Into the Camp: Theatrical Analysis of Jean Michel Bruyère’s Le Préau d’un Seul

The following article was written as an assignment for the Theory and Practice of Media Culture class.

Inside The Camp
Since 2008, the French artist Jean Michel Bruyère and his group LFKs have held an installation-style theatre called Le Préau d'un Seul various times mainly in Europe. In 2012, they had their performance as a part of the program of a performing art festival in Tokyo. The idea of this performance originally came up with the fact that more than 37,000 illegal immigrants are interned in more than 300 internment camps all over Europe today. Since the Tokyo performance was cut off from its cultural and historical context of the original performance, it may have had a different meaning for the Japanese audience. In this paper, I would like to review their performance through my own theatrical experience and analyze what it meant to do the performance in today's Tokyo with the help of a French postmodernist Jean-François Lyotard's theory.

Portrait of the artist
Jean Michel Bruyère is known as a mysterious modern artist. He is known also as a stage and movie director, photographer, and graphic artist. His face photo is not shown either on the festival nor his official websites. He has done various kinds of collective art projects with the group called LFKs which consists of professionals including poets, actors, composers, philosophers, ethnologists and doctors. He even puts a fake biography on his website claiming that he was a past figure in the early 20th century and underwent a sex change and became a woman named Jana Tésárová (Biography). These tricky ways of his authorial representation clearly show that he tries to keep the attention off himself and refuse any kinds of auteurism. What he tries to do here is to draw more attention to the subjects and topics that his artworks suggest, especially the contemporary social issues that are hardly seen but do exist in today's society. One of them is an internment camp issue in Europe today. In his short essay titled "A New Camp in the Coming Age," he claims that "a new type of camp should be created; one that retains basic human rights" ( my translation). The performance's title Le Préau d'un Seul (the Courtyard of One) symbolically suggests the internee's helpless situation in the cell at the camp. It clearly shows that depriving of one's human rights and freedom is his primary concern and the performance more or less reflected his political thought and stance.

Inside the Gym
Bruyère and his group had then turned the actual camp situation into a form of performing art. In the Tokyo performance, whole classrooms in an old school building and a playground were used as the exhibition site. There were at least eleven installations and performances being held at different rooms and areas. Each of them represented or abstracted the elements of the internees at the camp and the camp itself. Some of them were quite obvious in representation, but the others made the spectators think what they really meant. For example, in the installation room titled La Bascule (the scale), all the photos hung on the wall and the video shown at the corner of the room showed the actual scenes of repatriations that were held in France. Also a big, old canoe standing in the middle of the room, which was actually used for smuggling, was displayed as historical evidence of illegal immigrants. Only the light tone of a whistling tune (a French martial song) heard in the room made the materials look less tragic. On this phase, the objects were merely displayed as they were and the spectators only had to know the facts. There was little space for their imagination and free association to cut in and appreciate the pieces since the objects were too real and concrete.

Egging on Room
In the next phase, some parts of the internment camp motif became more abstract and were presented not as facts but as a modified art pieces and performances. At the same time, some historical materials were still used as a prop to make the exhibition look more realistic and focused. For example, in the room called Egging on Room, a few hundred eggs were regularly aligned in cabinets, while the text titled Instruction for Alienating Foreigners by Air under Irregular Circumstances, which was released by the Border Police of France, was read by the performer. In other small rooms called The Camp, miniatures of the internment camps, which were made with white plastics, were displayed in order while the speech by an American Black Panther Party activist was being played on the tape recorder. The former gave the spectators the impression that the room was full of repressive discourses of the law enforcers, whereas the latter made the room filled with anger against them as an effect. In both cases, there was a little space for the spectators to associate the objects freely with other related issues and topics that they knew. These performances and exhibitions were designed to function as the mental preparation for spectators to get more involved in the later performances.

Video shown in the Dark Room
In the next phase, the spectators were arranged to watch the highly abstracted performers as the others. In the room called Dance Floor, several monster-like performers, whose bodies were completely covered with white strips from the head to the toes, were just dancing to music without saying anything. The important point here is that they did not even threaten nor try to interact with the spectators. From the spectator's point of view, they looked totally strange since the spectator could no recognize their faces, genders, skin colors, and ages at all. As a result, they were seen as complete strangers to the spectators. It can be said that in France, the performers might have been seen as French majority's mental image of the foreign immigrants that were recognized as incomprehensible others for them, but the spectators in Tokyo could associate them freely with other issues they could imagine because of their unidentifiable appearance. The same thing can also be said to the exhibition shown in the next classroom called Dark Room. In there, a parody video was being played in front of the spectators. In the video, the monster-like performers acted as if they were the characters of an American TV soap opera The Young and the Restless. Their voices, situation, speeches and actions were same as the original drama. Only their appearances were different. This video strongly suggested that even though they speak and act like the Westerners, their appearances will never change and be recognized as ours from the Western point of view. In a sense, these two performances put the spectators in the position of a distant observer who differentiates oneself from the unidentifiable others.

White monster costume
Before going to the main theatrical experience inside the Tent, there was an installation arranged for the spectators to literally experience the others. The dark room called Fitting Room was located before the gym in which the Tent was installed. In this room, the spectators could wear the monster-like costume (a wig, a costume, and a pair of shoes that were all covered with white strips). Only three people could enter the room at the same time. In there, one could see oneself in the monster costume in the mirror. The floor carpet was made of cow's dried turd. This installation actually let the spectators put themselves in the others' position in the uncomfortable environment. At this point, they had experienced both our and others' points of view toward the internees in the camp.

Repatriating ceremony in the Tent
The most interesting performance at the site was being held in the Tent in the gym. Several performers, who were covered with white surgical costumes, put a thin, black male in a straitjacket, carried him over their shoulders to the outside, and tied him to the apparatus set in the middle of the courtyard. They had repeated this performance again and again for a whole day. The spectators also found the sign in English near the apparatus saying "Please do not feed the foreigner." This ritual performance by the LFK members apparently symbolized the repatriating process. Before entering the Tent, the spectators saw the big sign on it saying "Choose a camp." At this point, they had already experienced the camp situation as the insider and outsider. What was instructed next in the Tent is to be asked to participate in the repatriating act by witnessing the live performance from a close distance. The sign forced them to prepare for the actuality that inevitably involved them into the event even if they did not actively participate in it (they could not go to the next installation without walking by the performance). Being asked to take off one's shoes and be quiet in the Tent made them feel that they were actually in part of the ongoing ritual process. The spectators' theatrical experience at the entire site basically ended at the height of this repatriating performance.


Repatriation in the school yard
The purpose and meaning of the whole performance can be explored by referring to what Bruyère said in his interview. He said that the entire performance was designed to have the spectators to get involved in and think about the basic structure that cannot be seen in our daily lives. He also said that he set up the theatrical mode so that the spectators could not leave, avoid, or escape from it. As seen above, all the performances were designed not to show how the internment camps really are and address the issue, but to have the spectators experience the issue with minimum explanation. This artistic method shows how art is different from activism and demonstration. In his interview, Bruyère, who was once an activist himself, said that he and his team have never tried to represent the minority group in the society by playing their role in the fiction. Instead, they have tried to make an opportunity for the spectators, most of whom were in majority, to question the way the concept of ‘minority' is used and propagated. As seen above, his installation-style theater was the perfect example to extract the concept of the internment camp issue from the real situation and let the spectators experience it while remaining it in the abstract level and leaving a space for them to freely appreciate it.

Jean-François Lyotard
Bruyère's attempt to question the usage of `minority' concept also means to question the legitimation of majority and administration that categorizes the minority as so. This was also done in his performance by using the characteristics of science and technology. What was most characterized in the Tent is that all the performers (except the black male who played the internee) wore white surgical coats with white caps, masks and gloves. There were surgical beds and carts as well. Surgical appliances, bandages, and cotton were also there on the desk. X-ray photographs were shown on a PC monitor. All these mise-en-scène implied that the repatriating process proceeded by the performers were based on medical evidence and system which was scientifically seen as correct. These scientific features shown in the performance first seemed a bit odd since medical disguise seemed to be noting to do with the repatriation. It is usually handled by political administration, not by surgical operators. However, the spectators must have become aware that the legitimating power of medical characteristics was being used to justify their seemingly inhuman act. A French postmodernist Jean-François Lyotard wrote about the legitimation of scientific discourse and how it was used by legislators. According to him, "The question of the legitimacy of science has been indissociably linked to that of the legitimation of the legislator since the time of Plato […] [T]here is a strict interlinkage between the kind of language called science and the kind called ethics and politics: they both stem from the same perspective, the same "choice" if you will – the choice called the Occident" (The Postmodern Condition). Though the performance was played without any words, it obviously used tons of medical connotations as a whole to enhance the legitimated atmosphere in the Tent.

"Choose a camp" sign on the Tent
The art pieces that the spectators would encounter right after they got out of the Tent were a huge robotic arm which was automatically drawing something on the white sheet on the floor with blood-like ink, and the hospital beds lined up in a row which also kept folding and unfolding by themselves. Beside them, there was a pile of TV monitors that only showed vague images. All these artworks suggested that machines could keep working by themselves without any human help. They might have further implied that technology can replace human jobs (actually, they showed nonsense and insanity of it by letting the machines doing meaningless acts). Regarding technology, Lyotard also pointed out that technology often works to strengthen the legislator's legitimation. He wrote, "By reinforcing technology, one "reinforces" reality, and one's chances of being just and right increase accordingly." Bruyère's attempt was, in a way, to question the legitimating power that is often disguised in scientific and technological discourses. What he did to the spectators, especially when he asked them to "Choose a camp" before entering into the Tent, was what Lyotard called "a language game" or "the game of inquiry" that "immediately positions the person who asks, as well as the addressee and the referent asked about." In this sense, this installation-style theater was very strategic and can be also called very postmodern.

Concentration camp miniatures
Finally, what it meant for the performance to be held in Tokyo should be examined since the internment issue does not seem to exist in today's Japan. There is a similar social issue that the Japanese spectators might have associated with the term `internment camp': a daiyou kangoku (substitute prison) issue. It is a detention cell in a police station where prosecutors can request as long as 28 days' detention of the suspect without giving any permission to leave under the Code of Criminal Procedure. Since this long detention limits the suspect's basic human rights and often became the cause of false accusation, it has been criticized even by the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations (IRTF). However, this could have hardly been imagined by the performance since the detainee in the substitute prison can be any one of us and is not usually seen as an incomprehensible other like that in France. The internment camp issue does exist in Japan, though. Since Japan has strict immigration laws and rarely certifies the applicants as refugees, the policy actually has led many foreigners who are seeking asylum to be detained in Tokyo Immigration Detention Center for a long period (IRTF). Still the issue is so minor in Japan that most spectators may not have thought of it. It might have been different if there was some information about the internment issue in Japan as well at the site (or at least on the brochure). Due to the different internment camp situation in Japan, it can be said that most Japanese spectators may have not associated the issue with theirs.

Blackboard in the Political Bureau
The other point that may not have worked for the Japanese spectators to understand the performance is a translation issue. There was a room called Political Bureau at the site. There the performers typed out their thought mainly in French, and handwrote them on big banners. They were later posted up on the fence in the courtyard. The problem here is that the Japanese spectators could not understand what the messages said. There was a small space by the window on the third floor of the building where the Japanese translation of the messages could be read, but that did not help the spectators to feel the impact of the messages when they actually saw the banners in the courtyard (at least there should have been the translation under the banners). In the same way, the sign "Choose a camp" on the Tent may have also received as the message written by foreigners (not us). These language barriers definitely made the installations and performances look more exotic and may not have made the Japanese spectators evoke the similar real situation in their minds. Over all, for the Japanese spectators, the whole installations and performances may have been seen from the outsider's point of view and the performers in both the monstrous and surgical costumes may have been recognized as others for them probably because the performers were both dressed up in white costumes and hid their national and racial identities.

Even though there may have been a cultural gap, Bruyère's attempt to let the spectators experience the internment camp issue was definitely successful to a certain degree. Unlike other art exhibitions, his installation-style theater was designed like an amusement attraction (e.g. a haunted house) so that the visitors could get involved in the installations and performances with great interest. After going through all of them, the visitors may have finally recognized at the exit of the site that what the title of the exhibition, Le Préau d'un Seul (the Courtyard of One), suggested was the desperate feeling of an internee in a camp located somewhere in the world today who is a victim of legitimating power. Even though the cultural background was very different from that in France, the Japanese spectators must have recognized at least this point.

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