What we want after “the break” will be different from what we think we want before the break and both are necessarily different from the desire that issues from being in the break.
Jack Halberstam, The Wild Beyond: with and for the Undercommons (2013)
Dr Owen Parry (2018-19 Postdoctoral Fellow) recently presented his live art piece A Performance Hangout (off offline) at the Edinburgh College of Art, as part of IASH's Susan Manning Workshop series. Dr Parry describes the event and its inspirations here:
The Performance Hangout is an ongoing investigation into forms of critique and ascendance at a moment when practices of subversion and transgression have become outmoded, usurped into fascistic projects, and made productive within cognitive capitalism. In a sense, following an array of thinkers, this project too asks the question: Capitalism: is there an alternative? But it does so by means of shifting theoretical speculation into art practice.
In a discussion on Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), a concept increasingly popular within new materialist discourses, which claims that new technologies will liberate us from work and permit us to imagine the unimaginable – a life beyond capitalism - cultural theorist and theory-fiction pioneer Mark Fisher discusses how “Putting the concepts of ‘luxury’ and ‘communism’ together does not make much sense, and it’s from this lack of sense that a new idea emerges ... you create a kind of libidinal energy.” “[L]uxury” for Fisher is not the acquiring of material assets, but the luxury of having time beyond work, the idea being that automation will free us from the pernicious realities of precarious labour under which many of us currently live. While the Performance Hangout does not necessarily seek to illustrate FALC’s thesis, nor share the same desire for full automation, what It does share is the desire for an alternative to capitalism, through the clashing together of two seemingly opposing components – not luxury and communism, but performance and hanging out.
“Performance” in the theatrical, self-conscious, and mimetic sense, and “Hanging out” in the fully-immersed-absolute-presence-with-others sense, appear here as two opposing concepts. One is transformative and productive, and the other unproductive. But what happens when you juxtapose or clash them together? And how have both performance and the hangout, two social and aesthetic practices so pertinent to 20th century avant-gardes and countercultures, been re-imagined through these digitally networked times?
Through my fellowship at IASH, I have been developing an iteration of this research titled A Performance Hangout (off offline), with a sharing on Monday 24 June 2019 between the usual working hours of 1pm and 5pm at The Wee Red Bar, a small studio theatre at Edinburgh College of Art. The performance was also live-streamed via Twitter for those not physically present to tune in. Forming as a hybrid social and theatrical concept, the performance hangout combined two distinct physical paradigms: one for a carefully choreographed boyband hangout, rehearsed and performed by three dynamic performers (Dan Cox, Jo Hague, and Mustafa Ozpek) which maintained a deliberate theatrical fourth wall and included a series of easy-synchronized movement routines set to a playlist of pop music backing tracks, performed atop a patchwork screen made of colourful fabrics all lit by theatrical lighting; the other a parallel arena for attendees to hangout, which included floor space, tables, chairs and a picnic. In some sense the hangout “on stage” mirrors (if not fictionalises) the possibilities for the “real” hangout (and vice versa), which happens “off-screen” in the darkened edges of the theatre. A space where attendees could watch, talk, work (there were plugs available to plug in laptops and devices), eat, sleep, think and come and go as they wish. The performance in this instance acts as a kind of bi-focal distraction which produces data to be captured and valued (within capitalism); while simultaneously off screen in the darkened edges, a desire for an alternative “underground of the university” is manifested, to quote from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s inspirational book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013), which points to ways of resisting the corporatization of the university and knowledge production through the suspension of professionalized worktime, routine and habit.
The performance hangout thus opens up two simultaneous physical paradigms, one for performing and one for just being; but it also instigated a virtual hangout through the Twitter livestream and a WhatsApp group, opening up a plurality of simultaneous groups. Much effort was made in creating an environment that shifts the ordinary customs of viewing and experiencing art: a performance which asks “how to make a performance that does not ask to be looked at (all the time)?”; or, “how to make a performance that might be opened in a ‘tab’ as you work?” Ticking away in the background as a kind of ambient support, rather than a distraction or intervention.
In contrast to previous iterations of the performance hangout (Fierce Festival, Birmingham, 2017 and Steakhouse live, 2016), this edition was structured in two parts with a “break” in the middle for discussion with invited guests on topics which explore “the hangout” as a mode of inhabitation tested across a history of experimental art, theatre and counter-culture where “nothing really happens”; through to its more recent re-animation in the form of post-Fordist workplace and online virtual hangout. It brought together a range of artists, theorists and amateurs to both inhabit and think through the performance hangout in relation to their own research and expertise as well as passers-by.
In the break (from hanging out) guests and attendees arranged themselves “onstage” for an informal discussion. Julia Bardsley (Queen Mary, University of London) a theatre artist working with performance and the configuration of the audience, dressed in her apian-inspired costume, offered up reverie and savage thinking as just two possibilities for the hangout, with reference to her own practice: The Reading Room project, which includes the act of reading books aloud, cover to cover, including Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958) and Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009) along with accompanied music and actions from invited guests, and the more recent An Apian Paradox, which remixes Maurice Maeterlinck's The Life of the Bee (1901), a book which looks at how insect societies self-organise. 'Sloth not growth' was Bardsley’s motto. Glyn Davis (University of Edinburgh), a theorist and historian of the moving image also contributed with brilliant insights on Slow Cinema, presenting some thoughts from his forthcoming book The Exhausted Screen: Cinema, Boredom, Stasis. Particularly illuminating was the notion of “furniture films” (Justin Remes), which Glyn introduced, and which is based on Erik Satie’s notion of “furniture music”: “Such compositions would not monopolize the audience's attention, but would instead serve as the backdrop for other experiences”. (Justin Remes) This idea has since got me thinking about the possibilities for “furniture performance”, and the performance hangout as a space that allows for the kind of reverie discussed by Bardsley. Ben Fletcher-Watson (University of Edinburgh) whose research interests include theatre for early years, relaxed performance and mobile/wearable technologies in theatre, discussed the notion of access by offering insights into the ways reputable theatres offer relaxed performance – that is a reconfiguration of the show – intended specifically to be sensitive to and accepting of audience members who may benefit from a more relaxed environment than conventional theatre-going, including (but not limited to) those on the autism spectrum, anyone with sensory and communication disorders or learning disabled people. Katie Hawthorne (University of Edinburgh), a music journalist and PhD candidate exploring theatre in the digital age, set up a WhatsApp group during the performance hangout through which others could join, participate or just lurk, and she discussed this through reflections on themes of liveness and FOMO. The WhatsApp group successfully opened up another paradigm through which attendees could hangout and discuss and document the work, and be together. Eirini Kartsaki (University of Essex), a performance practitioner and author of Repetition in Performance: Returns and Invisible Forces (2017), offered a poetic semi-autobiographical imagining of the performance hangout through a three-part narrative on relations in non-linear time and the desire for non-normative narratives sparked by an unproductive romantic encounter with a man on the train, and a generous reflection on how the performance hangout resists the fantasy of the future, inviting us to be simultaneously elsewhere (in our thoughts, dreams, desires) and with each other. Lastly, Guy Stevenson (Goldsmiths, University of London) a theorist on literary modernism and 1960s counterculture, addressed the ways modernist aesthetics have been usurped by right wing populism, with specific reference to the contemporary notion of “the woke” or the asleep – those who are woke or unwoke: Woke to the political moment or actually perhaps hiding in their subcultures, in their hangouts. Guy called for less cool, less ironic responses to the contemporary and offered some thoughtful insights into ways the performance hangout might address this through its deliberate avoidance of transgressive aesthetics and irony, and by shifting attention (not to slowness necessarily) but to duration, to ambience, to feeling, to hanging out with others.
The combination of contributions, questions, and provocations and the opportunity to hangout before and after the break around these ideas while the performance continued, was immensely pleasurable. Rather than a blueprint for an alternative to capitalism’s surveillance theatres, corporate engagement imperatives and the global rise of populism, the performance hangout (and this report to some extent) allows the opportunity to imagine a life beyond such agendas; without losing the fantasy of unity and erotics, or the luxury of time beyond work and leisure.
I would like to thank IASH for their support through the creation of this project, and Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture & Society, who awarded me a Digital Skills and Training Bursary to attend the Saas Fee Summer Institute of Art 2019 at Performance Space, New York City in June: a two-week programme focused on “States of Consciousness in Cognitive Capitalism”, a rigorous and stimulating research opportunity through which I developed much of my thinking for this iteration of the performance hangout. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all attendees, who came for a short break or ended up staying.
A Performance Hangout (off offline) was supported by a Susan Manning Workshop Fund.
Livestream part 1: https://twitter.com/IASH_Edinburgh/status/1143126811959812096?s=20
Livestream part 2: https://twitter.com/IASH_Edinburgh/status/1143177011487268865?s=20