The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
What does chaos theory have to do with art?


Ibsen's work, viewed both in performance and in its textual form, can be described as having a fixed, external narrative structure. In this sense, it is possible to map a piece like Hedda Gabler as it flows from exposition to climax and beyond. There is a predetermined framework into which the plot, the characters, and the dialogue fit quite nicely. As Bert 0. States points out in his Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, Ibsen's plays constitute "a closed field of force" in which "every detail is temporally and spatially linked: in short, a world permeated with causality. But it is a world whose causality has been determined in advance by the medium itself."13 It is this medium that appears as an orderly structure on par with the smooth swing of a pendulum given the correct periodic boost of energy.14

In contrast, a piece by someone like Robert Wilson that is not governed by a predetermined narrative structure does not follow the same type of dramatic logic. Wilson's pieces are generally structured around a sequence of spatial arrangements guided by an overriding, intuitively determined, geometrical frame.15 As Wilson points out, "I work out of intuition. Somehow it seems right ... The work mostly has some architectural reasons. This one's here because that one's there."16

Wilson's pieces, like the chaotic movement of the double pendulum, may appear erratic from an external vantage point, but are nonetheless dynamical systems governed by an internal logic created by the interaction of all stage elements.17 Although it can be pointed out that this type of production does have a visible structure (created by the juxtaposition of images), this pattern does not exist independent of the production (as does the pattern that governs the work of Ibsen). In Wilson's work the overall structure is produced by the dynamic movement of the piece as a whole, creating a unique pattern of movement that (like the pattern created by the double pendulum) dissipates in stasis.

While Wilson may create an internal structure according to his own intuitive logic, I, as an audience member, can only see this pattern by reviewing the composition of images when the piece is complete. This process of reevaluation is in direct contrast to viewing one of Ibsen's plays, where I know from the beginning of the performance that it will follow a logical pattern with which I am familiar. From my vantage point as an audience member, I can see what direction the plot will take just as I can predict when a commercial break will interrupt a made-for-TV movie. By contrasting these two artists it becomes apparent that Ibsen's work is compact with no extraneous characters or images, whereas Wilson's performances thrive on the expansion of a central theme or visual motif.

This difference between a compact work (or what States might call "a closed field of force") and a work that expands is the difference between a system with a pre-inscribed linear trajectory and a chaotic system in which one is never certain what will happen next. It would be ridiculous to imagine a production of Hedda Gabler in which, at random intervals, a kangaroo hopped across the stage. This same image, however, might fit quite nicely into one of Wilson's pieces. One system relies on the interplay of all elements to create pattern and structure, while the other follows an external pattern that exists independently of the work.

In an orderly system governed by a predetermined dramatic structure (like Ibsen's plays) the flap of a butterfly's wings are irrelevant. The structural narrative is stable and will not be disturbed by minute variations of gesture or vocal inflection created in performance (this is not unlike the process of traditional scientific inquiry that ignores the statistical dirt that doesn't quite fit the excepted model). With this type of dramatic structure all of the elements are subservient to the narrative and can be read in support of, or in opposition to, the movement of the plot. It is this traditional narrative construction that parallels the traditional belief of Western science that, "[v]ery small influences can be neglected. There's a convergence in the way things work, and arbitrarily small influences don't blow up to have arbitrarily large effects."18

In Wilson's productions, though (due to the chaotic nature of his work) small, seemingly insignificant elements, when repeated and magnified, become the central motifs on which the entire structure is based. Void of an overriding narrative, Wilson's pieces are constructed from the interaction of even the most minute elements.19 For example, both Lucinda Childs's repetitive movement and Philip Glass's repetitive score parallel one of the primary "themes" of Einstein on the Beach, namely the repeated movement of the train (an image generated from Einstein's theory of relativity) as it divides the stage into various spatial planes.

This varied repetition of a specific geometrical form is a hallmark of Wilson's structural theatre. Describing the preponderance of triangles in his production of Einstein on the Beach he has stated, "you find them everywhere: from the train's cowcatcher to the triangular light coming down in the courtroom scenes to the light streaming up in a triangle from an elevator shaft in the spaceship scene."20 By structuring his pieces around images, as opposed to a narrative, Wilson's work directly reflects the activity of a chaotic system. Viewed from the outside this system may appear to move in a completely random direction, yet Wilson's compositions (like the onset of turbulence or the erratic swing of a double pendulum) nevertheless have a guiding internal logic.

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