Tania El Khoury, a Lebanese-British artist who creates interactive performances and installations, is currently co-curating a festival on borders at Bard College.
I was asked to write a text about participation in performance. Instead, I would rather talk about interactivity. The term interactivity describes both the production process of collaborating with individuals and communities and a performance form that is based on an exchange with the audience. I find the terms participant and participation to be reminiscent of “participatory politics” and “participatory development.” We have an idea of what these end up achieving: manipulating “participants” into thinking that they have choices when in fact those decisions have already been made for them. A large number of performance productions that claim audience participation are in fact predetermined scenarios in which audience members play the role of extras in the shows.
Alternatively, when a performance engages with the ethics and politics of audience involvement, it can do the exact opposite: it can give communities and audience members agency over the outcome of the work. In order to achieve this true interactivity, artists have the difficult task of sharing vulnerability, giving up ultimate control, and allowing audience members to co-create. This is a different practice from offering audiences a chance to “participate.” An interactive show is therefore never the same piece twice, as it is transformed with every single audience member.
In my practice, I have explored interactivity in various mediums: installations, one-on-one performances, and site-specific work. In all these forms, the audience is invited to co-create and sometimes perform. I have researched the ethical and political potential of interactivity. This approach started from the belief that the politics of an artwork does not exclusively reside in its content; equal attention must be paid to the chosen aesthetic form. That said, we shouldn’t link all attempts at interactivity to progressive politics. Interactivity is a process that is audience-centric. Therefore, its political potential needs to be examined after the audience interacts with the work.
In 2010, I devised a one-on-one performance titled Jarideh (the word means newspaper in Arabic). The experience of performing this particular piece taught me a great deal about the risks and difficulties of working with interactivity. The premise of the show was that an audience member, who had signed on to see a one-on-one show but did not know what it was or how it would happen, would come meet me at a café, where I would explain that we were about to embark on a secret mission and needed each other for that mission to succeed. Together, we had to identify the potential terrorist in the space, based on the London’s Metropolitan Police tips for local businesses on how to spot a terrorist in a public place. At the end of the performance, the audience was asked to leave a backpack in the street outside the café, which was surveilled by a CCTV camera supposedly monitored by the police. The performance explored racial profiling and the use of social paranoia in the so-called war on terror. Interestingly, the backpack was occasionally noticed by private security in a building nearby, but never by the police who are supposedly watching the surveillance cameras that fill the city in excessive numbers. By performing these tasks in public, the audience members and I became “suspicious” to the people around us. Jarideh depends on the audience member’s performance as much as it depends on mine. If she decides to abort the mission, the performance ends. If she decides not to place the backpack where we agreed she would, and instead improvises, I need to follow her lead. In some cases, the audience member headed out to drop the bag but then spotted police in the area and came back to the café, sometimes shaking. Just as I could not know how each audience member would perform during the piece, it was also impossible to know how she perceived both the space and the customers in the café. It became apparent that some audience members assumed that the other customers in the café were performers and consequently allowed themselves to stare at them. In response, people in the café—unaware of the performance—would stare back and get confrontational. In some cases, they reported the audience member to the café staff.
While artists might decide to control audience bodies during a performance, it is impossible to control—or even gauge—the audience’s imagination and perception, as those are tightly linked to each person’s experiences and politics. In the case of Jarideh, every interaction felt valid for me both personally and artistically. Many times, I could sense the audience’s fear of wrongdoing in their desire to follow the instructions properly or behave as a good citizen in the eyes of authorities. The anxiety and paranoia mixed with humor and social critique ended up generating discussions with the audience that extended far beyond the performance. Often after the “mission” was over, the audience member came back giggling or trembling, and we talked about the experience. Sometimes we agreed, and sometimes we disagreed.
Interactive performances are based on risk. To the artist, they may feel like jumping into the unknown during each show. They may drain us, burn us out, or even traumatize us. They may be unsustainable in the long run. Yet they offer this unique opportunity for each member of the audience to be in direct conversation with the artist’s aesthetic and political choices, and to confront their own. To me, interactivity provides a space where art is stripped down to its fundamental core: the direct encounter with the audience.