I began work on MASS in 2017, in response to aspects of the world that provoked me (they continue to do so). There was a growing sense of fear in the world, manifested in our relationships with each other and the wider world around us. Overtly visible in our politics and choices. There was/is an increased emphasis on “othering” those that are identified as in some way different, to isolate oneself from their influence.
This process of “othering” relies on an effort to locate fear as a necessary outcome of the differences inherent to our existence. To suggest that our only response to difference is to focus on the worst potential outcomes of any interaction; those deemed to require prevention, avoidance and scrutiny. To make rules that are expectant of the worst. This anxiety creates a cycle of fear and control, which in turn furthers the agenda to locate “others” as a source of danger.
Day to day I witness this as an increased discomfort in physical proximity and interaction. I see it around me and encounter it so often that it is a large part of any “normal” day. Not in any dramatic sense, but as a baseline for encountering people and their bodies. The fear cycle seems to induce or affirm a state of disembodiment. A need to refuse the body, especially when it is no longer singular but is part of a nexus of bodies; this is too complicated, dangerous and messy. Any touch within this framing is dangerous. The body existing as an indication and location of difference dictates our sense of the negative potential within tone another. Bodies rather than peoples’ behaviour becomes the problem.
I believe that our focus on perceived difference and the “othering” that follows is a construct of identity and society. Bodies hold the potential to counter this fear cycle and to be a site upon which we can stage a positive response to these trends. It was clear to me as soon as I decided to engage with these themes, that my performative response needed to be more than an examination of the subject. The work needed to be “of” the subject, to be experienced. A space where interaction was actual and touch could exist as both an expression of positive physical interaction and, by doing so, become a radical political tool. Body, touch and perception would be the core of the work.
MASS is my first full length, immersive/participatory work. It is performed for small audiences (around 24 people per show) and is run multiple times each performance day. The cast comprises of a core of 6, who travel with me to perform the work and an additional 6 local people (not professional performers), who are worked into the show at each venue. We remake MASS in each location over 10 days, with the final day being the first performance day. Other performance days are added if the venue/host desires.
MASS begins for the audience as they arrive. Prior to entering the space they are briefed (on how the space/piece works) and then costumed. The costumes are all identical and worn over their normal clothes. Each costume includes a hood, covering the head and face. The hood is made of a sheer fabric, allowing the wearer to see through it. However, when viewed by another person wearing a hood, the two layers of fabric combine to obscure the person’s face. Everyone who enters the performance space wears the costume: audience, local cast, professional cast, myself and even the lighting technician who runs the show.
The costume anonymises the wearer, rendering them as a blank surface for other audience members to project onto. Upon entering the space the effect of meeting the faceless mass induces a sense of isolation and questioning in audience members; Who are you, What am I doing, What can I/we do, Who am I in this space, What is expected etc. This disorientation is compounded by the performers initially not doing anything. They just exist in the work with everyone else. It’s a relatively short section in the totality of the work but it has a strong and intense effect. The work starts with a shared sense of discomfort.
My intention when building MASS was to create a work that was affirming. Challenging, in so much as it offered a positive and new way of connecting to people, contrary to the pre-conditioning of the fear cycle. It was interesting to find that the initial offers that I developed and tested with audiences were all rejected due to this. People mistrusted the offer, particularly it seemed, if it was nice or pleasurable. It was this reality that lead to the choice to work initially with discomfort. To offer them something that represented the world they were familiar with, albeit an abstracted and heightened version of that world. Discomfort, provided an opportunity to reflect on the world and to choose to behave differently to normal. To connect and to find offers of positive and joyful experiences acceptable.
MASS takes the audience on a journey through a series of encounters between the audience and performers. These grow in scale, from initial 1-1 experiences, to pairings and small group interactions, into a single group experience. The encounters induce empathy and connection; working from isolation, through a sense of embodied fusion with other people, towards a state of shared knowing. Using mirroring, perceptual manipulation and sensory misalignments tools to achieve this unique connection. Finally, once connected, participants are invited to remove the costume hoods. Identity returns to the space: age, gender, race, all the identifying and classifying features of our bodies are available to the group. The world that has been created through a ‘mass’ process meets the people who have created it.
We perceive the world through our senses. The processes by which this sensory information is interpreted by our brain does not build an exact model of reality, although we treat it as such. In that space between our senses and the actual world lies an interesting potential. The ability to point out that what we assume to be, is actually a construct. How this truth relates to our physical body and the space/people around is the key to Mass experience and the encounters that form it. The notion of one body being separate and distinct from others underpins much of our behaviour. It affirms a sense of difference and self that is intrinsic to the fear cycle and the “othering” process. Through sensory manipulation we have the ability to perceive our bodes as a shared entity, complicating the physical experience of “me” and “you” and challenging our sense of “self” and therefor “other”. I won’t explain exactly how this is done in MASS – but it’s effective, often beautiful and fascinating to experience.
The layering of identity into the physical connection that the MASS process creates
is complex. Watching people merging the two sets of information, the shared “knowing”/“us” body they’ve become, and their identity/ies (with all that entails), is quite momentous. I can follow the process as it moves through the space in the eye contact that passes between the audience and performers. A resolution of some kind or the beginnings of an internal dialogue that they will take into the world when they leave. It is moving, to feel this deeply embodied sense of “us” within the participants finding a space within their identity (even if only temporarily).
A member of the Farnham local cast described the experience in an online post:
“Recently I’ve had the most amazing opportunity to be part of a cast for a contemporary dance piece called ‘MASS’. MASS is an immersive and experiential piece by Robert Clark. Audience and performer occupy and encounter each other in the same space, breaking down ideas of otherness and instead reinforces connection and empathy.
Dancing and performing for me have always been on the opposite side of the spectrum, I’ve always shy’d away from anything to do with performing since its never something I thought I was good at or even had the confidence to do. After receiving a lovely email inviting me to be part of this I thought it’ll be such a great opportunity to really challenge this and step out of my comfort zone.
I’ve never really danced like this in my life, yet alone been in a proper performance of any kind before, and i can honestly say its been one of the most beautiful and moving experiences I’ve had being part of something like this.
One of the most profound things has been exploring and getting to know someone through dance and touch. Someone who I’ve never met before, hardly spoken, and probably wouldn’t usually meet, exploring and interacting through movements of our hands and direct eye contact. At first its intense and perhaps uncomfortable but soon that recedes and it reveals a beautiful true connection between two people that words could never achieve. It’s been such an incredible journey so far, full of growth and excitement!”
I believe in MASS, as an example of my artistic practice but also for its potential to deliver a small opportunity for positive change. However, it has not been an easy work to tour, or to “sell” to venues and has only had limited exposure to the public. It has generated interest, I’ve had more conversations around presenting this work than any other I’ve made, but that doesn’t translate into getting the work shown. I know this is an increasingly common experience for artists and not specific to me but there are certainly aspects of this work that make it problematic for the venues, including:
- the input required from the venue to successfully stage the work (it’s not a one night, turn up and show kind of work)
- it’s cost vs the restricted audience numbers that go through the experience
- local cast sourcing and handling (a great opportunity for some venues but for many an ask too big for them to undertake)
- a lack of desire and possibility/ability to take risks
I know there are good reasons for venues to take the stance they do. They are trying to survive in a difficult period. Low audiences are a problem in most areas and there is less subsidy to go around to encourage risk taking to mitigate this. I’m aware that there are various thoughts on what to do about this; it’s not a new issue and people have been considering ways to rebuild touring and audience numbers for years. My concern is that the frameworks that are in place don’t work, in as much as they seem unable to balance both the audience and artists interests with their own. New solutions are overdue and I wonder whether this might include the need to develop new frameworks?
MASS marked my return to making work, after taking time out to concentrate on being a father. It’s a cliché to say that becoming a parent changes your world view, but there’s truth in the statement. I remember reading about the need for babies to experience skin to skin contact, to be held and physically engaged in touch, holding and play. Why is it that we imagine this need leaves us? I have witnessed this need play out over and over again in MASS. I see it in the local cast and in the audience. I see it in the cast and in myself. The human body is asking us to respond to the fear cycle. MASS is like a puzzle that contains my attempt to answer that thought. A puzzle made from the people it encounters, extending out from the rehearsal room, into the cast, local cast, support team and collaborators; through the performance space and into the life of the people that come, as audience to experience it. It’s as a beautifully complicated reflection of what it could mean to be “us”. Now, as I reach the end of 2019, I feel more than ever that MASS needs to be out in the world. My original motivations for making the work continue to be relevant.
Robert Clark / http://www.robert-clark.org.uk/