Go Deeper

What’s Going On Inside Our Heads As We Read: Interview with Ant Hampton

Posted August 2nd, 2013
At Pepper Hall at Parkway Central Library, Philadelphia Free Library.

At Pepper Hall at Parkway Central Library, Philadelphia Free Library.

This September, during regular hours at the Free Library of Philadelphia, two audience members sit side-by-side with headphones on and a pile of books in front of them. Cues some from words written and whispered, guiding audiences on an unlikely path through a pile of books. The Quiet Volume, coming to the 2013 Fringe Festival, is one of the latest of Ant Hampton’s Autoteatro works, a self-generated and “automatic” performance that places the audience as performer and spectator. An article in The New York Times described The Quiet Volume as a “drama of turning pages, pointing fingers and eerily drifting thoughts.” Earlier this year, we caught up with Ant (who created the work with author and theater artist Tim Etchells) to discuss how this show came to be.

FringeArts: Why is the show called The Quiet Volume? Was there a specific incident that inspired the show?

The Quiet Volume_Ant Hampton, Tim Etchells_Ant Hampton_Photo courtesy of Ant HamptonAnt Hampton: Regarding the name, aside from the pun about volumes which can work in several other languages, I chose it mainly because I knew the piece would be an attempt to listen to what’s going on in our heads when we read—what exactly is happening during “silent reading.” It’s something very hard to grasp–something you have to tune into. So I liked the idea of volume in that sense—as a dial perhaps, that you have to carefully adjust. And then it was very clear from the start that any recorded voices would be whispered, for two reasons: firstly it’s just weird to listen to any other kind of voice in the reading room of a library, but secondly because of how our whispering voices are more similar than our speaking voices. This was quite a discovery—I’m always either up against or fascinated by the problem of being “in excess” vocally: how our voices leak or belie our identities, or how acutely receptive we our to the differences in each other’s voices. In The Quiet Volume the whispering allows the guiding voice to indicate, point, suggest without the listener being too bound up, to begin with at least, with questions about who it is speaking.

FringeArts: Was there a specific incident that inspired the show?

Ant Hampton: In 1999, I made my first show with instructions to an unrehearsed performer. Around that time my notebooks were full of what I thought then were just conceptual ideas for possible shows—and some of these were the beginnings of Autoteatro, like Etiquette, attempted in 2001 then eventually created with Silvia Mercuriali as Rotozaza and launched in 2007 [and was part of the 2008 Live Arts Festival]. There was also back then an idea for “a show which is a book”—there were ideas for turning pages and doing very simple things with objects, hands, even sections of the page.

FringeArts: What’s the process of creation in such a work? What are some of the steps from idea to performance?

Ant Hampton: This is quite a big question to answer! For me it started with the impulses as described above, which were then expanded conceptually with Tim [Etchells], whose own writings on the “dramaturgy” of reading [check ’em out here] had sparked the initial idea for the collaboration. These impulses and concepts then found form a little more in discussion with Lola Arias and Stefan Kaegi who commissioned the work for their itinerant/site-specific festival Ciudades Paralelas—for example discovering some practical things like not being able to include any speaking at all, not even whispering. By the time the work with Tim began things were quite clear on what form it would take: two people, each with headphones, the books, and some kind of guiding agency, which after various experiments with index cards and marginalia we eventually decided worked best as a kind of manual/notebook—we didn’t want it to accidentally compete with the actual literature, either in terms of appearance or content.

Tim and I worked sporadically and remotely over a long period followed by a month or two of more intense and focused sessions. The first of these was in the British Library; subsequently we found it okay to work pretty much anywhere and imagine those surroundings. We worked in all kinds of unusual places on the project—hotel foyers, trains (very often), other people’s kitchens. The general process was about creating rough versions and trying out as much as possible: quick recordings using a portable Zoom mic, and in developing the guide we used a lot of hasty printouts, cutting out and gluing lines of text into exercise books.

The show at a really nice looking library in Berlin.

The show at a really nice looking library in Berlin.

FringeArts: What do you look for in a collaborator?

Ant Hampton: Since my work with Silvia Mercuriali as Rotozaza I’ve been collaborating a lot with different people, which I really enjoy. It’s easy to see how each project is defined by the person I’m sharing the work with—it’s the main reason they’re so different, despite all of them in some way exploring the Autoteatro form.

Tim and I had already worked together on other projects since around 2004, for example the protest curatorial project True Riches, but this was the first real “collaboration.” The way our separate practices and interests came together with The Quiet Volume was pretty neat. Tim talks eloquently about it here. Of course it was a huge pleasure working with someone so experienced both in terms of creating performance and working with/thinking about “words on the page”—it was also a great challenge: I learn something from anyone I work with, but with Tim this was especially the case, as anyone who knows his work can probably imagine.

FringeArts: How did you and Tim decide on which books and the “story” to drive the experience?

The Quiet Volume_Ant Hampton, Tim Etchells_Participants_Photo by Ant Hampton 9

Ant Hampton: This was probably the most important and difficult challenge, and the reason why we ended up creating so much material that was never used: for every book we thought we were going to work with—failed candidates included Tolstoy and Pessoa as well as some magazines, children’s books and James Bond novels—we tried out a whole lot of different ideas. We felt it was right that the first novel you pick up should be read from the beginning, but that in itself was a challenge: usually it takes a while to get into reading, but in the context of an hour long show we don’t have that time, so we were looking for the reading equivalent of a Ferrari, something with great acceleration. The Saramago was exactly that—and something I’d been experimenting with for a while already (see this blog post with some fascinating contributions to the experiments from readers). Both this book and the Agota Kristof were recommendations from a friend the Slovenian writer/philosopher Mladen Dolar, whose own writings on voice have been a continual source of inspiration.

FringeArts: Can you tell us about the origins of Autoteatro? How has this medium continued to be a creative form for you?

Ant Hampton: In 2007 Silvia and I created Etiquette which was both the first Autoteatro work and the last of our collaboration as Rotozaza. It came about following eight years of creating many different performance works involving instructions to unrehearsed guest performers, different every night. The way that all came about is outlined in detail here:

You might think that the more pieces you make the less there is to do subsequently, like you’re crossing things off a list somewhere, but actually there’s a paradox in how each new piece throws up a bunch of new questions and possibilities, so that there is now exponentially more I want (even need) to do with the Autoteatro “device” than there was when I started.

Thanks Ant!

The Quiet Volume
By Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells

Sept 7–22, click here for tickets and show times.

Free Library of Philadelphia
Parkway Central Library
1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103