By Aleksandra Ianchenko and Tauri Tuvikene
An artist and PUTSPACE doctoral researcher Aleksandra Iachenko and PUTSPACE Project Leader Tauri Tuvikene report from a tram performance in Tallinn organised on 5 December 2019). The performance was a result of collaboration between Aleksandra from PUTSPACE project, Erki Kasemets (Polygon Theatre) and a group of Estonian Academy of Arts students (Milla-Mona Andres, Linda Mai Kari, Anita Kremm, Kristel Zimmer, Liisamari Viik).
A set of household objects – a mirror, a folding chair, a lantern, a round tea table, a broomstick, a footstool and a carpet – all acted at a tram performance TRAMWARM. These objects entered trams with first year Estonian Academy of Arts students, following an intent to transgress the normalcy of tramrides. With the objects not necessarily totally out of place on trams, TRAMWARM intended to play on the borderline between being disruptive to everyday experience and remaining under the threshold of being noticed.
In November and December 2019 artists Erki Kasemets and Aleksandra Ianchenko curated a class of five first-year students at the Estonian Academy of Arts. Following ideas of Michel de Certeau (1984), the class intended to generate practiced places: places emerging through production, a process in which they become saturated with meanings. While trams are spaces with an ordered system (fixed time-tables and routes, ticket requirements, certain rules of conduct, etc.), that is, they fall on the side of de Certeau’s strategies, they might be turned into practiced and meaningful places by riding them in a certain manner, performing consciously or unconsciously certain tactics. Besides of routinized way of coming from A to B, riding trams then might be a discovery of the city and an artistic practice. Performances offer such potential: to be “actively engaged in imagining, exploring, revealing and challenging experiences of being in transit” (Wilkie 2015, 12). Thus, performance can ‘make passages’ and ‘make strange’ working “against the logic of uninterrupted flow at sites of transport, encouraging spectators to register their passage as a complex activity, simultaneously public and private, and culturally, socially, and even morally loaded” (Wilkie 2015, 17).
Performances can explicitly disrupt and challenge passengers to perceive tramrides differently. Take the example of ‘Tram Buskers Tour’, the project by the Czech artist Kateřina Šedá, which she run in Helsinki in 2016. Following her idea to turn the tram into a place of encounters and surprising experiences, she invited street musicians from different countries to play on board. The musical performances, which were happening on trams during one week, mostly received positive feedback from the audience. However, those passengers who preferred to travel in silence were really suffering from the noise and afterwards responded that the performance “fe[lt] like a violent disturbance in public space” (Toppila 2016, 31). By bringing musicians onboard, the artist twisted the mundane experience of using the tram and indeed created a space of surprising encounters. However, since the passengers could not actually escape from being involved in listening the music, the performance forced them to participate. It took passangers hostage as curator Hamza Walker pointed out (Toppila 2016).
However, performances can work also much more subtly. During The VIII international festival Pi Performance Intermedia in Szczecin in 2010, artists Andres Galeano as well as Bartosz Łukasiewicz and Karolina Smech, engaged with public transport spaces through play. Namely, Galeano wore a mask in the shape of a box on his head while sitting on the tram. While doing minimum actions and movements already his presence produced a strange atmosphere distinct from regular experience. However, his presence did not violate passengers’ possibility for uninterrupted ride, since the artist did not occupy additional space, did not make any noise and even withdrew himself from any kind of interactions by wearing a mask. Similarly, the performance by Łukasiewicz and Smech, while more active as they cleaned tram seats and handrails with sponges and fabrics, did not force passengers to participate and did not disturb those who wanted to enjoy the ride on their own. Moreover, this action of taking care of the tram as if it was a private home produced a moment of potential solidarity and collectiveness.
TRAMWARM concept was closer to the latter approach, the more subtle intervention, than the former one. Creating such moments of strangeness without necessarily forcing passengers into the role of the audience was the intention of the Tallinn performance. TRAMWARM proposed to ‘make strange’ or disrupt the everydayness with unexpected artistic actions. The performance emerged in the interaction of two initiatives. On the one hand, the idea of Polygon Theatre, run by an artist Erki Kasemets, suggests that performance should “create, for the participants and for the surrounding environment, an evolving atmospheric experience” (Semm 2015, 103). Thus, performances of Polygon Theater are never rehearsed and are open to interactions of passers-by and guests who can influence the play. On the other hand, the performance built from the ideas of celebrating Irkutsk 70th tram-anniversary. During that day, the sequence of peculiar actions orchestrated by Aleksandra Iachenko appeared on several stops along one of the city’s tram lines. On the stop named after Mayakovski someone loudly read poems of that famous Russian poet, while on the stop titled Seagull a group of people taught everyone interested how to make origami bird. Nevertheless, an artistic performance was just one of the intentions of TRAMWARM. Another was to trace and observe tram riders’ behaviour and reactions. It was not simply a performance, then, but a kind of performative experimentation.
During brainstorming, students came up with several brilliant ideas, each of which had the potential to be executed. However, the idea of carrying strange items while on the tram repeatedly popped up. A long list of possible items that might be taken on board was suggested: from gigantic plants to mannequins. Taken on board in routine manner but with repetition and frequency can make passengers experience something out of ordinary: generate perhaps a new normalcy where it is OK for people to carry those things.
Most of the proposed items by students fell into the category of household items leading the group to think about the tension between public space of trams and cosy atmosphere of private homes. The agency of items, that certainly can be counted as participants in the performance, became especially distinct during tram rides. While on the tram, one of the students intuitively hung a wooden clothes hanger on the upper hand rail. It was a minimal gesture, but this modest household element, once it appeared as an alien item for the public transport environment, immediately started radiating a new unusual atmosphere. This precious moment of transient rupture of normal arrangement as well as how it was recognized by passengers inspired the future performance at large and became the poster image. The performance was scheduled for three hours and included two parts: a ride on the tram and the sequence of actions on several tram stops. On each designated tram stop students made a temporal installation from household objects that were (re)assembled every time when they arrived at a new platform. This installation conceptually oscillated between being a sculpture and a stage setting for actions: it was accompanied with several actions such as reading a newspaper, sweeping the pavement or sitting on the footstool. The main difference occurred on Balti jaam tram stop when Aleksandra herself started sweeping the pavement with a broomstick. It was the main explicit (and potentially provocative) action during the whole performance. Despite having elaborated script linked to the tram schedule, TRAMWARM was naturally rearranged during the time of execution that finally made it more experimental and fluid rather than stable and pre-defined.
Between tram stops students were riding trams, doing so in a prescribed manner: they all initially took the same tram but then one after another they stepped off on different stops in order to then board the next coming tram one by one. Thus they eventually met all together inside the same tram and performed different arrangements with their household items. During one ride they remained separately and did not interact with one another while on other rides they created an installation directly on the tram.
Such different arrangements produced different potential reactions of passengers: would they notice that something outside normal behaviour is happening on the tram and if yes, how would they react? The primary observation was, however, that hardly any specific emotional reactions were noted and the performance did not provoke anyone to directly respond, even if the actions become more disruptive. On the least disruptive ride when performers all sat scattered in the tram without explicitly interacting with one another, one of the passengers even casually asked guidance for a way from one of the performers: that’s how noticeable a performance can remain. Nevertheless, rather than a failure, it should be seen as the beauty of it.
Perhaps the most clearly discernible moment of interaction with passengers on a tram occurred when students put a tea table on the floor, sat around it in the middle of the tram making an obstacle for the traffic inside the vehicle. Although the tram was almost empty and people had no necessity to pass through the installation, there was, nevertheless, one man who asked to remove the table and let him pass through.
Additionally, another one of the more disruptive moments occurred when all five students gathered together at the back of the tram and set up the installation. When one of the students unrolled the carpet and put it down on the tram floor, Aleksandra intuitively sat down on it and started reading a book. This improvised action activated the whole assemblage – students and their items – instantly produced the homely and friendly atmosphere.
However, most of the moments were fleeting and hardly discernible. One of the students who was holding the oval mirror while standing on the tram stop platform noted in a reflection session after the performance of an old woman who was sitting inside a passing tram. Suddenly, when the woman noticed her reflection in the mirror, she reacted with a smile. Or take another moment that occurred while one of the students was sitting at the back of the tram on her own chair that was covered by a soft fluffy rag. A family of a baby, a mother and a grandmother entered the tram. The baby noticed the rug and said to his mum: “It is fluffy! Look, look, look! It is fluffy!” At the very first moment, his mother and grandmother did not understand what he was talking about and were rather embarrassed by his reaction, but then they glanced at the direction he pointed to and saw the fluffy rag. Having noticed the rug, they suddenly understood the whole situation – a girl sitting on her own chair on the tram – and how peculiar it was, so they started to laugh. But most of the moments when the performance or potential performativity of actions could have been noticed, actually probably remained invisible.
Such character of being barely noticeable was one of the cornerstone of the performance. As one of the students said ‘it was a success if a lot of people went home today and said “Hey! You never guess what I saw on the tram. There were some people, someone was reading a newspaper, and another one put a carpet on the tram floor.” The performance stayed in the liminal border between being recognised and not recognised: if you recognise, it might give you a different perception to what is and could be public transport as a potentially public space but if you did not see or recognise anything, then it is just a regular tram ride. Is it not how public spaces should be activated? That is by activating sparingly and only for those willing to notice makes interventions less intrusive while still producing some provocation and out of ordinary experience.
de Certeau, Michel (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Officyna (2010). 8th edtion of International festival Π Performance Intermedia 16-20.06 Szczecin. June 16. http://officyna.art.pl/en/aktualnosci/pokaz/213/aktualnosci/8th-edtion-of-International-festival-Performance-Intermedia-16-2006-Szczecin (Accessed 15 December 2019).
Semm, Kadri (2015). “Polygon Theatre as a Reflexive Method for Landscape Study.” Studies on Art and Architecture 77-105.
Toppila, Paula (2016). “In Search of Tram Buskers’ Tour .” In IHME Contemporary Art Festival , by Paula Toppila Katja Koskela, 25-44. Helsinki: IHME. Available here: https://issuu.com/ihmeproductions/docs/ihme_contemporary_art_festival_2016 (Accessed 30 December 2019) Wilkie, Fiona (2015). Performance, Transport and Mobility. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.