Audience participation in theatre
02 Mar 17
“EVERY ART PROPOSITION CAN POTENTIALLY BE EXPERIENCED AS PARTICIPATORY”
Published in JOINED FORCES. AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION IN THEATRE
Edited by Anna R. Burzyńska
Participation is also a hot topic in Flanders. After the participation decree, a flanking policy stimulating participation in the domains of youth, arts, and sports, came into effect in 2008, the concept became a great deal more prominent. Its high point to date came in 2016, when it gained its own separate section on arts grant application forms.
But the question of what should be understood by the concept of participation remains with many organisations within the arts, as a recent survey by the magazine Rekto:Verso (n° 72, July 2016) reveals. According to the Flemish decree, it is about ‘consolidating, increasing and widening participation’ and the ‘renewal and intensification of the participation of disadvantaged groups’. In concrete terms, this means reaching out to an existing audience more often and with a more diverse offering, tapping into a wider audience, and involving a fresh audience from disadvantaged groups.
This is a broad spectrum, ranging from art education to social-artistic work, with every possible variation in between. At CAMPO, we share the conviction that we need to play a role in a world that is facing huge challenges. We support artists who share this sense of urgency because we believe that art can have an impact. In our practice, we are generally confronted with four different rather traditional participatory theatre formats, which are always illustrated using an example of a creation that has previously been produced at CAMPO: an artistic collaboration with non-professional participants (e.g. IN KOOR! by Myriam Van Imschoot and Willem de Wolf from Cie. De Koe), in which older amateur actors are cast alongside drama students for a piece about choir rehearsals); group projects with non-professional participants (performances that work out a full trajectory for each venue with a group of local participants, such as U Dikke Ma, een voetbalopera by het KIP); performances with active audience interaction (the simplest form of audience participation), in which the theatre audience becomes part of the performance and/or makes a contribution to the piece, such as in An Anthology of Optimism by Pieter De Buysser and Jacob Wren, for which the audience could send in a suggestion that would be incorporated into the performance); and performances outside the theatre auditorium (site-specific projects whose goal is to reach an audience that would otherwise be unlikely to walk into an arts centre, such as A-Tipis. For this project (which was performed o.a. in Paris’s Parc de la Villette), eight artists were asked to create an installation, and all of them were subsequently exhibited together in a public space).
Right from the early days of both Victoria and Nieuwpoorttheater, we have been producing and supporting projects that would now be labelled as participative. Moreover, the focus on social topics, inclusion, and local anchoring has been there from the start. But setting up participative projects is not always straightforward. Our constant search for new audiences is mostly a process of trial and error, without us sticking to particular methodologies or theoretical frameworks. Artistic performances are quite simply difficult to categorise. A key characteristic of CAMPO is that almost all projects, with the exception of Buurtkeuken, begin with an artistic interpretation. In this, we differ from what in Flanders is described as ‘social-artistic work’, whose starting point is people, and whose emphasis on the process and on guiding the participants is at least as important as the artistic outcome.
For this contribution, we will be focusing on three totally different cases. Whilst all are highly participative, none of them can really be fitted into the rather traditional categories mentioned above. All three relate to our reply to the question of why participation is important, but all start from different premises. There is Buurtkeuken, a concept that unites the arts centre and local residents – two worlds that do not always meet; ONBETAALBAAR, a collective that brings together theatre makers, craftsmen, and their audience to re-evaluate an object or building; and Sarah Vanhee, whose performances include Lecture For Every One, in which she steps outside the theatre auditorium and encounters people unexpectedly.
The unusual thing about these projects is that they go one step further: they link social engagement (from social cohesion, to raising awareness about ecology, to caring for one another and the world) with the interpretation of participation that we are familiar with in Flanders, namely audience involvement.
Buurtkeuken (Neighbourhood Kitchen)
Since 2006, CAMPO has been organising a monthly Buurtkeuken. On the first Monday of the month, volunteers from the neighbourhood around CAMPO Nieuwpoort come together to cook. Cooking and eating together are the starting points here, with the goal being social cohesion. The (dozen or so) volunteers are assisted by a supervisor from CAMPO, who is always accompanied by a different professional chef, usually a restaurateur from the local area. By noon, the menu is presented to the volunteers, who together start cooking for around 120 people. There are also volunteers for the serving and the washing up, who are supplemented by CAMPO staff.
In the evening, the whole neighbourhood is welcome to come along, and everyone eats together on the theatre stage. The key thing is that after the meal, there is always an artistic intervention, generally an insight into the working process of a theatre maker who is currently working at CAMPO. Thus local residents – who are often older people with no links to theatre or dance – gain an insight into what CAMPO is doing, there is greater involvement, and a number of people go on to find their way to our performances. In the meantime, many local residents have become generally interested in our work. Our ambition now is to attract a more diverse range of participants.
How do you persuade people to come into a theatre auditorium for an evening meal?
Project coordinator Manuel Haezebrouck
We keep the thresholds very low. The price for the food is highly democratic, and we have a straightforward registration process which prioritises local residents. They are the first ones to get a flyer through their doors (plenty of people do not have computers), and it’s only after the first round of registrations that we spread the invitation online.
The artistic interventions are also tailor-made for the local area: they are accessible and non-niche, or we simply take the work out of its niche for this particular occasion. For example, we have presented the work of Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek, with an act taken from the performance. Or we’ll offer a debate: in December 2015, we staged the Zwartepieten debate [a discussion about whether in today’s world it’s appropriate to keep on using the traditional ‘Black Pete’ figures in December’s St. Nicholas celebrations] which was raging in Flanders at the time, at the theatre, and tried to open up the discussion.
What challenges do you face?
The fact that preparations take place during the day on a Monday inevitably results in a rather homogenous group of volunteers, which is mostly comprised of pensioners. In an ideal situation, this team would be a mixture of ages and backgrounds. We are currently working to address this challenge.
ONBETAALBAAR is a creative collective that has been working since 2012 towards ‘materialism with emotion’, based on its love of objects. It is both a workplace and a think tank, a place in which furniture makers, upholsterers, writers, philosophers, DIY enthusiasts, product designers, restaurateurs, and graphic artists – in short, workers and thinkers – come together to study the value of, the problems with and the potential of recovered materials, and the stories that go with them.
In 2017, the collective will be moving into CAMPO boma, CAMPO’s studio, which is located in an area with a high concentration of migrants in the nineteenth century belt around Ghent. Its long-term residence will ensure that there is continuous activity over the coming years, with the residencies of theatre makers, artists, collectives, and thinkers from a diverse range of disciplines. The audience and local residents are welcome to come in and take a look: the doors will regularly be thrown open for events such as lectures, exhibitions, workshops, and a weekly open studio for interested parties with varying degrees of experience.
ONETAALBAAR is a story of co-creation between workers and thinkers. It will be touring Flanders with projects such as Veiling der Dingen, Oplichten, KRAAK, and Regie der Gebouwen.
Interview with Sophie De Somere, one of the driving forces behind the project.
How did ONBETAALBAAR come about?
SOPHIE DE SOMERE (SDS) ONBETAALBAAR grew out of the understanding that a large number of people collect things with the intention of ‘doing something with them at a later date’. All kinds of circumstances then intervene to thwart their plans, but they are unable to throw things away because of the personal stories behind them. For instance, something might be an heirloom or a flea market find, or have been intended for a project that has been postponed. We wanted to offer a solution to this problem by working with these items and breathing new life into them.
At the same time, Elsemieke Scholte from detheatermaker was running a project about writers and theatre makers who work all day long, but who are sometimes left with just a single sentence at the end of the day. Her aim was to devise a preparatory process for theatre that would culminate in a tangible result; like the work of a furniture maker, for example. This was the theme for the first Veiling der Dingen [Auction of Things]: the items were all brought together for an auction, an encounter between slow and fast-paced work where writers and theatre makers could recount the stories behind the objects.
How do you set to work?
SDS ONBETAALBAAR involves working with people and objects. We try to encourage people to see what they can find in their attic basement, garage, etc. The state that the materials are in is less important than the personal stories behind them. This is the key thing for us.
For the Veiling der Dingen, for example, a process that begins with the idea of breathing new life into unwanted objects and culminates in a public auction, we publicise a series of local open days in every city, where people can bring objects in. The objects serve as a means of introduction: they are the beginning of the story. They help us to break the ice with the donors, so that we can subsequently talk to them and determine what to do with the objects.
The objects are an opportunity for us to look inside one another. The donors have the opportunity to see our project and our workshop, and in turn we learn something about the world in which they live. The fact that we will be breathing new life into the objects also provides a reason for them to come back, and for us to build up a relationship with them.
In parallel to the contribution made by the furniture makers, designers, etc., the theatre makers and writers start to create the passports and catalogues for the auctions. With the catalogue and the auction book, you can also take the stories of the objects home with you, whether you have purchased an item or not. We thus share the stories, not just the objects.
Do you work with specific target groups?
SDS We travel from city to city, collaborating with each to understand where the opportunities lie, and exactly which target groups they wish to appeal to. In Brussels, for example, we worked on the theme of employment, running projects with people experiencing psychological problems, bike repair shops, etc. For the Veiling der Kinderen [Children’s Auction] in Ghent, we collaborated with MUS-E in a number of schools with children from a variety of different ethnic cultural background. For them/their parents, there is often a taboo surrounding second-hand items. Our goal is to diminish the taboo by working with the children on the concept of upcycling.
A project such as Roestvrij [Rust-free], which we started up in Ostend in 2016, was based on a newspaper article about senior citizens living on the coast. A large number of people choose to retire to the seaside, but become isolated because the city and the housing have not been adjusted to meet their needs. This is something that we will be working on in 2016-17.
The story of the city is also important to us. We are always looking for a characteristic aspect of a city or an interesting way to approach it. For example, Mechelen used to be a leading furniture city, until the factories had to reorient themselves in response to the changed social and economic context. We discovered a whole arsenal of furniture into which we were able to breathe new life.
Your projects are certainly about engagement, but this is done subtly; never in a patronising way and mostly tongue-in-cheek.
SDS It would be wrong to try and raise people’s awareness through finger wagging; instead you need to convince people with your passion and engagement. In Oplichten [Scamming], in which we organise one-on-one bidding in dialogue with one of our makers, we are not going to patronisingly accuse anyone of offering Bangladesh-style prices. But in the meantime, we do ensure that we are creating awareness of the fact that the profit margins should be directed to the right people, in the hope that in a few years’ time this becomes self-evident.
Regie der Gebouwen [Buildings Agency], also has an injustice as its starting point. When a public building is completed, it is normally only the mayor and a few dignitaries who cut the ribbons, at a ceremony with canapés and drinks. We want to celebrate the completion of a new building with its makers, the people who have worked on the building site, and their stories: from the bricklayers and the plumbers to the carpenters and the wallpaper designers. Together with Barbara Raes from Beyond the Spoken, we give the people who have worked on the building the chance to say goodbye with a ceremony, so that they can be involved in the transitory phase and be part of the finalising of the project, after which they can all hand it over to the public together.
With KRAAK [SQUAT], we take the time to say goodbye to a building before it is demolished. For example, in a cultural centre’s music school, we gathered together the stories of the music teachers and the diction class and shared them with visitors one last time by immortalising them on the walls prior to the latter’s demolition.
What barriers do you face?
SDS Due to a lack of time and resources, or because of the need to make compromises, we sometimes have to water down the design that we had worked out in advance. But we are a collective, and therefore want to keep on deciding as much as possible as a team. Moreover, we often have to disappoint people who want to lend a hand in the run-up to an auction, as we don’t have the material or the time for this. But offering everyone the opportunity to contribute to the ONBETAALBAAR community is a future dream that we can address in the form of an open studio.
Lecture For Every One - Sarah Vanhee
Sarah Vanhee’s artistic practice is linked to performance, visual art, and literature. It uses different formats and is often (re)created in situ, all over Europe. Her trajectory at CAMPO started off in 2009, and has continued up to now, touring with Oblivion (2015). From her extensive biography, we highlight some of the projects she has created that have taken a particular participatory approach: Untitled (2012), consisting of a series of individual visits to private houses where people talk about the artworks they have at home, thus providing a counterweight to the definitions of art as viewed by professional curators and the art scene. Lecture For Every One (2013), a series of unannounced artistic interventions in different places where people gather together for a specific purpose, either private or professional. Lecture For Every One is a short lecture on contemporary society as a co-creation by everyone, ranging from banks to football teams and city councils. More recently, Absent Images (2016) is disseminated via public canvasses in the city and throughout the country. Billboard panels, advertising spaces, empty walls, or windows all become carriers of a political message, a written apology to the refugees, in eight languages.
Sarah Vanhee is a co-founder and member of Manyone.
What does participation mean to you?
SARAH VANHEE (SV) I do not have a personal take on the concept of participation in art. Within the arts, ‘participation’ is largely an agenda imposed from above, by the happy few in the art world as we know it: white, highly educated and overwhelmingly male. It is intolerable that this happy few should control what art is, how it should be used, and who should participate in it.
Another problem is that participation is often measured on the basis of a certain degree of active participation, but that too is relative: a regular spectator in the auditorium can be more involved in a performance than someone who is physically taking part in it. Every art proposition can potentially be experienced as participative.
With Untitled you showed the audience people in their own homes and allowed them to explain what art means to them. As a concept, this fits effortlessly into the participative picture, but in an interview, you distance yourself from this: ‘My work is sometimes mistaken for the socially engaged art that aims for social inclusion or representation. This is never my goal per se. In the case of Untitled, I would work with anyone who would answer my question: “What is art at your place, and can we have a conversation about that?” The diversity of answers came with the diversity of people – the outcome of an open question, not of a strategic plan.’
SV Identity is a complex concept that cannot be reduced to statistics. For Untitled I worked with a ‘diverse’ group of people, but behind this selection lay a discussion between a number of singular individuals. The diversity came about through dialogue and exchange, not through a formal compliance with statistics.
What’s also important to me as an artist is that I don’t have to sign up to a social agenda, as is often the case in the UK. I am not required to deliver results, bring about improvement, as would be expected in prisons or in drama therapy. As the art has no ‘purpose’ it cannot be instrumentalised.
Moreover, it is important to understand that a white elite currently determines how art is defined. I don’t see why people should be obliged to be involved at any cost. In my opinion, this is an abuse of both the art and the people. But that doesn’t mean that there is no legitimate desire to discuss what form art should take in today’s society; indeed the opposite is true.
But you specifically connect to others; your audience is very closely involved in Lecture For Every One, for example.
SV I choose not to see Lecture For Every One as a participatory project, as I would otherwise have to make compromises. That’s why it’s also more of an ‘intrusion’ than an invitation to participate.
I want to do projects like Lecture For Every One as a human being. I do not believe that discussions about politics and society can be usefully held in an environment full of like-minded people. This achieves nothing. That’s why I’m so interested in a society that makes discussion possible, but which is not apolitical.
After all the projects that had taken place outside the art institute, I had a strong desire to go back into the auditorium, but now there is also Absent Images, a project that I do not regard as an artwork of mine, but as one that I am implementing as a citizen. The huge advantage of art in society is what, in the tradition of Diogenes, they describe as Parrhesia, or the fool, the joker. As an artist, you can be a free spirit, because people know that you sometimes do strange things, and they accept that. You have that safe haven, and I conveniently make use of it.
To date, Lecture For Every One has interrupted over 300 meetings, a.o. in Brussels, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris and Athens. How does this work, exactly?
SV For Lecture For Every One I actually choose to invert the concept of the audience. In normal circumstances, an audience decides whether or not to go to a performance, or which performance it wants to see. Now I decide myself which audience I want to appeal to: young or old, left or right wing, NGO or business, SME or multinational, political or apolitical, a particular religion or cultural background, etc. Within this, my preference is for those who will potentially be the least receptive to my words.
Together with the arts institute that is organising the lectures, we draw up a list of possible places where we would like to stage them, and then try to find a way in through a contact person. Once this has been achieved, there is always one person from within the organisation, company, etc. who is abreast of the situation, and who lets us in during the meeting. I come in, am briefly introduced by the company’s contact person and I then deliver the lecture, which takes 15 minutes. The tone is one of a ‘private chat’. If any questions are asked during the lecture, I answer them, and this might lead to a lengthy discussion. When the lecture is finished, I leave. Afterwards, we contact the organisation to offer them the opportunity to give feedback. People can also react via online fora.
How did people who had become an audience against their will react to Lecture For Every One?
SV Lecture For Every One unlocked more than I had hoped it would, and this was also the case in the art institutes. I received confirmation of a tendency that I am seeing everywhere. Whatever the context, once we had made it in there – as preparing for the lectures was no mean feat – it was rarely a negative experience. Beforehand, I had thought that I would be trotting out too many self-evident points (e.g. Vanhee presents an analysis of a neoliberal society, and talks about care, love, etc.). But in the event, many people admitted that these were not topics to which they had given any thought, due to the pressures of maintaining both a family and a career. They literally said that they never took the time or physically had the time to ‘stop and think about these things’. This too is shocking.
The most striking thing for me was that the proposal was the least well received within the arts world. There is a striking lack of collectivism, which arises from the fear of losing individuality or singularity, whilst people in other contexts perhaps have less of a problem with this.
Oblivion was the first performance that you have created for a theatre auditorium for a long time, alone, with only your rubbish from the past year. Will you be moving away from the auditorium again for your next project?
SV I am currently making a film in a prison. After that, I will be creating another auditorium production. And for Public Learning I will be working in the public space again with a wide range of people. Learning, or the oral transfer of knowledge, will be playing a central role in this project. We have all had a teacher, a mother, a grandmother who has taught us different kinds of knowledge and wisdom. I am fascinated by this embodied knowledge, this oral tradition, and by how it is transferred.
The idea for this new project flows from the experience of being gripped by knowledge, of being truly inspired by someone. The transfer of knowledge often takes place within a closed, institutional domain, with little in the public domain. I would like this transfer to take place in a public space. So once again, I will be focusing on a gathering, like with Lecture For Every One, but this time the purpose will be to learn.
(Justine Boutens, CAMPO)