Flesh and Soil: How can eco-scenography influence guerrilla gardening to enhance our ecological worldview?

Grotesque hybrids of plants tearing concrete and roots writhing through cracks in the pavement as hands dig and strip the soil and water drips, engulfed by fungus and insect life. Soil spurts and dissipates through the heavy mass of bodies; tarmac bodies, steel bodies, skin upturning gravel and hair interweaving with stems and dirt and industrialised grime as cars go by and human, plant and gravel flesh intersect with one another.

I think there is something exciting, but intrinsically violent about the act of guerrilla gardening. Perhaps there is with all gardening, in the pursuit of carving the human will upon natural space and shaping it to form desired structures. But with guerrilla gardening, there is the added anarchism of tearing up private and often derelict land and implanting new matter into it. The presence of the guerrilla gardener themselves is an act of violence upon the space. A merging of the acting body within concretised infrastructure and the vibrancy of the living organism spreading its roots. Guerrilla gardeners would argue that derelict and privatised land itself, no matter how small, is a violent presence also, upon those who see these spaces as potential to cultivate something new and pleasant for all who experience it. But I think guerrilla gardening can go further than the black and white ‘plants = good vs. concrete = bad’ narrative.

When I wrote the passage at the beginning of this text, I was considering theories of new materialism and vital materiality. The performing body with these organisms and these materials (the soil, the roots, the concrete, the brick, the trowel, the water) makes connections to the tactility of the world and to the nature of materials. The integration of the body in the space and the liminality these spaces embody as they morph between obstinate suburban concrete and unbound growing organism. I’m reminded of such grotesque liminality and abhumanism found in the body horrors of David Cronenburg films. Flesh and soil derived from this line of thought. Flesh and soil is a visceral slogan for how bodies can integrate themselves with the dirt and grime that we live amongst, yet, in our human-centricity, endeavour to separate ourselves from. It is a call to reframe the ecological issues we face, and build sympathy with human and non-human actors through the direct merging of bodies, architectures and plant-life. I think my issues with guerrilla gardening largely derives from the covert attitude they have to adopt. There is little room for a wider participation and consideration of how the work lives on and influences the local community beyond how pleasing the bed of flowers might be to the eye (and who’s eye?). The action and political sentiment is there and alive though, and a malleable field for integrating other design potentials into.

I am drawn once again to eco-scenography as part of this. In practice, eco-scenography is the study of connections between the body, architecture, object, sound and light – all lenses through which to explore new materialism in increasingly interactive and immersive ways. It also considers the life of work beyond the confines of the stage, to how it can influence communities and become more self-sustaining. When the performer becomes part of the work and relates physically to a material, new meanings may begin to emerge. Guerrilla gardening cannot fully inspire this in its drive to perform in such isolation from the wider population. I see this as key for addressing how spaces can become more fluid themselves when applying human bodies and action to deep, dirty, grotesque manual labor. Bodies, soil, roots and concrete displaced amongst architectures and finding the compromise between illegality and legality to intervene in ecosystems that intertwine us with more connected living.

 

Reenactment as building intimacy

“There were elements to consider – ones we couldn’t have predicted. How the Friday afternoon light made squat desks and the grey veneer of lockers suddenly beautiful…Phrases, words and letters floating around the classroom with their own mad logics: “Pathogens Gallery Walks” (Figure 18)…”Carina Loves Anthony.”…The grids of neon post-it notes pooling in the corner (Figure 6)…”¹

Alyssa Niccolini and Maya Pindyck intimately describe their first experience of an intervention they carried out at a school classroom in New York. The classroom shows itself to be a collection of entities mapping the use and history of the space. They describe their later replication of this experience through mapping the photos on the floor and tracing assemblages between the objects in the same way a Director might study film stills. The images provide a glimpse into that space and event as a collection of many things acting with each other, “The melamine of the desk carries the force of history; a desk is a composite of plastics, metal, formaldehyde, underbellies of gum and snot, a patina of finger oils.”²

patternings_classroom_acts

Source: Figure 5 – “Patternings” – photo grids from Pindyck, M; Niccolini, A. ‘Classroom acts: New materialisms and haptic encounters in an urban classroom’, Reconceptualizing Educational Research Methodology 2015, 6(2) http://journals.hioa.no/index.php/rerm, pp. 5

Recently, I have been considering the potentials of reenactment as a process of returning to and reassessing an event. I recall specifically the case of having my £20 stolen and the objects involved in that interaction, extending a performance of 2 main characters to many different kinds of characters – the walls of the railway bridge, the ATM machine, the ticket machine and the clothes rail to name but a few. I returned to that space to document the site through drawings and photographs a number of weeks after my first encounter there. The exercise unveiled an eerie patina to this place. An unusual relationship seemed to build between myself and the objects which were involved in that transaction that day, as they seemed to stare back, cold and unyielding. Without Sympathy. I began to reconstruct a ‘world’ of these details that might offer a way in to making sense of the events as they happened. In doing so, I think it may spark a new relationship with the space that lends itself to practices of ‘world-building’ in theatre and production design disciplines.

It is also in this vein of directing, production and performance that has led me to delve into reenactments as a method of building intimacy and interaction in an event. The Association of Lincoln Presenters is one such large organisation dedicated to preserving the legacy of Abraham and Mary Lincoln through performance.

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Source: ‘The Association of Lincoln Presenters’,  http://www.lincolnpresenters.com/

Rebecca Schneider pays particular attention to the ALP’s motto, a deliberate misquote by Edward Stanton on the occasion of Lincoln’s Death: ‘Now he belongs to the stages’³. In reading into this, Schneider notes how this reveals something about the nature of theatricality in representing history as much as it does to the process of reenactment. It was noted also that this particular quote was likely to have been inaccurately recorded, with uncertainty over whether Stanton uttered ‘angels’ rather than ‘ages’, or something of this nature (owing in part to lack of mechanical documentation). Although the ALP mark themselves as ‘presenters’ of Lincoln rather than ‘reenactors’, the comical effect of photos such as this may suggest something of parody. The reproduction of reenactments as an art form that intends to capture vivid detail of time, place and events all lend themselves to theatricality.

Source: senseileskee/Twitter from Weber, S. ‘Teens go viral with delightful shot-for-shot reenactment of ‘Mulan’ scene’, [article] first published 2018, The Daily Dot, https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/mulan-reenactment-viral-video/

It is through this theatricality that some reenactors may wish to experience time actually reoccurring for them, or to understand through that experience the intricacies of that particular fractured moment as written. In the example above of ‘Micronesian Mulan’, school kids participate in the opposite instance, having a fictional depiction in Disney’s film translate into a live action, meticulously crafted sequence. In bringing it into the ‘real’ and the present, we see in the reenactments a process of othering that occurs between viewer and the particular moments being portrayed. It is this othering I experienced whilst documenting South Croydon railway station also, as if in the act of documenting and retracing that strange interaction between myself and ‘Ryan’, I was in some way disconnecting myself from that space and event, distancing myself from it whilst being aware that I was simultaneously a very active presence within it.

Considering this, and the eeriness of the objects (which also could never be completely neutral parties in the loss of my money), I am intrigued to reenact those events with the premise that these items become characters of their own. What stories would the ATM machine have to share and what would its manner be? (I was curious to overhear a phone conversation centered around it involving a man who needed to transfer £50 from there, and another who was unable to receive payment from it). Other questions arose on observing funny details, like the pay phone which was ‘out of order’ (was it always out of order?) How may have details like this led me to be so compliant? What did Ryan use my £20 for? Am I paying homage to the event, or despairing over it? How does the bench on the station platform become a stage for a disjointed conversation with your mugger?

¹Pindyck, M; Niccolini, A. ‘Classroom acts: New materialisms and haptic encounters in an urban classroom’, Reconceptualizing Educational Research Methodology 2015, 6(2) http://journals.hioa.no/index.php/rerm, pp. 1

²Pindyck, M; Niccolini, A. ‘Classroom acts: New materialisms and haptic encounters in an urban classroom’, Reconceptualizing Educational Research Methodology 2015, 6(2) http://journals.hioa.no/index.php/rerm, pp. 9

³Schneider, R. ‘Performing Remains: Art and War in times of theatrical reenactment’ (2011) Routledge: New York

Re-mappings of place and event: ‘Memento’ and ‘The Bone Collector’

I am going to discuss two films that have stood out to me recently, particularly in the context of relating objects to place and self. These films are ‘Memento’ (2000) directed by Christopher Nolan, and ‘The Bone Collector’ (1999) directed by Phillip Noyce, both of which put a strong emphasis on objects as being central to the plot and to their character motivations. What has interested me most about these films, is how the objects also allow for the viewer to share an experience with ‘the other’, and how they become integral ‘performers’ themselves on screen – most prominently when relating to the vulnerable states experienced by the protagonists. In the case of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) in Memento, his short-term memory loss condition creates a world where concepts of time become irrelevant, and the back tracking of Leonard’s timeline throughout the film forces us to take things at face value, as he must from the beginning. For Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington) in ‘The Bone Collector’, his quadriplegic state creates a physical barrier. This causes him to rely on the young policewoman Amelia Donaghy (Angeline Jolie) to be his senses on the scene and to feed back the evidence she collects for forensic analysis. In both cases, objects possess vital agencies of their own that the protagonists rely on to reconstruct and navigate their worlds.

Leonard is introduced to us as having an obsessive approach to cataloging objects to achieve his goals, and to ensure that he always has complete control over his actions.

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Source: ‘Memento’ (2000) Dir. Christopher Nolan, Summit Entertainment, scene [15:29]

Artifacts, like his collection of Polaroids referring to individuals and events, become the tools to concretise his world and link events together from the instant he forgets. The film starts with these premises, these rules and restrictions that Leonard lives with on his mission to find the man who raped and murdered his wife. Scenes unravel like a ball of string as events become known as either true facts, or lost and disjointed when we realise that Leonard’s seemingly fool proof method is more prone to personal error than we would have first perceived. We can sympathise with his vulnerability in these moments. The objects he collects and curates remain unchanged, yet we observe how the people who he connects himself to via these mementos are more than capable of deception and corruption. In this sense, the objects themselves seem to take the place of these actors as protagonists of the film. As viewers we begin to rely as heavily on their stable presence as much as Leonard does, and this experience is exemplified by the decision to run the film backwards and trace the formation of these collections. In this particular scene, we follow Leonard to a motel bathroom, where he ponders the significance of holding a half empty wine bottle in his hand.

“Hmm. I don’t feel drunk.”

Source: ‘Memento’ (2000) Dir. Christopher Nolan, Summit Entertainment, scenes [46:06], [51:51]

A few minutes later, and we are taken back to give the run-down of the origins of this disjointed scene. Events repeat themselves throughout and we observe Leonard physically take the bottle from the bedside cabinet in the other room, owing to him being pursued:

“I need a weapon…this’ll do.”

From an ontological perspective, we are fed information of Leonard’s presence and motivations (however fleeting they may be) in these spaces via these kind of objects. It lends itself to similar practices conducted in forensics, as if we are witnessing the build up of evidence for Leonard’s case told through the narratives of these items and how they link to each other. As if playing out an extended performance of crime scene investigation, we are intrigued by questions of their narratives in time with Leonard on the sudden loss of his memory – ‘how did this get here?’, ‘why would I use it?’, ‘where was it previously?’. A sense of otherness is built up here in relation to the otherly presence of these objects, as well as the unusual state of seeing Leonard ‘othering’ himself as if he were a different person in every iteration of his memory loss. This is emphasised in the scene in which he attempts to create a re-enactment of the scenario in which his wife was killed (as dictated by his meticulous case-file notes) with the help of an escort.

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Source: ‘Memento’ (2000) Dir. Christopher Nolan, Summit Entertainment, scene [01:01:50]

He requests that she plays along with his unusual scheme in a kind of performative role-play:

“First, I need you to put these things around the room…Just pretend that these are your things and this is your bedroom.”

Writing on her artistic research project ‘Dear Ruth’ (2009), Shana MacDonald discusses the significance of performative reconstructions of dwelling through the narratives of found objects. The project, conducted with artist researcher Angela Joosse, was part of the larger scale work ‘The Leona Drive Project’, which aimed to highlight the impact of the demolition of the suburb in Toronto. Through investigation and speculation of the personal histories of the items found in the household of former resident Ruth Gillespie, an archival installation of “the banality of everyday life and its objects”¹ was created. The project acknowledges the subjective interpretations of the performative researcher in re imagining these lived spaces, owing to the fragmented histories the objects create. In one particular instance of the installation, MacDonald notes a performance in which her and Joosse “remake several recipes that Ruth highlighted through handwritten notes in her recipe books as ‘good’.”¹ which were disjointed as projected images onto the lines and curves of stacked dishes. What stands out in these performative engagements, I think, is the self-consciousness you conduct as an actor involved in a network of these objects. You may find yourself coming across such reinterpretations of objects as if seeing them for the first time (literally so in the case of Leonard). Yet, like him reeling through his collections, you cannot take a completely neutral position as an interpreter. MacDonald frames her explorations in this performance based practice as generating questions about lived experience and bringing undervalued histories to the forefront in relation to urban space: “who can speak here? How are their stories conditioned by the structures and limitations of the space?”¹

Source: Joosse A, ‘Video Documentation of “Dear Ruth,” a site-specific installation by Angela Joosse and Shana MacDonald’, 2014, https://vimeo.com/83604414

On the subject of interpreting collections, ‘The Bone Collector’ (1999) plays on further cases of vulnerabilities faced by the protagonists – Rhyme due to his physical condition and Donaghy’s reluctance to enter the more gruesome side of police work owing to her witnessing her father’s suicide. Similar to ‘Memento’, objects become vital actors in relation to their interpreters, and provide a portal for Rhyme to be ‘present’ in the case, such as in the scene where Donaghy photographs the evidence placed on the railway line.

Source: ‘The Bone Collector’ (1999) Dir. Phillip Noyce, Columbia Pictures, scenes [17:43]; [01:02:32]

Rhyme’s perceptions of space, location and event are formulated through these collections from the confines of his apartment. He analyses what he takes to be true from the perspective of Donaghy and translates the objects through the evidence that links them together, and from the visual aid of his voice recognition system. Forensics offers an intriguing angle into the exploration of lived space and experience. On one level, it becomes a practice of disseminating the connections between things and their relevance to particular motivations. In line with technological advances in analysis, objects can reveal many hidden layers for generating a network of associations owing to their makeup, their use, time of application and their user. They become gateways for connecting researchers to the material layers of the environment in which they were found in. Such methods also have the potential to simplify collections in the forms of data analysis, “[producing] simplicity where there was complexity…[confirming] arguments that research is in no sense a ‘neutral’ event”². In any case, remapping of locations and of the actors involved in such assemblages can shift between digital and performative interpretations, where simulations and re-enactments may lose their clarity or become disjointed in the act of interpretation. In such cases, there are high prospects (and potential risks) of creating fictitious understandings of such scenarios.

 

¹Shana MacDonald, ‘The city (as) place: Performative remappings of urban space through artistic research’ in ‘Performance as Research: Knowledge, Methods, Impact’ [ed. Arlander, A; Barton, B; Dreyer-Lude, M; Spatz, B.] (2018) Routledge: New York, pp. 281; pp. 283; pp. 284

²Fox, N. J; Alldred, P. ‘New materialist social inquiry: designs, methods and the research-assemblage’ from ‘International Journal of Social Research Methodology’ Volume 18, 2015 – Issue 4, pp. 399-414 (published 06/06/14) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13645579.2014.921458

 

Hybrid Materialities and Liminal Performances

Vinamould (11)

Recently I have been thinking about hybrid states and how the political narratives of objects can shift with their materiality. I had been re-imagining the scenario I spoke about a couple of weeks ago in which I was involved in a mugging incident in Croydon, and had created a Rivescript chat bot to re-enact this scenario in different guises:

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Recently however, I have also been considering how the network of objects which had been involved in that transaction (the phone, the pavement, the cash machine, the station barriers, the cash…) that day can also be made accountable for the events, and how they might have perceived the same scenario. How may a performer portray these objects to simulate strange human-object hybrid states? A surreal re-enactment in which all are involved in a ‘questioning’ or court hearing of sorts focused on the incidents, a literal reading of the ‘parliament of things’ as discussed by Bruno Latour. This is a trajectory I hope to return to in some form. Thinking more about the human performance and interpretation of objects in this way, I also began toying with ‘hybrid’ states and their application through materials, object and performance.

I have been working with Vinamold – a hot melt vinyl material for mould-making and casting.

It is a recyclable material which can be used repeatedly by reheating once the mould has has surpassed its use, and the fine detail it replicates is extremely defined.

It is an unusual material to work with. It has the texture of flesh and cuts the same way. It melts quickly in a frying pan to a deep red liquid and flexes to release itself from the objects it casts. It lives in an eerie liminal state as it hardens, moving from this moulten, viscous object back into its rubber-like form. The objects it engulfs harness these same qualities in mould form. These tests with a spray bottle cap capture all the qualities of an industrialised plastic form rendered in an amorphous and alien-esque material. A state of non-belonging to either world.

Back in April, I conducted a project exploring the subversion of gendered objects through material. This extended investigations into the ‘Technophallus’ – the merging of male virility designed into electrical objects. I focused on power tools as a central area for this understanding of culturally designed ‘maleness’ through objects.

Using materials like silicone rubber, wax and sand, these objects were intended to breed uncomfortable new understandings of this ‘industrial design language’ of power tools when presented to working people who use them daily. These discussions took place in the Trades Hall working men’s club in Harrogate, and generated a number of interesting debates around the role of design in defining the nature of work and male/female culture.

Once again, I am fascinated by the in-between state that a material like the silicone rubber or Vinamold is able to generate, especially when blended with component objects to create otherly collections and uncanny combinations. Through this experimentation, I have been considering its design implications through a lense of vital materiality, as outlined by theorists like Jane Bennett, and in relation to practices explored by performance researchers such as Baz Kershaw.

Kershaw’s 2005 project ‘Being In-between’ became of particular interest to me. A collaboration at Bristol Zoological Gardens with Movement Director Sandra Reeve, the project was described as “enhanc[ing] public perception of the dynamics and interdependence between primates, plants and humans…”¹. Two performers used the Gardens as a stage to enact human-animal encounters with the visitors and the other animals, attempting to bridge the gap between these organisms and create new understandings of the zoo environments.

Images: Copyright Drew Yapp, from Reeve, S. ‘Being in Between’ (2005), Co-Directed by Baz Kershaw, from ‘Move into life with Sandra Reeve’ https://www.moveintolife.com/being-in-between.html

The advertising poster for the project introduces a beautiful statement:

“Two trans-humans, not quite sure of who or what they might be…”²

This, I think, frames a vitally important process for exploring new human understandings to design for. Through a combination of performative encounters and material manipulations, we can begin to open up new terrains in these ‘trans’ states. The beauty of a performance like ‘Being In-between’ is in the naivety the performers adopt, utilising understandings of movement and public interaction, they sense and explore through a primal perception of the world, as if discovering it anew. With the uncertainties of an animal plunged into an alien landscape, explorations of these liminal states can take place. The performer becomes, very literally, the in-between of multiple worlds, translating between a range of materials and organisms within the space.

I briefly played with this notion while out walking by the river near home:

Thinking about the performance of the object and my intervention in the space, I tried to place myself in a number of different perspectives to become an ‘other’ in those environments. Trying to live like a wall might suggests a hyrbid state. A becoming that cannot be achieved except through the endurance of the performer in the moment and the belief created in the audience, if there need be an audience…

In the same way that the Vinamold is able to create hybridised altered states of otherwise familiar objects, these games in the landscape move somewhere to other kinds of hybrid state between object-organism. Strange fictions can begin to take place as we explore the material potential of these malleable states. When manipulating this material in the kitchen, I was reminded of ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ (1896) by H.G.Wells. Wells’ novel, aside from being a warning to his contemporaries delving into the depths of geneological exploration, is filled with references to the uncanny and the liminal in horrific guises. Just as Moreau’s attempts to isolate the gene that separates human from animal leads to hideous mutations in his subjects, I too have been isolating and combining objects into unusual hybrid states through these casting materials. Taking found objects and applying them to the strange, organic-like qualities of the Vinamold until they too are ‘unsure of who or what they might be’. What stories may they have to tell of these ventures? What voices might their new materials speak of their uses and of their users in past lives? What political understandings do they generate in these new states?

Jane Bennett has an expressed interest in “found objects [which] can become vibrant things with a certain effectivity of their own.”³ noting how artistic practice is adept at signifying and translating the relationships between objects. There is a process of mediation at work, once again the ‘in-between’ state bridging the alien-ness between things and intervening through fluid material states. Nothing is fixed. Nothing, perhaps, should ‘belong’ anywhere.

¹Reeve, S. ‘Being in Between’ (2005), Co-Directed by Baz Kershaw, from ‘Move into life with Sandra Reeve’, https://www.moveintolife.com/being-in-between.html

²Reeve, S. ‘Being in Between’ (2005), Co-Directed by Baz Kershaw, from ‘Move into life with Sandra Reeve’, https://www.moveintolife.com/being-in-between.html

³Bennett, J. from Shana MacDonald, ‘The city (as) place: Performative remappings of urban space through artistic research’ in ‘Performance as Research: Knowledge, Methods, Impact’ [ed. Arlander, A; Barton, B; Dreyer-Lude, M; Spatz, B.] (2018) Routledge: New York, pp. 278

‘To do’ to a salvaged material

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Thinking on Tanja Beer’s work from ‘Strung (This is Not Rubbish)’, I considered how a salvaged material like the salami netting may be able to reveal more about its building potential and its interaction through performance.

I happened upon a piece of what I assume to be carpet lining in the bin, and retrieved it in a spontaneous moment with the hope of being able to mould it in some way beyond its fateful journey to landfill.

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Image: ‘Verblist’, Richard Serra, (1967-68) from https://www.moma.org/collection/works/152793 copyright Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York, 2019

Using Richard Serra’s ‘Verblist’ as a starting point for this exploration, I began to test and document how I could begin to explore the physical actions of this object. It bends, folds, rolls, stretches, tears, soaks, squeezes, suspends…it can be mended…

In the act of twisting the material or suspending it over and over again to encroach into the space, we may observe something else begin to happen. We can start to endlessly manipulate the material as entangled with the human experience of doing so and being a part of that process to create new building potentials. Ecoscenographers like Beer, explore this notion in terms of ‘vital materialism’ – “the idea that materials are entangled across bodies, ecosystems and built environments”¹. We may see in these processes some way to bridging the gap between human and non-human actants – perhaps the starting points to begin to engage people in the act of discovering more about their environments and the material potential of things. In her book ‘Vibrant Matter’, theorist Jane Bennett discusses the influence of the ‘assemblage’ of humans and non-humans and how agency can be re-evaluated in context of these groups. Within the assemblage she states: “an actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation or interactive interference of many bodies and forces.”² In this sense, humans are integrated as part of the network of acting bodies and not as exerting the total degree of agency over other things. Actions like this in the context of performance, as in ‘Strung (This is not Rubbish)’, play a role in activating the agencies of materials in new ways through physical entanglement with the material.

Tanja_beer_strung.jpg

Image: ‘Strung (This is not Rubbish)’, 2013. Concept, direction, set and costume design by Tanja Beer; Photography by Alex Murphy, http://www.tanjabeer.com/strung-this-is-not-rubbish/

There is also to be said for this process allowing its participants and observers to view a kind of ‘trans-human’ transformation. The material exerts itself upon the performer as much as the performer does upon it, and has the effect of influencing the performer to behave and interact and ways they otherwise may not. To engage in these exercises can also involve stepping into an ‘otherly’ kind of character and separating from human experience. What if we behaved as the material behaves? What if our ‘character’ could not move? Could only touch? Combined with a process thinking along the lines of direct action, as I was with Serra’s verbs, we may consider how actions such as ‘to suspend’ or ‘to twist’ may transform the activity with the material if our character (or actant) could only exist upside-down…needed physical connection at all times? Could only exist in darkness?

There was also another interesting event at work in this process. What stood out for me was also the act itself of retrieving this material and intercepting the process from used object to discarded one. Perhaps it is the intentional element of this action which I find so intriguing. The conscious decision to pick up a material, snatched from its former identity on the conveyor belt, the supermarket trolley or the suburban street, and manipulated in some way.

I was reminded of some experiments I was doing around this time last year. A simple method of steam bending wood taken from the back of an old wardrobe.

Perhaps in these instances the process comes first, the found material dictating how it may be translated into something else. Once again, these materials were manipulated by relatively simple methods. In terms of pursuing an eco-scenographic approach and thinking on vital materialism, there is potential here to cultivate smaller scale and more easily accessible industrial processes like steam bending into a collection of methods. Methods and tools which can be applied to a variety of small scale found materials and used to fabricate and combine new objects quickly. Perhaps this too may open up the space for spontaneous performance interventions and ad-hoc object arrangements.

 

¹Beer, T. (2016) ‘This is not rubbish: investigating eco-materialism in performance’, https://nivel.teak.fi/carpa4/this-is-not-rubbish-investigating-eco-materialism-in-performance-tanja-beer/

²Bennett, J. (2010) ‘Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things’, Duke University Press; Durham, pp. 21

‘Disobedient Objects and sustainable practice – The Importance of Being…Earnest?’

It has nearly been a month since our interactive theatre company, ‘Say it Again Sorry’ performed out latest show: ‘The Importance of Being…Earnest?’ at the Pleasance Theatre, London. This is a show that requires audience members to tread the boards in Oscar Wilde’s classic farcical piece following the absence of the lead role playing Earnest.

As the set designer for the company, I had aimed to bring the same kind of playful and chaotic energy to the objects on stage as the acts descended into disarray – hanging by a thread. All these objects had the potential to be played with, messed with, at the whim of the audience members to whom being on stage can be a daunting experience in a space that had long been perceived as sacred actor territory.

 

Back in April, I wrote a blog on the company website talking through my fascination with the ‘disobedient object’ – The set for Earnest would be seeped in debauchery. We demanded the audience tear the wallpaper down, be dragged off stage on a grass rug, and get into the grittiness of the actors battling their own demons and shedding their egos.

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I viewed this process as ‘theatre about the making of theatre’ – things reveal themselves to be less than what they appeared to be as the world of classical drama begins to break down and show its true colours on stage.

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The show culminated in a finale whereby all audience members were asked to get up on stage and celebrate the completion of the production together, amongst the refuse and the debris of a set which had slowly deteriorated and transformed.

I still feel, however, that there was potential for this concept of the disobedient object to be taken much further. In future productions, I am hoping to introduce a simplification for the set, one which avoids the cumbersome difficulties of grand heavy props and stage flats, which were built very last minute outside the Director Simon Paris’ house following the untimely cancellation of our set builder.

 

In pursuing a performance process that centers around ‘theatre about the making of theatre’, I foresee a potential to have the audience engage more thoroughly with the process of building, dismantling and transforming the stage as the play progresses. The initial process for this work had begun in early conversations between me and Simon about the interactivity of objects, and inspired by Richard Serra’s ‘Verblist’ (1967-68), I scanned the scripts for potential moments of transgressive action and direct manipulations of the objects on stage.

2Act1Ernest_stages (4)

Folding, sawing, planting, building, painting…the stage becoming the canvas for unexpected digressions and activities. Of course, with the restrictions of a one and a half hour show, and considering the world in which we were trying to create, many of these concepts were scaled back and re-defined in the context of the props that would bridge the gap between the Wildean world and our ethos of audience participation and collaboration.

Future guises of the performance are intended for the festival environment, with a series of runs at the Vaults Festival London, Brighton Fringe and the Edinburgh Fringe. This will see a dramatic change in how the set and props will function and be transported between the spaces. We learnt much from our experience taking Earnest to Nozstock Festival this year.

It was elaborate, but grossly over sized for the festival, being as it was more suited to the traditional stage space of the Pleasance Theatre in London. Once again the show was a chaotic success with the crowd, but it revealed much about the designer’s role of responsibility for the things they design, and how they live on beyond the performance.

A current field of study concerned with this is Ecoscenography. Largely the development and practice of performance designer Dr. Tanja Beer, Ecoscenography interrogates common unsustainable approaches to performance design by incorporating principles of the ‘ecological worldview’. Essentially, this is moving our human-centric perspective to an ultimately ‘world-centric’ perspective by re-framing our activities as part of the wider network of ecosystems, not as entities to which our environment is at our disposal. Scenography is an incredibly malleable territory for design. Its emphasis on building relationships between architectures, sound, lighting, bodies and objects to build the experience of a world. Ecoscenography stands on making these connections live beyond the life of the stage or the performance duration, recognising that “no decision stands on its own: every choice is intertwined with social, environmental, economic and political consequences that are far reaching and capable of having long term effects.”¹ It is therefore necessary to consider what positive implications the work might have for communities in the design process and the re-usable potential of materials.

What has excited me most about the creation of a set like ‘Earnest’, is this practice is moved directly to the forefront and became the audience’s process. The impact of the performance was felt on stage and beyond having had the audience become active agents in its creation, including through the open rehearsal process.

Following the challenge we faced transporting and reconstructing the set for Nozstock, we were fortunate enough to have the festival organisers offer to take the flats and some of the larger pieces of furniture for use in future productions. This is where the designer’s responsibility for the things we make becomes integral.

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I cannot say I had enough foresight when it came to considering how the set would exist beyond these initial preview performances. If it is to exist as a sustainable and playful entity suitable for the festival runs it will endure, its future development demands it revolves around the Ecoscenographic. What is the method? Crowd sourcing props perhaps? designing objects that can be deconstructed and packed away inside a small box…incorporating objects that can be planted or can be worn…

I turn again to Tanja Beer’s work, the project ‘Strung (This is Not Rubbish)’ (2013) which mapped the life cycle of salami netting and tangled it into the performance work which “dissolves boundaries between performer and designer, installation and costume, site and material.”² A set that was “transported in a small suitcase or backpack”³ was given new life as a knitted garment and auctioned off to charity following the performance

For the life of Earnest and the energy it requires of its audience, these ‘disobedient objects’ may be allowed to take many forms throughout the production, being deconstructed and redecorated. It was thrilling to see the audience members tentatively tear down the wallpaper when required, but this is neither cost effective nor sustainable. In a show like this I believe it is the action that counts, the very act of doing. In a inter-connected ecosystem that is the stage space, all these objects can have the potential to do and become something before, during and after the performance. They have the potential to transform the set at every turn as a supposedly classic performance quickly descends into chaos.

 

¹’Ecoscenography: Adventures in a new paradigm for performance making’ https://ecoscenography.com/what-is-ecoscenography/

²Beer, T. ‘Strung (This is Not Rubbish)’, 2013, http://www.tanjabeer.com/strung-this-is-not-rubbish

³’Ecoscenography: Adventures in a new paradigm for performance making’ https://ecoscenography.com/this-is-not-rubbish/

“Just black marks on a white page”

I have recently been tentatively testing ‘Rivescript’ – a coding language that is commonly used to create chat bots. Rivescript works on a basic set of rules (+ – ! = etc.) that allow the user to receive a potentially quite intricate and detailed set of responses from a bot that is quite capable of expelling its personality should the creator allow for it. My primary interest in playing with this language, is in the potential to build an algorithmic script. I am keen to see whether a user of the Rivescript chat bot might begin the process of creating a performance piece with its seemingly autonomous bot.

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The beginnings of narrative can exist in many everyday phenomena, as mundane as some may be. Perhaps what narrative can really rely on, is the ability for one set of circumstances to inadvertently and curiously influence another. The protagonist can emerge from a number of different scenarios.

To give a more explicit example, I had an unusual experience just today in which I was the naive victim of a daylight robbery. I won’t expel too much energy on the intimate details: How the person outside the station so desperately needed some money after losing their bank card, and how I reluctantly said I would retrieve some only to be informed moments later by another stranger that I had just been scammed as they had been the week before. The beginnings of a surreal encounter began to form in my mind when I was ‘fortunate enough’ to meet this thief again only an hour later when returning to the station. On recognising me straight away, they knew I wouldn’t be fooled twice. They said they’d lost my money, which I guessed was inevitable, but it was then in the whole charade of them putting on a brave face when pretending to call the bank to have it transferred, and how I stood there contemplating if and how I could get it back at all.

The point of this digression: In an almost needy attempt to console myself for being so gullible that day, I began to question what this relationship was that was beginning to form curiously in that moment with my mugger – chatting so amicably yet so deviously with each other about what we did, where we had come from, both knowing we were telling each other blatant lies. What other narrative trajectories evolve from these points? I considered the plots for a number of peculiar stories on my train journey home:

  1. The protagonist is the victim of a daylight robbery, by these circumstances he also ends up being the initial thief’s ultimate scammer – the one who becomes their ‘friend’ and ultimate downfall.
  2. The protagonist strikes up a professional working relationship with their thief in which they use the mugger as a source of research for design experiments – again, perhaps their eventual peril.

It was all speculation. I find these imagined scenarios tantalisingly horrifying. I am also very aware that these should remain in the confines of fiction, because I have no desire to befriend a potentially dangerous criminal (instead I reported them to the police).

Through this I was reminded of the work I had been doing with Rivescript. Trying to play with that interconnected language of things; human-object relationships made physical through networks and exchanges; considering how chat bots might begin to simulate strange and surreal interactions with their users. I was brought back to a quote I had read recently by theatre director and playwright David Mamet.

His 1997 book ‘True and false: Heresy and common sense for the actor’ was recommended by a Director friend of mine as one of the most important pieces of writing on performance practice. The quote as follows I first found quite cynical:

“The play is a fantasy, it is not a history…There is no character, there are just black marks on a white page – it is a line of dialogue”.¹

As someone who was processed through the rigorous analytics of English Literature A level education, I at first struggled to comprehend this statement. Surely the art of writing must bleed from the subtle metaphors and nuanced descriptors of dialogue first and foremost? But I can appreciate that Mamet is saying something important about the role of the actor, and performance, at its core, being the deliverance of the line as written regardless of ‘the situation’ and ‘lay[ing] claim to emotions which are false’.¹

This made me consider however, that with the powers of an algorithm like Rivescript, it can become easy to animate these ‘black marks on a white page’ in new ways. Engaged in any unexpected scenario in the chaos of the world beyond the stage, and entwined within the ‘Internet of Things’, what else may have the potential to take on the role of actor? To strike up new dialogue with other ‘actors’ in situations of the everyday turned into peculiar and perverse encounters like I experienced today at the train station.

In a sense it is nothing new. The Internet of Things is allowing a whole host of objects to communicate via human-object networks. They calculate and reenact decisions on our behalf and gradually perpetuate their confined regurgitation of humanity. But I think what is beginning to fascinate me most about a programme like Rivescript in this context, is its potential to deliver a series of seemingly random human-esque responses. It can give life to eerie uncanny entities. The illusion of character (If Mamet insists there is no such thing) and perhaps with more practice, will start to even influence plot and interaction itself within situations of the everyday. These algorithms have the potential to become the alluring and devious protagonists.

 

 

 

¹Mamet, D.  (1997) ‘True and false: Heresy and common sense for the actor’, Faber and Faber Limited, Bloomsbury House: London, pp. 60; pp. 26