Dawkins the Performance Artist?
Sometimes, when faced with seeming absurdity, there turns out to be a lot more than meets the eye. Many of you are probably familiar with the video below, which has been making the rounds in the skeptical blogosphere and was snarkily summarized by Will on Skepchick. If you have not yet seen it, please do watch it to the end even if you think you know what it’s all about.
What is going on here? Is this just really just an out-of-touch, douchey old white dude trying to do something cool and failing miserably? Is this some kind of deliberate effort by Dawkins to create a viral video himself? Did something go seriously wrong with the PowerPoint? While I have no intention of defending Dawkins as a person (by any reasonable account he is a pompous jerk) I do think that he has managed to help produce an interesting cultural object that deserves a bit of a closer look than it has gotten elsewhere.
Looking around the blogosphere at various incredulous and occasionally cutting reactions to the video, I can’t help but notice that no one has brought up the fact that this video is actually a piece of performance art in which Dawkins is participating, rather than some kind of unusual lecture or keynote he came up with. It actually comes from the introduction of the annual Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors’ Showcase, which occurs annually as part of the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. The showcase, as explained on their YouTube page, “always includes a live theatrical piece with an all-encapsulating theme, which introduces the reel.” So what we have here is Dawkins participating in a piece of theatre to open this festival–a piece of theatre likely conceived of, written, and executed mainly by other people involved with the event and not Dawkins himself. And while Dawkins’s presence and participation was clearly crucial to the central conceit of the mutated lecture, I think it’s highly doubtful that he was directly involved in many of the aesthetic choices made by the organisers.
Once we realise this is a video of performance art and not a lecture or keynote in the traditional sense, it changes the frame of reference in which we ought to perceive it. It certainly should cause us to question our initial assumptions about what the video is and what its makers are trying to accomplish. We are, all of a sudden, faced with a whole slew of questions that we might not have otherwise considered. The most important of these, I think, is this one:
Is the aesthetic failure of the presentation deliberate rather than accidental? If so, why might this be?
As an outside observer not privy to the creative process that went into this piece, I can only speculate as to the answer to this question. That speculation, though, is that the aesthetic “failure” was deliberate and part of the overall aesthetic approach to the introduction. The primary reason I think this is the case is that the video portion of the piece seems to be constructed with a very postmodern sensibility of pastiche, homage, and self-reference.
The amateurish flash aesthetic, which combines Terry Gilliam-style cut-out animation, MS-paint style hand drawings, and moving text seems (to me at least) like a clear reference to animutations, which were among the first major internet memes. Replace the floating Dawkins head with Colin Mochrie and it would fit right in. The looping of the words “mutation in the mind” may constitute further reference, but this isn’t as clear. I definitely think the looping and autotuning of Dawkins’s own voice from the words spoken in the “lecture” portion of the piece served as a reference to the wildly popular Symphony of Science videos, which also regularly sample and autotune Dawkins’s voice.
Other postmodern aspects of the performance include Dawkins finishing off the piece by randomly playing the wind controller in concert with the recorded music–especially since the first phrase is identical the main theme of Final Fantasy VII. Even that ridiculous Hawaiian shirt that many people found so out of place during the “lecture” was a deliberate parody of his usual style and demeanor. I also think the bad electro-pop music serves at the very least as a reference or even homage to the bad electro-pop used both in some viral videos and in many avante-garde experimental videos made from the 1980s onward.
Is this a successful bit of performance art? Honestly I’m not sure, and it would be easier to judge it in the context of the other film contributions to the festival. I’m inclined to say that it isn’t–speaking at least from my own aesthetic viewpoint–but I do think that it is interesting in a lot of ways, and deserves some more careful consideration than it has received in most treatments around the web.
Sometimes when we see something absurd the easiest response is to point and laugh, or dismiss it with a “WTF” and move on with our day. But one thing I try to impart to my students is that quite often what appears to be incomprehensible, absurd, or valueless can often reveal much greater depth once you choose to engage it on its own terms, rather than with your preconceived notions of what ought to be going on. It’s the willingness to engage on these terms is ultimately the mark of a good critic.
(Editor’s note: this is a revised version of a previous article in which I unfairly attributed motives and opinions to Will and several others based on misunderstandings of their writing and my own cognitive bias. This was over the line and I apologise.)
Featured image: Rebecca