Performance artists turn statistics into rice

More than a grain of truth: statistics are translated into piles of rice swissinfo.ch

Give a British theatre group eight tonnes of rice and they will show you Switzerland.

This content was published on August 10, 2007 - 12:02

Birmingham-based Stan's Cafe brings statistics alive by using grains of rice – piles of which have been drawing crowds in Fribourg this summer.

Dressed in brown dustcoats and ties, the five performers appear to have stepped out of a British hardware shop from the 1950s.

"It makes us look like workers and creates a formal atmosphere, where we are sincere and careful with the rice," troupe member Heather Burton told swissinfo.

On the day swissinfo attended the installation, called "Of all the people in all the world", a group of 15- to 17-year-old students was also present. Each pupil was asked to pick a grain of rice and place it on a piece of paper before sitting down.

Burton then used the small pile to explain that each grain represented a person in the room and that this was the basis of the exhibition they would see later.

The pupils appeared afraid to speak English in front of their peers, but one girl was not so shy – given that she was an exchange student from the United States.

As Burton explained that rice was a perfect material to depict statistics about people, the student piped up: "So, what you're saying is that people are like rice and like rice, they can be eaten and that they can eat each other?"

That clearly was not what Burton was saying but she looked astonished that at least one pupil was listening to her.

"Instructive"

"[Young people] have never encountered a performance installation and the initial reaction is confusion and resistance to the idea," Burton later explained.

"That's why it's so important we are able to give them some information before they see it."

Once the workshop was over, the students were led into the actual room where the installation was set up. Their amazement was apparent.

Imagine going into a wood-beamed room with a high ceiling and spotlights shining on piles of rice: some minute and others gargantuan.

The students told swissinfo they thought trying to bring population statistics alive by translating people into rice was a great idea.

"Seeing the statistics displayed visually is very interesting – better than the numbers by themselves," said 15-year-old Soraya.

Seventeen-year-old Steve said he found the installation "very well done", as his peers pelted him with rice.

One teacher found the installation "fun and instructive". "It's easy for pupils to see how long people live in Switzerland. Otherwise it's difficult for pupils to imagine what the numbers actually mean," she explained.

Simplicity

On this stop on Stan's Cafe's European tour, the rice on display amounted to nearly half a billion grains.

The largest pile contained 150 million grains, representing the global viewing figures for the Eurovision song contest in 2006.

This mountain dwarfed its neighbour: the pile representing the Swiss population, which contained a mere 7.5 million grains.

Troupe member Jack Trow said the beauty of the installation was its simplicity. "A lot of Stan's Cafe's work is low-tech. It creates an old-fashioned aesthetic. We do have computers but everything else is from a different era. It's part of the performance."

Burton and Trow explained that the rice is always provided by the venue and never goes to waste once the installation moves on. The rice in Fribourg for example would be going to a local zoo.

And did the group favour a particular type of rice?

"We prefer long grain for its shape and size. We like its humanoid quality!" said Burton.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza in Fribourg

Of All The People In All The World

One grain of rice = one person

Statistics displayed could cover:
- the populations of towns and cities
- the number of doctors, soldiers
- the number of people born each day, the number who die

The statistics are arranged in labelled piles.

The show adapts to its setting, the country, city and building it is in.

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