‘Consent/Tension’ was a series of workshops conducted at Spring Sessions by dancer Shireen Talhouni. The workshops culminated in a performance in the public spaces around the King Ghazi Hotel during which participants moved as a synchronized flock through the streets of Amman.
The initiative was an extension of Shireen’s work with the Flock collective, founded two years ago in London to investigate dance and performance with specific attention to the interaction with space. Here, Shireen discusses the experience with Thoraya El-Rayyes, a writer and literary translator who participated in the workshops.
TR: A central theme in previous projects that the Flock collective has worked on is the feeling of alienation experienced by individuals in modern society, particularly in corporate settings. Do you think this theme was relevant to Flock’s project at Spring Sessions?
ST: Yes, the idea of tension and consent grew out of the work Flock did before about working in a corporate office. I am really interested in corporate environments, and how people give up their individuality for the collective. I am interested in those kinds of group dynamics, when a collective starts to operate as a flock, on its own, with its own values.
TR: I see where the consent comes in. As a participant, I felt like I had to be very committed to the flock to make it work and that requires consent, but where does the tension come from? ST: I think being part of a flock requires both consent and tension. In some exercises during the workshops, I was working only with tension. Like when I excluded some participants from exercises and labelled them with numbers. And sometimes, we were working only with consent, which was when I led the participants in corporate team building exercises. But then when I took all that stuff out and it became just about getting the performers to walk as if they were one person, all of those dynamics just came out on their own. It was so simple. Just this act of walking as one entity brought out so many dynamics, and it raised questions about what this entity could be.
“Don’t they look like birds?”
TR: I saw people in the street stopping to ask you about the performance. What were they asking? Did they say anything that surprised you?
ST: When we were rehearsing, I noticed that men in the street weren’t making rude comments about the women performing like they usually do and it was more about asking what you were doing. One man was watching the flock walking in front of the mosque and asked me what you were doing. I didn’t respond, instead I asked him “Don’t they look like birds?” I was surprised at his answer, he said, “Yes, you’re right. Animals are much more aware than humans.”
TR: The strong street culture of verbal sexual harassment has become a fact of everyday life for women in public spaces in Amman. The first time we performed the flock, it was made up of six women engaging in a public spectacle, so all the participants expected to be sexually harassed before we headed out into the street. We were surprised that we didn’t attract that kind of attention, the way we usually do just by walking down the street.
ST: I think it was because you were all so focused on staying organized and synchronized, that somehow it stripped you of your gender. We also emphasized that the performers should have completely neutral facial expressions and not make any gestures, but just walk very straight with intent and purpose and presence. I think that made you look so different from everyone around you. What did you think of the way people responded to the performance?
TR: What stuck with me most was one young woman who called her friend to come see what we were doing because it was “really beautiful.” That was amazing because there is a certain level of abstraction and sophistication to this kind of “highbrow” art and it can often seem very pretentious. I was happy it was striking a chord with people on an immediate aesthetic level, without pretentions. With some contemporary art, I have a suspicion that people only appreciate it because it they have been educated to perceive it as “highbrow” and sophisticated. That woman’s reaction was very validating because it made me feel the performance had real value outside of the rarefied sphere of the art scene.
ST: That is what I am interested in as a person, actually. It is important for me, for my work, to engage with the context in a real way but there is so much pressure not to do that. If you want to be successful, you have to engage with all the pretentious shit, the commercial shit. If you want to do something real, it’s hard. When I dance, I could do a really artistic dance. But I want to do a dance that can be watched by someone who doesn’t know anything about dance and makes him or her feel something. Even if they don’t understand it, and think I am weird, they are going to feel something.
TR: The performance involved a lot of elements; climbing stairs, crossing busy streets, circling in the public space in front of a mosque and just standing still in the street. To me, the most powerful part of the performance was when we all stood still as a group in the street and stared at a yellow sign hanging from a building. It received the most attention from people in the street, they started to gather around and ask what we were doing and what we were looking at. They even started, looking up at where we were looking which gave me this amazing feeling that the flock was exercising control over the bodies of people around it. What is do you think is behind the power of being still in a busy pedestrian setting?
ST: The idea came from my cousin, who is a psychologist and was telling me about Stanley Milgram [a social psychologist famed for the research he conducted on group dynamics in the 1960s and 1970s]. One of his experiments was doing exactly that, putting people in one space and having them all look at an object and seeing how people collect around it. I wanted to experiment with this phenomenon and see how it would play out in our setting. It seems from our experience that it is just the power of being a group and sharing one cause. There is also the power of stillness which I think comes from being a frame of reference. When you are still and everything around you is moving, you become a frame of reference. You find this idea in architecture; the power of a building comes from what, it shows about the things around it and how things move around it.