Out of Place: The Politics of Site-Specific Performance in Contested Space (a performance presentation)

Full Company

Performance of Place Conference, University of Birmingham (May 2001)

Our contribution to the Performance of Place Conference took the form of a performance presentation, mixing academic analysis with allusive textual material and live action. We aimed to draw on the physical and historical properties of the space we were given.

A performance presentation does not translate easily into a text format. In performance our individual contributions were interwoven. In the interests of clarity, we have decided to present them separately here. We have each chosen how to present our contribution, whether detailing action, adding retrospective comments or paring down to the bare bones of the text. For this reason, the four sections cannot be read as a straightforward documentation of the event, but may give some idea of the themes and ideas it attempted to address.

 

Phil Smith

Wearing the clothes I would wear for a conference. A prop: a red and white stick, entwined with ivy, wrapped for transport.

Rhian Haynes is finishing presenting her paper on Performing Space in Dance Theatre - we have been waiting to give our paper, heightened by anticipation like all the other givers of papers, I imagine, but maybe different, maybe our waiting more performed?

The place where I've sat for most of the conference listening to the papers, contributing questions and opinions, writing notes, worrying and wondering about our paper. Place where we came in and were shocked by how unlike its description it was.

Begin by holding up a 'Five Minutes Left' card written by the person chairing a previous session.

Every time I've seen this I've felt a kind of chill. The effect it produces on the speaker who gets shown is it is that they speed up, they speak more words, but as listener I stop hearing any at all. Site-specific work can be like - you try to do too much and you become absorbed and sealed off, quarantined, an infectious 'Other' anaesthetised by your own material - you and the site disappear.

The other thing I've been seeing at the table here has been people's papers. This is my paper. (Unwrap the red and white stick from plastic bags.)

I explain why the stick is as it is - painted like a tool for mapping a site. But of course, it is bent rather than straight. An unreliable map on an unreliable ground. In Cancelled Menagerie it became a hunting gun.

It also reminds me of not being at home, of being away from Nikki and the children. Of Daniel and his infectious Chickenpox.

In my most recent performance, A Carnal Tour, it served as a Guide's stick and that is what it is again.

Please follow me.

I lead people through the window door to where Simon is hanging from ivy on the side of the building.

Simon hands the people over to me and I set off with them across the grass, pausing -

I was on a boat for twenty four hours until a day ago, coming back from Spain, and when I stop like this I feel the movement of the boat - I have brought another site with me.

At the statue at the bottom of the garden I turn and direct everyone's attention to the house, where Cathy and Stephen can be seen through the windows re-arranging the furniture in the room.

In Spain I was a reading a book. Mark L. Danielewski's House Of Leaves, in which the architecture of a house suddenly changes, a great staircase opens up in it, corridors snake away from it, massive cave-like halls swell up under it. We were in Spain for a wedding and the day after we watched the video of it. On the news when we got home I watched the video of the wedding reception in Jerusalem, when the floor suddenly gives way. I realise that my daughter, Rachel, is watching with me and turn over to The Simpsons... Wondering if she is remembering herself on the wedding video and feeling what I feel, the fragility of space. Please follow me.

We move to the path, the side of which has collapsed into the gardens below and has been roped off with plastic tape.

When I got back from Spain I threw away a piece of paper into the wastebasket, my hand lying on top of the rubbish there for a moment. Suddenly my hand felt very strange I couldn't locate the feeling, until I looked at my hand and it was covered with, maybe, one hundred ants. Then I saw it as a shot from Buñuel and Dali's Un Chien Andalou.

Please follow me.

We go up the steps towards the room where we started. At the top I pause. Simon is now videoing from alongside me. I talk about the man who carried on videoing as people fell through the floor in Jerusalem. How he wasn't a professional. How he caught remarkable and momentary behaviour - a man wanders about seemingly embarrassed, another plunges into the hole, a child imitates a screaming woman, an adult grabs a child and runs from the chasm as if might open up further.

I am trying to be more present in this site than that video-maker. But always aware of all the movies in our heads, the invisible Walkmans playing our soundtracks.

The shape we have just walked is that of a video camera.

I walk into the room and the people walk in too.

I sit at a table.


1.

I'm pointing up to the sky and trying to explain to the eight year old heckler that everything we are, except for helium and hydrogen, has been formed in the factories we call stars. The water ripples by, over giant pike bigger than the child. 'O yeh?' he says, sceptically. The child keeps pace with the boat. Why is everyone in England an empiricist?

Do you follow me?


2.

I'm holding a microphone over the graves. People picnic on them. Then I play a pre-recording of Electronic Voice Phenomena as if I'd just picked them up.

The bishop and two acolytes pass through us and enter the North Door as I'm quoting Vico on the importance of graves as cradles of civilisation.

The movement of earth has forced a corpse into the cellar of the bar over there. It's on display.

Per square metre this is the most haunted area in England; which is true of many tourist destinations. What's the difference between the tourist trade's exploitation of death and allusions to a recent murder?

The knife puncturing the liver. The second slash tearing into a vertebrae. The murderer is called Aslan. The Dean's, and I quote, 'cleansing' of the Green... how long before this death has been transformed into a meme?

Do you follow me?


3.

There's goes one!

What is a meme? A meme is a unit of ideological thought. Memes are in a constant process of natural selection. Like genes.

One of the most successful memes is the idea of a self.

Are you following me?

We're seated along one edge of a square arrangement of tables. I've just recognised one of the Committee Members from our ante-natal classes. No acknowledgement.

We speak our text, rehearsed in the café over the road. To create the performance we want to make, we are making the theatre we don't. I'm self-conscious, but I don't recognise my description of my work.

Pirates are a very successful meme. The acceptable face of rape and dis-possession.

They will give us the money if we dress up as pirates.

On Exeter's Quay there have never been any pirates. (I forget this line.)


4.

We are surrounded by the glassy eyes of stuffed animals.

Another successful meme - the student prank - reducing us and the woman in the wheelchair who is repeating it. We are all shrinking before the stuffed animals.

Then, it works - the school-children brought aimlessly in to the museum.

Some run riotously, chasing the metaphor and the lobster loose in the museum.

The others watch us.

One steals the bird curator's claw.

Starship Troopers and the Brain Bug, the non-humaness of animals, the desirability of keeping the collection, and its failure to freeze a moment of supremacy over other continents and species.

The bison on the bathroom mat.

Do you follow me?


5.

(The final section will be created in response to the memes of the space itself.)

Over the last two days I've sat in this room... mainly in this room... and been inspired by how similar the preoccupations of other people's work is with ours. With framing, mapping, bodies and ghosts... coming from very different disciplines to my own. I know that what I've heard and seen here will change what I do.

I'm tempted to snap this stick now... Prospero-like - as a celebration of my continuing desire to make both theatre and performance.

But maybe I'll resist the temptation.

I hear someone say: 'Go on.'

Yes, I think I will.

I break the stick - it comes into three pieces. I place them on the table.

 

Simon Persighetti

I climb up the ivy on the external walls of the building:

'Burglar, Ornitholgist, Romeo, Detective, Gardener, Site-specific artist...'

I write 'En Trance' in salt upon the step up to the 'dining room'.

I pass found objects through holes in the garden fence.

I place a landscape upon the open hand of a spectator in homage to the work of performance-archaeologist, Sally Watkins...

There is always that sense of anticipation of unknown corners.
In my imagination the place is like a lung expanding and contracting, changing shape and colour and smell.
It is a dreaming of place.
'Astronomy is a collective enterprise in picture making' and this will continue until we can touch those lights and say for sure whether the stars are hard bodies or clouds of luminescent liquid.
Arriving at an unknown building with only a sketch or a map leads to many projections which can only be ratified or dismissed as you step through the door. Even on site; even on sight,
first impressions are often incorrect.

Because I believed the guide book I assumed that I would be entering an oak panelled dining room. In my Gladstone bag I carried the site-buster kit of magnifying glass, tape measure, chalk and plumb line. But my secret weapon was the salt cellar and condimentary histories of the old salt roads back before the rise and fall of Birminghams' Industrial Revolution.

Text generated for the abominable room which did not fit the sketch or the map or my projections:

One might dismiss the 'Don't know/probably/maybe'.
I am no Homes & Gardens subscriber
But I might describe the decor as
probably arrived at by Committee.
Not 'Changing Rooms' but Deranging Rooms,
A kind of A Dolls House minus the homecraft of Ibsen
Maybe
This is a clear case of secular exorcism of history
An exorcism administered by the High priestess
Laura Ashley
whose final interior flight down stairs
left her outdated; past sell-by
short of staff
short of breath
dead 'probably/maybe'

This room is the
Don't know vote
that has kept us out of Europe;
It's the motel-vision of it'll do culture
comfort
nothing.
Lift the floorboards and the Borrowers have moved out
leaving no trace.

 

Cathy Turner


1.

What is 'Access'?

It is an arts funding priority.


2.

What is 'Access'?

Is it the largest possible number of people entering the largest possible arena?

Or

Is it one person slipping through a gap in the fence?

Does access mean 'Look, the door is open...'

Or

'Look, a new set of keys?'

Who controls access?

Is it those in charge of property, planning and development, commercial outlets, local government and government funding bodies?

Can we accept a definition of access from those who control it?


3.

Wrights & Sites is a performance group with a special relationship to place.

In our work together, we have deliberately chosen to remove our performance from the framework of the Proscenium Arch, the Wooden O or even the so-called 'Empty Space'.

This allows a fluidity of role and meaning and blurs the distinction between the artwork and the real, the artist and the audience.

Does this make it accessible?


4.

In 1998 we set out to stage a season of performances on Exeter Quayside during the Exeter Festival.

We did not expect this to be contentious. We did not then recognise the significance of the waterfront in urban development, or the import of the city festival with its pyrotechnical displays.

Malcolm Miles writes, of Melbourne waterfront:

No need for subtlety here - the statement is of spectacle, designed to sell the city's future... In such a great place, how could you fail to have a great time?
...Anyone, it might be said, can walk along the fiery promenade... but not all kinds of spatial practice, or occupation, are likely to be tolerated...
...the world of the city postcard is not that of experience, was never inhabited, only imagined...1

Exeter's Quayside is a highly contested site. Only co-operation with municipal interests would render our project acceptable.

We were offered money to dress up as pirates. Nostalgic dreams of Captain Pugwash, Swallows and Amazons, decorating the always-summer spaces for children at play...

We politely refused and staged our work in the margins, where it became less accessible.

Access, as defined by the authorities, seems to mean siting one's work within a set of established meanings.


5.

How else might one define the accessible?

Is it staging performances on Exeter Quay?
Or was that a nuisance?

Is it making interventions at an arts event?
Or was that self-reflective?

Is it inviting a group of people into your home?
Or was that self-indulgent?

Is it presenting scrolling messages on bus routes?
Or was that cryptic?

Is it letting people enter the underground passages while hushing the official voice of history?
Or was that uninformative?

Is it a surreal safari through the local museum?
Or was that baffling?

Is it leading a group of academics in mysterious configurations on the Cathedral Green?
Or was that elitist?

Does it open up access to ask questions about access?

Does it open up access to ask questions about access?

Do you follow me?

Or do I follow you?


6.

In 1986, Steve Rogers of Performance Magazine accused Lumiere & Son of presenting a site-specific performance that was politically conflicted. Deadwood took place in Kew Gardens. It criticised capitalist consumption and the resulting destruction of the rainforest. But, according to Rogers, it reinforced the role of the spectator as consumer of spectacle.

'As we were being guided around Kew gardens, I was not made to feel that I might be in a rain forest but rather that I was in a zoo...' This attitude of passive consumption seemed to him 'the very basis of capitalism and the end result is alienation...' He accused them of using 'capitalist methods to attack capitalist methods'... 2

This singling out of Lumiere's very eloquent performance may have been unfair - as the company pointed out 3, a conventional audience-spectator relationship lies at the heart of much, if not most radical and experimental theatre. Indeed, it may only have seemed so incongruous to Rogers because the siting of the work did, in other ways, offer a challenge to norms of presentation.

But could it be said that the spectator's relative passivity, the polarities of artist- audience, art-life, tend to make theatre politically ineffective, however eloquent?

Can we provoke the audience into performance, into a re-negotiation of space? Maybe, though this would seem likely to bring us into conflict with ideas of the accessible as compatible with the already established, static landscape of the city postcard - a concept revealed in the decorative blandness of much (not all) public art.

Oblique and fluid as its politics might be, such work could be seen as an incitement to direct action.


7.

What is a site?

Is it a space, a place, a symbol or a set of rules?

Is it a memory, a stage, a story or a mystery?

Is it a territory, a stronghold, an identity or a tenancy?

Is it a text?

A past? A future?

An objective fact or a 'shifting bundle of mirrors'?

To quote the situationists:

'Under the pavement, a beach.'


8.

In 2001, we developed the idea of a Mis-Guide, a book containing ideas for a series of walks through Exeter. These walks will be founded on a mythogeographic approach to place, inviting the walker to join with the writer in the making of meanings. How do we walk the city? How do we read the city?

How do you read the city?


9.

'...he arrives at the idea that walking is to an urban system what speech is to language: an appropriation, an acting-out of place, and a negotiation of possibilities. The process of the city epitomised for De Certeau by walking breaks up any imposed sense of place and fragments the city into an endless number of contiguous cities, each constantly remade by new acts of negotiation and sociation.' 4

The walker experiences space as process, lived in rather than conceived, moved through rather than viewed from a neighbouring hill.

The walker's perspective subverts static notions of place as imposed by bureaucracy or commerce.

The walker experiences a layering of narratives, personal, socio-political, historic or mythic.

We call this the practice of mytho-geography: an approach to the layered nature of site.

As I said before, we propose to develop these ideas in the form of a Guide Book.

We've been told that the book form is intrinsically inaccessible.


10.

What is 'Access' and does it relate to the 'Popular'?

Who are the people?

Do the people want the popular?

Are the people to be denied access to the maze?

Tim Cresswell writes:

...the arrangement of spaces and places can be thought of as a 'metanarrative' - a text of established meanings... easily recognisable parts of the 'way things are'... and they are entwined in a continuing story about the modern world, about the West, about England, about freedom. Against this metanarrative are arrayed an increasingly diverse set of alternative stories and alternative places...5

Are they to be made accessible?


Notes:

1. Malcolm Miles, The Uses of Decoration: Essays in the Architectural Everyday, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 2000, p.25

2. Steve Rogers, 'Entranced by Butterflies', Performance, No. 43, Sept/Oct 1986

3. David Gale and Hilary Westlake, 'Doff That Bonnet Before It Becomes A Tea Cosy!', Performance, No. 44, Nov/Dec 1986

4. Malcolm Miles, op. cit., p.27

5. Tim Cresswell, In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology and Transgression, University of Minessota Press, Minneapolis and London, 1996, p.162

 

Stephen Hodge

 

 

© Wrights & Sites, 2008