between clowning + activism: A trickster laboratory at COP26 took place at Surge in Glasgow from 25 October to the 4 November. A talented crew of clowns, theatre makers and activists (from across the UK and Scotland) joined Jay Jordan and I to continue our exploration of the meeting point of clowning and activism, this time against the backdrop of the UN Global Climate Conference.
We arrived the week prior to the start of the conference but already the streets were teaming with police. A record 10000 police were going to be deployed each day, with officers drafted from across Scotland and the rest of the UK. The conference site was zoned off, with access to certain sites limited to delegates or ticketed public. Our residency was based in the centre of Glasgow so we kept our focus and play in our immediate location.
There were various elements we wanted to explore during the week including:
After a very heady Trickster Lab in Bristol I really wanted to root our week in the embodied practice of clowning. We began each day with movement explorations and clown, butoh, bouffon exercises, all the while building group trust, listening, complicity and the ensemble.
Not to say discussions didn’t happen. JJ employed quadrant and spectrum lines which allowed us to explore the degree to which we felt like an artist or activist, whether the future was utopian or dystopian and how willing were we to get arrested.
I proposed that we approached the ten days in the spirit of research; with a willingness to try, and to fail, to reflect and try again.
Over the residency we were able to try THREE different experiments.
Experiment #1 - Clown as Shaman
We had explored psychomagic and ritual in our previous residency and working with the theory that clowns are actually out of work shamans. We were interested if the clowns could reclaim their roles and work as shamans for this epoch.
We also wanted to explore clown ritual as a form of direct action; as a reciprocal type of theatre. In the carnivalesque and ritual, the boundaries between audience and performer dissolve. The same happens during Samhuinn (Halloween – 31 October) when the veil between the worlds thins. This date also marked the start of COP26.
Inspired by the international delegates attending the conference, the clowns enacted a 4 hour ritual as delegates of Inverbellow on Samhuinn night. Inverbellow is a fictional, inbetween world, a place beneath the earth, an alternative reality in which the clowns pulled down the statue of James Watt in George Square at the start of the event. It was Watt’s invention of the steam engine that was integral to the birth of the Industrial Revolution and to mime pulling his statue down was a symbolic and transgressive act that set the tone of our play.
The clown delegates then walked a pentagram across the city to invoke the five elements: Earth; Water; Air; Fire; and, Spirit. A ritual was conducted at each point to bless and protect life, or to hex the institutions’ (including HMRC, an energy firm, an investment bank) who’s business as usual threaten our existence.
The ritual was helped by the people of Glasgow who we encountered or meandered with us including a homeless man who took on the spirit of Donald Dewar, a group of Emos who wondered what drugs we were on… and special thanks to the police van who spotlighted our Fire Sex Magic Ritual with their van headlights. We ended where we began, at the top of Buccannan Galleries, with a giant ceilidh with crowds spilling out of the concert hall, which sealed the spell.
The conclusions of that work and the spells that were cast are still to be determined as this work is energetic and magic can take a little while to take effect.
Reflecting more practically on the clown ritual, this action created interesting tensions between different elements; enacting a ritual theatre, creating spectacle for an audience and responding to the world through clown play. Each element pulled in different directions and I found I never fully lost myself in any particular element nor am I sure we did any of them very well. There were certainly magic moments, but over four hours you would certainly hope that would be the case.
As the second week at Surge started COP26 was underway and offered us the opportunity to be more targeted in our experiments. This also provided context to our play.
Experiment #2 - Operation Confuse aka Builders of the New World
As a group of construction workers we attempted to go undercover and join a heavily policed Greenwashing march run by XR. There was an expectation for a lot of spicy actions so the police were on high alert and out in huge numbers. We exited Surge’s building in pairs, hoping to avoid police attention, but our props drew attention: a wheelbarrow filled with a balloon, a kid’s plastic spade and bucket, a thermos of tea and biscuits; a plastic road barrier and a piece of 2x4 wood.
Two blocks down the road and each pair of builders had a tail of cops behind them. The wheelbarrow was searched numerous times, there were several attempts to take our barrier away and the plank of wood was forcibly removed.
We had caught up to the march and thoroughly enjoying creating confusion for our large police escort. It also took 15 MET officers to remove and then stand guard around our barrier.
But as we got separated from the march our ‘power’ and ‘status’ diminished until an annoyed Welsh policeman, berated the clowns like children threatening to confiscate the wheelbarrow if we moved…literally anywhere. We finally managed to escape back into the Surge building with no further losses but all a bit shaken by the oppressive force the police demonstrated that day.
Experiment #3 - Operation Imitate aka Mock the Police
For our final experiment we had built up enough courage to imitate the police. At the Greenwashing March the day before the clowns had had first hand experience of the bullyish, heavy handed and oppressive behaviour of the police. This put both fear and fire into the clowns. For those who were game they returned the next day. We devised a set of choreographies that cop clowns could do including; inspections, peeing against a wall and joyless skipping.
We headed to an XR march that was heading to BAE Systems (a British multinational arms, security, and aerospace company) in Govan. This gave us an opportunity to play with our target. The heavy police presence was once more protecting the wealth rather than the citizens, found lined in stupid numbers outside the gate.
The peaceful XR protest had culminated in speeches, so the clowns hung back, aware of not wanting to pull focus. As the speeches wrapped up the clowns swooped in, conducting uniform inspections to police desperately not wanting to engage.
The clowns then found themselves sandwiched between police and press and photographers. Here an absurd spectacle unfolded as the clowns, firstly standing with and imitating the police began to strip off their clothes because climate change made them ‘hot’. Unable to move, the police had become both audience and backdrop and highlighted the absurdity of their presence.
These images ended up in the Guardian and on Sky news.
Some of the learnings from the Trickster Laboratory @ COP26
CONFUSE – rather than confront
One of the learnings as construction worker was that it was more effective to confuse rather than confront the police. For the clowns who leaned into the conflict, their force was met with force and you can’t win against the police like that. There are more interesting possibilities if you do the unexpected and absurd and it keeps authority guessing.
PARODY – mock authority
The clown cops standing alongside police and then descending into chaos and nudity provided a priceless image, one which mocked authority and diminish its power.
Here the clown is able to be utterly subversive: through them the boundaries that give authority its power disappear; the clown can inhabit a place outside these power relations. In a way they become untouchable.
And it shows the audience, the onlooker, the public and the police the reality of their own roles in coercion, self-censorship and inhibition.
NOSE – or no nose?
The ‘nose’ offers a clear signpost that we were clowns and that we were playing and non-threatening. This gives onlookers a choice to watch or to join in. From this non-threatening place we can get away with a lot more. The clowns were able to get really close to police; inspecting their uniforms, standing alongside and sitting on their van. The serious mode of the policing role means they cannot ‘play’ along with the clowns, and to move against them could show their own absurdity and create great or ridiculous press images. For the most part, the clowns in ‘noses’ were left alone unlike the builders who were harassed and berated.
For performers, the ‘nose’ helps them to access the clown state more easily. From here a sense of wide-eyed wonder, of complicity, of play and bafflement can be accessed. Performers were able to follow clown logic with more playful and satiric results than anything dreamed up on paper or in conversation.
FAILURE - the spirit of discovery
In the spirit of the clown we approached the laboratory as research, with curiosity, questions and a willingness to fail. This proved invaluable because we saw every outing as an experiment. We built in reflection so we could to uncover what worked and what to do next time. Rarely as activists do we have time to try, hone, repeat, tweak as we’re on the treadmill of urgency and immediacy, so this provided an exciting model for moving forward.
The clown provides a constant invitation to play. Which I believe play is enormously political act.
In play we can activate our imaginations, create collective new worlds and inspire hope in these dark times.
Robyn is a Bristol-based director, teacher and performer. With over 20 years experience she is a passionate practitioner of clowning, physical theatre, circus and street arts. She has a MA in Circus Directing, a Diploma of Physical Theatre Practice and trained with a long line of inspiring teachers including Holly Stoppit, Peta Lily, Giovanni Fusetti, Bim Mason, Jon Davison, Zuma Puma, Lucy Hopkins and John Wright.
Over the past five years she has been exploring the meeting point of clowning and a deep desire to address the injustices in the world. This specialism has developed through her Masters Research ‘Small Circus Acts of Resistance’, on the streets and in protests with the Bristol Rebel Clowns and in research residencies with The Trickster Laboratory.
Robyn’s Activist Clown research has led to collaborations with Jay Jordan (Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, France), Clown Me In (Beirut), LM Bogad (US), Hilary Ramsden (Greece) and international Tricksters; ‘The Yes Men’ (US).
During the pandemic in 2020, Robyn set up The Online Clown Academy with Holly Stoppit and developed a series of Zoom Clown Courses. Robyn’s research, started during her Masters, has been exploring the meeting point of clowning and activism, online, in the real world and with international collaborators. With this drive to explore political edges of her work she has also dived back into the world of the Bouffon; training with Jaime Mears, Bim Mason, Nathaniel Justiniano, Eric Davis, Tim Licata, Al Seed and the grand master Bouffon-himself; Philippe Gaulier.
Keen to explore the intersection of clowning and politics, Robyn is driven to create collaborative, research spaces, testing and pushing the limits of the artform to create new knowledge and methodologies for her industry and strengthen partnerships for future work. Some of her most recent collaborations and teaching projects have included the Nomadic Rebel Clown Academy (5-day Activist Clown Training), The Laboratory of the Un-beautiful (Feminist Grotesque Bouffon Training for Womxn Theatre Makers) and the Clown Congress (annual gathering of clowns, activists & academics collectively exploring what it means to be a clown in this current era)