TaPRA Murmurings…

Anthropomorphic Roots

Image shared by delgaudm on flickr via a creative commons license.

I’ve just returned from the TaPRA (Theatre and Performance Research Association) annual conference in Cardiff. I was there part of the Theatre and Philosophy Working Group, and delivered a joint paper with my supervisor Dan Watt. The first half of the session was a soundwalk I made which can be heard over here and the second half two papers that converged. This was my half of the paper. We wanted to provoke discussion on the growing irrelevancies of the ‘broadcasting’ conference form, in age that is more like a network, as well as its ability to interrogate performance. We didn’t aim to provide solutions, but offer a provocation. Following the main part of the conference the working group began to plan an interim event more like a symposium crashed together with game play, both performative and academic… Read on for more on the provocation

A Paper without Organs, or, Detours in Theatre and Thinking

‘We are in the era of the simultaneous, of juxtaposition, of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the scattered. We exist in a moment when the world is experiencing, I believe, something less like a great life that would develop through time than like a network that connects points and weaves its skin’ (Foucoult, The Essential Works II, 175) (West-Pavlov 2009, 18)

Christopher Sandberg (2004) […] calls for a different audience theory […] He asserts that in order to fully understand and appreciate a larp [live action role playing game], one must participate in it. This creates a sort of first person audience” (Montola, Stenros and Waern 2009, 54)

Subtlemobs, Hide and Seek, and the urban environment

The performance event is changing, is melding, is mashing up with the new narrative strategies emerging from contemporary digital culture. It is moving into the urban environment, and through an embodied audience. The age of the first person is coming; gaming culture, and the ludic heritage of our childhoods are merging with performative, pedagogical practices and forming the pervasive game.

[…] pervasive games are not new human activities. […] Play becomes pervasive only in a modern society that erects boundaries to be pervaded by such games. (Montola, Stenros and Waern 2009, 257)

Pervasive games can be defined as play expanded out of traditional performative or ludic space in one or all of three ways; spatially (it moves through everyday space), temporally (it is interacted with throughout everyday time) or socially (it is played with/around the public).

Contemporary life has brought us “the proliferation of spaces whose function seems only to be to facilitate our ‘passing through’” (Buchanan and Lambert 2005, 3-4). Pervasive games oppose this by moving into the streets, inhabiting them

“The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language”  (McDonough 2004, 290)

Hide&Seek is the foremost pervasive gaming company in the UK. Their processes are collective, anyone can design a game, anyone can edit, their events are free to attend, touring ‘Sandpits’ are used to trial – ‘beta-test’ – and improve games, and regular large events and festivals are held where a diverse range of game designers run the most successful.

These games are playful explorations of constructing and re-constructing our selves, powerfully détourn-ing our relationships with the spaces and people around us. They do so in a ubiquitous fashion that the Situationists, those hackers of urban space, would have recognised as revolutionary.

Alex Fleetwood of Hide&Seek describes their works as:

A way of getting people to break that unwritten social law of don’t interact with your fellow man, just walk along the city, and be an automaton in your own space (Hide&seek 2007)

The game Scoop! arranges three teams into ‘genres’ of journalists; tabloid, broadsheet, and gossip magazine. Armed with small video cameras, each team heads out to film several stories. They get points for stories, certain props, and bonus points if they are able to film other teams. This simple ludic structure belies a thicker connection with the media as narrative construct, and genre outlook.

Vampires is a game to be played at night. There are 3 secret vampires with an array of ‘bite’ cards, 20 villagers, and ‘stake’ and ‘holy water’ cards hidden around a city area. The villagers’ task is to find 15 stake cards, and return them to a ‘safe place’ before the time is up. Villagers who are bitten are handed ‘bite’ cards, and if a villager suspects someone they can throw a torn up holy water card in a participant’s face. The game is frightening to play, you suspect everyone, it re-reveals the fear of walking around city space at night.

These games “transform the way we understand space.” (Montola, Stenros and Waern 2009, 78), but also allow us to recognise the construct of what has gone before, participants – and the spaces in which they play – are unbalanced.

[…] a deliberate act of unbalancing, an unworkable conjunction that ‘forges alliances… according to the circumstances’ (Deleuze 1997b: 256). (Watt 2009, 94)

This is alos the lived-play that the situationsts called for, no longer holed up in sanctioned ‘art space’; this is art, lived.

The role of the “public”, if not passive at least a walk-on, must ever diminish, while the share of those who cannot be called actors but, in a new meaning of the term, “livers,” will increase. (Debord 2004, 47)

Pervasive gaming de-territorialises being by placing the subject in immersive or ludic situations and inhabiting our urban unspace. Pervasive games are the realm in which Deleuze’s

[…] machine of minor literature can give way to a playful environment where thought and words become movement (Watt 2009, 100)

The Subtlemob is another, more traditionally narrative-driven pervasive form. Developed by Duncan Speakman, the Subtlemob takes the mass congregation and playful reclamation of the flashmob[1] and turns into a kind of first person performance; inhabiting story.

[…] the new space, like new machines, can only be represented in motion (Buchanan, Space in the Age of Non-Place 2005, 19)

As if it Were the Last Time is a Subtlemob for two. Participants congregate in a designated street, and at specified time play an mp3. Instructions, sounds, and stories inhabit them as they drift around the space. The narrative is not Aristotlean, rather more like a collage. You are asked to find places that feel natural to you, where you feel safe or uncomfortable, to look at the tops of building and in the faces of passersby; to change direction in return for eye contact, and to enact a small moment of intimacy. The piece ends with a dance, suddenly a street that was seemingly contained just two conspirators is full of laughing, dancing people.

Speakman’s first-person audience presents a deterritorialisation of the self.

[…] the process whereby the very basis of one’s identity, […] is eroded, washed away like the bank of a river swollen by floodwater – immersion. (Buchanan, Space in the Age of Non-Place 2005, 23)

At the same time as video games are becoming a dominant entertainment form, social media sees brand, identity, and play becoming re-constructed, integral; a kind of digital prosthesis. The Subtlemob uses immersion to construct a piece of performance out of the shards of our selves. Briefly, you are wholly in a place you would normally pass through, fragmented.

Audience Centrism and Coney

These processes are happening in more conventional theatre-spaces too. As in A Small Town Anywhere by The Agency of Coney.

Coney itself plays like a game of secret society, with members taking codenames in chapters […] all over the world. […] This secret society is led by RABBIT[2]. Anyone who is game can join. (Coney n.d.)

A Small Town Anywhere, performed in 2009, was devised over two years with Battersea Arts Centre as part of their ‘Not for Me, Not for You, but for Us’ festival.

The show has its roots in a French film called Le Corbeau (The Raven) about a mysterious poison-pen writer plaguing a nameless French village. Made by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1943, it was a covert critique of Nazi-occupied France, in which countless people were denouncing their neighbours to the authorities by letter. (Gardner 2009)

The piece for roughly 30 people is set in a small, ordinary town represented by an space in the BAC theatre. Participants go about their assumed daily lives until the postal service (a series of pigeon holes populated by messages handed to the postman/woman each day) reveals that a suspicious character, ‘Raven’, seems to know too much of the townspeople’s secrets. These secrets, and the townspeople’s characters are worked out in advance. The task of the piece is to discover and cast out the nefarious ‘Raven’. Accusations are made, and at the end, a trial is held; the person found guilty banished.

[…] because there is no audience in a traditional sense, all social anxiety […] quickly evaporates. I play it as if it’s real – and that’s exactly how it feels. For two hours, I lose myself in the show. (ibid)

The placing of the participant at the heart of the world-constituting process embodies the ease with which worlds are created, and crucially, destroyed. This is a profoundly pedagogical and political act, indeed, as Andy Field says:

Politics is as much about form as it is about content. It is a way of doing things. Interpersonal relationships, the structure of our communities, our reading of and relationship to the place we inhabit. How we understand our being in the world. (Field, Playing Games 2010)

Through the disequilibrium produced by the first-person audience, the experience of theatre itself is minorized.

Games and art

‘We are reminding ourselves of what, unexperienced and unthought, underlies our familiar and therefore outworn notion of truth […]’ (PLT: 52) (Clark 2002, 22)

The mashup of play and art found at the heart of pervasive gaming and interactive performance offers the tools with which we can de- and reconstruct our space and selves.

[…] the art work is not just something that comes into the open, next to other things, it changes the Open in which it appears. (Clark 2002, 44)

In a way, the inscription of these stories upon the bodies of their participants are a form of lived philosophy, that which Heidegger’s strained language, and Deleuze’s painful schizo yearnings failed to achieve. It is truly about movement, the playing, and not the final destination. ‘Passage through, not direction towards’ (Watt 2009, 94)

As the ‘postdramatic performance event manifests itself in increasingly diverse and localised forms’[3], one must question the ability of academia, as it is currently constructed, to interrogate, understand, or even represent it.

The process of the academy and the process of making performance

The theatre of the future does not achieve itself. It is a movement. It is a mode of being that is in process. It is characterised most notably as having no place in which to dwell because it no longer finds its home in the theatre. (Watt 2009, 93)

Academia needs to acknowledge the growing irrelevancy of its modes and methods of presentation, both in the context of a hyper-connected, levelling and wiki-culture world, and in the context of performance which is returning to play, to the language of dialogue.

Theatre is live, handmade – reactive, ephemeral, messy. It is at its best when it shows its workings, when it acknowledges the processes that went into making it: the conversations, the long walks, the ideas, the wrong turns, the moments of improbable luck. It’s when this happens that theatre becomes not just art, not just entertainment, but a dialogue (Field, Forest Fringe Diary: Doing Theatre, Bristol Fashion 2009)

This process is also true of academic thought; to acknowledge only the destination is to fail.

But that’s OK.

Each failure is a masterpiece, a branch of the rhizome. (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 38-39) (Watt 2009, 98)

We simply need to find ourselves another way.

There is a form of conference emerging from the digital world – the unconference. The unconference is about dialogue, there are no speakers, only provocations. Groups of attendees will discuss, share, move to different tables, join different discussions. Attendees become participants; the monologue, a dialogue.

The process has its shortcomings, discussions repeat themselves, and often contain less rigour and depth. They are not necessarily our solution, but they are a recognition that the conference form, as it stands, is not suited to the truth of our processes, or the worlds which they now attempt to explore.

[…] as games continue to grow larger and more important, they will [… force] us to rethink the categories of creator, audience, and work that currently structure our thinking. Instead of becoming a new globally dominant form of message sending and receiving, they will shift our focus away from the idea of broadcasting […] to a new way of thinking about meaning–creation that is more like a network, like a conversation from which meanings emerge. (Montola, Stenros and Waern 2009, 248)

Works Cited

Buchanan, Ian. “Space in the Age of Non-Place.” In Deleuze and Space, by Ian Buchanan and Gregg Lambert. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Buchanan, Ian, and Gregg Lambert. Deleuze and Space. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Clark, Timothy. Martin Heidegger. London: Routledge, 2002.

Coney. The Society. http://youhavefoundconey.net/secretsociety.html (accessed September 3, 2010).

Debord, Guy. “Report in the Construction of Situations.” In Guy Debord and the Situationist Internatinal, edited by Tom McDonough. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.

Field, Andy. Forest Fringe Diary: Doing Theatre, Bristol Fashion. 27 August 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/aug/27/forest-fringe-diary-bristol (accessed September 3, 2010).

Field, Andy. Playing Games. 20 February 2010. http://www.connected-uk.org/join-the-conversation/playing-games/ (accessed March 16, 2010).

Gardner, Lyn. Join in the Murder Game and Battersea Arts Centre. 19 October 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/oct/19/murder-game-battersea-arts-centre (accessed September 3, 2010).

Hide&seek. “Hide and Seek documentary.” YouTube. Edited by Mike Tamman. Alex Fleetwood. 25 11 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMz7WA01aC4&feature=player_embedded (accessed 5 3, 2010).

McDonough, Tom. “Situationist Space.” In Guy Debord and the Situationist International, edited by Tom McDonough. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.

Montola, Markus, Kaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern. Pervasive Games. Massachusetts: Morgan Kaufmann, 2009.

Trueman, Matt. Review: A Small Town Anywhere, Battersea Arts Centre. 27 October 2009. http://carouseloffantasies.blogspot.com/2009/10/review-small-town-anywhere-battersea.html (accessed September 3, 2010).

Watt, Daniel. “Performing, Strolling, Thinking: From Minor Literature to Theatre of the Future .” In Deleuze and Performance, edited by Laura Cull, 91-101. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

West-Pavlov, Russell. Space in Theory, Kristeva, Foucault, Deleuze. New York: Rodopi, 2009.

Creative commons tracks used and works cited in the soundwalk:

‘once a living sea’ by cellodreams, shared via a creative commons license at http://soundcloud.com/cellodreams/once-a-living-sea

‘bell tolls’ by cellodreams, shared via a creative commons license at http://soundcloud.com/cellodreams/bell-tolls

‘It Felt Weird’ by Valiska, shared via a creative commons license at http://soundcloud.com/valiska/it-felt-weird

Artaud, Antonin (1975) To Have Done with the Judgement of God, trans. Clayton Eshleman and Norman Glass, Sparrow 34, July 1975, (no pagination).

Bataille, Georges (1985) Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

Beckett, Samuel (1979) The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Picador: London.

Deleuze, Gilles (1997a) Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, Athlone Press: London.

Deleuze, Gilles (1997b) ‘One Less Manifesto’ in Mimesis, Masochism, and Mime. The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary French Thought. Ed. Timothy Murray. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 239-258.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1994) What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, Columbia University Press: New York.

Heidegger, Martin (1993) ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrel Krell, London: Routledge, pp. 347-363.

[1] The mass congregation of people without warning, united in some form of action. The roots of it as political device can be traced back to the absurd actions of the Orange Alternative Happenings in 1980s Communist Poland, the form is typically now more mundane, and is being heavily colonised by the commercial world.

[2] Rabbit here could be seen as a direct nod to the term coined by game designers describing the beginning of a game as an invitation to fall down Alice’s rabbit hole Markus Montola, Kaakko Stenros and Annika Waern, Pervasive Games (Massachusetts: Morgan Kaufmann, 2009)..

[3] As per the abstract for this paper.

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