Playing With Scale in the People’s Republic
[Originally published in Contemporary Theatre Review, issue 26.1]
I cannot remember exactly when or how we arrived at the Times Museum in Guangzhou. It is not a building that aims to capture your attention. Indeed, it is a gallery that appears initially at least to occupy no space at all, embedded as it is on the lowermost and uppermost floors of an otherwise ordinary residential apartment block in an otherwise ordinary area of Guangzhou, far from declamatory civic architecture of the city centre – the voluminous aria of Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House, the clever spectacle of Guangzhou Library’s monumental book-like stacks. The Times Museum is a building to be experienced from the inside. Its spectacle is the city itself, viewed from a balcony or the glass windows of its exhibition rooms. This is not a museum that demands space and attention within the city, but rather a lens through which to consider it.
If architecture invites or perhaps even imposes a set of values upon the institution that occupies it, then the values implied by the architecture of the Times Museum are values I find enormously appealing. It is a building that blurs rather than demarcates space in the city. A building whose grandest flourish is a gesture out from rather than towards itself. A building that is physically embedded within and bound up with the activity of its local community. A building that seems to listen, rather than to speak.
Perhaps it was this set of architectural conditions that helped make the Times Museum the most enjoyable and most successful stop on our brief tour of China. Or perhaps it was more quotidian causes – the level of engagement of the programming team, their enthusiasm for and understanding of our work, the number of tickets we managed to sell. Perhaps those two things are not unrelated.
In July 2015 Forest Fringe went to China. We were invited by the British Council to create a touring ‘microfestival’; a collection of intimate, interactive performances and installations by artists from the UK to be presented as a series of self-contained two-day festivals in the cities of Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. In the last five years we have made similar microfestivals in cities including Lisbon, New York, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Athens, but never before had we attempted a project on this scale.
Scale is important in relation to Forest Fringe. We began as a gathering of mainly young, mainly British performance artists and theatremakers working together to create a space to present our work in the midst of the corporatized fury of the Edinburgh Festival. Ten years later Forest Fringe continues to be made up of a decentralised community of independent theatre makers – solo artists, duos, small companies of three or four individuals – who come together at particular times and in particular places in order to present their work together. In order to achieve collectively something they can’t achieve individually.
Forest Fringe exists because such defiantly independent, unashamedly small-scale artists are able to sustain themselves in the UK, up to a certain point at least. This is in part a consequence of the fact that they are able to fund projects through the Arts Council’s small grants programme and partly because they are able to tour the UK’s relatively healthy network of small to medium-scale venues reasonable cheaply. We live on a small island with a competent road network and enough stages built into the upstairs of pubs and the basements of warehouses to keep blood just about flowing through thin capillaries. Artists can largely create work without the patronage of major institutions and the entailing necessity to increase the scale of your work to fit the size of the rooms such major institutions tend to build for people to watch theatre in.
Forest Fringe, and to an extent the wider community of artists that exist around and beyond it, has become a laboratory for the exploration of the theatrical possibilities implicit in this intimate scale. What you tend to find at Forest Fringe is work invested in moments of immediate connection. Work woven out of the individual threads that connect one audience member to another and each of them to the artists standing often no more than a few metres away from you. The sound of their breathe rising and falling. Their eyes picking you out in the half darkness. The urgency of this act of gathering. Your responsibility as a member of this temporary community. And whilst the technical complexity and the aesthetic ambition of this work has increased enormously over the course of nearly a decade at the Edinburgh Festival, the scale has remained relatively similar. We like it up close and personal.
The intimacy of this scale and the impact this has on the performance and those people bearing witness to it remains one of the greatest strengths of Forest Fringe’s work. It is also one of the things that makes the work of Forest Fringe artists distinctive and interesting for an international audience. But it also often brings challenges. As we travel round the world we regularly encounter the problem of operating on a scale that is not in sympathy with that of the theatre buildings in the countries we visit. We can admire your beautiful Zaha Hadid concert hall but we know we would be totally lost in it.
Consequently we have tried to find other ways to place this work, to create contexts that make sense of it, allowing local audiences to meet that work on its own terms. Sometimes this is about finding imaginative alternative ways to use the space and resources of big institutions – to present our work in their boardrooms and their bars and their underground car parks. Sometimes it is about going somewhere else entirely – repurposing non-theatre spaces, whether they be warehouses, old cinemas, former slaughterhouses or, in the case of China, three moderately-sized independent galleries.
But perhaps the most important way we have found of creating space for ourselves in these foreign places is the idea of a ‘microfestival’ itself – a constellating together of three or four or five small pieces to create the shape of something larger. Each piece in dialogue with the others, providing not only the content of the event but also a way of framing and contextualising it. A microfestival is a culture in both senses of the word; a collective expression of the way we think about art, and a carefully prepared set of conditions that allows our work to live temporarily far away from home.
What are we doing in China? What purpose could our being here possibly have? This is what I am thinking to myself as we move anonymously between buildings of impossible scale and conspicuous power.
Perhaps what we are trying to do is create a culture that refuses to participate in this discourse of spectacle. A version of international touring that exists outside of the huge mega-venues and their franchised productions of international mega-hits; hits such as the National Theatre’s War Horse, whose restaging in the same cities were also visiting was one of the centrepieces of 2015’s Anglo-Chinese year of Culture. Perhaps ours is a version of art that has more in common with the kind of everyday strategies for inhabiting space that are to be found on the streets of a city rather than in its immaculate concert halls.
Certainly it is noticeable on our brief stay that the artists we brought with us felt most at ease amongst the activity of China’s smaller, messier city streets. Tiny restaurants spilling out on to the pavement on colourful plastic chairs, the appropriated logos of major international brands, the occasionally hilarious DIY repairs and resourceful technological workarounds, all of which make China’s streets such a joyous, unpredictable place to walk. Improvisatory tactics, resourceful acts of cohabitation and appropriation; an ‘art of making do’ as Michel De Certeau would have it. In the shadows of skyscrapers, shopping malls and conference centres, it is on these streets that the world’s most populous country appears to find its most human scale.
And much like those human-scaled streets, Forest Fringe’s microfestival in China represents to me more an occupation of time than an occupation of space. An interruption perhaps, or a series of interruptions, that subtly reconstitute the space we are temporarily inhabiting. There are no grand sets or spectacular installations, instead there are a series of imaginative acts of repurposing and re-imagining. There is, for example, the Hunt & Darton cafe temporarily infecting the gallery’s normal rooftop cafe space like a technicolour fever dream, filling it with unhelpful cardboard signs, deranged costumed waitresses and curiously English culinary offerings. There is Richard DeDomenici slipping anonymously through the city’s streets recreating scenes from multi-million dollar Hollywood movies in their original shooting locations using only a small digital camera and a team of willing local volunteers, Abigail Conway inviting people to dismantle old Chinese watches and transform them into new pieces of jewellery, Simone Kenyon and Maria Sideri creating beautiful sculptural forms using nothing but their own bodies, or my own instructional book of ‘Six Duets’ inviting audiences to play hidden, secret games with unsuspecting passersby, both in the gallery and out on the streets beyond it. These are not pieces that demand to be looked at, but rather pieces to be looked with – lenses for reconstituting our relationship to the world around us.
And the enthusiasm with which these surreal offerings are greeted is for me a reassuring counter to the seductive power of scale and spectacle. It is a reminder that beyond the grand concert halls, China is also a country (as hopefully any country is) that is built not from steel and glass but out of everyday human-scale interactions. It is a place full of people who appreciate the value of distraction and interruption; of playful, unpredictable and politically ambiguous acts of gathering. People who recognise the thrill in performances where you can hear the sound of a breathe rising and falling and see into the eyes of the person moving in front of you. Performances that are an invitation to be part of strange, temporary communities that fill us not with awe but with agency.
[Image: Abigail Conway’s On The Tip Of Your Tongue at the Times Museum, Guangzhou]