna, A Possible Landscape, a play about the adventures of a group of robot animals, shown as part of the London Mime Festival. These creatures include a tortoise, a springbok made of springs, whose legs are mounted in wheels so that it walks with just the right rhythm, a crane (the bird, not the machine), a mechanical moth, and a transistor radio that becomes an grasshopper by extending its aerials and tiny wheels. The main character is a mechanical elephant, created by Drori from the remains of his mother’s piano. In voiceover, Drori tells the audience how he resented the instrument, because it too up so much of his mother’s time, while being fascinated by its inner workings. To him, these were like the skeleton of an elephant or whale. The piano was in a poor condition and required much maintenance. When the piano finally became irreparable, Drori attempted to make an animal from its remains. The result was the play’s walking mechanical elephant. This too dies, laying on the ground to be covered in projections of leaves. A smaller elephant walks away from it.

This play is by no means the first time that artists and dramatists have attempted to explore the machine aesthetic on stage. One of the first modern art groups to do so were the Italian Futurists. They were founded by the poet, Marinetti, in 1909. Aggressively militaristic, they celebrated youth, speed, virility and violence, and the new, industrial machine age. In the group’s ‘Founding and Manifesto’, Marinetti declared that the motorcar was ‘more beautiful than the Battle of Samothrace’, and declared that his movement looked forward to ‘the union of man with machine’. In Russia, the poet Mayakovsky described the actors in his plays as ‘biomechanical performers’. Another of the Italian Futurists declared that in the new, Futurist order, they would be giant, biomechanical toys, built to train children for war. One of their operas was entitled ‘The Agony of the Machine’. Since then other artists with radically different political and social views have staged pieces in which the central performances are machines. I can remembers on some of the children’s programmes in the 1970s, such as Vision On, dances consisting of the choreographed performances of forklift trucks. More recently, adverts for certain types have car have featured them chasing around a city playing hide and seek, or formations of them whirling and spinning through the air, crossing through each other in lines like an airborne, automotive Busby Berekely routine. Unlike the Futurists, there is nothing Fascistic about these, but in their subject matter and performance, Marinetti would probably have been delighted.

Robots have been a staple of Science Fiction ever since the Steam Man, a mechanical, steam-driven robot, first appeared in American pulps in the 19th century. One of the few SF stories to feature mechanical animals as the heroes was the 1980’s comic strip, Metalzoic. Written by Pat Mills and drawn by Kevin O’Neill, Metalzoic was first published by DC in America before being reprinted in the page of the veteran British SF comic, 2000 AD. It was set in a far future Earth, where the biological world had been replaced by an artificial ecology of robot animals, evolved from machines created by humanity, that had then escaped and run wild. Humanity itself survived on Earth as a primitive, tribal culture farming the Traffids. These were giant, predatory alien plants, which trapped their food like Venus Flytraps. Unlike these plants, the Traffids took on the forms of artificial environments, such as houses complete with magazines, in order to trap their victims. The story itself centred around the adventures of a tribe of robotic proto-humans as they attempted to track down ‘the godbeast’, a mechanical mammoth shaped formed from a truck, which carried the master programme for all life on this robotic world. Savanna, A Possible Landscape, recalls Metalzoic through its cast of mechanical animals, designed by Drori himself and Noam Dover, though the two are otherwise completely different.

I have to say that despite robots appearing as the heroes and villains in film and theatre since Karel Capek’s RUR in the 1920s, there has been little use of genuine robots themselves as performers and the subject of films and plays. Some of this is changing as the technology has advanced to the point where producers and directors can use genuine machines to perform as the robot characters in plays and film. Star War’s R2D2, when not played by Kenny Baker, was operated by remote control. The giant ABC Warrior in the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd film was a genuine robot, deliberately constructed so that it would definitely not be another man in a suit. There is a robot circus in America, and I’ve included on this blog videos of performance by a robotic Heavy Metal band. The technology exists for writers, artists and performers to create pieces using genuine robots. These could not just explore the aesthetic possibilities of the machines themselves, but also the wider issue of the organic, the human and the mechanical and how they increasingly interact in modern, technological culture. I’m sorry I never had a chance to see Drori’s Savanna, as it seems to have been a welcome and fascination addition and extension of genuine robotic theatre.