Sophie Jerram – 8 April, 2011
Yet many artists who have worked in visual arts contexts are blurring the lines between art, design and performance; embracing the opportunity to test the potency of Performance Design, an art form that has more democratic potential than the class and knowledge-restrained white cube.
Part of the Fringe Festival
The Performance Arcade
Curated by Sam Trubridge and produced by The Playground NZ Ltd
24 February, 2011 - 27 February 2011
AUT University, as part of Auckland Arts Festival
Fly Tower: A Live Archive of New Zealand Performance Design,
Curated and designed by Sue Gallagher and Tracey Collins.
5 March, 2011 - 13 March, 2011
In the recently emerged genre of performance design advocated in these events, ‘design’ is regarded as an active verb, creating or producing the space in which the body acts. With origins in architecturally based practice, both The Performance Arcade and Fly Tower are more connected to the history of theatre than to what we understand to be ‘performance art.’ Yet many artists who have worked in visual arts contexts (like David Cross, Chris Braddock, Marcus McShane, Mark Harvey and Julian Priest) are blurring the lines between art, design and performance; embracing the opportunity to test the potency of this art form - one that has more democratic potential than the class and knowledge-restrained white cube.
The ability of what emerges from the theatre’s black box to affect social change has been explored for decades; theatre is re-built every generation as an engaging practice because of its live challenge to the artist/spectator divisions. In his 2004 essay, The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Ranciere moves beyond the Situationists’ declamations of a passive public, challenging theatre to further engage its spectators as active interpreters. “Emancipation begins when we dismiss the opposition between looking and acting and understand that the distribution of the visible itself is part of the configuration of domination and subjection.(1.)”
The Performance Arcade, situated outside Te Papa on Wellington’s waterfront spoke directly to this rejection of subjection. The Arcade ran for four days between 10am - 11pm with a majority of containers being open at any point in time. Though the performers potentially risked ridicule, uninformed questions and physical fatigue by exposing themselves to intense public interaction, the questions of who was performing and who was observing was continually challenged.
If approaching from the west, visitors first encountered Marcus McShane’s Nag and were free to change the music or read the text printed from machines the artist and his partner powered by their pedalling. Approaching from the east, the sound and light work of Interrupt Collective’s Inside the Frame immediately placed the viewer as a central figure in a narrative on the a/v screen in front. Between these bookends, five other containers held a range of tantalising acts, with performances by Mark Harvey and a butchering/cooking class by Margarita Ianev also maintaining a spontaneous, carnival feel.
Like the arrival of a circus to town, The Performance Arcade was a joyful addition to the City’s waterfront. Unlike a circus, the performers asked not for commercial exchange or deferred comprehension but simple engagement. In particular, the Hidden City Maps project required for its completion very personal commitment and the collective memory of its public.
While some works spoke more clearly than others overall the Arcade’s ability to engage an audience en masse, whilst maintaining the integrity of the work, felt like an extraordinary breakthrough for Wellington. Possibly by virtue of the good weather and central, public site, around 5000 people attended the event over the 4-day period.
A week later, Sue Gallagher and Tracey Collins’ Fly Tower, installed in AUT, opened during the Auckland Arts Festival. It was advertised in the visual arts programme as “intended to excite new ideas and possibilities, new production processes, and stimulate dialogue between New Zealand artists and designers.”
I had expected the Fly Tower to provide a similar disruption of the viewer’s subjection and domination and was looking forward to being led into new sites for speculation and spectatorship. When coming to the large Collins-pink tower I found that not having a clear view of the action or content in the tower proved a problem. The site for viewing was extremely narrow, being little more than a passageway. After getting lost in a labyrinthine AUT building and finding the programme of events unclear I felt subjugated by my ignorance of this dominant structure and its contents.
Being made to work harder is often rewarding and after some time I began to appreciate the intelligence of this tower. It allowed for the removal of memory and reallocation of new narratives. It dominated the works more than Wellington’s ubiquitous shipping containers, and for good reason; it was a consistent reminder of the frame of intention placed around all performance.
Works were performed for an hour at specific times during the week. Those I saw during my two visits included MAP Productions’ Speaking Space, which appeared succinctly choreographed to meditatively explore the strictures of the 4 x 5 square metre pink structure. David Cross’ Pause - involving his trademark inflatable structures (this time in designer black) - allowed for the literal suspension of disbelief in the ability of a pair of hands to support a moving body from a 2.5m height. Pause is a perfect enquiry into human trust, wrapped in inflatable levity.
The great innovation of the Fly Tower project was the Digital Archive, both programmed and physically designed by Stuart Foster. This device, appended to the Tower stage, allowed for an almost real time archiving of past events in the Tower, approximating perfect knowledge of what was performed from below.
Given the Arts Festival context, I couldn’t help wondering how the works might have weathered by trialling the Fly Tower in a public space like Aotea Square. I understand that emancipating the general spectator was not necessarily the agenda for the curators, the March session lending itself more to a performance design community building session. Working towards the Prague Quadrennial in June meant the curators had different aims than speaking to an audience of theatre makers and set designers. They will be in dialogue with an informed, but more general, audience. (2.)
In both projects, it was stimulating to partake in the New Zealand leakage of the black box and white cube. Performance design has the potential to blend the performative integrity of theatre with the openness of visual art, and to take on the risk of an unprepared audience who, not recognising themselves as spectators, might become activists in a new community.
(1.) Jacques Ranciere, ‘The Emancipated Spectator’, Artforum March 2007, p. 277.
(2.) There is a need for a fuller history of New Zealand’s participation in the Prague Quadrennial, showing the shift from the remnants of theatre and opera stage and set design, to the re-invention of live (no longer memory-based) performance influenced by New Zealand innovation.
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