In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord talks about the ways in which the spectacle has integrated itself into reality to such an extent that it both describes and reconstructs it. We’re no strangers to simulations, to cultures in which authenticity is shattered and displaced, in which the original is no longer fixed. We constantly reconsider the ways in which representation and reality function, and performance’s relationship to social, political, cultural and personal ways of being and doing. How do we move past performance’s appropriation (from the workplace to the staged spectacle) or instrumentalisation (is it in failure, in intervention, in duration?) and turn to a different way of engaging political aesthetics?
A lot of this seems to be tied to the shifts in performance’s presence politically and culturally. I am thinking here of institutions and their quest to appropriate live and performance art histories into other narratives (or tag them in their programming, often with mediocre curatorial conceptualisations), thus rendering performance as a simple paradigm for art’s experience, rather than a practice with its own registers, vocabularies and ideological positions; the incessant need to commodify or quantify the ephemeral; the relationship with fetishizing what is confrontational; or recontextualising provocation. There is a constant battle of framing and legitimation that sets contexts against each other, rather than marking joint areas of discourse, flagging up the relationship between performance, modes of thinking and being, political and social participation.
At the same time, to me, frames and form are modes of delineating and distinguishing; of marking an area of visibility whilst also imposing a temporary order or principle of engagement.
We often speak of resistance and subversion in terms of performance’s relationship to form and reality, yet On Spirit has brought together a fundamental aspect: the navigating between precision and ambiguity, between context, care and framing.
Performance, when it acknowledges its dependence on a particular social or political reality, when it considers its aesthetic and somatic engagement, disturbs boundaries in such a way that it enables discourses to shift from their context. In that way, a lot of the work I’ve encountered over the past days has sought to reconsider the contemporary paradigm of experience, to move towards something more hidden, more urgent, harder to pinpoint.
I am thinking about a series of frames.
Some are more visible than others; transparent, material, in constant movement, with ambiguous vantage points.
Some are mirrors other windows, and some distort in order to reconstruct.
Some are etched into the fabric of the everyday
And others mark their presence more aggressively.
And all of them return to us; to image and action, and the ways in which these two are inseparable.
I am thinking about the ways in which Daniel Oliver’s Weird Séance: Incredible Interquel Spectacle!, Katy Baird’s Workshy and Jamal Harewood’s The Privileged all engage with different frames of representation, working from the paradigm of participation. Workshy is a confrontation with labour and the very idea of artistic practice; it deliberately trades in spectacle but also in honest exchange, and tackles the relationship between the economic and the personal, cutting across expectations surrounding work and value. It is situated somewhere between actuality and fiction, between manipulation and representation, although it makes its own ideological position transparent too. It teases theatre as a place of didactic exchange, whilst also introducing economics in reflections on the act of spectatorship. Failure becomes subject matter and dramaturgical device, and notions of personal and public, value and accumulation, trading and commodity are embroiled in the same conversation, in which we are complicit.
In Weird Séance and The Privileged, a performance keeps trying to take shape, but it is destabilised from within. Across all these works, the provocation lies much more deeply with questions of positioning, responsibility and recognition – in a different way than we’re used to when confronted with participation as a flippant, theatrical device that either reiterates or challenges the notion of an audience and its agency.
In their different ways, these shows destabilise the relationship between the real and the staged by making the audience complicit – somewhere between the accumulated narrative and the authentic fiction. Discomfort is not theatrical here, it is a device for problematising ways of thinking about certainty, about visibility and about the realities of choice.
In Weird Séance, we have to pretend to be in a fictional place that is actually a real place that has been fictionalised; there is an event that never quite takes shape, which we are complicit in reconstructing, but we are also witness to and apparent (deceptively) author of. This is a kind of post-relational play with a real band (wearing hairy suits), and leaves and branches that stand in for trees, and lots of messiness and an incredibly precise manipulation.
This creates a sense of relationality between form and content, between our complicity in this fiction and its authentic dramaturgy, creating a constant need of looking beyond, of trying to find nuance or ideology within the work itself. When it finishes, we dissipate uneasily, unsure of where we stand, and this deliberate state of confusion is contingent on our ability to both contribute to the sustaining of the fiction and dissent towards the event that it is creating, which refuses to occur at the same time. The ethical, the political and the social are irrevocably tied together; the flippancy, the fiction and the sense of pretence construct a complex framework, which we become obsessed with sensing, and which feels like it dissipates and accumulates at the same time.
Weird Séance is provocative not because of its self-critique or reflexivity, nor because of its formal play, but because of the ways in which it collapses and constantly rebuilds frames of representation. It deliberately traces and then critiques its own boundaries, prompts thinking of systems and then flippantly dismisses any ideological play, because it is all transparent and embedded at the same time.
I think of both Daniel Oliver and Jamal Harewood as the ultimate tricksters – complicit, present, guiding, authorial and somehow unaccountable within the show itself. In The Privileged, the trickster becomes the teaser of discourse; the artist is both author and victim, configuring a network of social and artistic orders.
The Privileged acknowledges its signifiers so fully (echoes of Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s Couple in a Cage) – the gaze, the tension, the dialectic of oppressor and oppressed, issues of race and racism, of colonial histories and embedded opression – that it complicates the ways in which these different layers constitute cultures of agency or limitation. As a frame, it confronts us with ourselves without any ethical purity, but by inflaming a situation.
Harewood pushes the audience to go further, but in an environment deliberately laid out before us, that straddles reality and narrative, play and authenticity, as if without commitment to either. In this way, it reveals the gaps in liberal politics and problematises political and social structures that legislate or organise. This is a real history, Harewood proposes; and we are all complicit in its coming into being, and everything else is choice, and those choices are not outside any system, no matter where they are positioned.
Participation as frame.
Participation as citizenship.
Participation as critique.
Participation as a mechanism of making visible.
Participation as flippancy.
Participation as care.