Ant Hampton and the Nightmare of Global Capitalism
My first experience of Ant Hampton’s autoteatro—a distinctive form of self-generated, automatic performance—was only a couple years ago, as part of PS122’s spring 2013 season, where The Quiet Volume was presented. Andy Horwitz had mentioned Hampton to me a number of times, having experienced Hampton and collaborator Silvia Mercuriali’s company Rotozaza, where their ideas on autoteatro formed prior to its dissolution, and I was more than curious to experience it myself.
The Quiet Volume, created by Hampton with Tim Etchells in 2010, was a beautiful and moving experience. Enacted in the reading room of the undergrad library at NYU, audiences were invited up in pairs to a shared desk with a stack of books on it, where they were each provided with a separate iPod. The audio track on each, commenced simultaneously, leads the pair through a surprisingly intimate shared experience of one of the most essentially solitary activities of modern life: reading a book. The piece hit brilliantly on a variety of book lovers’ concerns: The solitary nature of reading; the desire to share that experience, conversely, with another; the way in which books, despite being distinct entities, bleed into one another and inform and re-interpret one another; and so on. It was a profoundly destabilizing and magical experience. To be directed by audio track to read a line of a book at a certain page, only to be interrupted in doing so by the person next to you, following similar but inexplicable instructions from their own audio track, was transcendent, subjecting the meaning-production of reading to a co-dependent process.
We were both so moved and dumbfounded by the experience that, almost staggering to our feet, we left the iPods lying on the reading room table as we left. This caused an unfortunate PS122 production assistant to sprint upstairs to ensure they weren’t purloined by one of the hundreds of undergrads who unwittingly served as background.
The Extra People, one of Hampton’s more recent pieces, came to New York this year as part of FIAF’s 2015 Crossing the Line Festival, and it’s a very different, and creepier, use of the same method. Whereas The Quiet Volume was surprisingly intimate, The Extra People is remarkably dehumanizing and solipsistic (intentionally). Whereas the prior piece was a sort of magical book lover’s dream performance, the latter seems to aim for an indictment of the dehumanizing effects of global capitalism, but risks getting bogged down in its abstractions and resulting in mere confusion.
In his 1992 book Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the critic and theorist Fredric Jameson made a comment that spawned a cottage industry of cultural criticism, writing:
[C]onspiracy theory (and its garish narrative manifestations) must be seen as a degraded attempt—through the figuration of advanced technology—to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system. It is in terms of that enormous and threatening, yet only dimly perceivable, other reality of economic and social institutions that, in my opinion, the postmodern sublime can alone be adequately theorized.
His point is that, by its very nature, our contemporary form of globalized capitalism has—in its immense colonialist project, not only spanning the physical globe but inventing new (cyber)spaces in which to exercise its power—grown to be too big, complex, and incomprehensible to be grappled with in its own right. Google Maps, for instance, invites disbelief: A constantly updated and photographed document of the physical human world which seems to seamlessly function, capturing even the most momentary transformations of nearly any spot on the globe. It’s a host of mysteries produced by global capitalism that alienates us ever more from our means of production, a sense of dislocation to which we respond with fear and paranoia.
From this, argues Jameson, extends both real world conspiracy theory (such as that regarding JFK’s assassination), which seeks to impose a causal order on the disparate but dislocating experiences of the contemporary, and also artistic, fictional narrative forms—particularly the novels of William Gibson, cyberpunk in general, and their descendants, even The X Files—which imagine, through technology, a centralized control mechanism “guiding” the world. Both impose a blunt narrative framework on labyrinthine complexity, which is bizarrely reassuring. Seen this way, a film like The Matrix is an aspirational story: One need only take the right pill to see the world for what it is, and thereby demystify it and transform into a comprehensible and, therefore, manageable or otherwise transformable system.
The necessary predicate for this tendency, though, is the very human desire to understand. That the mechanisms that dictate how we actually live are too complicated to understand induces what another theorist, Timothy Melley, termed “agency panic,” the distressing notion that our own agency, our ability to elect whether or not to submit to the most basic of commands, has been undermined. This results in a pervasive sense of paranoia—or, perhaps more prosaically, depression and lack of sense of purpose—on the part of individuals subject to these inherently arbitrary-seeming demands.
I’ve been grappling with this interpretation of Hampton’s show since more or less I left the theater. It seemed quite clear to me that Hampton’s intent was to implicate the participants in the performance in performing the labor to produce a product; like any worker required to perform a mere function, it matters little whether or not that worker, while doing so, grasps their contribution to the whole. They need merely to get it done. But this was my own interpretation—others have been less charitable, describing the performance as highly imagistic and sentimental, noting apparent references to refugees or the experience of war, all of which struck me as at best coincidental. And then of course there’s the simple problem that, in fact, I couldn’t actually see all the performance. While I took that to be an experience that would be shared by all participants, it’s nevertheless the case that hearing about their own experiences, I have at the very least been forced to admit that the piece suffers from a certain destructive lack of clarity.
The audience of fifteen are staged for the performance in a room outside of the theater. Each participant is assigned a number by virtue of which neon reflective safety vest they’re provided to wear, and throughout the piece they become merely that number. Production managers provide a basic crash-course on what to do: how specifically to wear the headphones attached to each vest, where to place a certain object in a given vest pocket, how many pieces of tape you should have on your shoulder.
From there, the spectators are led into a prepping room, where they are provided a second information session in how to use the technology required for the performance. This instruction is provided by the “voice” that will guide each person through the piece: a disembodied computer-generated child’s voice, which, it helpfully reminds us, is computer-generated and does not reflect any subjective identity, but rather a merely functional and utterly inhuman system conduction affairs.
Directed by the audio tracks you enter a large, empty theater audience space (this performance took place in the 150-or-so-seat Florence Gould Hall at FIAF). Each participant had previously been assigned a specific seat in the audience, which we were all directed to take. It’s hard to recall exactly what was said by the disembodied child-computer voice, so let me summarize: first, it makes clear that this performance is a sort of sleight-of-hand. Since all the participants are of course spectators (and, also, due to demands, enactors) of a theater piece, we are usually referred to as “extras,” as in, extras in a movie–since this is of course the most passive role someone can have in a performance. We’re just cogs in a machine, background, and—the voice frequently reminds us—often expected to just wait around for directions without regard for the reason we’re there, because we’re not important enough for anyone to provide such as answer.
Each of the 15 participants is clearly being given a different set of instructions, and each round of participants will go through a different narrative arc. Each performance lasts about 80 minutes, and they are staggered to start every 30 minutes. My round was the first one of the day; one of the first things that happened after we entered the theater audience was that one participant was directed by their own audio track (which of course I couldn’t hear) to go onstage and begin performing a series of tasks. However, by the time the second round of participants entered the empty theater audience some 30 minutes later, the round I was part of were all on stage. Instead of one member of that group being forced onstage, they simply watched us.
As for what we had to do…well, that’s difficult to describe, particularly because the instructions any individual is given differ from someone else’s, compounded by the fact that for large parts of the performance, you can’t see what the other people in your group are doing, either because it’s dark, or because you’ve been instructed to close your eyes, or because you’re hiding under a blanket.
Generally, the voice in the audio track dictating your actions refers simply encourages you to complete your “tasks,” and reassures you that although you may not fully grasp their significance, they are nevertheless important, and that in any event it is not important whether you understand the big picture. These tasks are insistently mundane. Once onstage all participants collaborate to cover the back row of the theater with rows of white butcher paper. At some point, half of the group drew what appeared to be silhouettes on the paper; at least, once I saw what they had done, this appeared to be what had happened. For my part, I was prevented from seeing what was happening, and only witnessed the aftermath. Eventually, we were required to hide under packing blankets, or at least some of us, as others were clearly required to perform other tasks while those under the blankets (I was usually under the blanket) couldn’t see.
And constantly, the child’s voice was reminding me that it didn’t matter if I didn’t understand what was happening. It was merely important to complete my task.
Artistically, the biggest complaint I have about the performance is the purposeful glitch-tracking of the audio. Glitch has been a device (over-)used for years now, and it’s easily the falsest device employed by Hampton in the piece. Constantly throughout the audio track glitches, as though to serve as a constant reminder that the voice is not, actually, a person, but rather a purely mechanical device that is directing you. I get the attempt but in practice it comes across as arch or glib, a “fake failure” of a system to remind you that it is simply a device. Related to that was the constant solipsistic insistence that we confuse the voice in the recording with the voice-inside-our-own-mind. While conceptually I get it, as a concept it felt obscure and forced, an attempt through text to reinforce a concept more fully realized through the dramatic ironies of the performance.
And this in part explained the vague sense of disappointment I heard about (and shared) with other participants after we were directed offstage, where we traded our safety vests for our quotidian jackets and bags. Overall, the performance lacked any sort of pay-off, or perhaps just an imposed realization. I can extrapolate as much of the piece’s intent as I can, but that doesn’t quite mean it imposed that on the participants. It sufficed to confuse rather than destabilize; it made apparent the absurdity of its titular subject (a system in which a human being can be deemed interchangeable) without trying to reveal even the object of our now extant ire, let alone point to any enemy or system, hinted at or otherwise.
We were, in other words, cogs in a machine the main purpose of which was its own production. The “point” of the performance was denied us since no one could experience its totality; rather, we only understood our own individual roles, automatons producing something we couldn’t see, compelled to enact seemingly pointless directions in equal part of self-elected obligation (we showed up and had tickets to this) as well as through mutual obligation (the notion that if we messed up, it affected our fellow participants).
Or perhaps we were something else–required to enact the experience of displacement and stress, choreographed dancers in a sentimental dance. Or indeed any other potential interpretation of the situation any isolated participant could envision. It’s interesting that although my interpretation of the piece’s intent led me back to the paranoia induced by agency panic, the subversion of our agency in the contemporary moment, I’m forced to admit, with a few days reflection and discussion with others, that it’s the other part of Jameson’s argument that’s most salient: That, confronted with confusion and paranoia over seemingly inexplicable instructions, the human tendency is to imagine a garish and elaborate narrative that connects as many of the dots as possible. That seems to have been the result of the piece, which could produce radically different interpretations and opinions, but in doing so, seems to have robbed itself of the ability to offer critique (of whatever its disputed subject was) due to abstractions and obscurantism.