Artaud VR

12.05.2015 § 1 Comment


Antonin Artaud was a radical man of the theater who lived in France from 1896 to 1948. He fought for theater as an medium apart from any other, most pressingly that of literature. For Artaud, theater was not merely the live enactment of written stories; theater was its own reality, an art of structuring of time and space, of gestures and signs and sounds (potentially semantic), a fundamentally physical, contemporary, present, shared experience. “There is nothing I loathe and detest more than the idea of spectacle, of performance, i.e. of virtuality, of non-reality,” he wrote, “Theater is an act of space and it’s by pressing on the four points of space that it has a chance of affecting life. It is in the space haunted by theater that things find their shape, and beneath the shapes is the clamor of life.” The other reality that theater created was not elsewhere or elsewhen, not a simulation, not a substrate to suspend your disbelief over, but exactly what it was in the place you went through it in, nothing more or less, whether you were actor or audience.

We are not trying to find an equivalent of the written language in the visual language, which is simply a bad interpretation of it. We are trying to bring out the very essence of the language and transport the action to a level where every interpretation would become useless and where this action would act almost intuitively on the brain. …We cannot continue to prostitute the idea of theater whose only value lies in its agonizing, magic relationship to reality and danger. …Theater will never recover its own specific powers of action until it has also recovered its own language. …That is, instead of harking back to texts regarded as sacred and definitive, we must first break theater’s subjection to the text and rediscover the idea of a kind of unique language somewhere between gesture and thought.

While Artaud met with little success as a creator of theater during his brief lifetime, his thought has had a lasting influence on the theater and indeed all of the art world.


Artaud was no stranger to the burgeoning cinematic arts of his time. In fact, he appears in one of the most famous films of all time, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. 

I am the first person for a very long time to have attempted to give speech not just to men but to beings, beings each of whom is the incarnation of great forces, while still retaining just enough human quality to make them plausible from a psychological point of view. As though in a dream, we witness these beings roaring, spinning around, flaunting their instincts or their vices, passing like great storms in which a sort of majestic fate vibrates. I have tried to produce this visual cinema where psychology itself is devoured by the action… Not that the cinema must be devoid of all human psychology, on the contrary; but it should give this psychology a far more live and active form, free from the connections which try to make our motives appear idiotic instead of flaunting them in their original and profound barbarity.

I was introduced to Artaud through the work of the film director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who was first a theater director, and some of whose work seems a tribute to this single thought alone.

But Artaud left film at an early age. Partly this was to focus more closely on theater, his truer calling. And partly it was due to the advent of sync sound. Like many others, Artaud saw the ‘Talkie’ as a threat to the purity, beauty, and depth of the moving picture montage. Soon, he worried, this technology would enable the cinema to reduce itself to the same sorry state that theater had reduced itself to, that is, to subjugate it to the tyranny of the sequence of words.

Of course, as the rate of technological advancement has sped up such that the average human experiences multiple watershed moments in her lifetime, the average human tends to be less reactionary about technology with respect to art forms. The average human understands that movies didn’t replace the stage and television didn’t replace the radio. Time has proven that much art exists in the realm of movie dialog, and that this art is meaningfully independent from its Venn parents of title cards and live recital. The art is distributed away from a single actor in the latter case to a composite art of acting with photography and editing (mise en scene present in either case). And time has also proven that the experimental side of moving pictures in and of their medium specificity still exists for those who wish to find it.

Pure moving picture art is much like an extension of what Artaud’s vision for the theater was: a language of space. The cinematic apparatus takes the gestures of theater and expands their grammar with new powers:

  1. The action can be perceived from any angle or distance, not just from a seat in an auditorium.
  2. The vantage which is chosen can move. The camera can rotate, dolly, zoom, tilt, anything.
  3. The vantage which is chosen can suddenly change, across a film join, from footage from camera A to footage from camera B.
  4. A film join can transport the viewer to a completely different place.
  5. A film join can transport the viewer to a completely different time.

The legendary filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky writes of “sculpting in time”, spatio-temporal poetry, gestures sutured out of shots. As compared to theater, the critical element of co-present physicality is lost: one no longer shares the same three dimensional space with the action, and no longer feels the energy of the action playing out in the moment, unique and novel. But as far as being a tool for composing representations of inner emotional state, film has further advanced powers. Artaud wrote:

The problem is to turn theater into a function in the proper sense of the word, something as exactly localized as the circulation of our blood through our veins, or the apparently chaotic evolution of dream images in the mind, by an effective mix, truly enslaving our attention. Theater will never be itself again, that is to say will never be able to form truly illusive means, unless it provides the audience with truthful distillations of dreams where its taste for crime, its erotic obsessions, its savageness, its fantasies, its utopian sense of life and objects, even its cannibalism, do not gush out on an illusory make-believe, but on an inner level.

One could imagine that had he lived long enough to see the film arts develop further, he might have embraced its expressive powers to accomplish his goals.


For a time, Artaud became obsessed with the idea of inverting theater in the round: surrounding the audience with action.

…with the audience seated below, in the middle, on swiveling chairs allowing them to follow the show taking place around them. In effect, the lack of a stage in the normal sense of the word will permit the action to extend itself to the four corners of the auditorium. …the action can extend in all directions at all perspective levels of height and depth. …And in order to affect every facet of the spectator’s sensibility, we advocate a revolving show, which instead of making stage and auditorium into two closed worlds without any possible communication between them, will extend its visual and oral outbursts over the whole mass of spectators.

Artaud occasionally refers to theater as creating a “virtual reality”, though I believe this to be only superficially related to the modern technology. I also believe that this fascination with surrounding action would not have been the draw for him to the new art of immersive storytelling.

Virtual reality can take the expanded grammar of moving picture montage and restore to it the potency of the sense of shared physical space. In true light field recordings, at least, the space of the original action is faithfully captured and translated to the distributed and reproduced experience. One can also imagine that live VR theater would be much more powerful than live film recording of theater would be.

For Artaud, VR would let everyone and anyone be inside the action, dancing with the actors, up in their faces, inside their faces, nowhere and right there. To drive home the power of the language of the human body and any conceivable objects and sounds it gathers.

Let’s make some art for the immersive media that Artaud would be proud of.

§ One Response to Artaud VR


    Wow. I just discovered that Artaud was the first person in history to put the words “virtual” and “reality” together!

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