Performance and Place: The Matter of PuSh
January 29, 2014
On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival commissioned Placemaking: A Decade in the City, a collection of essays from artists and writers to explore the Festival’s ‘place’ in the public life of Vancouver. “Performance and Place” by Peter Dickinson is one of these five essays. You can read the full collection as a PDF online.
There are any number of ways I contemplated approaching this reflection on the 10th anniversary of the PuSh Festival. In the end, I have chosen to bracket my current role as President of the Festival’s Board. Instead, I want to filter my remarks through my professional perspective as an academic, one whose specific critical focus is very often the matter of performance itself. By that I mean that in the courses I teach and the research I conduct I am concerned not just with the materiality of performance—the objects that comprise it, the labour that goes into it, the physical sites that give shape to it—but also its consequentiality: in short, what performance does.
One extremely important thing that the PuSh Festival has done over the past decade is contribute to an ongoing conversation about place and place-making in Vancouver, insistently reminding us that live performance must be a fundamental part of discussions of livability. This has manifested itself in many ways. First, there is the geographical reach of the Festival, which has steadily “pushed” its way into Vancouverites’ consciousness in part by occupying so many of its city stages: from the Cultch on the east side to the Frederic Wood at UBC; from the Roundhouse and Granville Island on either side of False Creek to Capilano University on the north shore; from what has become its downtown anchor at SFU Woodward’s to any number of additional venues in the adjacent cultural precinct. Couple this with PuSh’s signature commitment to sited work—much of it explicitly focused on the ethics and politics of urban living—and one could say that every January PuSh produces the kind of roving public square that for the rest of the year is physically absent from our city.
Consider, in this respect, the 2011 free outdoor production of Mariano Pensotti’s La Marea, which for four nights took over the 100-block of Water Street in Gastown and was seen by close to 7,000 people. The piece’s loosely connected vignettes and projected snippets of cryptic text form a narrative that is abstract enough to play in any city. However, despite the work’s movie-set vibe, the particularity of place cannot be overwritten. Indeed, lacking any other coherent context, we are forced to read the scenes in terms of their location: in storefronts, in apartment windows, and on paving stones that together tell a parallel story of settlement and displacement, commerce and community, unique to Vancouver. Such local/global interfaces between audience and event are what constitute the special place-making temporality of so many PuSh performances: in constituting ourselves as a temporary public within a particular time and space, we become witness to other worlds that can represent, contest, or invert some of the material sites of power and knowledge in our more immediate surroundings.
Which brings me to perhaps the most important matter of all: the content of PuSh’s performances. Given the Festival’s location on the Pacific Rim—and the reconceptualization of the continental drift of programming this necessitates—it makes sense that place has become a thematic through-line, including in work by non-resident artists. At the same time, the fact that PuSh’s first decade has coincided with the social, cultural, and developmental imprint of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games means that PuSh’s programming has not just been a part of but has often led the critical discourse on the politics of place in Vancouver. For example, a show like 100% Vancouver gathers together on stage one hundred individuals who each represent one percent of the city’s total population, and who have been selected according to the following demographic criteria: gender, age, marital status, ethnicity/mother tongue, and neighbourhood. However, in the psychographic portrait of the city that follows (in which participants group themselves into various ME and NOT ME categories according to a series of prompts), and not least because of its staging at SFU Woodward’s, the piece arguably reveals the Downtown Eastside as the nexus from which all other civic relationships radiate in Vancouver.
The same year, as part of the Festival’s mounting of Podplays, a quartet of outdoor audio dramas commissioned by Neworld Theatre and the Playwrights Theatre Centre, I experienced a mini-revelation regarding the layers of obligation and indebtedness that attend such relationships. It occurred during the work’s third segment, “Portside Walk,” which was written and performed by David McIntosh, and which took me west from CRAB Park towards Canada Place and the new Vancouver Convention Centre. At the same time as the text directed me to look at the flying buttresses of these monuments to the city’s global cosmopolitan progress, it also insistently dug deeper, to the buried indigenous roots and the much-trafficked migratory routes of that progress: a scenario of contact, conquest, and diaspora we continue to replay to this day in terms of those unseen under-classes who service our urban mega-projects and amenities. To this end, a singular achievement of McIntosh’s piece is that while listening to his narration one actually traverses the service road underneath the new Convention Centre, with a carpark elevator eventually disgorging participants onto the more salubrious outdoor plaza of the Centre, replete with Olympic cauldron.
Cities are built spaces, but they are first and foremost embodied spaces. As Michel de Certeau has argued, walking is “an elementary form” of experiencing the city, a tactical procedure which produces new maps that don’t always correspond to the official criss-crossings of streets you find in guidebooks or A–Zs. De Certeau notes that we are not always able to read the maps we write with our bodies, but in the very fleeting moments of passing and being passed by we nevertheless open up cracks in the pavement, steal time, and breathe life into possible new intersections. Let me end this reflection by recounting one such intersection from last year’s PuSh Festival, an experience that in addressing the vexing matter of social intimacy in Vancouver placed my body not just in a new sensorial relationship to my city but, as a result, to a stranger to whom I will forever remain connected.
The brainchild of Martin Chaput and Martial Chazallon, of France’s Projet in situ, Do You See What I Mean? was a blindfolded guided tour of downtown Vancouver that began at the Access Gallery on Georgia Street, just east of Main. My guide was Mariana. Over the course of three hours we chatted only briefly about ourselves; however, during that time we nevertheless experienced an incredibly intimate social and physical exchange. In my case, not only did this involve placing my life literally in Mariana’s hands, but, in taking hold of her right elbow and beginning to walk alongside her, shifting the whole kinespheric axis of my body in her direction. The experience was uncanny and disorienting and exhilarating all at once, as guided only by Mariana’s voice and the pace of her movements and subtle shifts in direction was I able to do what under any other circumstances I automatically take for granted: walk. And what a walk: so immersive, so sensual, so loud! Take away the visual sense, and suddenly you realize just how noisy your city is: car horns and engines accelerating; music from storefronts; the click-click- click of heels on sidewalks. The snippets of overheard conversation provided an audio track all their own as I assembled different bits of information—and different languages— into a running narrative.
Then there was the heightened haptic sense: the texture of the ground underneath my feet; the warmth of the sun on my face; always the nubbly fabric of Mariana’s sweater at my fingertips. In a thrift store I’d like to say was somewhere in Chinatown I was delighted to discover in my felt explorations of the wares a horse’s stirrup: so unexpected amid all of the clothes and knick-knacks, and such a joyful surprise for that. This was the first of several stops that Mariana and I made on our journey: a pastry shop where I got to taste an orange-blossom macaroon; an apartment where our host Stephen gave me a motorcycle helmet to hold and told us the story of his ill-fated purchase of a vintage Vespa; an indoor-outdoor pool where Jimmy, himself non-sighted, tested my sense of smell and touch; and finally what I would discover later was the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, where I got to dance in the dark with Ziyian Kwan.
The whole event was one of the most stimulating of my life. A year later I’m still processing all the feelings it produced. But one thing I know for sure: as an experience, it mattered. Even if I never see Mariana again, I will always have—thanks to PuSh, and in keeping with all great performance—some other sense that between us an encounter of some consequence took place.
Peter Dickinson is professor of English at Simon Fraser University and the author, most recently, of World Stages, Local Audiences: Essays on Performance, Place, and Politics (Manchester University Press, 2010). He currently serves as President of the Board of the PuSh Festival and blogs regularly about Vancouver performance at performanceplacepolitics.blogspot.ca.