Take Your Partners: Primary Nights 1-2-1

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

I’m not sure if the ‘one-to-one’ performance has been undergoing something of a blossoming recently, but given that the Hatch: A Better Tomorrow platform at Embrace Arts in October was made up 50% of ‘one-to-one’ performances, and this platform at Primary is given over entirely to them, it’s either that, or something in the air around the Hatch offices that has encouraged a sort of minor proliferation. If ‘one-to-ones’ are more prevalent now than they were, perhaps it’s a response to social media, with its tendency to produce a strong illusion of intimacy even at a distance, or perhaps a more pragmatic response to the limited resources made available to performers by those Coalition ‘austerity’ measures that have, perversely, managed to run up more debt in three years than the measures that weren’t deemed austere enough did in the full 13 years preceding their implementation. Whatever the reason, Primary Nights was a whole night of ‘one-to-one’ performances, where the audience and performer stood evenly matched in a variety of spaces – some intimate and enclosed, some technologically mediated, some evocative of other times or places, some very discreetly tucked away in hidden corners of the venue, waiting to be discovered. Who knows why they all found themselves there just as 2013 entered its final phase?

Katy Baird's Cam4 [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Katy Baird’s Cam4 [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Katy Baird: Cam4

The first mark on my Hatch ‘dance card’, at 7pm precisely, proves to be the most intimate of all, at least potentially. I put on headphones and sit down at an open laptop at a desk in an otherwise empty room where a Skype connection links to me to Katy Baird, who appears on the screen to tell me that she has, in the past, financed her art by working on sex webcams. So here we are, at first slightly awkwardly, Baird in a bikini top, surrounded by plants in a room that might be anywhere, and me wondering where this might be heading. After a bit of financial negotiation (based on how much I imagine I’ll put into the Hatch ‘pay what you like’ piggy bank at the end of the night) we have five minutes and I’m handed carte blanche to ask or order anything, up to and including the sort of thing Baird might have offered on the sex cams that inspired this particular piece of work. Instead, we talk about the relationship between sexual and financial fantasies, the idea of working for money as a kind of prostitution in all cases, not just the sex industry. We talk about how Baird sees her sex work and art work connecting now and in the future, both being species of fiction and performance. We talk about how banknotes are themselves, in James Buchan’s coinage, ‘frozen desire’, as unreal in their connection to value as pornography or sex work is to actual sexual activity: money as a fiction in which we choose to suspend our disbelief, just as religious believers or the readers of fantasy novels do. Because I’m on such a tight schedule, with another slot due to start at exactly 7.15, the roles get reversed a little: I’m the one who issues reminders that we’re on the clock and only have two minutes left as the time counts down to 7.13 on my phone. Even so, it’s an interesting conversation, and one that happens to touch on a subject I’ve been fascinated by myself in recent years, and when Baird appears in the hall at Primary an hour or two later, highlighting the fact that the implied distance of Skype hadn’t been much distance at all, I’m partly relieved that our conversation had stayed pretty respectable, all things considered, but partly curious about how this sudden face to face encounter would have felt had the Skype encounter gone in some other, more sexual or intimate direction. Perhaps Baird’s knowledge that she would, in fact, meet many of those she talked to in person, even if we hadn’t realised that, was part of the equation about art, power and intimacy being explored here.

Ehsan Gill's Man in the Park [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Ehsan Gill’s Man in the Park [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Ehsan Gill: Man in the Park

Ehsan Gill’s piece begins with a small coup de theatre, as I’m ushered through an ordinary office door but, as it’s closed behind me, immediately find myself walking through a thick layer of autumn leaves on the floor in an environment that is permeated with the smells of autumn and the sounds of birdsong: there’s a dream-like quality in the transition from corridor to performance that certainly starts things with an unexpected impact. Gill sits on a wooden park bench opposite, ‘speaking’ by way of text projected onto a wall above his head, putting soundproof ear-shields on and assuring that he can’t hear me, nor is anything being recorded. Then he makes a simple request, by way of that projected surtitle: ‘describe me’. I look at his trainers and grey track suit bottoms, as they send out one message about who Gill might be, and contrast them with the more traditional Muslim style of his long over-shirt and beard, the respectable student or young professional suggested by his neatly combed hair and glasses. He sometimes stares down at his feet, hands nervously clenched together on his lap, then relaxes, looks up, makes eye contact. I don’t say anything and the text above Gill’s head doesn’t change either, just reading ‘describe me’. Eventually, weighing up all the deliberately conflicting cultural signals of his dress and manner, I say out loud, ‘you’re a man I don’t know’, and that seems to be that, though the birdsong continues and the smell of the leaves still permeates the space for what seems like a long time afterwards. Then the text above Gill’s head abruptly changes: ‘Thank you’. I get up to go, leaving Gill sitting on his bench, his posture unchanged, the ear-defenders still (we can only assume) containing him inside his own bubble of silence among the ever-present birdsong, awaiting the judgement of whoever enters next.

Lisa Newman & Alex Leistiko's Mnemosyne [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Lisa Newman & Alex Leistiko’s Mnemosyne [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Lisa Newman with Alex Leistiko: Mnemosyne

The third item on the Hatch dance card takes me from an autumnal park to a Greek myth: according to the title, that of Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses and embodiment of memory. But apart from the technologically mediated spoken part of the performance, a seemingly synthesized voice booming through the vast space of an old dance studio over the sounds of the sea, the piece itself didn’t seem unduly constrained by the particulars of Mnemosyne’s story and instead operated as a kind of free-floating oracle, concerned with some attempt to remember a ritual of unexplained significance, or issue a challenge to destiny and fate. Nor was this strictly a ‘one to one’ performance, since we entered the tableaux created by Newman and Leistiko in pairs, guided to marked spots on the floor. Leistiko stands still, holding a raised lantern, and Newman hands us ropes, all of us doubled by our own shadows, which occupy a projected Aegean seascape on one wall. The location appears to oscillate between the darkened room and some other terrain, as Newman pulls on the ropes, as if hauling a boat through a storm, and the voice-over continues on its oblique journey, unravelling as it proceeds. It strikes me that its tone seems more indebted to 1950s B-movie re-imaginings of mythic encounters with the Gods than to any actually known mythology. All the while, our silhouettes appear to be engaged in a struggle with gravity and the implacable elements, as though only we are holding Newman’s body from the sea, at which point, she cuts the ropes and stands behind Leistiko, seemingly becalmed. Quite what it all means is left open, but in its blend of mime and dance, simple participatory action and technologically mediated theatre, it leaves a notable, if almost wholly indecipherable, impression.

Traci Kelly's Lost at Sea [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Traci Kelly’s Lost at Sea [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Traci Kelly: Lost at Sea

A similarly nautical aspect coloured Traci Kelly’s Lost At Sea, though in a very different way and to a very different end. Kelly pretty much distils the idea of the ‘one-to-one’ performance to its essence, inviting us, one at a time, to join her in a tiny under-stairs room (the very same space in which Francachela Teatro had goaded us into playing Russian Roulette, no less) where we’re offered a shot of Sailor Jerry’s rum, and, having downed it, drawn into a five minute long hug. Apart from reviving my own memory of the shots involved in the last performance I visited in this confined space, the construct of Lost At Sea also involves Kelly taking a shot with every person who enters her territory, a gesture of comradeship or complicity, but one that clearly has implications for Kelly herself as the night proceeds. The embrace at the core of the piece, then, is also, very literally – and ever more so as the night goes on – a matter of the performer putting her performance into the hands (or arms) of her audience. The prolonged nature of the embrace – five minutes is, after all, the kind of hug only usually encountered in the most intimate scenarios – also has its unsettling qualities: the level of intimacy is pushed to levels that are, to say the least, unusual with anyone, let alone a stranger or casual acquaintance. We’re conscious of a body’s weight, its small movements, breathing and instabilities. Meanwhile Kelly tells us how we are the ‘anchor’, the ‘rock’, something to hold onto to get through this particular night. At the end, we’re handed an origami paper boat, stamped with the words Lost At Sea, as a memento or object to discard. As with the performance itself, it’s up to us to decide whether this small paper boat, like the gesture of the embrace, is for safe-keeping or casting adrift.

Rebecca Gamble's Mariela Hosomaki [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Rebecca Gamble’s Mariela Hosomaki [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Rebecca Gamble with Nadim Chaudry & Genelva Meikle: Mariela Hosomaki

I’ve still got Traci Kelly’s paper boat in my hand when I’m allowed through the door that leads down into the cellar where the digital avatar of Rebecca Gamble, a woman known in the artificial realms of Second Life as Mariela Hosomaki, stands silently among lit candles, a variety of numbered serving implements (ranging from chopsticks to skewers) hung on the wall facing her. Before descending, however, there are formalities to observe, as Gamble’s assistant (perhaps, remembering Newman and Leistiko’s Mnemosyne, some kind of guardian of the underworld, embodied by Effy Harle) issues instructions and requires decisions: we must choose a number, decide whether we will ‘feed’ or ‘eat’. Only then (all decisions made not knowing what lies in wait) can we proceed. On entering the space occupied by Mariela Hosomaki, the scene is uncanny: a woman stands frozen inside an elaborate red form, a sculptural costume made specifically for Gamble by the sculptor Nadim Chaudry in collaboration with dressmaker Genelva Meikle. It has a presence that’s part baroque Alien, part Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, part Marie Antoinette rejigged as a video-game avatar by David Cronenburg. Perhaps it’s less the form that’s unsettling than the way its folds are serving dishes filled with the small egg-like rolls of sushi we’ve committed to eat using the implement designated by that chosen number. I take the skewer, spear a sushi roll somewhere inside a lower fold of the host’s gown and eat it, then wonder if it’s appropriate to speak, or make eye contact, before it becomes clear that Gamble, or Mariela, depending on how we consider the relationship of the costume to its inhabitant, is apparently elsewhere. I return the skewer to its hook, look back as I prepare to leave (aware that in all good myths this is really not the right thing to do) and realise thatthe host – whose presence has brought those memories of Cronenburg and Alien to the surface – seems to have developed a quite different meaning to that of the giver of food, the person I visit in this cellar. As I turn to go, Gamble, or Mariela, remains perfectly still, casting flickering shadows across the peeling paint-work on the cellar walls, while the air is permeated with the combined scents of burning wax, fresh sushi and damp earth.

Laura Dee Milnes' Iuvenes Adeste [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Laura Dee Milnes’ Iuvenes Adeste [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Laura Dee Milnes: Iuvenes Adeste

Laura Dee Milnes, on the evidence of her all-too-convincing impersonation of a school headmistress in Iuvenes Adeste, would almost certainly be ‘a bit disappointed’ in her own lack of punctuality: this is a performance originally scheduled to take place at New Art Exchange in July but had to be deferred. In some ways, then, Milnes’ own school record – the subject of Helping the Young (in a rough translation of its school-motto-like Latin title) – has a certain continuity with her life since. We can certainly detect a degree of satire in her teacherly concern with her own youthful failings, ‘we’, in this case, being myself and Hatch technical manager Leigh Cunningham, who have been summarily made a couple of doting but – Milnes would hope, concerned – parents to her younger self. Milnes passes us reports, full of flatteringly phrased panic about the girl’s manner and general attitude to school. She shows us clumsy but obsessively detailed drawings of a handsome male teacher and folders of scrapbook pages where half-naked Boybands are scrawled obsessively around. So far, so predictably adolescent. Perhaps it’s the unfurling of a disturbingly plausible Jesus banner with serial killer eyes, or the evasion of homework by buying rather than making a new school skirt that has this headmistress a bit rattled, suggesting a latent sociopathy against which this headmistress may yet find herself completely powerless. Altogether, the situation created and Milnes’ own deft character comedy combine in a memorable and tightly written skit that might well develop further. Milnes’ headmistress has many of the hallmarks of a Victoria Wood-style fake-documentary subject, while adolescent Laura herself – in the headmistress’ account – has some of the makings of a serial killer, obsessive stalker or (at the very least) a serious contender on The Apprentice. That most secondary school pupils probably still have to adopt these qualities just to survive their five years in the playgrounds might be the real point of the piece, given the implausible fantasies about educational and behavioral Golden Ages that still circulate in the press and (God help us all) Government Ministries that are certainly old enough to know better.

Richard Hancock's Prisoner of Love [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Richard Hancock’s Prisoner of Love [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Richard Hancock: Untitled (Prisoner of Love)

The last performance I actually experience tonight is Richard Hancock’s oblique but atmospheric Untitled (Prisoner of Love), whose title indicates something about what kind of self-contradiction and ambiguity to expect (that is to say, there is no title, but there is, in that parenthetical allusion to Jean Genet’s final published work). I walk into the cavernous space previously occupied by Newman & Leistiko’s Mnemosyne, but it’s now lit like a secret police interrogation room, with Hancock seated at a desk under a spotlight. He beckons me to sit facing him in that pool of harsh light with a hand clad in a surgical glove. On the table are razor blades, a mirror, sheets of gold leaf, a polaroid camera and apples. I’m not sure when I first notice him, but a second figure stands silently in one corner of the room facing the wall. Hancock takes and bites an apple then hands it to me, so I do the same and hand it back. He rubs cream into the bite, lifts a sheet of gold leaf and carefully gilds the bite-marks I’ve made in the fruit, then puts it down on the mirror. He picks up the camera, changes the film, then cranks it, beckoning me over to where that silent figure stands in the corner. I’m supposed to take a photograph, so I do, and Hancock takes the camera back, his hands still in those surgical gloves, pulls out the polaroid and peels off the skin. We stare together into its black square but nothing develops. I’m led to a corner and stood facing the wall. The apple is put onto my head. I hear someone leave, another person enter. I hear an apple being bitten and the gilding brush. I hear the polaroid click behind me, the clunk of the photo being removed. At a certain point, I’m handed the black square of an undeveloped image and shown the door. When I look back, a woman stands facing the wall in another corner. When I look at the photograph an hour or two later, I see myself standing, facing the wall in one corner of that vast room. It’s a precisely (you might almost say surgically) choreographed series of actions, potentially endlessly recessive, and full of symbolic meanings – apples, mirrors and photographs; silences and presences – that ultimately refuse to quite add up. Perhaps that’s exactly why Untitled (Prisoner of Love) seems all the more inclined to retain its suggestive powers long after it’s ended.

Leentje Van de Cruys & Tine Feys - Going to the Chapel [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Leentje Van de Cruys & Tine Feys – Going to the Chapel [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Leentje Van de Cruys & Tine Feys: Going to the Chapel
Random People: Speak Low

Sadly, the two items that weren’t precisely timed on the Hatch ‘dance card’ I’d been handed at the start of the night were only glimpsed as part of the general ambiance of the event rather than experienced as discrete performances. I did run into Leentje Van de Cruys & Tine Feys in the Primary kitchen early on, as the two were busy changing into their wedding gowns, but this was probably less embarassing for anyone involved than it might have been owing to Van de Cruys’ last Hatch appearance being Horsea very memorable monologue delivered completely naked but for a horse’s head mask and red high-heeled shoes. The experience on offer tonight – to join Van de Cruys and Feys in performing some of the rituals surrounding marriage – whether slow dances, exchanges of vows or walks down some imaginary aisle – seemed to be going on everywhere, and as the night went on the numbers of people sporting ‘Just Married’ ribbons increased to a point at which I might have been almost the only person in the building not to have been ‘married’ to one or the other of them during the evening: as my gran used to say, there would be plenty more fish in the sea. Which coincidentally was exactly the kind of pop-song cliche explored by the other performance that managed to evade me, Random People’s Speak Low, in which so far as I could tell, participants chose songs and then somehow used them as a basis for communication. Quite how it all worked, or whether the piece sought to discover universal shared truths in pop songs or expose the emptiness of emotionally affecting language in the same songs, is something I couldn’t tell you, having been always just passing by as others giggled, frowned or blissed-out to whatever it might have been they were hearing.  It just goes to show that with one-to-one performances, if you aren’t in them, experiencing them at first hand, they become mere rumours, tantalising secrets, like the thoughts of that person on the train wearing strange clothes, whose actions you can’t quite fathom.

Random People's Speak Low [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Random People’s Speak Low [photo credit Julian Hughes]

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