A blog about theatre, new media and games

A blog about theatre, new media and games

Elena Pérez

All a headset can do

Roger Bernat’s The Rite of Spring (2010 and ongoing) is a piece of participatory dance, where members of the audience are given three-channel headphones and are welcomed into the performance space to the sound of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one of the leading ballets from the last century, of which Pina Bausch made a historic version in 1975. Without any other intervention or guidance, spectators are directed to follow the instructions given to them through their headsets, leading them to personally reenact Pina Bauch´s choreography.

 

To start the performance, participants are instructed to go towards boards that surround the performance space and write certain words on them. Sunrise, mountains, forest. We are asked to imagine that we are in a field surrounded by these elements, the place where The Rite of Spring is about to begin. Photo: Elena Pérez

 

 

It's striking how much is achieved in this performance thanks to a headset. Well, actually it isn't only a headset, it is a computer system developed to send three different instructions simultaneously when pressed through a headset. To clarify: Group 1 is instructed to "raise your arms, clap both hands on your lap, one step forward", while group 2 receives the instructions to "bend to your knees, clap both hands on your lap, one step backwards". Group 3 is told to "stay out of the stage looking in". The director, who is watching Pina Bauch's choreography on a screen while operating the system, sends the appropriate ques to the participants to reenact the choreography, taking the participants rhythm and tempo into consideration. That is, this is a pre-programmed system, but it is run live.

 

What is the role of the headset in the performance? What is achieved through the headset that could not be achieved without it? The headset addresses each participant individually while still being a group. Even though it is a computer generated voice (she acknowledges it and says that we will get used to it fast), a sense of intimacy and safety is created through it. The voice is talking to me, and for some seconds I think it is only talking to me and not to the others.

Though this feeling of "only me" disappears soon enough (since some people start doing the exact same actions I am), it is substituted by a puzzlement produced by seeing how other participants are performing different actions, and others that are quiet, just looking. Still, the safety experienced by having a voice address me directly feels calming. However confusing the performance is getting, I can always choose to focus on the voice and the instructions.

 

The struggle of each participant is whether to follow the instructions or not, and when. The voice asks "one of you" to perform certain actions, which may lead to many people performing the same action or only one doing it. Nobody is sure of the rules of this game, so participants have to start deciphering them together and the performance goes along. Does "one of you" mean many of us? Or just one?

This puzzlement become clear the times when group performances alternate with solo performances. On the floor, there is a red silk cloth and the voice asks Aurora to go and take it, and do certain actions with it. But...who is Aurora? Aren't we all Aurora? Still, there is only one cloth. I imagine participants must be doubting whether to do it or not, the same way I hesitated. And since we cannot decide by verbally discussing it, we decide by doing (or not doing it.)

 

In the last solo, a red silk dress is put onto one participant only, which clearly sends the message that this is to be done by that one person, not by all those hearing the instructions. This moment is crucial for understanding how the system operates: it does not only address you, it addresses may of you. You decide how much of yourself you want to put into this. And this is very refreshing. Though we are following instructions, we are also given the chance to decide if we want to follow them, when and how. The strength of The Rite of Spring's performance system is, in my opinion, how it allows different levels of engagement, from very low -there are some chairs around the stage where people sit at times- to very high -most participants reach the end of the performance  sweating.

 

In conversation with Bernat, he tells me how it often happens that more than one participant decide to perform the solo. He recalls a performance when two women performed the last solo from beginning to end, even though there was only one red silk dress. When the second performer (the one without the red dress) was asked about why, she said that the voice was talking "to her". "To her" she repeated. Even though lacking the prop was telling her she shouldn't be there, the voice on the headset, the instruction, was so compelling to her that she chose to believe and follow the voice. The relationship between the voice and the participant can be experienced as intimate and powerful.

In this case, it is the voice (the instruction) behind the headphone that compels the participant into action. The headset can then be understood just as a nice safety that blocks outside noise, and also creates an illusion of intimacy with the voice. In other words, the headset makes it more viable to follow the voice instructions: it is persuasive, as if someone was whispering in your ear. On the other hand, It also limits participants from communicating verbally with each other, so that instead of discussing what to do next in plenum, each has to decide individually "by doing". It allows individual interpretation and decision making while simultaneously being part of a collective action.

 

In trying to answer the question of the role of the headset in The Rite of Spring I have been trying to separate the headset from the voice (also the instruction), and from the computer system running it all. However, it is the combination of these three elements that are fundamental in making this performance happen, not only the headset.  What is clear, is that The Rite of Spring could not happen without the technology. In this sense, the mixing of technology and dance breaks free and creates a new participatory form that brings choreography closer to audiences. It is a new form of engaging with dance by facilitating participants do the job of the professional dancers and thus, get "a sense of" the intricacies of choreography.

 

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The Rite of Spring took place in the Contemporary Art Museum -Artium- in Vitoria on the 13 April 2012. This review is from that orchestration.

Can a system interface alone engage a theatre audience?

Roger Bernat's Pendiente de Voto is a performance without actors. Instead of them, we encounter an enormous screen that talks to us (or better, writes to us) and directs us on what to do. We are instructed to use a remote control and answer the questions that the screen poses, by pressing the bottom YES or NO. Do you feel capable of taking decisions this evening? is followed by: Besides taking decisions, do you feel capable of realizing them? The challenge is on, but will this strategy suffice? Can a system with a pre-programmed set of questions engage an audience over a hundred spectators? and more importantly, what kind of participation will it create?

 

The theatre has been turned into a parliament where we are going to debate issues of the political agenda and also organize ourselves as a group. Questions such: Do we want a president? Should we have police? start popping up and faster than we thought, we have two police men (two spectators) guarding the theatre. We also decide we want to let the latecomers inside the theatre venue.  Then, we open the doors and they come in. Suddenly the decisions we are taking as a group seem relevant and meaningful: they have consequences in the theatre space.

 

Voting results to whether we want to let the latecomers to the theatre enter the venue. Screenshot from results from the 29th February, available at www.rogerbernat.info

 

 

Roger Bernat's theatre is part of the tradition of the avant garde that seeks to establish a dialogue with the audience and make them part of the work of art. He is also part of current trend of authors who use the stage as a site for social exchanges. Instead of being a place where illusions are staged, the theatre is a place to have real honest dialogues between actors and audience, and among spectators themselves. As Shannon Jackson points out in "Social Works" (2010), the turn towards performance that started in the 1960s and 70s is now being substituted by "the social turn", which deludes artistic practice into social practice. While the fine arts have embraced this approach in the form of installations a long time ago, theatre is slowly engaging with it. Artists such as Gob Squad, Rimini Protocoll and Ann Liv Young are doing it, and Roger Bernat is one of them.

 

Pendiente de voto is divided into three main parts. In the first one, each spectator votes individually to very serious questions about healthcare, education and event E.T.A mixed with very humorist ones. Should there a be special reinsertion program for ex-ETA combatants? (answer: big NO) is followed by What do you prefer, Billy Holliday or Amy Winehouse? And Billy Holliday starts playing.

 

In the second part we are regrouped (by the theatre personnel, still no actors) with the person that voted most-likely with us, but now, instead of following the system one person = one vote, we have to share one vote among two and reach consensus. And now we are talking.

The system goes through some of the previous questions and asks us to share our opinions with the whole auditorium, much like in the assemblies that proliferate these days in parks and plazas around Madrid. But there are no actors to enforce this, it´s a computer typing! Will we start talking? After some hesitation, we do. And now the auditorium is debating.

 

In the third part we are regrouped again as if we were political parties, five groups of twenty-ish with one representative with the right to vote. Again, we have to reach consensus. The noise level of the auditorium has risen considerably since part one, when we were silently pressing YES/NO bottoms. NOW WE ARE TALKING. THINGS ARE HAPPENING. WE ARE ENGAGED. Could it really be that no actors are necessary? At this point, it certainly seems so: We, the audience, are doing the job and the theatre is thriving. And here the analogy is delicious. Could it also be that we -as in the people- can do the job of the actors -the politicians- and make the theatre -our community- thrive?

 

The value of Pendiente de Voto lies on how it fosters interaction and debate among strangers around issues that concern us all, in a time when democracy is at stakes, through instructions in a computer screen. Starting out quietly in part one, the performance slowly rises the level of interaction among people to the point where we felt comfortable enough to speak out, give an opinion and contribute to the debate. Even though there is never time enough to have a "proper debate" around an issue (the screen has programmed a minute and a half for each debate, and to enforce this rule, it has a count-down clock which automatically switches off the microphones and moves onto the next question), the debates provide a sense of the dynamics of consensus-making, and a taste of what it feels like being part of "fixing" a democratic system to better satisfy the needs of its members: Full of possibilities for some, full of limitations for others, depending on the degree to which they were able to participate in the debate.

 

The substitution of physical actors by the system interface obliges the audience to be short and concise in their interventions to be able to discuss several issues. In this sense, the system affords variety but also limits nuanced debate around the issues that this specific audience is interested in discussing.    

 

After this, the performance goes astray. One of the five representatives is chosen to vote for the whole auditorium while we rest passively watch. The playful opinion exchanges and sense of possibility that arose among the audience in parts two and three are reduced to one-way authoritative and pre-programmed dialogue (between the system and the representative) where the system reveals that the whole voting system is a scam.

The final sets of questions suggest that voting is futile. The representative's way of participating in this dialogue is not through debate, but by pressing the YES/NO bottom in the remote control. Screenshot from results available at www.rogerbernat.info

 

 

One could argue that the closing scene is part of the dramaturgy of the piece and that Bernat's aim is to point to the unfairness and futility of democratic systems: The system mocks you and you have bought it (literally-we have bought tickets!). But why end with such negative message when the performance had been successfully building feelings of possibility among the audience? Why make the audience enter a passive mode at the moment we were most engaged and physically activated? and finally, Why make a performance about voting, its mechanisms, possibilities and misrepresentations if -in the end- voting is foolish?

 

After having slowly built an engaged atmosphere of debate and interaction among the audience, the last scene feels disappointing. The system interface takes over control, lectures us and reveals that our participation was futile. And I wonder: Was my engagement for nothing? All the work we did...was it for nothing? Perhaps Pendiente de Voto should care more about the experiences it is giving to its audience rather than being preoccupied with the dramaturgical message that it is sending. Perhaps letting the audience decide how the performance ends would be a more coherent take rather than taking back control to make a point. After all, this is a participatory piece that would not exist without its audience, so why not cede control?

 

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Pendiente de Voto took place in Valle-Inclán Theatre in Madrid from the 29 February-4 March 2012. This review is from the performance on 1 March. Go to www.rogerbernat.info to see the voting results of the Pendiente de Voto performance that you participated in.

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