Steve Bottoms, 28 February 2013

London Theatre Seminar

Thursday 28 February, 6.30-8.30pm

Room STB3/6, Stewart House (note change of room)

Professor Stephen Bottoms (University of Manchester), ‘The Year of the Flood: Staging Watery Dissensus in Shipley and Saltaire’

What happens when you try to put eco-performance theory into applied practice? During 2012, eventually recorded as the UK’s wettest year on record, I found myself engaged in an ungainly performance research project of my own, semi-voluntary making. The AHRC-funded initiative “Multi-Story Water” started out in response to an invitation from the Environment Agency to explore the potential use of site-specific performance as a means of raising flood risk awareness among “hard to reach” river-side communities. Skeptical from the start about this instrumental brief, I was nonetheless intrigued to find out what would happen if we behaved “as if” this was the objective. When EA representatives proposed Shipley, in West Yorkshire, as a possible case study site, the plot thickened: as the River Aire flows through Shipley, on its way towards Leeds, it passes the World Heritage Site of Saltaire mill village, cheek-by-jowl with post-war housing estates and post-industrial wasteland.

In this illustrated talk, I want tentatively to propose that the mobile, quasi-verbatim performances that eventually developed from our research with Shipley’s residents might be conceived of – in (bastardised) Rancierean terms – as a temporary attempt to redistribute the spatial logics of the Shipley area in relation to its river. Rather than simply communicating a consensual, agency-led notion of flood risk awareness, the performance’s multiple voices articulated a layered, dissensual engagement with water and its meanings. The project’s blindingly obvious conclusion was, perhaps, that dealing with “the environment” in performance means dealing with people “where they live”.