"Performance and Politics and the Environmental Crisis" & “All the same – Where is the new Avant Garde?”

Hugh Chapman, 30 September 2012

After lunch I was rather sluggish and didn't particularly feel like participating in a discussion. I sat to one side and started working through Act 2 Scene 4 of Twelfth Night. Someone came by and asked what I was doing and suggested I write “Twelfth Night study group” on a flipchart page in case anyone was interested to join me. I thought this was a funny idea so I did it and carried on reading. Then I remembered thinking over lunch that one of the themes I was surprised hadn't come up in the discussion titles was the environmental crisis. This seems to me to be one of the most pressing concerns of modern life. So on a new sheet of flipchart paper I wrote “Performance, Politics and the Environmental Crisis.” I was soon joined by two students of performing arts at Parkside Academy (I'm afraid I didn't write down their names although I remember one had a name that was spelt in a Welsh way)* who asked what I meant by this. Some of the key points of the ensuing discussion:

- There are various ways environmental concerns can be addressed artistically. Perhaps most bluntly we can confront an audience with a statement about how we should all be living, or critique the various aspects of contemporary life that are most needing to change – car travel, our wasteful approach to resources etc. The way I tend to think this might best be done now is through promoting positive lifestyle choices. The example I always give is wouldn't it be amazing to see more cycling in Hollywood films.

- Brecht and Epic Theatre are key themes here also. Mike Bartlett & Headlong

Theatre's ‘Earthquakes in London’ at the Arts Theatre last year was a key reference in this conversation.
- Sarah Ellen Ayrgael had joined us and discussed a Welsh theatre company who make work with sustainability as a key theme and also more radical approaches to protest theatre – Augusto Boal and others.

Mooching around later on in the afternoon I was drawn into a discussion convened by Daniel Pitt, the Junction's new producer, around the theme “All the same – Where is the new Avant Garde?” I came into the discussion half-way through the session, so I can only guess at the conversation before I'd arrived, but I think technology had come up as a key factor – perhaps the idea that technological advances have enabled new forms of theatre/performance.** I don't doubt that this is true. (In terms of my own artistic thinking) as well as exploiting the potential of new technology in performance I am interested in the wider impact of technology on society & the way we lead our everyday lives. I'm interested in exploring ways to illustrate this broader sociological change within what would be considered a more ‘traditional’ format – the scripted play.

The following is not an attempt to faithfully transcribe the conversation but a summary of what for me were the key points:

“All the same – Where is the new Avant Garde?”

It may be true that there is nothing new under the sun. Are there any truly original ideas out there? Hasn't it all been done already? If as artists we are concerned about originality these kinds of questions can tend towards to disillusionment. ‘Why bother if it’s all been done before?' This is a thought trap it is worth avoiding.

Some thoughts on ‘originality’:

- The kind of thinking outlined above takes the artist and their work out of context. It's tempting to think that ideas exist in the abstract. In fact any idea (however hackneyed) develops a new significance through the context in which it is realised – how, when, and why it is being used (and who is watching). It's possible that the idea is being realised in an unoriginal way, of course, but that's not to say that the same idea couldn't be realised somewhere else in an entirely original way (and even cliché can be effective if used judiciously).

- I think it is also important to consider the impact technology has had on the way we access culture. Consider the way musicians would have learnt to play before the advent of sound recording technology – songs and techniques would have been passed from one musician to another. Looking even further back, before the advent of writing stories were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth (in some ways the theatre may be seen as the contiunuation of this oral tradition). Today technology has facilitated unprecedented access to a vast store of recorded cultural material. It sometimes feels like pretty much anything is available online. If we're not careful this can have the effect of divorcing culture from it's human/social context and we start to get the feeling that ‘we’ve seen it all already' on youtube.

- The other theme that came up here was the evolution of the concept of ‘the avant-garde’. Paris, late 19th C, the salon des refuses etc. can be seen as the cradle of the idea that rebellion and dissent from tradition are essential ingredients in art. This is also bound up with the idea of progress, perhaps most exuberantly expressed in the Futurist movement and to paraphrase Marinetti's thrilling manifesto – ‘out with the old,

in with the new!’ (And historically speaking Futurism perhaps best demonstrates the interesting relationship between technological progress and the develping notion of cultural/artistic progress – the feeling that traditional forms of culture were somehow outdated and inadequate in the new fast-paced, technological world of motor cars and radio waves.) This history informs our cultural sensibility today. In fact I would argue tradition has always played and continues to play an important role in the way art develops over time – art may be seen to both maintain and modify tradition. Certain themes and structures may be traced through theatre – the idea of family for example, which is still (one way or another) the essential unit of society.

Then Mehrdad joined us and we talked about the internet and the Arab Spring - the ‘democratic’ revolution enabled by social media but not backed up by pragmatic ‘real world’ governmental reform...

*One of whom I now know was Charly Cornell, sorry still don't know the other's name.

**see Dan Pitt's report ‘All the same’ - Where is the new avant-garde? for an account of the preceding discussion.


Brecht, technology, Marcelo Cervone, environmental crisis, Hugh Chapman, Deborah Foote, politics, history, the Avant Garde, Technology, History, Epic theatre, Cliche, originality, Tradition, Word of Mouth, Futurism, Daniel Pitt, Arab Spring, cycling