Mare-Anne Mancio – Diffusion Residency Jan-Sept 2009
In the summer of 2008, Jason E Bowman, Curator of the Temporary Exhibitions Program at The Public gallery, West Bromwich commissioned me to assist him with the collation of materials relating to The Ting: Theatre of Mistakes, a performance art collective active between 1974-1981. It was Bowman’s intention to republish Elements of Performance Art, a seminal, out-of-print collection of exercises by Anthony Howell and Fiona Templeton, and to curate a retrospective of The Theatre of Mistakes’ practice in April 2009.
Anthony Howell instigated Ting in early 1974, inspired by seeing Robert Wilson in New York, his interest in chance, his interrogation of systemic art, and conversations with his then wife, Norwegian anthropologist, Signe Lie who introduced him to Norse Ting myth of meetings where weapons were left outside a ring of stones and anything could be said. Ting was never an official collective; despite a later nucleus of participants, it was open to everyone and grew through Lie’s circle of artist friends and Howell’s circle of poets and dancers. Early ‘members’ included: Anthony Eden, Susan Bonvin, Bob Janz, Pat Murphy, Fergus Early, Jacky Lansley, Vicki Chick, Amikan Toren, David Coxhead and Jane Clark. Susan Hiller was involved in a couple of their events. The Ting devised performances from a series of rule-based exercises (which came to be called The Gymnasium) explored and refined in open weekly or twice weekly workshops. Many of the initial investigations took place within social interactions both at Purdie’s farm in Hampshire and Ascham Street, London where the Howells resided. At that point it was more a laboratory through which individual artists could experiment with developing their practice. As Howell began leading workshops in art colleges such as Maidstone, he found more performers including Howard Tong, Mik Greenall, Miranda Payne, and Lindsay Moran who had more time to devote to The Ting. Signe Lie Howell left in Spring 1975 and Fiona Templeton’s conceptual contribution became paramount in the establishment of a core group, The Ting: Theatre of Mistakes consisting of Howell, Tong, Templeton, Moran, Payne, and Tong’s girlfriend, Anita Urquhart. In 1976, Peter Stickland replaced Moran; later Julian Maynard Smith’s involvement grew. The company performed in a variety of sites – galleries, theatres, fields, courtyards, a village green, a prison in Pittsburgh, the Paris Biennale, the Hayward Annual, etc…
Neither Bowman or I expected the quantity and quality of material shown to us by Anthony Howell at our first meeting with him. This was always a company who knew its own value. They documented and collected; they filed and preserved. There were programs, photographs, negatives, letters, scripts, drafts of scripts, diagrams, art works, drawings, notebooks… hundreds and hundreds of items, all in need of viewing and cataloguing before we could even begin to understand The Theatre of Mistakes’ practice. There was no budget for a designated archivist so we undertook the task ourselves. This was complemented by the additional task of interviewing participants. The common denominator was their generosity: every one of them willing to share their recollections and ephemera. And, remarkably, every one had continued their practice in some form. Another archive – that of memory emerged. Moments remembered and mis-remembered: the anecdote, the shred of gossip.
When I was offered a Diffusion residency at Proboscis in 2009, the initial reasoning behind the A-Z was that it would function as an accessible, alternative guide to the exhibition at The Public. It didn’t matter that the content of the exhibition was not yet decided; Bowman had already realised the only way to deal with a company of which there were multiple perspectives was to reflect that in the act of curation. The A-Z was to be my particular perspective, evolving from the questions we had asked during the research period. I chose this format over a chronology, for instance, because an A-Z allows for unexpected entries to be placed in proximity (something reflected in the company’s use of chance). It is also a democratic structure, something else paralleled by The Theatre of Mistakes’ interest in mutuality. Although habit implies reading should begin at A, there is no more reason to start there than at XYZ. In fact, for the reader in possession of the entire set, a variety of reading patterns might be suggested. (For example: for those seeking a basic introduction to Ting: The Theatre of Mistakes: begin with a contextualising Seventies, followed by the Introduction for Jason E Bowman’s essay; Chronology, Core Group, then move on to the performances: Preparations for Displacement, The Street, Homage to Pietro Longhi, Going, Rape of the Mind, Orpheus and Hermes, and Homage to Morandi and so on.) Contrary to perceptions of the A-Z as a closed set, I wanted to create one with a circuituous nature, one that would always be open-ended, never complete. With its potentially irritating instruction to “See also:” each entry attempts to entice the reader to continue their search for information. Since further reading inevitably entails additional “See also”s (which may ask the reader to read on or even to return to their start point) it becomes apparent this is a narrative without conclusion. This way of reading reflects the entangled nature of The Ting: Theatre of Mistakes and the fact that there will always be something missing in the narrative due to the absence of performer Michael Greenall who died several years ago and so was never interviewed for his perspective.
Earlier this year, the Public gallery went into administration and decided to cancel its Temporary Exhibitions program. The decision to persist with the A-Z was the result of several factors: Giles Lane’s enthusiasm for it; our (Bowman and I’s) determination to find another venue for the work; and the general feeling amongst us all that this material was too valuable to lie unseen in folders for another twenty years. With the paucity of material written about The Theatre of Mistakes (the company dispersed before the explosion of interest in performance/live art as an academic discipline, before the widespread use of the internet), it had the potential to offer a real resource to students of British performance and a reassessment of the role of performance in the history of British conceptualism. The function of the A-Z might now also be to act as a promotional tool, an enticement to venues of the potential of a The Theatre of Mistakes retrospective.
The residency at Proboscis has been invaluable in allowing me to revisit the Theatre of Mistakes Archive, to spend time with it in a more creative way than the act of cataloguing. It has been comparable to an act of curation, but one unhampered by the usual constraints of time, space, expense…. In theory, each eBook could be as long or short as it wanted; there was no limit on the number of images which could be used. Whilst the format of the eBook may not compete with the gallery for displaying visual material, it is at a distinct advantage when showing text-based material. It allows the reader to take their time with it, to return to it as often as they wish, to print it out and take it with them on a bus journey. Even the sometimes laborious process of cropping and captioning images for the text, has enabled me to look more closely, to gain a greater intimacy with the material.
Through discussions with Giles Lane, the A-Z has altered from the initial notion of creating 26 books, to 24 books, to the realization that this amount was unmanageable with the decision to cross-reference across them. It was also my intention to create a desire within the reader to collect the whole set (sometimes questions posed in one letter begin to be answered in another – see Mistakes and Solution) and so a smaller number of books was preferable. I learned there were also parallels between the kind of mapping systems Proboscis use and a diagram I was developing as a pictorial key to the interrelationships between the various members of Ting/The Theatre of Mistakes. Thus, we decided to create a grid of 16 eBooks (the grid being another feature of The Theatre of Mistakes’ work):
A B C D
E F-G H I-K
L M N-O P
Q-R S T-U V-Z
across which this diagram could be divided. It was also decided that each eBook should be standardized at 26 pages, a reference to the alphabet.
The opportunity to look through the library of Proboscis’ previous output also clarified my ideas of what was possible, encouraging me to look beyond standard notions of ‘book’ towards creating something with more of an interface with the reader.
Part primer, part photographic essay, part contextualization, part original research not previously seen elsewhere in any other form, the creation of this A-Z through my Diffusion residency at Proboscis has made me appreciate the immense potential of the ebook, something I would like to explore through fiction also in the future.
The Ting: Theatre of Mistakes