Welcome to my theatre!
I have chosen to present my work in the form of a theatrical ‘play’ as this metaphor and pun hopes to capture both the imaginative fantasy space that I hope to create and the integral use of ‘play’ and humor in my work.
As an artist I am drawn to the world of fantasy where anything is possible. This is a world where characters from the past are brought into the future, where hybrid animal creatures are inserted into the everyday, and wild improbable narratives are woven. I consider there to be a power in this space of the imaginary. Ursula Le Guinn, in Dreams Must Explain Themselves writes,
“The literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore hope.” (p318)
In my work I aim to create an imaginary space that hopes to contain such ‘alternatives’.
Indeed, Steven Duncombe, the political activist and co founder of the Centre for Artistic Activism writes in Dream, re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy, of a need for progressives to form a
“politics that understands desire and speaks to the irrational; a politics that employs symbols and associations; a politics that tells good stories.”(p9)
He writes of the power of dreams that may be so absurd that they do not intend to be realized but they are there to “inspire and guide, to be a lodestone to orient a political compass”(p169). This, in my opinion, is a beautiful articulation of the potential political power that exists within the creation of the space of fantasy.
Play and humor are also important elements in the space I am attempting to create. Each of the characters I insert into the public realm are created to evoke a sense of playful humor. Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher, in Rabelais and His World, explains that it is through humor and laughter that “a second world and a second life outside of officialdom” (p7) is built. Of course, play and humor have been utilized by many artist activists, the Guerrilla Girls, the Yes Men and PVI collective to name just a few.
As Marjolein t ‘Hart writes when summarising the use of humor in social history, in "Humour and Social Protest: An Introduction", International Review of Social History, vol. 52, it is “through jokes ‘the unimagined’ is made ‘imaginable’”. (p2o) Humor has a way of disarming and engaging the public like nothing else. What I hope to do is use humor to construct a space where anything is possible even if just for a small moment in time. I hope that the possibilities of that space that I am occupying become more expansive and open the space up as a site for the impossible.
Incursion: a sudden attack on or act of going into a place, especially across a border.
I create fictional characters that I embody and insert into public city space in a guerrilla theatre style that attempt to explore some of the spatial politics of Melbourne city. I am calling these moments ‘incursions’. The Cambridge definition of incursion is “a sudden attack on or act of going into a place, especially across a border.” I love this as I do feel like I am transgressing all sorts of metaphorical invisible borders of public space.
The works that I present here, all intentionally sit outside of the scheduled template of galleries, museums and festivals. This is vital to the work as it allows the incursions to be encountered by chance in a setting that is not associated with art.
With the wider public as the intended audience I aim to strike a delicate balance between humor and gravity of content. The audience is both the public on the street and the public on social media sites where I post the documentation of the performances.
For the public on the street, the work may only be experienced for a moment as the public pass by, or stop to photograph it, but at this first level the work aims to disrupt the space through a sense of the absurd and humor. Through this momentary disruption I hope to foreground the notion that this public space is a contested space. Essentially, I intend to make the familiar strange so that the viewer is unsettled at these familiar city sites of consumption, where people work, study and live. In the space of this unsettledness I hope there is an opportunity to shift the public imaginary.
For the public on social media sites more of the fictional narrative of the work can be shared and it provides another public online audience. Through Instagram and Facebook I attempt to perpetuate and extend the life of these fictions and give the work a little more context.
I use masks to foreground the space of the carnivalesque and create a transgressive imaginative space that reads as one where maybe gravity is indeed suspended. It also allows me to use the animal as metaphor…the pigeon the everyday citizen, the rat as the outsider for example. Additionally, in today’s increasing world of surveillance a mask provides the reality of freedom of movement for an incursion.
I am drawn to the idea of the lone protest. I think there is a power in the lone individual protestor as it evokes a vulnerability that does not have the moral authority of a group of protestors. It presents to the public an individual battling the dominant goliath powers…the classic underdog scenario. I also think it evokes the idea that the lone individual can make a difference.
What is happening at the site of the incursion?
As I am making a performative claim to space, I wanted to begin by highlighting Henri Lefebvre’s Production of Space (published in 1974 but not translated until 1991). He was a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist. He wrote of the production of space as a concept that is not fixed, but is continually being produced. He was a revolutionist and understood that space is about power and the role it plays in the perpetuation of capitalism. He wrote that “A revolution that does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential.” (p54)
In The Production of Space he wrote of the three elements, the “spatial triad” that combine to produce space. Phil Hubbard, in City succinctly outlines them as “spatial practices (the routines that constitute the everyday), representations of space (the knowledge, images and discourses that order space) and spaces of representation (which are created bodily)” (p217).
'Representations of space' is the more abstract version of space that may have been constructed by bureaucrat, planners and engineers etc. It is considered the dominant space within a society. This is what Lefebvre means when he writes, “space lays down the law because it implies a certain order.” (p121)
In competition with this space, is the 'space of representation' which is the lived embodiment of space. Lefebvre describes this space as embracing “the loci of passion, of action, of lived situations” (p42). It is here that there lies the opportunity for revolution. As space is a contested site, one that is continually being produced by the interplay of these three forces, there is the opportunity for ‘creative bodily acts’ to resist and momentarily transform the abstract space that is produced through capitalism.
So when I reclaim the street by inserting my performative fictions/incursions into the space I am not only disrupting the pedestrian flow of traffic but my bodily presence is creating space and thereby regaining power. By producing 'spaces of representation' that resist the dominant 'representations of space' there sits a power to change that occupation of space. Since we are a predominantly visual culture simply seeing people act in deviating but not harmful ways becomes a means of social change. Returning to the theatrical metaphor, as Phil Hubbard in City writes,
“while the city is scripted our performances do not always follow the script” (p225).
It is here, when we go 'off script', that there lies a potential to shift that interplay of the forces of space so that the person on the street can reclaim the power.
In relation to the notion of space as a contested site, Chantal Mouffe, a Belgium political theorist, in Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces offers up an 'agonistic model' of public space. She describes the model as one where "public space is the battleground where different hegemonic projects are confronted, without any possibility of final reconciliation.”(p3) and "not conceived as the terrain where consensus can emerge"(p3). In viewing public space through this political lens, it follows that public space can be seen as a combative space where practices of hegemony and exclusion dominate. The danger of presenting or considering public space as a 'smooth surface' suggests that society is formed by some exterior mechanism and denies the opportunity for those outside of the dominant ideology to act and present an alternative. Revealing these forces and foregrounding this 'battleground' therefore becomes vital.
Indeed, this model also acknowledges Lefebvre’s notion of space as a fluid and dynamic one that is constantly being produced. To view public space as a contested site and not a fixed predetermined space foregrounds both the competing forces that are at play within space and the opportunity each of us as individuals have in shaping and producing space. My incursions aim to expose these ‘tensions and disjunctions’ by rupturing the space with the unexpected. Ambitiously I am hoping to cultivate a public that can accommodate tension and uncertainty and thereby puncturing the myth that public space has a unified consensus.
In conclusion, within both Lefevre's notion of space as a dynamic fluid entity and Mouffe's articulation of public space as a politically contested site, there exists an opportunity for the artist to foreground and reveal these notions by rupturing and claiming that space, if even for a short moment in time. This gesture alone, has the potential to invite the public to question and re-look at public space with 'new eyes'and shift the public imaginary.
The development of my research question over the course of my study.
My research question has moved, shifted and evolved over the course of the last twenty months. It moved from having a focus on the history of the Flaneuse within its Melbourne context, to a broader more overarching focus of the notion of space as a contested site in the city. The change of direction into broader notions of space in the city has led me towards Henri Lefebvre’s Production of Space, Chantelle Mouffe’s notion of the'agonistic model' of public space and Saskia Sassan’s work on the effects of globalization on cities and how she views cities as the 'last frontier zone'.The elements that have remained constant in my practice led research, are the use of my performative incursions as my method and the city of melbourne as my site.
There are too many versions of my questions to list here but some of the questions have been included in order to give the reader an insight into both the shifts and the commonalities.
1.How might using female guerrilla theatre style performances shift the public imaginary in Melbourne city?
2.How might lone female performative interventions in the city of Melbourne evoke notions of individual agency and power for women from the past and today using the notion of a Flaneuse as a springboard to investigations?
3.How might a female artist embody and insert fictional flaneuses into contemporary public space in Melbourne as a way to retrospectively carve out a space for the female Flaneur and assert a space for women today?
4.How might a playful performative claim to space in melbourne city be used to protest/resist representations of space and shift the public imaginary.
5.How might an artist make a performative claim to space in melbourne city using playful guerrilla theatre style interventions that explore and respond to city space?
The shift away from the Flaneuse came around the end of Stage B. It was at around this point in my research that I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the use of the term flaneuse as a title for my protest pieces. If I was attempting to make visible the flaneuse in Melbourne city due to the inaccessibilty of public space for women in the mid 1800’s on, I felt that there was no space in this female term that could include the First Nations woman’s experience of this time. In short, the term was not inclusive enough. I did not want to contribute to an obstruction or minimizing of those voice and stories in any way so put the flaneuse to rest. Indeed my last presentation was a memorial service to them.
I was anxious not to re-inscribe existing ideologies that minimize or silence the Australian Indigenous experience of colonization. I was inspired by the work, ‘Miranda Must Go’ by Melbourne based artist, Amy Spiers. This work was launched as a campaign to remove Miranda from Hanging Rock, referencing the retelling of the Australian classic, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ which is a fictional narrative that is about the vanishing of white girls yet ignores the real Aboriginal story of Hanging Rock.
By shifting to a broader investigation I have been able to really explore the mechanics of what is happening within the space of my incursions and its potential impacts. I have been quite inspired and optimistic by my discoveries through the course of my research as to the power that we all hold in embodying space and the notion that it is a contested site.
What is a flaneur?
The notion of the Flaneur has no one author, however, Walter Benjamin was the first to document an account of, in fact, what made up this mythic literary figure in his text, Arcades Project. Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic. He embarked on the Arcades Project in 1927 and worked on it for 13 years, leaving it unfinished at his death by suicide at a Nazi controlled Spanish check point in 1940. This work is essentially the core origin of the notion of a Flaneur.
The chapter on ‘The Flaneur’ describes the characteristic of this ‘type’ of Parisian male walker and observer of the streets with Benjamin’s goal being to philosophically understand metropolitan urbanity as he saw and experienced it.He delves into a 360-degree investigation into the flaneur referring, for example to the flaneur’s moral constitution, attitude, phantasmagorical skills, psychology, empathy and even the flaneur at night.
The Flaneur was essentially a man who would idly walk the city streets of Paris at the time of modernity, observing the dynamically changing landscape and then interpret all that he had observed artistically. He was a character that was described by Walter Benjamin, with the contradictions of being both part of the crowd and separate from it and both a “spy for the capitalist” and simultaneously his idleness “ a demonstration against the division of labour.” (p427)
What is most striking in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, is his method of investigation. The chapter is essentially a collage of different citations, quotations, observations and thoughts that have been gathered together from an eclectic range of sources. In creating this montage of the flaneur he draws on the work of writers and poets such as Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Edgar Alan Poe and Charles Baudelaire. He also quotes from history books, encyclopedias, newspapers and dictionaries. Interspersed in amongst this montage he inserts his own observations and thoughts. This method of research with its fragmented nature steers away from any one neat definition of the flaneur. It also highlights the constructed nature of this character, the flaneur as it is pieced together from the combination of fictional, anecdotal and factual sources.
It is this construction of this literary character of the flaneur that I attempt to highlight and play with. If a male character can be constructed then why not a female flaneur character. My fictional characters really stretch the possibilities of what a flaneur or flaneuse might be but this is really in keeping with Walter Benjamin's collaged and fragmented construction of the character. Understanding the Flaneur as a motif made up of both the real and imagined, the modern day flaneuse may act as a representation of the changing city landscape in contemporary culture.
In critiquing Walter Benjamin's construction of the flaneur, from a feminist position the lack of any female sourcing is noted. Additionally, the poetry of both Poe and Baudelaire which Benjamin gives quite an extensive space to in his research, have imagery that reeks of the male gaze. With this in mind, my fictional flaneuses hope to play with the notion of giving a female voice to the flaneur.
What is a flaneuse and why might she be considered invisible?
The term Flaneuse was first introduced by Janet Wolff in 1985. She is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Manchester. In the text, ‘The Invisible Flâneuse. Women and the Literature of Modernity’, she argues that women were excluded from the public sphere and that literature of modernity was only that of a male voice in the public sphere therefore making a female flaneur ‘invisible’.
The time of modernity brought much sociological change. Through the development of factories and offices, the public and private sphere became separate with women excluded from the majority of the public sphere (business, politics and financial establishments dominated, run and owned by men) and therefore ultimately confined to the private sphere. Janet Wolff writes how women’s “gradual confinement to the domestic world of the home and the suburb was strongly reinforced by an ideology of separate spheres”.(p43) The Flaneur, for example, through literature was described as male, with women in Baudelaire’s public being reduced to pretty much widows, prostitutes or murder victims. She does explain in this text that “the real situation of women in the second half of the nineteenth century was more complex than one of straightforward confinement to the home” (p44) but concludes the text by stating, “There is no question of inventing the Flaneuse” as “such a character was rendered impossible by the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century”(p45).
Although there were women in the public space at this time Wolff adamantly declares them unable to be able to act as a Flaneur as they would be unable to be anonymous. George Sands attempt at flanerie in a sense both confirms Wolff proposition yet at the same time suggests that maybe some women found ways to transgress the norms.
In considering the gendering of public space at the time of modernity, it is worth remembering that modernity was about change. The growing industrial city was demanding change. Although there was this separation of public and private space for women, in Melbourne at the time of the mid nineteenth century, the suffragette movement was taking shape. Australia led the way globally in women gaining the right to vote. The voices of the suffragettes were gradually being heard, though at a mummer, in public space. I was interested in the voice of these women in my investigations of my fictional flaneuses and hoped to carve out a space for them to be heard again today.
In fact, Elizabeth Wilson in 'The Invisible Flaneur' in The Left Review puts forward an argument that suggests the Flaneur not the flaneuse was in fact invisible, making reference to J Wolff’s text ‘The Invisible Flaneuse’. Wilson describes the Flaneur as "the embodiment of the male gaze" (p98) and presents the prostitute, as the Flaneuse, as a metaphor for the commodification of the city. She explains that "the Flaneur represents masculinity as unstable, caught up in the violent dislocations that characterised urbanisation"(p109). She is suggesting that the Flaneur in fact, represents the diminishing power of the male gaze in the rapidly changing industrial city where everything becomes a commodity.
This text highlights the period of modernity as a time of flux where the male dominated public space was becoming a contested site. Her reading of the Flaneur as an interpretation of the diminishing power of the patriarchy however is interesting but I also think it is vital to acknowledge the very real restrictions and barriers for women in the city at this time, as Janet Wolff does. Melbourne at this time, was a city where public space was certainly gendered, however the early suffragettes suggest these spaces were beginning to be challenged.