SAFEWORD was a wee performance interaction I gave at Frock On Frock Off, a queer arts festival in Glasgay! It’s the start of my research for a new theatre project about consent. Two chairs, a table, a box of various toys, and this sign:
This was fairly low stakes for me: I was up front that it was more research than anything else, and so participants would have an interesting 15 minutes but not necessarily a coherent or mind-blowing artistic experience. Though some people did get to use a cat-o-nine-tails for the first time. I ran the experiment to find out what happens when you make participants explicitly consent to interaction in a performance space. Here’s some of what I learned:
- The frame immediately put people in a sexualised context, which they either embraced or shied away from as they preferred. Whether or not they would do anything remotely sexualised in the interaction was pretty much set in the first two minutes.
- That said, the framing lent every action investment and intensity. Everything was actively chosen, which made it hard to take anything casually. So even the interactions which were just conversations were a little heightened.
- In participatory theatre and one-on-ones, overcoming participants’ inhibitions is usually the primary challenge. I usually do this by making a really clear contract with participants (hence the sign) so they know what’s expected of them. For this interaction, because it was so open, I had to overcome my own. I was surprised by my own nervousness, my reluctance to flirt or suggest more risqué interactions. This improved as the afternoon went on and I felt more comfortable in my work.
- I am acutely aware of my gender and sexuality presentation and how this codes my flirts and my suggestions in the eyes of the participant. I am not yet entirely sure how to deal with it. I am not sure what is safe and what is not safe and when this matters.
- At first I tried to give participants more autonomy and decision-making power than myself, but the interaction was more exciting and more satisfying when I put myself on a more equal footing. That is, it was more interesting when I suggested as many activities as the participant. I had to allow myself to suggest things I thought might push their boundaries. This worked, and took us to trickier, more artistically rich places.
- People turn out to be much less au fait with BDSM contexts, terminology and objects than I’d expected.
- I continue to be fairly good at settling people in and helping them not feel nervous. I hope I can hold on to that while pushing the interaction into riskier places.
- As always, unless the very openness is the topic of artistic exploration, an interaction has to be carefully structured to allow interesting participation. This one was too open, though the box of toys very much helped.
That’s what I got! I like logging this stuff in case other interaction-designers find this useful. Otherwise, keep an eye out for something new SAFEWORDwise.