In a climate of socio-political precarity, there has been a renewed focus on ideas of inclusivity and collective ownership in the arts. From 29 May to 4 June 2017, the London-based performance festival Block Universe returned for a third edition, unpacking the relationship between power, collective action and community. Taking place in a number of institutions across London including The Showroom, Somerset House, Chisenhale Dance Space and The Royal Academy of Arts, the festival questioned the ways through which we can confront the political present. How can performance art respond to the environment in which it is created?
The week began at north London gallery The Showroom with Liz Magic Laser’s Political Therapy (all works 2017), a curative drama workshop led by Louise Platt, which wove participants’ personal feelings about politics into a shared, lived experience. An assortment of grey stuffed objects scattered across the floor, created by Laser, symbolically denoted political party insignia from both the UK and US: the Conservative Party’s scribbled oak tree, Labour’s red rose, and the Democratic donkey. These became props for participants to discuss their hopes and fears for the future. Writing the names of political figures on pieces of paper, participants were prompted to vocalize their feelings regarding the current political parties and their opposing agendas. An individual and collective vulnerability began to emerge. By envisioning individuals working as a collective body, it affirmed that participatory action can function as a site of solidarity.
In the theatre of the west London arts venue The Tabernacle, the use of the body as a reflexive political tool was also asserted in Stina Nyberg’s dance piece Shapes of States. The body was portrayed as a malleable form to contrast the rigidity of professional training within the Swedish health sector. Upon arrival, a white curtain dominated the stage. A figure dressed in a blue satin outfit, looking like hospital scrubs, began to describe the theatre’s physical space. Dancers appeared in front of the curtain, and the character in blue moved on to talk about a series of fantasy situations, the dance itself, the audience, histories of Meyerholdian biomechanics and the system of scientific management known as Taylorism. The dance progressed in fluid form, the dancers entangled and interchangeable. The movements of the performers were precise, emotive and sharp, manifesting a feeling of frustration – interrogating predetermined behaviours and how society disciplines our bodies.
In the Lancaster wing at Somerset House, storytelling and its ability to revise previous narratives functioned as a tool to reimagine cultural histories and identities. Zadie Xa’s immersive environment Crash, Boom, Hisssssss. Legend of the Liquid Sword created a space that was oceanic, dreamlike and alluring, demonstrating that the body can exist in a multitude of cultures, identities and situations. The performance was compelling in its creation of multi-dimensional atmospheres, blending a myriad of costumes created by Xa in textiles of blues and greens (one perfomer wore a mask and a pair of shoes designed by Benito Mayor Vallejo), alongside fragmentary films projected onto the walls. An eclectic use of colour and medium – films of the ocean and landscapes, Korean pansori music and allusions to shamanism – contributed to a feeling of being submerged underwater. Most notable was the music: gentle percussion progressing to deep bass and melancholy wave sounds, marking the changes in atmosphere throughout the performance.
Finally, at The Friends House – the central offices of the British Quakers – Rory Pilgrim’s dance, music and film work, Software Garden, confronted questions of government cuts and radical technological proposals for care. The piece is based on a series of poems written by Carol R. Kallend, whom Pilgrim commissioned to reflect on her experience after losing her Disability Living Allowance (DLA), when social security benefits were replaced by the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Kallend documented her experience and the effects of austerity, imagining the possibility of having a robotic carer instead. A robot named Pepper took centre stage as an avatar for Kallend, prompting visions of a technological future that seemed compassionate. The robot spoke of love (alongside work, leisure and healthcare) throughout, examining its political potential with phrases such as ‘a world programmed to love by the young’. As Pepper’s hands moved, a group of young performers responded, like a flock of birds moving instinctively together. Just as the performance appeared to finish, the audience was invited to dance with the performers in the centre of the space. Able to implicate those watching as participants through compassion, cultural commentary turned into collective action.