Out of the theatre and into the everyday

Jacquie Lo and Jules Pavlou Kirri shopping in Future Tense

Shoppers in Newcastle’s Charlestown Square Centre Court are met with a seemingly arbitrary assortment of contemporary “labour-saving” devices— white goods (tumble dryer, fridge, microwave oven), kitchen and cleaning appliances, communications technologies (touchphones, computers), electronic leisure and entertainment items (video camera, TV/video monitors). We have touched down at ‘Home Base’ and passing through it, notice other objects which also suggest everyday domesticity and housebound labour: a chevalier mirror, sofa and treadle sewing machine. Amongst these wander individuals dressed in identifiable work clothes and uniforms, name-tagged. Yet this at first apparently random mix of household and electronic goods (especially the numerous monitors placed atop stacks of packing boxes featuring the Future Tense logo) bear more than a passing resemblance to a product display. But that fridge has leather bound volumes in it, a vase of flowers and a sort of shrine.

A sandwich board indicates a schedule for three Showtime performances, and an EDU provides project information and text such as “Victoria Spence as Casey Case New Age Babe” … “What time is it?” … “Future Tense”… “Showtime.”

A blurring between the senses of viewing a promotional product display and awaiting an imminent performance generates both inquiries about the purchase of items and recollections of the experience of the popular and high cultural mix of spectacles and entertainments offered by local shopping malls—like, but not like—Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, hand-crafted glass sculpture displays, Miss Newcastle Showgirl heats, Indigenous art exhibitions, appearances by local identities such as football heroes, Senior Citizens’ Week concerts…

The workers/performers hand fliers to those who are diverted from the disciplined calculations of the purchase and pleasures of (voyeuristic) consumption. According to the flier, Future Tense promises an offering of:

“Contemporary performance and multimedia forms which will both complement and subvert the shopping centre’s dual atmosphere of leisure and consumerism, provoking an encounter between the intimate and the social. The technologies… incorporated in the show, which include computer applications and video footage [were] developed to encourage interaction and demystify some of the concerns that workers may have about new technologies.”

What time is it? Not long ‘til the scheduled Showtime. Loud techno music signals a beginning, as does the miked performers’ taking of position. They move around Homebase, striking exaggerated poses, repeatedly announcing “Showtime.” More shoppers gather around the space and on the mezzanine level above. Performers move intently about the space, some utilising appliances and goods: here one is sewing (piecework?), there another (a journalist?) is engaged in agitated phone conversation and entering data on a computer, another (a migrant worker?) discourses about cheeses, a retail services employee addresses us, a child is sent off to “virtual school” by a mother: “Don’t forget we’re going teleshopping tonight.” Video monitors display images and a journalist reports on a woman who is lost in a shopping centre. Much activity. Lots of talking. Poor amplification. The performers are very watchable, each simultaneously engaged in their story. Fragments are heard. Confusion.

Most people stay a while, watching, curious, for maybe 10 minutes or so then move away. Others replace them. Teenagers dangle their limbs and shopping bags over the rails that border the mezzanine viewing space. An older female shopper wanders through the show—for her, there are no clear boundaries between performers, products, workers, shoppers and onlookers. She asks questions of one of the project arts-workers. Self-conscious realisation: I’m in the middle of a show!

More conventional shopping centre performances may provoke pleasurable senses of reading competency and knowledgeability amongst familiar audience members as the shows play upon recognition of popular cultural characters and local knowledges. Showtime, although having identifiable and familiar character types, scenarios and objects, presented a bewildering melange of sounds, images, spoken narratives and actions, and not many stayed for the 40 minutes.

Rather than showing a sustained engagement with the performance, people curiously viewed both the installation and performers for a relatively short time before returning to the (more reassuringly familiar?) everyday goings on in the shopping centre.

Did Showtime deliver its promise to “complement and subvert the shopping centre’s dual atmosphere of leisure and consumerism?” Both the Homebase installation and the Showtime performance provided an arrestingly ambiguous complement to our experiences and knowledges of promotional displays and shopping centre shows. Subversion? ‘It’s Showtime’, but what time is it? Intervention? Showtime effectively intervened in the culture and space of the shopping centre in that it arrested and redirected our attentions away from usual shopping centre activities (to perhaps reflect on their everydayness and its difference). Most of us looked on for a while.

Yet this was a different sort of looking. It was neither the kind of gazing of window shopping in which a succession of images are (pleasurably) consumed, nor was it the close, engaged attention that may be provoked by a popular pantomime/spectacle. There was a cool distance between most onlookers and performers. Remote and bemused spectators rather than rapt voyeurs or audience. Lack of audibility presented a great problem.

Future Tense and Showtime aimed to “explore the implications of new technologies, and their particular and potential inter-relationship with the working and private lives of women.” The artists possessed expertise, experience and knowledges of these new technologies. Yet their experience and knowledges did not seem to resonate with those of their onlookers, especially the knowledges and expectations provoked by the experiences of shopping centre culture.

The gap between the intentions of the project and the more familiar lives of the people present at the event suggests that the everyday (particularly the cultures of shopping centres themselves) would have been a most fertile field for research. Such research, in addition to the interviews conducted with women about the impact of new technologies and changing work structures, may have afforded more resonances with onlookers. And it could well include attention to the relationship between shopping centre culture (especially the surveillant use of video monitoring in the privately owned ‘public’ space of the centre) and plural notions of performance (of selves both looking and on display, and of centre spectacles and entertainments).

Future Tense, both as a public event and a community cultural development project, was a daring move beyond the more conventional realistic plays so often associated with the concerns of ‘Art and Working Life’. As such, it took on the not insignificant challenges of both contemporary performance and multimedia forms, and our experiences of everyday public spaces. We hope that Future Tense signals further engagement with such challenges.

Future Tense with the Sidetrack Performance Group and guest artists (featuring performances, video, computer applications and sculptural installations over a full shopping day) at Charlestown Square, Newcastle, 19 August 1995. Concept and direction, Peggy Wallach; research and performance text, Catherine Fargher; producer, Sidetrack Performance Group; sound and computer applications, Sandy Indlekoser-O’Sullivan and Ali Smith; video, Maria Barbagallo and Tina Stephen; vocal workshop and ‘Lost Woman’, Bernadette Pryde; performers, Robert Daoud, Jai McHenry, Victoria Spence, Meme Thorne, Rolando Ramos.

RealTime issue #9 Oct-Nov 1995 pg. 4

© Jacqui Lo & Jules Pavlou Kirri; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1995
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