Features Published 20 March 2015

Sprint Festival: Precarious Games

Alice Saville is an embedded critic at the Camden's People Theatre during the Sprint Festival. Here, she looks at money, the city and the City, seen through the lens of works at the festival.
Alice Saville

British people aren’t meant to talk about money. But the morning after George Osborne poses with the battered red box bearing what could be his last ever budget, people aren’t staying quiet about the prospect of another year of cuts. At the Camden People’s Theatre, a different kind of conversation is taking place. Companies including Places & Means, Coney, Harry Giles, Simon Farid and Rhiannon Faith are all making work that plays around in the messy traffic intersections between money, the City, consumerism and being an artist.

It’s hard to ignore commercial realities at the CPT, even if you’re not ruing the price of a beer at the bar. It inhabits the kind of liminal zone that central London’s especially talented at producing. Opposite it, a prettified Sainsbury’s having an identity crisis, offering a wooden floor, a pizza counter and precious little real food. Behind it, a street of curry houses. University halls of residence jostle with Regent’s Park mansions flanked by concrete council blocks: each doing their best to pretend the other isn’t there.

Places & Means have made Good Riddance, which takes us out of the theatre’s walls to adventure down these streets. It’s exhilarating rushing through the dark streets on the trail of a hapless tour guide, picking up paper clues that hint at an ingeniously wrought criminal underworld. We’re swept into a fantasy land where villains are called Sapphire and Oompa, and we’re told that derelict shops are peanut butter factories, or that bollards mark leylines. It’s sweet, an anagram’s breadth from twee. But would dramatising the real world we’re walking through be tasteless? Lit up and deserted at night, the streets around the CPT already feel unreal, like an old Hollywood backlot. An immaculate terrace of Georgian houses next to a vast neoclassical mansion just a street away from a shop called Cheap Booze and estates where paved-over grass pokes its way back through spaces marked out for non-existent cars. Both areas have a similar feel of lawlessness: not danger, but of somehow existing outside the council’s sphere of interest or jurisdiction. And it feels like their residents live in straight lines that don’t cross.

Tassos Stevens of Coney is both crossing and breaking down these invisible lines by making Adventure 1 with William Drew. It’s a game that sends its players undercover. Tassos Stevens tells me that “because you’re making something which is happening in a real landscape, if what you’re playing is authentic as well that’s really exciting”. Armed with a smartphone and headphones, you’re sent on the trail of a soul-searching City worker by means of recorded voice tracks, together with players and actors who are doing their best to meld into their slick surroundings.

Tassos Stevens explains that “it’s about playing secretly. It’s a very interesting way to travel through public space because while you’re trying to blend in, you pay more attention. You start to notice systems of power and control, who’s inside the systems and who’s outside the systems. It also raises questions about public space – what appears public might actually be private land with a set of obligations and behaviours attached.” During Good Riddance by Places & Means, Gwilym Lawrence in character as our hapless tour guide, told us that we couldn’t go down Chester Terrace – a private road. We went round it, taking sneaky peaks through the back windows of its John Nash-designed terraces – all bathroom fans and potted orchids on the public side, not grand neo-classical facades.

I asked Tassos Stevens if the spaces he uses for Adventure 1 know what’s going on: he tells me that “They have no idea, because we wouldn’t get permission. Hopefully what the audience is then doing is playing in a way which is non-destructive, because you’re playing at blending in. If I were to stand stock still in the middle of a public space you’d think I was really weird, but the phone gives you not just the technology but a prop, permission to temporarily not play by the rules of normal behaviour in the space”

But he doesn’t want to unleash hordes of eyes-down adventure gamers on central London, either. “At the heart of all Coney’s work is the ethos of adventure, curiosity and loveliness. Loveliness is very important here, because what we’re doing is non-disruptive, and based on consideration and respect for everybody around you.” During Adventure 1’s long development process, he explains that “we’d done quite a lot of reconnaissance exercises and ideas and games. We were interested in what we can discover through the location, if there’s a uniqueness to this particular site – and general things like finding spots where people tend to congregate to have a smoke.” But there’s a huge element of randomness as well as the planning: “Things people can come back and say that was the best bit, and they are not certain if it was us. On a much earlier adventure, we had somebody writing in saying that the best bit was the busker playing Smells Like Teen Spirit on the banjo – there’s that great uncertainty, where they’re almost sure we were involved. We don’t exactly know what the audience are going to do, so we’re ready to play with whatever presents itself.”

The City is made of privately owned public space – but walking around it, you have the same false impression of independence and freedom as you do in a supermarket. Adventure 1 highlights this false impression – but it’s also a similar kind of situation to playing a game, where what you do is limited by parameters you’re not quite meant to see.

Harry Giles is playing a game of his own with his performance Everything I Bought And How It Made Me Feel, built up over a year of research. But he’s leagues away from the Square Mile geographically (he’s from Edinburgh) and aesthetically, in an inward-looking project that focuses on his precariat existence as a poet and theatremaker. His performance started with a Tumblr blog Everything I Bought, which he describes as an “absurdist social experiment.” Every purchase he made in 2014 is documented with a photo, words and quasi-authoritative percentage ratings on what impact they made on his health, survival, safety, love/belonging and self-actualisation. In work where “every part of my life was discussed in excruciating detail”, he’s had a mixture of reactions including “sympathy, identification and catharsis. I’ve also got a lot of voyeurism from peoples’ reactions too. It’s sort of a challenge to a world where we put so much on social media, but there’s this curation process where we’re so selective about what we put up there.”

The volume of entries is overwhelming, a chaotic supermarket scroll through train fares, batteries, bills, meals out. And only one undisclosed purchase. Harry Giles ruefully tells me that “I had no idea how much of  a beast it would turn into – it took over my life for a year! Rebellion kicked in quite early on, and it’s tracked within the writing. Sometimes you just want to give up and not think and just be allowed to do stuff.” But he’s not the kind of performer to underthink things. He tells me that “I’m sort of obsessed with money, and a lot of my work is about it in one way or another. I expose my accounts quite regularly because I am interested in those arguments about art and pay and work.” Before performer Bryony Kimmings started show me yours, encouraging arts workers to open up about their fees and finances, he wrote What I mean when I say I am working as an artist, which exposes the pitiful £18 he made from box office splits that year, and the fact that his precarious labour resulted in a sub-minimum wage annual income.

His work is divided between performance, poetry and gaming: he’s recently playtested Precariat, a storytelling game about precarious living made with Adam Dixon. “It’s about what it means to live in an economy where there aren’t really any good jobs. They’re living in a house, trying to get by not having any decent work. That sense of being responsible for each other, relying on each other, and the wonderful things you can do to make life less miserable.”

The Ritzy Cinema strikers, image courtesy of the Precarious Workers Brigade

The Ritzy Cinema strikers, image courtesy of the Precarious Workers Brigade

Surprisingly, his performance starts out feeling less intimate than his blog. Harry Giles presents slides in a pinstripe suit, looking a like a low-rent commercial traveller not an introspective poet. He’s satirising himself, as well as our expectations, with a structure that asks big questions: what purchases can make you happy? He explains that “because the blog was a process that wasn’t aimed at a particular end, each tiny piece of writing didn’t have to explore everything. The impact of the writing accumulates over thousands and thousands of words”. By comparison, his performance “is plotted more carefully and draws out a few of the dynamics into more of a narrative.” Audience members pick receipts for him to locate on a specially invented scale of guilt or good feelings, pointing to all the complex inputs and affects of a simple guiltily bought Tesco ready meal. 

But although the resulting performance asks lots of questions, its answers are softer round the edges. Especially for a man who’s made work including letter-writing campaign All I want for Christmas is the downfall of globalised late capitalism. He explains that “unlike a lot of my work it’s not political with a direct rhetorical intent. Often it resists making a political point because I’m more interested in the daily experience of consumerism.”

In the bar afterwards, I ended up chatting to fellow audience members about our own guilty purchases, or the depressing silent accumulation of short-term comforting choices like cigarettes or takeaways or chocolate. Even with healthy, moderate purchases, Harry Giles found that the process of trying to make sense of it felt absurd, or hurt, because I don’t think a consumer society makes any sense on a notional level. It’s weirdly terrifying and alienating to get to grips with it.”

It’s this anxiety that ties his show together, more than straightforward answers to his questions. It starts as an undercurrent, then sweeps away all his rational talk of self-actualisation and ethics in a sweaty tide of anxiety and stress. Rhiannon Faith’s work-in-progress Scary Shit, also at Sprint, sent her to a therapist to work through her fears. In amongst a brilliantly physical set of mental ordeals – she’s bashed with boxing gloves and squirted with a water pistol in a simulated panic attack – she bursts out that she’s afraid of having children, just as her work as an artist is taking off.

In a world where both main parties are proposing further cuts to arts spending, and IdeasTap is closing after reaching the bottom of its philanthropic coffers, being an emerging artist is indeed pretty scary shit. And sometimes it feels like gaming and baffling financial systems alike are conspiring to disrupt our straightforward understanding between money, work and time. Even half an hour trying to choose the best bank account can leave anyone feeling like Michael Banks, shouting “give me back my tuppence!” in Mary Poppins. Apps like Mint are turning managing your finances into a game, and games involve a worrying amount of managing your finances. And from the outside, being a City trader looks a bit like being a guilty child who’s learnt to type in “rosebud” to get all the Simoleon dollars they need.

Although it doesn’t roam the streets like Coney’s Adventure, Harry Giles’s performance maps out psycho-geography of its own – his long cycle ride to the ethical food shop, versus the short trip out to ScotMid to buy ready made pizzas. Even his worst purchases were more healthy then my dinner that night of a cornershop samosa and bag of hula hoops. But part of what made the performance work was how unexpected his guilt was – the whole experiment was triggered by him buying a £25 art book which he couldn’t quite afford, enjoyed, then regretted.

He brought out the book and ripped out its own guts on the stage – wryly pointing out that “this is about the worst thing you can do. In this room, anyway.” His symbolic book desecration definitely got the desired discomfort, as we shuffled uneasily at the sight of all those glossy pages littering the stage. A torn book is easy to make an emotional connection with – just like it’s easier to protest your local library being shut down than it is to battle against invisible financial adversaries like TTIP or corporate tax avoidance.

Performance can be a way of chipping away at their stain-resistance surfaces. Journalists looking for dirt on Conservative MP Grant Shapps must have been thrilled that artist Simon Farid had kept his illicit get-rich-quick internet scheme How To Corp alive online. Coney are making invisible worlds visible, real, and playable. And Harry Giles is bearing witness to the discomfort that comes with a constant pressure to make the right financial choices in a world that gives you too many wrong options.

None of them offer much comfort. But together, they make a different kind of case for art as being worth spending your pennies on – and for artists as a group that’s as capable of fighting its corner as any other alliance of taxpayers.

Coney’s Adventure 1 is on Saturdays and Sundays until the end of March. You can find out more here. See the full Sprint Festival programme here.

Sprint Festival: Adventures in Audience Participation

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B