As you approach, you find yourself faced with a wall of sculptural forms. Fleshy tones of cream, beige and pink in globular, tactile shapes. Each denotes a symbol derived from a long history of 'hobo signs': markings placed outside a building to communicate a safe space, or a warning to those about to enter. Once over the threshold, you are invited to navigate a scenography of used objects and props, each a proposition for action. Detritus from performative actions that have already happened, they act as landscape, prop, weapon or tool. They are the building blocks of a limitless number of different terrains, asking to be reused, built up and destroyed. Half of the objects facilitate communication, encouraging empathy, compassion, touch and tenderness. Loosely defined as ‘pro-human’, they are opposed in the space by ‘anti-human’objects such as homeless spikes, traps and land mines, instruments designed to create barriers and push people apart. Though inanimate, they embody the things that connect and divide us, facilitating human behaviours into being.
Drawing on the methodology of live action role play (larp), An Extension of Us is a space for participation in critical play. In larp, a group of participants assume character roles within an imagined fictional setting or context. Together, they play a game that begins with a set of rules and a script, or score, that frames the action. Fragments of these scores can be seen on the walls of the exhibition, acting as a set of visual cues to instigate play. Participants are given basic elements of a character to develop throughout the game, such as a name, physical feature or trait –or, in the case of Adam James’work, a prop or object. These characters are then played out within a structure that can be highly plot-driven or looser and more experimental. Through the dialogue and actions of their characters, participants thus co-create an improvised, collective fiction without a predetermined outcome.
Larps can simulate any world or society imaginable. Through the methodology of larp, reality is broken down into its constituent parts and reassembled in new ways. Within this space of potentiality, what is possible that wasn’t before? Role play can be used as a tool to challenge our subjective experience of the world, enabling a first-person, embodied exploration of positions that may be different to our own. At the same time, these roles are negotiated through a collaborative structure that demands complex forms of communication and negotiation. This shared space forms a kind of temporary community through which familiar systems and structures can be examined and new networks of relations produced. Larp helps us to find paths to collective action, forming bonds of alliance through dialogue and joint endeavour. At the same time, it opens up an agonistic space in which antagonism and conflict may lead to productive outcomes.
James’work arises from an examination of difference that seeks to understand how we relate to one another. In An Extension of Us that questioning takes on an abstract form through a focus on the movement of bodies and objects within the space. Unlike conventional larps, James’work is distinguished by its adherence to non-verbal play, in which the representational power of verbal language is rejected in favour of other forms of communication. His work asks if an object, sign or shape can stand in the place of a set of instructions as the basis for character and the relationship between characters in the game. Through this, he questions the notion of predetermined identities, highlighting instead the relational construction of who we are. Within his larps, verbal communication continues to play no part in the unfolding action. Instead, James facilitates an abstract choreography between participants that challenges us to communicate and relate to one another in more complex ways.
Without the use of verbal language, communication within James’larps depends on body language and movement alongside a simple sign language devised by participants within the group. To play a character without the use of narrative depends instead on the use of gestures, expressions and behaviours to form defining traits. The manner in which these characters act and react to one another through touch and movement, in response to objects or props and in relation to a predetermined context, thus forms the basis for the process of meaning and production of knowledge within the work. Unlike narrative, non-verbal play doesn’t need to be linear. Communication through gesture, touch and action rejects the necessity of a beginning or end; in so doing, a particular deconstruction of consequence and causality occurs that breaks down how we usually understand situations. In James’work, this understanding informs the production of his video works, in which documentation of non-verbal larps are cut up and reconstructed to form something new. His work points to the notion that physical language exists on a constant: people carry behaviours, modes of beings and habits that are more cyclical, repeated and thereby codified. This circularity is performed in the exhibition through James’simultaneous inclusion of propositions, actions and reflections that fold and unfold. Within the space, different temporalities coexist, held in the gallery as a representation of something that will happen, something happening and something that has happened. As participants, our intervention into the cycle undermines its apparent determinism. Through our action, we cause a rupture that opens up endless new possibilities.
In capturing that space of process and becoming, the exhibition endlessly recycles itself into something new. Within this choreography of repeated signs, scores and symbols, a kind of meaning is created that moves in more than one way. What kind of knowledge does this produce? What are the potentials —personal, political and otherwise —of such a taking apart of systems and structures into their constituent parts, to be built up again into something else? Embodying the questions in this way may yet present us with unexpected answers. Our identities and relations are not fixed and unalterable; they are there to be played with.
Hannah Zafiropoulos is a curator, researcher and writer living in London. She holds a BA in History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art and an MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art, London. She is currently Assistant Curator at Calvert 22 Foundation.
Her current research focuses on the potential of performative curating. Using live action role play as a starting point, she considers the role of the curator as procedural author, experimenting with the ways in which curators can create spaces for open-ended participation in the production of new knowledge. From 2017-18 she has been a participant in the curatorial research residency CuratorLab at Konstfack, Stockholm, in partnership with Tensta Konsthall, where she will present a commissioned dance performance in collaboration with artist Pontus Pettersson in May 2018. From 2017-18, she has been Visiting Lecturer on the BA Architecture course Assemble! Performative Sites of Radical Democracy at Oxford Brookes University, using larp as a pedagogic tool in the design of democratic spaces. She is currently co-editing a publication alongside Dora Garcia’s exhibition at Tensta Konsthall, and regularly writes for artists and publications including Art Review, The Calvert Journal and Apollo.
Adam James: An Extension of Us is further supported by