“This is incredible! She looks like a normal woman!” said Robin, who comes from Belgium.
“What do you mean, normal?” I asked.
“She wears no make-up and her clothes are normal!” Robin was very surprised. “Do men in Australia have no problem with having women on TV who look like that?”

I showed it to her trying to explain something about the feel of the city, though, of inner-city Melbourne.

CITIES, spatial poetics

spatial poetics: Colour (Oliver Schwarzwald)

The rest of Oliver Schwarzwald’s photography is both technically more accomplished and artistically more interesting (Schwarzwald works for a number of German weeklies, producing the excellent photography that makes German people buy print media with a persistence that flies in the face of the entire third industrial revolution); but this series is a little bit special because it feels bizarrely raw. It has the same atmosphere of resolute melancholy decadence like the works of Tim Walker, but without any figuration whatsoever. Just pure set; or, rather, the props. Like an image á clef; a secret coded thing for those who already share the associations, who do not need much more than an allusion to know what’s being mentioned here.

The first image, in particular, sang to me. I could explain, about the mist, about the ping-pong table in the park, about the muted colours of the early morning and the rainbow colours of the flimsy paper decoration; and even the feeling of sleepy, relaxed exuberance that I associate with such images. But that would be breaking the code, giving words to a silence that is precious, like something rare. There are these colours, that one sees in Germany, pale and gentle even in mid-summer, and there is no stillness like the early-morning stillness of a large German city.

The entire series (and the rest of his amazing work) can be viewed chez Oliver Schwarzwald.

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CITIES, how the world works

Interview: Chris Dercon | Electronic Beats

I have said a few times that European cultural journalism of the sort published in free press is generally better than what Australian ‘elite’ media publish. This is not because am mean and/or hate Australia, but because standards of cultural journalism in Australia are held very low.

To demonstrate what I mean, here is an interview from Electronic Beats, a magazine I picked up in a bar a few days ago, here in Berlin. The interviewee is Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern:

You’re known for using interviews as platforms to make people aware of such societal developments. To quote you: “There are millions and millions of people […] who don’t know what social class they belong to and who can’t identify with any particular political agenda. And they’re becoming more and more. Those in power are hoping they don’t realize how many they’ve become; they’re hoping that they just continue to exploit themselves . . .” Do you think the art of modern governance lies in the skill to make the millions of members of the freelance “precariat” believe they’re only struggling for themselves individually?
I am completely aware that broaching sensitive topics like that is probably not something that’s expected from the director of a major art institution. A director’s job in the twenty-first century is not only to assume responsibility of a space for art, but also, and maybe even more so, to supposedly create a “time-slot” for art. That’s not my interest and never has been. I want to institute an institution, and this means to really create a space, to establish the conditions that fulfill particular needs and allow for certain experiences, and to make possible events in the future. This shouldn’t be equated with simply celebrating art’s “time-slot” within the larger scheme of socio-political events. I think most politicians see art as entertainment, as an expression of consensus of thought and taste, not as a form of critique. To make the impossible probable, and to celebrate the demos—that’s what I see as my task at Tate Modern, and that’s why this job is so intriguing. The Tate Modern is both sexy and democratic. You see celebrities and famous thinkers, but also groups of school kids and tourists who just arrived in London with the Eurostar . . . not to mention the twenty million visitors who use our online tools every year. And they all want something different. An exhibition like Gerhard Richter: Panorama is just one thing people want to experience amongst a host of other offerings. Curating exhibitions, selecting artists and art works; that’s one thing. Getting a message across is another. That’s why I like talking about small-scale organizations and what they can achieve.

OK, let’s talk about it. How do small-scale organizations fit into the picture?
Enthusiasm about being creative is a key aspect of self-exploitation nowadays, and that’s one of the biggest issues in an era where millions of people are freelancing. Today’s inequality is indeed unbearable. The art world is an ecosystem made up of art schools, art fairs, auction houses, galleries, museums, art publications, et cetera. And within this ecological mix, small-scale organizations become more and more important because they’re forced on the one hand to deal with so many other parts of the ecosystem and to adapt, while on the other hand still being absolutely unwavering about their mission. Most of them operate under almost impossible—I would even say unbearable—conditions. And yet they continue to operate.

You mean they are forced to operate in the face of failure?
That’s exactly why I’m interested in them.

via Interview: Chris Dercon | Electronic Beats.

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CITIES, theatre

shopping for experience (reviewed: a whole bunch of relational/immersive/participatory theatre, including London's LIFT and BAC's One-on-One Festival; Rimini Protokoll, Dries Verhoeven)

Life Streaming, Dries Verhoeven. Photo: Maarten van Haaff.

IMMERSIVE, RELATIONAL, PARTICIPATORY, SITE-SPECIFIC… WHATEVER TERM YOU PREFER (AND I PREFER ‘RELATIONAL’, AS THIS IS PRIMARILY A THEATRE OF SOCIAL AND SPATIAL RELATIONS), THIS FORM DOMINATED THE LONDON SUMMER OF 2010. BATTERSEA ARTS CENTRE (BAC) PRESENTED AN ENTIRE FESTIVAL OF ONE-ON-ONE WORKS, WITH OVER THIRTY ONE-MAN-(OR WOMAN)-SHOWS CRAMMED INTO THE OLD BATTERSEA TOWN HALL IN SOUTH LONDON. THE MORE CENTRALLY LOCATED LIFT (LONDON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF THEATRE) DEDICATED THE LION’S SHARE OF ITS PROGRAM TO EVENTS THAT COULD JUST AS EASILY HAVE BEEN TERMED MASS GAMING, COLLECTIVE SKYPING OR SCAVENGER HUNTS.

At the Barbican, during the same period, You Me Bum Bum Train entered history as their fastest-selling show ever: part theatre, part Thank God You’re Here, it turned each audience member into the protagonist, made to improvise their way through a series of dramatic situations in front of the supporting cast of 200. With so much emphasis on you, the spectator, forgive me if the rest of this article privileges the second-person singular.

one-on-one festival

An immersive event in its own right, One-On-One Festival was possibly its own greatest achievement. The least one could sign up for was a marvellously organised afternoon of mingling through a building crammed with secret one-man wonders, appointment card in hand. The atmosphere was surprisingly welcoming, even festive: performers and spectators crossing paths in the same courtyard and café, recommendations exchanged, friendships commenced, queues spontaneously forming outside the rooms with hidden gems on the strength of on-the-spot word of mouth. Repeatedly diving into a 2-or-3-minute intensely collaborative performance, being in turns swung and shaken, kissed and sung to, frightened or intellectually challenged, by the end of the day one had no personal boundaries left to speak of.

Despite being cumulatively great, One-On-One also demonstrated how quickly an emergent genre can settle on a limited range of solutions. One kind seemed tailored to break through fears of intimacy: Abigail Conway’s On Dancefloors invites you to dance; Emma Benson sings a song with you in Me You Now. Most radically, Adrian Howells gives you a bath in The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding, while Ansuman Biswas’s more open-ended 2 FREE offers the possibility of engaging with a naked, blindfolded man. However trivial they may sound conceptually, these were some of the most powerful performances in the festival, spoken about in hushed, almost spiritual tones. You found yourself entering these rooms with the same mixture of compulsion and terror with which you might climb into a roller-coaster (and they certainly act as a kind of psycho-social one, including the lag with which you process the experience afterwards). But if theatre is ever genuinely life-changing, it is in the strangely liberating afterglow that follows consensual nudity.

Another, quieter type of performance centred on material reality, and the tactile dimension of the experience generated, not so much inter-personal intimacy as greater understanding of how the world works. Barnaby Stone’s A Little Bit of a Beautiful Thing is a story of a wooden beam, a finely polished slice of which you will receive at the end. In Ray Lee’s Electric, your body becomes a conductor. Another focused on creating a first-person narrative, employing cascades of clever sensory illusions: for the 10 minutes of Just For a Moment, by Three Blind Mice, you have a drink at a pub, lie on the beach, dance Macarena in the world’s most terrible discotheque, witness a fight and have to be walked out of the pub at the end of the night, despite being blindfolded in a single room. Stan’s Café use mirrors, projection, costumes and clever framing to generate a 240-second film noir before your very eyes, with you as the chief villain, in It’s Your Film. While these works were longer, more carefully shaped and satisfied some of that need for dramatic spectacle that drives people into theatres on perfectly lovely summer days, their beauty again seemed to derive chiefly from the promise of intimacy, of being made-to-measure and the soporific pleasures of being touched, rather than from well-executed tricks.

The most accomplished works brought together the cerebral and the felt, offering an encounter while questioning its limitations. Sarah Johns’ Below plays with your perceptions: dragged into a dark room, her performance catches you before you can make sense of where you are. Facing a mirror and a singing girl, your focus shifts abruptly from one detail to another, resulting in a series of mesmerising, well-defined impressions, as if in a film. And of course, towering above the rest, is Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy of brief, but flawless works that boldly question the gullibility of the audience.

As Peggy Phelan writes, theatre has always been a meeting place, always offering the promise of a communion, an exchange—even across the proscenium arch. The relationship between audience and performer is, in her words, “the always already unequal encounter [that] nonetheless summons the hope of reciprocity and equality” (Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, 1993). Relational performance is the inevitable end-product of this quest. Yet in it, intimacy emerges not only as a tool and a goal, but as a major concern: can we have it, how, by what means and why do we desire it in the first place? A number of works at BAC traded on the false promise of quick intimacy, and most fell short: after all, the obvious difficulties of building a rapport with the actor in five tightly scripted minutes cannot be overcome just by holding hands. Ontroerend Goed’s Smile Off Your Face, Internal and A Game of You capitalise on this disingenuousness. Internal, in particular, set up as a speed-dating session followed by a sweetly cruel group debrief, builds the illusion of a budding attraction only to break your heart (comparing notes with other viewers is soul-crushing). Yet, for all its oversharing, Internal provides a dose of needed realism in a universe made of caresses. It stands as a reminder that there is no such thing as conveyor-belt romance, no intimacy on a mass scale, and that audiences often give their hearts away too easily.

Best Before, Rimini Protokoll. Photo courtesy: the artists.

lift 2010

The polar opposite of the high-concept One-On-One, LIFT 2010 was a festival with an identity crisis. Rubbing shoulders were weekend events for kids, formalist community theatre and the occasional think piece. Yet here, too, the most interesting works were from the relational family.

Rimini Protokoll’s Best Before is a computer game for the whole audience. Represented by a globular multi-coloured blip, for two hours you live as a proud citizen of Bestland, making personal choices (tertiary education? children? buy a house? own a gun? try heroin?) and participating in collective decision-making (legalise drugs or guns? form an army? welcome immigrants? equal capabilities or a diverse population?). As the game progresses, you reap the fruits of some decisions and suffer the limitations of others, while your range of choices progressively narrows as you age. It is a game of consequences, but also of chance—some blips are randomly wiped out by epidemics and war while, ultimately, the whole population dies of old age. I found the end unexpectedly poignant, realising that there was no final payoff for all my prudent life choices (I had grown old with a big family and plenty of real estate). I suspect the experience varies according to your age and life experience, but also audience demographics.

Bookmarking the game is Rimini Protokoll’s trademark presence of non-performers, or rather ‘reality experts’—in this case, the game designer, a game tester, a lobbyist and a traffic flagger whom the other three would have passed by on their way to work. Their guidance and stories serve both to contextualise gaming in the real world, to relate Bestland to the political choices that Vancouver has faced, and to reconnect our personal choices to non-virtual consequences. The tension between the two aspects of Best Before, which never quite connect, is a productive one, even though I found the four Canadians’ lives infinitely more intriguing than my avatar’s cyber-shenanigans.

The real treat of the festival was Dries Verhoeven’s Life Streaming. The concept is minimal: in a makeshift internet café, each audience member conducts their own video chat with a young person in Sri Lanka. In the interstices of the poetic, but tightly orchestrated structure, filled with pre-prepared text and film and guiding us through such topics as the tsunami, loss and grief, my interlocutor and I manage to insert a real conversation about life, healthcare, the scent of the sea and lying in bed with total strangers. The work keeps the question of its own intent open, incorporating sensorial stimuli to create an exuberant experience not unlike a perfect holiday in South-East Asia, while at the same time allowing for an unusual degree of self-propelling interaction. Consequently, you come away with a real connection to a human being—if you so wish. Like Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy, Life Streaming raises big questions about art, reality and intimacy, but lets you choose your own answers.

to shop or not?

Elinor Fuchs argues that relational theatre is the last step in theatre’s commodification: after the ice-cream in the interval, now we can get ice-cream during the performance. Indeed she terms it “shopping theatre” (The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater After Modernism, Indiana University Press, 1996) as it can so closely resemble a walk through a department store. It allows us to buy a reproduction of an experience that could not be bought otherwise. The physical set up, finally, is remarkably similar to a brothel—the room, the queue, the illusion of unique relationship.

However, I am not sure I entirely agree. At its worst, relational theatre combines the direst aspects of amusement parks and popular psychology, perhaps. But at its best, it incorporates the most conceptually interesting aspects of drama therapy, while allowing us to see our own experience through a critical prism. It highlights the qualities of everyday life, in all its mundane materiality, without distortion, in ways naturalistic theatre has consistently failed to achieve. Finally, the illusion of intimacy, of giving, which has existed for as long as theatre, can now be scrutinised in genuinely interesting ways. Relational theatre allows the exploration of the encounter between the artist and the spectator, an encounter that may be obviously staged, but is also more frank about its limitations. Once there are really only the two of you, the artifice becomes first disappointing, then bearable and finally, perhaps, genuinely empowering.

One-On-One Festival, Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), July 6-18, London; LIFT 2010: Rimini Protokoll, Best Before, created by Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, dramaturg Tim Carlson, game design Brady Marks, video design Candelario Andrade, set design Andreas Kahre, sound design Stegan Smulovitz, with Duff Armour, Brady Marks, Ellen Schultz, Bob Williams/Arjan Dhupia, June 30-July 3, Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA); Life Streaming, director Dries Verhoeven, dramaturg Nienke Scholts, technical production Joffrey Kranen, Silk BV, National Theatre, June 23-July 4, LIFT Festival, London, June 23-July 13

First published in RealTime, issue #99, Oct-Nov 2010, pg. 10.

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