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Anything Goes: Live Art in Falmouth

Wellington Terrace, Falmouth 6-7 June 2008

Theron Schmidt


One of the great things about the category of ‘live art’ is that it isn’t really a category.  Rather than being defined by use of materials or specificity of context, it is instead an attitude, a permissiveness, a deliberate and productive confusion.  This abundant confusion was very much evident at Live Art Falmouth 2008, the second year of this platform for emerging as well as established artists.  This year’s organisers, artist-curators Paul Carter and Alexandra Zierle, described their primary intention to be the lowering of boundaries and the breaking down of art-world hierarchies, so that each work could be engaged on its own terms.  For this reason, festival visitors are not pushed in any particular direction: there are no posters highlighting the ‘big name’ artists, no indication of ‘prime time’ performance slots, just an overwhelming printed table of all 75-odd presentations being made over the two days, with just two short lines as a clue to what each piece might be.  It’s up to the visitor to find her or his own path.  This was mine.


Performance and everyday life

Easing my way into the festival, my attention is initially drawn to experiences which are not that dissimilar from everyday life.  Some of these, like Alice Kemp’s ‘Global Electrick’ séance, work by putting an artistic frame around a recognisable experience one might encounter elsewhere.  In a darkened room decorated with antique paraphernalia and old photographs, a heavily veiled, female figure slowly adjusts two overlapping very low frequency tones.  Sitting in the dark watching her shadow, I wonder what I’m experiencing here: a séance, or a piece about a séance, and what the difference might be between the two.  Likewise with Nicolas Galeazzi’s ‘Collateral Claptrap’ (picture above right), which investigates the festival’s ‘side effects’ by inviting participants into a kind of office inside a metal container.  Galeazzi excitedly maintains an ongoing conversation with anyone who comes inside, analysing the themes of the festival and making lists and hierarchies on the wall.  But while there is nothing which obviously differentiates this from an everyday conversation – Galeazzi doesn’t seem to be playing any character other than himself – the fact of this being framed as an art event, and of the artist’s compulsory participation in the conversation, make this experience altogether incommensurable with the everyday.  As Galeazzi becomes increasingly crazed inside his small cabin, it gets harder to engage naturally with him throughout the two days, and eventually the piece seems to nearly consume itself in self-reflexive energy.  By the end, the office is destroyed, broken glass is everywhere, and a dishevelled Galeazzi is wild-eyed and paint-smeared.

The lives of those outside the festival are unwittingly drawn into the festival in Holly Bodmer’s ‘I Come in Peace’.  Over four and a half hours, Bodmer participates in a variety of online forums like Visual Chat and Second Life; a projection of her computer screen is cast onto the venue wall, along with the image from a camera trained at her face (even though she herself is in the room).  Exchanges within the elaborate, avatar-based forums (like IMVU Chat or Second Life) tend to get bogged down in the complex range of options offered by the technology, but the simple text-based chats are a breathless and horrifying distillation of human interaction.  Within Visual Chat, Bodmer accepts any invitation she receives, meaning that she often has upwards of a dozen simultaneous chats, flipping between screens as quickly as she can.  Even at 11 A.M., most of the chats lead to the same thing, though some waste no time in getting there: ‘Hi you horny?’ is the opening line of one conversation.  At first this feels uncomfortably voyeuristic, as strangers unknowingly expose themselves to spectators who find it hilarious – some participants even agree to spend their credits for a video chat, only to find that all Bodmer will show them are blurry glimpses of a small wooden doll.  But I realise that Bodmer is not necessarily any more manipulative or predatory than those with whom she is chatting, who are just as keen to see her expose herself on their screens as she is asking them to do on ours.

Framing interaction within an experience presented as ‘art’ inevitably changes the experience, and some of the work at the festival interrogates the nature of that self-reflexive transformation.  In ‘audience: a collection of silences’, Rachel Gomme sets out to record a series of shared silences, each contributor individually spending ten recorded minutes in a room with her with no compulsion to (or prohibition against) making any sound.  The far from emptiness of silence is the obvious subject of her work, but so too are the dynamics of the entire interaction, which includes a contract, signed in duplicate by both parties, in which the contributor can choose to give over all rights to the recording in observance of ‘the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988 Part II’.  On one level this is a permissive space, and I spoke to other participants who enjoyed the freedom of interaction without words.  But for me – and this may have had a great deal to do with already knowing the artist personally – the experience was richly, exquisitely excruciating.  I am used to interviews, and conversations, and recordings, but in this encounter I laid myself open for observation with nothing to offer but my passivity, with nothing to experience or reflect upon but the essence of the face-to-face meeting. 

In ‘Key Notes’, Richard Layzell also strips back a common interaction to its essentials, removing any intelligible content from a motivational speech and leaving only the wild energy, the self-mesmerised personality, the contagious sense of urgency.  It’s a captivating, exhilarating performance, with its judicious use of Powerpoint (one slide reads ‘People’), its tautological persuasiveness (‘we’re in this together’, Layzell says, emphatically), and its mockery through exuberant embrace of jargon (such as the deadpan reference to a ‘sustainability PR company’).  Rhetoric without content, engagement without direction, conviction without beliefs – it’s a devastating critique of corporate culture which would be infuriating if it weren’t also so very funny.



Do animals understand art?

If one strand of work in the festival took its focus to be human interaction, then another wholeheartedly embraced the non-human.  This was sometimes comical, as with Kayleigh O’Keefe’s melancholy attempt to become a shark or Bill Leslie’s riotous vision of an ape trying to make it in the world of art school, struggling with the padded fingers and obstructed visibility of his costume to open paint cans, position lights, hang and paint a canvas, and document himself with a video camera (both pictures above right). With her series ‘Steps Toward Becoming Animal’, Dani d’Emilia (picture left) takes a more serious, visceral approach.  In the video piece ‘Meat My Mirrors’, parts of the artist’s body combined with ground meat and tubes of milk are rendered unrecognisable by mirror images doubling and quadrupling.  The resulting images undulate with a strangely beautiful yearning, perhaps the desire to offer sustenance within an endless cycle of regurgitation.

One of the most revelatory pieces of the festival was Michael Fortune’s film piece ‘Reigning Cats and Dogs’ (despite its rather uninspired title), which looks through different eyes at what feels like a completely different world.  Using long, fixed frame camera shots, with the camera usually placed at floor level, we see various vignettes in a manic household which a large family shares with an uncountable number of cats and dogs.  A room full of cats waits tensely outside a closed door, their changes in attention signalled by countless twitches of ears and movements of heads.  Three dogs jump over and over again, inexhaustibly, at a door handle, until finally a visitor is let in.  Four cats eat, all attention on the task at hand, while a dog watches them from the doorway, barking.  A dog runs maniacally through a landscape of twinkling Christmas lights, finally knocking over the camera itself.  It’s the ambient human life in each shot – people moving about, watching TV, going to the loo – that makes it extraordinary.  In the midst of an art festival’s obsessive examination of the human condition (and what could be more symptomatic of humanness than art itself?), Fortune’s film is a refreshing look from the outside.

By removing the human dimension from the work, another, almost autonomous, logic starts to emerge.  This is the case with Stephen Cornford and Matthew Appleby’s ‘Human Separation’ (picture right), in which the artists create an ensemble of patchwork machines, one driving a bow across a modified ‘cello, another beating percussively at the frets of an electric guitar.  Once each machine has been put in its place and the instrument plugged in, the two humans step away, leaving the noise to build across automated circuits of amplification and feedback.  An audience coming in at this point would be treated to the logic, the operating principles, and the functional instruments of music – just without any musicians.  The idea of a mechanism running away with itself seems also to emerge in Emma Bennett’s ‘Glistening, dog, daylight (1987)’ (picture right), a performance which consists mostly of spoken text interrupted by a few simple actions.  Bennett introduces the event, saying, ‘I’m going to do a thing.  I’ve not decided if it’s a thing about a dog, or a thing about saying “dog”.’  What unfolds is a hypnotic linguistic cut-up which centres around a few key images: a dog running across a field, a river, the passage of time.  As Bennett speaks, language seems to get away from its human, social function and take on a restless, circulating energy of its own – such that, after a while, it doesn’t seem as if Bennett is speaking, or as if there is a subject at all. 


The autonomy of ritual

Bennett’s text piece suggests art as an autonomous zone, one in which its rituals follow their own rules and which creates its own alternative reality.  This claim to autonomy underlies several other works in the festival, which derive significance from their self-asserted status of ritual.  In ‘Burning and Breaking’ (picture below left), Nathan Walker wraps his dress shoes in paraffin-soaked cloth.  While the shoes burn, Walker repeatedly breaks bricks against each other, his labour growing more desperate and violent as his muscles tire.  Finally, he scrapes shards of broken brick across his bare chest – the final gesture in an angry disavowal in which the actions speak for themselves, unadorned, matter-of-fact.  For ‘Free Cell, Solitaire, Golf and Pyramids’ (picture below left), Mark Greenwood spends hour after hour arranging playing cards decorated with movie stars, cultural icons, sports heroes, and anonymous porn models.  Methodically, without explanatory gesture or illustrative frame, Greenwood creates a mandala of vice, his own mental state apparently bending and breaking under the repetitive monotony of his task.  In Charlotte Bean’s ‘Third Time Luckylusting’, the self-contained ritual reaches suggestively outward in time and space.  Layering slides, sound, and Super 8 film, the line between this performance event and other events begins to blur, with another ritualised event visible in the slides, and with Bean attempting to feed the film loop between her own legs.  This singular event, it seems, is caught up in a trajectory of unfolding events, all of which sit outside everyday life with no attempt to establish a relationship between the two.  The meaning of the ritual is the ritual itself.

The tension of referentiality comes across strongly in Rachel Parry’s ‘Baba Yaga’s Bastard Child’.  Wildly costumed in shells, rags, and dreadlocks, with logs for shoes and designs painted on her skin, Parry leads volunteers from amongst the audience through a series of eerie ceremonies.  Some have the lines on their palm traced in red liquid; some are sprinkled with salt or enrolled in incantations; others are encouraged to pass food and drink through the remainder of the audience.  It’s not clear whether there is an intended actual effect of these proceedings – is this a representation of magic, or is it intended to be actually magical?  In the theatre, we are accustomed to taking the two as interchangeable; at the same time as Live Art Falmouth, a psychic medium is playing at the town’s Princess Pavilion.  And of course, some things can’t be represented without actually doing them, as in the projected video which shows pins being stuck in the crease of the hand which runs from the index finger to the base of the palm.  Perhaps these theatrical spaces are the spaces we have left for the occult, the ritual, the flaunting and re-writing of reality.  But when the lights come back on after Parry’s performance and we look around blinking at each other, it’s not clear what we’ve experienced.


The power of images

For some of the work in the festival, it is necessary to experience it evolving and unfolding over time in order to take it in.  Others work with the power of the image, in which all the necessary experience is immediately apparent, though it may take time to absorb.  Sometimes this power comes through simply the forcefulness of the concept, as in Rob Boole’s fixed frame video of the artist steadfastly chewing his way through pieces of raw meat, stopping only to belch or gag, then carrying on.  Other work gains power through a careful control of composition, as in Mark Greenwood’s work (described above) or in Ula Dajerling’s tranquil performance of a clothed female body, lying face down on the wooden floor, covered in fine dirt (picture above right).  This was a perfectly judged image, the soil softly muting all colour, as Dajerling’s breath slowly rose and fell in the birdsong and clear light of the afternoon.

Also effective were works in which the spectators were incorporated within the composition.  In ‘Two basic assumptions of this theory’ (picture right), Jessica Morris piles cinder blocks to build a wall immediately in front of her audience.  On the back wall, a projected image shows shadow figures labouring maniacally, superimposed over each other.  Gradually it becomes apparent that a live image of the audience is being projected onto the brick wall as it is constructed; we are periodically blinded by high power floor lights, and in the lingering afterglow are able to see more detail in our mirror image before we fade again into shadow.  In Oliver Irvine and Amy Thomas’s ‘You Decide 2#’ (picture right), the implication of the audience is given political relevance.  Described as an ‘Orchestrated Interrogation Circuit’, the piece features a female figure in an orange jumpsuit suspended in a harness, her legs forcibly spread apart.  Throughout the room, there appear to be bodies crumpled on the floor under black cloths.  On the back walls, a figure in a yellow radiation suit paints the same motif over and over again, slowly darkening the walls with its broad splashes of paint.  But this whole scene is largely obstructed by clusters of painter’s easels, prepared with paper and pieces of charcoal.  As the sound of hymns and prayers comes over the sound system, blindfolded spectators sit at the easels and begin to draw.  It’s not clear if the first to draw were instructed to do so, but as they leave, other audience members volunteer to take their place, covering their eyes to an image that is impossible to ignore, putting charcoal to paper, and sketching their testimony.


Interventions in public space

Not all of the work at the festival takes place within the confines of the hosting university building, and a few works seek to intervene in the daily rhythms of Falmouth.  ‘The Park Bench Reader: My Favourite Novel’ (picture below), by Bram Thomas Arnold, places a dozen or so participants at the end of the Prince of Wales Pier, where they read aloud for an hour from a novel of their choosing.  A few wear badges that declare ‘Reading Novels is a form of Protest’, and there’s something provocative about the way that such an inoffensive gesture, when turned into a mass action, can generate a palpable political charge (the badges certainly help, too).  But the space at the end of the pier, though symbolically resonant, feels like it is already a counter-cultural space, and so they end up reading mostly to drifters, fellow artists, and the many festival photographers.  Claire Blundell Jones’ ‘KISSING III’ (picture left) co-opts a much more heavily populated space, the crowded Gyllyngvase Beach in the middle of a beautiful afternoon, and has six couples kiss each other continuously for ten minutes, then disperse.  Ten minutes feels like an eternity, as heads gradually turn toward the cluster of couples and a ripple of bewilderment spreads.  ‘That is really fucked up,’ someone next to me keeps repeating every few minutes, unable to say anything else to his mates.  ‘That is really fucked up.’

More subtle and pervasive is the ‘Sounds of the Serengeti’, by Tim Crowley, which plays African birdcalls, monkey screeches, and occasional grunting over the noise of Falmouth’s main shopping street.  The sound is spread across multiple speakers, so it creeps up on the listener’s consciousness (if it is even noticed at all), and the source of the sound is hidden by the narrow street and high shop fronts.  There’s an imperceptible mix between the ‘alien’ and the ‘native’ sounds of the gulls and cars, and it becomes particularly hard to distinguish the animal from the human when I walk the street late on Saturday night, the air filled with mating calls and displays of aggression.


Looking to the future

These works in public spaces raise the question of how this festival will situate itself as it develops in future years: will it focus on providing a protective environment which promotes research and risk-taking by artists, or will it aim to have a profile and impact within Falmouth itself?  As Dartington College of Art’s merger with University College, Falmouth, nears its 2010 completion, what changes will evolve in the relationship between academic study, institutional reputation, and artistic practice?  These questions will hopefully be answered organically, as the festival continues to develop from year to year.  The affiliation of such an ambitious, wide-ranging performance festival with an academic institution is an opportunity and strength for both parties, and I hope that institutional support will continue to let the festival discover its own identity as a platform for live art in the South West.


Theron Schmidt is a writer and performer based in London.  He was selected for Writing from Live Art, a Live Art UK initiative, and his critical writing has been published in AN Magazine, Dance Theatre Journal (forthcoming), Platform, and Real Time (Australia).

Photos by Georg Dietzler, Laura Frisa, Lucy Cran, Nathan Walker, Oliver Irvine & Joseph Thomas