photoDr Nicholas Arnold,
Dept of Performing Arts,
De Montfort University,
Leicester. UK.

'Invisible Performance - A Design for Living'

Dr.Nicholas Arnold

Department of Visual & Performing Arts

De Montfort University, Leicester.


Theatrical activities are excellent examples of 4-D design. But their characteristics are designed in a vacuum, insulated from everyday life It is possible, using theatrical techniques, to create performances which operate within the daily human physical environment, which, without disturbing them, can provide a potent environmental and ethical critique.

Theatre necessarily operates within a time-frame. A play-script could be described as a design for 4-dimensional activity, in the fields of both social and spatial interaction. When an actor or a director looks at a play-script, they see a set of proposals, or predicates, for on-going activity, which imply dynamic evolution and inter-action in both the social and the physical spheres. These activities, which are tightly and exclusively defined by the text, will require a finite period of time in which to be 'played out' and resolved - which experienced practitioners can estimate. Because these predicates are not merely conceptual postulates - which can be grasped a-temporally - but are inscription of behaviour (in every sense) they can only be realised within a temporal context.

The theatrical narrative is famously able to control time through action. A performance of 'Macbeth' for example, is layered with time-schemes: the subjective viewing-time of the piece; the actual running-time; the practical chronology of the action; the sense of a whole life-time being played out; the demands that time stop; the attempts to anticipate time.

Similarly, a set-design, or a stage-set, is not primarily a neutral and timeless display of visual and spatial relationships and ornamentation. It defines itself and is identified by the actions through time which are implied or asserted by the various semiologies deployed within its design. In the professional theatre, the first thing the acting company does, as soon as the scenery is erected on the stage, is to 'walk the set'. The actors need to discover the limits to action and the implications for action (both of which are future predicates) which are contained in the physical environment now available to them. The action which has previously been rehearsed - however organic it may have been in development and however exhaustively it may have been tested in rehearsal - cannot just be superimposed on the designed environment provided for it. It must be re-found in the context of that design.

It would be interesting to continue this discussion of the theatrical artefact as a piece of 4-Dimensional design: interesting, but ultimately tendentious. As a cultural artefact, theatre is, necessarily, subject to design. We are looking at a closed system, whose very physical manifestation express this. Theatre normally takes place within its own environment, that of the theatre building. This is either designed, or selected, so that it denies the pleasant and complicated sloppiness of the quotidian human environment, and replaces it with one which is full of references to the outside world, but is organised on principles which belong to internality - to the control and selection of spatial and temporal information and activity. This is made possible because of the isolation and introversion of this specialised environment. The logical outcome of this would seem to be an environment which, because it is operationally stable, allows theatrical activity to develop according to organic impulses, rather than narrative or conceptual schemes - the theatrical 'black box' - an environment free from any implied histories or futures of action. This is, of course, a fantasy. As soon as performers enter the black box, they start to envisage the action implied by the space - they start to design the future.

Nevertheless, the link between theatre and the outside world has been constantly emphasised, by practitioners, theorists, critics, and in the semiologies of theatre itself - although the relationships are frequently limited and qualified. Alan Read's book, 'The Theatre of Everyday Life', deals with theatre and 'communitas'. Berthold Brecht acknowledged the theatricality of daily life in his well-known poem, 'The Theatre of the Street', but only in a behavioural sense. Augusto Boal's 'Theatre of the World' is played out in the daily environment, but it utilises, comments upon, and attempts to modify only the social environment. The Gardzeniezci Theatre Company in Poland, Kirsten Dehlholm in Denmark and Melanie Thompson in England, among many others, create 'site specific' performances which are stimulated by and explore features of the natural or architectural environment - but they appropriate these architectures for the duration of their performances, and change both their function and their nature. Street theatre looks, superficially, like a way of using the 'changeless' architectural environment for the time-based activity of performance, but it is selective and transformative. It searches for appropriate urban environments to be temporarily re-designated as theatrical ones. It exploits fortuitous elements in urban design - a square, a portico, a terrace - to re-make the theatrical environment in the street. Street theatre is not 'the street recognised as theatre', but only 'theatre transported into the street'.

If we wish to make a theatre which collaborates with and describes the urban environment, rather than ignoring or transforming it, we must find a form which openly acknowledges such an environment, by developing its forms and activities from and in terms of such an environment. To develop such a theatre, the environment must be interrogated, to determine form and content. It is entirely possible to use theatrical approaches and techniques in this task, to discover the possibilities of and the limits to action. Because the goal is not to impose upon, or operationally transform the environment, let us call the goal of such strategies 'Invisible Performance'. Such a mode of performance-making sets out to understand an urban architecture as an environment for human activity, and to make performance events for such an architecture, in terms of such activities. The performance events are derived from and are designed with reference to the physical and social activities of these environments. They are intended to blend with their surroundings, rather than to transcend them, which is the usual aim of street theatre.. They are intended to recognise essential or specific examples of human behaviour, and to be designed, rather than organically evolved, examples of them. Let me begin by giving some examples.

'The Little Mermaid' developed during work in 'The Shires" shopping-mall in Leicester, which contains an ornamental pool and fountain. There is also a profusion of 'open-air' cafés and kitsch-shops.. One day we saw a girl sitting dreamily by the pool, in the familiar pose of the Hans Andersen monument in Copenhagen. Recognition of this particular image fused the disparate elements we had observed into a piece of performance. Girls might (or might not) be noticed sitting around the mall in the same pose, their legs drawn up under them, staring into the distance. One, sitting in the original position by the pool, was being sketched by an art student - but his drawing was not of her, but of the original Little Mermaid statue. At the same time, people with sketch pads were taking coffee in the various cafés. While they sat they made pictures of the Little Mermaid - but not by drawing her, merely by pencil-rubbing over a pre-traced outline. Each piece of instant art was left on the café tables to add to the pile of consumer literature.

'Newton's Balls' came from observation of loungers on the benches of a pedestrianised street. It became clear that many of them knew each other and habitually moved between the benches, to talk. This was formalised into a giant version of the executive desk-toy. Performers would move, at the ambient speed of the street, to join a colleague. At intervals dictated by reading the rhythm and pace of the environment, and responding to the impulses generated, the colleague would move, in turn, to another performer, and so on, transmitting the 'shock-wave' through the city. In this way very considerable distances could be covered. But the determining conditions whichsuggested the exercise had to be observed. Movement could not be arbitrarily extended into areas where such behaviour was not already naturally encouraged by the environment.

In 'The Domino Effect' two groups worked on escalators. One group held the poses which people unconsciously adopt - but for the entire duration of travel. The other group ascended and descended using the notionally most physically efficient stance, which is illustrated by the mannequin in the safety placards. A row of people reaching the bottom like this looks uncannily like a row of dominoes. In both cases the objective was to create events which might just be noticed as unusual, before they disappeared.

How are such performance pieces developed? The work requires a close study and assimilation of people's behaviour, a capacity to relate it to its environment, and an ability to conceive, construct and execute refined and developed patterns of such behaviour, without becoming 'theatrical'; without breaching the social and physical 'ground-rules' of such activities.

The key feature is observation, for which the approaches and strategies are re-modelled for each new situation. It is observation of the performer's kind - a participatory observation, which is attuned to recognising specialities of behaviour across the spectrum of the physical and the social, which accepts and incorporates the environment as a influential theatre for human activity, and which is expert in physically internalising observed material for subsequent recapitulation. The observation itself is a practice, because it must be concealed, and it must be concealed because it is participatory. It is in the perfecting of the concealment that the observation takes place. You cannot observe people in a café until you have become one of the clientèle. As you do so, the environment you are attempting to merge with is informing you of attitudes, speeds, rhythms, dynamics, tensions, relaxations and habitual gestures. External information is matched with internal experiences. Assimilation becomes understanding.

What does such work offer the non-specialist?

One might object that, for example. stop-motion photography can show the ebb and flow of people in a street, their relative speeds, their deflections and foci. This is true, but it is only the observation of traces: the recording of 'desire paths'. It gives no hint of the internal dynamics at work, the physical and social 'micro climates', where and how the various kinetic surges and impulses develop and dissipate. Without the participatory detail, we have a relatively neutral and unhelpful statement that 'such a flow exists' - not why it exists, what environmental pulls and pushes are experienced by the participants, what levels of energy and complexity are involved. We know the flow happens - but we have no inkling of what it is like and how the participants perceive and react to this environment. We cannot say whether such a flow represents pleasant or unpleasant situations and experiences. We are therefore isolated from the ethics of the action, which are, in turn, the ethics of the environment. Any ethical pronouncements we may wish to make on the situation will be both invasive and uninformed. By contrast, the simplicities of the 'Little Mermaid' performance enable commentaries to be made on the poetic potential of a banal decorative feature, linked through a popular icon of romance with our contemporary cultural kitsch - all represented within the commercial architecture of the shopping mall, and all without invading and disrupting the sensibilities of its population.

If we use this perspective and these methodologies to look at environments which humans are expected to occupy, the results are salutary. It is difficult, for example, to conceive of a signifying performance for the huge, meaningless spaces of 'La Défense' in Paris. The steps of the Grande Arche itself always attract a decorative speckling of foot-sore tourists, which could easily be developed into a kind of dynamic tesserae, shifting like airport destination-boards. But the Grande Place de la Défense exists merely to be traversed - like the Nullarboor Plain. And, like Milton Keynes, the Grande Place contains its own give-aways of sterility at the human level. Meagre signposts point to distant shops, restaurants and cafés, to tell you that there is a flicker of life around. But these signs are not precise. They only indicate a general direction. People cannot follow these in a purposeful stream. They look at them and then wander away across the desert. There is no telling when and if they will arrive. Such behaviour tells us that La Défense is a purely visual, atemporal environment, designed for static viewing, rather than active consumption. The same is true of the courtyards of the Louvre. Thank heavens for the Pyramid, which, especially at night, opens into vast and exciting subterranean caverns of activity. Or consider Michaelangelo's piazza at the top of the Capitoline Hill: you can only look at it, or leave it.

'Invisible Performance', therefore, because it creates 'Designs for Living' which are developed from the inter-action of time-bound people with (relatively) a-temporal architectures, offers a dynamic critique and a potentially useful investigative tool for the designs in and with which we expect people to live. If an architecture is unsympathetic to 'Invisible Performance', we might well conclude that it is unsympathetic to living.

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Please use the following to cite material from the book:

Author(s), "Title of Paper", in 4D Dynamics Conference on Design & Research Methodologies for Dynamic Form', Editor- Alec Robertson, Proc.4D Dynamics, page numbers. De Montfort University, Leicester. UK Revised Edition (1996) ISBN 1857211308.



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