Is This A Wasteland by Charlotte Spencer Projects

As I enter the abandoned Larkfield bus depot on Glasgow’s Southside the sense of expansive dereliction evoked by the site is interrupted by a brisk and efficient requirement to fill in a disclaimer  form – complete with clear and legible name and contact details. I’m here for ‘Is This A Wasteland?’ by Charlotte Spencer Projects a performance through headphones for disused urban spaces; a piece with six performers and audience interaction. The initial feeling of interruption, though perhaps not intended to be part of the performance, becomes a recurring experience within the unfolding event. For my experience within the work is largely harnessed to the words and instructions that are fed into my ears through the headphone sets worn by each audience member – words that guide my perceptions of the space and experiences within it. It is these words that instruct a shift in my concentration, my gaze, my action. That urge me to abandon what I am doing and to move on to the next activity – and the next. It is these words that at times cause me to look and see and experience the site and the people and objects who are (temporarily) part of it in ways that I would not otherwise have done.

The work begins with audience lined up gazing at the empty site. Everyone is holding an object they have selected from a pile or which they have brought themselves. We are reminded (repeatedly) of where to go, where not to go, that you don’t need to obey instructions like lifting objects, how to lift etc. I feel like I am in a workshop. The voice tells me this is not a workshop; this is a performance. With headphones in place we are cut off from the actual sound environment. Initially visual perception is stimulated as we are instructed to gaze here … there. Then quite swiftly touch is brought into awareness: sensing your feet, the different surfaces underfoot, shifts of weight, unevenness. And we are moved into action – out into the space. The sense of expansiveness momentarily returns. It does so recurringly, such as when we are instructed to notice something particular: Stop. Look to your left. Notice where you see the colour yellow. [A short silence] The colour red.

The instructions direct our attention, our movement and our actions as individuals and as part of various smaller groups. Alone I create a tower. It’s not quite finished and I’m instructed to move on. Later I see my tower being dismantled by others. With my group I create a wall. Later I see this wall being pulled down. And I participate in the destruction of another. With a different grouping I create a bigger tower and there is a silent negotiation within the group around its design. The usual group dynamics play out – cooperation at times and a dominant figure removing choices made by others, replacing with their preferences. There are group sections with giant bamboo sticks in which the group follow specific instruction around placement of the sticks. And later with these sticks the group performs a set sequence of movements through copying a leader (one of the performers).

There’s no waiting for the slow coaches. We’re always moving on. In this sense the work foregrounds the able body. The dyspraxic ones are fumbling. But there’s a performer or other participant-audience member there to sort things out. It’s moving on! And you can always sit out ‘in’ the performance. I noticed one person do this, and perhaps from there getting a different kind of experience: an observer of others obeying instructions en masse while listening in, but declining to obey.

The performance builds from individual and small group activities to whole group activity. There’s the joining of our smaller group ropes into a giant circle. We step inside the circular rope leaning our weight into its circumference all working to stay on our feet, to keep the human-rope-structure upright . We – or some of us – are propelling ourselves from place to place. There’s a feeling of exhilaration, childhood, playground games, abandonment. Briefly. And perhaps just for some.

The voice in our ears talks about what we are doing: organizing ourselves in groups. It tells us that in the company’s research into abandoned urban spaces they have always found traces of people having lived in those spaces. And that “tomorrow if you enter this space you will be trespassing.” (I look up to see if the woman watching from the window of her third floor apartment is still there. Yes!) This sojourn into a socio-cultural reflection into where we are and what we are doing is brief. We’re moved on. Again into the workshop-like games – all choreographed with fluidity, precision and an onward drive. Onwards to an ending when, with headphones removed we are invited to gather around a little fire. Are offered tea. Biscuits are passed around. Conviviality within a temporarily available access to a place of abandonment.

Review of performance at Larkfield bus depot, Glasgow on 14th May 2017. Part of DIG (Dance International Glasgow)

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