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selling experience & interaction

matthew hearn, wunderbar, newcastle, uk

Search Party Vs Newcastle Search Party Vs Newcastle
photo © Film Bee and the artists

From the candid to the visceral, a table tennis marathon in a shopping centre, the slumber party disco dance-floor of Goh Ideta’s installation piece, Reflections, to Mammalian Diving Reflex’s internationally travelled project Haircuts by Children, Wunderbar captured the imagination. It sought out audiences, enticed people to try things, to go with it, to get involved. By engaging people in not quite the everyday, but with familiar moments of universal appeal, Wunderbar in turn created surprises. In doing so it has left tales to tell; of course it has been blogged, tweeted and facebooked and posted within the confines of friend groups and forums. But whereas the online lifespan of these lie in the moment, what Search Party prophesied and Wunderbar has achieved is an ongoing dialogue about experiences gleaned and events witnessed.

Of the projects I have enlisted to discuss, what was fundamental was their participatory ethos; the way in which they made people part of the work; the sense in which the work made the audience feel they were able to get involved, to take ownership. Whether playing a game of table tennis, stepping across the threshold of someone’s home, standing up and being counted in The People Speak’s Who Wants to Be...? or buying into the cult of Reactor’s Big Lizard people unknowingly became audiences, some became performers and in some instances, participants became artists.

Manipulating the role of the artist in the creation of an event, for Tours of People’s Homes, Joshua Sofaer took on the role of director, collaborating with 12 members of the public to devise 11 unique events in the private domicile of their own homes. Billed as an opportunity to impart a story, to show off one’s home, possessions or hospitality, audiences were offered the opportunity to enter a stranger’s home and share in a host of experiences from reliving the pop (fizzy and musical) indulgences of youth to hearing an intimate life-changing story, to helping throw a food fight.

Others took a more critical response to the brief. Nathalie Levi mused that “you really can’t just let complete strangers into this house in this day and age.” She punctuated the tour of her home with various security checks—demanding proof of identification, giving a thorough frisking and an intimate interrogation before just as quickly hustling you out the back door.

Kate Stobbart’s Invitation to Tea was at face value an opportunity to become acquainted with a group of strangers over a meal. Reflecting the social niceties and insincerity that often underlie invitations into one’s home, dinner was served on crockery decorated with truisms, observations and outright insults. Though these comments were not necessarily individually directed, their acerbic overtones made the culinary accompaniments, at points, indigestible. The guest to my left, who sat near silent throughout the meal dined from a series of plates telling him, “You just love the sound of your own voice” and “I wish you would just shut your face.”

Bath Time made for a suggestive proposition and an unusual offer; “have a bath with brother and sister Peter and Katy Merrington.” Ostensibly it was just that, a bath run for you to your particular specifications. A bath into which you were invited to relax and relinquish yourself to be doted upon by brother and sister as they perched aside the bath washing your hair and scrubbing your back. In terms of protecting one’s modesty, far from my imagined scenario of embarrassment, I was wholly unprepared for just how sympathetic, generous and just how normal my bubble-bath turned out to be; fortune favoured the brave. Reflecting that whilst at certain points in one’s life such assistance in bathing may be necessary, in this instance the unnecessary decadence of the action highlighted the siblings’ selfless kindness.
The People Speak, Who Wants to Be...? The People Speak, Who Wants to Be...?
photo © Film Bee and the artists
Courage of convictions was something put to the test in The People Speak’s quasi-television game show, Who Wants to Be …? In this bastardised format, the audience became contestants in an autonomous quest not to win, but to spend the money. Having each literally bought into the process though the entrance fee, the following three hours were then spent debating ways and means of putting the accumulated cash, a not insignificant sum of £1,070, to ‘good’ use. Literally any proposal was an option, as long as it was voted on: green for ‘yes’, red for ‘no way’ and orange for ‘I just don’t give a damn.’ Amidst the bickering, quibbling and voting, two definite camps of reason made themselves evident: those in favour of the more worthy outcomes and those drawn to the ridiculous and more daring suggestions. As majority ruled, the most worthy of the shortlist came up trumps and collectively we agreed to purchase an electricity generator for Zambia. Though at the end we left with a self-satisfied warmth resulting from the good deed, I also think many left with an air of disappointment that something more audacious hadn’t in fact snuck in the back door; the mildly unsatisfying feeling of democracy.
Big Lizard’s Big Idea, 2009, Reactor Big Lizard’s Big Idea, 2009, Reactor
© Film Bee and the artists
Within the tenet of Wunderbar to let yourself be absorbed by an idea, by an experience, Big Lizard and the ‘big idea’ embraced this concept in its most ambiguous sense. Taking to the streets of Newcastle aboard the Big Idea Fun Bus, Reactor took the conceit of Big Lizard on the campaign trail to canvas support, armed with stickers, balloons and special appearances by the big cuddly personality of Big Lizard him/herself. As a character Big Lizard is created in the likeness of the promotional gimmickry upon which commercial enterprises—from gas companies to breakfast cereals—and societal campaigns, like those about the health dangers of smoking, try to create an identifiable and memorable image for their brand or social enterprise. Big Lizard’s purpose is much less clear. The Big Idea is sold to you with equal, if not greater vehemence and conviction, but what you are being asked to buy into, advocate or support is not stipulated beyond the figurehead of Big Lizard. Framed around ice cream, champagne parties and a campaign vocabulary of positivity you are asked to engage in the beneficial and most likeable aspects of Big Lizard and how his or her existence might better one’s life: what’s so great about Big Lizard?; do a drawing of yourself with Big Lizard. Like the promotional campaign methodologies hijacked by the project, Reactor are coaxing you to knowingly or subversively buy into the idea by reiterating and validating Big Lizard and his somewhat sinister Big Idea. “Big Lizard’s fun, give him a hug!”

Like Big Lizard, Wunderbar has employed subversive tactics in the way it has promoted and publicised the idea of a festival. Selling experience and interaction, it has been able to dispense with promoting the festival with the branding of either live or performance art. Certainly there was a presence of such well-rehearsed performance artists as Alastair Maclennan in the festival, but even their synonymy with live art was refocused as performance as event. Instead of art for art’s sake maybe Wunderbar could be described as being a series of events: events for event’s sake.

Wunderbar Festival: Search Party vs Newcastle; The People Speak, Who Wants to Be...?; Joshua Sofaer, Tours of People’s Homes: Nathalie Levi, Massive Giveaway; Peter and Katy Merrington, Bath Time, Kate Stobbart, You’re so not worth it; Reactor, Big Lizard’s Big Idea; Newcastle upon Tyne, Nov 6-15, 2009,

RealTime issue #95 Feb-March 2010 pg. 18

© Matthew Hearn; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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