Freedman Foundation Travelling Art Scholar: Live Art Study, UK 2004
A self-designed residency 40 days and 40 nights exploring British Live Art antics
How have Live Artists explored aquatic themes in their work?
Reader, Nottingham Trent University, National Review of Live Art NRLA Archives;
Researcher, Live Art Development Agency Study Room & British Library, London;
Performer, Green Room Theatre, Manchester & Bonnington Gallery, Nottingham;
Speaker, Boston University, London;
Visitor, artist studios, theatres and rehearsals
Bursary acquittals often occur shortly after a residency period, with benefactors asking recipients to report on what transpired, then articulate and verify what the outcomes were, and provide evidence of how the opportunity directly informed, supported and benefited the indivdual artist, their practice, and the sector more broadly. It is tough to respond accurately and in a timely manner. More often that not, the opportunity allows for the artist to explore open parstures, and to plant the seed for further growth. Each seed requires sunlight, and water. It could be many seasons before it bares fruit. For this reason, I have selected excerpts from my Freeman Diaries. I wrote each entry with the intuitive sense that the moment was worthy of documentation. Herein, some 15-years later, I have added short post-script notes. By reflecting on the long-term impact of each seemingly small encounter, conversation or activity, I attribute the impact to highlight the significance of the investment of the Freeman Foundation Travelling Arts Fellowship, and say thank you.
DAY 34: Tuesday 2nd November 2004. Meeting Prof. Alan Reed.
Professor Alan Read asked me if the ocean actually exists. I replied "yes" partly because I can 'member it and partly because I can also remember it. Real or not, it exists in my mind’s eye. Presuming to both know 'what' the ocean actually is came as a relief considering Read's questioning however finding a reply to grapple with 'how' and 'why' this could be real or true was much harder. I mention Read now because he challenged me to be courageous in my dissertation. We spoke of many things from Latour and the homo sacer and the ethics of testing my audience. Not only did he ask me if the ocean actually existed but he encouraged me to consider the big picture to speak about the pedagogy of the work and the social consequence of my actions. He reminded me to relish the questioning of systems and celebrate the opportunity that I had as a research student to challenge the notions, dogmas, philosophies and practices of the pre-existing context in which I write, think, act and live. I was not asked who my influences were, or what my objectives where/are, but rather, could I talk about my social context and possible contemporaries. Read also suggested that since I was displacing languages could I start to think about transcribing new worlds, physical, philosophical, ethical, theological etc., utopias that are arrived at through Aquabatics? Read suggested that a PhD was a formal, legitimate and rationale opportunity to question firstly what is, what was and what will be. In the end, it is important to consider the beginning.
[**I often referred to this advice, and quoted: Read, A., Pell, S.J. (2004) “A conversation with Sarah Jane Pell on Aquabatics & Forced Entertainment’s Marathon Lexicon”, Theatre Studies, Boston University, London UK in my Viva. It took time to navigate these questions, but Leonardo LABS, MIT awarded me 'Best PhD Art & Science 2007'.]
DAY 3: Saturday 2 October 2004. Performing at Emergency Live Art Festival.
Michael Mayhew was performing the live video feed for the piece and just as the audience filtered into the space he whispered ‘it is going to be beautiful Sar’. And it was the affirmation I needed. I lowered the dome and placed my forehead on the floor. I took a few moments to imagine my breath being drawn in and through every limb. I consciously relaxed my muscles at each intersection, each kink and turn as my imagined breath flowing through from head to toe. I sunk into the cavities it opened in myself and listened. My solar plexus began to speak. Blood engorged in my head. The tiny spaces under my finger nails began to tingle and I slowly rocked my spine to gently coerce my body into a complete rhythm. By complete I mean that I didn’t want to leave any part out. I wanted to feel everything was working in harmony: as one body rather than a body of many parts. The life line of the other performer/documenter and the umbilical seemed to vanish. I claimed the space quickly. I was uninhibited by an unseen and unknown audience. I moved with little thought or consciousness. The dome was my home. I filled it and I let it fill me. I found a rhythm without trying to control or adhere to it. I was serene. At two points I was jolted. I smelt carbon dioxide for the first time. It pierced my third eye instantly. I placed my mouth near the floor to breath fresh air- annoyed that I had broken the seal– relived that such a small amount of air made such a difference - perturbed that my concentration had shifted – and concerned at the amounts of carbon monoxide building up. They are odourless and deadly.
[**This was the fourth performance of UnderCurrent. Mayhew went on to work with me at the Bonnington Gallery, Pell, S.J. (2004) Sarah Jane Pell Artist Lecture, Showroom II, Dance 4 & The Bonnington Gallery, Arkwright Building, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham UK. ]
DAY 6: Tuesday 5 October 2004. Meeting Dr. Adrian Heathfield.
It was my 'first day of school' at Nottingham Trent University as a Reader or visiting postgraduate research student... 'Aquabatics as new works of live art'; 'clowning in contemporary performance'; 'the female catharsis in performance'; 'a search for a name and identity between cultures and practices'; 'an exploration of what it means to loose ones voice'… Our research interests were varied but there were clear lines or webs being mapped between us as we spoke. There were people I had already corresponded with on line and practitioners whom I already knew by name, writings and sometimes work and some completely new persons to get to know. We were indeed excited, speaking quickly and exchanging notes, names, references, invitations and ideas… He tried to tell me that he didn't have much knowledge in this area and yet he was curating the live art debate at the TATE Modern. He explained that it was different (or difficult to provide feedback) because I was an artist in my own right (rather than a student) however he would be available at any time to talk and he would meet with me again in London. He directed me to other theoreticians, directors, curators, venues and producers who 'should know who is coming up the pipe line'. He advised me to get to London sooner rather than later and that he would make initial contact with some people on my behalf. We both left thoroughly confused and exhausted.
[**Heathfield ended up an Assoc. Supervisor, reviewing a full draft of my PhD Aquabatics as new works of live art.]
DAY 8: Thursday 7 October 2004. Meeting Prof. Johannes Birringer.
I met with my supervisor: a dance practitioner, immersive technologist and theoretician who detests performance philosophers and we talked. He was brilliant. He suggested that I should not feel compelled to place my self and my practice theoretically in relation to pre-existing contexts. He warned that it was a boring PhD trap. I was doing new work: work that intersected with various other practitioners, movements and philosophies but ostensibly stood alone. I should take heart and avoid academic re-writing of histories and share the poetry of all things that have informed the research investigation – the moments of clarity and confusion – the challenges and breakthroughs – the inspiration and the repulsions that have driven me to take on such a project. We talked about MIA space missions and dancers in parabolic flight. We talked about the sublime. We looked at parallel research notions and questioned the relevance of feminist performance theories and the use and abuse of the body as a performance site or field through generations and cultures. He introduced me to the work of a Japanese dancer who tried to present a work in a wind tunnel and the limitations of her efforts. He fired tangential questions from all sides of the research spectrum and tried to visualise the shape of my work. Like his physicality, his ideas and questioning was dancerly. He was delighted to hear more about simple choreographic discoveries that I had learn but had yet to formalise for publication or dissertation –I had only imagined their relevance in relation to preparing the physical engagement of practice as research in performance – but the mirror he put up before me made me appreciate my responsibility to articulate these lessons learned. It was a simple but very important point that he made. I appreciate that it is easy to stimulate someone’s imagination with the possibilities of this work when first hear about it and it was my intention to sustain a longer term critical dialogue.
[**I invited Birringer to join me on an ambitious project: SubCulture. We generated publications and conversations: Birringer, J., Pell, S.J., Bell, S, La Frenais, R (2006) 'Sub Culture: Duty of Care in performance' PSi12 Performance Studies International #12, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London with East End Collaborations and the Live Art Development Agency. We didn't get full-funding to realise the piece, but I developed work for Birringer's Telematics in Performance Workshop and Live-streaming Event at the Performance Space, Sydney in 2005.
DAY 15: Thursday 14th October 2004. Meeting Hydro-acoustic Artist Caroline Locke.
I met with an artist at the Broadway Cinemas for the first time. I was blown away by the instant serendipity of ideas, developments and aesthetics of our practices. Our symbiosis was refreshing and I was inspired, clear and coherent. Her name was Caroline and she had produced sound currents and turbulence vectors in water vessels inspired by the vision and physics proposed by Viktor Schoenberg. We were already talking about collaborative potentials and the future development of works. The more we spoke the more the excited we were. It was an infectious inspiration loop.
[**Locke later joined me in Australia for the Raw Space Residency 2005, and we both spoke about our practice in a Symposium on our water-themed residency at MOMA brisbane. Pell, S.J., Locke, C. (2005) 'Hydrophilia & Hydrophonics: UK-AU, Water and New Media' RAW Residency Artist Talks, Brisbane Australia, The Museum of Modern Art I also supported Locke in a MADA Artist Residency at Monash University to orchestrate and broadcast her Hydroponics work.]
DAY 23: Friday 22nd October 2004. Michael Mayhew performs MANIA.
I went to see MANIA: a collaboration inspired, directed and performed by Michael Mayhew and team at the Contact Theatre, Manchester. MANIA explored the life and times of J. Edger Hoover and issues of surveillance, mapping, tracking, informing, observing, perverting, perusing, parading and being seen and unseen. It was a Mancunian mobster-style Aleedeen set somewhere between a work of historical theatre, a high-tech contemporary orchestration of Gilbert & George seagull dance and a delicate 'eyes only' broadcast from a futuristic Dark Angel. My senses were delighted and interest sustained throughout the piece. I was particularly impressed with the elegant treatment of the material and refined, delicate use of timing. The production wasn’t about bombardment and overload but more about subtle infusion and infiltration of ideas and realisations about the consequences of the words and actions they presented.
[**MANIA ignited a supportive exchange with Mayhew. He became Artist-in-Residence at NRLA Midlands, Australia.]
DAY 33: Monday 1st November 2004. First day at Live Art Development Agency.
It was my first day in the Study Room at the Live Art Development Agency. LADA's offices have beautiful high ceilings and loads of natural light. There are works by many iconic contemporary live artists on the walls and shelves of reference material. I began by exploring the video library- writing lists and collecting numbers and selecting works. I searched for names, words, associations and aesthetics that may inform what I was doing. The gallery I was negotiating with in Nottingham offered me a performance commission for the first week of December and it seems that I am to stay longer than planned. It certainly feels more like a beginning than the end of the 40-days research. I watched videos all day. It made so much sense to see moving image documentation as apposed to words and pictures. I wrote pages of notes about Rona Lee’s Ballast work, Anne Beans Seaclipse videos and Phillip Warnell’s deeper, deeper, deeper contraption. I examined the use of the breath, light, body, water, pneumatic disasters and poetics of play. I never realised how carnivalesque we all are. Live artists are classic shamans. We are united by strangely similar desire, concern, and an adjective notion of reality, humanity, and self. We are complicated and transparent beings who expose, discuss, explore, attempt and articulate life and live(d) processes before an audience, a lens and/or a muse only to be surveyed, mapped and plotted by contemporary technologies and aesthetics.
DAY 34: Tuesday 2nd November 2004. Forced Entertainment perform Bloody Mess.
...The professor then invited me to accompany he and the class to see Forced Entertainment perform Bloody Mess. I was delighted for tickets had sold out weeks ago. The nearly three-hour performance plus pre and post talks were both brilliant and exhausting. The piece was like every frustrating rehearsal I have ever been in rolled into one. Every dysfunctional, unrelenting, unrealistic expectation imposed on a performer was thrown back and dragged over the audience in one painful unfolding of the theatrics of performance. It was a finale of twenty years work. It was a celebration of real theatre and an unreal de-celebration of itself in tandem. It was a farewell. It was a non-performance about closure and the inversion of what normally transpires with these engagements. It was difficult audience/ performer relationship: almost anti-cathartic. The dramaturgy was highly considered producing a meticulous arrangement of the spaces between catharses in performance and performers. It was a tedious Lego set construction style piece of eighties theatre. I loved the gorilla. I loved the water throwing. I thought the stars sucked and the smoke machine gave me the shits. I wanted to hear the end of Johns story and I wished they forgot about the silence. The heat in the room steamed from the bull dust and the mass walk out of the final half hour was justified. If I ever hear the technician sound check again I will scream but all the same I loved the work. I believe it will resonate for years. It was an historical piece. It was also an important mark in time albeit a bloody messy and very forced type of entertainment.
DAY 38: Saturday 6th November, 2004. Forced Entertainment perform Marathon Lexicon.
I returned to the Riverside Studios for the finale: INDOOR FIREWORKS GOES OUT WITH A BANG including a talk by Peggy Phelan an eight hour Marathon Lexicon Curated by Tim Etchells and Adrian Heathfield and performed by Forced Entertainment. The Marathon Lexicon was a lecture style performance installation comprising two blackboards, chalk and duster, two tables in a panel-style configuration and covered in silver foil, paper, water and microphones for the four 'speakers', a data projector and audio system. The piece was performed by four artists who came and went to an audience who also came and went over the course of eight hours. The material has been sourced or contributed by artists, thinkers and writers (an unusual separation of disciplines I admit) connected to FE. The programmed described the piece as being "...about performance and ideas, about struggle and about presence".
I had organised to meet with my former Masters Supervisor [David Williams] whom I studied with in Australia [Victoria University of Technology] in the foyer at some point during the work. We did and we formally exchanged emails and briefly compared current occupations and preoccupations before trying to address the work. He had written L for Listen. It wasn't an instructional or descriptive piece of prose but more of a personal confession or the trace of an underlying philosophy desiring silence. He didn't seem to want to talk about it preferring to ask questions and listen. So did I and we compared notes about Melbourne, Perth and the North and South of England. We spoke of 'home' and the confusing rationale for the why, when and how associated with leaving, knowing, returning or staying.
By the seventh hour I am hardly an observer. I am hardly even audience. I am struggling. I might as well be watching Marathon Lexicon from a television with subtitles, fuzzy reception and a strange wide-angle screen. I am invisible and alone. I am absent. Perhaps I am even without presence. I am preoccupied with abstract thoughts and I am only concentrating on distant words. The ideas seemed to shine and fade too quickly to forget and too slowly to remember. I find it difficult to work out where I am in the work and where the work actually is in itself. I am really enjoying the performers but I cant work out if I too am a performer, if I am being performed or if I am even attending a performance. I was conscious that numerous researchers have pursued the hypothesis that isolation and confinement adversely affect psychological and social functioning. Perhaps Forced Entertainment explores this in performance according to alphabetical sequence. My research into extreme environment habitats: underwater for example, has also proposed that the more prevalent the opportunity for social interactions and the greater the satisfaction with work and leisure activities, the less will be the interest in food.
At supper I see another performance artist whom I met in Glasgow at the NRLA 2003 and think of fondly. She wore a tangerine pashmina and giggled deeply in South African- British radiance. I want to run up and hug her but instead I sat at the table behind her in silence. I am pleased to simply hear and see her and know that she is by my side even if it is simply by virtue of our proximity and no deeper connection is fated or spoiled. I eat my anti pasta on an island table wondering when I will be sated. I watched her leave without warning and decided that I too couldn't stay at Riverside Studios any longer especially if I wasn't investing energy in the moments that were presented to me. I knew what it meant to watch things disappear and I had been there to listen to E for Exit. I was good at leaving. I was good at disappearing.
Before I left I wanted to apologise to the performers and say: " Congratulations on twenty years Forced Entertainment. I don't know you but I imagine I will miss you. And yes you do remind me of that guy. The one, you know. That star. And I do recognise you without the gorilla suit and I can imagine your smell. And you do sound like you really mean it. I mean, I believe you would do this even if you were not getting paid because I can tell that you are genuine. And, I am glad to that your mobile rang from your coat pocket during the performance and that your technology continued to interrupt other peoples' stories, their silence and waiting..." I also wanted to apologise to the curators for only lasting until W. Perhaps I could blame it on W. W for Waiting by Willy Thomas. Willy had also written the part T for Task and we skipped U and V to unite the two. But only intermittently. Understudy by Jeremy Killick, Voyeurism by Hugo Glendenning and Ventriloquism by Steve Conner were still scheduled. Yes it must have been the Waiting that affected me. Waiting in silence without expectation for one whole minute. Then, a period of united waiting with an audience for five solid minutes. Godot was all that sprang to mind; the hollow pointlessness of waiting for Godot and the dread of an ending to come. After the Waiting was over we returned to the Task. Then Text by Grant Smith. Theatre by Ingmar Bergman. Time by Adrian Heathfield and then I ran out. Thank you London and good night I called back to them in my mind as I darted to the underground but I will not apologise for not being a part of the ending. I never want to arrive at Zero. Fireworks and rain competed for airspace all the way home.
Tuesday 9th November, 2004. Final Meeting at Live Art Development Agency (LADA).
I thought about where I was and where I had been. I tried to think about all of the works that I had been producing with the eyes of curator. Works about isolation, suffocation, confinement, deprivation, limitation and the overwhelming desire for immersion, transcendence and the meditative possibility and adventure for boundless freedom beyond. I thought about what I have actually communicated to the world. I have said nothing of my true ambition, reason or understanding and I am deeply saddened. I tried to give my self a shape and a name but none appeared appropriate. Did FE's performance blurb apply to me too? 'moving from accounts of Accidents and Anti-climaxes through Breath and Blood to the considerations of Charisma, Crying, Fighting, Ghosts, Laughter, Loss, Rules, Silence, Trembling, Voyeurism and Waiting before arriving at Z....' I thought about my sub sea habitat desires from a land-based pedestrian position. I considered how the raw, real and difficult works that I had produced really had transmuted the reality of my situation. They were successful then? Perhaps with all good intention I had been doing myself an injustice on a very important level? I suspect I have been inadvertently sabotaging my own efforts by making works that site the here and now instead of what is possible beyond...these were the nature of discussions I was having with Him anyway.
When I rose, my priority was to prepare for my second round of meetings at Toynbee. I was genuinely nervous. I realised that this journey has not just been 40 days and 40 nights out of the desert but rather almost 19 months out of the ocean and I had to arrive at a meeting and convince the attendees without the right words, the proper pictures or proof, that I was an underwater artist and not only prepared, but capable of what I was proposing. I told myself for better or worse, today was a new beginning. I knew that I might not have what they wanted but I was what they wanted. My affirmation began 'my vision, experience and aesthetic is unique and my training and preparation has not been in vein.' Luckily the enormity of it all had subsided by lunchtime because I was getting too tired. I deliberately dressed in aqua and simply planned to make the rest up as I went along until I performed at Bonnington Gallery on Dec 3rd because there were too many unknowns to warrant any additional worry or contemplation.
As it turned out, the first few meetings went very well. I ran several blocks in the rain for my final meeting of the day only to be stood up. For the first time I really didn't care because I had enjoyed myself just getting there. Hundreds of miles from the ocean I had negotiated a way to dive deeper into my research and it seemed fitting that I should be saturated and exhausted. I am concluding my journey as an Aquavatar here. It feels premature but I have loads of other work to do.
Digital Live Art Archives Bristol (ex-NTU)
The Freedman Foundation Travelling Art Scholarship administered with the support of the National Association for the Visual Arts through the Australia Council, the government arts advisory service.