THEATRE / Theatre of the observed: Dalya Alberge on two artists turning the spotlight on the audience

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The Independent Culture
A work of art to be shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London on Friday may make you yawn. But the artists won't be insulted. Far from it. Any response at all will delight them. Yawning is among facial expressions and body language explored in Auditorium, an audio-visual performance about audiences and what they do in the dim light of a theatre.

The half-hour video piece is a collaborative work by the former Fluxus artist Ian Breakwell and Ron Geesin, the composer best known for film and TV scores (Sunday Bloody Sunday, among others).

They have choreographed the behaviour of people watching a performance: if all goes to plan, the live audience will mimic the screen audience - as they did in an earlier version, when some of those watching began clearing their throats when the video audience started coughing (just as they do in the theatre or the concert hall).

The performance on stage which the filmed audience is watching remains permanently off-screen. In a wordless script, live audiences can only guess at what the screen audience is seeing. Geeson's instruments in this composition are the noises people make: sucking sweets, clicking false teeth . . . 'People do make the strangest noises,' he says. 'Animal-like . . . When provoked by something on-stage, all their nervous tics come out. The whole idea of Auditorium is that it's like a giant range of nervous ticks.'

All 'the players' were recruited either by word of mouth or through ads: with cue tracks and an off- screen conductor, they rehearsed for three months. Breakwell recalls: 'The most astonishing thing was . . . there was a lot of giggling at first. None of them had had any contact with contemporary art, and became absolutely dedicated to it. It just showed, you can reach people.'

And that, in his view, is the point of interactive art - reaching out to audiences who he feels are repelled by the coldness of some contemporary work.

Breakwell and Geesin began their collaboration in interactive art by taking sound and music performances into public shopping centres. In 1991 a pounds 25,000-grant from the Arts Council and South East Arts allowed them to begin their study of audiences across Britain in a variety of settings. Research included bugging seats in venues. It comes as a disappointment to learn that the most interesting thing they picked up was a woman telling her male partner 'to sit down and shut up'.

However, through their research, Breakwell and Geesin realised the extent to which 'in dynamic live theatre, the audience becomes part of a two-way performance, radiating an equivalent range of emotional expression to that emanating from the stage'. To their disappointment, they found that theatre audiences suited their purposes better than vistors to art galleries. Why? Because, says Breakwell, 'They're livelier.'

Auditorium: at the ICA, The Mall, London, SW1, 6-7 May

(Photographs omitted)