"Floating Far and Wide on Imaginary Waves": Review by Klara Drnovšek Solina

17 03 2021

"The Lonely Sailor Weather Report". Photo: The Lonely Sailors

Author: Klara Drnovšek Solina

The Lonely Sailor Weather Report is an original short piece at the intersection of puppetry, poetry, and video art. Autonomous in form – with video as the dominant medium – it delivers a response to the digitalisation and online broadcasting of recorded theatre that was at the time affected by Covid-19, while proposing an interesting yet simple solution to the dilemma many theatres face when streaming stage shows for audiences at home, by merging theatre practices with forms originally designed for two-dimensional exhibition on the screen.

The circumstances in which the piece came to be play a significant role. This is a Covid-19 project and markedly so, having been undertaken during the pandemic when all restrictions on gatherings have had a major impact on theatres and the ways they operate. The project is a collaboration between the Ukwanda Puppets & Design Art Collective, the performing artist and puppeteer Craig Leo, the storyteller Baeletsi Tsatsi, and the (visual) artist Meghan Judge. It is a continuation of the latter’s eponymous research project that uses shipping news as the leitmotif to explore the notions of temporality, materiality, and sound in relation to “the sailor”. Judge’s unique poetics informed the collaboration in terms of its visual aspects with the layering of textures and meanings, unsaturated tones in the colour palette, and the peaceful atmosphere evoking the sense of sailing through the unknown.

The storyline is irrelevant; in fact, it is not even there, since any narration that is there crumbles into difficult-to-hear fragments conveyed by a radio voice disrupted by static. Gleaned from here and there, these fragmented bits of narrative in English and Setswana float in the video landscape each by itself, not referring directly to what is shown – the puppet neither utters them nor actively pays attention to them – and being so discontinuous as to verge on poetry. In a way similar to other elements of the piece, the bits of text make an independent unit only loosely connected with others: adding connotations, they contribute to an overall harmonious atmosphere of something non-linear, disconnected, and elusive. And yet this elusiveness manages not to cause panic or hysteria; on the contrary, it creates a fluid, peaceful space quite literally removed from land-based networks far out to sea. This quality is achieved, among others, through piano music and fluid, smooth puppet animation by two out of four animators manipulating the nearly human-size wooden puppet.  

Made for another project, the puppet is not very elaborate and has no prominent facial features or details that would allow characterisation. Nor is it characterised by words or music or other sounds, or indeed by artwork. The puppet is defined by the title, which tags it ‘the lonely sailor’ while linking other elements of the production: it is thanks to the title that the bucket in which the puppet is ‘sailing’ becomes a ship, white spots against a dark background become stars, black wavy lines become sea waves, and the words that hardly bear any relation to the puppet become (radio) broadcasts. The sound of breathing, or breathing heavily, is where the connection between the sound in the video and the puppet is at its strongest. But while it seems it could be attributed to the puppet, not even this sound comes from it, for the puppet does not ‘breathe’, i.e. move to the rhythm of the sound of breathing in and breathing out. This sound, too, seems to be more like a comment, a comment nevertheless on how (or what) the puppet/sailor is feeling.

Mimicking human movement, gestures and body positions, the smooth, steady movement of the puppet indicates the feeling of being in awe of an unknown place, as suggested by the sailor turning his head left and right (as if scanning a place for the first time) and the aimlessness of the puppet’s movement through the space with no clear destination. With the puppet turning this way and that, even gravity seems to become irrelevant, as if the notions of what is “up” and what is “down” cease to apply to the puppet, who is floating around, sailing in its bucket on imaginary waves, evoking the sense of floating in space rather than sailing in earthly waters. This feeling is further enhanced by visual references to Jupiter in the upper section of the video, and a starry sky filter that at some point spreads across most of the screen.

Building the atmosphere along with the movement of the puppet, the conveyed text and the sound is the steady, rather slow rhythm of the video. This accentuates the lostness and aimlessness of the sailor, whose movement is in synch with the steady, slow pace of the performance. Even so, the video is never tedious, partly owing to its length (less than ten minutes in total) and partly to the visual interventions that break the monotony by mushrooming here and there across the video (in contrast to the static, close-up shot of the basic action involving the puppet) like layers of a collage. This includes hand-drawn black wavy lines, a small transparent square that seems like a gauze stretched in front of the puppet and its animators, and photographs of Jupiter cut up in pieces. The meanings added by each of these remain fluid and ambiguous: the transparent square may suggest fog, or perhaps distance and disconnection, or simply a spatial difference, whereas the black wavy lines might be sea waves or radio waves.

Sprinkled throughout the video, such visual interventions pop up and vanish in various forms, textures, colours, and techniques (whether it be a drawing, a photograph, or a new video of a different puppet or person) to add connotations to the fairly abstract story created both by the puppet’s movement and the soundscape. Thanks to the rapid succession of visual elements, the unique dynamic produced by their diversity is never tedious. But despite the diversity, these elements are coherent, perhaps most explicitly so in terms of the aesthetic choice of colours. The palette of the video is almost completely dominated by greyish hues, but above all by unsaturated colours, against which the puppet, made out of light-toned wood, attracts most of the attention as the brightest element.

Interventions in the video are made not only by these visual intrusions, but also by the edit of the (primary) footage, shifting from the smooth animation of the puppet to jerky motion with an echo effect, a tool to create a motion trail. Essentially multiplying the puppet visually, this editing technique turns the puppet into a visual effect, thereby coating it with a different texture. The fluid, steady movement and the smoothness of the wood of the original texture turn into something fragmented, multiplied, and choppy.

The hybrid format at the intersection of visual art and theatre, and the adjusted use of video art in a two-dimensional space delivered to the screen, allow the production to effectively and fully convey its message at an event like MANIPULATE, Scotland’s festival of puppetry, whose programme this year was delivered entirely online.

This publication is written in the context of the project "European Contemporary Puppetry Critical Platform"