- The Extra People by Ant Hampton
Ant Hampton’s most recent “autoteatro” project, The Extra People, delegates the labor of live performance to its audience, cycling groups of spectators through the experience in half-hour increments [End Page 446] that create a kind of automatic, perpetual-motion machine. As a genre, Hampton’s autoteatro takes shape as audience members perform the substance of pieces themselves, creating work by and for one another as they respond to task-based instructions. In The Extra People, Hampton structures an investigation inspired by the fringe identities of film extras and the isolated, hive-like realities of remote warehouse workers, invisible to the consumer.
Hampton divides the score for the project into fifteen individualized sets of instructions delivered by an automated, childlike voice, and organizes the performance/spectatorship of the piece into what we might define roughly as a four-act structure mapped onto four general locations. In the lobby, technicians dress fifteen audience members in reflective yellow utility vests marked with assigned numbers and fit them with headphones and iPods. In the seating area of an empty theatre the group of fifteen performs tasks dictated by their personal headset, while watching another group of people on the stage. The group in the auditorium then moves to the stage, as the group it has been watching exits; simultaneously, a new group of fifteen audience members enters the seating area and takes its place. After departing the theatre and divesting themselves of their vest costumes, audience members encounter a video that underscores the piece’s connection to global capitalism.
In the midst of the project’s economic overtones and layered modes of spectatorship and labor, the ever-present demands of Hampton’s autoteatro reflect a kind of theatricalized authoritarianism, exercised through an inertia that moves the piece inexorably forward. Joining one iteration of The Extra People, I noticed that even as our distinct performance tasks closeted audience members’ experiences from one another, our seeming collective willingness to engage in the tasks assigned to us underscored the dangerous power of the unilateral mass. At times, the instructive voice in my ear asked me to shine a flashlight in the face of a cohort member and reflect on the possible workings of that individual’s inner thoughts and feelings; at other times, the voice spurred me to gather the cohort into a particular place onstage, suggesting that I should squeeze another’s hand and not be too gentle about it. The voice, through skips and hiccups that reminded me of its digital origin, directed physical contact and shared action among participants. The high-pitched, childlike quality of the voice cast its persistent authority as seemingly harmless, even as its articulations pressed into private psychological spaces: it suggested concepts to contemplate, memories to linger over, sensory input to attend to. Considering the piece as a whole, it is as though each cohort is a small army in training, individually isolated yet somehow communal, all expected to follow orders to protect the sanctity of the structured product. The product in this case invokes the inner, as well as outer, life of the audience-as-worker. Is this the docile audience-citizen in action? Do we perhaps stage a critique of autocracy by embodying our subservience to one?
If we, the audience, were cogs in a performance machine, the stakes of the mechanism emerged only as outlines, like our shadows projected across the back wall of the theatre by our own actions—an almost threatening image of our own receding agency. In warehouses throughout the world, as the performance’s concluding video reminded us, we vomit our capitalist imperative into the ears of workers who organize, retrieve, and ship products in accordance with instructions delivered by a dispassionate voice in the ear. There are clear consequences for the machine of industry if the worker does not comply. But what are the consequences here, on a stage? What level of trust develops or not among strangers when we cannot gauge one another as collaborators? What keeps us from ripping the earphones out...