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by Farahnaz Hatam

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A space of performance can never be neutral.
David Wiles from A Short History of Western Performance Space




Is it possible to create a performance situation in which the audience’s reception of the performance is considered as an important element in the completion of the work? Is this necessary? History and experience have afforded us simple alternatives to the archaic concert hall performance experience for performers and audiences alike. Different concert ‘situations’ profoundly influence audience behaviour which can range from apathy and boredom to fake obligatory acts of appreciation signified in the final applause punctuating the end of the performance, to demanding to be entertained by the performers at loud volumes reminiscent of rock concerts, etc. There is another model: one in which audience interaction and behaviour is an integral part of the performance idea.


A performance space is a space of reception and interaction between the performer and their public. What is the role of the audience? Is it always necessary to expect humble submission to the almighty virtuoso, perched high above on The Stage? Is there not greater potential? One in which the audience affects and completes the work through their reception and interaction? Is the stage necessary? A stage sets up a vertical versus horizontal space not dissimilar to the pedestal, an object to be contemplated: The performer is that object the audience its contemplator. Without a stage, the same audience is free to move around the performer to both view and hear them from their preferred angle, no longer subjugated to a position of obedient passive reception as the space of interaction is slightly altered since the audience decides their physical position in relationship to the performer who now occupies the same physical plane as that of the audience, on the ground level without the separation imposed by the stage.


Another aspect which may affect this interaction is the use of lights to accentuate the separation of the performer from the performance space, in darkness the performer and the audience are on a more leveled ground of foreground background, where the auditory sense tends to dominate in the absence of the visual presence of the performer. The above proposals of stage and light take into consideration the normal concert venue situation, but what about other situations and spaces of performance? Exploring these other spaces of representation-presentation bring up other situations in which the found spaces impose their own rules, changing the piece that is being proposed and altering the interaction between performer and audience.


Recently* in Bergen, Norway — [ This text was written in 2013 ] —, I witnessed this particular question foregrounded in a composition titled, “Pannekoeken” by jazKamer, the ever-morphing project of Lasse Marhaug and John Hegre. In this daylong project, musicians were instructed to play a single, unchanging sound at low volume without stopping for 30 minutes. The day included seven performances, each in a different and intentionally varied location including the public library, the cinema and an outdoor historical site visited frequently by tourist groups. The participating performers may change from location to location -- though some did perform at all seven -- and could change their sound, or even instrument, from performance to performance, but the aspect that most profoundly changed the piece was the location and the space, as that seemed to influence strongly the audience's reception and consequently their behaviour.


In the first concert at the public library the 'audience' went about their normal business, checking out books at the counter and looking through the book stacks. The 'audience' milled about looking for books ignoring that there was a live performance happening with performers as entertainers. The entertainment aspect of music which is so often nearly demanded of musicians and audience, in a normal concert situation dissolved. The freedom that this kind of dynamic allowed the audience and the performers was astounding, music was relegated to the 'background' always present for the duration of the performance and intermingling with the sounds of the library but as activity not dominant per se in relation to the rest. As soon as the musicians stopped performing, the sounds of the library were instantly foregrounded, and the empty acoustic space that was left behind at the end of the performance was palpable. From situation to situation the piece changed dramatically as did the background sounds and audience behaviour. In the entrance hall of a music school the musicians created a sort of a pseudo-stage by huddling together in one area of the space so that they could hear each other better while performing, soon the audience took their seats and complied as to be expected by remaining silent and attentive during the performance and applauding almost obligatorily when it had ended to show their appreciation.


As a concert organiser one of the most important questions for me has become how spaces affect spectator reception and behaviour from passive observer to active agents. We seem to be in a different historical moment where not only good acoustic quality of a space needs to be taken into consideration where the musician displays their virtuosity to a complacent audience but where audience reception is shaped by the spaces of presentation and an interplay between the 'background' and the 'foreground'.



Farahnaz Hatam
Berlin, on February 7, 2013


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Farahnaz Hatam was born and raised in Tehran, Iran. She is an experimental musician working with SuperCollider sound synthesis programming and also modular synthesisers. She lives and works in Berlin where she co-founded N.K., Berlin’s legendary space for the avant-garde and non-mainstream culture. Hatam works currently as a musical director for theater; performs solo, in the Hatam / Hacklander duo, and occasionally as a specialist DJ.

* Publication Date on May 1, 2020.
From 'ART IN RELEASES' Collection.