At what point does the audience become a participant in a performance? Arguably, a piece is incomplete until it has been seen, an idea which invests the viewer with a great deal of power as they experience the art and draw their own conclusions. Yet the boundaries between performer/audience grow even more indistinct when the performance leaves the confines of the theater. For Khris Soden and Anna Halprin, theater can stretch its legs far beyond the stage to immerse the audience as an active member of the performance company. But when the Portland Tour of Tilburg or the Blank Placard Happening cast the “traditional” audience in the role of performer, does a new and perhaps unwitting audience emerge?
As a member of the recently-deceased troupe, The M.O.S.T., Soden has a lot of experience with audience-immersing performance events and psycho-geographical travels. He channels this practice into a tour of the Dutch city of Tilburg, as led through Portland. By mapping the two cities over one another, Soden is able to run a classic tourist concession, while uprooting our familiarity with the commonplace. Most Portlanders would never go on a local walking tour marketed towards out-of-towners, but through Soden’s piece, we dedicate an hour-and-a-half to open-minded exploration.
Soden’s script follows the outline of a typical tour by discussing cultural identity, local customs, and historical landmarks – on Saturday, we learned about the Netherlands’ political values and were taught a few basic phrases in Dutch. Part of what tour-guides trade in is legitimacy – providing audiences with comfort in a new place and a borrowed sense of belonging. Learning words and history, we became honorary Tilburg citizens for a day, eager to go home and tell our friends and family how “continental” we feel with our newfound knowledge.
And curiously enough, this sense of familiarity carried through to a number of coincidental parallels between the two cities. With our backs to Powell’s Books, Soden pointed out a museum of the written word where a Mitchell Gold furniture store stands. Walking past the new clothing boutiques and old Portland institutions like Josephine’s Dry Goods, Soden discussed the history of Fabriekstraat, the old heart of the textile industry. The Red Light district came up near Mary’s Club and the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall stood feet away from Tilburg’s auditorium. Tilburg even boasts a “park” of a single, fenced tree, which isn’t too far off from the World’s Smallest Park in the middle of the Naito Parkway.
In much the same way, the recreation of Halprin’s Blank Placard Happening follows the format of a well-known event (in this case, a demonstration) in an unusual way. While Soden walks a familiar downtown-tourist route with a discordant script, Halprin’s piece looks like a traditional protest, but moves away from city hall and the common spaces of public demonstration. The signs and unified dress of the crowd paralleled every protest march I’ve ever seen or participated in, but devoid of a stated message, it felt like a surreal spectacle quite distant from the marches it emulated.
Participating in these two pieces, it struck me that both works could be seen as a variant of the “found” art practices common in sculpture and increasingly present in contemporary video. In place of accumulated objects or sounds or images, both Soden and Halprin use “found” systems; the public walking-tour in one instance and the demonstration march in the other. These familiar public practices are re-purposed to serve a new, but parallel intention. Like cast-off toys or scrap wood used in a found-art installation, the tour and the protest both retain their original form, while taking on new meaning through their juxtaposition with dissimilar ideas and situations. Soden adopts the found identity of a genial tour-guide through his demeanor and language; Halprin’s piece makes use of the iconic visuals and well-known choreography of the march. What each artist brings to these common systems is a new context and a de-stabilization of the audience’s idea of the format.
And this is where the secondary audience, made up of witnesses and passerby, enters into the piece. By co-opting such familiar events as a walking tour or a march, these performances blend into the everyday social uses of the city – they are unconsciously accepted on their outward appearance. Everyone attending a performance in a theater (hopefully) understands their role and the significance of the action, but when the intentional audience becomes part of a piece in the outside world, the spectators that remain on the streets are unaware of the show. With our blank signs in Halprin’s happening, passerby were forced to create their own meaning. Drivers and passengers exclaimed their own ideas of what was being (or should be) protested. We heard honks in solidarity and honks in opposition. The new audience accepted our performance on the basis of their own assumptions.
As I followed Soden’s tour group, I kept thinking that people must believe us to be a group of Dutch tourists, whose guide must couch everything in terms of our home country to help us understand. When we stopped, we often clustered around unremarkable sights as people nearby paid for their parking or ate at sidewalk tables. If any of these passerby were only half listening, they could easily be forgiven for learning a false history of Portland. If the doormen at the Hilton didn’t hear that we were discussing the Heikesekerk, they may have heard that on the site of this hotel, there has always been a place of worship for the last 500 years. Just as Halprin’s blank signs invited people to re-affirm their own conclusions, Soden’s tour could lead witnesses to a new local narrative if they accepted us for what we appeared to be: an officially sanctioned tour group.
On their old website, The M.O.S.T. expressed their desire to create, “feelings of being completely unfamiliar with a very familiar street … or a pleasant situation that occurs during the course of a normally routine task.” Walking off of the stage and taking experiential performance to the streets can broaden this intervention in the commonplace. As an audience participating in the piece, we help to unsettle the normal ways of using our city, maybe leaving bystanders to question their experiences just a bit more often.
-posted by patrick leonard