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A Thing Unseen

An interview with Rowland Hill about her performance The Show

Rowland Hill is an artist based in London working across performance, moving image, text and sound. I spoke to her about her work, The Show, a solo performance for a small audience which was premiered at the Slade Graduate Degree Show 2018.

Rowland Hill: The Show is a long duration performance and by that I mean it doesn’t have a start or an end. It was effectively on a loop, and there’s not meant to be an inkling from the audience’s point of view of there being a starting point. There’s just a time at which the door is opened to the public and a time at which the door is closed to the public. So you come in and you’re surrounded by a circular curtain, the curtain is gold lamé and it’s quite dimly lit, so it’s not a punch of gold, it’s quite subtle. The curtain is raised off the ground and you have a glimpse of a pair of feet wearing high heeled shoes.  There’s a round seat for the audience but the only other information is auditory. There’s the sound of breathing and the sound of the high heeled shoes.

It’s a piece for a small audience; three to four maximum. I found that it was much more effective with a smaller audience. When a lot of people go in there, it becomes confused. I think what’s going on is quite subtle really, just because it’s very stripped down. There’s not a huge amount of information and when there’s loads of people in there, people are getting information from each other rather than the piece. Also, when it’s a small number of people or just one person, there’s more of a chance, I think, of self-consciousness and when I made it, I realised that was part of it. With performance work, you don’t know how it’s going to be until you do it. And especially with this piece with rigging…making a round circular curtain rail for a particular room, getting material and exactly the right heel height and all these kinds of things that had to be very specific; almost like building a piece of theatre. I couldn’t know how anything felt until everything was in place. So I had to trust that what I wanted to achieve would work in some way. It was very much theoretical until it was built. And then for me I realised that it’s about power. It’s about power play between the performer and the audience member, neither of whom could see each other.

Hamish MacPherson: What happens before the audience enter? What’s outside before the audience come in?

RH: The door was painted black. I just wanted it to be a neutral door; I didn’t want any indication of what was inside. I originally thought I was going to paint the door gold but I didn’t want any suggestion of what was to come and there was no caption or description or anything. It was just the title of The Show and then the times. So not even the medium or anything.

I performed it two hours at a time. So I was performing and the door would open at two hour intervals which is quite a lot. If I could do it again, I probably wouldn’t do it for so long. I just wanted to be ambitious. But when you’re doing a live performance without a huge budget, you can’t pay people to ensure that it’s being performed all the time. But you’re worried about people missing it, so it’s also about trying to maximize that time. So I set up a situation in which an audience barely knew that a performance was happening. You learn very quickly how audiences function; many people don’t read things. I mean there’s a conception that people read captions and don’t look at work, but actually people weren’t reading anything that I put out. I was changing it around wanting sometimes to make the information more obvious but people wouldn’t read it.

HM: How could you tell? What did that result in?

RH: It made me feel frustrated. But then I also just had to accept it and be flexible. So when I wasn’t performing, I had the room set up. I turned it into an installation or a trailer of the performance. So I had the shoes on the other side of the curtain, sort of suggestively as if there was a presence there but there wasn’t, there was just shoes. But you came into the room and everything was as it would be otherwise, it was just that there wasn’t anyone there, there was no movement. But a lot of people presumed there was someone there because they couldn’t see, they couldn’t tell whether there was someone in the shoes or not.

HM: You could just see a bit of the shoe?

RH: I mean they were small boots actually and the curtain met the top of the boots. So there was a suggestion of someone there. I wasn’t trying to trick…the piece isn’t a trick piece it was just I couldn’t think of how else to do it, but to set the room up so that was something that someone could see if they came and they missed the performance times. And then I sat outside as a kind of weird bouncer to my own work.

A constant anticipation of a reveal that never came

HM: Did they know that you were the artist?

RH: No they didn’t know. They just thought I was an invigilator or something. I’m really glad I did that because then you have an awareness of how people respond to any information you give them. You know, whether the door is opened or closed. The quality of signage on the door, the writing, all that stuff. Every single thing is a factor to play with in the story of the piece. I hadn’t really thought any of that through and that was interesting. But the most fascinating thing was the felt relationship during the piece; what I sensed from people when they came in the room and what I think they sensed from me. That was the piece. It was just me and a few people negotiating a situation in which we couldn’t see each other. There was this tension and a constant anticipation of a reveal that never came, which is what I was trying to do with the curtain and the playing with showing and hiding myself. Those ideas came from reading about film theory. I was reading about Concrete Music and Pierre Schaeffer and his work with the acousmatic which is a sound, the source of which you don’t see or the source is unknown. The term acousmatic means, in Greek, ‘a thing unseen’ and it derives from the name given to Pythagoras’s disciples who were allegedly forced to listen to his lectures from behind the curtain for five years.

HM: Why was he behind a curtain?

RH: Just because he believed that it was a better way of learning; of just purely listening to information without receiving any kind of visual distraction that was supposedly irrelevant. I became obsessed with that, but Pierre Schaeffer [1] made a comparison between new technologies in the fifties, like radios and speakers, that were creating this new form of an acousmatic experience of just listening to a pure sound and not seeing its source. It’s something that’s obviously really mundane now, but at the time it was almost shocking. He was interested in thinking about sound objects; thinking about the acousmatic being a way in which one could receive the content of the sound rather than being distracted by any visual information. I think that part of his discovery was…and this is really relevant to film…part of his discovery was the way that we perceive sound is often so visual; a lot of how we perceive sound, is manipulated by its context. What we see in accordance to it.

HM: Can you give an example?

RH: It happens a lot in film. You can see an image that is incomplete or fleeting or ambiguous and you can hear a sound and if the two are overlaid, they seem to complete each other. One seems to give information about the other but they can be completely false. They can be really manipulative and not actually say anything about either thing.

HM: I suppose foley artists…maybe that’s a mundane example but the whole foley art relies on that or works on that and relies on the wrong thing to make the sound.

RH: Yeah. Just in everyday life we think we know what we’re hearing when actually what we’re hearing is affected by its context and what we might be seeing and receiving through our other senses. Yeah, Schaeffer was interested in getting back to this pure form of listening which was just trying to strip all that away and just treat a sound as the sound in and of itself. It’s very hard to do that, but that’s what he attempted to do with music. Anyway, the whole thing about the veil and the curtain when it’s there, for me, it invites curiosity about what’s behind it and I was reading about film theory that Michel Chion writes about in his book The Voice in Cinema and he talks about the acousmatic in relation to cinema. Reading into that was how the piece formed and I don’t really often do this; I don’t really often go deep into theory when I’m making things and I don’t want to be someone that illustrates theory through making work. I was quite worried that the piece could go down that road, but actually it didn’t.

That was the starting point, but it very much became about what was happening in the room between people. But Michel Chion’s ideas about the acousmatic being that often in certain genres like horror or in film noir you might hear a voice, hear the sound of breathing, hear footsteps but you don’t necessarily see who’s the source of those things. So there’s an acousmatic presence. There’s a sense that there’s someone there and they’re in the frame and also outside of the frame and the acousmatic voice, Chion says has this feeling of invulnerability; they are all-seeing, sometimes strangely seductive, just they have this strange power in the film and the power of that acousmatic voice or sound evaporates when it’s source is revealed. Often its source is revealed incrementally through a gradual revelation of different body parts.

This is just a motif in cinema and he compares it to a striptease. That gradual reveal of a body ultimately finishing in the synchronisation of a mouth and a voice, or a gesturing body and a voice or a sound, so you can see the two functioning together and then its power just disappears. I read the thing about the striptease and I just thought, well that’s the piece. I thought, “How can I do that? How can I make that into a piece?” My original solution was to try and make it almost a radio play. I was thinking of it like a lecture or a performance that a voice could deliver and it will be speaking about itself and gradually the voice would become more of a voice and less of a meaning giver and it would become more voicey. It would just dissolve into itself. It was this impossible task I gave myself. It’s impossible to be semiotically neutral.

HM: Do you mean that you’re no longer using words? Just making sound, something more than that?

RH: I just wanted to see whether I could do a striptease with just the voice. I became fixated on a voice speaking and spent a lot of time writing a script and did a whole lot of work that I put aside in the end. I was thinking about where the source of the voice is in the body. That also felt relevant to the theory that Chion was putting forward about the voice being inside and outside of the film. But I tied myself in knots and it didn’t seem to be working. Then I thought the problem is with the words, because words are so specific and as soon as you bring words into the equation, an audience will latch onto them for any semblance of meaning. The audience will try and decode what’s going on through the specific words that I’ve chosen and actually the words weren’t important. Then I realised I couldn’t use words if I wanted to do what I wanted to do. So once I took the words away, then I realised “What do I have?” I wanted there to be a suggestion of human presence and the bare bones of that is the heartbeat or breathing. I thought, “Okay, I’m breathing and I want there to be a situation where there’s a play with the reveal; playing with showing, partial showing, and not showing. I want to do that live, I want to create a felt relationship in the room with people. So it has to be bodies in a room,” and I was thinking about situations in which bodies are partially hidden, or hidden, like in waiting rooms or a strip club or the theatre; these kinds of places where there’s a stage or a curtain or there’s a performer perhaps. Also there’s also a sense of waiting, a sense of vulnerability. Even hospital curtains; I was just thinking about all these different things and thinking maybe I can imply them with a curtain but not commit fully to any one thing. And then I just had a sense of what it should be and then built it. I normally score something very particularly. If I’m making performance I come up with a very concrete score and then I work with performers to make it and we just follow it. There’s maybe some improvisation but we following the score. But this was…I had an image of how it would be and that was it.

HM: What was different about this time that you felt it, rather than stuck to a script?

RH: I didn’t have a script. I didn’t have a score…I had rules though. I realised that I needed to have rules and once I recorded an audio track of myself breathing because I couldn’t…I wanted to do the breathing live but I realised that there’d be problems with feedback and stuff. So I pre-recorded it and then I played the audio track in the room, so when people came in they heard breathing and they heard footsteps.

HM: Were the footsteps live?

RH: The footsteps were me walking. The number one direction for me was feeling when everyone came so it was pretty much improvised. Sometimes people came in and I could sense that they were very confident in their movement. I couldn’t see them, I could see less than the audience could. It was very dark in the room and the light was on my side of the curtain, so my shoes were lit but I couldn’t see anything apart from maybe some shadows. So all I was getting was just a feeling of there being someone in the room and moving around at a certain speed, making certain noises, sitting down, not sitting down. Sometimes people came in and they were very confident and very quick with their movements, and sometimes they would just touch the curtain or even lift the curtain up. I had all kinds of crazy things with it.

HM: They would try to see you?

RH: It was generally big crowds who weren’t attuned. People coming in in big crowds and just not being very sensitive to the environment or just actually not really realising it was a performance because they were making lots of noise.

HM: They just thought it was an installation or a space?

RH: Yeah maybe, or that you could go through the curtain and there was something on the other side because you couldn’t see where the parameters of the room were so maybe people thought it was bigger than it actually was. Ideally I’d have a bouncer on the door saying to people “It’s only three at a time.”

HM: Is this what you were saying earlier on about being surprised at how people would not get any information that was provided before? That they weren’t reading it?

RH: Yeah. I mean it did actually say, ‘performance.’ People wouldn’t read that it was a performance and so they would be surprised when it was. Or they didn’t realise it was for a small audience or that it was at certain times. But that’s just what you should expect if you’re going to do live performance to be honest. Expect the worst! But anyway, the rule that I gave myself was to respond to the feeling that I got from the person who was coming in. My objective was to retain control of the situation. Because to me it was about power. I wasn’t stamping my feet around being really dominant or anything like that. It was much more subtle. I was walking around the perimeter of the room and by then I knew this really long audio breathing track really well; I knew exactly when all the rests were going to come, I knew all the intakes of breath and so I could effectively choreograph my movement to the breath to imply that it was all live. I would pause at certain moments when there were intakes or I would walk in certain ways. But I realised that I was almost coming across like a sort of predator. There was something predatory going on. There was also something…It’s definitely something sexual. It’s a sexually charged situation when you have this gold lamé curtain and these very fetishistic high heels and a strip club vibe and a solo show vibe. But there was also this implication that the audience were on stage. If you go to a strip club, the performer’s in the middle…

This unseen voice can see everything

HM: Like in a peep show? That kind of thing?

RH: Yeah. If you were in a booth the performers are in the middle and the audience are on the outside looking in whereas in this performance it was turned on its head; I was on the outside and they were in the middle and I was walking around them. A lot of people ask me, “Can you see me?” There was an immediate sense that I can see them. That’s interesting because this phenomenon of the acousmatic in cinema is a feeling that this unseen voice can see everything. They are overlooking all the action and that they can somehow control it. I wanted to provoke a sense of that and somehow that was happening. The majority of the audience would come in and were fairly submissive immediately. When it comes to live performance people are scared of being put in situations where they have to do things. But also the audience are behind the curtain and they can do what they want; in reality they were free to do anything they wanted to and actually, I was more vulnerable than they were. That was the actual situation. Literally what was going on. As a performer I felt very often quite vulnerable because I could see less than they could and I was in there for hours at a time. I didn’t have access to the door and they did and yet I’d created the situation in which they felt less than control.

HM: What was the range of things that you had at your disposal?

RH: The limitations were the parameters of the room and what I can physically do in that space, but I also didn’t want to feel like I was performing either. Even though I obviously was, I didn’t want to feel like I was doing any tricks or doing anything dramatic; that it was just an action of walking that had tiny bits of drama where I might turn on my heel. If I’d been standing still for 30 seconds and then suddenly moved, that was an action. I found that quite interesting that some people would stay there for ages because they’d just be fascinated by these disembodied feet walking around. By the end of it I felt like

Samuel Beckett’s play Footfalls? which is a play about a character that paces the stage and clutches itself. It’s sort of a ghostly vision of a middle aged woman and in the script that he writes very specific directions for how many footsteps. I felt like that, almost as if I was haunting the space.

HM: Can you say more about sensing the others in the room and how maybe there was a balance between responding to their ‘energy’, or their vibe; and controlling it?

RH: I had people try to communicate with me; people talked to me and I had some people try to communicate to me via footsteps, so they were clomping their feet like this [Rowland clomps her feet]; trying to imitate me. Or I had people stick their feet underneath the curtain. As soon as those things started happening, I thought, “I can’t respond to them in any way,” because as soon as I do that they think I can be manipulated.

HM: Changing the rules of the performance.

RH: Yeah, and then they will be more in control than I want them to be. So I never responded to them even though sometimes I wanted to because I was getting annoyed. Or I was curious; so many times I wanted to talk to people but I couldn’t.

There were also long periods of time when I genuinely didn’t know whether there was anyone in the room with me and that was quite frustrating. I was itching for people to be in the room all the time. I felt that I didn’t have the energy and the impetus to perform when I was on my own; there was no point in doing it. Theatre doesn’t exist without an audience. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make myself do it when there was no one in there.

HM: You just stood there?

RH: Sometimes I just stood or I just sat down in a corner. Sometimes I just walked because I didn’t want to just have to leap to my feet when someone came in. But sometimes people were so quiet and so still and were almost not there. I’d lost track of time and I didn’t know if they’d come in and out of the room; it was really difficult to tell sometimes and I just didn’t know if anyone was there and that was interesting and strange because I’d think I could sense someone but I couldn’t. I didn’t know if I was performing for someone or not but because I could be; I felt I had the energy and the drive and the interest to do it because I felt someone was there. Sometimes in those really quiet moments I could really sense someone concentrating and I think that’s really what I needed; as soon as I felt there was someone listening and perceiving intensely then I felt animated to perform…to do specific actions that responded to what I could sense. I was the most generous with the people that I felt were the most generous with me.

HM: Generous through their attention?

RH: Yeah, and I might be wrong about it; they might have fallen asleep or something, I’ve no idea. But I could feel myself energised by people.

HM: Maybe I’m thinking metaphorically of the curtain too much, but there’s this very clear divide…there’s so much that you’re not experiencing of each other and that feels integral to the piece. You’re dealing with this glimpse; a literal and metaphorical glimpse of each other…I’m wondering if that’s a problem or not because you said you’d love to see what they looked like or what they were doing…

RH: I think though that’s where the tension is, where the piece is. Because I spent 40 hours performing and experienced the piece with so many different people I would be intrigued to see the variety of people. But I wouldn’t wish for the piece to operate in a different way. The only thing that stays with me as a point of contention, that I’m not sure about is that it’s very much one…Well it’s not one note. It’s definitely more than that. But on paper it’s one note but I think when you’re in there there’s actually a lot going on. But sometimes when I was in there doing the actions and someone was in there for 10 minutes I would think, “I’ve done it! I’ve done it all! I’ve done the turning around and walked to the wall, I’ve paced round several times, I’ve walked around you, I’ve done all my moves!” Obviously they’re having a completely different experience from me; I’m just the performer biting my nails a little bit thinking, “Oh no, I’m losing my custom,” or something. It becomes a weird thing…This is a show! I mean The Show is meant to be an ironic title because it doesn’t show anything but I’m then actually doing a show for someone that is not showy enough.

What I mean by ‘one note’ is that if you were to draw it, there would not be a huge amount of shape; just a fairly straight line, it just continues. It’s very repetitive. There’s no big reveal. There’s no climax it just literally goes around in a circle. All those things were very deliberate but I felt a drive in myself away from that and I wonder whether that’s just the way that we’re conditioned to think about narrative in theatre and shows and what our expectations are for performance and what it should entail. It was bizarre that I, the person who made this thing, was then thinking, “Where’s the thing?!” As the performer feeling that I’m letting someone down by not doing this thing. That was really interesting and I don’t really have a solution to that and there isn’t a solution to it unless I was going to make it different and introduce something else.

HM: But it does sound like that’s to do with the expectation of what performance should be like.

RH: I think the piece very much became about that to me; the mechanics of theatre, the mechanics of live performance as much as it was about film and translating elements of film into a live realm. It became about those things that we expect from a narrative. I wonder whether in work I make the future, I will find another way of looking at narrative that doesn’t reject it completely. I mean nothing is completely non-narrative, I think there’s a narrative in there.

HM: I can imagine from the way you described it and some of the images I’ve seen, it feels there’s loads to read into the content of this work. I keep saying it seems very simple, but really it feels very heightened; all these elements in it. It feels it’s super dramatic. It has all these potentials for a narrative in it.

RH: It is very dramatic, it’s also boring. It’s very repetitive…To me it’s like a fragment from cinema that’s never ending.

HM: Do you think people knew it was you, the artist, who was performing?

RH: I think that work is at its best when the audience doesn’t have a chance to see me before the work so ideally it probably wouldn’t be me. Ideally, it would just be someone that no one knew, just a body in a room. The fact that it’s me is irrelevant. It doesn’t need to be me. It doesn’t need to be a specific person. It just needs to be a person.

HM: Does the person need to be read as a white woman. Is that important?

RH: There’s no signifier that signals anything to do with race or skin colour other than some reference to Film Noir and the femme fatale and that being a certain genre in the history of cinema associated with white women. But also there’s loads of other stuff in there, like horror cinema and B movies so it’s not as clear cut and I don’t really want to be specific, but there’s no doubt that there’s signals of it being a female presence. There’s the room being reminiscent of a strip club and having these heels walking around you in that kind of environment. I thought if I’m going to use my breath then people are going to read it as sexual; you can’t get away from it. It doesn’t matter if I do it as neutral as possible, people are going to think it’s an attempt to be sexy or evocative and that’s just something that comes with female breath. Heels are interesting, there’s an implicit power in them and then there’s also disabling of power. So I was thinking about that and then I thought “If I’m going to have heels I’m going to have to use them as a deliberate signifier of a feminised space.” Does that make sense?

Very spiky
and a little
bit scary

HM: Yeah. You said earlier that a lot of thought went into choosing the heels. Can you say something about that?

RH: I eventually chose boots because I didn’t want to reveal my skin. I thought, “That’s too much”. I didn’t want to give the audience that. They could see my skin a little bit behind the curtain so they could see I was white. I didn’t want to avoid it; it was just that I didn’t want to show loads of my skin. Because then there’s the implication of an individual and a personality potentially. Even in tiny things like whether there’s rough skin on my ankles, or my toes are a certain…I thought people would really become obsessed with my toes so I had to just enclose the foot so that’s not even a thing. The boots themselves are quite exaggerated. They have really thin spike heels that are gold. Ridiculous…really narrow. The actual shoe itself is almost like a sock. So ridiculous. Like socks on plinths. Just ridiculous shoes. They’re dominiatrix-y, there’s an element of that, but not really full-on like that. They’re not leather or anything. But they’re very spiky and a little bit scary, but they’re not any one thing and they’re very particular. When I saw them, they didn’t remind me of anything. I didn’t think, “Oh, that kind of person wears those.” They’re sort of a little bit seventies, but not, and also very contemporary, but not. They’re like something out of Suspiria, the film. [2] They reference a lot of things and that’s what I wanted them to be. I didn’t want them to look like something you could buy on the high street, I didn’t want them to be familiar.

HM: The seat you mentioned…from the image it looks like soundproof material.

RH: It’s a solid piece of high density foam cut into a cylinder. Dark grey and then it’s got a panel of noise cancelling foam on top that’s the same colour as the cylinder. It’s all one piece. It’s a sign for the audience to be quiet. That’s what I was thinking of originally and also the middle of the interior space being a sound-absorbing space, a quiet space. It’s a silent instruction and it’s another extension of my control. It just a small gesture.

HM: Thank you Rowland. I think it’s so interesting to talk about the details of a work and within that it reveals the values and your thinking behind that.

RH: It was interesting to come across STILL LIFE as a platform that looks at the premise of situations where someone is still and someone is moving which is so great as a thing because that’s so open ended and that can apply to so many different things and it suddenly made me think of the piece in a different way.  

HM: Sometimes it feels it so narrow but yeah it is very open as well.

RH: No, I think it really is.

[1]  Pierre Schaeffer was a 20th century French composer, writer, broadcaster, engineer, musicologist and acoustician most widely recognised for his accomplishments in electronic and experimental music. He coined the term Concrete Music in 1948 to refer to music that started with concrete sounds (in the form of field recordings) that are then edited into a composition. This is in contrast to classical music which begins as abstracted musical notation which is then used to make concrete sounds.

[2]  Referring to the original 1977 film - this interview was conducted before the 2018 remake was released.

Images from the Slade Graduate Degree Show 2018. Credit: Zinna Mac-Eochaidh.