Invisible cities/ Utopia
In the first week of site specific I was sceptical on the subject, reading the Calvino text ‘invisible cities’ was a really big challenge. The book didn’t have order or make much sense to me; this was a whole new method of learning for me. I found the stories interesting but was unsure of the meaning until I read what the book was linked too, the book was a tale about cities in Italy and I found Kublai Khans character very violent, the other character Marco Polo who tells the stories.
What I learnt from the first couple of weeks was that site specific can mean so many things, it does not need to make sense or have a clear direction at that moment in time, and something that has a specific meaning for me will not necessarily mean it has to have the same meaning for another person. It doesn’t need to be that place on in that place. Tim Cresswell states that ‘what begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value…..the ideas ‘space’ and ‘place’ require each other for definition’ (Cresswell, 2004, p.8), I did not require to understand site specific straight away but as time moved on and I got to know it better then maybe would I be able to get the definition.
Utopia is a potential, idealised place aside from here, a special ideology; instead of looking for a utopia, how could we communicate better now and idealise this world? As the weeks followed we could start to think about what meaning we are trying to portray, what are we trying to prove, research or investigate and how does site specific affect the actor, performer or audience member both mentally and physically?
We tried to interpret what our invisible cities would require, were we able and mine in reflection wanted somewhere tranquil, fun and safe. I wanted it to tell a story and be as imaginative as Marco Polo’s, the way he named his cities after female names I thought was a nice touch and I named mine Zee. This was my Utopia; safe, fun and tranquil:
Issues and challenges with our site piece
I struggled for weeks with what site specific was and settled for my understanding in its simplest and most logical form. Site specific is a performance that links to a place or space. In the weeks leading up to our instillation, we formed a group of 6 and I believed the creative thinking process would be easier as there were more heads to come up with ideas. However, having such a big group proved difficult. I imagined our site specific piece being strong because we had such a big group but the process of choosing an idea was harder than originally thought. It took us longer to come up with a site to base our performance around, that we all liked and could use and this made the challenge ahead seem daunting and harder to tackle. On choosing our location, we were focusing on the idea of being caged but took the word too literal and railed of course. Although in the end our ideas were influenced partially from our chosen site, ‘The Lawns in Lincoln’ we also used ideas from different practitioners like Coco Fusco’s The Couple in the Cage because of its strong elements.
Kira O’Reilly. A SPILL Festival of Performance2007 commission. Video still. Manuel Vason and Bobby Whittaker videocamera. Lisa Cazzato-Vieyra.
We liked the idea of being watched, caged and using the Lawns history of being a mental asylum and how we could incorporate that into our instillation, without stereotyping mental patience and just acting insane. We found ourselves focusing too much on the asylum and what could be interesting about the patience, that we lost track of the site itself. We experienced setbacks like the cage we envisioned in our piece being off bounds and for health and safety reasons.
We looked into pieces by Kira O’reilley and the idea of torture and audience involvement. The lawns used restraints but their methods were good, they used art and exercise as a way of treatment so we wanted to research the types of restraints we could use and how could we use her art work as inspiration to link with our idea of a mental institution? ‘Her practice whilst both wilfully interdisciplinary and entirely undisciplined, stems from a fine art background; it employs performance, biotechnical practices and writing with which to consider her body, The Body and other bodies as material and site; bodies that matter and the matter of bodies’, (O’reilley, 2007-2013 Online), she had a similar the idea of how far you can push your body, what are its limits and what your audience is willing to be a part of. Audience participation was something we discussed about putting in our instillation.
The Lawns research/ Last Supper
On a group research tour of the Lincoln Lawns, built by Doctor Willis and opened in 1820 as a national health facility or mental asylum, we circuited this grand building and came across the Port Lincoln room. The thing that stood out to me about the Port Lincoln room was the elongated table with a red velvet cloth sitting in the centre of the room. It resembled a performance by Reckless Sleepers based on Govan et al, ‘Inhabitant Space’ (2007), ‘The Last Supper’.
Thinking back to when the Lawns where a health facility, I found myself curious as to how they would stage it around this location. The idea of including your audience into the performance is ingenious. ‘We invite our audience to dinner, to eat and drink with us while we tell, and then eat the last words of the famous, the not so famous, criminals, victims, heroes, heroines and stars’, (Reckless Sleepers, 1988). However, how then, would they or could they change the concept slightly so that instead of the audiences being given numbers on the pieces of paper, it was the patients supposed illness or last words on the menu.
The patients at the Lincoln lawns were handled in more humane ways than other hospitals at the time. There was something dignified in imagining the patients sitting around the table; it reminded me of the performance by reckless sleepers. For our performance we thought of sitting on a table and reading names, dates, illnesses of past patients and this related back to the performances where they were eating the last words. In our performance the first and last words our audience would hear are names, dates and illnesses.
It intrigued me how fascinating and curious I was about a simple table. It provoked my mind into endless questions, ideas and thoughts around this one table. Mole Wetherell quoted in the Reckless Sleepers page saying, ‘I still don’t know what it is that Reckless Sleepers make, I still can’t quite place my finger on it so it stays still’, (1988) this to me embodies how I felt as we researched into the Lawns, we didn’t know what we were doing there or what ideas could be surfaced but the possibilities were endless.
As a group we’ve researched further into the lawns, the treatments that took place, the illnesses for those treatments and have come to realise that minor things such as childbirth and being drunk were reason enough for a person to be seen as mentally ill, using that as incentive to put into our instillation, we came up with ideas on how to show methods of restraints and things that cage us.
Can you recreate a site specific performance and if so what challenges do you face?
In Miwon Kwon’s: ‘One place after another site specific art and locational identity’, she writes about Faith Wilding’s struggle with the recreation of her site specific installation, ‘Womb Room (crocheted environment)’, ‘to create the work as an independent art for a white cubic space in Bronx museum also meant avoiding the work as it was first established in relation to site of its original context’ (Kwon, 2004 p. 43). She discusses how difficulties from the piece which are now none existent, could prove problematic and also how a recreation could taint its authenticity.
Trying to move our instillation piece from site to the studio was proving problematic because we did not want to lose site of the space we inhabited. We wanted to bring the lawns, the story of the hospital and its history without making a performance. Like Kwon we did not want to lose the piece and taint its authenticity by making it appear false. The research into the womb room helped us work around choosing features that we could incorporate into a new space whilst bringing the lawns into it.
We were tasked with creating our own journey using questions, memories using string. As the string was passed from person to person, a journey and bond was created by this specific memory linking us to that place or person. My question, ‘Why did I come to Lincoln?’ was filled with happy memories of Lincoln’s beauty but also the struggle of getting into university. Others had safe havens of home, their favourite place and holiday happiness. By the end of the questions we, like Wilding had created our own masterpiece and something that probably cannot be recreated.
This was our string piece:
A question arose from this piece, how can we turn the string and our memories into an analytical site specific performance and in terms of our audience how far are we willing to take them with authenticity?
The string didn’t just represent string, it represented a journey that we all were a part of and took together. Turning this into a performance would not do it justice. So for this to be as original as it was the first time we went on this journey, we would need to take the audience and ourselves through a new journey using this task as inspiration. Kwon spoke of Wildings struggle recreating her womb room so therefore we would struggle too, all we needed to do was incorporate different aspects of the new findings from week to week and apply them to finished product. An instillation piece that can only be seen in that space, created by those people using the original influences, spaces and ideas
Calvino inspired text
We were given a task to create our own invisible city text inspired by Calvino. My text was motivated by Mike Pearson’s ‘Some exercises towards relating place’ of directing someone from a place we’ve memorised. I chose to give my group a tour of my home in Zimbabwe through the Lincoln city. When choosing a direction, I had to memorise sounds, smells and buildings to then direct them as if I was in Zimbabwe, this was a really good exercise that got us thinking imaginatively and was a great source to write about. We were going to use these texts in the overall instillation and this was my text:
When you first step out into the warm air of Zee, it feels memorable. Every left turn and right angle seems familiar; like an outlived present. In every direction there’s a story to be told, the house on your right peering into your privacy and invading your space, the brown trees that curve and point unexpectedly, that new construction overtaking the scenery that once made Zee what it was. As you walk the narrow alley into the open space, you see mini shops that remind you of a pleasant past, and suddenly this is all a distant memory, a de ja vu. Every face mirrors another but never quite the same as the one before. What is it about the city of Zee that makes you so comfortable whilst making you feel lost all at the same time? It has the power to give you perfect and familiar but at the flip of a coin, take it away in a flash and leave you blindsided and confused
The couple in the cage, the influence
‘The couple was the object on display during the live performance; the audience became the object on display during the documentary. While Fusco and Gómez-Peña adopted the roles of the caged natives, they were simultaneously scrutinizing the audience’s responses. And what they found was surprising: Despite their intent to create an over-the-top satirical commentary on Western concepts of the exotic, primitive other, it turned out that a substantial portion of the audience believed in the authenticity of the Guatinauis’ (Elisabeth Ginsberg (1992), Couple in the cage).
Couple in the cage
In A Savage Performance: Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco’s “Couple in the Cage”, Taylor speaks of how ‘’No matter who tells the story-the playwright, the discoverer, or the government official-it stars the same white male protagonist-subject and the same brown “found” object’’ (Taylor, p.162). This made me reflect back to how the American audience viewed the brown body as just an object. The idea of feeding a person a banana and not question it made me think and questions people’s morals. How does our piece relate to Pena and Fusco? I thought the idea of the brown body being caged could be represented by me, the brown body trying to embody a mental patient from the Lawns asylum. At the same time, would I then be allowing people to objectify me?
In Coco Fusco’s ‘The Couple In The Cage: Guatinaui Odyssey’, people were made to watch and explore a new species of human, that for hundreds of years has gone undiscovered in the Gulf of Mexico. Frequent museum visitors were astonished that they had no idea these people existed, again asserting the idea of ignorance and a racist America, towards the brown body and difference. Fusco reminded me about what site specific is about and how to identify with it. The Lawns played a big part in our site performance as a base to take from and fit accordingly, although we were not able to use the cage, it still gave us ideas to adapt and bring back into the space.
Fusco used her audience’s participation and their view on what was happening to create the end piece. ‘Aside from the authority provided by the various museum venues, everything on display was blatantly theatrical and clichéd: the Guatinauis had their skulls measured, were fed bananas, and were described as “specimens,” among other things’, (Elisabeth Ginsberg (1992), Couple in the cage). As an audience we don’t want to know the truth behind the performance or what we watch because it ruins the illusion. “In such encounters with the unexpected, people’s defence mechanisms are less likely to operate with their normal efficiency; caught off-guard, their beliefs are more likely to rise to the surface’, (Coco Fusco, “The Other History of Intercultural Performance’’, p.148). I was surprised that people still act like this now and treat people so inhumanely but made me think of why people used to get sent to mental asylums when the Lawns was still a hospital; simple things like being in love, childbirth, religion or being drunk. No matter the era if people are given a choice, they will be curious but will never like the unknown because ignorance is bliss.
A reflection on our specific practise, we were aiming to show the lawns without the stereotypes of an asylum, we were trying to show how you can be inspired by a space and incorporate it into showing it outside of that space. The relationship between our site and the performance was the history, the methods of treatment and fusing practitioners who practise methods of restraint. We thought to create something that involved the audience but ended up going with something that spoke to the audience instead, hearing names of people who have been and past for reasons like intoxication was going to be more effect and memorable than acting as crazy patience in a drunken state. Bringing the lawns into the studio was taking the space and putting it into a different place, like Nick Kaye quotes in his book Art into theatre, ‘ the host and the ghost, of different origins, are co-existent but, crucially, are not congruent’ (Kaye, 1996, p.220). Our instillation piece merged together pieces from our site and turned it into its existence. We documented our piece through photography, audio recordings and videos, although we didn’t use all of them we still had the documentation for ourselves to see our improvements and journey through the space.
Our process into getting our end product was a long journey but we persevered. We had to document the footage which would be used in our instillation, meaning hours spent getting to our location with the equipment, setting up and having to solve problems like not having the correct equipment. We spent hours filming two of our group members restrain Ellie as pictured, with no means of escape. The initial idea was to have something that we could then fast forward, in black and white to play in the background while the audience watched live restraints being done on two of our group members. The piece in itself was quite surreal but at the same time everything within the piece was real, the pain, fear, all the emotion involved was involved.
Our final performance space was dark but simplistic; we wanted the space to speak for itself. As audiences were ushered in they were hit with a strong smell of bleach that leads them to the light of sticks and ultimately into the treatment room, the entire experience was meant to unnerve slightly but also raise questions and intrigue. After weeks of not having an idea where to go with site we figured out where our piece fitted, with practitioners like O’reilley, Fusco and Pearson we knew that given the time the lawns would give us something to work with.
The fear of not knowing scares people, it scared me and for most of the time whilst trying to figure out what site specific was we ended up with a strong performance piece that showed restraint in a tasteful way.
The Final performance:
Word count: 3,080
Cresswell, Tim (2004) Place a short introduction, Blackwell Publishing
Diana Taylor, (1998) A Savage Performance: Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco’s “Couple in the Cage” p.162: The MIT Press Online: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1146705 (accessed: 27/04/2013)
Fusco, Coco (1994) The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” TDR: Journal of Performance Studies 38, no. 1,148
Ginsberg, Elisabeth (1992) Case Study: The Couple in the Cage, Online: http://beautifultrouble.org/case/the-couple-in-the-cage/ (accessed 21 March 2013)
Govan, Emma et al (2007) Making a Performance: Devising Histories and Contemporary Practises, London: Routledge
Kaye, Nick (1996) Art into theatre: Performance, Interviews and Documents, New York: Routledge
Kwon, Miwon (2004) One place after another site specific art and locational,
O’Reilly Kira (2007) Untitled:A SPILL Festival of Performance2007 commission. Video still. Manuel Vason and Bobby Whittaker videocamera. Lisa Cazzato-Vieyra Online: http://www.academia.edu/210296/The_touch_and_the_cut_an_annotated_dialogue_with_Kira_OReilly (accessed 02/05/2013)
O’Reilley,Kira (2007-2013) A Space for live art, Online: http://www.aspaceforliveart.org/?page=people&id=427#/event/362/Kira_O_Reilly (accessed 07/04/2013)
Pearson. Mike (2010) Site Specific Performance, Palgrave: Macmillan
Wetherellm Mole (2009) Reckless Sleepers: The Last Supper, Online: http://www.reckless-sleepers.co.uk/project.php?id=7 (accessed 04/04/2013)
Wilding, Faith (1972) Womb room, Online: http://drawclose.com/snowblood/2011/02/womanhouse/ (accessed 10/04/2013)