Theatre, Archives, Documentation and LIS. What’s the Link? Part Two

This post was originally published on the CityLIS Blog  

Our story picks up in the winter of 2011. After the CEDAR project wrapped up in February, I was asked to re-validate a level 2 module on the drama degree course at UEL with a colleague, Conan Lawrence. Conan had presented a paper at UEL’s Performing the Archive conference entitled ‘Performing the Archive: Reflections from an Archive Aware Performance Process’ where he uses Bourriad’s figure of the “semionaut” as a metaphor of archival navigation; a process of creating pathways through signs as a method of tacit knowledge (Lawrence, 2010).

Conan and I set about integrating OTHA and ELTA into classroom activities by encouraging the students to think of themselves as semionauts (although we never used that term) in order for them to feel a sense of ownership of the digitised collection. This word, “ownership”, appeared frequently in my meetings with Conan. We would meet every Friday afternoon in the bar at Theatre Royal Stratford East to compare notes. How were the students progressing? Do they understand what an archive is? How can we demonstrate to them that the archive has a performative potential?

In many ways, we were asking ourselves these questions by positing them to the students. We were teaching without any blueprint or even any articulable sense of what we wanted the their work to look like. We played with ideas of autobiography, of undiscovered histories, of finding stories in the archive, of doors (there were lots of doors). But within this maelstrom of images and theories was this vast collection of ephemera. Its sheer physical weight was a confusing counterpoint to the important interpretive process that devising performances require. We struggled to blend the histories contained in OTHA and ELTA with performance techniques and principles. Looking back, I think Conan and I were too enthusiastic about the importance of the collection and became preoccupied with the student’s attaining this rather nebulous sense of “ownership”.

What was needed was a healthy dose of disrespect for the archives. Not a disinterest or abuse of them, but a lack of reverence, a granting of permission, almost, to do whatever one felt was necessary to bring the material to life, to interpret it however one saw fit. Constantly iterating the profundity of Derrida and Benjamin is not conducive to experimental play. Rule number one about practice research: You can’t perform an idea. Ideas lack the immediacy possessed by the body and space and time. They must be translated into physical exercises in order for their knowledge to be transmitted asperformance.

So, that word again: ownership. Were we really talking about here? All conversations about archives touch on loss and absence. These are familiar themes for those of us who work in theatre. Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre is characterised by how he used language to give absence a presence. His work beautifully expresses our struggle to give voice or form to what we feel but can never say, see or touch. Amongst the thousands of digitised documents we looked at during Performing the Archive there was lacking one vital component of theatre: the audience. Put even more simply: us. I say us because spectators and archivists and researchers in the archive are custodians of knowledge. An artist’s voice gains a manifold afterlife for itself in documents, but also in memory, which is to say that which resists consignation. I began to consider if performance could give a form to the absences in the archive by expressing the metamorphic nature of memory.

At this time I was also working with the theatre company ZU-UK  (formerly Zecora Ura and Para-Active). The artistic director, Jorge Lopes Ramos, asked me to collaborate with him on the company’s six hour, overnight epic show Hotel Medea. The show was a pioneer of what we now call immersive theatre (until relatively recently promenade theatre was the name given to shows where the audience could move and interact with actors) and the company had struggled to find a satisfactory way of documenting it. Jorge and I came up with the idea of contacting former spectators of Hotel Medea to ask if they would share their memories of the show with an audience who had not seen it. We organised several Audience as Document events in London and Edinburgh, each time accentuating the theatricality of the event by including more and more scenery from the show. The last Audience as Document event was held at the Oi Futuro Institute in Rio de Janeiro. Hotel Medea had played there several years earlier, meaning the audience were being asked to work with memories that were not as fresh as those we had worked with in the UK. The result was that they shared far more personal insights into the effect the show had had on them; Hotel Medea had become part of their repertoire and was entangled with many other experiences. This was an important moment for my research but I didn’t know it yet.

Shortly after Audience as Document I began my PhD. From the outset I was interested in examining the word “live” and its association with ephemerality. Moreover, in the literature I reviewed I discerned that it’s meaning in the context of performance was contingent on the presence of the audience who, it was implied, vanished when a show ended. Audience as Document had given me an inkling into the potential performativity documents could have if they are presented within an interactive framework. During the CEDAR project I devised a workshop with Cara Davies entitled Body Site Encounter, where sites in London’s Docklands were documented and then performed in the studio. I developed a series of workshops which I lead in Aberystwyth and Bristol where participants mixed their memories with the histories they found and invented whilst out walking. Documentation became a method for re-interpreting the pasts found in sites and in memories.

For my final practical project I took this a stage further by using it as a method of re-imagining the future of our cities. The idea for my performance, Voices from the Village, came to me in a blast of righteous fury. I was born in London and, like most Londoners, had conflicting feelings about the Olympic Games. I lived in Hackney from 2010-2012 and was an eye witness to the erection of the E20 Village and Westfield Shopping Centre on the post industrial site in Stratford. It was the stress on the future and legacy that I found most infuriating. The 2012 literature spoke about the Olympics as if it symbolised a bright new dawn for London, but this ostensive paradise felt rather stale. Walk in the E20 Village today and you could be anywhere. It is a bland, lifeless place, bereft of history and replete with CCTV cameras and security guards. In this way it is a perfect advertisement for urban regeneration. This word, regeneration, sparked my imagination. It struck me that the whole Olympic project was designed to not only regenerate conurbations in East London but more importantly to construct a unitary imaginary of a future based on neoliberal economics. The company tasked with managing the E20 Village and Olympic Park, the London Legacy Development Corporation, had determined what the legacy of 2012 would be without including the voices of the local community.

Voices from the Village was my attempt to use documentation as a means of re-imagining the future of these sites and to peel back the grey strata participants walked through to reveal the driving force of regeneration projects. I was inspired by my readings of the Savage Messiah zine (2011) and Guy Debord’s writings on situationism (2006). Participants were guided through the Olympic Village by three audio-guides. The Legacy Builder was one of the authors of the 2012 Legacy. The 2012 Manager was responsible for training people for the new future using Westfield as a testing ground. The Documenter spoke to the participants from an undisclosed time in the near future when the neighbouring site of Hackney Wick had been regenerated. He urged the participants to document the site and create their own archives as a way of disrupting the homogeneity of regeneration projects. All three voices instructed the participants to record their walk in photographs. The photos were uploaded to the Voices from the Village website.

Since my PhD concluded I have found myself thinking more and more about the potential of text to activate a mode of participation engendered by documentation. In 2015 I was an artist in residence as part of Tracing the Pathway Collective in Finland and Greenland. In both instances I worked to try and find a satisfactory way of expressing the weight of text and its capacity to stain our physical environment. Here’s one of the pieces I wrote in Greenland:

The Weight of Words

Words are heavy things. The rooms we lie in would be a lot cleaner without them. Every utterance stains the walls around us. 

All words know something; they have a habit of naming and shaming and blaming us for every act we do. If an act can be named then it can be understood.

We are our names.

Yet what of the unknowing? Is the unknown a white, blank room? No. No space is empty. Even the word, ‘empty’, exists to distinguish one kind of space from another. 

We fill empty spaces with words to stave of madness, the madness of unknowing. But to un-know is to undo. To un-know means we begin to pick at the threads that spin invisible yet fleshy patterns around us. 

An act of unknowing is an act that supersedes language. Spaces must be filled with actions that cleanse rooms of names, to save live communions from the codex of consignable knowledge. 

Sensuous acts are acts of resistance against what is named, and there is no more important name than the one we possess. 

Through others known and unknown in a delicately balanced white room we begin to unburden ourselves from knowledge. 

I’ve continued this line of enquiry in my capacity as lecturer in performative writing at Rose Bruford College. I am teaching my students how they can create an artefact that allows their practice to be regenerated in new forms through text. Their task is to transmit their work and experience of art-making through text in a way that allows the knowledge they produce to remain live.

But the subject of participation through documentation is the most pressing question facing me now. With Lyn Robinson here at City, we are investigating with our DocPerform project how a document can become immersive beyond the sensorium of the theatre or virtual reality. The DocPerform symposia are designed to interrogate how theatre and performance operate in the contemporary information ecology where all of reality, the profound and the mundane, is relentlessly recorded and disseminated amongst our networks.

What does this process do to the identity of the documenter? What is it we are trying to capture when we record? Can we now talk about networked performances audiences? What has digital culture made live performance into?

Next time: DocPerform and the future of the document

Debord, G. (2006) Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press

Lawrence, C. (2010) Performing the Archive: Reflections from an Archive-Aware Performance Process. In: Archiving for the Future: Using Archives to Enhance Learning and Teaching in Drama and Theatre Studies Conference, 19th May, London. Available from: [accessed: 13th November 2017].

Oldfield Ford, L. (2011) Savage Messiah. London: Verso