Sunday, October 19, 2008

"Out of my reach but always in my eyeline"

(Title comes from Keane lyrics to "Spiralling" off the new album. It is awesome, just FYI.)

This week's project was to deal with site-specificity in our work, focusing on the relationship between the outside and the inside. Two guest artists who had worked in a manner similar to this came in and showcased their work, a piece that involved taking an audience of three in a car through a city, on the hunt for a whale, in a retelling of the Pinocchio tale. They themselves did not believe that their work was truly site-specific in definition, and I tend to agree with them. The key to site-specific work is the correlation between the environment (the "site") and the action--the environment informs the activity of the stage. In this very base definition, it could be argued that any piece of theatre is site-specific. But when looking at a performance, or trying to build a performance in the conditions of site-specificity, there is usually a more direct relationship between the stage action (consider the word "stage" loosely here, as site-specific work usually does not take place on a stage) and the space the action is set against. The reason the guest artists' work was not strictly site-specific was because they had less of a relationship with the outside world than one would expect in a such a work. While the car they drove had to deal with the environment and architecture of whatever city they were in (the piece was re-incarnated in several cities over a period of six years), what they were seeing in the city rarely if ever had to deal with the structuring of the plot or events of the story they were telling. It was incidental, not essential to the production. And therein lies the distinction.

Our assignment read as the following:
"Look at ways in which the audience can be unsure of what is created by the artist and what is not. Look at ways you might frame a vision of the outside or draw our attention to something outside by something happening inside, with the audience (e.g. a performer, sound effects, programme notes). Do you want to remain invisible to the outside world? Or create something strange within it? Will you add things to it outside or give the audience a way of looking at what is already there?
"Working in groups arranged by your workshop leaders, make a short work of 3-5 minutes' duration for an audience the size of the rest of the year group. The piece can be performed twice if you wish to have a smaller audience...The audience is inside, looking out of the windows."

I was in a group of six, comprised of two members of the performance strand (myself and Lisa), the only visual media artist (Connie), two members of the dramaturgy strand (Deidre and Leslie), and one producer (a fabulous Greek named Maria). I won't go into the details of the process (because why ruin the illusion and why air dirty laundry from a subjective viewpoint in a public forum), but finally we came down to the idea of affixing text onto the windows like speech bubbles. The audience would see the text in line with people we would place on the street in specific places, and depending on the floor they were on, they would get a different story. We had five phrases of text that we were going to use repeatedly and move, so that each group was told a different story in how they encountered the text. They were:
  1. Stop watching me.
  2. I've seen you naked.
  3. I'm invisible.
  4. I'm looking for a funny sugar daddy, 40+ for romantic liaisons.
  5. I'll find you and I'll kill you.
Leslie came up with the idea that they be visually worded phrases, to comment on how the audience was receiving the story. Lisa had brought in the phrase about the sugar daddy which she found in the "Lonely Hearts" section of the newspaper, and perhaps also the "kill you" phrase, though that may have been Connie. "I've seen you naked," was a reference to Say Anything, that part where the characters are talking about sex, how it changes everything, and the next time you see the person you can talk to them very nicely, but the whole time you'll just be thinking, "We had sex." Yes, that one was mine. The other two came from group discussion.

Lisa had gotten really into the idea of the phone booth having text attributed to it, so we got into talks about how to use it on one of the floors. However, later on in the day when we tried out the perspectives, it was discovered that the picture varied depending on height, and there were few options in terms of how to focus the viewer appropriately--a box was suggested so that they would be able to have a specific frame, but we couldn't figure out how to affix it to the glass properly without leaving massive tape residue, and it would have logistically been a misstep--48 people in the program, and only five minutes to exhibit, it would never have been enough time to get everyone through.

While discussing the phone booth in the hallway, another classmate, Chris overheard us. As I was passing him soon after, he asked me, "Which phone booth?"

"What do you mean, which phone booth?"

"There are two."

We had been so focused on trying to figure out what we were doing, we had completely overlooked the other phone booth in plain view near the one we had been fixating on. We had been neglecting observing our environment, the very environment that was to shape our work so fully! It was an amazing discovery, and I ran to my group and said, "Everyone! Chris has just told me: there are TWO phone booths! What if it was a love story between two phone booths, but they could never be together?!"

Some one chimed in: "Yeah, they can only have a long distance relationship."

We went from there and wrote text that we posted above the metal divider that ran through this hall of windows, full of phone puns mostly thought of by Deidre. We ended up with the text I wrote above the pictures in the previous entry (those photos, incidentally, while capturing the site our work was placed in, were taken the day AFTER the presentation, so please understand that you as online viewers of snapshots, are still getting a different experience from live audience members).

On the day of the presentation, Maria, Lisa, Leslie and myself stood on the street in various ensembles comprised of red and black, so that the audience would be drawn to us visually when reading the text regarding the different colors--though I was told later that the black did not read. Oh well. Deidre and Connie stayed upstairs in the building to act as curators in our "gallery," prepare the audience appropriately ("Flash photography is not permitted," "Please do not touch the art work."), and lead them into the hall. We had used tape to create a frame for the section of the window we wanted them to look through. This way was could further shape and control what the audience saw, and ensure that the two phone booths were in the background of every "picture" we made--little details they'd take for granted because they were inanimate objects, and because we are all trained to look for the people we know to be the actors. They would discover at the last frame that there had been a story going on the whole time, right in front of their eyes, one they wouldn't have otherwise noticed had their attention not been drawn directly to it.

It went over well, and we got accolades for keeping our presentation simple. I would not have called the process of getting to that place "simple," so it's funny that in the end that was how we succeeded. There's a lesson in that, to be sure.

To see what it may have been like to experience the speech bubble version of the project had it worked, here's an example I made of one of the stories we came up with. Set the slide show for five seconds. There are only three frames.

1 comment:

Miss E said...

That's really cool. I love the idea of the phone booths that can never be together. "So close, yet so far away..."