Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Ron Athey – Gifts of the Spirit: Automatic Writing, Manchester

I am waiting in what appears to be a gothic lounge in a building of the University of Manchester and the air is already thick with humid art-speak. The room is also thick of people sporting tattoos, piercings and occultist Heavy Metal T-Shirts, a display of some half remembered connection with the spiritual and religious meaning these marks once communicated, and it could be a show of affinity with the tattooed and pierced Athey himself.

Before I can really think about it I notice that people are drifting away, so for reasons unknown I get up and follow them. Luckily the reason for the movement was prompted by the start of the performance. There's a curious tension in the scholastic surroundings of the Whitworth Hall, as I join the other members of the audience wondering around the imagined Victorian Gothic romance of the hall. Perhaps they trying to decide what they should focus on, the people on the giant white cross splayed across the floor, the table of mediums(?) on the stage or the empty looking people waiting at typewriter set against the walls of the hall. It's a big difference from the more formal and traditional way I saw his performance of The Judas Cradle way back in 2005.

Or maybe the tension is in me, as my own work has dealt with similar themes I have this feeling that I can see the strings as it where, it leads me to question what are we engaging with here? A genuine attempt to contact something unknown and beyond our understanding? Or just a collection of the symbols and actions which we associate with such notions of supernatural investigation? Are we meant to see it within the context of art history, the attempts of the Surrealists to connect without the aid of spirits with their mediumistic selves.

I guess these thoughts are rattling somewhere around my head as I watch the 'writers' scrawl across the giant cross I am not interested in what they are writing, the writing seems it become part of the drone of the church organ and Athey's voice. I begin to wonder how much is contrived and how much is spontaneous, how much is predetermined by Athey's hand. I also have think about how much of my own actions have been predetermined, well perhaps not predetermined but it appears that a certain set of conditions have been laid down. Of course the two major conditions would have to be supernatural aspect and the conventions of performance itself.

By allowing the audience to meander away the space, focusing on no fixed point could be considered an element of the performance itself. As the performance proceeds I note a change in the audience who change from standing at a distance to getting closer to the performers, some peer over the shoulders of the 'writers' as if they are ghosts and cannot be seen by the performers. Once a audience member enters a space within the hall others follow. In our actions as audience I begin to see a relation between us and the 'writers' each follow unseen paths, increasingly become more involved in what is happening around them. I wonder, admittedly retroactively, if we have become to a degree Automatic Viewers allowing or giving ourselves to the context and conditions to the piece.

When a Thank You, breaks through the storm of organ drone, yelping voices and keys clicking the spell appears to be broken and the audience reconfigures returns to its pre-performance set and begins to examine the detritus left behind as if to decode what just happened. I leave the space and step outside, its cooler and wetter; something has changed at least that's what I want to believe.


Monday, 20 June 2011

The Breakfast Sculpture – Mel Birmfield, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The history of performance/live/body art (whatever you want to call it) has been a problematic one, dealing as it does with works which are ephemeral. Once the event is over it begins a separate life experienced through documentation moving into the more traditional modes of the gallery. This also provides live art with one of its strengths, to create a sense of mythology a world of coyote loving, glass crawling, and stalkers all experienced second hand with only the word of the artist and gallery that this did happen.

It is this complex relationship that Mel Birmfield exploits, creating a series of artists and performances which meld the history of art and popular culture through a series of staged photographs and imagined TV documentaries in order to create a parallel performance universe. As with many parallel universes it throws up some incredible possibilities, for example, a series of performances which sees the creation geometric shapes by throwing balls in the air, it's something that leaves you wishing that it was real. Perhaps that reflects the need in us the viewer (or just me) for art to transcend itself and to open up unknown possibilities.

Another element of Brimfield's practice is her inclusion of popular culture, within her parallel universe Eric & Ernie are equals with Gilbert & George, this use of pop culture is evident in the Breakfast Sculpture performance. Given as it starts with an introduction from Sir Francis Splading, the fictitious host of This is Performance Art TV series, he is a signifier of what is expected from such a position, eccentrically dressed and posh, he gives a knowing introduction to the proceedings which also pokes fun at the art system. This leads into a piano recital where the pianist plays badly, in the style of Les Dawson (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nNGlaiVypU ) I can't help but think of this as a manifesto for the whole performance. For to deliberately play a piece of music badly you really have to understand it, this can be applied to the whole performance, in order to produce a successful spoof of performance art you should have a solid understanding of your subject.

And the New Art Club do as they take to the stage (or rather the suitably shabby '60s gym where all sat in) and go through a series of dance moves which shows us that they can dance but also shows up the clichés of contemporary dance. They kick, jump and do that rapid hand movement, you know what I mean it kind of looks like the doggy paddle; there is also a sequence about the enforced improvisation brought on by the mistakes of another performer.

Eventually they move into the finale the famous 'Breakfast Sculpture'. Using Morecombe and Wise's 'Breakfast Sketch (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFgdhZGLJrY ) as a basis, it's interesting to see something which has been a part of my life in a different context. Seeing in this way makes me think about what motivates us to create, being someone who has happily been 'informed' by TV shows, the reference to Eric & Ernie makes perfect sense as these 'performances' we see on television during our childhood influence us as much, or even more then, anything we discover during our drunkenly pretentious years at Uni. Depending on your age your initial inspiration to take up the brush could have been one of the following: Tony Hart, Rolf Harris or Neil Buchanan

Mel Birmfield in a way has acknowledged the place that people like Morecombe and Wise could hold within the history of performance art, it sounds like a bold statement but also remember that Gilbert and George where also partly inspired by the music hall duo Flanagan and Allen so there's precedent.



Sunday, 12 June 2011

‘poolside emergency 2011, The Bluecoat

2011 sees the second collaboration (or should that be collision?) between The Bluecoat and Manchester's greenroom arts. Whatever you want to call it, there's no doubt that it offers an intriguing programme of live art and all the forms, positions and places it can take.

I am not going to attempt to write a comprehensive overview of the whole day. I am going to write about two pieces which reflect the possibilities that a platform like 'poolside offers to the viewer and artists alike.

The first piece is Victoria Firth's The Butter Piece, put simply this sees the artist pushing a knob of butter with her vagina while the artist menstruates. The piece has been underway of a while when I enter the space to see Victoria naked at one end of a gantry, everything is bathed in a golden light and the room is filled the sound of a droning chant. I also imagine that this is what it might have felt like seeing one of the 'body art' pieces from the '70s.

It's difficult to describe the position Victoria is in, it's an awkward position I guess it's the best for pushing butter. She crawls along the gingerly down the gantry and it feels 'painful' I don't know if that's a response to the vulnerable position she's put herself in or what. When she stops and there's a sharp intake of breath it's a shocking moment, strangely I don't know whether it's a moan of pleasure or pain and what the difference between the two is, I can't tell by her face as it's turned away from us focused on some spot way above our heads.

Maybe it's the combination of her actions and the monk like soundtrack makes this feel like an act of penitence or self-flatulation but what for? Her physicality? The fact that on a regular basis her body has to go through a process which involves bleeding? No, it isn't her shame it's our shame, our shame in our embarrassment of our own spurting, farting, bleeding bodies and our failure in coming to terms with the nature of our flesh.

The second piece is Pas de Deux by the Lab Collective. The stage for Pas de Deux is the lift in The Bluecoat's gallery, so after seeing The Butter Piece I head towards my pencilled in appointment where I discover that this Pas de Deux has become a Ménage à trois, by that I mean there is a second audience member taking part. The lift is called; the door opens to reveal a dancer who cheerfully welcomes us into the lift. He introduces himself and admits to being a Take That fan which leads into a story about a lost opportunity to meet Jason Orange. This may sound slight but when he asks us the audience, about our own regrets we offer them freely, this surprises me; I don't if I just have been swept up in the piece's good natured charm.

I think it's more than that, it's a simple and effective way of creating an experience which had me questioning why I had let those opportunities go, and perhaps I should act on the suggestion handed to me at the end of the performance, which was to: 'Buy a stranger a cup of tea'.

Both performances show how platforms like 'poolside work, by using live art's unique mutability it provides the audience the opportunity to engage in an experience slightly removed from the norm.

‘poolside emergency 2011

This year I was invited to write about some of the artists involved in The Bluecoat's 'poolside emergency, here is the link to said writing and so so much more…..