Forum Index > Participatory Arts and Research > Messing about in boats? [Dialogue and participation]

Stephen Bottoms 4 years ago
ActivityRank: 24
Anyone who hasn't read Grant Kester's book 'Conversation Pieces' (about art and performance that uses structured dialogue with participants as its key aesthetic) probably really ought to for the sake of this project. And also, so that you know how lucky we are to have Loraine Leeson involved. But re-reading Kester's introduction recently, I was struck by his opening anecdote about a spring boat trip on Lake Zurich in 1994... "Seated around a table in the main cabin were an unusual gathering of politicians, journalists, sex workers and activists from the city of Zurich. They had been brought together by the Austrian arts collective WochenKlausur as part of an 'intervention' in drug policy. Their task was simple: to have a conversation. . . . Over the course of six weeks, WochenKlausur organised dozens of floating dialogues . . . Many of the participants in these boat talks would normally have taken opposite sides in the  highly charged debate over drug use and prostitution, attacking and counter-attacking with statistics and moral invective. But in the ritualistic context of an art event . . . they were able to communicate outside the rhetorical demands of their official status. Even more remarkably, they were able to reach a consensus supporting a modest but concrete response to the problem..." (pp.2-3)

What strikes me here is how unquestioningly Kester credits "the ritualistic context of an art event" with breaking down barriers -- without ever considering the perhaps more obviously apparent fact of being on a boat on a lake... Although this is in no way to underplay the importance of an arts group as instigators to the initiative (thinking creatively, outside the box) I'm guessing that, if asked, the various participants might have spoken more readily of their floating context than of their conceptual framing. Our own Trevor Roberts has long been arguing for the value of talking within the confines of a boat - and RA Lyze Dudley is starting to point us to the wellbeing literature that might help us understand this... Work to do here to break down the unnecessaary conceptual logjams between disciplinary understanding ...

Last weekend I ventured out to experience "TUG", a performance on a narrow boat on Manchester's Bridgwater Canal - between Sale and Stretford. According to the blurb of the company in question, this "highly ambitious" project was "all about taking Dog Kennel Hill Project out of the contemporary arts bubble and placing their work in a deeply alien environment, creating opportunities for meetings, exposures and clashes with and around different ways of life." That's presumably the rhetoric that ensured this was well funded and/or supported in kind by Dance 4. Waterside Arts Centre, Canal and River Trust, and many other partners (this piece is also appearing on other canals elsewhere in the country). But I was disappointed to discover that all they seemed to have done was take the "contemporary arts bubble" with them and stick it on a boat, thereby creating a "deeply alien" experience for the audience... (all 5 of us that could fit on across two rows of seating on the prow end of the boat... and had paid for the privilege... other audience members got to walk along the canal bank for free, with headphones on... a form of class-stratified ticketing?).

In purely aesthetic terms the experience was novel and intriguing: this open topped freight boat had been made over as a long, thin proscenium stage: the five audience members sat at the prow, looking back along the boat (rather as if we were in an elongated gondola). At the back was a painted backdrop of a Bavarian castle (huh?) with a door in it to admit the performers to the bare boards of the boat's deep, narrow stage. There were footlights (pointing at the audience...?) and even a little trapdoor in the checkered flooring closest to us that opened up like the musical box in Camberwick Green when performers poked their heads through... A rather intriguing set of traditional theatrical options transplanted to a boat on a gorgeously sunny late September Sunday, with the chug-chug of the engine accompanying us -- crystal blue sky; trees and buildings and water passing us by... It could have been amazing. But the actual content of the performance was unbelievably random. Yes, there was live violin accompaniment and even some rather lovely operatic singing.... but these accompaniments were the backing to a performance that seemd thrown together without any regard to accessibility, structure, narrative (? perish the thought...). Some odd bits of not-very-interesting dance, a rhythmic speech about navvies (which briefly introduced the possibility that we'd learn something about canals... but that was it), a man gyrating his hips with cymbals dangling between his legs as if they were distended testicles, another man holding a woman on the floor and jerking her up and down as if, well, no let's not go there, and... well, that was it really.

There was a faint whiff of Beckett about the staging, perhaps, but mostly it was just bewildering. I actually had a great time (sunny day, good company, and some random sh*t on a boat... why not, eh?) but with my critical hat on I couldn't help wondering how and why they had failed so spectacularly to do anything more interesting with the canal context. Most galling was that this was a professionally funded arts project in which there were literally more performers than on-board audience members (at least per trip - they were doing a few over the weekend). And that's not to mention the guy from G4S who had been hired to guard the ticket booth on the towpath... This is not, at least as far as I can see, the way to go about engaging citizens with their waterways... indeed if I weren't already invested in such work, I'd probably think twice about ever going to see 'canal based art' again. Time to pop that bubble?
Simon Read 4 years ago
ActivityRank: 32
Hmm, rumour has it that South Sea Islanders used to navigate the subtleties of ocean swells by the swing of their testicles. Cymbals are perhaps just a logical next step. Seriously though the separation of a boat or ship from daily continuum is a well tried device for collective reflection. Now as a small shipowner myself, this is certainly something that I can testify to. It can of course also be intensely claustrophobic.
Tom Payne 4 years ago
ActivityRank: 928
Seconded re Kester's book. Also, the opening chapter to Claire Bishop's Participation is short and informative, and it contains a  fragment from Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics. The critical perspectives and examples contained within each of these would provide a useful shared language for negotiating methodology.

Katherine wrote about participatory approaches a little while back in a blog post. One of the things that this brought to mind was Lone Twin's Boat Project. In this work, Greg Whelan and Gary Winters built a boat from donated wooden objects. The production of the boat from objects of personal significance, was, they suggest, social sculpture - after Joseph Beuys.

What is interesting about this is that the production of the boat becomes the site for the production of social relations between artist, participating spectator and object. On lake Zurich the relations are produced through the shared experience of sailing on the boat rather than participation in the production of the boat in preparation for sailing. Trevor's boat provides the site for individual and collective acts of doing. Learning to operate the controls and developing skills that have application in other contexts and at other times and places. Here, participation is about action. The boat provides the site. As does the water. But for me it is the kind of doing that the site enables that is interesting. 

The problem with much participation is that it claims the act of doing for the performer who coerces the spectator into a particular predetermined model of engagement that corresponds to a less than genuine invitation to participate. In each of the three examples above water provides the site for the production of new and or unlikely relations. One led to the establishment of a boarding house for Zurich's sex workers, the second produced a 30 foot sailing boat that carries with it the biographies of 1221 objects whilst producing further biographies as it sails the sea and competes in races, and Trevor's work exists in the relations manifest in the participants who take experiences and new skills from their time on his boat and put them to work elsewhere. 

The conversations on Lake Zurich were several hours long. However, they were also part of a series of conversations over a number of months that received attention in the media. Each conversation was part of a bigger conversation. Time was important here. The same is true in Lone Twin's boat project, and in Trevor's work. Time, process and a genuine invitation to participate that can be declined are to my mind really important. 

For me, participation is less effective as an event or single encounter, and more effective as a process, a complex negotiation over time in which the performance event is a moment in the journey, its unifying focus, but not the most important part. Welfare State International and subsequently Dead Good Guides are a good point of reference here. In their work the process is as much the work of art as the final event. Participants develop skills, negotiate complex tasks, build relationships and this all leads to further conversation and collaboration elsewhere. What feels important here is that participation is the not the outcome of a research/practical enquiry. It is the enquiry. 

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