Open House is a short speech and movement score for 10-60 people. Using verbatim text from the national parliament it makes a game of the metaphors of political debates. If political speech is used to choreograph citizens, can that state-wide choreography be applied to a small crowd? And how might that crowd start to take control?
Open House was first performed as part of BELLYFLOP’s Cue Positions at Toynbee Studios on 22 November 2013.
1. Find a transcript of apolitical debate or speech (I used the Hansard report for the debates in Westminster Hall in the House of Commons on 5 November 2013 which covered Persecution Of Christians in the Middle East, Renewable Energy in Peterborough, The Under-Occupancy Penalty, NHS funding in the North-East and Teesside and The Maldives).
2. Pull out any sentences that include movement-related metaphors that could be performed literally in very simple ways. These could relate to directions (e.g. backwards, rise), movement types (e.g. jump, run), or group relations (e.g. gather, follow). Avoid specific actions (e.g. shopping, cut).
3. Group sentences into similar movement types (e.g. ‘forward’, ‘advance’ and ‘future’ might be one group) and identify the relevant literal movement instruction for each (e.g. ‘walk forwards’). Avoid miming.
4. Allocate score sheets (containing sentences and a movement-word key) to all participants so that each has two unique sentences. Make sure that the movement types are allocated in the same proportion that they occur in the original transcript (e..g if ‘down’ and ‘drop’ were said twice as many times as ‘up’ and ‘ride’ then twice as many allocated sentences should include ‘down’ or ‘drop’).
5. Over a period of, for example, 10 minutes, participants can call out their sentences at any time so that everyone can hear. The group then moves in accordance to the movement metaphors as they are called out.
Optional: If the organiser calls out ‘Order order’ everyone swaps scores
With their words, politicians choreograph the world. This is not metaphorical choreography, it is choreography, for like a dance it involves the arrangement of relationships and structures; of people and objects in space over time.
Physical positions trigger metaphorical positions.
I have also previously written about how physical stimulus affects metaphorical ideas, for example when people sit on chairs leaning to the left (or to the right), they report liberal (or conservative) shifts in their political attitudes. People more sensitive to physical disgust are more likely to hold illiberal, right-wing views and even the simple act of hand washing provokes moral conservatism in experiments.
In the UK, members of parliament sit on either side of the chamber on parallel benches, a relic of the days when parliament met in a chapel and sat in the choir stalls. Many other parliaments sit in horse-shoe, fan or circular layouts but by sitting opposite each other, the UK parliament takes on a particular adversarial, binary nature.
Metaphorical positions trigger physical positions.
I have also previously written about how hearing metaphors in speech is an embodied experience: When we hear a word it literally brings to mind the sensations as if we are experiencing them first-hand. For example thinking about the future caused participants in one experiment to lean slightly forward while thinking about the past caused participants to lean slightly backwards. And subjects in another experiment asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds.
And this embodiment can become institutionalised: When members of parliament vote on a bill they do not press a button or fill in a ballot, rather they (often) move into one of two ‘division lobbies’ – the aye (yes) lobby and the no lobby – as if gathering to fight or defend their views. People with similar views are directed then to actually be with one another, pressed up close to be counted, touching, talking and separate from those that disagree.
A more conceptual metaphor is acted out during the state opening of Parliament when the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshall –walk backwards to show parliaments deference to the monarch as they lead her procession into the House of Lords:
The hope for Open House was to find – through the performance of the score – some knowledge of the activity of the House of Commons. This would not be a complete experience, equivalent to being there (and anyway we cannot have access to the experience of being a politician which feels like one of the more important perspectives in the House). But nor would I want it to be a representation such as Hansard or the Parliament Channel. Instead I want something to be revealed in the performance of movement and text both individually and collectively over time – a knowledge that comes from the relationship between things (including relationships over time).
Before its first performance, I tested a different version out with six people. Each was given a unique score made up of nine movement or vocal instructions that were recorded from the House of Commons (e.g. ‘point to something’ or ‘say “hear hear”’) that people perform in order and in repetition. People had control over how they interpreted the instructions (e.g. where do they point), when they performed them in time (and thus in relation to each other) and what other things they did as well (e.g. walking around the room).
This limited score enabled a sort of game to occur in which these spaces for interpretation could be explored. It was through these interpretations that the score transforms from a fixed representation into something else.
But although we were interpreting descriptions of movement and text from the House of Commons, it felt like we were performing something else – a different set of patterns and forces to those I intuit when I watch Parliament. This I believe is a common occurrence when trying to choreograph ‘about’ something – a superficial appearance hides a more fundamental dissimilarity and perhaps more features. (As an aside, since I am not a Member of Parliament there may well be a problem with me trying to guess what the forces are at play from the outside).
Now this might be fine ordinarily and this could be the jump off point to a new dance. But I had set myself the goal of finding some knowledge about politics.
The challenge remained of how to do this. One way might have been to create a much more detailed score – something like a Live Action Role Playing game – in which participants play characters with background stories, allegiances and motivations similar to real politicians. Unfortunately the symposium did not allow for this. I could not even assume participants had any prior knowledge about the workings of Government.
The alternative – that I chose – was to develop a simplified score that is not literally like the happenings of Parliament (e.g. it might involve people running and singing) but when performed the relationships between elements and in time might act as metaphors for the intuitive knowledge of the House of Commons.
Expectations for Open House
I write this before Open House has been performed. There are several things I am anticipating and while I hope they come true I also look forward to being surprised by its actualisation.
Perhaps speaking and hearing these fragments of debates exposes us to the details and ‘smaller’ agendas of parliamentary politics (Renewable Energy in Peterborough?) that, while available to those who seek them out, are missed out of mainstream political reporting and discourse. What do our representatives concern themselves with?
Perhaps a score in which we are consciously moved by the metaphors of our politicians offers a different sense of political discourse. Is it collectivistic? Flowing? Dynamic? Hesitant? (or maybe the metaphors are just those of the country and this time generally).
Perhaps a score in which we decide – together – what movement and therefore what words we want to perform offers some sense of what language and what discourse we want for ourselves.
And I wonder if the group negotiation activates something political too – who has the power (the people with the rarer and more dramatic instructions) and how do they use it. How do people follow and interpret the rules? How do people balance their desire (or reluctance) to speak and direct with the needs of the group to move, to be still, to be happy?
Did you take part? What did you think?