Once more we brave the breach to tie up loose ends and conclude our analysis of Christoph Frey’s The Space Between. Having given an overview of the literal narrative and dissected it, the piece begins to expose its underbelly, quivering and ready to burst, full of possibility.
Returning to a moment between Clara and Martin, he says to her, “But that’s why I’m an architect. I don’t have to let go. I can live inside my work.” Is this not the relation any creator feels to their work? Martin’s absorption into his creation mirrors how an author succumbs to their art; it eventually moves past the limited view of the creator and makes its way into the minds of others. Out of the control of the one who has tinged it with meaning, the piece takes on its own life and is sustained through others.
Legacy is a thing that most everyone mulls over, wondering what their time on this Earth will leave behind for others. Being remembered well past death keeps you alive, in some small way, despite your complete submersion in the well of nothingness. We do this with so many of our shared cultural works, imbuing them with meaning beyond the mundaneness of our own realities. As any great work is forged, its creator gifts it to the world by way of their own ambition. However, the reading of that intent differs from person to person.
What of the work that falls inward on itself, attempting its own reading of its purpose as the intent itself? To some degree, in this way, The Space Between eventually becomes a quine; a phrase reserved typically for computer programs that are able to only output their own source without any input, an endless loop of fruitlessly budding until the hard drive it resides on fills or fails. The narrative acts in this fashion, self-replicating by no means of Martin’s or the player’s actions, and only returning the fractured, twisted view of the world that it is.
A lens is placed against the map of this universe, and fractals reveal themselves: Martin’s longing for connection, Clara’s disconnection, Daniel’s death. Each action moves nothing forward, more so further entrenching us and the protagonists in their rut. They do nothing, and are endlessly punished for their complacency. The program is running itself, only propagating itself in the form of existential dread over mortality and the nihilistic futility of life. It forever cycles between Martin’s desperation and your reaction from it, as Frey reaches across time and space to try and graze you, to reach out and feel connection. However, it’s one-sided. You can’t change the predetermined fates of these people. You can’t give any input but that allowed by Frey in the first place; there’s fundamentally no way to alter the program.
Martin’s soul-searching and determination to unfurl his psyche serve as the meat and bones of the story, but there is an ever-present steady hand hovering above the body. Every beat of the game, every errant noise in the distance, flickering of lights, or waver of cloth is on a string tied directly to Christoph Frey’s hand. The one thing that must always be remembered about performative works is that they are entirely created with the utmost of deliberation. Frey has no shakiness to his hands, deftly puppeting the grand choreography of the game as a whole, with purpose.
Martin’s neurosis projects his ego as parasite, feeding off of him until nothing is left but the shadows of his mind in the form of grand architecture; his brutalist, jagged stylings given shape to penetrate the noise of this world, the nonstop ripples across his vision that create a Monet-like abstraction of the world around him. Frey expresses a disconnect from an objective reality through Martin, leaving him only able to converse in the rigidity of right angles, attempting in the only way he can to reach across the ether and grab hold of another. Much like Frey, his creations are oblique and imposing, dense yet open, flowing from room to room or moment to moment.
The issue that arises from labored performances such as the act of creation is that there will forever and always be a barrier between the bestower of culture and the audience, simply due to the subjectivity of how we each experience art. Both parties have their roles to play, as Clara points out, but they exist completely separated from each other. During a play, the curtain closes at the end of the scene to only enforce this idea of existing in incompatible realities. This gap between the two serves as the fourth wall, the invisible blockade not made of matter but that of the suspension of disbelief. Through that disbelief, the performing creator is able to drip parts of themselves into you, but the fourth wall forever stops them from being able to outright take hold of you and pour their thoughts directly through you. Similar to that of an actor in a theatre, the stage becomes a place of isolation in which the performer serves as the creator, moment-to-moment, of the show.
Each performance is for the audience, housed within a theater, the cathedral dedicated to them. During the ritual of watching, each member of the audience also takes on the role of the voyeur. These two exist as distinct entities; the way in which they consume the act of the person on the stage, meanwhile, wildly differs. As audience, the actor is seen purely for their skill, for their ability to convey story and emotion, for their participation in evoking the narrative. But, as voyeur, people are giving into a more animalistic side of themselves, losing themselves in the ungrounded view of another human, their suspension of disbelief allowing them to see flesh and blood live out in front of them in ways they would never be privy to. In a similar fashion, modern reality TV fulfills much the same purpose; we’re naturally curious as how others function. Do they think similarly to the way we do? Am I the only one like this? Surely, there could be another like me.
Voyeurs scrutinize and inspect, hoping to find a glimmer of themselves in there, some sort of recognizable feature swirling in the chaos reassuring them that they aren’t alone, that they are connected and able to inhabit one another regardless of the boundaries of skin.
For an actor, the performance inherently presses up against the fourth wall in every moment, stretching it further out, their hand grasping out for the voyeur, to connect in some way that can link their two distinct experiences. These positions exist in opposition to one another, however. To connect to the audience or the voyeur, the actor would need to shed the skin of their character and puncture the fourth wall, reaching out naked to feel contact past the blanketing veil. This, however, cannot be, as the audience utilizes it as the foundation for interpreting the shared reality they’re presented with. As the signifiers break down, so too does suspension of disbelief, doing away with the subjective unity shared by the members of this metaphorical dance.
Crumbling into itself, an implosion, the act no longer functions in a way that gives meaning to the people on either side of the theatre. Without audience, there is no actor. Without voyeur, there is no want for the purely human desire for emotional closure. In this balancing act, the theatre becomes a mold for us to pour our gelatinous psyches into, letting it congeal within the confines of the stage. We find meaning through art and performance; the shared connections that manage to permeate the matterless wall stick with us and inform our empathy and understanding of one another.
Take, for instance, the recurring scene between Daniel and Martin, the climax of their life together. That initial brush outside of the womb alters them permanently, unable to retreat to simply being their own selves again; the shadow of life has crept across the blanket and the need for it has been planted in Martin’s head. His entire goal within the game is to move through that blanket, to be born again into a world in which he is with Daniel. Or, is it Frey attempting to feel the contact of humanity on the other side of the screen? In much the same way, your playing of the game positions you as Martin, reaching against the womb of a space created for your pleasure. Frey reaches back as Daniel, asking if you can feel him through the code and and the wireframes, beyond the textures and the music.
How, though, do we permeate that wall? The fourth is so pivotal, so necessary, that navigating it to impart meaning beyond the surface layer of what is being presented becomes something requiring surgical precision. In the case of The Space Between, Christoph Frey reveals himself to be a Master Surgeon, understanding wholly the idea behind Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty.”
A simple idea in a world suffering as it healed from the trauma of WWI, the Theatre of Cruelty came about in opposition to the bourgeois theatre, a numbing experience drowning in rigid intellectualism, narrative bogged down in the need to remain within a predetermined structure. Connection was lost in the noise of lavish stage production and stories written as anathema to the human condition on a base level, instead focusing on the eloquence of the writing.
Much like Frey’s penchant for propping up totems of intense, recurring symbology to convey Martin’s (re)birth/death obsession, Artaud utilized raw imagery to convey meaning. Returning to ritual to overcome the limitations of the conventional narrative structure, the “cruelty” of the theatre was not necessarily literal, more so bringing emotional aggression to the forefront, the battering ram to pierce the veil of the fourth wall. Frey does this as well; Martin’s implied murder of Clara for her shortcomings stabbing at the curtain to shred it much like the Swiss cheese curtain lying on the floor of Martin’s bedroom, the holes conveying a desperation to find something on the other side of that billowing barrier.
Clara’s brutal murder, her presumed body strung up beneath the impassable hindrance on a monolithic structure, serves as a way to elucidate the trauma that underpins of all our lives. The human condition is one rooted deeply in pain and loss, the futility we all face in the end, staring down the barrel of a gun knowing that it will one day fire and we can do nothing to change or stop that. To make it through to the other side of the shroud, of the fourth wall, one must utilize the emotions that all of us understand too deeply.
By focusing solely on the backgrounds of a scene, on the set dressing, on the specific word choice and a need to convey ideas through verbosity, a creator instead pushes their intent further back from permeating the cloak of disbelief. These components are antithetical to how communication works.
Discussing Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty with Jessica Harvey (@oysterFAKE), she refers to these hurdles of communication and Artaud’s solutions as, “A hinderance! Replace them with a barrage of blunt imagery, nuanced crafting of intuition and raw sound. A tapestry of screams, libidinal gibberish, dance and open provocations can more than suffice.”
That sums up the concept more perfectly than any other words could. Artaud demands the audience be pulled into voyeurism, forced to experience something as close as possible to what Georges Bataille refers to as a “limit experience.” A limit experience is simply something that approaches the edge of living in the way it presents itself in intensity or unfeasibility. These performances of Artaud were referred to by him as a “spectacle,” engulfing the audience in a “vortex” to render them “trapped and powerless.”
Who could be more trapped and powerless in the whirlwind of The Space Between than the player themselves? Martin’s story corrupts your whole screen, its abstractions of sight and sound serving much the same role as Artaud’s reliance on eliciting discomfort through the use of anything other than words, as they were insufficient to convey the true emotion of what he wished to say.
In the end, Frey’s ultimate act in the final moments of the game lays all of this bare. As Martin ascends from Hell, once the deceased has crossed the metaphorical Styx, he returns to the stage, to his isolation; but now, scaffolding sits in the middle of the stage, two chairs facing one another at its base creating a phallic image that is literally penetrating the curtains, shattering the fourth wall. He ties all of the motifs in the surface narrative together here: the desire for birth and rebirth, the imagery of the womb, the sacred geometry. One of the most imposing structures here, that facilitates the construction of his desires, is shattering the barrier between man and author. The chairs and their placement, set up for face-to-face discussion, the vessel for the potency of creation. In between these vulviform curtains, limits fall to bits.
Christoph reaches out from your screen, his metaphysical impregnation serving as a conduit for attempted human contact beyond the pale of data. This image gives way to the veil of Clara’s window, the chairs now in her room, her spirt behind them in the flickering light. The final words: “I love you.” Decontextualized from Martin to Daniel, to be Frey to you.
On the other side of this life, we will find a comfort we never could here. Our time here is short. It’s bereft of eternal sunshine but within it we find fleeting moments of joy, assuring us that there is good here, however minuscule. But, when we pass that threshold, where we join Clara in her apartment, staring out into the darkness bearing witness to those on the outside, we can sit. We can face one another, and we can speak again.
Death is not the end.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.