My ideal night out can be summarised pretty easily; hanging out in an interesting place surrounded by interesting people doing interesting things. If there's some nudity tossed into the mix that's a welcome bonus. So HOLY SH!T STAMP! cozied up to my sensibilities in the loveliest possible way. This was the much desired triple threat of performance art, comedy and theatre, unafraid to be aggressive, confrontational but also warm and inclusive.
The old BBC London HQ in Marylebone turns out to be the ideal place for a night like this. The soundproofed studio rooms give artists the room they need to make all the racket they want inside while never having to worry about disturbing anyone performing in the main space. In these pods around the main room are installations varying from an exciting looking 'Make-Your-Own-War-Movie' (which looked fun but I never got to do), a tombola stocked with organiser Ellie Stamp's toys (I won a toy racquet) and interesting stuff flickering tantalisingly just behind closed doors that I didn't have time to experience.
The purpose of all this is to raise money for those making the trek up to Edinburgh. Later in the night they apologised that the money being raised wasn't going to starving children; but by all indications visiting the Edinburgh festival is equivalent of being held by your ankles and violently shaken until all the money has fallen out of your pockets (and your bank account). Anyway, with this much neat stuff around to enjoy they more than make it worth their while.
One of my instant favourites was Gaia Harvey Jackson's blindfolded paintings. You're led into a side room draped in cloth, the atmosphere like that of a fairground fortune teller. Inside is Jackson, as she asks you questions, you place her hand on your face and she roams around, exploring your contours and charting your features. As she does she gently questions you. I was in a chatty mood so I immediately started excitedly gabbing about an interesting woman I've met that I'd like to see more of. It's like a miniature form of therapy just to have someone really listening to what you've got to say - all the while she's scratching out ragged lines on a piece of canvas. I'm excited to see the result:
|I like it.|
Similarly neat was the stall set up by Heather Bandenburg and Emsey Jones. One of my big annoyances in life in general is when people try oh-so-hard to be nice and pleasant. It's the rough edges in life that make things interesting. So it's kind of refreshing that these two are absolutely horrible to me. They're running a misanthropic cake stall dedicated the memory of someone called Diane (I don't know who she is). With curled lip and insouciant glare they invite you to pick between a cake experiences and reaching into Diane's cardboard vagina-bucket to see what's inside. How can you possibly choose? I didn't, and did both over the course of the night. Sat upon Heather's bony knee I gulped down a cake as I stared into the picture of Diane's eyes. Then, hand plunged deep between cardboard labia I scrabbled around - pulling out a bag of rhubarb and custard sweets!
|Heather Bandenburg and Emsey Jones|
By now I had a toy racquet, portrait of myself, bag of sweets and a couple of beers in tow. Life was looking pretty rosy. And it was about to get rosier. After a great talk by Richard DeDomenici about his Redux project - sweding movies in the locations they were shot in, Ira Brand takes the stage. Up to now things have been pretty upbeat and comedic, but not now.
Within about twenty seconds the room becomes utterly silent. She sits at a desk, opens a laptop and starts reciting a monologue: it's simple stuff, but like a black hole she inexorably draws everyone's attention to her. With a gentle wobble in her voice and a slight sparkle of tears under her eyes she guides us through the emotions and technical experience of cancer.
We quickly realise she's talking about a prostate cancer scare. I wonder for a moment if women have prostates (I was pretty sure they don't), but then she settles that train of thought by talking about having blood in her semen. A weird cocktail of emotions and thoughts begins to take mix. Brand is such a good actor that the subjective, emotional side of us cannot help but instinctively sympathise with her - the room was so rapt that everyone there was feeling her pain along with her.
Meanwhile the coldly logical side of us is trying to puzzle out what the hell is going on. Whose story is this? What point is being made by a translating a masculine cancer through a feminine prism. Neurons are flickering around the brain like an untuned TV as we try to put it all together, a state of mind that leaves us confused and vulnerable - amplifying Brand's performance even more. It's a hell of an intense monologue, diluted only by experiencing it as part of a crowd. If this were a one on one experience it'd have been like taking a bullet made of sadness right to the temple.
Things don't let up. Next is Sara Zaltash, who stands on a stage looking perfectly normal and happy. Slightly bashfully she explains that she's not allowed to burn incense in this room for fear of setting off the smoke detectors. Then in the blink of an eye she whips off her dress and she's completely naked. It's the quickest disrobing I've ever seen and the sudden nudity silences the room. But this is just stage one of her transformation. Out go the lights and on comes the UV - revealing that Zaltash's body is smeared with UV paint. Her lips glow toxic waste orange in the darkness, disembodied and monstrous.
|The angry disembodied lips of Sara Zaltash.|
She begins reciting song lyrics - snatches from across the pop spectrum, all punctuated by a snarled "DISCUSS!". In 15 minutes or so we travel through about a hundred songs from Dolly Parton to Kanye West, stopping everywhere along the way as Zaltash's voice becomes ever fiercer and slightly hoarse, and her yells of "DISCUSS!" become ever fiercer. This is visually stunning stuff; the performer becoming a kind of phantom as she performs - slicing away humanity until she's just a few floating body parts in the darkness. Dynamic, exciting and brave - my kind of performance art!
After this we got a truncated version of Sh!t Theatre's excellent Guinea Pigs on Trial and an even more pared down smidge of Ellie Stamp's also brill Are You Lonesome Tonight? - both of which I reviewed here. By the end of the night I had a cold curl of jealousy in my belly that I wasn't heading to Edinburgh. If it's like this it'd be a tiny bit of heaven.