All images by Alex Woodward and are the property of Arika.
Created and Performed by Amanda Monfrooe and Iain Campbell F-W for Arika12 Episode 2: A Special Form of Darkness at the Tramway
Only Your PreFormance is Cult was a performance project commissioned by the kind people at Arika, a not for profit organization that curates experimental music, art, film and discussion events. Without paying lip service to the idea of radicalism in art and politics Arika is a commissioner for new ways of thinking and seeing the world with being driven by any other agenda than “interaction with radical practices in other disciplines: artistic and non-artistic alike.” My experience of the festival was unparalleled in the open mindedness and thoughtfulness of the audiences and the producers themselves. It was also a great thrill to produce a piece of work in the Tramway, where I have always found the most exhilarating and challenging professional theatre makers on show, particularly artists from the continent.
Iain Campbell F-W invited me to collaborate on the project, though we’d never formally met previously. There were parallels in our work, however, that made him think I’d make a valuable contribution to the piece, particularly as a dramaturg. The intellectual concept of the work and the theatricality of the project – which he’d already conceived – were alluring in that they addressed my own interests: the evidence of our confusion between reality and fiction in popular culture, the impossibility of authenticity, the constructedness of identity and the ways we knowingly cultivate fictions by which we define ourselves and the other. Most importantly Iain and I share the feelings that we must be responsible to these wider cultural issues in our work as live performers. The context of Arika12: Episode 2 was the ideal place to exercise some of these questions because the festival (a three night event in February 2012) was curated to look at the question:
“How do ideas of nihilism, darkness, subjectivity and abjection play out in experimental music, performance art, supernatural horror; in neuroscience or philosophy? Or: how can you trust what you think or feel?”
This was our opportunity to engage other philosophers, artists, musicians and audiences in an extended conversation about the difficulties of representing or engaging questions of identity in performance when the idea of “the self” is constantly de-legitimized – particularly in our own work. But more specifically we were given a brief that asked us to address the problem of critique and the impossibility of subjectivity in the consumption of art. The issue of the fabrication of the self became the issue of the fabrication of the arts-audience, an urgent question in the context of a major experimental arts festival – one of the few remaining in the country. Blending Iain’s curiosity about the show “The Only Way is Essex,” the hit reality drama (in which “real” people are placed in dramatic scenarios they “really” play out as themselves) and the problem of subjective critique, we devised a performance that would suggest that not only is our subjectivity the plaything of outside forces (including our individual reaction to the expression of artists) but we know it. And would have it no other way. Therefore we devised a way for the piece to illustrate our feeling that despite the commands, expectations, and desires of outside forces the will of the individual still lurks underneath the skin. This is not “the real self” or “the authentic self.” This is merely the individual who decides which identity, subjectivity, “self” they’d like to be now. Attempting to provoke the audience to question their capacity for subjective, critical powers as art consumers of Arika12: Episode 2, we presented a scenario where critique happened – because it was made to happen. That it was made to happen was made explicit. But where where the outside forces ended and the individual started was for the audience to decide. An then define for themselves when the festival ended and they were left to decide what they thought of it all…
Our contribution was a series of identical happenings over the weekend, 10-15 minute interventions that occurred outside the performance spaces in the Tramway’s corridor and cafe area – known as “the street.” Iain and I were sat at a long desk before a stage, on which were placed two chairs and a screen with a live feed of the stage area projected onto it. From the desk Iain played sounds and music from a board while I used three microphones to speak to the audience and the two performers. The two performers were “cold,” meaning they were volunteer festival goers, not actors or performers who’d prepared. After a brief 10 minutes together, meeting for the first time, all of the performers were taken to see the preceding Arika12 event and then, immediately afterward, were given inner ear microphones and a microphone that fed into loud speakers for the audience and put into a chair on stage. Each of the interventions were timed so that they happened between the central performance and discussion events as audiences went from one performance to the next. This way the audience had a clear reference to the performance that would be the subject of critique in our piece and it meant the performer spoke of the piece without time to prepare or temper her response.
Crucially, for each intervention we used the exact same script – which was filled with opportunities for the volunteer performer to speak honestly. However, the script was also full of commands that would make the “real scenario” (of two festival goers talking about themselves, the shows and Arika12) overtly dramatized so as to make clear to the audiences that it was an “authentic” experience/expression. When performer not asked to speak was asked to perform a simple physical task – taking off his shoe, looking inside it, putting it on. At another moment a performer would be asked to roll her eyes five times in a row and look off into the middle distance. And other times both performers were asked to commit vein acts of fixing themselves up, making longing glances at the audience, giving alluring looks to me and Iain. Iain, meanwhile, commented further with the addition of sound and music (such as music from Adele or the opening music from Seinfeld). There was a familiar pop tune used to open and close the show and much of the language put into the mouths of the performers was explicitly referencing TOWIE or, and most importantly, some language was used to distance the audience from the entertainment of seeing performers on stage and reminded them of their role as consumers/spectators and our role as manipulators. Additionally, other sounds were used to comment on the actions and words of the performers. The performers agreed to wear badly applied and much too dark fake-tan. And finally, we projected a live feed not just of the performers on stage but Iain and myself using the microphones and sound board to “operate” the scene.
But these comments were not just made for the audience’s edification as to the ways our understanding of the world and each other is hampered by fabrications. This framing we were doing also affected the way the participant responded and felt about themselves and the piece they were making with us. How willing or truthful they felt they could be knowing they were watched, knowing their company looked bored or was acting strangely, or that what they were saying was sentimental (because of the music playing, for example.) And of course, Iain and I were not off the hook. We were indicting no on with this piece. The strange impossibility of “the self” is not the fault nor the trespass of any one organization, government, or media format. It is the way we all participate in the constant construction and deconstruction of the self. It is the degree of knowing that seperates us. Who is in control of meaning making. And so when I speak directly to the audience (to camera) even I am hampered by comment/enhanced by comment that Iain provides.
The most illuminating moments came when the individual sprang out of the mould the script established. This was done through the execution of physical movements – each person doing it their own way or interpreting the instruction differently. When asked to respond to a question some people were unable to speak while others took the opportunity to stand on a soap box. The calmness of some performers compared with the giggling shyness of others – while still obeying the command/completing the task – was fascinating. This is where the myriad differences come from and the richness of experience.
Ultimately in such a short time and with the limitations the space presented this was all we wanted to achieve. An intervention that opened up questions about the nature of critique in a post-subjective experience, the possibilities for consuming art and understanding that consumption, and the degrees of knowing when the puppet strings are pulling or being pulled.
What can come from knowing that the subjective experience is being operated on constantly and that the truths and meanings that guide our moral, emotional and intellectual experience are fluid? For me the answer is art work that inspires a further degree of knowing.What you do with it is up to you. Whoever that is.