Staging performances in and of the city
Imanuel Schipper | 01 09 2020 | Essay
In the year 2004 I did my first trip to Riga . With my family we hired a camper and made a road trip around the Baltic Sea. We arrived at Riga at night, I parked closed to the central marked on an empty parking place and we stayed there for the night. It was a short night – I was waked by the many vendors and visitors that came to sell and buy – of course the parking spot was more than full – but we had great breakfast with all the possible specialities from the countryside. Some hours later we strolled ourselves without any plans through the old city – and I remember the impressing sound of the high heels on the medieval stones, the diversity of the state of the buildings and the many un-defined and therefore green spaces between the buildings. This day made my idea of Riga as a vibrant and very lively city.
One year later I returned to Riga in order to visit Cameriga, a production of Rimini Protokoll at the Homo Novus Festival. As many of the festival productions this was not a normal theatre play. Rimini Protokoll staged a house – a whole house, a house with a long history, a house that was once a bank, some years a military headquarter, and seven for some years as the town hall. A building that was empty then, with no furniture in it, only the walls, the doors and the floors were left – and some of the lights and wer not removed. Rimini Protokoll (with local assistances of the festival) searched for persons that spent some of their life time in this building, asked them to tell about their story in the very empty room of that building. As a visitor / theatre goer I got a small piece of cardboard with a number stamped on it indicating to the room I was supposed to go to. In this very room a person was telling me (and me only) for exactly five minutes their story. When time was over this protagonist stamped me a next number on my routing card and sent me off my way through the endless corridors.
These impressions of my first two fist visits to Riga (many more were to come in the following years) may work as layouts, as metaphors for a principle that seems to be relevant in describing and understanding both the motivations, concepts and ideas of the many productions of Homo Novus Festival that take place in public sphere and the huge interest in such form of theatrical events worldwide. Strolling through a (unknown) place and attending the Cameriga performance have one thing strongly in common: In both cases the walker / spectator is moving around and co-produces in a specific way the impression of the city or the very play that he /she is watching. This collaborative mode of perception I would argue is a very contemporary culture that we may find in many digital tools and apps as much as it is something that we know from practice in our common behavior in public sphere.
Let us start wit a drawing from 1842 where we see modern man – well dressed, standing with his hands in the pockets of the long, baggy but still elegant trousers, shirt and coat, a stick under his left arm, a hat on his head, his face tilted towards the sun. The drawing I am referring to is made by Paul Gavarni and is called „The fllâneur“. Much ink has been spilled over this strolling figure, this aimless walker of 19th-century Parisian streets, as he was a central figure in literary works by Poe, Joyce, Baudelaire, Döblin, and Proust. This romantic figure takes us – the readers – by the hand for a stroll into the city and shares all that he discovers with us (like I did poorly with my description of Riga). But the flâneur does much more than just discover secrets in the arcades of early modernity and cultivate his idleness. He is the prototype of the modern urbanist, a new sort of city goer as there were and are many types around. The flâneur dwells in the streets with “cool but curious eyes” (Rignall 1989: 112); he is the constant observer of the ever-changing spectacle that emerges around him.
This elegant man with his stick, standing still for a moment and looking up in the air – where is he looking and what is he seeing? A bird, a tree in blossom, a lady behind a window? Actually it is not of importance WHAT he is looking at but how that looking-at-whatever-it-is constitutes his specific experience and makes him important enough to become a sujet for painters, writers and scholars. In other words: this flâneur is both a spectator and an actor in a play called ‘the flâneur’. As Cees Noteboom notes (1995), flâneurs are artists even if they do not write, because they are witnessing that what is going on in the city, “they are the eye, the protocol, the memory, the judgement, the archive, in flâneurs the city becomes aware of itself” (Noteboom 1995: n. pag.; my translation). It is this double action of flâneurship that is of interest. By walking through the streets and collecting impressions, the flâneur is constantly producing a story of his lived experiences while being an acteur in the play he is currently watching. Although the French philosopher Jacques Rancière is not voting for theatrical actions that force the audience to become physically active, he describes the constant activity of the spectator even in a classical setting of theater:
“The spectator also acts […]. He observes, selects, compares, interprets. He links what he sees to a host or other things that he has seen on other stages, in other kinds of place. He composes his own poem with the elements of the poem before her. He participates in the performance by refashioning it in his own way – by drawing back, for example, from the vital energy that it is supposed to transmit in order to make it a pure image and associate this image with a story which he has read or dreamt, experienced or invented. […] This is a crucial point: spectators see, feel and understand something in as much as they compose their own poem, as, in their way, do actors or playwrights, directors, dancers or performers.” (Rancière 2009: 13)
I would argue that a specific mode of walking in the city (the flâneur-mode) comes very close to what Rancière would call emancipated spectatorship. The flâneur is not just an observer or passive spectator of a finished play, he is more a coproducer of that very city life. He is in a mode that is described as a mode of “experiencing the spectacle of the city in which the viewer assumes the position of being able to observe, command, and participate in this spectacle all at the same time” (Schwartz 2001: 1733). Walter Benjamin described 1935 in his sketches of The Arcades Project (19991935) the flâneur as an active producer of the urban scenery he lives in: “It [the city] opens up to him as a landscape, even as it closes around him as a room” (Benjamin 19991935: 417). For Benjamin, the city not a fixed thing anymore but a space that changes its appearance and functionality constantly depending on the action and choices of its visitor, user, inhabitant, actor. And the city even becomes a strange and unknown place: “To the flâneur, his city is – even if […] he happened to be born here – no longer native ground. It represents for him a theatrical display, an arena” (Benjamin 19991935: 347). Benjamin propose to see the city as theater that is set up and used by actors, which in this case are flâneurs, but are increasingly all members of urban society in general.
In other words: in the city that works here as a medium it is the citygoer, the passant, the active and emancipated spectator (Rancière) that turns the urban landscape into a “theatre of social action” (Mumford 2015: 93), a “theatre whose setting is the street” (Brecht 19871930: 176)4 or a performance (cf. Schipper 2014). The assemblage of collected impressions are merged into a texture of experiences, a storyboard of the film that we live at the same time.
Or more generally and in the words of the human geographer Doreen Massey: “We are constantly making and re-making the time-spaces through which we live our lives” (Massey 1999: 23). Massey not only discusses the inseparable relations of space and time but in her core argument points to the production of identities through the concept of relational aspects of space: “We cannot ‘become’ (…) without others. And it is space that provides the necessary condition for that possibility” (Massey 2005: 56). The very performative notion of space – that it is not a fixed thing to walk through but more a mean or medium in which things and settings become possible – has been discussed by many scholars such as Lefebvre (1974), Certeau (1980), Merleau-Ponty (1945), Deleuze and Guattari (1980).
I do not intend to dig deeper into relational space theories or the politics of space. However, it is obvious that these approaches to space and space production have an effect not only on how we receive space as such, but actually form the way we behave in that space and even what and how we see and understand things, objects, situations and actions in that space. In other words – the space we produce will structure the life-time we spend in it. This is a highly performative approach to describing space and its narrative – the relational space production gets a kind of dramaturgical agency for the play that is called “my life”.
Recalling our flâneur as a starting point and looking back to Cameriga, the staging of a house in the city then we might see some parallels – especially the collaborative positions the spectators are set in. It is the way how the spectator (or the city goer) is asked to participate in the show (in the city) that he/she is watching (visiting). It is – as Claire Bishop describes it – the shift „from an audience that enjoys its subordination to strange experiences devised for them by an artist, to an audience that is encouraged to be a co-producer of the work.“ (Bishop 2012: 277).
To conclude my journey trough different sociological, philosophical and other academic books one could argue that the main effect of programming theater in urban spaces is exactly this: to encourages and support the collaborate efforts of producing – and changing – common urban spheres. In times of shut & lock downs in many cities and democracies under pressures this form of theatre and art constitutes a very high political practice in its core sense, as David Harvey points it out: The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right (…). The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. (Harvey 2008)
In this sense the people of Riga (and its visitors) can be happy to continue its tradition of staging performances in and of the city with the result that they help to make and remake themselves.
Benjamin, Walter (19991935): The Arcades Project (H. Eiland/K. McLaughlin, trans.), Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Bishop, Claire (2012): Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London/NewYork: Verso Books.
Brecht, Berthold (1987 ): “On Everyday Theatre.” In: J. Willet/R. Manheim/E. Fried (eds.), Poems 1913-1956, London: Routledge.
Certeau, Michel de (1980): “L’invention du quotidien.” In: Union Generale
d’Editions 1, Arts de Faire, pp 10-18.
Deleuze, Gilles/Guattari, Felix (19871980): A Thousand Plateaus (B. Massumi, trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gavarni, Paul (1842): Le Flâneur, Painting.
Harvey, David (2008): “The right to the city.“ In: New Left Review. II (53): 23–40, London.
Lefebvre, Henri (1974): La production de l’espace, Paris: Anthropos.
Massey, Doreen (1999): “Power-geometries and the politics of space-time.” In: Hettner-Lecture 1998 2, Heidelberg: Dep. of Geography, University of Heidelberg.
Massey, Doreen (2005): For Space, London: Sage.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (20051945): Phenomenology of Perception (C. Smith, trans.), London/New York: Routledge.
Mumford, Lewis (2015): “What is a city? Architectural record (1937).” In: Richard T. LeGates/Frederic Stout (eds.), The City Reader, London/New York: Routledge, pp. 91-95.
Noteboom, Cees (1995): “Die Sohlen der Erinnerung.” In: DIE ZEIT, 49/1995, June 30, 2016 (http://www.zeit.de/1995/49/Die_Sohlen_der_Erinnerung).
Rancière, Jacques (2009): “The Emancipated Spectator.” In: Jacques Rancière (ed.), The Emancipated Spectactor, London/New York: Verso, pp. 1-23.
Rignall, John (1989): “Benjamin’s Flâneur and the Problem of Realism.” In: Andrew Benjamin (ed.), The Problems of Modernity: Adorno and Benjamin, London: Routledge, pp. 112-121.
Rimini Protokoll (2005): Cameriga. A Meta-Burocracy. WP: 24.9.2005, Homo Novus Festival, Riga.
Schwartz, Vanessa R (2001): “Walter Benjamin for historians.” In: The American Historical Review 106/5, pp. 721-743.
Schipper, Imanuel (2014): “City as performance.” In: TDR/the Drama Review 58/3, pp. 18-26.
Part of this article have been published as: Schipper, Imanuel (2016): ”From Flâneur to Co-Creator. The performative spectator.” In: Leeker, Martina, Schipper, Imanuel, Beyes, Timon (2016): Performing the Digital, transcript.
Imanuel Schipper is a lecturer and researcher at different universities and art academies in Germany, Switzerland and other countries who works on the interface between scientific research, teaching, and artistic practice. 2017-2019 he has been a deputy professor on Performance Studies and Dramaturgy at the Departement Arts & Social Change at the Medical School Hamburg (MSH). Since 2020 he has been working as a Research associate at the CityScienceLab (a cooperation with MIT) at HarbourCityUniversityHamburg. He has been on the board of directors of Performance Studies international (PSi) and is working on his PhD on „Relational Dramaturgies” at Leuphana University Lüneburg. Has closely collaborated with theatre collective Rimini Protokoll.