Hans Bellmer, The Machine Gun[neress] in a State of Grace

Puppets and Automata: Art, Anxiety, and the Uncanny (In-Person)

Instructor: Isi Litke
BISR Central
68 Jay Street, #425
Brooklyn, NY 11201

From 18th century waxwork models to 21st century animatronic AI, puppets and automata of every sort have wrought an ambivalent impression—their very life-likeness inspiring fascination, speculation, and delight while, at the same time, unleashing anxieties regarding death, the other, and the supernatural. Romantic master of the macabre E.T.A Hoffman granted these uncanny objects, suspended between “living death” and “inanimate life,” a capacity to evoke a sense of “something unnatural” and grotesque—whereas the avant-garde of the Machine Age celebrated them for this very artificiality. Whether human-, machine-, or computer-operated, puppets and automata continue to unnerve, enchant, and provoke, both within a theatrical context and beyond. They populate the visual arts, literature, and film; they serve as political metaphors and repositories of anxieties about non-human agency. What can thinking with puppets teach us about subjectivity and embodiment, about spectatorship and representation, and about art and artifice?

In this course, we will survey the history and cultural reception of puppets and automata throughout European modernity. Beginning with Italian puppet theater, we will work our way through a range of Romantic, modernist, and avant-garde cultural works, theatrical and otherwise, considering the puppet’s close proximity to psychoanalytic thought, and to the genres of fairy tale, satire, and farce. We will also explore more recent developments in puppetry as artistic practice, from the stop-motion films of Jan Švankmajer and Jiri Trnka to the radical theater productions of William Kentridge and the Bread and Puppet Theater. Along the way, we’ll draw on texts by Heinrich von Kleist, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Sigmund Freud, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Federico García Lorca, Joseph Cornell, Kenneth Gross, Paul Klee, and Peter Schumann, among others. What kinds of proxies, doubles, models, and laboratories have these objects been, what purposes have they served, and why? 

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
July 10 — July 31, 2023
4 weeks


Registration Open

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