Spotlights and exchanges, the world of Massive Owl was forced upon us in this engaging and confrontational performance in the Old Station in Bristol as part of the Bristol Biennial.
The moment I stepped into the Old Station performance hall I realised this would not be a performance in which I would be a spectator – being a mere spectator is not enough with Massive Owl. These guys launched the performance in pairs as they fought each other to the ground, wrestling and testing their strength. The exchange instantly made us question each other – who was a perfomer? Who wasn’t?
Luckily there were only four performers, their identities were never revealed until the very end, infact, they defined themselves as ‘James’ a name suggested by a member of the audience. Initially one performer introduced himself multiple times to people in the audience as James, much to our amusement. This common nicety was being shared in a false and forced situation, it instantly conflicted with the British sense of reserve and resistance to be embarassed within a large group of people.
Everything about this performance “crossed the line”, which was the theme of the Bristol Biennial this year (not sure what the Bristol Biennial is? Read about it here). As the performance progressed, it wasn’t just the individual introducing himself – it was all four performers. Although we didn’t know their name, their identities were established by how fast they ran within the small rectangular enclosure where the audience watched attentively. There was the comical one who kept on running away from a certain member of the audience, this triggered a number of laughs with some people nearly crying with laughter. Then there was the one who didn’t join in when the other three were running and racing each other, and when he did – he ran in a solitary and isolated way. These sprints captured the personal boundaries of our health and fitness, I read into it as a physical limit which was tested right infront of our very eyes.
Social cues and challenging the role of spectator
Massive Owl moved their chairs and looked outwards at us, suddenly making us the performers – eek! Even Massive Owl artistic lead, Sam Powell, pointed out after the show that in many ways the audience are the performers. It felt like anything could’ve happened just then, an audience member could’ve started running alongside the cast member – but really we know that no-one would have braved it, but maybe one day someone will..
One of the most amazing parts of the performance was the way in which the audience picked up on social cues, as one scene ended where three of the perfomers were vocally asserting themselves – everyone peered curiously at the fourth performer who remained seated and vacant. As he came to life, he looked around he said ‘Hello, my name is James…’ as he did, he took the hand of the people either side of him and suddenly – and quite beautifully – everyone in the room joined hands. This happened atleast twice and it felt strangely quite comforting knowing you were connected as a room. (Infact, it reminded me of a TED talk where a giant thumb-war connected every individual and broke individual barriers, see it here)
Essentially this performance is incredibly hard to explain, it captured so many feelings, expressions, social niceties or social nasti-cies (one of my favourite scenes being the one where James tried to tell a story to James, but had to stop everytime he looked away). This performance felt like a true happening, it was a term I learnt at art school but never really got. It was a term coined by art theorist Allan Kaprow whose fascination didn’t lie in art as object but art as performance, and the performance of process.
Kaprow defined the term happening as:”something spontaneous, something that just happens to happen’.”
At the end of the performance, the audience is still holding hands when they invite us to stand up, James announces this is the end of the performance, but before we leave there is one more thing that they would like to share with us. Suddenly the Nando’s music comes back on, it came on previously mid-performance but this time instead of watching people dance – we became the dancers. This was so unexpected and wildly inviting, but it was also a social experiment – some members of the audience left without saying anything which is not surprising. This performance hijacked any sense of normality and conventions, and in the process was quite intense!
So we danced and danced, we formed the conga and moved around the room, there was just the sound of laughter at the realisation of what was happening, it was amazing.
Thankyou to Massive Owl for letting me be a part of a happening, a moment in time which was so spontaneous. It instilled a number of emotions, fear, resilience, happiness, nervousness and anticipation, and for this you reminded me what it felt to be alive.
Read up on my review of MINE in the Goldney Grotto, Clifton
My artwork can be viewed here