What we are up to

EVP conversations: Steven Fowler on AUDIENCE

13/04/12 Live
by Nathan Jones

I interviewed Steven Fowler ahead of our EVP event on 31st May really interesting response >> "Fundamentally I do indeed not consider the audience at all."

We try to build up a little discourse around the shared and contrasting approaches between the artists we work with on the Mercy programme.  Previously we have published items with Anat Ben David, Mark Greenwood, Mark Leahy and Maria Minerva  Today, I chat with vangarde poet Steven Fowler about the audience and performance moment, ahead of our EVP event on 31st May, with reference to a previous interview with Ross Sutherland about his Backup to Tape project

In this interview Ross says a few things about audience which I think are really revealing and interesting about his work, and reflect in a way on yours. Just to sample a few illustrative comments:

"I've been trying to let the audience into the writing process."

"By imposing so many restrictions on my writing, I hoped I would l bypass the conscious mind and write from the subconscious instead. Then, when the audience heard the piece live, they would be nudged down a similar path of intuition."

These are insights into Ross's work for sure, and you can really feel this generous appeal to the audience in his performances.

The thing is though, however many ways you and Ross are similar - the level of interrogation and experimentalism in your work, the interaction with curating and producing, a commitment to liveness, prolific output, a significant fondness and recognition from your respective peers - I keep thinking about something you said when we spoke before your thrilling performance on 11/11/11 last year. I was asking you about violence in your performance, and specifically the aggressive, masculine voice - whether this mode, really can have a negative impact on the audience, pushing them out.  Your reply, paraphrasing, is that I shouldn't worry too much about the audience, that integrally you don't really think about what the audience think. Basically you put the emphasis back onto the strength of the work.

This got me thinking about the difference in atmosphere between avant garde and 'performance' events, and the environments you and Ross have respectively developed your work in.

You might say that with Ross, he's more 'there' in the moment, because of the level of ad-lib content and informal setting for the poetry - willing them along, cajoling them, and interacting with them up continually throughout the performance as a kind of collaborative effort [epitomised by this work]. In contrast, it seems like you are more authoritative, but almost inhuman, an automaton of performance that really sucks in attention, demands it, rather than bartering for it (so, is it never at risk?)

What complicates it is that when we 'sprung' you and Ben Morris on the audience at Liverpool Music Week the audience totally lapped it up. And really the result is one that is liberating as an audience member in a different way to the liberty to influence the flow of the work - perhaps more 'absorbing', rather than 'engaging', but I'm finding my language dry up here...

Firstly then, would you stand by the statement that you don't really think about the audience?
Then, would you expand on your experience of a relationship with the audience as you're performing - and perhaps refer specifically to this work we've been developing for EVP...

I think the first thing I'd need to reiterate is that if my position on this notion of an audience and there experience is one that begins in suspicion, and then may transverse into dislike or rejection, that that suspicion begins with myself and my own work. I don't mean this in a faux critical manner, like I don't believe in the work I am doing, just that my life has been marked by own instinct to almost always be instinctually declarative, and I really dislike this as a trait of mine, and others. I really do my best now to advocate a palpable sense that my opinion will most likely change as time goes by and that I feel the deeper I get into anything (this comes from studying philosophy since I was 19, academically and autodidactically, I think) the more I realise I know next to nothing. This is relevant because it means with performance I try to not overstate my thoughts to myself or to others, as I know I could probably do so for many hours and then get caught in my own declarations, and also because whatever I say now, well I might feel this way next month, let alone in ten years.

Fundamentally I do indeed not consider the audience at all. There are so many reasons for this its hard to cover them properly. Certainly part of it is because I believe anything one wants to do well, even to benefit others, must maintain a sure sense of personal gratification, otherwise disappointment looms. This extends from my performances all the way to my role as an event organiser. If I don't value it personally then I will end up saying people didn't appreciate it. This leads to me not really caring what people think. Another part of it is the belief that pure focus on the work itself, as if I was alone on stage, will benefit the work and what I see as valuable within it. If I consider others thoughts, I will not wholly commit to the idea which spawned the work, and as you said, often this means people do become isolated and perhaps repulsed by the experience. Its a banal thing to say, but it is true that that is an extremely valid response aesthetically, perhaps more valid than gentle agreement, though I wouldn't overstate that.

Another part of it is far more organic. I have competed in martial arts and wrestling and boxing since i was a tiny boy. Whenever I feel a performance coming on i cannot help but associate the feelings with that kind of competition. It gives me an adrenaline dump and I get angry. So the experience of the audience being there is often affords me a subconscious sense of resentment, and so I ignore them all the more. I don't want to sound ever more negative or solipsistic, but I would say I am unsure of anyone who really thinks too much about the audience and what people want. Perhaps I see that as a sign of weakness? Or commercialism? Really who cares what people think, the work is the work.

During performances I used to make eye contact with people, and try and read their responses, as if that would feed my understanding as I perform. Now I tend to block myself off from them. It is the audience who defines their own experience, I am just presenting something to them. I think the notion of interactivity is somewhat overstated. Ben and I are covering some ground for the 31st that might make the performance both physically, as well as aurally, palpable to those attending. We might perhaps be able to use kineticism to match sonic expression, and if not that, then definitely a sense of linguistic destruction in form. In the most immediate way I hope that those attending will be captivated by that, that they feel like they are trapped within the experience, but whether i think they will be or should is a thought that leads me to make the comment above, that interactivity is overstated. Each individual will experience things differently. Some will be entranced ( i hope), otherwise repulsed. Others still will be thinking of their shopping lists.

Ross's response is here