Street Theater and Urban Space | PETRA ZIST
 

August 19, 2014

Street as a place for communitas

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Street theatre takes place in public places where people are in motion and socialize daily, where it is also accessible (for free! we would like to believe) to those who otherwise would have never gone into a theatre building. It is open to all, regardless cultural, class, sex, age or any other affiliation, enabling the whole diverse community to meet. Thus it is throughout popular. Street theatre, as such or in festival, appeals to city residents and visitors as a whole. The crowd of people on the street is physically close to each other but still they may be complete strangers. Yet, the experience of the same place and same moment in festival binds people together and connects them in a common reality. Street show gives people a feeling of belonging or communitas as defined by Turner (1991). Street as a powerful stage therefore can be a liminal area (Hastrup, 1998: 31-33). Liminoid state offers an open space for creation of new identities and transformative power; it converts the usual into strange and the known into unknown (Turner, 1989: 40). In times and places of liminality the normative base of the social order and its social structure are challenged and temporarily reversed, as in the case of festival. Inverse and antistructural liminality allows reconstruction of social structures.

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Experienced communitas is expressed through this transgressive practices associated with “carnivalesque” (Hetherington, 1998: 113). According to Bahtin (2008: 13, 17, 49) the carnival is governed by the laws of carnival freedom, in which participants are liberated from the prevailing truth and existing order, and they realize their relativity. Privileges, norms, bans and all hierarchical relations are temporarily removed. In carnival, similarly as in street theatre festivals, the present public is the same, which provides a special type of communication that otherwise would not have been possible. Spectators organised in a concentric circle or otherwise in a street performance are all equal and in the same position – the one that has a better view is a person that came earlier or obtained position by effort, let it be a tramp or a city mayor. People are freed from the accustomed, generally accepted and gain new eyes through which they can realize a possibility of a different world order. People do not only watching a carnival, they live in it; as long as it exists they are not aware of any other life. In it, there is no stage barrier, no distinction between performers and spectators. This bears comparison with the traditional role of town squares and streets in the ancient, medieval Mediterranean towns where, during similar occasions, those public areas turned into large open-air stages allowing viewers to also become active participants. It is through participation rather than through the expressed message – the words – that one understands “the story” in the event (Hansen, 2002: 21).

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I find Bahtin’s examination of carnival very useful to explain the importance of today’s street theatre because forms of social space and related identities are also transformed by carnival features of such performances (Hetherington, 1998: 147). “It is these “transformative potentials” produced by the temporary suspension of everyday life and order of power that provide instances for redefining meanings and social order.” (Jamieson, 2004: 68). This leads us to think that festivals carry a political significance and in their transformability a potential danger and threat for the existing (look Handelman 1998: 31).

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Street action is first of all a carnival event par excellence, then a social manifestation and nonetheless a political action (Lukan, 2008: 68-69). It is not surprising then that many of current protests, demonstrations and occupy movements which take place in public spaces bear the traits of performativity, all the way to the explicit street theatre performances and actions. History of street theatre teaches us that the development of it is significantly associated with social movements in sixties and seventies in Europe and United States.

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Liberated public space

Street theatre is permeated by physical, social and symbolic public space. Performing on the street, which is a physical public space, actors use and create a social public space, and the performance itself creates a symbolic public space that is articulated in collective memory. In the discourse of actors of cultural interventions into public space, Chaudoir (2000: 54-64) remarks four dimensions of public space: spatial, temporal, social and political. Habermas’s concept of public space envisions a common place embraced with ongoing exchanges in communication and formation of opinions (Chaudoir 2000: 22). However, street theatre is not so much a public space that would be formed by free expression of public opinion. Engagement overtakes the form of festivity, which is more about the fact that we exist as such, in the current collective, “integrated and recognized in society, for which on the other hand it seems that is otherwise disappearing” (Ostrowetsky 2001: 153). Temporal dimension can be a memory, immediacy and/or projection of the future.

Public space gets sense only in relation to the monumentality of the physical space that surrounds it, confines, and defines it.[1] City with its construction, with streets, sidewalks and squares depicts places potentially foreseen as public space, which is necessarily common place, accessible to all; seizing of it is actually its negation of existence (Ostrowetsky 2001: 143). Liberated social place is manifested (or is created) in “liberated” streets and squares (Dragićević-Šešič 2000: 74), freed from conventions and commands. Street theatre shows desire to re-appropriate the city. What makes it potentially powerful is also concentrated happening; because it is about life and at the same time is life (Hastrup 1998: 30).

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Each occurrence of street theatre in a public place can be a reminder that public space belongs to everyone and to no one at the same time (Ostrowetsky 2000: 3). Similarly as Mason (1996: 308) says about street fair, involvement in street performance gives visitors a feeling of being in possession of the space, to control and to shape it. In times when public spaces are changing from democratic places of diverse people and activities into centres of trade and consumption as well as political control (Low and Smith 2006: vii), this is so much more important.

Socially produced space and bodily creation

According to Lefebvre, who sees the social and the spatial as inseparable, the resistance to dominant social relations are effective when abstract space is made visible by them – with sensory phenomena and products of imagination, such as project and projections, symbols and utopias. This way the social relations are also made visible through places of social praxis.

This specific activation of fixed, physical, geometrical space produces spatiality, which is produced every time anew together with performance and cannot be equated with place on which it occurs (Fischer-Lichte 2008: 176). Performing space of the street is on the one hand geometrical place provided beforehand, has certain ground plan, specific length, width and height, certain square dimensions or volume, is solid and stable, and does not cease to exist together with the end of the show; after the show it is still there. On the other hand, the same place is a performative space which constantly fluctuates. Spatiality rises with moving and with perception of actors and spectators. Moving and movement is constituted as a fundamental experience of the space (Honkasalo 1998: 38).

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Edward W. Soja (after Farrar 1997: 106) defines spatiality as “socially produced space”: “Place is grounded and recognizable social product, a part of “second nature” which includes socialisation and transformation of physical as well as mental spaces”. In other words, nature of social space, even its material and physical reality, is a function of his use which in turn is a consequence of the interaction of those involved (Mason 1996: 307).

Lefebvre (1991: 33) defines »representational spaces« as through images and symbols directly experienced space. »Representational space« is a place of its ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’, as well as some artists and other creators. This is a passively experienced place that imagination wants to adapt and change. It overlaps with the physical place with the symbolic use of its facilities (1991: 39).

Representational spaces incorporate symbolic meanings, which bearers or markers within behavioural markers are also festivals and street performances, as stated by Nas (2006: 8). With symbolic meanings and symbols enriched cities or hypercities are the most democratic cities because they allow everyone to be a producer apart from being a consumer. Already with their presence the audiences co-create in the performance, and sometimes with active participation and inclusion they also enter into the performance. Here I refer to participatory bodily, experiential agency (Muršič, 2006: 48) in terms of »embodiment« (51, 53). The artists are usually the ones who play a major role in productions of a hypercity as a mediator between reality and illusion (Nas 2006: 12); they are actors or »double agents« (Hastrup 1998: 38) in symbolic and agency play. The audience is somewhere in between: between the spectator and the participant.

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»Embodiment« is a fundamental attribute of the processes of spatialization, identifying and differenciating (Muršič, 2006: 53). »Embodied space« (Low, 2003: 5) is an existential and phenomenological reality of space: its smell, feel, color, and other sensory dimensions. Phenomenologically it is a place, produced by individuals or social structures. With appropriation and transformation of space they create a new place (Pred, after Low 2003: 5). Embodied space is a place where an individual’s experience and awareness are manifested in material and spatial form (Piškur, 2006: 34). Moving body shapes a space even before it fills it (Peterson Royce 2004: 70) and the street art is inscribed in the »urban scene« (Dragićević-Šešič, 2000: 87).

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What was said in last few paragraphs can be most vividly illustrated through the experience of Canadian puppeteers of a two-man band Les sages fous. In their puppet street show Bizzarium they take you to the underwater world right in the middle of the street: »Once we performed in front of a very high church. And in the performance when we were diving and then looked back up to the top of the church from where we came, we followed all the way to the top of the church and saw the entire public how they followed our sight. And they saw their own church completely anew. Which usually they don’t remark at all. And it suddenly became an underwater city. And people became algae or plancton, seaweed. They are also fish, fishermen, sea grass in some way.«

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Reading of city

City, willing or unwilling, becomes a scene – a decor placed on display. Spectators have, by co-creating the show, the possibility to see parts of their cities in a new light. Renovated public space with a revised view of the everyday is one way of discovering new places, for the artist as well as a resident or spectator (Chaumier 2007: 169). The perception of the city otherwise well known is changed. Places revive anew, obtain a new function, and are filled with meaning (Dragićević-Šešić 2000: 96, 97, 164).

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The magic of theatre is in making visible what was previously invisible (Hastrup 1998: 34), in several meanings. Visibility in street theatre is actually a synonym for readability, as visibility allows certain form of “reading the history, which on one hand is defined as a revelation, and on the other side as the resonance of identity” (Chaudoir 2000: 84). Urban place as text or city as the language (Duvignaud 1997: 39; Wittgenstein by Masquelier 2001: 122) offers many possibilities for reading and decoding inscribed history. In the sixties of the twentieth century, when the linguistics developed as a paradigm of social sciences and knowledge about life, Saussure’s semiotic hypothesis was transmitted to the cities, in which elements comparable to phonemes and morphemes of language were identified and assumed to be formed in logical system (Choay 2006: 131). With performance and narrative new grammar of places and ways is established (Masquelier 2001: 127). The concept of grammar is used here in a sense stressed by Wittgenstein (by Masquelier 2001: 127): “When we follow the grammatical rules other than those which are in use, we do not say anything wrong, but we are talking about other things.”

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Interventions of the group Royal de Luxe are well known for their parades through city with ten meters high giants[2]. In relation to them, inhabitants become Lilliputians. Through new uses place is transformed, is given new meanings, similar to Walter Benjamin’s flâneur (1998: 181) who transforms boulevard into interior: “The road becomes apartment for the stroller, among house facades he is at home like a townsman among his four walls.” Perception of the spectators of the Giant who fell from the sky (see Masquelier 2001: 119-135) about themselves, and the perception of the environment are permeated by the game with new rules. People themselves need to discover locations and moments of different episodes around the city. The presence of giants therefore becomes the reason for rumours, causes spontaneous exchanges between inhabitants who inform each other about departures and arrivals of marionettes. Also people need to include themselves in the narrative process they are offered and in this perspective invent (in the double sense of creating and discovering) what this event has to say to them. Nobody experiences the same experience. The event has facilitated transition from “having a city” into “being a city” (Ostrowetsky 2001: 156).

As in the aforementioned spectacle, spectators in other street performances mainly have the possibility to move around the place and in doing so changing their viewpoint, to distance themselves from the performers and other spectators as they wish and in this way associate to the story. Performing spaces in the city organize and structure the relationship between actors and spectators, movement and perception, differently each time (Fischer-Lichte 2008: 181). Of course they are the most mobile in walkabouts, which are very popular lately in the forms of guided city tours, where the actors explain and analyze street and city signs to the participants, tell (fictional) stories associated with what was seen, show an unusual perspective of the city and establish relations between the participants. In the walking tour show Le Grand Big tour of the Kolekitv Narobov (Narobov Collective) in the manner of good old touristic trips they take spectators on a journey through streets, dictate the dynamic of the walk, command them to hold hands, sit in the middle of the road, distribute cigarettes when it is time for a break, tell stories of the people behind the walls of blocks of flats, establish relations with residents, ring the bells of housing blocks (and receive a jug of water in return), extort a kiss from a passing cyclist on his way, tell the history of the place … Although unravelled stories are completely contrived they highlight otherwise self-evident parts of the city – which are not questioned on our everyday tours as we are convinced that we know them – that we become aware of as a tourist in our own town.

Incredible, mysterious and fictious story was going on in walking through the scenes of the streets, squares, parks and buildings. With moving through the space, the spatiality of the city was produced by each individual spectator in mixing real places, people and events with fictitious ones. With spilling over imaginary and real spaces performative space is marked as “intermediate space” (Fischer-Lichte 2008: 188).

In Ljubljana artistic collective KUD Ljud opened ready-made open-air gallery – Pocestnica (Streetwalker), walking street performances, in which existing architectural elements, urban compositions and iconography, facades of buildings, inscriptions in the place and natural phenomena were displayed and “read” as gallery pieces. Through this they reactivated and reinterpreted public space as well as opened discussion about elite art behind the walls and its discourse. “Streetwalker directly addresses everyone, especially random passers-by for whom contemporary art and gallery activities are something unknown and forgotten like last year’s snow.” (http://pocestnica.net/). In their gallery crossing for pedestrians becomes expensive artwork of the recognized artist (woe, if someone steps on it, or even drives over!), worth of semiotic interpretation, as well as wall graffiti, traffic and other signs. They equipped exhibits, as is fitting, with descriptions, information about the author, techniques, dimensions and instructions. Thus, following the example of Duchamp, they pointed out that even everyday objects can have aesthetic value.

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Descriptive plates on the performative site are only the most obvious manifestations of inscription into urban space. Ephemeral, intangible, elusive event “nourishes place which can only be inscribed into permanent” (Chaudoir 2000: 139). Through “marking”, event remains etched memory in the space and is being set up as a support to the collective memory (Chaudoir 2000: 64).

PETRA ŽIŠT is a PhD student of ethnology and cultural anthropology at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. As a result of her long-lasting research she published articles about street theatre in the volumes Celebrate to Prosper (2012) and The Idea of Creative City (2014). Among her research interests are art, performance, mobility, migration, multiculturalism.

 

Notes

[1] Already from Ancient Greece public space is almost by definition urban space. Urban and city remain a privileged aspect and research location of public space. There are only few analysis which treat rural or global spaces, such as internet, as public space (Low and Smith 2006: 3). In different societies, places and times, »public place« has a different meaning.

[2] They operate them with help of machines and with their bodies so that they hang on the rope and move the entire physique.

References

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___2002 ‘Are there Universals of Performance in Myth, Ritual, and Drama?’ In: By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual. RichardSchechner and Willa Appel, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University. Pp. 8-18.

 

 

 

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