Before It Is Too Late
Social sensitivity, synchronicity and participatory aspects of Scandinavian culture, with a special outlook on the oeuvre of Thierry Geoffroy, Colonel
Spaces for social-artistic interactions, sensitivity towards sustainable processes and the environment, collaborative, participative education and arts, the taste for interruptive creative structures, and constant, restless pursuit of possible future scenarios. At first glance, Scandinavia is maybe the most well-known for its non-hierarchical societal constructions, and the emergence of these configurations in the art world, too. In this essay, restricting myself mostly to personal experiences in the recent three years, I will offer a general outline of the participatory aspect of the Scandinavian, more precisely the Danish culture and arts, and consecrate a larger part to the oeuvre of the Danish-French artist, Thierry Geoffroy, Colonel, a conceptual, avant-garde artist, adding a new angle for reading his works: performativity.
The concept of participation in Scandinavia
As a geographical precinct, regions and countries in contemporary Scandinavia – entailing Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Faroe Islands and Greenland –, share at different rates a common cultural and historical memory. Languages, mythology, and the present geopolitical status are intertwined in many cases (e.g. with an intrinsic and constantly debated relationship between the two realms, Faroe Islands might be regarded as an autonomous region that holds local elections and take part in the Danish national elections, too). Nordic cooperation among cultural institutions, operators and artists is highly encouraged by joint funds, and, talking about performing arts, there is a special emphasis laid on theatre for youth and children, and also on Theatre in Education and other participative art forms.
Participation and responsibility are deeply embedded in these societies, starting from remarkably high rates of involvement in political elections, through the tax or legal system that mostly relies on individual decision making and implementation, to shared cultural spaces and community culture houses where professional and amateur artists are enabled to foster, hold or take part in community events. Grundtvig community learning is rather popular; periodical meetings of study circles which include those interested from all layers of society, levels of professionalism, ages, etc. into free discussions on formerly agreed topics.
In Scandinavia the African-Nordic and Middle Eastern-Nordic collaboration is also highly appreciated and supported by state-subsidised funds (this trend in Denmark, from mid-2015, basically with the inauguration of the new government has faded out). Several international community arts projects are fostered or supported – often both financially and through professional presence as a certain kind of cultural-political intervention – by Scandinavian artists, cultural operators, drama teachers. A Ugandan-Swedish project that extended later on much further on the map, but as a conception, too, is Gogol’s The Government Inspector, originated from Bernard Mukisa, co-founder of Budondo Intercultural Centre in Uganda together with Åse Eliason Bjurström, drama teacher from University West, Sweden, in 2013. With a focus on the topics of leadership and corruption, a series of mostly community theatre events emerged; tools and methods of Freire’s pedagogy (Freire, 2005) and Boal’s Forum Theatre (Boal, 2008), those being the prominent means for social transformation in the small community of the village Budondo, Uganda. As a rhizomatic structure, the project spread in a couple of Scandinavian countries – Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Romania in the following two years. Most noticeably, the artistic-pedagogic work of Mukisa and Eliason-Bjurström, starting from 2004, within the very small community of a village, forum theatre has rehabilitated profoundly some societal and healthcare issues, e.g. attained steep decrease in alcoholism and increase in awareness of women’s reproductive healthcare.
Even though not the subject of this essay, it is important to note that these bold transfers and transgressions between arts and society, arts and education, arts and science often raise the question of aesthetic quality of the educational and community-based theatrical/performative/artistic events, especially if the targeted result is a socially valuable accomplishment, like empowerment, involvement, inclusion, raising awareness, etc. To which area community theatre belongs is merely a question of discourse creation. The events that imbue the geographically, culturally, historically, and even politically defined communities call for more profound aesthetic exploration of their artistic value rather than restricting them into mere societal and educational canons or conferring them a positive, educational effect without any artistically rooted critical reflection or analysis. Not surprisingly, in Finland and Sweden, university seminars and study circles offer dramatic-theatrical approaches for trying out possible future scenarios, this way creating somewhat flexible, smaller and more-or-less temporary communities to experiment societal-cultural-environmental futures, in this latter instance questioning even one of the axioms of the theatre: the hic et nunc (here and now) proposition.
Moreover, even the concept of participation is shaped and nuanced by the socially habitual behaviour, as much as certain acts and customs might not be regarded participatory enactments from inside the society, though an external beholder would categorically regard them as such. An eloquent example is the Passage festival, taking place in regions around Helsingør, Denmark and Helsingborg, Sweden, each year during the first week of August, with a series of open air performing arts, urban intervention, and sensorial walk events, in which the local population takes important part; volunteering in organising and PR, and also in many interactive performances showing a free and degagé proactivity in getting involved into events. Or, last summer (June 2015), the British Actors Touring Company’s Blind Hamlet, with a single recorded voice and a (so-called) technical director produced a vivid and highly interactive performance in Copenhagen with the exclusive participation of the audience, who, one by one, were invited into the limelight of the small, yet clearly defined stage in a traditional Guckkastenbühne, from the safe darkness of their armchairs,to act out a series of scenes for more than an hour – actually, throughout the whole performance time.
In both cases, participation seemed to be regarded as habitual enactments in their contexts, while many festivals, performances and events would be deprived from any kind or level of the above mentioned participation in a more aloof environment. Blurry areas of spectatorship and participation, professional and non-professional interventions, socially or artistically conceived frameworks and the notion of performative, quotidian, their interference are invited into playful, still profoundly philosophical and challenging artworks of Thierry Geoffroy, Colonel will be tackled with in the continuation, eminently from participatory and performative points of views.
Geoffroy’s ART FORMAT seen as a nomadic, participative, performative concept
Indistinct areas of disciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches, the vast array of interfering artistic genres and (the above mentioned) bridging among arts, community, participation, education and science allow us to liberate ourselves as artists, participants and theorists from restrictive canons. Nevertheless, I am arguing here for a circumspect description of each phenomenon and the reflection (documentation, description, and theory) on them, when choosing a set of concepts and notions to tackle with.
Geoffroy himself and the art critic scene tackle with his works eminently from the angle of the visual arts, considering them as conceptual, avant-gardist interventions, interruptions, that engage in a dialogue with other art works, artists, the news, the streets, even the signposts to provoke reaction and induce participation. From the emergence of different art fields, within an often chaotically wide range of now mostly interwoven genres, these artworks and events can be described – similarly to other hybrid-genre instances – and interpreted by applying several, appropriately chosen threads of theories. Besides the already existing descriptions and interpretations, this time I pledge for adding a performative aspect to the discourse.
Especially regarding some works, art formats and events by Thierry Geoffroy Colonel, the performative angle can be easily adopted, even though the artist and his critical reception regard and discuss them more as conceptual or visual ones. Without denying or leaving out of consideration these most common markers of his art, seeing them from performative viewpoint adds a new perspective to Geoffroy’s oeuvre, bridges the gap between socially sensitive art forms and formats, and parallels the politically critical resonance of artistic manifestations, connecting the dots between fields of arts, historical-political constellations and their participatory aspects.
At several spots on the map, Thierry Geoffroy organises ‘critical run’, ‘debate rave’ ‘art delegation’ and ‘what is an emergency today?’ events, inviting partakers to join in actively, with their presence, movements, actions and interactions, talks, debates, and more recently also by doing some exercise, during a very limited, short time, in the settled ART FORMAT, which usually has a how-what-where-when frame, very similar to a theatrical improvisation. The only difference is the ‘who’, as participants are not asked to adopt another persona as in the case of theatre, however, the presence of the frame and the location and time, together with the more or less ad-hoc, temporary company of the others, will ask for a certain kind of persona from the participant.
According to the artist, ART FORMATs are to expand global critical platforms in current societies:
An ART FORMAT is constituted on the basis of a formula or prescribed format. The format contains a number of invariable elements that create the framework for the participants and factors that change every time the ART FORMAT is activated. Besides the variables within the structure of the ART FORMAT, the relation between the ART FORMAT, space and time also changes. For example, an ART FORMAT put up in a museum would slightly differ from an ART FORMAT activated in a gallery. Other outward factors that could change the ART FORMAT could be the political climate; an ART FORMAT mounted in a totalitarian state would differ from the mounting of the same ART FORMAT in a democratic state. Art institutions wanting to use an ART FORMAT like Emergency Room must agree to use the original formula including the title, spirit and the methods that Thierry Geoffroy has prescribed.
In the following I describe shortly a couple of art formats I participated in, restricting myself mostly to those that have more or less performative aspects.
SWAPPING CAMP: Small, almost suffocating two-person tents, with tag-lines, buzzwords, ‘calls’ written on their sides are engaging participants for short discussions on some given topics. At the Arts and Globalisation conference in Copenhagen (26-28 May 2015), Geoffroy and curator Tijana Mišković invited the conference participants – artists, theorists, policy makers – into the woods of these tents, encouraging us to choose the topic and the tent most appropriate to our concerns, and providing for each couple in each tent ten minutes time of discussion. Fast swaps, passionate dialogues, restricted, very intimate spaces of the tents provide intense sense of presence and experience, not only on the intellectual level of the debate, but also on the performative, representational level, mostly due to the inevitable bodily experience.
ART DELEGATION: In Copenhagen, a handful of foreign artists, living for shorter or longer period in Denmark, very similar to flash-mob events, are called by Geoffroy and Mišković to certain locations, mostly in order to debate on the recent social-political climate perceived. This time (the specific event I am referring to was held on the 2nd June, 2015) we are asked to dress up similarly to political delegates, thus inevitably playing with a half-private, half-borrowed persona. The location is on the bridge leading towards Christiania, it is pouring with rain, and the posters of political parties cover all the possible and impossible surface on the streets of the Danish capital, just a couple of weeks before the general elections. The short talks and fast glimpsing flashes of the artist’s camera bring forth the sensation of emergency, the spotlight that this time is ‘rented out’ by our roles, nevertheless, inseminating the idea of collective responsibility at the same time, while playing with the private/public levels and personas. (Similar in conception is the ‘critical run’ art format of Geoffroy’s, where artists run through certain districts of cities, as an urban intervention, conceived for and shaped by the ephemeral, bodily presence of those participating, and also offering this slightly altered persona to them.)
WHAT IS AN EMERGENCY TODAY?: For a week, each day Geoffroy and Mišković organise a ‘tour’ up in the clock tower of the city hall in Copenhagen. Having again a very short time at our disposition, in groups of four to six, each day we follow the instructions of the two conceivers that lead from physical exercise to coming up with the most urgent ideas on the present state of our societies and writing them down on the huge Pilates-balls we just exercised on. Very similar to the conception of the Academia of the Ancient Greeks, both body and mind have to move, strengthening the ‘awareness muscle’, as the conceivers say, referring to the alertness and the intensity of the reaction we need to give – according to their conception – to the impact of the surroundings on us. Bouncing on Pilates-balls and lifting weights while exchanging thoughts on the most intriguing topics chosen by ourselves are, very interestingly, not the most straining from the point of view of the awareness itself, but that of reflecting on my own actions. My thoughts constantly wonder around the strict frame of the body-mind exercises and my own part in it, my personal awareness of what is happening at the moment, my ability to control and reflect upon what I am asked to do, and the boundaries of my autonomy. Whether part of the intention or not, awareness and reflection are much more deeply embedded into this event (I took part in it on the 7th December, 2015) than originally expected.
Perceived from the angle of these events, permanently and more or less deliberately challenging the status quo of the observer and/or participant, the private and the social-political or ‘acting’ persona, even a simple gathering in a private apartment of the artist’s friend can be regarded as a reflective and self-reflective monad of the whole oeuvre. An exhibition in a private home, the upper-middle class flavour of the reception with the quiet, decent live jazz concert in the hall, and the vivid contrast of all these with the highly critical attitude of the artworks (re-written, noted, commented papers and pictures), and ultimately the foie gras outlook of the elegantly canned horse excrement (collected, according to Geoffroy, on the streets of Copenhagen, by artists) placed on the table with white gloves, leave no doubt about the very open invitation of reading into this event far more than just a nice casual gathering with snacks and some chit-chat.
As seen from the examples above, apart from the postmodern, deconstructivist irony of the artworks per se – i.e. the artistically ‘recycled’; rewritten, reconceived papers, magazines, wrapping papers, sign-posts –, Geoffroy conceives his art formats as participatory events and urban interventions, organised on more or less public locations, calling for performative participation and interaction, within a very short timeframe. Very specifically urban, moreover, cosmopolitan and transnational; streets, museums, public places of big cities being selected as locations, Geoffroy’s interventions define the thin, often blurred line between community and participatory events Although there is no clear conceptual delimitation between community and participatory art forms, still, I would suggest here this distinction. Community art forms might be considered those in which a performative event is constructed on the participants’ formerly delineated community (be it geographically, culturally, professionally or in any other way stipulated), their perception, effort of empowerment and liberation, while in the case of participatory art forms the emphasis is laid more on the formerly set, defined frame that gives shape to a series of actions and invites some participants, who form a temporary community during the event, but otherwise this community has not been formerly delineated. Scharinger (2013) criticises the latter one in favour of the former, which is undoubtedly significant if we are looking for a relevant social transformation in a given community as an effect. But the second, if clearly defined for the invited participants, can be a relational-participative collective artistic act, based on a common knowledge and agreement that the participants follow the artist’s conception, and that the scope is not necessarily an immediate liberating, transformative experience for the participants and their temporary community; here they are part of an artistic act(ion) in which participants are agents of the transformation.
This kind of participation can be regarded as a next step in a process that started with the probably most renowned artistic experimentation of Geoffroy; Emergency Room,an exhibition space that invites new artists and artworks each and every day, by setting up the space and ultrafast time condition, and generating endless encounters of artists with the most contemporary events, public, media and each other’s work. Swapping Camp, Art Delegation and What is an Emergency Today? are extensions of the Emergency Room; they are open to anyone who wishes to participate, interact. The format, the frame is set by aesthetic considerations, even the social sensitivity is shaped by the hand of a creating artist. Those who accept the invitation, take part in an eminently artistic event, intervention, interruption, with a socially-politically and sophisticatedly sharpened, but still somewhat open viewpoint, and the temporary community formed by the partakers this way will most likely not lead to a settled community engagement, empowerment, or upheaval; more prospect is in the long-term, scattered, creative-reflective and iterative effect of this process. The action or event in itself has an immediate aesthetic value, while the socially or politically sensitive side has a more distinct, contemplative-reflective effect. And this latter effect – however short time span is given – has to be shortened, according to Geoffroy, reduced to zero, or, preferably, projected forward, into the future.
Geoffroy’s work in time, on the map, and indeterminacy as a specific genre
Through a series of events, the artist Geoffroy, and his colleague, curator Tijana Mišković are projecting in the future the Copenhagen Ultracontemporary Biennale, which will take place in 2017. Actually, the biennale is already on, as all actions described above are regarded as rehearsals and actual engagements pointing towards the biennale. This way all events are pending, casting themselves forward, rather than summarising any recent state, act or situation.
Not accidentally, Geoffroy is very much intrigued by the role of the museums, art fairs apart from biennales, all of these being spots and timespans that engage themselves in displaying art works, inevitably, with a certain delay after the artist has conceived, effectuated and given away their artwork. All these batches being steps that delay the immediate reaction of the artist and their artwork to the society, the effect is inexorably late and this way there is no chance to have an influence on the world, on the society. Geoffroy, in his Manifesto dated from 1989 argues for the running art formats that rally with time in order to take immediate and efficient part in shaping our societies. Writing a manifesto in itself can be regarded an artistic act, and be paralleled with a political action in its intention of urging a collective rupture, according to Obrist (2010).
Recently, Geoffroy and Mišković, travelling around the world, circulating and always rethinking their art formats and the conception of the Ultracontemporary Biennale, are enacting a nomadic performative series of events, casting a rhizomatic network around the public places visited and disseminated-inseminated with their conception, and re-territorialising and decolonising – this time, they do not tackle with the past, as in the case of the ancient cultures and retrospective museums, but the future.
Geoffroy actually disrupts the geographical and timely conditions of art, and also its genre delimitations, being in many ways related to the radical, disruptive and utopian Fluxus movement from the 60s (Ruhe, 1979). More closely, as this article is published on the occasion of a theatre festival in Eastern Europe, Geoffroy’s oeuvre can be compared with the participatory guerrilla events held mostly by visual artists in 60s and 70s Romania, Hungary and Serbia, as a silent contest against the totalitarian regime, where dramatic texts for example were severely examined, often cut and even more often banned by the political censorship.(Without a thorough outlook on all these tendencies, a prominent performative figure in Hungary being Péter Halász in the 70s, who, even from his and his friends’ and colleagues’ forced emigration, made an event – paradoxically, this time deprived from any spectators or invited participants.)
As Geoffroy’s conceptual art formats are emerging from the 90s, equilibrating more noticeably between visual-conceptual and performative genres, a series of theatrical events and phenomena question the status quo of the conception, theory and genre of theatre and drama (Lehmann, 2006). This way, concurrent with the performative reading of Geoffroy’s work, the theatre companies DV8 or Forced Entertainment, also evolving their artistic language and tools from the 90s, following scattered narratives, participatory and heckler methods especially as an act of disruption, intervention (Campell, 2014), and gaining notoriety in the theatrical world, can be perceived and reflected upon from the angle of conceptual art; thus visual-conceptual and performative narratives concomitantly describe a series of new phenomena in the artistic world.
Geoffroy’s work, discussed from the interwoven viewpoint of participatory, performative, relational arts (Bourriaud, 2002) – being, at the same time aware of and vigilant about the aesthetic value as well (Bishop, 2004 and 2012) – will enrich discourses both on the visual/conceptual art forms and the theatrical/performative genre. Participation and the work of art in nascent with the time, presence and action indisputably outline a performative feature of the events and artworks of Geoffroy, being at the same time, noticeably, also part of the realm of the conceptual art, as well as of the dialogical, relational art concepts, and ultimately, allowing all these readings at the same time, while also turning back to the origins of Fluxus. Geoffroy puts forward an intellectually, lately even bodily and definitely socially-politically challenging invitation for co-creation, as a genre close to indeterminacy (James Pritchett, 1993), that pushes against the commodity of the spectator and engages the participants into a challenging, unsettling alertness and awareness.
IN: Határutak/ Border Roads, ed: Anikó Varga, 42-64., TESZT, 2016.
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Bishop, Claire, 2012. Artificial Hells. Participatory Arts and the Politics of Spectatorship. Verso: London, New York.
Bishop, Claire, 2004. ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.’ In: October, 110-Fall, pp. 51-79.
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Campbell, Lee, 2014. ‘Heckler, Performance, Participation and Politeness: Using Performance Art as a Tool to Explore the Liminal Space between Art and Theatre and its Capacity for Confrontation.’ In: Performativity in the Gallery. Staging Interactive Encounters, Outi Remes, Laura McCulloch and Marika Leino (eds), Series: Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts – Volume 31, Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien. pp. 137-155.
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Geoffroy, Thierry, Manifeste 1989. http://www.emergencyrooms.org/manifeste/1989french.html (accessed: 26.03.2016.)
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Scharinger, Julia, 2013. ‘Participatory theater, is it really? A critical examination of practices in Timor-Leste.’ In: ASEAS – Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies, 6 (1), 102-119.
 Nicolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872) was a pastor, author, philosopher, who conceived and fostered a reformed education system in the Danish society, known as folk high school: practical skills, education of all layers of the society, active participation in the formation of society and politics might be named as most important pillars of his teaching philosophy and practice. See: Bradley (2008).
 On the interferences of these three areas, see the books of Anthony Jackson (2007) and Helen Nicholson (2011).
 See Marinetti’s Manifesto: ’Museums, cemetries!’ (Marinetti, 1909)
 For rhizomatic structures and re-territorialisation see: Deleuze and Guattari (2005), for decolonisation of time and narrative see: Bhabha (1995).
 Nicholas Bourriaud’s conception of relational art/aesthetics plays a decisive role in perceiving Geoffroy’s artwork, as the artistic act of relating, connecting is in the foreground of the artist’s conception and work.
 Bishop’s criticism towards Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics raises the question of the aesthetic value in case of relational arts, pointing out its eminency in the act of creation. Her earliest article on this topic dates back to 2004: ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ and developed in further works, where she examines the politics and aesthetics of participation and collaboration, the question of professional specialisation and the threat of the populist political agendas (Bishop, 2012).
 Dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, and being more eloquently formulated by John Cage, indeterminacy is a concept that refers to the openness of a genre – originally being coined by the theory of music –, according to which a piece can be interpreted in various, often substantially different ways.