Wednesday, 28 May 2008

East End Collaborations, 24 May 2008 - Part 2

Ian Giles ‘Heat Feet’
Johanna Linsley ‘I’d rather die than die alone’
Ruvi Simmons and Shirin Barthel ‘I can lose but I always win’
Holly Slingsby ‘Fallout’
Jennifer Southern ‘The Heroes Leave, The Clowns Come In’
Arlene Wandera ‘Kukhu’

For ‘Kuhkhu’ Arlene Wandera created a calm corner of Africa in the Pinter Building’s Rehearsal Room 2. The fifteen or so audience members who had signed up sat in cross-legged silence, waiting for Wandera to begin and taking in the Batik print columns, sweet smelling perfume and red lamps, which made the room feel like a campfire at sunset. When she arrived, Wandera (wearing a Batik dress and headscarf) welcomed us all with a beatific smile. She sat on a stool and motioned us to move closer, until we were gathered like a crowd of schoolchildren at her feet.

Wandera’s performance laid out the ritual of writing and storytelling, without words. She slowly revealed her writing tools – glasses, fountain pen, writing paper, blotting pad – in order to write a few short messages, which she folded and handed to individual members of the audience. Not one of the lucky recipients myself, I was reminded of the anthropologist Levi-Strauss’s observation that the ritual of writing is just as powerful as what the words say. After a while, the audience began to share the secrets among them. The ones I read ranged from reverence for cultural tradition, ‘I fear losing my mother tongue’ to a more current type of cultural observation, ‘Once I walked into a lamp post when I was checking out this fit guy.’ Wandera’s careful construction of ritual made all the secrets seem important, but more strikingly, it concentrated the value of sharing knowledge itself.

In Johanna Linsley’s ‘I’d rather die than die alone’, in contrast, secrets were passed around but there was no sharing of knowledge. Linsley plucked participants from the audience to sit in a circle in the centre of the room. What followed was, among other things, an intricate explication of exclusion, assumption and privilege. Members of the inner circle were given slips of paper to read in silence. Linsley and two helpers secreted these secrets around their bodies – in a shirt collar, up a sleeve. They announced rules but never explained them, addressed audience members by their first names without a shred of intimacy, and their intonation made each firm instruction sound like a rhetorical question. The effect was a menacing sort of passive control, which may or may not mimic the religious Oneida Community, a Christian commune set up in the US in the nineteenth century, which was referenced disjointedly by fragments of text left around the room. Linsley’s perfromance was impressively imposing, even if it was also utterly incomprehensible. The level of imposition was summed up by the way she left the room - by asking audience members to pick up papers, collect chairs and turn off equipment. In other words, she made us clear up after her.

Jennifer Southern’s ‘The Heroes Leave, The Clowns Come In’ was in some ways the opposite of these controlled performances. Also without words, Southern’s clown-cum-S&M apprentice prepared the stage for prat-falls and sexual innuendo. The piece explored the threatening aspects of clowning, as well as the comedic aspects of sexual fetish, but when Southern finished by groping an audience member I felt it was one clown-step too far. Condom balloons are one thing, unwanted sexual advances stray onto quite different territory.

Clowns are in fact often disturbing - there is something terrifying about the static aesthetic of their painted faces. In ‘Heat Feat’, Ian Giles also combined the aesthetic with the physical. Bounding onto stage in bare feet, Giles lit two camping stoves and stood on a metal table above them. Gradually his toes began to curl. His face began to twitch. His shoulders jerked, his legs jumped and his mouth began to scream as the table got hotter and hotter. Beside him was an opera singer who sang scales that rose in pitch and volume along with the temperature of Giles’ ordeal. Eventually he was jumping up and down on the table in what appeared to be considerable pain, but somehow the operatic accompaniment made it look both beautiful and unreal. This aesthetic interpretation of physical hardship made clear how easy it is to distance oneself from spectacle - because the opera singing labeled this ‘art’, I forgot to care that Giles’ feet were burning. What does it mean, ‘Heat Feet’ asked, to engage with a work of art?

In ‘Fallout’ Holly Slingsby also endured a self-afflicted ordeal. Seated in a pitch black room, she started to hyperventilate as a light that she held swung back and forth towards her. Swinging one way, the light revealed a woman rigid with fear, swinging the other way, the audience itself was thrown into complete darkness. Unlike Slingsby, I enjoyed this dramatic undulation but, at the climax of her piece, I was still none the wiser as to what made Slingsby so afraid.

Throughout all of these stories, secrets and physical tests, ‘I can lose but I always win’ by Ruvi Simmons and Shirin Barthel was playing in the Arts Lecture Theatre. I saw the film at the beginning of the evening – a durational performance between a man and a woman, who lay cards out between each other. The pattern behind this card ritual was also unexplained but, like Wandera’s writing performance, the ritual itself was shown to be important. Moreover, and also like Wandera, Simmons’ and Barthel’s patient repetition seemed to invite viewers to watch the game. And yet its title, ‘I can lose but I always win’, suggests something a little more sinister. Like most of the performances in EEC, this piece seemed simple on the surface but hinted at something deeper, and manipulated.

Mary Paterson

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