During the 2015 Spill festival in London, I went to see The Privileged by the young black artist Jamal Harewood at the National Theatre Studios. Upon entering the studio the audience were met by a number of by chairs arranged in a square formation, facing inwards towards each other. The smell of fried chicken that had been torn and scattered across the floor filled the air, a smell I found physically repulsive and that lingered throughout the entire performance. In the middle of the chairs lay a sleeping polar bear, or rather a man dressed as a polar bear.
After the audience took their seats in the cage–like formation, around fifteen undirected minutes followed filled with awkward glances and smiles, until we came to the realisation that we should open the numbered envelopes that had been placed on some of the seats. It was at this point that I started to become aware of myself as an individual becoming part of a group and that audience participation was going to be difficult to avoid during this performance.
As the envelopes were opened, the bear began to wake. The instructions inside informed us that we, the audience, were here to observe and look after the endangered species lying before us. Perhaps the discomfort I was already feeling should have foretold how the artist intended the performance to unfold? For the show to continue we had to discuss and carry out the instructions given to us as a group. As directed, we played with the bear, petted him, fetched him water and eventually after removing the bear suit, fed him more fried chicken, a stereotype of black culture. The feeling of discomfort that had begun to grow with the initial waiting, persisted with the unnerving act of stroking a grown man in a bear suit and calling him Cuddles; yet as an audience, we were all actively taking part.
Over time the bear began to misbehave, taking bags from members of the audience, forcing his body beneath people’s legs and becoming more and more aggressive. It seemed that the bear’s own aggression provoked the audience’s frustration. The performance began to challenge our boundaries, as the bear invaded each individual’s personal space, eroding the audience’s sense of their own body autonomy and diluting the group’s decision-making abilities.
The entire show became focused on the conversation the audience created around the instructions, and the manner in which the audience chose to respond. However,the feeling I experienced of my choices almost being taken from me was contrary to the structure of the show being based upon a series of instructions, and the discussions and choices made by the audience. It brings to question the dynamic and outcome of how people behave when following instructions, in particular when acting as a group. It also made me consider the extent to which Harewood was in control of the performance and the outcome each time The Privileged was performed?
Instructed to remove the bear suit from the reluctant and increasingly aggressive polar bear we discussed if the show could be ended without following the instructions given. There was a sense of desperation though out the audience for this experience to end. I was constantly checking my watch as if when the hand stroked three and the allotted hour of the performance was over I would feel as if I could leave the room. Yet I did not. As the performance continued I began to feel angry at the actions of the other audience members. In increased frustration and anger three white men wrestled the reluctant and silent polar bear to the floor to forcibly remove the suit, revealing a naked black man. Soon after others in the audience screamed and yelled at him until he began stuffing his face with chicken frantically at a rate that seemed it would make him sick. All of this happened as the audience desperately struggled to complete the instructions given by the artist so the performance could end.
Throughout the performance, I became increasingly aware of the fact that the audience was predominantly a white, middle class, and theatre going group. Through the initial use of the white polar bear suit and the contrasting colour of his own skin, Harewood made the audience acutely aware of their whiteness. Of course, it was disgusting to see an audience treat anyone, regardless of race, in such a sickening way even if they were doing so at the behest of the artist.
Inevitably upon leaving the performance space my disgust and anger moved from the members of the audience who had been most active in following the orders stipulated by the artist to myself. I was initially shocked by others’ behavior, but also uncomfortable and disgusted with my own idleness. I was present in the room and I had a voice, but in not speaking out against the actions taken, I was condoning what was happening. The artist’s instructions guide the audience and encourages them to behave in a manner that I don’t think many people would consider themselves capable of. With these powerful emotions, it felt as if rationality was almost abandoned and with the loss of rationality people began to act more physically, more aggressively, and more desperately.
Classically within art spaces, we are encouraged to remain cool: “few spaces will make people more self–conscious of their reactions than a museum or art gallery.”1 In our culture, we have learnt that these are intellectual places to think and reflect upon the work. In a society built upon enlightenment philosophy such as Descartes theory: I think therefore I am, what distinguishes humans from other animal species is our ability to think and this is viewed as a privilege. Thus it is ingrained within our society’s history that emotions are to be dealt with through thinking not with physically emotional responses. In many ways, physical emotion is viewed as uneducated and primitive.
However The Privileged takes place in a studio, a space somewhere between a theatre and a gallery. It does not exist in the traditional theatre space where the audience faces forwards towards the stage and is seated in the relative darkness, shielded from the glare of the stage lights. The theatre space enables physical emotion to be expressed more privately; the viewer is to an extent hidden from the view as well as the judgment of others. The Privileged takes place at The National Theatre Studios; because of this, the audience arrives with the expectation of a theatre-like context and with this expectation perhaps they are more open to the idea of emotion being physically expressed. However, just as a gallery space can traditionally make an audience self-conscious of their emotions, there is nowhere to hide in the set up of a performance in which every member of the audience can visibly see each other. Harewood’s initial challenge breaks down the audience’s expectation of the space they are entering and he uses this vulnerability to manipulate their reactions to his work.
The Privileged is next on as part of The Croydonites Festival on 29th March 2017.
1 P. 5, Doyle, Jennifer, Hold It Against Me, Duke University Press, 2013. [print]
Image: Privileged, Jamal Harewood, 2015, Photo: Guido Mencari. SPILL Festival of Performance 2015. Produced by Pacitti Company