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Art as citizenship: Rachel Briscoe on fanSHEN’s Invisible Treasure

Welcome to the world where personal agency is palpable; taking matters into your own hands is the first order of business. Risk beckons and rules await in Invisible Treasure, fanSHEN’s ‘interactive digital playspace’ that comes with a cast of zero actors but gives audiences a chance to subvert, invent or just follow the narratives in the ‘seven levels of unreality’.

fanSHEN’s Rachel Briscoe and Dan Barnard put sustain-agility, of the environmental, social and financial kind, first. How a show gets made is equally as important as what that show is; they’ve been known to keep track of their touring carbon footprint and pedal-power their performances. So, when Invisible Treasure challenges audiences to use their agency, you can be sure fanSHEN has direct action in mind. Rachel Briscoe says it’s political – but ‘not in a yelling at people to go and vote type way’– and she’s ready for any surprises audiences have in store for her.

Run Riot: fanSHEN’s vision is to ‘make art part of what it means to be a citizen’. What’s your idea of art as citizenship? How is it reflected in the company’s work?

Rachel Briscoe: I think there’s a couple of things in here. One of them is about access to arts and culture. In February this year, the Warwick Commission Report found that the wealthiest, best-educated and least ethnically diverse 8 per cent of UK society make up nearly half of live music audiences and a third of theatregoers and gallery visitors. I don’t want to force art on anyone that doesn’t want it but I just don’t buy that the other 92% of UK population aren’t interested – so we need to do more to ensure that art can be part of everyone’s life rather than an activity paid for by certain people taking place in certain buildings. As a citizen you (currently) expect things like healthcare and education – I want to add art that speaks to your experience to this list.

The other thing is to do with the civic role that art can play. I don’t mean getting artists in to run a consultation about town-planning or something (although we have done that!), I mean that art is a space where we can have the discussions about what we want the world to look and feel like. I think that’s why art has always had a counter-cultural element to it – because it can (and should) interrogate and challenge the way things are. Especially at a time when our society is getting increasingly unequal and the current government is sneaking in a lot of abhorrent policies disguised as ‘necessity’ when it’s really an ideologically motivated attack on the most vulnerable people in our society.

Wow, that got a bit ranty fast…! So erm, with fanSHEN, I think we’re always trying to create a microcosm of how we’d like the world to be – through the way we work with people, the themes we explore, how we present our work. We have this hopefully idealistic mission – ‘to transform the world into something to be experienced, rather than something which is consumed’ – which encapsulates a lot of stuff about environmental and social justice, about kindness, and about citizenship. But also about creating spaces for play and fun.

Run Riot: Tell us about sustain-agility: what it means to you as citizens and artists and what it means for your practice.

Rachel Briscoe: So for me, sustain-agility is about an openness to change. Change is something that –in lots of contexts- freaks people out – but that’s because we have this idea that it’s a threatening interruption. But actually we’re in a constant state of change – I mean, our bodies renew all their cells every 7 years! Sustain-agility is about starting to see change as the default – and asking what becomes possible if this is how we think about it? How else could we deploy all the energy we waste trying to keep things as they are?

As artists, I think it has helped us to see restrictions as creative jumping off points (the jumping is also the agile bit) – the set needs to tour by train? Great, we’ll design a flatpack set to the dimensions of wheelie shopping bags. The play is too weird for any established theatres to take a punt on? Fine, we’ll create a pop-up venue in an empty building on Oxford Street. There’s no building we can use? Awesome, we’ve always wanted to create an audio walk. As independent artists and companies, we’re great at finding creative solutions. But I don’t think it needs to be restricted to professional artist people – I think it’s more broadly about how we respond to obstacles.

Run Riot: There are no actors in Invisible Treasure; instead the reigns are handed over to audiences with an invitation to use their agency. Is this partly a political decision? A statement against political apathy?

Rachel Briscoe: Yes, a bit, but not in a yelling at people to go and vote type way. The impetus for making the show was to create a space in which people really experienced their own agency. I was really struck by how it’s pretty easy to feel powerless because so many of the systems that have a massive effect on our lives are not visible, so we’re not aware of the power they have over us – or our own power to change them. So in the past, the most powerful guy (and it was a guy) was the one with the biggest castle and most knights. But now – systems that have a huge effect on our lives like the internet, electricity, the financial markets are much less visible. We’re complicit in systems without sometimes even knowing we’re taking part in them, so I think we begin to lose a sense of agency. With Invisible Treasure, we wanted to explore the question, what are the choices you make when you’re hyper-aware of your own agency?

Run Riot: Is there scope for audiences to surprise you or even subvert the show? Will they be able to claim some of the authorship over what unfolds each day?

Rachel Briscoe: YES. What we’ve made is a structure to play in and audiences will be co-creating what happens each day. I’m so fascinated by how different audiences will react – we have some performances for families and for schools as well as the adult performances so I’m really intrigued how the composition of the audience will affect what they create. (We’re working with Goldsmiths to document all this and then write it up as a piece of research.)

People absolutely have responsibility for their own experience. Throughout the process we’ve tried to curb the fear which makes us want to do more, put more in, cushion the experience, tell people what to do. There is an idea we use which is borrowed from permaculture, a system of design principles, and the idea is this: make the smallest possible intervention that will have the greatest possible effect. I try to go back to this at the moments I am tempted to stick in loads of text and rewards and other more didactic elements. I have to trust people’s innate ability to play and follow their curiosity.

Run Riot: The show invites the audiences to ‘join the dots’ and decide on their own if they have all the information. What’s your advice for seeking out the whole picture in the age of hashtags, listicles and push notifications?  

Rachel Briscoe: Oh god, I’ve no idea. I’d love to say I’m the sort of person who reads ten different newspapers from five different countries every morning but I’m not. I think probably the amount of information available to us now means we never see the whole picture. I think the danger comes when we think we *are* seeing the whole picture and don’t question it. As long as we’re aware that what we’re seeing is incomplete or just one person’s version, we’re able to look at it more critically – even having an awareness we don’t have the whole picture is useful. (It’s kind of difficult to talk about this stuff without sounding like a conspiracy theorist who thinks the world is actually controlled by massive lizards.) I think it’s about feeling empowered to ask questions; when we were making Invisible Treasure we had all this stuff that felt relevant on the wall, including Tony Benn’s 5 Questions about power:

What power have you got?

Where did you get it from?

In whose interests do you exercise it?

To whom are you accountable?

How can we get rid of you?

I feel like if we could ask these more often –of politicians but also business, educators, the media- then everyone would –in some small way- be better off.

Run Riot: You’re working with Hellicar&Lewis on Invisible Treasure; could you give us a glimpse into the technological wonders that await?

Rachel Briscoe: Sure – although I don’t completely understand it, it’s all a bit like magic to me! The space has a system of infra-red sensors and cameras which means it knows where everyone is at all times. Then there’s a programme which can tell the projection or lights or sound, ‘if a person goes here, play this sound’. I don’t want to give too much away! It’s been a really collaborative project - as well as H&L, we’re working with an incredible composer (Richard Hammarton) and lighting designers (Josh Pharo and Gill Tan), and designer Cécile Trémolières has created a space which clearly uses tech, but which doesn’t feel off-puttingly tech-tastic. That was something we –including H&L- were all really keen on – the tech is how we do stuff, not what the experience is about.

Run Riot: Environmental issues are a constant preoccupation of fanSHEN’s. If you could introduce one green policy (or law or initiative) what would it be?

Rachel Briscoe: On an international level, a global carbon tax – I think it probably gives us the best chance of controlling climate change.

On a more local level, I’d love to see private motor transport banned (or heavily restricted) in zones 1 and 2 and greater investment in public transport, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Air pollution levels are pretty grim and although the Ultra Low Emissions Zone is due to come into effect in 2020, it still feels like London is a city for cars, not people. As in Bogotá, we need to look at sustainable urban design as the foundation for social justice. Did you see how I stopped myself going off on another rant there?!

Invisible Treasure

27 October – 14 November