Street Theatre it’s role in contemporary society and singularity as a vehicle of expression – Paul Miskin

Street Theatre it’s role in contemporary society and singularity as a vehicle of expression. Paul Miskin Thursday, 29 August 2002

`Hello and in case I don’t see you good afternoon good evening and goodnight`.

These are the opening words of the hero of the film `The Truman Show`. Later Truman urgently compels his degraded media slut of a `wife’ to observe a repetition of events. According to the norms of this `false` world Truman’s suspicions of conspiracy define him as a paranoid schizophrenic. However, we the audience, know that his suspicions are leading towards his discovery that his entire life has unbeknown to him been planted into a nightmarish world of product placement and Neitzschean repetition, a television show. The questioning of reality leads to his final escape. No one would call him an escapist for wanting `out`. Truman’s search is a metaphor for an ontological quest, a search for a reality beyond the every day patterns he experiences. The world of fixed repetition he is escaping from is a metaphor for something all humans experience, a sedimentation or stratification of social institutions, behaviours and thoughts called the inherited conglomerate.

The inherited conglomerate   is comprised of hard layers of behaviour patterns, assumptions, and norms.[i]  Like Truman we all become aware of the repetitions, strata, and grooves in which our lives are played.

`Hello and in case I don’t see you good afternoon good evening and goodnight`
[i] `Perform or Else` Jon McKenzie gives considerable analysis to this concept Routledge 2001 London and New York.

Archaeological performance

Continuing the geological metaphor of the conglomerate, I use the term `archaeological` for performances that dig through, sample, expose and play with this conglomerate. Truman’s moments of awareness eventually lead to his escape from the program. Once we are aware of stereotypes and norms their grip is loosened.[i]. A large number of brilliant street theatre interventionists for example The Natural Theatre Company, les Hommes en Noir and Pedestrian Project and surreal spectacles like those of Semola and Collectif Organum play with, and expose norms and assumptions. Cacahuete are the classic exponent of the `archaeological` in Street Theatre. Their most well known scenario L’ Enterrement de Maman, disinters a whole range of absurd social truths, most fundamentally the hidden existence of that social pariah `The Grim Reaper`. Secularised human life is depleted of meaning. The secularisation of death leaves us with something even more absurd than life. We must believe in something that is going to happen to us all, yet which we can never experience first hand. The archaeological performance as seen in the photograph of Campeurs Sauvages exposes the stereotypes of fixed versus nomadic lifestyles
[i] Jon McKenzie` in `Perform or Else` argues that performance is to the Twentieth Century what discipline was to the Nineteenth. Having shown that the notion of performance is degraded he needs to coin new words for performances, which, by their playfulness and skill in the games of dislocating context do not participate in the disciplinary paradigm

A culture of ontological complexity and warped reality

It is no coincidence that the recent enormous expansion of Street Theatre comes at the same time as films such as Existenz, The Truman Show, The Matrix, Pleasantville, Groundhog Day, and the development of virtual reality simulations in e space, and reality TV shows like Castaways and Big Brother. It is also no coincidence that in our major cities large groups of girls go out clubbing dressed as police women in miniskirts with handcuffs or as nuns or angels, creating their own Street Theatre.

In the centre of Tokyo advertising MPEGs and mini features played on enormous screens on the sides of buildings are reflected in glass buildings and rain water on the road, immersing the entire urban landscape in mediatised dreams, simulations and reflections.

These phenomena of our time and others, including Street Theatre, enter, challenge, distort, enhance or supplement reality, creating an art/life hybrid.  This is the sense in which I describe them as `ontological`. The term `Realism` is used for discussing life simulation in novels, plays and films. `Hyper- realism` is used to describe simulation in painting. This leaves the words `ontological` and `onto-realism` to describe the unmediated insertion of substitute realities, and other curious relations between simulation and reality.


Historically Theatre was predominantly presented in dedicated buildings and temples. Today it is often injected straight into the urban life experience. What has changed? Why do we need this bizarre fix? Why hire `ontocrats` and `onticians`, programmers and performers of Street Theatre to mess with our reality? What revolution in contemporary urban consciousness demands the ontological fix? What is fuelling the recent enormous expansion of Street Theatre? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we see a Trumanesque problem with reality indicated here, a `significance deficit`.

In the early Twentieth century Sartre and his colleagues responded to the secularisation of existence with the Existentialist school of Philosophy. Half a century later the question of ontological significance is more acute for lives of increased individualisation of reference, where individuals are even less likely to accept tribal imperatives or rationales.

Augé [i] has recently described a desperation in the demand for significance.  In his ‘supramodernity’ the significant individual experience becomes another commodity or drug to be consumed. Something must ease the contingencies of the individual divorced from the purposes of tribe or species. Something must combat deracination, excessive information, the ‘time of the signs’, and a “state of flattened and irritable inattentiveness”[ii]
[i] 1995Non-places introduction to an anthropology of Modernity

Marc Augé translated John Howe verso London New York 1995

[ii] Hakim B (1996) Millennium Autonomedia and garden of Delight p 49 New York

The ontological questions; What is reality? Is there a point to my life?


The Halibop Cult and associated group suicides illustrated that issues relating to simulation, the distinctions between strands of the real and the significance of existence can become, in the digital post-modern city, life and death issues.


For the artist the questions of the meaning and the significance of existence and human life cannot be dismissed as clichés or marginalized as pedantic or semantic philosophical games.

The Truman metaphor encapsulates key ontological questions of our time and of Street Theatre

The ontological questions

•How much of my reality has been constructed for me without my realising it? Is there a hidden agenda or agendas?

•What exists outside or beyond the `alimentary` processes of the city? (i.e. Truman’s Fiji)

•How can we escape the meaningless rituals of the anthill?

•How much of what appears to be reality is actually for the purpose of making money?

The social crisis

One aspect of the `significance deficit` is the depletion of meaning in social life. Marc Auge has described how this has become a current crisis.[i] This social crisis creates a special need for Street Theatre and Street Events as  a social glue. In a recent festival proposal the expression `ad hoc collectives` is used.

How does Street Theatre impinge on the following?

•A ‘virtual’ social situation in public places and `Non places`, (e.g. airports and motorways) see Auge

•Deferred gratification [ii]


•Information overload.

•Hyper-individualised perspectives.

What is the social effect of artistic tinkering with the ontological status of experience, of hybridising fact and fiction and introducing theatre into the quotidian? How does it affect a social significance deficit?

From the Truman perspective escapism is not escapism. The creation of zones of playful autonomy is not escapism
[i] Not of course that a crisis in the social is new as the social has always been in a state of crisis, perhaps ever since the inception of linear or historical as against cyclical society Even in cyclic societies, which have been static for centuries, a social crisis may be latent.  Debord G (1967) la Société du Spectacle Bucher Castel trans 1994 Zone books New York 1994 page 92

`Existence itself may be considered an abyss possessed of no meaning. I do not read this as a pessimistic statement. If it be true, then I can see in it nothing else but a declaration of autonomy for my imagination and will-& for the most beautiful act they can conceive with which to bestow meaning upon existence’

These words of Hakim Bey introduce his notion of the T.A.Z. a temporary zone of autonomy/freedom, an area of freedom from the imperatives of the conglomerate and freedom to play with, and within its strata, and an invitation to create Street Theatre. Antonin Artaud’s pronouncements in The Theatre and its Double constitute a manual on how to make Street Theatre, and to complete a triad of essential reading for street performers Pascal Larderet’s situationalist comic manifesto, in the Cacahuete press material is an Artaudian comic conversion kit. Larderet converts the Artaudian formulae for comedy. These writers all created important areas of freedom for Street Theatre. The creation of zones of temporary freedom is probably the most important contribution that Street Theatre makes to contemporary society. Often this is a freedom from patterns of which we are, like Truman, completely unaware.

We continue to ask the questions `why do we exist? `, `Why existence? `, `What is the significance of existence? ` In response to Hakim Bey we have to ask `what is an act, which bestows meaning on existence? ` And  `what is a significant experience? ` One feels instinctively that definition can only be provisional, as there are so many possibilities for a `bestowing` act or a `significant` experience. It seems to be a special slice of life an unusual ontological segment, which generates a response to a deficit, a lack, ennui, boredom, dullness and flatness…a tedious question is averted, postponed, satisfied, replaced by different questions [i] the emotional sensibility is modulated by `jouissance` joy, pleasure, happiness, poetry, profundity, enigma or music.  Significance shines from the creation of questions as well as answers. These are some of the ways in which Street Theatre can be `a bestowing act` in the Hakim Bey sense. You have to be there to understand.
[i] Blondel. E. Nietzsche the body and Culture Philosophy as Philological Genealogy trans Sean Hand Stamford University press first pub 1986 Paris (page 82)

Street Theatre, its singularity as a vehicle of creativity

Street Theatre comes in many shapes and forms.

Even though I am hypnotised by the megalomania of large-scale hallucinated transformations of the urban context recently I have come to the conclusion that even in very large shows small- scale elements are often the most important.

It is individual confrontations between audience and performance that matter. The foreground and background of the patterns of Islamic tiles are reversible. The inverse is as important as the positive shape. Similarly a constructed Street Theatre image may seem to be an alien riding a giant ostrich, but is soon seen as a refraction or reflection of the street itself. The audience are often the performers and the artist the participants. Large arena street performances that take place entirely behind barriers lack an important special ingredient of street performance. The relationships between performance and context vary enormously and some of the most interesting street performances are the most contextualised, in the sense that the performance and real life connect and fuse.

The arena performance

Andre Ginzberger the French Street Theatre agent employed the classic distinction between theatre `in` the street and theatre `of` the street, theatre `de` and theatre `de la` rue. The arena spectacle is the classic theatre `in’ the street and less ontological than the intervention. After enjoying a range of arena shows and helped to create one, I have observed the enormous importance of the sky, and the size of the `theatre`. During an open-air arena spectacle one’s mind can soar with a flock of birds, or focus on distant stars, an experience, which fuses with the surreal images of Strange Fruit or with the cosmic battles of Plasticiens Volants. The incredible detail of the half constructed and half natural cityscape and of the sky’s cloudland are seen to be mysterious works of art.. Life becomes aesthetic in the Neitzschean sense and cloaked with a numinous  `significance`, often reserved for art.

The norm of transgression

I have neither the time nor inclination to outline here the history of the economic forces driving the expansion of Street Performance. Also the charge of commodification that is laid at the door of Street Theatre is an important but too complex issue to deal with fully here. One of the important assumptions underpinning this charge is the norm or paradigm of transgression, which the academics, and some programmers, critically impose on Street Theatre practitioners. (Jon McKenzie has described this in detail) Apparently we must transgress. Obey this injunction or else be regarded as lackeys of capitalism. It is of course a variant of the Cretan paradox, if we do we don’t and vice versa.

Many Street Theatre groups have a distinguished record as provocateurs. Perhaps the only record really worth its salt here is a criminal record and one wonders how many programmers and academics extolling the virtues of provocation would be prepared to experience arrest. If the programmer is locked up the question remains, who is going to help get the artist released? But when will these gourmets of transgression themselves spend the afternoon in the police cells?

In Perform or Else Jon McKenzie analyses the paradigms and meta paradigms of the performance theory of Schechner, Turner and the establishment of Performance Studies. This is of great value for Street Theatre because it enables us to see these injunctions (`liminality` `transgression` and so on) as the norms they are. His theoretic `archaeological approach `(in the sense defined above) liberates us from the stratification of academic performance norms. After all what fun is transgression if we are being told to transgress?

All good ideas become dogma. And it is hell watching pleasure and joy become heavy sticks in the hands of academics and lecturers. To watch a student struggling with an essay on `site specific performance` almost proves that the idea of site specific performance is now dead and buried. I believe that `surprise` and `discovery` are important for expression, but if anyone gets heavy with those ideas then its time to dump them. McKenzie was absolutely right to virtually write gibberish when addressing the kind of performances that he really values. His excellent gibberish is particularly difficult to appropriate and stratify.  It is quite hard to imagine that any lecturer at a new College of Street Theatre will ask a student to prepare a `perfumance` (McKenzie’s complimentary name for a performance which dances with the paradigms), but anything is possible, and if you think of it, it will probably happen. Like the other cited authors McKenzie’s great achievement, as a theorist, is the creation of freedom for artists.

The special appeal of Street Theatre for its practitioners is partially that artistic expression is a process of discovery. Every Street Theatre creator I have spoken to describes the strange feeling of seeing a new performance gestate. The performance is always unexpected, and usually exceeds expectations. With large-scale work we have the surprise of seeing what we have made coming to life in action. In different performances we have the amazing surprises of different cities interacting with the performance.

The reflections on Lake Malta in Poznan;

The shadows on the buildings of Kortrijk.

The beach in Santos.

The Skyscrapers in Kaohsiung

The squares of Manchester

The tall buildings of rebuilt Gdansk

Street Theatre provides unparalleled opportunities for the artist. The appeal for me lies in the sheer density of the image and the multidisciplinary freedom to combine sculpture, painting, music, pyrotechnics, dance, theatre, circus, abseiling etc. My previous occupation was playing jazz, and there can be a jazz like quality about the Street Theatre performance structure. Some elements (like riffs) are constructed and prepared but others are improvised and discovered. The more freedom you want the more organisation is required. Anarchy always wins because it is better organised and every performance is fresh for the performer.

This quality of surprise and discovery has me hooked. The whole procedure of mounting an event, the gathering of talented friends, the travel, the site visit where, in megalomanic style, one studies the context to be transformed, the arrangements with the host, the complications of pyrotechnic storage, the shared meals, the thrill of the event and the pleasure of a job well done and being asked to return, all these elements make a very privileged life full of enjoyment.

Conclusion 1

So to conclude. The function of Street Theatre in society primarily relates to the depletion of meaning in secular society, a re-appropriation of ritual theatre from the church, and the creation of zones of freedom from and within the `alimentary` processes of the city. It is time `out` for reflection, contemplation, vertigo, fever, fury, or whatever emotion the performance engenders. It offers a critique of social norms and sometimes also a moral critique, but this is not so common.

It is right that a city should have its birthdays and christenings. People love their cities. In Holland NWSI has been employed for such bizarre tasks as to re-logo a hospital, and to launch a motorway. We are honoured by these opportunities, which can be curiously meaningful events. The Street Theatre performers replace the priests of by gone days, blessing these very practical and valuable entities. Motorways and hospitals are associated with an invocation of something `beyond`, something `out there`. This connects with Artaud when he asks us to `shake off material dullness` and be brought back to “a natural occult equivalent of the dogma we no longer believe`.

Conclusion 2

Street Theatre is a superb vehicle of expression partly because the expectations of the establishment and Performance Studies have not yet come to grips with it. I doubt if they ever will. Its genres are porous. And its forms protean. Multidisciplinarity is the norm. It is unbounded and unbridled, and it seeks to give something to everyone and anyone. The establishment recognises its power but cannot rein it in. It is not a middle class preserve. It is associated with revolutionary activity. It is an alarm call in the middle of the day. It is poetry without words.


Paul Miskin Thursday, 29 August 2002





















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