Saturday 12 January 2008, Arnolfini, Bristol
image from Peoples In Pieces: 15 Storms in a Teacup (Good Shit evening programme)
Now this was a great way to start performance-going for 2008. The 8 pieces in the day-long programme worked beautifully together and there was a great vibe throughout the day. The evening programme was absolutely ramjacked and it was great to see so many local artists turn out to support the programme (and each other). I'm writing extended thoughts, so going to break this into two posts.
Here are some thoughts on each of the durational pieces:
Steve Robins: CoinageSteve called this "a contemplation on the weight of words." As part of his PhD research he's been keeping a journal, in which he wrote 80,000 words last year. This durational performance started with 80.000 pennies piled in 365 dated squares, gridded out on the floor of the Arnolfini foyer - the number of pennies in each square corresponding to the number of words written on each date. The action involved Steve collecting each pile of coins in a rucksack as a reading of each journal entry was played quietly from a CD player in the bag. When the rucksack was as heavy as he could take, Steve carried it up two floors to Arnolfini's Light Studio. In the Light Studio was a video installation of 2-screens, showing images of an arm struggling with the with the weight of a bag of coins, and a projection onto the floor, showing Steve lying naked over the pile of 80,000 pennies. Once he reached the installation, Steve would tip the pennies from the rucksack over the floor projection.
It took him 12 hours to move all the pennies from the foyer to the Light Studio.
I felt it was important to outline the whole action here as I think the detail and the labour of it is really crucial to the effect of the piece. Each detail offered an opportunity to reframe or underline the sheer endurance of the action. These were alternative ways to measure or demonstrate the duration/endurance of this action. There was the literal weight of the pennies (and boy, was that bag heavy after a few handfuls of pennies) and the literal time it took to get all the coins upstairs. There was the looped video of an arm struggling under the weight of a bag of coins - projected large enough to see the muscles spasm and quiver before eventually caving in, but then repeated on and on. Inexorably. There was the intimacy of the journal entries (you had to get quite close to Steve to hear the recording), and then the overriding sense of mundanity that came from hearing so many of them - the words I remember most repeated being: "Went to the gym," and, "here and now." The strain, frustration (boredom, even?) that grew on Steve's face and shoulders as the day went on. The expanse of the task marked out ahead of you in days and words ("you've been doing this for 4 hours and you've only got to 12 March?!?").
I don't know how to sum up the piece more succinctly. For me it was very much about the accumulation - hence all these lists. I found the scale of it really affecting (the sheer number of coins, the fact that the action took place through Arnolfini's full three floors). There's something very humbling and accessible about the use of pennies too. It didn't look like £800. You were more likely to think of a wishing well than a bank account. Steve's amiable persona was helpful too. There was no barrier between him and the audience. In fact, the level of the journal recordings actively invited people to get close to him. As the day wore on, I think he more and more valued the company and conversation of people who asked questions, gave responses or checked he was ok. Once the final bag of coins had been transferred upstairs, Steve collected as many of us as he could to attend his closing gesture - where he lay on the pile of coins, replicating the image projected on the floor. I'm glad he announced it as he really deserved that little round of applause. I can't imagine how lonely it would have been to close the action alone. The value in my experience of it was rooted in being encouraged (and able) to return to Steve throughout the day. In this way, it was never a lonely action - it was never just about the artist undertaking this task.
On a practical note, halfway through the gridding of the floor, they must have run out of white paint marker, as the rest was done in chalk, which disappeared as the coins were collected and the spaces were once more trodden. I know some people though differently, but for me, I liked that the painted dates remained - I think they spoke more of absence and time passed than the vanished squares. As well as being "a contemplation on the weight of words," this was also a piece about time, how time passes, what we accumulate over time and how things change over time. It was an effective, reflective experience and one that I've enjoyed thinking back over again.
Pete Barrett: Enough Rope
Another durational performance which I think benefitted considerably from having returned a few times to Steve Robins' piece, and having got into a mindset of spending time with the work. Pete's work is often about "making life difficult for himself" and his tasks are usually repetitive with more of an air of self-imposed punishment about them, than out and out exhibitionism. Enough Rope involved him elaborately binding his feet with rope and then walking home.
Sat in the beautiful big window in the Arnolfini bookshop, Pete painstaking hobbled each foot using some sort of complex knotting pattern (one of the passers-by suggested he might be "making macrame shoes," when their child asked what that man was doing in the window), before heading out into the streets of Bristol.
I watched for some time when he started and returned 3 or 4 times over the next few hours. Enough Rope was very different to Steve Robins' Coinage, in that Enough Rope had much more of a sense of the artist doing this to themselves. For me, this isn't going to engage me as fully as piece such as Coinage, which calls out to its audience much more wholly. But there's something compelling in the focus with which Pete performs. It's a sort of voyeuristic fascination in watching someone doing something utterly incomprehensible, but with care, skill and conviction.
It's also funny in a weird sort of way. Yes, the craft of it is very watchable, but the absurdity of applying this kind of skill to making rope 'shoes' with which to walk through Bedminster is, faintly ridiculous. Nor does Pete seem po-faced about it. It doesn't feel inappropriate to laugh a little. And as a result, I'd much rather be cheering Pete home through BS3, than applaud anything David Blaine does.
On top of this, as Pete's 'shoes' developed, the knotty balls at the end of his legs began to remind me of this truly gobsmackingly freakish Discovery Channel shock-doc I saw a bit of when I was up at my parents' for Christmas. I won't go into the details cos it was really quite horrific, but in true Discovery Channel style, the documentary was called "Half Man, Half Tree."
Michael David Jones: Define MeI think the fairest thing to say about this piece is that it was "transitional". As an observer, I'd say Mike Jones' thinking in terms of how he makes work has moved forward hugely over the last year, which is great for a young artist. I think this was much more a piece asking 'could he do this?' and 'what would happen if...?', rather than a finished piece that would make for a really satisfying audience experience. He recognised this though, and Arnolfini's live programme can be a really supportive arena for testing these ideas with a sensitive audience.
A one-one-one piece. Each audience member was given a small envelope and could spend up to 5 minutes in the space. Inside, Mike was lying on a plinth, naked and eyes closed. Inside the envelope was a card which read: "What do you see when you look at my flesh?" and "You may write directly onto my body."
Personally, I was thrown a bit by the tone of the question. I found the word 'flesh' a bit difficult to respond to - I couldn't really see Mike as 'flesh'; he was too much a person, particularly as he was asking the question (even if it was written down). What worked best for me was the privacy of the experience. There wasn't any compulsion to react in a certain way. After a couple of hours, the space was opened as an installation so that people could see what had been written. More than anything, what this revealed was the general lack of meaning in all this text drawn together. Perhaps that's why I'd made a deliberately obscure marking during my own private session (I drew a Sinhalese letter) - I knew what it meant, but Mike didn't know. I didn't think about it consciously at the time, but perhaps the fact that it didn't feel like there was any dialogue/connection between me and the prone MD Jones made me feel like I didn't need him to understand the mark I'd make. Ultimately, I think this probably failed to fully satisfy the expectations of either artist or audience, but was probably useful in terms of the development of Mike's artistic practice.
Shi Ker: Down to Earth
Shi Ker's a Chinese PhD student. The one thing I can say for sure about him, is that he's always bound to go at least that little bit further than most people would. What's great is that there's an openness to humour in what he does. His work sits on some sort of line between extreme body art and slapstick - a bit like Chris Burden's Shoot Piece, where there's the moment he gets shot in the arm, and then the moment he squeals "OW!!". Well, I've not seen Shi Ker get anyone to shoot him yet, but I have seen him eat raw chillies AND drink salt water in the SAME SHOW...
Down To Earth is much more Monty Python (a direct steal in some ways - but I'm all for stealing from the greats). It involves Shi Ker in full climbing gear, tackling the 'sheer face' of quayside between Jury's hotel and Arnolfini, with only a few trees acting as ledges in between.
Like Pete Barrett, Shi Ker performs his task with care and focus. Of course it's funny, but like any well performed theatre it makes you take a little leap into another dimension and the audience cheer his progress from the sidelines. I don't think it's the principle focus of the piece, but with so much time to stare at the cobbles, you notice that the danger in this climb comes from all the broken glass, dog shit, bird shit, fag butts and other shit which liberally peppers the ground. He might have gravity on his side, but it's still an endurance.
And then the finale. Having reached the summit (Arnolfini's main doors), he recoups, kept warm in a foil blanket, chainsmoking like the end of a long hard day. A white stool is set up as a podium, on which he stands, is presented with a bouquet, and then remains, hand placed on heart, whilst a mash up of several national anthems is played on a crappy little stereo (maybe there's no genny on top of Everest?). The genius is that he maintains the perspective the whole way through - the podium is on its side and he is lying on the ground throughout. And he smokes through the whole ceremony.
It was cock-eyed for sure, but importantly (given the context) it was consistent. It was funny, without being flippant about the action. I don't know what it means, in the same way as I don't know what climbing Everest means, but there was something of the spirit of endeavour about it that was joyous, even if it did seem like a bit of a ridiculous thing to do. But then, I wouldn't climb Everest either.