An actor, a table, a camera. These are the building blocks of Cities, Quebecois company Théâtre De La Pire Espèce’s private collection of imaginary urban spaces, which were unveiled to UK audiences for the first time at Manipulate Festival 2017. Emphasising a low-tech aesthetic, Cities is an endlessly innovative and charming performance about the nature of collection, imagination and the values we ascribe to objects.
Cities is presented with no easily identifiable narrative. Guided by Oliver Ducas, we tour a series of portraits, urban snapshots threaded together by the use of similar materials or languages, all of which are assembled from everyday objects. Our host’s collection is as varied as the objects that compose it, comprising cities by the sea, cities in 2D, cities divided, cities on circuit boards and cities where GDP is measured in skyscrapers. There’s even a city that can’t be seen, and doesn’t really exist, because it is the perfect city. Each portrait allows its audience a different perspective, a different angle, which because of its distance allows us to reframe our own relationships to urban spaces. We are positioned in, above and between these cityscapes, at distances near and far, always returning to the streets where we dwell nestling in the backs of our minds.
Each city passes by quickly, giving way to the next portrait in the collection. This pace ensures a work that is entertaining, yet offers only glimpses of what it means to live in a city, and what cities are like to live in (perhaps this pace, and frustration, is in part what cities are like to live in). When our host breaks away from his collection to address the audience directly, and as the pace slows ideas are afforded more attention, the results are very engaging. Ducas muses how our cities of birth are both carried by and carry us, how they occupy spaces in our passports and become the frames of reference through which we experience every other city. It calls to mind y filltir sgwar (the square mile), the Welsh notion of the intimate landscape of one’s childhood, discussed by Mike Pearson in his book Theatre/Archaeology. This is a space that is known in a detail that you never come to know anywhere else, from which everything else follows. For those born in cities (as of recent years the majority) what is the size of this mile? Is it continuous or a mile stretched across areas connected by underground transport? Where in the city are you born, and where in the city do you belong?
Ducas assembles his collection under the eye of the camera, expanding the table-top so that it stretches across the rear of the Traverse main stage. Watching these structures’ assembly, close-up on the collector’s deftly moving hands, brings the inhabitants of cities most clearly in to focus. More pressingly than the quality of city living, Cities examines how we value and have relationships with objects. Jean Baudrillard’s theories on collection are a recurrent reference point throughout, briefly summed up as the idea that objects are abstracted to exist in a realm under the collector’s control, where their meaning is governed by the collector alone. Collection then is seen as a way to make sense of and order the world, the creation of a personal microcosm. What is most fascinating about watching Cities is observing this microcosm up close, nose to the window, watching with glee the attention and care invested by Ducas in objects such as Playmobil, sweetcorn and sugar cubes. It is incredibly engaging to watch, made all the more so by its incomprehensibility; our inability to access the quality of these particular relationships between human and object.
Cities was on as part of Manipulate 2017. Click here for more details.