Sunday Service: Hatch Scratched at New Art Exchange

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

Alice Gale-Feeny II - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Time has its own unalterable speed, which clearly hasn’t been compatible with my own need to find ways of slowing it down a bit lately in order to get everything done. A case in point would be the notes made in longhand the evening after Hatch put on its daytime platform event at New Art Exchange on Sunday July 21st, which waited a few weeks to be united with pictures, then found themselves swept ever further out to sea on continuous waves of incoming deadlines until, finally, they made it to the beach, a mere two months later. Still, they weren’t the only thing to suffer such a fate. Even on the day itself, one scheduled performer, Laura Milnes, found herself stranded somewhere between the Latitude Festival and Nottingham and didn’t make it either, so perhaps it’s best to think of these notes not as being late, but as having been on a Situationist-style derive for the high summer months before finally arriving at their originally intended destination. They’d like you to know they are feeling much more tanned, healthy and relaxed than they might have done if they’d rushed straight here without pausing for breath.

Bibi Letts: Tea in Bed

Bibi Letts - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Pausing for breath was clearly the point of Bibi Letts’ Tea In Bed, which offered one person at a time an opportunity to climb into a picturesque brass bed, parked in the midst of the Mezzanine Gallery, and share tea and a chat with Letts herself. Not surprisingly, given the leisurely Sunday afternoon setting and overcast sky outside, Tea in Bed proved to be very popular. So popular, in fact, that I only got to see it at a distance, or while walking around the gallery waiting for a space to open up during the breaks between performances, but every time returned to find Letts deeply engrossed in sipping tea and having a conversation with someone that it would have seemed slightly intrusive to properly eavesdrop on. In the end, then, it turned out that Letts’ Tea In Bed made something of an unintended mystery of itself, and was experienced by me in much the same way that private conversations overheard on park benches or on buses are: as semi-public occurences only guiltily and occasionally caught in their fragmentary passing.

Priya Mistry: Experiments In Performing Action and Sound

Priya Mistry II - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

No such issues with Priya Mistry‘s Experiments In Performing Action and Sound, a scratch performance whose shape took a form that the programme states as borrowed from John White’s Newspaper Reading Machine, a 1971 work by a British systems-music composer whose own output has been described as “eclectic”, “covering a wide range of styles”, “ironic, experimental and avant-postmodern.” Which doesn’t make our sense of what to expect from Mistry’s performance any clearer, especially given the very visual set-up of stacked cans, strange things gaffa-taped to floors and walls, toy-horns, hanging wood-blocks on ropes, queue of upright hardback books and a dangling sheet of metallic foil that greets us when we enter. Five or six women stand around among these seemingly miscellaneous objects, each holding a sheet of paper and focusing intently on the words it contains. Once the performance begins, it’s a case of never quite knowing what will happen next. One woman shouts a word. Another jumps and blows a whistle. A third rushes in to scrunch that big gold and silver sheet of bunched foil, another steps forward to stand on a plastic car horn that blares its note, then falls silent as she steps back again. There’s no predictable pattern to the sequence, and  other actions enter the frame as things proceed: someone goes to the wall, pulls a rope and lets that wooden block crash to the floor with an echoing thud. The line of books is toppled, domino-style. A pyramid of metal cans is knocked over with a cricket ball. At a certain point, as each performer finishes her regularly interrupted silent reading of the text on her page, the performance ends. The effect is a combination of playroom visuals (heightened by the mirrored studio walls at New Art Exchange, which add a confused sense of space to the already volatile mix) and the kinds of noises half-familiar from John Cage’s prepared piano or chance sound compositions. Like Ping Pong Crash, one of Mistry’s earlier Hatch performances Experiments In Performing Action and Sound hovers on the boundary between structure and chaos and suggests that it’s when Mistry loses control of her own work that she’s (maybe paradoxically) happiest.

Priya Mistry I - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Alice Gale-Feeny: In The Presence of Cars

Alice Gale-Feeny I - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

The opposite might be said of Alice Gale-Feeny, whose In The Presence of Cars is an improvised but meticulously controlled durational performance in which Gale-Feeny herself painstakingly, over several hours, polishes, wipes and almost ritualistically cleanses a car outside the front of the venue. Sunday is traditionally a day for this kind of activity, as it is traditionally a day for prayer and Christian worship. I don’t know if those associations were intended or not, but it did often seem like  In The Presence of Cars was intent on combining the two, with Gale-Feeny talking to the car as she cleans it in the kind of voice that moves in and out of audibility, as though we are encountering someone tending a grave or a shrine, but doing this while kneeling beside a smart modern car and wearing the same hi-viz waistcoat seen on the men who staff those car-wash and valeting facilities that tend to spring up on the sites of former independent garages. There’s also a strange ‘horse-whispering’ quality to the way the vehicle’s body is constantly being stroked and soothed while Gale-Feeny’s monologue circles its themes, offering oddly maternal observations on how clean each minute part of the vehicle now is, or will soon be. From even a slight distance, her actions were indistinguishable from anyone washing a car on a normal Sunday, but once you entered the gravitational field of the vehicle itself and began to pick up the strangely obsessive commentary, it all began to slip into territory where religious ritual and consumer culture, ideas of cleansing rituals and the status symbolism embodied in motor vehicles, merged together like the soap-suds running off into the gutters outside New Art Exchange.

Michael Pinchbeck: Sit With Me For A Moment and Remember

Michael Pinchbeck I - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

There’s a sense of entering a bubble of performative space in Michael Pinchbeck‘s Sit With Me For A Moment and Remember, too, and having experienced the piece from the inside, as it were, at Hazard Festival in Manchester last year, it was fascinating to observe it from the other side today. Watching as people sat down, put on the headphones and closed their eyes, it was possible to see the mysterious actions going on around that interior space the work creates, as Nicki Hobday appears and hides between sections, or all participants place their hands on the bench in exactly the same way at the relevant point in the narrative. Despite being in the middle of a busy pedestrian thoroughfare in central Manchester, I recall the experience of the piece being very private, removing each participant from the noise of the surroundings. Much the same appeared to happening here, with the bench sited against railings next to a very busy Gregory Boulevard. Knowing what the experience was, but observing others immersed in it, gave today’s version a kind of ‘ghost’ quality, a sense of the imaginary zone that the audio generates around the bench on which everything takes place, but where, in another sense, nothing really happens or manifests itself outside the head of the person sitting there.

Michael Pinchbeck II - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Olwen Davies: Retroscape

Olwen Davies I - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

At the core of this platform were a pair of studio theatre performances, both reiterations of work first devised and presented as part of double bills at Hatching Space events during 2012. Olwen DaviesRetroscape made its debut at Broadway Cinema, where the layering of imaginary past and real present had been facilitated by the technological resources of the cinema venue, with Davies able to leave one space only to reappear in another, visible on screen, as though somehow broadcasting to ‘now’ from a ‘then’ she’d physically disappeared into. With the more minimal resources of a New Art Exchange studio, the same script takes on subtly different resonances, since in having to remain in the ‘now’ with the audience while persuading herself that she is, in fact, elsewhere (or more precisely, elsewhen) the layering of eras becomes more tangled, and the impossibility of entering the mythic realm of 1966, where the prospect of becoming iconic might be thought within reach, brings out more pathos than the earlier version at Broadway. By remaining trapped in the same space as the rest of us, but imagining herself into some imaginary other-place she’s desperate to recreate, Davies puts herself under pressure to deliver the impossible and with each failure (or at least, only partial success) seems to become ever more manic in her efforts, a scenario that raises the stakes by subjecting Davies-as-performer to increasingly untenable demands. We know, even if if she appears not to accept, that what she promises can never be achieved. If the first version of Retroscape offered a series of riffs on lost innocence and nostalgia for a time when even the false promises of unreal memories seem better than the no-promises-at-all on offer today, this revisiting of the piece tips that bittersweet confection into darker territory where the desire to escape to a better but largely imaginary past begins to seem unsettling rather than comforting.

Olwen Davies III - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Ollie Smith: Cat In Hell

Ollie Smith II - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Another piece first presented during Hatching Space last year was Ollie Smith‘s Cat In Hell, in which Smith plays a slightly hapless demon tormented by a she-cat (played here, as in the first incarnation of the piece, by Olwen Davies). A strangely compelling duet, or duel, takes place in a theatrical space that seems to merge a rock concert stage with a Las Vegas conjuror’s cabaret and a minimal representation of some kind of existential limbo. What has changed between the last Hatch iteration of Cat in Hell and its current version is less the earlier play with the dynamics of physical comedy and escapology, all of which remain, but the nature of the characters themselves, whose motives and relative power over one-another carries a greater sense of uncertainty as they continually attempt to outwit one-another in the run-up to the grand finale of a disappearing act. Where before the demon was mostly the hapless victim of the cat’s wiles, here he veers between that earlier inability to manifest his will and a more sinister purpose: that haplessness starts to seem – at least sometimes – as if it masks a manipulative plea for sympathy in his own opaque cause, while the cat seems, at least occasionally, more vulnerable than she has a tendency to assume. This certainly helps to rack up a bit more tension in the previously even-keeled construct, something that’s underscored by the way the music tracks are introduced and used. I don’t know if it’s deliberate or not that Smith’s announcements that we’ve just heard The Black Crowes, or are about to hear Nick Cave, emerge with much the same intonation used on the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack when Michael Madsen pulls out a razor and gets ready to dance to Stuck In The Middle With You, but the echo is plainly audible.

Ollie Smith I - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Frank Abbott: On Fruits

Frank Abbott I - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

And if it’s torture you’re after as a finale, look no further than Frank Abbott‘s On Fruits, a series of performances running through the day that can best be described as a combination of product demonstration, nature talk and vegan slaughterhouse. Abbott’s quotation of Hegel in the Hatch programme (“Even as we contemplate history…our thoughts cannot avoid the question, for whom, for what final aim, these monstrous sacrifices have been made”) hints that we might read the spectacle of a vast array of fruits being cored, sliced, chopped, grated, skinned, peeled and otherwise sacrificed on an equally vast array of specially-designed coring, slicing, chopping, grating and peeling devices as a kind of French Revolutionary Terror re-enacted with apples, bananas, mangoes and kiwi fruits. In the performance itself, Abbott classifies the fruits by origin (from native fruits, to established and older introduced fruits, to recently migrated and still-a-bit-exotic fruits, all sourced in Hyson Green) and chats amiably about the challenges each individual fruit presents to the designers of ingenious gadgets specifically devised to prepare them for consumption. Who knew that beautifully engineered lathes are built simply to remove an apple peel in one continuous helix, or lethal-looking gouges are manufactured for the sole purpose of getting the pulp out of coconuts? Performing all this on a rickety table with the wires of his head-microphone dangling into the path of knives, machinery and flying juice, it’s a nerve-wracking as well as educational spectacle, with the bonus of a fruit salad at the end: at least, if you haven’t been put off the whole idea of eating it by the fruitarian bloodbath that has gone into its making.

Frank Abbott II - Hatch Scratched at NAE [photo credit Julian Hughes]

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