It is difficult to describe exactly what you are doing when you go to one of Ant Hampton’s theater pieces. Is it performing? Is it passively experiencing a work of art? Could you say you “saw” a play? Or would you say that you “did” the play? In any case, Hampton calls it Autoteatro, and most simply, it is a performance in which the audience members are the actors, and no one is watching.
There is no way to quite understand the experience without actually going to “GuruGuru” or “OK OK,” the two works by Hampton (in collaboration with Joji Koyama and Isambard Khroustaliov, and Gert-Jan Stam, respectively) that are playing throughout the day, every hour on the hour in the Viennoise Hotel space, as a part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF).
Hampton’s works play aggressively with the idea of audience and performer, and while those with some performance anxiety might feel intimidated to experience the plays, the process feels actually much more like surrender than exerted effort.
Still, that quality in itself can at times be disturbing. The Egypt Independent Culture section performed “GuruGuru” and “OK OK” last week, and below we share our individual experiences of the performance (with no spoilers):
I watch a lot of bad TV. The favorites list on my cable box consists almost entirely of infomercial loops, low-budget evangelical programming, and those channels on which naked Eastern European ladies in headsets stagger around in poorly lit rooms. There’s a heartbreaking and hilarious sense of despair, both in the appeals being made, as well as in the efforts to not seem desperate. There’s all that despair out there, in front of the screens, waiting to be fed on by this wave of static — a wave carrying exorcisms, magic pills, multi-purpose appliances and long-distance phone sex. And I like to end my nights drifting away on it.
That’s probably why I enjoyed “GuruGuru” so much — it was like being trapped in that alternate dimension that exists behind our television screens, or particularly, my television screen. It might not sound like a pleasant experience, but neither was “GuruGuru.” Rather, it was unsettling, confusing and frustrating to the point where I headed for the door at the first sign of it being over. It was definitely funny at times, but even the humor came from a place of insecurity, whether in our shared — as well as individual — discomfort, or in watching a faceless authority simultaneously gaining features and losing all facets of command.
The second “show” reminded me of the trailer for that Will Ferrell movie, the one where he hears the narrator. I haven’t seen the actual thing because it seems more like an interesting concept to think of than to watch. It’s a concept “OK OK” toys with at first before altogether dismantling it in a way that creates an eerie sense of manipulation for everyone involved, turning its actors into tentacles of an increasingly self-aware creature.
I could have completely missed the point, but overall, I had a blast, partially because I was with people I trust and like but perhaps don’t know as well as I should, and a complete stranger. But she seemed nice.
—Ali Abdel Mohsen
You do not really know when it starts or when it will end. You are not sure if somebody is secretly watching. All you know is that you will be receiving instructions to guide you through. So, you walk in, preferably with a group of friends, and let things roll. What is most special about the “GuruGuru” and “OK OK” performances is the simultaneous tension and sense of ease both performances create. They anticipate your thoughts in a surprising way. They anticipate everyone’s thoughts in ways that make you reflect on how similar human experience could be.
“GuruGuru” feels like a sci-fi movie, one in which each of the five performers plays a role. You have to communicate with an animated face on the TV screen while receiving instructions from the headphones. How long have you been on the headphones? “Only a few months,” I answer, while tapping my fingers. I am a magician’s assistant after all, proudly helping my master cut women in half.
I never saw myself as a performer. With the thought of it comes much anxiety. I receive instructions on how to tap my fingers better. It feels like someone is watching, critiquing my sloppy performance.
Participating in both performances back to back is intriguing. They build off one another, in an organic yet unintentional way. They were not meant to be undertaken that way, says Hampton. But it works perfectly. You still feel some anxiety after having taken part in “GuruGuru.” “OK OK” pushes those feelings to more of a comfort zone, while never letting you be fully at ease. You sit among friends reading your part from handouts. “Shall we start?” a friend asks. We already have. Every thought is anticipated, preventing you from drifting away, so carefully has the “playwright” put it together. There are no loopholes. The characters and performers become one.
Before I went in to perform “GuruGuru” and “OK OK,” I was nervous. I comforted myself with the thought that it would just be me and a few other people that I knew, alone in a room, following instructions. But talking about it beforehand, and even after, we couldn’t quite get over it. Doesn’t the playwright “do” something with these performances? Watch them? Record them? Analyze them? They are really just purely live experiences? And it made me realize how rare that actually is.
During “GuruGuru” and “OK OK,” I had the sense that I was both viewing and creating a performance at the same time. In “GuruGuru” I watched my friends, wondering if their characters seemed to fit them because Hampton somehow chose them carefully when he handed out name tags at the beginning of the performance, quickly and expertly assessing our personalities, or whether they were simply melding with the fearful, anxious humans whose minds they had been given.
In both plays, I had a constant sense that somehow what I was saying made sense, and the way other people reacted to me made sense, and if I had been allowed to say something with my own mind, I might easily have said the same thing I was being told to say anyway. I thought I would feel watched, or manipulated, but I slipped into the world of the performance easily. It felt natural — almost. But now that I think of it, maybe that in itself is a bit disturbing.
Weirdly enough, when it was over I wanted more. I wanted to keep being told exactly what to do and say when; it was like being on a kind of mental amusement park ride. The surrender of agency was a relief.
The performances will continue running at the Viennoise Hotel through Friday, 13 April. For more information or to make a reservation, call 012-1113-7374 or visit the D-CAF website.