A circus is an urban and architectural typology that offers performances in which fiction dissolves into reality to the point that fiction is no longer fiction. A series of curated scenographic encapsulations exhibit all sort of exaggerations, rarities, aberrations and extravagances that enact a grotesque caricature of reality. In the Circus, a group of people -usually seen as deviations of society- find their space of association, daily life and work within scenic and backstage spaces equipped with technological devices and materials. Those spaces are specifically designed for the execution of highly sophisticated performances in front of an audience that, in its most traditional version, watches and judges the skilled performance carried out by this group of non-actors exhibiting their non-fiction. According to Michel Foucault’s observations about Heterotopias, the Circus can be seen as a heterotopic spatial and social unit according to the following reasons:
As a spatial unit, it houses a series of utilisation functions and dynamics specifically designed for a very concrete sector of society that can be seen as a deviation, a non-normality. A circus is an enclosed space where several spaces and elements that would normally be considered incompatible are juxtaposed. For instance, a circus may present, in the same show, a performance with wild animals from the most distant corners of the world followed by an act in which women and men execute acrobatic movements. From a formal, functional and social viewpoint, a circus is a place that has an opening and closing system that keeps it isolated from its surrounding spaces. A circus is a performative space, access to which is allowed to individuals and groups. The opening times coincide with the times and dates when shows take place.
As all other heterotopias, Circuses have also mutated in line with the evolution undergone by societies. Since its early beginnings, circus was configured in round or elliptical spaces, where Greco-Roman citizens enjoyed the representation of battles, fights between people and animals, and many other spectacles… At that time, Circus and Amphitheatres were both associated with heavy stone and concrete architectures and where located in urban epicentres of the most important Roman cities. They functioned as political machines for the consolidation of social classes and control. Its success lied in both the construction of fear through the representation of punishment as a form of entertainment and in the control and occupation of citizen’s leisure time frames.
Since then, the circus has been involved in several mutations that have affected all its formal and functional components. After the fall of Rome, performers known as histriones –including animal trainers, ropewalkers, jugglers and acrobats among others- were forced to move on and wander Europe in search for new audiences. They organised themselves into small troupes and realised that it was easier to change audience than programme. To change audience, they had to change location. From then on, the Circus as an architectural typology became a complex and interesting typology that gained independence from the theatre spaces and became a travelling Heterotopia. This shift from the stationary theatre to the travelling show had architectural consequences. During the first half of the 19th Century, a circular tent was used for the first time to create the necessary isolation between the Heterotopia and the rest of the world.
In 1967, as a premonition to today’s social networks era, the philosopher Guy Debord wrote ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, a controversial book linked to the ideas developed by the situationist avant-garde movement, that flourished in France in the 1960’s. In his book, Debord claims that authentic social life had been replaced with its representation: “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” This reality has become even more obvious with the development of social media in the Internet era. The evolution of technological apparatuses have radically transformed the relations between reality and fiction, blurring the identities of citizens between the physical and digital realms, and making them part of a self-narrated surveillance and spectacle machine.This Design Studio will enquire the role of spectacle in the contemporary society through the development of contemporary typologies of Circus. It will also question the boundaries between audience and performers and navigate between reality and fiction to help students propose the ‘Circus as a Political Machine’ of our time.
The site will be Cockatoo Island, a rare spot in Sydney whose history is highly linked to heterotopias. A Circus Festival will “arrive in town”. In this Festival, the different Circus Machines -developed by each student- will collide with each other as well as with the different geographical and architectural conditions present in the island.