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  • The Built Environment and the Architecture of a Performance:Arcosanti, Chicago, and the Making of Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment

"Imagine, if you will, a kind of . . . shipwreckA big weather patternColliding with another weather patternAlso there's a wooden structure thrown in there for good measureWhat do you get?You get a disaster.Get it? We're colliding stories and it's going to be disastrous.See?"

—Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment

"The Urban Effect is that fundamental phenomenon in which two or more particles of physical matter begin to interact in ways other than statistical and fatal. That is to say, in ways which are organic or living, and eventually the instinctive, self-conscious, mental, cultural, and spiritual ways. It is this Urban Effect around which the whole of life is clustering itself."

—Paolo Soleri1


The arrival at Arcosanti—an experimental architectural project in the high desert of Arizona—is a long one. You turn off Interstate 17, travel on a gravel road for two-and-a-half miles, your tires kick up dust all the way, and if you pass another car, you wave, because you have this space in common. The drive down the road gives you time to think about this. You try to catch a glimpse of the place itself. It bobs in the distance as your car goes over hills, like a boat approaching the shore through choppy waters. When you finally pass the rusted sign, you might get excited, because you think you know something about where you are, or because you know nothing, and you are the kind of person who likes that (Fig. 1).

In March 2009, the Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials (LDSM) marooned itself for ten days on a mesa in Arizona.2 We had, for the previous several months, been preparing a template for a structured response to that environment upon arrival. The collaboratively devised performance produced from this experiment, Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment, integrated Shakespeare's The Tempest; research on the development of the atomic bomb by the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico; and the work of Italian architect Paolo Soleri, the founder of Arcosanti.3 We had deliberately marooned ourselves there and, like the shipwrecked Neapolitan nobility in The Tempest or the physicists arriving by train in New Mexico to work on the [End Page 133] Manhattan Project, we sought to create a process that would address this question: Why do certain individuals recede from civilization in order to re-imagine it?

Fig. 1. Arcosanti, Arizona. (Photo: Chris Ohlinger, reprinted by permission of the Cosanti Foundation.)
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Fig. 1.

Arcosanti, Arizona. (Photo: Chris Ohlinger, reprinted by permission of the Cosanti Foundation.)

The project was inspired by a historical anecdote. In The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes recounts an event at a cocktail party at Los Alamos: "(Edward) Condon pulled from a bookshelf a copy of Shakespeare's The Tempest and skimmed it for speeches meant for Prospero's enchanted island that might play contrapuntally against Oppenheimer's high and dry and secret mesa" (468). By exploring this connection at Arcosanti, the project unfolded against a landscape similar to the desert mesa where the first atomic bomb was built.

In this article, we analyze the process of creating Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment as a performance that is architecturally determined in both form and content in order to expand the practical understanding of site-specificity to include theoretical context and to argue for architecture as a collaborative presence in devised work. We took both the physical architecture and the ideological content of the site—a prototype for arcology, Paolo Soleri's urban-design concept for compact and environmentally friendly cities—as collaborator in structuring the content with which we arrived. Once written onto one specific site, Arcosanti, the performance was re-imagined and grafted onto an entirely different performance space, The Neo-Futurists' theatre, The Neo-Futurarium, in Chicago.

At Arcosanti, we worked within the unusual structure of this architectural experiment, creating a promenade performance that moved the audience around the small community, culminating in an outdoor amphitheatre where we danced in front of a fifteen-foot projection of Robert Oppenheimer under the night sky. In Chicago, we performed the same material, and the production was once again promenade, but we were confined to a mixed-use building on a busy urban street corner. While in Chicago we danced again in front of Oppenheimer's image, we were in a cramped and worn room that serves as a lobby at The Neo-Futurarium. In conversation with other theoretical work on site-specificity, we consider how architectural space—as both our topic and our physical limitation—provided the basis for the creative process and the performance structure in order to understand how architectural site-specificity can expand beyond staging to influence a performance's content.

We also make an implicit argument in this article for a definition of site-specificity that includes interrelated performances created at different sites. Performing at Arcosanti—and in response to the theories that have determined it—we have come to believe that performance is a uniquely productive way to think about urban design, architecture, and the use of space. These topics are of vital importance not only to the theatre artist and the architect, but also to the politician, the economist, and the environmentalist. In considering our performance, we recognize the debt we owe to site-specific experimental theatre of the past fifty years. The work created by Richard Schechner during the 1960s and '70s offered an immersive experience he would describe as "environmental theatre." Multi-focus design was an element of our production, and we used this style to invite the audience to consider how architecture defines all experience. The outdoor spectacles of Chicago's own Redmoon Theatre was another major influence. Their use of oversized scenery, often created from found materials, helped us conceive our original, outdoor production of Theoretical Isolation [End Page 134] at Arcosanti, and their ability to play with scale in their ingenious puppet-work inspired the transformation we made for the performance's indoor iteration.

While our methods are part of a larger tradition of site-specific, devised work, our use of architectural theory as an inspiration opens new possibilities for the use of performance as mode of critical inquiry. Dwight Conquergood argues that performance can be understood "as a lens that illuminates the constructed creative, contingent, collaborative dimensions of human communication; knowledge that comes from contemplation and comparison; concentrated attention and contextualization as a way of knowing" (152). With Theoretical Isolation, we engaged this idea by immersing ourselves in an architectural theory and building our performance within the context of this theory's realization—Arcosanti itself.


Although originally designed in 1970, Arcosanti grapples with contemporary environmental and civic issues such as: minimizing waste (including land, energy, time); eliminating suburban sprawl; limiting the need for automobiles; and fostering a functional and productive society. As Soleri put it in his 1969 book Arcology: The City in the Image of Man: "In a society where production is a successful and physically gigantic fact, the coordination and congruence of information, communication, transportation, distribution and transference are the mechanics by which that society operates. It is not accidental that these are also dynamic aspects of another phenomenon, the most dynamic of all: life" (13).

Rather than political or economic proposals to improve modern urban life, Soleri offers a purely design-based approach, suggesting that in a functional architectural environment, life will have few choices other than to function optimally. With arcology, Soleri is proposing some fundamental architectural and urban-design principles toward habitats that limit environmental impact and embrace the urban. These design principles are rooted in: miniaturization, doing more while using less; complexity, the functional density that allows more uses of different types in less space; and duration, resulting from that miniaturization and complexity, making for a longer lasting, adaptable habitat. Arcology would limit impact on the naturally occurring physical environment by occupying the least amount of land with the highest feasible human density using the fewest nonrenewable resources.4

A recent example of the connections to be drawn between urban density and environmental sustainability can be found in David Owen's book Green Metropolis, in which he mounts a defense of density and its positive ecological impact, arguing that Manhattan is the greenest community in the United States: "New Yorkers, individually, drive, pollute, consume, and throw away much less than do the average residents of the surrounding suburbs, exurbs, small town, and farms, because the tightly circumscribed space in which they live creates efficiencies and reduces the possibilities for reckless consumption" (7-8). Soleri calls this limiting of wasteful and inefficient behaviors that results from a dense urban architecture, and which he intends Arcosanti to model, "The Lean Imperative"—a necessity for the survival of a successful and functional society.


Arcology can be said to be most "organic" in the idea of the "Urban Effect." Soleri's term defines a lively and culturally functional city, but it also refers to any system that relies on densely bundled and diverse elements working together by virtue of containment to produce a functional and efficient entity—which is to say, any living organism. Soleri suggests that reality is space rearranging itself into ever leaner—and thus more urban—configurations. He likes to say that if humans were [End Page 135] built in the image of suburbs, we would be two-mile-wide puddles. By providing efficient spatial parameters as a framework for life within an urban habitat, arcology is following the logic that makes life and all living systems possible.

Arcosanti was founded, and is being built, as the prototypical laboratory for the concept of arcology. At present, it is an urban village of nearly a dozen interlocking, energy-efficient concrete structures, arrayed along the southern edge of a basalt mesa above 4,000 acres of high desert wilderness in central Arizona. The construction site occupies less than fifteen square acres of marginal land unsuitable for farming. The rest of the land is wilderness, a former cattle ranch with mesquite forests, prickly pear cactus, and uninhabited mesas. The interstate can still be seen and heard in the distance to the west. The high desert goes to extremes, the landscape can be lush or brutal acre by acre, season by season, and the weather can be sweltering hot and dry or frigid with harsh winds, often in the course of the same day. Sometimes the rains come for weeks at a time, sometimes it snows, always the wind blows hard.

Still a fraction of its intended size, it houses up to a hundred people on a tiny sliver of land. The multiuse, multilevel buildings simultaneously contain residences, commerce, performance space, craft workshops, guest accommodations, classrooms, and offices in which a small population of residents, students, and visitors live and work, providing a prototypical example of Urban Effect in action. It is this lively and productive milieu we sought to make use of in developing Theoretical Isolation there.

The communal, ongoing nature of the construction is central to the intention that guides Arcosanti. Like a performance experience, it is understood through body-to-body—and body-to-building—contact. Residents move through each space daily, while visitors are guided on tours to experience the architecture and observe the activities. Dance, music, and theatre performances happen regularly in the outdoor amphitheatre, but Theoretical Isolation was unique as a performance built to be in dialogue with the structure of Arcosanti and the theory of arcology. By building a performance within Arcosanti, we became part of the larger community that is building it.

In her study Devising Theatre, Alison Oddey discusses how site-specific performance is often created in dialogue with the community that inhabits that site. The shape of our performance was site-specific in that it was inspired by arcology, yet it was also reflective of the ever-changing community that has come together to build Arcosanti. We conducted a performance workshop and interviews with residents, not simply to generate material for the performance, but to build something within the community, to experience the intermingling of culture and ideas that Arcosanti is designed to engender.

This aspect of our experience follows the trajectory laid out in arcology theory: that collisions engendered by the Urban Effect lead to meaningful relationships. Density is the key here. By constructing a variety of multiuse buildings very close to one another, Soleri intends to place many different functions, and the range of people attracted by these diverse functions, face to face. There is an explicitly theatrical dynamic to this, not least because Soleri set these daily activities in aesthetically striking structures against a stunning wilderness backdrop. But there is also an intended theatrical impact in witnessing behaviors and activities one might not otherwise have access to on a daily basis. By placing ourselves within Arcosanti, we were able to effortlessly rely on these advantages of proximity in our process of creative devising.

The physical circumstances of Arcosanti exerted a formative force on the performance that we made there. By the time we arrived, we had spent nearly two years researching the subjects we would be dealing with in performance. The missing element was a physical, embodied relationship with the space we were to perform in and respond to. Upon arriving, we parked our car and went straight to the most logical destination: the amphitheatre—we had arrived to make a performance, [End Page 136] after all. Standing on the stage, we looked up into the lighting grid to see just a handful of instruments, a few with hastily rigged cardboard barn doors, exposed to the elements. We walked out into the seating area, which was bare of seats at the moment. We looked up to the sky; while the theatre was designed with a canvas roof, years of harsh weather had left it in shreds and it was finally removed altogether.

The problem we faced was environmental in the truest sense: could our audience bear the outdoors for over an hour at the low temperatures of the high desert at night in early spring? We let the environment dictate the shape of our performance. Inspired, perhaps, by Peter Brook's observation that "era after era the most vital theatrical experiences occur outside the legitimate places constructed for the purpose" (66), we began to devise a performance that would move beyond the "legitimate place" available in this particular community. Our performance was built within the environment, not on it. If our show had to be moved, we decided to create a show that, itself, was always moving. Tours are part of everyday life at Arcosanti. We decided to make our performance a promenade, beginning with a tour that blended facts about Arcosanti with references to the building of the atomic bomb and The Tempest. The theatricalized walking tour both signified on a familiar scenario and introduced to the audience the idea that fact and fiction would collide in this performance in a way that was both factually informed and deliberately ahistorical.

In his "6 Axioms of Environmental Theatre," Richard Schechner writes that "[e]nvironment can be understood in two different ways. First, there is what one can do with and in a space; secondly, there is the acceptance of a given space. In the first case, one creates an environment by transforming a space; in the second case, one negotiates with an environment, engaging in a scenic dialogue with a space" (50). As we built our performance at Arcosanti, we discovered that our project was to engage in "scenic dialogue" with the space, not only in terms of design, but in terms of content as well. We wrote text that acknowledged the theory contained in the space around us and that used the associations the architecture held for much of our audience. Our rehearsals were mostly held in the Red Room, which functions primarily as a classroom and meeting space; a whiteboard hangs on the wall, as in a college classroom, and chairs are stacked in back, ready to be set up for meetings or lectures. Taking a cue from the space and its contents, we began to develop the first part of our performance in the form of an academic conference, presenting ourselves as scientists in lab coats. Since this was a site where instruction takes place, we decided that the portion of performance in this site would signify on the visual tropes of a lecture.

Marvin Carlson articulates the intertextual experience that is particular to the theatre: "All reception is deeply involved with memory, because it is memory that supplies the codes and strategies that shape recognition, and, as cultural and social memories change, so do the parameters within which reception operates" (5). He calls attention to the way in which we must make personal meaning of the performance we experience. Thus by using the scenario of an academic conference to begin our performance, we were not only staging our own assumptions—that a whiteboard indicates an educational environment—but also capitalizing on the associations the space holds for the residents of Arcosanti. Foregrounding its educational function also alluded to the slightly instructive nature of the entire performance; we needed to educate our audience to help them through the densely referential content of this exploration.

In a very concrete way, this choice demonstrates the leanness intrinsic to site-specific performance. Soleri's "Lean Hypothesis" states that space is reality, "that there is nothing that can be said to exist which is not, at base, space reconfiguring itself into different self-definitions" (Murfin 158). By eliding the gap between theatrical setting and performance architecture, we embraced his hypothesis that intelligently configured space can do the most with the least. The specific space in which the performance occurred was not only the location of the performance, but the architecture was pressed into service as a performer, it was given a role. That role allowed the architecture to essentially play itself, making the performance proposition very lean: it made use of what was available, both spatially [End Page 137] and contextually, in a way that highlighted the spatial density of the site in terms of its use and significance, as much as in terms of its volume and configuration. Our performance at Arcosanti was site-specific not only in its use of extant architecture as setting, but because it relied on the theoretical underpinnings of that specific architecture and the depth of knowledge and experiential history that the specific audience had with that architecture as habitat and theory.

Yet even within the space of the classroom, the "setting" of the action shifted in performance. Once the academic conference had been established, the lighting changed, the music swelled, and the scientists—who, a moment before, had been addressing the audience directly—were transported to a train depot in Lamy, New Mexico, the arrival site for the physicists working on the Manhattan Project. The performers moved over the table, stepping on chairs, looking out through the audience to an imagined desert horizon. Music pulled the performers into a different kind of movement, slow and lyrical. The transition was made seamlessly; rather than accomplishing the shift through conventional theatrical means (i.e., a blackout), the two times and spaces were rendered contiguous, folded on top of each other, the structure of the performance reflecting the unique design of the space it inhabited. Such transformation seemingly complicates Schechner's clear delineation between performance that transforms a site and performance that incorporates it. Yet the transformation at hand was largely imaginative; rather than asking the audience to "see" a desert train depot, we asked it to see the scientists—who had previously been giving an academic presentation—imagine a new space. Although this transformation was imaginative, it also acknowledged the actual site of the performance in the relative isolation of a Southwestern desert landscape.

This transition was particularly assertive in its theatricality, yet remained arcological in nature by staying comparatively very lean. It illustrates what Brook, in The Empty Space, describes as the "rough theatre"—an essential resourcefulness that he contrasts with "high-class theatre." He writes that "in a rough theatre a bucket will be banged for a battle, flour used to show faces white with fear. The arsenal is limitless" (66). Rough theatre embraces the tools at hand and trusts that the audience is not distracted by the imperfect object. While the high-class-theatre version of our transformation might have involved moving set pieces, our rough-theatre version trusted that the audience would understand that the landscape had shifted (a simple change in our practical lighting) and hence see the new terrain through our eyes; we "rel[ied] on contrasts" in our attitude toward the space to make the rough transformation. Brook's call for a rough theatre can be read as a kind of "lean imperative," to use arcological terminology.

After the visit to Lamy, the performers eventually found themselves back at their conference table, but now they were called upon to testify—as in a hearing—about their arrival on a mysterious island. Miranda squirmed like an impatient teenager; the Director, a frustrated father, lost his temper; the Interrogator seemed to be a government official, but spoke lines from Shakespeare's play; the performer who identified himself as Oppenheimer described arriving to his desert-island home by boat with his young daughter Miranda:


Yes, Director, could you please describe the process by which you hit upon the destination?


We were traveling for some time. Were I smarter than I am, well than I was, I would not have endangered us with the delay and the extra weight involved in packing my entire library of books. Now that I understand the mutability of matter as I have come to, I can see that the knowledge in those books is available to me in all things. But it is a paradox—only through the things I did can I understand what I should not have done. I hadn't yet come to understand at the time that it is only individual subjectivity striking against direct experience which produces anything ultimately knowable. Without the books, I might have looked out the window, smelled the sea. I might have [End Page 138] been able to estimate our elevation just by breathing. But I understood all information to be contained within the pages of my books, and considered where we were in the world to be no concern of mine. I accepted that we were heading someplace specific, but unknown. We knew nothing about our destination except that it was there, that others were waiting for us, or arriving soon, and that we had a tremendous amount of work to do. Those who came, they came with a sympathy for our project. We went on from there.


Thank you, Director, this refers to the arrival by ship? Or by train? Or is it the car?

The shipwreck is described repeatedly as a murky and ominous event, treated with the momentousness of an atomic explosion. The fictional and historical characters are ripped from their old lives and must negotiate a new system of magical, military, scientific, and geographical codes. A larger narrative emerges, concerning dislocation and disconnectedness. The inquiry yields no simple answers because the stories are now muddled.

From the classroom, we moved the audience outdoors along a candlelit path, making clear by means of deliberate placement that this transition was not theatrically "invisible," but rather that it was integral to the performance. We made our way to the amphitheatre, where the audience was deposited, briefly, on the stage. From this position, they could look out into the seats of the amphitheatre and see the theatre not as a set where an imagined space was constructed, but as a real location where a performance would conclude. The audience was then ushered into an upper tier of the seating area, where they became part of a carnival of "magic tricks" inspired by the magic described in The Tempest and the "magic" used by the physicists who built the atomic bomb. They were ushered to different magic "stations" where they were entertained while carnival music echoed around them and they became aware of other performances occurring in every direction. The overall effect was similar to what Schechner describes as "multi-focus": "In multi-focus more than one event—several of the same kind, or mixed-media—happens at the same time, distributed throughout the space. Each independent event competes with the others for the audience's attention. The space is organized so that no spectator can see everything" (56). The competing images pulled audience members' focus to different areas of the amphitheatre seating, forcing them to consider its architecture from different angles, from the perspective of the performers, in ways that subverted the traditional audience/artist hierarchy that such spaces reinforce.

Finally, the audience took their seats in the amphitheatre. Within a few minutes, they had traversed the site as a group, were briefly made performers onstage, and thrust into a carnival—a space and event with much different, and more interactive, viewing practices than a conventional play. The different sections of performance were created in response to different locations in the city, sending the audience on a journey together that required them to negotiate the architectural space. Like Arcosanti itself, the performance experience can be understood as a kind of laboratory where a community is temporarily created to re-imagine a world shaped by alternative spatial philosophies.

In the final section of the performance, characters were once again folded into one another, and Oppenheimer and Miranda returned in the wake of the destruction caused by the bomb. While the collision of stories served as the framework for the performance, in the final movement, the audience saw the aftermath of the literal collisions caused by the Manhattan Project. The stage is destroyed, the performers bedraggled and soaking wet. The adult Miranda confronts her traumatized and dissociative father, and the old man misremembers the past and tries to explain himself into his own multiple identities. Miranda, rebelling as she does in The Tempest and as an entire postwar generation did after the advent of the atomic age, cannot bear his myopia and responds only with a proto-beat poem, the significance of which eludes him: [End Page 139]


You'll have to forgive me. I've lost some of my eyesight. I've had some . . . exposure. And my memory is not so good. There is a lot I tend to forget. My name is J. Robert Oppenheimer. I have overseen the making of the atomic bomb. My daughter, Miranda, is not yet 1.


I'm right here, dad.


She lives on our island in the desert. She makes the sounds of the dragon. She makes the sounds of the supply trucks on the rutted-out roads . . .


Okay, I have some things I need to say. I'm going to read you a poem, now:

The stormThe stormThe stormIt cameIt never wentThere was

Water lightscold salt soundLight Light LightBright

Here was ISmall island girlSmall island heart and eyes andNot much to seeBut it was "all in care of thee"And the "thee"Was MESee?ButWhat else did I know?Dad dad daddy-ODr. OWanted me toProsper-SOI smiled and stayed SOYoungSO even THOUGHAfter the stormIt was war and that war was coldAnd I felt kindaOLD

NowGoodbye Daddy-o, Dr. O.Live long and Prosper-O, I'm leaving this sand TRAPSandy mapMy borders all undoneFor funFor ONE-ceCause this islandis DONE [End Page 140]

(Miranda leaves)


The voices are getting closer—they want to put us in large ovens. They want to take our organs out of our bodies and display them on their walls. Miranda is nearby sleeping. You are all Miranda. You are not yet 1. You make the sounds of the dragon and you make the sounds of the supply trucks on the rutted-out roads. In mere moments I build what has taken us years to do—the gadget is before me, it is wound tight, it is metal anticipation. I breathe it in; it smells like metal and heat and whiskey. I have done nothing but in care of thee.

Beneath Director's words, mournful, atonal music plays. The audience hears metallic clanging that has no literal visual image attached, but expresses something of the displacement the characters experience. In these final moments of the performance, Oppenheimer addresses the audience, implicating them in the atomic age: "You are all Miranda" (Fig. 2).


Michel de Certeau famously wrote that "space is a practiced place" (117). His clever turn of phrase is a reminder that places acquire meaning as they become host to the operations that make them function—and as this occurs, space transcends its prescribed meaning and usage. De Certeau describes how spaces are haunted, how they come to contain memories and meaning, and how such memories determine their future. At Arcosanti, we created a performance that signified on the hauntings particular to that site. Our work was only halfway done: the second part of our project was to translate that performance to a second site—The Neo-Futurarium in Chicago. The theatre is a converted Romanian cultural center, part of a mixed-use building constructed in 1929 that now houses studio apartments, a health-food store, a falafel shop, a driving school, and a variety of other small businesses. Unlike Arcosanti, which is carefully planned, the arcology-like space housing this theatre grew organically, reflecting the changing community and economic realities of the location.

In her survey of site-specific performance in Britain, Fiona Wilkie poses the question: "Can site-specific performance tour? . . . Does 'site-specific' imply 'site-exclusive'?" (149). These were questions we were forced to reckon with as we returned to Chicago. This second iteration of Theoretical Isolation offered the opportunity to explore the ideas of arcology in an actual, realized city with a production re-imagined to respond to the new environment. We focused on translating the imagery created in Arizona to this new location, preserving the tour that began the show in Arizona, but including new information: that Chicago was the site of the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, at the University of Chicago campus, sixteen miles southeast of where we stood, and that Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre was performing The Tempest at the same time as our performance, five-and-a-half miles to the south. As audience members stood on a street corner, looking at the city around them, they were asked to reconsider their city in light of information calling attention to the myriad intersections and collisions that emerge when one is asked to look for them.

We had always been interested in making a performance on Arcosanti that could be grafted, perhaps incongruously, onto the physical environment of our Chicago performance. This would point to the role of space in the making of the performance and in our understanding of community: that any shared experience is a spatial experience. Our challenge was to tailor our performance to a new space and for a new audience. We conceptually "grafted" the concept of arcology onto the Neo-Futurists' space and onto Chicago as a whole; we added an extensive introduction to Arcosanti to the academic presentation portion of the performance; and we incorporated a poetic, collaborative account of our own actual arrival at Arcosanti. Yet the fact that Arcosanti was still a foreign concept for our Chicago audience complicated our ability to layer the three stories (as we had in Arizona) without having to explain arcology. Our attempt to describe the collective subjective experience of arrival at Arcosanti to a roomful of Chicago spectators unfamiliar with the project resulted in a personally evocative rendering that did little to illuminate the theories of arcology: [End Page 141]

Fig. 2. Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment in performance at Arcosanti, Arizona. (Photo: Tomiaki Tamura, reprinted by permission of the Cosanti Foundation.)
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Fig. 2.

Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment in performance at Arcosanti, Arizona. (Photo: Tomiaki Tamura, reprinted by permission of the Cosanti Foundation.)

Seth Z:

The place looks like a wreck from the parking lot. There's no grand entrance. Just a crack between the vaults and you're inside. The outside folded on top of the inside, just as inside spaces are folded on top of each other . . .

Seth B:

I am here and here is my small bed. We are all a work in progress. The project faces a gorge and then another mesa. Or the same mesa, I guess, with a fault line running through it. The project is in slow process. Growing like lichen. Humans swarm on it like insects, eating, sleeping, building. I am going to lunch.

We were able to transfer the arrival, academic presentation, and testimony portions of the show to the theatre space of the Neo-Futurists. We preserved the rift in the middle of the performance; this displacement was connected to both the atomic explosion and the shipwreck in The Tempest, and to their aftermath. The final section, performed in the outdoor amphitheatre at Arcosanti, was re-imagined for a much smaller space in Chicago. We had to acknowledge the compression, the limitations, and therefore the possibilities that the particular architecture of the room allowed. We were even able to transfer the idea of a tour, referencing Arcosanti (Fig. 3).

What we were ultimately unable to offer our audiences in Chicago was the experience of being at Arcosanti. There, our audience was composed of a mixture of Arcosanti residents and visitors to the site who had taken a legitimate tour earlier that evening—after having driven down the rutted dirt road to get there. Whatever the nature of it, each person that night had a history with Arcosanti that exceeded the experience of Arcosanti we provided them during our performance. This was not so in Chicago, where any information or understanding we expected our audiences to have about Arcosanti had to be provided within the context of the performance.

Wilkie poses another question in relation to site-specific work: "If a performance is reworked, to what extent can it then be said to be the 'same' performance? And, perhaps more importantly, at which stage would we agree that a performance has been adapted enough to retain the label 'site [End Page 142] specific'?" (150). Since architecture was both a theme and structural determinant of our performance, our site-specificity needed to be reflected in both form and content. Wilkie offers a scheme for categorizing performance that occurs outside a theatre: site-sympathetic (existing performance text that is physicalized in a selected site); site-generic (performance generated for a series of like sites); and site-specific (performance generated specifically from/for one selected site) (150). Although it may seem as though Theoretical Isolation was site-sympathetic, we would argue that it remained site-specific: though they overlapped, neither the Arcosanti nor the Chicago versions of the show could have been performed in any other location.

Fig. 3. Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment in performance at The Neo-Futurarium in Chicago. (Photo: Angela Tillges, reprinted by permission of Ira S. Murfin.)
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Fig. 3.

Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment in performance at The Neo-Futurarium in Chicago. (Photo: Angela Tillges, reprinted by permission of Ira S. Murfin.)

A laboratory is a place for experimentation, not the experiment itself—a space, not an event. The performance inhabits a space, is even in dialogue with it, but it is an event, a collection of changes that occur over a defined period of time. What would it mean to create a performance that is a laboratory, a host for experimentation? Does the structure of the performance change as the experiment changes, or could we vary other factors? Maybe the "script" (in the most loosely defined use of the word) is the control, and we change spaces and audiences. The scientists emerge, not simply as performers adopting the markers and gestures of science, but with blank clipboards, waiting to take notes, to observe the results of our work like a chemical reaction. We are considering future projects that would use performance to investigate other schools of urban planning and architecture. We plan to return to Arcosanti, to deepen our relationship with that community and that space. As an urban environment, albeit a tiny one, Arcosanti is dependent on a constant influx of new ideas and projects. We are now part of a larger arcological community, one that extends from that city, across the desert and the prairie, to ours. [End Page 143]

Paolo Soleri asks if we can think of anything from which we could remove the element of space? If our answer is "No," then he suggests we should consider accepting the proposal that reality is space. Prospero proposes that "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on"—synapses, gray matter, the spatial configurations that make possible the fictions within which resides the real. Oppenheimer remembered the Bhagavad Gita at the moment of Trinity's detonation: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." To make is to unmake, and to do either, to do anything, is to be made of—space provides both the reason and the raw material. The work happens in space and of space; without space, it ceases to exist until it becomes spatial again. And when that isolated island, that membrane defined by the performance's duration, does hold momentarily the fluid of the performance again, it will be utterly changed, utterly different, utterly new and as tenuous as ever, as subject to sudden rupture upon collision with audience and architecture, subject to interruption of its own making.

Chloe Johnston

Chloe Johnston is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, where she is completing her dissertation on the use of risk in interventionist performances. She is also a performer, writer, director, and dramaturg who has worked with theatres throughout Chicago and has designed and taught classes at Northwestern and the University of Chicago. She is an ensemble member of The Neo-Futurists and a founding member of the Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials.

Ira S. Murfin

Ira S. Murfin is a student in the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Theatre and Drama at Northwestern University. He holds an M.F.A. in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a graduate of the Dramatic Writing Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. From 1999-2003, he lived at the urban-design laboratory Arcosanti in Arizona, where he was head of the Soleri Book Initiative. He is a performer and playwright, a founding member of the devised theatre collective the Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials, and has published fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and critical essays.


1. Paolo Soleri, Technology and Cosmogenesis (1985), p. 51.

2. The Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials (LDSM) is made up of seven artists: Seth Bockley, Jessica Hudson, Chloe Johnston, Ira S. Murfin, Kerensa Peterson, Angela Tillges, and Seth Zurer.

3. Glossary of names and term used in this article:

  • Paolo Soleri (b. 1919, Torino, Italy): architect and theorist, studied with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizonia, and, in 1956, founded the Cosanti Foundation, which is dedicated to practical research in architecture and urban planning.

  • arcology: Soleri's term for an urban-design approach fusing the concerns of architecture and ecology. Arcology proposes dense and compact, long-lasting, multiuse pedestrian cities designed to minimize energy and land use and to promote culture and interaction within the city while providing immediate access to agriculture and wilderness. Arcology exists as a set of theoretical design principles in Soleri's published work, influencing architecture and urban planning; it also exists in an initial prototypical version at Soleri's project, Arcosanti.

  • Arcosanti: Soleri's urban-design laboratory in the high desert of central Arizona. Arcosanti is being built to serve as a prototype for the concept of arcology. Under self-funded construction by onsite amateur labor since 1970, Arcosanti is about 5 percent complete and houses between [End Page 144] 70-100 people at a time. At completion, it will house 5,000 people on fifteen square acres. At present, Arcosanti serves as an educational site, hosting workshops, cultural events, and about 50,000 visitors a year, in addition to its small resident population.

4. In an era of environmental awareness, it seems appropriate to pay attention to leanness and conservation not only as a subject for, but equally in the making and presentation of performance. The members of Goat Island Performance Group and scholars writing about its work speak about this relationship in Small Acts of Repair: Performance, Ecology, and Goat Island. That project was prompted by a question: "How do you make a repair?"Like the LDSM, Goat Island's devising process attempted to follow the leanest path to investigate and respond to a very real question, rather than using more resources than necessary to argue a point that could be made in a leaner fashion. Although this is an example of aesthetic and procedural sustainability, it is no less relevant to ecological questions if we take all living systems to be ecologies. In his introduction to Small Acts of Repair, co-editor Stephen Bottoms writes: "The binary opposition of nature and culture—with its implicit privileging of the latter—persists in much of our most basic thinking, insistently setting masterful humanity apart from the rest of the earth's life forms. . . . If our environment is endangered, then so are we" (19). Bottoms sees the ecosystem of a Goat Island performance "as an island, surrounded by a 'sea' of audience" (36, emphasis in original). This island metaphor—as it applies to viewing a performance as a closed ecology and to isolation as an important aspect of the relationship between performer and audience—is apt for our description of the various iterations of Theoretical Isolation in terms of its embodiment of architectural and environmental theories in an inherent, rather than an illustrative, manner.

Works Cited

Bottoms, Stephen, and Matthew Goulish, eds. Small Acts of Repair: Performance, Ecology, and Goat Island. London: Routledge, 2007.
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
Carlson, Marvin. The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2003.
Conquergood, Dwight. "Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research." TDR 46.2 (2002): 145-56.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
Murfin, Ira S. "The Bridge between Theory and Concrete: On Arcosanti and the Writings of Paolo Soleri." The Mind Garden: Conversations with Paolo Soleri II. Ed. Michel F. Sarda. Phoenix: Bridgewood Press, 2007.
Oddey, Alison. Devising Theatre: A Practical and Theoretical Handbook. London: Routledge, 1996.
Owen, David. Green Metropolis. New York: Riverhead, 2009.
Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.
Schechner, Richard. "6 Axioms for Environmental Theatre." TDR 12.3 (1968): 41-64.
Soleri, Paolo. Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. Cambridge: MIT P, 1969.
———. Technology and Cosmogenesis. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1985. [End Page 145]
———. What If ?: Collected Writings, 1986-2000. Albany, CA: Berkeley Hills Books, 2002.
Wilkie, Fiona. "Mapping the Terrain: A Survey of Site-Specific Performance in Britain." New Theatre Quarterly 18.2 (2002): 140-60. [End Page 146]

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