Rituals and roles:
Two recent participatory New Zealand artworks compared
This essay considers two diverse New Zealand works and examines their position as examples of participatory theatre. The Wailing Chamber is a street theatre piece by Stephen Bain, a work that is self-evidently participatory. In contrast, Graft by John Radford is not immediately obvious as performance piece. Nevertheless, I will argue that it shares some of the features of this genre in terms of how it relies on performativity by its audience. Both pieces, in their own ways, embed ideas of ritual, transformation, and commodification; and each constructs their audience via a process of interaction. The nature of the interaction in both pieces differs. Wailing Chamber engages the audience directly and quite confrontationally, whereas Graft sucks the audience into a subtle web of interactive experience that does not immediately reveal its nature as participatory performance.
Both works, then, are ‘open’ rather than ‘closed’ as framed by Umberto Eco. Eco makes a distinction between completed or ‘closed’ works, and ‘open’ works that require some element of mediation on the part of an audience (and often the performer(s)) in order to be realised. He considered that this ‘openness’ meant that,
Every performance explains the composition but does not exhaust it. Every performance makes the work an actuality, but is itself only complementary to all possible other performances of the work.
(Eco 2006, orig. pub, 1965).
Eco concedes that this is true of all works, at least to a certain extent. He begins the essay by discussing musical works where a degree of freedom is given to the performer, not only to interpret the notes in a score, but to actually participate in the ordering of sections or improvisation of material – in effect, the creation of new content (Eco 2006, orig. pub. 1965). Referring to four works in particular, by Stockhausen, Berio, Posseur, and Boulez, he makes a distinction between what he regards as ‘completed’ and ‘open’ pieces. He considers that although all art works are essentially “… the end product of an author’s effort to arrange a sequence of communicate effects”, there is inevitably space for individual observers to experience its effect depending on their particular frame of reference. This framing is set by individual and collective experiences and the particular context in which the work is shown. It strikes me that this is a similar process to that suggested by the well-established theory of Piercian semiotics, usefully summarised by Thomas Turino (1999). Turino applies the theory to ethnomusicology but its relevance to other realms is clear. The idea of how the two works under consideration may become ‘completed’ in different ways depending on the audience’s frame of reference is discussed in more detail below.
What follows is a highly personal take on the two pieces, and is partly informed by friendship with their originators and my familiarity with their individual modi operandi.I disclose this so that my analysis is put in context of what others have written about these works.
The Wailing Chamber
2013 Aotea Square, as part of Auckland Fringe
Director: Stephen Bain
Preformers: Stephen Bain, Nisha Madden, Gerard Crewdson, Jeff Henderson
It’s a sunny day in Auckland. Aotea Square is full of people eating lunch and chilling out. At the front of the square, overseen by the mute eyes and raised fist of Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, stands a flimsy looking tent. I have come here to see what goes on in this tent, for it is in fact the Wailing Chamber, a participative street performance conceived by director Stephen Bain.
People are keeping their distance, perhaps slightly frightened or at least bemused, by the bizarre masks and costumes of the four performers, the ‘mourners’, whose real identities are effectively concealed. The masks are multi-coloured with grotesque facial features locked in forlorn expressions and they make the performers appear much taller. Together with the ankle-long robes, they appear clerical and dominant, ready to lead the forthcoming proceedings. The mourners parade around the square to improvised music of their own making. Gradually, a handful of the unsuspecting public (including me) are cajoled into warily entering the colourful chamber, along with three of the mourners. I go a little more willingly than the others, as knowing the predilection of the performers from past form, I have some idea of the level of strangeness that might unfold.
The looming ritual is now explained to us. We are to write a fear or regret that is playing on our minds, anonymously, on a slip of paper and the offending idea will be submitted to the ‘ocular oracle’ where it will be assessed and the matter atoned for and we will be redeemed by collective wailing and crying. The oracle is a large papier mâché construction resembling a giant eye with a central opening where the pupil would be. Behind waits an unseen performer to receive the offerings via the orifice, and operate the Grief-o-meter. This is a semi-circular board adjacent to the ‘oracle’, with an arrow pointing to one of five segments. These are the levels of remedial penance and their associated behaviours, untidily written as, “Mild disappointment, whimpering quietly in the corner”, “Long in the face, stiff upper lip, sullen resignation’’, “Full blown melancholia, the edge of despair”, “Convulsive weeping, the wailing and gnashing of teeth”, and finally, “Primal screaming time, Gutted!!”
And so it begins. The gathered group (suddenly and involuntarily cast as penitents) look sheepishly at each other. The young Asian couple make eye contact and the girl giggles. They reluctantly release their entwined hands just long enough to scribble on the supplied slips of paper. One of the mourners collects these briefly documented emotional calamities in a small coffin-shaped box, and shuffles them so that the pretence of anonymity is preserved.
For me, part of the beauty of this piece is that it places the audience in an unknown space. How seriously should they take it? Is it acceptable to walk out if they feel uncomfortable? Should they write something banal or something deeply personal, grasping at the straw of a chance emotional resolution? It is a kind of mock-anthropological journey into some foreign culture with the nagging fear of committing an unintentional social faux pas. This must be doubly strange for participants from a non-European cultural background, already perhaps feeling slightly wrong-footed. Although ritual is undoubtedly a universal form, the particular context described below may not be obvious to all cultures.
The work is described on its website as “an interactive performance for public places combining music, ceremony, group catharsis and spectacle” (Bain, 2012). It self-evidently plays on the idea of the role of rituals, as the participants are required to submit themselves to a set of rules not of their making. Most cultures embrace the idea of rituals marking forms of status transformation, often to control the dangers of liminal spaces, where the transitional nature of a person or group effectively places them outside the accepted social rules for the beginning and end states. Thus we have naming ceremonies, rites of passage into adulthood, marriages and funerals. Also there are subsidiary rituals which typically vary depending on religious context. The Wailing Chamber, seemed to me, like some sort of confessional, as widely practised in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. But being brought up in a Methodist household in Northern Ireland, I had never been to confession and my only concept of the experience was informed by television and films and Frank McCourt’s bitter autobiography Angela’s Ashes (1996). The view of Catholicism that was handed down to me (as Ulster Protestant folk wisdom) regarded it as heretical, and infused with pagan superstitions (including rituals) and corrupt hegemonic structures. I had been to weddings and some very sad funerals where I had seen the pageantry and theatricality in full flow. But never confession. I turned to the church’s on-line liturgical references which indeed had a beginners’ guide to confession, officially “Sacrament of Penance”. I found to my surprise that the format of the confession sacrament was quite rigidly defined (except in an emergency). But it fits well within the analysis of rituals discussed later below.
I should disclose here that despite the best efforts of my mother, Methodist Sunday school, and the Boys Brigade, I’m an irredeemable atheist. Nevertheless, I accept that things don’t necessarily have to be demonstrably ‘real’ or physically effective in a materialistic sense, in order to exert some effect. An element of belief, of at least hope, can be enough to cause a change. The placebo effect is now well established as a real phenomenon – circumstances where a patient believes that they are receiving some real intervention or attention (even if it’s really just a sugar pill). Writing recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, Kaptchuk and Miller summarise the placebo effect thus, “improvements in patients’ symptoms that are attributable to their participation in the therapeutic encounter, with its rituals, symbols, and interactions” (2015). I take particular note of the word “ritual” here.
Thus, when considering religions, it is possible to take the view that any objective reality of the religious world view is much less important than the ontology of the believers. Performance of rituals is not an idea unique to Christianity. Anthropologists Arnold van Gennep (1960, orig. pub. 1908 in French) and later Victor Turner (1969), found that such ideas of metaphorical rebirth abound in many cultures, often finding expression in the performance of various rituals, frequently resulting in transition from one state to another. These generally serve to draw a demarcation line between states where otherwise, the boundaries would not be clear due a process being dynamic; for example, the transition from childhood to puberty to adulthood. Rituals in this context provide individuals and their neighbours and kin clarity about current status. Van Gennep considered rituals generally as conforming to a kind of template with distinct recognisable phases which he refers to as ‘separation’, ‘transition’, and ‘incorporation’. Turner lived among the Ndembu people of the western Mwinilunga District in Zambia’s Northwestern Province. He documented various ritualistic practices and examined their role and performative details and how it both described and informed the Ndemebu worldview. His work gives us insight into how rituals act to create order and continuity, and to manage situations posing a risk of escalating trauma or conflict. The key is that the ritualistic framework is accepted as simultaneously standing above society and yet forming an integral part of it. Those conducting the rituals usually have some superior social status to the persons for or on whom the mechanics are focussed, at least for the duration of the proceedings.
The Wailing Chamber, positioning itself as a ritual, forces the audience/participants to be the neophytes and the performers to pose as the adepts. And, like a placebo, rituals can have a real and sometimes profound effect on individuals. Thus we potentially have the irony of Wailing Chamber being transformed into a real version of that which it parodies. Rather than religion embodying theatricality and performance, we have here the converse. This was illustrated for me when one of the participants had written on their slip of paper “My mother has cancer”. Whether this was really the case, or a deliberate attempt to shock, is neither here nor there. The effect was to take this iteration of the event to a much more sombre space. Most of the others, perhaps sensing the parodic nature of the happening, had written banal, trivial, or very general things. Mine was “too many animals are killed and eaten”, very general as I perceived the event to be a form of satire.
Of course, the items submitted to the oracle for consideration need not in the case of the Wailing Chamberbe individual sins as such, but more commonly general regrets and worries. The idea of burden-lifting and shedding of responsibility is retained: The Wailing Chamber cleverly follows a template based on distinct phases, complete with metaphorical references to rebirth. It mirrors van Gennep’s stages of separation (by seclusion in the tent), transformation (by participating in the events therein) and incorporation into our new state of burden-free individuals. Both van Gennep and Turner speak of the symbolism of seclusion in a womb-like space, moving through a stylised birth canal (sets of legs or an actual tunnel in the earth) and ritual use of water to symbolise cleansing to a reset state of the new-born, wet and newly emerged from the womb. In the Wailing Chamber, after the wailing is over, one of the participants is given a sharp stick with which to pierce a water balloon, thus ‘tears’ are shed (to me this was more reminiscent of pre-birth breaking of waters).
Analysis aside, does it succeed as theatrical entertainment? Reviewing the piece in The Theatre Review, Charlotte Everett said, “A problem with The Wailing Chamber is that it is entirely reliant on participation from the public, so much so that unless at least a few willing participants appear at the same time, no ceremonies are conducted”. I think its reliance on participation is actually both a strength and a weakness. The intimacy and immersion of a slightly claustrophobic space delivers a sense of esotericism, but only those in the tent get to appreciate the full nature of the piece. Everett ends her piece saying, “A highly-alternative experience, and a unique approach to the subject of grief.” I wouldn’t disagree with that, but I think she underestimates the ability of the Wailing Chamber to channel something darker and more primal.We wail a little. It’s cathartic. Everything is better after good cry. My mother told me that.
Graft(a work in progress)
Artist: John Radford
John Radford is an Auckland-based artist working as a painter, sculptor and performance art improviser. He has four permanent installations of public art on display in the city;
1.)TIP(1998), a set of large contrived partly submerged buildings in Western Park on Ponsonby Road, (TIPis made up three works VIC, E & F, andDOO).
2.)The Sound of Rain (2007), a miniature bronze sculpture of a typical early 20th century New Zealand colonial/post-colonial bay villa in Potters Park, on Dominion Road, (a piece that perhaps contains within it, the seed of Graft).
3.)Sinton Windows.(2010) an installation of four large double sash windows mounted 6 metres up in air on large I beams at the end of the Clarkes Lane cycle/footbridge that crosses highway 18 in Hobsonville Auckland.
4.)Lanechange.(1994-1995) Durham Lane West tunnel. Which includes both a 25 metre by 5 metre 36-layer painting (of translucent layers showing historic signage around central Auckland in the late 1800s and early 1900s along with the indigenous name for area and those of the streams and rivers within the area) and on the opposing side of the Durham Lane West drive through tunnel is a 5 metre high classical building facade which merges out of the wall. (another piece that perhaps contains within it, the seed of Graft).
On a material level, Graft is a work composed of hundreds of miniature detailed models of typical late nineteenth century Auckland Villas, collected together and suspended from ceiling panels in such a way that the villas are arranged in three-dimensional space as a network of connected imaginary streets. The layout/shape of these streets and the landform they sit on are formed from Radford’s memories of bits of towns and cities around New Zealand that he has walked around and in throughout his life. The inspiration behind this work was spearheaded by the routing of the Northern, Southern and North-West motorways through Auckland Central which resulted in the destruction or removal of 14,000 houses including almost an entire suburb and large chunks of several others and displacement of the communities from those areas.
Such collective trauma, and the ongoing erosion of both geotechnical and architectural heritage are both recurring themes in Radford’s work.
Each villa is cast in sections from complicated moulds Radford has created from his painstakingly constructed master maquettes. Each cast is formed from dental stone. Tiny cast bronze detailing is added, such as ballustrades and finials. Radford had to solve a series of technical challenges to ensure the work could be cast reliably without compromising the meticulous detail he wished to achieve. They are hand painted but exact colours vary. Some have internal lighting by way of extremely miniature incandescent lamps. Thus each unit is unique. One house even has an art gallery in it; looking through the windows reveals unpermitted reinterpretations or ‘copies’ of several famous paintings rendered in appropriate scale. The houses may be small scale, but the artwork is not, and has been the continuous labour of the artist for at least the past five years. These material artefacts are beautiful, engaging and interesting in and of themselves, but they represent only a superficial layer of the whole project.
Like the real estate sub-divisions on which it riffs, Graftvillas have been released to the market for purchase in phases. The entire work then is actually in progressive collective ownership. Buyers get to choose a house from those available at the time of purchase or can buy one in whole from an existing owner. There are two styles: the standard villa and the larger, more expensive, double bay villa. As inrealreal estate, location is a major determinant of value. Houses higher up the hill with an imagined better view, are proportionately more expensive. In 2011 Radford sold the option on one of the few blank sections at 38 Cosmesi Road that guarantees the owner a purchase price of $1000 when tey wish to exercise this option(this section is currently valued at $1400 in Feb 2017). The term ‘section’ is endowing a blank space between suspended houses with much, there is nothing unless the purchaser opts to have the house built and suspended there later. Perhaps a false economy, as house-price inflation has affected Graftjust like the rest of Auckland. I chose to buy my house in 2011- a modest single bay villa at 7 Autogen Avenue. I had little money but I was able to secure a ‘mortgage’ via the good offices of Ron Jadford, the artists realtor alter-ego. It has already accumulated value, or so I am assured by Ron and John. In any case, I have paid it off and currently have the Purchase Agreement contract (legal document of ownership) which was drafted in duplicate for both John/Ron and I to co-sign our copies of and will soon receive the title deed (more of a representation of a title deed). So I have become a virtual resident in the Graft neighbourhood. Should I decide to sell up and move on, my friendly realtor will arrange this and naturally take a commission on the resale. When all phases of the construction project are complete, Radford has plans for the work to be exhibited in various galleries around New Zealand and abroad. After this, the individual villas will be delivered to their respective owners. That may be some years off yet.
In the meantime, there have been sporadic opportunities to view the work in progress. Its first outing was in the basement of the then still-under-construction Q-Theatre. The was the venue for the first “street party” – a get-together of villa owners and prospective owners (there is a video of this event on the Graft website). Then for a year, the work in progress was installed within an un-let unit in the Ironbark Building on Karangahape Road, for which Radford had negotiated temporary occupation; a kind of unofficial artist in residence. Phase one was on display, and a workshop area was hidden behind large black curtains. This is where I had my first encounter with the work, starkly lit in that bare concrete enclosure, the villas swaying ever so slightly in the ambient air currents. There was an opportunity for another public viewing when Radford hosted an exhibition of visual artworks, collaborations between various artists and medical researchers at the Ironbank location.
The most recent outing for the project was another street party held in Coronation Hall. This hall, on a corner of Gundry Street, just off Karangahape Road, is a venue that has, over the last few years, become a favourite for the experimental sound, music, dance and theatre communities. It makes few concessions to audience comfort but this is more than compensated for by the intimacy of experience. It smells damp and slightly mouldy, but it’s affordable to hire. Here, events unfold beneath the peeling paint of the grubby ceiling and the benign gaze of the faded photos of the founders and early patrons of the Auckland Old Folks’ Association. This particular event was marked by a live performance by Radford’s friend, musician and composer Don McGlashan, who gave a rendition of his song “The Envy of Angels”, complete with cello accompaniment, live looped Flügelhorn (by himself) and Tom Rodwell on slide guitar. Radford carefully chose this song because it indirectly refers to the process of building a city suburb. This song was written by McGlashan about his father, Bain McGlashan, who was a civil engineer, it refers to his awe at being part of constructing the future and respect for the relative permanence of the underlying geology. McGlashan says of his father, “He had the ability to see the meaning that underlies everything. I would just see a street … ” (Warner, 2012). It’s clear that Radford understands how multi-layered Graft is. It is not just model streets.
Even as a sculptural piece it is far from static. As Amanda Wayers writes in an essay on the project’s website, “the suspended suburb is, however, far from dead. In fact, it breathes: sections rise up and slump down, parts shake. Light flashes and shadows shift: to-scale light fittings inside the villas supplement miniature suns on tiny orbits around individual houses, while larger-scale lighteffects change the atmosphere of the whole installation from night to day and back again.” (2010)
The entry portal to the piece is the project’s website, www.graft.net.nz. We are met with a 3D flyover of a computer rendered subdivision. This could be an actual property developer’s site. Having looked at the fare on offer, if our interest is piqued, we can make an appointment to view.
On seeing the actual work, we are first drawn in by the intricacy of the models as individual artefacts. They are exquisitely detailed, some to the point of having furniture visible inside. They also communicate a certain fragility, being small and suspended by implausibly thin black threads. We are thus invited to consider this miniature thing as a fictional but accurate representation of that which it ‘maps’ – not just the building, but that which it represents in terms of the historical significance of that particular building type in an Auckland context. It is tied up with architecture as social history and the individual histories of the people who first lived inhouses such as these, and those whose privilege allows them to live in remaining examples, renovated with varying levels of taste and sensitivity, but always with lots of money. Perhaps the fragility of communities is also mapped. There are no fences around the villas in Graft and I imagine neighbourhood children hopping with impunity between gardens with their naive intuition about the absurdity of land as individual property. Auckland based writer, Kelly Malone, makes an imaginary journey into the streets and houses of Graft in her poem and essay diptych, Dark Matter and Origins of Nothing,(2012) and I found that her dream-like scenario resonated strongly with my own feelings about the work . It obviously struck a chord with Radford too, as he republished it (with permission) on the Graft website and maintains that his ‘window of perception to the Graft work’ is “forever changed with slight colouration of the glass including additional cut and bevelled edges in some places”, he has massively thanked Kelly Malone for this writing about Graft.
When I walk around contemporary Auckland suburbs like Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and Herne bay, I am struck by the extent to which the remaining villas are walled off from each other and the public space of the street. “Good fences make good neighbors,” I’m sure the inhabitants think; but I share Frost’s discomfort with that adage, “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall” (Frost,1914).
Then we consider the two different variants of the villas, a single bay and more expensive double bay type. Houses for people of varying means, and consequently social status, then as now. The layout of the houses in space as mentioned previously, follows the imagined contours of Radford’s assembled memories of other towns and cities in New Zealand. We see the miniature streets climbing up hill and following the line of the ridge. Both sorts of houses are interspersed. What might this tell us of the social mix and lesser economic and social disparity of that former time? So our initial interface with the work requires us to make aesthetic judgements in respect of the initial visual impact but confront and consider the changes in the built environment since the late nineteenth century, and the social changes that parallel that process. At this stage our level of participation extends only to completing the work in our minds, coloured by our own view and depth of appreciation of the social-historical context. The work will obviously mean something different (and less?) to someone who knows little about the domestic building history of Auckland in general, and Newton Gully in particular, even though the issues encoded are pretty universal. Further contemplation leads us to see how this work is no longer an individual piece owned by an artist but how this public thing is transformed and dissipated into a mosaic of individual private property before our very eyes, like an accelerated version of the commodification of the real world. (210 are in ownership to separate owners as of Feb 20 2017)
A threshold is crossed once one engages with the process of actually buying one of the houses, itself a series of rituals. There is the negotiation of the price, settlement date, terms of payment, optional furniture and lighting. It is the realperformanceof an actual capitalistic transaction that takes up your time and necessitates a series of meetings, involving real money, contracts, etc. But is more than this. We have participated in the details of capitalism and the Graftproperty market, whilst at the same time realising we are part of a parody of that very thing. I was provoked to reflect on the nature of the commodification of little packets of the planet whose provenance in respect of “ownership” is traced back inevitably to violent expropriation from an indigenous culture who did not have a concept of “ownership” of land, but rather considered it in terms of responsibility for a territorial resource. We are also led to consider what it is we are actually buying: a mere dental stone and bronze maquette, or something for which ownership of a physical artefact is a mere portal to the more complex nature of the actual thing? The audience, whilst at the same time supporting the construction of the collective piece, are also in a very real sense the architects of its destruction when they eventually take ownership of their individual villas to sit on a shelf in their own personal domain. It forces us to think of the difference between personal belongings and land as commodified property, and the inherent absurdity of regarding them as belonging to the same category is brought into sharp focus.
New owners are encouraged to bring others into the orbit of the work, like some disreputable network marketing scheme, at first “only to look”, knowing that some may, like seeing a cute puppy, fall prey to wanting to take one home. And there are in fact incentives; promises of suites of furniture, lights, and even mock ennoblements. Composer Andrew McMillan, is a Duke in the world of Grafton account of introducing 15 successful sales leads.
The occasional ‘street parties’ (and incidental random encounters) give ‘residents’ a chance to meet their virtual neighbours. And it has to be said that this has created an actual community. The deeper you’re in, the more enmeshed in the performance aspect of the piece you become.
I visualise the audience as sitting in a series of blurry concentric circles facing both in toward the work and out toward the world from the perspective of the work. From the outside, as a mere observer, the work is an interesting sculpture installation and relatively ‘complete’. The only participation is in the general individual referential completion that happens when one is exposed to any artwork . The more one is drawn into the process and actual transactions of the work, the more one is forced to adopt the perspective from inside the work as a part of the performativity of it. The final immersion occurs when one purchases a house. Then one also becomes aware of the transient state of one’s participation, perhaps another liminal state between owner and possessor. The little house will eventually sit on your mantelpiece, but you are unsure when that time will come. Perhaps you will decide to resell before that eventful day. Just as one buys an actual house with the intention of eventually achieving freehold title, life’s unpredictable course may force you to sell up ahead of plan. There are those who can’t wait for the day to arrive, and there are those, (like me) who will be sad when our role in the performance comes to an end and the public work is reduced to a series of transportable personal belongings. The created community, however, I suspect will be more enduring that the one bulldozed out from the slopes of Newton Gully.
For both pieces, it is clear that there is a definite participatory element in completion of ‘the work’ as a thing. In her introduction to Artificial Hells, Claire Bishop defines participation in art as that, “… in which people constitute the central artistic medium and material, in the manner of theatre and performance” (2012).
It is interesting then to consider whether the works are things in and of themselves, or if they only actually exist as art in terms of the relationships they have with their audience; perhaps only in terms of the roles performedby the audience as they enter into discourse with the presented situations. Those roles in respect of The Wailing Chamber are pretty obvious, but it is in considering Graftthat the full extent of an audience as ‘spectactors’or ‘participants’ is more subtly realised and surprisingly exposed as key to the success of the work.
Claire Bishop posits a link between political events and the emergence of forms of participatory art. It is perhaps not too big a stretch to note the particular stresses of late capitalism, now without the counterbalance of an extant competing system (albeit very imperfect socialism in the form of the Soviet Block) are driving elements of participation into artistic genres where it has been less apparent. This leads me to think that in the case of Graft, the participatory aspect is all the more powerful. Obviously, it is a less intense experience than the play-ritual of Wailing Chamber, but definitely more enduring and multi-faceted. The experience of the Wailing Chamber is over in minutes, whereas engagement with Graft for those who decide to participate in the whole game, is long term, measured in years not minutes as it unfolds into a social project rather than just sculpture. It therefore invites us to maintain an enduring critique of its subject matter. This social turn, is however, mainly accessible to a privileged elite who have access to the artist and the means to participate fully. These people have more social influence than the impoverished family in South Auckland who, being at the bottom of the pile economically, feel the full force of the system that Graft critiques. This is not an unusual situation for art generally, but it places Graft in a different category to the socially participative art described in detail by Bishop
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