Sunday, January 27, 2008

Discuss the use of ‘play’ as restored behaviour in Tino Seghal’s This Success/This Failure (ICA, Jan-March 2007).

‘Such consciousness of what we do and feel each day, its relation to others’ experience and to nature around us, becomes in a real way the performance of living. And the very process of paying attention to this continuum is poised on the threshold of art performance.’ (Allan Kaprow, 1979)


Berlin-based Tino Seghal’s exhibition This Success/This Failure, previously exhibited at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria, and more recently at the ICA (29th Jan - 11 March 2007) was the final part of a trilogy of shows at the London venue. This Success /This Failure was a performance where children from local schools were exhibits, participants, facilitators and audience. The school children, aged between 7 and 10 years old, were based in the lower gallery of the ICA throughout the day. The students were from at least two different schools during each day except Sundays when the participants were from a variety of backgrounds. The reason being that the children were more likely to reinvent themselves (and the space) in a more outgoing, creative manner than if they were participating within preconditioned peer groups. Workshops were held in the morning to contextualise the event for those involved (children, teachers, educators, family members). The educational experience for the children was intended, as Seghal stated in his talk at the Goethe Institute with Dr Carey Jewitt, to be a “twisted trip to the museum” .

The instruction given to the participants was that they should “create their own means of play” , the request excluded the use of toys, phones, footballs, drawing/writing materials etc. As the ‘content’ of the exhibition, the young people were asked to use their imagination and creativity whilst interacting with the visitors and each other so that they could, according to the press release, “create a living art piece, over which they have ultimate control” . A living art piece certainly, but it would be questionable as to how much ‘control’ the children had within the institution, considering they were given instructions to adhere to, and were not allowed to leave the space. The ‘control’ the children experienced was in their negotiation of play and the, at times, humorous manipulation of the visitors. The responsibility (and a certain freedom) that the children experienced within the constructs of the art piece, somehow highlights the lack of freedom and control of all participants involved, yet Seghal states that the children “are empowered because they are taken seriously ”, they know that the artwork and the visitors are dependant on them.

Throughout each session, the children would interact with the visitors, playing more traditional games of Stuck in the Mud, Chinese Whispers and Wink Murder to showing magic tricks and coercing visitors into performing for them. As one young boy noted, “The best thing was trying to scare the adults.” At the end of each 45 minute interaction, the children were instructed to approach the visitor(s) and state the following: “My name is…., and I have decided that this piece of work is a success (or a failure).” The assumption that in this technological age children no longer play games without toys seems slightly na├»ve, as most of us who work with or have children in our families know. As Baudelaire noted, “Children bear witness through their games to their great faculty of abstraction and their high imaginative power. They play without playthings. ”

Seghal’s intention is to explore and antagonise common notions of political economy, relational engagement, consumerism, technology and communication. In a culture where material objects are so esteemed, he attempts to construct an economic system which mirrors that of the museum. Critiquing the desire for the production of ‘things’, Seghal transforms the material object into a temporal relationality materialised in the body. He refuses to document his work through film or photography and attempts to keep all paper work to a minimum, reducing the production of ‘objects’ that could be seen as art commodities. The ‘matter’ produced is comprised of language, human interaction, movement and engagement. His position echoes that of Peggy Phelan when she states that “performance’s only life is in the present ”, and that the recording, documentation or reproduction changes the event into “something other .” Although he insists his work be labelled as ‘installation’ rather than ‘performance’, Seghal maintains that viewers must directly interact, through dialogue and movement, rather than relying on documentation to experience the work. The materials used (human beings), the structure (pre-chosen conditions and instructions) and the product (relational situations) are essential elements of performance.

This Success/This Failure critiques many aspects of live art experience and audience expectations of the gallery space. The work is rich in references to performance and Situationist artists of the 60’s and 70’s. Allan Kaprow explored how life experience could be the medium of his art practice by creating situations, interventions and structures drawing on the banality of everyday events and actions. Kaprow wrote in his 1983 essay The Real Experiment that, “Lifelike art did not merely label life as art. It was continuous with that life, inflecting, probing, testing, and even suffering it, but always attentively. ” It is this experimental, playful approach to the everyday which Seghal harnesses and manipulates in This Success/This Failure to create a dynamic space open to dialogue, change and disruption.

He uses ‘play’ as a mode of transformative effect within the gallery and (by employing similar strategies as used by Kaprow), he marks out a structure of interaction through the use of previously written instructions given to participants. Instructions (or rules) are essential components of most kinds of ‘play’ or ‘games’ that we see and experience as everyday occurrences, whether in the playground, park, street or home. In his classic study Man, Play and Games, Roger Caillois defines the four main designations of play into “competition, chance, simulation…vertigo. ” He attempts to define these and to pose which is more dominant. It is worth noting that This Success/This Failure contained all four aspects of play, and that the children (and visitors) drew upon a common experience of games to collaborate with each other. That Seghal chose the activity of ‘play’ to explore relational behaviour and interaction seems an obvious and simple choice, the disturbance to our perception is the location - the gallery– a space where noise, laughter, children and movement are by and large absent. The gallery space has, as Brian O’Doherty writes in his seminal text Inside the White Cube, “a presence possessed by other spaces where conventions are preserved through the repetition of a closed system of values. Some of the sanctity of the church, the formality of the courtroom, the mystique of the experimental laboratory (….) ” The reverence of the ritualistic space is interrupted, a rift occurs, when children are running about screaming and laughing. Visitors were placed in a position which, for some, was extremely enjoyable (perhaps educational), yet for others, was extremely uncomfortable. Being forced to play with the children caused a range of emotions from a touch of embarrassment to utter awkwardness, and through the disruption of normal expectations of art (a passive, ocular experience), the visitor is made to reflect on their own behaviour, and to challenge personal boundaries.

In 1938, cultural historian Johan Huizinga explored the role of play within society in his book Homo Ludens. His observations could well be used as an exhibition press release for not only This Success/This Failure, but for much of Seghal’s art practise.

“A free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise of other means.”

That play is removed from the production of object or profit, is fundamental to Seghal’s conception of relational artwork and his negation of material production. Roger Caillois also points to a characteristic of play being the fact that it “creates no wealth or goods. ” The rules of play are formulated outside of the everyday, ordinary routines and activities of productive work. What then, does play produce? Play, for both humans and animals, explores and develops social relations. In its multiple variations, from competitive games to character improvisation, play is performed in a space outside ‘normal’ life activities such as working, sleeping and eating, yet it draws upon the actions of the everyday and recombines them to create an exploratory event. American Anthropologist, Gregory Bateson commented upon the behaviour of two young monkeys playing together at San Francisco Zoo, noting that they were “engaged in an interactive sequence of which the unit actions or signals were similar to but not the same as combat.” The monkeys practised skills needed for survival within the group by using pre-known actions. It could be said that they rehearsed these skills, just as children rehearse the observed behaviours of others in their family and community.

Role-play, mimickery and make believe games are the primary means by which a child will imitate adults, and through the exploration of actions and reactions, learn appropriate, socialised behaviours. We can look at the case of Traian Caldarer the 7 year old Romanian boy who, in 2002, was found after living in the wild for 3 years in the forests of Transylvania. Having been looked after by wild dogs, he lost the ability to speak and displayed behaviours common to the pack, such as growling and chasing cats. The behaviours observed by this child, would then have been appropriated and normalised so that he could function as part of his new community. No doubt Traian Caldarer would have experienced imitative play as a kind of socio-symbolic tool which, through repetition, conditioned his behaviours; his actions and reactions. Kaprow observes that, “Human beings participate in these scenarios (participation performance), spontaneously or after elaborate preparations, like actors without stage or audience, watching and cuing one another…” There is an obvious similarity in the approach both humans and animals adopt towards participation in play, and how, by observing those around us, we learn skills for physical and emotional survival.

The repetition of everyday actions and behaviours outside the ‘frame’ of normal cultural interaction can be seen in play, ritual and performance, and it is within the blurred overlapping of these categories that artists such as Seghal and Kaprow position their work. Allan Kaprow in his aptly titled book, The Blurring of Art and Life, highlights the transformative effect of choosing a particular behaviour or action and ‘performing’ it within a different context. He noted that, ”…everyday routines conceived as ready-made performances change because of their double use as art/non art…” It is the double use of play in This Success/This Failure which creates tension and questions the assumed, or ‘normal’ behaviours of the visitors. Derrida emphasises that forms of communication need to be “repeatable – iterable” if they are to be affective. Repetition of a common behaviour, as a physical language shared within social groups, can be used as a powerful form of gestural communication.

Notions of repetition are embedded within Schechner’s explanation of ‘twice-behaved’ or ‘restored’ behaviour. Schechner points out that our daily life is filled with “routines, habits and rituals” which are, equally, a fusion of pre-behaved behaviours. We ‘perform’ these behaviours repeatedly, usually unaware of the causes of these actions. Those routines and habits that we repeat are hugely varied and can range from the rituals at a wedding or religious ceremony to the way we offer a cup of tea to a visitor. These behaviours do not ‘belong’ to any one of us, but are a combination of previously experienced behaviours. Schechner explains that:

“Restored behaviour is living behaviour treated as a film director treats a strip of film. These strips of behaviour can be rearranged or reconstructed; they are independent of the causal systems (personal, social, political, technological, etc.) that brought them into existence. They have a life of their own. The original ‘truth’ or ‘source’ of the behaviour may not be known, or may be lost, ignored, or contradicted – even while that truth or source is being honoured (…) Restored behaviour is the key process of every kind of performing, in everyday life, in healing, in ritual, in play, and in the arts.”

The magnitude of Schechner’s theory of restored behaviour is such that every kind of behaviour can be said to fall within it – every behaviour is constructed from previously behaved actions. We have already mentioned the blurring between life and art in the work of various art practitioners, and Schechner notes this within his definition of restored behaviour. Restored behaviour is integral to performance - just as each behaviour is restored, so each performance consists of restored behaviour. Schechner’s doubling – the ‘restored restored behaviour’ exists within performance, where the performer draws upon their knowledge of previous behaviours from life experience to re-enact them consciously within the context of an event and where particular behaviours are indicated as different. “Because it is marked, framed and separate, restored behaviour can be worked on, stored and recalled, played with, made into something else, transmitted, and transformed.” Schechner also points out that the doubling of restored behaviour within performance has been blurred not only in theatrical events, but also within everyday life. He wrote that opinion regarding the nature of the theatrical had changed so that…

“…the political action, conflictual or aharmonic behaviour on both the personal and the “social drama” levels, role playing in everyday life, emotional training using acting exercises to help professionals (police, airline personnel, etc.) to deal with a crisis … are all evidence to the increasingly complicated interactions between, and continuing convergence of, theatre and ritual.”

During such training events, participants draw upon their own knowledge of social behaviours to gain experience of learning how to react to challenging situations. When adults play at being themselves, a doubling of the restorative behaviour occurs once again. If, as Schechner states, restored behaviour is the “key process” of every kind of performance, then it deserves further analysis, and we can look to play as a model for this. Play can be defined as performance (role-play, make believe), as ritual (Halloween dressing-up), as healing (play therapy), as art (making, painting, building) and as part of everyday life; the interchange of these words and their meanings reflects the relationship between performance and life. Play can fit into each of Schechner’s 3 categories of performance (ritual, aesthetic and social), yet it is in the form of social drama that we commonly experience it. In “social drama all present are participants, though some are more decisively involved than others. ” (Seghal’s work is hinged on this very notion of participation – each individual is implicated in the action).

When playing, children explore and imagine their own social dramas.
They draw upon observed behaviours and transform them (through the restoration of behaviour) to fulfil their own needs. The child in the sandpit creates a diorama and arranges characters within a miniature world to re-enact the intricacies of relations between fictional creatures. The animation of toys through fantasy make-believe exists in parallel to reality. Huizinga wrote that the space of play is ‘outside’ everyday life, and the existence of a parallel fantasy world, gives the child a ‘safe’ place to explore relations. Fantasy can be empowering for the young child who has very little control over social situations, enabling them bring into being an interior world, creating symbolic systems of communication and meaning.

If play as restored behaviour exists ‘outside’ of everyday life, and denotes a type of freedom, an exploratory release, what then changes when the play is situated within the context of the gallery? The context of the space becomes as much the content of the work as the action happening within it. When questioned as to why Seghal situated his work in an ‘art space’ rather than a ‘non-art space’, he replied that if it was to be located within a school, it would be a ‘workshop’. “It wouldn’t be a work of art because a work of art needs a reception. ” For Seghal to generalise en masse that art does not exist outside of an art location or at least not without an art audience as ‘receptors’ (or perhaps he meant that art in schools/community settings does not count as proper art), is questionable, if not slightly arrogant. Admittedly, we would need to know more of his definition of art, but his stance seemingly detracts from his relational aspirations of community and dialogue, bringing into question the relationship between the artist and his participant/performers, as producer and produced. Seghal’s work is so intimately entwined with the economies of the gallery space and the art world, that it would be interesting to decontextualise it in this sense, and relocate it to a public space – Gillian Wearing’s Dancing in Peckham, 1994 comes to mind.

If we return to the restored behaviour of both the children playing at playing and the adults playing at playing, what happens to both within this participational performance? Schechner writes that the rituals and games that are part of everyday life are created collectively, and through the repetition and re-editing of these behaviours, we perform our lives, and we perform ourselves. The awareness of, and way in which, we perform ourselves is the basis of every kind of performance – in everyday life and in the theatrical. Schechner puts it in “…personal terms restored behaviour is “me behaving as if I were someone else,” or “as I am told to do,” or “as I have learned.”” He explains the ‘multiple me’; that through modest observation, one can analyse actions and reasons for behaviours and realise their repetitive quality which stem from learnt, or socialised behaviours and rituals. Kaprow discusses this awareness of self-performing in Erving Goffman’s work. He notes that,

“…routines of domesticity, work, education and management of daily affairs, which because of their very ordinariness and lack of conscious expressive purpose do not seem to be art forms, nevertheless posses a distinctly performancelike character. Only the performers are not usually aware of it.”

It is precisely this awareness of the self performing self that Seghal employs - the construction of an art work which presents a challenging mode of engagement and content (play, human beings as art objects rather than inanimate objects or images). The viewer has little choice but to be made aware – to be self-conscious – of personal boundaries and behaviours. Within the context of the gallery space, visitors had to readdress their own expectations of ‘proper’ art, behaviour and meaning - a process that the children also underwent, with the added support of the workshops, feedback sessions and discussions with educators. The alteration from pre-conceived social norms towards an openness to engage with the situation presented is transformational. Kaprow stated that “self-knowledge is where you start on the way to becoming “the whole”, whether this process takes the form of social action or personal transformation.” Seghal’s practise challenges personal behaviour; the awkwardness (the self awareness) that are created on the one hand and enjoyment and sense of fun on the other, are produced by the unwrapping of restored behaviours through play and relational engagement.

The problematics of This Success/This Failure, as a relational artwork, are perhaps to do with a lack of acknowledgement of the existence of ‘relational’ experiences in daily life. Whether the children gained as much from the supposedly ‘transformational’ experience as the artist did in terms of his own production of self-promotion remains to be seen. The awkwardness that the viewer experiences may not simply be due to the awareness of a restored and socialised behaviour, but may also be in part due to the performance of the children – they, not dissimilarly to zoo animals, do not have control, and are under the instructions of another. Seghal’s assurance of an educational benefit seems slightly more to do with enabling the performers to ‘perform’ their roles, rather than as an agency within itself. As one educator wrote:

“Although the concept of no objects and human interaction within the gallery space was effective with some groups it also proved unsuccessful and unpleasant with other groups. With no objects to engage them and no imposed authority from official teachers there were children who ended up being aggressive, badly misbehaved, discourteous and at times verging on violence with each other. I do not think this was entirely the fault of the children but perhaps proves an anthropological discovery that this environment can both be detrimental to some children’s behaviour whilst positively nurturing personal attributes in others.”

That challenging behaviour (to use this term within an educational context) arose throughout the exhibition perhaps only reaffirms the fact that human beings explore relations through play to test the boundaries and expectations of social groups. The exhibition promoted confidence for some of the children involved and would certainly have been a place for them to reflect on their own notions of art within the gallery context. To conclude, I feel it is only appropriate to record some of the thoughts of the young people who participated so wholeheartedly in the project.

“God, some of these adults' are really hard work.”

“I got everyone to be a ballerina ‘cos I wanted to make that man do it.”

‘‘I learnt that art can be about communication and doesn’t have to be a painting”

“For the imagination is the biggest, best, millionest object that we have and it’s usually entrapped within and by objects” (from a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome)


Footnotes
Allan Kaprow, Performing Life (1979) in The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press: Berkeley and LA, 1993, p196
Tino Sehgal in conversation with Dr Carey Jewitt, Goethe Institute, London, 29th January 2007
ICA Press release, Jan 2007
Ibid
Tino Sehgal in conversation with Dr Carey Jewitt, Goethe Institute, London, 29th January 2007
No. 22, Selection of children’s statements from Observations of the Project, ICA, March 2007
Charles Baudelaire, Morale du joujou in Baudelaire: Oeuvres Completes, ed. Marcel A. Ruff, Editions du Seuil:Paris, 1968, p358
Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge: London, 1993, p146
Ibid
Allan Kaprow, The Real Experiment (1983) in The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press: Berkeley and LA, 1993, p206
Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, The Free Press: New York, 1961, p12
Brian O’Doherty Inside the White Cube, 1976 (Expanded edition) University of California Press: London, 1999, pg14
Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, Beacons Press: New York, 1955, p13
Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, The Free Press: New York, 1961, p21
Gregory Bateson, A Theory of Play and Fantasy, (1954) in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Paladin Books, 1973, p152
Allan Kaprow, Participation Performance (1977) in The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press: Berkeley and LA, 1993, p 187
Allan Kaprow, Participation Performance (1977) in The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press: Berkeley and LA, 1993, p 190
Jacques Derrida, Signature Event Context in Margins of Philosophy, Chicago:Chicago University Press,1982, pg315
Richard Schechner, What is Performance? In Performance Studies, Routledge: London, New York, 2002 p28
Ibid p14
Ibid p28
Richard Schechner, From Ritual to Theater and Back in Performance Theory, Routledge: London, New York, 1988, p122
Richard Schechner, Toward a Poetics of Performance in Performance Theory, Routledge: London, New York, 1988, p171
Tino Sehgal in conversation with Dr Carey Jewitt, Goethe Institute, London, 29th January 2007
Richard Schechner, What is Performance? In Performance Studies, Routledge: London, New York, 2002 p28
Allan Kaprow, Participation Performance (1977) in The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press: Berkeley and LA, 1993, pg186
Allan Kaprow, The Real Experiment (1983) in The Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press: Berkeley and LA, 1993, p217
Educator 7, General observations collected from educators from Observations of the Project, ICA, March 2007
No. 4, Selection of children’s statements from Observations of the Project, ICA, March 2007
No. 13, Selection of children’s statements from Observations of the Project, ICA, March 2007
No. 19, Selection of children’s statements from Observations of the Project, ICA, March 2007
No. 23, Selection of children’s statements from Observations of the Project, ICA, March 2007

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