dumb type

Willamette Week, March 13, 2002

By Bryan Markovitz

Dumb type returns to Portland this week with memorandum, a self-described “impossible investigation… into the events of memory.” Like the Japanese ensemble’s previous Portland performance [OR]memorandum also longs to communicate with the past. Whereas [OR] searched the borders between life and death, memorandum uncovers the memory of “sweet dreams.”

My experience of memorandum last weekend in Seattle included 120 decibels of digital sound, video images, blinding light and an intense dance of words, action and REM-speed feedback. As a spectacle, it’s a masterful blend of ambiguous situations and digitized pop splendor. Beyond technical precision and impressive design, dumb type’s work addresses a relevant question: What is the state of live performance in a culture dominated by mass media? As early as 1929, theater artists such as Vsevolod Meyerhold struggled with this overwhelming question as cinema began attracting the public. The query only deepened with the introduction of television.

As for dumb type’s own approach to making live performance a commodity, the ensemble tries to maintain the relevance of live performance by merging it with new technologies. This is clearly the case in memorandum, where we’re invited to perceive memory through digital sound and images. Moreover, memorandum often breaks the mutual exclusivity of live and recorded acts by occasionally blurring the distinction between real and virtual performers. 


But the rapidly streaming technological mise-en-scene failed to provoke my thoughts beyond the theatre’s walls. With the exception of a few scenes, dumb type defeats its quest for the human remembrance it seeks to attain. Even as the media-saturated performance attempts to bring the audience closer to its investigation of memory, we are pushed further into darkness until our own memory of the event is less important than the memory capacity of dumb type’s computers.

Granted, the loss of human scale is a part of the intended experience. Dumb type wants you to witness the fracturing of personality and history into “dataloops.” Yet, the dominance of the media also tends to short-circuit the audience’s shared connection to the event. Rather than a conversation among distinct media and living participants (performers and audience), memorandum assimilates everything into the dominant medium of recorded digital technology. The live performance becomes just another reproduction, and it, like the technology it scrutinizes, ultimately becomes alienating.

My only hope is that live performance in general, and mediated performance in particular, will develop a stronger sense of intimacy and interdependency with audiences, even as it responds to the isolating effects of our pixilated lives.