Expanded Performance Category
The turning of the research screw.
by Manu Maunganidze
“They danced solemnly. Unreachable, they moved with exquisite self-control. “Like a ritual”, Ellinor said.” – from White Lady by Tove Jansson.
It is a scary word: Research. There is the feeling you must be serious. Almost that you should wear the right things and speak a certain way. A scout in the Kalahari goes out into the bush to search for trails and discern where the herd of prey may be headed. He returns to his people and gives them the downlow. Has he done “research”? I think so. What is the marker of success of his research? Clearly, that his people are fed, that the prey is where he thought it was, etcetera. On another day his daughter might go off to research the potential of a waterhole. A long time ago his ancestors may have tried out new berries. Some may have become sick in the process. A bit like medical trials now.
I have taken to my research for the Expanded Performance brief with an equal measure of carelessness and complete seriousness. The Kalahari peoples of the bush can’t get it wrong too often. They would starve. The professor at her desk can get it wrong forever, and receive untold reward and encouragement. It is the nature of scientific inquiry. Most of it is a failure by some standard.
What am I researching?
Rituals, multi-culturalism, performance, and where nature and modern technology fit into all this. But mainly rituals and performance. I have been fascinated by rituals since I was a boy. I grew up a Roman Catholic to parents who still held on to many of the rites and beliefs of the ancestors worship of our pre-colonial past. Baptisms, requests to the dead, birthdays, ways of greeting, ways of remembering. All were marked in particular ways, with specific words and gestures, making use of certain symbols. Imagine for a second, the priest turned up to church in a set of speedo swimming trunks. How much of a priest is he then? It would be a scandal. The ritual of mass would turn into a farce. Some would find it funny. Others would be shocked. Letters would be sent to the Vatican asking for his… well, disrobement. Through this minor change of one external symbol of the Catholic mass we begin to understand what a ritual might be.
What is a ritual then?
I have read the main names associated with the academic research of rituals, Levi-Strauss, Mauss, Rappaport, Habermas etc. and the answer still evades me. They wrote fascinating thing made for people who had the time to make a fetish of other peoples’ practices. Privileged old European men who lived at a time where ink on paper was a thing of respect and value. Which is not to discount them; they have twisted and morphed my own thoughts in many wonderful ways. But ultimately all philosophies and philosophers are of their time. There are few fundamental truths, not least when then voice and burdened thoughts of flawed humans are involved. So, through my research, I have enjoyed learning of such beautiful words as liminality, transience, sense-making, deathscapes, but I have felt somewhat short-changed. I have asked friends and strangers what they think a ritual is, what rituals do they perform. A man on St Mark’s Road told me he always lights a cigarette before calling his daughter. We were standing outside the mosque with the church across the street, places of more communally accepted forms of ritual. I met a woman by the river who told me she was a witch, and I said we should talk more about her rituals, to which she replied she didn’t see her practice so much as a ritual but as a… she drifted off. I took part in a Chinese tea ceremony hosted by somebody from Latvia and have enjoyed playing Balinese Gamelan led by a person from Devon. And so maybe a definition will never be sufficient. Or perhaps too much. And so I decided to look for things around me that “felt” like rituals.
What are the parts of a ritual?
We are living through a pandemic (never mind the environmental crisis, widening inequality gap, mental health crises that we were already contending with). To some, “living through” is perhaps inaccurate and euphemistic. After all, people have died and real lives have been forever altered. In any case, things are very different to how they used to be. There are fears grabbing us from our television screens, and our society is having to learn fast how to fit in to its new unwanted shoes. It is not such a perfect time to research something that is so traditionally dependent on place, people, community, performance and tangible symbols. Or maybe it is. In the absence of the usual things that say “Look, here is a ritual.” we have somehow become more aware of what constitutes a ritual. The possibilities of the internet have come to the fore but there is a hankering feeling that for many of us, will it ever be possible to replace the smell of strangers, the electricity of a real dance witnessed or enacted, the accidental possibilities of real space and hard actual objects?
Objects and voices
A birthday cake. It does not taste the same through a zoom call. My niece’s birthday was not how it could have been. We did not hug. And yet there was a cake somewhere in the Black Country whose blurred, pixelated image reminded me of her rite of aging. We sang. The technology cast us out of sync and out of tune to humorous and frustrating effect. Deyan Sudjic’s book, The Language of Things, has perforated and flooded my mind recently. I picked it up hoping to escape the literature on rituals and mythology that has dominated my reading these past 4 months. But the escape was in vain. Sudjic says that objects speak to us, they tell us of status, of function, of place, time, etc. He insists that, in fact, good design is a form of communication. Picture the Blackberry phone: seriousness, delusions of grandeur, practicality, detachment, connectedness, wealth. And so I started to see anew the importance of objects in the formation of rituals.
A prominent feature of the early days of “lockdown” were the child-drawn rainbows in windows, showing support for the NHS. There is a ritual here. The pots and pans being banged on a Thursday night. What a strange time that was. We all wear masks now and sanitise our hands to buy Spanish oranges. Fear of judgement overlaid with a confused sense of responsibility through a ritual we can’t quite chime with.
And then there were the placards and posters of the Black Lives Matter protests. Bristol, outside of America, became the epicentre of the symbol of this movement. A statue was toppled, so the story goes. There were chants, new priests and priestesses of the uncoming revolution stood on plinth and box and got us all to say the words and feel the feels. I was there with my Japanese camera and a dishevelled mask. So were thousands of others. I said the words, I felt the feels. A scene much like in a chapel at Easter or a temple at Diwali. A sense of something not quite mundane. It would be strange to do it alone; you could try it, walk the mile on your own from College Green to Castle Park, shouting, dragging down ancient bronze men, holding up demands for your rights on the back of last week’s veg box; it is apparent that a likeminded community is needed to save us from the proverbial madhouse. A thought comes to mind of Mary Richardson, the suffragette, taking a meat cleaver to Velazquez’s painting of Venus. Even at that time of true turning the newspapers at the called her “slasher Mary” as if she were mentally unhinged and dangerous.
1“[The French wine bottle]… is an instantly familiar form, one around which so many rituals, both public and private, have evolved.” – Deyan Sudjic
In May I interviewed the owners of the Sweet Mart in Easton. A charming and chatty couple in the prime of their middle ages. It was the end of Ramadan, and ordinarily they would be giving out free meals of curry and rice laid out on a large red carpet outside their famous shop. The whole community would come and share, heedless of belief, race, gender etc. The mosque would be open to all. The pair of them were smiling but sad. What would Eid be like without their families and the grand events of the festival? What meaning would be lost in the absence of others?
Some rituals may seem personal, private, secret. A friend I ask about ritual tells me of her full moon activities involving oils and incense and “connection with her womanhood”. I listen intently. She tells me she has never thought of it as a ritual. It is her time to connect with herself. And yet, I cannot cast off the fact that even this most intimate event is also communal. The image and symbol of the moon has a significance which we are culturally taught. The idea of womanhood, or manhood for that matter. In some way rituals invent, reinforce, assert our collective and individual identities.
The football season returns and the stands are empty. Thank god for television and modern technology. But somehow the whole thing is empty, literally, metaphorically. Some say sport is the new religion. I say it wouldn’t be a religion if there was nothing to be sold from it. The shops reopen. The return of a new old normal. I go into town to watch the spectacle, to pretend at anthropology. Primark is overrun. There is a subdued fanaticism which reminds me of the funeral for Michael Jackson. There is some sense of unspoken collective purpose. In many ways the awareness of community, which is a feature of many rituals, is lost in the hands of consumerism.
I live near Greenbank cemetery. I walk or run there on most days. It has been a kind of sanctuary from work and the monotony of my 4 walls during lockdown. On the face of it, it is a place to deposit the bodies of our loved and dead. It is a place to commiserate and celebrate their lives. I have witnessed funerals there, from a distance. Their purpose is clear, if different from culture to culture, family to family. Here is our relative or friend who no longer lives; we are going to return them to the soil and share in our collective knowledge of their passing; may their souls rest in peace. The grave markers are different based on time, culture, money and location. This way of treating the dead goes back to our prehistoric ancestors, and yet it is not universal. The people of India, some of them, burn the bodies of their loved ones and float the embers and ashes down river. The purpose of the funerary rite is recognisable however. With some exceptions it is not legal to burn your deceased loved one and push her down the Avon in this country. Is some part of the culture and identity of those who would have done so in India lost or compromised? Ultimately rituals must have some understood purpose. This does not mean that people are not occasionally forced or compelled into practising them. And it does not mean that this purpose is understood equally by everyone. Perhaps it is what makes us understand rituals from other places more easily than other cultural traits; that we see their underlying purpose despite their outward difference to how we would mark the event.
Consider getting a tattoo in England. You are 18, your friends have tattoos, you want to be part of the gang, and you have a design that’s been spinning around in your mind for a while. You save up your money and you go to the tattoo person, you pay your money, he lies you on a bed of cling film, and he punctures the upper layer of your skin with an ink-charged needle, and there you have it: “I Luv Mum.” or “Thug4Lyf” is now part of your invented DNA forever. Somehow, we do not see this as a ritual in the same way that we see scarification in parts of West and Central Africa or the acquisition of tattoos among some people of the Pacific. In fact, evidence of tattoos on Egyptian mummies shows how widespread the practice has been throughout history. And yet when it happens “over there” or “back then” we wrap it in the mystical blanket of “ritual” and with that comes judgement both good and bad. However, when it happens on the high street in today’s Britain we see it differently, however the person getting inked feels about it and how significant it is to their sense of belonging, their sense of self. There is a process of othering in rituals. Consumerism, money, the simple exchange of perceived value for service, somehow cheapens the things we do, however meaningful they may actually be to us.
To finish… for now
These are not the only features of a ritual. I could go on. But I doubt many people will read this far. So what do I do now? I have no real definition of ritual and its features are innumerable and often contradict each other. So I’ll do what I like best which is to talk to people. I mark out an area of Bristol. And I start to seek out people who are doing things that seem to be rituals. I press record and I ask them questions or witness them do their thing. I take my camera out and photograph people, things, symbols. I take people’s phone numbers and imagine how they might re-enter the project at a later stage.
I think about all this and begin to imagine what my “product” could be. What is an artist without a product? An artist still. But not one that deserves payment or mention. And so I begin to obsess about product. There is a podcast in here somewhere and even a photo-journal. I even speak to people from the BBC. Clever people with important titles. They say they might be able to help. There are members of the cohort who understand Expanded Performance better than I do. I start to email them. Slowly something is taking shape. I am not sure what. I know this for sure: I would like it to honour people’s search for identity. I would like it to be aware of nature and the complexities and beauties of culture. I would like it bring people together to celebrate, question, return to their homes with a different understanding and compassion for others around them.
Somehow, the facilitation of a multi-disciplinary festival across different spaces, a distributed exhibition involving dance and holograms, performance and meta-performance, objects and dark spaces, celebration and collaboration, all geared at empathy and connection; this event keeps returning to my mind. Some of it would have to be online, which stings me with a kind of sadness; when will we smell the smoke of another’s incense again and touch skin and smell breath? It would probably be too expensive and there would be much opportunity for great error and disaster. But artists and practitioners of rituals would benefit and the community would hopefully get a window into the community. There are people in this cohort who will probably buy into this and come along on a journey of collective disruptive madness with me, challenging and tugging and sharing and I on theirs. Grayson Perry said to me in an email, “artists do not really change anything…”. I hope he meant it as a challenge.