Performance: A Better Place, A Non Place

by Beauchamp Art

A Better Place, A Non Place

Documentation of the first hour of my three hour performance, ‘A Better Place, A Non Place’ for the Museums at Night event at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

After setting up my equipment, the TV on the glass table, with a camera mounted on a tripod looking down onto the back of the TV and the three chairs, with the centre chair further forward for me to sit on (giving my position had more authority, and I would not be able to see who was sat next to me clearly). I emptied my pockets, putting all of my belongings in a separate room.
I disconnected myself, and began.
I switched on the TV to the static, turned on the camera, and after a pause, sat down on the chair, and started staring at the screen until the time came for the performance to end.
During this time, various peoples came and sat either side of me, some just sat, other talked; with one another or to me, though they did not receive a response.

The first person to sit down was a friend, who seemed positive and spoke to me knowing I would not reply, but as if I were. Then there was a lull before more people began to come by, to see and interact with the performance.
For a while, two children sat either side of me, though I could not seem them fully, given the position of the chairs just outside my peripheral vision, I was aware that they were there for some time, quietly participating, before running off elsewhere.
Afterwards, Nicholas said to me that they had come up to him and asked what I was doing. He had explained my piece in simple terms to them (further simplified for his retelling, refining the point) “Do you know when you watch TV, but you’re not really watching it, it is just there? And you are just watching the screen, not what is on it.”

A Better Place, A Non Place - I

This seems a fair description, and a reasonable analysis. It was not wholly entrancing or hypnotising (as some other passer by pondered), it is just banal, and willingly accepted banality at that. This decision to continue the piece for the extended period was an expansion of this (the average household watches between 3 and 4 hours of television a day, approximately the same length as my performance), and was further exemplified when a number of people decided to interact with the performance in ways out of my control, though kept my focus and was generally unaffected by.

The only times when I did respond was when some people made me smile – various tried telling jokes, etc, but the only times I did actually curl my lip was when it was friends of peers playing around – such as when my friends Ed and Davide sat down and said a number of comments that seemed especially amusing at the time, such as “Have you got the remote,” “I think I have seen this one,” and “Do you know what happens in the end… they die”, though occasionally I did smirk at other passing things (I believe the sustained smile may have added a further, more sinister aspect if an audience member was unaware as to why I was smiling, as if I found static amusing – someone else said, “All these adverts look the same”, which appealed to me). I could have refrained from any response, but I thought that allowing some 1-way interaction would be interesting, and show how despite being engulfed in the static, the digital world, I was still a physical presence. I would be involved in conversations only in passing, even if directly engaged, I did not respond with words, or deviate my gaze from the screen.
Some of the engagements did not seem wholly in the spirit of the event, though not everyone is going to take such a performance seriously, it was still somewhat irritating when certain persons decided to attempt to disrupt rather than just interact with the performance. Such as when a group of individuals repeatedly turned the TV off, forcing me to get up and switch it back on. I could have stopped the performance there, but it did not seem fitting (the TV also had a time-out feature which meant it turned itself off after 30 minutes, as far as I am aware, I attempted to use this to keep track of time, though not entirely successfully). Moreover, one individual sat in front of me, between my gaze and the TV looking directly at me, though I continued to stare at the static over their shoulder before moving on.

A Better Place, A Non Place - II

A large number of people simply laughed at the oddity of the situation, saying how weird it was, or disregarding the performance entirely. This seems fitting, given how dismissive one may be when one sees someone normally sat staring into a TV unresponsively. Catharsis in Comatose; this is commonplace.
A number of people also commented on the dynamics of the static being displayed, how they saw shapes and movements, and one person describing it as getting more aggressive over time. For me, the static was relatively dull, sometimes illusions of shapes and textures floated and transited in non-space, but then my eyes would flick out of focus, or I would get absorbed in the yellow and blue colour bleed around the edge of the screen. For some periods of time, more towards the end, there was a growing darkness around the edges of my vision; a green fog filled my sight, before fading away again.
My eyes hurt towards the end, I believe they may have been bloodshot, and did water in the final hour, though this is not atypical of an average day in on my computer with curtains closed, or even after spending too long looking at any one thing. I did grow drowsy in my bored state, and struggled to keep my head up at points, though did flex muscles subtly at various points. I did not need to be a statue, people should be aware that I was a living person, just one absent minded (there was one person who amusingly did say “He’s so lifelike,” implying they though I was some form of artifice before realising my organic nature after seeing me blink (this may have been added to by the various figurative sculptures in the Sainsbury Centre exhibit).
With regards to distraction, or rather people attempting to distract me, it was expected, and their responses are just as valid as anyone else’s, though some people did annoy me more than others, my enthusiasm for static watching was paramount.

 

A Better Place, A Non Place - II

In an infantile tantrum some years ago, I threw my head repeatedly against our stone fireplace in a fit of angry tears. I was shouted at, told to stop, asked what I was doing. The TV hissed in the background, it always did at family gatherings. What did I want to do? Where did I want to go? I was asked, I want to go nowhere, I cried. Does that mean I wanted to stay where I was, or be somewhere else, somewhere other? I wanted to be nowhere, but I did not wish to stay there; I wanted to be ‘nowhere’. I was restrained, and calmed down. My mother did not understand, and my brother was never in a position of understanding. They thought I simply want to be elsewhere, or possibly in the void of death, but until recently I did not realise the extent of my feeling at that time.
“I want to be nowhere,” is a paradox, for one ‘to be’ requires a placement, ‘nowhere’ is and absence of place. We talk about being ‘in the middle of nowhere’ when we are lost, or away from ‘civilisation’, contemporary civilisation is epitomised in industry, in society, and above all, in interconnection. To be nowhere, one must be totally disconnected, much as to be ‘no one’ requires one to be in solitude and to be unknown. To desire to be placeless is a desire to be without the knowledge of place; with nothing relative, proximate, or comparable to.
There are ‘non-places’, as Marc Auge describes them, the between places that are not destinations or places that one goes to, but rather goes through, in both a metaphorical and literal sense; like waiting rooms, motorways, service stations (and, to a further extent; advert breaks, loading screens, splash pages). TV static is another one of these non-places, between the channels, before the entertainment begins; it is anticipation never to be satisfied while it remains disconnected.


I think of static and white noise when I need to clear my head sometimes. I have listened to radio interference at high volume in order to drown out unwelcome background sounds, so this piece is quite an organic progression in modern meditation:- in electric hums and static (et other non-images) rather than getting lost the calm whirring of the wind and cloud formations shifting abstractly, beautifully nothing…
Indeed, one thing that does come through more strongly in the film footage than at the time of the performance is the sound of the TV, the sound of static, a high pitch hissing noise that seeps into the background of the room, overpowered by the ambience sounds of the exhibition. Indeed, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about the sounds around me, trying to pick out individual voices, in amongst the torrent of the crowd, the soundtrack to Henry’s video instillation, the DJ in the bar/café, applause and so forth.
To be fair, I did not focus on any one thing for a length of time, besides the screen. I was going nowhere and fully aware the entire time. I did not, as Timothy Leary supposed, “turn on, tune in, and drop out”, I simply sat with a growing awareness of my boredom, and a dehydration headache. This was a staged event, and Leary’s revision, “turn on, boot up, jack in” seems more applicable.

In conclusion I believe the performance went well, and the immediate feedback I have received seemed positive, the endurance and unflinching rigidity worked well, and I am glad to have done this piece for the length of time that I did, and the Sainsbury Centre’s ‘Museums at Night’ event lead by the Young Associates was a good venue.
However, if I was to do this again I would probably not do it for as long as I did, and would use a TV that did not need turning on repeatedly, and I would have double checked the camera before starting, as the power cable was loose, so I only have the first part of the performance recorded (which is especially annoying as I intended to use the footage further, either as a film in itself, or to be played back and re-watched, in a self-referential subsequent performance involving me watching the footage me watching static, however, as I have just over an hour’s worth of film, that may suffice).
Further documentation will come from gathering other people’s photographs from the event, and it is interesting to see the performance through the viewers’ eyes.

Setting Up

During the course of arranging my equipment, I experimented with a number of different layouts to create varied effects.

 

I began by simply placing the TV in the middle of the glass table, with the camera on a trip-pod immediately behind the screen, to essentially show what the telescreen would see.

 

One could also only see the people watching, but not what they were watching, adding a further ambiguous element that would otherwise have been overlooked – there is no need to show the static, it is nothing, it can be implied through the banality of the scene and the descriptions the audience gave of what they saw.

 

For this first arrangement, I positioned the three chair in an arch around the TV, with no chair closer than the others, symmetrical and aligned with the camera’s frame so that the top of the TV would just be visible, as well as all of the seated persons and the people behind.

 

However, after this initial orientation, I decided to reposition the camera so that it was higher up, looking down on the TV and the chairs, So that it would only show those people who sat down in full, in other words, only those who interacted would be featured. The repositioning of the camera was suggested by Rory […], the member of the Young Associates assigned to assist with the artists setting up, and upon reflection was beneficial to not only the film, but also the performance, as the high position of the camera looking down gave it a more imposing, CCTV aesthetic, expanding upon the potential Big Brother element of the performance.

 

This connects effectively with my previous research into voluntary exposure online, and was no doubt fed by my recent reading of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, and further now by Herbert Marcuse’s ‘One Dimensional Man’, a anthropological text that contemplates the value an impact of technology on sociological issues, power-relationships and so forth.

 

The positioning also mean the arrangement of the equipment/props was less flat, with the chairs and TV at seated height, and the camera around the head height of a walking person, looking down and watching unblinkingly. This affected peoples response to the performance and their reaction and interaction, I can say this with some confidence, as whilst sat, the various peoples that joined me discussed such matters of being observed.

 

 

My final two adjustments were not wholly intentional; the first was having the centre chair forward, so I in the centre was in a more involved position as well as not being able to see the people sat in the chairs – this was as a consequence of repositioning the camera, and only moving the centre chair to test to see if the figure would be in shot, and not testing the other chairs. The second was that the camera was only recording for the first hour, before switching off – this was due to a faulty power cable connection – but provided another interesting point; like in a Panopticon prison, people continued to act as if they were being watched/filmed even though they were not, causing them to act ‘in a certain way’ – much as CCTV in public has two opposing results; people either act in a more orderly fashion, because evidence of their actions is on record, or act more improper as if to spite the authority of the watcher – a minor misbehaviour of no consequence, given value by being captured on film; the authority of concrete memory.

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