First and Second Wilderness or 'Playing at War'

First and Second Wilderness, (work-in-progress), Andy Field
ICA, Sunday 27th February 2011
(Part of Shunt's Live Weekender)

A cowboy's head looms out of a desert wasteland, a litany of tiny soldiers scattered behind him. Massive dollar bills float in and out of focus, as delicate bubbles make their slow descent. A legion of soldiers sinks into the sand and towards oblivion. Light travels curiously, always hasty but rarely helpful. Sounds tinkle through the air, sometimes threatening and, at other times, incongruously innocuous, like the banal bleeps of a computer game. 

This is Andy Field's 'First and Second Wilderness', created and projected at the ICA last weekend. This interactive show asks its audience members (all having signed up in advance and therefore willing participants) to experiment with cameras and war-themed props, with the aid of single-line prompts ('The one in which the soldier watches the sun set'). The result is then projected on two huge screens, facing onto the ICA Bar. 

Field is asking his volunteers and viewers to play at war. This is an excellent idea. There is, it seems to me, something innately and unavoidably fictional about war. To this generation, at least, war is a story, a game, a film, a show or a poem. Yes, there have been protests about Iraq and Afghanistan, but even the news coverage feels  distant. War is still a story. It is still something that happens somewhere else, to someone else. It remains a frustratingly remote concept. And although plays, such as Blackwatch, drive home the deafening boom that is a soldier's life, it still feels like someone else's battle. Indeed, the more successful artists become at depicting war, the more 'imagined' this concept feels. 

This is exactly what Field's inviting and inventive piece sets about exploring: just why are we so comfortable playing with war? How does this playful approach affect our perception of battle? And to what extent is popular culture at large (with computer games a particular emphasis in this show) influencing or even moulding our understanding of war?

Ultimately, Field intends the actual filming (performed in a small, basement room beneath the ICA bar) to stand alongside the projections. At the moment, you have to choose to watch one process or another. This singularity diminishes the experience, particularly when watching the projections, which are washed out and often plain impossible to make out.  

Seeing these two processes in tandem could prove very interesting. Last night, huge fingers loomed across the screen, dwarfing the tiny soldiers in their clutches. An idea emerges: these soldiers are pawns in a bigger game, beyond their control or reach. This idea could prove even more emphatic, were the puppeteers and their pawns projected in tandem. 

Situating the initial filming and final projection together could also result in a useful juxtaposition of the large and small, of cause and effect. Frequently, a tiny shake from the camera man leads too projected catastrophe; an entire landscape quakes, threatening to crumble in an instant. Again, this could reiterate important, nagging concerns about war; that it is really someone else's game, controlled by a few select, hidden figures. It could prove fascinating to see the string-pullers projected alongside the devastation their tiny moves create. 

Even without this contrast, the atmosphere in the 'dark room' is interesting and useful: participants, wearing miner hats to light their play, mess around with props in the sand, filming as they go. The props are simple - toy soldiers, party poppers, bubbles, cowboys, tin cars and an awful lot of sand - and the room has an easy atmosphere, much like a kids' schoolroom at playtime. Above all, it is a non-threatening space. This makes for uniquely natural collaboration; a wonderful and important change from the combative and conversely alienating approach that 'interactive' theatre companies so frequently adopt.

So, the nails are in place for an invitingly inclusive piece of theatre; a blank canvas for the audience to sketch in at will. But this sand-based creation is still very shaky and it is telling that the final projection is so significantly blurred. Above all, the technology could do with some tweaking and tightening. Although the lamps, attached to the film-makers' heads, create a pleasingly erratic and personal field of vision, they also result in long, filmed segments swamped in darkness. This might be atmospheric to a point but I think this piece could do with a (semi) sensible fixed lighting state, which the prop lights either accentuate or diminish.
It isn't only the lighting that's out of focus. At the moment, only the collaborators are privy to some sort of narrative. Down in the 'playroom', the viewers are taken through six levels (in the manner of a computer game), with each level bringing a new set of prompts. However, none of these lines make it onto the final projection. It is all good to have a show suffused with ambiguity but you there has to be something, no matter how light and subtle, pulling things together.

Near the end, I heard a couple of spectators suggest just this to Andy Field - that the filmmakers' narrative should/could be screened alongside the images. This discussion opened out: perhaps there could be a live commentary screened along the bottom? Perhaps Andy might pit the two audience halves against each other, with each half typing out and screening competing commentary? That Field has created a space in which viewers feel comfortable offering such comments suggests this show, though sketchy at present, could prove a playful but pertinent investigation into our tendency to romanticise, rather than realise, battle. 


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