In the summer of 2016, my partner and I visited my friend in Toronto. Pokémon Go had recently been launched and they had both managed to download the game onto their phones. I couldn’t get my trembling hotel WiFi to work with me, so one afternoon, we walked from my friend’s house to a large park nearby, the two of them pausing for invisible pit-stops and creatures in-game while I watched with much affection. When we got to the park, my friend wound up running and chasing a Lapras all over it, to much hysterical laughter. That day is one of my happiest memories from that summer, but, more pertinently it introduced me to the concept of a dual space, where two actualities co-exist, where two possibilities for interacting with space – mundanely and instinctively, or ritually and acquisitively – lie contiguous along the landscape.
Charlotte Spencer Projects’ Is This a Waste Land?, presented by the always-interesting Dance Umbrella festival, is a serious and thoughtful exploration of the duality of space, particularly edgelands and abandoned places. Performed on a large and rugged clearing near London City Airport, with splendid views of Canary Wharf and the City on the horizon and the imposing shells of burned out buildings in the foreground, surrounded by water and buffeted by winds, this is a remarkable location. The very occupation of this forgotten swatch of earth by an audience and performers is a radical choice, allowing people to own and use a patch of land designated as useless, dangerous, off-limits – a waste land. As the space is normally forbidden to the public, occupying it mundanely and instinctively is still an act of engagement; occupying it ritualistically and acquisitively, as the piece does, means that a new communal space is built, however temporarily.
Audience members are given heavy gloves (necessary), and headphones, both of which they wear throughout the piece. The voice in the headphones issues instructions and asks questions designed to provoke reflection on (among other things), borders, belonging, community and lawful bodily existence. The instructions, listed in a review, sound bizarre:
Build a tower from this pile of discarded objects.
Take these bamboo poles and walk in a circle.
Use these branches and rope to create a plot of land.
Lie down on this sail.
Build a wall from the discarded objects.
Walk in a straight line holding your poles horizontally.
Watch other people.
No one speaks. The performers barely perform in the conventional sense; they facilitate the action. But there is exquisite and intricate devised movement, performed by the audience members themselves. From the planes flying over the land, we must look like marching ants, or a ground-bound murmuration of starlings, or a silent cult bent on obscure ceremonies.
Different people receive different instructions via the headphones, splitting the space into tiny isolated societies that mix where necessary. Watching other ‘societies’ work is what first brought Pokémon Go to mind; whatever invisible thing compels audience members who are not in your ‘society’ is utterly vibrant and immediate to them. Working ritually and acquisitively, piles of rubbish take on significance and personal value. At one point, my bamboo pole disappeared after I was instructed to return to where I had laid it down and I was genuinely upset; I felt both that I had failed the community of bamboo pole carriers which I had inadvertently joined, and that an object which had become important to me in the space of the piece had been stolen from me.
Tacked on near the end of this review, just as it is awkwardly tacked on near the end of the piece, is the note that these forbidden spaces are often occupied by people who have nowhere else to go, who are forced to make a home in the edgelands until they are moved on, who do not occupy the space dually but simply, because it is the only space they can find to be. It is ethically necessary to note this, as Is This a Waste Land? does, but unfortunately there’s no elegant way to weave it into the performance, and it is blurted out through headphone narration instead.
As a conceptual performance piece, Is This a Waste Land? is well-executed, inspired and surprisingly moving. Charlotte Spencer Projects’ exploration of duality of space is intelligent and certain of its aims. The performance itself is slightly too long – I found the first half much stronger than the second, splitting these halves by the moment when audience members were briefly asked to remove their headphones – but while it still has its momentum, it is noteworthy for its ability to draw in the audience.
For the record, we never did catch that Lapras.
Is This a Wasteland? is on until 22 October 2017, as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Click here for more details.