Saturday, November 24, 2012

'LUPA 13' behind James Campbell House, 23rd November 2012

A happy LUPA audience.  And no, I don't know what that child is holding.
As Great Britain continues its stately march towards absolute zero and perpetual darkness it's nice to know there's always LUPA to mark the months by.  More than most art events,LUPA is at the mercy of the weather.  I've never been to one where it's been insanely miserable, but I think even if London were mostly underwater Kate Mahoney and Jordan McKenzie would give it a good go.  As we head into bitter winter you'd expect to see the audience for outdoor events shrinking, but not here.  In fact LUPA seems to grow week on week, with tonight perhaps the biggest crowd I've seen there.  These newcomers picked a good week to come; this might have been the most entertaining and most interesting LUPA yet.

First up was a bit of a departure for LUPA; a full set by a band; 'WE'.  Usually LUPA performances are by necessity fairly spartan affairs.  Artists only have so much time to set up, and only so much space to store their props and equipment.  This is probably a good thing; it's always a good maxim not to rely too much on technology for a performance.  If something can screw up it will screw up.

There were four people in the band; two drummers up front, each with a single drum to beat on; two keyboard players at the back, one of which occasionally played bass or sax; all of them were singing at various points and frequently swapping instruments.  I don't really want to categorise them too quickly, but broadly they play avant garde synth pop, with a (possibly intentionally) fragile and shaky amateurish feel to it.  The music reminds me of early 80s experimental synth bands, hearkening back to a time when sounds like this were impossibly futuristic, the soundtrack of a brave new world to come.  A good example (and one leapt into my mind during the show) is a scene from the brilliantly weird film 'Liquid Sky'

Unfortunately there are a few technical problems to the performance.  The drumming is sometimes hesitant and nervy, as are their voices. Throughout this performance the band sing in chorus, and occasionally someone will come in little bit early, or hit a drum when I don't think they were supposed to.  Fortunately in the context of LUPA I'm more than able to ignore the fact that someone's a bit unrehearsed or the occasional screwup, there's a tacit understanding here that the message or statement is more important than being slick.  If this performance was part of a gig line up in a venue I might not be so sympathetic.  But we're standing in a car park watching a band performing out of a garage.  I can forgive a bit of scrappiness.

'WE' are one of the more interesting and eye-catching bands I've seen playing of late.  They wear Klaus Nomi inspired tops with the attendant huge over-exaggerated shoulders and shiny obsidian boxes on their heads.  While their sound might be synthy, they look liked they're aiming for a warped form of pop music; lyrically they sing extremely generalised platitudes at the audience, but appropriately enough given that they're named 'WE', they sing in plural:  "We are here for you", "We love you" and so on.  This is the era of Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj et al and there has been a resurgence of individualism in pop, but WE's outfits serve to wipe almost every identifying mark from the band.  Here it's difficult even to tell which gender the performers identify as, the way they sing together means all personal affectations or flair have been surgically excised.  It's a conscious roboticisation of pop, something that a sinister hivemind trying to emulate popular culture might try and produce to lure people in. 

It's striking stuff, and if they really are trying to depersonalise pop they mostly succeed.  At A six or seven song set made this a much longer performance than most LUPA sets.  By the fourth song I thought they'd made their point, my feet were starting to get a bit numb and I was wondering what else was in store for the night.  But this was a great way to start off a LUPA, and I did find myself feeling a bit sorry for whoever had to follow a performance as elaborate, fun and interesting as this.

One of the first things I'd seen when rounding the corner of James Campbell House was a paddling pool being filled with cold water.  It was a cold night and immediately I pitied the performance artist who was going to end up in that.  There's an unpleasant sadistic element to watching some performance art, a desire to watch some poor bastard making themselves miserable for my amusement.

Verity Whiter splashing about, looking a little bit like she's in Tron.
The crowd gathered in a circle around the pool as (someone who I think was) Verity Whiter climbed into the pool holding an oar and began to splash the water about.  The audience, fearful of getting wet, collectively took a step back.  She put the oar down, bent over and began to splash the water with her hands, creating a halo of wet concrete around the pool.  After a bit of this, Kate Mahoney joined her and they splashed together, then picked up the oars and silently walked off around the corner.  The crowd remained silent, figuring perhaps there was more to this, but it soon became apparent that there wasn't and eventually some polite applause broke out.

I don't know exactly what to make of this.  My first reaction was to think that they hadn't made as good use of such an interesting and exciting prop as they could have.  A paddling pool full of cold water is dangerous.  Admittedly it's dangerous in a safe way, but to an audience it's chaos and misery wrapped in blue plastic.  What if we got water on us?  The horror!  We'd be all cold and wet!  That would suck!  It's November! Admittedly, worrying about getting a bit of water splashed on you is hardly the stuff that white knuckle nightmares are made of but even so nobody wants wet socks.

Kate Mahony soon joined her.
Throughout I kept expecting something big to happen, some definitive end to the performance.  I think everyone else was too, which is why nobody knew whether to clap or not at the end.  Perhaps this performance was a bit overshadowed by what preceded it, or maybe and understandably the artists involved didn't want to spend too long kneeling down in cold water on a chilly November evening.  On the plus side, having returned home I find this performance does look very pretty under flash photography, so it at least has that going for it.

After this I noticed that a long line of chairs had been laid out along the front of the line of garages.  My immediate inclination is to get involved in whatever is going on, so I tried to make a beeline for them.  But I got there too late and they'd all been occupied, presumably by people like me with chilly numb feet.  As it turned out this was for the best.  Before this next performance started, someone started shouting at us from the balconies above us.  A very happy, friendly and slightly drunk woman was shouting down at us that we all looked beautiful.  Inside the LUPA bubble it's easy to become a little blase and accustomed to bizarre stuff happening.  This is why I always like it when random people wander around the corner to find, say, someone covered in snails.  She took a photo of everyone and then announced her intentions to come down and join us.  It's little happy and inclusive moments like this that prevent LUPA from being just another snottily serious art event with a stick wedged firmly up its arse.

Ann-Marie LeQuesne
Once these seats were occupied, Ann-Marie LeQuesne marched out in front of the crowd to explain what was going to happen.  She launched into a long explanation of what she wanted the audience to do.  I was a little apprehensive at this poin as all of this felt awfully complicated.  My section of the audience was to march out in front of those seated, and repeatedly take particular kinds of bows in sequence to soak up the applause.  Then we were to leave the 'stage' and then wait for a few "heartbeats" and come back on for more applause.  Also there was something about a recording of a children's choir which I didn't really understand.

It's very strange how rewarding and uplifting it can be getting rapturous applause even though you haven't done anything to deserve it.  As I stepped out in front of the crowd to greet their cheers I almost instantly lapsed into a faux-luvvie mental state and body language and began milking the crowd.  I waved and cajoled them into further applause, behaving like a ridiculous egotistical applause-junkie.  No wonder people say they can get addicted to this sort of thing.  Even in wholly artificial form it's kind of a rush.

The audience.
We stepped back for the applause and bows multiple times.  This cheering and clapping seemed to loosen up the crowd a bit (that or they had gotten a bit drunk by now).  The whooping kept going, all of sudden everyone was pitching in and it became a little difficult to stop the process.  It's nice to see everyone smiling and enjoying some good vibes (even if to a large extent the whole process was play acted.

When Jordan and Kate stepped back in front of this crowd to announce the next act they duly received some of this applause, although I suppose they are at least deserving of it.  I thought it was very strange how genuine and warm this whole experience felt, given that everyone was wildly applauding something that hadn't happened.  Is this act some kind of social ritual that has a power of its own?  Applause of some sort seems like a universal human reaction to events, maybe LeQuesne recognises this and has worked out that she can tap into it as and when she needs it.  

The final performer was Joey Ryken.  In a cloud of smoke, lit dramatically from below he ponderously made his way out of the garage.  He was dressed all in black, with a very strange mask on, looking like a bargain basement Darth Vader.  Just as I was wondering whether we were supposed be taking this dead seriously he popped the mask off and said "just kidding".  It's a performance art joke!  And a good one at that.  Just like that he won the audience over.  

Joey Ryken
Ryken is a very easy man to like, his stage persona is at once overly serious about what he's doing as well as self-mocking and ever so slightly innocently incompetent.  It's a good mix, and made for more of a comedy act rather than what you'd expect out of performance art.  The subject of this performance was the CIA's MKULTRA mind control program; Ryken wanted to try and reproduce one of their experiments in manipulating peoples emotions using music.  

To this end he pulled two volunteers from the crowd, both strangers to each other and placed them inside a mirror box.  There were two holes cut into the edge for their heads, and the mirror effect meant that there was nowhere for these volunteers to look except at the other person.  Thrown into this disorientating atmosphere was a set of rapidly flashing LED lights placed on top of the box, and a large strobe light that Ryken himself was holding up.  The soundtrack for the test was 'More Than A Feeling' by Boston, and when the ends of the box behind the men's heads were plugged up by large speakers the experiment could begin.

The volunteers inside the box, with two helpers making sure the whole thing holds together.
What made all this work so well is that Ryken takes it all so seriously.  He has a grim, determined look on his face the entire time and gets hilariously indignant when his test subjects begin enjoying themselves and dancing.  I found myself wishing I could see what it was like for the volunteers inside the box.  As they danced they repeatedly and accidentally pulled the audio lead out of the player, which looked annoying for Ryken but proved to us that these people genuinely were undergoing some form of sensory deprivation.  If this performance was just a comedy skit it would have been a success, but the fact that underneath all the humour there is something (very, very vaguely) serious going on makes it  feel worthwhile.  When the two volunteers emerged they actually did look disorientated and bit confused, it was oddly touching when they hugged each at the end of the test.

There was a lot of fiddling during this performance.
I think this was the best LUPA has ever been.  There was some serious top flight stuff tonight, performances that make you feel privileged to turn up behind this garage in Bethnal Green and get to watch all this stuff for free.  I don't know where else I'd go to watch performance art this eclectic, good natured and (for all it's ridiculousness) largely unpretentious.

So I was a little sad to find out that apparently LUPA has an expiry date, and will be finishing the coming summer.  This seems very far away right now, but I'm sure it'll roll around quicker than I anticipate.  But then this knowledge just makes me determined to attend every time it's on and enjoy it as much as is humanly possible.

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