Can we be in two places simultaneously?
Can we alter what is real with what is fiction?
Can we abandon ourselves and yet be fully in control?
And what does theater have to do with any of this?
A few weeks ago I read a New York Times article discussing the merits and possible negative repercussions of the highly anticipated and controversial new product from Google: Google Glass. This wearable computer will essentially allow us to access the Internet, take photos, and film short snippets with the wink of an eye. We could be walking down the street, or attending a party, and the world as we know it will constantly fade from a physical reality to a virtual one. Our surroundings will now change, in real time. I might be at the beach, sitting on the subway. And because the device has a built in camera, we might become, unbeknownst to us, the object of someone else’s video, gone viral before we even realize we were filmed. Kind of like Eastleigh’s dancing queen, who recently became an Internet sensation simply because she was dancing to music on her iPod while waiting for the bus. Only now everyone will become a potential dancing queen. For users who put on the Google Glass, at least as I imagine it, our tangible reality is not just something we experience, but something we can frame. We can distance ourselves just so to notice, really notice, our environment. People around us become characters. The place we are in (a park, the bus, a café) may very well become the setting for a larger reality where art and life meet. We are simultaneously the observers and the observed. This euphoric sense of alertness and altered sense of reality is exactly how I felt experiencing both The Quiet Volume and Hidden Stories, two site based performances staged recently in public places in New York City.
The Quiet Volume, co-created by Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells (director of Forced Entertainment) is part of Hampton’s Autoteatro series, a form of performance that consists of what he calls automatic structures where there are no actors during the work other than the participants themselves. It is essentially a “self-generating performance” triggered by a set of instructions given via audio, visual cues, or text for what to do or say. The Quiet Volume took place at two locations: downtown at New York University’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library and uptown at Schomburg’s Center for Research in Black Culture, as part of PS122’s Spring Season and PEN World Voices Festival. The performance was originally commissioned as part of Parallel Cities, an itinerant festival curated by Stefan Kaegi (of Rimini Protokoll) and Lola Arias that invited artists to create works for a city’s functional places (shopping malls, roofs, hotels, courtrooms, etc.). As urban dwellers, we inhabit such everyday spaces without questioning their use. But what if these became stages for theatrical works? By making this the premise of Parallel Cities, Kaegi and Arias hoped to “seduce viewers into staying inside that space long enough for their perception to change.” Indeed, after experiencing the Quiet Volume, the place I commonly associate with reading, studying, concentration, procrastination, and knowledge also became a space that engaged me creatively, as if I myself had become a character in a Borges novel, spiraling down a labyrinth of her own imagination.
Upon my arrival at Bobst Library I was paired with another audience member who sat next to me. They gave us iPods with tiny headphones cued to begin simultaneously. In the table in front of me were three novels and a yellow notebook. There were people all around me, mostly hip NYU students working away at their laptop computers, studying or reading from textbooks and notes. Most of them were also wearing headphones, which made us get lost in the crowd so to speak. Once The Quiet Volume “began”—the first minute or two—there was silence: we were cued to hear nothing. I became acutely aware of what everyone else was doing. I noticed the green tattoo on the lower arm of the girl sitting across from me, biting her nails and typing away. I heard the endless noise of screeching library chairs—students getting up and sitting down. Through the glass wall on my right, I saw a girl speaking anxiously on her cellphone. I could not hear what she said, but imagined what kind of fight she was having and with who. I made up her dialogue. I glanced at the fancy ceiling chandeliers. I caught the eyes of the student sitting three tables across from me, who was observing me, as if I was the object of his performance. Could there be another spectator here? I glanced at my fellow audience member sitting next to me, now my partner in crime, the only comforting presence in the room. It is in this mixed state of heightened awareness, confusion, and anxious anticipation that I suddenly heard a soft male whisper in my ear with a lovely British accent, à la Janet Cardiff:
The first thing you notice is that for a place dedicated to silence there’s not really that much silence at all.
I nodded, wondering who was watching me, oddly forgetting that I am the one supposed to be doing the watching.
After a while you start to think that it might be better considered as a place dedicated to the collection of sounds. The sounds of things being dragged from bags—efficiently or clumsily. The sounds of footsteps—hurried or patient. The sound of coughs—polite and controlled clearings of the throat or muted splutterings, out of control. Breaths.
The whisper became my own stream of consciousness, as if gently guiding my own thoughts. I was immediately drawn in; comforted by the voice that now framed this world before me.
You’re aware of your own sounds too. Your movements, your breath. Sitting here without so much as a book open in front of you, you could almost feel exposed—not really a reader at all— an imposter, something of a fake.
It is an odd sensation: to be completely immersed in an experience and yet be fully aware of one’s presence. I decided to give in to that state of simultaneous control and abandon.
Within this frameset, The Quiet Volume took off. Throughout the piece, the comforting voice guided us through several instructions, almost all related to the act of reading itsel. Amongst these, we were told to read passages from the novels in front of us, which included José Saramago’s Blindness, to pretend to read passages; to consider a setting for them; to choose an image from a photography book. At some moments, the voice disappeared, substituted for a sound that theatricalized what we were reading: footsteps, crying, people talking, a church bell, a single note. I was startled at one point by a woman, who I thought was speaking directly to me from my left side. I took my headphone off and turned around, only to realize it was the sound recording. At another point the voice asked us abruptly to stop reading and to remember the last word we had just read (mine was disaster). Then we were told to imagine that word on the blank notebook paper in front of us, point to it, and show it to our fellow audience member.
Using liveness—our live presence—as a vehicle through which to examine the act of reading, The Quiet Volume had me thinking more about the nature of theater than about reading per se. Reading is in many ways like performance an act of doing and total immersion. One abandons oneself through the words one reads. And yet one is fully aware that one is reading. You are here and there simultaneously. You are present, and absent at the same time, as the gentle voice reminds you. The Quiet Volume made the contemplative act of reading present for the spectator, who herself became the actor performing the tasks (reading, listening, turning the page, pointing a finger). I was both a passive spectator (enjoying the ride) and an active enabler (creating the ride). Reminiscent in a way to Allan Kaprow’s happenings and John Cage’s chance aesthetics, Hampton and Etchells create a very subtle experience that seems to mediate presentation (what is really there) with representation (what is imagined to be there): a sort of intimate and solitary happening in public—where nothing happens, really—except in our own minds.
If The Quiet Volume contemplated the powerful space of performance through the guided act of reading, Begat Theater’s Hidden Stories enabled its spectators to enter a journey as if they were reading three dimensionally, where the characters and setting are embodied all around you. I saw Hidden Stories early in May 2013 in the streets of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where it premiered in the US as part of mars2bklyn, an ongoing platform of exchange between artists from Brooklyn and Marseille, an event I co-curated with Erika Latta and Claire Hallereau. Hidden Stories is essentially an urban soundwalk, “an artistic event camouflaged in plain sight,” where audiences follow four characters inspired from contemporary novels (Léon Schmitt, Colin Blackwell, Emma Ducourtois, and Tamina, who doesn't have a last name). As they walk, work, travel, and interact through the streets of Fort Greene, we are privy, via headsets, to their inner thoughts, their reflections, their longings, their solitude.
Based in the south of France since 1994, Begat Theater is a street theatre company that works at the crossroads between installation art and contemporary performance, developing theatre that seeks out new performance spaces and innovative actor/spectator relationships. Their last piece, Le Demeurées, adapted from Jeanne Benameur’s novel, was a performance installation designed inside a traveling box for one spectator at a time. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of their work, some street theater companies in France like Begat (still funded under the country’s Arts de la Rue rubric) are being presented at museums and contemporary live art festivals, whereas before they mainly toured the more popular street festivals like Aurillac and Chalon-sur-Saône, which themselves are evolving the art form. In other words, the “street theater” scene in France, unlike here in the US (mostly due to liability issues and strikingly different developments of public space in general), is one that is not only prevalent and growing, but has been quite innovative in utilizing the city as an alternative site for performance.
On a beautiful early evening in May, I gathered with forty other audience members in front of the Irondale Center at 85 South Oxford Street. There we got our headphones and were told to follow one of four objects (an orange, a newspaper, a box of matches, or a pen) which eventually would cross paths with all four characters. “Don’t forget, very important,” announced Philippe Laliard, the show’s co-sound designer as he instructed the audience before we left on our urban adventure, “the city is real, the apartments are real, the streets are real, the cars are real. Watch out when you cross the streets.” And with that, we were off. For the hundreds of urban dwellers around us, we must have seemed like a frantic bunch. We had been told to “blend in” and “be discrete.” As we arrived at a square the event began to unfold and somehow we all dispersed, far away from each other. There was that pen. As the character of Léon (brilliantly played by Hervé Cristiani) approached to grab it, the soundscape in my ear augmented, and stopped the second he had it in his hand. It was a magical moment, one of many that revealed this intersection between what was real, what was staged, and what was simply coincidence between the text and what I was seeing, like when he spoke of the doves and there was a flock of them that flew by inches away.
Hidden Stories was visible, as a performance, only to those audience members watching the scenes, often hidden from view by passersby, who might mistake these characters for “real people” in their everyday life (like when the character playing the waitress at the café took the actual orders of some clients). As one apt reviewer put it: “A three faceted optical illusion is revealed: reality becomes blurred, the theatrical asserts itself as real, and those on the outside look on in a disbelieving way at the spectator.” The performers played with these alternate worlds—their characters, their reality amidst the city, and ours—knowing full well that we could not hear what was really being said.
As with The Quiet Volume, Hidden Stories took me on a journey that altered my habitual sense of perception, allowing me to enter an alternative reality of sorts (where I lost myself in an experience) all while arousing my own sense of presence—my autonomy, my agency— in creating that reality. As we entered Fort Greene Park, Colin Blackwell, a character from Hidden Stories, could not have said it better:
This doesn't seem real to me, none of it. It's all fake, right? All of this is a fake. This town, these people. What if it's all just a set? I'm the only real human being here.
Who’s to say?