Elisabet Diaz Sanmartin

Cultural Hybridity

8 December 2012

LA FURA DELS BAUS: From Post-Modern Theatre to Post-Human Theatre



La Fura dels Baus (literally The Oxen’s Fury) started as a small Catalan experimental theatre company at the beginning of the Spanish democracy in 1979. In their early stages, they experimented with the creation of street performances exploring taboos as sexuality and violence, pushing the boundaries of western moral conventions and interacting with the environment and the audience to reach a new expression beyond the traditional theatre representation. La Fura created its own language, “language Furero” (Furan Language), with a postmodern attitude, a punk effrontery and the ambition of the Pop Art movement. By introducing in Spain the idea of “happenings” they reached big audiences and started to elaborate complex mise-en-scenes, with provocative content and abstract performances. After leading the Olympic Games Opening Performance in Barcelona in 1992, with an impressive spectacle centered in the Mediterranean Sea, they gained international recognition. La Fura is part of a generation of Spanish theatre groups (Els Joglars, el Tricycle, Nacho Duato,etc.) that during the last two decades have found a place in the international scene. Its body of work with non-textual proposals prioritizing corporal expression and the construction of stunning visual and sound landscapes has created universal language. During their trajectory, La Fura dels Baus has maintained a signature style but their theatre has evolved from a post-modern to a post-human attitude with the incorporation of new technologies.

II.- In Search of Freedom: The Arts During the Democratic Transition in Spain

Rocío Durcal. An example of Traditional Theatre performances during the Franco Period

There is a turning point in the history of Spanish culture with the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, when the process to democracy, named La Transición (The Transition), triggered a cultural and ideological liberation that promoted the proliferation of artistic manifestations among all art disciplines. During the dictatorship, art, culture and media were strictly manipulated in order to maintain the traditional values of the regime: nation, religion and family. One of the hardest measures of repression was the negation of the Spanish diversity with the prohibition of minority languages and the censure and punishment of local cultural expressions. In Barcelona, clandestine Catalan theatre played a role in the cultural and linguistic resistance. It indirectly fostered what is today a consolidated theatre industry in Spain with an impressive international success. The most significant companies created under the shadow of the regime, El Joglars (1962) and Els Comediants (1971), opted for a non-textual and experimental approach to avoid both the Francoist censure and the repetition of the classical theatre that was performed throughout Spain. In the same fashion, Antonin Artaud's innovative ideas about the relationship between the performer-spectator and the need of breaking up traditional mise-en-scene were key elements in the investigation of a new theatrical design. Post-regime companies, such as La Fura dels Baus, El Tricicle and Dagoll Dagom, inherited the ideas of the “Theatre of Cruelty”[1] (Gies, 734) Thus, the question of cultural identity and intercultural transfers were the motor of an ongoing dialogue for the creation of new meanings in theatre production. (Agger 1)

"Pepi, Lucy, Bom y otras chicas del montón" First Film of Almodóvar. 1980
During the democratic transition Madrid and Barcelona became the foci of the new artistic manifestations. Artists questioned national identity and the rigidness of the regime's values by searching for new forms of expression and with an eye to the international art scene. In a society where adultery, homosexuality, and contraception were criminalized until 1978 and divorce was not legal until 1981, one of the first artists to break taboos was the filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. (Kelleher & Ridout,78.) Almodóvar freely talked about sexual issues such as homosexuality, perversion, transexuality, and HIV. In his first film Pepi, Luci Boom y Las Chicas del Montón(1980) one of the main characters, Bom, performed by a fifteen year old actress urinates in the mouth of the character Pepi, a traditional Spanish housewife with an identity crisis. There was a strong connection between the work of Almodóvar and la Fura; both seek to provoke and disturb the audience. However, besides the common starting point, the abolition of the outdated beliefs and repressive forms of the Franconian Spanish society, the artistic movements of Madrid and Barcelona differed in their formal approach. In Madrid, the artistic movement (la Movida) led by the cinematographer Pedro Almódovar captured a “Pop Art” taste while in Barcelona artists such as Antoni Tápies influenced the arts with traces of Abstract Expressionism.

III. Intercultural Transfers. Post-Modern Theatre.

In terms of semiotics it is clear to see that La Fura del Baus elaborated its signature style -what they name Furan Language- from previous cultural meanings (constructed from other preceding ones) during this specific historical context (Agger 1). La Fura describes Furan Language as the “use of non-conventional spaces, music, movement, the application of industrial and organic materials, its incorporation of new technologies and its interaction with the audience during the performance.” (LaFura) The group established the Furan Language during the first period of their career. the first three works, Accions (1984), Suz/O/Suz (1985), and Tier Mon (1988), built a style by experimenting with Dadaist and surrealist ideas, the "happenings" of the 60’s, an abstract expressionism of contemporary artwork.


“Accions was a collage of sensations that each member of the audience had to recompose.All the scenes of the collage, such as the scenes with the white man or the chrysalid-men, conceived theatricalspace as an expressive element in itself. Through light and sound, the scenes camouflaged and transformed all aspectsof space. Naked chrysalid-men, in a fetal position, covered by a plastic placenta, were thrown into the void by means of apulley attached to a cable. Their bodies crashed against a wall covered with bags of red liquid. The impact burst the bagsso that flesh, plastic and 'blood' came together symbolizing birth and death.” (George & London 119)

Artaud.jpgBefore forming the group, the founders performed street theatre. They transferred features of street performance such as fireworks, acrobatics, and the use of unconventional spaces into their Furan Language. However instead of promoting an optimistic and festive mood, they followed a provocative style reminiscent of the Dadaist movement; provocation, abstraction, absurdity and aggressive performances were qualities performed during the times of the Cabaret Voltaire. These elements were highly influential in the elaboration of the happenings and performance movement of the 60’s and of what is labeled as postmodern theatre.

Happening and the Performance Art movement were grounded in the theatre theories of the surrealist dramaturge Antonin Artaud, specifically in his essay The Theatre and its Double. Artaud, like the Postimpressionist and early twenty century artists, drew from oriental cultures in search of new forms of expression and meanings. One of the main elements pulled from his investigations was the almost absence of text in the performances, not by muting it but by giving to the word a minimal space. In Artaud’s theory and work the main focus was the combination of the space, the gesture, and the sounds in a improvised stage where anything can happen either for the actors or for the audience. He eliminated the traditional scenery disposition, to reach if needed a more symbolic and abstract set design (Artaud). There was a clear surrealist approach in transforming the show into an dreamlike experience and using the stage as a platform to unleash unconscious feelings by the disorientation of the senses and the mind.

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John cage. Variations VII. 9 Evenings
In their first period La Fura emulated the Happenings and Performance Art's movements developed in The United States during the 60's. This movement inherited Dadaist and Artaud main features: elimination of the “fourth wall,” integration of the audience in the performance, and emphasis on improvisation. It became a new artistic form denominated Performance art and Happening, a hybrid between a performance and an installation art, born in the creative atmosphere of the liberal Black Mountain College. The college offered an interdisciplinary curriculum devoted to enhance education under the idea that learning occurs better through experimentation. In 1952, the first “happening” was performed by John Cage, with a choreography created by Merce Cunningham and a set designed by Rauschenberg. The “happening” sought to create a non-static piece of art, a unique ephemeral experience that occurs in a specific moment involving the performer and the audience. In 1966 some of the Black Mountain artists, with the collaboration of engineers of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, created several performances in a event named 9 Evenings. A group of ten artists and more than 35 engineers worked during ten months to create a fusion between art, dance, and theatre technology. (E.A.T. 3) 9 evenings is considered the first important step toward the integration of technology in arts and some of their innovation, such as the use of fiber optics or video projections of the stage, are now a part of the usual resources in modern theatre. For example John Cage presented Variations VII, a sound performance that among other experiments transformed into sound the brain waves of one of his collaborators (Arnolfini). The influence of 9 Evenings in the work of La Fura is not only present in their work formally, it is also present in the company philosophy that constantly works with engineers, scientists, and digital artists.

In addition to the influence of the Performance Art movement of the 60's, the contemporary painter Antoni Tàpies was another key influence in the creation of the Furan language. His theorization about his artwork and the aesthetic of his work are present during the first period of La Fura. His artwork is framed within the artistic movement Informalismo, an European parallel movement to the American Abstract Expressionism. Similarly to the work of Rauschenberg, Tápies experimented with common elements of his environment, sometimes raw materials and sometimes commonly described as “disgusting” objects such as trash elements. Prehistoric paintings and their capacity to connect to “primitive human impulses” fascinated Tápies (Avila 203). He stated that his art was a “contemplation of profound reality of absolute cosmic consciousness,” and “I paint with the subconscious and with the circumstances around me”. (FundacioTapies)

Antoni Tápies.jpg

La Fura adopted two main traces of Tápies work. First, they use organic and “raw” elements such as coal, sand, or metal in their performances, but not as a decorative element. The actors interact and experiment with the elements mixing them with water or fire, transforming them and expressing abstract concepts through them. Secondly, the group adapts “arte povera” aesthetics, integrating “low” elements, disturbing and unpleasant objects, in order to force the audience to reflect on what is considered “low.” The adaptation of these ideas can be appreciated in Suz/O/Suz, the whole mise-en-scene emulates primitive rituals, where the performers, anonymous characters, are surrounded by the audience that needs to be alert to the movements of the actors because there is no spatial delineation between the audience and performers. The show was performed in a morgue in Madrid and featured supermarket trolleys and plastics, fire and raw meat. La Fura used Tápies elements in a more provocative manner than the personal and intimate work of the painter.

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"Accions" 1984. In the middle of the democratic transition. Spanish audience was not ready for the abstract and violent performances of La Fura

At the beginning of the company, La Fura experimented with these ideas to create the Furan Language and elaborate its signature style. During this period, the Spanish audience that was still in the middle of the democratic transition was shocked and didn’t react positively to their shows. People were frightened of the half naked performers destroying cars and yelling next to them; the company gained the title of “punk” and “savage” theatre. However, Catalan media attributed to them a status of alternative theatre helping to the gradual integration of their style in the Catalan society. Once they built a signature style their progressive and experimental nature continued to evolve with the incorporation of technological advances, opening a new path for artistic innovation.

IV. Furan Language.

Since the nineties, La Fura has evolved and diversified its work with the creation of text-theatre, Operas, digital theatre, street actions and large-scale corporate events. However, the company tries to maintain a style, not only formally but also in content. Furan content stems from Freudian ideas; it explores human complexities through the depictment of collective unconscious fears and the clash between desire and repression. In one of the most controversial plays XXX, inspired by Marquis the Sade’s Justine, questioned contemporary pornography by the representation of a myriad sexual perversions. In the playbill of XXX, the company stated that they wanted to "Unleash the subconscious and bring inclinations out (preferably sexual), to let them flow freely out of any moral bondage” and that it "aims to challenge boundaries of what is acceptable without a moral judgment". The story of XXX is set in the present and illustrates during two hours how an innocent girl is perverted by three libertine characters: a retired porn star, an intellectual that incarnates Sade, and her cruel brother. During the performance the actors incorporated cameras in their bodies and the images recorded were projected onto big screens situated in the background. Sometimes what was projected onto the screens are media such as graphics videos or images from websites. The actors and the screen are constantly in dialogue. Similarly to a cubist painting, the spectator is exposed to a collage of images where the performance is display from multiples perspectives and “sizes”. The play was controversial in Europe because the actors were often naked and the sexual performances were explicit; the British BBC described it as “'shocking' and the most sexually explicit [play] ever staged in the UK." The BBC also says that the London’s Metropolitan Police, “ watched a video of the performance and said there was no illegal activitybecause the sex scenes had been simulated.” While James Baudrillard would argue that there is no difference between the simulation of doing something and the act of doing it, what is clear is that XXX challenged the Victorian vision that has influenced contemporary attitude toward sexuality-“restrained, mute, and hypocritical”- by performing western taboos in a non-conventional manner. (Foucault 3)XXX.jpg

Even though the Furan content and the mise-en-scène are always provocative, the group has found itself comfortable in the opera format and has gained the respect from the usually conservative audiences. Several operas commissioned by European cities have garnered international prestige while making economically possible other experimental projects. In 2010, they surprised the audience with the opera Superparadise Mahagonny: Swallow, fornicate, boxing and suck. The opera was a reinterpretation of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny composed by Kurt Weil and written by Bertolt Brecht in 1930 to denounce the rise of capitalism and the decadent consequences associated with it. In Fura’s adaptation, the action occurs in a “trap-city”, Mahagonny, placed in a remote desert in the middle of The United States where former employees of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. are now selling waste. The city is a big rubbish dump and the inhabitants are symbolically part of the trash. La Fura avoided the usual technological deployment to provide to the performance a bleak and austere crisis’ panorama. The opera debuted in Madrid at the height of the Spanish economic crisis and it has been performed in several European cities where it has been very successful.

Another powerful allegory to the European economic crisis was the reinterpretation of Puccini’s opera Turandot. La Fura placed the action in a futuristic Europe in 2046 where China has taken control of the old continent by buying the economic debt along with the cultural heritage and the natural resources. The futuristic Europe resembles the production design of the film Blade Runner, with a postmodern and chaotic city. In this metropolis inundated with neon light the inhabitants can only afford renting a bed by hours because they are still paying their parents’s debts. In both operas, and in most of La Fura’s work, the starting point is contemporary “hyperrealities.” Emphasizing the signs and images that embody contemporary culture, the Fura’s intention is to question contemporary beliefs, codes, and fears by magnifying the traces these “hyperrealities.”


The work that encompasses all the previous features that created the Furan idiosyncrasy is Naumon. In 2004, La Fura acquired an old ship, Naumon, and transformed the vessel into a mobile performance center. As the company likes to say “Naumon is a nomadic space for creation.”(lafura) The ship is 246 feet long and contains more than 50 cabins, a restaurant, two spaces for exhibitions, one stage outside and one inside with a bar. This artistic project was designed to travel throughout the Mediterranean Sea across the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Sea performing spectacles inside the boat, on the land, on the surface of the ship and in water (lafura.com). Naumon didn’t achieve its ambitious project other than the trips throughout the Mediterranean Sea, due to lack of funding. The artistic director declared in 2011 that with the success of the opera Turandot the group had finally paid for the ship. (la vanguardia) Today, Naumon is based in Barcelona where it serves as a cultural center for all kinds of artistic expressions and occasionally departs to other cities to perform two permanent “amphibious” shows, Naumaquia and Matria. The former is a macro-show that uses the surface of the ship as a main stage and the later is performed inside the boat, six feet under the water level. In Nauromaquia the fireworks, that used be present in the early performances, surround the boat as a signal that the show has started. Gigantic nets of humans are suspended in the air forming an organic curtain or a DNA molecule. While images of Bush, Sadam Hussein, Blair, Aznar[2] and Bin Landen are projected in a big screen, a huge metallic wheel representing Hell and Paradise makes its way through the spectators emulating Moses crossing the Red Sea. Another element of the show are two colossal mechanical creatures, “cosmic puppets,” that have embodied various avatars during the history of the group; they have video images projected in their head illustrating a being with multiple ages, gender and races at the same time. A similar “cosmic puppet” was used in the performance Prometeus Awakes that amazed the audience of London during the International Greenwich+Docklands International Festival in June 2012. The festival coincided with the Paralympics Games and la Fura collaborated with the British company Graeae’s to create performance completely led by disabled people (Gardner 2012). The second amphibious show, Matria, is performed in the gigantic “matrix” of the boat. The show recalls the early performances where the audience and the actors were on the same level and the group explored subjects such as fear, isolation and manipulation.(naumonweb)




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Some critics argue that the massive production and myriad type of shows has blurred the authorship and style of the group; however, la Fura rebuts that idea stating that the situation is an opportunity to intensify their creativity since the essence of their work lays on investigation and experimentation.They argue that each type of performance has its peculiarities and constrains, and working with multiple spectacles help to avoid auto-censorship and enhance creative freedom (Viniarsky). Indeed, it is because of their love of innovation that La Fura has gain the fame of being one of the companies that experiments the most.

V. Incorporation of New Technologies: Post-Human Theatre.

NOUN .jpg
"NOUN" 1990. International Brochure. Introduction of Complex Machinery.

In the trajectory of la Fura, the evolution is determined by the incorporation of technology. The group, sensitive to the technological advances, transfered contemporary social changes in their performances and mirrored post-human characteristics. La Fura incorporated technology in their spectacles very early, in 1990, with the performance NOUN. The subject of the performance was the tense relationship between the human and the machine. In NOUN, the machines personify the ancient lifeless waters of chaos (called Noun) that God used to create the world. It suggests that machines and humans are not opposite things; machines are in this existence evolving at the same time that humanity does. This process provokes a tension between them. The personification of the waters into machines required complex structures and technological sophistication in the scenary. Moreover, that was the first time that the group incorporated video in the scene. In the international brochure of the play the group stated that the incorporation of the video is “a step further in the expression and definition of the group’s language . The actors no longer merely articulate sounds; even so their oral message are still hard to comprehend. Communication in done basically through the image, which becomes the vehicle of contact between man, machine and the system" showing a turn in their approach to theatre. Since that moment La Fura has pushed the boundaries of the theatrical representation towards the hybridization of their spectacles and the adaptation of the latest technological advances. In addition to this process, the digital boom and the Internet revolution has fostered their amalgamation of different media to create spectacular performances. For example, in the adaptation of the Wagnerian opera Der Ring des Nibelungen presented in Valencia in 2008, in the mise-en-scene used multiples projections in HD, emulating the action film and videogames aesthetics.

"Noun" (1990) and "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (2008) are examples of the incorporation of technologies, specifically the incorporation of video in the performances of "la Fura" from its beginning until now.

Machines, technology, and internet define the post-human cyber-artistic identity of La Fura and are readily apparent in their macro-spectacles for special events. This hypermediated visual style is analogous with reality representations in science-fiction films. Both genres have been hybridized with digital effects and technological advances, generating realistic virtual worlds by merging their medium with the digital one. Moreover, digital content amplifies visual possibilities and mitigates the actor’s leadership. For example in the film Avatar, the goal of the director, James Cameron, was for spectators to see his fantastic creatures as emotional and real beings. Cameron attached a CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) camera to a helmet that the actors wore during the recording; the camera encoded every facial expression, including eye movements, and as a consequence enhanced the resemblance of the creatures with the actors. The performance of the actors and the director were also improved by the fusion of different cameras allowing simultaneous merging of the digital content with the live-action performance on screen, allowing Cameron to direct the real and the virtual elements at the same time. (Avatar 2010) Something similar occurs in the large-scale spectacles of La Fura; the actors and the technology became one. The performer, like a bit in a computer, has to flow in a bigger network of elements interconnected. The nodal point is technology which mediates the representation by connecting the bodies, the voice, and the images. The actors are cyborgs - half animal half machines-, organisms that manipulate machines and are at the same time manipulated by the machines in a constant ongoing dialogue creating a unique organism. With the incorporation of technological prosthesis in the bodies of the performers, the boundary between the human and the artificial is blurred. The actors, now cyborgs, do not have a concrete sex, because the cyborgs do not belong to the gendered world (Haraway 150). Paradoxically, within this post-humanism approach to the performer’s qualities, the importance of the actor lies in his body as George and London describe when they say, “indeed, in all the performances of La Fura dels Baus, a visceral kind of act- ing predominates. As a result, the actors' bodies are exposed to audiences as gestural and phonic vehicles, designed to create fields of energy between themselves and each spectator.” (George & London 119) On the other hand, the adaptation of new technologies in theatre have been established virtuality as a new "bodiless actor" of the play. The scene unfolds in a myriad of screens and the audience becomes absorbed and hyper-stimulated by this artificial channel of communication. The spectator assumes virtuality as reality and becomes vulnerable emotionally and intellectually by this hybrid form.

VI. Conclusion

Theatre art uses metaphors to reflect social complexities.La Fura dels Baus and their constant innovative approach to performance have created a body of work that echoes the changes that contemporary culture is undergoing with the technological advances. In they early work, La Fura emulated postmodern ideas from previous cultural manifestations which, in the latest works, were translated in a post-human attitude that reflects the dominance of virtuality in today's society. In terms of art and specifically in terms of theatre arts, it would be interesting to consider the future of theatre, or at least its significance, in the virtual age. If the process of merging virtual and material worlds continues, the actors role are gradually missing, and i the audience interactivity increasing, what is the future of theatre? Can there be a theatre performance without actors or spectators? Can we have theatre performance without a shared physical space? Where would be the boundaries then between theatre/ film and video games?

[1] The “Theatre of Cruelty” is surrealist form of theatre theorized by the French dramaturg Antonin Artaud in his book The Theatre and its Double.

[2] José Maria Aznar. Spanish Prime Minister from 1996 to 1004. Aznar actively supported the United States' War on Terrorism, despite public opposition.

Works Cited