The ‘human zoo’ exhibition by Brett Bailey may not be a regular topic of conversation at the New Zealand dinner table…maybe it should be, says Dione Joseph as she shares her personal experience of the work in Edinburgh.
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Having listened to the various voices who have contributed to the Performance Ethics Working Group facilitated artist dialogue and podcasts I’d like to offer an example where I believe the very fundamentals of performance ethics were deeply problematised. Exhibit B recently made its UK debut at the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) and after having been seen by over 25,000 people in 12 cities it was challenged with unprecedented waves of criticism that forced its London season to be cancelled.
Rather than offer a highly researched account of South African artist Brett Bailey and the increasingly lively online debate (including an online petitionwhich collected almost 23,000 signatures to demand the Barbican withdrew the work and which was successful) I would like to share my own first-hand experience of the work, reflecting at a very personal level, at the lack of ethics that was incorporated into the curation and performance value of final product.
I went to see Exhibit B on September 14. Thumbing somewhat carelessly through my programme I looked at the audience who had gathered for this 10.30am slot on a Saturday morning. With the exception of myself the majority (purely on a visual basis) appeared to be white punters. I made a mental note of disappointment but at EIF events this wasn’t terribly unusual. After standing around in the cold for ten minutes we were ushered into the majestic Playfair libraries of the University of Edinburgh. For those who haven’t visited this space the air of austerity is almost tangible. Scrolls gleam, clocks stare and there are countless portraits of severe looking men staring down their nose at you. The carpet muffles the sound of our footsteps as we are invited to take a seat. Upon each chair we find a number and the instructions given to us by the black South African woman are simple: “When I raise your number,” she says, “You will proceed to go up the stairs and enter the installation. Take as much time as you need and please, no talking.”
I have to admit, the theatricality and staging appealed to me immensely. This is immersive theatre. Site-specific work in an imperial establishment and I’m going to witness something startling. These were the thoughts tumbling through my head as my brain went on an unrestricted spin-cycle through forms and styles.
But then I reached the top of the stairs I realised what I had come to see.
Encased in a cage a man and woman, both half-naked, stared back at me. My eyes must have widened in horror and admittedly, filled up with uncharacteristic tears that began to slide down my face. I saw the steely gaze drop (the widely touted dramatic device) almost immediately as I stared – not at the woman and man but at the unseen ‘thing’ that had done this to them.
I stumbled on unsteady feet and I saw on my left what was supposed to represent a stuffed body, a man covered in white dust. His eyes looked back at me registering the waves of nausea that I felt inside swirling in my gut.
I forgot that we were supposed to spend time at each installation in an orderly manner. I forgot that there was plaques meant to inform and ‘educate’ beneath each silent revolving statuesque figure. I forgot that the work was intended to (as Bailey had said) ‘disturb’ his audiences.
I forgot all of these instructions because I felt trapped in graveyard of living horrors. I spun around watching the audience, some of them had noticed my panicky responses but nobody made eye contact. Those closest to me huddled closer and stared intently at the plaques pretending to be oblivious to my now open weeping. I heard somebody say: ‘Poor dear, she gets it in a way we don’t’. That one careless remark threw me into a panic attack.
I remember the asylum seekers had no numbers. I remember a bull chain around a woman’s neck. I remember registering the perverted gaze of some men on a woman breasts. All the while ‘severed’ black heads sang in exquisite harmonies about the genocide. Snotty nosed I left the room aware of the increasing looks of concern given to me by the security guards and found the woman who had given us the instructions at the beginning waiting for me.
“Come here my darling. You’re not okay.” And with that I dissolved into tears and she took me downstairs and let me weep. But wait, that’s not where it ends. Because horror and shock gave way to something far more articulate as I realised the toxicity of the atmosphere in which I’d just been submerged. I wasn’t just angry. I was livid.
“How utterly unimaginative, indulgent and lazy is this work. It forbids us to speak, to engage, to debate, to have conversation; and it is entirely one-dimensional!” As I began to get more articulate I asked the woman and her two younger colleagues, “Who is this exhibition for? Is it for me? Where are the white voices, bodies, imaginations in this space? Why are we still trying to educate a portion of the population who have the disposable income to become voyeurs and be given this opportunity to be supposedly ‘transformed?’ Please tell me”
“Till date you’re probably the fourth black person we’ve had,” the woman answered softly, “It’s important they see it. It’s important we get our stories out. That they see racism is still continuing even today.”
“I know, I know” I muttered. “But NOT this way”.
Even now over a month later reliving that experience makes the back of my eyes burn. But the question in light of the very recent events begs to be asked: Should the work have been cancelled? Were audiences respected? Was it enough that a well-respected reviewer thought that this work would ensure that ‘history would look a little different tomorrow’? How should have the curators and creators of the event engage in dialogue with those who raised concerns? Since when has artistic freedom been a free pass to ignoring artistic responsibility?
Performance ethics can’t afford to be a subject on the periphery of our practice as artists or audiences. The questions raised regarding practice, procedure, protocol; the various processes of consultation and engagement with local communities (and lack thereof) contributed to the creation, commission and curation of a work that is highly problematic. It can be easy to trade in notions of propriety and become addicted to following instructions but at the heart of the matter is audience reaction – unadulterated and honest.
Listening to the various voices that contributed to the NZ Performance Ethics Working Group conversation I feel heartened that we are making efforts to engage with aspects of audience; acknowledging our responsibility towards creating works that reflect a rigorous and engaged process.
Performance ethics is not about wading through mountains of forms ticking boxes (although every postgraduate student is familiar with this) but it is, I believe, at fundamentally human level, an awareness that on some occasions must be developed, so as to ensure not merely ‘politically correct’ paradigms of perception but a contract of deep listening between artists and audiences.
Because in the final audience report it’s not about being easily offended. Because at no point in time should anyone’s so-called ‘sensitivity’ be used as an excuse not to practice at the highest level a degree of care and respect for audiences – even after the lights are dimmed and the curtain comes down.