BACKGROUND AND SIGNIFICANCE
Realm of the Dead (“Realm”) represents a provocative socio-political and cultural investigation aimed to abate personal and social problems by offering opportunities for self-healing and advocacy.Realm is a mixed-media installation performance where the installation can also be given separately as an art exhibit. A blend of social work and arts research, Realm incorporates practice-led, engagement, and design research – visual and performance art practices actively involving both research collaborators and audiences. Grounded in social work research and content, Realm explores the life of an immigrant to the United States who grew up in Brazil at the time of the military dictatorship (1964‒1985).
EXPERIENCING REALM OF THE DEAD
Realm of the Dead Installation PerformanceThe “teaser” video, a synopsis of the show, contains the main visual and performance components described below. The full recording of the Realm of the Dead performance at the University of Michigan, School of Social Work (October 1, 2022) is available as “Supporting Materials,” below.
Realm includes 35 assemblage sculptures built in and around vintage suitcases and trunks. The majority of the sculptures are arranged on two-tier luggage racks, which are laid out on an installed 40-foot-square white floor; the sculptures represent the graves of the children’s section of the public cemetery where my sister Marília, who died at the age of three, was buried (Figure 1).
Before the audience reaches the cemetery, they experience Esperança (Hope) (Figure 2) while they hear a recorded message (Recording 1-Figure 2). Next, on their way to the cemetery, they see Marília’s Funeral (Figure 3) where I portray my mother mourning her daughter.
Before the show starts, each audience member is given a small white box—their own personal “suitcase”—in which they may collect small objects available at three stations (Figure 5). Each box has a number indicating each audience member’s initial position at the cemetery, akin to seats at a theater. After the show, audience members are encouraged to write their personal reactions on post-it notes, and to leave these messages with their completed boxes at Oferendas (Offerings) (Figure 6). Figures 7 and 8 show audience members interacting and building their personal suitcases.
Realm of the Dead ExhibitPresented solely as an exhibit, the cemetery portion of Realm comprises 21 stations/graves, three of which contain videos of key monologues and five contain audio recordings of other key monologues. Both videos and audio recordings are embedded and thus become key elements of the sculptures. The stations with recordings are set up such that the audience can hear all recordings, but separated by fractions of a minute, as a low cacophony. As they near a station which contains a video and/or audio recording, they can hear its details at a higher volume. In the exhibit, the mechanisms for visitors to collect meaningful objects and post their personal reactions are slightly different from those in the performance. However, as with the performance, there is still space for audience interaction and conversation around the graves. See, for example, Marília’s Accident (Figure 9), placed at the center of the exhibit, to which a recording of a monologue was added (Recording 2-Figure 9 ).
ARTISTIC INTERSECTIONS & INSPIRATIONS
As it involves audience interactions and creation of their own “suitcases,” Realm draws on I Wish Your Wish by Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander, the NAMES Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt, the 9/11 Tiles for America created by New York City schoolchildren, and the small wooden plaques (“ema”) on which visitors to Shinto shrines write prayers and wishes.
Realm is historically related to mid-19th-century Brazilian Romanticism, which often dwelt on issues of death and dying. As I walk around the graves (assemblage sculptures) in performance, I invite the audience to help me parse out questions concerning the fear and relief that come from dying, and also my family’s dilemma: who is to be blamed for my sisters’ death?The visual art components of Realm communicate with Joseph Cornell and Betye Irene Saar, who used assemblage as their primary technique. (See, for example, Alien (Figure 10) and Alien (detail) Figure 11). The inspiration for assemblage sculptures comes from time capsules at the Te Papa Tongerewa/Museum of New Zealand in Wellington, NZ, and at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. The performance components are inspired by Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, whose writing style reflects vulnerability and glamor. I am also inspired by the writing, performance, and activism of American transgender artists Kate Bornstein and Justin Vivian Bond. The sculptures were built in collaboration with and supervised by Sarah Tanner, Property Master at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
INTERDISCIPLINARY & INTEGRATIVE ARTS RESEARCH
Social Work Community-Engaged Research
Engagement and Design Arts Research
Practice-led Arts Research
A manifestation of community-engaged methodology, Realm reflects distinct branches of arts research: engagement and design research, centered on inquiry involving audiences and collaborators; and practice-led research, driven by performance-based work (Harp, 2018). Realm represents the excavation of my own life experiences, through interviewing family and community members and conducting self-analysis. As a practice-led pursuit, I develop text and artifacts (assemblage sculptures) representing those experiences (Pinto, forthcoming). Reflecting engagement and design research, I use visual and performance art to connect audiences while disseminating my “critical autoethnography” – the method and outcome of research involving my own lived experiences, cultural identities, intersectionalities, and social inequities (Boylorn & Orbe, 2013, pp. 4-6).
Realm extends my social work scholarship, which is grounded in community-engaged research, by involving community members in the research process, including dissemination of findings (Pinto, et al., 2013; Pinto et al., 2018). The process that involves aesthetic exploration and explanation offered by Realm fulfills social work’s research goal “to excavate and to amplify experiences that may be silenced due to trauma … or cultural taboo” (Huss & Bos, 2022, p. 3). As a general precept, social work research seeks to co-produce knowledge with social service users. Therefore, Realm innovatively embraces this precept but “replaces” social service users by audience members who are given, through visual and performance elements, information about and encouragement for both contemplation and action toward psychosocial issues concerning grief and loss, gender nonconformity, sexual orientation, and undocumented immigration status. The playwriting and performance aspects of Realm have been described as a social work research method recommended for advancing self-healing and social change – that is, advocacy and activism (Pinto, 2022). As such, it involves the integration of theories and research methods from myriad interrelated disciplines, as follows:
Communication: Realm reflects Self-Presentation Theory (Goffman, 1959) in that it uses text, visual art, and performance to communicate myriad sociopolitical issues – bereavement, gender nonconformity, immigration – to different audiences. The performative components of the Realm include ingratiation, self-promotion, exemplification, supplication, and intimidation (Jones & Pitman, 1982).
Social Work & Anthropology: Social work research examines personal and social problems. The text of Realm is founded in the outcome of autoethnographic methods involving constant personal rumination and interviews with family and community members (Chamberlain & Smith, 2008; Hartman, 1990).
Playwriting: The text for Realm (Pinto, 2022) is based upon my play Marília. I performed Marília at the 2015 United Solo Festival on Theatre Row in New York City, where it won Best Documentary Script (Pinto, 2020); and at the 2016 Vrystaat Kunstefees, Bloemfontein, Vrystaat, South Africa. The texts of Marília and Realm represent the organization of data collected through ethnographic methods.
Visual Arts: Realm sculptures are the result of social and psychological excavation. These graves/artifacts were created to communicate with one another and to evoke the Catholic public cemetery where Marília was buried. The cemetery/installation is the stage for a theatrical performance, and an environment for healing and for advocacy.
Dramaturgy & Theater-Making: Based on feedback from literary experts and dramaturgs, Marília was revised and adapted as Realm of the Dead, an “installation performance” designed to be consistent with COVID-19 restrictions. The visual pieces were integrated with a revised script, and both were tailored for a larger stage layout.
Popular Education and Theater of the Oppressed: Realm reflects both Popular Education (Paulo Freire) and Theater of the Oppressed (Augusto Boal) precepts. Realm uses elements of popular education to activate peer-to-peer interactions. Following Boal’s call for social transformation, Realm uses mixed media to unearth, from the protagonist and audience members, personal expressions of guilt, blame, anger, love, and fear (Choudry, 2015; Jay et al., 2022; Tench, 2021; Yan et al., 2022).
Realm premiered as a performance September 29 – October 1, 2021, and as an exhibit October 3 – 17 at the University of Michigan School of Social Work in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Figure 1 and Teaser Video). We transformed the physical space of the building’s atrium to deliver a community-based theater experience and exhibit that, over two and a half weeks, attracted 700 individuals from within and beyond the university community. Testimonials from viewers included:
“The most impactful aspect was the small items that we could take to build our own suitcase [and] think about people I've lost in my life.”
“The structure of the installation … allowed us to see the faces of the audience members there with us. It was a collective experience.”
“As a current student trying to go into social work and find integrations with art, I felt so inspired and uplifted seeing it as an example laid in front of me.”
Realm of the Dead helped me cope with my 17-year-old niece's loss [and] find ways to achieve closure through the artist’s personal loss.”
“Moving around the room, kneeling, moving closer, crouching, peering through holes, examining things closely was impactful.”
“It was very important to be able to share this experience with my students as a teaching vehicle related to diversity, justice, and triumph.”
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