The other piece at Juncture that I want to write about is Nicola Conibere’s Assembly. The best explanation of what happens in this work is on Conibere’s website: ‘Assembly acknowledges each spectator’s unique presence without asking them to do more than watch; each time a spectator enters the gallery a performer will join the performance, leaving it when the same spectator departs the room’ Some weeks ago I had looked at a showreel of Assembly on vimeo so when I went into it I had some idea about it without knowing all the details. Nevertheless it surprised me and, for reasons I will explain, left me feeling hopeful.
First I waited outside the room. The person who let me in had a radio which she used to let in the door at exactly the same time that a performer came through another door the other side of the performance space. The space itself, in Leeds Central Library, had double doors in the middle of the wall behind the spectators and a matching double door immediately opposite behind the performers. I could therefore see and be seen by my ‘pair’ straight away. I looked for somewhere to sit, spotted the smiling face of a friend I hadn’t seen for months, settled down and then turned to find my ‘pair’ again.
[Assembly Photo: Christian Kipp]
My ‘pair’ and I looked at one another for a long time before I started to take in what else was going on. There were, I think, fourteen of us in the audience and the same number of performers in the space, just sitting there looking out at us. When someone in the audience got up to leave, one of the dancers turned to walk out the door at the back, both remaining connected right up to the moment of passing through their respective doors. After a short pause another performer and spectator entered. And the dancers in Leeds were fairly diverse – young and old, male and female, and with varying degrees of performance experience.
So Assembly is essentially a self-generating machine. It has a finite series of tasks, and as each new dancer enters the space, she or he initiates a new one of these which, without anything being said or any overt sign all the other dancers easily pick up – a kind of hive brain. These are mostly everyday actions executed in silence. They include: standing; lying; walking from one side of the space to the other and back; taking a step to the right then a step to the left back again; swinging the arms from the sides up to shoulder height and then back again; bopping along casually to imagined party music, and so on. These are all done in an easy-going way. The performers know all the tasks and each dancer chooses one as she or he comes in.
[Assembly Photo: Christian Kipp]
How long each activity goes on is, in effect, determined by the audience because it is only when one spectator leaves and another comes in that the new performer will initiate a new task of their choice.
I felt a warm connection with the dancer who was my ‘pair’. From time to time we’d find each other’s gaze again. At one moment, for some reason, we both spontaneously started smiling at one another in a slightly complicitous way. I wasn’t just a passive spectator. I was aware of the small difference I was making to the larger performance event that was unfolding.
At one moment I tried unsuccessfully to work out which dancers were paired with the spectators sitting around me. Someone I spoke to later evidently hadn’t made such a firm connection with their ‘pair’ that I had had.
I noticed in one of the longer passages of repetitive moment how the performers’ mood gradually changed as the task became more automatic and habitual, and the performers somehow less self conscious, more everyday in their manner, present in the hear and now. From my point of view as spectator, I initially took in what they were doing, then after a while became slightly bored. Then I began to notice the small, singular differences between the ways in which my ‘pair’ and the performers around and behind her were executing the task.
[Assembly Photo: Christian Kipp]
I saw Assembly and made some notes about it at the time – which was before the US elections. I am writing this post when the consequences of the election result is just beginning to sink in. For a session with our MAs this week I’ve been reading an interview with Brian Massumi published in 2003 on the politics of hope, because hope is what I think we need just now. In this Massumi talks about hope and affect. ‘When you affect something, you are at the same time opening yourself up to being affected in turn, and in a slightly different way than you might have been the moment before’. This opening up to a situation and being aware of how one is affecting it corresponds with my experience of Assembly.
Some of the commentary in the British media this week are suggesting there has been a backlash from angry white male working class voters against so-called Washington insiders. Anger is violent but need not necessarily mean a closing down and or becoming impervious. Massumi writes that anger ‘forces the situation to attention, it forces a pause filled with an intensity that is often too extreme to be filled with words’. He goes on to suggest that the consequence of an angry outburst ‘forces the situation to rearrange itself around the irruption, and to deal with the intensity in one way or another. In that sense it’s brought something positive out – a reconfiguration’.
After Brexit everyone in my Facebook feed was shocked, no one had seen it coming, nor I think did many see Trump’s election coming. Facebook creates a bubble in which we are only aware of people who think the same way we do. We really need to open up to what else is going on around us and begin to try and understand what underlies the intensities of affect that the Brexit campaigners and the Trump team are able to generate and channel.
That doesn’t of course mean trying to appease racists, homophobes, mysogynists, islamophobes and others who have been taking the rise of the new right as permission to come out and say in public what they had previously kept to themselves. Ed Milliband’s ‘Immigration Controls’ mug was surely a disaster. There is, however, a need to reconnect and engage with broader communities of people with similar progressive views – not seeing all white male working class voters as an undifferentiated block. The connections performers and spectators in Assembly were making within such a diverse group of performers and spectators seem to me to offer hope that we can make such connections.
[that mug – available from http://www.katyjon.com/tag/election-merchandise/]
I said earlier that when I entered the room in which Assembly was being presented I knew something about what to expect. What I anticipated – and perhaps hoped for – was that I would experience something new that might prompt me to have to respond in the moment to something unexpected so that I wouldn’t be able to fall back on familiar ways of responding.
In dark turbulent times, a facility for responding to new and challenging events in creative, non-habitual ways is increasingly important. Assembly resonated with me because it did just that in such a simple, clear, unpretentious way. It left me feeling optimistic, and this is what I think we need to try and feel at the moment.