The Performances: Hatch at Hazard Festival (Part Two)

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

Wherever the performances headed towards Manchester’s Hazard Festival really began (a question considered in the first part of this Hatch at Hazard account) the truth is that even if the journey was itself part of the programme, it’s a part I missed by being part of it. One of the truisms of performance as an art form is that you’ll never see anything you’re involved in yourself. True, you can look at photographs, watch film footage, read descriptions and have an idea, based on the experience of doing it, your gauging of audience response and by way of an intuitive reading of any mood-shifts you might have achieved, but the simple fact is that a performance you’re part of is always going to remain, like your own face and physical presence, something you’ll never be able to see as others do. Which means that whatever the travelling Hatch roadshow might have looked like to those who weren’t on the bus, those of us who were aboard will never know what that particular performance looked like from the outside. Thankfully, once we do finally arrive in St Ann’s Square, almost bang on the stroke of noon, I’m able to step back into the role of being an audience for the performances of others (though sometimes, still also a participant: such is nature of many Hatch performances). With the sun out and the afternoon ahead of me it was time to start paying attention.

Annette Foster: Messages from the Big Red Bus

There’s always been a performative aspect to the way that fortune tellers and mediums, in their natural habitat of the fairground sideshow and seaside resort, present themselves and their skills: part music hall, part ritual and part exercise in staging and presentation to help suspend the disbelief of passing and paying punters. So there’s a certain logic to Annette Foster’s experiment in tarot card reading as a performance in itself. Messages from the Big Red Bus is set up on the lower deck of the vehicle that brought us here, with a card table covered in a richly patterned blue cloth in the aisle, a space into which one person at a time is ushered to sit opposite Foster and discover what the universe, through the medium of her tarot pack, has to say on the subject of their future. The whole thing is played straight, and it’s clear that Foster’s readings are as genuine as she can make them, though she admits, quite cheerfully, that this is something she’s been using as a way of getting through some transitions in her own life, so isn’t an expert, or claiming any special occult knowledge for herself.

Instead, she takes us through the rituals of shuffling and cutting the deck, lays out the cards on the table, and turns them, one by one, to reveal the varied allegorical designs, explaining the significance of each as we work through the sequence. It’s engaging, at least partly, just because Foster herself is. It’s also absorbing because the fascination of tarot lies not in any belief we might have in the cards’ ability to foretell the future but rather in the way the symbols are open to interpretation, so tend to reflect back whatever happens to be on our own minds, a bit like Rorschach blots or clouds observed while daydreaming. The session culminates with Foster texting her interpretation to a public phone box we’re directed to go and wait inside on leaving: there we’ll receive a message via an automated messaging service. The intention is to contrast the florid, mystical language of Foster’s reading with the automated voice that will deliver it to us but, as it happens, the technology malfunctions and I end up with Foster’s accomplice reading the long stream of incantation back to me in person, as we’re both wedged inside a call box, before disappearing back into the crowd as suddenly and unexpectedly as she arrived. Somehow, this only added to the compelling incongruity of the experience.

Michael Pinchbeck: Sit With Me For A Moment And Remember

A bench sits to one side of a busy pedestrianised shopping street, looking (apart from the low-key presence of the work’s title on a small plaque) like any other municipal bench, though in St Ann’s Square, Pinchbeck’s very traditional wooden affair stood out against the concrete and metal sculptural constructions that were being used as seating elsewhere. Perhaps this was, intentionally or otherwise, the first signal that the work itself would be about memory and nostalgia, the past, a sense of loss and absence in a public setting? Taking our place on the bench, we’re handed a set of headphones and listen to a voice describing things no longer present, people no longer with us, a time that is no longer here. We’re asked to look up and think of somone we’re missing, to look to our side and catch the presence of a young woman (played at Hazard by Pinchbeck’s collaborator, Nicki Hobday) sitting beside us, her hand flat against the slats of the seat. We are taken into a mental space where remembrance is encouraged, loss acknowledged and – near the end – asked to close our eyes and lay our own hand on the bench, as the woman beside us does. We imagine a someone – a loss personal to ourselves – and suddenly feel a touch on our own hand. When we open our eyes, the woman is gone, the bench empty. It’s a curious experience, emotionally engaging, and given undeniable power by the physical contact – fleeting as it may be – involved in its performance. Sit With Me For A Moment And Remember carries very private reflections into a public space, and for all its intimacy offers a strangely contradictory experience, almost daring us to expose, through our response to the piece, something of our inner lives to the many strangers around us, even while keeping everything but the touch itself perfectly hidden.

The Gramophones: End To End

The venue being an immaculately restored 1950s double-decker bus means it’s occasionally hard to tell if those signing up to see the performances on board are doing so because they really want to see the work, or because they want an opportunity to climb up and see the vehicle from inside. The Gramophones’ End To End manages to use this to their advantage and the audience I join includes one man who is very clearly in the ‘bus enthusiast’ rather than the ‘performance enthusiast’ category. Before we begin a note is lowered down to us on a string, which one of us has to read aloud to the group, explaining the context for the show: that the three women in the company have recently travelled from Land’s End to John O’Groats on a budget of £1 a mile, using as many different modes of transport as they could manage to find, from scooters and buses to hang-gliders, balloons and (who knows?) possibly even personal jet-packs. With that explained, and the dangled note suggesting that we’re being fished by the performers, we climb the stairs and enter what resembles a net or spider’s web of brown string from which innumerable bits of ephemera are hung from clothes-pegs and tagged with official looking codes. Cardboard hitch-hiking signs inscribed with place names from around the whole country are arranged on the seats. We’re invited to select just one piece of ephemera and – after much time browsing the many possibilities – each of us has a single item in hand.

Taking turns, we read out the codes on the tags, and the three Gramophones perform (not unlike a very personalised storytelling jukebox) the story attached to that particular item. It might be some piece of local history or legend discovered along the way, or an anecdote about how all three Gramophones managed to borrow scooters to ride a few hundred yards one afternoon. It’s light, whimsical and all rather heartwarming, though for our group the performance became more two-way than scripted when the chap who’d liked the bus decided it was only fair to share his own stories – of Edinburgh, transport museums and whatever else The Gramophones’ words triggered – with the performers, so in some respects, the End To End I experienced became entangled with another set of tales entirely. Interestingly, the shift in the planned version at the insistence of an audience member not au fait with the rules broke down whatever separation might otherwise have remained between performers and audience, though I discovered later that in this respect, our group had been a bit of a one-off during the day and mostly things had unfolded more or less as planned. The piece concludes with each of us being handed a Gramophones postcard and a seed in a small envelope, the idea being to plant it somewhere and return the card telling the story of that act of planting. What The Gramophones plan to do with those stories remains unknown at this point.

Simon Raven: Summer Holiday

Simon Raven’s Summer Holiday was described in the programme – and probably pitched to the organisers – as a fairly straightforward busking session, where the performer would put on his best tropical shirt and play through a songbook of holiday-themed songs for the afternoon. Raven being Raven, though, it didn’t stay quite that simple for long, and evolved through the afternoon from oblique politics (he was immediately drawn to a pitch outside Barclays Bank, where he chose to serenade Bob Diamond, the recently resigned Chief Executive, instead of those passing in the street) to fund-raising (initially worried about being offered money, and depriving real buskers, he resolved the problem by joining forces for awhile with a homeless woman, who sat beside him holding a ‘thunderstick’ emblazoned in Hazard Festival colours while her collection hat sat at Raven’s feet, gathering contributions from shoppers) to something much stranger as time wore on.

By the late afternoon, Raven’s busker was becoming a very unsettling presence, his face obscured behind a newspaper mask, a swanee whistle in his mouth and a carnation (one taken, as it happens, from Sean Burn‘s performance, happening elsewhere at Hazard) gripped, flamenco dancer style, alongside it. While protests were staged in the background (another Hazard performance, this time by Claire Cochrane) the whole exercise stood out as one of the more surreal presences in a square that was full of odd and self-consciously quirky sights. Perhaps it was the lo-fi quality of the materials deployed and the oddly matter of fact way that this strange figure continued to strum away, carefully but almost inaudibly playing the guitar, that seemed to make many viewers uncertain about the nature of the performance they were witnessing: a point made visible in the nervousness with which those who did stop to watch looked around for the reassurance of a noticeboard to confirm that this was, after all, part of the afternoon’s programme.

Alice Gale-Feeny & Katherine Fishman: Nothing Like This To Increase The Adrenaline Rush of the Crowd

There was a similar confusion about the exact status of Alice Gale-Feeny and Katherine Fishman’s parody of product demonstrations and sales pitches, particularly early on, when the duo took turns to play the roles of camerawoman/interviewer and demonstrator/subject, making many of those passing by stop briefly to observe, but obviously assume it was a real bit of low budget TV or training video being filmed in the street and give the set up a considerately wide berth. The premise was that one member of the duo would improvise detailed descriptions of some variety of alarm – anything from a clown-style bike horn to a hi-tech matrix of connected smoke alarms – with nothing but a  laminated photograph and a CD recording of the sound it made to go on: the other would film and ask questions, like a business world version of the referee in a game of charades. When the duo noticed that their very deadpan approach was persuading observers that the filming was for real, their exaggerations became increasingly noticeable, and they began directing questions to onlookers. Once the walls of what had first seemed like a small-time media bubble had become permeable, the piece seemed to encourage participation, audiences pitching in with their own opinions on the distinction between, say, a ship’s foghorn and a bicycle bell, or personal recollections of hearing a particular sound in a cartoon. The grey, navy blue and orange uniforms, standardised product demonstration set-up and the presence of a camera all helped make their pretext seem highly plausible, initially to the duo’s frustration, but later – as they worked out how to draw audiences into their bizarre improvised ruminations without stepping out of character – the piece became more layered and interesting, taking on some of the absurd qualities of ‘selling TV’ channels like Price Drop and QVC, places where new modes of performance designed solely to sell hopeless goods to sceptical audiences are under construction on an industrial scale. That nothing is for sale here puts the emphasis very firmly on the performative elements of these presentations.

SHRUG: Sun Safety

SHRUG, also known as the Shrug Ladies, have been Hatch regulars since the earliest days and it’s arguable that if anything could be said to embody ‘Hatch’ it might well be the roaming presence of Suzy Gunn’s ever-changing band of red and black clad women who only communicate using chalk on small red-framed blackboards. Reduced to a duo for today (there have been as many as six Shrug Ladies on some occasions) the theme pursued through the afternoon is keeping safe, with Gunn and Olwen Davies out and about among the Saturday crowds, offering sun cream, a sit down and strangely compelling non-verbal conversations to anyone who happens to be game for entering their world. The odd thing about SHRUG is that they present their own performances as natural and leave those who encounter them to adjust their own behaviour to fit in with SHRUG’s rather than being the audience for whatever it is SHRUG happen to be doing. This makes for a curious inversion, in that SHRUG’s audience appears to be performing for SHRUG more than SHRUG themselves do for their audience. I can certainly vouch for the fact that once you’re drawn into a ‘conversation’, there’s a sense that speaking normally begins to seem like a bit of a cop-out, and you start to feel slightly tongue-tied simply because you don’t have a blackboard of your own to communicate with.

When there’s no immediate audience on hand the ladies merely get on with their own (sometimes silent comedy era style) business of making tea, arranging chairs and sunbathing, or dusting off one-another’s clothes, but once passers by come close, the silent blackboard conversations begin again. Visually, it’s a neat amalgam of Gillian Wearing’s Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say  with a lighter strain of 1950s inspired glamour and kitsch, all red and black polka-dots, heart-shaped plastic sunglasses, scarlet lipstick and matching wigs, but it’s the way the performance crosses lines with the reality surrounding it that gives SHRUG its impact. At one point during the afternoon a woman appeared in St Ann’s Square with black hair, red clothes and a red and black polka dot raincoat, in which very SHRUG-like attire she wandered around watching the various performances. If she did encounter SHRUG during her time at Hazard – and I really hope she did – then it seems the moment when reality imitated then met performance in an unusually literal way went sadly unrecorded.

Rachel Parry: Re-Claiming

When Rachel Parry’s Re-Claiming was performed at Hatch: Wish You Were Here back in 2008, it made for a surreal presence: literally so, as Parry seemed to be inferring parallels with works like Meret Oppenheim’s Le Festin, where the artist’s body (or in Oppenheim’s case, its substitute) becomes both table and the feast itself. Lying outside at night, with projections of the sea on the sand covering her, Parry’s impassive presence seemed unsettling and strange. This revisiting, taking place in daylight and sunshine, had a very different feel, evoking not the uncanny image of the 2008 version but a more direct memory of burying parents in the sand at Skegness as children. While Parry remained impassively immersed in the sand she’d taken from a real beach (the beach at Skegness, as it happens) her presence seemed more benign in this new context: so much so that children took to playing in the sand that covered her. As they arranged seashells and seaweed on her, or patted her down with small plastic spades, the memories of place the piece is designed to embody become far more direct and uncomplicatedly nostalgic than in the previous incarnation of the work. Perhaps the presence of a bright blue paddling pool to contain the sand also added to the upbeat effect created this time round, but seeing two versions of this piece staged to such very different outcomes suggests that location and context are key to the meaning it finally evokes for the viewer. Parry’s transformation of her own body into a beach seems to be a symbol onto which we project the meanings that suit us at the time.

Zoo Indigo: Flat Out

Like SHRUG’s Sun Safety, Zoo Indigo’s Flat Out was another performance that roamed the streets freely, and in a similar way to SHRUG, the effect seemed more about how onlookers responded to them than what the performers themselves did. Dressed in glamorous carnival-style dresses, Rosie Garton and Ildiko Rippel shepherd a small brood of cut-out children around a variety of settings, from benches, shop doorways and dangerous scaffolding to street picnics and storytelling sessions. In terms of performance, there seemed to be several quite different things going on here, one being the contrast between the women’s appearance and dress and their role as parents (a device reprised from earlier shows like Under The Covers), another being their insistence on a very performative kind of parenting, and a third being the role of photo-taking, by both Zoo Indigo themselves (who constantly take pictures of each-other, or arrange the children in every imaginable variation on a photogenic line-up solely in order to document them) and  passers by, who often wanted to be photographed with the fake children themselves.

The most intriguing area for Flat Out to explore, though, seems to be the second potential reading, since what has come to be called ‘performative parenting’ is becoming ever more commonplace, as though natural relations between parents and their children are increasingly difficult to maintain in a society where every move appears to be documented, judged or otherwise observed warily by outsiders. It’s as though real parenting is morphing into a kind of theatrical routine aimed at some imaginary audience, so Zoo Indigo’s use of obviously fake offspring (the cut-outs are made from photographs of the performers’ own real children) heightens this theatricality in an interesting way. What does it mean, after all, if the appearance of engaged and considerate parenting becomes exaggerated to degrees that ensure it’s less about the welfare of the children and their relationship with their guardians, and more about a self-conscious seeking of approval from strangers, authorities and peers? While presented with a light touch, there were moments when Flat Out developed a darker edge, as when a SHRUG member accidentally knocked a cut-out child over, only to be assailed with accusations of ‘hurting my child’ from Garton. In an instant like this, the absurdies of many currently unquestioned parental norms stood vividly exposed.

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