Was it worth it? : no man’s land 2012 Remembrance
The live performance event ‘no man’s land’ on Remembrance Sunday 2012 set out to try and mirror some of the emotions, thoughts, processes and results of people within a society heading into war. Deliberately obfuscous for audience and participants, the intention was to distribute confused messages and misunderstanding in the way protagonists preparing for conflict often mediate their intentions. This essay discusses a question that follows all conflicts, was it worth it?
It is four months since the 2012 ‘no man’s land’ Remembrance event across the London Underground. Permission has just been granted for the next incarnation of the event, to show the 2-minute silence videos from last year as an installation on Canary Wharf tube station in November 2013. Overall the conversations regarding ‘no man’s land’ have been muted, with many images and promises of feedback not forthcoming. A few videos remain outstanding and the website has a trickle of views each day. For me, the creator, the event has surpassed by best hopes, but for others involved, I wonder whether there is a feeling of was it worth it?
For some, the event proved pivotal and they have strong views of its relevance. One or two have shared their doubts, not stating anything negative, well not to me personally anyway, more a vagueness to the point of it all. I feel there is a certain amount of protectionism taking place, yet who this protectionism is for remains debatable. Has criticism aimed at the event been curtailed so not to offend me in someway or could it be that people feel a little intimidated by the event, a not getting it? Not being able to understand something can give a feeling of inadequacy, a sense of being stupid, as everyone else seems to get it. The feelings are often internalised and only shared if the right forum materialises. Much in modern society is measured on the success/failure axis; so being on the right side of the success/failure is made to be important. After all, no one wants to be on the losing team?
Success/failure is relatively simple to apply to a football match; it is more complex when the parameters and the actors are less obvious, where aims and outcomes are approached in a more fluid manner. Staying with a football analogy, if a person is neutral to the teams playing, other factors will need determining if a success/failure response is required.
Creating live performance events has, it seems, become fixated on a narrow focus of metrics to decide success/failure – audience numbers, reviews, ticket sales and the dreaded ‘outcomes’. Removing these metrics suddenly appears to undermine a live performance event, what is the point if these metrics are not considered? The issue may reside in the use of the word ‘performance’ in the ‘live performance event’. Theatre schools across the world ensure that the students know how to understand and engage an audience; likewise, audiences have developed protocols when viewing performance events. Thus it makes no sense to many people if these long established criteria’s are not applied.
An inquiry of ‘no man’s land’ was how war becomes a performance event. Wars for centuries are generally orchestrated at the outset in some form or other. As the modern world has developed, so has the need to carry the population behind any cause for war, whether this is through nationalistic fervour or coercion. Much effort goes into performatising the view of war; as demonstrated by the classic images from the first Gulf war of a rocket camera showing the target, as it homes in for obliteration. Whether it is Afghanistan, Falklands or World War One, the media presentation is formed with a viewer in mind and is presented as such to meet that audience’s expectation. Yet for those starring in the media article, the actors, there is little sense that it is make-believe or performance, a child being slaughtered is exactly what it is. The horror and shattered fragments stay with those who survive as an imprint on the mind, as many witness testaments show, even 100 years later, these imprints do not fade.
What is being stated here is a difference between a construct developed in live performance events and live events. Creatives, when developing a piece of work as art, rather than entertainment, wish to impact the viewer fundamentally, that the art necessitates a change in the way world is perceived. Although easy to wish for it is difficult to achieve.
The point of ‘no man’s land’ for me was to try to create an event closer to a live event than a live performance event. The uncertainty and confusion challenged everyone who came into contact with the event. Many people found it extremely irritating that it was so vague. Some were annoyed, most bemused, and it was reasonably surprising to find that over 40 people actually became involved on the day, most of who had no previous direct connection to the Platform-7 network or me. The atmosphere post event was electric, many comments were made that it was like nothing else every experienced, the event had achieved its intention, to indelibly embed into the memory. I am confident that everyone involved will remember this event, whether positively or negatively, regardless of how many future events they do.
As in war, people came together for a common aim, executed that aim, and disbanded. The percussion resonated out among the artists’ friends and family who probably could not understand the point. And this reflects on how the outside world often looks at war; what is it about, why do it, what is the point. When watching a 2 minute news item on Sky News about Syria, a civil conflict that is presently raging, it is through a mediated lens with a the words ‘success’ and ‘failure’ littering the report. It is easy to watch as a distant audience member, a doctor operating without painkillers in a rubble filled room, although maybe disturbing it is quickly smothered by an advertisement for a new car. Although I suspect that conversations are going on about the Syria conflict and other conflicts in the world, like the ‘no man’s land’ event, the conversations appear muted, in London at least.
Too much modern performance, from the outset, looks to ensure the audience gets it! For the audience toget it, the performers must get it first. Many performances want to tax the mind a little but not so much that the viewer has to work at it. In entertainment, this is how it should be, but in live art performance? For me, live art performances should be about challenging the preconceived notions of the artist and the audience. For me, the drowsiness of the European public to understand what was happening in the lead up to World War One was one of the key factors in relatively minor grievances becoming a mass war. Art has a role to play in helping stimulate the mind of people to broaden their questioning of the world around them; ‘no man’s land’ was an attempt at this broadening.