Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Testing the Hypothesis (v4)

This is a version of a talk I gave a few times earlier this year, originally for Hybrid - now the Northern Arts and Science Network - and then at the University of Huddersfield's Research Festival and at Leeds Met University.  Some elements of this talk have appeared on this blog before, or in other talks, or even in the shows discussed, so please forgive any repetition.


"As the Secretary General of the United Nations, an organization of 147 member states who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet earth, I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universe that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step." Kurt Waldheim
It starts in the mid 1990s when I am at film school, studying editing and art direction.  I hear, somewhere, about the Voyager Interstellar Mission and the Golden Record. Two space probes each carrying a gramophone record, and accompanying needle, bearing messages from the people of Earth, in many languages, to whoever, to whichever extra-terrestrial intelligence, might find it.

The record also carries 116 encoded images of life on Earth - in the 1970s - as selected by Carl Sagan and his team at NASA.  The record is enclosed in a circular golden case, on the front of which are a series of diagrams and maps, including instructions as to how to decode the images on the record.

To enable users to understand that they are decoding the images correctly, the first image is this, a perfect circle:

I find out that there is a book about the Golden Record, by Carl Sagan, with the beautiful name, Murmurs of Earth.  It is out of print, so I go to Sheffield City Library to try to find it.  The librarian has to go down into the basement to find it for me which definitely means that it is Reference Only, and I’m not allowed to take it home.  I flick through it, as I don’t have much time, and then photocopy two pages – the diagrams on the cover of the case of Golden Record itself, and the message from Kurt Waldheim.

I take the photocopies back to college and stick them up on the wall of my workspace, where they become invisible through familiarity.


In 1999 Third Angel was approached by German company Drei Wolken about collaborating on a show for the Transeuropa Festival.  By way of introducing themselves they sent us a translation of the text of their most recent show, The Long Distance Piece.  Amongst a variety of evocative explanations and statistics, there is a section about Voyager 2, and it’s journey away from Earth.

I thought: "I would like to make a show about the Voyager space probes."

And then we carried on making our show about phone boxes, Hang Up.

Juliet Ellis in Hang Up. Photo by Rob Hardy

Hang Up is a show set in four replica red telephone boxes. Six weeks in to the eight week making process we were stuck. We had two shows. We had the start and end of a great show about kidnapping, with the performers bound and gagged trying to escape from phone boxes, and then the performers trying to bind and gag themselves and lock themselves away. In phone boxes.

We also had a lot of material that was more about conversation rituals, phone boxes as venues for illicit encounters, the opportunity to disguise who you are.  Our phone boxes had miniature infra-red videocameras built in them, connected to projection screens above each box, but at this point we were also spending a lot of time on stage outside the boxes.

John Rowley in Hang Up.

We didn’t know what the show was. One lunch time someone asked me why we were making a show about phone boxes.  I said:

"It’s because when I pass a phonebox at night, when it is lit up, and there’s someone in it, particularly if you’re passing in a car or a bus, that fleeting glimpse makes me feel…something. Something hard to pin down. The person in that phonebox could be anyone, could be talking to anyone in the world, about anything. They could be pretending to be anyone.  But I’ll never know – I just have an image, a few seconds of movement and body language and the way they are dressed to make a guess about.  It’s about all of that possibility contained in a phonebox."

"So," someone said, "we should never come out of the phoneboxes then, in the show."

We went back into the rehearsal room that afternoon and compiled a list of all the material we had, in an order, and the performers' instruction was to perform that material without ever leaving their individual phoneboxes. If the material didn’t work restricted to the booths, it was out.

And that afternoon, albeit in broad strokes, we made the show. We saw what fitted, and what didn’t. We understood what the show is, what the task of it is. From that point on we were able to see where the gaps were, and what material needed to be found.


In 2000 Third Angel made Class of ’76, a show in which I stand up and talk about what I found out when I set out to try to find the other 34 children from my infant school photograph, producing their photographic images in the air next to me, one at a time.  School hall magic, I wrote at the time, summoning the ghosts of the living.

Early on in the process we invited a few people in to see some ideas for the work.  After watching the material, which included several digressions, formally and thematically, from the task of talking about my class mates, Claire Marshall, indicating the task of producing the image of each child next to me and talking about them, said to us: “Trust that. That’s what your show is.”


In 2002 I made a piece with 18 students in Scarborough called Of Course It’s A Journey, in which we explored themes of scale, distance, absence, travelling home, doing things apart and doing things together.  It included a group text, inspired by Drei Wolken’s The Long Distance Piece, and the NASA website, that charted the history of Voyager 2’s journey through the solar system. This text included a line which told you, as an audience member, how far Voyager 2 was from Earth on the day that you heard it.


Abigail Davies and Rachael Walton in Leave No Trace.

In 2002, whilst we were making the show Leave No Trace, I read the book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything by James Gleick.  Gleick’s first book, Chaos, was about the genesis of Chaos theory, and on the cover there was a quote from Douglas Adams, something like “I read this and felt like someone had found the light switch”.  When I read Faster, I felt like someone had found the light switch.

As with all projects, the process of making Leave No Trace had its own unique challenges. The show is about a woman who suffers from a fugue – a mental condition where you lose your memory and then travel, away, but are not alarmed by your lack of memory.  It’s difficult to research because the cases of fugues are impossible to document as they are happening. People only really remember the moments before the fugues, and the moments coming out of them.

The show is a conversation between Alice, the woman who experienced the fugue, and another woman, who may or may not be her therapist. It took us three versions of the show to understand that what the show is a conversation, in real-time, between Alice’s original personality and the fugue personality, at the moment she hands back control of the body to Alice. It might seem strange, or disingenuous, now, but it was really a case of us realising who the second character is, as we re-wrote and re-rehearsed for the third version of the show – which sadly never got performed in the UK.

All three versions of the show included a section we called 'Hurrysickness', in which, drawing on Faster, Alice lists all of the feelings of time pressure she had been experiencing up to the point of her mind flipping its safety switch and her leaving the life she knew.

This short speech of Alice’s was actually taken from a longer text, also referred to as 'Hurrysickness', which was actually pretty much me explaining aspects of the book, Faster, that meant the most to me.


Jerry Killick in Realtime. Video still by Rob Hardy/Christopher Hall.

In 2004 we began working with three psychologists, Dr Peter Totterdell and Christine Sprigg of the Institute of Work Psychology in Sheffield, and Dr David Sheffield, then at Staffordshire University, on a research project called KaroshiKaroshi took its name from the Japanese word meaning ‘death from overwork’, and aimed to explore the psychological and physiological effects of time pressure.  In tandem with the research project we were commissioned to make two pieces for the exhibition Wonderful: Visions of the Near Future, by Arnolfini in Bristol: a video piece and a performance lecture.

Partly in response to timetables and scheduling, we decided to make the video piece before working with the psychologists, and using it as a way of kick-starting the process with them – a way of starting the conversation.  We set out to make a video of the Hurrysickness monologue that I wrote as a theatre text, with Rachael and I in various appropriate real world locations.  But this idea reminded us too much of that Fast Show sketch (Brilliant!), and Rachael took the text off me saying she’d “like to have a go at it.”

She came back with an entirely re-written text, now called Realtime, and said “you’re not in this anymore, and neither am I.”  We cast our regular collaborator Jerry Killick as a man in a waiting room.  He addresses the camera, talking to the audience, as if in a theatre. But the film plays with the fact that on screen you can manipulate time, slow action down, pause it, rewind it. It does things you can’t do live. That’s what this piece is, Rachael has understood, it’s a film.

We showed the film to Peter, Christine and David, and began a multistranded exploration process that threw up the possibility of many different projects.  We were quickly struck by how, despite the so-called art-science divide, we actually all talked in a very similar way about making work.  We fell in love, a little bit, with the precision with which “our” scientists talked about their work.

For example, they don't talk about being tired.  They talk about cognitive fatigue.  I think you are much more likely to get a way with taking the day off work if you phone in with cognitive fatigue one morning, rather than saying you're a bit tired.  They don't talk about keeping a diary.  They talk about time-sampling.  When they get unexpected results in an experiment they don't say something's gone wrong, they say: "the data isn't behaving."

During these conversations it struck me that devising a show has a lot in common with the way scientists approach experiments – testing an hypothesis, trying to prove it wrong.

When devising work we are continually asking ourselves, is this what the show is? Or, is this what the show is? No. Not quite. Okay, change that. Change this. So, is this what the show is? Closer. 

We talk about finding out what the task of the show is.  Defining, testing, rebuilding, trying again.  Figuring it out. Making discoveries.


Hurrysickness became a performance lecture, with barely any trace of the original monologue I wrote, inspired of course by our work with the three psychologists. A mapping of a territory; a reporting back. The show has ‘experiments’ in it – ad hoc surveys of data gathered from the audience.  It culminates in us suggesting to the audience that in order to ease their own hurry sickness, they begin to live a lunar day, instead of a solar day, to give themselves an extra hour [well, technically speaking, an extra 52 minutes] a day to fit everything in. We demonstrate how the astronomy of this works using a melon and a lemon on sticks.

But during the Karoshi research process we also planned a much bigger show, a piece that was to be at once an art project and an experiment.  But that bigger idea never arrived, and instead the Karoshi research into time fed in to many of the projects that followed:

In Standing Alone, Standing Together, we attempted to slow down the public passing through the avenue in Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery on a Saturday afternoon, with 50 identically dressed performers occupying the space.

[You can watch a short video of Standing Alone, Standing Together here.]

Lucy Ellinson in Presumption. Photo by Mark Cohen.

Presumption is a theatre piece in which the two performers have to build their own set in order to carry on with the scene they are presenting.  It is a show about love – not romantic, thrill of passion love, but domestic, what shall we have for tea love. In its final third, the show becomes obsessed with the future, how every hour of a relationship is less significant than the one before because it is a smaller proportion of it… How the first hour of a relationship is the relationship in its entirety, but an hour 7 years in is less than 0.02% of it.  The show becomes distressed with the thought that we spend, apparently, 36 days of our lives looking for stuff in the fridge, and that there will come a point, though we might not know it, when one of us is going to die soon, and leave the other one alone, and we will have little more than a month left together and I will have spent more time than that, in my life, looking for things in the fucking fridge.

This section of the show often gets a laugh at that pay off, which initially struck me as strange, because the thought terrifies me.  But maybe that’s why it’s funny.


Meanwhile, I still harboured a desire to “make a show about the Voyager space probes”.

Whilst touring the one-man show The Lad Lit Project, on my own in a white van, across what felt like the entirety of the UK, I used my Voyager text in a piece for Three Minute Wonders in Bristol with Alex Bradley, that I called simply Distance, and at a BAC lunchtime scratch in Edinburgh that I call The Distance Project.  In this version I combined the Voyager 2 text with an improvised description of how I would travel from the spot I am standing on back to the place I was born.  The juxtaposition of the spiralling journey into the solar system and into the future, and the more mundane journey by public transport seemed to work somehow. Someone told me afterwards that it made the bus ride to Bloxwich Maternity Home seem epic.

Although I was determined that The Distance Project wasn’t to be a performance lecture, I did imagine that it was the next one-man show.  But as soon as Rachael and I began work on it, preparing for a work-in-progress showing at Leeds Met Studio, she got up and started doing stuff. Performing. In the show. And it seemed perfectly natural.  Because the Voyagers carry messages from the human race. I understood one of the things that the show is: a show to be performed by a male and female human being.


From 2005 to 2007, the making of The Distance Project is deliberately part-time and extended, with several showings and try outs of material. We continually feel like we have some of the material, but not the form.

- we represent the Sun with melon, and the Earth, to scale, with a pepper corn 78 ft away.
- we read the Voyager text remotely, by walkie talkie.
- we describe more journeys by public transport.
- we change the title to 9 Billion Miles from Home.
- we create a field of beautifully lit papier-mâché spheres, but we’re are confused as to whether these are stars or planets.
- we fill the spheres with rice and rock salt, that is allowed to pour out over the stage.
- we record the binary message from the Arecibo Telescope as a spoken text: zero zero zero zero zero one zero zero…etc
- we imagine two human beings in a post-apocalyptic future, living on tinned food, and receiving images from Voyager somehow.
- we attempt to describe the world as if all we can see of it are the images on the Voyager satellites.
- we see a video of a man on YouTube, who can draw a perfect circle freehand on a black board.
- I draw this picture in my note book:

- we talk about a stage structure in which, when you are ‘in the circle’ you are inside Voyager, and inside the Voyager material, and when you are outside of the circle you are outside of Voyager, and are able to explore other material.
- we realise that Rachael will not be able to make and tour the show, and invite Gillian Lees, a performer we know is as interested in doing as she is in saying, into the process to perform the show with me.
- we begin to shed the material that Gillian does not find a connection with. Editing. Cutting.

- we replace the walkie-talkies with tin cans on string. We like the fact that we have to keep the string taught for them to work. But we don’t like that this feels like we have to keep away from each other.
- we replace the string with a pulley system, which means that to keep the line taught we have to give each other our weight, and we have to allow each other to move.
- we talk about the work of Marcus Coates, particularly his project Journey to the Lower World, in which he performs a full-on shamanic ritual in a condemned tower block in Liverpool. We talk about the fine line he treads so well, between acknowledging the absurdity of what he is doing and taking what he does absolutely seriously.
- we talk about Shamanism.
- we talk about rituals performed to heal one person, in order to heal everyone.
- we talk about the Clock of the Long Now, and Brian Eno’s original idea of the Big Here.
- we feel like we have found our focus – in amongst all of this research and development, these are the things that both Gill and I are most interested in.
- we talk about leaving, returning, reporting back.
- I meet the astrophysicist Dr Simon Goodwin, who is very generous with his time. During a three hour conversation which, it is no exaggeration to say, changes the way I perceive the solar system, he pretty much convinces me that there is no other technologically intelligent life in our galaxy, and probably not in the Universe. He tells me how, when he talks about this in public, one or two members of the audience always get very angry with him when he tells them that.
- I am struck with the idea that therefore the messages on the Voyager craft are not messages to other intelligent life, but back to the people of Earth, to the future generations of our planet. Messages to us here, now.
- we replace the spheres with circles.
- we change the rock salt to talcum powder.

- we realise that what we need is a perfect 3m diameter circle of talc on the floor. Whilst discussing the making of this circle as a task to be done as part of the set up, I say, “Getting this circle precise is going to be really fucking hard.”  Gillian says a great thing; she says, “If it's going to be really hard to do, we should be doing it in front of the audience.”
- we admit to each other that we want to perform a double shamanic ritual that might enable Gillian and I to help each other – Gillian to live in a longer now, myself to live in a bigger here – in order to help the audience. Or witnesses, as we start to think of them.

I realise that my journey is to be something like an out of body experience, to Voyager One – at the outer limit of the explored solar system – 9 billion miles away.  I have lists of statistics and measurements, of the various distances from the surface of the Earth of different types of cloud, of satellites, of the International Space Station, of airplane flight paths and their beautiful names like Blue Six and Gold Nine.

Rachael often says to me, gently, sometimes, or exasperatedly, or firmly, Rachael says: "Put the notes down. Do it without notes. If it’s in your memory then it’s significant to you."

One evening I leave my note book in the bag, and sit on the floor in the spare room, I close my eyes and I imagine my journey. I don’t try to describe it, I just try to see it. I travel, and I return.  I’m aware how this sounds. I’m not saying I had an out of body experience. But I did sit quietly and see something very clearly in my imagination. Falling away from the earth and seeing everywhere I had ever been mapped out below me in a line of light. Falling back to Earth and seeing all of the people who are close to me, scattered across Europe.

The next day I sit on the stage with Gill and I describe what I saw. "That’s it," she says.

We realise that if this is my journey, Gill’s has to be through time – through her past and into her future.  We also realise that as mine is a moment of stillness, her’s has to be hard work.  And that we have to do it for real each time.


Once we’ve made a performance project we always document it, but we’re always interested, even at this point in the process, in developing and exploring the ideas we are working with further.

We need to create full length documentation of shows for our archive, for promotion, for education.  But we also make video work inspired by the documentation of live work – and have produced, over the years, a number of video pieces that take just a moment of a live performance, or the feel of it, or a strand of it – and rework it, develop it or kick against it, in order to make something new.  At the moment of fixing a live work in a video document, we feel a strong urge to continue devising, to make something different.

As soon as Christopher Hall, a film maker who is part of Third Angel, saw 9 Billion Miles From Home, he knew he wanted to shoot it from overhead.  That was never possible in a live performance, as there is a lantern directly over the circle.

After documenting an early performance of the show, we were invited to submit an idea for The Sheffield Pavilion – an exhibition and DVD publication of video works from Sheffield, that responded to the idea of ‘Pavilion’ – a temporary structure or exhibition space.  We persuaded them that the Voyager space probes were pavilion-like in their intent and temporal existence. What constitutes temporary, our proposal asked, in the infinity of time and space?

We successfully proposed a video piece called A Perfect Circle. This small commission allowed us to set up the ritual to perform specifically for camera. We had quickly realised, writing the proposal, that we didn’t want to use any existing live performance documentation along with the overhead shot, but to shoot everything afresh.

I was also interested in revisiting one piece of Voyager material that we had lost from the process very late on, because it didn’t fit with the structure and task of the show. This was Gillian performing the describing of the world as if all she could see of it were the images from the Golden Record.

Setting up in the studio we were already faced with having to make a smaller circle, as we couldn’t get the camera high and wide enough to get it all in at 3m wide.  We had moved on from the pulley system for this version of the ritual, too – the tension of this did not translate to camera in an interesting way.

We set up ready to perform the circle-making task, and turned the cameras on – to shoot the whole process in real time. As Gillian began to make the circle, it occurred to me, standing out of shot, that given that it would be Gill’s voice describing the world, it made sense for it to be only Gillian describing the circle. This was a solo ritual. This was about something else.  I told Chris and Gillian that I wasn’t going to take part, removing myself from this final stage of a journey that had begun with my obsession with the Voyager craft.

In the edit suite Chris realised he wasn’t interested, visually, in the shots of Gillian describing the images, but he kept her voice, and mixed it with music from 9 Billion Miles from Home by David Mitchell – music made, in fact, out of the sound of stars, as recorded by radio telescopes.

On my first visit to the edit suite I asked Chris if we were in fact making a dance film. Chris said, "That’s right."



There is more information about all of the Third Angel projects mentioned here in the Archive Section of the website [click].

Writer and artist Philip Stanier visited the process of The Distance Project several times and his account of that process, The Distance Covered, which includes some outcomes not detailed here, is published in Devising in Process, edited by Alex Mermikides and Jackie Smart.

And finally, you can now follow Voyager 2 on Twitter

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