This is a term I’ve been using for work that places the audience’s experience at the center of an interactive composition. This work is deeply experiential and may have as much relationship to a massage, therapy session, or amusement park ride as it does to what is typically considered performance. Fully responsive to the audience, these unique adventures are crafted to offer an experience that is not separate from the viewer. The other available terms, such as participatory performance, don't do justice to the level of interaction and responsibility asked of the audience in such encounters. The term interactive performance has also been used, but in the past decade has largely been co-opted by the tech industry.
Examples are the best way to illustrate.
The first show I experienced that I would put in this category was Axolotl by Karl Frost. Axolotl takes its name from a nearly extinct salamander that is able to breathe in air or water. The audience for Axolotl is blindfolded for the entire two hour show. “A multiplicity of events occurring simultaneously in the minds of the members of the audience (Frost, 2004)” says Frost’s description of the piece on his web site. The environment of the performance is crafted for all the senses with surfaces and objects of various textures and a complex and crafted sound score. Audience members may interact with other audience members or performers as they like (they may not be able to tell the difference). Performers engage with the audience's sense of possibility and challenge. The performers make choices improvisationally based on the question “What is meaningful experience?”
This piece is on an extreme end of experience crafting. The elements that are consistent from show to show are the blindfolds, the existence of a sound score and textures, and the return to the stimulus question. These elements, and the separation between those participants who are guiding the experience and those that are experiencing it for the first time, and its billing as a performance, are the only elements that keep it in the realm of performance. The sense of interest and curiosity that the audience brings to their experience is integral to the creation of their experience.
On another end of the spectrum, Teatro de Los Sentidos (Theatre of the Senses) of Barcelona have a number of interactive performances that I would put in the category of experience crafting. Many of these are labyrinths experienced by one audience member at a time. In Eco de los Sombres, based on The Shadow by Hans Christian Andersen, the audience arrives in an old library where a friendly librarian helps you to find “your story.” After looking at various odd and sundry books he finds for you a small book with the story of a boy whose shadow runs away. The second half of the book is blank. The librarian then leads you into a labyrinth of exquisitely crafted darkness, texture, soundscape, landscapes, and one-on-one interactions. Each interaction, though highly scored, is intimate and specific. I wandered through a disorientation of forests of sheets with playful maidens. I was tempted and abandoned by a seductive woman who invited me under a table to share chocolate and fruit, then ran away before I could partake. I was given a gift of a fresh cut paper bird (or its negative). A pregnant woman crushed a hollow egg in my hand. A hallway full of floating birds, a boatman, and finally, a pitch-black ride lying in an actual boat with a boat man who ferried me silently across the waters. At the end was a quiet room of books and tea where those who had just passed through were writing about their experience.
These new directions in performance look back to the possibilities of performance as ritual. The highly symbolic and personal solitary journey of Eco De Los Sombres, resonates with my imagination of what the Ancient Mystery Schools of Greece must have been like (on a smaller scale). There is nothing of the viewer in this experience. What I see is happening to me. All the same, each interaction, each step of the journey has been carefully crafted. The limitations of my interaction are present if unspoken. I am being taken for a ride, it just happens to be my story. As in a dream, the unfolding of my journey is my own and yet not my own. Like in many ritual contexts, theatre, dance, music, and visual effects are integrated in a total theatrical experience.
This model for performance, with audience as protagonist, arises alongside the newly developed cultural lenses audiences are aquiring through social networking. While in the past media was a proscenium experience, with radio and televison running in a one-way communication, each of us now occupies a place at the center of our private media empire. Facebook, Twitter, and the like are larger than any one of us could ever navigate. Even following the stories and interests of our closest contacts could take more time than exists in a day. The pieces described in the following paragraphs engage similarly, trusting the audience's self-navigational empowerment within a world that is larger than they can ever fully perceive.
Sleep No More, by the UK group Punch Drunk, is playing now in NYC. This show, operating largely in a look but don’t touch model, straddles the line between performance and experience crafting. The piece takes place in a massive six-story warehouse in which every room has been densely designed with beautifully detailed installation environments. The audience of a few hundred have all been given matching masks that look like a modern commedia del’ arte character. The audience goes where they like, wandering the quiet upper floors or following the characters around. As they wander alone, the general adopted tendency is to touch the objects and props, but keep physical and verbal interaction away from the characters, who seem to be observing a multi-dimensional fourth wall. Based on the characters from MacBeth, the performers have a loop of scenes in different rooms that repeats three times. Often the performers run from one scene to the next with a mob of masked audience members chasing to keep up. Each audience member sees a small slice of the on-going world in progress. Except for the witches, the characters pretend not to see the audience until their character is dead. This gives a sense of the audience as ineffective ghosts haunting the dark world of the play. A few audience members are pulled aside, their masks removed, and brought into intimate one-on-one interaction with a character. There are black masked helpers at various doors allowing them to open at certain times and keeping them locked at others. As with the social media universes mentioned earlier, the audience perceives splintered fragments of the experiences of characters living a larger-than-knowable life.
Danish artist, Pipaluk Supernova, and her company Live Art Installations (LAI), is another company that exists somewhere between site-specific performance and experience crafting. I mentioned LAI's Submarine Ballet in the section on site-specific work. That work was perhaps the most proscenium piece they've created in that the audience was separated from the action by a swath of deep water. Typical LAI performances are similar to the model Punch Drunk uses in Sleep No More. There are many simultaneous events in many areas within a centralized structure, creating a fantastical and unexpected world in which the audience is invited to navigate independently. Primary differences between the two approaches include LAI's highly improvisational focus, the free coming and going of the audience, and the party atmosphere that permeates their performances. The second year I participated in a LAI project, we centralized the performance on the various floors, and weaving through the windows, walls, and towers of a boat. I recall a typical moment of improvisational magic: A belly dancer can be seen in the captain's cabin above the audience. A man in a welding mask begins scaling the glass of the cabin and down the wall. He begins an aerial dance atop the abstract images being projected on the wall. Two men in sailor costumes appear above the cabin looking down on him. In the meantime, two performers are dancing nude in a massive aquarium opposite the projection wall. A man in a tuxedo is playing double bass, accompanying the scene. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the audience above, an audience of three watch a slow and steamy duet in the chains hanging in the lower deck cargo room.
Perhaps projects like LAI's creations, Sleep No More, and Axolotl are influenced as much by Burning Man culture as ritual or social media. Burning Man, an annual arts festival in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, is run on the principle of participation. There are no tourists, no observers at Burning Man. From the moment you roll through the gates, you are creating the art of your experience. What kind of art - how adventurous, generous, scattered, or intimate - is up to each individual. The conceptualization of the location as an on-going art organism of which each viewer is a part, aligns with the groundwork for the pieces mentioned above. As artists we can create a magical world that utilizes new rules. We can not control how the audience experiences that world.
Another principle of Burning Man culture relevant to many of these experiences is "gifting." Gifting takes into account the unique individual who is being gifted. I received this email last week from Shoshana Green about a piece being crafted by Odyssey Works. "The group creates interdisciplinary performances designed to be transformative for both audience and artist. We work in ensemble and create 24 hour performances for 1 person audiences. The work is at once artistically rigorous and empathically driven." The email was accompanied by an application asking all kinds of personal questions that would presumably be used to personalize the "Odyssey."
On Solitude, a piece I made in collaboration with Kristen Greco for a series of audiences of one, attempted to personalize the gift of our performances via context rather than pre-sourced information. This piece wove between audience as active participant and observer. The audience member started his or her experience by walking alone out of Earthdance center, where other performances and installations were happening. They walked down a torch lit path through the woods and snow to a dilapidated airstream trailer with branches growing from cupboards. There they chose a tarot card with a book to read about it if they chose. Then they followed a string up a hill in the dark through the snow with no flashlight. This created a liminal space for contemplation in nature, reflection on their own life (after the tarot reading), and an unfamiliarity or even sense of danger that got some adrenaline activated. At the top of the hill they found a rustic cabin warmed by a wood stove with an improvisation in process. Notes instructed them to sit in the chair and choose one of three books to read aloud into the space. Depending on the reading we then set off on scores based on alienation, solitude, or intimacy. Each performance, including the live improvised sound score, was completely different. As performers we, and thus the personalized performance, were highly affected by the qualities of tone and attention the audience introduced to the highly intimate space. After five to eight minutes someone came with a lantern to the door and led the audience member down another path to another cabin with a fire outside, tea and paper inside, and all the time they might like for writing and reflection. Because each experience was solitary and unlike anyone else's, the piece existed only in their reception of it. Feedback confirmed that the performance was like a continuation of the tarot reading. Themes that arose were often viewed as intricately interwoven with the stories and issues presenting in the viewer's life. Our intention was to offer a relevant gift, though not always a pleasant one, to each viewer.
The United Kingdom, directed by Felix Ruckert in Berlin in 2007, was the performance experience I have participated in that most challenged my definitions and expectations of "performance." It was a piece about power and submission. The audience entered the space to find a wall separating the stage from the audience. In front of the wall two rows of eight seats on the stage faced each other. The performers sat on the seats facing towards the audience and audience members were invited to come down to the stage and sit in front of a performer of their choice who would interview them. The result of the interviews was either an invitation by the performer for the audience member to be their guest in the rest of the performance or a rejection and invitation to interview with one of the other performers. Not everyone got into the performance. If the audience did not interview they certainly did not get in. Those who were not invited in had a short interaction with one of the cast as they were escorted out. Those who did were taken to a wardrobe where their street clothes were abandoned and their host helped them choose a new outfit. One guest I dressed in a way that inhibited the use of his hands. I had him remove his spectacles so his vision was also challenged. Guests could be dressed to feel powerful, submissive, sexy, awkward, or any way they and their host determined. The change of clothes clearly created a rift from the rules of their daily interactions.
Once inside, they were brought to a seat in a circle and their feet were washed. After that a simple structure took place in which performers sat at the feet of their guests and had about two minutes to compose an interaction with them utilizing touch, eye contact, and whatever other tools they chose to employ to explore the theme of power. The only rule was that touch could only happen from the knees down. Every two minutes, the performer would change. After a handful of these performances, the performers took the seats and it was the audiences turn on the floor at their feet. That was the entire score for this section of the performance. After that point, some guests were invited back to the last section and some were thanked and sent on their way.
The last section was a much wider open improvisation exploring power. The performative aspects of costume and roles persisted in this section, but from an outsider view it may have often been challenging to differentiate it from a play party common to the BDSM scene. This piece was a performance in that it utilized theatrical components. There was a set, costumes, lighting choices and performative actions. However, the element that most seems to justify localizing the experience in art making rather than BDSM play party is the differentiation between "performers" conspiring together in a pre-structured way and an audience stepping into an unknown context.
The questions "What is performance?", "What is performative?", "What is the relation between author and authority?," and other related questions, will not be going away in the near future. Rather I predict a continued integration of the question of appropriate form to intention of content. The proscenium has fallen. The sound of the fourth wall falling to the ground, as expected, was in itself soundless. But in the absence of this imagined membrane, the sounds of the rest of the world have rushed into the performing space. What remains is the necessity of the artist to continually define, not just what the content of the art is, but through what structures and constructs the experience of art is received.