Performance Encyclopaedia

Performance Encyclopaedia is a participatory project by the Toronto-based artist collective, Public Recordings. The premise is simple: a group of writers convene pre-performance to compile an encyclopaedia in response to the themes of "making" and "witnessing" performance. Audiences receive a copy of the text on entering the performance space and are given an hour to read the text in whichever way they choose.

Past versions of the Encyclopaedia have been held at the Toronto Theatre Centre, the Art Gallery of York University, the Toronto Dance Community Summer Love-In and the Art Gallery of Ontario. I joined the production in Yokohama, as part of the Tokyo Performing Arts Meeting 2017 (TPAM). 

TPAM is a large-scale annual international gathering of theatre producers and practitioners in Japan's second largest city. It is both a dialogue on and around contemporary performance practice as well as a showcase of new works from around the world.

This particular version was drafted by a team of playwrights from Asia and beyond over the course of a week. The venue was Kawata Hall inside the BankArt complex in central Yokohama. This is an unusual space in that the walls and ceiling are entirely covered with wooden palettes, giving it a makeshift or temporary feel.

Audiences sat down at tables spread across the room and before long, two of the writers picked up mics and announced in English and Japanese that "the reading is the performance" and that it starts and ends with the sound of a bell.

For the next 60 minutes, the room was mostly silent as people leafed through their booklets, broken from time to time by small conversations. Some people photographed parts of the encyclopaedia with their smartphones, some took notes, others paused and observed the room.

On the surface, the show seems overly simplistic, almost a form of anti-theatre. But digging a little deeper, the experience of reading in a group was quite revealing.

On one level, there is something to be said for sealing off social time and space for personal reflection. Pressing "pause" on the weapons of mass distraction machine is an empowering sensation and brings into focus the increasing gap between consumer space and discursive space.

On another level, watching people read in different ways foregrounds the performative act of reading itself. There was an interesting tension at work between the encyclopaedia as the arch symbol of institutional and taxonomic power and the promiscuous nature of the reader who flicks, skips, rereads, cross-reads, copies, annotates and scribbles in the margins.

A second bell rang to signal the end of the performance. No further instructions were given and the audience made their way out of the space. There was a sense that no explanation of the explanations was needed.