The Event – what happened
After dinner together on Thursday night, the group met early on Friday for a coach trip to Weston-super-Mare. The purpose of this was to consider some of the questions surrounding porosity by looking at Wrights & Sites’ work, Everything you need to build a town is here, which takes the form of 41 signs, positioned across Weston and beyond. This work was curated by Situations and Field Arts, as part of ‘Wonders of Weston’, funded by CABE, within a regeneration project for the town. Stephen Hodge and Phil Smith, from Wrights & Sites, joined us for the trip and the discussion afterwards.
On the coach, I asked participants to work in pairs to consider the brief we were given for this project and to discuss the dilemmas and opportunities that this presented, coming up with their own idea for an artwork.
In Weston, we had coffee and tea in the Old Quarry and then explored the town.
In addition to information about the artwork, I had given everyone buckets and spades, a ‘Mis-Guide to Anywhere’ and a piece of chalk. The reason for this was that originally, Wrights & Sites had considered contributing a project in the form of a ‘kit for walking’. These objects, given to the participants, formed a pared down version of that imagined ‘kit’. They existed as an invitation to build and to explore, and some people did quite a bit of sand building, while getting to know each other.
Others set out to find the signs. At first, the members of Wrights & Sites led a group past a series of signs, but we quickly realised that this was not the most effective way for people to engage with them. They are not actually meant to be visited as a kind of exhibition, and to get the most out of them, you really need to engage with exploring, finding and thinking for yourself. We therefore left people to it, after a while. Meanwhile, I was glad to revisit the project and to discover where there were changes, new frames, and occasionallygaps.
We all met at The Cove restaurant for lunch, before heading back to Exeter. On the coach this time, I asked people to sit with a new partner and to discuss their idea from the journey up, as well as the morning they had just experienced.
Back in Exeter, we discussed some of the challenges of the work, using this example as a starting point for raising some of the wider questions around porosity, its intents and its contexts.
The following day, I asked people to discuss three questions, in three different groups. Although these questions related loosely to the research questions of the project, I deliberately phrased them simply, and it is not surprising that at least one question was subject to a lot of criticism and some re-writing (I warned the documenting students that this was likely). I did not want the conversation to be driven by a need to understand the question, but it was fine for the conversation to be driven by a need for a better one.
Participants were grouped together, in order to discuss questions that related to a) the concept of porosity (‘what kinds of porosity are there ?’) b) the role of art (‘what kinds of ‘togetherness’ or ‘community’ are produced through performance (if any)?’) and c) the role of the institution (‘why might the theatre or arts institution be interested in ‘porous dramaturgy’?’). Postgraduate students took notes of each discussion and reported back, allowing further discussion which included some of the tensions, confusions and possibilities that arise from bringing these conversations together.
After lunch, Hanna chaired a session to glean ideas to be taken forward to discussions in Belfast.
Following this, we held an ‘Ambulant Seminar’, in which visitors arrived and were taken for a walk by one or two members of the group, to discuss the project and any areas of particular interest.
Reflection: My own thoughts and questions
I rather set Wrights & Sites’ work up to be criticised, because I felt it was possible for me, as convenor of the event, to set a tone where we were not held back by a need to be polite to the artist (apologies to the rest of Wrights & Sites, who I had not (originally) expected to be present). Looking back, Wrights & Sites’ work in Weston leads me to consider the range of possibilities that ‘porosity’ might imply. As my colleagues in W&S warned me before we started, the work is compromised by seeking it out as though it were an exhibition. It is really designed to be met by accident, as part of daily life, and for its texts to be interpreted over time and in combination with a developing relationship with the town. If one is looking for work to be accessible, I am not sure whether it is. I think it is more opaque than we intended, and that might mean that its porosity is less self-evident. I am not sure whether I will ever know whether it ‘works’. But I like this about it. The process of making it was porous, though not always in the sense of consulting a wide range of people. We made it by walking and re-walking Weston, and the texts were generated as a result of our observations, experiences and conversations. I like this about it, too.
Revisiting the artwork, I was particularly interested to see that the sign placed on a ruined wall is still there, still on the wall, though now surrounded by a multi-storey car park. The wall has been cleaned and restored. The work is reframed and sharper for it.
A few signs have gone, either because their contexts have changed, or for some other reason. Visiting them again, it now seems much clearer which signs immediately engage and which take longer, or perhaps, do not.
I was also surprised by how much the town had changed and how different it felt, two and a half years on. The effects of the drive towards regeneration were visible, though I could only judge this at a superficial level.
Back in Exeter, our discussions were long and various. Many ideas around porosity, community and art were discussed, and these inform my thoughts on Day 2.
I think the group generally agreed that ‘Porous Dramaturgy’ does not/should not describe a ‘genre’ or a ‘movement’. Perhaps it describes an experience, rather than a structure, or, more precisely, the relationship between experience and structure. However, the question also arose, ‘how do you re-think art as a political tool?’ I am personally interested in the term as a way of considering art that addresses that question.
Porous work, processes and institutions may include voices, audiences and aesthetics that are otherwise excluded from or unengaged with arts practice. In order for the arts institution to have a meaningful relationship with its community, it might need to be porous, and this might include programming porous dramaturgies (though there are other aspects to porosity). On the other hand, if this political agenda drives programming, there is a danger of instrumentalising art and prioritising accessibility over complexity and innovation.
The question as to how we handle the relationship between art and ethics, art and politics remains a difficult one. What is the political responsibility of the artist? What about the audience’s capability of creating community? Liberate Tate was mentioned in this context (and this and other examples might imply that the distinction between ‘audience’ and ‘artist’ or ‘performer’ is not always useful).
There are probably different kinds of porosity. Although it isn’t our primary aim to provide a set of labels, among those mentioned were:
‘limestone porosity’ – some degree of audience activity and agency, choosing which ‘cracks’ to follow
‘sandstone porosity’ – a merging and mixing of audience and performers and a level of transference
‘varnished porosity’ – where the structure is fixed and the audience is tightly controlled, although there are apparent choices (an extreme version of ‘limestone’ porosity, where the cracks are constructed channels).
‘eco-porosity’/’eco-dramaturgy’ – where the work is open to its environment and non-human ecologies as well as human ones. I am particularly interested in this.
We discussed quietness and absorption. Again, this interests me. Examples included the quiet of a Quaker service or meditation; the work of Toru Koyamada in Fukushima; Encounters’ work with communities growing vegetables; Elspeth Owen’s carrying of messages over long journeys; portable spaces.
What distinguishes such art from a workshop? The structure might be like a broken shell – a minimal intervention, rather than an enclosed theatre world.
What drives the desire for porosity?
a) a neo-liberal agenda of ‘inclusion’ and ‘participation’?
b) a desire to draw on new forms arising from new technologies?
c) a ‘new Utopianism’, underpinned by a radical left-wing, if usually politically non-aligned politics?
All these feed the popularity of ‘porous’ work, but they are not the same as one another. How can we disentangle them? Is it possible? I think it is probably desirable (particularly a) and c)).
How might we be able to use essential but compromised words: ‘democracy’; ‘community’?
The word ‘community’ seemed in particular need of being qualified. The pursuit of community appeared problematic. Too easily, a group might be coerced into consensus, or consumption, or sentimentality. While it was suggested that art does produce community, or at least, groups, the idea of making this the driving force seemed a troubling one (community arts notwithstanding).
And yet I was troubled by our inability to use the word, or ‘democracy’ either. If we cannot speak of democracy without wincing, what replaces it? Same goes for ‘community’. The word ‘beauty’ did not come up for scrutiny, but I think it might. The desire and need for all three does not go away just because these concepts have been abused and used coercively. Do I have to call a community ‘inoperative’ (Nancy) to mean what I meant all along?
In Belfast, we intend to sidestep the terminology and taxonomical questions for now. Instead, the invitation Tinderbox has issued, linked to a workshop run by Katarina Pejovic, suggests that ‘We will share what…theatremakers’ experiences of inviting audiences into their work and processes here in Northern Ireland have been. Why do they do it? And what are our experiences of being invited to participate as audiences?’ This will continue the discussion in a new context, discovering what insights this context and new people might offer.
Notes: Who was there
Paul Allain; Boris Bakal; Peter Boenisch; Alexander Devriendt; Peter Eckersall; Jason Hird; Peter Hulton; Daniel Lipman; Alan Lyddiard; Sophie Nield; Evelyn O’Malley; Pablo Pakula; Mike Pearson; Duska Radosavljevic; Lena Simic; Hanna Slattne; Kully Thiarai; Katalin Trencsenyi; Cathy Turner
Day 1 only: Stephen Hodge; Phil Smith
Day 2 only: Rose Biggin; Laura Brown; Emily Holyoake; Gareth Morgan