Sunday, October 21, 2012

'LUPA 12' behind James Campbell House, 19th October 2012

Kate Mahony and Jordan McKenzie
After the long summer break the regularity of LUPA is making these autumn months seem very short.  It’s only been three weeks since the last one but it feels like much less.  Even so, there is still the thrill of the unknown and transgressive that I always get when I walk into the car park behind James Campbell House.  

I’d been working in Liverpool all week, and left there in the middle of a beautiful afternoon, with sunlight gently dappling over the Mersey.  As the train neared London clouds gathered.  Passing the meniscus of the M25 a steady, oppressive drizzle began, which escalated quickly into mean, sour-faced rain.  But even with the misery of the world outside, and even with my tired, weeks end work fatigue I never once considered skipping out and staying in my nice warm house.  I've been to enough of these things now that I don’t think it’s really possible for me to have a bad time here. 

Umbrella in hand I headed down to Bethnal Green to find a slightly smaller crowd than usual.  Had the weather pared the audience down to the hardcore LUPAnauts?  Was the glut of people last week purely because the weather was nice?  I guess maybe the attraction of standing in a chilly, exposed concrete car park watching avant-garde performance art is limited to a select few, and if it’s raining those few become fewer.  I kind of respect LUPA a bit for refusing to cancel if things are a bit wet and I’d like to think that literally whatever the weather they’d press on.  Watching performance art in the middle of a raging blizzard for example, would be amazing.

Adding to the slightly diminished atmosphere was the fact that apparently the council had sent some builders to work in the same area.  So, just nestled to the side of the performance space was a cordoned off area, with people in high visibility jackets working away.  I generally enjoy it when the real-world intrudes upon these events – I’d like to be in their shoes.  To round the corner of a block of flats and find something like LUPA going on must feel like you’ve accidentally tripped the curtain into the Twilight Zone.  

James L.S. and Sean Francis Burns
After the usual friendly introduction from Jordan McKenzie and Kate Mahony we’re onto the performances.  First on was Sean Francis Burns and someone in a hoodie whose name I don't know (please comment if you can fill me in).  They stood on a wooden palette, and Burns recited what sounded like a manifesto of performance art.  I’m not educated enough to recognise exactly where it came from.  As the manifesto was read out, the person standing next to Burns gently coughed a few times, first quietly, then more loudly.  It looked realistic, and I had one of those nervous moments where you wonder if everything is going wrong on stage.  But as the manifesto kept being read, the coughing became ever more dramatic and serious until he was doubled over and wheezing.  When the recitation finished, they silently left the space. 

I’m not entirely sure whether understanding of this piece hinges on whether you recognise what Burns is reading out.  It certainly seemed important. For all I know, this could be the performance art equivalent of reading out the lyrics to ‘Yesterday’ to a crowd of Beatles fans.  I was able to work out that it was a manifesto setting out what performance art can be, how it can work and what kinds of thing it’s able to achieve though.  So armed with this information, what’s the significance of the violent coughing fit going on next to it?  Is her reaction a condemnation and rejection of what's being recited, a quick visual and dramatic shorthand for how they feel about this definition of performance art?  When I watch things like this I’m well aware that there’s going to be references that go over my head, but even if I don’t understand what’s being reacted to, I like to think I can analyse this reaction in isolation on its own merits.  But here, the stimulus and the reaction were so intrinsically linked that I felt I could only appreciate this piece on a very basic, dramatic level.  I’d never say that performance art should be accessible (or ‘should’ be anything for that matter), but something about this felt exclusionary to those not in the know.  A private joke for the in-crowd, and that rubs me the wrong way just a bit.

Lynn Lu - Walking the Line (I didn't get a picture of her at LUPA as I felt that whipping a camera out in the car would have been a bit intrusive.
Next on the bill was Elena Coleman, but before her there was something else I felt I had to do.  Throughout the hour Lynn Lu was giving private, personal performances in a car to the side of the lock up.  This is the kind of thing I love.  There’s something about a one-to-one performance that sucks you in, your reactions and input feel almost as important as what the artist is doing.  So as soon as I heard that this was going on, I knew come hell or high water that I was getting into that car.

I got to find Lynn Lu sitting in the driver's seat, she immediately asked me to tell her about a romantic moment I’d had in a car.  Part of what I like about these one-on-one performances is that there's an unavoidable and immediate air of intimacy between two strangers.  On some level we’re performing for each other, so who is the artist, and who is the audience?  It's a neat, quick and effective way to create a fun feeling of liminality.

Put on the spot I told a tragic story of romantic post-festival smooching; a sunny drive through the countryside ruined when my animal loving girlfriend ran over a cat, which became plaited around the axle of her car.  The romantic mood vanished as she watched, horrified as it twitched its last on the tarmac.  I explained how even with the obvious horror in front of me, some deep, sick part of my brain began curling my lips up into a giggle at the sight and my pathetic efforts to hide this by coughing.  She got annoyed, and we later broke up as a result.  I thought it wasn’t too bad a story considering I knitted it together on the spot from bits and pieces that have happened to me and others.  After I told her this she told me to close my eyes, put headphones on me and played me a short song.  Then she smeared some kind of sesame seed tasting sweet stuff on my lips and I got out of the car.

Now, if I say I felt a bit short changed afterwards I mean it in the nicest possible way.  I enjoy being placed into situations where I’ve got improvise something in a hurry, it reminds me of drama training.  It’s a good way of harnessing some inbuilt creativity without having any time to worry about whether it’s worthwhile or not.  So on this level, I felt pretty good about myself that I could concoct an alright monologue with a beginning, middle and end with no preparation.  On the other hand I stepped into that car, and pretty much did all the work.  The artist’s entire role here was to ask me a question, play me a song and then rub something on my lips.  Later in the evening, I asked someone else who’d been in there what they’d said, and they said that Lu told them a story about her life.  So, maybe I missed the point of this a bit with my jabbering about the darkly humorous side of roadkill.

Even so, I did deeply enjoy the experience.  I’m a big fan of pieces which engage senses that wouldn’t normally be stimulated at once.  The sudden and unexpected sweet taste in your mouth at the end was a sensual and faintly erotic experience, a jolt of surprise as you feel fingers touch your lips. Taste is something that is relatively rarely exploited as a medium for artistic expression, but worked very well here.

Elena Coleman & snails
Upon exiting the car I was dismayed to find out that Elena Coleman's performance had already started, and even worse, looked great!  She was speaking in the centre of the space with her arms covered in snails.  I had joined mid-way through a monologue that I didn't quite get the gist of, which was a pity.  With a polka dot black and white top, bright blue lipstick and her gastropod assistants she cut quite a figure.  I later gathered that this monologue concerned her efforts to grow tomatoes, and how she was stymied by an invasion of snails.  

The snail is very much a creature of contrasts.  It is soft and hard at the same time.  Protected by a hard carapace and simultaneously tragically fragile under a misplaced human foot.  Despised by gardeners but loved by chefs.  Coleman handled her snails with what felt like maternal care.  They slithered up and down her arms, and whenever one would lose it's grip she'd gently bend down, pick it up and put it back on course.  It's interesting to try and view this from the point of view of the snail; a pilgrim travelling over the surface of the vast human body, unable to understand where it is as one whole, much as we the audience are only seeing a small part of the artist's history and personality through her monologue.  

As the performance finished she gently peeled the snails from her skin and placed them against the wall of the lock-up.  I meant to check afterwards if they'd survived the rest of the night, but I forgot.  I hope they didn't get crushed by mistake.

Remember those builders I told you about?  It was at this moment in the night that I found out that they weren't builders at all!  It was artist Corinna Till who, with an assistant had been masquerading as builders all night while secretly setting up various pieces of art behind our very backs.   It's an interesting trick to play on the audience, relying on the psychology of hiding in plain sight.  It's a well known confidence trick that if you look like you belong somewhere then you can pretty much get away with whatever you want.  It's also a bit of class commentary on the LUPA audience.  The artists were in the garb of manual workers, and until they'd been revealed as artists they were all but invisible to us.  When I first saw them I was a tiny bit annoyed, how dare the council work here and now, during LUPA of all things.  As the other artists performed it felt like we'd come to a consensus that everyone was were going to pretend they weren't there, to treat them like black-clad stagehands in a play. 

Corinna Till and someone whose name I don't know.
It's darkly ironic that we find it so easy to ignore people outside of this middle-class arty bubble, especially as they're wearing high-visibility gear.  For me this performance shone a spotlight on our perceptions of who is performing worthwhile tasks.  While we're cooing over someone standing on their head reciting Ulysses, there goes someone unheralded and ignored who's fixing the plumbing in the corner.  I always find it a little dangerous when art becomes too recursive and begins eating its own tail.  For one thing it makes things impenetrable to those not 'in the know', with the eventual effect that even if you do have something clear, valid and artistic to say, no-one's going to see it.  So when our viewpoint shifts and we suddenly perceive these builders as artists it's a neat way of underlining a simple maxim: don't disappear up your own arse.  

A maxim that neatly applies to the final piece of the night. Alex Bradley's piece involved a small essay being projected onto a sheet, while he stood some ways behind it shining a torch into his face and slowly walking backwards and forwards.  Depressingly, the most I was interested in this performance was when they were setting up the projector.  While aiming it, they managed to project huge words onto the buildings around the lockup.  "Cool!", I thought.  What a clever way of expanding the available space, of extending the reach of the performance to the urban surroundings.  But in the end, the projection was just onto a bedsheet held a few metres away from the projector.

Alex Bradley
Considering the amount of space the Bradley had to work with, it was a very static performance.  As a a vaguely cryptic monologue worked it's way onto the sheet he slowly moved around.  I kept waiting for something to happen, figuring his slow movements were prefiguring something dramatic to come.  But nothing did really happen and things remained uninterestingly static and limited. There were a few titters from the audience at the archly funny comments on the projection, but this was a pretty cold and unfriendly piece, especially in comparison to the accessible and open artists I'd seen perform earlier in the evening.  Perhaps it would have worked better in an indoor space, as even with a interesting ambient soundtrack it utterly failed to create a compelling atmosphere.

So a bit of a damp squib to end the night, but then you can't win them all.  It's always a pleasure visiting LUPA, and I look forward to what they have in store for their next performances.

Please let me know in the comments if I've screwed up anything factual!

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5 Responses to “'LUPA 12' behind James Campbell House, 19th October 2012”

Unknown said...
October 21, 2012 at 3:12 PM

The name of the "girl" in the hoodie whose name you don't know is 'James Lawrence Slattery' or 'James L.S.' Awesoe review as always, highly informative for those of us who couldn't make it + photos! Brill. Can't wait for our review Monsieur C. James.

londoncitynights said...
October 21, 2012 at 4:04 PM

!!! thanks for the tip!

Unknown said...
October 21, 2012 at 5:00 PM

Thank you for a thought provoking review as always!

Hope to see you this sat (27th) for LUPA entering the ICA bar for a Lock In!


Louise said...
October 25, 2012 at 3:27 PM

Really interesting review, especially about the penultimate piece, and voices of the privileged.

one Tiny editorial correction, Coleman didn't tell the audience of one a story in the car, it was Lu that told the story :)

londoncitynights said...
October 25, 2012 at 11:38 PM

Thanks for the heads up on the correction and the nice words!

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