Hunter & Gatherer and Ayodele Arigbabu
Visions for the National Theatre of Nigeria
The making of ‘performative leaflets’
When exploring a complex object like the National Theatre of Nigeria, one may do so through a variety of registers, approaches, or methodologies, such as those developed through Fischbeck’s/Kötter’s filmic exploration, or Andreas Müller’s political reading of architectural-social space. In our own approximation to the NT we started by considering how our role as professionals within the Architecture field might be conditioning and could itself condition the question/exploration of the National Theatre of Nigeria. One of the pitfalls immediately obvious to us in this regard was that the State Theatres project would always be in some way conditioned by our presentation within the project as professional architects – in other words, the project’s actual constituency has a bearing on the way the project is perceived. This framing of our observations, regardless of the specific production that would be generated thereof, can be very easily instrumentalised or mis-constructed as a “technomanagerial”, objective, and ultimately modern investigation. Presenting ourselves within an art project as architects we inevitably fall into the role of “consultants”, which we think can be problematic in the context of an exhibition where the core of the work will stand as artistic and our input, if purely displayed in an architectural format, might be interpreted as somehow legitimising the subject matter with a varnish of ' technical expertism'. With this as a starting point we explicitly decided to adopt a more performative research position, yet without renouncing our condition as architects.
This consideration was also born out of the actual process of thinking about the National Theatre. The building firstly originated as a monument, a representation of modernity that was imported to impose a presence on the African/world stage - it was originally built to host the 2nd World Black and African festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 1977). The National Theatre was meant to represent the cultural (and therefore social, political, etc) advancement of Nigeria through modern construction within an important moment of its national history. The building was therefore more of a symbol or a sign than a purely technical entity - functionality was considered a secondary issue, in favour of its monumental and symbolic dimension. The inclusion of Architect's sketches on a wall could be interpreted as a similar representation of modernity, where technical legitimisation in the form of functional solutions takes over the more important aspect of the building as a cultural sign. The idea of modernity hinges around functional planning - of which sketching is the archetypical modern act. We thought that a discourse presented in this form could be interpreted as a series of 'solutions' based upon functional issues, whilst in fact the reality of the National Theatre is far more complex than only issues of accessibility, typology, or air conditioning. Its nature is symbolic and performative (the representation of an aspiration and a certain standard), not functional. When approaching the NT as a cultural object, we thought concentrating on functionality was missing the point - thus we decided to communicate at a cultural level (of which Architecture is but one of many elements). We believe 'cultural programming' should precede and inform 'architectural programming' as an intervention, leading to a symbiotic relationship that eventually transforms the building as a sign.
In our pursuit of a more performative approach - one born out of our condition as architects, yet stretching out into the context of the National Theatre as a cultural sign - we considered ways in which the representation of the ideas we have been discussing around the National Theatre could adopt a less functional or technical form. It would be more interesting, we thought, if our engagement was the result of an interaction, or the adoption of a certain performative role, such that the product of our engagement could be a document rather than a 'finished' product or something tending towards a 'solution'. We discussed using a model of the building as raw material to engage with a series of non-architects, in the quest for collecting non-functional approaches; perhaps a catalogue of myths, historical interpretations, contemporary frustrations, and hopeful futures. Other ideas involved introducing a notion of disfunctionality within the discussion between ourselves, to see what came out of the struggle. Eventually, we started considering that as a public building, the most interesting aspect is the fact that the programming of the building is very static, whilst in fact as a cultural sign it may be inhabited by a variety of uses that would evidence a diverse set of symbolic dimensions. Rather than tampering with the architecture itself (an easy and seductive approach, yet prescriptive and invasive) we thought it would be interesting to examine representations of the building as it is, yet managed in a very different way. Today it is a hollow symbol, but its monumental power and historical disregard for function actually make it an ideal canvas for an entire nation's self-projection.
The question of identity and self-projection is still very much alive in Nigeria, as we could see from our conversations in Lagos. There is a tendency to caricature the debate of Nigerian identity with the dichotomy of Mimesis vs. Originality. 'We should not copy the West, but discover our own identity'. Given Nigeria's youthfulness as a nation, this position is understandable. Yet clearly culture is born out of a diverse set of influences and inputs, whereby the concept of 'original culture' quickly becomes irrelevant. Rather than "Mimesis Vs Originality", perhaps the question of defining contemporary Nigerian culture (and representing it via symbolic state symbols such as the NT) should be more an effort of Aggregation: "Mimesis + Originality". This idea of culture as aggregation involves thinking of identity as layered influences.
We asked ourselves, how can we communicate this cultural layering within representations of the building (of which functionality, and the performance of architecture as a discipline are undoubtedly important elements)? We could consider the NT as a canvas on which to represent the complexity of national identity itself.
We have adopted a format well suited to the recruitment of an audience to experience the performative essence of a cultural space - Tourist leaflets.
In this format, we can display different, opposing, and complimentary layers of national identity. Also, an over-saturation of the building's possibilities as a cultural sign, and an invitation to explore the diverse ways in which the place/symbol could be re-programmed or managed, perhaps pre-empting a new architectural dimension in the process.
This format gave us the opportunity to engage performatively with the building itself, the performativity of architecture (questions of representation, space, and culture), and use a multiplicity of voices to provoke diverse visions of the building, not only in terms of function, but of national values. This provocation engages the mind of the audience by assigning them a performative role as cultural tourists.
We therefore set out to exhibit a shelf of A4 folded tourist brochures, each representing a different vision of what the National Theatre could accommodate - different uses speaking with different values and eliciting different readings from different audiences. In doing this, we reduced the architecture of the National Theatre to a symbolic shell but in allowing the audience to experience diverse versions of what the building could do, and perhaps choosing one that best represents them, we brought more possibilities to the building’s iconography.
The making of these leaflets would be performative in itself as we would be engaging with the National Theatre by staging new forms of use represented in the leaflets via real and fictional images, interviews, etcetera, borne out of a performative interaction with the building. We produced a total of seven leaflets, each of which was reproduced in quantity. We considered leaflets for the following uses for the National Theatre:
1. Vineyard / Wine Conferencing Center
2. Performative museum of Nigerian history
4. Mall / Transport hub
5. Elitist private business school
6. Religious building / convention center
These categories seek to de-stabilize the building’s image as a national theatre and provoke questions that resonate with Lagos’s contemporary cultural reality. They purposefully walk the line between utopian and dystopian appropriations and distortions of Nigerian culture to engage viewers in the discussion of what national identity is and how it may be imagined, packaged, exploited and consumed.