“If this is a dance rebellion, it is a slow and gentle one.” (smith, p.6)
Gentleness Is a Key
Gentleness is a key that if used in participatory performance can help to somatically unlock the philosophical and political positioning of both artist and participant. Through the use of a gentle approach, spectators entering a participatory performance may be lured into a subversive idea of what a performance is. The tables can be turned, and the roles of performer and spectator reversed, or their hierarchical positions flattened, and the lines between them blurred and turned into an alternative power relation. The performer may become a facilitator, placing themselves either on equal footing or even slightly behind that of the participants. Within such a schema, the participant’s experience is placed firmly at the centre of the experience turning the participant into the protagonist of the work in a sense that recognizes the claim made by Jacques Rancière that “every spectator is already an actor in her story” (Rancière, p.17).
This essay takes two examples of contemporary participatory performance that stand out as a starting point for this discussion, both by performance artists living and practising in Auckland, New Zealand. The first is Sean Curham’s Gentle Lying on the Bonnet Of A Popular Car (2015), the second is Circle in Box (2014) by val smith. These two performance artworks make use of gentle participation to rebel against traditional performance structures resulting in an experience that zeroes in on the empathetic relationship between the artist and the participant. I suggest that in turn this empathetic relationship functions as an effective form of political activism. It is the building of this relationship that gives the participants a subtle agency, they don’t have to do much more than breathe and simply be “bodies assembled in the same place” (Rancière, p.16) in order to activate the inherent politics of the work.
This is not always the case with participatory performances and I do not make the claim for immersive or participatory performance as necessarily given to activating political agency. As authors like Rancière and Gareth White remind us, the assumption that spectators need to wake up or be emancipated can be self-defeating when attempting to create equality in power between performer and spectator. This assumption is what Rancière pinpoints as, “the very logic of the pedagogical relationship,” (Rancière, p.8) that of the teacher and student, the knowledgeable and the ignorant, an “inequality of intelligence” (p.9). Participation based work can fall into a trap, one where it is convinced of its own pretence; that is, believing its audience is acting out of their own volition while in fact they are may be acting out a “fatal illusion of autonomy” (p.15).
We see this most commonly in those awkward situations where an unsuspecting spectator has been ripped from their seat and forced onto a stage only to feel humiliated by the performer. The spectator plays along because to protest would be even more humiliating. As White, citing Erving Goffman, articulates, in his book Audience Participation in the Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation, spectators have public reputations that are at stake in such a situation. The choice to act is not necessarily authentic as one might think. Often it is made out of a need to save face, a survival mechanism to avoid the destruction of one’s public reputation. Audiences are trapped to perform against their will to aid the artist in performing their own propaganda. The privilege lies with the performer, the only person who knows what is happening and why. This privilege is singular in an event like this. The artist is the privileged protagonist, enlisting the public to support their singular experience of the world in what can easily be “merely egotistical play” (Rancière, p.8). Their power is palpable, and can tip over into dictatorial behaviour, one that is linear, certain and singular in its output.
Artists who are able to recognise and avoid this pitfall of participation, however, are able to access a gentleness towards spectators who have entered into this uncertain contract with them. They are able to view themselves as facilitator, and spectators as participants. They are able to reassure participants that their public reputations will not be exploited. Instead the unique information held in their corporeal experience can serve to write a collective event, one that is not possible without the existence of the other. Each experience is different and accepted rather than carefully edited toward a singular argument. For the public to insert their experience of the world into a performance risks the destruction of a linear storyline, but it also opens up the possibility of the rhizomatic growth of a multiplicitous narrative instead. This risk invites an uncertainty that is contradictory to the traditional performer/spectator contract. It is a fragile and volatile risk that, when gently approached can be a potent political tool.
Is this gentleness a way in which we can increase the level of risk participants are willing to take with their public reputations? Can gentleness open up alternative power relationships in performance, ways of aligning performance philosophically with Deleuzian concepts of deterritorialization, becoming and rhizomatic structures? (Deleuze and Guattari) Is gentleness the way in which one can adopt what screenwriter and director, Jill Soloway calls a female gaze (Soloway) in the creation of a live event, an empathetic, feeling/seeing gaze from within, rather than a distanced and framed one? Or is gentleness another way to manipulate people into believing that they have chosen to act out of their own free will, when in fact they are only carrying out the will of the artist? Can gentle be political?
Gentle Lying On The Bonnet Of A Popular Car (Sean Curham)
Gentle Lying on the Bonnet of a Popular Car, Sean Curham (driving), Te Uru Gallery Performance, 2016.
I first encountered Sean Curham’s work during Ghosting 1- 6 (2012), a series of six performance art events that he held in various locations around Auckland City. The second in the series was Cabaret in which the main feature of scenography was a giant sign made out of soft pink balloons spelling out the word SHOW. Inside each balloon was a tungsten light bulb and flakes of grey paint. At any given point during the show a balloon would burst under the heat of the tungsten bulb and grey flakes would explode onto the floor. No one knew when it would happen, but they knew that it would. A sweet, inoffensive, gentle pink balloon lit warmly from inside turned out be one of the riskiest elements in the show.
Cabaret was held in the Old Folks Association, a venue that Curham runs on Gundry Street in Auckland as a community hall for various groups as well as artists. It is not incidental that Curham runs this space. It is a performance work in itself in that the running of it reflects utterly his artistic sensibilities and anti neo-liberalist political agenda. A completely inclusive space, the hall is the cheapest venue you can hire in Auckland City, making it immediately accessible to groups and artists that are not subsidised by other organisations. Curham makes sure that the cross section of groups hiring the hall range from conceptual artists to cultural groups and church organisations. It is run on a state of mutual agreement and trust between himself and the hirer. The hall is basic, and to some may seem run down and undesirable for its lack of polished coats of white paint. This, I suspect, is a deliberate and considered choice that keeps those groups that value slickness as a part of their engagement with community and art away from a place that exists to bring people together and foster the making art that is risky and unconcerned with corporate, commercial modes of success. These two things are considered as one: community living and experimental art.
In February 2016 I was invited to take part in a group show at Te Uru Gallery in Titirangi alongside performance artists from New Zealand, Finland and the UK. I worked closely with Curham on an exchange of ideas and practice for a piece he calls Gentle Lying on the Bonnet of a Popular Car. This work was based on an ongoing investigation that he has undertaken about unleashing the volatility buried in the gentlest of acts. His hypothesis is that the most banal, simple, small and everyday acts can be the most volatile and radical gestures in the world today. This contra-positioning of the gentle act with the volatile act is what propels Curham’s work into art activism, one that operates on an almost subliminal level. He identifies everyday acts, rituals and materials and uses them as tiny protests towards his strong egalitarian values. In this particular work he was concerned with the act, ritual and material of resting.
He begins with his car, a beat-up looking very ordinary white Japanese make. It is parked in a private space, the garage of the gallery that opens out onto the public car park. There are three small steps made out of wood and scaffolding that lead up to the bonnet. Curham meets you in a one-to-one exchange, explaining everything about the work including his philosophy about resting as a form of activism and previous works he has made that involved resting as performance. He uses this as a way to put you at ease. Already the gentleness implicit in the title is at work. Aside from his casual and genuine performance mode (he is not playing anyone other than himself, the artist) he wants you to be uncertain of nothing at this stage. He will explain exactly what he is doing and why he’s doing it in order that you feel utterly safe in his hands. It’s crucial that he does this, because the oncoming event is about to be very, very dangerous.
He explains that he has been trying to turn the bonnet of his car into a place of rest, to essentially transform it into a lounge chair. You are invited to experience this by lying on the bonnet and allowing him to surround you in blankets that are folded beneath your legs, arms and neck giving you a sense of complete rest and security. A bolster placed on the thighs gives a comforting weight and eyes shielded from the sun places you in a private world. From here he leaves you alone to rest completely for 30 seconds, always telling you what’s about to happen before it happens to eliminate any surprise or suspense. He wants the experience to be everyday to the point of boring for you. Once you are at rest he starts the car and revs the engine for thirty seconds. After this you are driven around in a circle at a speed of one km per hour for ten circles. The engine is revved one more time and the experience is finished.
Resting is an intimate, domestic and personal ritual that Curham enjoys playing out in public and generally with the public. It becomes a study of the meeting place between private living and public performance. The work suggests that our private, sensitive somatic rituals are in fact the most useful and effective way of participating in the world. Curham creates public performance situations that bring the potential of these rituals out and furthermore develops them as an act capable of great tension and danger. This is particularly apparent in Gentle Lying On The Bonnet Of A Popular Car. While the mode of participation may on the surface seems extremely passive, a person essentially at rest on top of a car, tucked in and shielding from the glare of day, the risk and possible danger involved makes this exchange one of the most intriguing levels of participatory work I have encountered. How did the artist convince the participant to essentially leave their life in his hands?
First, he gently led them there. His introduction is soft, and mindful, providing an abundance of information and taking care to answer one of the biggest questions an audience member may have that will stop them from risking their public reputation, why? In rebellious form, Curham does away with the idea that the meaning of the work should reveal itself and reveals it from the very start. The history, the philosophy, the technique. But while he is making these elements known to them, the experience is still unknown and mysterious. It is one they have not had before.
Second, they were gently handled. The way that participants are touched and handled is especially important when convincing someone to give themselves over to a potentially dangerous and unknown experience. Curham’s method was to use carefully researched yogic blanket folds to instil an utter feeling of relaxation, security and rest. He doesn’t touch the participant skin to skin but instead, there is the safety of the blanket between you and the perpetrator of the potential violence against your public reputation. He asks constantly, is this okay? Leaving the participant free to protest against their safety at any stage. There is assurity that this protest will not derail the narrative of the work, because the narrative is you and your experience, so there is little risk of embarrassment.
Third, participants’ corporeal experience was prioritized as the central content of the work. Their body is displayed regally on the top of the car, with the artist behind them, serving as essentially just the driver. The virtuosity is in his care and handling of a fellow human being and in being completely functionary. The participant is left to experience a new and sublime sensation, something completely personal, felt from within. A physical and imaginative erotic space is opened for the participant and they were brought there through an act of gentleness, a space created for rest while surrounded by everyday materials. Our cars, our blankets, our empty car parks. Far from everyday however, these common materials and the common act of resting are elevated from comforting to politically activated signs of rebellion. The audacity to carry out this gentle stunt in public is what makes the work a protest against conventional living. He fails to use his car as a car. It does not go from A to B, it circles from A to A and back to A. He does not use it to transport himself or to race against traffic, he uses it to stop, lie down and encourages others to join his peaceful protest. And there’s always the chance that whoever is on top could fall off.
There is a sense of possible failure that pervades all Curham’s work and his dealings with art and artists that is a kind of political activism in itself. Often his performances will seemingly take a turn for the worse, they will fall apart but they do so with a kind of grace, a clarity in being unclear, such certainty in being uncertain that you often wonder how much of it was intended by the artist and how much of it was an accident. There is a menace in the refusal to play by the rules, and shiftiness in the way he side steps successful, slick and polished results. It is as if to be successful would be to uphold the values of neo-liberalism, and the only protest left at hand under such a pervading and powerful state is to fail in every sense of the word. To stop functioning, to keep driving around the roundabout, frustratingly slow, and allow something new to form out of the middle. This attention to failure is not uncommon in the contemporary art world. Lisa LeFeurve, in Failure – Documents of Contemporary Art posits that artists use failure to resist “against the socially normalized drive towards ever increasing success” (LeFeurve, p.12) and Matthew Goulish and Tim Etchell’s collaborative project The Institute Of Failure archives and maps “the face of contemporary failure in avowedly cross-disciplinary style” (par.3). Contemporary artists use failure to create accidents on purpose as it is “through failure one has the potential to stumble on the unexpected” (LeFeurve, p.12)
Having trained first as a dancer and choreographer and later as a lighting and spatial designer, Curham’s work capitalises on the tension between what is intended and what is accidental. A showing of his work ‘make it/disappear’ (2015) for Movement Art Practice artist residency series at Wellesley Studios descended into a kind of performance lecture/discussion between himself and the audience on the failings of the work, and, wider than that, the failings of the context for the work, and furthermore the failings of the context for art making in New Zealand. This open, yet tension-ridden discussion lasted an hour at exactly the time that the sun was setting. As it unfolded, I realized that Curham had left the studio lights off, which meant that we sat talking while simultaneously observing the gentle disappearing of sunlight, which shifted our perceptions so slightly and subtly and slowly. I still don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but the more I encounter Curham’s work, the more I think that he is an expert at identifying these potential accidents and apparent failures and capitalising on them as an act of artistic activism against the neoliberal regimes that create space for art in the first place.
This activism operates on a very fine tension between small, gentle acts and thoughts coupled with the latent danger present in everyday objects. In this sense, the rebellion is almost invisible, giving it volatility in its ability to sneak up on you, and perhaps to even make a difference in the world at a subliminal level. These movements are microscopic, at one kilometre per hour, and circular. Like Deleuze and Guattari’s open rings that go, “from a centre to the periphery at the same time as the periphery reacts back upon the centre to form a new centre in relation to a new periphery” (Deleuze and Guattari, p.50), Curham creates events that are deliberately and gleefully elusive and spiral in and out of focus, never resting on one place of meaning before seeking a new one. What is impressive, is Curham’s ability to gently lead participants with him into these spirals and leave them with the feeling that the world will never quite seem the same again after having rested on the bonnet of his popular car.
Circle in Box (val smith)
Circle in Box, val smith (centre), performance at the New Performance Festival, Turku, Finland, 2014
Similarly to Sean Curham, val smith is a performance artist with a background in choreography. smith views the body as politically complex site and uses somatic processes to create socially engaged work that often express a feminist and queer agenda. Like Curham also, the work activates smith’s political position often in a participatory way and sometimes in public. At a New Performance Festival in Turku, Finland in 2014 I spent four hours following smith as they crawled painstakingly along the city’s gutters dressed in drag for a durational work called Gutter Matters. A washed up, bedraggled Sean Penn look, people were invited to join what smith named a ‘Gay Shame Parade’ and observe this hidden part of the city, the part that the public don’t generally acknowledge but add to on a daily basis. The invitation again was gentle, smith would simply lie and wait between stretches of crawling until someone paid attention and lay down beside them. Once there, they would simply call talk to each other about what they could see. With similar deliberateness to Curham, smith celebrates the failures of everyday life. Here the gutter stood in for the dropouts, the marginalised, shamed and failed personalities that are regulated to the gutters of the city on a daily basis by the mainstream.
Circle in Box was the performance outcome of practice-led research smith undertook for their Masters in Choreography at The University of Auckland. The primary research question was, “what might be discovered about the audience-performer relationship in choreography through a kinaesthetic exploration of affect”, and was underpinned by a Deleuzian theoretical framework. The work was staged in the Kenneth Myers Centre Black Box Theatre within the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland. Since the work entirely hinged on participants being aware of their own experience and role within the work, I have written a personal recollection of my own.
I remember it taking some time to realise that there was anything very different about the space. I was late, possibly one of the last to arrive. It seemed as though the theatre was just that. The theatre. There was a circle on the ground. No seats. Various participants leaning against walls, sticking together in twos and threes, looking at the circle wondering what will happen. val looked deeply concerned about something, reading the room, feeling the room all at once with a whole body. I didn’t know val at the time. I do now and I often think about that meeting we had. It’s true the lights were dimmer than usual. And after a while I noticed a drone. Nothing was happening. But then everything was happening. Anytime someone decided to shift their weight, fold their arms, clear their throat, it felt amplified, like a real moment in time and space had occurred. This heightened sense of existence fell on the room. And people looked a little worried. After an hour I look down to my left and notice that I’m right next to the lighting and sound board. I get curious. I look at it for a long time. I wander over. I’m now deeply curious about my own power in this delicate situation. I’m so close to touching the faders and seeing what I can do to change things. I look behind me and val has snuck up on me and I can’t tell, because I didn’t know val then, whether they want me to do it or not. I know them now. But I still don’t know if they wanted me to do it. I often think about that meeting that we had.
I have participated in this work maybe three or four times and two impressions from audience feedback strongly stand out in my memory, common to each time I have been there. One is that people often leave convinced that smith had planted performers amongst the audience. This could be because there are often known performers in the audience, and one can’t be sure who may have been enlisted beforehand. However, I think it is more significantly because of the minimalist nature of the work, which makes every minute detail look like its own performance. As such it is one of the most successful pieces I have encountered in which the audience become the performers of the piece almost without the realization that they are doing so. In the exegesis written to accompany the work entitled, Circle in Box – Microperceptual modes of engagement in Choreography, smith cites Arvo Part in Supine’s 2002 documentary where he expressed “a need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.” This sentiment perfectly sums up smith’s uncanny amplification of micro movements by the audience. Testing whether it might be possible to create a Deleuzian mode of relation within performance, smith was concerned with “doing less to feel more” (smith, p.15). smith approaches the relationship between performer and audience as a power dynamic that is complicated and precarious, and uses this relation as a core principal of the project. smith’s minimal approach to these philosophies as a choreographic modes are what create the subtle sensation that participants are led in micro-steps toward a performance made entirely by them.
The second impression is the common feeling from audience members each time that they thought the piece finished too early and that if they had been allowed an extra half an hour things would have had a chance to really develop. Unknown to the audience is the fact that each time smith performs this piece they change the duration. So the length of the work does not determine the feeling of wanting more. It could be ten minutes, or one hundred and eleven minutes and still the audience would want more. smith draws on Henri Bergson’s concept of an “expanded notion of the present” in which time is “a flow or passage” (Bergson, p.205). Time in smith’s work is moved through in duration, rather than a minute to next minute linear sense of time determined by moving from one point to the next. Time inflates and deflates according to the internal and gentle somatic relationships we build with each other in the vast imaginative potential of the black box. Our only outside indicator is a circle on the floor, a sign of their creation of a “melodious continuity of duration” (smith, p.32).
smith approaches participation from a philosophical perspective, choosing to favour neither spectator nor performer in the power dynamic, but to incriminate all involved in the unfolding of tiny events in the space. Politically, this work operates in a way that renders all voices equal, as loud and each others, all actions allowed, a circular and continuous power structure, as opposed to a linear or even horizontal one, and a prizing of the somatic feeling, which allows the sensory body to prevail through sensitivity and intuition. Placing this work in the context of smith’s broader body of practice one can say that it encapsulates and practices a form of performance that is motivated by a female gaze. I must point out that this reading is entirely my own. As a non-binary person, smith would perhaps not identify with the gendering of this term, however for me it is useful as a way to frame a certain politic that can rise from operating in a subjective, feeling-seeing and empathetic way.
In response to Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze, Jill Soloway proposes that a female gaze is one where the camera is subjective as opposed to objective, and prioritises a feeling/seeing experience, using the frame to evoke a feeling of being in feeling rather than looking at. Soloway proposes that artwork employing a female gaze uses empathy as a political tool to change “the way the world feels for women when they move their body through the world…feeling themselves as the subject” (Soloway). If we think of each of val’s participants as a camera, then each camera is operates subjectively from within the frame of the theatre. The experience of their body is placed at the very centre of the work. No one is watched yet everyone is watching. Several subjective stories generate over the hour, one for each person present and based on their personal experience of the performance, each person growing and rhizomatically spreading, their corporealities bubbling up and down at the very same time as the other. And each of these multiple narratives are gently upheld by the artist through a practice of somatic empathy, creating what Soloway would call an “empathy machine.”
In smith’s choreography of empathy, smith looks to Jacques Rancière to support the undoing of privileging a particular type of participation. This viewpoint renders all participants as having equal value in the creation of the work and this is what allows emergent interrelational behaviour to play out in a way that will always be personal to that particular group on that particular night. smith’s political and philosophical agenda allows for a rhizomatic structure to blossom in the room, each participant’s story taking centre stage at different times with a kind of fluidity that cannot be constructed. This fluid rhizomatic situation is their gentle subversion of a world that thrives on certainties and singularities. Through gentle and empathetic somatic processes they embody uncertainties and failures as part of their feminist/queer political framework, using participation to create “a new scene of equality.” (Rancière, p.22)
Conclusion: Inside and Outside of the Circle
Both smith and Curham’s work use gentleness in their approach to participation and this gentleness is apparent from the first encounter with the artist. Both artists rely heavily on a mode of uncertainty. In Curham’s case it is in his casual and everyday demeanour and approach to the situation. One is never quite sure when it has started or finished, very much like a Deleuzian plateau that is “always in the middle” (Deleuze and Guattari, p. 21). In smith’s case it is in the silence, stillness and empathetic presence, always shifting the power held as the artist to beside or behind the participants, gently egging on bursts of activity, or resting carefully within the lack of it. It is smith’s sensing-with and seeing-with (Manning, p. 2) the audience that allows their circle to transform into an open ring in which participants are called to act according to their individual will, while doing so together. This empathetic exchange is also clear in Curham’s work where the first priority is to take care. Both artists take care in order to rest, in order to rebel gently against conventional modes of spectatorship in performance. Both work at nearly imperceptible levels of communication to invite you gently with them into the middle of their circles where they leave you to your own experience, safe in the knowledge that they are right behind you.
Perhaps this imperceptible level of communication is operating as what White describes as embodied cognition in which, “thinking – and decision making – happens throughout the body, involving affective and emotional states and processes and, according to some theories directly depending on other bodies too” (White, p.116). In the case of these two works this embodied cognition is passed on to the participant as soon as they enter the work with the artist and this is what makes these works fascinating case studies in participation. Because by doing so, the artists have transferred their philosophical and political positioning in the world to their participants. They have done this through a gentle process in order to align their participants’ emotional state with their own, bringing them to a point where they can embody these somatic rebellions. The artists have had to be mindful of their participants’ emotional and non-conscious processes, “because the artwork, being made up of the participant’s experience and its nexus with the work of the procedural author, therefore takes shape at this level of combined conscious and nonconscious response” (White, p.119). If the artist is able to provide enough room for these conscious and nonconscious responses then a space for communal political activity is created. Sometimes this space is as complex as reciting a script prepared for you or simple as just being there with the artist and continuing to breathe. It is this personal encounter between the conscious and nonconscious minds of artist and participant that holds the volatility of Curham’s failures and the intimacy of smith’s empathy. This space is where art can become activism.
Participation in performance, whether operating on this covert and gentle level of relational philosophy or on a more overt and dictatorial level of performer-spectatorship, is inevitably a form of manipulation authored by the artists. When this manipulation attends to the many fine factors of political, social, physical and philosophical qualities of behaviour it may allow sophisticated philosophies and volatile political acts to evolve in sublime and surprising ways. Gentleness can be one way of operating with a female gaze where the feeling-seeing gaze is placed at the very centre of the work. This mode of participation can be radical and potent if used well. It relies on paying attention to the smallest and gentlest of movements, the micro-perceptual, the “molecular and even sub-molecular particle with which we are allied” (Deleuze and Guattari, p.11). It is to allow the personal to be political.
No matter what the situation, the power will always lie with the artist and can be easily manipulated and misconstrued through participation to create a risk to one’s public reputation that could create long lasting damage. Choosing to participate in a performance invites us to invest, knowing that “when we do these unreal things in rooms, galleries and theatre spaces, the real world will change” (Etchells, p.49) Gentleness is another form of audience manipulation. It is one that can create endless rings at one kilometre per hour, or endless amounts of stillness sometimes inside and sometimes outside of the circle.
Epilogue – Failure
“For some time I stand and listen through the skin of my body – to one small detail – then many details” (smith, viii) says smith describing the moments before the audience arrive. smith stands silently is the still centre of the spinning earth, before the other centres arrive. On the second performance of this work for Tempo festival in 2014 at Q theatre, they arrive and see the empty theatre seats that smith were unable to be removed for this performance. They ignore the circle, they ignore smith and sit on the seats. They watch, expecting the performer to do something. smith hides behind a curtain. This failing is at once a roaring success of the openness the work possesses to unearth those “micro-fascisms just waiting to crystallise” (Deleuze and Guattari, p.10)
A pregnant woman has been laid to rest on top of Curham’s car. He is carefully driving under the watchful eyes of the public and the gallery curators, avoiding the garage pillars, completing circle after circle. On circle number he bumps into a pillar and scratches the side of the car. He stops. They try not to gasp and think about the baby. He breathes very deeply. He leans out of the window and says, “Are you okay?” She doesn’t move. “Yes,” she says, “I’m fine, keep going.” “I’m sorry,” he says to her. “That was a mistake.” And he goes on.
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smith, val. Circle in Box. Performance at Kenneth Myers Centre, University of Auckland, Auckland, NZ. 2014.
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