MORE THAN BUMS ON SEATS


Julie-Anne Long

Branch Nebula: Choreographing the Audience

How much to say?

Artists Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters have been collaborating since 1998 and, through their enterprise Branch Nebula, have been making socially and politically engaged interdisciplinary performance work since 1999. On the Branch Nebula website[1] under ABOUT, Co-Artistic Director Mirabelle Wouters, reveals her alternative upbringing in Belgium and her discovery of jazz ballet, accompanied by retro photos from babyhood to luminous young dancer. Co-Artistic Director Lee Wilson (revealing much more perhaps), offers as his entry, ‘Still needs to write his blurb.’ There is, however, a photo of a toddler striding along a concrete suburban footpath, wearing oversized shorts (or is it a skirt?) with an EH Holden station wagon parked on the grass verge across the street.

I went to talk to Lee and Mirabelle at the Branch Nebula office, amid a cluster of creative spaces in the Myrtle St Studios, Marrickville, Sydney. My intention was to speak about their upcoming work Stop Go, in development for the 2018 Keir Choreographic Award. Contrary to his laconic website entry, Lee was garrulous while Mirabelle made observations at insightful interludes throughout our conversation. The co-creators prefaced our chat with the revelation: ‘… we don’t want the audience to know too much beforehand… we’re trying to keep it ambiguous, so we don’t know how much to say.’[2] This did not augur well for me but I assured them it would be fine to proceed. Following our conversation, I decided that if I can’t say what it is, I can ask: What is it like? Where does it ‘sit’? So, I have constructed a bricolage of entries. It’s not this, but it’s like this. A record of what’s public, an evocation of Branch Nebula’s choreographic approach for Stop Go, and a nod to a larger context and performance history.

Don’t go means stop

To begin, there is a title and Branch Nebula’s carefully constructed publicity blurb:

Stop Go opens Branch Nebula’s choreographic toolkit for public inspection and use. Any performance is in essence just one thing after another, and the order in which these things happen is infinitely malleable. Artists have some expertise in choosing the things and assembling the sequence, and audiences have a right to expect this expertise to be on display when attending the theatre. Stop Go respects this implicit contract and provides the audience with everything they need to create a satisfying night, including:

  • tension and resolution
  • high stakes
  • complex movement, and
  • engaging characters.

And while the human will be foregrounded throughout the performance, there will also be technologies never before seen on stage.

There is also an image:

Branch Nebula, Working Plan, 2018

 


[redacted] movement patterns in the [redacted]: the spatial and temporal organisation of the response sequences constituting [redacted]. The circular inset diagrams the relation of the [redacted] to the [redacted] at the start of the period indicated by the arrows. Drawings are based upon individual motion picture frames taken at [redacted] frames/sec.[3]

Stop-Go is an [redacted] term used to describe processes in which there are periods of inactivity between periods of activity. It is a provisional [redacted] aimed at keeping a delicate balance between two apparently clashing objectives, such as reducing the [redacted] rate as well as the [redacted] rate. A stop-go situation is one in which there are periods of training and [redacted] quickly followed by periods without activity, especially in a [redacted] [redacted]. [4]


 DON’T GO MEANS STOP


Green means stop, red means go

Mirabelle: Our choreography is based on the idea that the audience are always in the work, in the theatre, they always have tasks to do…[5]

Mirabelle: … using the theatre as a site using everything that comes with it – the building, space, people who work in it – who works where and does what? And how does it function when you’re the audience? And what’s your role when you come in? It’s all very organised, it’s about trying to break that apart or subvert it, the audience has a role to play and they know they applaud at the end and they sit down and be quiet…[6]

Lee: We will demand a little of them but not too much just enough to highlight the work and, that we will all have to pull together to produce a ‘choreography’.[7]


Organised [redacted] generally has well-established priorities, [redacted], right-of-way and [redacted] signals or signs at [redacted]. Informal rules may be developed to facilitate the orderly and timely flow of [redacted] either singly or together. Different [redacted] may share [redacted] limits and easement, or may be segregated. Some [redacted] may have very detailed and complex rules of the [redacted] while others rely more on [redacted] common sense and willingness to cooperate. A complete breakdown of organisation may result in [redacted] congestion and [redacted]. Simulations of organised [redacted] frequently involve [redacted] theory, a random probability pattern that may not be [redacted] precisely and [redacted] of [redacted] applied to [redacted] flow.[8]


Mirabelle: This project extends our ongoing interest in choreography…

Lee: The audience will be aware of their role, being within the choreography they will be creators of the choreography and be part of a collective experience…[9]

Have you ever been experienced?

What to buy for the person who has everything? An experience, an action adventure, a memorable moment, a night at the theatre…maybe even a participatory performance experience.

The term ‘happenings’ brings to mind being ‘part of the action’, or possibly being put out of your comfort zone by an unpredictable, thought-provoking experience. ‘Happenings’ are related to a lineage of avant-garde performance, stretching from Europe in the early twentieth century to New York in the late 1950s through the 1960s, including the works of Allan Kaprow and Fluxus events. Happenings often fiercely critiqued contemporary society. For Allan Krapow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959), performed at the Rueben Gallery in New York, he decided:

‘… that it was time to increase ‘the “responsibility” of the observer’, Krapow issued invitations that included the statement ‘you will become a part of the happenings; you will simultaneously experience them.’[10]

For 18 Happenings the visitors/audience/spectators/participants were noted as part of the cast in the program notes. This interest in shifting the role of the audience to a participatory context was embraced by a number of key postmodern dance artists working in New York at the time.

For the first performance of Simone Forti’s Rollers (1960), also at the Rueben Gallery in New York, audience members were actively involved in the mechanics of the object-centred happening. While performers sat in plywood boxes on wheels, two audience members dragged and pulled ropes manipulating each box and their passengers around the space like dodgem cars:

‘[For] Roller Boxes, we just had two boxes because it was a teeny little gallery, and that was the only time that the audience pulled the ropes. And they just went crazy with it. Patti—at that time called Patti Oldenburg—was in one of the boxes, and I was in one of the boxes, and we were supposed to be singing single tones. We ended up screaming. It was very exciting.’[11]

Since the 1990s artists in contemporary performance practices have been interested in subverting the privileged theatre space and giving audiences agency through various participatory processes. As an audience member, I have been privy to a number of memorable examples of participatory performance art. Unlike those hideous audience participation moments where you retreat in your seat sending out don’t pick me, don’t pick me vibes, these experiences, most of which took place in Sydney in the 1990s, were inclusive, we’re all in this together, experiences.

During the 1990s, Performance Space was a venue that directly engaged with the politics of spectatorship through the works it supported, engaging artists and audiences in a more active relationship and various types of participatory art. In Lock Up (1994), the Post-Arrivalists held the audience hostage, locked them in the theatre and left them there.[12]  I was exhilarated but slightly anxious. The Sydney Front’s First and Last Warning (1992) required the audience to swap their street clothes, at the door to the theatre, for black nylon slips (male and female alike) – simultaneously embarrassing and hilarious. After a series of reconfigurations of the performer spectator relationship the audience worked together with some of the performers to build an impressive wall out of cardboard boxes that divided the space.[13] I remember a sense of achievement, strangely satisfying. Interdisciplinary performance company Open City provided performance environments for their spectators where one could choose how you wished to engage; where to stand in the space, what speed you preferred to move through the performance, what to listen to and what to look at, when to stop and when to go. (Sense (1993), Sum of the Sudden (1993), Shop & The Necessary Orgy (1995)).

Branch Nebula follow on from these explorations and promise to take them in a different direction with their propositions for the audience in Stop Go!

I wonder: What will be the role of the performers in Stop Go? What will be the role of the audience or spectators in Stop Go? Will there be a narrative? Will there be meaning? What can I expect when I enter the theatre? What effect will it have on me? What effect will I have on Stop Go? What will be required of me?

Lee: We will offer the audience agency while fully aware, that we the artists, are creating the rules and boundaries of that agency within a framework dictated by the institutions Keir Foundation, Carriageworks, Dancehouse and other funding regimes…[14]

Branch Nebula are deeply invested in the audiences’ experience. A number of their previous works point to the aims and objectives behind Stop Go. They consistently create experiences for audiences, which challenge cultural conventions of mainstream theatre and dance. More than putting on a show or sharing their practice they aim to create accessible, yet unexpected experiences, blurring the lines between the performance, reality, work and play, poetics and politics.

For example, Snake Sessions is an ongoing project that involves a site-specific week-long residency in a skate park, a collaboration devised to empower local users of the park. Through improvisation and workshops, they create and present a work that aims to build ‘a performance that responds to who is in the space, the elements and challenges of each skate park; enjoying the rapport that can develop through shared physical activity and each individual’s highly specialised skill’.[15]

Branch Nebula work across disciplines and different public spaces and frequently engage community in live art events. Food Fight: The Battle for Food Security (2017), co-created with Diego Bonetto was a four-hour event at Bigge Park, Liverpool. Food Fight included live cooking demonstrations from local participants and night food markets.  It featured soapbox performances by ‘Food Warriors’ and roaming ‘Food Security Guards’ who participated in discussions with audience members about food security. In SWARM – Collective Actions on Queen for Campbelltown Arts Centre’s Live Art Program in 2015-2016, Branch Nebula curated a tour of the main shopping street of Campbelltown, engaging audiences in a series of artistic interventions and challenging the individual’s agency in public spaces.

There will be…

a theatre place, a space, architecture

a cultural context, an institutional context, a political context, the status quo

an audience, individuals, human bodies, non-human bodies, cultures, social selves, genders, ages

an artistic practice, creativity, trial and error, failure, fulfillment

the work of choreography

bodies moving

effort, shape

direction, weights, speed, flow (after Laban)

time, rhythm, relationships and interactions

a high degree of logistics

instructions, regulations, simulations

rules to be broken

tasks, steps, gestures

movement impulses, choices and free will

imitation, initiation

talking, listening, asking, observing, body language and non-verbal communication

encounters, collisions, agreements, disagreements and

stop-go


Such factors depend not only on the [redacted] structure but also on the movement patterns of [redacted], which may differ among different individual [redacted] because they are partly learned, and will be different for different kinds of [redacted] because they are partly [redacted] specific. [16]


poetics

knowledge, action, affective responses (after Louppe)

feelings, sensations, thoughts, emotions, responses, possibilities

memories

There will be transformation.

This will take approximately twenty minutes.

You will be more than a bum on a seat.


This in itself can become a laborious and time-consuming task. Nevertheless, purely descriptive criteria for [redacted] behavior are to be preferred over motivational or functional ones, because the latter might preclude the discovery of interactions between motivational or functional systems. For example, if in [redacted] only one specific [redacted] state of the individual is considered, or if only the acts which lead to the final product [redacted] are considered, the role of the [redacted]-building acts in the context of establishing or [redacted][redacted] might be overlooked or misjudged.[17]


Mirabelle: We will invite the audience to be more than bums on seats…

Lee: We don’t know if it’s going to work yet…we ask ourselves the question: could this work happen if the audience wasn’t there? That seems important to us…

[1] Branch Nebula website: https://www.branchnebula.com (Accessed January 30, 2018).

[2] Branch Nebula; Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters. Interview by Julie-Anne Long. Tape recording, Sydney, January 18, 2018.

[3] Zeigler, Philip H., ‘Feeding Behavior in the Pigeon: A Neurobehavioural Analysis’ in Birds, Brain and Behavior, eds. Irving J. Goodman and Martin W. Schein, (New York; London: Academic Press, 1974), 103.

[4] Stop Go composite definitions from the following sources: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/stop-go-policy.html

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/stop-go  (Accessed February 5, 2018).

[5] Branch Nebula, Keir Choreographic Award (KCA) Submission video, August 11, 2017.

[6] Branch Nebula, Interview.

[7] Branch Nebula, KCA video.

[8] Traffic Management composite definitions from the following sources: (Accessed February 9, 2018).

[9] Branch Nebula, KCA video.

[10] Roselee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, Revised and expanded edition (London: Thames & Hudson 2001), 128.

[11] Moma Collects: Simone Forti Dance Constructions January 27, 2016, posted by Nancy Lim, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2016/01/27/moma-collects-simone-forti-dance-constructions

[12] Angharad Wynne-Jones ‘Catalogue Notes: independent female artists at The Performance Space’, in Body Show/s: Australian Viewings of Live Performance 1991-97, ed. Peta Tait, (Amsterdam, Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 2000), 9.

[13] Margaret Hamilton, Transfigured Stages: Major Practitioners and Theatre Aesthetics in Australia, (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi 2011), 77-82.

[14] ibid, 43-51.

[15] Branch Nebula, Interview.

[16] Branch Nebula website: https://www.branchnebula.com/snake-sessions/

[17] Charles D. Michener, The Bees of the World (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 2000), 13.

[18] Wolfgang M. Schleidt, ‘The Comparative Study of Behaviour’ in Birds, Brain and Behavior, eds. Irving J. Goodman and Martin W. Schein, (New York; London: Academic Press, 1974), 4-5.

 

Julie-Anne Long is an artist-scholar and Senior Lecturer in Dance and Performance at Macquarie University. She works in a variety of dance contexts as performer, choreographer,...


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