Spaces Redrawn By Theatre
Passage festival: dialogue of urban and theatrical spaces
Dissolution of physically defined borders between stage and public in theatre performances conceived in public spaces extends and challenges our perception, understanding and analytical approach on real and imaginary spaces; and also the interplay, overlapping and dialogue of them. Public sites become theatre venues in which the viewer is not invited but rather involved. Through some examples taken from the 2013 edition of the international Passage festival (Helingør-Helsingborg) this article tackles with the permanently changing amoeba-alike performance space and the possible and in many ways unanticipated inclusion of the public. Function, notion and perception of public space and theatrical space now become de- and reterritorized, theatre performance is conceived as an act of insertion, intervention and inclusion in the same time.
keywords: theatrical space, real and imaginary spaces, dialogical aesthetics, art as relation, utopia and heterotopia
Constitution of artistic – more specifically – theatrical space has often been approached with pairs of concepts; not necessarily in dichotomy, but showing significant differences in what regards their use and perception and also assuming the artistic act as an alteration process from one into another. Interplay of real and imaginary; physical grounds and mental landscapes are tackled with throughout theatre history, and as much as actor and viewer, performance and audience, public space and theatre space are not physically separated, performance space becomes a multi-faceted, constantly moving and reshaping place of overlapping terrains of the physical and fictional. Interwoven approach of hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism and phenomenology offers a broad approach towards reading real and virtual spaces that focus this time on urban sites re-constituted as artistic venues through and by theatre performances and events.
Accepting the fluidity of cultural and artistic forms, this article proposes a flexible net of notions to emerge a dialogue between urban and theatrical space by picking some of the events and phenomena of the 2013 edition of the Passage, transnational street theatre festival (Helsingør-Helsingborg).
Interplay of spaces
As Keimpe Algra points out, a tragedy – The Persians by Aeschylus – refers for the first time in an extant written text to the difference between khôra and topos: the meaning of the concept varies from text to text, context to context, but in this tragedy we can discern the differentiation between the three-dimensional extension of the space (chôra) and the place (topos) defined by inner relations: a localization (Keimpe, 1995, 33-34).
Another often cited milestone is delineation of space and place by Heidegger – and, not surprisingly, inspired by the use of topos by Aristotle – in which by the act of clearing-away the wilderness of physical-technological space gives birth to place (Heidegger, 1973, 5), a locus of dwelling (Heidegger, 1971, 1-9): an openness, a making-room that allows things the relation to each other (Heidegger, 1973, 6).
A new angle on physical and virtual spaces – and their interplay – is offered by Foucault, whose notion of utopia and heterotopia has been outstandingly cited in studies that focus on theatre: utopia being conceived as fundamentally unreal spaces that present society on a perfected form or turned upside down (Foucault, 1984, 3), whilst heterotopias are per definitionem real spaces that reflect, represent and speak about sites in varied forms, have a determined function in the society and are able to embrace and maybe contrast several different sites; moreover, they accumulate or abolish time (Foucault, 1984, 3-7).
In the following I offer a couple of examples taken from one certain street theatre festival that opens a discourse on a glocal undertaking to use the open-ness of the urban space (Shields, 2013, 347) without the endeavour to embrace all possible interplays of urban and theatre spaces or to offer a complex analysis or description of the performances mentioned.
Room for discourse
The sea between the Danish Helsingør and Swedish Helsingborg is so narrow that the ferry crosses it regularly in every twenty minutes and the whole passage does not take more than twenty minutes either. Also striking similarity in the names of the towns; as much as that the difference is often not even noticed and leads to misunderstandings. Two nations – though strongly related by history, geography, language and culture –, two towns and several international guest performances are involved in the few days of late July – early August when streets get partly occupied, partly reshaped and in a much accentuated way challenged and played around by theatre, performance, ritual and urban intervention or insertion.
The Passage 2013 transnational street theatre festival with the slogan ‘diversity is a resource’ hides in its name several open interpretations and space metaphors itself. Passage as movement or object, a part of a space or body or a sequence of time refers to a real or virtual narrow place that communicates or commutes between parts or entities. It denotes a vehicle of transition, relation or crossing, the act or object of moving; it is the metaphor of real or imagined transportation and communication. Helsingør and Helsigborg and the passage between them represent here the closeness in space, time, language, culture. In the same time the also frequently mentioned but never too much explored notion of différance (Derrida, 1972) is involved into the reading of the cultural-historical venues. Urban spaces open new rooms for the heterotopias of the performances that disrupt the status quo of established constitution of sites and their function by new meanings being now projected into them; wandering international performances bring in complex heterogeneous relations similar to the exchanges created by outsiders, immigrants arriving and redrawing urban spaces by their acts of re-discovering (Shileds, 2013, 347)
As Roudemetof points out, strengthened transnational connexions in the 21st century have rewritten the concept of cosmopolitanism as well, as this latter transcends the local culture and offers different approaches towards local and regional cultures and from this angle a transnational theatre festival can be regarded as an attempt to create spaces that foster structures based on a multitude of identities (Roudemetof, 2005, 113-119).
The urban sites – used as performance venues during the festival –, scattered around the two harbours, and the conception of the festival show a rhizomatic arrangement (Deleuze and Guattari, 2005, 3-25). The different sites that host the performances evoke an imaginary network of real places that throughout the performances would turn upside down, become heterotopias; and this way at least during the festival the events will redraw the map of the towns and streets. All performances are presented in several, sometimes similar (e.g. harbours), sometimes strikingly different (e.g. a harbour in one town and a courtyard in the other town) venues. This implies a series of choices of the spectator: time schedule and physical spaces are subject to the audience’s choice. Variety of sites and schedules present a much greater diversity than generally in the case of a theatre festival (where performances are presented two or three times and preferably at the same venues), and thus a dialogue is opened with the viewer even before the first performance takes place. The spectator who sticks to one site will see the performances that take place on that spot, the spectator who wants to see all the performances played for the first time or all of those that take place in a harbour or in a courtyard, etc., will all participate at different festivals as they make their own schedule according to which the performances seen at different locations and at different times will define their reception. Also, at a very extreme but hypothetically possible scheme a spectator might be attending one and the same performance, following its route throughout the venues and seeing it at diverse spots in different times with different audiences taking part and generating a variety of contexts for their own reception. And due to several locations and schedules the variation of choices is as high as it almost can be stated that each and every recipient will see their own personally selected festival as a result of their possibilities and choices. Interactive mapping of the festival, alternative schedule and personalized routes and reception add up to the ground of this conception.
Artistic venue, landscape, mind-map
Benched, conceived and performed by Emilia Vesterlund and Henriette Aarup is a quasi-site-specific performance that proposes a complex discourse of different aesthetic approaches. I call this performance quasi-site-specific in comparison with the site-specific events, actions and interventions conceived especially and solely for one and the same location: “Whether inside the white cube or out in the Nevada desert, whether architectural or landscape-oriented, site-specific art initially took the site as an actual location, a tangible reality, its identity composed of a unique combination of physical elements: length, depth, height, texture, and shape of walls and rooms; scale and proportion of plazas, buildings, or parks; existing conditions of lighting, ventilation, traffic patterns; distinctive topographical features, and so forth. “ (Kwon, 2002, 11.o) However, in this case the performance can be moved and removed into and from its wider context. Even the title itself suggests the position taken by an act of placing or removing a person or an object and infers this way the existence of a physically well-defined place, a hierarchical arrangement of a real or imagined structure and an act of placement that highlights the spotted part of the space.
The premiere was held at the Passage festival, but Benched was conceived to take place on a bench – any bench in any open, public, more or less defined and framed theatrical place and this way the performance is grounded on the fundamental conception of accepting, involving and engaging in dialogue with any possible background of a wider context. The bench is situated at an open public space that bears the most characteristic landmarks of Helsingør: the view opens to the harbour and the sea – some ships pass through the background during the performance – and the view of the Kronborg castle also bears an unquestionable characteristic.
However, during this specific performance the overall scenery tends to appear as a scenic landscape mostly because of the presence and noises of the sea that dominate the natural setting: framing and intended meaning of the background as an object is unquestionably less than in the case of a closed theatrical or urban site. The dialogue of natural environment and artistic space unquestionable and perceivably puts forward the joint discourse between traditional and environmental aesthetics (Clark, 2010). The two acrobats-dancers stick to the bench and to each other throughout the half contact dance, half circus-acrobatics performance. They actually challenge the open and by its own beauty and own happenings attractive chosen background and engage in dialogue with the landscape behind. The result is an almost equilibrated performance discourse in which the interaction between the two dancers and their struggle with the narrow spot (called here and now and metaphorically: bench) and the landscape itself. All the actions going on in this performance and the influence of the vivid and scenic natural background gain here an almost equal weight. Though Benched does not presume physical engagement of the viewer as usually environmental, dialogical and participatory aesthetics often involves, Clark points out that the natural landscape offered to the audience by a deliberate gesture of the artist reopens in itself a joint aesthetic discourse on arts and nature and might propose an environmental approach: “Problematising a lazy aesthetic appreciation of nature characterised by the passive visual enjoyment of ‘scenery’ sliding past the car windscreen has environmental implications, suggesting that a deeper, more fully engaged, and more active aesthetic appreciation of nature can deepen our attachment to nature and foster a more respectful, less instrumental, or at least less thoughtlessly destructive relationship with the natural environment.” (Clark, 2012, 354)
Doors Onto Our Worlds –street and garden rituals takes place at the same site as Benched. But this performance creates a ritual space that loosely refers to ritual locations in Ancient Greece and Rome, mostly based on common cultural symbols of shapes (helix), colours (saffron-yellow) and substances, fabrics and objects (water, Ancient Roman-like robes of the two initiators, flowers, etc.) A helix-shaped space is cut out from the pedestrian area – a curvy line of pebbles show the spiral way towards the centre, where a small amount of water (turned into a shell of some exotic fruit), some saffron and flower petals are displayed. Doors Onto Our Worlds by Compagnie Théâtre du Voyage Intérieur combines the practice theorised by environmental aesthetics with the dialogical one (Kester, 2004) by inspiring the depiction of imaginary maps in the mind of the participant and through its ritual-like conception. The artists offer some loose sketch in the real space – transforming it into a ritual place – and then within this framework the audience/participant is left alone to experience their own inner landscape evoked by the particular place, the offered objects and the timeframe – this latter is actually somewhat controlled by the actors-initiators who let the participants enter their installation keeping a certain, but not very strictly defined pace. Reflexion, self-reflexion, relation towards the natural background and to the inserted loose frame proposed by the actor-initiators and also the viewer-participants’ own knowledge, vision, experience and imagination all project onto each other in the act of co-creation. Dialogue is offered by the artists and the vaguely delimited space and once the challenge is taken, the audience inevitably becomes a participant, who engages into the act of creation by their own imagination: regardless of the abundance or nature of their mental projections – the performance takes place in both their heads and in the encircled site.
walk in Cairo conceived by Sophie Lebech is a little bit more longer than one hour record of a city walk narrative, and from this perspective it could be regarded as a site specific urban walk: at a certain spot of the city one will get an IPod and start to play the recording following its instructions. One can hear the sounds of the city, steps, and the voice of the narrator who welcomes the spectator-participant and shares information about city spots and some personal thoughts as well. Narration describes monuments, buildings – hundreds of years old. A historical Cairo is projected onto the map of the recent, after-the-revolution city in the subjective narrative of the voice that points out some well-defined spots: a bridge, a building, a cemetery. Sometimes the voice kindly asks the listener-partaker to look for the nearest bench, sit down and contemplate. Through the narrative we encounter an ekphrasis-like description of Cairo – including also past and present of it. But: the urban walk is not designed to lead us through the actual, real streets of Cairo; it is designed for the streets of Copenhagen and, alternatively, during the Passage festival, in Helsingør. Certain places: the bench or the bridge coincide in the route of the real walk and the description of the voice, and at this point real and imaginary places overlap and offer a grasp to the listener-viewer-partaker-co-author of the performance, or, seen from another angle, it is all merely an illusion of coincidence. Spaces involved in this artwork vary as many times as one takes part in realisation of it: Cairo is a real place conceived here as an art-work of history, revolution, fantasies and facts. The city is described in a subjective narrative (ekphrasis) and this way becomes an imaginary space; all the sites that represent themselves in their physical reality (a part of Copenhagen or a part of Helsingør) confront and overlap with the ekphrasis, and memories or imagined terrains of Cairo are added to this by the city walker. Cairo, its description, the sites that we actually walk by undergo through a very complex process of de- and reterritorialization (Deleuze and Guattari, 2005) that pushes out and blurs the boundaries of the position of artist/audience, creation/interpretation and real/imagined space and their dialogical relationship.
Also, most intriguing question raised by walk in Cairo is the constitution of artwork here: inter-subjectivity, formation rather than form (Bourriaud, 1998, 21), and finally, art being not an object, but an ever-(re)forming relation of endless creators-viewers-users: “Each particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world, and the work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world, giving rise to other relations, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.” (Bourriaud, 1998, 22) From this point of view, walk in Cairo is an artwork that emphasises, moreover, uses at its very fundamental constitution the concept of art as a proposal, dialogue, encounter and set of relations: interplay of real and virtual spaces of endless interactions.
While Benched proposes a possible involvement of the spectator by reading the performance as an interwoven relation of the natural background and movements and interaction of the players themselves, walk in Cairo and Doors Onto Our Worlds induce the audience’s inclusion by a physical situation: an involvement that according to Kester resides in the essence of conceptual art and since then introduces the approach according to which constitution of artistic creation is bound to the viewer’s physical presence and participation: “This catalyzation of the viewer, the movement toward direct interaction, decisively shifts the locus of aesthetic meaning from the moment of creative plenitude in the solitary act of making (or the viewer’s imaginative reconstruction of this act) to a social and discursive realm of shared experience, dialogue, and physical movement.” (Kester, 2004, 54)
Upside-down, physical challenge, playful change of perspective, flexibility: all needed in Jessica Arpin’s Kalabazi. The title means somersault in Urdu and it is an acrobatic one-woman-show that also indispensably involves two volunteers. A stage is fluidly conceived and flexibly delimited from the viewer’s space by the actions of the artist (mostly circles drawn by her bicycle ride) and two viewers are invited to step into the place of the performance and communicate with her. The performance is adaptable to any open space appropriate for the cycle-acrobatic stunts of the main character: a young foreign woman who falls in love with the actual city, so in her desperate need of visa she wants to marry a local guy. Kalabazi is conceived on physically much more obvious and spectacular call for participation than in the above mentioned cases: especially because here the ‘stage’ and the ‘audience’ are separated by the area of the action: an amoeba-like, flexible, action-based place settled virtually on the real urban space. Two volunteers are asked than invited into this performance space in order to contest for the possibility to marry the charming foreign woman-acrobat-director – and this way they become mostly physical participants of the show. Their answers, movements, more or less accurate obey to the instructions of their co-player and director will give birth to the performance itself. A combination and contrast of their actions and the artist’s stunts also sketch a dialogue between possibilities of expression. Though the premise of the basic situation might open an intercultural dialogue or a display of different perspectives and this way might involve a socially sensitive response from the part of the audience or the two participants, still the main aim of the performance here is to establish a discourse between languages of performativity – not a less intriguing question than the former one. Kalabazi offers a perspective on the merger between mundane and artistic in the manifestations of the artist and volunteers and their dialogue and interdependence rather than a representation of a hero, story, etc. (Kester, 2004, 108). The process of discourse formation in itself is highlighted by the whole performance and put on the temporary delineated stage of the street performance.
Through the examples above this essay conjures up reshaping concepts of transnational and glocal approach (Roudometof, 2005, 113), openness (Heidegger, 1973, 6, Bourriaud, 1998, 44 and Shields, 2013, 347), dwelling (Heidegger, 1971) and also the concept of interstice proposed by Bourriaud, defined as “a space in human relations which fits more or less harmoniously and openly into the overall system, but suggests other trading possibilities than those in effect within the system.” (Bourriaud, 1998, 16) in his work that conceives art as a set of relations.
While the avant-garde conception on urban intervention, the socio-political accomplishments of art such as representation of the oppressed, environmental issues aim the empowerment of spectator, propose directly and physically participatory culture and a possible socio-political transformation, in the performances mentioned above a dialogical, non-hierarchical discourse of heterogeneity between virtual spaces projected into urban places, a rather mental playground (as suggested by Lefebvre through absolute and abstract spaces see: Lefebvre, 1991, 251) is put forward. Overlapping and interplay of real and imaginary, urban and artistic places; challenge of borders between them, also re-definition of cultural, social, even national identities, the viewer’s transformation into co-author are proposed in the above mentioned conception of the festival and the examples – these phenomena being themselves the subject and the object of work of art. Utopia here is not the imaginary place of one certain social, political or environmental-friendly structure, rather a dissemination of the audience’s empowerment, and a call for cohabitation of real and fictional spaces as well, the initiation of co-authorship. Hundreds of utopias are given birth into hundreds of mental landscapes of the audience/user/participant.
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Emilia Vesterlund and Henriette Aarup: Benched, Information available: http://kimone.dk/forestillinger/benched/ [16 Ian 2014]
Sophie Lebech: walk in Cairo, Information available http://sofievolquartzlebech.dk/walk-in-cairo [16 Ian 2014]
Théâtre de voyage intérieur: Les portes des nos mondes, Information available: http://www.theatreduvoyageinterieur.com/ [16 Ian 2014]
Jessica Arpin: Kalabazi, Information available: http://www.jessicaarpin.com/anglaispagekalabasidescription.html [16 Ian 2014]