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Enacting ecological thinking through interactive performance

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a theatre workshop hosted by co-directors of Waste Paper Opera, who I have previously collaborated with on a workshop Useless L(AI)bour. Aswell as being a really joyful and engaging workshop, it made me think about interactivity. Again, more and as always.

During the introduction they introduced one of their operas, Dead Cat Bounce, which was turned into an installation during development at a residency in Madrid. They hung costumes from the ceiling of what was a former slaughter house, laying down concentric lines on the floor that narrated hurricane cycles and sun spots over time. The space created a church like atmosphere they explain, with people beginning to perform their own ritualistic-like movements, unprompted, in the space, one person even crying. In this immersive setting, the audience have almost become the subject, the performers that activate the space. They become agents of the space, embodying their own narratives that also then reflects back into the reading of the space. I talk about the fact that all performance is interactive and the performance happens in the moment of an encounter. What then is the moment of encounter between someone entering this space?

Thinking about how to level the heirarchy between performer and audience during a performance has been on my mind recently, but I am beginning to wonder whether the presence of a performer will always make this impossible. The performer, as we culturally understand the role of the performer, will intrinsically set up this hierarchy as they embody the power of being a change agent. But even if you give the audience the power of agency, it will never be on the same level as the performer, who can still give and take away this agency. What is an autonomous audience vs an agentential audience? But these two words beside eachother sound almost paradoxical, oxymoronic, because the role of audience has a predefined assumption of passivity. The agential audience then suggests an uncanny role of being passive but in a slightly more active way. In an installation however, the visitors are not an audience, watching events unfold beyond an invisible boundary of they are on the other side of (is this not the horror of interactive performance, of being clumsily ripped through this membrane that we thought we were safe behind, with or without the expectation that it was transparent or porous). But an installation carries a whole other set of expectations. There is no audience, because this is a space where they are autonomous to move as they please, give attention to whatever for however long. Through this variable stringing together of encounters, the narrative that is created through the space is entirely self-determined. It is something closer to a video game than a performance. Without the presence of a performer to render the audience the non-performers, is it easier to take up interactivity and participation. How can the performer be embodied spatially or sonically? Perhaps the presence of a performer also is a desire to control these interactions. There is little emergent behaviour in the interactive performance (at least the ones that I have hosted or attended), because the interactions are often predetermined in the writing and this gives the audience actually only a very narrow range of ways to interact with the performance. You can clap here or you can clap here. Which will it be? Where is the option to make my own ritual within the performance? And maybe its about time. The performance has a linearly determined duration, where the action takes place somewhere between the first clap and the last one. In an installation there is no set time, no predefined start or end, as with a video game.

My imagination is now wandering and I am trying to imagine a drag show in the format of a video game. A friend recently referenced the interactive theatre show The Burnt City by Punchdrunk, where you walk through an immersive set, watching the performers interact through narrative vignettes but unfold as if they were non-playable characters. The audience cannot directly interact with the story, but depending on the choices they make and where they place their attention throughout the experience, the reading of the story will differ person to person. This is a more passive form of interactivity, where the parallel storylines are static but you are the mobile force passing between them, curating a unique story though this freedom of motion. On the other side, and this is the structure I’ve been thinking with until now, the audience is static but free to change the story that everyone will experience more or less identically. The fear that accompanies this is perhaps one of responsibility and social pressure, whereas the former is much more personal. If you fuck it up at least theres no one to watch you do it.

The different between the installation and the performance is the element of liveness. The performance is live, whereas the video game or the installation, does not have period of on and off. To be live requires there to be events that happen only at certain points. But even if this were true inside a video game, I would not consider it live. There are examples of live VR theatre, but they are live in that the characters are not prescripted bots, but instead humans that are interacting in real time. Although I have never experienced first hand any virtual theatre, there is something about the anonymity of an avatar, both performers and audience transmuted in to the same digital interface, that I can imagine has more of a levelling effect. That through this process of transformation into virtual avatars, there are unwritten rules and social cues that have yet to be determined. In meatspace these cues feel so hardwired that the work of the interactive performance is to convince us that are in fact not, and we have entered a realm where they are mutable. How is this done?

The door. A friend and I are currently creating a workshop about a queer ontology of doorways that seeks to expand the space of the doorframe as a space of liminality. This is another blog post entirely but for now relevant because we have been discussed this morning in depth the power of the door to signify, symbolically or physically, a process of change. Here is here because it is not there. The door is the membrane between states and therefore gives them an identity by defining what they are not. Therefore I think harnessing the act of entering as a ritualistic passage into a space of undetermined rules is actually quite vital in defining the rest of the performance. But doorways is also a contract. You pass through the door, and agree to the set of rules that accompany the new space you are able to entering. The symbolic meaning of the doorway must be defined before passing through the doorway.

I spoke to friend recently who is working with an interactive theatre company in Amsterdam and she talks about the importance of preparing the audience before they even enter the perforce space. In a way the performance has to begin before the audience even know it has started. This is what I will call the power of the atrium. The atrium is the holding space, the bar, the hallway, the seemingly inconsequential ‘outside’. But the atrium is important because it is what lies on the other side of the boundary that defines the inside. Here is where the contract is created. A ritual is performed, an introduction is given, so that the moment that the doorway is traversed it is clear we have entered somewhere where the rules of the outside do not apply. I think this is vital to immersive performance where the desire is to transgress the usual social contracts of what is and isn’t acceptable.

All this and as I write I wonder why. Why care about interactive performance? Is it a gimmick? Theres absolutely nothing more delightful than kicking back and basking in the spectacle of a performance that asks nothing from you other than the odd clap and cheer. Everything feels like work now so why sign myself up to more labour than I have to? Honestly, I’m still trying to understand that myself, but I think theres some kind of wider political motivation of resisting passivity at play in this goal. What if performance could be a space that allows us to rehearse or practise a kind of disobedience against the usual docile roles we are expected to enact politically. In Against the Anthropocene, T. J Demos calls for a lexicon of “rebellious poetics” and I think there is something quite rebellious about trying to disrupt the audience-performer hierarchy and enact new modes of agency, that can maybe ripple beyond the space and time of the performance. And by extension, if we can enact alternate distributions of power between us, we might learn a kind of creative flexibility to be able to reshape the relations of agency beyond the human with our environment and non-human world. There’s also something about unlearning ego at the heart of this invitation into a performative space that allows everyone involved to explore alternate forms of self-expression. An attempt at undoing anthropocentrism through the undoing of our own egos. What I’m realising though writing this is that while none of the subject matter of the performance or show need needs to explicitly reference ecology, perhaps the show is a mechanism to propose and enact ecological thinking and rehearse ecological ways of relating to eachother and our surroundings.


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