What a Performance!

October 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

Photo on 30-04-2015 at 11.51

This is a photograph of me becoming character in my studio – in truth this character derives from a collage of impressions and memory and is an extension of the self. I explore the boundaries between acting and performance art.

In this blog post I write about art performance and the genesis of performance in my practice.

I begin with something of a paradox. I came to art performance through a posthumous conversation with my father the Spanish Republican exile dramatist José García Lora. It was his play Tierra Cautiva (The Captive Land in English) which provided an introduction to the idea of performative spaces as sites for the reenactment of traumatic experience, and led directly to performance becoming part of my work as an artist. Yet I’m forced to examine the view that,

“To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre,”…”Theatre is fake… The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.”

Marina Abramovich, (interview in The Observer newspaper).

This excerpt from one of her seminal performance pieces The Artist is Present (2010) demonstrates her point absolutely. Here Marina encounters her former life and performance partner Ulay. We know that elements of this are staged and yet it’s also wholly real in the sense she means. Hankie alert!

Abramovic polarises and simplifies to make a point and her proposition is literal and in this sense true. But there’s also a sense in which performance of any kind is both real and unreal. Theatre actors draw on real life experience and emotion in their work but theres also an emotional remove in embodying character rather than presenting self. Yet commitment to a more direct and authentic embodiment in art performance doesn’t always follow either, but this serves to draw attention to fiction and narrative in the theatre and by implication the linearity and language driven aspects of theatre which are also often in contrast to art performance.

But her words could have been made for the younger me, for whom theatre often presented an indecipherable and jarring code. I probably saw a lot of bad theatre (school productions of Shakespeare) and I’m not sure i would have got performance art either. Theatre began to make more sense to me when I encountered more naturalistic forms such as TV drama especially the work of Mike Lee.

But I’m conflicted. I can’t hate theatre, and I can’t agree that this fictional space is not also real and true in important ways in certain circumstances.

This is true I think for aspects of exile theatre where the performance space becomes an emotional stand in for a severed reality. For my father theatre became a lifeline, a site of emotional connection with country and self. It’s basis in authentic experience rendered the performance space live in my view, and provided a location to be alive in more so than in life itself. The vigour of my father as dramatist is striking to me in contrast to the blanket of silence that smothered the subject of exile in daily life. For my father the deep frustrations of exile often proved overwhelming and yet he found expression and meaning through this passionate attachment to theatre as form. His plays are a godsend in preserving his voice. The traumas of the civil war, his internment in France, and the ongoing dictatorship were suppressed (in common with many of the exiles) and not spoken of in his lifetime. I had not been aware that an entire generation of Spaniards fled for their lives in that moment of rupture in 1939, nor that they were erased from the national memory by the dictatorship. So it was a surprise to me that I was dealing with the exodus of half a million people, and my father’s palpable but unspoken grief had been lodged within me (as personal trauma) without my knowing of it’s historical magnitude.

This Unpacking Exile 2015, performance photograph comes courtesy of my curator for this piece Nimmi Naidoo.

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My intimate connection with this material and it’s basis for my own work ensures that my performance is always rooted in narrative too. Much of my work is to allow the information I gather to seep in layer upon layer, and to channel the emotional landscape of my father’s sense of displacement, in as much detail as I can. This allows me to take in a wider view, so that my specific references begin to encompass a more general sensibility towards the Republican exodus and it’s people as a whole and then on into the contemporary. There are parallels with the current refugee crisis I simply can’t ignore and that also informs my performances.

My method is to collect sensory impressions through studying the history (stories mainly), collecting objects (material memory) through ritual (In the studio) and through the deeply sensory practice of painting. My studio is a particular site of connection, and in a tangible sense I use performance to transmit my studio findings. There are moments in which I loose track of time, track of myself in my studio and this is what I aim for. These moments represent detachment from the present and an immersion in a complex pool of collaged material made up of multiple data, which can best be termed impression and memory. It is true that in the moment of performance I seek to become wholly engaged. Not acting but being. It is in this sense that I find most truth in Abramovic’s words.

For this particular truth I turn to the incredible language of Amanda (Mel) Baggs, an autistic woman whose commitment to a conversation with everything in her environment has moved and inspired me deeply, causing me to reflect on my own attachment to the sensory world. Her video is called In My Language (2007).

I subsequently began an exploration of my own sensory world and it’s relation to my working methods in the studio. I’m starting to observe the extent to which my inability to follow sequential narrative (in cinema and theatre) as a child and younger adult has been rooted in alternate channels of of perceptual priority; visual and tactile. This has also helped to explain why access to verbal language is blocked in certain circumstances.  It is difficult for me to access fluidity of speech when there is a lot of competing sensory data. So for example I find I am able to speak more fluently with my eyes closed squeezing sand through my hands quietly in my studio.

Now that I am more aware of the ways in which my brain filters and processes information I can begin to see how I have learnt to compensate for the lack of sequence and linearity in my cognitions, using other clues to decode cinema and theatre (as examples of the often linear narrative form). This is an area I hope to develop further and bring out in performance terms too.

I can’t talk about my work or my call to performance without mention of the deep significance of objects, which it seems to me act as fellow researchers and accomplices in my work. Quite simply, without the objects  this project would not exist and there would be no performance. Objects are at the very core of what I do.

My interest in performance arrived somewhat unexpectedly, through my grandmother’s handbag, which I inherited in May of 2012. This proved to be the impetus I had been waiting for. My father, so passionate about theatre would have liked this method of transmission of testimony and found irony in it. His mother’s handbag lived on to speak the unspoken through it’s capacity to connect me to my grandmother and her flat in Barcelona and all the objects in it. This quite overwhelmed me, and brought me back to my beginnings and all my travels to Spain to visit her in my infancy, and led to the shocking and painful discovery of a secret history involving the war, her internment and her near miss with a round up to the Nazi work camp in Mauthausen. It has taken time to absorb these concealed truths and to be honest I’m still working on it. Yet I can never think about the origins of my project without conjuring Lady Bracknell’s incredulous cry, “A handbag!” from the Importance of Being Ernest, by Oscar Wild. Dad would have loved the conceit.

This video uses still photographs from a 2012, Filament 14 residency which saw the birth of the Barcelona in a Bag project in which I attempt to evoke time, person and place.

There is an obvious connection between the objects that form a crucial part both of my investigations and their transmission in my work, and the theatrical props my father wrote into his plays. This feels like a powerful connection between us, so that when I assemble the objects for my performances this acts as a tribute to him and an intention within the very fabric of performance to allow the narrative of a lost history to echo through.

The Sadness of Being Nothing

October 23, 2015 § 1 Comment

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This image is from an assemblage piece called VIGIL, made last winter in  freezing conditions in my studio. It was made to honour Spanish Republican exiles who fled Spain to be held captive behind barbed wire in the interment camps on the beaches of France in February 1939.

This post is about that moment when your blogs collide.

I’ve been feeling the need to nurture my art blog space a little. SO much of my energy has been taken with this exploration here, that I’ve been neglecting my other home at a-n (artists’ newsletter blog site). I’m not complaining but I definitely miss my other home.

So I’ve been applying a little elbow grease over there, breaking my blog drought and putting my creative thoughts in order. Today I wrote about Developing a multi-form practice, with some references to the way my neurology influences my working methods. Reading it through I found (as on previous occasions) an extraordinary parallel with my theme of exile and the autistic experience. Such a moment occurs when I describe my new performance piece, entitled, The Sadness of Being Nothing. It has an exact literary reference in the diaries of a Spanish Republican exile writer called Max Aub, and is translated and slightly adapted from the original phrase in Castilian Spanish. Aub’s writing gives us an incredible insight into the state of exile, and elements of it have become something of a touchstone in my own work. It helps me interpret aspects of my father’s emotional responses to exile and my own unconscious inheritance of this as post memory trauma.

I wrote this about my performance piece,

“So my performance for Bangor digs deep into my post memory research, and deep into some of the more painful aspects of my family history. I will be referencing this obliquely, as the thrust of the piece is a more general meditation on exile, which spans over time from 1939 -2015, to encompass the current refugee crisis. The title of my piece, The Sadness of Being Nothing, refers to displacement; a silencing, a becoming invisible to birth culture, an expulsion from it’s history.

It’s about journey and it’s weight, journey and it’s traces.

I will be creating an action, with a suitcase filled with symbolic objects. I’m not sure yet whether I will create a shrine, as I usually do. My intention is always to transform experience, speak to history and attempt ritual healing. This time it feels a little different and I may need to leave the piece more open…”

I find I could be talking about autism. In the past, I have allowed my work to reach into contemporary spaces, and there have been moments when my work has attempted to show solidarity with autistic causes, like for example, the San Francisco Bay Area Day of Mourning, in 2014 and 2015. Similarly this piece will also reach across time and culture, encompassing the intersection of autism and exile in my own experience and in a wider history.

So perhaps this is the way I can begin to develop my ND activism, within the freedom of the artistic zone I talked about towards the end of my last post Shifting the Elephant. We’ll see.

Coming Home

October 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

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A visual blog celebrating the homecoming of an assemblage called Refuge. Refuge has been exhibited outdoors at the beautiful Abbey, Sutton Courtenay, and so it’s been sleeping rough. The whole studio got a refurb to accommodate this weary traveller actually. It’s curious how this happens when a new work arrives and occupies the space. The previous two cycles of paintings have been taken off the walls after many months, and a pile of junk stored in the rafters has been taken to the recycling centre to make way for storage. I have a stack of new paints and will soon be sourcing the boards I need in order to begin work on a whole new series. Meanwhile Refuge settles in. I can hardly wait to get going.

Death on the Tracks: Why Language Matters

October 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

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I’ve been reading about the appalling conditions in the refugee camp at Calais. I recommend this Independent newspaper article from which I take the image of the camp also known as the Jungle. To my mind it tells you more than the two articles I’m going to focus on to talk about language. Here there is detail and real encounter, the banality and desperation come through. To escape the Jungle some have been wiling to risk death on the tracks – you don’t get this from The Guardian whose reporting seems more distant in this case. For the Independent Joseph Charlton writes,

“I ask Tom Radcliffe, a volunteer who has been fund-raising and coming here since July, for his estimation of the Jungle. “It’s like a rock concert,” he says. “It’s like a rock concert that’s been going on for 10 years where nobody likes the music, and the only way to leave might kill you.””

For the (it seems a) billionth time in recent days I rue the devastating repeat of history, for in 1939 Spanish Republican exiles (including members of my family) were kept behind barbed wire, under armed guard, in insanitary conditions with limited or no supplies. Many of the exiles did not survive. In those days, in those times the term exile was in use.

Also reading The Guardian article entitled  Calais refugee camp conditions diabolical, gave me shivers of recognition with my own research into my father’s and grandparents’ period of internment in France more than 70 years ago. These are the facts and we need to know them so that we can act and give more aid and more refuge today. The newspaper reports on,

“… 3,000 people…with cramped makeshift tents plagued by rats, water sources contaminated by faeces and inhabitants suffering from tuberculosis, scabies and post-traumatic stress.”

But the Guardian has also published the article Calais terminal ‘invasion’ halts Eurotunnel overnight in which, along with so many other sources it uses terms refugee and migrant together – perhaps this is an attempt at accuracy, but it is not accurate. We cannot know the exact status of the 100 or so people involved in this incident. In some ways I understand why The Guardian hedges it’s bets in this way and it should perhaps not matter. But it does so. AND, there are those of us who argue passionately that no-one choses the Jungle.

Yet it all does boil down to questions of choice or compulsion – which feed and perpetuate confusion and prejudice in the public mind, fuelling the debate over what to do with a such a mass of displaced people trapped in the Jungle of Calais. There is a feeling that compulsion deserves (though with reservations and not in great numbers please!), whereas choice does not. It’s a false dichotomy in truth but one used to divide opinion and shelve what is truly a humanitarian crisis of great proportion.  We know that language is important and often politically charged, and it’s been highlighted in many quarters that a refugee is not a migrant by any means. The Oxford Dictionary provides the definitions which prove this point. A migrant is “a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions” while a refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.”

These terms are thus problematic when combined or interchanged, the BBC (itself criticised and the subject of a petition on this matter) usefully reports on this complex issue of language, opinion and changing trends, describing it as a battle over language. Interestingly I note, exile has gone out of fashion – too ennobling it seems.

“”Exile has gone out of credit,” says Betts, since the end of the Cold War. “It had a slightly sort of dignified and noble connotation,” he argues.”

My father was extraordinary lucky, both to survive and to be given refuge and life long exile in England – in his time the term migrant was not used, although he was classed as alien and under curfew in his first years in the UK. His rescue was due to the actions of altruistic individuals and a network of committed volunteers working on behalf of the Spanish refugees. All were working in opposition to government policy as it happens, and as certain European voices turn with talk of following the example of Hungary, I hope that the people will again continue to mobilise and act as others did before us. We must give what we can, and speak out for the refugees. We must counter both rampant and creeping xenophobia. The creeping variety is almost as dangerous if not more so – it can be contained in the very language we choose to use and we must make our choices responsibly.

This is simple to grasp and truly concerning. I ask myself if the public memory will stretch long enough. Barely a month ago, the tiny body of a young boy, washed ashore, pricked consciences and pierced hearts across the globe. I fear the chill of yesterday’s news. That the image of this child will fade in the shadow cast by greed and fear.  A defenceless child is one thing but marauding hoards of the undeserving are another.

So, I’m really not nitpicking. I hate that it matters so much. We should simply reach out to all those in desperate need. It also exposes fully the seam of xenophobia running through our society at many levels. Are not migrants increasingly cast in a different light from those genuinely in need of succour, seen as greedy for our privilege, after our jobs, our welfare our soil. You can blame austerity politics for the pitch of hostility in certain quarters, and you only have to read the comments sections of the Guardian, and those who troll #refugeeswelcome on Twitter to find where the xenophobes hang out.

For a short film about my father’s rescue and exile to England please follow the link Without You I Would Not Exist.

Music Box

October 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

A new video, 34 seconds long, made with a music box that doesn’t play EdelWeiss recognisably anymore. I find this fascinating. It makes me think about the effect of time on memory and meaning.

Where Am I?

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