Archives for category: Performance write-ups

Written by Dani Abulhawa

Quarantine’s The Reading Room – performed in the stunning Wolfson Reading Room at Manchester’s Central Library on 14th Nov 2014 – was a delightful event and a performance that connected on different levels with the site and the people in attendance.

If you’ve never been to the Wolfson Reading room I really recommend it. It’s in the core of the circular library building, and the enormously high ceiling has a glass dome in the centre with golden lettering surrounding it that reads, ‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom; and with all thy getting; get understanding’.

The room has a particularly interesting acoustic quality. It seems to amplify and deepen tiny sounds, sending them scattering across the space, such that miniscule movements become like the sound of thunder on the other side of the room.

In the room are 28 large desks, each with a central strip of lamps that produces a focused, strong beam ideal for reading by. A performer was sat at each of these desks, with several sheets of plain paper and a schedule of the events that would happen throughout the performance. Audience members were invited to sit at any of the desks and could move desks at any time.

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As people swarmed into the room at the beginning of the performance there was a period in which people were deciding where to sit and scoping out the different performers. A map of the space had been provided, which detailed who was sat at each desk and a text that they would be reading. Slowly, this chaos settled down, as people committed, for now, to a particular performer and desk.

The first part of the piece involved the performers trying to memorise all the books they had read and to write down what they could remember on sheets of paper, which were littered across their table for audience to read. It was enjoyable to glimpse into the literary history of the performers and to see what they thought about books that I had also read.

The next part of the performance involved the performers asking questions of the audience members who had sat down with them. It was fascinating to hear other people’s answers to these questions: ‘do you ever read to someone else?’ ‘Have you ever thrown a book across a room?’  ‘Where do you read?’ ‘What was the first book you ever read?’ ‘Do you ever read out loud?’

The last two parts of the performance involved the performer reading a text that was important to them, and finally the performers read the same text, in unison, whilst they remained at their own desk.

I liked the way that the performance responded to this unusual space – each performer at a glowing desk appeared like a little galaxy and we were invited to orbit and settle. I wasn’t much in the mood to be static (am I ever?) so I found myself orbiting a lot, and looking in on these galaxies. Some of only two people, heads together, deep in conversation that I didn’t want to interrupt; some groups of eight or more, chipping in to a conversation about a book or an experience of reading.

I loved the way the performance created spaces for discussion between strangers, and spaces for thinking about your own experiences of reading. I also liked the way the performance responded to the idea of a ‘reading’ room; Incorporating the activities of reading quietly, reading out loud, and of reading into people’s comments and thoughts.

The performance seemed to suggest that our bodies are vessels containing all the books we have ever read, and that we are filled with experiences and knowledge. The Reading Room was a moment of telling tales to each other, conveying anecdotes and the passing on of bodies of wisdom.

Image credit: Kate Daley

Written by Dani Abulhawa

During the summer I became involved with a project by artist Hannah Leighton-Boyce, which was centred around Helmshore Mills Textile Museum and the local community of Helmshore in Rossendale, Lancashire.

Helmshore Mills Textile Museum was once the site of two cotton and wool production mills. The Museum is wonderful – there is a wealth of historical information and really fascinating demonstrations of the machinery.

For Hannah’s project she became fascinated by a particular part of the production process – the carrying, hanging and drying of huge folds of fabric on tenter frames, which were located on the fields at the back of the mill. This would have been a group activity for mill workers, and the massive tenter frames hung with fabric, sitting 70-feet wide on the landscape, were said to have looked like huge sails.

The area of land used as tenter fields is now a housing estate. Hannah was donated an old aerial map of the area, which also mapped the lines of the tenter frames across the landscape. From this map, she worked with the people of Helmshore, and particularly the people living on what were the tenter fields, to map the placement of the old tenter frames through their homes and gardens.

Hannah’s idea for The Event of the Thread was to spin dozens of metres of woollen thread – made with wool from Helmshore sheep – and to work with the local community to pass the thread along the lines of the former tenter frames and through people’s homes and gardens, after which participants, neighbours and visitors gathered for a Jacob’s Join – a Lancashire term for a pot-luck buffet.

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The Event of the Thread was a wonderful project to experience. It took several months of preparation, and relied heavily on the generosity of the local community. Their interest in connecting with the history of the landscape, through bringing stories and objects relating to the mill that had been passed down through the generations, and their help and enthusiasm in organising and completing the final punctuating event.

I was particularly drawn to the project because of the way it approached social engagement by making connections with people in the local community and from the community to the shared history of their landscape.

Hannah is currently producing documentation of the event in the form of an artist book. For more information about the project and Hannah’s work, please visit: http://www.hannahleightonboyce.com/the-event-of-the-thread/

Image credit: Hannah Leighton Boyce

Written by Sarah Spanton

Leo Burtin’s Homemade: le Bistroquet  briefly described in a previous post took the form of a market stall, yet was not about an exchange of cash for tasty bistro cooking, but an exchange of one of your recipes for this tasty bistro cooking.

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For me, this project was about setting up an alternative mode of economic exchange – that subverts the foregrounding of the cash exchange as the only valuable exchange between people.

This work acknowledges that there other things that are of worth in life, in this case your cooking knowledge, and your desire to share your favourite recipe with others. People actively engaged in writing their favourite recipes down on cards in exchange for the food on offer. The recipes are to be collated into a cookery book in the near future.

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However, I didn’t manage to successfully make an exchange on the day, and effectively owe Leo a recipe, as I did eat some very nice pizza. Once I realised I had to provide a recipe, I felt under pressure. I actually like cooking, but tend to make things up as a I go along a lot of the time, so writing a recipe down felt like a challenge. Yet, I’d partaken of the food offered, and felt guilty when I sloped off to take part in the rest of Hazard.

So to publicly make reparations for this, here’s my recipe for rhubarb and blackberry crumble.

150g Wholewheat flour

50g Oats

50g Margarine/butter

100g Sugar

400g Cooked rhubarb (sweat around 4 sticks, in a covered dish in the oven for 20 mins or so, with 25g of sugar)

250g Un-cooked blackberries (cooked on a low heat with a 50g sugar)

Heat the oven to 180c

Grease an oven proof dish (the one I use is 8cm tall, 18cm across)

Cook blackberries, rinse through and add 50g of the sugar, heat in a pan with a lid, for 5 mins.

Add cooked rhubarb and blackberries to greased dish, mix gently.

Rub the wholewheat flour together with the margarine in a bowl, until you have fine crumbs. Add in the oats, and 25g sugar and carefully pour over the fruit in the bowl.

Cook in the oven for 20 minutes, until the top is brown, and the fruit bubbling a little.

Image credits: 1 Hazard, 2, 3 Sarah Spanton

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Written by Sarah Spanton

I’ve experienced Institute for Crazy Dancing’s Lifeboat twice now, once in Cross Flatts Park, Beeston, Leeds in April this year, and the second time in St Ann’s Square, Manchester at Hazard in July.

The lifeboat itself is a carefully crafted wooden boat-like structure, with a blue canvas awning, from which hang 4 hammocks. One or two of the Lifeboat crew push the boat around for 5 minutes or so, whilst the hammocks gently swing from side to side. People queue up to take part all day long. They declare the experience to be relaxing and contemplative.

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One reason Lifeboat matters is that it allows people who dare to ride in it to experience the possibility of being in a world that is otherwise. It shows us that if we can make this little world inside, we probably are making the bigger world as well. It opens space for imagining that it can and should be different. It is possible to be kind and gentle and to take time to get your bearings, in the company of others who are doing the same, and thus feeling your position in the world from a continuously changing point of view.

From Sarah Amsler’s discussion paper on Lifeboat in Beeston

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Lifeboat seems to be about taking time out, not wasting time: allowing the course of the day to be interrupted by spending time reflecting differently. Here in St Ann’s Square the experience offered a new perspective on a crowded, busy shopping street. It disrupted the square as a commercial space – someone asked ‘Is it free?’ It also offers something highly unusual: a space to reflect individually yet communally in public.

Image credits: 1. Sarah Spanton / ICD, 2. Hazard / ICD

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Continued from Post #1 (written by Dani Abulhawa)

Images of women’s breasts, presented in a sexualised context within mainstream newspapers and advertisements have, for decades presented women primarily as objects of masculine desire. The No More Page Three organization, whose campaign began in 2012 and is aimed at the biggest selling newspaper in the UK – The Sun’s – ‘Page 3’ feature, want to see an end to the outdated and irresponsible representation of women as passive sex objects.

Criticism of the No More Page Three campaign typically focuses on freedom of choice for consumers, and the freedom for women to display their bodies as they wish. But, that argument exists against a cultural backdrop in which women have reported in news articles and on social media sites that they have either been discouraged, prohibited or simply felt too uncomfortable breastfeeding in public because of the way it is perceived. As a response to this, the 2010 Equality Act specifically clarifies women’s lawful rights with regards to where and how they are entitled to breastfeed in public places. Freedom of bodily comportment then, isn’t always reasonably extended to women, unless it is within a sexual context.

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No More Page Three’s Hidden Women Trail, which was presented in shop windows across the city throughout Hazard also subverted the shop window as a space for consumer display, by offering shoppers an educational treasure-hunt of great Manchester women. Maps were provided with clues to find particular shops in the city centre. Each shop window on the trail featured a picture and information about an inspirational woman, including Louisa Da-Cocodia, a Levenshulme resident, former deputy Lord Lieutenant of Manchester and community campaigner and activist in Moss Side, and Annie Swynnerton from Hulme who co-founded the Manchester Society of Women Painters in 1876, amongst others.

The hand-out provided for the trail included a section on the back for people to write their responses to the trail and to put forward their own examples of inspirational women, thus serving as a way to reflect on the achievements of women and to generate awareness of the various ways that different women have shaped modern life in Manchester and beyond.

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Image credits: Hazard / No More Page Three

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Written by Dani Abulhawa

Nicola Canavan’s use of a shop window in St. Ann’s Square during Hazard offered a place in which to frame her activity, but also situated her intervention within the characteristic space of consumer display and façade. Her performance played with the tension between display and function, ornament and use, which is connected with public opinion on the visibility of female breasts in public places.

Canavan sat within the window expressing milk, her body motionless, dressed in red and her face adorned with flowers. In the opposite window a skull was positioned on a low table, along with a taxidermy butterfly in a frame and a decanter with two glasses. The image was reminiscent of a still life painting – a style typically associated with domestic scenes and the absence of people.

Used to seeing plastic, unrealistically proportioned, headless bodies dressed in shop windows, people who had stopped to watch the performance questioned whether Canavan was real or a mannequin. The female body presented here spoke the language of the shop window, but this image was not selling a particular outfit, but rather presenting an image of womanhood. The mechanical action of producing milk – the regular, repeated movement of Canavan’s nipple, sucked by machine – offered a distanced, consumerist notion of the nursing mother and absent child.

With her head covered with flowers, her body covered in a long dress, wearing shoes, and with the pump almost completely covering her breast, the only exposed part of Canavan’s body was her nipple. One woman remarked that it was a ‘good job her face [was] covered’, in a way that suggested this act was something to be embarrassed by, or ashamed of.

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The second half of the piece saw a reversal of the space, as Kris Canavan entered with their son, and Nicola Canavan removed her headdress. Nicola and Kris clinked their glasses together and drank a sherry glass each of breast milk, in an act of honouring the production of milk, and then Nicola Canavan sat back in her chair and continued to breastfeed their son for the remainder of the performance. The previous mechanical image of producing breast milk was replaced with the organic machinery of child latched onto nipple.

Without the headdress and with the presence of a child, reception of the piece changed considerably. It felt as though this image, of a mother feeding her son, was one that commanded respect. Many people stood and watched the piece at different times, some waiting for ‘something to happen’, but many in silent contemplation, in what appeared to me as a kind of vigil. Some people questioned the action of putting breastfeeding on display, but the piece certainly seemed to draw upon concerns around what kind of popular representations of womanhood and motherhood are deemed appropriate for public space.

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Image credits: Hazard / Nicola Canavan

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Written By Gisele Bone

Top Joe set up his equipment in front of me, about a yard to 1.5m away, wearing his fluorescent yellow jacket.  When he was fiddling about with his tape player I had clocked the old-style camera was facing me rather than away.  He sat down to my left, looked and at me and said, ‘3-look-at-the-camera-2-1’, and I turned and gave a lips-together smile.  I wasn’t comfortable enough for a ‘I’m-happy-smiling’ smile.  He began by apologising for taking my photo and hoped that it hadn’t made me angry.  I wondered if an unhappy subject had punched him: Top Joe gave me the idea that I had a right to be angry.

As part of Documentation, Top Joe asked me where I was from and what I did.  Soon after, he explained that he wasn’t really called ‘Top Joe’ but he was being played by a man whose name was Chris and his practice was pretty new to him.  He didn’t want to deceive me and thought that he needed to let me know as he’d received a cooked chicken from a couple he’d photographed in Liverpool (where he’d been trialling this piece) and felt anguished because he was not being straight with them.  I thought about this.  I felt duped and confused, like I didn’t know who I was talking to.  I repeated what he’d just said (except the bit about the chicken) to try and clarify what he meant.  It became clear that this revelation was of no consequence but the fact that he’d thought it important enough to bring it to my attention made me feel he was tricking me.  We talked about putting on an act and how it’s normal to put on different faces for different situations.  He seemed appreciative of this meta-chat.  Then he described how Documentation was all about sharing a brief moment with a stranger.  The artist continued to ask me questions and I, bizarrely, gave him information about my life that I only speak about to close friends.  My guard had dropped: perhaps it was all part of one of our acts.

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Image credit: Hazard / Top Joe

Written by Sarah Spanton

My observations of watching Top Joe’s work are from another perspective. He undertook subtle, calm interactions with people: inviting them to have their photo taken with him, and quietly chatting to them. My reading of the work was that this was about a meeting of strangers, and at its core modelled how strangers might find ways to relate to each other. The camera, photography and tape-deck music were a vehicle to allow this to happen.

I enjoyed what I saw of the work, especially the contact I witnessed between Top Joe and another photographer, who just happened to be in Manchester to take photos on his own SLR camera (see Hazard Soundscape post, for an audio recording of some of this interaction). They chatted amiably about their cameras, sharing the camaraderie of analogue photography. And inverting the artwork, the man with the SLR camera asked if he could take Top Joe’s photo and then did so.

I’ve been interested in ideas around communication and how strangers relate to each other for some while, and have written blog posts on this elsewhere (#1 & #2).

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Image credits: Sarah Spanton / Top Joe

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Written by Dani Abulhawa

Continued from here…

The performance The Levellers developed from the establishment of Canavan’s individual symbolic action to the creation of a collective one. During the second half of the work, signaled by the tolling of the church bells at 4pm, Canavan removed the gas mask and rosemary and took a clamp out of his pocket, which he placed inside his mouth between his lips and teeth, which had the effect of exposing his gums and teeth; the artist ‘bearing his teeth’ in a symbol of anger or rage. He then proceeded to staple a sprig of the rosemary to his forehead, symbolising the Levellers’ cause, before offering people who were gathered to witness the action to take a piece of rosemary for themselves. We were being invited into the action. Canavan returned to his position in front of the church and raised his fist. Many of the audience followed, raising theirs, in solidarity.

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These symbols – what they meant to an individual or how they made people feel – are, ultimately, personal. A fleeting passer-by may take one snapshot of the performance, or choose to stand and observe, or perhaps to join in the collective action. The use of St. Ann’s Square for such a thoughtful action asserted the public urban square as a site of politics, not just shopping, which is another historical feature of public spaces we should not forget.

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Image credits: Hazard / Kris Canavan

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Written by Dani Abulhawa

Kris Canavan’s The Leveller operated through several layers of symbolism that could be accessed through different levels of engagement. His action was situated at the back of St. Ann’s Church, in the small area between the church and the passageway through to King Street. This area of St. Ann’s Square receives a steady stream of people passing through, but it also feels sequestered from the rest of the square. The piece began with Canavan stood squarely in front of the church wall, dressed in a suit. His face was obscured entirely by a gas mask stuffed with rosemary. At his feet were two books, bound together with twine: one, A History of Modern Israel by Colin Schindler (generally regarded as a balanced account of the Middle East conflict), and the other, To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee.

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The reference to these two books, bound together as they were in this piece, made a connection between the European persecutions of Jewish people throughout the 20th Century, the current and ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the racial inequality and injustice presented in Lee’s novel. The precise political intention of the piece wasn’t explicit, which was an important aspect of the piece. This was not a shouting condemnation of one side over another, but a question mark or a site for contemplation of what bringing these things together means from a personal perspective.

The gas mask – an object designed to prevent the wearer from inhaling airborne toxins – worn in this context, suggested that the propaganda that fuels hatred towards different groups, and which infects culture, might also be understood as toxic and something that people are vulnerable to. The stuffing of the gas mask with rosemary – a herb that is known to symbolise remembrance – acts like a second filter inside the gas mask. Remembering past injustice allows us to see it more clearly when it arises again.

Rosemary is also strongly connected with the Levellers political movement, established during the English civil war. The Levellers’ manifesto, Agreement of the People, was firmly rooted in equality, rights and safety for all. They expounded the importance of the level playing field throughout society, and members identified each other by the sprig of rosemary worn in their hats.

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Image credits: Hazard / Kris Canavan

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Written by Dani Abulhawa

Many people are aware of the popularity of the flashmob, which emerged in recent years as a fun collective take-over of public space, usually involving a choreographed routine in which a group of people suddenly break-out of the routine order of public space and perform their dance or movement, surprising and delighting ordinary occupiers of the space. This cultural form has since been co-opted by big business, as a fun form of guerilla marketing. Stephen Donnelly’s Drift Mob borrows from this phenomenon and nods to the Situationist practice of the dérive, which discouraged a rational, consumerist navigation of the city in favour of wandering and drifting, much like Baudelaire’s ‘Flâneur’.

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Throughout the day at Hazard, Donnelly led groups of people to create his drift mobs. The group was put into an order so that each person involved was given the opportunity to lead the rest of the group. The rules were that the group could choose to either follow the leader or simply watch and support the rest of the group in performing an action. When a leader wanted to pass on the reins to someone else, they would squeeze the next person’s shoulder as a signal that they should take over.

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The performance introduced a level of one-upmanship, as we tried to think of ways to take the group through ever more creative actions, or to tire people out. But, there was always the option not to partake. In reality, the group offered a certain freedom and security, spurring everyone to perform actions they would never think of performing at another time. It felt very rebellious, playful and exciting. For me, the most wonderful moments were when we came up with actions that related closely to the site – playing air guitar along to the musician next to the war memorial, making a temporary hand-print painting with fountain water, and climbing underneath and over stone benches.

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The people-watchers sat at Starbucks, or on benches in St. Ann’s Square treated us as a comedic spectacle, whilst the managers of Office and Barclay’s Bank, whose shops we briefly occupied, treated us as unwanteds. The drift mob is a wonderfully ridiculous and unpredictable organism, which has the potential to make beautiful connections within the site, to expand the narrow range of movement and action expected in public spaces, and to disrupt commercial space with a drift of play.

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Image credits: 1./2. Hazard/Stephen Donnelly, 3. Sarah Spanton/Stephen Donnelly, 4. Gisele Bone/Stephen Donnelly