The In Between Time Festival burst Bristol open with artworks in and beyond Arnolfini. A giant moon lit up the Bristol skyline, bus loads of audience members were relocated to Leigh Woods for a dusk-time happening, the high ceilings of Clifton sang with living room opera and shop fronts and pop-up cafes peppered the city common, as artworks spilt out into the public places of the city.
One of the affects of staging a number of performances outside of the gallery or theatre context, was that relationships between space and place were more evident. The gallery or theatre space is never blank – full of expectation, assumption, cultural baggage, anticipation and more – but the illusion that we are in a blank space is often one that allows for detachment from place, or the creation of a new imagined place within it. Setting artworks in places that obviously have their own histories, stories and energies, creates a different challenge for the artists, and a juxtaposition of place and space for the viewer. From the artworks I viewed, some within the gallery, some not – all engaged with the two in very different ways.
Dead Line was a one on one performance by Jo Bannon in a parlour showroom overlooking Bristol College Green. I arrived and was welcomed by a receptionist into a faux-funeral parlour; my name was written in the register and I had a cup of tea whilst perusing the material on funerals and deaths. The place itself – I sat opposite what was effectively a shop-front to the passers-by, myself acting as a kind of art-piece or object to be viewed – was noticeably exposed in contrast to the quiet, contemplative space created inside. This juxtaposition between the physical location of the artwork, and the mental space of the happening within it, caused a friction that immediately raised a set of stimulating questions about the nature of public and private spheres and processes of confronting death. The private and individual took over as I was led up a flight of stairs to a windowless, small, dimly lit room, curtained and painted a russet red. A phone rang. After answering a series of recorded questions I was put through to a woman, with whom I spoke about death for ten minutes. Then I left the room and entered an adjacent one, where a chair faced a window onto the common below. Again the contrast was acute; the white, windowed room, the lights around the window-frame, lilies, white tissues, a white table.
The artwork balanced between representation and intervention. The fictional place of the funeral parlour, with its tissues, white lilies, quiet waiting room, felt tangibly similar to places I’ve encountered death before. Similarly the act of speaking on the phone seemed to reflect a culturally normalised approach to dealing with death: private, silent to the outside world, unseen; even the outlet for exploration was rooted in speaking and listening as detached voice and ears, not an embodied process. The physical place reinforced these cultural modes of conduct surrounding death, therefore colouring the space of the interaction within it. Yet the artwork simultaneously proposed to, and to a certain extent did, intervene by asking its audience to think directly about death and engage in an active dialogue that we are often socially required to repress. I was talking to a woman who told me she was an embalmer: an unusually visceral engagement with death. The act of the phone conversation reflected the cultural paradigm, whilst its content – that engaging physically and visibly with death brought one closer to understanding it – was challenging this.
This contradiction of hidden processes and yet simultaneous outlets for expression, highlighted the cultural approach to death, whilst beginning to offer the space for a shift within that or a questioning of it. But the balance also created a discrepancy that begged the following question: to what extent can a piece serve as an intervention, if it intervenes within a paradigm or mode of relating to the world that inherently keeps the process relatively unchanged?
The interactive artwork Early Days (of a better nation) by Coney provoked the same question within me. It took place in the gallery, but created a version of reality that looked very similar to the world we live in, yet fictional and interventionist at the same time. A work in progress, Early Days offered each participant fake money, information and membership to a certain region in a fictional world called Colonia. The performance was collaborative; it was hard to tell who was a performer and who wasn’t. Participants worked in teams under time pressure to keep afloat whichever region they had been assigned to. The possibilities resembled the real world: there was an arts and culture area, an army, a stock market, poll tax, governments and leaders, and money-based economy. However, the very game allowed any possibilities to unravel and occur, for the audience to make the future of the game. Whilst we were compliant we were also unpredictable; whilst the artwork’s structure was open and vulnerable to a large interactive audience, it had also been strategically planned and staged. The illusion of agency was a dynamic one, reflecting both the outside political world and the power relations within the structure of an artwork itself. To what extent do the artists hand over complete agency to the audience? With Early Days it was hard to tell.
Because of this, it was difficult to decipher to what extent the participants’ choices and ideas were lead by the structures in place, and to what extent we were playing out our experiences and references of reality in the external world, through the piece. There is huge potential in this ambiguity, and whether Coney develops the piece further along these lines, or seeks to create more of a blank canvas or a staged event will be interesting to see. However, the predictability of events was to some extent down to the structures already in place; when the revolutionary leader became corrupt and was throw off his post, something of the possibility of the experiment was lost, and it became a more of a representation of the outside world that for me, had less dynamism. Once again I found myself wondering to what extent an artwork can change the paradigm if it decides to straddle somewhere between performing a situation in order to provoke reflection, and offering the opportunity to intervene and create? The former feels like it clings onto a performativity that restricts the latter somehow, and there may come a point where Early Days has to become one or the other, if it is to really test the limits of possibility and play within the performance space. Either way, the fictional space harkened to a virtual space that has been a place of happenings and sparkings of revolution in the last few years, and the question of where change and events take place, is an apt one.
Both Dead Line and Early Days called into question the ways in which we bring our baggage into the performance space; the question seems to be, whether or not artworks are intending to shift and question that baggage within the piece itself, or provide reflection for that process to take place away from the piece. For me, the latter is safe, the former far more interesting. Both artworks felt undecided in this, (for Early Days as a work in progress this is understandable) and the consciousness of that decision to straddle the two was unclear.