Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. Februar 2001 Editorial

Ambient Theatre and Clubbing
Urban Post-Mainstream

Knut Ove Arntzen (Bergen)


Theatre had by the 1980s been through the conceptual post-avant-garde period and a new mixture of recycled styles were appearing in the early 1990s. These new styles worked with the potential of Laboratory theatre and its physical techniques for the actor's training combining this the conceptual visual kind of dramaturgy and the theatre of images. A new way of putting references and using direct communication had come about which could be spoken about as re-telling the world. Recycling deals with the way textual materials and styles are used in visual theatre, as well as understanding text as a free intermediation of references, without being obliged to be psychological, but more working on the basis of non illusion. Clubbing is a basic concept for ambient expressions and experience which is about creating a new sense of space in theatre and the arts in general. There is an interaction between the recycling in theatre and the development towards including the club ambience in new performance.

The new references in theatrical performance may be related to cultural identities of both an urban and an ethnic kind, and they are creating a new theatre of energies which can be said to be of an ambient post-mainstream kind. Altogether we are now dealing with a complex of energies that are being reactivated in connection with the notion of cultural identities and subcultural expressions. They can be flowing and circulated in free ways, like is the case of the human libido. These new energies could be defined as both social, body connected, media emanated, political and as being connected to physical attraction and theatricality in direction of different ways of expression, like inbetween cooking, new happenings and ambient performance. Synergy is dealing with the working together of different elements, and one could say that a theatre of new energies is the interplay of the above mentioned different energies declenched by cultural identity and inter- or multiculturalism. One of these new energies is the ambience of social gatherings and experience that has mixed with theatre, visual arts and music. Thus the clubbing effect is included in these processes both practically and sometimes metaphorical by ways of interaction.

"Otto Plonk" was a gallery project that existed for some years in Bergen in the middle 1990s, situated in an old trading house. Apart form exhibitions this gallery also presented performance work, like Baktruppens "Good good very good". This way of finding alternative spaces for galleries is what can be spoken about as gallery-actionism. Veronica Diesen puts it like this:

[...]it can be said to have gained inspiration from the 90's technoculture and their club establishments. An interesting thing about the technoculture, is their flexible and dynamic treatment of space: Clubs come and go an they show up in everything from already established cafés or nightclubs, to privat places an to sometimes condemned buildings.(1)

Diesen also goes into a detailed description of the performance "Euro non stop dancing" by Tobias Bernstrup and Lova Hamilton. It was an installation consisted of disco-spotlights and headphones fastened to the roof. The music played could only be heared on the headphones the spectators could chose for themselves whether they only wanted to listen to it or may be dance. It was so called Euro trash music, popular music played all over Europe on radio stations and as such, as Veronica Diesen puts it, "[...]'uniting' Europe 'at least' in trash sounds". This understanding of dynamic space for music and gallery actionism is gives context to a whole development based on shared experience as something replacing the individual aesthetic experience. Thus aesthetics is partly replaced by context.

Edgar Jager wrote in the Internet periodical Datum:

How can we define the time we live in, which there is less and less space to live in? Looking for locations for living and creating are the main topics of culture these days. Images and metaphors or spaceships and living rooms are being used to express the urge for designing a space for living.(2)

He looks for models for his "Space to live in" and he uses Ambient House Music as a model for theatre: "As we try to answer the question of what the place of theatre is today the guideline could be the ambient, techno and house scene". The examples Jager is mentioning are groups like the following: Baktruppen, Reza Abdoh and the later work of The Wooster Group.

Jager said about Baktruppen:

The Norwegian Bak-Truppen taught us that no one was sacred about that small piece of space which everyone looked at. They behaved as if there was no theatre and no time-span.(3)

This must be ambient theatre because the experiences of real time is a part of it, and so is the experience of direct communication and audience participation. Via Baktruppen and Abdoh he is getting at a new generation of small companies and groups that are far away from the mainstream of post modern director's theatre. There are names like Frankfurter Bad of Stefan Pucher, Gob Squad, Jell O'Company, Ronald Fraser-Munroe und Batteri Congress.

"The ambient theatre creates an independent place, a theatrical place to show things." One example could be the Baktruppen "Tonight:)" production that was co-produced with Kampnagelfabriek in Hamburg in 1994. It was a production where they to some extent had entered into pure virtuality by using electronic communication. The floor was covered up with Persian carpets and the space was shared between spectators and actors. So, according to Jager this could be seen upon as a "theatrical place to show things". There was a free exchange of energies from body, space and from the audience itself. It was a flirtation with the vanity of the audience, their notions of well to do behavior and ideas of dressing. This was expressed by Baktruppen's own way of dressing up in party dresses from all over the world. The audience itself was a part of it like in a restaurant or in a party.

In "Tonight :)" Baktruppen used two pianos, a computer and a mixing desk. They worked well connected to this multimediatic situation, with body and the gravitation in space and virtual perception. The theatrical body as biographical body was researched in, and the physical action gave a flow of corporal energies. It was an interaction with the audience and the possible vanity of each of them in direction of personal taste. By the Persian carpets an atmosphere of travelling was created, additionally to the multicultural party clothing they wear themselves. One could say that there was an aspect of cultural anthropology. The audience simply became part of a free flow of energies. Reality thus was transformed into esthetical sensibility by the interplay with virtual means of expression, like the free exchange in a public clubbing situation. Today there is a tendency in production to work with mirror effects and reflections upon re-telling the world in the context of image and memory. And to create this state, dance, theatre and performance art has been mixed up in hybrid forms.

This kind of state also extends to cooking and other activities that include ambience and ritualistic repetition of any kind of technique or knowledge. Allegorically this can appear in any kind of real-art production or real time-events like peep-shows or restauration events. It is related to a general movement in the arts which often is referred to as clubbing or club culture, Klubkultur in German. Historically it can be seen in perspective of music hall and varieté which was of a popular kind. The more intellectual cabaret would reflect ambience as a way of experimentation. This is so to say a part of the modernist avant-garde movements which came to a conclusion with post modernism. In post modernism there is no linear development and no more expectation for the newness as such in art. Aesthetics have become a virtual play with illusion and non-illusion, gradually also absorbing the context for activities. In this sense the popular culture of entertainment was forerunner.

To day the concept of avant-garde could be used metaphorically, and we could speak about playful and context including new avant-garde expressions. They are summing up some experiences at the end of art as linear aesthetic developments, and we are allowed to enter new arenas of art production mixing so called high and low culture. Institutional theatres, museums and big houses as such are put under an enormous pressure and they have to adept to ambient strategies to attract a younger audience. This has been referred to as event culture ("Event-Kultur"), and Ute Meta Bauer describes how DJs would be flown in to big German Museums to stage their spaces in an ambient setting. Frank Castorf at the Volksbühne in Berlin organised house party like settings in the foyer by inviting music groups. Stefan Pucher, the young German director with an ambient background who is mentioned above, would organise clubbing like settings for some main productions.(4)

This way rooms are being organised to adapt to a new cultural experience which is related to space as experience, shared spaces or like Edgar Jager puts it: Spaces to live in. It is partly based in music culture and is relating to a long tradition of music clubs from jazz to hip hop and techno, with dancing halls and discotheques as a part of this history. Different traditions of clubs like the Chicago gay scene would be a part of this. Art Galleries and art clubs both of public and private kinds would also be venues for artist to present their work in new settings, sometimes independently from public subvention systems. It goes back to the saloons of exhibitions as well as the art societies (Kunstvereine) tradition. But the bourgeois educational aspect of learning art is replaced by the shared experience, the interaction between artist and spectators. The Home and Away in September 1999 in Hanover was a pre-program to the Hanover Expo, and parts of its program were taking place in the old Kunstverein. Visual artists would perform and exhibit objects, production by new German ambient groups like She She Pop and others would be presented in the main hall of the building.

Cultural houses of an ambient setting are running in different cities, like the Podewil in Berlin and Kampnagel in Hamburg. The bar situation, the restaurant and other direct ways of social gathering is very essential to these activities. And we know that food was a part of the futuristic strategy for new ways of artistic experience, which has come to expression in their coloured drinks and weared cooking inventions. Well, from the futurists the line goes directly to events and fluxus with happenings and performance. The basis for the new contextual oriented and interaction minded development is letting the spectators themselves become artists through for instance letting them take part in performances and organising ambient symposia. But to most people it is the pure experience of dancing and free bodily expression of an orgiastic or ritualistic kind. Some see an connection between aboriginal peoples expressions like amerindian pow vows and subcultural clubbing events.

The German ambient project group Show Case Beat Le Mot, like She She Pop originating from the Giessener Angewandte Theaterwissenschaft milieu in German (applied theatre studies), invited the audience on car rides. That took place in the above mentioned Home and Away program at the Hanover pre-expo 2000 program. We have seen how Baktruppen invites the audience to travel in space via electronic devices, and I also would like to mention the nomadic settings of some small productions by the Québec City based company Recto Verso. In Hong Kong the Archaeology Bird Workshop connected to the Hong Kong Arts Centre made a production called "Visions Invisible" about young people experiencing tourism as identity investigation. They travel around the planet but without knowing that the plane crashed - at home.

Diedrich Diederichsen, a German writer about clubbing and new cultural perspectives, says that he looks upon the concept club as methaphor for diversity. There is a coincidence between club culture and alternative spaces for art, he says, and these two dimensions have already more or less fused into one. It is connected to new ways of manifestation and experiences.(5) In my opinion this takes us directly into the ambient house as a model for new theatre development, as Edgar Jager has pointed it out. But it also has something to do with new ways of experiencing gaze and theatricality. "[...]The gaze has gained identity", as Mårten Spångberg puts it, continuing by saying that "[...]What we do on stage and what we do in the audience is the same. All the reality aspects are present."(6)

In papers on the late postmodern development as post-mainstream in arts and theatre I use to define post-mainstream as the state of development when aesthetics partly is replaced by contexts like identities, marginalities and I connect to a geocultural dimension for art. It is about what happens when we have to be confronted with otherness and cultural confrontation. I think this is exactly what has taken place since the spectacular theatre of images partly was being replaced by recycling and new mimetic virtual playfulness. This was in some kind an intersection between different geocultural spaces. Furthermore there is, as I see it, a close connection between post-mainstream of ambient urban and ambient ethnic kinds. The ambient urban is the house culture or clubbing tradition drawing on subcultural research and experience, while ethnic ambient is the Pow vow and other ritualistic expressions that anthropology has described very accurately. What do you experience through rhythm at a rave venue?

The consternation of music and partying was very well expressed in the Gob Squad production "What are you looking at". Gob Squad was founded in Nottingham, but is now partly working in Germany. This production was also presented at the Home and Away program in Hanover. The space they developed for the production is an optimal box to look into, and the performers are watched by the audience as if they were zoo animals. They daily rituals and their party is under constant watch and we see them change records, drinking beer and becoming more and more apathetic. Our gaze is encountering their gaze. "Disco Relax" is a late Forced Entertainment production dealing with the same subject. I will quote from the Bergen International Theatre Spring program: "[...]Disco Relax is the plunge into a pond of glossy TV-soaps, emerging out of the scenario of a pub-disco, both witty and surreal".(7)

An ambient idea of clubbing has also been transformed to the symposium and lecturing situation, which was demonstrated by Showcase Beat Le Mot at Podewil in Berlin with their "Kongress Permanentes Testbild" production. They organised it in a small bar and party room and invited DJs and researchers in music to speak about topics like hip hop and new multicultural music in London. This "Kongress" took place within a general club programmation in October 1999, where Baktruppen was presenting their last version of "Very good" ("Former good good very good"). The spectators are sitting in a cabaret like setting watching a huge screen where the action is being simultaneously transferred from their action at a sidewalk stage. They speak and sing about the Chinese people and about the Sami people. The Chinese are so many and the Sami so few.

[...] Baktruppen unites alcohol, fat, Sami people, real time, fake time etc. Some of the content is sampled from real China and Samiland, some is based on subjective fantasises about the objective(8)

A lot of the performance is based on dancing and burning alcohol on stage. We are invited to taste it, of course.

Another part of the club programmation was "Stimmen des Nordens/Spuren der Schamanen" (Voices of the North/Tracks of the Shamans) which was dedicated to investigating an presenting music of an arctic inspiration. Thus accents from urban and ethnic ambient theatre and clubbing situations were put together, and we saw aspects of recycling, like in the work of Showcase Beat Le Mot of which was told in the Program (October 1999): "[...] Als Material für ihre Performances recyceln showcase beat le mot die Codes der Pop- und Alltagskultur: 'Pop ist etwas, mit dem wir aufgewachsen sind und das wir leben...'". In English: As a material for our productions showcase beat le mot is recycling codes of popular and daily life culture: We grew up with pop and it is part of our lives.(9)

Stefan Strehler is reflecting on how clubbing or pop theatre has become one alternative to refresh or renew a blurred and dustful state theatre, or as he puts it quoted in German and difficult to translate into English: "[...]Für das eingestaubte Theater scheint Pop eine willkommene Frischzellenkultur". (10) His main example is the work of Showcase Beat Le Mot, and the point of course is that by the work of such pop cultural, clubbing ambient based groups an alternative to the stiffend state theatre has developed which even could enter into the big theatres. It is an interesting development giving us a clear indication that club culture as a context may be significant to theatre to day.

Good Good Very Good: an impression from the Baktruppen Show

© Knut Ove Arntzen (Bergen)

TRANSINST        table of contents: No.9


(1) Veronica Diesen: "From art action to art/interactions", lecture for Le lieu conference, Québec, 1998.

(2) Edgar Jager: Ambient Theatre/@temporary:/for the nineties/. In: Datum. WWW:

(3) Jager: Ambient Theatre (cf. Fn. 2).

(4) Cf. Ute Meta Bauer: "Vision 2000. Kunst und Kultur in der Verwertungsgesellschaft", Vision Zukunft #2. Kunst in der Demokratie, Ausdruck 4, Künstlerhaus Mousonturm, Frankfurt/M. 1999, s. 92.

(5) Cf. Diedrich Diederichsen: "... neue Formen einer Behauptungs-, Erlebnis- und Intensitäts-Ästhetik". In "Erlebnisräume, Veranstaltungsorte und Archive, Vision Zukunft #2. Kunst in der Demokratie, Ausdruck 4, Künstlerhaus Mousonturm, Frankfurt/M. 1999, S. 13.

(6) "Good good very good. Art in Norway", debate in Frankfurt am Main, Nov. 1999.

(7) Bergen International Theatre Spring program 2000.

(8) Baktruppen's information material:

(9) Quoted from the press release materials from Podewil, Showcase Beat Le Mot, Kongress, Berlin, October 1999.

(10) Stefan Strehler: "Popmimen in der Bühnenburg". In: Spex 11/1998.

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