MCA Talk: International Puppet Art

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Stan’s Cafe, The Cardinals Photo: Graeme Braidwood


Copresented with the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago

Artists from Manual Cinema, Stan’s Cafe, Blind Summit, and other groups talk about puppet art’s vitality and the new paradigms that they are creating to engage the world today. The daylong event brings them together with scholars from diverse fields for conversation resonant in the practice of puppetry and fields beyond it, such as: How do we attach identity to a face? How do we perceive realness and fakeness? Where do we find meaning in materiality?

Organized as an open dialogue for anybody with an interest in the value of the creative pursuit of inquiry and the tension between ideas and practice, the occasion is also inspired by Manual Cinema’s recent tour to the Tehran-Mobarak International Puppet Festival, the first US company in 17 years to perform in Iran. At once cutting to the heart of puppetry and seeking its broadest significance, the broad-ranging participants provoke unexpected conversation in which art and scholarship disrupt each other’s ways of knowing.


Session 1

10:30–11:50 am: Liveness on the Edges of Death

Leslie Danzig, moderator (Curator, Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, University of Chicago; Director, Lucky Plush Productions and 500 Clown)
Mark Down (Blind Summit)
Timothy Harrison (Instructor, Department of English, University of Chicago)
Dan Hurlin (Puppeteer; Director of MFA Theatre Program, Sarah Lawrence College)
Jesse Soodalter, MD (Fellow in Hematology/Oncology; Director of the Living Mortal Project, University of Chicago)
Craig Stephens (Stan’s Cafe)

Many practitioners within art, humanities, and medicine are exploring the emergence and the varying definitions and experiences of liveness in its proximity to death. The individuals in this session discuss text, puppets, and performance in relation to the spontaneity, impulsiveness, and presence of both liveness and death and the relationship between the two.

Session 2

Noon–1:30 pm: The Uncanny Valley: Real Fakeness and Fake Realness

Sarah Fornace, moderator (Manual Cinema)
Susan Goldin-Meadow (Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Psychology, Committee on Human Development, University of Chicago)
Tom Gunning (Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor, Departments of Art History, Cinema, and Media Studies, University of Chicago)
Claudia Hart (Artist; Associate Professor, Department of Film, Video, New Media, and Animation, School of the Art Institute of Chicago)
Todd Murphey (Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Northwestern University)

Scholars from the fields of media, psychology, and robotics delve into how realism and unrealism in puppetry are perceived both live and onscreen. Puppetry shares mechanisms and attributes with a wide array of 21st-century media: virtual reality, video gaming, cgi, and cinema. This interactive, interdisciplinary group explores and explodes the boundaries of puppetry as a model system for understanding the way in which we perceive gesture, liveness, and simulacra in media and in “real” life.

Session 3

2:30–3:50 pm: Word as Object, Object as Word

Jessica Thebus, moderator (Director of Graduate Directing Program, Northwestern University)
Clare Dolan, RN (The Museum of Everyday Life)
Eric Ehn (Playwright; Chair of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies, Brown University)
Blair Thomas (Puppeteer; Artistic Director, Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, Blair Thomas & Co.)
John Wilkinson (Poet; Associate Chair for Committee on Creative Writing and Poetics in the Department of English, University of Chicago)

Concluding the day, panelists pit the highly regarded form of poetry against the “lowly” art form of puppetry to glean the parallel properties and unique attributes common to these performative languages. As a contribution to forging a poetics for puppetry this panel of poets, writers, and puppeteers ponder “How are poetry and puppetry twin art forms?” and address questions of economy, distillment, image resonance, negative space, and empty space.