I’ve a new website here: bonicairncross.com
I recently prepared a short response for Sarah Miller’s Director’s Cut – Past Tense / Future Perfect. As part of Performance Space’s 30 year celebrations former director’s were invited to curate a night. Sarah’s brief for Past Tense / Future Perfect was to respond with a work we younger artists wish we had seen and a work we wish to see come into being. My response was quite personal and embedded in my recent thinking and making.
It was during the weeks leading up to my recent work Cat & Mouse, that I first heard about The Sydney Front’s Don Juan. Clare and Ed both talked about the structure of the performance and the engagement between artist and spectator of this particular production as a way to help me think through some of the questions I was asking – how to move an audience through an open space, how to reconfigure their relationship to the work, how to communicate the order of this world we were trying to create. And so I decided that this would form the first part of my response. It was quite a simple homage really – I appropriated the opening form of Don Juan – cordoning off the seating bank, leaving the audience to roam and group on the stage instead. Clare Grant and Chris Ryan surprised me with a cameo! Sitting in white nighties, watching the audience from the seating banks.
The second part of my response was to read a section of text produced by a participant from Cat & Mouse. It seemed appropriate to reference this recent work which is so tied up in thinking about Don Juan. But it also seemed appropriate as its exactly the point of thinking that I am at right now – caught between a work just made and the prompt for a new work yet to be realised. I’m not sure what that is, but I felt that this text would serve as a provocation for that. The text I read at Past Tense / Future perfect is below:
October 5, 2013.
The following is a short piece of text from a moment already past.
Notations of an action long since ceased.
Recorded by an anonymous observer, these words have fallen into my possession. A found document. A fragment of a situation – abstract tellings that I have no memory of.
I was there.
But they are also a score.
Instructions for action / Invitations for play / a duration unknown
He watches then walks
She lets her hair out
She leads and follows
He watches me write
She pulls a thread
She is both in and out… they giggle
they talk outside
they clump together
She watches me
She ignores me
He changes the light
He takes over
He laughs and talks under his breathe
He references the game
The choice is always there. The actors do not trap the spectators and those who accept to play the game really have nothing to fear (Jean-Marie Wynants on Sydney Front’s Don Juan, 1991).
She sits up
She lies down
I close my eyes.
This is a game.
In this game you can be a cat or a mouse – do you like to chase or be chased?
The rules of the game state that at any given time (x) people can be active and (y) must be passive. As an active participant – your only parameter is to stay within the green and to chase your curiosity.
As a passive participant – your constraints are to capture what is occurring around you, remain within the outer boundary and be ready to jump on when someone jumps out.
[In each individual’s ear]:
This is about your senses
Sight. Sound. Smell. Taste. Touch.
And your own awareness
Play with them.
Lets start with sight. Be ready.
[Out loud]: Game on.
The following text was an email written to Lauren Brown on July 9, 2013. It follows on from a discussion that Lauren summed up on her blog, and was written the day after performing Relay (iteration 2, cycle 5). In reply, Lauren said – “I think this discussion/brain explosion should be public – how do you feel about putting those words (verbatim – please don’t censor them) up on either of our blogs, underneath the post about the work itself?” I have a bit of an ambiguous position currently to the accessibility to my work, particularly to the processes that inform the works (which I’ve not questioned until very recently), but that emerges in the text.
That was a great link – I think Goldsmith makes some great points about the responsiveness of literature to current methods, although I’m not sure that mash-ups aren’t that unusual, it seems to be pretty frequent with dramaturgy.
When we re-performed this score again yesterday (Iteration2, cycle 5 as part of Exist-ence 5) the words certainly seemed emptied, certainly out of context. Its difficult to say such words with conviction when I don’t necessarily agree with some of the positions expressed, along with the monotony of saying these words over and over again.
I think when we began this project 12 months ago, there was an interest in the shift of political speeches over the last century or so. From long durational speeches that functioned to communicate ideological positions, policies (etc), as well as functioning to demonstrate to the public the speaker’s eduction and qualification – to the current mode of political speeches which is manifest in soundbites and snippets. The function has kind of shifted right? And with it so has the role of the listener. But what is that now? What was it then?
I’ve also been doing some reading lately on past avant-garde movements such as Dada and Italian Futurism, IS – thanks Claire Bishop (Artificial Hells). Bishop makes a comment that Italian Futurism and Soviet Constructivism were intwined with political positions (Futurism directly leading to Fascism). Dada on the other hand negated a single political position and worked on negating all. Bishop directly links the participation debate with political action – for Marinetti for example active participation was seen as a total commitment to a cause (Is the oversimplification of the active/passive spectator debate mirrored by an oversimplification of political debate – symptomatic of this age of absolute access, absolute excess? What is the link between this neo-liberal world, performance and politics?). I think our aim with not selecting a political position to argue from, but rather choosing to negate them, is a strategy to remove a didactic and dogmatic edge… we could continue this, or determine our position and go for it. For me there is a fear of making overtly political work and I’m not sure why this is – perhaps because I don’t want to tell people how it is, because I think I don’t know what I’m talking about. But perhaps there is a way of determining a position and communicating the uncertainty and questioning… actually why can’t we just start asking questions – thats what I’m always doing and whats wrong with verbalising them? Its also another way of engaging the audience – challenging them to listening and think… (or own voices?… see below)
Active and passive spectatorship. This is a live work – we know its got to be live. But what exactly is the role of the audience. Currently we, the performers, are in a self-contained process, the audience exist as onlookers. Is this oddly replicating the reality of a democratic system? Also there is a power in the locations we’re using – and yet we’re also not being clear with this. What are the actual sites? Why is there no direct reference between these and the score (when we performed yesterday, Lauren became aware that the references are very Australian based)
However, as it stands the score doesn’t commit to one thing or another. Its flakey and shifts all over the place. We’ve got lots of questions, but haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of what this thing is.
Active/passive spectatorship – there is a link back here to Bishop.
Is this about the futility of political activism? The futility of performance as a political action? (we’re making a performance, there is something important in the choice of this medium – the live and the duration, I think there are lots of links between politics and performance and spectatorship, lets pull them out, or make the questioning clear and conflation of these things clear throughout the score)
Contrary to what we decided with this iteration – I think this performance actually has to commit to the radicalism of the words being spoken – we will go on, we will fight, we will not be deterred, we will persevere… this is a political statement that we need to speak up, that people need to listen, that listening is active and engaging – that listening is the first step of participation in a democracy… but as a political action, a revolt against the disinterested and disengaged, this performance has to commit to the necessity of the need to speak and listen all the time – it must go on for as long as possible – until it becomes physically impossible to continue.
Otherwise what is the point?
To take a tea break between speaking and listening to the loaded and weighted subjects we are dealing with, is almost like saying – that’s okay, take a break now, watch that youtube clip of that kitten over there and forget about this for a minute – for many people in the situations we are dealing with, forgetting about it, taking a break isn’t an option.
We are in a position of privilege that we can walk away, stop listening, stop speaking.
At the moment – this score, with its mash-up, glitching, slightly nonsensical sweep of a variety of positions (from multiple contexts, which frankly I have no position to speak of) is one without conviction. Taking something that could be a powerful and moving speech and transforming it into a succession of babble. How is what we are performing any different that turning on the television and listening to a consistent stream of nonsense – effectively switching off? I don’t want to babble and I don’t want to drone. I want to move the audience, provoke them to listen, to think, to engage them and make them stop this disinterested disconnect for at least a moment or two. Why have we stopped caring? Why is it daggy to give a fuck about other people and to express that?
A few things that we need to work on for the next iteration:
1. a much longer score, clearing up what the aims are of this score – if it is about speaking and listening, then why isn’t it focusing on this – others’ words mixed in with our own. Why are our own voices missing?
I don’t actually think it should repeat. How long would an audience engage for if there was no repetition? When I performed at Exist-ence the audience seemed to stay around for one cycle of the script – as soon as it repeated it left.
2. I don’t think the listening/speaking needs to be so clearly demarcated in the action. If we perform this live and work through the cycles – there is no reason that the dual-performance can’t intersect with each other. Why can’t I stop to listening to you speak – then reinforce those words by performing them shortly afterwards and vice-versa? As we begin to move away through the cycles, the devices and network come in to facilitate (as well as disseminate) the speaking, allowing the listening to function.
I also think its really important to shift away from a clear division of speaking/listening (active/passive) and start blurring these. Isn’t it possible to listen while speaking? Responsive listening, responsive speaking… if that makes sense.
Reading the score – yes but I tend to just focus on the screen then (hide behind it) – I think that’s been okay when I’m not using my own words – but there needs to be a connection to the audience. It has to be live, there has to be a committed, enduring live audience (the changes to the script will probably help), but there needs to be contact with them – eye contact, gestures that engage them. Politicians use gestures all the time – they’re conventional but stamped with individual personality, lets start doing this.
The costumes – ? I like the circles, I like the all black – I reckon it needs to be more formal though – I’m still hanging onto power suits.
Duration – performance for as long as possible.
Site: what’s the significance between London and Sydney? Potentially, this could be performed moving through the cycles with both of us in Sydney, again with both of us in London, a third time completely mediated between the two sites. Alternatively, we perform it once completely mediated.
… My brain just exploded onto the page. I hope it makes sense.
“absolute access” is a phrase that was part of the final line of Madeline Beckett artist statement. Mads is my housemate, a wonderfully amazing performance artist and someone that I’m constantly arguing with. Poor Joel, our other housemate who is constantly caught in the middle of lengthy debates on liveness and mediation. Mads’ argument sits in almost complete opposition to mine – a stubbornly brilliant argument that the live can never, ever, be replicated. To sum it up in my own words (perhaps quite badly), Mads emphatically argues that the live moment is a force (form) that establishes an emotionally charged connection between the present bodies, and this unique and heightened charge should not be diluted through reproduction. It is this that we are forgetting in our age of absolute access.
My own position is far more ambiguous. But that phrase ‘absolute access’ has, and continues to, resonate. What is the main objective of making live works accessible? Is it simply for commodification? Is it to problematise the relationship between the live and the recorded? Is it to have a more inclusive approach to live art? Is there a connection between the rise in acceptance of accessibility and developments of the network? Is there a connection between accessibility and a neo-liberal state of affairs? Is accessibility about democracy and inclusivity? Or is it about commodity and excess? Is absolute access, absolute excess a bad thing? Eg, how much should things be made accessible, and to what ends? What, as an artist, do you make public and how?
That last question stemmed out of a conversation with Susan Gibb in the lead up to the group exhibition “Public Thinking” at 55 Sydenham Rd, Marrickville.
PTSL is a subjective, hand-written document of ‘The Situated Line’ – a group exhibition presented at Articulate Project Space, Leichhardt, between 26.04.13 – 12.05.13. As a form of real-time documentation, the pages trace sixty hours over ten days of occupying space, being in a given moment and an attempt to capture the elusive present.
Dispersed with diagrams, sketches and pauses, the text is at times feverous, excitable and detailed. At other times, it is languid, mundane and tedious. Fragmented and disjointed, the text grapples with the process of evidencing the split between time frames – the ‘now’ of real-time, the ‘now’ being captured on the page and the lag between them.
The process offered a space of heightened awareness (until fatigue set in), making explicit the incomplete nature of live experiences and the role of attention in framing such events. While the process was performed publicly, the experience was highly subjective and internal. The distance that was established called into question the relationship between artist and audience within the live encounter. Here, the document-as-object operates on the same conditions of its production – as the ‘third thing’. It supplements the performance as the mediator between artist and audience, questioning the legibility of the document and initial process in turn.
PTSL emerged from a particular trajectory of my practice concerned with audience participation, constructed situations and the development of real-time documentation. I began to question whether it was unreasonable to demand such commitment from my audiences. Instead, this task retreats into an internal and subjective space – establishing a clear divide between artist and audience. At the time, I wondered what the point was of performing this highly personal experience publicly. In the aftermath, it has left me questioning whether this artist/audience distance was ever eliminated (or close to being eliminated) through those other participatory events.
In the lead up to Public Thinking, I’ve spent some time going through this document. Questions keep emerging and I’m not really certain about the answers. On the one hand, the transformation of this process into an object seems to refute the position that has informed my practice to date. The performance document is frequently critiqued due to its distance from the live event and its fragmentary nature. Arguably to have an ‘authentic’ experience, you had to be there, in-the-flesh at the live event. Exhibiting the document of a live event, but denying the viewer access to its contents seemingly upholds this position.
The argument that privileges the live event, operates on the notion that there is a direct connection established between artist and audience. Yet live event is ultimately framed through an individual’s attention and interpretation – generating a multiplicity in perspectives, each one fragmented in itself. Does performance then ever manage to eliminate the distance between artist and audience? Here, the document-as-object, isn’t so much privileging the live event. Rather it operates on the same conditions of its production – as the ‘third thing’. It simply supplements the performance as the mediator between artist and audience.
Despite an incredibly smooth tech run two days prior to performing Relay (on August 19th), the actual performance was marked by complete a technology fail. So much so that it completely altered the work from what Lauren Brown and I had intended to something very different. After a patchy beginning (for more details check Lauren’s own blog post about the work here), the first 2 hours of the performance was consumed with trying, and failing, to get a sustained connection via Skype between Alaska, Sydney and Performance Space, London. This was the crucial element in which the simultaneous performances were evidence in the alternate site, and what created the ‘relay’ aspect.
After the 2 hour mark, Lauren and I were completely out of synch, we were frustrated by the failing technology, and the struggle of trying to perform while also trying to sort out the connection was taking its toll. Through a txt, we had decided to continue performing our own roles, continue recording what was happening in the space and playing back this audio – focusing on listening to our own performance instead of the other’s as was intended. A little while later Lauren sent me another text:
“i’m going to have to log a DNF. the tech is not happening and the listening isn’t either. go forth and i’ll see you at the end”
The following three hours of the performance were tense. Whilst performing I was questioning whether to continue with the performance which had now drastically shifted from what we intended. At what point do you quit? How do you decided if there is an integrity in the altered form of what your doing – whilst your doing it? Do you just blindly continue anyway – because there is a set duration for the performance? Because maybe something will come out of it.
I felt decidedly vulnerable and exposed. At the time I couldn’t remember why I was doing what I was, why I had decided to work in this form, and why I wanted to place myself in such situations by making work publicly. The situation was also tense for Lauren – her reflection can be read here
I did complete the 5 hours. I could still talk by the end of it. I did cry. There are a few considerations that emerged in the aftermath of this performance:
1. Without the possibility of an audience, this performance would have been a studio experiment. And more than likely I would have given up at the first sign of any tech difficulties. In fact I’ve been in that situation before and cancelled what I was doing because it would have emptied the work.
2. There is an element of exposure in making artworks live. With a studio practice, if you try something out and it doesn’t work – well no one needs to know. But when you’re running through an situation that is contingent on ‘liveness’ – the here and now of the performance site, with an audience watching on, everything is on display. That being said the ‘failure’ of the planned intention to play out exactly as you imagined it can add to the performance (not detract from it – as I was thinking during relay). In this case, the perseverance and endurance I drew on to reach the end of this performance resonated with the words I was speaking. The score – compiled from over 25 political speeches – often referenced perseverance and endurance, fighting against the odds.
3. Was it really a failure? At the time I thought so. But no. The performance became something different, nothing like what Lauren and I had intended, but it was still attended. It was still a durational task that challenged my limits – and in more ways that I could have foreseen. It still had an element of ‘relay’ – instead of relaying between sites located across the globe, the work was relaying between the live and recorded elements, but also between the two levels of this carpark in Kings Cross (A live feed video was being played the level above – where Alaska is located – from where I was performing). And I asked more questions about my own practice – something we probably don’t do as much when things run smoothly. And I learnt a lot – mainly have a contingent plan!
A letter from a friend written in German. An art theory text that relates to the experiential. Another theoretical text about colour theory. A book that was a gift from a mutual friend. Personal notes written in the aftermath of a performance. A favourite song. A book of nursery rhymes found in a friend’s house. A text that we’ve discussed together at length.
One person reads quietly to himself – a personal performance within the space. Another read loudly and clearly – sharing the experience. One person was conscious of their ‘actor voice’ – projecting above the din. Yet another translated their text into another language – a constant negotiation of communication.
What people brought to read last night, and how they chose to read it, in many ways was a reflection of them. Most of the text’s chosen, were selected for personal reasons – in some cases they were tied up with a shared association with me. A German letter because she knows I really wish I could speak German and that I have a fascination with German culture. Books that we’ve discussed before. Song’s that we’ve listened too together. A nursey rhyme book from my own house that was a gift to me the year I was born. Personal notes written after performing in one of my previous performances.
Now I’m sounding slightly vain. I am framing this through my own understanding of the connections I have with each of the participants. But isn’t that the magic of this work? It is for me. There were, of course, other reason’s for the choices of text.
I was the only one who didn’t share a text. Instead I attempted to trace (in real time) these shared experiences. I don’t think I was very successful. In the hubbub of activity it was impossible for me to focus on each individual – on what they were saying and how they were saying it. To even comprehend the majority of what was going on was incredibly difficult. My hand-writing was an even slower process of recording than the typewriter was (and a lot messier too). During the event I resorted to tracing the spatial situation – where people were in the room – with snippets of what they were saying. How they were moving. And when they left the situation.
It is only now in the aftermath of this experience that I have been able to explore the deeper connections of that made up this experience. And in many ways this was only possible through the insights that I had through conversations with participants post-performance at the pub.
These were all people I knew quite well. They’re all friends. What will happen when I take this work to a place I’ve never been to before and ask strangers to participate? Will something be lost by the lack of a prior relationship with my participants? And how would I overcome this?
I had begun to think that perhaps instead of a group situation, I could shift this artwork to a more intimate piece – a one-on-one performance and conversations. Asking the participants to share a text with me, why they selected that one, why it is important to them, in turn share my connection with the text (if any). Perhaps these one-on-one ‘performances’ could be just as interesting.
But actually I think the group situation is important. In many ways it offers the participants a security blanket. It can be a daunting task – many participants told me after that in the lead up to the performance they experienced a sense of exposure, nervousness, apprehension, self-consciousness. But the realisation that everyone else was in the same boat eased this to some degree. Within the group you have the opportinuity to share your text with others- by walking up to them – or you can be secluded and keep quiet. The babble of noise that is generated by multiple people speaking at once also discharges much of the nervousness – really how could anyone hear exactly what you are saying? There is no spotlight on one person – a situation many find awkward to be in. This point was made quite obviously – once one person left the group… more and more started drifting away. You become conscious of your own voice in the space.
Interestingly when I take away the directive of time (no longer an enforced hour of performing) the performance only lasted for about 26mins. Isn’t the length of the human attention span around 20mins?
Do I carry out the action regardless? What would Alvin Lucier, Allan Kaprow, William Raban do? Will the action empty itself out? Is this being ‘true’ to the work or taking self-imposed parameters to the extreme? Do I post-pone it for later in the week? Do I just simply skip this week? Why am I doing these is in a serial format? Why is the repetition of the live situation an important aspect? (Is it even important?) Do we sit in silence for an hour next week because nothing was recorded this week? And if ‘nothing’ is being played out – would it be interesting to see if ‘something’ is subsequently recorded and what this might be? Why 1 hour? Why did no one show up? Is the experience too boring? Too uncomfortable? Too confusing? Too conceptual? Are people simply just busy? Is 1 hour to long to ask of participants donating their own time and energy? Repeatedly. Would it be more effective to ask participants to determine the length of their performance? What is the artwork about again?
Last night I cancelled the third iteration of you must follow me carefully. The thing was I had a lack of participants. There were three of us. I’ve never performed this situation with only three people – I had always thought that there needed to be an intensity (and multiplicity) to the speakers to generate the ‘glitches’ that make the typed document interesting. When faced with the prospect of performing an hour-long performance, devised for a minimum of 5 people with only three – I was caught. Cancel it? Or carry on regardless? I found myself sitting in my studio at 6.30pm struggling with my options. Oh and the self-confidence blow. It is after all like having a party that no one comes to. Or playing a gig to a crowd of 1.
I decided to cancel and go home and cook myself dinner. And have a drink or two. Perhaps not a very avant-garde gesture. There was, however, no point in putting my last two (semi) willing participants through a very difficult one-hour experiment. That is the kind of thing you expect from yourself as the artist, completely invested in the work. Is it reasonable to ask that of a participant?
Even though you must follow me carefully (#3) was cancelled – I don’t see this (now) as a failure. It has forced me to be critically aware of the work. Coerced me into assessing what it is that I am doing, what it is that I am asking other people to do, and why I am doing that. It is not a pleasant space to be in (many a friend has received a phone call in the last 24hrs). As you can see there have been many questions asked – and there are many still left to answer – but perhaps this is a much more effective way of making a work than carrying something through without ever really assessing it.
Despite not being able to answer many of these questions I’ve posed for myself, one thing that I am certain about is that I need to hone in on ‘what’ the artwork is. Currently it encompasses a huge amount of conceptual ideas, stemming from a theoretical research project. Really these could be unpacked and addressed individually as their own artworks. Is it really necessary to intertwine them together in one? What is the legibility of the artwork when it begins from such a dense point?
For Richard Schechner, where a performance ‘takes place’ is a complex question. Schechner states, ‘performance isn’t in anything, but exists between things’ (2002, p42).
You must follow me carefully is a performative workshop. A constructed situation. It asks participants (including the artist) to occupy a room for an hour. To perform one task repeatedly for an hour.
Is this the artwork? The live event? The individual performing their role? The performance existing between the sheet of text being read and the participant reading it aloud? Activating it through their interaction? Or through punching heard thoughts onto the page via a typewriter? The tool (voice/typewriter) mediating the experience.
Or does the artwork exist between the present participants – the live encounter as a whole? The group dynamics influencing the outcome – sometimes dry, sometimes playful.
If it resides within the individual – does the artwork continue to develop every time they think about this experience? If they recount it to someone else – is this still the artwork? Or a document? And how do you map/trace all these intangible things? (does it even matter? – maybe its better as something fleeting, a whimsical thing – just a feeling. experience).
If this situation is repeated (with variations to those who participate) – is this a document or a continuation?
where is art?
“Amalia Pica describes how the variations between versions of accounts are emblematic of the process of capturing a moment.”
“A middle way between an apparently objective neutrality and a conscious instrumentalisation of subjectivity in documentary procedures is offered by the form of (the documentary) installation. ” – RENE ZECHLIN