This is the text (and some slides) for a talk I am giving on Tuesday about what I do to a group of University Students in Brighton as part of a residency at Blast Theory. As I’ve done dauntingly little to justify the amount of time they are paying me for it’s heavy on the why on not on the what. As such it might be interesting. The last section is in part a copy and paste of an old Guardian article I wrote, but don’t tell anyone.
I suppose in making the things I’ve made I have followed the artists who I admire the most. Who I get the most excited by when I hear about their work. People like Tim Etchells, Janet Cardiff, Rotozaza, Gob Squad, Graeme Miller and Blast Theory.
Their work, doesn’t exist in one form, or even in one medium. It is stage shows, video work, games, installations, audio walks, writing, lectures, happenings, blogs, curated events.
But that is not to say that it is disparate. In fact – the complete opposite. It often shows a mind or a group of people restlessly grappling with things, constantly turning over problems or ideas, taking them apart and putting them back together over and over again.
This is kind of how I try and see the stuff I do.
There are things that fascinate me, that obsess me, that I end up coming back to over and over again – and everything I do is in some way a response to those questions, those preoccupations.
So I figured the best thing I could do would be to tell you a bit about these things, with some examples of how I’ve tried to explore them.
Part 1: Participation
I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all. (Claes Oldenburg)
A lot of the things I do are situated somewhere in the middle of an argument between form and content, or more specifically between participation and storytelling.
I think that the way we do things is as important as what we do.
We live in a time when we are bombarded by more information than anyone in the history of the world. Television news has given way to 24 hour news which has given way to news on demand and the internet. With a phone (especially this phone) I am always submerged in this ocean of information. We feed off it. We sustain ourselves on ever larger amounts. We are unrepentant, incorrigible junkies.
Last summer I was at Glastonbury when Michael Jackson died. Despite being in a tent in a field slick with mud lost in a dizzy trance of French noise pop, I knew about it almost the moment it happened. A wave of phones beeping across the entire site. News erupting all around us. The very next day I was standing at a bar when I noticed that the barman already had a t-shirt on that simply said ‘The Jackson Four’.
In a world like this the role of theatre and the arts in general is not (if it ever was) to educate us, or to cut out pieces of the world for inspection in some imagined other space – the closed off world of the gallery or the theatre. Phones go off anywhere.
For me, it should be about process. Not about what we’re looking at or reading. But how we choose to read the constant barrage of signs and information that make up our awareness of the world. How we choose to situate ourselves in that world.
I’m interested in how we do things.
I like to make situations in which people have to decide collectively how they are going to do things. Spaces in which they’re engagement with the world around them is tested, explored, played with. Opportunities for the audience (whether its one person or a room full of people) to become participants, co-creators. Where their reading of what is going on is foregrounded and can be shared and compared with the other people taking part.
And so the question I find myself running up against more than any other is how you give this space to the participants to make the work, whilst still providing a frame or a context or a story that is meaningful and interesting. That offers enough to respond to.
This mainly seems to involve a lot of dismantling of the predominant ways we tell stories and putting them back together again. Making stories that do not build through a linear what happens next but in other ways.
A quick example:
I created a game called Checkpoint for the Hide&Seek Festival at the South Bank Centre in which audience members had to smuggle a whole living room from one side a busy public building to another, past a team of border guards.
Each of those items was itself a story – a little fragment of the imagined life that this living room might have contained. As it was smuggled each of these miniature stories took on a new life, some of great individual bravery, some of beautiful acts of collective participation, some of near misses, some of comic failures, some of quiet victories. Collectively the fragments of this living room put back together again at the other side made up an archive of the stories that had just played out over the last hour, a text of all the successes and failures, the highs and the lows.
And through the aesthetic of this piece, the context built for it – all authoritarian border guards, checkpoint Charlie allusions and Eastern Bloc kitsch – this story being collectively built by the participants took on a larger resonance. They negotiated their relationship to each other and the situation they were placed it, they trusted strangers, made acts of courage or sacrifice.
Part 2: Reconstruction
Thus while travelling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of the abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which wind rolls away: spider-webs of intricate relationships seeking a form. (Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities)
I started off as a history student. History as a thing, has always fascinated me.
There’s something tantalising and sad about it. How close but unreachable it is.
One of my favourite films is Jurassic Park. Not only because it is almost the perfect Hollywood film but because it’s the ultimate historian’s fantasy. History succeeds in becoming a science. And as a science it can continue to progress, to perfect itself, to the point where history is realisable. Where in a laboratory we can put the past back together again and then see it living and breathing in front of us. Except of course as the film shows us it doesn’t work. We have been blind to our presence, we ignore that we’ve created a world in which we don’t belong – and yet, as always, there is no other place for us to go. And so Samuel L. Jackson and a series of other minor characters end up being eaten.
Unless we want to avoid such circumstances we can’t forget that we will end up in the middle of whatever we try and make.
Because the past is always more than a series of material events and physical places and flesh and bones people that can be put back together again and observed, explored, studied and prodded.
Instead, I like to think of the past like a place.
A place does not exist as a physical thing. It is not a landscape. Sheffield is not the streets and buildings, or even the people that make up Sheffield. Or at least, it is not only those things.
It is also the relationships between people, the shared histories, the stories, the myths, the gossip, the longings, the memories, the false memories, people’s movements, their interactions.
A place is not something to be looked at, it is something to be lived in.
And so similarly we cannot hope to reconstruct the past as it was. It might be pleasing to imagine the scientific accuracy of reconstructed villages or The Real Trenches Experience or living museums – with all the correct artefacts and the correct costumes and language but its dangerously misleading. It, in its celebration of material detail, is no more accurate than Disney in its recreation of myth and nostalgia; both are equally valid and equally partial chunks of the past. But one is a lot more fun than the other.
In my work I’m interested in trying to find other ways of engaging with the past. Ways that acknowledge an awareness of my presence. Ways that don’t suggest accuracy or authenticity. In fact quite the opposite.
I don’t want to try and rebuild that place that is the past, I want to take a walk through its remains and I want the audience to come with me.
With my sometime collaborator Polly Webb-Wilson I’ve been making, on and off for a couple of years, a history project that uses the mechanisms of the reconstruction and the living museum to tell lies about the past – lies that hopefully show the preposterousness of the way facts can be put together to make stories into history.
At Battersea Arts Centre last year we took audiences on a guided tour of some of the little rooms upstairs and showed them where the character and plays of William Shakespeare, along with every document and piece of writing pertaining to him, had been invented in the 1920s by a team of brilliant young writers and poets working for the British Colonial Propaganda Bureau. We stood them in an empty room and asked them to imagine what it had been like. We played them a tape of an elderly woman remembering the fuzzy details of her time there all those years ago.
At The Arches in Glasgow we asked a studio audience to help us reconstruct one of the original film studios that used to be hidden under the streets of the city from an old newspaper column. We took a photograph of their efforts and after the interval we gave them a presentation on the original film studios that used to be hidden under the streets of the city based on our research of an old photograph we’d found of those studios.
Part 3: The Imaginary
What’s that quote of Baron Munchausen that Terry Gilliam uses in his film? OUT OF LYING TO THE TRUTH. That could very well be our strategy here. (Tim Etchells)
Increasingly I also find myself fascinated by the act of not being present in theatre.
Can theatre still happen if nobody is there to see it? Can it exist only in the imagination?
As I said at the start, I’m excited by performance as process not product – something that is happening, or rather, something that is happening to you. So why can’t that something that is happening to you be all in your head and still be meaningful.
One show that I look to for inspiration, that has enthralled me more than almost any other is Forced Entertainment’s Nights in This City – a show that happened on a coach driving through a city at night. And yet I’ve never actually had the chance to experience it.
I’ve followed its unsettling, disorientating journey through the streets of Sheffield in my head; played out its fractured relationship between the real city and the stories the audience are told of it so many times. This imaginary idea continues to fuel so much of what I do, forging itself a presence in the real world more powerful than many shows I’ve actually seen.
The next question has to be, then, can a theatre that exists only in our heads ever be shared; can it ever bring people together? Potentially. In his brilliant book, Moondust, Andrew Smith describes the Apollo space programme as the greatest piece of theatre the world has ever seen: a magnificent performance by 20 actors and thousands of backroom staff. Yet that performance was experienced by no one bar the performers. It didn’t exist in the grainy black and white footage, the radio broadcasts, the transcripts or in the endless news coverage. It existed most powerfully as an idea, a dream of travelling out into the emptiness of space and gazing back at the world. And for a brief time, that was an idea that the entire world shared in.
I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a fascinating conversation going on around these ideas of the imaginary and performance. Artists exploring how we can construct imaginary performances by creating fictional documents from performances that never happened.
Ant Hampton and Britt Hatzius have created This Site Could be Yours, taking photographs and recycling them as archival images from a series of surreal and impossible show that never happened. The viewer sees where the show has just been, where it went to, the face of someone who might be an audience member or a performer, a view of the point at which even the performers realised they didn’t know where they were going.
From a performance made of fragments of the real world to one that re-imagines the real world as a performance. Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment has created a series of Readymades in which he retells the everyday things happening in the city as if they were artworks submitted to the biennale currently being held in that city.
For Istanbul Bienale this year my project will take place beside the sunlit and heavily jammed highway leading to Ataturk airport. There, in the shade of a large traffic sign, seated as some other men might seat themselves in the shade of a tree, five men will crouch to eat their lunch, fingers passing food on the grass beneath the sign, their bodies a the same time shaded, framed and contained by the lopsided rectangle of its shadow. (Tim Etchells, Istanbul Readymade)
In both these pieces the live performance seems to disappear completely. It appears lost, only to reappear in unlikely places – just off the edge of a photograph, in an image that won’t dislodge itself from your head, in the view out of a car window on the way to the airport several months after you’ve read Tim’s text. Performance is testing its own limits and yours at the same time, like a child ducking underwater and holding her breath just long enough for you to get worried, before bursting up in another part of the pool. It’s exciting and unsettling and full of possibilities.