Smokers’ Ground views the diverse ways our society deals with enforced solitude, through exclusion.
The following text was developed in collaboration with choreographer Joshua Rutter and was written as part of an application to an open call for performances for the Belluard Festival 2018.
Smoking segregation is an enacted sublimation of a once socially acceptable activity, now assigned to poorly considered or explicitly uninviting spaces. A choreographic and spatial intervention within the arts festival social environment aims to metaphorically model political divisions within society beyond simplistic labels of tolerance or dogmatism.
In keeping within practical and legal constraints, Smokers’ Ground provides a pragmatic solution, allowing non-smokers and smokers alike freedom of choice in a safe environment, sensitive to economic and communal conditions that a festival bar, restaurant or public space may require.
However, each day an operation is performed to shift the bounds of this separation. The rights of public space are incrementally removed or denied from the smoking space, then redistributed in an altogether different way, offering an alternative approach to the difficult dynamic of exclusion. Smokers’ Ground can be considered a laboratory of time-based spatial organisation, in equal parts choreographic and architectural. Strategies of reward, punishment, tolerance, over-identification, solidarity, distribution of equality, each implies a political position that both the excluded and the non-excluded must negotiate.
This intervention does not draw into debate the legality of the individual’s right to smoke, nor the non-smokers’ right to clean air, rather it questions the dynamics of moral exclusion within a culturally functional society.
The artists will apply strategies with finite resources; temporary building materials such as sheets of plastic wood, aesthetic tools such as lights or decorative materials, environmental organic materials such as water or leaves, human social interactions using the presence of the artists themselves that reorganise the social and symbolic dimension.
Public space is a physical enactment of current political and social values. The past 10 years have seen enforced restrictions on smoking in public spaces (both indoor and outdoors) as a right, locally and globally. While scientific evidence renders smoking morally indefensible, those that choose to smoke are subject to an increasingly hostile public environment through legislation and coercive condemnation.
The smokers’ shelter. Spectacle of contemporary smokers shelters is one of excised subjection. Deemed unprofitable and therefore undesirable by the epidemiological concerns of civil society, the act of smoking is removed from public space with surgical precision. Modular and porous, the prefabricated architectures of smokers shelters tell a story of atmospheric isolation and control. Resembling the utility of security fencing or livestock runnels, the status of the smoker is made clear - citizens that cannot control their animal cravings and risk attacking others with the deathly vapours of their vice will be treated accordingly. To step into a smokers shelter is to step into a lowered, or at least peripheral, status. Any lingering seductive qualities of the renegade are cauterised by the spartan furnishings of state-sponsored ambivalence.
Hardline Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte recently introduced draconian smoking bans that eloquently illustrate a politics of intolerance. Images of high-security smoking stations in liberal democratic societies similarly point to the potentially totalitarian facility of architecture to subjectively exclude. German cultural philosopher Peter Soterdijk reminds us that ‘architecture is inherently a form of totalitarianism… Because it is concerned with immersion, that is, with the production of an environment into which its inhabitants submerge, body and all.’
(sketch by collaborator Joshua Rutter)
The smoker has become a solitary figure in the public sphere. Is it possible to redress this enforced solitude with humanistic empathy? Might we apply political theorist Chantal Mouffe’s model of agonism whereby a struggle for hegemonic control does not aim to subjugate minority ideologies? Mouffe’s work has been formative in rethinking the arts as a domain where a liberal insistence on consensus might be better served by maintaining a ‘given symbolic order’ through collectively rather than individually. Can the theory of agonism therefore be applied directly to Smokers Ground at the arts Festival? Is an increased tolerance the answer, when perhaps an acknowledgment antagonism between smokers and non-smokers holds a deeper complexity of understanding?
Can we re-imagine Smokers Ground without asserting a moral position at all?
Smokers’ Ground is in a constant state of change. Open to the public, to the smoking public, to non-smoking public and to non-public smokers, at times it may be totalitarian, at other times it may be a barely perceived social construction gently manipulated through suggestion. The boundaries may be entirely porous yet heavily connotated, a sense of difference may be oblivious or utterly blatant.
Smokers’ Ground has a fixed location within the the Festival Centre, yet the location may be open to transversal shift or allowable penetration of its borders. Signage and spatial markers create a highly familiar smokers corner environment at the opening of the festival, however daily interventions subvert this familiarity over the course of the festival.
Daily access to the space would allow for it to be transformed for the coming day. These interventions are likely to firstly include seating, lighting, aural environment, material confines such as visual or physical barriers, signage, organic elements.
As it develops there are to be more social structures applied to the space, such as transience, imposed or implied hierarchies, inconsistent access, privilege and disadvantage.
Written and visual material may also be used as way to subvert and provoke interaction.
It is imagined that there will be a variety of materials available to the artists on a day to day basis.
Smokers’ Ground is a discussion ground, not a fixed statement. As with any situation of complexity, those with vested interest and pragmatic necessity will have strong demands on the suitability of the smokers space, yet it will also be necessary to dislodge the position of certainty in order to allow new possibilities. The strength of this project will be in allowing the political dimension to surface within an already socially accepted point of difference. It is highly unlikely that smokers and non-smokers can be contested to change their position on whether or not the public should have the possibility to choose cigarette smoke or not, but the empathetic terms on which these are determined are highly reflective of who we are as a society.