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.