Realm of the Dead: A Mixed-Media Installation Performance

Rogério Meireles Pinto



Abstract

Realm of the Dead (“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 my life, the life of an immigrant to the United States who grew up in Brazil at the time of the military dictatorship (1964‒1985). Realm connects social work research content as it explores personal and social consequences of psychosocial issues: grief and loss, gender nonconformity, sexual orientation, and undocumented immigration status. Using critical autoethnography along with visual art and performance, in Realm, I aimed to: (1) excavate my life experiences through self-analysis; (2) develop text and artifacts (assemblage sculptures) representing those experiences, and (3) share the results as performances and art exhibits. Drawing on Popular Education – as advanced by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921–1997) and by Augusto Boal (1932–2009), founder of the Theater of the Oppressed, Realm requires audience participation and fosters social transformation. Realm is based on Marília, a one-person play that was performed on Theater Row New York City where it won the United Solo Festival (2016) Best Documentary Script award. Realm represents the cemetery where Marília, my sister, who died in an accident at the age of three, was buried. Realm is my journey out of a childhood of poverty, sexual trauma, and domestic violence. Arriving undocumented in the United States in 1987, I ultimately built a life as a United States citizen and out, gender non-conforming gay “man.”

Realm of the Dead: A Mixed-Media Installation Performance

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September 20, 2022 (913 views *)

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Realm of the Dead: A Mixed-Media Installation Performance © 2022 by Rogério Meireles Pinto is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

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 Performance

The “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 of the Dead Teaser Video. Condensed two-minute video of the site-specific performance at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, October 1, 2022. The video highlights audience participation in the three key areas where different scenes took place – courtyard, lobby, and atrium.
Video by David Newton/Sly PupProductions.
Visual art components

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).

Figure 1. An aerial view of the Realm of the Dead installation performance, as given at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, October, 2021.
A large indoor public space, viewed at a distance. Luggage stands with assemblage sculptures are arrayed in a regular five-by-five grid on a large, white, square floor-covering. There is a mezzanine behind this central open area, and the space is several stories high.
Photo by Marc Arthur.
Performance components

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.

Figure 2. Esperança (Hope). A recorded message encourages viewers to take a ribbon and tie it around their wrists.
Three suitcases set up on luggage stands surround a bronze cast of two hands clasped in prayer. The suitcases are filled with multi-colored ribbons.
Photo by David Newton/Sly Pup Productions.
Figure 2: Recording. “Make a Wish.” Listen to this recording while you look at Esperança (Hope) (Figure 2), as audiences at performances of Realm of the Dead did.

Listen to file directly

Recorded by David Newton/Sly Pup Productions and Chris Goosman.
Figure 3. Marília’s Funeral. Photo by Niki Williams. At this station, the protagonist portrays his mother mourning her daughter, the protagonist's sister. The small stool to the left waits for viewers to sit and mourn as well.
A white trunk resembles a casket. It is placed atop a two-tier table with a white plaster angel on the lower tier. Inside the casket rests a doll with a veil over her entire body. A wreath of white lilies to the right coordinates with a small white stool on the left.
At the cemetery, graves stand six feet apart (Figure 1), in accordance with original COVID-19 guidelines. A maximum of three to four audience members (masked, if required by the venue or presenting organization at the time of performance) stand at each grave or “station.” These stations suggest the Via Dolorosa, the symbolic crucifixion path that Jesus took on Mount Calvary. Realm audience members move from grave to grave (station to station), evoking a spiritual pilgrimage. As they move, I deliver twenty short monologues from various locations. Many of these monologues point to the collusion between the Catholic Church and the Brazilian State, which created an oppressive atmosphere in which homophobic boys bullied me, the police harassed my family, and my father molested me with impunity. The ringing of altar bells (Mass bells) at the end of each monologue signals audience members to advance to the next station. Longer monologues are delivered from a small stage (See, for example, Figure 4: Fragments).
Figure 4. Stage scene: Fragments. The protagonist recalls unburying the remains of his three-year-old sister who died thirty years before. He shows the child’s small bones, locks of hair, socks, and pieces of the lining of her coffin as he prepares to place her back into the open casket at left.
Photo of the protagonist dressed in black sitting on a white stool. To the left is an open white trunk, to the right is a small white plaster decorative pillar, and on his lap is a closed white box. All of this sits on a low black-skirted stage. Several audience members stand looking at the stage.
Photo by Niki Williams.

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. 

Figure 5. Participar (Participate) Stations. At these stations, vintage suitcases (top rack) are filled with small objects evoking different scenes and sensibilities of the performance. Audience members can collect these objects as they assemble their own personal representation of the experience. Vintage cosmetic cases (bottom rack) contain small colored boxes, where collected objects can be stored.
Three two-tier stands each support a mid-sized vintage suitcases on top and a small vintage cosmetic case below. The suitcases are filled with small objects, and the cosmetic cases contain small colored boxes.
Photo by Niki Williams.
Figure 6. Oferendas (Offerings). Boxes and suitcases serve as depositories for audience messages and personal “suitcases.”
A two-tiered luggage stand with a closed box on its lower shelf and an open suitcase on its top surface. The box on the lower shelf is made of rattan and tan leather, with metal hinges and clasps and tan leather belts holding it closed. The vintage suitcase holds colored tulle scarves and small boxes made of colored paper. The inside surface of the open suitcase lid bears dribbles of thick colorful paint and a cross constructed out of small boxes full of colorful artifacts.
Photo by David Newton/Sly Pup Productions.
Figure 7. An audience member puts her written message inside a box.
A person wearing a face-mask, a black jacket, and jeans puts a bright orange sticky note into a small white box. In front of this person is an open suitcase on a stand. Other people stand and walk near her.
Photo by Niki Williams.
Figure 8. An audience member choosing an object for her personal suitcase.
Surrounded by other audience members, an audience member wearing a face-mask, leopard-print shirt, and knit scarf reaches into an open suitcase full of brightly colored objects. She holds a small white box in her other hand.
Photo by Niki Williams.

Realm of the Dead Exhibit

Presented 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 ).
Figure 9. Marília’s Accident. This station shows the scene of the bus accident that killed Marília as well as the toys, candles, flowers, and notes left for the dead child.
A two-tiered sculpture set on a red platform and surrounded by yellow Caution/Cuidado tape. On top, an open metal suitcase, bent in several places, holds a photo of the scene of a bus accident that killed a child in a white dress. Community members stand around the accident scene. On the bottom tier, an open suitcase overflows with teddy-bears, candles, flowers, and notes.
Photo by Rogério M. Pinto.
Figure 9: Recording. “Marília’s Accident.” Listen to this recording while you look at Marília’s Accident (Figure 9), as audiences at the exhibit Realm of the Dead did.

Listen to file directly

Recorded by David Newton and Chris Goosman.

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.
Figure 10. Alien. Using assemblage as a technique, a window is “assembled” inside the bottom-half of the suitcase; through it, the “Alien” envisions a life of freedom.
Two-tier sculpture. On top, an open suitcase is set on end to resemble an open book. Each of the two sides holds a recessed image of a light-skinned, hairless humanoid being. The images are symmetrical but for the chicken wire that covers the image on the right.  The bottom tier of the sculpture holds a silver globe that rests in a pool of a red gelatinous material. Large needles are stuck in different parts of the globe.
Photo by David Newton/Sly Pup Productions.
Figure 11. Alien (detail).
A close-up image of a pinkish, hairless face with low light behind it.
Photo by David Newton.

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).

IMPACT

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.”

REFERENCES

Boylorn, R. M, & Orbe, M. P (Eds.). (2013). Critical autoethnography: Intersecting cultural identities in everyday life (Second Edition) (pp. 4-6). Routledge.

Chamberlain, P., & Smith, M. (2008). Art Creativity and Imagination in Social Work Practice. Routledge.

Choudry, A. (2015). Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements. University of Toronto Press.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Anchor/Doubleday.

Harp, G. (2018). What is Research? Practices in the Arts, Research, and Curricula. Vers 2. Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities.

Hartman, A. (1990). Many ways of knowing (Editorial). Social Work, 35(1), 3–4.

hooks, b. (1992). Black Looks: Race and Representation. Turnaround Publishing.

Huss, E. & Bos, E. (Eds.). (2022). Social Work Research Using Arts-Based Methods (pp. 1-10: Introduction). Policy Press/Bristol University Press.

Jay, S., Adshead, M., & Ryklief, S. (2022). ‘It’s a life-changing point for me’: Critical consciousness, collective empowerment and global awareness as activist identity change in ‘popular education’. European Journal of Psychology of Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-021-00593-7

Jones, E. E., & Pitman, T. S. (1982). Toward a general theory of strategic self-presentation. In J. Suls (Ed.). Psychological perspectives on the self (pp. 257-278). Sage.

Pinto, R. M. Realm of the Dead: An Installation Performance. In S. C. Konrad & M. Sela-Amit (Eds.). (Forthcoming) Social Work and the Arts: Grounds for New Horizons. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pinto, R. M. (2022). Autoethnographic playwriting and performance for self-healing and advocacy. In Ephratt Huss & Eltje Bos (Eds.). Social Work Research Using Arts-Based Methods (pp. 45-54). Policy Press/Bristol University Press.

Pinto, R. M. (2020). Marília. University of Michigan, School of Social Work. https://ssw.umich.edu/faculty/profiles/tenure-track/ropinto

Pinto, R. M., Witte, S., Filippone, P., & Wall, M. (2018). Recruiting and retaining service agencies and public health providers in longitudinal studies: Implications for community-engaged implementation research. Methodological Innovations, 11(1). https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/2059799118770996

Pinto, R. M., Spector, S., Rahman, R., & Gastolomendo, J. D. (2013). Research advisory board members’ contributions and expectations in the USA. Health Promotion International, 30(2), 328-338. https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/dat042

Tench, J. (2021). The show will go on: Theater and entertainment during times of crisis. In Fayed I. & Cummings J. (Eds.). Teaching in the Post COVID-19 Era (pp. 63-69). Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-74088-7_6

Yan, C. T., McCune, D., Clement-Sanders, C., Dixon, S., Dreitlein, T., Mohamed, M., Muharareni, E., McClay, C. J., & Sprague-Martinez, L. S. (2022). Let’s make space for young people to lead: Integrating research and action programming in an arts and technology center: Opportunities, challenges and lessons learned. Journal of Community Practice. https://doi.org/10.1080/10705422.2022.2033374
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Acknowledgements

SARAH TANNER: Visual art design and construction collaborator ERWIN MAAS: Performance director JANE PROPHET: Visual art mentor FUNDING: University of Michigan: School of Social Work, Office of Research, Center for Injury Prevention, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Initiative, Center for Academic Innovation. Institute for Clinical & Health Research (MICHR), Poverty Solutions, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Brazil Initiative, Center for World Performance Studies, Institute for Research on Women & Gender.

Supporting Materials

Realm includes a total of 35 assemblage sculptures, the majority of which are presented individually, and some are presented in groupings. All sculptures are built in and around vintage suitcases and trunks. Most are arranged on two-tier luggage racks, laid out on an installed 40-foot-square white floor. The sculptures represent graves in the children’s section of the public cemetery where my sister Marília, who died at the age of three, was buried.

  • Supplementary Figure 1.
    "Realm of the Dead: Installation Performance. Rogerio M. Pinto." A large indoor public space, viewed at a distance. Luggage stands with assemblage sculptures are arrayed in a regular five-by-five grid on a large, white, square floor-covering. There is a mezzanine behind this central open area, and the space is several stories high.
  • Rosário (Rosary). Displayed directly on the floor, on a thin, gray-green plinth, a cloth suitcase with leather trim and a soft lid that zips open and rolls back. On the rolled-back lid is embroidered “Rosário” in red, framed by green leaves. Inside the suitcase proper, a pair of white plaster hands, clasped in prayer, is surrounded by roses and twinkle lights.
    "Rosário (Rosary) Prayers for hope" Displayed directly on the floor, on a thin, gray-green plinth, a cloth suitcase with leather trim and a soft lid that zips open and rolls back. On the rolled-back lid is embroidered “Rosário” in red, framed by green leaves. Inside the suitcase proper, a pair of white plaster hands, clasped in prayer, is surrounded by roses and twinkle lights.
Video of the entire performance of Realm of the Dead as given at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, October 2021.








Completed

Between October 2019 and October 2021

Website:

Project Site

Sites and Institutes

University of Michigan School of Social Work
University of Michigan Theatrical Property Shop

Keywords

Autoethnography Theater Of The Oppressed Gender/Sex Identities Poverty Death/Dying Self Healing Activism

Disciplines

Social Work Visual Art And Design Theater/Performance Anthropology

Views

913 views *