As an agenda through a practical example the paper investigates a blend of performative and theatrical practice that can be successfully used to question, estrange, reflect and finally change people’s set behaviour in mass public space. At the core of the strategy lies a constant oscillation between a reflective estrangement to the distorted image of oneself and a kinesthetic proximity to the performer, causing a productive and emancipative conflict within the recipient-as-consumer. By way of an example for the agenda, KD Podgana’s street event “StopShop” will be analysed to illustrate its practical implementation.
Performative Disturbance of Public SpaceStreet Performance as a Strategy of Cultural JammingAs an agenda through a practical example this paper investigates a blend of performative and theatrical practice that can be successfully used to question, estrange, reflect and finally change people’s set behaviour in mass public space. That performing in the street can affect passers-by, turn them in an audience and even strike a critical dialogue with the individual/group may seem all too obvious at first. Yet in the following, several attempts should be made to delineate subtle but crucial demarcations, arising from specific aims and contexts of the public performance art in question. By suggesting a model of a hybrid critical practice another approach to efficient culture jamming should be articulated. The ambition is that of offering fresh inspiration for public (street) actions and reclaiming the communicative body-in-space within and beyond a socially committed art-as-life.Through confronting the public audience with characters, objects and constellations that caricature (exaggerate) their own behaviour, a crucial challenge to the threshold of mimesis is posed. The strategy is based on (re)producing a potentially questionable or odd behaviour in terms of public disturbance and social critique [Handke]. The alluring theatrical mimesis – capitalizing on many traditions and conventions of acting - fosters the personal and environmental identification of the (receptive and/or collaborative) audience. Whereas the performative e(n)strangement [Brecht] destabilises the catharsis by explicitly breaking certain horizons of expectation (“artistic quality”, “good taste”, “interesting content” etc.). This strategy is to be distinguished from mere reproduction of the usual behaviour since the distortive mirror element undermines the defined frame of reference and seeks to deconstruct it not only in front of the recipient’s eyes but also inside his body. This unusual reference is again framed into the larger complex of either the “usual street behaviour” (shopping, window-shopping etc.) or the “usual performance behaviour” (attracting the passers-by, trying to turn them into an entertained audience and, finally, getting money from them). Such caleidoscopic and opaque structure of performance provides for a sufficient level of uncertainty and imbalance on the part of the recipient-as-consumer, who may also be involved further as individual/group through various stages of interaction. At the core of the strategy lies a constant oscillation between a (reflective, intellectual) distance to the distorted image of oneself and a (bodily, emotional) proximity to the performer, causing a potentially productive and emancipative conflict within the recipient-as-consumer.As an immanence to street-theatre, interactive strategies between performer and recipient - known from many “public art” forms - constitute the decisive moment of a two-way communication, necessary to profoundly involve and carefully affect the audience. Locally (as in case of a festival) but also globally (the recent expansion of street-theatre festivals across the western cultural space and beyond) people are being re-schooled to a two-way information model in the performative context, not only exploiting but also adding to the increasing interactive potential of global migrations and new media. What is principally not allowed or expected in traditional theatre can be compensated for in the street situation – immediate feedback about the quality as well as about the form and/or content of the “piece” may be exchanged in real time and on the spot. In addition the street-theatre model opposes the conventional consumer paradigm by not setting a fixed price for the “entertainment product” in advance. By way of interaction, the price (be it money or applause) should be negotiated in the process of consumption and raise the quality of the product – or questions about it!Of course, neither the street event as-product nor its consumption as-process should allow for a comfortable affirmation of the world as it is. The disappointed expectations to the context of an event should therefore trigger (self)reflective moments in the sense of exposing memes [Rushkoff]. Through a certain continuity in terms of a persistent or reoccurring presence in public space, the consumers’ behaviour can possibly alter not only on the basis of more or less explicit intellectual reflection, but also on the sublime levels of the spatial and the corporeal (kinesthesis and proprioception). The level of emotional and intellectual response to the seen and heard can thus be effectively complemented by things smelt, felt and tasted, immanent to the present (body-focussed, space-time coherent) as well as intensely interactive theatrical and performative practises. It has been sufficiently proven that human physical activity, produced and experienced in physical presence (as in a theatre or performance), triggers analog processes in the human “recipient” - naturally in a physically less intensive, but therefore sublimely more effective manner. The intensity of such kinesthesis increases with spatial proximity, involving the more “basic” senses of smell and touch, for example vibration/movement of air and objects not only as a sonic, but as a physical quality, subtle olfactory communication etc.Along the following description of a practical project the above stated theoretical points should be argued for by way of concrete example. The minute analysis of “what happened and why” addresses the known strategies of performance and certain elements of street-theatre, suggesting a practical implementation of cultural jamming. Within the context of known theory and practice of public performance and street-theatre the description is meant to be self-explanatory as well as accessible to a wider readership. Direct and specific reference to theory is therefore omitted in the text itself, but can be consulted in the sources below.
StopShop“StopShop” by KD Podgana (“The Rat Cultural Society”) from Ljubljana, Slovenia has been performed twice, in 2001 as an independent public action and in 2002 within the country’s major street-theatre festival “Ana Desetnica”. This offered two essentially different contexts in terms of the expectations from passers-by and audience as well as in terms of the publicly perceived conceptual frame and its message. The two events took place at exactly the same localities and almost at the same time of year (in a period of intensified pre-holiday shopping) - and are seeking continuity this year as well. It is essential that in StopShop both the action of consuming and the state of being consumed are not only being layed bare through a crude caricature of peoples’ behaviour, but are physically and symbolically exaggerated to a bold critical (reflexive) affront and sublime physical (kinesthetical) discomfort.StopShop tried to apply as few preconceptions and concepts as possible in the preparative stage as well as in the stage of rehearsal. The movements of the “actors” were partly derived from everyday observation of people’s behaviour in consuming situation, partly developed through own interaction with objects (shopping carts) and places (shopping malls, streets). They were (minimally) rehearsed as such, avoiding the usual “as-if” metaphorical reference and were thus explored in their raw quality. The group choreography evolved from these minimally reflected explorations of movement and image material. To counterbalance (and contrast) the geometrical choreography of the second part of the event, a certain amount of overt interaction was agreed on in the initial part. It needs to be stressed at this point that only a couple of performers in StopShop have had a minor experience in acting, for the vast majority it was their first performative appearance in public ever.The event starts with shopping carts, being driven through the major streets of Ljubljana by pairs of “articles”: four pairs of barcoded people (barcodes on the back and on the forehead) dressed in same colour pair-wise. They are pushing their shopping carts through the streets of the city centre, diagonally closing in on the central square. Most of the time they are transporting each other in the shopping cart. Dress code, sunglasses and whistles are to depersonalise them into humanoid shopping items, their arsenal of gestures oscillating between the paradigms of “shopping” (for/of each other) and “advertising” (for themselves and the central event).
A pair of articles window-shopping at Benetton’s year after year (StopShop 2001 [left] and 2002 [right])
They are communicating between themselves and with the passers-by only through whistles and body language, distributing flyers with invitation to the central event. On the backside of the flyers there is a straightforward anti-consumerist statement (agreed upon unilaterally by the members of KD Podgana). The “articles” are trying to engage in everyday situations like buying cigarettes, ordering a taxi, small-talking, window-shopping or getting on a bus (they carry no money).
A pair of articles, trying to get on a bus. (StopShop 2002)Through various interactive activity with people and objects in the street (both of mass consumption) the articles are to bring the people to the central event. After twenty minutes of “street-shopping” they gather on the outskirts of the central square and are soon commanded (“gravitated”) to the very square centre by the whistle and gesture of “the Shopkeeper”. Meanwhile he has been dominating the central square and preparing for the “cashing in” of the articles (setting up an “installation” of shopping carts and conducting “money music,” played by two musicians).Backed by the sounds of coins (partly gathered from the audience) that are being sifted between two buckets as well as the ring of a cash desk, the marching drum of “the Black Man” (a drummer dressed in black) imposes the rhythm on the articles, closing in with their shopping carts. Increasingly controlled and moderated, the articles form a circle around the commanding Shopkeeper and prepare for “cashing in”. In a circular sequence, after their barcodes have been registered by the Shopkeeper, they drop their whistles and collapse to their knees, loosing the possible last of individuality along the gradual folding of their spines. Each fall of an article is conducted by the sound of the coins and the cash desk (alluding to Pink Floyd’s “Money” theme) and fits the perfect circular choreography with ghastly uniform movements. When all the articles’ barcoded foreheads have touched the ground they keep still, then slowly start being (physically, object-ively) gravitated by the surrounding shopping carts.Articles, gravitated by shopping carts (StopShop 2002)Their (individually pre-improvised) interaction with the carts is zombie-like: some try to fight them, others perform an awkward dance. An article creeps into the cart, entirely squeezing itself into the barred structure. The other is covered by the cart, through the barred cell it is trying to attract and address the passers-by, engaging them in a kind of mute, physical dialogue. Many of the passers-by have meanwhile turned into audience, mostly only because their way across the square was obstructed by the event. Some articles never make it to a communication with the environment, they cling on to their carts, never losing physical contact. The only thing definitely lost is the communication among themselves.Articles in carts (StopShop 2001)The Shopkeeper is now controlling the square, he is taking care of the articles and the carts with his duster, sorting them out “on the shelf”. Pleased with the results of the ghastly choreography, he starts organizing the “articles&carts” (that have meanwhile become physically united) in a file for their last march. Most of them obey and sluggishly form a file that eventually starts swinging to the rhythm of “The Death March” by the Black Man. One or the other weakly attempts an escape from the file, but is always grounded and filed back into the march, assuming the rhythm of the group.
The Shopkeeper in control (StopShop 2002)
After fifteen minutes of performance the procession gradually starts leaving the central square in the direction of the nearest mart (the well known “Maximarket") to the beats of "The Death March”. The procession is headed by the Black Man and accompanied by the Shopkeeper with the other musician. On the way to the Maximarket they gather in an underground passage, change their clothes and disperse privately, returning the shopping carts that were borrowed from the mart.The Death March (StopShop 2001)Especially in the context of the street-theatre festival the “entertain-mental” (ergodic) expectations of the audience-as-passers-by were being counteracted by simply leaving them unentertained, thus intervening in a mainstream cultural process of entertainment consumption. It has to be added that in the recent years, Ljubljana as well some other Slovenian cities experienced a renaissance of street-theatre festivals, schooling the people to an affirmative consumption of this cultural good, available “free of charge”. The absence of gags, the mortuary overall tone and a bleak, open end of StopShop directly contradicts the otherwise cheerful - even if dramatic – atmosphere of a “usual” street-theatre performance (modelled upon the common forms of commedia del arte, cabaret, improvisational theatre etc.).Some people in the audience would loudly question themselves about the sense of it all, yet others would try to give them answers. When distributing flyers many people avoided contact, some even reacted aggressively to the (“casually” aggressive) promotion of the event. Several passers-by stopped, tried to communicate verbally with the articles, but eventually read our manifesto. Many agreed. And a few would even turn their step and follow the articles to the central square. There were instants of people reacting almost angrily by rejecting flyers, a couple of them would leave in the middle of the performance, shaking their heads. Observing the passing procession, a child asks his father about why the people were so sad with their carts and the latter explains him some simple, but important facts of consumerism by referring to the performance and the short manifesto from the StopShop flyer.pETER Purg, May 2003
online:“KD Podgana” home site: http://www.myfreehost.org/kd-podgana/
(currently offline)The “Ana Desetnica” festival: http://www.anamonro.org/deset/desetnica.htm“StopShop” picture galleries:(2001) http://www.myfreehost.org/kd-podgana/page1/novice/stopshop/sss00.htm
(currently offline)bibliography:Brecht, Bertolt: A Short Organum for the Theatre (1948). In: Playwrights on Playwriting, Ed. Toby Cole. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961.Handke, Peter: Für das Straßentheater gegen das Straßentheater. In: Rischbieter, Henning: Theater im Umbruch. Munich, dtv, 1970. pp. 68-75.Handke, Peter: Straßentheater und Theatertheater. In: Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms. Frankfurt, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, 1972. pp. 51-55.Rushkoff, Douglas: Media Virus. New York, Ballantine Books, 1994.--------------------------------------->> back to top >>