West Kowloon Cultural District | February - March 2016
White Rubble on a White Chair
Being among the audience in Ant Hampton’s autoteatro piece Someone Else (Hong Kong Version) was a detached experience. For such a particular theatre form that opens up the boundaries between real and staged experience for the audience, there should be more to take away than a smartphone app.
The term autoteatro consists of the words “auto”(as in “automobile” and “automatic”) and “teatro”(“theatre” in Spanish/Italian etc.). The use of this term to describe this form of theatre first appeared in 2007 under the title Etiquette, created by Ant Hampton and Silvia Mercuriali (Rotozaza). In Hampton’s own words:
“Autoteatro works, so far, by participants following a series of instructions, often via headphones, which lead them into alternating roles of performer and audience.”*
Part of the magic of Etiquette lies in the simultaneously private and public context: the audience/actors received and responded to audio instructions from their personal headphones sitting in an actual, ordinary cafe or bar, while ordinary customers around them were unaware of the happening of the performance:
“You’re alone with each other in the awareness of the performance happening, and yet you’re in public space, surrounded by others oblivious of anything taking place. As always, the private and public spheres rubbing together create a certain thrill.”*
While Etiquette was focused on the relationship between a couple, alternating viewership becomes an intriguing part for autoteatro too:
“there’s always someone speaking and the other listening – actor and audience – under the implicit contract that those roles are regularly swapped.”*
However, in Someone Else, a strong sense of detachment and even loss diluted a full engagement between the audience and the audio guide as well as a delicate dissonance of the private and the public, and a technical problem disturbed the brief and already subdued sensation of alternating viewership.
Actually the detachment from substantiality started from the very beginning. The audience’s feet were literally off the ground in the performance: it took place on the rooftop of a temporary two-storey hut in the West Kowloon Cultural District; a place still in development for arts, culture and amenities, on the Kowloon Peninsula side of Hong Kong’s signature Victoria Harbour. With the soaring skyscrapers on one side and the harbour overlooking the CBD on the other, the sense of floating in the cityscape of Hong Kong was augmented. Such a choice of physical environment placed the audience on the position of a distant viewer of the city. But this awkward distance was too far to observe and too close to defamiliarise, and thus I became slightly lifted off the ground and in need of reference points to grab and work against for meanings and understanding.
The setup also resembled a de-centering, annihilating non-place. A group of twenty or so audience scattered around twenty or so casually yet evenly placed foldable white plastic chairs, on the pale grey cement floor reflecting the dull afternoon overcast sky. Among the chairs were twenty or so palm-sized stones, each wrapped with a long piece of printed paper. I knew the paper around the stones had text on, because I was the only one in the audience who got curious and explored on my own, and also the only one to be gently discouraged from this premature action by the staff. During the idle ten or so minutes waiting for the performance to start, it was easy to develop a sense of extracted and refined loneliness in such an environment.
What further deterritorialised, yet without soundly reterritorialising me, was the audio in the App; the main content of the performance. Much as Deleuze would welcome constant deterritorialisation and reterritorlisation, Hampton chose to uproot me without bothering much to either push me into the land of stimulating shaky ground or put me anywhere else. The audio started with the sound of waves and an instruction to make me ask myself where I was, the first overt announcement of feet-off-the-ground. The following instructions were sparsely paced out with sound effects, slow and gentle reflections and personal stories in between. At one point the sound effect was playing the hustle bustle of a Hong Kong street, and we were instructed to walk freely among the others. The group of audience was moving in a nice and slow pace much inspired by the pacing of the guiding voice, while the sound effect was a quickly shifting messy mixture of all kinds of urban noises. The effect was ambiguous: one was walking among strangers and consciously avoiding them like one would on the streets, but at the same time walking with them in harmony without the usual anxiety and struggle for minimal space for mobility. It was one of the many moments when you could start finding your own landing for your own floating feet, and it was particularly difficult because the mesmerising vagueness was already very comfortable and safe.
There were also moments when I actually felt I could land and even dig into something but failed because of the brevity of the moment or the obstacles of external conditions. One of such instances was when the realms of the private and the public were intertwined, reminiscent of Etiquette to some extent. The possibility was opened up when the voice in the audio guide was speaking to each individual participant intimately while at the same time the whole group of the audience was performing synchronised actions and interactions in the manner of a community. The moment of tacit smiles and looks exchanged was beautiful when all of us were trying to form a circle by putting hands on the others’ shoulders. However, after this fleeting moment of connection, we sank back to the safe exclusive world within our own headphones, and the intriguing disorientation and the sprout of intention for more autonomous communication and connection with all the strangers, the “someone else’s” was interrupted without further fostering.
Another such moment concerned a more technical problem. Someone Else integrated a recap of Hampton’s project on “live portraiture”, which was supposed to encourage dynamics in a mutual viewership. Each of the two paired up audience was simultaneously the subject imposing the gaze and the object being gazed at. I did experience a strong impulse to question my perception on self and other, when I was instructed to observe my random partner from toe to head in a slow and unaggressive manner, while she was doing the same to me. But sadly I did not have the chance to savour this impulse because this “staring contest” could not be carried on in an undisturbed, comtemplative atmosphere due to the wind and the blinding sunlight hurting my already squinting eyes. This difficulty to stay within the designed performance space and time paralleled a “rupture” Hampton performed in the audio. For most of the time, it was a female voice in Cantonese speaking through the headphones, but half way into the piece, the voice of the English-speaking Hampton jumped in and revealed the reality that it was a translated piece, we were in the middle of a staged experience, and there could be gaps in communication. That is, on one side of the rupture was theatre where we could develop and reflect upon ideas, but on the other side it was not yet palpable daily life inhabited by the audience and where actions could have effects. It was the self-referentiality of the making of this piece, the floating rooftop for the detached and undecided that the technical rupture revealed to us.
With all these elements making the participant feel detached and likely indifferent too, it would take some effort to relate to Hampton’s story despite the intimate form. It was still quite inspiring sitting side by side with a stranger, reading the same piece of paper and trying to keep track on the text on it together, while each of you were listening to the voice in your head individually. This life story of Hampton overcoming his prejudice to talk to an ethnic minority person tackled a chronic and broad issue of “us” and “them”. Sadly, however, the basis of the misunderstanding centring on terrorism did not speak to current Hong Kong situations very well, and a culturally privileged voice was not powerful enough on such issues.
Admittedly, I am committing a crime of judging a piece of work without seeing the whole of it. Someone Else had a second part that I did not have the chance to go, in which the audience could attend by themselves at several public areas along the Victoria Harbour. I heard it had something to do with the LED light show on the tallest building in Hong Kong, the International Commerce Centre. But I guess I did not miss much. It maybe reasonable to assume that the second part would be a distant spectacle, in front of which the participant would be literally left with a lot of space around her. She could try to fill it in, perhaps with a bit of distracted thoughts and self indulgence as I did during the first part. At the end of the first part, we were asked by the audio guide to let go of the piece of paper of Hampton’s self-conscious story, and it was thus physically lost in the real space. I should have put one of the white stones that once anchored the story on the ground onto one of the white foldable chairs that were temporarily there, a gesture of active reterritorilisation to address my overall impression of this not-really-here-and-now autoteatro piece.
*Quotations about “autoteatro” are from Ant Hampton’s website
Creative and Production Team:
Concept, Writer, Director: Ant Hampton
Associate Director: Carmen Lo
Producer: Bobo Lee*, Eliter Mok
Technical Director: Yuen Cheuk Wa*
Creative Producer: Katja Timmerberg
Assistant Producer: Kitty Lau*, Chu Ka Wai
Production Assistant: Tancy Sin*
Technical Manager: Jose Ho
Production Manager: Cheung Heung Ming
Sound Engineer: Wansan Hong
Sound Technician: Kwan Ho Ching
Deputy Stage Manager: Chan Kwun Yee
Props design: Wiki Lo
Translator: Michele Chung
Voice Artist: Man Ling Hung
Animator: Gary Chan
App programmer: WARE Limited
Music – Angle poised: Fridge
Spoken quote during walk: John Berger
Event Operation: Zarinda Au*, Evis Chuk*
Promotion: Yanny Chan*
On-line registration: Eugene Lo*, Yakoo Technology Limited
Media Communication: Brian Yu*
*Staff of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority