Monday, October 29, 2012

‘LIPA!’ (Lock In Performance Art) at the ICA, 27th October 2012

Transplanting the outlaw and the transgressive into the bosom of the establishment is a tricky piece of surgery.  But tricky though it may be, this is what was attempted at ‘LIPA!’ (Lock In Performance Art).  LIPA! is an offshoot of ‘LUPA’ (Lock Up Performance Art), a monthly gathering I enjoy attending that takes place behind a block of flats in Bethnal Green (previous reviews here, here and here).  One of the main reasons I enjoy it so much is the hint of the secret and unexpected, the transformation of a dull and featureless bit of concrete into a space where societal norms are temporarily suspended.  At LUPA there are no rules (or at least the illusion of no rules), and there's no way to predict what you’re going to see next.  It could be a pyrotechnic musical instrument, a superhero walking across a roof in skis or simply two oiled up guys in their pants brutally beating the hell out of each other.  It's a special secret and is beautifully and subtly seedy. 

So does this survive the journey into the beating heart of imperial, monumental London?  Can LUPA retain its personality and punkishness when enveloped in the aluminium brushed and spotlight lit Institute of Contemporary Arts?  Unfortunately the answer appears to be no.

I arrived just before 8, weaving and dashing my way through the Trafalgar Square pedestrian traffic, hoping I wouldn’t arrive too late and be locked out.  When I first heard about the concept of the ‘lock in’ I became irrationally excited.  It’s always been an ambition of mine to be involved in a lock in at a pub.  I figured if you were going to try and transplant the LUPA atmosphere to the ICA you’d need to create a hermetically sealed bubble, somewhere that is both the ICA and also LUPA simultaneously. 

Unfortunately, what I quickly realised is that this space wasn’t hermetic at all.  It was barely even a bubble.  I’d presumed that the idea was that LIPA! would take control of the bar area, and be allowed to use it for their own ends for an hour.  What actually happened is that although Kate Mahony was dramatically holding one of the doors closed, people were free to enter and exit through the door next to her.  My excitement deflated a bit upon realising that people could come and go as they pleased, which nullified the interesting idea of being part of a captive audience.

The bar in quieter times.
I took a table with some friends near the bar upstairs, got some drinks and waited for the fun to start.  I know that the artists involved here are capable of grand, bold and dramatic statements, so I figured all I had to do was sit back, sip my (quite expensive) pint and take in the performances.  Straightaway I felt the atmosphere was tempered a little bit by the fact that a lot of people were having their dinner around me.  It looked like tapas was on the menu and waitresses bearing platters of food zipped around and people politely chatted over  their dinner.  To put it mildly, it didn’t seem like a crowd ready to enthusiastically engage with performance art.

First up was, I think, Daniella Valz-Gen.  The performance began with a game of Chinese whispers,  a nice way of uniting a pretty disparate crowd.  I was a bit annoyed that after I’d passed on my whisper it didn’t seem to go anywhere.  The person I’d whispered it to tried to tell someone who was busy tucking into some kind of hummus based dish. She looked non-plussed and returned to her dinner rather than pass the message along.  What a spoilsport! After this, Valz-Gen stood at the other end of the bar and performed a short monologue.  At the beginning she explained that she can’t speak very loudly, so we all have to be as quiet as possible.  The room quietened down a bit, and the only sound was dinner eating with the attendant clinks, scrapes and chewy squishes.  But there was still too much background noise to be able to hear what she was saying.  Was this the point of the performance?  Whether it was or not the main emotion this aroused in me was frustration.  I was frustrated with the crowd for not quite being quiet enough, and (perhaps unfairly) frustrated with the artist for being so quiet!  One of the bigger problems I encountered in the upstairs area was that with so many people watching, seated at tables, it was hard to move around the upstairs area without either blocking anyone’s view or sitting down at someone’s table who was having dinner.  So I sat, ears straining at the back of the room trying desperately to hear what was being said.  All too quickly it was over, but I did later notice the artist walking through the crowds at the bar, rubbing her chest and belly and as far as I could see being mostly ignored by those queuing up to buy drinks.

Many of the artists decided not try and overpower the atmosphere of the bar, but to insinuate themselves subtly into the crowd and gently subvert things.  So moving around the two bar areas were JB&TheBubbles dressed in skimpy tight fitting black outfits.  They carried around trays of cheap corn-based snacks, which as far as I could tell consisted of Space Raiders, Onion Rings and some kind of sugary puffed corn.  I thought this was the best thing there, but then I’ve always had a soft spot for performances where you can eat part of the art.  Also I hadn’t had any dinner, so by the time these people were handing out crisps I was a bit peckish.  I may have indulged a little too much though, at one point they just left the tray on the table in front of me and wandered off for a bit. 

It sounds a bit facile but of everything there this was the one thing that properly captured the something of the spirit of LUPA.  These cheap, corn based snacks are unpretentious, tasty and inescapably proletariat.  I doubt very much that a Space Raider, Quarterback or Transform-A-Snack has ever travelled down the gullet of David Cameron or George Osborne, so seeing them on a silver platter being served in central central London, where the Important things happen was rather refreshing.  It also functioned as reflection of the bar itself, during the piece, kitchen staff at the ICA were busy delivering the highest in bar-based Saturday night cuisine to tables.  Of all the things here, it went furthest to cocking a proper snook at the ICA and all too briefly LUPA felt like a subversive oppositional element.

Unfortunately similar projects on the same sort of wavelength didn’t work quite as well.  There were a few people standing around in t-shirts that read ‘Pose1’ on them.  As the performance went on, and as far as I could see from my quite limited view of the space, they seemed to be moving around the bar striking poses.  If this all sounds quite vague, that’s because it was by this point pretty hard to be able to tell what was going on.  I’d realised by now that I wasn’t going to be able to see much from my table, so I moved to the top of the stairs.  This resulted in me being quite brusquely told to move on by ICA security but when I went downstairs it was a bit too crowded to be able to see.

Frequently throughout the latter half of the night I felt like I was glimpsing bits of performances, a few seconds here or there before they performer was drowned out by the crowd in terms of vision or sound. At one point our table was approached by John William Fletcher asking us to write out names on a piece of paper.  The noise in the bar was a bit too loud to understand what he wanted them for, but I figured there’d be some kind of worthwhile payoff.  Later I saw Fletcher pull a piece of paper from the hat, and speak for a moment.  Once again the bar was too loud to be able to tell what was being said, or to really see properly what then happened.  A similar experience happened when Selina O, dressed as a clown came to our table and handed us a card that said “Girl Clown says: you are my best friend”.  She then left.  I get the feeling that maybe there was a lot I was missing out on, but whenever I went to the downstairs part of the bar it felt like there were things going on upstairs, and whenever I was upstairs performances were going on downstairs.  No matter where I was in the place I was missing out on something! Very frustrating.

Eventually with a fizzle rather than a bang it ended and people began to trickle out into the night.  A bar on a Saturday night is always going to be a tough place to hold an art intervention, and the geography and division of the ICA bar makes it even tougher.  The promotional material explained that the artists would be “taking over the bar”, unfortunately the opposite happened and the bar took over LUPA.   It was an interesting experiment, and being given carte blanche to perform in a crowded gallery bar is a great opportunity for exposure.  But the problem was that even here at the ICA with a crowd that must be at least open to the idea of performance art, a lot of people there just didn't seem to care that much and this lack of engagement was poisonous to the performances I saw.  On top of this, the layout of the place made it practically impossible to get a decent idea of what was happening at any one time.  By the time it was over I deeply missed the simplicity and unpretentiousness of the garage in Bethnal Green.

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