Friday, October 4, 2013

NAVIGATE2: (Madness, Sanity and Gentrification) [Andre Verissimo]

As I hurled my half naked body against a steel-grated fence I felt a bit ridiculous. Fucking a fence, I figured, is going to look silly however I go about it so I may as well go all out on this. I dug my fingertips deep into the slats, whipping it backwards and forwards, metallic reverberations filling the air as I furiously slammed my groin over and over into the quivering barrier.  Why was I lewdly rubbing myself against a fence on an overcast Autumn day?  To explore the division between public and private space, to understand something about society’s treatment of the mad and, on a personal level, to end summer with a bang.

This workshop, ‘Navigate2’ was the brainchild of Andre Verissimo, who (at Arbeit’s ‘A Table’) had invited me along.  I’ve never been to a performance art workshop before, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  Ominously, one of the conditions of the workshop was that we had to stay at the Andre’s house overnight on the Saturday.  I had visions of cultish, hallucinogenic sensory deprivation, personalities being smashed to bits and me being left in a deranged stupor.  
Team Navigate2
The reality was more prosaic, but only a little more.  The basic structure of the weekend resembled theatre and drama classes - a comprehensive warm-up to get everyone loose up and awake followed by a series of exercises that require quick creative thinking, some patience and a bit of bravado.  

On the first day the exercises aimed to ease us into performing in more public and more volatile places.  We began by going to a group of bins in Hackney Wick, once there we were told to find a prop in the rubbish, think of a single action to perform and repeat it for an hour. I picked up a length of white, metal pipe (which may well once have been part of a wardrobe) and proceeded to bang it against stuff for the duration of the exercise.  The hour went by surprisingly fast - when you're limited to a specific action you quickly devise new ways to perform it. Eventually I closed my eyes altogether and circumnavigated the bins by the tap-tap of the stick alone.

During this passers by were looking on with varying degrees of confusion.  One of us was was walking around with a piece of barrier, another was repeatedly tossing a rock into the air and yet another was endlessly flapping a piece of skirt in the wind.  You figure the locals are going to be pretty nonplussed by this kind of thing: this is life as normal in Hackney Wick. It’s another story altogether for those merely enjoying the canals of London on a pleasantish September Saturday.

After a quick lunch we headed to the banks of the canal, where our relationship with the public morphed from passive into aggressive confrontation.  We lined up on the wall above the canal path and angrily barked like dogs at anyone that came past.  We growled at perplexed runners, howled angry cyclists, woofed at smiling canal boats and arfed at one very confused dog.  At first I was a little antsy about actively pissing off people: it’s one thing to just freak them out, but busting into someone’s lazy weekend and subjecting them a vicious barking is another thing altogether.

That saucy fence.
This was followed by the fence-fucking.  After the barking I was a bit hopped up on my own ego, and wanted to really push the boat.  I writhed against the fence with a crazed expression of sexual pleasure carved onto my face.  People looked up at us through cameraphone viewfinders, presumably figuring that it’d be easier to take a picture than explain this to their friends.  Some shouted over “What’s going on?” or “Why are you doing that?”.  It’s kind of a difficult question to answer, so I responded as best I could by dropping into a rhythmic twerk and grimacing obscenely.

This exercise was an event horizon; if you can spend 30 or 40 minutes sexing up a fence in then you can do anything. Brimming with this hard-earned confidence we then made our way into the Olympic Park.  This is one of the most heavily monitored and CCTVed places in London, and though it is at present a largely empty fenced off bubo attached to the Westfield Shopping Centre it was pretty busy, packs of tourists being led around by a tour-guide.

We were instructed to lie down on one of the wide bridges within the park and awaken as if we were experiencing our senses for the first time. My first thought was to do a slow awakening as if waking up after a long lie-in on a sunny day.  But after thinking a little harder I realised that the idea of suddenly being able to sense everything for the first time would blow your brain wide open at the seams. After all, when babies get squirted out they aren’t gazing around in dazed wonder, they’re purple, slimy and screaming in horror at the cold world they’ve been thrust into.

With that in mind I lay down on the bridge.  After a few seconds I sat bolt upright, taking the gaspiest and raspiest breath I could muster.  The tourists began to stare.  I staggered to my feet and chaotically wobbled around emitting pained groans, clutching my chest and falling to my knees.  I figured a bit of bodily fluids would be a cherry on the cake, so I retched up what I could and convulsed on all fours, tendrils of saliva oozing from my mouth.

Me mid freakout.
I continued on in this vein for about 20 minutes, staggering here and there, clutching my sides as if I’d been stabbed, grabbing rude handfuls of foliage and sniffing it in dread before tossing it aside.  I put my hands over my ears and let out another scream.  As I sat on a bollard shaking spasmodically a tour group passed and their leader asked if I needed an ambulance.  This felt like a good omen: if I looked that distressed then surely I was doing something right.

And then the police showed up.  Thankfully Andre dealt with them, elegantly explaining that this wasn’t really a protest, we were 'playing'.  From the way he told it they didn’t sound entirely convinced, especially as directly in their line of sight was Stephen leaping through the air in pursuit of imaginary objects.  After they’d retreated to their lair in confusion we left the park. As we did so, a police van tailed us back to performancespace and squatted in the driveway, we sat opposite it passively. Eventually they got sick of this ridiculous Mexican standoff, decided that they had better things to do and slunk off.  

All this excitement was about me done for the day, so after a quick chat we hopped on a bus and headed up to Andre’s house where we curled up into various nooks and crannies and slept soundly.  There was a fragile spell cast over the group; if everyone headed home to socialise with others, or head out to nightclubs then it’d be shattered.  When we all woke up together, we were still sharing a common experience, camaraderie and trust intact.

One lesson I learned was the importance of appreciating your surroundings.  Even the most trash-filled wasteland is pregnant with creative possibility, and as long as you're fairly cavalier about the prospect of tetanus, any space can become an art piece with minimal effort.  As we stood in scrubland underneath a motorway bridge, Andre told us to build a house without verbal communication. So, rummaging through the undergrowth, we built a house.  From the chaos of weeds and garbage we pulled out chunks of fence, glass bottles, piles of leaves and tree branches and combining them into a reasonable tepee looking structure.  I was pretty proud of what we’d all accomplished: a place of our own with little shelves for knick-knacks, a garden and even a cargo-cult television with a chunk of shattered remote pointing at it. 

All these exercises were great fun, though there's a sense that we're shielded from the full consequences of our actions as we're just following Andre's orders.  This is an abdication of responsibility; if someone gave us some hassle we could point to him and say "He made us do it!".  Not so in the next performance.  With a row boat having been fetched from a nearby cafe we had free rein to do whatever we want and the whole scoop of the Hackney Wick basin to do it in.  This rush of freedom was a bit scary, suddenly the only person responsible for what you're doing is yourself.

Throughout the other performances I had an internal monologue going on: though I might be acting crazily, I was very much in control of what I was doing.  Not so in this performance. At first at a bit of a loss for what to do I quickly got into the spirit of things, ripping off my top, grabbing handfuls of weeds growing along the sides of the canal and stuffing them down my trousers.  I made a garland out of a bunch of dying dandelions and popped it on my head and then ran around wailing monosyllabically.  By the time I was kneeling in a rowing boat, a stick between my clenched teeth, strangling myself with the boat’s rope and screaming at the top of my lungs my outer monologue matched my internal one - 

I tried to tire myself out as much as possible, sprinting around the canal banks trailing plants behind me, before getting down on the ground and doing press ups until I felt like I was about to puke.  As I stood up, shaking and sweaty, Charlotte - who was by this point topless and whirling like a dervish came over with a handful of pond weed and draped it over my head.  It felt like a truly bizarre experience, something so intense I wasn't able to analyse it on any rational level as I was doing it - one action seemed to seamlessly flow into the next.

Afterwards I was a bit shaken up, feeling a mixture of comedown, post-orgasmic daze and a tinge of scariness, just for a brief moment I’d brushed against the genuinely out-of-control. Everybody seemed impressed with themselves, our reactions to freedom running the gamut from going to sleep, to an affectionate meditativeness or putting on everyone else’s clothes. Even the passersby were apparently quite impressed, under the impression this was some planned out bit of street theatre rather than a bunch of lunatics doing whatever came to mind.

After the afternoon exercises I was a little burnt out, but there was still a few things to do.  We were given cards with behaviours represented madness on them, and had to devise a way to act them out over the car park of an estate, Hackney Wick overground station and the middle of a road in Hackney Wick.  I decided to do everything backwards for as long as I could; wearing my clothes backwards, talking backwards, spitting into a water bottle when I wanted to drink from it and so on. If I'd have known how long I'd have to keep it up for I wouldn't have picked this really restrictive way of acting.

The other performers were far more successful here, particularly Stephen Sheehan, who lay down on the floor of the train station and invited passengers to wipe their feet on him to keep London's trains clean, or kept up a hilarious running commentary on people walking down the street. By this point late in the workshop we were more than ready to don parapersonalities and explore the space - the final moments of the exercise feeling more like anarchic street play - a childlike disregard for what anyone might think of us.

As I headed home, and in the following week I reconsidered my relationship to the space around me.  The simplest way to view the difference between public and private spaces is that there is no distinction between them. Manmade boundaries merely becoming something we adhere to as a result of societal conditioning; an instinctive obeyance of 'the rules'; something so firmly ingrained in us that it takes being pushed entirely out of your comfort zone to even consider breaking them. Our behaviour pushed us into the role of an outsider, and through that lens the notion of someone can declare a piece of land ‘theirs’ is objectively absurd. 

Recognising absurdity doesn't free you from the effects of it - the simple difference in mood between being in the Olympic Park and in the streets of Hackney Wick is testament to that; the oppressiveness that drips from every surface as much a product of our preconceptions than the designers of the park.  The idea of 'freedom' arising from breaking rules of society (fucking a fence; barking at strangers; talking backwards) is only a way of achieving solipsistic personal freedom.  The paradox is that by breaking the rules governing the distinction between public and private spaces we're reinforcing them; outlining for 'normal' people the boundaries.

But the personal freedom is still exhilarating as hell.  As I screamed, grinded and flailed my way around Hackney Wick I felt like I was claiming something back.  The most overtly public spaces; through which thousands of people tramp through every day can become intensely personal, from your perspective you have a claim of ownership over them.  Whenever I walk through the Olympic Park I will forever think of that bridge I freaked out on, or that fence I fucked as somehow ‘mine’.  If ownership of a space is, in the end, a mental construct then at least from my perspective, my actions and those of the others participating in this workshop begin to erode the sense of what is ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ - at least within our heads.

All this left me feeling like my brain had had a full MOT, my self-confidence pumped up by degrees with each exercise we did.  I didn’t exactly walk into this workshop a shrinking violet, but it’s been a while since I did anything performance-based and it’s reassuring to feel like I’ve still ‘got it’.  It’s exhilarating to meet a  group of strangers one Saturday morning and by Sunday evening feel like you’ve developed a genuine connection with them.

Thanks to everyone who participated in this with me: Nuria, Stephen, Joe, Sadie, Gerald and both Charlottes - all of whom made this so much fun. A huge thank-you to Andre for arranging the weekend, providing delicious food and letting us stay in his house (a big thank-you to Bean as well on that last one).  

If you want to push your boundaries out a bit I’d highly recommend workshops like these, exposing me to new behaviours, new ways of thinking and pushing me forwards, making me become a fitter, happier and smarter person.

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