Billed as a ‘telephone performance’, artist Grace Schwindt‘s Free Individual/Free Society was an experiment in acousmatic sound. Commissioned by Leeds-based arts organisation, Pavilion, extracts from Scwindt’s latest film project – currently in post-production – were recreated live in an empty theatre, and relayed, by phone-line, to an audience, listening on headsets, at the Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds.
The idea is not a new one. As Schwindt herself points out, Victorian audiences were accustomed to ‘listening in’, in much the same fashion, to theatre and opera performances around the country – a lo-fidelity forerunner of the National Theatre Live project. It takes a bit of getting used to. It is, by turns, mesmerising, baffling, thought-provoking, and infuriating. Imagine a group of Fluxus artists has moved in next door and the audience is listening, through the wall, to their performance.
Accompanied by dancer, Monique Smith-McDowall and writer, Bridget Crone, Schwindt’s live remix of her film addressed various notions of freedom, individualism, identity and performance. Borrowing freely from the ideas of the radical left – reflecting Schwindt’s own childhood upbringing – the piece was densely written. The paradox that every freedom betrays its own non-freedom was intoned with (deliberate?) banal gravitas. Heard today, this angry rhetoric of a bygone political climate comes across as anachronistic; one suspects it probably sounded that way back then too. It can be a fine line between profound understanding and stating the bleedin’ obvious.
Elsewhere, Schwindt utilises part of a taped interview with an activist turned taxi driver. His reflections offer a respite of humour. Through his job, he says, he has the freedom to meet lots of new people, ‘most of them idiots.’ There is a fundamental half-truth at the heart of this observation: that the freedom to change anything is the freedom to change oneself only. Indeed, in our society’s devolvement to social media, these expressions of cultural freedom appear sepia-toned. Judging by some members of the audience who were texting or tweeting during the performance itself, expressions of freedom were at the forefront – and furthest – from their minds; Schwindt seems to be suggesting that this is a dichotomy at the heart of any meaningful debate about freedom.
The piece ended with a reading of Howard Barker’s call-to-arms from the Guardian, ’49 Asides For A Tragic Theatre.’ A series of aphorisms, it expresses Barker’s frustrations with producers and mainstream audiences alike. It is terrifically prescient: ‘The accountant is the new censor,’ he says at one point. ‘There is no truth on the cheap,’ at another. His comments on the fragmentary, isolating nature of tragedy for an audience, perhaps, chime with Schwindt’s own feelings on the matter? Certainly his belief that ‘tragedy is elitist’ is not a pejorative one. It is a recognition of the isolating nature of freedom. ‘People will endure anything for a grain of truth,’ he states. ‘But not all people.’
The point is apposite – and relevant to Schwindt’s art. There, cocooned in the pre-natal comfort of the auditorium, among the burr of phones set to vibrate, the intense stillness of an audience insulated by silence, people were free to listen or not to listen; to focus their attention or let it loose to wander; to be or not to be. And, for once, that was the answer.
Pavilion presents: Free Individual / Free Society by Grace Schwindt | Hyde Park PH, Leeds