Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Space as practice at the 2011 Prague Quadrennial

by Scott Wark

15 Jul 2011

The 2011 Prague Quadrennial (or, PQ 2011) is about a lot of things. Nominally, it brings together scenographers, costume designers, installation artists, performers and theatre architects in a two-week long exhibition of their practice. It aims to organise these disciplines into a burgeoning discourse that diverges from, and intersects with, what it calls ‘fine art’. Reconfiguring visual practices, PQ’s guiding idea is that “space is never empty”.

PQ exceeds the usual parameters of the large exhibition. Though conceived of as a single ‘event’, its dispersion through galleries and across public spaces thwarts coalescence around a curatorial theme. What unified the works shown at PQ 2011 was the contention that performative or scenographic moments areevents-in-themselves. Durational and transient, such moments unfold new understandings of space by altering our embodied, sensuous relation to the spaces they inhabit.

Rather than exploiting the city as the backdrop for its spectacle, PQ 2011 used the fabric of the city, self-consciously, as an element of performance. One of the main venues was Jungmannovo Namesti, an oddly shaped conduit between two of the main tourist boulevards. A means of transit, Jungmannovo Namesti is a liminal space, lacking the monumental super-reality of the sights around it.

One of the performances staged here, Watch This Space, used the square as the stage for numerous small actions inspired by urban life. It began ambiguously. A person in a plain white mask and hoodie sat next to a mannequin dressed similarly enough to make us wonder which was real and which was fake.

Soon, a number of small performances erupted across the space. Women clacked puppet pigeons through the square; another dragged a small puppet dog on wheels behind her; a woman who seemed to be another mannequin was dumped, rag-doll, thrashing and writhing. To follow these mini-performances, spectators had to keep moving. Corralled in the square, milling, we were stagedas a copy of an urban crowd, our spectatorial gaze fragmented by the haphazard action around us.

Unperturbed by the ‘performance’ it witnessed, a pet dog began to play with the puppet dog, a perfect cartoonised version of itself. Itinerant locals walked through the space, ignoring the interlopers crowding their haunt. The spectacle of Watch... was constituted, and de-constituted, by the not-quite spectators around it. It re-presented the spectacle as the trace soon lost to the everyday. Or, in other words, as the not-quite event: modest insights cut short before they could bloom. This was also a kind of fidelity to the liminal zone in which it was staged. To watch the performance was to realise that public space is constituted by minor spectacles; met, by chance, along the way.

Perhaps unconsciously, this series of not-quite events conveyed that being-in-space unfolds through the attenuation of the event rather than its spectacular completion. This kind of practice recalls Antonin Artaud’s provocation that “[t]he problem is to make space speak, to feed and furnish it”[1]. PQ was constituted by many such not-quite events that subtly altered our relation to the spaces they inhabited. When successful, these moments challenge our usual reflex to un-see the concrete reality around us[2]. To be attuned to a space means to no longer ignore its brute materiality. To be caught up in the space, in the passing moment, bodily.

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[1] Antonin Artaud, ‘The Theatre of Cruelty (First Manifesto)’, The Theatre and its Double (New York: Grove Press, 1958) p. 98 emphasis added

[2] I cribbed the term “un-see” from China Mieville’s The City and the City (New York: Del Rey, 2010), a sci-fi novel about what we are acculturated to ignore. It also happened to take Prague as an inspiration for its conceit of two conjoined, but culturally and psychologically separated, cities.