This is a dark space… Osunwunmi reflects on filming with Back to Back Theatre

In September, Inbetween Time brought Back To Back Theatre back to this city to make a Bristol-specific version of their Democratic Set film project. The company really enjoyed their time here and loved the thoughtfulness, quirkiness and passion that all those who participated brought with them. The film is in post production at the moment, but in the meantime, to whet your appetite, Osunwunmi has written some reflections on her experience of participating in the Democratic Set filming.

Back to Back is one of Australia’s leading contemporary theatre companies. They are an integrated company driven by a core ensemble of artists with intellectual disabilities and if you were one of the many who saw Back to Back’s Small Metal Objects in Broadmead (one of Venue’s Top 3 shows of 2009) or if you were able to see their new show, Food Court, at the Barbican this summer, you’ll know what sort of mind-blowing performance work this company makes. If you’ve never seen their work before, you can see their new Democratic Set as part of the Inbetween Time Festival in December 2010.

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“What do you do with difference, in regard to equality? Ignore it, mark it, suppress it, smooth over it?”
Bruce Gladwin, Artistic Director, Back to Back Theatre from an informal talk at Arnolfini, September 2010

This is a dark space, an auditorium, or rather it can be made dark. The floor, the walls, the curtains, all black. Cables cross the floor, and a camera track; the floor is alive with technology.

A camera on a pyramid of scaffolding is set on the track. It is focussed on the inside of a big, square, plywood crate, mellow with light. Inside the crate, a woman with a plastic bag over her head is vacuuming. She wears the classical costume of Performance Art. We sit on temporary seating behind the camera and watch, waiting our turn in the dark. The camera glides across the floor in ten-second passes from right to left, capturing the microcosm in the crate to a monitor at the side of the room, which reveals without distraction the lighted box: the woodgrain-patterned plywood, glowing, organic, a fine frame; the person, also glowing. Just a person. Just ten seconds of person.

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It’s time for the next performer. He had intended to cry, having brought in an onion specially, but doubts whether the image he had in mind can be achieved in the standard ten-second tracking Long Shot. The ingenious guys in the dark – I should call them anti-gremlins, since they make fiddly tech stuff go delightfully right – get busy with the problem while the performer does increasingly brutal things to himself with the onion to get tears to roll down his face. This tender, wistful, melancholic image is projected in huge Close-Up to the back of the box while the face’s owner follows the pass of the camera across it to create his own Live ten seconds.

I’m up next. I take direction like a good’un, I hope, and try to be myself/a performer/not too silly/silly enough/innocent/knowing/vital/ordinary etc. As one does. The image that truly strikes me, reviewing the footage as Rhian rough-edits on his laptop on the fly, is of me waiting in the dark by the side of the crate, catching an edge of light from the side-door into it; breathing, quiet, getting ready to step into the Live space. The ten seconds of glowing mellow well-framed precise exposing un-foolable light in the dark.

When all the different sequences are edited together it looks as if the camera is tracking past an infinite series of boxes placed side-by-side, each one inhabited by its animating performer, its genie. Paradoxically, the body functions as soul here, if that’s not too fanciful. There is a lot of play with entrances and exits, the action in one ten-second slot sometimes feeding into the next, sometimes not. There are group actions, solo actions, sequences that continue across many boxes, and, very moving, people simply standing in the box looking out. And people standing in the dark outside the box with their backs to the camera, looking in. Some performances are carefully choreographed, some not: some people have put a lot of planning into their slot, some have turned up and asked: What shall I do now, then? Or, We’ve got an umbrella, can we do something with that?

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It is quite difficult without having experienced it, to get a feel for how long ten seconds is – i.e. short. The crew are ingenious, sensitive to the ideas that are brought to them and to the sensibility of those who bring them. Aside from the participatory aspect, there is a further element of play in the editing and sequencing of the episodes, which are stuffed with reminders of the magical beginnings of cinema and its antecedent optical toys like the Zoetrope and Thaumatrope and even….of past ideologies and technologies of seeing and conceiving and controlling, the Camera Obscura, the Panopticon. Apologies again if that’s a bit fanciful but I think practitioners who play in the space between representation, persistence of vision, plain sight and politics cannot help but be fed by such references.

The Democratic Set puts in place an integrating process, it really does produce a democracy of Performance, it creates a frame within which to perceive the equal value of presence of all bodies as they generate their different styles and motives and intentions and intensities. Watching previous sessions on video helps an observer or potential participant to get this, and is a good way to approach taking part: and participation is the most vital and least technical element of the project. We make it mean something. And it means: Here I am. Here am I. We accumulate, all the I’s accumulate, and become legion and various, and connected – part of a collective concept.

Present at the session I attended were: Bruce Gladwin, Artistic Director of Back to Back; ensemble member Brian Tilley; videographer, Rhian Hinkley; set wrangler Mark Cuthbertson; and executive producer Alice Nash.

And, thanks to all their efforts, I must say I left happy.

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All photos by Carl Newland. Osunwunmi is a Bristol-based artist and writer who has written for a number of publications, including RealTime.

The Democratic Set premieres at Arnolfini as part of Inbetween Time 2010 on 1 December 2010. The work is being shown as part of the What Next For the Body exhibition which runs until 6 February 2010.

Inbetween Time Festival (1 – 5 December 2010) is a breakneck programme of live art and performative intrigue showing over 70 works across 5 days in all kinds of sites, streets, theatres and art spaces in the city. Limited Edition Inbetween Time Festival passes are on sale now from Arnolfini. You can keep up to date about Inbetween Time via Facebook at http://tiny.cc/1fxrx and Twitter at http://tiny.cc/ipb6lpgfz2

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