Can theatrical performances be active agents in revealing the essence of a site that lies beneath its material appearance?

Critical Practice Paper 1

The contemporary environment we live in is characterised by plenty of ghost towns, which have lost their identity after a process of abandonment due to economic and social decline.

However, before places[1] (geographical entity which gives man his identity) lost their character, people have lost it, as a consequence of their frenetic consumption of images, places and relationships.

People are unable to engage directly with their surroundings without the mediated images of television and advertising. They are a transient population living lives of anonymous isolation.

The essential emptiness of modern life is obscured behind an elaborate and spectacular array of commodities and our immersion in this world of rampant consumerism leaves us disconnected from the history and community that might give our lives meaning.

The behavioural impact of modern cities has been exposed in its most extreme edge by Guy Debord and JG Ballard who are both active in defining the human reaction to technological landscape.

Guy Debord, a Situationist, traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation in his La société du spectacle (1967).

Far from Debord and Situationist’s political and ideological ideals, JG Ballard describes the process of banalisation of everyday life as a consequence of the loss of emotional sensitivity that widely characterised an advanced industrial society.[2]

In order to re-achieve the meaning of our surroundings, the aim of this research is to comprehend if theatrical performances can be active agents in revealing the essence of a site hidden behind its appearance, memories and atmospheres. By revealing these sequences of layers a voice can be given to its inhabitants’ experiences.

Assuming that the interaction between bodies and space legitimizes their reciprocal existence, I can assert that the theoretical foundation of my research is based on Psychogeography, the science where psychology and geography collide.

Starting from the idea of the imaginative reconstruction of the city, William Blake remapped the London of the eighteenth-century as he walked its streets in accordance with his own imagination as an urban wanderer, a nostalgic traveller successor of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe:

 «I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe»[3]

The figure of the urban wanderer, promoted by Thomas De Quincey, the first Psychogeographer practitioner, became a flâneur in the nineteenth-century Paris, described by Edgar Allan Poe as a jungle in which The Man of the Crowd must adapt or perish.

The journey through the street became both directed and transformed by the dictates of the unconscious for the Surrealist. Indeed, the practice of Automatism was not simply confined to automatic writing but also extended to walking: Surrealism’s domain was the street and the stroll was a crucial practice in its attempts to replace our mundane existence with an appreciation of the marvellous.

After the Second World War, the lack of political radicalism resulted in a new avant-garde fuelled by revolutionary sentiments. In 1957 the Situationist movement, under the grip of Guy Debord, produced a series of statement that defined terms such as Psychogeography, Dérive and Détournement.

Debord defined Psychogeography in his Introduction à une critique de la géographie urbaine (1967) as «the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized, or not, on the emotions and behaviours of the individuals».[4]

The actual results of these experiments were absent but, although Situationism was a failure, the practice of walking was not at its end.

Ian Sinclair, a contemporary Psychogeographer, writes in his Lights Out for the Territory (2003):

«Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city: the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself»[5].

Sinclair talks about «lines of force» that lies beneath the city. He invokes the spirit of the Surrealist and their desire to unearth hidden aspects of the city as they drift through the streets.

Overall, contemporary Psychogeographers, instead of seeking to change their environment, are satisfied to merely experience and record it, throughout the action of «walking».

From the twentieth-century until present day, these ideas founded a practical interpretation and support, moved by different aims and intents.

In 1968, Michelangelo Pistoletto, an Italian Poor Art practitioner, formed an artistic collaborative group, The Zoo, made up of people from different artistic disciplines such as music, literature, theatre and visual arts.

Born to denounce the restrictive and isolating position of the creative mind within the traditional structure of society, The Zoo performed in all kinds of spaces: streets, squares, discotheques, beer halls, theaters and galleries, and collaborated on several occasions with Musica Elettronica Viva, a group of musicians from the United States.

Based on actions of engaging area residents and improvisation, the group’s first performance, The Trained Man, narrated the encounter between a man and the world along the streets of Vernazza, a village in North-western Italy.

Moved by the aim of reinforcing the sense of community, another groundbreaking theatrical event, The Passion by Michael Sheen, took place in 2011 along the streets of Port Talbot, England. This in-town promenade involved the inhabitants as its cast in order to allow the post-industrial town to not be overlooked or disregarded.

The Passion by Michael Sheen, Port Talbot, 2011

Working on large-scale promenades around the city and small-scale site-specific events, Geraldine Pilgrim, an English Fine Artist and Theatre Designer, responds to surroundings’ stimulus by establishing a dialogue between past and present.

Hotel was inspired by the stunning architecture of the building, the faded memories of the hotel’s glorious past and the echoes of its former guests.

Hotel by Geraldine Pilgrim, Midland Hotel in Morecambe, 2000

Singing the City from dawn to dusk animated Norwich’s medieval squares and streets, crypts and alleys, dark corners and cloisters, courtyards and rooftops with tales of past.

Singing the city from dawn to dusk by Geraldine Pilgrim, Norwich, 2012

Following a extensive research about the genius loci 6 (representing the sense people have of a place, understood as the sum of all physical as well as symbolic values in nature and the human environment) of the city of Potenza and an active contribution from its local residents, the Studio Azzurro, an Italian group of video artists, has proposed a powerful itinerant performance across the city’s alleys, squares and neighbourhoods, called Fanoi, in order to revive its tradition and rituals.

Projected on the city’s walls, a continuous looping of fire, chosen for its intrinsic significance to the community, guides the participants through the promenade. People are invited to interact with the fire in order to discover with a touch fragments of the local history told by its inhabitants’ stories.

Fanoi by Studio Azzurro, Potenza, 2009

In conclusion, as architecture is a spatial art and a silent work, it can be received, read and understood as a potential discourse between bodies and space. Moreover, as Jacques Derrida says in Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media, Architecture (1994), «the mutism of the spatial arts produces an effect of full presence».

Can the process of revealing buildings and landmarks’ memories be a significant means of aggregation for a community?


Blake, William. (1996) ’London’ Complete Writings. Oxford University Press, USA.

Brunette, Peter; Wills, David. (1994) Deconstruction and the visual arts. Arts, Media, Architecture. Cambridge Univercity Press, Cambridge.

Coverley, Merlin. (2010) Psychogeography. Pochet essentials, Herts.

Debord, Guy. (1995) The Society of the Spectacle. Zone Books.

Debord, Guy. (2006) Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography. Revised and Expanded Edition.

Norberg-Shulz, Christian. (1980) Genius Loci, Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. Rizzoli, New York.

Sinclair, Ian. (2003) Lights Out for the territory. Penguin books, London.


[1] C. Norberg-Shulz. (1980) Genius Loci, Towards a Phenomenology of ArchitectureRizzoli, New York.

[2] JG Ballard  treated this issue in his trilogy of urban breakdown: Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975).

 [3] W. Blake. (1996) ’London’ Complete Writings. Oxford University Press, USA.

[4] G. Debord. (2006). Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography. Revised and Expanded Edition.

[5] I. Sinclair. (2003) Lights Out for the territory. Penguin books, London.

[6] C. Norberg-Shulz. (1980) Genius Loci, Towards a Phenomenology of ArchitectureRizzoli, New York.