Croatian circus artist Dora Komenda and Dutch participatory artist Ilon Lodewijks worked together for two weeks in September 2021 in Reims (FR). This is their logbook.
Before the residency we met on several online sessions. Sharing about each of our practices and personal lives we tried to find the base of our research. We defined what the touching points and differences between our two disciplines are. Our common ground is the public space.
We are interested in the public space due to the level of serendipity that comes with it. Besides that we both believe that public space can represent a democratic space for performance as opposed to a theatre institution.
The biggest gap between us is a very different approach to a relationship between audience and a performer. In circus, the focus is mostly on the performer and skills that are used as tools to tell the story, with the audience mostly having the passive role of observers. In participatory or interactive art this format varies, the performer can exist in this classic role but is more often a mediator, somebody who creates a frame for the audience to experience a certain idea, make choices and actions themselves. In this way audience participation, not the artist’s performance, is the element that forms the piece itself.
Focus points for artistic research
We established a list of focus points, directions and questions for the research:
>> How could the relation between performer and audience in circus be more democratic?
>> Is it possible to bridge this gap between a performer in circus as somebody with superhuman body and abilities, and a regular person in the position of an admirer?
>> Can we give the regular body extraordinary characteristics in some way, similar to how circus bodies are trained to perform exceptional skills?
>> If we use public space, what are the specifics of Reims’ demographic, social and political context and urban space characteristics that we could reflect on?
>> What are the tools that we want to use – performative, visual, spatial, or some other kind? What is our role as performers, and do we take that role at all?
Arriving in Reims
To us, Reims felt like a very neat, organized and controlled environment, maybe missing some alternative culture in the city. We chose the place for our research to be the newly opened park Les Hautes Promenades, characterized by a wide promenade, surrounded by places to hang out. This underlines the original function of a promenade, to see and be seen.
Everything is well thought through in Les Hautes Promenades, the colors and the material choices fit together, the design offers never more than 4 different activities, so the atmosphere of the park stays calm. Besides that there are a lot of rules imposed on how each part should be used. A police car is driving the promenade multiple times a day to keep everything in order.
The park brings the people of Reims together. Schoolkids, teenagers, business people, families, skaters and bikers, young and old, using the same public space. We found out that Les Hautes is the first area in Reims that managed to bring people from different social classes and with different ethnic backgrounds together.
The following characteristics of Les Hautes grabbed our interest:
>> many rules, a clear description on how each part should be used
>> a lot of different people, but it seemed like everybody stayed in their own bubbles; people sharing the space but not activities
>> very clear layout, every part of the park is thought through.
Based on this we wanted to propose an intervention that will contrast this environment in colour and shape. We wanted to create a playful intervention that provokes collective play.
We started to test some things in the park, starting with balloons in the fountain. We choose to work with the balloons as a symbol of play, an object everyone knows how to use.
Development of our research
Le miroir d’eau
The fountain has the name ‘Le miroir d’eau’ (the mirror of water). It’s a flat area with big grey tiles, the area covers 8 by 25 meters. The fountain has around 90 jets. The fountain is surrounded by ascending grass areas and white stairs on four sides.
We found out that the lightweight balloon could move in the fountain, as if it was dancing on the jet. When we released 10 color coded balloons in the fountain, people passing by stopped immediately, they were intrigued and their faces were surprised. As if they just discovered a miracle. Some of them started to engage immediately and wanted to put the balloon back in the jet once it fell out.
We realised also straight away that we created Instagram content as people came by and started to make selfies with the image. Pretty instagram pictures were not our goal, but the playful disturbance we thought was good, and something we aimed after.
We wanted to develop the balloon dancing. Could we make a game of it? What should be the aim? How will we engage grown ups and not only children? We designed different proposals that had different goals.
We soon realised that all the games with balloons in the fountain were so vulnerable, especially because they were affected so much by even the slightest wind. Besides, the area was too big to keep an overview and to make it a collective task.
It would be different if you could play it with a fixed group where you could set some rules beforehand, but we wanted to engage the passers by. Therefore we focused on installing a play area. This brought us to the articulation of our research idea: creating visual interventions in public space that invite play.
Other places in the park?
With a clear research idea we tried to find different parts in the park where we could make other interventions that were as simple and as powerful as the balloons in the fountain.
We tried different things, but didn’t succeed. The fountain is already a performing element in itself, as it is ‘alive’ and has a time interval. The other parts of the park are not performative, there the people who move in it make it performative. Those parts, especially a very big open grass area, where we wanted to propose something, needed a way bigger intervention.
We decided to develop further on the fountain, and move there some ideas we came up with for the other parts of the park. With good weather the fountain is already playful in itself. This raises a question – does choosing an area that, in some conditions, is already playfull make it easier or more difficult to propose a playful intervention? Can we add another layer to the play and involve more people?
Characteristics of a balloon
A balloon is an object that is a symbol of innocence and very playful in itself.
We proposed a couple of different games that were based on the different characteristics of balloons. They are lightweight, they can float, they can fly with the help of helium, they are sensitive, you have to be careful with them and you can destroy them easily.
We proposed to explore those different qualities of the balloons in the different cycles of the fountain. There is a period of silence with water laying on the tiles creating a mirror of the sky, a period of mist, and two periods of higher and lower water. For each period we created different interventions.
Too many parameters?
Except for the fixed structure of water movement in the fountain, all the other elements the intervention relies on are highly unpredictable – random passers by, their mood, general atmosphere, time of the day, day of the week, wind, sun and air temperature, to name a few.
In this way we had many different outcomes each time and many different types of interactions, and sometimes no participation at all. This also raises a question – did we choose an area that has too many parameters that can change from day to day?
Performance vs. play
We researched two main approaches – performative and playful.
Performative approach served as a tool to introduce games and their rules and to seduce people to play along, but created a feeling of a fountain becoming a stage, which made it very difficult for the viewers to participate.
Playful approach on the other hand succeeded in making us more equal to the participants, it made the fountain more inviting as a play area, but also erased some borders and by that made it more difficult to propose our structure.
The latter refers to an often discussed dilemma in interactive or participative theatre; how much freedom do you give to the audience. In which way is their behaviour controlled by you?
Challenges & problems
It is difficult to create an intervention whose success depends on a lot of parameters that you can’t control. The discrepancy between what you think an audience will do and what they really do can be big. You need to have enough back up plans to deal with every kind of outcome.
Either that, or create a structure that is open in a way that it can withstand more alternative decisions from the audience and still work. The topic of how much control and rules is really important here. At what point is it still an intervention, and at what point does it become a random and free play?
With a very performative start you can create a threshold to participate. It is interesting for us in which kind of ways you can become a performer that is an ‘architect of play’. How can your actions as a performer be inspiring for other people to participate? How do you awake a playful mood in an audience member? How can you make it a performance without making the threshold for participating too high? Can play become performance art and can performance art become free play?
If I read what we’ve done I feel satisfied with the residence. I think the challenges we encountered along the way are useful for future projects; they relate to my practice.
During the two weeks I have been quite lost though. I think that Dora and I are both used to creating material out of content. I felt that our research idea was quite clear but still very broad, and that it for me didn’t lead to any clear decisions in material or content choice.
We questioned ourselves often: BUT WHY?
We can’t remember for example why we chose balloons, as it is very obvious and therefore maybe not the most interesting or surprising element to start a play intervention with. A balloon is already the symbol of play. In the end I think we managed to find alternative ways to use it, that were out of the ordinary.
The two weeks have been very hands-on for me; that I really enjoyed. Dora inspired me with her physical approach and exploration of space and material. We tried a lot of things by being in space and working with the material. It became very phenomenological. I never made so many prototypes of different artefacts we maybe wanted to use. Working like this I experienced great moments of play with Dora.
For me the most impactful decision while working on the concept with Ilon was to use no circus skills and not to perform, in order to present myself with a challenge to get a different point of view that I can learn from.
Some sort of handicap is a great opportunity to expand personal limits and find innovative solutions, but in this case I created a challenge that was too restraining for me personally and subsequently for the duo too. We actually couldn’t connect our disciplines because the circus part was not there at all.
I never worked in and for a public space before, so the experience of immediate response from strangers who are inevitably included in everything, immediately testing and shaping our ideas and basically sharing the process is something I will carry with me. Especially because usually in the creation process I tend to be very closed to outside influences, opinions and participation on all levels.
After the residency finished and spending some time absorbing all the experiences, I started to write an idea of an aerial performance that is completely dependent on the participation of the audience, because the experience with Ilon left me with a big interest for the subject and a need to test it in a more familiar frame. This approach is already a big shift from my usual practice and presents an exciting challenge, which I feel is the most meaningful impact I am leaving with.
Ilon and I shared a similar approach to work. Even though we had periods of struggling, it was interesting to navigate these problems because of good communication, even when we were not finding any solutions. The opportunity to learn more about participatory art and interactive theatre was very valuable, along with the lessons about personal limits and strengths that came out of this challenge.