Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Fear of flying

I was sort of relieved that Ann Liv Young didn’t turn up for her two Solo performances at the Battersea Arts Centre Burst season this week. Her reason for pulling out – one of the people involved has a fear of flying – might have occurred to her a bit sooner, given that she’s based in New York and Battersea is not only on the other side of the Atlantic but off the tube map. But hey, you can’t think of everything when you’re an artist.

Why relieved? Well, Young is the sort of artist whose performances involve a lot of nudity, noise, vulgarity, mess and what’s commonly referred to as ‘challenging your audience’ in the creative context, otherwise known as ‘making them squirm with embarrassment’ where I come from. Her most recent touring show, an adaptation of Snow White, involved her being given a good seeing to on stage by her Prince. With a dildo. And full penetration.

You have to be in the right frame of mind for this sort of performance if you’re a man. I suppose you have to if you’re a woman, too, but it’s easier for women. As on a nudist beach, no one suspects you of having sleazed in under false pretences – and even if you have, it’s somehow more acceptable in a female (we’re only talking London liberal circles here, of course), not to mention easier to hide your physical reactions if your body gets a bit carried away by it all.

Anyway, I didn’t have to navigate the dodgy interface between art and porn on this occasion (not that I’ve ever been entirely clear about the difference, although I do understand that wanking over Old Masters – in an art gallery at any rate – is a definite no-no). Instead, I had to make do with being blindfolded and tied up in a wheelchair (yes, yes, but it’s a different kind of eroticism) and putting myself at the mercy of five Belgians from the Ontroerend Goed theatre performance group (a pun that gets lost in translation, the name means, very roughly, ‘Feel Estate’).

‘The smile off your face’ was first performed in Britain at last year’s Edinburgh Festival. It’s described as ‘absolutely terrible, a dreadful experience … manipulation in every way’ in one comment on the Times Online theatre pages. The woman who went ahead of me looked as terrified by the prospect as the artist in Ann Liv Young’s company was by the thought of flying (the difference being, of course, that when you’re the person doing the paying for something, rather than the one being paid for it, you pull yourself together rather than pulling yourself out).

I don’t understand it. Being tied up (you should try it some time) is an exercise in giving up control, putting your trust in others (just make sure the ‘others’ are trustworthy). Being blindfolded, as well as heightening the other senses (sound, smell, taste and touch all feature in ‘Off your face’), breaks down some of the usual social barriers between strangers. You find yourself, having entrusted these people physically, beginning to trust them emotionally too. The enhanced intensity of the physical experience segues seamlessly into a more intense emotional one too. You may laugh, you may cry, you will come to understand the significance of ‘the smile off your face’. You may even come to share some of your deepest feelings with strangers whose faces you’ve not yet seen – though you will by then have smelt them and felt them and shared a dreamlike proximity to their sounds and other sensations. Manipulative? Of course it is, but then so is all theatre – manipulation by consent.

What you make of it, how far you enter the performers’ dream-state, is in large part up to you. I don’t want to say too much because it’s always best to experience these sorts of things with as few preconceptions and as open a heart as possible. But you can trust them (believe me, I’m a journalist). You will come to no harm.

In the strange safety that is sightlessness, I found myself answering the sometimes-deeply personal questions that were put to me by one of the performers. This included, as well as revealing some of what I think about love and beauty, telling her the biggest regret of my life. And no, I’m not going to share it with the rest of the world on here: if you want to know, you’ll have to get yourself tied up in a wheelchair and see if the woman from Ontroerend Goed will tell you.


Mel said...

'Being tied up (you should try it some time) is an exercise in giving up control, putting your trust in others'

You mean the illusion/fantasy of giving up control.

Anonymous said...

You are still giving up *some* control, even if you can claim it back again, so not just illusion/fantasy.

Steve Platt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Platt said...

This is theatre/performance, of course, so it's all illusion/fantasy. But one of the things that intrigues me about this kind of intimate, experimental theatre is how close it can get - if you let it - to something more 'real'. The usual clear dividing lines between actors/performers and audience are blurred, sometimes even broken down. I've experienced that only rarely - the performance has to be good, the chemistry right, your own mood and 'availability' appropriate. But when it works, it can be a very intense, albeit still 'theatrical'/illusionary experience. Fantastic, too, in at least two senses of the word. And fun!

Fiona said...

I like this kind of interactive theatre that breaks down the ‘fourth wall’ it’s very visceral and can reveal a lot about yourself to yourself. Less voyeuristic, less detached and analytical but not completely so because our conscious awareness can’t ever be switched off completely and exists on multiple levels. And where does the ‘acting’ on both sides begin and end. I guess we’re always acting and in some ways this holds it up to the light too.

If you believe you’re giving up some level of control then you are but it’s much safer to do this with strangers, so it creates an intimacy that is both real and false. May be that’s why you never see the priest’s face in the confessional.

The Seal of the Profits said...

The confessional as theatre - now there's a thought ...

I know, we could take over an empty church for six months, decorate it with religious icons, pictures of the saints, nice stained glass, stone carvings, statues, a few inscriptions, a cross here and there, maybe an altar at the front. And then get ourselves some atmospheric music, maybe some singing boys, plenty of harmonies. Have a geezer dress up fancy and read bible stories, Sing a few songs. Share some food and wine and invite all our mates round. How about Sunday mornings when nobody's doing very much?

We could call it "church"? Whaddya think? Make good theatre wouldn't it?