Thursday 6 May 2010

Exciting, ticklish, titillating

Would Like to Meet, Barbican, London

Serendipity. That’s what’s at the heart of every good rom-com. Being in the right place, at the right time. Catching the right eyes across a crowded room. Finding the right words tripping off your tongue. Owning the right bookshop in Notting Hill. Hiring the right prostitute in Hollywood. Slipping through the right set of sliding doors.

Would Like to Meet plays with that same sense of serendipity. A pre-recorded audiotour for six individual participants, each of whom takes a different route through the Barbican complex, it sets up a series of fleeting meetings – or rather, half-meetings – with the precision of a master watchmaker. We are guided and instructed by the sort of anonymous voice that comes as standard in this kind of work: it’s crisp yet soft, well-spoken and lush to the point of slight flirtation. At times the various paths interlock, weaving in and out of one another’s way, sometimes within touching distance, sometimes across an expanse of space.

Where they converge, it feels like a chance encounter, happy happenstance. It feels like something could happen. Something real. Something meaningful. Life-changing, even.

Only it doesn’t. At no point, in fact, does WLTM allow an acquaintance to develop into anything more manifest. In fact, most of the encounters en route remain notably incomplete, defined by some absence or other: a note left on an empty coffee cup; a secret passed to an unseen stranger; a silhouette watched from the other side of a moat. Mostly we see hands, legs and backs of heads – as disembodied as the voice in our ears. Even where we see a whole person, the interaction is ticklishly minimal: it’s a gaze held across the length of a hallway, it’s shoulders not quite brushing as you pass on the stairs, it’s two backs touching across a bench. All the time, you are aware of others (sometimes another participant, sometimes a performer), but they remain anonymous enough that an ideal – your ideal – comes to stand in for them. It is a process of extrapolation. A perfect partner is constructed from existent fragments.

At one point, for example, I found myself in a telephone booth, conducting a conversation via post-it notes displayed over the top of the partition. The voice asks who I’m told I look like, who I would like to look like. Prince William. Above, a yellow square appears with ‘Michelle Pfieffer (and Tom from Keane)’ scribbled on it. And there we are, in adjacent cubicles in any old corner of London: her, a sleek, golden-haired film star and me, an eligible, square-jawed prince.

In this, WLTM is an extension of the city itself. It plays on that open secret of urban existence: the city as breeding ground, as a dense gathering of potential soul-mates, each passing one another by as they go. Here, non zero one allow those crossings to linger a little longer. They let you glimpse a little more and entertain the thought of something further still, something fuller, before snapping you away as per usual. It all comes to nothing, but it came so close. This is where the romance exists. It could have been something. We could have had something.

How does it feel? Exciting, ticklish, titillating. It creates the same buzz – the same electric flicker of adrenaline – that occurs when an awaited text message flies in. It makes a butterfly house of your stomach and a lily-pad of your throat. Besides, the rules aren’t the same. We’re allowed to play, we’re asked to break the usual conventions of public space: banisters can be slid down, silence can be broken. Perhaps, then, moves can be made and things can happen.

But then, every now and then, just at the point where you might get wrapped up in the fantasy, you snag on the contrivance of it all. After all, it’s little wonder that you’ve happened across the right place at the right time: the whole thing is constructed as such, to be just so. This is not serendipity, but the work of a skilled puppeteer. What seems to materialise in the moment is, in fact, meant to be, mechanised – to the extent that you recognise your responsibility to the experiences of others. Your journey is nothing but a monorail, a sightseeing tour moving at its own pace, entirely as it pleases. ‘Look to your left and you’ll see this. Look right, that.’

Is that problematic? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, a large part of the joy is giving yourself over to the instructing voice, submitting to its whims and being relieved of the burden of decision. That submission is not forced, but enticed. It’s carrot as opposed to stick. While there is ample reward for your compliance in the various set pieces encountered en route, the very challenge of following instructions is, in itself, quietly pleasing. It’s as if you are seeking to gratify this voice, or maybe just to succeed, to get it right.

However, like many companies working with audio-instructed performance and interactivity, non zero one claim that their work seeks an active audience. Embedded within this, of course, is the notion that sitting down, watching something in the dark is a passive experience – perhaps necessarily so. I’m not so sure I agree, but I shan’t go into that here. I will say, however, that WLTM is, in many ways, a passive experience.

In the programme notes, the company write, ‘Power is placed in the hands of the audience, enabling them to become authors of their own event’. But really, what power have we got? Yes, we have the power to disobey, but to do so is to derail the train. It is an act of fruitless destruction. It is simply to say, like Bartleby the Scrivener, ‘I prefer not’.

There exists a set path and, where we have made the decision to obey, we follow it. In what way, then, do we ‘become authors of [our] own event?’ Admittedly, there are moments of choice, such as (in my case) the particularities of the secret written down (and later passed to an anonymous stranger) or the message you leave for another to find. My point is that in these instances what is written is less important than the fact that it is written. The titillation is in (apparently) stumbling across a note, rather than stumbling across this note. It is no different to finding a coin left, presumably, by another participant. The note is just some words. The secret is just a confession (or a lie). The coin is just a coin.

We are just some person. Anyone else would do.

Ok, so none of this is overly problematic in terms of the experience itself, but it is a consideration that the audiotour form as a whole must take into account at some stage. I raise it now because WLTM is a robust little piece on its own terms. However, where audio-instructed work has managed to open itself out – Rider Spoke and Wondermart spring to mind – the gains are far greater. Here, the boundaries are too strongly felt, there is not the freedom that truly makes something interactive. It is, in other words, too gentle, too safe, never really demanding more of you than soft sentiment and a wispy grin. Which, really, is all it ever sets out to acheive, so it feels a touch harsh to hold that against the piece.

More problematic is the evident juxtaposition of actors and passers-by. The waiter role, for example, feels particularly artificial. It also seems a shame that all six participants start from the same spot, as it rather diminishes the intrigue and mystery of the unfamiliar stranger you keep bumping into. I also wonder whether the work has the ability to surprise. For some reason I found myself trying to figure it out, like a magician’s trick, and second guess its next move. Just as the gun hanging on a wall in act one will go off in act five, the dramaturgy of the journey is a little bit predictable. Write a secret and you know someone’s going to find out.

These are, however, detailed quibbles about what is a lovely experience, albeit one that will not survive a trace of cynicism. Just like a rom-com then.


Till 16 May 2010


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