Meeting Your Own Inner Animal

A new production uses robots to sketch out a complex reflection on human activity, sensitivity and consciousness.

Imagine animals clustered in the shadow of an acacia tree: an adult elephant and her offspring, a giant turtle, an ibex, a cricket, a heron, a caterpillar, a flock of falcons, a moth and five snails. Now imagine them all made of wood but with metal parts, electrical cables dangling from their mechanical limbs, all living together in an imaginary paradise.

All it takes is a look at one scene, or a video documenting a few minutes of the multidisciplinary production "Savanna," to understand immediately just how extraordinary this is in visual terms, compared with what's usually considered theater. It is also atypical at the Jerusalem International Festival of Puppet Theater, where it will be performed this coming Monday and Tuesday nights.

The production, written and directed by Amit Drori, deals with the image of the mythological Garden of Eden. It includes robots, which are usually perceived as cold, commercial and treacherous objects, that have been meticulously built by hand to create a complex reflection of activity, sensitivity and human consciousness. Thus, on the stage, five performers create a fragile savanna, animate it, explore it, giving life to it and taking life from it. Drori not only wrote and directed; he also took part in designing the production and building the robots, together with the designer-partners Michal Cederbaum and Noam Dover.

Cederbaum, 36, is a native of Haifa and graduated from the visual communication department at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem in 2004. She first gained fame with urban projects she did together with a classmate, artist Yochai Matos, that included, for example, the introduction of naive images into street signs in Tel Aviv. For the past two years she has been teaching visual communications at WIZO Haifa.

Dover, who was born in Jerusalem, is a 2003 graduate of the industrial design department at Bezalel. For 10 years he was part of the Zik Group of multimedia performance artists. In addition to his work as a designer, he has taught at the School of Visual Theater in Jerusalem for the past seven years, as well as for three years in Bezalel's industrial design department.

"In the previous productions I worked on with Amit," says Dover, "I built a robot or two. One day after I invited him to be a partner at our studio, I found him trying to put together robots. That's when I realized he too had been bitten by the bug. He had read a book about elephants, and had started to build animals. I was swept up after him. He said: 'You do the birds and I'll do the elephants.' In fact everything got blurred and each of us put his own face on the project, the place where you meet your own inner animal. What's amazing is that a very strong artistic language was born, which has even been given a name, Craft Robotics. The physical world is very mechanical, very precise and is based on 'old school' technologies, while there is something in the psychological world that is very hacker-like, based on individual learning and open code."

Cederbaum: "The animals weren't planned initially on a computer but rather were created as a result of an encounter with the material, with craftsmanship thinking. This is also why all the technology, the motors and the cables - they're all exposed. It does not create an illusion of movement, it has only a metaphoric role. The story is one of both animals and technology - there are two levels here. And there are also the projections on the stage, made with works of paper and cutting with scissors and X-Acto knife."

Two for the studio

Cederbaum and Dover started working together in 2008, three years after they met and two years after they married. Now they are in the process of moving their studio from Tel Aviv to Moshav Ein Ayala, near Zichron Yaakov, where they moved nearly a year ago. Together, they have shown works in the exhibition "Post Fossil" at the Design Museum Holon, at the Eretz Israel Museum Ceramics Biennale, at both the Artists House and the Binyamini House in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. If all goes well, they will show at the Design Miami Fair in Florida in December, in collaboration with the Design Space Gallery in Tel Aviv.

Their first joint work was the design for the play "Orlando," also directed by Amit Drori, a work that took altogether about two years. "There too the visual interpretation of the story as expressed in the design became the main actor in the production, or at least just as much in the forefront as the lead actress in the work," says Dover. "We made the robots ourselves, the whole interpretation and the costume design - we did it all ourselves. Michal was responsible for the projections, which in themselves became a whole world."

Is it possible to earn anything when you work for two years on a project like this?

Dover: "For 10 years I was a member of the Zik Group, in a world that is all totally voluntary. There aren't any salaries. Therefore, it comes very naturally to me to see artistic work as something that doesn't bring in money. Many of the projects I've been involved in were very uneconomical but with creative richness I haven't encountered in any commercial project."

Cederbaum: "The dialogue with Amit really is extraordinary. It enables us to keep a creative process going that has poetical and fantasy elements, which don't necessarily always happen in the design world. This is very attractive to us and on the economic level we manage."

Is it art or design that you're doing?

Cederbaum: "We definitely see ourselves as designers: Our origins are in the design world and I see myself as part of that community. However, we are trying not to define the area of what we do in a very strict way. In our work for the theater, we deal with functionality. The outcomes are not always functional, but they do deal with it."

Dover: "I have been in a dialogue with this question for many years now. There are places where everything I do is art, and there are also places where what they do is ostensibly considered design, but where I [really] am the last of the designers. Looking at it another way, most of my work is connected to collaboration and dialogue, whereas most artists are soloists and represent a very personal statement. With me, the projects represent dialogue, they seek to communicate. Maybe this is what distinguishes art from design. Very often the dialogue brings reality back as one of the variables in the work. Then it stops being a very personal work of art."

Anonymous design

In March, Cederbaum and Dover took part, together with Yoav Reches, in an exhibition entitled "Interwoven Objects: Experiments in Being a Designer," at the Tel Aviv Artists House. The three showed a group of fabric cases, huge bowls made of cork, a series of cups in various shapes, colors and sizes, and large works in cloth that hung from the walls. Most of the objects were displayed on a shelf in the form of a black metal railing that curved along the gallery walls and became a design object in its own right.

"The three of us are engaged with the question of what it means to be a designer today," says Cederbaum in explaining the show's subtitle. "These are questions that very much engage us, and from within them arise more questions connected to the work with the material and the cultural, historical and political baggage of materials. Where do forms come from? What is the meaning of the design act?"

Dover: "I have been engaged in the design of containers, bowls and trays for many years now, working in ceramics and glass, and this is something that has fascinated me and Yoav for a long time. It's hard for me to explain why, but behind this work there are a few truths that maybe are already worn out from so much use: In this work there is inside and outside, representation and the thing represented, the symbol and the thing itself, the material and the shape that is formed from it, its added thing."

Cederbaum: "And containers also have historical and cultural dimensions. They are bearers of culture."

Dover: "A bit like chairs. You start dealing with containers and you feel like you are a part of something people have been dealing with for thousands of years, that there is a trajectory you can lean from and in which you can grow."

One of the extraordinary things in the exhibition is that it there was no indication of who made what. "Both Yoav and I are dialogue freaks," explains Cederbaum. "This is how we enjoy working and this was also the starting point of the exhibition: to document and show the encounter between us and the process of its development. This also how we worked on the exhibition: It was a workshop. Yoav lived at our place and worked with us, day and night. There is a lot of power in a creative dialogue, and when the things were ready there was no longer any relevance to who made what. That wasn't the point."

And the shelf?

Cederbaum: "The design was perceived as a performative act. We have the experience to make the design and technological act present, the work, the product."

Is this also connected to the course you give at WIZO, design without a computer?

"There is very great learning value in experiencing unconventional work, in experiencing the connection between the brain and the hand, something that has been getting lost a bit in the work with a computer. The perfect thing is not always relevant or the right thing. In the encounter with the material, unexpected things happen. "For example, in 'Savanna,' I'm dreadful at animation but there is movement in the projections. There are projections of autumn, of leaves falling, but at the technical level the animation is very simple. The emphasis is on the quality of the image."

Dover: "At first we thought of not having projections in 'Savanna' but then we decided there wouldn't be screens and that the projections would be freer. There is someone who moves the projectors, there is tamed nature screened onto the crates, which know how to come apart and rearrange themselves. The projection isn't committed to the frame of the crate - it can be on the whole wall, on all the walls or just on the crate. This freedom transformed the projection from a single aspect into a major actor and at the same time into an object, no less free than lighting design. There isn't something sacred here. When it is needed, it is there, and when it isn't, it spreads and breaks up and becomes a completely free experience on the stage.

"And here too the contemplation of the animation comes from a 'craft' place, of 'frame by frame.' It's even more than drawing, it's Sisyphean work that aims to create design perfection, with each frame being cut out over the course of five nights."

Cederbaum: "It's impossible to obtain that on a computer. It won't help. I am pretty good at Photoshop but it's not the same thing. It's a different quality that is hard to define in words - not digital quality but material."

Dover: "It's that place where it doesn't matter what line you draw - you meet in it a contemplation of yourself in the most immediate sense. On the computer, we become designers recruited to technology - that's how we've been taught. Working by hand ... forces us to put down the line the way we really intended to. This is a twilight zone that is on the way to being abandoned. Generations of dogmatic designers are coming out of the design schools, who obey the design consensus and therefore very many works all look the same."

Swiss-Israeli effort

The performance "Savanna" is a production of the Vidy Lausanne Theater in Switzerland. It premiered in Lausanne in September last year, and since then it has been on a performance tour, with over 60 shows in more than 15 cities in Switzerland, France, Spain, Slovenia and elsewhere. In Israel there will be two performances, on August 6 and August 7, at the International Festival of Puppet Theater in Jerusalem. Afterward it will be staged during a tour of Europe, which will continue into 2013.

The production's director, 32-year-old Amit Drori, graduated in 2001 from the Visual Theater School in Jerusalem and now teaches there. He defines himself as a director and designer for theater. "Most of what I do," he says, "are my own projects in which I fulfill both functions. Directing and designing are almost the same word in these cases. There are a number of characteristics of the kind of theater I do: First of all, everything is visual at base and usually the projects are based on a visual image and not necessarily on a written play. 'Orlando' was an exception, but in principle they are never based on a written play. The visual work is the main actor."

How is this manifested?

Drori: "I deal a lot with the animation of objects. An object on stage has a life of its own. Sometimes this is more figurative, like animals, and sometimes these are things or furniture to which we give life and turn into actors in the stage. In addition, I integrate a lot of video projections. This is very meaningful teamwork, which is also connected to the length of the processes - we work for two or three years on every project. In the end, a lot of the things we show on the stage are things only we could have created or built. This isn't conventional work of a theater designer, an image that any set-maker could usually build. In the work we do the objects are very complex and are based on a method of working we develop as we go along.

"In addition, in designing for the theater all the work of design is in contact with a production, a theme, a narrative. The objects are never something in their own right that could be shown in a gallery, but rather a part of the story. In works like 'Savanna' the development of a visual concept - the choice of the materials and the process of thinking about how an object or image will work on the stage, how to tell the story or communicate with human actors - emerges in parallel with the dramatic and textual adaptation. This is very different from the way things usually work in the theater, when the design comes in later and is a part of the work of interpretation."

In this context, what was the challenge of "Savanna' relative to previous works?

"The work constantly examines the basic idea of a fable: It doesn't have a moral but each of the animals is built to represent personal characteristics and other feelings - fear of humans, communication among humans and more. The big challenge in 'Savanna' was to create machines that are first and foremost human and not from the world of industrial production, to succeed in creating very sensitive machines that are able to produce refined and precise human expression."