Thoughts on Implanted Thoughts: Rotozaza at the Forest Fringe
Over several years, Rotozaza’s practice has evolved to dispense with performers entirely. Their early work, such as Romcom or Five In the Morning (which I saw at Shunt in, I think, 2008), employed unrehearsed performers following a series of instructions delivered through a sound-system, either personally via headphones or collectively over speakers. Our role as audience was to witness other people interpreting and attempting to adhere to instructions that we may or may not be privy to.
Since 2007, the roles of audience and unrehearsed performer have coalesced, such that we receive and respond to instructions ourselves. Rotozaza have termed this new form autoteatro in reference to its self-generating nature. Once the soundtrack and instructions for use are completed, there is no need for any action on the part of the company beyond, perhaps, handing over an mp3 player or pressing play. Rotozaza might be pioneering the form, but many are playing with similar techniques. Slung Low’s Last Seen, Lundahl & Seitl’s Rotating in a Room of Images (shown as part of the BAC’s Burst Festival), the work of emerging artists Non Zero One and, even, Blast Theory’s Rider Spoke all hinge upon elements of audio-instructed participation.
So, to Rotozaza’s two offerings as part of this year’s Forest Fringe programme: Wondermart and GuruGuru.
Wondermart asks us to reconsider the familiar. You stand outside a supermarket, any supermarket (or, to use its own terms, ‘high-density retail environment’) and look towards the building. The whispers of a cooling female voice mingle in between your ears and, almost instantaneously, your perception is transformed: the unquestioningly accepted dissolves. Iconic logos, automatic doors, advertisements and customers all become strangely conspicuous. You tune into an alternate frequency, as if no longer socially fluent. Normality is superseded. For a while we are privy to an alien perspective on our own lives, habitat and entire ecology.
For me, the strongest effect – almost judder-inducing, in fact – came whilst holding six pints of milk. In my ears, cows were mooing and a soft, bucolic voice was schooling me in milking techniques. How odd this staple now seemed. How unnatural. How thoroughly detached from source. How plasticised, concentrated and consumer-friendly? A product at once evidently processed yet entirely incised and excised of process. Not just milk, but Animal Juice™.
Yet, for all that Wondermart succeeds as an eye transplant, it doesn’t rid us of deeply felt obligations to the conventions of social behaviour. When it asks us to reach to the back wall of a freezer, to circle our trolley aimlessly or to abandon it half-filled in the aisles, we do so gingerly, awkwardly, even reluctantly. We never totally step outside the norm. Anarchy, though suggested and seemingly within reach, remains impossible. No matter how unfamiliar and perverse the environment comes to appear, it remains real and it remains ours. Though Wondermart makes us see the odd patterns of conformity, it never manages to entirely unshackle us from them. Not, of course, that it’s trying to do so.
(In fact, it preys upon precisely this when it asks us to consider stealing an arbitrary item. Hold it, it teases; feel it; notice the cameras and security guards; perhaps put it in your pocket; imagine leaving. Now, feel the sweat pricking at your skin.)
For all its reassurances that no one’s watching and your prescribed behaviour is inconspicuous – that, to any other shopper, you are just another shopper – Wondermart is inevitably a self-conscious experience. By granting access to another frequency, it segregates you from others. Your heightened perception extends to include yourself as seen by others. You feel your own presence as performer, even if only to an audience of yourself. You never forget your surroundings. You never forget yourself.
All of which makes GuruGuru an intriging and urgent enquiry into autoteatro as a form. Rotozaza provide a safe space, isolated from the real world in a way that Wondermart’s can never be, where you can behave according to its rules free from those of the world beyond. You see, where Wondermart changes your glasses, GuruGuru frazzles your brain.
Five of you, each allocated an alternative identity, sit facing a television wearing headphones in a clinically white room dotted with potted plants. On the screen, over the course of about twenty minutes, a face is generated as if at your bidding. First, you ‘decide’ upon its mouth, then its eyes, ears, hairstyle and beard. Of course, the voice in your ears is commanding your commands and the fixed video only appears to obey. The situation emerges into group therapy and each of us discovers ourselves to have assumed the identity (by which I mean fictional character/history) of an actor entirely reliant on instructions provided through headphones. Mega-meta (to be momentarily facetious).
It is, however, much more than that. Being sustained according to this aural drip of instructions feels both comfortable and enjoyable. We are set a task, even one as simple as “look at Eddie,” and we carry it out, relaxing into performance and growing more confident in execution. As the soundtrack mutates, such that the different modes of instruction and information contort and converge, the experience becomes increasingly disorientating. One is not sure whether to obey or absorb. The headphones are backfiring, yet still we listen and attempt to understand. We become reliant and addicted. Content and form mirror one another seamlessly.
The coup comes at the end when, with an incomprehensible garble spewing into your ears, the soundtrack starts looping and we keep sitting there. Once every while, in the midst of its morphed soundbites, the words ‘Its over’ recur. Yet still we sit there, waiting for clear instruction and information, reliant. It took a good five minutes until – slowly, uncertainly – I reached for the headphones and stopped the cycle in a moment that seemed somehow momentous. A break from the Matrix; a discombobulated return to freedom.
What GuruGuru demonstrates is Rotozaza’s awareness of the mechanics and effects of their form. While it is at once a comment on our disillusioned subscription to self-help models and on our limited freedom in a world determined by advertising, it is also an investigation of autoteatro itself. As GuruGuru demonstrates, we seem to become protagonists even as our agency diminishes. Autoteatro gives the illusion of empowering precisely by relieving us of power. It makes us the centre of our own universe. We follow the instructions of GuruGuru unthinkingly, almost hypnotised or brainwashed, performing only to ourselves. Similarly, the voice in Wondermart seems to arise from within our own minds: we feel its thoughts as our thoughts. In this way, Autoteatro affords us the opportunity to applaud ourselves.
As such, it feels a self-centric form of theatre. It indulges the self without itself being self-indulgent. At the moment, the work feels biased to the participant as performer rather than as audience. We are too concerned with our own activity to truly register the presence or actions of others.
All of which reminds me of Nick Ridout’s discussion of Levinasian philosophy and its implications for performance in Theatre & Ethics (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009). In response to the genocide of the Nazis, Levinas elevates ‘the infinite other’ over the self and the drive towards being or ‘Being’. Theatre, then, is permitted an ethical status according to “the centrality of the encounter with the ‘face’.” [Ridout, Theatre and Ethics]
“For Levinas the ‘face’ is never any particular face but rather the otherness of the other as it appears to us in the encounter. It carries with it, in its nakedness and vulnerability, the injunction ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and confers upon us an infinite responsibility – up to and including the laying down of our life – towards the other.”
I wonder whether autoteatro can make manifest this connection with the other or, rather, whether it appeals to us precisely by removing it, by focussing all its energies on us, by flattery, flirtation and ego-inflation. If it can be located at all, it seems to take place in one’s head. Your focus shifts – at times, it is sharpened but very specific, almost like tunnel vision; at others your eyes seem to glaze over as focus turns inwards. Your relationship with the world is diminished. Our journey (or the process of journeying) is elevated above the things we pass and the people we encounter.
I suppose what I’m saying is that ‘I’ is always present in theatre, even when it is not directly invoked in the manner of autoteatro or other interactive modes of performance. Theatre exists perhaps, in the relationship between other and self, performer and spectator. This is, in fact, incredibly clear in Rotozaza’s early work. In witnessing others attempting to follow instructions, we cannot but be aware of our own projected response, i.e. the choices we would have made in their stead. Thus, through the recognition of difference, we become hugely aware of possibilities and choices. We see the ‘how’ (and maybe also the ‘why’) of their actions in a way that our own don’t register as strongly when we react impulsively as in autoteatro.
At the heart of all this, really, is the question as to whether the performative elements of our participation overpower our role as audience. At the moment, I have similar queries about game-based work, such as that emerging from the alliance of theatre and live RPGs growing out of events like Hide and Seek and companies like Coney.
Of course, perhaps all this is just what happens to me. Others may have different experiences when under the influence of headphones. Perhaps Etiquette (and even an earlier two-player version of Wondermart at the BAC Burst Festival), which I haven’t participated in, entirely answers the question of the other by placing you at a table with it and forcing interaction, but I suspect that it remains a similarly inward-looking experience. Autoteatro is certainly an innovation that I am keen on, both experientially and theoretically, but – as with any larvae-like form in development (Aren’t forms always in development?), there are challenges to be faced ahead.