Performing Outside the Box

by Janine Harrington

As we head into our Misplaced/Displaced season we've been talking to artists who work in what could be considered "outside the box". We want to start conversations about how work can be created outside of traditional environments. We are thrilled to introduce you to Janine Harrington, a brilliant artist working in and around London. Here are her thoughts on Performing Outside the Box.

Monkeyhouse has invited me to write something about my experiences of “performing outside the box” and so to think about the question of when a theatre space may not be the best place for a performance… In this piece I will talk mainly about my own large-scale choreographies (The Performing Book and The Bridge), and how I have come to think about the relationship between what I make and the contexts they are performed in. This isn’t going to be an in-depth exploration of all the conventions of staging a dance work, but a retrospective tracing of some of my decisions to make works for spaces other than the theatre, with a particular focus on the relationship between the audience and the performer in contexts that you might call “out of the box”.

What’s (in) the box?
Before getting to performance outside the box, I am inclined to first spend a moment thinking about what the “box” is and does. Andre Lepecki talks about this as a ‘space that hosts the vanished dance, and that produces the yet to be danced’. The theatrical space par excellence is an uncharted space ‘not belonging to the realm of representation, but that allows representation’. In other words these spaces are frames for actions, and not speaking in and of themselves. In one sense the “box” of one space could be interchangeable for the “box” of another space through the shared function. In that sense particular spaces almost disappear, or merge into a potential space into which ideas of the thing to be staged can be projected. The un-eventfulness of the box itself makes it possible to stage something; it also makes it possible to stage several different somethings in the same space on consecutive nights, or stage the same something in various different boxes.

Choreographic Objects
I think I have always enjoyed the moment in the theatre before it all starts to happen, and have written about it before as an extended moment in which there is such possibility.

the moment when the theatre goes dark and everything is just beyond, at the moment of becoming...I’d like to continually stage that moment.

I think that for me- as an audience member- an important part of that moment is that I am engaged in the expectation and have not (perhaps yet) switched into a more passive mode of receivership. There is lots of interesting research into kinaesthetic empathy and the audience’s experience of watching dance, and I am aware of not going into any detail about that here. What I want to draw attention to is that the experience of watching dancing is often correlated with less movement on the part of the audience.

Attention to how, why, where, by who and for what end we are moved were concerns of the 2010 Hayward Gallery (London) exhibition MOVE: Choreographing You. Here choreography is aligned with manipulation, though not necessarily with a negative connotation. Curator Stephanie Rosenthal emphasised the focus on ‘visual artists, dancers and choreographers who create sculptures and installations that directly affect the movement of exhibition goers, turning spectators into active participants’. Some of these exhibited works were described as “choreographic objects”.

In a panel discussion in 2010 William Forsythe described a choreographic object as an environment that affects perception and sometimes induces a behaviour. The artist’s gymnastic-type hoops The Fact of Matter (2009) shown during the MOVE exhibition are one example of what a choreographic object, or environment might be. Interaction with the hoops animates the body in a certain way and draws attention to our physicalities- through bodily engagement with the work rather than watching the work. The hoops hung at different heights across a stretch of the gallery, and attendants invited the visitors to engage with the hoops by trying to cross a section of the space by climbing/ swinging on them. In this structure each person is a soloist, dealing with their unique mass and weight, strength and flexibility, co-ordination, stamina, determination and perhaps even stage fright. Entering the environment is to enter a conversation with the object, with the object proposing a score for that encounter. Forsythe talked about this as an improvisation, a physical practice that is produced in the immediate encounter- through the body- with a certain situations. He described a new situation as revealing something otherwise unexposed as an ‘unconscious competence’ apparent in physical situations where one has to be physically adaptive. In staged dance work (choreographies) we see the physical competence of the dancers and might think that we are experiencing the choreography, but Forsythe has argued that we are actually watching the dancers’ experience of the choreography. In this respect the interaction with choreographic information through objects and novel physical situations has the potential to bring the experience of dancing closer. I think of the experience described in relation to Forsythe’s hoops as an experience of a physical “state” rather than as a “steps” approach to choreography. In this respect we might say the encounter is a ‘first hand choreographic experience’, and that in terms of transmitting a physical idea the choreographic object is immediate and unmediated (Forsythe, 2010).

An observation on convention and access
When I work as a performer it is mainly in works that are sited outdoors, in gallery and museum contexts, and in studio-based works that overtly explore how spaces can be constituted or evoked through lighting, voice and texts. Aside from the different conventions and histories that are engaged by working in and with spaces other than theatres, the space issue is one that interests me particularly in terms of the scale of encounter between performers and audience: a solo performed to 300 people seated in an auditorium/ a duet performed in a gallery whilst a thousand visitors pass through over the course of a day/ 45 performers spread across a bridge in a large-scale interactive work for the public… There are so many different imaginations and manifestations of performance and the spaces in which that can happen (and if this was a different piece we could also go into much more detail about the differences between actual “box” spaces).

When I work with young people and we talk about outdoor work I am often struck by their desire to erect some sort of stage in an outdoor site, and so replicate some of the conditions of the conventional theatre-space. Whilst these sorts of stagings- on top of an outdoor site -can increase the number of people it is possible to perform to (thinking of music festivals etc), they rarely come with the range of technical possibilities supported by indoor theatre spaces, and the sites themselves invite a different engagement to that of the indoor conventional theatre.

My own choreographic works have mainly been performed at outdoor sites, or been commissions for particular sites (site-specific) that happen to be outdoors, but much of my work could be installed quite well indoors in the right space. The key feature of my works is the movement of the audience through the space of the performance. I’ll describe the work via The Performing Book (2011-12) and then talk about the audience’s movement in more detail.

Structures of relating
The Performing Book took a starting point from the relationship a reader has to a book- how they can choose not to pick it up, skim through, turn back the pages, start at the end etc. I transposed the structure of this relationship to dance performance, creating a situation where the audience could alter the movement according to parameters tied to their own positions in space, their speed and direction.

As the work begins, the line of dancers stands poised. The audience move past them and a ripple of movement follows. If the audience stop, the dancers hover between moments, in an extended moment of possibility. If the audience walk in the opposite direction to their first, the movement being danced in front of them reverses. As the audience move closer the movement gets smaller, as they move further away it expands. If people move quickly then the dancers speed up to a blur. If people move slowly the dancers are able to reveal subtlety and detail embedded in their phrases. As members of the audience start to understand the rules of the work they are able to play in more complex ways, and this in turn reveals details “programmed” into the choreography.

It is not an accident that some of the language I have used to describe The Performing Book is similar to that used in other technologies. As I have continued to work I have become more and more interested in where the body is in relation to not only books, but in the use of tablet media and smartphones. Starting by thinking about the journey of writing from a fully embodied task, to gradually becoming more distal (travelling from use of the whole arm in calligraphy, to the hand, to the fingers in typing and to the use of the tip of the finger in tablet media), I am curious about the sense of this process leaving the body altogether. And then I wonder if that could happen. The bodily experience has necessarily (always?) defined ways of thinking and understanding; ten digits on the hands and feet have given our counting systems a preference for working and thinking in terms of 10s and multiples of 10. Our languages are suffused with sayings which overtly reveal how movement and the body has helped to structure ways of thinking, and with gestures which map out ideas (e.g. the past is often indicated physically by a pointing a thumb backwards, whereas the future indicated by a index finger pointing forward). In Laban’s work spatiality is associated with rationality.

In The Performing Book and The Bridge, it is the centre of the individual audience member’s body which acts like the finger would act on a table screen. As the audience move their centres around they are revealing and modulating the dance in a live processing encounter with the audience. Like in the example from Forsythe, the experience of the choreography happens at the level of the individual person’s body as they navigate the work according to their own curiosity. Unlike the Forsythe example there is a distinction between the dancers and the audience in terms of material performed: each dancer has a rigorously known phrase. The most important aspect is probably that the audience have the agency to access the content of the work, but must do so using their bodies. I see this as being quite different from the set-up in a theatre where the audience are usually sitting as a group on one side and the performers are on the other. I would actually describe my work as being an installation which seeks to harness the energetic presence of potential audience members in a given space, producing a feed-back loop through recognised cause and effect changes to the danced material, leading to a more complex meeting of the resource of the dancers and the curiosity of the audience.

Working in this way brings it’s own set of issues that a show following a conventional theatre code might not need to address. One issue is about limiting the space of the work, but I have found the question about how to manage time in such a performance to be the more pressing issue. It is not clear how and when the work has begun and when it should end. The movements can be danced in many different ways; forwards and backwards is actually a loop. Audience do not have to arrive at a particular time, and can stay as long as they want to. It is also entirely possible that no one will stop to interact with the work, though their movement will have a residual affect nonetheless.

I am not against working with conventional theatre spaces, and it is something that I can imagine doing at some point in the future, but for me the agency of the audience is an important consideration, along with the space, the performers, their movement and the sound environment.

No ending
I will pause there for now. This discussion could go a lot further into the politics of access and learning but I am not certain that you as readers are still scrolling down! If you would like to see some small clips of my work you can find them here.

Janine Harrington, London, 2014.

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