Promissory Notes of Audience Engagement

I have finally broken my Biennale cherry for the year by making the short trek to the Drill Hall at Rushcutters Bay, for Nicola Conibere’s Assembly.

As I entered the black box, I chose my position and behaved in accordance with the age-old unspoken audience composure code, whilst feeling typically self-congratulatory upon solving what, I thought, were the tasks underpinning the work.
To say that this is a very explicit conceptually driven work is deceptively erroneous. The machinations seem simple enough, an audience member enters the designated space, as does a corresponding performer. For this reason our entrance is intentionally staggered. Each new performer initiates a shift in the movement vocabulary and this becomes a/the durational theme until the next entrance. When an audience member departs so too does the performer half of the pair.

I soon grew restless and began making dirty frames from several vantage points, utilising other spectators’ body parts and available furniture, in order to catch just a glimpse of the action coming into and out of partial view. At one point I positioned myself closest to the activities on the other side by seating myself at the white line which demarcated the two spaces, therefore initiating a more direct relationship to one performer in particular, who was compelled to begin his movement seated in close proximity to the white line on his side.
After a while my focus shifted, I stopped watching the performers and began analysing the behaviour and spatial composition we had inadvertently designed on our side of the great divide. I sat to the side and watched them watch us with almost equal intensity. Employing this tactic I witnessed the inimitable fourth wall, which usually separates the performer from the audience, encapsulate us all.
Throwing all caution to the wind I further dismantled that code of hushed tones and quiet organisation and cheekily found a metronome app and set it to 165 beats per minute. It was immediately recogisable who and how many dancers were participating on the other side, ultimately betraying their predominant vocation as they were predictably more inclined to march to my beat, their bodies slaves to the consistent pulse.

Another audience member summoned the audacity to ask whether she had the power to control more aspects of the event. I am not sure whether she was buoyed by my aberrant precedent or whether she grew restless herself. When no response ensued she subsequently demanded a push up (or star jump). I figured that if they were going to revolt, if there was to be any dissension amongst the ranks, it had to be surreptitious, almost imperceptible. I shared this theory with the master controller in waiting, before requesting a sneaky triplet amongst their (the performers’) pedestrian perambulations, back and forth across their stage. To no avail.

The work was durational and I departed after about an hour.
I have a terrible habit of failing to read program notes until it’s time to empty my bag, whereby I invariably stumble upon them, unfold and, armed with the instructions, relive the experiencewith a fresh perspective. Although it wasn’t the enactment of this semi-regular ritual which instigated a meditation on Assembly. I had been mulling over this event continuously in the interim between the two acts of watching and reading and was perplexed after reviewing the notes in full. Without my interactive initiative (meddling) was Assembly adequately able fulfill its promissory description “to explore shifts in relation between individual and collective bodies”? Or was it inevitable that there would be many others like me attending to precipitate the intended outcome?
It is a familiarity with the theatre that drove my actions and had me questioning the experience for others. Was it as fulfilling an experience for them and did it matter? Was there more that could have been addressed in the execution on their side of the divide, or from within ours? How does this work differ from other audience interactive generative works made by some of our Sydney independents?

Julie Anne Long’s work Val the Invisible set in the MCA immediately comes to mind, whereby Long’s alter ego Val set about cleaning the gallery space whilst donning high visibility protective wear, complete with rubber cleaning gloves and domestic accoutrements. Long established a strong relationship with her audience, simultaneously challenging the boundaries that demarcate them. Long’s work also managed to examine social perceptions of our aging populations and gender in performance, as her character was intermittently rendered invisible, despite her comparatively loud and obtrusive costuming.
The slogan for this year’s Biennale is, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. It was inspired by a comment by leading science fiction author William Gibson, who suggested that technology has already surpassed our idea of what the future could look like. Alana Maher refers to the ‘in between’ spaces in her March 16 post (Alt Media) of the Biennale, stating that this is where the most exciting and/or revolutionary work is happening. When placed in context this relatively simple theoretical concept ticks the box. Again I was left asking – what’s more important, the idea underpinning a work or the delivery of it? Are and/or should the relationship of one to the other be implicit?

A week or two has passed since and I’ve seen an online discussion between Andre Lepecki and Conibere (also part of the proceedings for the Biennale held at Critical Path). In it they share thoughts on Assembly. Conibere talks about the space, a bareness, to allow something to happen. Lepecki initiates conversation systems and instances of command and obedience, suggesting sometimes it is inevitable that the audience will revolt. It was as if this were the perfect complement to Conibere’s work, although compelling enough to view on its own. Check out the Critical Path website or the link below to catch one of the best talks on dance I’ve heard in quite a while.

-Vicki Van Hout