Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Hackney Wicked Performance Art, 16th August 2013

Being at Hackney Wicked feels like standing in the eye of a cultural hurricane.  The event, set in and around the old industrial workspaces of Hackney Wick, celebrates the new prime industry of the area: art.  Like a peacock fanning his feathers, Hackney Wicked is showing off what it can do: warehouse doors are thrown open, stalls are set up, canal barges lash themselves to the tow path and plastered all over practically every available wall is a neat and new art.  Covering the whole event would be a fools errand - just looking at the guide to  the festival is bewildering.  It's a multi-fold out, huge double sided piece of paper in a tiny font laid out in rather Byzantine arrangement.  "Is what I'm looking for an exhibition, an open studio or a performance?"

The best thing to do is just take things at your own pace.  Follow your nose, wander around, grab some Ghanian street food and see what comes your way.  The first event I happened across was Christopher Matthews' piece formedview, taking place at Arbeit Gallery.  This was about the different mediums through which motion and performance can be translated and experience.  Lyle Wheeler was the centre of the piece, moving gracefully in naturalistic moves around a small space.  His movements were a catalyst for the real meat of the piece - seeing how it was instantly reflected back into a remarkable variety of mediums.

Surrounding the dancer were a gaggle of artists; someone sketching pictures of him; a writer whose impressions were being projected as she wrote;  a photographer buzzed around, his shots being directly transmitted to the audience as he took them.  The audience was separated from all this by a row of white columns on top of which were perched CRT TVS of a 1990s looking vintage.  These showed live video of the performance, creating a physical barrier of technology between us and the dancer.  There was another invisible audience too - the event being streamed live to the Hackney Live website, with an online discussion going on there.   Seeing the event simultaneously through these prisms is like gaining a God's eye view, a vision of something processed by multiple minds acting in unison, the effect being vaguely semi-telepathic.

Interestingly, to actually watch the piece with the naked eye involved voyeuristically peering around the pillars.  The interpretations we can easily see are echoes of the original bounced over to us, so the audience becomes a kind of terminus, with the obvious frustration of not being able to pass on anything beyond your own mind.  Although on reflection that's exactly what I'm doing now, so just by my writing about it a few days afterwards is a sort of continuation of the themes that Matthews is exploring.  Neat stuff.

Dani Ploeger
After this I headed over to ]performancespace[ where Dutch artist Dani Ploeger was beginning Waste Circuits.  He was sat in a chair looking at a hot plate with two skinned phones on it.  Their plastic shells were lying in bits on the floor in front of him, leaving the circuit board guts resting on a metal hot plate.  Thin red wires ran from the phones to electrodes taped on his arms.  As the hot plate heated up the phones began to sizzle, random electrical currents zapped down the wires straight into Ploeger's arms, making them spasmodically twitch and tense.

The genesis of this performance (according to Ploeger's own explanation sheet) lies in methods used in Africa and China to reclaim valuable metals from discarded, obsolete mobile phones.  But the first thing it made me think of was the 18th century fad for galvanism. Hucksters would travel from town to town hooking up dead animals to electrical current, their corpses twitching away for the amusement of the public. Demonstrations like this provided some of the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - something this performance, with its meld of man and electricity reminded me of.  As the current increased Ploeger's arms tensed and bulged obscenely, the hotter it got, the more violent the zaps appeared to become.  It was a concise demonstration of our increasingly symbiotic relationship with technology; how things we build to increase our control over our lives increasingly come to control us.

Boris Nieslony
Next up was Boris Nieslony: a man in communion with a wall.  Beginning at one side of the ]performancespace[ studio he worked his way from left to right, gibbering in frantic guttural gasps and clawing at any detail, as if trying to break down the wall itself.  Something about this felt instinctively dangerous.  Nieslony transformed himself into a feral manbeast, his movements varying from anger to grief as he appeared to plead with the breezeblocks.  In the more heightened moments you heard the dull *klonk* of his skull bouncing off the wall. Nieslony is nothing if not committed, the unexplainable, almost religious grief in his performance obviously sincere.  Minimalist, powerful and utterly stark.

Evamarie Schaller
Evamarie Schaller was on afterwards with a bit more of a lighthearted piece.  The first inkling of her presence was a deflated red balloon cheekily poking from a door.  She soon emerged, and performed an off-beat clownish act involving blowing up various types of balloons and rubber gloves.  The lightheartedness was an appetite freshener after the seriousness of what had come before.  As she manipulated the gloves around her body the long fat fingers began to look rather like udders, positioning her as a satirical exaggeration of femininity.  

One of my favourite things about the ]performancespace[ warehouse is how it amplifies sounds.  The scatological *pffft* of Schaller's deflating balloons echoes around the room, accentuating the humour.  The next performer, Marita Bullman, used the sound of the room to similar effect.  She began by shuffling across the room with a bottle clenched between her thighs.  She reached a metal bowl placed on the floor, uncorked the bottle and let 'er rip.  The tinny sound of this faux-urination bounced around the audience, mingling with quiet giggles from the audience.  Bullman continued exploring different sounds throughout the performance, blowing bubbles through a straw, creating a mound of glistening white foam all around her.  She put straws in her mouth and tugged on them, the *skrrt* sound of each one seeming to emanate from her own body.  

Laura Graham
After a quick break we moved onto a dual performance by Laura Graham and Brian Patterson.  Graham, surrounded by apples and clutching a legal wig full of copper coins began to cut the apples open, filling the air with an apply tang.  Next to her was Brian Patterson, making sandcastles.  The first one was made of salt - the rest sand.  Both artists appeared to be creating their own personal solar systems with them as suns at the centres.  Entropy set in as the performances continued: order slowly transforming into chaos. The two artists took on a quasi-mystical aura, performing esoteric rituals with a deliberate seriousness that suggests endless repetition through the ages. I was reminded of the serious/bizarre theatre of Jodorowsky films - the ridiculous becoming sublime.  

Brian Patterson
A major theme underlying these twin performances was the dichotomy between creation and destruction.  Graham was destroying the apples by slicing them in two, yet in placing coins within them creating something new.  The symbology of placing coins on something destroyed recalls Charon's fare to cross the River Styx - continuing of themes of mystical division.  Patterson reflected this too, after creating his universe of sand and salt he pressed his face into the sandcastles, destroying their structure with his physicality.  The whole thing was like a hall of mirrors, each part reflecting the wider whole.

The final performance of the evening was similarly dualistic.  Fabiola Paz and Annalaura Alifuoco sat in chairs at either end of the room.  Illuminated by harsh spotlight, Alifuoco took off her clothes until she was completely naked, then began licking and sucking at her body, leaving a sheen of saliva over herself.  Meanwhile, Paz was busy smashing glass bottles in a cloth sack.  Returning to the other side of the room, Paz lay the broken glass in patterns along the floor and placed sellotape over them.  She then picked up the sticky strips of glass and stuck them all around her body.  The glitter of the glass on Paz's body mirrored in the shine of the spit on Alifuoco's.

The atmosphere that this performance created was outstanding - a  hallucination sustained only by the intense concentration of both performer and audience.   Every single external noise, the bleep of a mobile phone or the click of a camera threatened to spoil it. Even a person momentarily blocking the spotlight was a fly in the ointment.  This meant that when Paz began to stick the glass onto her naked body it became amazingly tense, the fragility of her skin under threat of being pierced and torn by the jagged glass.  You could hear the crowd catch their breath.

One of the primary reasons I enjoy performance art is that there's nothing between myself and the artist.  Though I try my best to record it, this is an ephemeral experience.  Any recording of it, be it photographic, textual or even high-definition video just isn't the same. No matter how much bravado the artist exhibits, they're  ultimately placing themselves in an intensely vulnerable position - baring themselves for the world to see.  In every other brand of art you're at some stage removed from the artist, even if they're present they're still exhibiting a finished product rather than a performance, which like Paz and Alifuoco's seemed to evolve and accrue layers of significance the longer it went on.

It was a great night of performance art. One of the best I've seen since I've been going to these things.  A delicious cocktail of comedy, danger, politics, biology and sheer audacity - more like this please!   

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