Sunday, June 25, 2017

Cinerama at Spanish Banks

Extending their enquiries into the principles of materialist scenography and the performativity of performance environments, Fight With a Stick's (FWS) latest production is called Cinerama, and is a site-based work set on Spanish Banks at low tide. At an appointed time (it varies each day) and regardless of the weather, audience members assemble just beyond the beach's western concession stand. After checking in with an attendant yesterday afternoon around 1:15 pm and receiving some general instructions, we are all issued noise-cancelling earphones and instructed to head off in the general direction of one of the many container ships dotting the horizon.

It was a surprisingly long trek, a good 12-15 minutes, before we arrived at the playing space, which was an instructive lesson in just how vast a sweep of shoreline is covered by the intertidal, or littoral, zone the closer one gets to the mouth of the ocean. This initial journey was also a crucial first phase of the performance. For me, the earphones accomplished two interrelated goals. First, they made me more aware of my breathing, which in turn put me more in touch with my body as a whole, including the feel of the sand underneath my bare feet and the warmth of the water collecting in different tidal pools. At the same time, the absence of sound extended my visual sense outward, so that the entire panorama in front and to either side of me--from the human and animal action on the sand, to those sublimely disturbing ships set against the backdrop of the north shore mountains, to the built cityscape to my right, and to the hazy, shimmery archipelago of Vancouver and the Gulf Islands to my left--seemed to present itself as a series of shifting relationships of scale that regardless of actual physical distances nevertheless felt collectively within and out of reach, all at once: as if my body might punch through a trompe l'oeil painted backdrop on an old-school Hollywood studio set at any moment. In this way, the opening walk in Cinerama sets up the context for the rest of the piece, which seeks to make manifest the mechanisms by which we frame--and, by extension, annex--the natural spaces around us.

Once we arrive at the playing space, which FWS has positioned several hundred metres from the edge of what is already the incoming tide, we are instructed by sound designer Nancy Tam to place our headphones in an awaiting wagon and to take a seat on any of the vertically staggered chairs not marked with an X that have been anchored into the sand. To the backs of the X-marked chairs have been affixed mini-iPods, from which issue Tam's score, a mix of recorded extra-diagetic nautical sounds (the whoosh of water ebbing and flowing, boat horns, the squawking of birds) that combines with the live diagetic noise being produced around us (including the curious and/or flummoxed comments from passersby who happen upon the scene). Produced through this hybrid double-act of DJing is an assemblage of the natural and the mechanical, the ambient and the amplified, that is in keeping with Cinerama's overall troubling of the categories of background and foreground, and that contributes to an exploration of an idea of "atmosphere" that is at once theatrical and climatological.

Thus seated and newly "attuned" to our environment, we await the next phase of the performance. Not that things aren't already happening all around us: folks of every age and shape and state of undress promenading on the sand and in the surf; dogs chasing after balls; kids water skimming; birds and the occasional float plane soaring past in the sky. And not that we aren't also, as previously mentioned, the surveilled object of other onlookers' more or less focussed gaze. But at a certain point these multiple circuits of looking start to shift in a single direction as, on our left (or western) periphery, we begin to become aware of something (and someone) advancing towards us from the horizon. Two large steel frames, mobile picture windows onto the vista's equally portable vanishing point, are being carried by FWS performer-devisers, one person on either side of the frame and similarly apparelled in designer all-weather hazmat-style suits that Natalie Purschwitz has assembled from fabric that seems to mimic the elements of sea and sky, clouds and earth, so that at a greater remove it appears as if the performers are at one with their surroundings and that the frames are moving all on their own (a trick of perception FWS had previously experimented with in the award-winning Revolutions). Somewhere in this process I must have looked away, because when next I focussed on the progress of the advancing frames and performers, two had suddenly multiplied to five (and four to ten); I can only surmise that three of the frames had been positioned to lie in the sand more proximately to where the audience was seated and that as the more distant ones crossed their paths, they were raised up and also started moving. At any rate, the peripatetic journey of the frames ends when they are installed at different junctures in between the staggered line-up of audience chairs, so that depending on where one is seated in this line-up one's experience of watching watchers watch is diffracted x-fold.

Had the performance ended here I would have been supremely (and sublimely) satisfied, so content was I to stare out through the four frames in front of me, this mise-en-abyme of human and non-human actants coalescing into a single long take that was refreshingly contemplative: an installation- or site-based version of slow cinema. However, the performance was far from over and the frames, no matter our initial expectations, did not remain stationary. Instead, over the next half hour or so the FWS performers (company co-directors Steven Hill and Alex Lazaridis Ferguson, alongside collaborators who included Scott Billings, Delia Brett, Elissa Hanson, Josh Hite, Diego Romero, and Paula Viitanen) manipulated the frames in a kind of mechanical ballet. The movement started slowly and subtly, with the frames being raised up and down a quarter-inch or so, and rippling backwards from the frame positioned closest to the water. Eventually the tempo picked up and the up-and-down movement was supplemented by the frames being tilted forwards and backwards, shifted horizontally to the left and the right, and arced vertically on their axes by incremental degrees. As this was going on, the tide was slowly (and then more and more quickly) creeping in, with the movement of the frames not so much mimicking as complementing the locomotive drift of the water, which swirls and eddies from different directions, picking up speed and force, until what seemed impossibly distant and at a safely calculable physical and temporal remove is suddenly lapping at your knees.

And this, finally, is what comprises the brilliance of this production, what I'll call the framing of the rhythms of diurnal events. The tide goes out and it comes back in. Still at this point in the anthropocene such a statement remains a dialectical certainty. Cinerama focuses our attention on the inevitability of waiting for what we know is coming. And the payoff is that we still end up surprised.


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