SEARCH FOR A SPENT FORCE
Seth Honnor isn’t silly. He knows that his production studio Kaleider won’t change the world. That no matter how arresting and powerful its projects — a giant transparent piggy bank, networked park benches called Listening Trees, a slippery piece of performance art based around a pot of money — the dominant narratives in our society will remain dominant.
In collaboration with creatives from the worlds of art, technology, science and academe, the artistic director simply wants to break our flow, tug our sleeves, get us double-taking. To bestow “interruptive gifts” that challenge paradigms, tell counter-stories and carve a space for reflection on how the future could be.
“Our work avoids theatres and auditoriums where audiences have chosen to go,” says Honnor, 41, sitting in the open-plan offices of Kaleider, located down a side street in the town of Exeter in Devon in England’s southwest. It’s a town known for its university and gothic cathedral, and as the home of the Met Office, Britain’s national weather service. (Oh, and for being the birthplace of Coldplay.)
“We make fun, interesting art that engages people in public spaces and focuses on some of the world’s biggest challenges,” continues the amiable father-of-three, who grew up off-thegrid in the wilds of Devon’s south Dartmoor. “Things like climate change, the refugee crisis and the distribution of scarce resources.”
Kaleider’s signature piece, a scriptless gameshow hybrid titled The Money, premiered at the Guildhall in Exeter in 2013, the year after Kaleider was founded, and has gone on to tour Britain and play cities in China, the US, Italy and Australia, where it was a highlight of last year’s Melbourne Festival. With no two shows ever the same, next week The Money returns to Australia under the aegis of Antidote, a new festival of ideas hosted by the Sydney Opera House.
Funny, urgent, poetic and farcical, The Money is balanced on an audaciously simple premise: within 90 minutes a playing audience of “benefactors” who’ve each given up a minimum of $20 must unanimously decide how to spend the wad of dosh in front of them. The remaining audience members, the “silent witnesses” who have paid $49 each, can buy in at any time by ringing a big brass hand bell, changing the action until the last few seconds.
Sounds easy, right? “Someone told me The Money is a bit like watching Shakespeare.” Honnor grins. “It’s real people playing a game yet characters rise and fall, leaders come and go, and suddenly a silent witness might leave the space to find a cash machine so that they can come back and have a voice.”
If no decision is made, the money rolls over to the next session. But after overseeing more than 80 productions, mostly as a silent witness, Honnor predicts that a rollover will never happen. For no matter how uneven the common ground, or how extraordinary the individual players (“We’ve had people move the money to one side so they can really get to the nub of things”), participants are determined to spend what’s in front of them.
Planting trees. Throwing a party. Dividing it into £1 coins and distributing it among villagers in Africa.
The Money isn’t actually about the money, of course. The human interaction is the key. How does power shift? What do participants want to achieve in life? What responsibility do the wealthy have towards the poor? The piece, then, is a microcosm of our flawed society, where altruism vies with self-interest and the dominant narrative blinds us to alternatives.
By staging the work in prestigious civic decision-making spaces including town halls in Melbourne, the City Chambers in Edinburgh and the British Houses of Parliament (where strict rules against profiteering meant using Monopoly money), Kaleider points audiences towards the bigger picture. Once the show is finished there’s a half-hour slot where participants and silent witnesses get to chat about the issues and decision before they’re “dropped off” into the real world. Applause is not encouraged. “People wake up in the morning and it’s usually the first thing they think about.”
And while the Sydney Opera House isn’t strictly a civic space, Honnor feels that the building’s landmark status grants it the requisite gravitas. “Plus, Antidote is a festival of ideas, and ideas are what The Money is about,” he says.
Kaleider has recently turned The Money into a triptych; commissioned by the European network In Situ, forthcoming public art installation Pig is a large, transparent piggy bank containing a digital sign spelling out its purpose as a community fund and inviting passers-by to contribute, then later spend the money — if they can collectively agree on how to spend it.
“They can put in money or they can put in empty crisp packets,” shrugs Honnor, who will premiere the work at a British arts festival next year. “They can wee into it. Break into it. Let them decide. This series is about giving responsibility back to the people. Hopefully they’ll at least go home and think about it.”
The triptych’s final instalment is a crowdfunded project in which community donations of cash and coins will be frozen inside a block of ice that is then left in a public space to melt. Those who have contributed will be sent a web address so they can watch the work crack and dissolve, the ice having an authorship, drawing an outline around what’s inside it.
Metaphors abound in the offices of Kaleider, which employs four full-time staff and is a touchstone for 42 resident artists. A selection of ceramic bowls with individual robotic arms is part of BellHouse, an installation commissioned by the Met Office that captures the emotions in recorded speeches about climate change and plays them back as sound.
A wooden bench with a large gramophonestyle ear trumpet is taken from Listening Tree, a co-production with resident company Mercurial Wrestler that uses digital sensors to link sitters to someone on another bench in the same park, or in another country, so you can talk and listen through the horns. Mercurial Wrestler is working with Kaleider on Buoyed, a digital installation involving a forest of glass buoys playing recorded stories and sea shanties when triggered by sensors, as part of Exeter University’s research on fishermen and fisherwomen (“fishers”).
Many of the residents have their Polaroid photos and quirky bits of biographical information pinned on to a noticeboard by Kaleider’s front door. There are sculptors, filmmakers and graffiti artists; dancers, musicians and feminist festival organisers. There’s a technologist at the Met Office, a woman who works with bees and another who specialises in paper flowers, and an actress whose entire performance piece is played out on a phone call.
“The Money tends to get the publicity but all of our projects are extraordinary live experiences that use the collective imagination to turn and face what needs to be faced,” says Honnor. “We think of them as serious play.”
WE MAKE FUN ART THAT FOCUSES ON SOME OF THE WORLD’S BIGGEST CHALLENGES
is part of Antidote at the Sydney Opera House. The festival begins today.
Kaleider’s artistic director Seth Honnor