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Wild Life - An introduction to the project

I first came across the story of Victor, the so-called Wolf Boy of Aveyron, when I saw Francois Truffaut's film L'enfant sauvage (The Wild Child) as a sixth former. The story stayed with me and a few years ago I came across a copy of Lucien Malson’s book Wolf Children in a bookshop, with a still from the film on the front. In the book, Malson documents the various cases of feral children that have been documented and discusses the Victor case in some detail. The second half of the book consists of translations of Jean Itard’s two reports on Victor. Itard was the doctor who took on the task of tying to “civilise” Victor, and the two reports follow his ultimately fruitless attempts to teach Victor to speak.

Reading the book, and in particular Itard’s reports, brought the story back to me and the idea formed to make a theatre piece based around the story. As usual with these ideas, it was necessary for me to find a team with whom to develop the idea. I had known and admired Pamela Carter’s work for some time and something made me approach her about the idea of working on the play – subconsciously, it was probably her two plays for Stewart Laing that gave me the idea: both had French sources (Slope was about the relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine and An Argument about Sex was based on Marivaux’s La dispute). At the time we first spoke, An Argument… had yet to be produced, but I knew the original play and the strange connection between La Dispute and the case of Victor (La dispute imagines the results of the “forbidden experiment” long dreamed of by philosophers where a child is deprived of human contact).

It seemed natural to then ask Sans facon and Simon Wilkinson to work on the project – I had had a particularly happy experience working with Tristan and Charles (otherwise known as Sans facon) on Walden, and now doing a full-on theatre production seemed a logical extention of that relationship. I liked the work Simon had done on After Mary Rose and had just invited him to become as associate artist of the company and I felt he would work well with Tristan and Charles (who are also associate artists).

What will follow on from this posting is some of the correspondence that has flowed between us over the past few months as the project has developed.

Nicholas Bone

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Thoughts from Tristan & Charles after Creative Team meeting June 2010

The larger question of what makes Humans human and what makes humans different to animals has been a recurring tool we have used to explain the project to other people.

Itard put an emphasis on speech, yet describes Victor as being very sensitive to other peoples emotions. He also had exceptional hearing. Hence we talked a lot about the senses, I was thinking about a book called The Eyes of the Skin by Juhani Pallasmaa, it looks at architecture and the senses – more specifically about how we react/respond/receive spaces.

This led to a discussion about taste and the existence/acceptance of the fifth taste: Psychophysicists have long suggested the existence of four taste 'primaries', referred to as the basic tastes: sweetness, bitterness, sourness and saltiness. Although first described in 1908, savoriness (also called "umami" in Japanese) has been only recently recognized as the fifth basic taste. Clearly this is not really related to this project but I like the idea something existing outside our accepted understanding. This reminded me of an art work by Negativland where they suggest that a new primary colour has been discovered, the website is ok but the radio report is one of my all time favorite artworks. (I can’t find a recording online but a transcription is here).

I know there was some interest in Janice Kerbel's work (we are very interested in it, especially the fantasy island and 15 Lombard Street projects); we have also been looking at Mike Nelson’s work. We talked a little about isolation and thought about Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc.

About sounds: ‘Good’ sounds and the emotive effect of ‘bad’ sounds on the body about comfort levels

Victorians experimented with the body and this is experimenting with the mind, there was a great exhibition at the Wellcome Trust earlier this year called The Identity Project - well worth checking out the website.

Some words collected from various discussions which don’t fit into the above:
Nature – logic
The noble savage


      Freak shows

    Anatomy theatres (attached)- Gunther von Hagens


      That the work will be based on Victor and Itard, possibly with an 1800 sensibility rather than rigidly set in any specific era.


      Victorian-era France was very different to Victorian England


      The continuing question or nature and nurture.


      To ask another question of the audience – perhaps the audience is the ‘odd one out’, they are the experiment?

Tristan and Charles
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Pamela Carter in response to Tristan & Charles July 2010

I like freak shows (and this links to some Janice Kerbel pieces which I think you already know) and anatomy theatres.

I'm interested in language acquisition and how Victor had to be taught to want things he'd never previously needed in order to civilise him: sensitising him to cold so he would dress etc. In 21st century terms, Victor had to be taught to be a good consumer to make him part of society, to make him economically useful. And I guess it's this that I've also been pondering, and how Victor/Itard's story has relevance to me in the here and now and not just as a historically interesting, intellectually stimulating investigation.

I was fascinated by both the programmes and the ensuing discussions about the BBC Scotland documentary The Scheme and Pat Kane's reaction.

Stories about 'freaks' (think the Bodyshock series) are always compelling: is it porn? prurience? a need to understand human nature by examining those 'natures' that lie or a pushed to the very periferies?

So I think our Victor is a 21st century feral boy. I think he might be a media phenomenon. I wonder what he'll have to say when he learns how to speak.

I think some scenes / ideas might need to be mediatised or framed as that kind of watching. The audience - maybe it's their watching which is also under scrutiny?
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Tristan and Charles - July 2010

Over the last month we have had French architecture student Alix Fournier on placement and she has been working with us on all our projects. We explained Wild Life to her and asked if she would like to do some research and develop some thoughts about the project – here are her thoughts:

Link to Gotlib’s comic on Truffaut’s movie L'EnfantSauvage.

What is a wild child? It’s a child who grew up out of the human society, far from a human model and social relations.

Etymology of “Enfant sauvage”: infans, the one who doesn’t speak; silva, woodland.

Using the wild child’s return to mankind to underline worst aspects of the human society would certainly link the play with contemporary issues. The example of Oxana Malaya gives a good idea of a mediatic, voyeuristic, treatment of the story of a wild child discovered nowadays:

Humanity/animality: It seems that animals have an instinct, an a priori behaviour peculiar to their species; an insulated animal could grow and develop properly, whereas a human is born unfinished. A child acquires language and reflexive skills through contact with others.

The only way for a child to be conscious of himself (Ego) is to be confronted with others (Alter Ego)

Maybe the audience could somehow contribute to build the play just as society contributes to build an individual human? To be not only a voyeuristic witness.

Instinct/learning/heredity/transmission: what does it mean to be part of society? Working together for a global survival? Producing knowledge to improve mankind? Victor’s story is the story of an education: once caught the child is not free any longer. Although he was the subject of experimentation, he at least didn’t undergo exploitation and exhibition in human zoos that some did (e.g. the Hottentot Venus)

Senses: as they are the interaction between our environment and our selves, it’s interesting to see how our senses, which we might suppose to be the most natural part of us, are in fact educated.

For me, the work of Snohetta on perceptual displacements and some of Olafur Eliasson’s work interrogate this education of our perceptions. Victor was not deaf and could see correctly, but the abstract language we use to communicate with was of no particular use for him.

I was also thinking of Robinson Crusoe and the way his story is the opposite process - how a person left on his own loses what makes him a human. Also, Richard Long’s work when he moves natural elements to a place definately unique to mankind: the museum.

One more thing relating to senses: as Itard’s work with Victor is an attempt to wake up the child’s senses, I wondered if the set design could be based on a material. Our educated senses link materials with feelings and ideas: sand for example, which not only reminds us of the circus and beaches, but also evokes its own sound, smell, touch. The work of Magdalena Abakanowicz with textile and fibres interest me a lot. Her sculptures called abakans are something between gigantic clothes and powerful expression of a material.
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Wild Life - Assistant Director Jonny's thoughts

I’ve been thinking about the philosophical side of Victor’s case and I thought I’d share a few points which are interesting to me.

Victor’s case is an almost perfect (real life) example of a theoretical philosophical concept – man in the state of nature, existing without laws or society.
We could easily compare Victor to Rousseau’s (“noble”) savage – a solitary being, living a wild existence barely distinguishable from that of an animal. In Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (published in 1754) Rousseau proposes that man in the state of nature led an innocent and peaceful existence, which was destroyed by the development of society and “corrupted needs” – the need for leisure time, luxury goods etc. This connects to Pamela’s point about how Itard teaches Victor to need things he previously managed without, and how Victor needs to become a good consumer in order to become a useful member of society. However, Victor also differs from Rousseau’s savage in two interesting ways:

• The savage “desires only food, sexual satisfaction and sleep”. However in Victor’s case, the question of his sexual appetite is trickier, as he doesn’t seem to comprehend these desires in the same way he does his appetite for food.

• Rousseau believed that “one species is intended by nature for the food of another”, and that man in the state of nature, though compassionate to other humans, would prey on non-human animals for food. In Victor’s case, the evidence suggests that he didn’t eat meat while he was living wild. Taking this into account, Victor seems even nobler than Rousseau’s hypothetical savage, as he doesn’t kill animals for food.
Victor’s case resonates with certain arguments by the contemporary philosopher Peter Singer. Singer discusses the difficulty in finding a quality that universally distinguishes humans from animals (as moral justification for killing them for food). If we base this judgment on intelligence, one could argue that certain animals are more intelligent than (e.g.) mentally disabled humans, which complicates the argument of whether it is morally acceptable to eat meat:
“Philosophers who set out to find a characteristic that will distinguish humans from other animals rarely take the course of abandoning these groups of humans by lumping them in with the other animals. It is easy to see why they do not. To take this line without re-thinking our attitudes to other animals would entail that we have the right to perform painful experiments on retarded humans for trivial reasons; similarly it would follow that we had the right to rear and kill these humans for food. To most philosophers these consequences are as unacceptable as the view that we should stop treating nonhumans in this way.”

What interests me is how the ethics of eating meat becomes very difficult when taking into account boundaries of human and animal intelligence. Arguably, Victor sits on this boundary, exemplifying these philosophical questions: “what is the moral distinction between killing an animal and killing a human of very low intelligence?” and “what is it (if anything) that makes us different from/above animals.”
If Itard had any awareness of Rousseau, he surely didn’t consider it or agree with it. Itard grew frustrated at not being able to teach language to Victor, or to fully “civilize” him. If he had taken a more philosophical perspective, he might have found Victor to be a sophisticated, perhaps morally superior being. I like the idea of an outsider making us reassess our values, obviously Itard didn’t respond to Victor in this way, but perhaps the audience might?

I’m sure much of this is familiar territory, but hopefully useful in some way.
Peter Singer’s All Animals are Equal and Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality are available online.

Jonny Rogerson
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Latest Comment

Guest - J. Sharp Taking A Walk
07 September 2014
Very much enjoyed your show at the Brunton Theatre last night and the silent walk to start was an excellent addition, creating the perfect atmosphere....