Academic journal article Liminalities

Living off the Enemy's Supply Lines: Developing 'Mis-Guidance' in Heritage Sites through the Prism of One Performance

Academic journal article Liminalities

Living off the Enemy's Supply Lines: Developing 'Mis-Guidance' in Heritage Sites through the Prism of One Performance

Article excerpt

In this essay, from a position as participant or participant observer, I describe the emergence and development of an engagement with heritage narratives and spaces from within the site-based artists collective Wrights & Sites (Exeter, UK), influenced by the 'mainstream' guided tour and by the 'dark tourism' (abject, terrorising and apocalyptic) content of many of such tours, and informed by psychogeographical and mythogeographical walking arts (Smith 2010, 2014) and by site-specific theatre (Pearson & Shanks 2001; Pearson 2010). I pursue these developments until a single performance-Water Walk-'draws together different strands of this development in a manner which suggests a new kind of relationship between performer/guide and tourist/audience.

Wrights & Sites was formed in 1997 by playwright Cathy Turner, Stephen Hodge and Simon Persighetti who were making live art and visual theatre, and myself. At our first meeting we agreed to bid for a festival of site-specific performance. A year later, Wrights & Sites staged The Quay Thing, a festival of sitespecific performances around Exeter's "historic" quay. Funded, mostly by Arts Council England to the tune of almost £100,000, the festival consisted of six fulllength performances (we invited two guest producers to join us in creating one each) and a pilot performance created in four parts by us.

While we could draw on some experience negotiating access to public and private sites, we were not prepared for the virulent official responses our proposals would meet, nor for the volatility of what seemed, by all appearances, to be a rather benign tourism-inflected site, nor yet for the unnerving impact of working outside and exposed to public gaze both upon ourselves and upon the performers we employed for the festival.

The quayside at Exeter (Devon, UK) has been used at least since Roman times, though Hellenist coins discovered locally suggest a trade with the Mediterranean at least three centuries prior to Roman invasion. By the early medieval period, Exeter was an important port, despite the disruption of river traffic by landowners downriver who constructed weirs (partly to harness the water for mills, partly to favour their own quay at Topsham). In the mid-sixteenth century the Exeter Ship Canal was opened (long pre-dating Industrial Revolution canal building), bypassing the weirs; by the early eighteenth century Exeter was the third most significant trade centre in the country. Far from sources of coal and iron, it did not expand like many other towns and cities in the nineteenth century (Hoskins 1960).

This stasis provoked some anomalies; while the public politics of other nineteenth century cities saw great demonstrations of organised labour, Exeter's street politics were locked into the sectarianism of the Reformation with popular spectacles of religious public theatre as likely to morph into bread riots and pitched battles with the locally-based cavalry as into fireworks and bonfires (Smith 2004, 99-101). A local government dominated by brewers presided over infant mortality rates that exceeded others nationally; and a sophisticated and adventurous intellectual class, capable of innovative thinking-for example, the first proposals for an astro-archaeology that has only very recently become mainstream-was masked by the city's performance of itself as a provincial county town (ibid., 109-110).

The Quay area reflects this history. The extravagant seventeenth century Custom House is not matched by voluminous nineteenth century warehouses or twentieth century cranes. Modest bonded warehouses have been converted into offices and the small fish market stands empty. The area was used as a location for the original 'Poldark' TV series.

Nowadays there is no commercial shipping on the Quay or Ship Canal. Its last manifestation was the "shit boat" (officially the 'Countess Weir', an echo of those medieval disputes over control of the river) that carried the city's human waste out to the open sea until 1997. …

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