Ventriloquism is a sort of unnerving experience. Puppets are involved, sure, but there’s also this added bizarre effect where the human operating the puppet hides the fact that they’re speaking. Just a slight case of denial as Anna Freud might say.
Visual artist Gisèle Vienne also picked up on this strangeness. The half French, half German artist and choreographer first used ventriloquism in her 2007 piece “Jerk,” based on a novel about real life American serial killer Dean Corll.
That experience, combined with an encounter with German puppeteer group The Puppentheater Halle, led Vienne to develop a new theatrical piece – this one around the Vent Haven ventriloquists convention in Kentucky, which claims to be the world’s oldest and largest.
The piece born out of all that – “The Ventriloquist’s Convention” – premiered in Germany this summer, with puppet design and choreography from Vienne and a script by her longtime collaborator, American author Dennis Cooper.
“Puppets inspire all sorts of feelings, from scary to funny to ridiculous to attractive.”
Vienne describes the work as a dark, melancholic exploration of the ways human beings hide, whether behind puppets or their own stunted emotions.
“The best way to describe it is going backstage to the private life of a comedienne or a clown,” Vienne said. “You have people talking to each other in different layers. Here, because of the excuse of the convention, people can tell things to each other with their puppets that they wouldn’t normally say.”
Which leads both dummies and people towards their own untapped feelings.
“That brings them to unfold very personal concerns and I think they’re talking about deep questions we all have concerning affection and loneliness and death and love,” she said.
It’s not Vienne’s first time crafting a work around “dummies.” Her 2001 piece “Showroom Dummies” used real women, often grotesquely masked, who were then posed as mannequins.
Watch an exerpt of "Showroom Dummies" below.
It’s the human fascination with artificial bodies, Vienne said, which makes both theatrical pieces so effective.
“Puppets inspire all sorts of feelings, from scary to funny to ridiculous to attractive,” she said. “You get such a strong relation to these puppets onstage – you attach to them feelings and a consciousness even though you know they’re objects. It’s very fascinating how they’re still magic.”
“The Ventriloquist’s Convention” runs Thursday-Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.