Friday, August 27, 2010

Performative shift

Cracked something, yesterday in conversation with Jaakko Stenros. And then thinking about the article I wrote for Interacting Arts' Knutepunkt 2010 book, Playing Reality (free in PDF). I wrote about Signa's The 11th Knife and said "I would never have understood The 11TH Knife in an evening. I had to spend about 15 hours in the environment before I came close to being relaxed enough to see it. And I also suspect that the fact that dropping in to the piece happened when I was alone (and thus basically creating the installation myself) is significant."

This is what I've been looking for: a performative shift in the middle of what is on the outset a receptive piece of art. Oh, okay, I'll back up. When I started watching Knife (I so want to get this out I'm absolutely rubbishing up my language and punc here) I was doing just that, watching it. I was also pissed off because it was so crappy to watch. At first it really was a sense of outrage that kept me there, to try to figure out on whose authority they could do such awful work. Don't get me wrong; the piece is great, but if you're watching it as a theatre spectator or installation art spectator or any normal kind of spectator at all, you'll be hard pressed to find the awesomeness.

I'm going to back up a little more. I found the shift because I'm competitive. At the beginning of a round I bet on a player... probably the one I found most attractive at that moment. What can I say, humans are simple. One of the other Players had spun the wheel of luck and loss and ended up with blindness, so for that round he'd have to be blind. However, it took him so long to come up with a decent costume--the Goddess just didn't like all his ideas--that the blindfold slipped his mind and so just before the round started I noticed and interrupted and said I'd hate to see him disqualified but isn't he forgetting his blindfold? Chuckles all around. One of the masters opened a box and let me take an object out - an old key. As a gift. Just for that.

Now the key didn't open anything. It didn't mean anything at all to them I think. In fact I ended up losing it within 12 hours as tribute to the Goddess and was loath to give it up. Because you see for me it was charged. For me the stupid useless key meant something; I didn't know what yet but I was going to hang on to it just in case it was important.

And but so what just happened here is that I started to create for myself what was important and what was not in this piece. I'm sure none of them remembers this. I don't even know if that episode is really all that significant but something tells me I'd best remember it.

And... continuing. So after 15 hours and losing the key and being bored and hanging out and not knowing really what to look at anymore and tired of hearing people ask how to become a Player (you can't) and finally accepting that fact, that there was no way in to the piece in the way I wanted... I dropped in. Just like that. I wasn't a spectator anymore in the same way. On the other hand, I wasn't a co-creator in the kind of community art sense or in the sense of any dialogical process. I wasn't in control, but I had autonomy within the piece. I could affect outcomes much in the same way as you can in real life: through careful suggestion, manipulation, negotiation, argumentation, bold dashes for the gun, or whatever else you really need to do to make something happen. The thing is that you have to do what you do on the terms set by the environment, and you have to understand the rules of engagement before you know what those terms are. And then you're not watching, you're doing. And when you're doing, you're not so worried about the aesthetics of what it looks like.

But yeah, plenty of pieces of art are participatory so what's this shift thing all about? Well, I came into 11th as a watcher. I mean, they did allow certain degrees of participation: you could talk to them, move freely, but you couldn't touch objects or put on clothes, you couldn't jump in to a role. But talking to actors and moving freely, well, that's all fine and dandy if you like your art as engaging as a first-person shooter. In my experience, it takes a skilled perfomer/listener/engager/person on one side and an audience member similarly talented and in the right mood to really make magic of that. So the thing is that I didn't start out "in" the performance, I started watching it. And at some point, that shifted. And along with it, my appreciation. I didn't care if the acting was weird, or if a prop looked silly, as happens sometimes; I didn't care if time wasn't being managed aesthetically, as happens sometimes; because the pleasure was all in what was happening, and my inclusion.

And this is something I designed into Tower Room, albeit I designed it in there more with a bludgeon than a scalpel. The shift from watching to doing, I think, is not just disorienting if handled suddenly, but in terms of pleasure I think it requires a shift of aesthetics. Completely. This is probably why most people found the game section of Tower Room "really weird" at least to begin with if not entirely. Many people did not want to make that shift, even though it was pretty clear from the advertising material that games were involved.

So, what did I do right and what did I do wrong. Next free half an hour I get.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Tower Room I, audience what audience

I shouldn't even be writing now; my brain is about as synapse-friendly as a bowl of forgotten porridge and I could use some sleep, here, nearing six o'clock on a sunny sunny Friday.

We're about 70% labyrinth-built I think. You go in to the space and it's a mess of shelves, walls, doors that go nowhere, doors that you think go nowhere, and various other features I won't spoil. Walls made of stacks of boxes, Minos' empty bottles and bathtub, Ariadne's falling apparatus. Pilar (designer extraordinaire) is being frightfully excellent by not allowing me to cut any corners in the interests of being done earlier and letting the actors loose on the place. Damned detail-oriented designers. I know I'll be happy in the end.

So anyway I have a problem that I didn't think I needed to solve but apparently I do: I don't know what to call the people who come to Tower Room. If I call them audience, the players are irritated. If I call them players, the spectators are made nervous. If I call them participants, everybody cringes. Co-creators? Ticket holders? Initiates? Guests? The Golden Few? Seriously.

I've taken to using the terms rather interchangeably just so I can get rid of the annoying connotations, but really all that does is make a mushy imprecise mess of your language and unless people hang around you enough to hear you mixing and matching and reworking all those words, they won't understand you properly anyway. It's not like terminology catches on just because you use it. And also if I call the piece theatre, which it partially is and in my mind certainly it is, it creates a load of expectations for the audience. If I call it a game, ditto only scarier, because now people will be rushing in and looking for clues and getting six ways of active all over the piece. And if it's esitystaide or performance art or an installation, well, I don't know what the worst-case scenario is for that kind of spectator/ticket holder/person, but one might at least expect a certain kind of critical distance.

These are all normal ways to take in a piece. You go to a theatre, you expect to sit. You go to a gallery, you expect to wander. You go to a week-long larp, you expect to live there and make everything yourself and experience, not watch. What I'm interested in is the fuzzy area in between, or perhaps the process of moving back and forth between creating a piece yourself in participation, and watching the fruits of someone else's labour. This is particularly interesting for me when the artist's work (as opposed to the participant's) requires the passage of time, like in dance, theatre, music, and film... and poetry, too. These performances, while they might not be finished products (depending on whether you believe that a) they are ever finished and b) whether completion depends on a receiver), are at least prepared. They're thoroughly thought through; even if they're improvisations, you can bank on years of performance experience which may count as prior preparation.

Hermetic art isn't a problem - very often I'm perfectly happy to sit in a dark room and let David Lynch show me something from his brain for two hours, and I don't even get to talk to him afterwards and tell him how weird it was, and that's totally fine. What I want to find is a way of working hermetically--making the decisions myself or in a working group--but with the understanding that in performance, the piece will open up to participation, and not just your lip-service variety.

Of course there are aesthetic principles that I stick to and that I am not too worried about wanting to teach to other people. One is patience and listening. There's nothing worse in a band than the person who plays all the time. Sometimes not playing is the best way to play. This is such a no-brainer that I'm nearly embarassed to write it here but it seems to take effort to put listening into practice. It's just so easy to go go go, grab the bull by the horns and get lost in your own feel for the thing. I find this is also a common feature of those roleplaying games that I've been in: game designs and players alike seem to be very good at taking into account the fact that many players will be active by default. They talk and come up with ideas and plot twists, often much more than in real life--it's amazing how many times in a game someone asks something of another character, who in turn responds with a complete nonsequitur. It's to be expected; each player is trying to come up with what happens next and it interferes with the ability to listen.

When I was studying theatre in Canada it took ages to turn me into an active performer. I was shy as all get-out, as much as nobody who knows me would credit that now... but so anyway once I finally flipped the switch and swore I would NEVER be the last one to volunteer, never sit back when I could *do something, anything*, I found that to be much easier than sitting back and worrying about what the hell I was going to do when my turn finally came to do something. Much more productive. But so then now I really can't remember where I learned the opposite - was it in butoh? - where I learned the value of not doing. But it's a different variety of doing nothing than my earlier one. When you work with impulses in butoh, you might say that you're perfectly ready to be active at any time, but you just become more choosy. You tap into your environment, not just your inner voice, for things to do. This is what makes a good clown as well - they use everything that happens around them. We also took this on in Viewpoints training. Like seeing yourself in a roleplaying game as a free jazz musician - it's the listening that makes it good, when it is good. Same with butoh - you can watch a dancer and all of a sudden it's not just the dancer that amazes you, but, well, everything. Somehow the situation is dancing the dancer, and the dancer is dancing you. Ad infinitum. Et cetera. All this.

Tower Room isn't meant to be a jungle gym, nor is it a piece you sit back and enjoy. You're meant to be engaged, but you're also meant to take your time in getting into the speed and rhythm of the piece. You'll talk, but first you must listen. So the main design challenge at the moment is that I know how to make "audience people" be quiet. I know how to make "performance art" people be quiet. I know, if not how to make gamers quiet, at least how to confuse them. But how to design a piece that will get everybody on the same wavelength?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

Seven days in Villa Salò, uh, probably part 1

Everybody has to have their say about Villa Salò, performance group Signa's marathon of torture and despair, which just last weekend closed its doors in Copenhagen. I wish I could say this is going to be a carefully considered essay on the time I spent there. In actuality, this is a braindump, because I guess I want some thoughts out there and also because I can't seem to do any work before I just put something damned well out. To be honest, I saw and heard and thought enough to warrant the kind of output of text you could use as a doorstop. Be warned. I was there continuously (yes, I slept there, yes it's possible with permission from the Masters, and no, I slept alone in the Hall of Orgies) for the last 4 days of the Circle of Shit, and the last three of the Circle of Blood (the final Circle).

If you don't know what the heck I'm talking about, it was a 24/7 performance installation based on the Pasolini film Salò, set in a very large (and exquisitely decorated) house, featuring 33 or so performers, visited by 5000 members of the public, and running for four alternating weeks between January and March 2010. Five types of Characters lived there: Masters, who did whatever the fuck they wanted, Madams, who were responsible for the house and its staff, Fuckers, who were bodyguards with strap-ons down to their knees, Maids, who, predictably, maided, and Children, who were usually the object of the Masters' doing whatever the fuck they wanted. Guests entered, got a membership card, received an introduction from Madam Vaccari (which she must have performed nearly a thousand times and yet it ultimately failed to prepare anybody for the house, it seems—well, with the exception of the final introduction she gave, but that's for later), and were given a coloured ribbon denoting which of the types of character in the house was their host: black for Masters' guests, red for Madams, blue for Fuckers, yellow for Maids, pink for Children.

You would be amazed at how many people think a ribbon can change your personality, or entitle (read: excuse) you to act in a manner that, well, let's say civilised folk might call assholery. You'd be amazed at an awful lot of things people thought and said and did in Villa Salò, and I'm not talking about the performers. To me, it was the audience that was, after a while, the real horrorshow. Maybe that's because I spent so much time in the Villa that I felt my perspective had more in common with the performers than with the guests. But again, more on that later. In fact, the first thing to do is send you elsewhere to read other stuff, like:

Balancing on the edge of the black hole which I now call by the name of Salò, I wonder about the road that took us this far. Never in my decade of publicly mapping the shadowlands of human despair have I known a gaze like the gaze of Salò, this forsaken house which has grown with solemn brooding amongst the kindergardens, the cafés, the unknowing passers-by of snowy, clean Østerbro. This is not the faraway castle of Marquis de Sade´s libertine protagonists, nor is it Pasolini´s desolate palace of Italian war time fascists. This is here and now, and ”the four friends” invite everyone to enter. This is certainly no S&M party, and no funhouse either. Our Salò is no more a sex show than Pasolini´s Salò is a porn film.
-Signa, 15/1 - 2010

If you read Danish or you know Google translate, you'll find no end of commentary and the odd blog post (including goddess of rum balls and burner of kitchen milk herself, Dukken), and of course it ranges from sources who never set foot in the Villa to peeps who were there even more than me (the aforementioned Dukken).

Not about me. Or, well, fuck, it is.
Ooohkay. To be honest, the hardest thing about writing about Signa is not being an asshole oneself, but if there's one thing the piece taught me is that I am as capable as anyone of laughing at misfortune—no, not misfortune, rape—and of acting (or more like not acting, which let's call it passing) in a way that keeps me in favour of whomever I want to be in favour of, even at the expense, humiliation, or torture of someone else, and possibly the worst thing, that I have a great capacity to lord it over other people, particularly when they're asking stupid questions. This is the thing. I really wouldn't like to make this about me. I am not a better or smarter or more compassionate person than others who were at Villa Salò but I have to keep telling myself that. I catch myself being selfish and superior all the time. Only Merry, glorious kitchen bitch that she was, took me down a notch from time to time. "You know, it's not all about you," she said to shut me up once over peeling an endless amount of carrots.

Oh sure, that doesn't sound like much of an admonition. But if you consider that a few hours before that I'd been in the Magistrate's room with the Magistrate, the Bishop and a few other guests when Merry came in to serve sandwiches and, in blatant trespass of the Masters' own rules, they raped her while I held the tray of sandwiches twenty centimetres away from her face and watched, then yeah, she didn't have to say much. In my defense, what else was I supposed to do? If I said stop, they would say "no" and continue. If I intervened physically, I would be subdued or restrained and, depending on my behaviour, allowed to stay or made to leave, and they would continue. If I left the room, the rape would continue. I know this because I saw it all happen again and again and again over days. In fact, any intervention was likely to prolong the torture. But you know that's not a defense, that "what was I supposed to do, I couldn't do anything" line. It is no defense at all. The point is there isn't a defense. Not for people like us, which is to say, people. Of course I feel horrible about not interrupting, of course I do. Or rather I feel horrible about not having been able to fix it. An interruption would have only made it more interesting, but a solution, a way to MAKE IT STOP, that I cannot forgive myself for not having.

And one should not forgive that. Because perhaps, one may hope, out of the realisation that in fact there is no way to stop people with money and power from doing whatever the fuck they want, that out of that realisation and in stupid defiance of it one might try to change things anyway. I find myself, in the days after the Villa, having a very short fuse as regards complacency. For ages I had accepted that CEOs would do what they liked but that really they were just people and in their situation anyone would act like that. Now I feel like a seventeen-year-old again with an oversized "fuck you I won't do what they told me" gland and no mercy whatsoever for the greedy. And, well, fuck this sounds dumb but. Haven't you ever wanted to feel like you did when you were young and and the world was completely unacceptable? Aren't you sick of the compromises you've made and the ones in others that you have let slide because fuck it, who cares, integrity is for people who don't have decisions to make? It's maybe a side-order to what Signa's intentions were, but I could never pay them back for the gift of uncompromising anger, I don't care if it only lasts a week.

Nothing to see here folks
Oh and by the way, it's theatrical, yes, by which I mean representational. Which means that Merry was never raped, not in a legal sense. That when Tonino nearly made me puke on the first day when I witnessed him being forced to eat shit, he was acting. When Bernadetta was deflowered by seven men, one right after the other, there was no real penetration. When Franchino got electric shocks on his balls, the it looked worse than it actually was. Actually, I'd need to ask Max Pross about that one, because it looked pretty bad. All of the miseries were acted exquisitely. It took me days to figure out what was "real" and what was not, and I'm left with more than a few uncertainties. I still wonder where the blood capsules are hidden, how they made the shit smell so fantastically shitty, where the hell they hid their real genitalia half of the time, or exactly how they managed to soften the whipping and slaps while making them look terrifically painful. Of course there are some marks and bruises. And I'm willing to bet a house on the claim that not a single one of those performers will ever be the same again. I doubt that any of them, however, if they had to choose again, would choose not to do Salò.

But the point is it was acted so fucking well that many guests mistook something representational for the real thing, which honestly says an awful lot about what people think about artists in general and Signa in particular. They're not torturing the performers, people. There's no need to risk STDs and infection and health in general any more than is required for such a show—the piece risks wonking the artists' view of the human race forever and that's quite enough risk already thank you. There is control, there is communication, and there is a fuckload of trust. After many days' observation, it was possible to see when things were whispered, or when the Children were fighting not to crack a smile at sadistic yet often hilarious dialogue outlining what was going to be done to them in the immediate future. I even saw it in the Duke, one of the most fearsome bastards known to man, woman, or child. And so but the next time someone (probably in performance art) tells me that representation is dead and presentation is the only way to make art... well.

And but so the thing is I have pages to write before I sleep, but this is at least a start.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Vietti starts, the spirit is willing but the flesh is decrepit

I never thought I'd think this, but I have a real respect right now for the version of me that's stuck back in time three years ago. I trained a bloody lot.

We've just started rehearsing Vietti (ohj. Akseli Aittomäki, other performers Juha Sääski, Minja Mertanen and Elina Putkinen). We've been a very physical theatre company for quite some time now, and I've never had any tolerance whatsoever for the actor whose idea of a warmup is a cigarette and a change of shoes, but all of a sudden I am that actor and it's tremendously interesting. For me, I mean. This is the problem, basically, with everything in my life: I find really, really dreadfully dull things absolutely scintillating with the delightful promise of information in its most nuanced expressions. Well. What can you do.

So the point being that anyway my body is not happy with me, my calves are screaming, I think I actually may have lightly bruised the flesh on the bottoms of my feet on the concrete floor, my shoulders are complaining, each muscle group in its own little song of suffering, and then to add salt to it all, my brain hurts.

I've forgotten, in a way, how to perform. Or why to. Or something to that effect. For the past couple of years, in school especially, I've been attempting to work without all of those things that physical performers hold to be self-evident and sacrosanct: concentration. The use of the body in its entirety. Awareness of balance and figure and spatial relationship at all times. A sort of soft gaze that takes in the whole space without specific focus. Rhythm control. Breath control. Control control. These all used to be givens when I walked into a rehearsal space, and then too many people called me "theatrical" when I was studying performance art, and I got very, very interested in what the hell made me theatrical, and also got very, very interested in breaking the habit, playing with it, exploding it, fucking around with the methods of performance. The result, I am aware, is often messy, like someone who would have a great performance if they'd only bother to put in the extra bit of effort required. Or like someone who suddenly blanks onstage. I'm really into those moments. I want to know exactly what I'm doing when I'm performing and how I do it.

And but so I had very much thought that because it was so difficult to break theatrically trained habits, that I would never be able to lose them. Apparently I was wrong. I was really surprised in rehearsal to see my fellow performers go more or less directly to a kind of mode, a performance mode, because that is the tool you use in order to make a performance. It's like this: you want to put a nail in a block of wood. You don't even think about it; you go looking for a hammer. It's sensible, normal, and it has worked before. However, there definitely are other things you can use to put a nail in a block of wood, and they might be less efficient, uglier, slower or faster, but they are ways of doing it. Obviously, if any of them were fantastically efficient, they'd catch on and we wouldn't have hammers, and so it's reasonable to assert that the hammer is still the best tool--if all you want to do is get that nail in. However, if you're researching the act of putting nails in two-by-fours, you'd be missing something if you limited yourself to the hammer. And I find it very difficult to turn off, this tendency to treat performance as if it were a nail.

Which, this will basically only last until I have a clear idea of what I'm doing and why and how and to what end--and that's not nearly as daunting as it sounds, because it's also a fairly collective choice, with extra weight given to the director's input. I have gigs coming up next month with Kalevala dell'Arte, which is masked commedia, meaning it's one of the most stylized, set kinds of modes of performance you can ask for, but it's very easy to do because those questions of how and why don't need to come up anymore. You just train it and do it to the best of your ability. In the meantime, it's interesting to be stuck in an unpleasant place, which is how I feel--unpleasant--when in the middle of improvisations et al when I know for a fact that I'm following directions, and I also know (quietly but for a fact) that I'm breaking unspoken rules of theatre. As long as it doesn't hurt anyone, I don't mind.

And so but actually where I'm going tomorrow is to hell. Signa's Villa Salo is where I'm heading, to have my brain taken off and rewired for me again. I don't even know what to expect; last time I saw a show of theirs at PSI 2008 or so I'd never heard of them and had no prejudices or preconceptions whatsoever, so this is very different as I've bought a plane ticket and I'm not planning on leaving the Villa for four days. I'm not sure if I'm excited to be going or dreading it; they're just that disturbing. What makes it complicated is that I find things that disturb me greatly to be, on some level, the most valuable things I can find. The other complication is that I'm a total wuss.

Monday, January 18, 2010

splutter and choke and come up all lovely

The last 18 months have to constitute my most un-writingest period ever, pretty much in all formats that do not have a 140-character limit, and even there I haven't been prolific. My personal journal—something I've done since I was basically able to hold a pen—boasts a record low number of entries.

It's not a sudden occurrence, either, but as a wild guess I'd hazard that it has something to do with moving to another country as an actor and subsequently eschewing linguistic development in favour of working on physical ability. After all, since moving to Finland I became far more physically proficient onstage than I ever thought I would be. Keeping track of several details at the same time became possible: where the weight is, how far I am from that exit, the distance between fingers, whether I'm breathing well, the angle by which a torso protrudes from the hip bones, &c.

However, it doesn't seem to be very easy to be proficient in very many things at once, especially when one of them is really in a different realm. I mean, it's one thing to be incredibly knowledgeable about biology and literature, but appears to be another thing entirely when you take on a brand of knowledge that isn't available in books. I seemed to lose my ability to write, to concentrate, to sit for long periods. Actually when I started school, I noticed in the first two months that all of the dance students and myself were miserable in lectures and writhed like tadpoles in our chairs, not because we were uninterested but because it's painful to sit still if your body and brain are tuned in movement.

Also, I started to use Finnish more, and to spend less time with native English speakers. Skipping a whole bunch of sentences here in which I describe that process and how it feels when you've relied on language so heavily all your life, the net result has been something like a DIY amputation of something... not, say, an entire right hand, exactly, but certainly something more useful than an appendix.

So lately I've managed to spend time in English-speaking countries; I was in London, San Diego, New York. I heard people playing with English again, a quotidien thing that nevertheless to me was utterly fascinating. I found myself drawn to usage overheard in the subway like it was a shiny new toy. A relic from an alien spaceship. It was just so cool to hear the way people talk.

And so but it's hardly surprising then that lately I've simply thrown myself into the well disseminated arms of Stephen Fry and have been consuming rather more than one ought to of podgrams, audiobooks, episodes of Jeeves and Wooster and of A bit of Fry & Laurie, novels, commentary, documentaries, radio programs, a truly horrible thing to say when meeting a member of the royal family (or anybody for that matter) that comes from an episode of Whose Line in the 1980s, and then don't let's forget the awesomeness that is QI. All in all it's been very pleasurable. I've probably written more this week than I usually do all month, and then of course you get the downside which is that all of my friends are having to put up with me getting a bit freaky with my vocab. Not that they know it's a Fry thing. I just see the slight askance confusion when "antipodean" and "vasoconstrictor" fall out from between the teeth... but what can I do. I rather like it when my interests take a U-turn; it might contribute to my essential annoyingness but I really can't be too bothered about that as long as life is good.