The Anti-Spectacle of the Performing Self —The Autoteatro of Ant Hampton and and Silvia Mercuriali
“To a common hero, a ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands of streets.”
—The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel De Certeau
The short history of autoteatro as a theatrical form begins in the corner of a crowded room in London in 2001. Ant Hampton and Silvia Mercuriali under the name Rotozaza are presenting [BURST] at a party on a boat moored by the side of the Thames. [BURST] is an act of unconventional self-portraiture. As described by Hampton and Mercuriali themselves:
“In a party atmosphere people are asked to recline on a chaise-long and blow up a balloon until it bursts. They are filmed and a video-still of the crucial moment is chosen together with onlookers and printed out. Over the evening a display of these images starts to grow.”
In this first simple piece, all the essential components that will later constitute the form Hampton and Mercuriali name autoteatro are already present.
In the first instance, the piece requires the participation of no performers other than the participants themselves. Secondly, the work is structured around a series of instructions which, when completed, produce a version of the piece unique to each participant. Crucially, the piece does not demand that the participant perform those instructions with inventiveness or virtuosity. Instead the complete opposite is true – the instructions alleviate the need for the participating audience member to make any decisions about how to act, allowing a different order of truthfulness to emerge.
In [BURST], any decision about how to present yourself becomes irrelevant, where the involuntary reaction caused by the bursting of the balloon denies the audience member any decision over how to act, consequently creating what the duo have described as “a ‘natural’ picture of our expressive mechanism in a split second of crisis.”
These faces and their unselfconscious honesty. Hands raised. Eyes closed. Caught in the act, suspended there in the moment of doing. A portrait of ordinary humanness revealed through the apparatus of a neat theatrical machine.
The decisions you do not realise you are making
First with Rotozaza, and later under his own name and accompanied by a fascinating range of collaborators, Hampton has created a body of work that interrogates the meaning and value of this ordinary humanness with erudite precision and dazzling inventiveness. His works are micro-studies of human behaviour, ballets of tiny unselfconscious actions and gestures framed and structured by carefully choreographed instructions whose fixity and frequent automation only serve to emphasise the fragile, fallible yet dynamic and essential nature of the human actors following them.
Prior to the development of autoteatro as a theatrical form, this interest manifested itself in a series of ‘call and response’ performances such as Romcom (2003) and Doublethink (2004) in which unrehearsed guest performers would follow pre-recorded instructions played either through headphones or out loud into the theatre auditorium.
This mechanism created a curiously watchable effect. By removing from these performers the responsibility of performing they become simply actors, in the sense that they are just people undertaking certain actions (even when those actions are ‘saying words’ and ‘being a character’). The interest for the watching audience is not in the imaginative decisions the performer is making as they perform these actions, but rather in the decisions the performer does not realise they are making. We are left to study the crucial details that exist at the margins of identity; the everyday uniqueness of each actor’s way of emptying their pockets or opening a handkerchief or simply standing still and looking and listening.
Thus from early on Hampton’s work did not appear particularly concerned with conventional performers and their virtuosity, their expressiveness and their carefully constructed characters, or indeed with familiar markers of identity like personality and personal history. Instead his actors were the vehicles for schemata of action that belong to a deeper, broader understanding of who we are and what we do.
In some ways autoteatro is a natural extension of that earlier work; in others it is its complete opposite. In both forms the matrix of instructions the actor is following ensure that our attention is on the minutiae of their behaviour – the spontaneity and idiosyncrasy implicit in how each individual responds to the actions they must undertake. In call-and-response work these intimate details at the margins of identity are rendered as theatrical spectacle for a watching audience. The contrast between this marginal ordinariness and the assumed spectacle of live theatre is part of the delight to be had in the work, as is apparent in the playfully generic titles such as Romcom and Bloke .
In autoteatro there is no audience and no spectacle. The audience become the actors, undertaking their actions in an intimate set-up which, up until The Extra People (2015), involved no more than five participants. Etiquette (2007) , for instance, involves just two people sat in the corner of a cafe, following instructions on headphones; the intimate ordinariness of their instructed interactions passing almost unnoticed by the other equally ordinary people around them.
The anti-spectacle of autoteatro enables the act of performance to step discretely out of the limelight, and insinuate itself among the everyday stuff outside of the theatre. In so doing it moves crucially from the centre of attention and towards the margins.
It is worth noting how these autoteatro works rarely occupy a room but more often choose to sit inconspicuously to one side or in the background; on a bench in a park (Hello For Dummies ), at a desk in a library (The Quiet Volume ), at a table in a cafe (Etiquette). In The Extra People (2015), the relationship of the performance to the theatre auditorium in which it takes place is demonstrative of this desire to resist theatre’s conventional positioning of itself at the centre of everyone’s attention. The theatre lights are switched off, the seats are largely empty and the usual apparatus that guides our focus is conspicuously absent. These are shows that refuse to show themselves, instead positioning themselves among the everyday activity of a place and disappearing. By situating the work in the margins in this way, we the actors can also remain marginal, on the edge of things.
The experience of marginality is a recurrent theme in Hampton’s autoteatro works in explicit and non-explicit ways. Cue China (2012) has the subtitle ‘elsewhere, off-shore’, and the piece itself invites us to consider the experience of people whose lives are spent producing the laptops and phones that are an unthinkingly essential part of our everyday lives. In The Extra People too this sense of marginality is clear from the title. We are extra people, ‘extra humans’, like the anonymous faces in the background of a movie, and again the piece itself connects us with the experience of marginalised workers within the apparatus of globalised capitalism.
Yet marginality in this work is not solely something happening to other people elsewhere and off-shore. As the cultural theorist Michel De Certeau has argued, “marginality is today no longer limited to minority groups, but is rather massive and pervasive… marginality is becoming universal.” Hampton’s work recognises this. It recognises that, albeit to much greater and lesser extents, we are all subjected to capitalism’s monstrous apparatus; labourers in a machine that no one is controlling, performers in a drama that no one is watching. Like an anti-Warholian fantasy for the 21st century, what autoteatro suggests, more than anything, is that we are all infinitely insignificant but that this insignificance is an essential part of our humanity.
To a common hero
And yet I think the nature of this insignificance is more complicated than I am making it out to be.
Let us take a moment to consider the confluence of voices that speaks in these autoteatro pieces. In the first instance the machinery of instruction itself has its own voice, and it is noticeable how frequently within this work attention is drawn to that voice. Whether it be through the reflexivity of the narrative in GuruGuru (2009) or OKOK (2011) , the robotic artificiality of the voice in The Extra People or the employment of moments of deliberate interruption and estrangement in Someone Else (2015), we are never entirely allowed to forget the presence of the voice that guides and instructs us. We are always alert to its presence and our relationship to it.
Who are we then in relation to this voice? A rudimentary reading might suggest we are its puppet, echoing its words and following its instructions. Crucially, however, we in turn bring our own voice to these tasks, wrapping our way of doing things around the voice that instructs us, and in so doing communicating something of ourselves not contained in the content of the words we speak or even the virtuosity of how we speak them.
In the act of so doing, we transform the voice of the machine into our own voice; an act that recalls again Michel De Certeau and his description of the appropriation of a language by its speakers. For De Certeau, such ordinary people’s appropriation of the products imposed by a dominant economic order allows them to become “poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality.”
And just as his writing seeks to celebrate these acts that are otherwise hidden in ‘the obscure background of social activity’, so Hampton’s autoteatro pieces celebrate intimate and unseeable acts of spontaneity, profundity and resistance that occur through our appropriation of the theatrical apparatus that controls us. We are ordinary heroes, heroic not despite our ordinariness but because of it.
The potential of this idea is thrillingly met in the most recent of Hampton’s pieces, Someone Else (2015). We are invited for almost the first time within this nascent medium to take a step beyond the immediate instructions of the voices that guide us, and complete a simple assignment involving a stranger in a public street. Here the vital meaning of such ordinary gestures is not just alluded to but made manifest. We are encouraged to believe, correctly I would hope, that despite our seeming insignificance our actions have the potential to produce a better reality. Poets of our own acts, writing stories of our collective salvation in unnoticed gestures on a busy city street.
This essay is part of an excellent book collection called Encountering Practice, created in Hong Kong by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.