Can a theatre puppet exist without puppet theatre, i.e. entirely without drama and animation? Before I came to KOLK 17, I probably would have answered “yes” to this question. Because – as I then thought – it is turned from a theatre subject into an object which one can identify, that doesn’t mean that it loses its character completely. And now? Since I’ve been on board as coordinator for the exciting project “Who’s Talking? – Changing Perspectives on Provenance”, I’ve been seeing a lot of things through different eyes – even though the project is only just getting off the ground. A premature assessment …
My work for the project “Who’s talking?” began with a fascination to research the provenance of Theatre Puppets. I live in Berlin and am familiar with the topic of cultural theft during the colonial era. Provenance research and restitution are terms that I associate primarily with works of art such as the Nigerian Benin bronzes, which were actually to be exhibited in the controversial Humboldt Forum. But that the theatre puppets from the Kolk also have an intriguing history of origin was – as absurd as it may sound – something I was unaware of before. That’s why I became particularly alert when I heard that there would be a project that would use artistic methods to advance research on the non-European exhibits in the collection. I began to familiarise myself with the subject. While browsing the museum catalogue, I came across such a wealth of information on the history and playing styles of the puppets that I was spellbound by it and didn’t realise that so much remained hidden.
The artists involved in “Who’s Talking?” also had to dig a little in the dark. They, like myself were sent documentation on the collection and the museum in advance so that they could develop a project concept on the basis of the given material. It is not easy to take an artistic position on something that can only be viewed through a 2-dimensional medium or through written descriptions. That’s why it was particularly interesting for me that most of the applicants seemed to accept working on a puppet they had no past experience of. This leads me back to the beginning: can you know a theatre character if you have only met the knowledge about it, but not the character itself?
Once the troupe of artists who were to develop their artistic statement for “Who’s Talking?” had been determined, it became clear to me that this “long distance relationship” would in no way lead to a loss of creativity or diversity of themes. Since in the course of the project, those artists living in Germany can or could still come into direct contact with the puppets, I even believe that there is an opportunity in this: The participants approach the puppets with their project idea as a “road map”. Through an interest which is already established, they can at the first encounter, ascertain specific areas of interest. If the meeting with the puppets were to take place at the beginning, it could well be that in the course of the development of the idea, more distance would tend to emerge again.
The first meeting with the “Who’s Talking?” team and all the artists took place via Zoom (video conferencing). During a two-day ‘kick-off’ workshop in April, there was an intensive exchange of ideas. The six artists from China, Mali, Ivory Coast, Turkey, South Africa and Russia talked, for example, about what “talking” means to them or what a first aid kit for “wounded” puppets might look like. In fact, the focus was often less on the puppets themselves than on those who engage with them – “Who is talking about the puppets?”. This is also important because in the case of theatre puppets, authorship is in a sense “divided” – not only the puppet makers but also the puppet players make the puppet what it is. In relation to the workshop, this raised questions such as: At what point can a puppet be said to be “played”? Who is allowed to play it?
The projects presented sometimes involve more than just puppetry. The topics discussed also deal with much more than just questions about how the exhibits are played and their history. Here, motion-capture technology and traditional approaches meet, and a political discussion in the broadest sense around the theme of colonialism meets an interest in the material nature of the puppets. The exchange over Zoom has already proven that the different approaches are by no means mutually exclusive, but can rather inspire each other. However, the question of whether the figures also get to speak remained unanswered.
You may have noticed that I now strongly doubt the view raised at the very beginning that a theatre puppet remains a theatre puppet even if it is no longer actively played. It can still provoke and convey knowledge – knowledge that can be conveyed with a textual description next to the exhibited object, for example. But in my opinion, all this is rather knowledge ABOUT the puppet and not knowledge FROM the puppet itself. It tells a lot about how we – as speakers – want to order and pass on our information about the object. Somewhat cynically, one might think that this knowledge reveals more about us than about the characters we project. Of course however, it’s not quite that simple. The information on context and origin can help, for example to find experts who have mastered traditional ways of playing. And should that not be possible, the input from texts and illustrations can stimulate the imagination. But this tension between the puppet as a character (subject) and the museum object as a carrier of knowledge or ignorance remains. And it is precisely this in-between space that “Who’s Talking?” attempts to clarify.
“In-between space” is a good generic term for everything I’ve been able to experience in this work so far. The museum archive could also be seen as such. The puppets come from a theatrical journey and rest there until they are brought out again or “woken up”. I was able to attend two of the archive visits by the artists which have thus far occurred – a great experience. The atmosphere was particularly interesting for me…it really felt as though a lot of puppets were resting here and unlike during the ‘kick-off’ workshop, I had the feeling that here – as soon as they were awoken – the puppet actually spoke. Maybe even because it had been stowed away for so long. In this respect, my initial assumption has now been confirmed after all: A theatre puppet remains a theatre puppet, even if it is not in that moment performing. But precisely for this reason it is all the more important to define in what way and by whom it is subsequently awakened. Who’s talking? Who’s performing?