(Re)Confirming the Conventions - An Ontology of the Olfactory

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Stanier, P., 2001. (Re)Confirming the Conventions - An Ontology of the Olfactory. Body, Space & Technology, 1(2). DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/bst.276


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The Use of Space in Contemporary British Experimental Theatre. By . The postmodern cultural experience of space and time is one of instability. This instability is due to the difference between the individual’s experience of time and space and the social, historical and economic forces that attempt to force other modes of perceiving and operating within time and space. This paper is concerned with the use of space in contemporary British experimental theatre, or more particularly Space, Place, and Non-Place three terms which cover most individuals experience of locations. The distinction of these terms comes primarily from two theorists Auge (1995) and de Certeau (1984). According to the combined view of these writers a location can initially be broken down into two parts that of Space and Place. Space is generally taken to mean the physical actuality and while Place refers to the methods and ideas by which individuals understand and employ that space. Crucially, de Certeau defined place as an ordering system, for example language, and space as its enactment i.e. the speaking of language. Subsequently however, as Nick Kaye observes:

Space, as a practiced place, admits of unpredictability. Rather than mirror the orderliness of place, space might be subject not only to transformation, but ambiguity. If space is like the word when it is spoken, then a single ‘place’ will be realised in successive, multiple and even irreconcilable spaces. It follows that, paradoxically, ‘space’ cannot manifest the order and stability of its place. (Kaye. 2000:5)

Following on from the notions of Space and Place there is accordingly Non-Place, although there is no Non-Space as it is currently a scientific impossibility. As a whole these theories offer the notion that space and place are not the same thing nor are they singular or even binary oppositions. Any location or the experience of location is subjective, based within time and is as rife with complexity and ambiguity as language. Of particular interest is Auge's concept of Non-Place which Kaye defines by saying that “‘Non-place’ is produced by a passing over of place” (Kaye. 2000:9). Non-Place, if seen through a decentred notion of space is the notion of place as experience while in transit. Non-place is the experience of the nomad and the practice of deterritorialisation.

Non-Place has become a vital theoretical concept for the contemporary experience of space and for contemporary performance because of its compatibility with Baudrillard’s notion of the precession simulacrum. Baudrillard’s metaphor for the disappearance of reality, and its succession by the Simulacrum is that of a map. This is not simply a rhetorical device. Hyperreality, a symptom of the simulacrum, is manifested in Place, particularly, as Baudrillard’s examples demonstrate, in the use of shopping malls and Disneyland. The notion of non-place is as much a symptomatic reaction as well as a strategic activity forming resistance against hyperreal locations. Therefore, following Baudrillard, the exploitation of Non-Place in performance can be seen as a form of resistance against high capitalist coercion to perceived space as a commodity rather than act and place, and as a screen for the precession of simulacra rather than as an ordering system. Furthermore it is important to emphasise that simulation is not simply restricted to the control of space and place but also to the governing of time.

What constitutes site-specific work in Britain? What is the fascination with location, particularly cities? What are the issues at stake? How is this a new certainty how does this combine with time and liveness? Installations and events that defy the theatre location although not site-specific engage in the disruption of the hierarchically established performance space, in order to access particular qualities within a work rather than as a wilful act of experimentation or of disobedience in the face of tradition. Although this could be said to refer to any particular tradition of work, there is continuity to the focus of attention and strategies employed within the work. This paper will primarily discuss work that is a distortion of the site-specific form and theatre based productions that engage with the experience of space, such as Third Angel’s Where From Here (2001) and Forced Entertainment’s Nights In This City (1995). There is an urban or city based focus to the work under discussion as has already been argued. This can be seen as a symptom and causal factor in the move towards a radical decentring process and a move towards nomadicity. But, increasingly, Space has become a vital commodity, as technology renders more and more activities mobile, through the increased ease of communications and work through the increasing availability of mobile phones and laptops. Space and a practiced place becomes a shallow definition as multiple activities can operate in the same space challenging its spatial ordering system. This leads to what Baudrillard calls anti-theatre.

The anti-theatre is the ecstatic form of theatre: no more stage no more content; theatre in the streets, without actors, theatre for everyone by everyone, which, to a certain extent, would merge with the exact unfolding of our lives, lives without illusion. (Baudrillard in Poster. 1988:187)

Tim Etchells talks of valuable spaces and Lynne MacRitchie talks of Live art surviving in the ruins of the eighties and nineties ‘boom and bust culture’[1]. While initially that may have been the case, the ground has subsequently shifted and these valuable spaces are not valued for their economy and freedom but for the possibilities they offer for their rediscovery. One might even stretch Mike Pearson’s discussion of archaeology to articulate the un/recovered sense of resonance concerning our experience of space (particularly the urban) and its use (Pearson in Kaye. 1996:227/230). The relation of the postmodern to the modern is parasitic/symbiotic[2]. Equally, the postmodern use of modern spaces; factories, shop fronts, terminals of all kinds, bus stations, and train stations is equally parasitic. However it proceeds with a view to maintaining the life of the site itself. As Nick Kaye Proposes:

A ‘site-specific work’ might articulate and define itself through properties qualities or meanings produced in specific relationships between an ‘object’ or ‘event’ and a position it occupies. After the ‘substantive’ notion of site, such site specific work might even assert a ‘proper’ relationship with its location, claiming an ‘original and fixed position’ associated with what it is. (Kaye, N. 2000:1)

The proper relationship is the parasitic one. The decentred hierarchy is in favour of the body fed upon by the performance, the Place itself, when combined, artwork and site are indistinguishable. However, as we know from discussing hybrid performances, when work and site are separated the artwork can no longer function, but the Place is not left without the work, it is revitalised, having added to its ordering system, not only is it for example, a warehouse but it is now additionally a performance venue. Forced Entertainment’s site specific performance Dreams Winter (1994)[3] demonstrates this example. Created specifically for the Manchester Library the performance could not exist in any other venue because of the buildings unique design which includes a whisper gallery. Moreover, as Etchells indicated, the performance establishes a proper relationship with the space as evidenced by the comments of one of the librarians. ‘What did the director of the library say after the first performance of that piece? That the building wouldn’t ever be the same again.’ (Etchells. 2000:15)[4]. Moreover this performance challenges the function of the place through its performance material. Steven Connor in postmodern performance, discusses the radical ordering of material in postmodernity as a result of the collapse of metanarratives through a connection to a Borge's tale which includes an ordering system for animals under the headings of “(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) sucking pigs” (Connor, S. 1997:8). Equally within Dreams Winter the alphabetical list of categories for books includes “Irwin, jealousy, Jobs, Johnson, Joltowski, Journals, Jupiter, Kalashnikov” this is not only a foregrounding of minority voices forms of knowledge, there are no metanarratives, at least there are broad inclusive categories but no hierarchy other than alphabetisation. Dreams Winter challenges the notion of the established traditional library, consisting of broad metanarratives and fictions, with a library of specific and personal narratives, functioning as an extension of the linguistic aspect of space. In addition to uniquely site-specific works, there are performances such as Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola (1996) that tours non-theatre spaces and generates a degree of site-specificity through the fluid nature of the event. Rather than a performance tailored to the physical aspects of a unique space, it becomes a performance specific to that space and time. Whether this is a diluted form of site-specificity little different from any touring show that accommodates its current venue is a complex question, as the parameters of the event remain solid but the degree for variety can be almost infinite within that. However, one should not get involved in the question of what constitutes a different or individual performance as it is not relevant to the present discussion. A show like Quizoola itself tours and illuminates spaces, its focus is not to become a new performance but to allow the space to perform itself.

What these shows indicate is the collapse of the boundaries surrounding the hierarchy of space. Prior to the advent of postmodernity, performance spaces generally conformed to the dictates of either of the two main strands of modernity; i.e. that the space should be an empty one[5] in which the performance created its own world, or in a specifically created performance venue. Each of these spaces established the parameters that the space itself was irrelevant to the performance’s meaning, although perhaps relevant for the framing of the event[6]. It is interesting to note to note that Primitive Science created the performance Icarus Falling (1999) specifically for the Oxo Tower venue and the use of space was radically different to Quizoola, when it toured to the same space, so much so as to imply a completely different space to any audience member who witnessed both performances. A separate entrance and exit was employed and each performance took place where its counterpart’s audience were positioned. Therefore Icarus Falling, Quizoola and Dreams Winter reject the modernist principle of the performance space or theatrical venue as a place with a defined ordering system. These particularly site specific performances are only part of postmodern theatre’s response to the crisis of space. This section will now move onto discuss works that deal with space as a crucial concern in the performance whilst refraining from site specificity.

Third Angel’s Hang Up (1999/2000) demonstrates a further aspect to the perception of urban space. The presentation of four telephone boxes through which events and micro narrative of failure take place highlights the fragmentary and non-functional perception of space. Although within the performance telephone calls are frequently made they are mostly failed attempts at communication, for example the sequence where a performer frantically searches for a ten pence piece instead finding only masses of copper coins in over laden pockets. There is no unity to the stage space itself which not only refuses a single location, but also refuses any distinct separate assignation of location; all that is provided in terms of spatial/temporal context is the information ‘One single night, across a number of cities’. As in Nights In This City the use of the city at night is a central feature of the performance. Doubling the space are screens that duplicate the action seen or otherwise from voyeuristic camera angles reminiscent of security close circuit television, thus employing the postmodern double coding of space as outlined by Jencks[7]. As can be seen in Third Angel’s Where From Here and Senseless (1998).

Real space and virtual space are defined only in each other. Here, real space must be approached in its absence, at the limit or disruption of the work’s virtual spaces, for to ‘conceptualise’ real space is precisely to write over it. (Kaye 2000:32)

Where From Here was a breakthrough piece for Third Angel. Here the issues of all previous performances are refined and reassessed. The issues of memory, fiction, reality, murder, death, nostalgia and the desire to escape from mundane existence that have infiltrated all their previous works have been neatly distilled into this one performance. Cinematic and cultural references are deftly integrated into the performance, whereas in previous performances their presence had been highlighted and their disruptive nature exploited. Additionally, language figures far more strongly in this performance, as it is language as much as the framing of the work from which the characters desire escape; within Where From Here they confront both. Within a performance that discusses the lies told within intimate relations, personal material reads inseparably from lies. The audience’s intimate relation with the performers is exposed and compared to their relation to each other and the real and fictional material in the performance. I have been to some of the rooms mentioned in the show and I am sure that some of the stories are true, but the names and details have been changed to protect the actors.

Where From Here exhibits a frustrated desire for escape from the constrictions of the past, countered against the failure of nostalgia to resurrect a perfect past into the present. Through memory, the past proposes an irretrievable model of happiness for the performers, but it cannot help them escape; it cannot create a spontaneous present. Accordingly within the show the performers are doomed to re-enact sequences from their past with the hope of new occurrences. However, the repetition of the past only prompts their realisation of the flawed reality of their memories and the futility of their actions. A further element of focus in the performance is the distrust of sight and vision. During Where From Here the performers willingly close their eyes to mark out the spaces of the past, overlapping the past over the present space. This action exhibits a desire to believe the body and memory rather than sight, even though the diagrams produced are inaccurate, or in other words their bodies and memories lie to them. Yet, the characters hope that an escape from vision might provide an escape from history, from time, from language, toward a truth that eludes them due to their irresistible compulsion to lie.

The performance, if it can be identified as such, Stan’s Cafe’s Black Maze (2000), further complicates the relation to space and the distinction between site specific, installation and theatre works. Existing as an extension of one section of the fairground mad house where the audience make their way through a darkened passage with uneven flooring, Black Maze puts into question several definitions of the performance event and the relationship of the audience to the event. Can Black Maze be called a theatre show as James Yarker director of Stan’s Cafe identifies, or should it be defined as a installation as characterised by Duget ‘The installation is designed to be explored by visitors who, in doing so, not only progressively build their own perception and awareness of it, but also that of other visitors.’ (Duget in Glendenning et al, 2000:6.), or is it a site-specific performance that creates its own place its own ordering system and space through the audiences participation? As with most performances by these companies the answer may be merely a matter of terminology as the performance can be pigeonholed according to desire. However I must disagree with Yarker in his definition of Black Maze as a piece of theatre, lacking as it does any audience performer distinction in terms of role or spatial distinction. Moreover the piece lacks any relation to its immediate spatial context and cannot strictly be identified as a site-specific work. Therefore, strictly speaking, Black Maze is an installation. However like Third Angel’s Saved discussed in the following chapter, it contains various elements that complicate this definition. In discussion of site specific art works, Kaye refers to artist Morris’ identification of a feature of site-specificity as ‘The intimate inseparability of the experience of physical space and that of an ongoing immediate present… exposing and articulating the viewers performance.’ (Morris in Kaye 2000:30) This clearly is a factor in the viewer’s experience of Black Maze. There is a split in the definition of Stan’s Cafe as a theatre company producing a piece such as Black Maze, following on from Its Your Film and Carrier Frequency. What Stan’s Cafe therefore demonstrate, is the ability for theatre companies to move into making installations, site specific works and historical revivals without altering their definition as a theatre company. This is not only a shift in the parameters of funding organisations. This a re-evaluation of the work produced by theatre companies; instead of producing simply touring theatre shows, contemporary companies are expected to produce installations, site-specific, durational work. As Desperate Optimist’s Christine Molloy identified the company as artists who happened to produce theatre work, the reverse is also true; theatre practitioners who happen to produce what can broadly be called live art. Moreover, this kind of work is often based on the shared concern of space and time, Desperate Optimists’ artists’ pages in Performance Research ‘Photogrammetry’ is a piece focusing on the distortion of space. Moreover it is this piece that Tim Etchells has referred to in his opening section of valuable spaces with which I began this chapter. As Robin Arthur has suggested in an interview with myself, the area of live art is being increasingly colonised by theatre practitioners and it is on the grounds of time and space that this work is largely being pursued. Therefore an area which was created by art school practitioners such as Stationhouse Opera and Theatre of Mistakes and Brith Gof “Sailing into the theatrical world from art school, without baggage, without self-consciousness.” (Maynard in Childs and Walwin, 1998:22) has now been colonised by the companies under discussion. From this I would suggest that the contemporary perception and use of space (particularly urban or city space) is a fundamental aspect of contemporary British experimental theatre.

We can therefore see, in conclusion, that the city represents the locus of action and of subject matter for contemporary British experimental theatre as a marker of our dominant spatial experience and its collection of other relevant postmodern cultural issues such as temporal distortion, consumer culture, crisis of history and of the real etc. Site, is largely treated as fluid and the variety of uses of space is broad enough to include the complicity with or archaeology of a space’s ordering system or the specific resistance of those ordering codes. This further indicates that place and space are being dealt with as constructs of a system of a linguistic order. Moreover through these points we can see how the use of space is a symptom of the interdisciplinary or hybrid activity of contemporary British experimental theatre, adopting areas and modes of practice first established by performance artists. These points combine to demonstrate that a critical/practical engagement with space is a new certainty in the critical/practical vocabulary of contemporary British experimental theatre.

1 See Etchells in Childs and Walwin (1998) ‘Valuable Spaces’ p31. 2 See Fuchs, E (1996) The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theatre After Modernism, Indianapolis:Indiana University Press. 3 Note that Alex Kelly and Rachel Walton from Third Angel performed in Dreams Winter. 4 This again emphasises Forced Entertainment’s use of the city at night, see Nights In This City, Dreams Winter, Paradise, Quizoola, Hidden J and Nightwalks as examples of performances where the city at night features prominently in their work. Also see ‘Eight Fragments on Theatre and the City’ in Certain Fragments (1999). 5 After Peter Brook. 6 Clearly, Brechtian theatre with its alienation effect employed the use of exposing the site as a means towards didacticism, this however was not used to generate a resonance with the spaces function. 7 See Jencks, C (1986) What is Postmodernism?, London:Academy Editions.


Augé, M (1995) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthology of Supermodernity, London:Verso.

Childs, N and Walwin, J (ed.)(1998) A Split Second of Paradse: Live Art, Installation and Performance, London:Rivers Oram Press.

Connor, S (1997) Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary, (2nd ed.) Oxford:Blackwell Publishers.

de Certeau, M (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley:University of California Press.

Etchells, T (1999) Certain Fragments: Contemporary Performance and Forced Entertainment, London:Routledge.

Glendenning, H, Etchells, T and Forced Entertainment (ed.)(2000) Void Spaces, Sheffield:Site Gallery.

Kaye, N (1996) Art into Theatre: Performance Interviews and Documents, Amsterdam:Harwood Academic Publishers.

Kaye, N (2000) Site-Specific Art: Performance, Place and Documentation, London:Routledge.

Poster, M (ed.)(1988) Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Oxford:Polity.


Interview between author and Christine Molloy of Desperate Optimists held on 12th February 1999 in Cambridge.

Interview between author and Robin Arthur of Forced Entertainment held on 7th September 1999 in Sheffield.

Interview between author and Alex Kelly and Rachel Walton of Third Angel held on 8th September 1999 in Sheffield.

Interview between author and James Yarker of Stan’s Café held on 10th May 2000 in Birmingham.





[1] See Etchells in Childs and Walwin (1998) ‘Valuable Spaces’ p31.

[2] See Fuchs, E (1996) The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theatre After Modernism, Indianapolis:Indiana University Press.

[3] Note that Alex Kelly and Rachel Walton from Third Angel performed in Dreams Winter.

[4] This again emphasises Forced Entertainment’s use of the city at night, see Nights In This City, Dreams Winter, Paradise, Quizoola, Hidden J and Nightwalks as examples of performances where the city at night features prominently in their work. Also see ‘Eight Fragments on Theatre and the City’ in Certain Fragments (1999).

[5] After Peter Brook.

[6] Clearly, Brechtian theatre with its alienation effect employed the use of exposing the site as a means towards didacticism, this however was not used to generate a resonance with the spaces function.

[7] See Jencks, C (1986) What is Postmodernism?, London:Academy Editions.



Phil Stanier





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