Features Guest Column Published 6 July 2012

From the Ground Up

In the first of a series of guest columns, Kat Joyce, co-artistic director of theatre company tangled feet, asks if we can influence a new kind of critical interaction with outdoor arts.
Kat Joyce

While discussions about theatre criticism abound, there’s a distinct lack of critical attention focused on outdoor work. But unlike the other elements that make outdoor performance challenging – the weather, the noise, the distractions of ice-cream vans and the fact that your audience can walk away whenever they feel like it – this void is one that the ‘outdoor arts’ sector needn’t be struggling with.

It is perhaps this history of operating beneath the radar which has allowed outdoor art to retain its radical promise, but this lack of attention also means that those performances disappear into the mists of time, leaving us in danger of losing a heritage in street arts that has at times been incredibly rich and diverse, and of continually reinventing the wheel as a consequence.

Outdoor arts, including ‘street arts’ and ‘circus arts’, have only in the last decade or so begun to be taken seriously as fundable art forms. The Arts Council’s recent ‘New Landscapes’ strategy to strengthen the outdoor arts sector had increasing critical discourse around the form as one of its main aims, but many in the sector feel that this still hasn’t happened. At the heart of recent funding priority shifts towards outdoor work, there is a very clear emphasis on the form’s abilities to ‘engage new audiences’, but without any real discussion of what that means. Despite its radical roots, outdoor work runs the risk of being pigeonholed as spectacular crowd-pleasing, devoid of challenging content and unable to tackle meaningful issues with any degree of sophistication.

Building critical coverage of outdoor work, creating a lasting legacy of performances that leave no script as trace, and forging stronger connections with outdoor audiences might all be seen as intertwined parts of the same challenge. Unfortunately the mechanisms that theatres use to build long-term relationships with their audiences, many of which rely on exploiting box office information, aren’t always available to outdoor artists, whose audiences often encounter the work by chance.

So how can we transform those fleeting encounters into something richer and more sustained? How do we find out what audiences think of our work? It’s abundantly evident that audiences avidly photograph and film outdoor work, so is there a means of turning that enormous but disparate digital documentation into a record or legacy of outdoor works as experienced by its audience? And – instead of waiting for ‘top down’ attention from traditional media – can we use this momentum to begin to provoke critical discourse of the work from the audience up?

My company tangled feet are mid-way through a season of four politically-engaged outdoor works for public spaces, all free to watch, entitled Take to the Streets. To accompany the season, we have built an experimental digital strategy – aiming to tackle some of those questions – as an integral part of our creative plan. The core website, www.tangledstreets.com, is a work-in-progress attempt at a democratic digital platform which will host audience and critical response alongside documentation of the creative process by artists and participants.

Obviously there are significant challenges, both technological and artistic, in what we are attempting. Tangledstreets is an attempt to harness and develop the power of the new, richer and more polyphonic critical culture that digital space encourages. It also throws up questions which tie into wider debates about the changing face of criticism, where already the traditional hierarchically-structured relationships of professional critic/artist/audience are being shaken up and restructured.

Across the whole theatre sector, new social networking platforms offer an intriguing way to extend and enrichen artist/audience relationships, potentially allowing audiences to feed into the research and making processes of the shows as well as to document and critique them. The increasingly democratic architecture of digital space already offers platforms for opinion to a wider range of voices, and space for public conversations between artists, audience and critics. Looking further, it also has the potential to challenge the long-prevailing notion of a critical response to performance being a written one.

Some audiences don’t feel confident that they have the ‘right’ vocabulary to talk or write about performance – but these might be the same spectators who feel compelled to use their cameras and might upload and share a great set of photographs of a performance they’ve seen, helping to create a visual record of the moments that moved them. Rather than providing any answers, Tangledstreets is an attempt to start wrestling with both problems and potentials, and hopefully inspire some new thinking which we can share with the wider arts community.

tangled feet have a rather ‘opensource’ mentality to making performance and have always worked on the basis that our work isn’t finished until it is completed by the imagination of our audience. Like many other devising ensembles, the distinctions between professional roles are often blurred; performers are also technicians, directors are designers and maybe everyone is the writer. We are already seeing that the distinctions between ‘audiences’, ‘critics’ and ‘theatremakers’ are indistinct – and perhaps there’s a lot to be gained by dissolving those distinctions even further.

tangled feet perform aerial spectacular All That Is Solid Melts Into Air as part of the National Theatre’s Inside Out Festival this weekend (Fri 6/Sat 7 July 10pm, Sun 8 July 1pm). The company warmly welcomes contributions to and feedback on www.tangledstreets.com.

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Kat Joyce

Co-Artistic Director of physical theatre ensemble tangled feet, Kat is a director/writer/scenographer/choreographer who makes and shapes work with a range of approaches. She is currently completing a PhD at Royal Holloway, looking at how devised, physical and improvisation-based practice challenges the text-centric and literary conventions inherent in British theatre culture.

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