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Beyond Performance: The Ethics of Affect in Immersive Experience

Published onMar 21, 2024
Beyond Performance: The Ethics of Affect in Immersive Experience
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In the evolving landscape of theatre and performance art1, immersive experience holds a unique position in challenging the conventional boundaries between performer and audience, and expanding the potential for storytelling and audience engagement.

As a performance maker deeply embedded in the intersections of human rights, environmental issues, and immersive theatre, I present an inquiry into the responsibilities that arise when engaging audiences in complex social justice narratives. I attempt to get under the skin of my live performance work, which, due to its experiential nature, cannot be fully encapsulated on the page. Instead, this written piece, and the accompanying video conversation ‘On Action and Social Affect’ (below), provide a synthesis of reflections and a lively dialogue with colleagues and mentors, aiming to contextualise the themes, intentions and risks emerging in my work.

As a theatre maker, I grapple with messy systemic issues2. I work with the shadow aspects of highly complex situations, such as modern slavery in food production. I focus on the concrete and specific; relatable, real life human conditions—such as deceit, betrayal, desperation, faith, and goodwill. Drawing upon years of developing an embodied ethnographic approach, my work is informed by collaborations with migrant-led associations, communities of migrant workers, and extensive first person research.

Questions of risk and ethics underpin my entire working process. How can theatre not only make these important issues visible and discussable, but also create a public space where they are viscerally experienced and responded to by audiences? 

At the heart of my recent artistic endeavour is a performance that connects audiences to people whose lives are intertwined within industrial food production. Delivered through a series of WhatsApp messages, each audience member individually engages in a personal journey. They listen to audios and read narratives from three people involved in migrant labour rights; one of which, Ba Ousman, has been sold a fake labour contract by their employer. As the immersive experience unfolds, each audience member transitions from passive receiver to active participant. How they decide to respond to questions presented in texts and voicemails, shapes what happens next. Until at one point they get asked the question:

“Ba Ousman wants to call you; will you speak to him?”  

Whether to take the call, and what to say to this stranger, creates a very real tension. A tension that continues beyond the end of the performance.


The performance consists of two distinct sections: the interactive, immersive experience and a post-show discussion, often the next day, between audience members and myself; part post-show talk and part reflexive dialogue.

During the post-show discussion, I initially aimed to track the affect that such intimate and provocative performance has on audiences. Specifically focusing on their embodied, emotional and behavioural response to the topic of slave labour within migrant farm work. However, during a stirring post-show discussion, it became apparent that —both intentional and unintentional affect—need to be addressed and held open in public. This has led me to critically reflect on the responsibilities and role of the creator, as such works enter the public domain. Thus, the account below discloses elements of my own (inner and outer perspective) and internal (italicised) responses to a significant moment in a post-show discussion.

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An audience member says:

“I felt uneasy about taking the call”  “...I took my time to decide whether to accept the invitation or not. When I first connected to the stranger I was nervous because I’ve not spoken to a migrant before. But after a while the conversation felt more familiar and we found points of relatedness”. 

Several people speak of a shift in their relationship to guilt and responsibility. Others, of being humbled that a stranger, living through such difficult life circumstances, took the time to personally speak with them on the phone. 

About half way through I disclose that the characters were played by my collaborators. People with recent experience of migration from West Africa to Spain, themselves struggling with residency papers, but who are ‘performing’ a character based on our ethnographic research. They themselves are not living such extreme personal life circumstances as the character they are playing.

The energy of the discussion becomes charged.

“I didn’t realise until this ‘big reveal’ that the person I had spoken to had been a ‘performer’ and not a ‘real’ migrant farm worker.” 

Many people voice feeling tricked. Some share the intense feelings of discomfort from acting in one understanding, only to now find out that all was not as it seemed. 

“I’m experiencing shock and I’m a bit taken aback, it's like the reality I thought I was in has shifted beneath my feet”. 

At this point in the post-show discussion, I am aware of a knot in my stomach, a rising frustration that the conversation is going ‘off-piste’, towards the personal. I am concerned that the group is not making the bridge from their personal experience to the larger systemic issues at hand. My co-creators and I had not intended that the piece would leave audience members feeling defrauded. However, I did suspect that this might become a major point of contention. 

In my belly, the knot becomes a tingling sense of risk, importance. I notice the pulsating energy in the room. I have an urge to direct the conversation away to what I want to be happening. Can I instead hold open the space to receive and respond to what is happening presently? 

If I follow the energy into the unknown, I risk being vulnerable in a position of power. I have to let go of a predicted or desired outcome. Can I stay with the trouble? 3 

I internally reposition myself, deciding to take responsibility and accountability for all the consequences—intentional and unintentional— of the performance. It feels critically important to remain curious, rather than defensive. It takes a lot of interior effort for me to stay in this uncharted ‘live’ territory. I sense from the quality of the conversation that the audience, too, are working hard. Not unifying to blame me for their discomfort but making small moves to stay curious to each other's experiences. 

It was only on later reflection that I was able to fully recognise the relevance of having created for the audience such a strong sense of being tricked: the very same embodied sensation—however differently aroused— that a migrant farm worker might feel when they find out they have been sold a fake work contract by their boss. In the video conversation 'On Action and Social Affect’, that accompanies this text, we unpick this further and discuss the potential (and the challenge) of this hidden ‘double entendre’. 

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An ‘uncharted’, ‘charged’ and ‘risky' phenomenon regularly emerges in, and between, audiences in response to my work. In order to make sense of this I have turned to political philosopher Hannah Arendt. In particular her distinction between ‘Action’ and ‘Work’ (or ‘Fabrication’), in The Human Condition (1958), has helped me to discern the immediate and ongoing responsibilities of bringing politically engaged work to the public.

For Arendt action is the ability to spontaneously initiate, speak, and act with others, it's the expression of human freedom, our potential to transcend the given and make new meaning. Whereas Arendt describes fabrication as working towards a pre-imagined end to create enduring objects. For example when we follow a set plan to create something predefined. 

"Action, in contradistinction to fabrication, represents a mode of human togetherness in which people appear openly and share their uniqueness" (Arendt, The Human Condition. 1958). 

In relation to immersive theatre, this translates to the procedure and creation of theatrical experiences. Arendt states that if we replace action with fabrication, we lose the possibility of the spontaneous, creative force that ‘brings forth the new and renews our common world’. 

The distinction between action and fabrication raises significant ethical considerations for theatre makers as it is not so easy to discern from which state one is operating. 

Fabrication, in immersive theatre, would occur when a performance slips into a predetermined outcome. For example, in the post-show discussion, when I almost steered the conversation to what I had ‘wanted’ the outcome to be, instead of opening to maintain a space of plurality for something new to emerge between us. Arendt warns us that slipping into a safer conversation, a predictable, well trodden path, takes us to dangerous ground. Over time we become unwilling to speak out of line, to challenge the status quo, to think and act spontaneously with critical reflexivity. 

"The condition of human action is not only plurality but also natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities." (Arendt, "The Human Condition," 1958).

The experience of audience members making a genuine decision about if and how to engage in a phone call with a stranger, and the next day in the post-show discussion, feeling deceived, provided many openings for spontaneous action. 

An unintended consequence of making ‘the reveal’ (as people refer to it), was that I joined the audience in a shift of power. We became more equal. By gaining a fuller view of their experience, they were able to make judgements—afresh—on how to act. In this way the reverberations of ‘affect’ continued beyond the boundary or ‘safety’ of the end of the performance into their day to day lives.

I have illustrated how ethical considerations and unintended consequences exist for theatre makers, in relation to audience members. But throughout this process, I was also very aware of being accountable to my relationships with the individuals directly impacted by the social issues we address. The deceitful promise of a work contract in exchange for payment and free labour; the deceit of consumers in supermarkets buying cheap veg; the deceit of supermarkets buying veg at auction for ever more competitive and unrealistic prices. 

The responsibility of theatre makers extends beyond the creation of narrative; it encompasses a commitment to fostering ethical engagements that respect the diversity of human experiences and perspectives they touch. This commitment requires a readiness to navigate the risks associated with 'live' action, including the willingness to remain open and responsive to the dynamic and unpredictable nature of such experiences, even (and perhaps, especially) when it’s uncomfortable. I find myself regularly making the judgement: How much is palatable? … for me, for audiences4, for the people affected by the social issues I am presenting.

This judgement involves the critical awareness of one's own positionality in the web of the ‘messy systemic issue’. As I act within this web, are my actions perpetuating ill-judged and irresponsible situations that might in some unintended way cause more harm? This judgement also involves developing the capacity of continuous reflexivity and adaptation, ensuring that performances, and the discussions that emerge in their wake, remain responsive to the ‘moves’ made by individuals; whilst daring to not shy away from the wider politically charged narratives at stake. 

Inspired by Arendt's political insights, my inquiry poses the importance of creating performances that are "plural enough" to allow individual agency while being "direct enough" for significant Action to be provoked. The responsibility of theatre makers, then, is to navigate the fine line between action and fabrication; ensuring to hold open spaces for public action and remaining responsive—responsible—and accountable—to the unintended consequences of our work. 

We seek to create a public sphere where genuine engagement, dialogue, and action can be discerned and enacted, which continue long after the performance itself. 


VIDEO

The 40 minute video conversation 'On Action and Social Affect,' with labour rights researcher and colleague, Selma Blanken, visual artist Marie Brett, and Schumacher Research in Action community peers and supervisor - Juliana Schneider, and Patricia Shaw. Further expand on the ethical considerations inherent in bridging complex political themes through human encounters in temporary public sphere where meaningful political and social change can be practised. You can watch it below.

On Action and Social Affect



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