Thursday, October 17, 2013

Restock, Rethink, Reflect #3: Live Art & Feminism at the White Space, 16th October 2013

Nina Arsenault
It's always nice to walk into a room packed full of smart people.  Heading up to Hackney Wick last night I didn't have many expectations as to what I was walking into.  Some interesting talks perhaps, fresh artists maybe and what looked to be an interesting piece by Nina Arsenault and Poppy Jackson.  What I got was three hours of top quality chat crowned with a cool-as-all-hell performance piece.  But more on that later.

After an introduction from Lois Weaver, who recited a bewilderingly long list of organisations and projects that were being represented, we were off.  The four speakers , Phoebe Davies, Adrien Sina, Poppy Jackson and Nina Arsenault covered a lot of ground between them: looking back into early 20th Century feminist performance and forwards into an intersectional, inclusive future.

The first speaker, Phoebe Davies, began by outlining how she came to identify as a feminist. It's a depressing fact that the label 'feminist' has been severely tarnished by the slings and arrows of morons.  The classic feminist stereotype of the slovenly, masculine, viciously misandrist bra-burning she-barbarian (a stereotype that has its roots way back in caricatures of the suffragettes) still holds firm in the minds of many.  With this gargoyle in place it's no wonder that women don't rush to identify with feminism.  And anyway, weren't all those battles won back in the 1970s?  Gender equality is enshrined in law, women occupy numerous high-ranking positions in society - hell, Barbie became an astronaut - what more do you want?

One of Phoebe's pop up nail bars
Yet when Davies began working with children excluded from South London she encountered some surprising views.  The teenage girls would explain that they didn't consider jobs like doctors or lawyer suitable for women, and that "only stupid women get hit".  Clearly something had to be done.  Davies explained that after spending time with them she began to understand their likes and dislikes; particularly noting that the girls liked to express themselves through nail art.  Seizing upon this she embarked upon a project to create a series of bespoke Nail Wraps (vinyl stickers you paste over your nails).  These feature notable women in history, from Rosa Parks to Malala Yousefzai, stopping off along the way for fictional characters like Ellen Ripley from the Alien films or something as prosaic as family members of the girls in the group.

You could argue that reducing these women to fashion ephemeralia is a form of trivialisation, but looking at the pictures it's difficult to argue that Davies' project isn't extraordinarily positive.  I like that it doesn't hector girls towards feminism, it doesn't tell them what to think, just gives them the information and tools to find out more using a medium they're comfortable with.  This project appears to have been pretty damn successful with pop-up nail bars opening up around London, run by the girls who devised the designs.

After staring optimistically into the future we plunged into the past: Adrien Sina wading through a primordial soup of feminist/feminine performance in the avant-garde.  Beginning with Valentin de Saint Point's 1912 futurist manifesto Manifeste de la Femme Futuriste, we rocketed through to the commencement of World War II, taking in a dizzying array of artists and their interpretations of femininity.  Compressing all this into a 20 minute talk is a Herculean task and frustratingly we were given little time to stop and appreciate what we were being shown.  The Powerpoint presentation whizzed through countless fascinating pictures without pause - I wanted time to stop and smell the roses!  I admit being teased like this is an excellent advert for Sina's book, but I would have loved to hear him talk without time constraints.

One of the big features of the evening was the 'Long Table' discussion.  This is a method devised by Lois Weaver for creating an inclusive, focussed public conversation.  The idea is to translate the easygoing nature of a dinner table conversation into a public performance. People are welcome to take seats at the table and join a long continuous debate. 

While there were some very lucid participants, the theme that emerged from those speaking was a faint self-obsession.  Person after person would sit at the table and begin speaking about themselves.  Sure, individual stories can be useful as a tool to divine a wider social experiences, here though, it added up to a fuzzy opacity.  The topic of the evening was supposed to be live art performance, yet things drifted pretty damn far from that topic right away.

The 'Long Table' in action
It was the efforts to wrench things back to the topic of the evening that were the most interesting, particularly a woman called Jennifer (whose surname I don't know.. anyone?) who told us of an astonishing performance piece by Alisa Shvarts, who artificially inseminated herself as many times as she could over nine months, and then induced abortions using abortifacient drugs.  Now that's a damn performance worth writing home about.  Another of her performances, where Shvarts ran a police investigatory rape kit on herself in public was described as a simple yet enormously effective performance piece.

There was also an all too brief segue into Marxist-Feminism, a topic which as far as I'm concerned really gets to the core of the importance of feminism.  Understanding discrimination against women as an inevitable symptom of capitalist ideology and class division is a debate I want to hear more of, but it was largely drowned out in a white noise of "ums", "ahs", "likes" and "sort ofs".  Weaver's format is well thought out, very sensibly constructed and the participants last night were all smart and sincere but I don't think too much of value was produced in this Long Table.

The highlight of my night was the talk and performance by Poppy Jackson and Nina Arsenault.  Poppy is a London-based performance artist who "explores the female body as autonomous zone".  I last saw her at Sigmund Freud's house back in the summer at the Totemic Festival where she was smearing dirt on Freud's nice clean windows, a metaphoric action so tidy it speaks for itself.

Poppy Jackson
Nina is a transgender columnist, writer, artist, actress and sex-worker.  This night was the first time I'd encountered her work, but whoa nelly!  It's great stuff!  It's as if her body is her canvas, sculpted into sublime surgically precise perfection all paid for by work in the sex trade. She functions as a work of art, a performance simply by her presence, without even doing anything.

The two have been collaborating over Skype for a number of months, their five day performance beginning that night building on the foundations of work the two have done before.  So Nina has been doing exercises like spending two hours whipping herself while riding an exercise bike every night and going without any kind of light for four days; living in a darkness so pitch black that she couldn't tell whether her eyes were open or closed.  Poppy explains that the point of exercises like these is to force a personality through a genuine spiritual experience, creating an artificial, but no less powerful catharsis.

After their talk we traipsed over the road to [performance s p a c e] where a large black box had been constructed in the centre of the building.  Within it were Nina and Poppy.  Poppy was shaving her legs with a straight razor, dipping it in a steel bowl of water and reshaving the same spot over and over again.  Nina was smeared in talcum powder, sat in front of a full-length mirror in a silver shimmery dress slowly posing.  The floor was covered in sawdust and scattered around the room were various objects.  A wedding cake sat on a table in the centre of the room, a funeral urn was in the corner and laptops were playing videos on various projectors.  

Nina Arsenault
Overlaid on this was a recorded stream of consciousness monologue by Nina, her speech vocoded into robotic monotony as she talked about institutionalism and various sex acts. Projected onto the wall was cut-up footage of her being fisted, all shot with the artistic sensibility of a video nasty snuff film.  I was told that somewhere within the room was a live snake which would add an Edenic layer to the piece.  I couldn't spot the snake though, and thought it might be metaphorical, but later reflected that you probably don't feed a metaphor frozen mice.

Staring in through the windows at this little diorama makes you feel like a visitor to a human zoo.  The sawdust on the floor, the repetitive behaviour of the artists and the little toys left to grind away the animal's boredom all add up to an feeling not unlike gawping through the plexiglass window at the terminally depressed animals of London Zoo.  The act of observation can feel harmless from the point of view of the observer, but being stared at like a specimen day in day out must add up to a cacophony of unwanted attention.  Suffering open stares and leers is one of the quintessential feminine experiences, and this performance magnifies the effect tenfold

It's a hell of a neat bit of performance art, the room practically pulsating with the energy of traumatic memories, aesthetics that straddle the line between erotic/grotesque and a constant sense of danger: razorblade pressing against flesh and pink tongue waggling obscenely out of a white powdered face.  In a way they are just giving an audience what we want, permission to stare the feminine form yet with a sour, twisted note underlying everything.  Go and check it out sometime over the next few days!

This was a kickass night of intelligence, history and sly, smart provocation.  Thanks to everyone involved!

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2 Responses to “Restock, Rethink, Reflect #3: Live Art & Feminism at the White Space, 16th October 2013”

John Lowther said...
October 18, 2013 at 6:30 AM

wish I could be there to see Nina & Poppy!

londoncitynights said...
October 18, 2013 at 9:25 AM

It's on until Sunday evening - you still could see them!

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