Melloners concluded a multi-day session with Mike Pearson and Heike Roms of Aberystwyth University. Though Mike grew up in England and Heike in Germany, they bring a shared affinity for Welsh landscape and performance-art history, firmly regrounding us in our summer theme.Mike’s talk on reciprocity, conflict, and indifference focused our attention on the relationships between performance and its sites. By directing performances in disused churches, abandoned country houses, barns, markets, and museums, Mike embraces collaboration with (and response to) objects, buildings, and environments. At the height of Thatcherism, Mike staged the oldest Welsh epic in an abandoned car factory. Two years ago, he directed a production of Coriolan/us in a disused World War II aircraft hangar, wherein audience members heard the speech and sounds through headphones and were free to move about the space. Rather than treat the landscape as a textual problem (as David Levine put it), Mike wants the performer to deal with the ergonomic problems of the landscape as a “taskscape,” where a skilled agent carries out a practical operation. He prefers the term “found places” to “fabricated scenography” because it emphasizes the location’s congruency and sympathy with performance. Landscapes may not be written on, but histories are woven into the surface of the land itself. In Mike’s words, the environment “is pregnant with the past.” His 2010 production of Aeschylus’ The Persians, set in an urban warfare training-base, invited audiences to consider defeat from the standpoint of the defeated, while suggesting but never specifically alluding to war zones in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan (and, for that matter, Martin's Gettysburg). And though the performance never directly enacts the historical removal of the Welsh inhabitants from this particular landscape, the performance may nevertheless open the memory. Above all, Mike hopes to use the theater to avoid indexical relationships, where one particular place simulates another.
Perhaps the most prominent connection to our previous discussions was Mike’s 2002 production, Raindogs, which he made in collaboration with the South Wales police and their new surveillance technology. While Sarah-Bay Cheng sought to circumvent surveillance by performing theatricality (dramatizing the difference between the real and digital worlds), and David Levine sought to infiltrate surveillance through performative camouflage (focusing on the interiority and exteriority of the actor’s body), Mike’s work encourages us to embrace surveillance. An actor stands still in an urban environment, as though facing the gaze of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Audiences see the city moving around the actor, and his stillness draws our attention to the location. How far can this relation of the performance to the forensic be analyzed? Mike suggested that his play offers not a panoptic view, but one in which the city is revealed. The turn to the forensic was happening at a very particular moment in theater archaeology, where traces of performances and particular performance analysis were available, and everything could be significant. (Heike would return to this in her own lecture; both also advised us to check out the BBC 4 crime drama, Hinterland.)
One Melloner asked how ideas of home and dwelling come together with performance and nation. While Mike identified ad hoc notions of dwelling with the seamless movement of the Noh stage, he said that he tries to get away from the nineteenth-century model of nationalism. Heike went further, suggesting that if nineteenth-century theater is about canon, twentieth-century theater is about place. Nation becomes a project of exploration rather than a given. Nevertheless, having a national theater (as in the National Theatre Wales, for which Mike directs) puts you one step closer to having a nation state. Others probed the ethics of making places visible. By exposing unseen places, does performance try to make the local more widely available, and thus destroy it? If one could choose a performance site based on its history and its past, could one also choose a location based on an anticipation of what was going to come, per an avant-garde “theater of the future”? We discussed performances designed around aging and dementia, and touched on instances of performances determining future buildings.
Tuesday evening, Heike delivered her lecture on the history of performance art in Wales from 1965-1979. Focusing on locating rather than location, she deconstructs the practice of research itself, including the archive, oral histories, and documentation. She situates Welsh performance art as negotiating between international and local conditions of making, including a web of networks, venues, festivals, and publication schemes. Yet she is also interested in gaps and absences, seeking not a truth to be uncovered by research, but an event constituted by it. And she wrestles with putting together projects collective (as in www.performance-wales.org, with over 4,500 documents digitized) and individual (as in a monograph).
In our discussion, we thought about how to frame Heike’s research for other periods and places. Many asked questions about memories and Heike’s means of documenting them, which include one-on-one and public interviews, along with visits to performance sites and collaborative map annotations (as Heike, paraphrasing Denis Cosgrove, put it: cartographic literacy is “a form of citizenship”). For Heike, the memory of audience members is just as important as that of the artist. How does one document things that artists never wanted to be documented, or slippery gestures and movements? Are all artists cooperative with Heike’s interview method? Though some artists are dubious about recapturing their work, all but a few have been very interested in recovering or revisiting it. We began to tease out a connective tissue space, where the work exceeds an object or event, shifting emphasis away from a work’s materiality and onto our engagement with it. Heike maintained (and Mike attested) that in her interviews with artists she doesn’t strive for a “Gotcha!” moment, wherein the evidence of the archive trumps the artist’s memory. She did, however, once show a performance artist a video of his work, in which a naked man covered in paint ran through the frame. The performance artist did not remember the event or the identity of the naked man.
One Melloner aptly described Heike’s scholarship as “public practice.” Heike explained her goal as using new performance forms to build a public discourse—to open up a space for serious engagement. She and Mike have done that for us here, with intellectual warmth and grace.