Editorial #12: Backstage Craft

So much of the labour and processes that come together to create a piece of artwork can often go unseen. The invisible lengths of time, practice and patience hover on the edges of a piece, as much a part of it as the what is being presented as centre stage.

These unseen aspects reside within pages of drafts, in studios, as scribbled ideas in notebooks, hidden in layered brushstrokes, the private circumstances that come together to produce the finished piece, rest in archives and sit in the wings. This issue on backstage craft peeks around the stage curtain and slips behind the scenes to consider some of the obscured elements and histories of stagecraft.

Vanessa Vanden Berghe opens the door and invites us into Gayfere House in London in the ‘30s. Examining the staged domestic spaces photographed in Vogue and the Architectural Review as coded performances of class, Vanden Berghe shows how everyday objects constitute theatrical stages that  ‘support the performance of self’. The notion of backstage opens itself up to various modes of performativity. It suggests a precipice or boundary between centre stage and the margins – here and there, between public and private. This issue’s first spotlighted artist Es Devlin blurs the line between centre stage and backstage completely with her performative stage sculptures. From Beyonce’s 2016 world tour, to a fluorescent red fifth lion in Trafalgar Square that roared out AI-generated collective poetry into the crowds, Devlin’s incredible set designs play with language, light, technology and music to craft environments. JeeYoung Lee, our second spotlighted artist also creates environments that pull the boundary between backstage and centre, between fantasy and reality into question. Lee’s dreamscapes blur biography, magic and theatricality, crafting intricate and elaborate sets in a series of self-portraits, her surreal ‘worlds turn real and concretise’.

Teresa Albor questions the boundaries of backstage, posing the question: what if backstage is everything? Her reflective piece ‘Practice-Based: On Completion, Process and Planning’ looks at her ‘Unplanned’ performance in 2018 at the Southbank Centre with Katherine Araniello, for which they had no rehearsals, script or plan. Opening the performance space up into spontaneity and inviting audience members to participate, Albor reflects on a process-based methodology to consider the liberating process of an open-ended backstage performance. Liz K. Miller’s visual essay also reflects on the backstage elements of her craft; tracking the formation of three hand-printed woodcuts made from sound motifs. From field recordings of pine trees to print, Miller’s essay shows the behind-the-scenes journey through forests, creaking field recordings, parcels, letters, whatsapp message conversations and soaking larch bark.

Tracing an object’s backstage creative process can often uncover obscured or neglected histories. Kate Devin looks at Mario Merz’s ‘Cono’, a large woven willow cone made in 1967. The Tate’s current gallery label emphasises the work’s spiral form and the parallels with Merz’s fascination with the Fibonacci sequence, describing this work as a visual representation of this mathematical series. Devin unravels further elements of the backstage elements of ‘Cono’, to show the agricultural and domestic echoes of the woven wood basket, Italian craft practices, and also revealing the weaving of willow was not undertaken by Merz himself. By unpicking this artwork’s history, the reality of its labour, craft and inspiration emerges from behind the scenes. Jennifer Cooper’s double feature on memorialisation asks how art can represent and engage with complex, painful backstories and histories. Exploring two examples of art memorialisation, Teresa Margolles’s ‘Lote Bravo’ and Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater memorial ‘The Raft of Lampedusa’, Cooper looks at the different approaches to bringing remembrance to centre stage.

Are there parts of the backstage that are simply unstagable? Karen Quigley’s Performing The Unstageable: Success, Imagination, Failure looks at theatre’s interest in the staging of challenging or impossible texts and ideas. In her review, Charlotte Purkis describes reading Quigley’s book as ‘like turning a garment inside-out to expose the stitching’. Quigley tracks the intentions, attempts and engagements with unperformability to uncover the underside of theatre, thinking with impossibility and what can’t be shown. Moving from unstagable stages and into the ballet studio, Jaime Church offers a peek behind the stage curtain into the world of ballet in 1920s America. Church explores the whirling world of dance and the space of the studio depicted in Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz. Refraining from descriptions of performance of ballet on stage, Fitzgerald’s focus is on the practice, discipline and attainment of skill. This work happens off stage: Church shows how Fitzgerald offers a unique insight into ballet’s backstage craft, alongside a ‘literary modernist perspective on a modernist performative art-form’. 

Of course, 2020 has meant so much has been unable to be staged or performed as planned, and our relationships with craft, community and space have been challenged. Artists, galleries, theatres and museums are all finding ways of working within lockdowns and tier systems: Precious Adesina’s brilliant list of lockdown exhibitions provides links and videos that can be beamed virtually; a free online art and ecology festival ‘The Shape of a Circle in  the Mind of a Fish’ has just finished, hosted by the Serpentine Gallery; and Textiles from Home is organising a week long virtual celebration of making, craft, domestic space to take place in 2021 (view the Call for Proposals here). 

Finally, we leave you with an interview with Nwando Ebizie, whose multi-sensory installations play with different media and genres, exploring the subjectivity of perception and sensation through experimental performance, ritual and sound. Ebizie reflects on her artistic practice and process, and discusses the sounds and stagings of her next project Hildegard: Visions. It was a pleasure to speak to Ebizie and hear about field recordings, renderings on walls that will help construct a hammam, and engagements with the life and works of a twelfth-century polymath and composer, that come together in her new work. The construction, development and other backstage happenings are all part of a process: ‘I’m very interested in the process, which is emotional’, says Ebizie, ‘I want to create environments for the performers where they can explore something of meaning to them’.

Polly Hember is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Focusing on modernism and visual culture, her thesis explores the fictional work of the POOL group. She is the co-editor of the Modernist Review, a postgraduate representative for BAMS and co-organiser of Figuring out Feeling.