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


This focus on process over product, on image over narrative is also found in the work of David Lynch. His often disturbing films are created through the juxtaposition of visual elements, evoking a kind of dream-like (or in most cases, nightmare-like) aura. Best known for such films as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and the TV phenomenon Twin Peaks, his collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti on Industrial Symphony No. I: the dream of the brokenhearted exists as both a continuation of his previous work and an anomaly. Presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Opera House on November 10, 1989 as part of New Music America '89, the production was filmed and subsequently released as a commercial video tape (for those of us not lucky enough to have been in Brooklyn on that particular Friday in November).21

Consequently, Industrial Symphony exists as the convergence of a performance and a non-performance. Unlike most of Lynch's work, this piece was designed and executed on-stage, demanding that it conform to the restrictions of the "live" theatre. With the video, however, Lynch is able to overlap images and offer a multiple perspective on the work that would be impossible from a stationary theatre seat. Found in the local video store (provided it has a cult or music section) alongside Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave, the Demme and Byrne collaboration Stop Making Sense, and Lee Breuer's Gospel at Colonus, Industrial Symphony seems to be one among a growing library of video performances. Although derived from a live event, the definitive version of these performances exist only on video (with a form that is not unlike the continual barrage of music videos that permeate the MTV landscape) and are available, not to the fortunate theatre-goer, but to the home viewer.

Lynch's work is eerie and powerful, chaotic and erratic. The piece begins with a phone conversation between Laura Dern and Nicholas Cage (the stars of Lynch's Wild at Heart). Cage breaks up with Dern by stating, "Ain't nothin wrong with you. Its just ... us I can't handle" (followed by an audible "click" as he hangs up the phone). Thus, the dream of the broken-hearted is underway. The stage work is punctuated by images of industry and war: sounds of bombs dropping, air raid sirens, smoke, fire, electrical wires, pipes, towers, and flashing lights cycle through the entire piece. Interspersed between moments of industrial chaos, singer Julee Cruise (best known for singing in a roadside bar on Twin Peaks and for her album Floating into the Night 22) glides, floats, and croons. The piece is very much dependent upon the juxtaposition of the harsher elements (the smoke, the flames, and the industrial rubble) with the calming presence of Cruise.

Examined from the perspective of a linear narrative composition (complete with an external logical structure), Industrial Symphony has little, if anything in common with the work of someone like Ibsen. Read as a narrative the piece seems to be about love, or sex, or as Lynch explains it, "sound effects and music and ... happening on the stage. And, it has something to do with, uh, a relationship ending."23 But, beyond this it is anyone's guess what Lynch truly had in mind. Yet, a specific moral or story is ultimately not the point of a work like this. Lynch is notorious for emphasizing mood over logic, and as he states: "I'm of the Western Union school. If you want to send a message, go to Western Union ... You have to be free to think things up. They come along, these ideas, and they hook themselves together, and the unifying thing is the euphoria they give you or the repulsion they give you ... You have to just trust yourself."24

Listed individually the images that shape Industrial Symphony might appear to be random signifiers strewn about the landscape of Lynch's demented imagination. They are a floating, singing woman in a white crinoline prom dress; a woodsman (played by Michael Anderson, the actor who portrayed "the dwarf" on Twin Peaks) who saws wood and runs from the light and at one point repeats word for word the opening conversation by Dern and Cage, while accompanied by a soprano sax and a woman in a tight, short black dress who continually rubs her body; a half-naked woman who crawls over an abandoned car only to end up slithering through the back window leaving her bare legs exposed; a number of actors dressed as "mechanics" complete with hard hats, face masks, and overalls who periodically attempt to start the gas powered engines strewn about the stage; a large "skinned deer" that arises from a gurney and does a staccato walk/dance on stilt-like legs accompanied by a "steamy" sax backup. Ruminating on this inventory of seemingly unconnected images, it is important to remember that the individual signs that Lynch uses to create Industrial Symphony are not as significant as the overall mood that they create when viewed within the work as a whole. What chaos theory offers this litany of signifiers is a method of extending the semiotic model of analysis from the identification of individual signs to the overall pattern that is created by the interaction of these signs.

Chaos theory demands that the focus be on the system in which the elements take shape. Signs by, and of themselves are building blocks that can create either a Parthenon or a post office. What counts is the interaction of the elements within the dynamic system. Similar to the whorls and eddies created in a fluid at the onset of turbulence, the interplay of images and sounds displayed in Lynch's production can not be isolated from the composition as a whole, but demand to be addressed as part of a larger structure. How one reads the "skinless deer" apart from the piece in its entirety is ultimately not as important as how it is conditioned by the other signs that surround it. In this respect, it is not possible to place a literal "meaning" on the image, as any reading of it must focus not on what it means, but on what mood it helps to create.

The figure of the deer by itself is quite disturbing, but within the context of Industrial Symphony it might illustrate the raw nerves of a jilted lover, the vulnerability of all relationships, or perhaps Lynch chose it just because it was weird. From the perspective of theatre criticism (influenced by chaos theory) it is not important to isolate what this unique sign represents, since the organization of this piece can not be dissected as if it were driven by a linear narrative, but must be approached like a chaotic system complete with a logical structure of its own. A concise reading of the individual sign is not as important as how it conditions (and is conditioned by) the entire production. Which, of course, returns us to that ancient problem of the hermeneutic-circle (the relationship of the part to the whole), which can not be resolved except to say that the individual elements (conditioned by their dynamic interaction with all other elements both preceding and following) create the larger, more intricate pattern that comprises the whole.

This relationship is compounded not only by the interaction of the individual elements in motion, but by the frames of reference from which they are drawn. Lynch, like Wilson, tends to use and reuse images and ideas, and these recycled images make up his primary pallet as a visual artist. Echoing Wilson's intuitive process, Lynch states:

The thing of composition is so abstract. It's so powerful where you place things and the relationships. But you don't work with any kind of intellectual thing. You just act and react. It's all intuition. It must obey rules, but these rules are not in any book. The basic rules of composition are a joke.25

So, as in chaos theory, the onus is not on the primary elements, but on what happens to them as they interact. As Edward Lorenz is careful to point out, "if the flap of a butterfly's wings can be instrumental in generating a tornado, it can equally well be instrumental in preventing a tornado."26

Although Industrial Symphony is filled with images that have been used and reused within the context of Lynch's film work, the focus on juxtaposition and re-contextualization creates a stage piece with multiple layers of reference. At one point the actors dressed as "mechanics" run on stage with metal worklights (similar to the one that Dean Stockwell so memorably sang into in Blue Velvet). By focusing on the individual sign it is possible to read the light simultaneously within the frame of reference of Blue Velvet and Industrial Symphony. Yet, by focusing on the dynamic systems created by the film and the stage production what becomes important is the convergence of these points of reference. Blue Velvet is a film permeated with violence and Stockwell's crooning does not connote the soothing element that Cruise's does. In fact, Stockwell's mimed rendition of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" is the direct precursor to one of Dennis Hopper's more violent outbursts. In this context the light becomes a very palpable signifier, an omen of impending violence.

Paralleling Stockwell's crooning scene in Blue Velvet, the lights in Industrial Symphony accompany the strange and disturbing "skinned deer" dance. Watching the red fleshless creature pirouette on its stilted legs as the mechanics run their beams of light over its meat-like body is oddly horrifying. What does it have to do with the subject of love, relationships, or sex? Who knows. Yet, viewed within the chaotic system that Lynch has created (both in film and on-stage) it becomes an integral component of his compositional technique. Judging from the ("uh") relationships portrayed in Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Wild at Heart it is impossible to describe Lynch as a hopeless romantic. He tends to show the more disruptive, violent, and (at times) misogynistic aspect of relationships. In this respect the worklight, as a sign in Lynch's visual tapestry, is able to signify an unbalanced state of affairs due to its previous use in Blue Velvet and current use in Industrial Symphony.27 Taken out of the Lynchian system of signification, however, it is simply a light source.

While the images that constitute Industrial Symphony repeat and are continually re-contextualized, it is Cruise's unchanging presence that functions as the butterfly flap that ties the piece together. Her floating and singing exist as an iterated gesture that propels the work (as well as allows for a disruption of it). Thrust into a piece dominated by violent imagery it is Cruise's MaryPoppins-like levitation that offers the only calming force amid the industrial chaos. Like the sensitive dependence on initial conditions that permits a small disruption to be magnified into a tornado, Cruise's reiterated presence swells into a symbol of tranquillity. As she appears again and again we are lulled into a repetitive pattern of industrial noise followed by Cruise (almost whispering) Badalamenti's dreamy score. This cyclic pattern is destroyed as, following an explosion, her body plummets to the stage floor. Her now inert form is subsequently picked up by two of the mechanics and placed into the trunk of a car (the same vehicle, incidentally, over and through which the half-naked woman had previously crawled).

The iterated gesture of Cruise floating and singing is replaced by the image of her (disembodied) head projected onto three television sets that are placed at the foot of the stage. No longer physically able to float, she sings while her head hovers within the frame of the televisions. Eventually, Industrial Symphony ends with the resurrected Cruise ascending off stage right singing:

Don't go away
Come back this way
Come back and stay
Forever and ever
The world spins.28

Although the floating gesture is repeated throughout the entire piece, it is important to point out that it does not remain immune to the surrounding violence. As part of a system it is subject to the evolution of that system. If the flap of a butterfly's wings are able to initiate a tornado wouldn't the butterfly be in danger of being swept up into the storm?

back top next

Papers | Industrial Symphony | David Lynch main page
© Mike Hartmann