Excerpts from Laura Schneider’s “Amy Munz Represents the Postmodern Self”
with Subtitles added by Amy Munz,
Dec 18, 2014
Laura Schneider is an MFA candidate in Digital and Interdisciplinary Art Practice at The City College of New York.
Representing the Postmodern Self with a new narrative structure
Postmodern thought asserts reality as a construct that cannot be objectively viewed. The unique self, the proprietary wellspring of each construct of reality, is also a site of multiple, sometimes conflicting verities. As diverse as art practice can be, all artists’ practices on some level involve the representation of reality, perception and the human experience. A few artists have approached the conundrum of the postmodern self full throttle, making works that conscientiously explore and explode notions of self and reality. Amy Munz is one such artist. The young, ambitious performance artist living and working in San Francisco debuted her piece Patterns: For some reason it really tickled me at the Dennis Gallagher Arts Pavilion in July 2014. Munz’s work was created with director Henry Godinez, who was Munz’s Professor while she studied at Northwestern. Munz performed Patterns in tandem with the launching of her new theater company, The New Stage. Her efforts were lauded by the San Francisco Bay Guardian: “The New Stage's premiere of company founder Amy Munz's solo work is one of the more intelligent and sophisticated debuts (by both a new company and a young artist) in recent memory.”
Patterns seeks to express the mental landscape of “self” in a two-hour piece written and performed by Amy Munz upon a sparse stage with three large video projections showcasing a constant reel of video work. In her artist statement, Munz describes Patterns as “an experimental new media performance that travels through the magical places of memory and mind to find a new consciousness of love. Amot, a widowed butcher's daughter, tries to find the logic of her own love story.”
Munz takes on the complexity of representing the autobiographical self as subject matter, using techniques that point towards how the mind actually functions. Munz structures the performance around the atemporal investigation of a single person deconstructed into multiple characters. She then disrupts the form through the insertion of external philosophical voice and her presence as Amy Munz. Her choices resonate with fascinating insight when analyzed through the lenses of neurology and psychology. Munz’s approach focuses on the emotional and paradoxical nature of the self, which results in a more biologically authentic representation than traditional, linear storytelling can afford.
The theoretical foundation of “Patterns”
Dr. Antonio Damasio and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk provide a theoretical foundation apropos to Munz’s approach; one that is based on the emotionality and sociality of the human mind. Damasio, a neuroscientist and New York Times bestseller, puts forth a new theory of consciousness in his work The Feeling of What Happens. Bessel van der Kolk, who references Damasio’s writings as sources of inspiration, is a renown psychiatrist whose practice integrates “developmental, biological, psychodynamic and interpersonal aspects”
to understand and treat the traumatized mind through holistic social and corporeal methods. Furthermore, the scholarship of Maurice Halbwachs and Donna R. Vocate set groundwork for understanding of the internalization of others’ perspectives. Halbwachs, philosopher and sociologist, is credited with developing the concept of collective memory. Psychologist Donna R. Vocate synthesizes works of earlier scholars such as Mead, Luria, and Fisher to offer a complete theory of intrapersonal speech. Combined they provide a strong foundation to discuss Munz’s choice to structure the exploration of the recondite experiences of the socio-emotional self through the use of multiple selves, atemporality and the structural disruption of external insertions.
Munz uses five characters to represent a single person’s experience with love. The protagonist is a butcher’s daughter, named Amot. She stands alone on a sparse stage, flanked by three large projection screens behind her. One screen occupies the center, while the right and the left screens are positioned at a slight angle, as if the walls of a room were pivoted open, ushering us into the private realm of Amot’s interiority. Throughout the two-hour performance four other characters emerge, all manifestations of Amot and her ruminating mind. How each character is encountered gives a sense of the complexity of the format of this performance piece. A title appears on the screen, parsing the play into many tiny chapters, often followed by the name of the first character to appear. The video projections constantly enliven and expand upon the figure’s presence on the stage—at times the character appearing inside the visual world as well.
The Characters: The micro-society of Amot’s psyche as character-objects.
The first character portrayed is Adela, under the heading “The Brief Infatuation.” The teenage girl is biting into a fruit amongst a backdrop of virtual blossoms. She relays, gleefully, the attentions of Frank. Next emerges Abigail, a child enamored with her new puppy and the natural world. She speaks of imaginary castles as small hands finger paint upon the screens. Abigail’s scenes are marked by footage of the dog and sweeping, cinematic expanses of country. The protagonist, Amot, first appears while calling for her mother, asking if dinner is ready. It is the moment she learns of her mother’s death. Video of raw meat and a kitchen’s interior loom larger-than-life. Ava is fighting with her boyfriend in a car, while images out of a car’s dashboard and windows whir past, juxtaposed with the quieter frames of a birthday cake. Anais revels in the lord, with stock footage of crowds worshipping. Then there is Amelia, just once.
Munz’s choice to portray Amot’s experience with love and the search for meaning through the micro-society of Amot’s psyche depicts the self as informed by others and shaped by societal forces, but ultimately and accumulatively, a single entity. Vocate describes the relationship between the single person and their multitudinous expressions as that of the “I” and the “me.” The “me” is socialized self that has internalized others’ perceptions and monitors the actions of the individualized agent of the “I”. Vocate explains that the introspective relationship the critical “me” establishes with the “I” is one that spurs new information and conjures new memories. She writes that this relationship may also “involve ‘role taking,’ that is, deliberately reviewing one’s actions from a specific role attendant to a social act.” Vocate goes on to state: “The self becomes for itself, an object to which it responds and upon which it reflects and thereby achieves self-consciousness.” Amot’s disassociation of herself into multiple characters is akin to creating character-objects to explain herself.
How Amot uses character-objects to gain perspective of herself
Munz’s deconstruction of Amot into character-objects mimics how the brain, on a neurological level, conceptualizes of itself. Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens takes on the paradox of the brain thinking about itself, thinking. He explains how brain activity as seen by neural imaging software can be empirically observed when certain patterns of activated sites light up. Scientists have been able to deduce that the brain has a network (meaning a pattern of activity) that represents a proxy of the self, a network that constitutes a proxy of an object considered, and a third that acts as the proxy of the relationship between the two.
Whenever a human mind considers anything from a fork to the universe, an endogenous, three-part map is expressed. When that object is also the self—a memory, or the behavior—then the network shows a proxy for a self, a proxy for this other part of the self, and the relationship between the two. Damasio writes, “autobiographical memories are objects, and the brain treats them as such.”
How the video-scape invites audience to reflect on object-creation
Munz’s cinematography mirrors the object-creating qualities of the brain, resulting in a more full representation of the self in the act of introspection. Munz uses various pacing of the projected images, allowing her masterful use of stillness to resonate as purposefully, importantly still. Similarly, the focus on certain objects places emphasis on their object-ness as the site of our contemplation. Audience members extrapolate what the object means within the context of the character’s scene, and also what the object means to Munz as the symbol-wielding artist. The viewer becomes more keenly aware of the strength of his or her own associations when attempting to discern the intended interpretation.
The Atemporal Self: Blurring the line between what happened to you in the past and what is felt in you now
At the neurological level, the mind activates notions of self in a nonlinear, atemporal fashion. Memories from diverse years are part of the contemporaneous self. In fact, Damasio describes the continuous sense of self as “the consistent reactivation and display of selected sets of autobiographical memories.”
Just as the brain treats memories as objects, the brain has objectified points-of-view as well. People possess catalogued responses to both ethical ideas and average likes and dislikes. Although one can certainly change his or her points of view, in general people produce consistent responses. The mind experiences a sense of sameness in the face significant corporeal changes over time and different day-to-day experiences. This dramatic consistency of a complex self is in and of itself a negation of linear time.
In the landscape of the mind, the experience of emotionality supersedes time as an organizing force. People do not have control over what is remembered; yesterday may seem far away but an impassioned moment might feel like yesterday. Emotion is key in lending a memory staying power. Damasio explains, “Recall of new facts is enhanced by the presence of certain degrees of emotion during learning.”
Theater Bay Area Magazine sums up the effect of Munz’s creatively structured performance, writing: "Munz has a dry, whimsical sense of humor that leavens her lovely, imagistic character studies of disparate souls all in the throes of deeply unsettling emotion; they are connected less by plot than by what they feel."
Bridging the inner experience with the vital shared experience
Munz holds a serious interest in how the mind operates, specifically, how interpersonal exchanges are translated to intrapersonal, felt experiences. In her interview with San Francisco Chronicle Munz shares her research of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons register the slightest changes in other people – their eyebrows angles and tension or relaxation around their eyes, their lips movements. Van der Kolk, healer and psychologist explains, “our mirror neurons register [the Other’s] inner experience, and our own bodies make internal adjustments to whatever we notice.” Van der Kolk goes on to point out that this research “explained why a kind face or a soothing tone of voice can dramatically alter the way we feel.”
Munz writes about the strength of people’s physical responses to images of environments and people as “a magnetic field of sensitivities felt by the Other's mind and body.” Van der Kolk expertly expands upon the significance of human-to-human interactions, broadening the scope to speak toward the individual’s place amongst a larger collective: “Our culture teaches us to focus on personal uniqueness, but at a deeper level we barely exist as individual organisms, our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe.”
Munz’s use of stock footage speaks to the emotionally attuned “tribe” collectivity of human experience. Munz expresses:
“Shared images and shared visions expand the network of symbols and meaning to connect individual experience with a public stream of consciousness – a shared mind. The line between our own mind and a shared mind is thin, where one bleeds into the next. Fixed identity can melt away and a unified human experience can emerge.
Munz’s artful curation of stock footage also confounds temporality—the audience is able to feel attuned with other time periods and lands unseen simply through the universal experience of having relationships with symbols. This form of synchronicity also engenders introspection, or self-attunement, as previously discussed, as audience members analyze the footage for more specific meanings as well.
Accepting a pluralistic existence
Munz has set in motion Patterns to exist only pluralistically. The audience members’ interpretations complete the play by building off points of reference but also by each viewer spinning as its own being, playing the role of Other. Munz offers different perspectives to understand the nature of such particles: “three dots are moving all around just everywhere. You zoom in—they look like they are in chaotic motion. You zoom out—they look connected somehow, moving as one. Your mind doesn’t want a gap, it can’t handle it.”
This gap was a source of frustration for some reviewers, but maybe the mind can learn to embrace the gap, the complexity, the paradox, if art projects like Patterns keep showing how.