Audiences as Collaborators

Essay Talk/Lecture  

A paper given by James at The New Work Network’s conference The Chemistry Experiment
Arnolfini, Bristol 10th February 2001Thank you for coming. We’re very pleased to see you all. You’re all very important.

[ I + heart + U = Bang (where Bang is good) ]

I’d better start by apologising to any Chemists that may be in the room. You’d better leave, for the abominations that are about to pass as formulae here will make you weep. This first one you will recognise as from the Frankie Goes To Hollywood school of science.

If, as I believe, a work of art, be it theatre, painting, sculpture, music Etc., has not approached completion until an audience has brought it’s perception and thoughts to bear on it, then that audience must, in some way, be deemed a collaborator.

[ (artist + artist) x audience = Art ]

The notion of viewing as a participatory and creative act is not one I imagine startling many people anymore, but maybe it is useful just to meditate briefly on this notion in the context of today’s discussion. Maybe the factors which pertain when artists collaborate to instigate art can be seen to apply when audiences join with artists, or the traces that artists leave behind, to realise that art.

By describing viewing as a participatory and creative act I am simply acknowledging that audiences react to or interpret art in personal and often unexpected ways according to their individual history and circumstance. For me this is exciting. What fun is there in a collaboration when you can predict exactly how the other party will react? When I’m in the audience I want my collaborative role to be acknowledged, I hate being taken for granted or being given nothing to do. I don’t want to sing or dance-a-long, I don’t want to be invited up on stage, I don’t want people to come and pick on me, I don’t want to be patronised by the notion that pressing a button to make something happen is a meaningful act of collaboration; I want to be given provocative material to work with and space in which to do that work. In respecting, or as Howard Barker would say ‘Honouring’, the audience as a partner, Stan’s Cafe eschews these cheap ‘participatory’ tricks along with linear narrative and coherent messages, instead we invite the creation of personal poetic links between passages, motifs and ideas.

I won’t pretend this is always a successful approach. A student once interviewed me for a dissertation she was writing concerning the relationships different theatre companies have with their audiences. It turned out the piece was to be divided into two sections, those that liked their audience, represented by the local pantomime and the slapstick comedy company Peepolikus and those that hated their audience, namely us and Bertolt Brecht. Flattered by the company if not the context I asked how this division had been drawn up. It turned out throwing sweets to the audience, getting them to hiss and boo and shout “he’s behind you” as well as leaping on and off stage are all a signs of love and affection. I think Verfremdungseffekt may have been mistranslated as suggesting Brecht wanted to annihilate his audiences. Stan’s Cafe were in the dock because in Simple Maths nothing obviously entertaining happens. Five performers change places on six chairs for an hour. They are happy and sad, fall asleep and blow their noses in provocative juxtaposition. There is no story, no text, no mime just the invitation to use the performance as a meditative space. Simple Maths demands a lot from its collaborators, some were up for it and found it easy, filling the space with narrative speculations, personal emotions and philosophical musings creating a fantastic event, others struggled badly and our relationship with them broke down, this student fell into the latter camp. She clearly wasn’t our ideal collaborator and we clearly didn’t make a good job of helping her work with us. So what makes a good collaborator and how best can we make these collaborations work?

[ What makes a good collaborator? ]

This list has been drawn up as a profile of what we might look for in an ideal collaborating artist; I believe it can also be read as describing a great audience member. The important thing to remember is that a collaborator is only as good as the collaboration allows them to be. It is useless our partners having all these qualities if we cannot draw them out. Audiences must be encouraged to engage with art as collaborators and to contribute these strengths to making it all go BANG.

[ They Turn Up ]

Let’s start with basics. It is important that our collaborators can be bothered to turn up. It’s useful if they are at the place they needed at the time we’ve agreed to be there. If you’re a sculptor this isn’t so problematic. You can chisel away at your end of things until you’re finished then leave it lying around in a gallery where your collaborator will trip over whenever they can be bothered to turn up. The great thing with this relationship is that if they’re late you’re still free to get to work on the next project, or to die and go to artist heaven. Live Arts have a more tricky arrangements to make, “when’s a good day for you?”, “you can make Tuesday but you can’t?”, “Wednesday’s good but only in the morning?”, “for heaven’s sake!”, “where are the others?” “why didn’t anyone mention this was Glastonbury weekend?”.

[ They Add Something ]

We’re still on the basics but it is amazing how often as an audience member I turn up on time in right place and find there’s nothing for me to do. The artists have everything completely under control. They’ve constructed some collaborative equivalent of the A-Team or G-Force, each contributing their own special powers until together they are Art Troupe and there I am in the audience, wearing my underpants, with no responsibilities except to wave a little plastic flag and cheer. This isn’t liberating, it’s infuriating. I’m supposed to just stand back and admire as this sleek art product rolls by without me.

I believe the most rewarding art happens when audiences are given space and responsibility. When they are asked to add, it is then that true collaborations take place, then that things become exiting.

[ They Are Prepared To Engage Intellectually and Emotionally ]

If a collaborator is going to add something to the work it is best done from a position of intellectual or emotional engagement. They must arrive prepared to add more than just their presence. They must engage with the art and it’s ambitions. Whilst it is one of the artist’s jobs to make this engagement possible a desire to enter this relationship must be there. Some people find this easy, others don’t and it’s difficult to predict who’s who. Defining target audiences for funders seems a curious business and the forms seem to take an unusually bigoted approach, coming as they do from the P.C. police. My advice is don’t tick the box labelled 21 – 35 if you don’t want to. If there’s no box labelled “people with open minds, who are prepared to engage intellectually and emotionally” write it in and tick that.

[ They Listen ]

We all know you have to listen to people you are collaborating with. You have to have the generosity to give them space to articulate ideas which may not be immediately obvious. Clearly we want audiences to listen to us, but is this where my model of reciprocity breaks down should we listen to them? In live practice a reciprocal listening can take place and the performance is usually modulated accordingly. On a broader scale and in all forms I believe listening to audience feedback is useful. You don’t have to consciously change your practice according to what you learn, but it’s good to know how the relationship is going, what’s working and what isn’t. The difficulty is often not listening but getting people to speak, I shall return to this later.

[ They Are Flexible In Their Thinking ]

Things are not always as they seem. Rules change from moment to moment. Aesthetics change from project to project. You want a collaborator who, if their initial approach is not proving productive, is able to change tactics midstream. “I was frustrated for the first twenty minutes because I didn’t know what was going on, then I gave up trying to make sense of it and started to really get into it” that’s familiar audience testimony and I love it. There is someone who has taken their responsibility seriously. When faced with a problem they have had the flexibility of thought to break with one mode of viewing and construct another more appropriate strategy.

[ They Are Trusting ]

Collaborating is an exposing process, contributions are offered up for consideration with the ever present prospect of rejection. Collaborations with strangers or collaborations in unknown territories are especially exposing. Mutual trust is required. If the audience doesn’t trust you it won’t turn up. If there is no trust people will not listen to, engage with, or add to the work. I believe competence and good faith are the two most crucial elements in trusting collaborations.

[ Competence x Good Faith = Trust ]

If you display competence as a knife thrower but I believe you’re a murderer I’m not going to trust you in our proposed Performance Art Knife Throwing Act. If I think you’ve got a heart of gold but are a useless knife thrower I’m still going nowhere near that board. But, if you’re a highly competent knife thrower and proposing the project in good faith for a new “Body as Site” season at – Arnolfini I’m there with you. Clearly the presence of trust does not mean we cannot take risks together.

[ They Are Committed ]

Our collaborators are going to have to sink their time, effort, credibility, even something of themselves into our project. Somehow we have to convince them to make this investment. It may be that the project itself attracts them, or it is us, our energy, enthusiasm or reputation, it just may be you had a relationship once before and they can’t let you go. Anyway we’ve got to get them there, and if we do the great thing about audiences is that they’re the only collaborators who have been conditioned to expect, in most circumstances, to have to pay to work with us.

Asking audiences to pay is a principle I believe in strongly. An exchange of money draws attention to the fact that both audience and artists must make an investment in the art for it to happen. It suggests that the audience will be rewarded with something of a value above the opportunity-loss of using their time to do this and not something else. Having paid to gain access to something you will be more inclined to back up that investment with engagement.

[ They Are Uninhibited In Voicing Their Opinions ]

As I’ve suggested, collaborators should listen to each other, but this only makes sense if people are prepared to voice their opinions. Whilst an audience member I often fantasise about the return of Dada and the freedom to chuck veg. around, as an artist I think of the gun placed on the conductor’s stand and am glad we’re cozily locked in a world where intense fury is expressed by deep sighing whilst stomping up the central isle. Nevertheless we need to communicate more about art. I like the gallery idea of comments books, this a safe, potentially anonymous medium in which people can take their time to feedback thoughtfully or scrawl BOLLOCKS as they see fit. I’m certainly not keen on applause as the sole arbiter of success (though don’t let this inhibit you later on). I’ve been too many dance shows where the curtain calls enjoy more sophisticated choreography than the dance itself. In my experience the structure of post-show discussions means they veer between superficial sycophancy and the bald statement of agendas. I like websites as a mode of feedback, a kind of rolling comments book, but nothing surpasses the bar as a location for a debrief with new found colleagues.

We don’t debate art enough, least of all with audiences. We discuss Issues, we have Safe Spaces, Survival Strategies and Policy Statements and these are all fine things, but we spend far too little time asking “is it any good?”. The New Work Network is looking to set a trend rectifying this lack. Watch out for Live Late Reviews at venues and festivals near you.

[ ‘illman = Hillman Hunter = Punter ]

Now should you run into any ‘illmans who fulfil all these criteria I recommend you waste no time in inviting them to get an eye, ear or even mouthful of your art. Unfortunately whilst any artist on earth will be flattered should you invite them to work with you, ‘illmans are made of sterner stuff, they have to be. They are invited to work on thousands of projects every week and always suspect there is an ulterior motive. I have a failsafe method of ensuring your invitation is accepted, but that is part of a marketing paper and I don’t want to stray from my subject. Let’s assume you have this simple knowledge and anyone you ask is bound to turn up, who should you ask?

[ Who To Ask ]

There are obvious advantages to working with people more than once. Your shared history, language and understanding speeds things up. Together you start from a higher level of collaboration that allows more sophistication and complexity or a braver simplicity. Extending existing, successful relationships is safe, comfortable and an efficient. Balanced against these advantages are the risks of staleness or a sloppiness may enter your thinking along with an unattractive insularity. To be frank you may become inbred, with all the loopiness and genetic weakness that tend dog the pure pedigree dog.

At the same time as we are looking to build a regular group of audience collaborators whose responses to our work are enriched through familiarity, we should be engaging fresh blood to keep us vital. It is fun to feel at the centre of a small gang but it is more exhilarating when that gang is mixing with a sea of unfamiliar faces at your gigs.

I believe that as a community we should take care of our audiences. If at Stan’s Cafe we piss off our audience and later you are linked in their minds with us you’ll have a terrible job luring them in to your work, which they will probably really like. How do we take care of our audiences? As I’ve mentioned collaborations involve investment so maybe it’s all to do with contracts.

[ The Contract ]

I suspect we are all grossly unprofessional in the way we collaborate with fellow artists. I’ve had to sign contracts for waiting jobs and washing up jobs and filing jobs and teaching jobs, as a company we sign contacts covering our collaborations with promoters, funders, insurers and van hire firms but I’ve never signed or issued an artistic contract. We are so anxious to discuss art not business that all terms and conditions are assumed, is this a problem? It hasn’t been for Stan’s Cafe but you do hear horror stories don’t you. The contracts we enter into with audiences are similar, assumed rather than stated. There is little surprise then that we hear horror stories here too. If they don’t know they are being treated as collaborators, how can audiences be blamed if the relationship breaks down. If they don’t know what is expected of them how can they be expected to successfully play their part? Do we have to leave it all up to their commitment and flexibility of thought. Basic guidelines for the agreement are laid down in publicity material, but this is often misleading and from then on everything is negotiated on the hoof anyway. Setting out the contract doesn’t have to be about averting disaster, it can just be about relaxing people enough to get the most out of them. “I liked it but have no idea what it was about” is usually followed by someone talking in an entirely cogent and enlightening way about the show and its meaning to them. They understood it but not in a way they recognised. If this person and our, “I got it twenty minutes in” ‘illman were better briefed would they get more out of the experience?

The programme notes for our latest show, Good and True end thus: “Ultimately, the show is not yet finished – it remains open for you to do your own writing job on it. We know why everything in the show is there but we haven’t nailed down what everything means. The creative links you make within the show and the meaning you draw from it will complete our collaboration.
Thank you for coming to Good and True. We hope you enjoy it.”

This message is a boiled down briefing sheet and contract, it sets out to build trust and avoid inclusion in libellous dissertations. Although the show was really well received by audiences and people commented on the friendly tone of the programme note, it is difficult to assess how much this added to the project’s success. For the next major piece programme notes feel inappropriate. Things change and we will be relying on our collaborator’s flexibility of thought.

I would like to round off by telling you about the time I worked with Pina Bausch. She’d brought Neklen (1982) out of repertory for Edinburgh and was clearly worried about how it would go down so I thought I’d go along to help her out. A few minutes in a dancer comes off the stage to the right and takes an old gent. up the side isle and out, the same business is repeated to the left, then, walking straight down the centre of the stage, comes one of those ice cool dancer goddesses, down into the stalls and straight up to me “excuse me would you like to come outside?”, “yes, of course” I reply and so we walk arm in arm up the central isle and out of the doors. After a brief chat I return to my seat alone whilst a man in a suit signs to a record “one day my man will coming back to me” or some such. Later in the piece, when the whole audience are up on their feet following some very simple dance steps we’ve been taught, the woman from earlier returns to dance with me. Despite being blanked in the bar afterwards I try and keep some fantasy glowing that that last dance wasn’t in the plan. I don’t want to dance-a-long or have people come along and pick on me but I was there, engaged, flexible and trusting – Pina Bausch is a great collaborator.

James Yarker 8th February 2001