Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Invasion! Playing and learning on the streets of Norwich
I've never been exposed to much street theatre, let alone given it much thought. But that changed this weekend when I attended the opening weekend of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival. Two events in particular got me thinking about the nature of public space and public art... 

A crowd of thousands gathered in central Norwich after dark. Like me, most seemed to be in a state of confused anticipation. Down the street, the red glowing smoke of flares drifted through the trees and hid the shop fronts from our eyes. To the rhythm of Samba drums, a line of strangely humanoid shiny robotic Cyclopses ghosted through the crowd, followed by menacing winged dinosaurs inflected with metallic tones suggesting a futuristic other-worldliness. Guided by the puppet masters, the procession moved gently down the street and out of sight. 

'Was that it?' The question circulated through the crowd. 'Surely not'. If 'it' was a parade, then that wasn't enough. But it was no parade - there were no barriers to segregate performer from audience, no neon jackets controlling the crowd. This was theatre, and our job as audience was to follow. The crowd ebbed and then flowed towards the civic space in front of the Forum. There we were re-joined by the parading extraterrestrials. Some minutes later the invasion - for which the event was named - truly began. In sparkling silver and intimidating grey, a herd of alien dinosaurs swept into the square. They moved in formation and then broke off through the crowd, making their own paths with jostling and flares. They would stop, stare, knock you on the head with their beaks. Children screamed with that strange combination of delight and anguish. The audience became part of the spectacle - the helpless quarry of an alien violence.

A territorial game was played as two Gothically dressed ringleaders competed for the affection and obedience of the animals. The herd oscillated between these two human poles to the sound of sinister xylophones and soaring operatics. The narrative crescendoed as the victorious leader sang suspended from the high ceiling of the Forum, where the medieval church of St. Peter Mancroft sat reflected in the futurist wall of glass. As the rain came down, the surreal performers bowed to an enraptured crowd.

Courtesy of the Voice Project
The following afternoon, we stumbled upon the Voice Project as they went about 'Singing the City'. The choir of around 40 people performed specially written and arranged pieces in a series of spaces in the winding medieval streets of Norwich. Harmonies drifted out of windows, down alleyways, from walls and rooftops. Two songs sung at opposing ends of a cobbled street met in joyous dissonance in the middle.   Hear again the audience was lead through the physical and active space of the city, rather than just the imagined space of a narrative or song. Lyrics responded to their setting, even though they would only be delivered there once, to make a new map of the streets. It brought to mind how we construct our own cartographies of places - our 'mental maps'. Places that are distant in space or time are remembered through the associations we make with sounds, images, stories or smells. In following the Voice Project through the streets of my home town, a familiar place was woven in to a new map of stories, of other people's knowledge and experiences.

What excited me about these two performances was not just how they responded to a particular place, but in how they enacted new forms of space. French philosopher, historian - I might even say geographer - Henri Lefebvre is famed for his work on space. He urged the insurgent Parisian students of 1968 to reject the abstract urban spaces produced by and centred around capitalist modes of economic exchange, and to generate new forms of differential space. He celebrated the politicization of space (such as occupations, communes, spontaneous protest) as festival, by which social relations take on new forms and previously suppressed emotions, forces and anxieties can find spontaneous and perhaps incendiary forms of expression. For any revolution in our social relations to take place, we have to 'reclaim the street' in jubilant festivity:

It serves as a meeting place (topos), for without it no other designated encounters are possible (caf├ęs, theatres, halls). These places animate the street and are served by its animation, or they cease to exist. In the street, a form of spontaneous theatre, I become spectacle and spectator, and sometimes actor. The street is where movement takes place, the interaction without which urban life would not exist, leaving only separation, a forced and fixed segregation. And there are consequences to eliminating the street…: the extinction of life, the reduction of the city to a dormitory…The street is a place to play and learn…The street is disorder…This disorder is alive…. It informs. It suprises….Revolutionary events generally take place on the street. (The Urban Revolution pp. 18-19)

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival is no Marxist uprising. A 'festival' is rarely a revolution. But through its street theatre this particular festival has breathed new meanings into our public spaces, just as these spaces have given new meanings to the festival's performances. Any action which in any way subverts the abstract, paraded space of the commercial street is in some sense political. The space is re-coded as public: not as a site for exchange, but as a site for creative expression and for the invasion of new forces. These things remind us not just of the public value of art, but of the public value of the streets which for so much of the time are maintained and manicured for their private value. In such de-segregated and disordered spaces of performance - where the distinctions between spectacle and spectator blur - we're reminded of the collaborative nature of art and of the way meaning is constructed and communicated interactively. Taken together, these novel spatialities remind us that "the street is a place to play and learn", and for me, that's what the most rewarding art is so often about. Playing and learning. 

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