BAY AREA ARTS: Etiquette at YBCA

I had the chance to experience “Etiquette” under the auspices of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts earlier this semester.
I have been interested in the admittedly over-used concept of “relational aesthetics” over the last couple of years, thinking in particular about 1) how this turn in contemporary visual art is part and parcel of a related turn in experimental theatre and 2) how and with what modifications this turn addresses socio-political issues, i.e. the vexed but intriguing question of “commitment” in art practice.
“Etiquette” may have less to say about topic number 2, but it is an intriguing place to reflect on topic number 1.  This piece was conceived by the artistic group Rotozaza who have been creating innovative scenarios together for the last decade.  This is a piece is made for two audience members who end up becoming performers for each other simultaneously.  As such, they are part of Rotozaza’s ongoing interest in creating “Autoteatro” experiences, that is small, provisional theatrical experiences that are generated by and for the participants themselves.  This particular piece takes place in a beautiful tea lounge located above the Yerba Buena Gardens.  Two auto-participants sign up every hour for a 30 minute performance.  The pair is instructed by a host to sit at a special table in the tea lounge.  There, they put on head sets that instruct them in the parameters of exchange.  They will be told how to interact with each other and what to say.  The table is also equipped with special props, including chalk, miniature figures indexing humans and elements of a landscape, pens, pieces of paper, a small piece of “teck” (a play-doh like substance).  The head sets also tell participants how to use these items, ultimately to create a tiny space of narrative display on the table between them.
Rotozaza has gained a reputation within  a larger effort to create intensely intimate theatre—or from the other direction, to create specialized forms of interaction within the gallery system.  Indeed, part of what always interests me is whether these intimate aesthetic scenarios are supported by a theatre circuit or a visual art gallery circuit.  This particular series comes under the auspices of YBCA’s performance curatorship, with Angela Mattox doing most of the coordination.  However, Angela’s effort is also part of an initiative with visual arts curator Betti-Sue Hertz where the two of them are joining forces to think about the nature of audience experience in both the theatrical and visual arts realms.  This joint interest has been taken up in a bunch of places.  Battersea Arts Center recently coordinated a large festival called “One-on-One” which brought together dozens of pieces intended for single individuals or very small groups, pieces where the act of reception is highly personalized and self-reflexive.  These kinds of audience experiments were also under discussion in a public panel and all day “think tank” that I had the pleasure of participating in at the Museum of Modern Art in May of 2010, an experience that was rich and not without its moments of friction as curators, artists, and critics debated the goals of this work.
Within this larger relational movement in theatre and the visual arts, there are some specific dimensions to “Etiquette” that provoke specific comparisons.  Like many of the one-on-one pieces, the question of financial support looms.  Large ticket sales can’t be the objective.  Indeed, these pieces are attempts to offer micro-experiences at a time when museums and theatres are pressured to coordinate art events that “scale,” that have a high “flow-through” of people (museums) or that can accommodate many “butts in seats” (theatre).  The techniques of Etiquette are akin to those of say, Rimini Protokoll’s Call Cutta in a Box in its intensely micro-aesthetic, though arguably it does not have the same socio-political ambitions of that piece.  However, the experience of what Rotozaza calls the “bubble in a public space” is one filled with wonder and the thrill of unexpected encounter.  The use of head-sets is itself a particular technique.  It recalled for me some of the works of Janet Cardiff whose sound designs provoke listeners to look anew at the sites they are inhabiting.  In this case, however, the voices on the head-sets are provoking, not only reflection, but also speech and action in the world.  I have been part of other theatre experiments where participants are told their lines spontaneously.  The effects are varied in all cases.  Sometimes, participants can find themselves going down a rabbit hole, where they become embedded in fraught and sometimes disturbing stories from which they may or may not want to escape.  In other cases, however, there is a certain pressure that is taken off of the “participants” when their lines and actions are set for them. Unlike the pressure of other kinds of participatory theatre, the head-set-driven dramaturgy can be a bit of a relief, with less concern about how to make decisions, how to “interact,” how to “assert agency” etc.   My experience of Etiquette fell into this category.  As I put on the head set, said my lines, and moved my figurines while watching my partner move hers, I felt curiously relaxed.  My experience was in someone else’s hands even as those hands relied on my own to execute it.  Finally, in ways that I hadn’t expected, the pleasure of the experience also paralleled the pleasure of the puppet theatre as well as that of the dollhouse.  The dramaturgy installed on the table between us had the tiny wonders of a doll house interaction, where objects are animated and where a miniature world can be created and controlled.  Exactly why the piece is called “Etiquette” is an open question for me.  But if etiquette is a system of behaviors that troubles the distinction between external directive and internal will, then this was a piece that certainly provoked reflection on that paradox.