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Cast and Curious: “Participatory” in Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie’s Inhabitant at iDANS 05

 Nese Ceren Tosun

“Participatory” became the new catch qualification for most of today’s artistic productions. Be it a contemporary art piece or a performance, the audience –or the public is imagined and situated more and more as the co-maker of the work. Though the ultimate credits of authorship remain with the artists, the work is actualized with the active involvement of those who would conventionally come ‘to watch’ the piece. In such instances, hospitable acts are exchanged at varying degrees between the artist and participants, exposing both parties to different levels of risk and work.

Organized and presented by Bimeras Cultural Foundation, this year’s iDANS 05 festival[1], consistent with their curatorial theme “At Work” provided a condensed space of inquiry for the audiences’ acts of engagement and production through a number of valuable performances. Marlene Monteiro Freitas’s Guintche and Clément Layes’ Allege preferred to keep the audience at their seats, with little or none direct interaction; yet created a great synergy in the safe space shared between the audience and themselves. Tiago Rodrigues/Mundo Perfeito’s If a Window Would Open chose to include the audience during the interval while distributing locally made ‘ayran’ (yoghurt drink) in plastic bottles labeled with adjectives such as sexy, smart, available, etc. Members of the audience identifying with the adjective would raise their hands, claim the bottle and temporarily be part of the performance through the act of making a public appearance and consuming the ayran. Ayşe Orhon’s Many chose to displace the audience behind a symbolic red line by directly speaking to them over the course of the work and by inviting either by phone or live the participation of the artists she collaborated with during her research for the work. Jérome Bell’s The Show Must Go On needed the casting of a group of locals who rehearsed together for a limited period of time to perform a reproduction of the piece originally staged in Paris, Amsterdam, Montpellier, and San Sebastian with other participant-performers. The piece also invited the seated audience to take the stage, if they wished, during long intervals of songs where the stage was empty and lit. None among the audience took the stage, yet some chose to ‘dance’ standing up on their seats or many participated through singing and clapping. Diego Agulló’s CUE left entirety of the space to the acts of the ‘visitors’ in the presence of pre-arranged light and sound technicians who were improvising themselves. The audience danced, sang, filled the space, drank, chose to interact with others or not.

These and not-mentioned other invited pieces’ choice of “who is going to participate and how” defined the risks they were willing to take and the authority they would delegate within the state of being ‘at work’ that they shared with the so-called audience.

‘At work’ness was furthermore extended by the structure of the festival to the potential contemporary performing arts journalists, writers and critics through the “Critical Endeavor” workshop[2]: the participants of the workshop followed all festival events and met regularly in order to evaluate the individual pieces while engaging in readings and discussions about the confines and possibilities of a critical field that would work and walk along the performing arts. Among the heated discussions of the workshop was the Best Performance Award, finally given to Inhabitant by South African artists Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie, though Clément Layes’ Allege and Marlene Monteiro Freitas’ Guintche were close-runners. Inhabitant separated itself out in terms of the risk involved in the actualization of the piece and the quality of the hospitality it generated both prior to and during the work.

Inhabitant, originally designed and staged in Johannesbourg with a focus on the immigrants’ experiences and struggles inhabiting the city, has been re-enacted in the context of Dolapdere based on the artists’ research in Istanbul and the particular site of performance. The research period in the neighborhood under the advisory guidance of Mirko Winkel and with the assistance of Pınar Başoğlu and Yiğit Daldikler, resulted in a work that exposed the possibilities of participation in stimulating politics of care by the artists, both prior to and during the performance.

The crude architectural setting of the piece consisted of two sides of a busy street in Dolapdere, divided by fences to hinder passengers’ crossing of the road and a bridge that should serve that purpose. Everyday flow of Dolapdere, neighboring buildings, the main mosque’s minarets and the constant circulation of cars were the co-decors. The audience members, first gathered on one side of the street where the setting for a public inauguration is ready, then were directed to the pavement on the other side of the street, to be seated on plastic chairs facing the road. Why we could not be seated where the inauguration was going to take place -though we imagined it would be a fake inauguration, was only the beginning of hour-long series of curious events. This initial act of separation between the inauguration place and “us” –the audience, was also the precursor of the multi-layered political engagement of the piece, reminding us how unprivileged we were in our audience’ness, at least for the time being. Our sight of the site –inauguration place- was disturbed by constant flow of cars and the fence. We were at distance and the chairs on the other side of the road looked more comfortable. Moreover, we faced their backs. While keeping our anonymity may seem like an initial privilege, the other seats, enjoying proximity to the inauguration place and not having to deal with the disturbance caused by the road clearly occupied a “better” seating arrangement. The performance space, like the city itself was divided, according to categories that were either familiar to us or not, but that assigned us places to be.

Seated, we waited for a while for something to happen ‘as performance’. The everyday of Dolapdere was in great fluxus: the cars, people, the sunset. Almost everything, besides the chairs and the inauguration setting, was already and always there, yet was framed meticulously by Pesa and Sadie in order to create a zoom in effect. Dolapdere neighborhood and the streets where probably most of us living in Istanbul passed many times, suddenly exposed their minute details under the sustained gaze of the audience -accomplice in the temporary occupation of the space. Has nothing else occurred during the event, this simple framing highlighting the livelihood of the neighborhood while the sun set and the muezzin started the evening prayer, would give enough of a purpose to our presence, satisfying visual and auditory senses by paying attention to a non-aestheticized yet aesthetical neighborhood.  However, Pesa and Sadie had in mind a more intricate game that both exposed their artistic sensibilities and their three weeks inhabitation in the space and its relations.

The man running in front of the audience with a motorcycle helmet has set the beginning of “the” performance for most of us, as opposed to the everyday. While we were waiting for something to happen on the other side of the road, a taxi stopped in front of us, a horse cart carrying melons and garbage collectors passed, people walked by. We were lost in an abundance of information while trying to distinguish the “artistic event” from the everyday life. Who/what was part of the performance? What was there to be watched? We could not help but speculate among ourselves: the audience was caught in a game of decoding, conversing with each other, already creating a sense of neighboring among those seated nearby and a discussion space opened up by mere curiosity. People, who by now we guessed were the performers, started to cross the street, jumped over the fence, lied down on top of the fence, lied still in the middle of the road, rolled over. We could somehow sense the mastery of their body as performers in perceiving the cars approaching and in their timing, yet we could not help but worry: what if one of the drivers did not see them? What if they could not roll over quick enough to reach the pavement? What if one of them got hit? He certainly would be injured -but they voluntarily and knowingly took the risk; what about the poor driver trying to reach home as quick as possible? Was it fair for him to be drawn in such a game? While the risks they took increased intensity –or so it looked from where the audience was previously seated with some standing with the excitement of the moment, the worry extended to the kids among the audience, joking about doing the same thing. Some stopped watching the performance and in an act of care, attempted to explain why they should not even try doing that, how it was part of a performance. Suddenly, we were worried about almost everyone in the space, whether voluntarily and knowingly (or not) was partaking in the moment.

We were caught in a spicy affective economy that became even bitterer when the inauguration started. A black car, a bodyguard and the microphone now were the extended body parts of a typical politician about to give a generic speech for the opening of some park in the neighborhood. While the road and the distance in between hindered our sight of the politician, his long introductory salutations filled our ears through potent speakers. His intrusion of our auditory space was in contraposition with his physical and perceptive distance: the generic content of the speech that any politician could give in any event, was full of sentences of care and the services he paid to the community, yet starting with his bodyguard, his operating self was separated with a protective shield from “the reality” of the everyday. The “obvious-and-always-there” of our lives was once again highlighted in a modest way to remind us the ridicule in these typical politician speeches and the harshness of the lives filled with great risks while the game of politics is being played. The category of “politician” was a better shield than the motorcycle helmet one of the performers carried in the beginning. The ridicule continued, we stopped listening, and carried on being curious and worried about the helmetless performers.

At one point, one of the performers put his head in a metal barrel and rolled towards the cars, with the barrel. A member of the audience, we guessed from the neighborhood, walked towards the road behind him, signaling to the cars in an attempt to protect him from getting hit. The performer, now exempt from his sight,

-hence of the lights that could give an idea about the distance of the car approaching and the time he has left to roll back to the pavement- was in an even more vulnerable position and thankfully was protected by this unknown. We were caught in a web of care, yet none of us among the audience dared intervening besides him. Whether his intervention was part of the performance, we did not know. We knew that our lives were full of instances where we will just watch or never know when and how to act. In this instance, Pesa and Sadie masterfully questioned our spectatorship in both everyday life situations and as spectators. We all worried for sure, but did we dare to act?

Inhabitant knitted macro politics (the political system and its recognized categories of citizens to be cared about, cities to be created, etc. revealed in the content of the speech) with the micro politics of spectatorship (both in real life and as an art audience felt through the emphasized aesthetics and the risk taken) in a peformative framing that made use of their three weeks inhabitation of the space. Their aesthetic framing extending from the choice of the spot and time to the objects used (i.e. the metal barrel is used on a daily basis in Dolapdere to make fires) was a result of their sensitive familiarity with the physicality of the neighborhood. Furthermore, as the post-performance talks disclosed, they were engaged with the people occupying the spaces, the shop owners for three weeks everyday, resulting in an exchange of services and the welcoming of the neighbors. The chairs were supplied from a local depot, the patisserie owner proposed the second floor of his shop as a changing room, some who were not even part of the performance were regularly asking whether they could be of any assistance. Proposing this meta-commentary only after the performance, Inhabitant incited us to re-think the “participatory” in multiple occasions. It caused curiosity in the cast audience about the professional performers, drivers, people who participated from the neighborhood through a holistic engagement of care and hence extended the limits of the “participatory” to a level that was not risked in other works of the festival. It is in this meticulously cast and carefully curious aesthetic, affective, political engagement that Inhabitant distinguished itself as the winner of the Critical Endeavor Best Performance Award this year.

[2] The reviews of the workshop participants and more on Critical Endeavour can be read at

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