Before I quite realise what's happening she's talking fast, really fast, about how charming the square is, and how remarkable that there's a church here, she had no idea this square or this church were here, she lives in another part of Marseilles, and now something about the show we've just seen, I snatch at odd words as they pour from her mouth, because when was the last time I had to listen to someone speaking so rapidly, so fluently, in French? When I was 18? Taking advantage of an infinitesimal pause I tell her, falteringly, that I'm from London, but my evident incapacity with the language in no way dents her enthusiasm for talking to me about the festival, and how it's brought her to a part of Marseilles she'd never been to before, she's lived here for 14 years, but that's what it's like in Marseilles, you stay in your locality, you don't really go to the other parts of the city, at least I think that's what she's saying, and I try, piecing the sentence together as if with tweezers, to say: isn't that what's great about festivals? They take you away from the known to the unknown, show you your city as you've never seen it before?
My presence at the Travellings festival in Marseilles, curated by Lieux Publics with (or for?) the In-Situ network, is basically an accident. Eight months ago I didn't know any of those things existed, with the possible exception of Marseilles. It began with an email linking me to William Galinsky, artistic director of the Norwich and Norfolk festival: he had seen the writing I'd done about Nature Theatre of Oklahoma last year when he'd programmed Life and Times, and wondered if I would be interested in attending an In-Situ gathering as embedded journalist. And so, the basics: In-Situ is a network of 21 festivals that take place in 14 different European countries, all of which present outdoor work; its coordinating office is at Cite des arts de la rue, run by Lieux Publics, a complex of workshop and studio spaces in a former industrial area opposite a mammoth housing estate to the north of Marseilles. At that initial gathering in the spring, six festival directors were present, and each had invited an artist whom they had commissioned to create a work for their festival that in some way addressed the question of “new technologies” in public space. The other two gatherings (in Italy and Czech Republic) focused on audience engagement and site-sensitivity, and all three groups met in Marseilles at the end of September, where the artists could meet the rest of the festival directors, and each discussion could be opened out.
That business part of the day took us to 2.30pm; from 8.30pm, there was a communal dinner on the grounds of Lieux Publics, overlooking the city. And in between: the Travellings festival, a thoughtfully curated set of outdoor shows that invited the In-Situ group, people from across Marseilles, and inhabitants of the housing estate to share a common space. At similar festivals in the UK, I'm often troubled by the gap between what people think they're offering and the conditions they actually create for acceptance; particularly I fret about the lack of dialogue between those disparate groups. In Marseilles, as a total outsider, I was more ready to let it just be what it was. But what it was did feel like a temporary meeting place: especially on the Friday and Saturday nights, when the wide metal gates of Lieux Publics stayed open, and kids from the estate swarmed among the theatre-people, being rowdy, sure, but having boisterous fun. On Sunday, the gate remained closed, and the atmosphere, though calmer, was a lot less electric.
The estate kids were mostly there because Bureau Detours, a group of architects-designers-artists-craftspeople from Denmark, had installed Dennis Design Center in a bit of open ground in Lieux Publics, and Dennis Design Center is brilliant. It works like this: Bureau Detours bring a pile of wood and blue plastic rope to a vicinity, ask the people thereabouts what they would like to build, then help them to build it. What was built in Lieux Publics was a miniature playground: a wibbly rope bridge strung between two towers, each dressed with bright green plants; a small fountain pouring from one of the towers into a pool; and eight swings hung from the steel beams supporting an upper, protruding, level of the building. Bish bash bosh, hours of fun: for the little ones who charged about by day; for the teenagers who swarmed the swings by night, challenging each other to swing harder, and higher, and while holding hands; and, in a less demonstrative way, for anyone attending the festival who didn't know a lot of people, and struggles with talking to strangers, let alone amid languages that aren't their own. On the final morning, three of the older male festival directors sat on the swings together, and that was the most delightful thing: the clearest indication of the permission the Dennis Design Center offers, to play, to let go, to experience freedom from adult conventions of comportment and restraint. Just gorgeous.
I missed Dennis' visit to the Aygalades housing estate, but was there for a couple of other shows. Wrzz, by French company 2,6 couverts, was the one in the church square, and it was as charming as its surroundings: an urban clowning show (someone compared it to Jacques Tati movies) described as a “cauchemar sonore” – actually, can we just pause for a moment to savour those words? Cauchemar sonore. Lovely – because every basic, ordinary move the ordinary-Joe clown-character attempts is disrupted by noise: the doorbell puts him in a telephone queue and plays on-hold muzak at him; his rucksack sets off an alarm every time he puts it on the floor; passing cars, to the amusement of their unsuspecting passengers, rattle as though they're about to fall apart. There's a brief sag of energy about 20 minutes in, when it seems the extended gag has run out of steam; but then the performer approaches the children in the front row and begins tapping out a rudimentary keyboard tune on their heads, to their infectious delight, and there's another surge of energy. Throughout Wrzz keeps a fine balance between the pointlessly but enjoyably silly and a philosophical contemplation of really, how the fuck do we actually cope with all this unnecessary clamour in our lives, the bombardment of industrial noise and electronic noise and traffic noise and human noise? At the end, when the kids had dispersed and the garrulous French lady had wandered into the church, I had a little moment of cherishing the peace: Wrzz was a useful reminder of how important it is in urban lives to make space for that.
There was another group of kids in the audience for Rodrigo Pardo's Flat, and I wish my French had been up to their running commentary: all I really caught was a debate about whether or not one bit of the set represented a toilet, and their amusement on discovering definitively that it did. As the title suggests, Flat is set in a studio flat; the surprise is that it isn't indoors but out, and not only out but suspended down the side of a building (in this case, a low-rise apartment block), the floor perpendicular to the ground, the furniture protruding into open air, the man who lives there rigged up to aerial ropes so that he can walk at a 90-degree angle to the rest of us, and lie on the bed while floating in space. The blurb acknowledges the influence of Jorge Luis Borges and magic-realist literature, and sure enough there are projections suggesting all sorts of fantastical hallucinations: the man's table transformed into some kind of well, the whole place icing over, a swarm of cockroaches, visions of a former lover haunting him as he tries to sleep. But to be honest, the material of the piece itself was less interesting than the dialogue between the show and its surroundings: the contrast between the lights of the fake flat and those of the real rooms next to it, the invented life of the man in the show and the imagined lives taking place behind drawn curtains. For me, the most magical moment was one in which, through the glass entrance door of the apartment block, I glimpsed a woman in her dressing gown preparing to take her dog for a walk. It's in those moments that Flat most effectively blurs fantasy and reality into one.
Those works invited Aygalades inhabitants to take part as audiences; in Jeroen Strijbos and Rob van Rijswijk's sound piece Walk With Me, we encountered them as participants. I wish I'd made it to this piece earlier: it's designed to be listened to alone, on big headphones, carrying an iPad, walking through unfamiliar areas not quite within the earshot of others, and doing that in the gloaming put the heebie-jeebies in me. But that nervousness is also a natural response to the sonic world that Strijbos and van Rijswijk create: ominous, glitchy, punctuated by the thump of footsteps; often it seems that people are not only following you but sharpening knives behind your back. Anxiety aside, I thought this piece was terrifically evocative, thrilling too: on the iPad is a map of Aygalades and Cite des art de la rue, and across that map are drawn overlapping squares, rectangles and circles; each shape represents an individual sound, and so you can effectively compose your own symphony as you traverse the landscape, holding one sound longer if it particularly appeals, walking quickly away from another that doesn't. A lot of the music has its roots in northern Africa (reflecting the population of Aygalades); the keening string notes and rattling percussion had a burnished quality so appealing that I kept retracing my steps to hear them again. Interspersed with the music are voices: a story that my French couldn't quite follow, but that had something of the heaviness of Camus' L'etranger, and snatches of text from conversations with the people of Aygalades, talking about the community, its reputation, the violence that happens there. There was one man, my favourite, who talked admiringly of the vibrancy of Marseilles, breaking into English to call it “a fucking city!”: a vortex of excitements, challenge, and promise.
The festival took us off-site, too, mostly thanks to the antics of X/tnt (Antonia Taddei and Ludovic Nobileau), whose ongoing project Le Code de la deconduite – basically, the opposite of the Highway Code, or any set of instructions guiding behaviours in public space – invites participants and passers-by to engage in acts of controlled anarchy and social disruption. William Galinsky programmed them at this year's Norwich and Norfolk festival, where they mocked the presence of CCTV cameras, encouraged people to strip naked (albeit behind curtains), and one of them was arrested for swinging an axe out on the street. The actions in Marseilles were fascinating, hilarious and incredibly problematic, causing deeply felt offence among some of the participants. For one of them, Taddei and Ludovic took a group by coach to a roundabout, where we threw a kind of live-art party. The issue, they explained en route, is that art on roundabouts is a lucrative business, attracting a lot of government investment, but it's also rubbish, because the art has to be undemonstrative, almost invisible, so as not to risk distracting drivers and causing accidents. X/tnt wanted to prove to the government that this is ridiculous, but also take the piss, and so each of us took a chair on to the roundabout, to which was affixed a mesh of concealing shrubbery, and first created a camouflaged space for a banquet of crisps, then shifted them to form a mock-up of the Aygalades estate, and finally threw water and pink powder in the air to make a great big mess. It was all a hoot, except for the bit where we were instructed to light cigars whose smoke would create the impression that our fake Aygalades was on fire, and I couldn't tell how disparaging the text for this bit was about people living in poverty. Certainly there was a note of callousness that troubled me, but without better French I couldn't trust how that manifested and can't adequately explain it.
But perhaps I thought that because of the other action, the day before, when two mini-buses of In-Situ people were taken to a chi-chi beach to create a welcoming party for arriving refugees. Artist-participants were already on the scene, dressed alternately in army camouflage and ambassadorial suits; our party, and sunbathers on the beach, were invited to dress up in the uniform of refugees and be greeted with a compassion and care entirely contrary to the prevalent media narrative of suspicion and fear. So far, so blandly liberal – but the uniform the refugees were invited to wear was the red T-shirt and blue shorts of Aylan Kurdi, the child whose photograph prompted a short-lived flurry of pity that has done little to change government policies. I can see the argument that X/tnt wanted to hammer home the necessity for a shift in how the public consider refugees, but I can also see the argument that the company were exploiting that dead little boy more even than the people who had argued over his photograph online. And I feel weird saying that, because at that moment in time, on the beach, I still hadn't seen the photograph, so it wasn't until someone told me later that I knew what the costume represented. But even before then, there was something odd and off-kilter about watching children on the beach play with gold-and-silver thermal blankets and the free beach balls that X/tnt distributed as part of the performance. Whose mindset was really being changed by this? What, other than a boost for the company's notoriety, was really being achieved?
Apart from the work, the Travellings festival was fascinating for its attempt to reconsider how a group of people engaged in making and staging performance might share perspectives and have fruitful discussions together within a fairly formal framework. As part of Dialogue, the slow-moving organisation I run with my friend Jake, I've done a fair bit of experimenting with this too, with variable degrees of success, so I particularly enjoyed assessing In-Situ's approach. Partly they stuck to the traditional, opening each day with a panel discussion, mostly dominated by white men. And yes, on the first day, it was just as dry and hierarchical as that sounds, with almost no one in the audience contributing, and a pervading feeling that we'd just like to get to the coffee break thanks. The second day was better, simply because the panel's moderator, Neil Butler of UZ Arts in Glasgow, spent most of it not sitting in his chair but bridging the gap between panel and audience, and constantly inviting dialogue: such a simple thing to do, but staggeringly effective.
The lunchtime slot did something else Jake and I are very keen on: created a space not only to talk but break bread together. Dubbed “M'eatings”, these discussions divided all participants across six tables, each of which was hosted by an artist; every 20 minutes, we swapped tables, so that by the end of the two-hour, six-course (!!!) lunch, the participants had had an opportunity to meet and chat with every one of the artists. In principle, I thought this was a great idea: it allowed all the festival directors to meet all of the artists from the three spring gatherings, and to discuss the ideas that had emerged from them; it allowed artists to cross-fertilise ideas; it introduced a lot of strangers to each other very quickly, easing the path to being social later on. In practice, though, it proved much less satisfying. Twenty minutes isn't long enough to move beyond shallow thinking into deep questioning and probing thought. Because each of the artists was there at the invitation of one director, the impulse for talking to the others became tainted by the possibility of being programmed by them in the future: rather than talk about theory, ideas, philosophy, most of them ended up doing a kind of infomercial for their work. Which was fine and lovely but also exhausting: by the time they met their fourth group, let alone their sixth, the artists at the tables were starting to feel tired, partly because they were feeling like they were repeating themselves, partly because they'd been so busy talking they hadn't been able to eat.
Again, this improved as the weekend went on, and more artists shifted from talking about their work to presenting it, whether using projected images, postcards that travelled around the table on a toy train, or an invitation to take part in a kind of extract. Czech artist Jonas Strouhal, whom I'd previously met in Norwich, excited a lot of people on Saturday by using the electric currents of his brain to operate a chocolate fountain: as long as he was feeling relaxed, the chocolate flowed and we could dip pieces of fruit he'd provided in it; if he wasn't, the fountain would stop. Similarly, Matteo Lanfranchi proved completely charming on Sunday, with his rough-scrawled map of places – surreal, romantic, everyday – that each represented an aspect of his work, and ample supply of Baci kisses. The general rule that can be extrapolated from this, I feel, is that there is no conversation that can't be vastly improved by the provision of free chocolate.
Of all the works and dialogues I took part in at Travellings, the one that will resonate, that I hope to hold on to for years to come, was Lotte van den Berg's piece Building Conversation. I say piece thinking in particular of a speech Chris Goode gave at the Bush a couple of years ago, in which he wondered about the terminology used to describe work in the theatre, saying:
I don't really want to call the objects that we make, and around which we gather and become mesmerised producers and consumers, 'plays'. To be honest, mostly I think of what I make as 'pieces'. … So this is the question. If what I make, if what we make, are 'pieces', then what's the whole of which each of those pieces is a piece? And how can I make the work that I share with audiences, and with my fellow artists, representative in every case of the whole of what I want? … What are the theatrical forms and structures that will enable me to want in public everything I want in private? The question I'm really asking is, how can I give you more?
Without knowing a great deal about her, I think this set of questions and propositions would feel very familiar to Lotte. (I'm using her first name because she created an atmosphere of such intimacy during the course of Building Conversation that the formality of her surname would feel weird.) As far as I can gather, she used to make something more like shows, but always with an interest in silence, or wordless communication, and in addressing social inequality, vulnerability, loneliness, desire. But with Building Conversation, and other pieces that have emerged from her research into traditional forms of communication in cultures including Inuit and Maori, she removes spectacle and concentrates on direct experience. In her biography, there's this quote: “I make theatre and keep asking myself the same question. How can I create a space in which you can watch without words and rules? A space in which the spectator becomes a participant that undergoes the performance without expectations.” That's pretty much what Building Conversation sets out to do.
I went to it with some uncertainty: on a sunny Sunday afternoon, my last full day in Marseilles, did I really want to stay shut up indoors for three hours? Once it began, uncertainty turned into anxiety and a strong desire to leave: the premise, I discovered, was that the group of 20 would sit in a circle in the space for a pre-allotted amount of time and communicate with each other without using a single word. It sounded excruciating. Not boring so much as embarrassing. We argued over how long we would do it for: seven minutes? 45? Two hours? We settled at 90 minutes, and that proved too much for one man, who promptly escaped. I forced myself to stay. And I'm so glad I did.
In her introduction, Lotte quoted the following statistic: words account for no more than 7% of how we communicate; the rest comes from body language and tone of voice. Her challenge – no, that's too strong – her offer to us was to eliminate that 7%, and see what might be said, what might be understood. (Of course, that also eliminates the 38% that is tone, but never mind.) She also specified that we wouldn't use mime or sign. Within minutes of starting, William Galinsky erupted into uncontrollable giggles that expanded into hiccuping hysteria, and didn't stop for a good quarter of an hour. No less exaggerated was the physical language some people attempted: big smiles, raised eyebrows, shrugs. Within 10 minutes I realised I was far more interested in listening than trying to say anything. And that the more people attempted to “speak”, the less cogent and interesting what they were saying.
Maybe it's a condition of this work that words feel wholly inadequate to describe it. I'd need them to raise your body temperature by a fraction of a degree. To make emotion swim in your eyes. I'd want them to make you feel like you're hugging your mum, or your child, or someone you've loved deeply for years. I'd want them to make you look at the next person you come across and see, not their clothes or their hairstyle or how many spots they have, but their soul. By some magic quirk of fate, a man happened to bring his dog to Building Conversation, a big golden labrador, and the creature happened to be sat next to me. He spent most of the time lying down behind the circle of chairs, but at one point he nudged his nose into my lap, started licking my hand, and staring at me with huge brown eyes full of trust, radiant with not just the desire but the ability to give, give me anything I want, give me more. That's what Building Conversation offered: a space in which to be absolutely open to other people, absolutely without agenda, absolutely trusting, absolutely giving. I don't think everyone in the room understood it that way, and I feel like an obnoxious egotist saying that, as though I'm so intellectually or emotionally superior. Ugh. That's not what Building Conversation is for. It's for breaking down those barriers, for reminding us that we are animals, who need each other for survival, so damaged now by divisive and prejudicial social structures that we need to start all over again, from a place before words. From being afraid of 90 minutes of silence, I left never wanting to speak again.
And yes, I'm fully aware of the irony of that sentence coming at the end of almost 4000 words. But you don't have to be a speaker to be a writer. Listening, on the other hand, is essential.
For the sake of completion, I thought I might as well post up two of the three pieces of writing I did as part of the gatherings. Missing is the first, a synthesis of the Norwich workshop sessions, which was only half-written, the other half improvised on the day. The second is below, a piece I wrote about that session for Les Inrockuptibles; and the third is below that, the presentation I gave to open the Saturday panel discussion in Marseilles. While I'm here, thanks again to William Galinsky for the initial invitation, and to the In-Situ network for the opportunity: it was one of those jobs that made me glad I've stuck with this ridiculous practice of writing about performance.For Les Inrockuptibles:
The group of In Situ partners and invited artists who gathered in Norwich for the Emerging Spaces meeting dedicated to New Technologies came from across Europe, bringing with them a host of languages that were put aside as everyone attempted to communicate in English. As the writer invited to respond to their conversations, I was struck by how, whatever our native language, we shared the word “technology” in common. In English, French, German, Czech, Hungarian, it's essentially the same. At its root are two ancient Greek words: techne, meaning art, craft, skill; and logia, meaning discourse. Technology, then, is the discourse of art.
And art is the application of technology – although, for the artists invited to Norwich, that could mean many things. Simon Collins (UK) employs age-old model-making techniques, soldering together scrap metal objects to create life-like animal sculptures. Adelin Schweitzer makes films with remote-controlled robots, or drones, adopting and subverting military surveillance tactics to provoke new narratives in urban and rural areas. Elisabeth Wildling (AU) and Klara Balazs (HU) use video and projection to encourage audiences to re-see their surroundings. Jonas Strouhal (CZ) plays with brain sensors to give surprising physical expression to internal thought-processes. And Eric Joris of CREW (BE) works with scientists at the university of Hasselt to develop complex goggle-sets that allow the wearer to see through another's eyes. As Hugo Bergs of Belgium's Theater op de Markt commented in a summary session on the final morning, technology for these artists isn't a decoration or an afterthought: it is essential to the fabric of their work, the strategy through which they address the human condition.
If new technologies offer artists new opportunities, they also present a challenge: how to keep pace with the rapid shifts in society brought about by digital advances? As Joris noted in a useful opening paper on the first morning, we live in a “fully mediatised society”: technology is so pervasive most people no longer notice it. Artists, though, notice things. In an interview with British arts and technology organisation The Space earlier this year, theatre-maker and game designer Hannah Nicklin identified a new “digital culture”, which she defined as: “how we are humans in the context of [technology]”. Digital culture, she continued, is: “the rate at which information travels, and how comment culture affects our public discourse. … It’s the vanishing of interfaces between technology and human input, and whether or not that needs to be addressed. It’s the growing of the ‘global village’ and the problems with how we fit that in our head.” An artist doesn't need to be presenting online for these questions to bleed into their work.
When interviewing the Emerging Space participants, In Situ's communication officer Maxime Demartin asked a pertinent question: is digital culture creating a new idea of public space? Already public space has plural meanings: it can be indoors as well as outdoors; theatres, train stations and shopping malls are all public spaces; even a balcony overlooking a street exists in public space. Public space is anywhere in which people might be seen by or encounter other people; these spaces acquire more power the more possible it is for people to congregate there and recognise their citizenship.
Fanni Nanay, programmer of the PLACCC festival in Budapest, pointed out that “people have access to public issues with the same measure that they have access to public spaces”: in Hungary, that access is increasingly being denied by a right-wing government. This is what attracted her to Balazs, who proposes to project images on to prominent statues in Budapest, inviting passers-by to interact with these memorials in new and unexpected ways. Nanay's hope is that, through this work, people will re-encounter their agency, and remember their ability to affect government policy. It is a work that could travel across Europe, but in each city its meanings would differ, depending on the history embedded in that site, its experience of war, riot and uprising.
As Joris noted, the ancient Greeks developed democracy and theatre, social organisation and a strategy to debate and hold accountable that organisation, simultaneously. The Arab Spring was a vital demonstration that people now locate those strategies online. The internet seems to promise limitless space and so limitless agency – and yet, as Schweitzer noted, the use most western Europeans make of it is limited to reading newspapers and chatting on Facebook. Strouhal's interest in how the brain functions led him during his presentation to identify lack of concentration as “the most common problem in our society”: people are too distracted by computer games and social media to focus on social activism. This, he argued, is the “infant conditioning” that novelist Aldous Huxley, in 1949, predicted would brainwash humanity into placid subservience to their leaders.
These were the moments when the Emerging Spaces meeting felt rich with potential: when the discussion ranged across the different art works, drawing connections between them by reaching into philosophy, politics and personal experience. In doing so, it offered each artist new lenses through which to consider their work. A crucial one was the notion of “transitional space”: explaining CREW's practice, Joris drew a Venn diagram with “real space” in the left circle, and “virtual space” in the right. Where the two overlap is a transitional space – the “interesting place to work”. Wildling related strongly to this: her film work attempts to shift perceptions of buildings and urban environments, by encouraging the eye to shift its angle of vision, to see between the real and the imagined.
Another transitional space emerged in the discussion of Strouhal's work, which sits between art and therapy. He uses EEG brain sensors otherwise employed by psychotherapists to train the brain into better concentration and stress management; by attaching those sensors to mechanical devices, he can channel the brain's natural electricity into causing motion, pulling down a small tree when his thoughts are stressful, triggering a fountain when happy. Balazs' statues project prompted debate about the overlap of private and public: who owns public space, and regulates what happens there? Schweitzer's drone was fascinating in this respect: zooming along roads, through tunnels and under feet, it is entirely unconcerned by questions of law, enjoying a freedom of movement few humans share.
What each of these projects aims to do, at some level, is make the invisible visible. In Where Is Hamlet?, the work he is developing with CREW, Joris connects violence in the Middle-East with the threat of war in Shakespeare's play. He hopes to illuminate the unseen powers – father figures, like the ghost of old Hamlet – who control the movements of the young, by filming in places of political turmoil, and then placing his audiences at the centre of those films, transforming their vision.
This opens up a new field of enquiry: to what extent is art itself an exercise of power? This is particularly pertinent in work that invites interaction, such as Collins' outdoor performances with metal sculptures. He has developed two huge dragons made from junk, whose movements might be controlled by his audiences. Our discussion about the limits and possibilities of interactivity sharpened his thinking about the project: attending Emerging Spaces, he said on the final day, might have saved him two years of trial-and-error experiment. Schweitzer wondered whether the invitation to interact with Balazs' statue projections might damage it, allowing audiences to miss its political import by treating it as a game. But play is also important: it offers new agency in a neo-liberal culture that claims everything as work and drains our energy for creating change.
As a writer, my playground is language. In my closing address at the Emerging Spaces meeting, I reminded the group that in English, the newest technology is described as state-of-the-art. Art advances technology and technology advances art. The artists present at Emerging Spaces exist in the transitional space where the two meet: it is indeed the most interesting place to work.
And for the panel discussion:
I've spent a lot of the past month in a rehearsal room with Chris Goode & Company, the theatre-makers with whom I work as critic-in-residence, documenting rehearsals for their new show, Weaklings. The show is an adaptation of a blog of the same name hosted by American cult writer Dennis Cooper, and attempts to create onstage the experience of reading the blog and interacting with it. And because this blog is a space in which users adopt fake personae, and take advantage of the permissive atmosphere to talk in an uninhibited way about sex, violence and mental health, we've been talking a lot in the rehearsal room about perceptions of community, and of private and public space, and private and public self, and what our absorption into social media and online forums does to those perceptions. Perhaps my favourite question to come up has been: do you think Victorians had anxious conversations about what this new-fangled thing called the telephone would do to human relations?
Over the past year, British journalist Paul Mason – a specialist in economics and social upheaval – has been writing about what the digital revolution has done to human relations. He identifies a new kind of human being, one who extends their self into their devices; adopts multiple selves; [and] creates their own ongoing narrative through the words, imagery and film they distribute across several social media platforms. Why, he wonders, would such a human sit in a theatre and watch a play, when they are already so adept at creating their own multi-dimensional narratives? More provocatively, Mason identifies a new economic system – which he calls postcapitalism – developing outwards from the digital, as the unstoppable abundance of information technology loosens the relationship between work and wages, corrodes the market's ability to fix prices, and creates the conditions for collaborative production. Is this utopian? Or a realistic solution to damaging and unequal social systems, that points the way towards more sustainable ways of living together?
The Emerging Space meeting in Norwich began with a contemplation of these and other ways in which the digital revolution is disrupting existing power structures; the other, obvious instance mentioned was the Arab Spring uprisings fomented through social media. The meeting also began with a suggestion – from Eric Joris of Crew – that if artists want to debate or test social organisation, as theatre always has since the days of the ancient Greeks, then it makes sense to do that where the most people are congregating: online. This became a central question for the meeting: to what extent is public space – the space in which people might exercise and recognise their citizenship – now sited online? And how does the pervasive nature of digital culture charge or affect human interaction in the outdoor spaces where the In Situ festivals take place?
To some extent Eric's proposition was misleading: like all of the artists at this Emerging Space, he doesn't make work to be experienced online but in person. But his work uses some of the experiences of online – that sense of private interaction in a public setting; and the overlap of present and virtual realities, both of which are also the experiences of live performance – to create increasingly complex theatrical events that play with the senses. Over several works with Crew Eric has developed headset technology that immerses the wearer inside an alternative reality, so completely transporting that many participants demonstrate while wearing it a disbelief that their hands are their own. Where Is Hamlet uses this technology to examine power structures, particularly in political systems that are dominated by a father figure (like the ghost of old Hamlet) who controls and limits social interaction. The problem with using such advanced technology, Eric admitted, is one of distribution: only a relatively small number of people can experience the work at once.
Part of what makes Eric's work fascinating is its ability to manipulate the imagination; to convince the brain that its senses are bearing witness to something other than the body's actual surroundings. During the meeting Eric wondered whether this susceptibility was evidence of the fragility of human consciousness, but there is a way of seeing this more positively, as evidence of the brain's useful plasticity. Neuro-scientists are still learning about this: it's an argument I've encountered in a book of feminist science thinking by Cordelia Fine, which demonstrates that much of the way in which humans talk about gender and resulting power relations can actually be traced to stereotypes constructed in support of patriarchal structures – exactly the structures Eric addresses in Where Is Hamlet.
The brain's plasticity is central to Jonas Strouhal's work, and connects to his own experience as a young person of treatment for hyperactivity disorder, which measured his brain's electricity and used simple interaction with moving images to train it into relaxation. Jonas now uses the same brain-scanning technology in his work, inviting participants to trigger music at a fountain, or movement in a leaf blower, or ripples in the surface of a lake, simply by concentrating their thoughts. Even without experiencing it first-hand, I found his work incredibly moving. It invites audiences to witness a physical manifestation of their own, invisible brain activity – and offers a sense of control that is in sharp contrast to the sense of overload that is a common response to the digital revolution. And it encourages participants to live absolutely in the present, centred in their minds and their bodies, not split between the live environment and the digital.
Jonas' discomfort with digital bombardment was shared by Adelin Schweitzer, who suggested that the role of the artist using technology might be to work on deceleration processes: slowing experience back down, from the speed of the algorithm to the speed of human walking. With The Drones Release he's interested too in how to shift audience perception, inviting people to see from a different perspective. Specifically, the perspective of the drone: a small remote-controlled object on wheels that arrives unannounced in a public space and interacts with its participants, asking them existential questions such as “what is humanity?” and “what is love?” There was something beautifully innocent about this drone: not only did it neutralise the sinister connotations of drones as used in surveillance and warfare, but it was able to transgress conventions of social conduct, and to ignore boundaries – whether of space or social interaction – that humans are trained from an early age to respect.
Adelin's intention is that the recordings of the drone's movements and conversations are used to make a film, to be screened for the community that interacted with it – inviting them to see their public or communal spaces and interactions within them anew. This impulse – which was also registered by Eric Aubry yesterday, when he noted that art is interesting when it makes people think differently about their local area – is where all three Emerging Space meetings overlap: and Adelin did wonder during the Emerging Space what made the theme of new technology more relevant to this group than the themes of engaging audiences or site-specificity. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that technology for these artists is a necessary tool, the form and method through which they articulate their thinking. Simon Collins, also known as Paka, doesn't work with digital technology, or new technology at all. Yet his robot sculptures are undoubtedly feats of skilled technology, that also encourage viewers to think differently about waste. Built from scrap metal and found junk, they are extraordinary creations, his dragon Elsie looming feet above people's heads. Is it possible to see that sculpture in your local area and not have your memories of that site changed for ever?
On the surface, Paka's work could not be more unlike that of Elisabeth Wildling, whose tools are film and projection. The commonality between them is that invitation to audiences to experience place differently. Wildling has projected graffiti on to a canal and the names of Austrians killed by the Nazis on to the facade of the National Library in Vienna; she tilts the angle of her camera so that the viewer sees the skyline at eye level and the passage of time across a room. She is interested in how film and projection can be used to express the character of place, draw out the memories imprinted in it, and so shift audience perception within it.
Often when people of my generation – the generation who encountered the digital revolution as adults – talk about digital space, we do so as though it were somewhere separate from here where we sit. But it isn't. I'm sure while I've been talking more than one person has been using their smartphone, to check email or flick through social media; even if no one has, a conversation has been continuing there for you to catch up with later. New technology is integral to our lives now; and the question that interests me is how art can be as pervasive, as integral. Theatre and art are the way I think through my existence and understand myself, other humans, my surroundings, and social systems. How can artists best use technology to invite others to do the same?