Laughing Matter (24 May – 10 June 2018) was an exhibition by collective practice They Are Here at Studio Voltaire, a gallery in South London. The project included the performance work ROUTINE (2018), comprised of a series of stand-up comedy workshops attended by those negotiating the precarity of living in London. These workshops culminated in three live performances 1 – 3 June, during which the gallery was temporarily transformed into a comedy club.
Do you believe laughing does matter?
Absolutely. Physiologically it releases endorphins and buffers stress, opens up blood vessels – so good for the heart, it even burns calories! To laugh collectively, in shared recognition of someone’s experience or one’s own idiocy, is liberating too.
I’ve been reflecting about humour. When I moved to England I discovered British humour: in the moment I was able to make people laugh in English I felt I was then part of the gang. I have always asked myself this question and now I’d like to ask you: what is it about being able to make people laugh that is so powerful?
Making someone laugh is often a generous act, to do so is to make unexpected connections between things, which is delightful and revealing. Laugher can come from many places, but those moments in which you share something of yourself also become an act of bonding. Some neuroscientists have observed electrical waves triggered by a jokes. To make someone laugh is to spark a pulse of energy across another’s brain.
I found that there was a lot of melancholia in ROUTINE, although all the performances were also very funny and made everyone in the audience laugh. Most of them were very personal and about the performers’ lives and identities. Were there questions at any point of what it meant to them to portray themselves this way, in front of an audience? Was this part of the process?
That’s interesting to hear, a number of attendees have talked of finding the stand-up routines funny, but with an underlying pathos in the overall experience – something we alo felt and were aware of throughout the process. One of the elements that distinguishes ROUTINE from a typical, first-timers open mic night, is that we asked each participant to pen their own biography, that was then printed in the programme. So the work was not solely the workshops and live performances, but the communication and self-narration of their stories at all levels. This expanded context enabled this sense of pathos, as an audience member you’re more aware of their story than listening to a typical comedian new to you. Many of the performers used autobiographical material as part of their routine. One of the reasons we focused on stand-up is that it’s a form that typically prizes first-person narratives, like rap or first-generation performance art. . . so this self-portrayal is inherent to the form and was encouraged by Logan Murray, the comedian who led the workshops in which the participants developed their stand-up routines. However, it was important that each participant did so on their own terms and revealed what they felt served their act. ‘Act’ is an important word, as they are constructing their own comic persona. For the ‘act’ to connect, it needs to be rooted in their truth, so that we, as an audience, perceive them as genuine, but it’s also a means to get you on side and ultimately laughing.
And how did you frame the audience in relation to the performances and the performers?
We didn’t ‘frame the audience’ – we’re not sure that’s possible to do anyway? We had some sense of who would attend: our friends, family and those of the performers – then a larger circle of people such as the Block Universe Festival audience, but also comedy fans and people in interested in the full breadth of what contemporary art can be. What is palpable is the fluidity of an ‘audience’. They are never the same – this was clear over the three nights ROUTINE was presented at Studio Voltaire in terms of how reactions varied to the comic material. Each performer is tasked with developing their own 5 minute pact with the audience, the energy of which rolls over into the next performance and so on. This creates a continuous cascade of an ever-changing dynamic. We were very conscious of the spatial decisions, the lighting, the arrangement of seats and speakers: which all impact the sense of intimacy in the space. We also chatted with Logan about the line-up order. . . As we got more of a sense of each performer’s content, we could make more nuanced decisions about the opening act, who to close the first half and so on.
What do you think were the challenges/risks and/or opportunities of doing the performances in the context of an exhibition and an art space?
White-walled galleries are intentionally clinical spaces, Studio Voltaire is a little different in that its recognisably a former church. The acoustics are very apparent. We could have staged the nights in a local comedy club. However, siting the performance in the gallery puts the work in dialogue with the other text and sculptural works in the exhibition. It also contributes to a longer ongoing question about how gallery spaces can be used differently and what constitutes art from both our perspective as artists and that of visitors to the space. At the top of our list was ensuring the atmosphere facilitated a good night of comedy, without trying to erase the elements that make it recognisably a gallery in the first place.
What were your expectations, if you set any, before starting this project? How did they change or develop throughout and after?
There are always many unknowns from the outset of each project, as we are determined to create permeable structures that can embrace and be modified by new twists and turns. ROUTINE began with the circulation of a flyer inviting potential participants to a trial stand-up comedy workshop. We didn’t know who would be in the room until the first workshop. Nor how they would gel with each other. Some of the works in Laughing Matter emerged directly from the comedy workshop sessions and dialogues with participants, so rather than placing too much weight on expectations, we were trying to be attentive to what emerged week-by-week and bottle that. Logan wisely and purposely discouraged anyone from fixing their material too early, so we only heard their material on the last session – two days before the first public performance. This gave a livewire quality to the public event, but the biggest anxiety was if anyone would find this funny. It was big relief to a hear a room full of laughter.
The wall piece in the show Wisdom (2018) said: ‘Be stupid 10 minutes every day’. This sentence got stuck in my mind, I keep thinking about it as a sort of spiritual mantra. Who was it addressed to?
That’s the best way to think of it. If we all acknowledged our ‘inner idiot’ we might be more self-knowing, it could revolutionise society and unpick some of the damaging preconceptions around what it means to behave like an adult! It’s drawn from an exercise Logan set the group, but we were fascinated with how it might resonate differently when decontextualised. Text works recur throughout the show – which also includes a piece originally developed in 2010, STAND HERE UNTIL YOU FIND SOMEONE TO REPLACE YOU, we have long been drawn to those Fluxus type works which hop between score, koan, joke and poetry.
Finally, what is the funniest thing you can think of right now?
Google the Ballet-Pizza vid!
*Cover image: Wisdom (2018), They Are Here & Rosalie Schweiker. Photo: They Are Here