I write this at the beginning of my final day as writer-in-residence at the In Between Time festival in Bristol, where I've been leading a team of five emergent writers, editing their work and guiding group discussions. Somewhere in the slivers of time between that and trying to absorb as much as possible of the IBT programme, I've managed to scrape together some bits of writing myself. This is what we've produced as a gang; this page will continue to grow over the next few days, as we continue reflecting on and writing about the festival; later, I hope to work with Jake Orr to curate another response, within the Dialogue website.
A note about the writers:
Rosemary Wagg is studying for an MA in history of art at Bristol university, and is a writer and editor for the student newspaper Epigram.
George Meredith is a first year undergraduate studying English and drama at Bristol university.
Rasheeda Nalumoso is a dramaturg and producer, and member of the Project Boondock artist collective.
William McCrory is an art critic and curator, and writes for Urban Times.
Kate Kelsall contributes arts writing to the online journal Fourth and Main
We See Fireworks – The Old Commonwealth Museum
The cold limestone appearance of Brunel’s imposing building and its former name ‘The Old Commonwealth Museum’ suggest that anything hidden within it will be a similarly expansive entity, designed to make the visitor feel small and in awe. Instead, We See Fireworks by Helen Cole is intimate. A terrible, sticky word that carries with it the faint whiff of feminine hygiene products, but apt none the less.
Rather than use the entire room, We See Fireworks is set in its own little bubble of domestic-sized space. For long periods, the room is entirely black and I walk into the thick darkness using that special walk reserved for advancing into the unknown when one is scared of falling over a sleeping dog or a childhood monster lurking in a corner.
There are five other people present when I first walk in – or so I am told by the guide who controls the most precious object: a torch. As lights come and go, I see the other visitors sitting in a group on the floor. I feel intrusive, like I have walked into a group therapy session and should now either leave or find something to confess myself. Silly thoughts like these are fleeting as the voices which make up the artwork rise up and mute the presence of the other visitors.
Each voice relays an experience of particular significance to them. Most of these are in relation to seeing a piece of art performed, whilst others take a more general outlook and speak of any little memory now wedged in the mind with a label of significance attached to it. Like a good film critic, I am obliged to not tell you what the specific stories are, even if I placed Spoiler Alert at the beginning of the sentence. Out of selfishness though, I will mention one, my favourite, but only because it has a title like a Donleavey novel and reminds me of the lampshade swinging above the bed I left too early this morning.
Sad Death on 12th Street. On his way to the Magnolia Bakery to buy ‘myself a treat’, the narrator comes across a little hummingbird dying on the pavement. Struck by its beauty and perhaps a sense that the dying should not be entirely left alone, he ends up sitting down with the ailing creature and vaguely tires to make it more comfortable, eventually placing it on a leaf at the foot of a tree. Whilst sitting there another passerby enquires what he is doing and, when told, says: ‘Ah, Sad Death on 12th Street.’ This confirms my suspicions that New Yorkers only ever talk in quotation marks, that Woody Allan works entirely from nature and that hummingbirds, like cherry blossom, have come to symbolize beauty in a way a blue tit never quite does.
Temple Meads Station, magnificent curving structure that it is, is so often the site of daily misery and drudgery. From personal experience, I know how the place is a dirty haven of obsessive clock-watching, delayed trains and another Starbucks. For the next few days though, one only has to walk 100 yards around the back to find a little globule of fireworks, hummingbirds and lightning in Plymouth.
Fuck getting the train. This is so much better.
Version Control, Gallery 1: Tim Etchells City Changes, 2008
Coming out of the Arnolfini you said: ‘It made me think how ridiculous writing is.’
The work in reference was Tim Etchells’s City Changes, a collection of 20 framed pieces of A4 containing an evolving and un-evolving text about a city. After sleeping on it, I still couldn’t decide what this work was really about, so I turned to the authority that is the exhibition guide and searched for their description. Compared with the long paragraph on Etchells’s other work, Untitled (After Violent Incident), 2013, the offering is a little sparse: ‘City Changes is a re-worked text about a city which never changes.’ I wonder if that description is even worse than mine or if no one really knows what is going on here.
The 20 texts are created as variants of one another. They are all essentially the same, be it with three or four paragraphs. The changes executed each time are signalled by a change in font colour. To begin with the colours seem to have obvious significance, blue for c/Conservative tendencies and green for newness. Then this disintegrates, but the brain wants to keep things in order and so continues to think ‘well maybe pink is the colour of craziness’ or burgundy that of stagnation.
In the first five one can also detect a pattern in the political changes described, but this too stops occurring. The texts jump between describing a vegetating cityscape to a politically volatile age and back again. Then two in a row will take the same direction of movement, so that the reader is unable to second guess the next panel. The texts are unsettling because you understand that something is happening, or perhaps nothing is happening, but you can’t entirely describe what. At times he is humorous, with great turns of phrase. I scrawl down my favourites: ‘Couples broke up through a legal process that took all the fun out of their acrimony and misunderstanding’; ‘Acrimony, Anarchy and Misunderstanding were the most popular names for kids’; ‘It was a truly carnal city where eating weird food prepared in new ways became an art form in itself’.
The characters, the structure and the fickleness all remain throughout. Perhaps the exhibition notes are correct, it is ‘about a city which never changes’, we only think that it does in each panel, each age as it were. It evokes the same feeling one gets if you spend too much time watching the BBC Parliament channel. After a while you realize it is all the same, no matter which side is saying it. The entrance of the ridiculous advertisers into events makes the ‘you’re kidding yourself thinking this stuff is truly new’ point more explicit and by the final panel I think I have got the point.
Adding and subtracting, creating and editing an arrangement of 26 letters is all a little farcical. It wouldn’t take much to slide new lines in between even Eliot’s old ones or to rearrange Auden. It is a ridiculous little game of arrangement with something intangible hiding behind it. It is my favourite game and I like it even more when someone does it in pretty colours.
We See Fireworks
There are moments in life that transcend the everyday. They are unique experiences that induce a sense of overwhelming unity with our environment and with those around us. Whether it is an evocative piece of theatre, an encounter in the street, or a surprising moment of stillness and silence, these moments converge on us, as forces collide deep in our stomachs, leaving us shaken, and breathlessly affirming.
Helen Cole’s ‘We See Fireworks’ collates these moments, which are related by disembodied voices in the gloom. As we sit, staring up at the flickering lights which hang above us, we feel an immense privilege. We share each individual experience, or rather, the echoing recollection of that experience, an imprint – like the spots of light that remain when we close our eyes. Each voice betrays its character: the strong, clipped New Yorker; the soft, drawling Australian; the faltering London girl. They have lives which affect their experience and ideas on life and death which may be different from our own. But the conviction with which these moments are retold grips us, dragging us along as the lights fade and swell and flit across the ceiling.
‘We See Fireworks’ defines the IBT experience: the creation of moments and the lasting effect on the individual, spanning a whole city for one weekend, and then gone. The voice stops, the lights fade, the moment ceases to be, and we stare up, watching the afterglow of the cooling filament.
Untitled (After Violent Incident)
Tim Etchells’s Untitled (After Violent Incident) is a reworking of an installation by Bruce Nauman, seen at the Tate in 1986. Nauman’s 12 screens looped three versions of a violent struggle at a set table, offering a stark comment on the unfeeling cruelty of human beings. Etchells scales this down to a single screen, a mounted descriptive text, and the set table and chairs. The sequence, though, remains the same: a male performer offers a female performer a chair before dragging it away, causing her to fall. When bending to retrieve the chair he is goosed. He cries out and advances on the woman, who throws water across his face. He slaps her, she knees him and they struggle with a fork, each stabbing the other and falling to the floor.
Rather than looping the same footage, the video captures one continuous take of sixty minutes, with the performers enacting the sequence, resetting and beginning again relentlessly. What Etchells achieves through this stripped-down approach is a more intense emotional engagement, a feeling of personal involvement with the performers.
The set table instils a tangible domesticity to the sequence and implies a certain stability of relationship through its archetypal associations of family and home. The couple are together, connected and emotionally involved. They begin. The repetition, at first spirited and fervent, becomes strained as the performers become exhausted, hair wet and clinging to their faces, clothes ruffled, panting. Always the promise, the gestured chair, like the flimsy assurances of a destructive relationship. The performers eye each other before each repetition, the smiles become more forced and the violence stale and habitual. We watch transfixed, wide eyed and shaking our heads as the chair is pulled back again, aching for one of them to realise, to know what’s going to happen and to stop. But they can’t. It’s scripted, mounted on the wall in black and white. Also, as we come to realise, they don’t really want to.
Fake Moon rose over College Green last night, marking the launch of IBT13 Festival. Perhaps a ‘launch’ carries heavy expectation: we shuffled off somewhat disappointed, leaving Fake Moon a little too low in the sky, quavering under the wind and pale in comparison to the real deal, looking down smugly from on high.
Did we want fireworks? Something colourful and loud? Looking back on that glowing orb, I have revised my judgement. That shining point seems a useful jumping off point for my own ideas about public art and the city’s interaction with the festival.
Naysayers spurn attempts to increase accessibility to the arts by planting works in public spaces, on the grounds that it alienates passers-by who don’t have the foggiest idea what they’re looking at. Our moon, however, is a gentle invite to find out more. Floating at a safe distance, it won’t set you alight, but it stands as a teasing, un-prescriptive and open symbol of what this festival could come to mean for you. Everyone who walks past our moon will surely pass comment, some will have their curiosity sparked, and of these a few will be compelled to explore further.
Like all constants in nature, we have attached human motifs to the moon since time began. To the festival organisers it symbolizes the entrance into a dream land. I cannot help but conjure E.T and skinny dipping. Laden with multifarious meaning, yet suitably ambiguous, let the Fake Moon be a portal into IBT that stands for whatever you want from it.
IBT13 Day One
My first day at IBT 13 was characterised by serendipitous interconnections between seemingly disconnected works. What follows is an attempt to sketch the apparent affinities between Helen Cole’s We See Fireworks and elements of the exhibition Version Control, and the continuities between Tim Etchells’ Untitled (After Violent Incident) and Reckless Sleepers’ A String Section.
We See Fireworks is an atmospheric installation that consists of different individuals recounting a variety of performative experiences, and moments of reflection brought about through unexpected encounters with visual stimuli. The piece has many ebbs and flows, intersecting with a variety of themes such as mortality, diaspora, nostalgia and social taboos. We hear of implausible Michael Jackson flash-mobs in Warsaw, Dutch bondage S&M extravaganzas and Russian folk singers that make your hair stand on end. Some of them strike a chord whereas others simply pass; this imbues the piece with a hypnotic dreamlike quality.
As the myriad of personalities, histories and stories came and went, I felt I couldn't see the overarching narrative that encapsulates these disparate experiences. But then, such a narrative isn't necessary: more useful is the realisation that what is created, in part, is an aural archive documenting encounters with spirituality and the sublime.
Perceiving We See Fireworks in this light enabled me to connect it thematically to Version Control (Arnolfini), in which there is also a strong dialogue with the archive. Felix Gmelin’s Farbtest, Die Rote Fahne II (2002), for example, consists of two films: in the first, made by Gerd Conradt in 1968, students take it in turn to carry the leftist red flag in a process which has the appearance of a relay, except that rather than taking place in an Olympic stadium it is happening on the streets of Berlin. The second film features an almost identical format, with Gmelin and his students passing a red flag through the streets of Stockholm. Curiously, this is not a literal translation of the archive, since in the original the red flag is hung from the balcony of Berlin’s city hall, whereas in the re-enactment they fail in this endeavour. Could this be a critique of the radical left’s tendency to regurgitate past political strategies and critique?
Rabih Mroué’s The Pixelated Revolution (2012) explores the darker side of the archive. Trawling the internet for citizen journalist representations of the Syrian conflict, Mroué has stumbled across several examples of mobile phone footage that documents the death of the person filming. He calls it Double Shooting, one person shooting so that others might understand what is taking place, the other shooting to lethally repress this emergent consciousness.
Playing simultaneously, with audiences invited to come and go, Reckless Sleepers’ A String Section and Tim Etchells’ Untitled (After Violent Incident) presented another consonance. A String Section consists of four performers, each despite the apparent danger attempting to saw the legs off the chair on which they sit. What ensues is an impressive bit of nihilist D.I.Y that demonstrates an impressive array of ridiculous and acrobatic poses, none of which seem particularly well-suited to the task at hand. Importantly, why would any sane person want to saw the legs off their chair? It is as if movement, action and gesture within this piece have lost any obvious or rational function. This I believe connects A String Section and (Untitled) After Violent Incident, which involves two actors immersed in a violent confrontation without any discernible narrative or catalyst. In this absurdist altercation that has occasional bursts of laughter and prods on the bum there is again a separation between gesture and function. The actors impersonate violent acts and revert to moments of slapstick comedy.
These perceived affinities could just be mere hunches, but articulating them is a useful way to enter into dialogue with the curatorial decisions that underpin the festival.It is important not to read works in isolation: whilst artists certainly frame their artistic concerns, they too are being framed by the conceptual methodology orchestrated by the curators. Equally, I recognise that it is easy to reduce and compartmentalise the creativity we encounter; perhaps it is more productive to find the language that acknowledges the heterogeneity of what we find. This was a fascinating introduction to the festival and I look forward to everything else that I’ll encounter over the next few days.
Kate McIntosh Worktable, Arnolfini Docks
In Worktable you are first met with a shelf stacked with objects and the invitation to select one to destroy. Do you choose an object because you want to take it apart, or because you like it aesthetically or emotionally? I was drawn to a shell. Aware I had not considered what it might be like to then destroy the shell I momentarily hesitated. Should I pick the camera or the roller skate, which might be easier to break? I had a slight trepidation about what lay ahead: how would I go about destroying the shell? We are all drawn to objects in different ways; by now this was ‘my’ object, ‘my’ shell.
Curious, I wanted to see what prompted my fellow participants' choices. Were they different to me? Were they more systematic? Did they choose an object they thought would be good to destroy? Unable to proceed to the ‘Work Room’ until called I sat alongside fellow participants patiently waiting my turn. The banality of waiting was occasionally punctuated by loud bangs and clashes as people ahead of us broke their objects. Someone popped out to ask if anyone had an Allen key, presumably to further dissect her object, greeted by a forlorn no. I looked around my fellow audience members. Why did you choose a leather suitcase? Because it was the biggest object. Why a ceramic vase? Because I know what it takes to make them…
In the privacy of your isolated ‘Work Space’ you are bidden to destroy your object. What is it to take apart an object and render it useless? What if its original function is long gone anyway? Workspace raises interesting questions of power and control. Why should I destroy my object? By acquiescing to the request did I capitulate too easily? Would my shell have better remained intact (already a detached remnant of its distant watery past)? Perhaps a camera could be considered broken simply by having the batteries removed.
In the opening ‘In Between Time’ Festival Brunch, an open forum session on the subject of participation, artist Kate Mckintosh talked of her interest in Worktable “to not fetishize the objects: the objects speak for themselves, the voice, material. You can feel people making choices.”
How do you embrace the ‘objectness’ of objects without fetishizing them? What is it to fetishize? Is it not likely that in the very choice of the object you chose, fetishization occurs? The object ‘plays’ more than we are consciously aware. Attempting to mend a very broken tennis racquet in the next stage of Worktable became very quickly redundant – it was beyond repair! In any case, crafting new patterns with string was much more fun. By rejecting the pre-supposed function of the racket, I found a new ‘racquetness’ to a tennis racquet – and had much more success.
This was confirmed for me in the final room where I met with the new objects constructed by other audience members. I most admired the uniquely brave abstract choices to make new shapes and creations and not ‘fix’ broken objects - an approach many people had taken. Through its periods of banality and its encouragement to work with objects alongside other people, Worktable stretches the boundaries between what we see and what we know, beyond surface appearances.
WORKTABLE – Kate McIntosh
For an artist accustomed to dance and performance, Kate McIntosh boldly relinquishes the reins with Worktable. The simplicity of its instructions give nothing of itself away, nor impose anything external on your experience. Three rooms with infinite readings and responses, the piece becomes what you enter with and discover en route. A shell of an idea, to breathe your own life into, giving lie to any myths of objectivity. Nothing is neutral in this deceptively un-telling space.
A visibly weary father on the last day of half-term energetically fuels his kids’ imagination, as they struggle to rebuild a trainer into its original likeness. Founder of South London arts organisation The Brick Box mangles several hammers in her attempts to deconstruct a brick, the symbolic foundation stone of her company. An enthusiastic engineering student spends over 2 hours arduously recreating a Singer sewing machine, because he feels sorry for it.
In Room One I can suddenly no longer conceive of an impassive object, etched as all things are with our nostalgia, associations and emotions. I choose an ugly porcelain dog because I want to hold it by the hind legs and smash its twee little face in, but as I cradle it in the queue I’m asked what kind of spaniel I think it is, reminded of a stale grandmother’s living room and place it back on the shelf. Someone holds a pair of glasses and I think of mountains of belongings in Auschwitz. Even an apple and light bulb seem to hold universes in their material, inanimate selves.
In the Work Room you’re isolated within the silence of your headphones, goggles and heavy gloves. Perhaps frightened by what my original psychotic impulse towards the spaniel said about me, I tentatively try to dismantle rather than destroy. I want to get at what’s inside the light bulb without breaking it, but I haven’t thought things through. I’m not very practical. It’s frustrating. After false starts and fannying around with pliers and other tools I cannot name, I take a hammer to the glass and leave unsatisfied, envious of the wholehearted beating someone’s giving a walking stick next door. We are told to ‘Take apart, shatter or wear to pieces’ our object and this feels tenderly tragic. The lives of things at our mercy; malleable and marked by our agency and in our image, like sealing wax.
Rebuilding someone else’s bashed up vase restores my mood. Room 3 is jovial, communal and alive. The objects have lost their somewhat macabre command over my emotions and I create a sculpture that looks something like a teapot, somewhat like an elephant. As useless as it is, I have made it, a whole new fresh entity, not yet laden with traces of time. Have I missed the point? I realize that it is the making and destroying that matter, not these things in themselves.
What I wanted from Kate McIntosh’s Work Table, was to smash something to bits. Looking over the shelves of available objects I want something big and hefty that would break in an almighty, climactic crack. Glasses – too flimsy. China – too easy. In the end I plumped for a walking stick made of dark brown wood with a black rubber tip. Looking back I wonder whether this choice reflects some latent disgust for age and infirmity, or a youthful rejection of growing old. I don’t think so. I just wanted to snap it.
Turns out I’m not that strong. Having donned the gloves, goggles and ear defenders I tried a few swoops against the table but to no avail. I grabbed a craft knife and gouged into the wood, exposing the pale splinters beneath. Then, a handsaw, thrusting backwards and forwards furiously until there was enough give to force the stick against the floor, pushing down and bending till it snapped. With sweat dripping into my goggles, I collected the pathetic fragments of the walking stick into the tray. My relish in breaking something in such an aggressive fashion seemed a bit shameful, and I felt a bit stupid. Emerging from the room and meeting the usher, I felt like the regular at a sperm bank; offerings in hand, my forehead moist, and the sure knowledge that everyone heard the grunting.
Coming into the next room the atmosphere was lighter. People were mending and chatting. Compared with the focussed, soundless solitude of before, this was a relief. I deposited what was left of my stick and took a torn shoe. I sat down next to a boy who had been there hours meticulously repairing a sewing machine. Mending is easier and nicer, like how it takes fewer muscles to smile than frown. The positioning of this process after the violence of before brought to mind the equal capabilities of human beings to destroy and to heal. It was a scary but uplifting realisation.
I put my repaired shoe in the next room, next to the crooked clocks and stitched bears. Each had their own style and character, indicative of a journey. In relation to this, Kate McIntosh spoke about relinquishing artistic control, allowing this personal journey and seeing only the final objects as evidence of the process. They are beautiful, but that’s not the point. McIntosh does not want to fetishize these products as ‘the art’. Objects are, as has been proved, fragile and fleeting. They are the focus of the process, but not the message of the installation. What is important is our relationship with them and our inward exploration of ideas of destruction and healing. It is human nature in shipping containers. As I left, I noticed on a bottom shelf a walking stick, taped awkwardly together but whole again, healed. Good. It was a nice stick.
Martin O'Brien: Breathe For Me
Breathe for Me, performed at the Arnolfini on Friday, is a call to action already set up in Martin O’Brien’s impressive body of work across pieces such as Mucus Factory. As an audience member sharing space with Martin I always feel drawn into the dialogue of his research – a conversation on presence, the artist’s body and the artist’s work, the politics of watching, you there, me here. The Other made visible.
Locked in time and space with his own body Martin’s repetitive and painstakingly precise crawl sets a constant durational rhythm to Breathe For Me. The beat is the artist fishing for plastic medical swatches lifted out of a green liquid tub with his teeth – a grim invocation of bobbing for apples. These plastic swatches are then neatly laid out in rows before Martin pivots back for more, occasionally stretching a limb as he goes. We are witness to a grueling routine, self-reflexive on the regimentation and structure of the activity and exercises that go hand in hand with cystic fibrosis. I was reminded of Joseph Beuys' 1974 Coyote: I like America and America likes me; only here Martin is both Beuys and the coyote.
The politics of this make uncomfortable viewing. (Whoever thought it would be easy?) Outside, one teenager warns another: ‘You really don’t want to go in there.’ This is a response I have encountered before – particularly from young people for whom Martin’s work might be a first introduction to body-based live-art work. Yet the most healthily diverse group of young people I have yet seen at a performance at the Arnolfini packed the upper gallery dark room to watch him. I later learn this group of students are from Reading University, and are currently being taught by Martin as part of his PhD. A co-opted audience then? Perhaps – but still an audience who gained a new awareness today of the different types of performance work available. Recently the higher education academic mailing list (SCUDD) has hosted a torrent of opinions on the subject of Live Art, questioning the reach and relevance of associated platforms for new performance work. Breathe for Me vitally contributes to this discussion by showing that the dialogue between young people and live art is healthy and open.
Kein Applaus fur Scheisse
What it is to be young: a rough patchwork of pop songs and outrageous behaviour, of adopting and discarding different possible identities, of alcohol and drugs and piss and puke, and falling in love so hard you would do anything for the other person, you want to stitch yourselves together for ever. Being young is exhilarating, messy, and – you forget this, sometimes, when you're older – bloody hard work. In Kein Applaus fur Scheisse, Florentina Holzinger and Victor Rieback perform their own youth with an intensity that makes them repulsive at first, then so charming you want to give them a hug as you leave the room.
That warmth takes a while to build, because it's hard to tell whether their opening provocations comment on white privilege or re-enact it, subvert female subjugation or reinforce it. They enter the stage wearing tie-dyed African robes; through the wide sleeves you glimpse colourful feathers; wrapped in his hair are strings of fur like thickly matted dreadlocks. They skank their way through Rihanna's Man Down, then Holzinger pulls her dress above her naked hips, settles in a chair with her legs upstretched, and waits patiently while Riebeck extracts a bright red string from her vagina, holding the audience's gaze all the time. In an era when women shaving their pubic hair has become the norm, it's delightful to see that Holzinger's remains intact: a silent but powerful statement of refusal to conform.
But that feminist stance is problematised by the scene that comes after: a double-exorcism, heralded by thrums on a thumb piano and the rattle of tiny shakers, that begins with her shedding her robe and ends with him vomiting Slush-Puppy-blue liquid over her bare stomach. When, a few minutes later, he stands naked over her prostrate body and lets out a stream of urine, her subordination seems complete. One person walks out, then two more. As it happens, their lack of patience is the problem, not Holzinger and Riebeck's willingness to test ideas, to push uncertainly at boundaries and at themselves.
Because what's really happening here is a fluid – yes, possibly too fluid – exchange of roles. Between the puke and the piss is a deadpan scene in which they play out the insecurity engendered by love: she accuses him of not wanting to touch her any more, he accuses her of not being there in an hour of need. There is a rape, a pregnancy, a death – but they belong to his role, not hers. Experience is shared so equally that when Holzinger takes in a mouthful of Riebeck's piss, she doesn't swallow it but lets it trickle into his mouth so he can swallow it instead.
This is the moment when Kein Applaus transforms: from a challenge to its audience it becomes a communion with them. He puts on clean pants, she puts on a blonde wig; she sings The Greatest Love of All while he cuts her fake hair. He begins to talk to us directly, about money and love and his six-year relationship with Holzinger, while she performs an aerial routine on the silks that is surprisingly elegant and restrained. There is booze, a small bottle of vodka passed around the audience (usually it's a joint, but weed has been peculiarly hard to come by in Bristol), and there is throbbing, psychedelic music (Devendra Banhart's Rats). They are earnest, open, friendly, relaxed – silly, too, because this zen atmosphere, so bucolic you can actually hear birdsong, is comically ruptured by the firing of a bazooka that splatters Riebeck in ultraviolet paint. Reborn, he hands Holzinger an acoustic guitar and to her faltering chords they sing Marina Abramovic's An Artist's Life Manifesto as though it were a hymn or an ages-old folk song, something handed down from the elders to give succour to the young. Which, in a sense, for artists finding their way, it is.
Walking out, I knew I felt beguiled, but I wasn't sure I'd caught the “generosity” of the piece advertised in the IBT programme and identified by others in the audience. At 6am I was jolted awake by the sudden realisation of how carefully constructed Kein Applaus fur Scheisse is. Within that was a recognition of their willingness to get things wrong, to do that in front of others, and experience rejection because of it. An awareness, too, of their trust in the audience, to join them on this journey, and see their world, their relationship, their youth, through their eyes. I'd found its generosity – and it made my heart glow with love.
Breathe For Me – Martin O’Brien at The Arnolfini
There is a smell to hospitals. A smell of antiseptic, latex, linoleum and death. There is also a sense associated with them. The sense that intellect and reason are about to be usurped by corporeal facts. You can think and speak for hours waving the Sunday supplement in your hand, but then the Doctors step in and smash the illusion that you are in control or could change anything.
There is no colour to hospitals. The lights are too bright and whatever the hue, the walls always look mouldy and sickly. The starkness of the white screens is a mocking reminder of the absence of beauty. A blank canvas no one could be bothered to draw on. There are cold hands and mouths full of jargon, touching and talking and turning the body into a specimen. In some way malfunctioning. An interesting example of a freak show.
But at least that makes it sound exciting. Ten minutes in the X-ray and hours sliced open on a table with a pair of sturdy rugby-boy hands yanking the bent pieces around. A moment in the spotlight before months, years, a lifetime of being perfectly uninteresting, particularly to oneself.
The unglamorous monotony of long-term illness is encapsulated with exactitude in Martin O’Brien’s performance-art work Breathe For Me. O’Brien has cystic fibrosis, a condition which requires constant attention and carries with it the threat of early death. In the sanitized workspace created within the Arnolfini, he crawls back and forth, back and forth across the floor, carrying in his mouth pieces of paper dripping with pastel-green goo. Bobbing for mucus-covered apples and then carrying the burden for yet another journey back to the top of the path. There is no sense that this is a particularly worthy fight. It is not done deliberately, as self-flagellation to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Nor is the potential of spiritual enlightenment used to frame this behaviour in terms that suggest the participant is blessed to be as such. It is simply done in the way that if you have a bad foot and need to walk somewhere badly enough you walk with the bad foot. There is also no promise of reward at the end. No beautiful body after hours spent in the gym or swipe-card entry through the pearly gates. Just the terrible visceral uniformity of a life controlled by a really cruddy lifelong illness.
The dark studio creates a sense of deep claustrophobia suitable for a performance about a genetic disorder which effects the breathing. The smell of the sludge is disgusting and insidious. The low ceiling, repetitive movement and this dry stench soon make the performance unbearably intense. O’Brien portrays with unnerving accuracy the truly boring experience of fighting a decrepit body day in, day out. He also conjures forth the frustration and loathing directed from the functioning mind towards the failing structure it is encased in.
I wanted to stay for longer. I wanted to know what someone else thought about being young and having a body that had been poked and prodded so much it became a hateful, inadequate thing far out of the mind’s control. We seek representation and shared experiences, or so we say, but then the accuracy comes and it chokes us.
We See Fireworks
At first it's like listening to people recounting their dreams. Disjointed images swim through each narrative: one person describes a room full of tubas and people wearing angel's wings, another a teetering Russian folk dance performed by a woman with no arms. A woman stands crying and abandoned by a river, a man nurtures a dying hummingbird in the street. It's as though each storyteller had been transported from the real world to the realms of the surreal, the deepest recesses of the subconscious. These aren't dreams, however, but memories of real events: unusual encounters, many of them with a piece of theatre, and some with life itself.
Patiently gathered over the course of several months by Helen Cole, the stories told in We See Fireworks say much about our relationship with art, the proximity it creates with extremities of experience, and its ability to reverberate in our minds long after the event itself has passed. Cole presents them as simply as possible: her venue is cavernous but she has created a small dark space within it, lit by a galaxy of old-fashioned filament bulbs, which illuminate in subtly choreographed relationship with each narrative. Within this black box – a loaded term in theatre, carrying connotations of cramped ambition, a lack of scope – Cole takes us across the world: we hear accents from England and Scotland, America and Australia. There is a quiet but powerful manifesto embedded here: it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, live performance can affect you.
It's so dark that other figures in the room seem as ghostly as the disembodied voices floating through the air. What arises is a curious feeling of collective solitude, which emerges as a unifying theme of the narratives, too. One woman describes the prickling, thrilling awareness that someone she loved sitting a few rows behind her in an auditorium was feeling as she did, sharing her thoughts; as she does so, one lightbulb glows, and then two. When experiences related correspond to a moment from your own life, the start of unexpected connection is electrifying: the young woman who describes looking out over a row of gardens on New Year's Eve, watching people create their own ad-hoc fireworks display, could be me the night 2012 became 2013; later, someone talks about how moved she was by a performance in which soldiers received letters from home and I realise with a shiver that she is reliving my favourite scene from the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch.
This is what makes We See Fireworks so magical: the memories are individual, but the feelings universal. Love, loneliness, nostalgia, joy, pain, fear, death: one by one, the storytellers are given greater understanding of these fundamentals. Mostly that's through art or theatre or performance, but sometimes it's thanks to an accident in daily life: incidents stumbled upon, beauty caught by chance, or by virtue of being attentive to the world. One of these stories exemplifies the transformation of attitudes that art makes possible: a woman walking through a foreign city takes a wrong turn and finds herself face-to-face with a gang of youths. She feels vulnerable and afraid. But what happens next astonishes her. They apparently break into a car – but when they do, it's to play Michael Jackson's Beat It on the car stereo. And then they begin to dance. A huge, choreographed routine, that makes her feel lucky to be alive in the best possible way. “It was like a sort of dream sequence or something,” she says, her voice ringing with wonder.
It's said that nothing is more boring than listening to people describing their dreams. The same might be said of listening to people describe at length a performance you yourself haven't seen and never will. We See Fireworks refutes this, in the process rejecting the impatience behind such an attitude, the impatience driving the modern world in which art is seen as a luxury for the elite and not an essential to human understanding of our complicated existence. Cole invites us into other people's minds – and in doing so switches on new lights within our own.