Spill at Orwell Bridge

I was very excited about going to Spill festival and I didn’t exactly know what to expect. Not performing in it meant I could wholly enjoy other acts, which was a treat. Looking at the programme in advance, without inside knowledge I found it hard to anticipate what would be most interesting. Some of the descriptive language just leaves me guessing.

There was only one thing I decided I would definitely go to, apart from the Symposium on Wednesday 26th October. That was the Strand walk by Mark Offord. This was partly dictated by my homeward travelling plans, as unfortunately I had to leave Spill in mid-flow for a pre-arranged job in London. I could either leave Friday evening or Saturday morning, and the latter meant I could do the walk. Although it entailed taking a convoluted journey back to work due to the rail replacement coach from Witham, I was unperturbed as the walk promised to visit nearby coastline and get out of the town. Coming from the built up capital I am so grateful to see some of the natural environment, some Suffolk wilderness.

By Friday night I had been completely wowed by extraordinary acts I had witnessed. There was Elaine Mitchener listing the names imposed on African slaves and the price they were sold for, from the pulpit of the atmospheric Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House which was built in 1700 and remains unaltered. There was the awesome looped violin (“…full body immersion of soaring strings and spiralling sound…”) in Alicia Jane Turner’s ‘Breathe’. Spoken word raps about refugees in Shabazi’s ‘Terra Nullius’ from within the museum; 6 dancing and story telling performers moving towards nudity – with their heads covered in clay, in ‘Another Bald Dead Woman’; Vijay Patel’s emotive recollection of growing up in a corner shop (and then escaping to perform karaoke in drag) – this unexpectedly really moved me. It wasn’t polished like some of the others, but the message was felt more strongly. It reminded me of the Indian kids I was at school with, and the overt racism at the time. The recording of a male relative recounting the early days of the family’s migration in the ’70s from Uganda, and the hard work that went into settling in the UK, added powerfully to this piece. Tania Camara’s ‘Me, Myself And My Oreos’ was a superb act to follow. She whitened her skin with the filling from oreo biscuits, and gradually got messier (a popular theme with performance artists), dancing with liquid and powder. Again a voice recording set this off terrifically; this time MP Diane Abbott describing overcoming the racism she encountered as a teenager in school. Similarly it took us back in time, an eloquent voice describing the sometimes invisible struggle of minority migrant populations. Critically these examples appropriated by Patel and Camara, evoked times when although racism was more mainstream, there was at least an economy they could integrate into quite well. It struck a chord with migration and the refugee crisis now. Finally, Robert Hesp got messy with a petroleum based lubricant, and his moves were mesmerising in ‘Hard C*ck’. Chicken meat and bones featured, and a deliberately awkward audience encounter; overall it was Hesp’s flawless execution that drew me in.

I was sorry not to see the rest of the festival as the momentum had just been building and I had gradually become familiar with the streets, venues and a few friendly faces. I woke early as necessary for the Strand walk, and made my way to the meeting point. A circle of us slowly emerged, and Mark explained that the walk would be silent, and that he wouldn’t go too fast, particularly as he has MS and walking sometimes hurts (he walked with a stick). He said we would go to a very high bridge and asked if any of us are afraid of heights? No. He said many people go there to commit suicide and unfortunately in the act they land on nesting birds. He said the walk might overrun by half an hour – was that ok with everyone? I said I have a train to catch and it might be a bit tight. He said he would shut up then, and we set off.

Through backstreets, park and woodland we left the town. To our right as we progressed, we often saw the long and high bridge looming, a massive road bridge over the river Orwell. Not beautiful, but awesome for the scale of such enormous concrete caterpillar construction. It seemed far off but we approached steadily, silently. Once, quite close, Mark led us to a viewing point, a clearing in the trees from which we saw the magnificent bridge towering ahead. It was almost scary. For a few minutes Mark looked at it intently and so did we, and only then it struck me. The clues had been there but it was seeing it stark in front of me and this pause in silent reflection that made a thudding realisation.

Before the walk Mark had explained a bit about his MS to us, that at a certain point in his spine the nerve endings ceased communicating with his left leg. He described keeping some sort of track of its development, and likened the shape of the river where we were walking along it, to the curvature of a spine. Places on the map – and on the land/river, had metaphorical significance to him. He said we would find our own meanings in the walk. I am very familiar with the deterioration that MS can produce, as my Mother, like Mark I believe, has the type known as secondary progressive. In her the advancement is so far however, that she now and for a long time, has only been slightly able to move her neck. She is otherwise paralysed.

It was a dark feeling that hit me, that this walk may represent a possible future solution for Mark. I have been there with Mum, but most acutely several years ago. It was the driver behind one of my first post-drama school performance projects – Assisting Sara – a forerunner to Girl in Suitcase that I continue with today. Assisted suicide was in the news at the time, and we knew one day it could be more pertinent to Mum, as already she wouldn’t be able alone. She had described the conditions under which she wanted to be taken to Zurich. Happily none of those have come to pass, and we are 7 years on from that time. She remains incredibly stable and robust for one so apparently physically fragile. She is inspiring to many who meet her, and she was so pleased to see the performance in which she was represented. She also regularly participates in my Spirited Bodies project, again an inspiration to all who witness her.

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After our pause, Mark led us up to the bridge in earnest and we traversed the less regularly walked pavement scattered with random clothing and knocked off bits of vehicle. Signs at regular intervals pointed to the Samaritans freephone. We halted a few times to regard the view.

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The morning mist across the expanding river in front, dappled with light from the gaps in the clouds; and a marshy shoreline band of patchy grass and shrubland.

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By the time we’d crossed, I was aware of the time and that it seemed unlikely we’d be back by the originally stated time of 10am. This slightly detracted from my enjoyment or ability to process the complex messages.

At the very last stretch I had to break the silence momentarily to announce my departure, and run back to my digs to grab my bag and bound for the station. It was an uncomfortable rushing if unsurefooted scramble across town and back, getting stickier and more agitated. I just made the platform in the right time, but I vowed never to leave a performance art festival in a hurry again! It takes time to debrief. A walk may never be just a walk. Going home ought not to feel so wrenching.

The emotions that juddered through me may have been triggered by Mark, but related strongly to Mum, to my old script, and every piece of art I have made with or about her. It reminded me that they may be the most significant thing I have ever done. Now in the wake of this fresh reopening, they did not feel so complete.

Mark had suggested we join him for tea after the walk, and I wished I could have for a period of debriefing. It took me quite a few hours after arriving back in London, after finishing my job, after drinking several glasses of wine and downloading to my partner, to come down. It was magical to take a few days out to be in the midst of so much performance art; it is a headspace for otherness. I think I need more regular encounters.

Here Mark speaks about the Strand walk.

With special thanks to Mark for sharing this walk, and to all at Spill for presenting the many inspirational pieces.

Day of the Girl – a feminist Love revolution

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Looking East as we rose on the London Eye, #DayoftheGirl October 11

In December 2011 the UN decided to create the International Day of the Girl, which is October 11 each year. The day is to raise awareness of the many inequalities faced by girls around the world, and to celebrate their achievements. Women of the World (WOW) at Southbank Centre, London, mark the occasion by a day filled with activities for girls, including speed mentoring early in the morning with successful women in a diverse range of fields, on the London Eye. I took part as a mentor on Tuesday and found it very rewarding. I remember how much I could have done with some good advice on real life matters when I was a young teenager. At that age the adults you mostly get to speak to may be family or teachers, and may not touch on all your areas of interest. I was very moved and this is what I wrote.

Caitlin Moran said, this country has been run by men who went to boarding schools for far too long. These schools are like businesses that people pay to send their children to. They are not like the real world where people care about each other.

She said, she’s met these men, and they are not more clever or special than many of us. They were just brought up to feel entitled to lead, but they do not understand most of us. She said, no one will ever just hand you power, you have to go and get it. Don’t worry that you don’t look like the others who have power, it’s ok to look different. She said it’s an exciting time because we have the possibility to change things in massive ways.

She had a message for the teenage girls, to be kind to themselves, and to learn how to accept compliments, because many find that very difficult and struggle with low self esteem. She advised them about their future – to follow their passion and make something of their own, a project or career. Because in the end the satisfaction you get from those achievements of what is within you to succeed, will be far more rewarding than what you get from a marriage or from having children. My heart sang. It is so important that girls are told this, that they (we) are reconditioned.

She said Love yourselves, and be nice. Be kind to each other and support other women.

This Day of the Girl had already moved me so much. It was afternoon now in the Royal Festival Hall, but breakfast had brought me to tears.

I had been so hard on myself the day before, so angry because I thought I had failed. I had performed Girl in Suitcase at the weekend and was looking back with unflinchingly self-critical eyes. I knew I must do much better, and told myself sternly what needed to change in future.

Still I went to bed early and though it took a while to quiet my mind for sleep, I was woken by the alarm when it played at 5:30am. Deliberately getting up at that hour is usually reserved for journeys to foreign lands. This, however was to take a different sort of flight. I showered, dressed, grabbed a bite and then cycled to Southbank Centre. I went in the building and was given a name badge and told I was in Capsule U. I got a cup of tea and waited; I was in good time. To my surprise when the voice on the tannoy announced the first groups to make their way to the London Eye, U was one of them. As we gathered, I recognised one of the women. I was unsure if she was facilitating, or mentoring like me, as I had seen her working at Southbank Centre before, as well as giving a talk at this year’s WOW. It was about her experience of the criminal justice system – serving time in prison and coming clean off drugs after many years’ addiction. I introduced myself and told her I had seen her powerful talk. She said it had been an important moment for her as since then she had gone on to give many talks in prisons and to the NHS for example. By telling her story she could destigmatise people with addictions to help health and legal professionals understand that treating them like patients is far more positive than as criminals. Her name was Nina, and she was also mentoring. It was her first time, my second. I had taken part in this 3 years ago, but had since doubted how helpful I could be to school girls. This year however I had regained confidence and felt that this would be a very good thing for me to do. Meeting Nina before we even started really reassured me. I was not alone with my dodgy past and unconventional pathway. I was in brilliant company! I settled into my group with ease, feeling absolutely certain that I had very valuable contributions to give to the girls we would be mentoring. Whatever they wanted to know, I had real life experience, and I had come a long way. I knew things they for sure were not taught in school. What a privilege and wonderful opportunity for me too.

We were on the Eye for an hour, in each capsule a group of 8 mentors and 8 mentees, and each mentor spoke with 3 different girls for 15 minutes each, answering their questions, having a dialogue. Two of the girls I connected with were considering futures in the arts, one with singing, the other in musical theatre, so I was at least partially in the right ballpark. I know how tough it can be in the arts as a performer, but also how important to follow your calling. I have been through drama school, a bit of university and chanced my way as a jobbing actor before deciding I preferred to create my own work and perform it. Mostly the girls’ questions and conditioned attitudes reminded me (remarkably after 25 years difference! – they were 14 years old) of how school and middle class norms taught me to think when I was their age. How little has changed! It’s not all bad, but it’s not necessarily realistic, or helpful. Mostly the prevailing attitude talks up the importance of financial security, so anyone considering a career in the arts is advised to have at least one back-up plan in case it doesn’t work. That’s all well and good, but starting out with that in mind is a bit like sabotaging your truest desires. Thinking you have failed before you begin. No one wants to prepare young people for the possibility of being out of work for a while, taking low level jobs so you have the headspace to be creative, and definitely not that you might end up doing a more dodgy job like I did. But it happens, quite a lot. My pathway is unique, but so many women try similar things to get by and maintain their independence. The reality is, for most of us if we want to make it as an artist, it will take a while to find our niche. There will be struggles, but that doesn’t mean the moment there isn’t a stable income (!) we should give up and become an accountant. Unless that works for you, and, some people are better at managing several jobs at once, so again you have to find how it is for you. How many of the older people I model for say they wanted to be an artist, but needed a proper income, so after going to art school decided to train in something else. They then got caught up in a mortgage and raising a family until much later in life when freed up, they decided to enrol in art classes. This generation might not have such options – perhaps it’s better to follow dreams in the present instead of deferring.

My other mentee wanted a career in games concept design. Not so much my area but I do model for quite a few animation studios and games design students at university, as well as having dated the odd geek, so I knew a wee bit.

After our Eye revolution, I caught up with Nina a bit more over a coffee, before the talks in the Clore Ballroom led by Jude Kelly. I filled her in more about my past; Soho and the drugs. She asked if I, like her, had told my story. I said I’d been inspired by Jude’s rape survivor talks at WOW, as I had largely buried some of my own experiences, or classified them as insignificant, not worthy of note. A misappropriation, since rape was being opened up for discussion now in the 21st century, and the definition considered more widely without fear of shame. I told Nina I have been writing about some of my experiences, and performing them. Some of it is quite recent. She has a few years on me, and she looked at me wisely and said, “You’ve just begun to tell your story”. I could tell she meant that I would need to tell it and tell it and keep telling it before I was properly healed, and empowered by it. I knew in my blood that this was true, I felt it. I shed tears, and welled up some more as Jude got started with some very stirring speakers.

There was Fatima Manji, the news reader who wore a hijab whilst reporting on the recent Nice attack, and was subsequently criticised for doing so by a Sun journalist. She had spoken up bravely to make it known that it is not ok to discredit someone because of what they choose to wear. There was Frances Morris who is the new artistic director of the Tate Modern – and the first woman to have the job. There was Chi-chi Nwanoku who founded Europe’s first BME classical orchestra, and Luisa Omielan, an award winning comedian. There was also an inspirational 6th form prefect. Two other teenage girls were given the mic too, later in the day on stage with Caitlin reading excerpts from her ‘Moranifesto’, and I think it was important to include them. To show we are not just listening to the mostly white “successful” women in our society, but are also aware of younger women of colour (as it happened) who may be lesser known now, but are already making their mark. One was a spoken word poet leading a collective of performers in her school, and the other, June Eric-Udorie. The very articulate June successfully campaigned a year ago to keep feminism on the Politics A Level syllabus (it was going to be removed), and as well have more female thinkers added, as there was only one (Mary Wolstencraft) out of 16, included. Whilst doing her A Levels, she also writes for the Guardian among other publications.

By the time we went upstairs to listen to Jo Brand and Jude chatting, I was beyond speaking during the networking periods before and after. Nina had gone to a meeting, and I had spoken all that I needed to for the morning. Something had moved inside me, in my heart something was healing but still tender. I was very happy to sit on the floor and just enjoy Jo Brand’s deadpan wit combined with reassuringly human nature. I am quite used to listening to Jude, so it is a more familiar pleasure watching her in conversation with many amazing women.

The strong warm glow and buzz that I left Day of the Girl with, was the same feeling I get at WOW, but I think it’s growing. I really felt that the intelligent women in this country and beyond who have achieved some power, have gotten together and decided that they want all girls and women to share that, to have the same and more. They want to change the world and they are inspiring all of us. They wanted to support us all, in a really loving way, to big us up and encourage all our aspirations. It is a political movement, but there is spirit in it too. It is full of heart and Matriarchal Love. I felt like I belong, and I never want to lose that feeling. I noticed afterwards that some of my usual default thought patterns of comparing myself with others negatively especially when tired, had evaporated. I could overide them now, I was on a higher level. There were more important things to connect with, and bigger aims were possible. I ceased to self criticise as well, as I felt in my heart that there was a reason my weekend performance hadn’t been polished. A superficial shine hadn’t been important for this show – it was all about the content. I was delivering some very personal lines for the first time, live. Revealing sensitive material about my past, to both friends and strangers in my own city. That was what counted, Nina had reminded me without realising. That was what I had to prioritise. Not the blood and glitter, nor interacting with the audience like a cliched hooker, nor allowing them to body paint me – albeit this created a beautiful connection. My focus must be the lines of truth concerning delicate intimate secrets of my past. That’s all. My performance, my therapy.

Caitlin said, we don’t yet know what the world looks like and feels like when women have equality, it hasn’t been created yet. It’s up to us to make it, to have a revolution. Everything could be different; we might invent new economic systems since capitalism doesn’t work. We might create new political systems as the current one is definitely corrupt. Family, social, religious and geo-political structures may completely change. If each of us chooses to live our lives as fully as possible, to make the world better for everyone.

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My view from the London Eye on the morning of October 11, 2016.

Wild, naturist and free ~ Brighton Rock

Body painted at the World Naked Bike Ride, Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull, and last week with the Neo Naturists at the ICA. Also of course in my 3 Girl in Suitcase performances. Guerilla nude photoshoots during each visit to Venice, and as well twice on Hilly Fields. This year has been exciting for me for a proliferation of artistic naturist opportunities, surely not unrelated to having a partner with similar leanings.

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WNBR 2016 © AntwoneWalters.com

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part of the Sea of Hull (photo by Steve)

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Backstage at the ICA Steve and I painted each other Neo Naturist style. Photo by Cy Wol

I have been getting back to where I was 3 years ago it seems. Revisiting Scotland with Spirited Bodies, renewed enjoyment of the nude art community, and finding my way towards playing a role with WOW, as a mentor for girls once more. In 2013 I took part in speed mentoring school girls on the London Eye on the Day of the Girl. When asked for feedback afterwards I responded that I felt slightly misplaced in the role as no school girl aspired to be a nude art model! It wasn’t the point; it was all the other things about what I do that I need to share. Spreading the message of body confidence and empowering women, developing art projects, and surviving unusual pathways. A 12 year old might not imagine where I have come from, but you never know. I signed Laura Bates’ petition this week demanding that sex and relationship education become compulsory in all schools. The availability of violent porn to youngsters has led to a rise in teenage rape, largely due it seems to ignorance. The young people don’t know that this isn’t normal because they haven’t been presented with another way. There need to be healthier examples and people who aren’t afraid to speak about these issues. That could be me.

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at the Lido beach Venice, February 2016 photo by Steve

This month I felt strongly the need to shed a layer (again). To embrace more the light, and cleave less to darkness. Those parts of my past that I am separate from now I do not shun. I just need space to grow my own way without old associations limiting my path. Then when I have created new patterns, it becomes ok to revisit the old without fear of undue influence.

My blood rituals; often signifying shedding a layer; marking myself with an old (waste) part of me, then rinsing it off. Yesterday in Brighton the sea was choppy and I saw a rock I could sit on for the act so to be steadier, yet still close to, sometimes within the water.

I arrived at the naturist beach in the afternoon with my partner, Steve, and our long-time friend, Rodger. We undressed, though it was brisk at first, and had a cup of wine. Toasting our capers and Rodger’s 60th year, cameras were readied and my menstrual supply was by my side. Although a private moment, the ritual gains significance for being captured and shared. Psychically knowing it is out there increases my sense that this will change something within me. It gives me a chance to share a message with others too.

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photo by Rodger

The pebbles under foot were uncomfortable to tread on. I reached the water which was charged and rushing even at the edge. I was moving forward commitedly and successive waves kept splashing me more. Any sense of coldness was lessened by my pumping adrenaline, my effort to remain upright in the face of uneven painful footing; the force of the enormous sea pushing me back as I lurched towards the rock. I was focused; I had to be; there was no being casual here. It was set for drama. There was the potential of a calmer sunshine in the gaps between the clouds, but nothing sure and I just felt to seize the moment.

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I gripped the seaweeded rock and pulled myself on. There was to be no standing on the slippery  wave crashed and submerged platform; too dangerous, easily knocked off and blown about. No I sat, still clutching my tiny full pot of blood. I unscrewed it and poured it liberally around limbs and torso. The intense elements hastened me, so little time was spent just enjoying this moment. Quickly blood dripped then splashed off by waves. The smell of menstruation from April I believe, was strong, but hardly did it stay on me. I bathed, lowered myself surfing the rock (part of a groyn) on my belly. All wet with the sea I faced the expanse of water, then turned back and sat astride. At once ready for the walk to shore I attempted to climb down but was pushed off the rock by another wave. Knocked under water I became more involved in my scene than I’d planned but knew the immersion was good. I stood again, finding feet to make the walk. More than refreshed this felt quite raw and wildish, beyond health and safety!

Back on the stony beach out of the water I found a new cut in my foot flowing fresh blood. My friends stopped filming and helped me stumble back with a towel. We discovered more scratches grazed in the backs of my legs and right buttock, presumably from the point of being pushed off the rock. I’d not felt sharp edges but who knows underneath the powerful water what marked me, maybe barnacles under the greenery. I’d shed old blood, washed it off then opened fresh wounds, to make more memorable perhaps my encounter with Brighton rock.

With thanks to Rodger and Steve for recording my cleansing ritual.

 

The Sant’Erasmo Blood Ritual

Unplanned and spontaneously born of some organisational fuck up on the part of It’s Liquid, this bloodening on a remote shore of a Venetian island salvaged a tricky episode. Truly I am grateful to It’s Liquid on several levels. They invited me to perform two different performances in Venice last week, and the invitation had come through back in May, shortly after my last show for them. It gave me a reason to hone Girl in Suitcase, particularly for a travel and international version, and as well to create a brand new show, which I entitled Blood>>>Orange.

Whereas my April visit to Venice had been straight forward and smoothly run, it seemed that It’s Liquid had bitten off a bit more than they could chew on this occasion. It wasn’t personal, but they did not handle it well. They showed the utmost disrespect to many of the performing artists. I will record this separately concerning Girl in Suitcase on that site, but as for Blood>>>Orange, it seemed only I was involved in the debacle. I had been booked to perform in the Hilton Molino Stucky Skyline rooftop bar, on Saturday 6th August as part of the Colors of the Sky series, for the Funky Orange evening.

The It’s Liquid performance art contribution to these Hilton events had been meanwhile suspended unbeknowst to us, and they never thought to inform me. I had already picked up that the organisation on this visit left a lot to be desired and certainly sensed something was up, but with no official information, I continued to prepare for the Saturday gig as planned. My partner Steve and I took the considerable gear over to Giudecca island, to the hotel only to find they weren’t expecting us. The hotel staff were really accommodating and friendly however, and possibly would have let me perform, but it wasn’t the point in fact. I sensed that my somewhat edgy performance would not fit so well here, between the more mainstream singer and DJ and the very well dressed guests; I mean I would have been happy to present there, but without a properly prepared introduction (from It’s Liquid) I preferred not to.

There was a fantastic view from the roof at sunset (we arrived around 9pm), but we would have to wait till 10:30pm to perform, and that would in fact be during either the singer or the DJ’s slots. We felt out of place and hungry. We wouldn’t have been paid for performing and couldn’t afford the food there, so decided to find a more reasonably priced meal by the water’s edge further along the island. We left the option of returning to perform open, but took all our kit with us. I knew in my heart that we didn’t want to go back. We wanted to move on from this mess, and get back to our holiday. It did take me a while to debrief, as preparing for a performance is more than the practical and physical considerations. I become psyched up for quite a while before, in this case a few months even. If the intended outlet doesn’t happen I am thrown into a limbo of confusion. I am not ready to return to the everyday; I need the hyper-reality of performing to take place somehow.

Steve and I knew what we would do, and the weather was kind. I had brought blood supplies for the Blood>>>Orange show, and didn’t want to return to London until my jars were empty. Sunday 7th August was our last full day in Venice, with nothing planned except now completing the mission. Throughout the preceding week (and indeed earlier trips in the year) we had visited several of the smaller surrounding islands, at least all those that are available by vaporetto. We had discovered the best spots for solitude and natural beauty, and the island of Sant’Erasmo suggested itself to us clearly. There is a crowded beach in high season on a hot Sunday, but we knew to walk further round where far fewer folk venture. There we had the space and landscape we wanted, to be unwatched and left alone.

We waded through muddy marshes and long prickly grasses till we found our perfect spot. The blood in my bag was from my last two menstrual cycles, kept in the fridge for such occasions! The ritual side of it is pouring the blood on my naked body. I make particular movements which invest greater energy in the proceeding, and focus me. There is an embracing of my cyclical, female nature; as well a letting go of recent events and processes, and a rinsing cleansing action in the water to refresh myself. I am completing a cycle; more than a monthly one, a wider episode in time too. I am connecting with (Mother) nature, and the elements – Earth, which I stand on first and drops of my blood fall to; Air, which I move through, the gentle breeze sometimes sending the stream of blood away from my skin; Water, which I walk into and submerge myself in and splash on myself to wash; and Fire, represented by the Blood itself that was created and expelled by my body and signifies my fertility and creativity.

Steve filmed me and as well added some music afterwards. The track is The Host of Seraphim by Dead Can Dance, and was part of the setlist for Blood>>>Orange, indeed the scene in which the bloodening takes place. I have used the track in the Goddess version of Girl in Suitcase (last year), so it is already established in my performance psyche!

After the disappointment of the previous day(s), this outing on Sant’Erasmo felt really special, loaded with impetus to reclaim something that I had been denied. An intention to celebrate that moment with myself and Steve, in that place and time. It felt joyful and liberating as well as sensual. We had considered a further performative action, also connected with the undelivered performance, but after my blood ritual I felt no further need to make that, for now.

Here is the film!

With thanks to Steve.

Rewriting the Past – regaining confidence after rape

This year at WOW, I was there with my still relatively new partner Steve, and on the Saturday we went to the rape survivor talks led by Jude Kelly. She has been doing this for a few years but I had never been before. I wanted to see how it was handled, but didn’t quite anticipate how the session would affect me. The extremely open and raw talks moved me, because they made it very clear how normalised a lot of rape, and rape culture is. What I became aware of is the value of speaking out, for the brave (and very articulate) women we witnessed there as well as for the audience listening, and also that I had buried experiences that would benefit from being unearthed too. I’d started writing this blog in February I think, as I’d sensed there were some blocks I needed to uncover, and hearing the talks encouraged me further. I had to postpone processing the effects of the session, as I was running Spirited Bodies later that day and there was a lot to coordinate. The next day however, I felt it. In fact I have been finding that whenever I am at a low ebb, those feelings re-emerge, and I have to do some work on them. Writing really helps.

A long long time ago, I had an experience with a photographer, from the fetish scene, which was part of a big period of setback for me. I wouldn’t say that rape was uniquely responsible for my fall, because, I was already on that trajectory. I am not letting him off the hook, however if it hadn’t been him, I at that point would most likely have attracted something of that nature one way or another. There were deep family problems that created the right set-up for some disaster. It’s not always the case, but it was for me. Rape happens in many ways, from via people we know very well, to complete strangers. This was a man I met in a club, who lured me to his studio with the promise of paid fetish magazine modelling work. I was interested, and probably overlooked unsavoury signs, because my parents had told me I had to move out after finishing my A-Levels. It was the Spring term, 1995. I was clubbing a lot, taking drugs, and truly I had a bent to try injecting. It was that sort of phase in life – and I was also considering the sex industry. I didn’t know how I would support myself after leaving home, and could not imagine getting an ordinary job. My general appearance was a bit punk, or hookerish, and back then I don’t think that was ok in your average bar, or shop. In any case, I had a yearning to experience a different side of life to the narrow band of just-within-the north-circular-suburbia that the edge of Muswell Hill had thus far afforded me. At that time, life modelling was not within my sphere, sadly! Although artistically gifted as a child, going to an academic school I was mostly guided towards more cerebral subjects, which later proved to be less fruitful.

Rape has become much more publicly spoken about in recent years, and I keep reading that there is no hierarchy in rape. It’s positive to read that, because I did use to categorise my own experience as something far less valid or challenging say than a woman who had been forced violently, perhaps drugged too. Mine was more psychological, harder to prove technically. I was such a mess generally at the time that I never considered going to the police, I sensed that could be even more difficult. I was very promiscuous and hardly ate. People say I’m rather slim now; back then I was weighing myself everyday and making (short) lists of the foods I ate. I wore basically underwear in the nightclubs I frequented and took speed in particular on a regular basis. On occasion I whited out at home in the kitchen and Mum had an idea of the nature of my condition. We weren’t on the friendliest of terms then. She’d been diagnosed with MS a few years before and though only in the early stages of onset, was quietly dreading her more limited future.

I didn’t dare go above 7 stone – I had a strict limit on myself, would not allow myself to grow further. This wasn’t anorexia exactly; I wasn’t vastly concerned with being fat. I just didn’t want to be bigger, and I was deeply unhappy on a soul level. I could not allow myself to enjoy food. I had newly discovered confidence on the dance floor in my underwear on speed. I didn’t have to work at remaining thin, but I made a dedicated practice of it. I could get high on being empty, and drugs were more readily absorbed by the absence of food in their path.

The photographer was sleazy and I was far too easy prey. I must have embodied ideal victimhood. I was already well-sexualised and largely looking for it, just sometimes not being as discerning as I might. I was not strongly grounded – I felt undermined by family support who ought to have been guiding me with love. I was abandoned in spirit and in need of a new home, a new family. The lynchpin of my independence (and career) could wrest on my completed education as I had been thus far prepared, but it was not to be as I spiralled off the rails. I would have to find my own way, invent a new path. Hard won female pathways of power had already been indicated, however there seemed a fault along my branch.

My Mother though having a degree, had simply been a housewife (and not a happy one). My Father’s Mother though having graduated well from Oxford (and the first woman in her town at that), had not long after developed schizophrenia and suffered detrimentally. My Mother’s Mum hadn’t been to university but had forged several careers including journalist, broadcaster in East Berlin, and fashion designer in London. This woman was the closest person to me in my youth, who represented female power and autonomy. In her old age she was a talented artist who guided my love of painting and creating collages as well as building sculptures made of rubbish. She died just after my 14th birthday, and I don’t think it was by chance that my walk towards the darkness happened soon after.

I was emotionally lonely and found myself submitting to the photographer. He had a very large penis and he wanted anal. I was not so gifted in the art of saying no and he was obsessed with gratifying his appendage. I sank to new levels of despair but home was a spent force for me and I had to cut loose. Finding fellow inhabitants of such a place of broken was my calling. I count three of those people still as friends even if we don’t meet so often. Another died last year, and others fell off the radar a long while back – indeed I think their own darkness was a tad beyond my scope in time. Outside of that immediate circle a wide sprawling network of Slimelight, fetish and gay clubbing networks buzzed and vibed. It was the 90s, there was a scene.

The rape photographer staged intimate shots of me that he personally prepared my body for. He was keen on bondage but it was all relatively new to me and he so pushy. I negotiated away from the more extreme stuff, and took lines of speed between shots. I wasn’t interested in keeping any of the prints, except for one of me dressed, and one a portrait. The innocence and beauty on my face at the time he had in fact caught. I actually put the portrait on the wall of my bedroom in the new lodgings I secured with a friend. A curious memento marking my departure from the parental home, more so for in the image of my face, I saw my Mother’s resemblance. It seemed mostly her that I escaped from, yet she would always be with me, within me.

The pictures were never used for a magazine that I know of and I have no idea what became of them. He never paid me, and at the point of acquiring the two nice photographs (which subsequently got damaged or lost) after two or three visits I was able to say I wanted no more business with him. Being raped had seriously hurt me emotionally, but I couldn’t completely think of it as rape as I had allowed it. I hadn’t wanted it, but I hadn’t stopped it. I thought life might somehow be better if I didn’t say no. I thought I might get something I needed, though I don’t think I had a clue what. I just wasn’t in a good place to begin with. My Mum shouted and screamed at me (and the rest of the family) every day, that she hated us and wished we were dead. I could hear how unhappy she was, but she was unreachable, and we couldn’t utterly understand what was so wrong with her. At the same time, she was very powerful and there was little manoeuvring around her stubbornness. She wanted me out, and was especially jealous of my open and youthful sexuality. I had to go, and was yet to discover my own layers of protection.

Within a year I had transformed into a notorious and newly powerful dominatrix; if any man deigned to try even the slightest wrong doing towards me, I was ready to kick him with my heavy metal boot heal.

I gave myself away to that man in 1995 when I could have spat in his face and walked away. I wasn’t empowered enough at that time to do that, or to even be aware of it in the moment. Maybe that’s why now, I have been wanting to help other women wherever I can. It took me quite a few years to get to that point of just being able to help in the way I have. Now I realise I have to help myself a bit more, before I can help anyone else.

Talking about the rape incident with a new friend at the time led to a lasting friendship that helped throughout my several years episode outside of the mainstream. Up until that point I had been considerably more isolated, and now at last a small family of fellow freaks emerged in my midst. It wasn’t exactly a smooth ride; I did enter the gloriously varied sex industry at several junctures, and found the wild experiences and underground insights I’d sought.

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In my dungeon kitchen in Old Street, 1996, photographed by David Hindley, friend from the Slimelight. I love the way that David has captured me looking strong and confident. In my underwear and make-up was often how I was seen – in clubs, at work, and sometimes at home. I was not a model exactly, but I did do some modelling. David liked to photograph many of his friends from that period.

 

Coming back from that journey wasn’t easy either, trying to re-enter institutionalised life not as my unwise youth imagined. At university and drama school I didn’t know how to connect, effectively. For years I hid behind a very long fringe, dressed down, so no one would ever guess my bohemian past. When a fellow student once asked what I’d done before coming to college, I started to shake and stutter for several minutes. I gave up on uni and transferred to an experimental theatre degree at drama school. Even if I couldn’t find much commonality with other students, I could dig the out-there qualities of some of the practitioners we were investigating. Tadeusz Kantor’s ‘Dead Class’ resonated with my gothic leanings; I felt I’d already lived this art, let alone studying it!

 Now at 39 years of age, I have managed to reach a considerable way in my life modelling career without greatly delving into photographic modelling. I think, even if I was bound to get raped when I was 17, the fact that it was a photographer did leave particular scars. I have had a block about photography. While I am comfortable being photographed by friends, especially women, and more recently in the context of my performance work, I have never actively sought photographic modelling work, though it generally pays at least twice the life modelling rate. I always felt safer dealing with drawing artists, and have found that generally far less sexual politics comes into it.

I think I have past issues to heal that could uncover previously concealed layers of potential confidence, that reach way beyond photographic modelling. This is much more than about being raped, it’s about the conditions that led to that. It’s about not feeling valued, not knowing what I had that was positive and worthy of respect. I didn’t know how to channel myself towards a bright future, in fact the very idea of that was alien or even repugnant to me. I was anti-bright-future, and so destined to find some darkness. I was more than a drop-out, I was an active seeker of darkness! I revelled in it; it was the only thing that made sense. The world was not one I could see myself or anyone flourishing in.

Much of that harsh attitude has naturally been reshaped over the years, softened and redirected. But there are still pieces to uncover and iron out, in order to achieve the shine I’m after. As an adolescent I had not been raised with a strong sense of how to look after my own interests. I would let myself be overtaken and wouldn’t allow myself to reach the heights I would like to. I had massively missed out on emotional support, and was far too ready to give myself away and not consider consequences.

My own lack of confidence was responsible, and some of this patterning has remained with me. It has been pointed out to me that while my projects focus a great deal on helping and empowering others, I have tended to neglect some of my own needs.

During this recent period of reflection, I haven’t been seeing my parents so much as I noticed that if I want to realign my behaviour, I need to not be overly exposed to the most original source. At this stage in my life, this is not about blame, but rather trying to get to the bottom of things, to a better understanding, so I and all in my sphere may grow towards greater happiness. I would like to say that I generally have a good relationship with my parents now; a lot has been worked through. They are there for me, and very importantly they accept me as I am. I know I am very lucky to have them, and appreciate the unique upbringing they gave me. My Mother is now severely ill with MS, and caring for her takes up considerable family energy. I have felt that my own needs haven’t been prioritised but know that I am far from alone.

Stone Circle Solstice

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almost all photographs by Kevin LeMaire

To introduce my new site, my first post (which is not migrated from Spirited Bodies) is about a gathering of my friends this Summer Solstice at a stone circle local to me, as it happened just before this country went completely mad.

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First of all, a bit about myself. I write, I perform, I life model. I am often naked, and sometimes this happens as an activist artist. I have created various nude events and performances for several years, and sometimes I just want to create nude art happenings with friends, sometimes without more than the merest forethought. Let’s say however, that this wasn’t completely out of the blue, after all in April I made my own nude and bloody connection with the same standing stones. Furthermore my friend Ursula had said to me, ‘let’s meet for Solstice!’ I regularly visit my local stone circle, and a plan formed, albeit loose, unstructured.

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The date was set for Tuesday 21st June in the evening, as then both Ursula and I were free. About a week before I checked with a few friends who all know each other, if they were also free. Amazingly, they were. All we needed now was good, well let’s say at least dry weather, and in the current pattern of weather, with so many rainy spells this would be difficult to forecast.

I asked the friends to bring picnic, drinks, and musical instruments as well as cameras and drawing materials. We would if possible be making shapes with the standing stones on Hilly Fields, together with our bodies. Most of us are models, life models, if only occasionally while some others are more comfortable with drawing pad, or lens. Apart from my partner Steve, none were familiar with the stones, but it was easy to describe their location as well as answer last minute calls on their whereabouts. Just before 6pm Steve and I arrived and found Rodger standing, intrigued within the stones’ circumference, while from different directions both Lucy and Ursula were emerging, wondering which path best to take. Soon we were five, slowly sprawling across the long flat centre stone which was dry and retained the sun’s heat. Grass had a little moistness from recent rain, but nothing a blanket wouldn’t absorb.

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The convergence of model and artist friends brought me great joy, this mini pilgrimage to a circle of neo-megaliths on top of a hill in my neighbourhood of Brockley. Everyone found the stones enchanting, as I do, and it wasn’t long before people were climbing and sitting on them too, between bursts of picnicking on the ground. We had been lucky to both have the circle all to ourselves, and fine weather including some patches of sunshine. Unexpectedly, Lily and her husband Kevin also joined us not long later. We had heard she wasn’t feeling well, so it was a very pleasant surprise when they joined us. Not before getting lost in a nearby cemetery mind. It is a long two hour journey they drive, from a far side of London and this was unfamiliar territory.

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While all my picnic offerings were shop bought, Lucy had created the most delicious fresh vegetable salad, in a large quantity, plenty for all to feast on, rendering my more prosaic fare mere filler. I had also acquired special cakes for Rodger as his 60th birthday had been recent, and fresh strawberries and raspberries went down well with apple juice or wine. Judit was the final friend to join the gathering, and still we had daylight. Now we were 8, and some wine had been flowing, poses cast a’top of boulders, and poems declaimed which spoke of Summer. Drums started to patter, a tambourine shake, shoes removed – for barefoot we trod.

Before it was late, Lucy had to depart while the rest of us continued. We each occupied a rock, and made sounds as we held our postures. Kinaesthetically we responded to unknown calls to switch places, join ranks or move between. At some twilight point I felt the urge, emboldened with alcohol, though always a natural inclination for some of us, to remove a layer of clothing. It was my trousers and from there I saw Steve follow suit – or unsuit, going topless, and Rodger too. I was still in my pants but just a skimpy top and thought, ‘we’ve come this far – it must be done’. Although colder than when we arrived, we had now warmed up to our vibe and soon Steve and Rodger were completely naked. I kept my pants on, truly I think to encourage Judit and Ursula, who did start to undress too.

More of us women mostly nude felt preferable to just one fully. It worked as shortly the 3 of us were down to knickers. I think psychologically in this public and semi-daylight setting, it feels easier to cover up if necessary, with pants already in place, for a woman, where men require less coverage to be acceptable. Since we were just being (nearly) naked for our own merriment, there was no set time frame in this ad hoc occasion. We just let it flow.

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Lily and Kev are not as we are in this respect, but greatly appreciated being part of it, and as well Kev recorded many moments photographically. What we created exceeded my expectations – after all there was no firm plan, more than an arty celebratory Solstice picnic. For me it was an affirmation of the living of my art and resonates strongly with what I make in my art projects, particularly Spirited Bodies at present. It is a living research and a way I want more of. We all felt that we wanted more of this connection with the Earth, the land, the sky, the season, and with each other as we truly are.

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In the wake of what happened in this country just over 2 days later, it felt even more poignant to have shared in this collaboration of unity. As Rodger put it, we were our own little European Union – Ursula from Germany, Judit from Catalunya in Spain, and Lily from Bulgaria. The rest of us are mostly English, but also feel European. Steve has travelled to every country in Europe except Russia, Rodger lived in Amsterdam for a few years in the ’80s, and my Mother grew up in 5 different countries on the continent before settling in London in ’63. The conditions of each move were politically motivated (as her parents worked for Communist organisations), and make for an interesting narrative in themselves, destined for a future post.

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Kevin’s photographs capture the energy and joy of our celebration. He hadn’t photographed people before, only practised in landscapes and wildlife. We all thought he did a brilliant job, being amongst us without inhibiting us, capturing our unstaged naturalness, as well as some more posed shots. The nakedness alone marks them as outside of ordinary, a happening capable of offending some, in a public park. Dog walkers and other passers-by did see, stop to look, even attempt a sneaky photo from a distance, but none challenged us; most smiled and laughed with us. Perhaps we had created a sort of ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’  – “The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen…” if in a rather small and unthreatening form. It is the potential of such occasions to free us of the shackles of usually present conformity, that reminds us of our individual, and our collective power. We feel liberated and humanly connected beyond the normal; we feel alive.

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Underneath our clothes, without the trappings of their markings, we are equal. We become more timeless when nude, as primal beings. To create a TAZ is a bit like a tribe, and so elemental feelings of connection may be rediscovered. I have found that with the larger group sittings (and more recently movements) at Spirited Bodies. The creation of a soundscape by the group, particularly with their voices, adds to that intensity of shared experience I think. It is beyond words in their more usual rational form, and takes us away from our individual thought patterns, onto a group interactive dynamic. Being part of a tribe gives us an amplified sense of well-being, and is part of a wider sub-culture; the nude art scene. Enthusiasts find meaning and fulfilment through participation.

I don’t know if we are judged less without clothes, in the nude – especially when others are dressed. But I do think it helps to normalise expectations about bodies; to satisfy a natural human curiosity – about each others’ bodies, about our own. It helps us to appreciate our difference; unique individual beauty, and the enormous variety between us. Very significantly, we feel that we have nothing to hide. We are pure in our natural honesty. Nakedness removes the potential for pretending to be something we are not. Just being accepted as we are, is so profoundly important.

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Free Bleeding Life Modelling

The following is about a recent experience I had when life modelling and menstruating aligned for me. I am sharing it here as want to raise awareness about this issue, particularly for the benefit of women thinking of trying life modelling, as well as for artists booking models. It is not necessarily talked about much, but I think we all gain from freeing ourselves of this taboo. Female models may feel more comfortable, and artists better understand the issues involved. There is a lot of shame around menstruating, which some women experience more than others, whereby it is felt necessary to hide this biological process; the blood, smell, bodily and emotional changes. All of this concealing can further add to the psychological anguish of not fully realising our natural cyclical power, however unaware we may be of this.

I arrived early in Sidcup on a Thursday morning after no sleep. Despite a stressful night, somehow I remained upbeat in the morning, and on removing my garments in the changing room (this college has an actual changing room for the life model!) was amazed to discover my knickers and thighs smeared with blood. How unexpected, and how early. I am generally fairly regular, and this was about ten days premature. It did explain my difficult tormented night however, to a further degree than the stress I was experiencing alone could. With the full moon approaching in a few days, my cycle was realigning to bring my emotional and physical being, in keeping with the celestial sphere. I now found myself in jolly temperament, typical for me of coming on.

I was caught out, without mooncup or pad. There seemed more blood than usual for the beginning of the flow, which is often minor dribbles, and I actually felt excited by the idea of posing while free bleeding. In my robe I entered the posing space and addressed the tutor Nick. I said, “My period has unexpectedly just begun, and I am unprepared. So I will pose, and there will be some blood between my legs you understand.” He did, no problem. I have known this class for a rather long time and feel so comfortable with them, so appreciated always.

I had presented the predicament audibly so that all the class could hear too, and they were all on the same page. This post-menopausal bunch were relaxed and comfortable, as long as I was. While they were not able to offer me a tampon, they helped me feel far greater comfort than usual. Typically my dynamic and movement poses are stretched to the limit here, and several of the class members are nudged out of their comfort zone. How they must have rejoiced in my menstruation to be able to proffer the sofa loaded with as many cushions as reasonably stacked there. I did a few quick stretchy poses, and then was ushered into warmth and comfort. My tiredness was intense and I felt no resistance, just gratitude for my friendly class, who in their turn were equally gracious.

Nick was considering which of the clean sheets to cover the cushions with, and seeing none were red, I said I thought lying on my own robe would be most suitable. I can imagine in other similar situations that a tutor or class member might offer to go and buy a tampon. That didn’t arise here, and I think it was because of the exuberant manner in which I presented my predicament, more elated than troubled by my bleeding. Finally the staining of my legs was not so dramatic. The combination of long reclining poses and a large absorbant bush meant that most of this sticky mess didn’t travel so far.

When it happens, it happens. Go with the flow. Here are two earlier posts I have made, at least partly on the subject, one from a few years ago, and the other a year ago.

I will host events where free bleeding is encouraged, or if not so overt, then it will simply be acceptable. To promote menstrual health, awareness, and not hiding this vital part of our life blood. Celebrating our cycles and all the (hidden) power contained there, until we open it up and declare it ours. We shift with the weeks (if not blocked too drastically with hormones or lack of food for example), accessing different parts of ourselves at each time. Renewing, growing, blooming and shedding. When the blood comes, we are letting go of the old, what we no longer need; dead waste, old blood. To make way for the new.

Here are some photographs from my Girl in Suitcase performance, from the scene about menstrual rites, performed with Lidia at Dandifest, May 2015, Norwich. Lidia is pouring a syropy fake blood liquid over my already blackened body. The audience have been handed a cup of red wine each, in time for our menses communion ceremony.

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