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Research Reflections: Much More than Accessible
Perhaps the power to change habits, sedimented assumptions, reception and engagement has always depended on the counterintuitive moves most often employed by artists. To consider the relations between thinking bodies that attend performances and the thinking bodies that host those productions and that make them, we spent a day [More than Accessible: Performance in the Age of the Spectator, 6 February, October Gallery, London] talking to one another in small groups; groups that changed configuration several times before joining the large public session from 4:00 to 6:00pm.
We were a group of practitioner scholars, scholars of performance, as well as a group of committed spectators. I had proposed a set of performances ranging from a performance at the Tate to music at Milton Court to theatre at the Barbican as our basis for common spectatorial knowledge. The single most important factor in this day was time. I specifically asked my colleagues not to prepare in advance for the day, no papers, no organized reflections in order not to make our gathering another burden in these burdensome institutional times.
Intriguingly, some of my colleagues whose experience ranged from years of work in performance to relatively new academics and practitioners, spoke to me about ‘doing their homework’ or being unsure ‘what we should be looking or doing when we go to the performances.’ I had much more confidence in the rich resources the group brought to their experience as audience and our collective ability to have a rich discussion than some of the attendees did. Or perhaps more accurately, we are so accustomed to being given a ‘brief’ that the path towards discovery without prior design seems blocked at every entrance.
Brief is a marvellous term to think about in the context of time, spectatorial time, and the time in the relations between the makers of work, the venues that host them and we who go to see the work. The problem with briefs is that they predetermine how and why. Instead I designed the day to open out beyond the brevity mandated when measuring our responses. My experience with ‘feedback forms’ or a venue’s sometimes semi-hysterical and desperate desire to have my opinion [think of those green and red smiling and semi-smiling faces put around airports to tell us ‘how we are doing’ – can anyone else really tell us that?] block my reception by filtering it through language and forms that don’t allow me to reflect.
The counterintuitive conclusion to the experience of the day is that indeed we have less time now, whatever that means. But weirdly the ‘logical’ assumption that if people have no time, the purveyors of performance and theatre must find ever reduced forms of getting their ‘feedback,’ actually does not hold. Reduce the measurement, get small and unmeaningful responses. Demand more of your audience and often you give them scope to tell you how the exchange is going; it is an exchange, and it does not always rest on the simplest notions – did everyone ‘get’ it?
Because paying attention to time, giving time also offers the possibility that one’s reception changes over time. A reality not at all supported by electronic interactions immediate to the moment. After a lovely day in the welcoming Club Room of the October Gallery, when we had spoken in small groups, eaten a delicious lunch provided by the Gallery at a big table, taken a walk with one other person and returned to talk as a large group before joining the public session, many themes emerged that had been developing all day long: who do you go to performances with? How does that affect your experience? What about our response to what sometimes feels like a desperate solicitation of our opinions? How can we suggest that the venues need to trust their own patterns of curating? How do we make interventions?
At the public session the conversation continued very much in the vein of the day. No long presentations, just some ideas put to the audience who clearly had a stake in the conversation. Here I was struck by the way we police ourselves before the fact; all this measuring has had its effect. Though we tried to move the larger discussion towards ideas formed throughout the day, people wanted to return to familiar dilemmas of how ‘funding bodies require us to do these measuring things in order for us to get the money.’ It became clear that the policing have been internalized by those who need freedom the most.
The language of reduction continues to restrict our conversation: the idea, now very much a part of education as well, that if everyone does not understand every part of a performance, the problem is with the maker. Why? Imagine a question for discussion such as: what confused you and what will you do with that confusion? Or an action: let’s convene a conference call two weeks from now and have everyone remind each other of our earlier discussions and then find out what effect the two weeks has had onto our reception? A proposal that is impractical given our lack of time? I think not.
Author: PA Skantze, University of Roehampton
Date: March 2015
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