“It goes like this; find your place or make your own, join in when you can”
X-Ray Spex and Motorhead
Violent Femmes and Radiohead
Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk
The Rezillos and Killing Joke
The Kinks and The Undertones
Joy Division and The Ramones
Ever Fallen in love with the Buzzcocks?
The White Stripes and Talking Heads
Ian Dury and the Blockheads
Wreckless Eric and Nirvana,
The Pogues and Cock Sparrer
The Only Ones and Dead Kennedys
Pulp, The Doors and The Zombies,
Stiff Little Fingers and The Pixies
The Fall, The Damned and The Clash,
The Ruts, Lou Reed and Johnny Cash
At St Johns Church we sang punk rock in parts
In Hackney, harmonising wild musical hearts
Bridging our worlds
I stayed with punk choir a while
Where I belonged, freestyle
The photograph at the very top of this post, is of my old choir – Hackney Secular Singers – rehearsing in the garden, Brazier’s Park, at the Supernormal Festival, August 2012. Image by Jemima Broadbridge.
I recorded another of Ursula‘s poems which had been part of ‘Girl in Suitcase‘ in 2015, when it was about goddesses, and witches. I used some old footage of myself performing menstrual rituals on the island of Fuerte Ventura in March 2017. It was pleasing to rediscover the text, and the videos, and be able to combine them whilst recording my voice on top.
There is a sense of reclaiming communion for a matriarchal rite, reconnecting sacred blood with menstruation. What a different culture that would look like, that celebrated women’s cycle. That honoured its connection with nature, and all that it brings. The changes in our moods and energies, our appetites and sensitivities. Our fertility. The blood itself as a means of connection; from part of what keeps us alive, to becoming waste blood; on with the cycle. The red liquid that reminds us of mortality, with its distinct flavour and smell. That looks like paint, has been used as paint; to colour our faces and bodies; to draw on walls. To share messages and signs. An essential ingredient of human life; the liquid passed down generations; especially through women in the process of birth.
To restore balance in the world, this natural order must be honoured. The implications are enormous and rock every foundation of patriarchy. The power of menstruation can be revolutionary!
In this phase of blogging, creating new material every day, I feel enlivened. It reminds me of when I used to blog regularly about my life and work as a life model, alongside Spirited Bodies stuff, several years ago. 2011 – 2013 mainly. I was quite open sometimes and eventually realised it didn’t fit having it all on the Spirited Bodies site, so I compartmentalised – and made (this) separate space just for art and myself. I remember how I was always thinking about what I would write next! It gave me a good focus while I was posing. The excitement and pleasure at sharing my process… it’s a healthy thing.
Thinking of blood, I remember this track I listened to a lot in the late 90s. ‘Love Like Blood’ got played on the dancefloors where I hung out. It’s a sad song with a strong edge. ‘Killing Joke’ were part of an intense soundtrack for those years.
The painting at the top is by me, made by dripping my menstrual blood as well as some wax. It is called ‘Lunar Waxing’ and I made it in January this year, at new moon.
When I recently rediscovered the ‘Girl in Suitcase’ script from 2015, two of Ursula‘s poems in particular stood out. When we performed the show, on neither occasion was I Kali’s face/front person so I never had those lines, though I did make a recording at the time but I can’t remember if we used it. It would only have been if whoever was at the front – Ursula or Lidia – felt more comfortable with it than learning the lines or reading them. I really loved saying the words! They are so powerful. So I asked Ursula if she’d like to make a recording now or if she minded if I did. She’s busy with other projects, but she was happy for me to. This is ‘Kali’ performed by me on Saturday in Ladywell Cemetery close to where I live. You will need the sound on to hear the poem!
It took a while to get the right voice, which I added at home. That rich, timeless, reverberant, almost musical intensity; had to be right for a goddess, especially since I was overlaying the voice on to the video. She/I am speaking with my mind. I wanted to focus on being her, as in embodying her, and in particular using my face to express her. I hadn’t learnt the lines so I didn’t want to be distracted by trying to remember them. Also there were people about, so it was one thing dressed down to my tights wearing blood on my face waving my arms around in front of a tree pulling silly faces; if I’d been shouting manically on top of that, we might have attracted too much attention!
When it came to adding the voice, I realised I wanted to slow the video down about 50%. When we’d shot it, I hadn’t been consciously thinking of the order of the lines; I was just moving my face as I felt like in the moment. So then I had to work out when to start speaking so the lines best fit the expressions. I think that worked out quite well, but it would be cool to do it whilst saying the lines live, or to have the lines playing while I filmed my face.
In any case, this was a last minute production where I seized the day – suddenly thought of a simple idea and made the most of Steve being around and us both being free. Not much time to prepare. I literally grabbed the blood from the fridge and said let’s go. On the way to Ladywell Fields, Steve said I think the cemetery would be better, fewer people. And he was right. The cemetery is always quieter, and has a fantastic, atmospheric ambience.
Nevertheless there were some people about and there was a bit of waiting for folk to get out of shot, or kids to stop shrieking, or a motorbike to clear off. Finding the best location within the cemetery was firstly about a quiet spot unlikely to be disturbed, and with the right background. On a grassy clearing, I saw the tree and thought that’s it. We’d discussed how ideally we’d have another person to help make Kali arms behind me, but what were the chances when we didn’t have much time? I’d thought about putting my hands around my face to accentuate them in striking ways as an alternative to having more hands and arms. We’re not proficient in video editing to the point of overlaying extra arms… The tree presented a shape with short “arms” at about the right height and length to create an idea of extra arms. It seemed a natural alignment.
A word on microbes. This hadn’t even crossed my mind, however the blood I used is months old – it’s a composite from several periods and some of it may be over a year old. As I was applying the blood to my face some drops went in my mouth. I wasn’t bothered, but Steve quickly said, “Don’t drink it, spit it out, and don’t let it get in your eye, because the microbes could kill you!” I thought that sounds a bit over-dramatic and didn’t pay too much attention. I just think what came out of my womb will be healing, no matter how old! That’s confidence, or madness, not sure. What I’m saying is, don’t do this at home kids! Or if you do, use fresh blood. That would be safer. I did notice that after I’d washed the blood off, some staining wouldn’t go away for the rest of the day, even if I washed it again. It looked like I might have a rash. It was fine the next day, and part of me wondered if such a thing could even be good for the skin, like a scrub or a facial… not that I’m thinking of trying that. Just saying who knows. They could be good microbes!
Now is a good time to let viewers in on one of my precious show-biz secrets. How to apply make-up. With me, it’s very much about the intention and the feeling; and being concerned about the environment, I like to recycle as much as I can. Making a mess is encouraged. Keeping a mobile and flexible face, perhaps giving it a little work-out at the same time, while it may not seem fashionable, it’s always good to express ourselves! In this video, I am preparing for an upcoming performance, so a little character work is gently coming into play. There is no speaking, so people all around the world may appreciate the useful example. I hope you enjoy!
Video shot in lovely Ladywell Cemetery. When I am surrounded by nature, and dead people, I am well attuned to the look I desire.
There is a photo of me as a child aged about 5, walking in a field of long grass on a Summer’s day with my Dad. It would have been around 1982. I’m smiling and very much in a happy place. I’m also naked. Dad isn’t, but that hadn’t seemed odd at the time. His hair is a bit wild and beard looking very 70s, the way I remember him when I was young. Hair-wise, he has returned to a similar state since lockdown, but that’s another story. The point is, I was naked and free, and without a sense of shame. How very fortunate in all sorts of ways. An image like that now can provoke hysteria in the media or just in people’s heads, such is the cultural taboo firstly around any kind of nakedness, but much more than that, a child’s nakedness. Innocence has been removed/hidden/safeguarded. It is of course absolutely necessary that paedophilia is finally being addressed, but in the all encompassing sweep to save children from it, we have lost an important part of childhood. Society so often can’t handle nuance. One of the safeguarding trade-offs is more body shame and naked shame.
My parents were quite free in their approach to upbringing in some ways, like with the nakedness, and later on freedom to play outside when other kids were more sheltered in that respect. Freedom to explore our little world and feel that it is a bit bigger than just the home. It stretched into nearby streets, estates, gardens, alley ways, carparks; and whatever hidden places we could find. I really really appreciated that freedom. Nothing bad came of it. I just became more confident in a streetwise sense. I think for my Mum, she just wanted us out of the flat. It wasn’t very big and she was house proud; we would naturally make a mess. Better off outside. Just as well, because although I did have a healthy imagination, outside is where adventures happened in the real world, back then. When I was off the leash, just exploring.
Naturally naked shame entered my world upon socialisation no doubt in school. But I did retain an unusual kind of body freedom. I remember once in primary school, I was that child who, when the class were collectively feeling curious about forbidden body parts and it was the long break, must have been lunchtime I imagine in the Summer term – somehow got picked or maybe even volunteered to be examined whilst lying on a bench, parts of my clothes removed or uncovered for all to see. The whole class crowded around, with someone on look-out in case a teacher walked by. A few of them touched me, but only barely. It was like one of them would venture a hand momentarily where it wasn’t allowed and then all of them would gasp or screech, so it was quickly pulled back. Again, nothing awful happened. We were just being kids, and I was perhaps showing early leanings towards performance art! I didn’t feel coerced; I was willing and curious of this thrilling feeling myself, of exploring what was taboo. I do remember a slight sense of shame though; an awareness that some others considered my openness strange, perhaps questionnable. We must have been about 7.
As you can imagine, the nakedness of life modelling was never an issue for me. From early on I wasn’t shy about it, and when things went online that still applied. I didn’t have a normal job to protect from the judgement, nor could I imagine ever having one. By the time things did properly get going online, I was doing Spirited Bodies, so I was actively talking about and promoting body liberation.
More recently I became aware of not wanting to be so naked online. There are a few reasons. One is too much of the wrong attention from the wrong people. Another is, being tuned into feminism and wanting to be taken seriously by those people. Related but another point is, when it comes to body positivity, I’m very aware of having what many consider the ideal body. Putting it about online is not radical. And finally, and related to the feminism point, is wanting to be taken seriously by organisations I’d like to work with. It just started to feel like, the choice to share naked images of myself or not, is political. There ought to be a reason, a meaning. I know for some the whole point is continually being naked as much as possible publicly, and that is political too.
I guess it comes down to personality, and I realised I operate better when I’m a bit more selective. I think I needed to tone down my public nakedness in order to regain my understanding of what it meant. I’d become desensitised to my own nudity. That’s always going to be a thing, and it’s often a good thing; but it had become a bit unhelpful. These days I try to engage with people where demonstrating that I understand their delicate position, where they are coming from is important. I might be in a normal situation like when I attended college last Autumn, and suddenly it’s like back in the world of normal taboos. I find myself carefully explaining what I do, whilst automatically scanning for latent signs of shock or judgement in the listeners.
Going through old videos we made when I first got together with Steve, I am reminded of that change in my outlook which has occurred since then. We were going on these amazing holidays, and being Steve, there was always a naked photoshoot in some remote place, or sometimes a bit more daring and not that remote! Anyway, I was also going through a menstrual art phase – it was featuring in my performances, and I’d participated in a workshop led by my friend Calu. I’d been collecting my blood each month in my mooncup, and pouring it into little jars (that still happens when I can be bothered to wear a cup. I actually prefer a more free-bleeding experience with pads/padded knickers and lockdown has been a dream for that.) My fridge has long contained several jars of my blood of varying vintage. They come out now and again when I fancy painting.
With all the gorgeous settings in nature on our holidays and us being naked, I had an idea. I often seemed to bleed while we were away, uncannily, and if I’d just bled before we went, I started taking a pot of blood with me because we always found occasion to use it. There emerged a series of ‘menstrual rituals’ which were really just me pouring the blood over myself and then washing it off in a lake or the sea. I like the aesthetic and feel of the pouring blood, and normalising what is a natural body function. Removing the shame of the blood, actually celebrating it. I personally enjoy my cycle, the variations in myself like seasons – and especially the part when I’m bleeding is generally accompanied by strong feelings of confidence and self-assuredness. The hormones happening at that time are powerful, and it’s a good time for me to make decisions or deal with tricky situations. I am unflappable! My instincts are really switched on, and my psychic powers are strongest. It makes sense to luxuriate in the whole bleeding process, and smash menstrual taboo. Not everyone has such a positive experience, but just being able to speak about it and express ourselves can make a difference in really important ways.
Some of those menstrual acts were recorded and are online already. After a few, I started to think that’s enough. It’s not really achieving anything new. But looking at the rest of those films now, there is one that stands out for the beautiful location, and the way Steve put it together with some sound. I’m releasing that one publicly for the first time with this post. I want to mark my return to reclaiming some naked pride – surely a recurring theme. Some of my other recent blogs have begun that inadvertently as I shared old photos in them. Not long before this recent blogging phase, I applied for a job which due to working with young people, I felt obliged to remove all the naked photos from this site. I never heard back from the job, and subsequently applied for something else which I realised I wanted a lot more. It was being an artist/writer in residence, and together with the realisation that the college course wasn’t right for me, led to re-embracing myself the way I am. Not trying too much to package myself to fit somewhere I don’t really. Just noticing that, and having gone through that process has been important. A constant work perhaps, of re-assessment. The subject of this post is vast and could become a much longer chapter if not a whole book. For now, I’ll leave you with a piece of stunning Slovenia in Lake Bohinj which acquired some of my blood in 2016.
In 2015 I made performances with female friends. The ‘Girl in Suitcase’ play was reborn, structurally divided into seasons of the year, which represented phases in the life cycle of woman. Extraordinary goddesses led the way, soaring through time to articulate our feminine narrative.
Four friends brought different qualities and talents into the process. Sylvie was around at the beginning for the main development period which also included a red tent gathering with other girlfriends. Sylvie helped formulate the idea, and some of her poems were part of the script. I’d recently read ‘The Alphabet Versus the Goddess‘, about how misogyny culturally emerged alongside the written word. This made a big impression, partly because it suggested the significance of drawing in connection with cultures loving women. The text outlines the neurological impact of reading and writing, and charts how misogyny grew historically in tandem; leading us away from matriarchy and goddess worship as the left brain was privileged.
Smitten with the book I manoeuvred some of its thesis into the play. It talked about religion, mainly Christianity – how Mother Mary had been the centrepiece during the dark ages (obviously she still is to a great extent for Catholics but it seems she had been even more so), after which much of her power was removed. I fashioned a Madonna costume wearing a white dress, a blue sheet, and a white head covering, and narrated some historical detail. The second commandment basically forbids life drawing! That’s still a thing for many Muslims, but has been disregarded by most Christians and Jews these days.
Sylvie’s life was in a lot of flux. She suddenly had to move house a couple of weeks before the performance and cease involvement with the play. This threw me into a mild panic. Her circumstances were critical, so she just had to focus on fixing them. We could no longer be there for each other, having been super-involved up till that point. I had a performance to salvage and she, a very important life move. The script required more than one woman and there was minimal time to sort it out. I had to leave her to solve her crisis, as I cast my eye about and told female friends of my predicament.
Germanic Goddesses came to the rescue! Ursula was interested, and so was Sabine. Even with such a short time to go, I now felt supported by two good friends so my anxiety was relieved. They brought new inspiration – three powerful poems of Ursula’s were added to the script, and Sabine belly danced when performing Isis. We could easily cover all the roles between us, and have fun. What had been a very tricky situation was turned around and made a really lovely opportunity to be creative with other friends. Both of them – and Sylvie as well – had worked with me on Spirited Bodies events; being interviewed; telling their story; and in Ursula’s case singing on one occasion. So there was an understanding of how we work – and play together. Although rushed, this collaboration was fruitful.
Sabine sourced a stunning costume with long, shimmering wings for her dance and practised her moves meticulously. Ursula’s rich ode to the moon poem fitted perfectly, and another was a firebranding feminist call to arms – for menstrual rites. “Women! This is our blood!” we decried as she and Sabine delighted in pouring the period offering over my body. Building up to that she and I got body painted during the Autumn/Enchantress act. First of all we splashed paint on each other and Sabine drew on us before inviting the audience to make their own marks.
It was the first time ‘Girl in Suitcase‘ had not included the original scary art tutor scene – it had morphed into a sexist male tutor played by myself. I took more than one masculine role, as male voices were needed to hound “witches” in the middle ages. To obtain a suitable voice, I used a programme to alter mine.
We became a three person Kali with six arms, fronted by Ursula. Her Kali incantation of survival poem was also a piercing lament for the “witches” killed, sending chills like shockwaves. The menstrual ritual with fake blood (I didn’t start using my actual blood till the following year) came a little later, after which I was pretty sticky. I have done several shows especially in 2015 and 2016, which got royally messy, whichever kind of blood I used. If there wasn’t a shower in the building, the real endurance came after the show when you are meant to relax and celebrate. Either spending a long time taking up one basin and ruining the floor, or just wearing old clothes that stuck to my skin, bearing the discomfort with a glass of wine. That’s show biz!
We wore shawls and hunched over our walking sticks for the Winter act of Crones. Sabine wrapped me in a shroud and helped me into my coffin suitcase – where I had begun the tale in Spring. Sisterly mourning completed the show cycle.
It was a wholly different show now (to previous years’), and almost not about me personally at all. Artemis did have a very spikily charged monologue in the Summer act however, which reminds me I snuck in some of my deeper thoughts at the time. Rediscovering this script has been another revelation for me – similar to what I describe in Script Variations. I can’t believe I buried such a precious gem so long. Life was an emotional dodgems, with too much blocked out by smoking. I was trying to make my life work – but my goodness this had potential. Hey – I am grateful we had the opportunities we did and made the most of them even if only for a while. I can see how my difficult feelings regarding Mum’s condition, were barely fit for public consumption, and I was working out other matters through my relationships.
Even so; the writing and scenography came from all of us. A true collaboration, created by necessity in different phases, much of it hastily. Working with the german goddesses grew our friendships, and particularly with Sabine, it helped inspire her in some new artistic direction. I wish we’d recorded Ursula’s Kali and Menstruation poems, because they shine through the script with timeless rhythm and urgency. Having this time now to look back with a bit more clarity and hindsight, is a gift. To stop and understand allows the lessons to settle. There is still time.
Not long after the March show, I was invited to perform it again in May, at a festival in Norwich called Dandifest. There were a few weeks until the date, but I was going away for two of them to Spain where I had a job. I asked Ursula and Sabine, but it happened both would be away for the performance date. What to do? Again, this was not a one woman show. I thought about who else to ask who might be able to take it on with me and save the day. There was my friend Lidia, also a life model and performer with strong feminist ideas.
Around this time my personal life was taking a change of course and I called her to catch up. She always had a lot to say, and I let her speak a while. In my memory I casually dropped in at the end of the call, oh I’ve got this show coming up, by the way there’s funding. That last bit of course important. Many of my projects are on a shoestring, and for the professional artist, we have limits on how much we can give in these situations. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it helped. Critically she was available, and I think quite keen of the opportunity to perform.
When Lidia commits, a lot of work happens. Work might start happening you hadn’t realised needed to happen. The game is upped, and preparations are rigorous. We had to make the show much tighter with just two of us. Because we were travelling with it, we didn’t have someone else to operate sound, which was too complicated to ask one of the Norwich crew. Lidia recorded all the sound in one long track, which possibly had to be stopped a couple of times during the show, when one of us was off-stage which wasn’t very often. Most of the time we had to be bang on queue with every move. Lidia had it covered, rehearsing us with dictatorial precision till we nailed it. She organised props; from the most ideal squirty body paint, the best fake blood recipe, I think two different extra long wigs, and she’d been inspired by Sabine.
Lidia had kindly filmed the last performance (see above) so she knew what she was dealing with, and now she was taking on some of the key roles. She was the belly dancing Isis (I’m not sure how much belly dancing she’d done before, but while I was in Spain I think she studied it) complete with wings; a very inviting enchantress; and I think as well a moon character with white shiney hair down to the ground (the photographer perhaps ran out of battery at that point).
There were some stand-out moments. Because we have both trained in physical theatre, we incorporated some contact improvisation after the Kali scene. This allowed the thick black paint which I had brushed on to her, to spread onto my body as well during the dynamic movement. We were running across the stage at each other, colliding and sliding one over another; pulling, resisting, and receiving impulses to send ourselves beyond or under. Imaginatively, this expressed the rage and torment of the women burnt as witches. Part of the text speaks of the Malleus Maleficarum, which ordered these killings on behalf of the church, and made it extremely dangerous for women to be seen to be – or just be – friends with each other. It underscored a genocide of female power and sisterly love. Our physical movement together, demonstrating unguarded connection, was also disturbed. Circumstance forced us against one another; to survive at all we would have to fight. Spiritually we were vanquished; brutalised and distraught.
That could have been the end, but our characters – now crones – did find means to live, and unbelievably regroup. With elderly wisdom (and new found gentle spirit) we invited the audience to model for us (some of them had been drawing the show). It was very cold in St Margarets Church (what an appropriate place!) with stone floor, and we were largely kept warm by our adrenaline. Most of our audience were not tempted in the slightest, but we did have one keen novice, who immediately stripped. He was quite drunk, and pleased of this chance which legitimised a likely urge he already felt (he’d been an avid body painting participant already). We duly got on the floor ourselves to sketch him while he posed to Bananarama’s Venus.
It was a lot of fun being part of the Dandifest and meeting their folk, not to mention that it provided reason to develop the piece. I’d met Christina when she’d come to Spirited Bodies at WOW, and now she introduced us to some wonderful artists she created with in Norwich. It was also a treat to have the Lidia experience. It made a difference working with someone who had a similar training, and intense feminism. There had always been something peculiarly familiar I felt with her, like we’d known each other in a past life. I mean, she understood part of me on a very deep level, and it was to do with trauma. There were particular dark things I didn’t have to explain – she just knew.
Tectonic plates were shifting in my world in Autumn 2015. Vibrations increased through the Summer, but I was late to detect attraction with a new mate, having been certain of his unsuitability. A friend of mine had pointed him out a few years before, “I think he’d be good for you!” No, I said. He’s far too normal. He has a job. Far too functional. It would never work. Nice guy though, and 100% reliable and trustworthy… a few things in common. A few important things it happened, like a penchant for participating in nude performance art adventures!
I am not consciously tactical when it comes to choosing partners, but perhaps over the years I had retrained my unconscious. I don’t have a checklist; it’s all about desire and chemistry. I know in advance something is going to happen because I can’t stop thinking about the person I am falling in love with. I barely sleep or eat, and once contact is established, consummation is not far off. There then follows inevitable fall-out over some months, for not having addressed (or even noticed!) major issues of concern ahead of diving in. Aspects of their life and personality which will bother me and possibly vice versa. I work hard for some years to fix this stuff, and they do too, but usually after 5 years or so, I or we give up. This pattern repeated with Steve, however since things calmed down after the initial shock; it has mainly been peaceful and rewarding.
It’s not cool to listen to The Smiths any more since Morrissey came out as unequivocally supporting the far right. That is a shame because some of their music is brilliant, and he knows that for lots of people it captures an essence of a generation’s emotion. I played one tune over and over in Autumn 2015; ‘Money Changes Everything’ (maybe it’s ok since Morrissey isn’t singing? – it’s basically a Marr number). I was experiencing a new kind of awe, fear and heated anticipation. I am a serial relationshipper, and each partner brings a whole scene change of characters, sounds, places, smells, tastes, moods… the anticipation of these is all wrapped up in the attraction. You have an idea what some of the change will look and feel like, and then there’s the unknown dimension that is like moving to a country you’ve never been to before or learning a new language.
With Steve, as soon as I was conscious of the attraction, I sensed that massive change was afoot. My partners didn’t usually have normal jobs, a reliable income or own a house. I said I didn’t have a checklist, well I probably had an anti-checklist for many years. Mustn’t have conventional trappings of the sort parents tend to approve. That’s why Steve wasn’t even considered, until… our paths just crossed a bit more often, and I couldn’t ignore an interesting tension. Nothing has actually changed in the circumstances of my living since we got together, but I have been on a lot more exciting holidays. In the past I only travelled for work, or to visit a friend. The exception was in Summer 2014 when I took off to the Highlands for a week of solitude.
It took me a while to adjust to letting him pay for holidays. Was I giving away my power? I don’t know, but I got used to it. Sharing those travels is very special. Moving in with him in Essex is not so likely at least while I can keep my home in London, because my life is based there. Until lockdown, travelling was the longest time we would spend with each other – trekking a rainforest in Ghana, a desert in the Cape, or sailing to Zanzibar. It wasn’t just touristing; I always learnt about the places or had personal reasons to visit them. It helped me appreciate more viscerally what the UK is, to see its effect on other parts of the world. For someone who comes from quite a few different countries (and I haven’t visited them all yet) it has been incredible to go to those places. I understand not only the UK past and present better, but also my ancestral heritage.
The first time we travelled together was in February 2016, to Venice. It rained almost till it flooded but not quite. We wrapped up warm, tried to hold onto our umbrellas, and I was able to practice my Italian which had been dormant for 11 years. By chance or destiny, we ran into Steve’s performance artist friend, Glynis Ackermann, who lives in Switzerland, and happened to be performing in a festival there in Venice! That unexpected introduction guided our next two trips, for having acquainted ourselves with the festival and its organisers, it naturally followed to bring more than my packing suitcase in future.
Although my work contained performance art I’d always thought of it as interactive theatre, and barely paid attention to the live art scene. Seeing a greater possibility of travelling with the show I readily repackaged it. With shorter performance slots of no more than 20 minutes usually, there was a stronger sense of community as several artists would all perform the same evening and enjoy each others’ shows. Much of 2016 was spent in this effort, with denser scripts and more visual action. Italian friends translated my script (my own italian was learnt by ear and works for getting by in conversation) for two different Venice festivals – in April and August.
In April’s show, Steve was involved as a sort of prop, and as well in a longer, full length version in London in March, he had a speaking role. I have two scenes recorded from that show;
This show addressed feminist issues very directly in every version; about violence against women, gender inequality, and including in yer face menstrual art action.
Steve made his mark on how I approached performing that year, as we settled into being together. I went to the SPILL festival in Ipswich alone in the Autumn, to see how others do it – I’d made an unsuccessful application. It is a thought provoking genre of variety and endurance. It wasn’t all for me, and I felt there was a bit of a clique around who gets funding. Not surprising, I mean that’s normal. I peaked my head into that tent of curiosities, grafted applications full of appropriate artspeak, and finally found I didn’t fit so well. Theatre was my original love after all, but I do have room for live art happenings too, on or off-stage. The in-the-moment encounter speaks to my spontaneous soul, which is very fond of one-off performance art.
The image at the top of this post is from a show I did at Bethnal Green Working Mens Club in October 2016, at the Panic Sermons performance art event. The Venice shows were enabled by Steve’s passion for travel combining with my need for performance making, and both our love for nude art happenings. At the April festival we both took part in Glynis’ show as well as staging mine.
Noisy building work on my block in front of my flat sent me packing to Essex to play with volcanoes (and hang out with Steve, plant some seeds). When Dad texted did I want to meet tomorrow in Greenwich Park I said yes! Regular meeting up with him since the end of lockdown #1 last year, has been a high point of the pandemic for me. For us. Since Mum died nearly 3 years ago, he rightfully started making up time with getting into his music playing, catching up on Irish sessions and socialising. He needed it (Mum had been ill a long time.) But by 2020, he needed a rest. He had been out every night for 18 months perhaps.
With life radically simplified last year, he had more time for family, and it was truly a healing opportunity, still is. Being able to meet in parks when restrictions allow, is a very fine thing. We don’t live close enough for when the rules are tightest, to casually happen across each other in a local patch, so a little travel is necessary. It’s a risk I’d always want to take truth be told, after the horror of lockdown #1 in that respect. The not knowing if… when… And for people living alone, the isolation can be bleak. Being able to meet in a park is a very healthy option.
After spending time admiring ancient trees, elegant deer, Spring flowers, and passing on the week’s thoughts; I walked back to my place and he drove to his. In my flat without laptop, my usual screen suction was curbed. Mobile can’t hold me so long. I remembered old folders I’d wanted to organise; a chore not a treat. From when I’d been at drama school; feedback forms from Spirited Bodies; and especially a Girl in Suitcase script from 2014, through its many edited variations. This, contains golden nuggets in a raw unpolished slab. The file opens on a page which arrests my disinterest. What’s that I wrote? I remember it now but why has it eluded me lately when I had to produce my best work to impress X? I have to scan the play to see what I have done.
It goes like this. In 2009 when life was more precarious, I wrote two pieces of good script. In 2011 when my life was a bit more sorted, I combined them to create the first ‘Girl in Suitcase’. (2010 was a write off until Spirited Bodies began towards the end. 2012 and 2013 were entirely devoted to Spirited Bodies.) By 2014 I was itching to write and perform again, and I had stuff to get off my chest – the narrative of Mother/daughter relationship dysfunction, reached its zenith in the script. I pushed it too far in places, fluffing it out in others. As far as I could get away with. Further! Because I knew my parents wouldn’t see it – up too many stairs and we didn’t film it.
But the words written down – how did I block them from my – – remember that drug I was fond of?
Pieces. I want to hammer myself for not continuing with that script all its rightful way. How could I just push it aside? It needed to be worked up, smoothed out and sharpened. It’s obvious! It reaches out from the page screaming for life —
Hold on, calm down. Real life. The script imagined her already dead. There’s only so much you can keep on with that before — I had to let real life be. Just be. It’s not that the script was unkind; really it gave a lot of depth and compassion, articulating far beyond what was actually verbally possible due to illness. But, that stuff just needs to play out by itself sometimes, without the interference of art, I felt. With respect.
And there was my real life as well as theirs/ours. Connecting with Outsiders and the Sex Maniacs Ball in 2013 for potential Spirited Bodies collaboration, while tantalisingly tempting — I hadn’t been prepared for the attendant trickiness I’d attracted — which took till the middle of 2014 to shake —
There was a lot going on that year. I was heading for a relationship jumble, and by the time I performed Girl in Suitcase again, it was 2015 and I’d decided it shouldn’t be about me any more. It was about mythical Goddesses! And that’s how some of my most daring play-writing got blackholed to the bottom of a file for 7 years.
I performed twice in 2014; in March at Telegraph Hill Festival; and in June at Hampstead School of Art. The THF show had one of the best audiences I’ve performed for. The house was packed and friends were turned away. I was practically walking on people as I tried to move round the stage. I was accompanied by 4 live musicians – Roddy Skeaping and friends, on strings and percussion. That was very powerful and added an extra live dimension where we jammed body and sound in real time. Luckily they were up for working together with me again for the HSOA show. In that second show, my friend – model, artist and performance poet Ursula Troche joined me on stage to perform a few scenes. We had a bit more space this time, another wonderful audience, and artistically the script was tighter. If there’s any performance of mine I could have filmed but didn’t – it was that one. I guess some things are meant to be ephemeral. I even lost most of the brilliant photographs taken by David Alexander Murphy, who I think also lost his copies. Computer melt downs. I just have a few photos. And feel somehow more complete for rediscovering that script.
Images above and below were taken by Ursula at the Hampstead School of Art ‘Girl in Suitcase’ performance, June 2014.
My counselling classes became the highlight of my week, getting to know a reasonable cross-section of people from my area. Women outnumbered men, and there were not people in their 60s and older, but otherwise there was a fair amount of diversity. The teaching of the course had to be covid adapted to ensure safety as far as possible. That meant some mask wearing, distancing, tables and chairs disinfected before the class, and a one way system around the building.
We got used to checking-in, in a big circle at the start of each class. Sharing where we were at, how we were feeling and what had been going on for us. We also got to practise little sessions of counselling each other, taking it in turns in small groups. It requires being open with strangers and in some ways you may experience a fast-track of getting to know each other. To do this course at any time could be transformative, including the accompanying regular journals and a couple of essays. In a pandemic and a lockdown, it was heightened, because we were spending more time with each other, than many of us were with our families and other loved ones. During the Autumn term the course occupied me substantially – practically, emotionally, even spiritually. I mean I engaged on a pretty deep level, probably because I am familiar with being open in performances. As well, unlike most class members, I wasn’t working much nor do I have a family to look after, so I had a lot of space and time for the course. I never missed a class, and I enjoyed learning about the theory of counselling and history of its development, really appreciating being able to borrow books from the college library.
The course teaches some useful ideas and techniques, about how to listen and respond; how to improve one’s empathic connection with others. While some of that capacity is innate, it can be developed. I think the course could be helpful for many many people. I discovered during my time on the course, that several of my friends had done it, or a version of it at some point in their lives. Some had pursued it further, all the way to become counsellors, but most had simply found it useful personally or towards other vocations. I could see why. In a small yet profound way, it can teach you how to do some therapy on yourself. It could help you notice issues you weren’t so aware of, and re-assess your self-image, perhaps with an openness to development. It can subtley alter the way you relate with others, in a positive way.
This was all very good stuff and for a few months I thought how fortunate that the pandemic had afforded me this opportunity I would otherwise not have considered, and which turned out to be so fruitful. Our class were blessed to have a very sweet tutor who made us all feel so welcome and that she was interested in us. At least that was my experience, and such an attitude is exemplary of what we learnt to call ‘unconditional positive regard’, a required element of being an effective counsellor, according to the person-centred approach.
The teacher is very important on a personal level with this course I thought, as in the students’ journals and essays, they must open up about intimate aspects of their lives and personal histories. These things are not revealed to the other class members necessarily, but the teacher holds the whole class together. It was a very special experience, and I realised I found it healing because I had not felt so comfortable or ready to open up at university or drama school. So my last experience of education was not so ideal. With drama, similar to counselling, you do have to get on with the other students for it to work well. They are not subjects you develop particularly in isolation. Except perhaps for downtime in between, absorbing what has been learnt.
Sometimes I compared notes with my friends who’d studied counselling before. In what ways were their courses similar to mine, and what had they found difficult? In respect of the latter, one artist friend who’d gotten far further in the training than I, observed acutely, that as an artist her responses to case study examples given on the course, were not always what was considered correct. Her vision was perhaps too wide, when a more selective perspective may be sought to usefully apply counselling in our society.
Ethics are a set of guidelines and some rules; and I too struggled with taking on some of the practice. The confidentiality breach which requires breaking the confidence of a client because they mention certain elements of danger or illegality, for example, means that some people living outside the law, may never reasonably open up to a counsellor. They might simply have been born into that predicament, but then they are easily trapped there. I remembered coming across such characters in my past, and their absolute fear of social services. It’s not an easy issue to resolve; there has to be safeguarding for a lot of good reasons. But I couldn’t help identifying with those isolated on the wrong side of the law. Perhaps my empathy was not the right sort?
It became apparent that taking such a stance may not be helpful, and possibly made me less relateable to other class members. On the other hand, talking about the issues, opening up that conversation was valuable for us and I felt supported. Level 2 is just a very beginning towards counselling so I had a lot more to learn. After Christmas it was all online and the transition felt awkward for me. I easily completed that first level (oddly number 2), but found building trust and further connections really challenged online, so decided not to continue. It had been an extremely valuable, precious encounter that would stay with me. For now, however, I felt called to return to art, and the garden!
I have been writing that my first performance was 12 years ago. That’s not strictly true. On my drama school course, in 2004 I created a 20 minute piece as a final project. It was in a way, a very early version of ‘Growing Roots’, drawn from the same material. It had even involved an ex-boyfriend of mine from the time of the narrative, so that he could tell some of his story too. I think I probably wanted some solidarity, because it felt scary and brave to be so open at that time. I do have a recording of that show somewhere, but it’s one of those things I find cringey to watch now! I was still so relatively early on in my processing of the events I was describing. Some things just take years.
Just now I watched a documentary film by Benjamin Ree called ‘The Painter and the Thief’. Two paintings by a Czech woman artist – Barbora Kysilkova – living in Norway, were stolen from a gallery. When the thief is caught, she gets to know him and develops a friendship. He becomes her muse, and she gets to know something of the mind of a junkie to the extent that both grow considerably from their bond. His ways were familiar to me; he reminded me of people I used to know. Seeing the film I identified strongly with the protagonists. It made me think – after writing this post it seemed to encapsulate my feeling – I would rather be free as an artist to build friendship or artistic connection where I am drawn to with whoever, than have to operate by the rules of the confidentiality breach. There are other ways too in which one may have to curb potential friendship in a counselling relationship, in order to be professional. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that (or ever will be). I feel like, because of who I have been, I must keep myself open, and not attempt to consent to a system of rules that could crush part of my spirit. I think that sounds harsh, and there are lots of amazing artist-counsellors out there, and counsellors who know how to negotiate these straits without compromising their soul. But for me that’s what I feel for now. Very likely, if the course had stayed in the classroom, my experience would be quite different.
On the course I reflected about how I have had therapy a couple of relatively brief times in my life. It made a difference in a gentle way, and when I was in my final year at drama school, it did support my stability. At this time it was part of a sort of informal package, because it took place at a centre which held a women’s day on the same day. Fortuitously I didn’t have a class that day and was able to connect with lots of more diverse women than at college, in a healing, supportive environment. I think that aspect helped just as much as the counselling itself, but for sure the counselling was a backbone.
How do we stay relevent in lockdown? I feel for the doctors, nurses, hospital and other medical staff who have been pushed to their limits and exposed to the highest risks, on the frontline of the pandemic. All the essential workers; and some who lost their lives as a result. Many are not paid or appreciated enough. They weren’t or aren’t looked after properly for a long time, and I wonder how the teachers are now. There are other jobs too that keep the wheels of society’s machines oiled, like my partner working for the council. They don’t all have to leave the house, but they are needed, and often their workloads have increased in the stressed circumstances of the changeable pandemic.
Being an artist can feel like a luxury that is not strictly needed, along with other jobs and roles not deemed necessary enough for the risk to be accommodated. Some have been able to thrive or at least get by, making their work online instead. There are advantages, but so much is missed that way as well.
I was a bit lost in the Summer, unsure what to do with myself. Really allowed myself to feel the emptiness, the gap in my life where work had been. I’d gotten a lot from gardening earlier on, at a time when things felt so scary we weren’t sure which way the world might go. But the garden had been sorted, and was just busy quietly growing vegetables. Beyond a bit of watering and harvesting each day, it was taking care of itself.
If I wasn’t going to make my work online, then what? Sensing I needed a focus, Steve suggested I go to college; study something. When he said that, there was just one thing I thought I’d like to do. There are lots of subjects I’d like to know more about but wouldn’t require going to college. Training to be a counsellor however, seemed like something I could either do, or make use of in my work in a more artistic medium, so I looked up the options.
I wanted somewhere local so I may benefit from in-person teaching if it was possible. The local Higher Education college a couple of streets from where I live had an open day imminently, where it was possible to enrol. I booked a place to check out the Level 2 counselling skills course, and during the day I spent there, much of it waiting or filling out forms, I did enrol. Something new was going to happen and I was excited! I’d had to complete a 500 word essay as part of the application process, and sat in an empty art room alone, describing a period of change in my life. It flowed out without hesitation, and I thought, I could get into this subject. I’d just written a 4000 word blog post about gender inclusivity, so this felt like a picnic.
When it came to the actual enrolling, after a long queue, the guy who saw me asked about my employment situation and finances, and quickly surmised I was eligible for a free place. This was going well. The thing that absolutely sealed the deal, much more important than the fee in fact, was this course would be taught in-person. I was thrilled. I would be in a class with other students and a tutor once a week for 5 hours, over 18 weeks. That was an enriching prospect and I was looking forward to learning something new.
I had one major performance gig lined up for the Autumn in November – at an eco-feminist festival organised by Art from Heart. As well as going to college, I needed to prepare a show, and I was potentially starting from scratch. It had originally been scheduled for April… and if it had been then, I probably would have performed a version of ‘Growing Roots’. I was aware however, that show did not really fit the theme. Which goes to show how much I wanted to make that play, because it didn’t have any sort of commission, or fit with anything I’d been asked to do. Although Dani at LifeArt Stockwell‘s openness to me performing however I wanted, gave me a supportive space in January 2020.
Now I had more time, and had psychicly moved on from ‘Growing Roots’, it made sense to think afresh about this performance. Where on the eco-feminist spectrum did I incline to zone in? While that is a theme close to my heart, when it comes to feeling an artistic drive towards writing a story, the means of being hooked are not always obvious. There was however a guideline from my friend Judit, who runs Art from Heart, especially for me. When I had performed at her festival in 2019, I had created the ‘Roots’ show, which only loosely connected to the ecology theme. About some of my activist ancestors, I’d sourced original memoirs and letters to tell much of the narrative, plus written one monologue so that at least one female character could speak. The play had overall been received very well, presented largely as an audio piece with visual tableaux on stage.
Judit’s suggestion for my contribution at her next festival had been, “Now write just about your female ancestors”.
What an interesting and valuable instruction! It would have to be more fictional, and to be credible, involve plenty of historical research. A very thoughtful exercise, essentially rewriting history with some of the untold stories, imaginatively drawn to fill important gaps. To rebalance my ancestral blueprint informing who I am – but the wider symbolism meant adding to a growing shift in awareness about women’s and non-binary part in the past, as well as going forward. It’s a shift which I believe helps to heal everyone including men. I sometimes wonder how much I am affected, influenced by there being a long line of men on one side of my family at least, who we know about, have been written about. They are considered important and relevent. It’s also true that some of the women were prominent in their own right; but that wasn’t impressed upon me as I was growing up, the way the men were.
Judit’s suggestion feels timely, welcome, and currently I am eagerly immersing myself in it. Before the course began I got stuck into the new enquiry, probing Dad for useful documents (he is the family historian) as well as searching online for material about the era, movements of the day, and known figures involved. Very quickly a Victorian cast of torch bearers and trouble makers opened up, and I knew I’d have no problem generating drama. Of course the November date was cancelled – and didn’t go online – but we are now aiming with hope, for October.
The featured image above, is of me performing my great grandmother Rivkah. Below I am performing my grandmother Mary, as well as the statue of Liberty. Both images are taken from the ‘Roots’ performance in 2019 at ‘We Grow into the Forest’ festival. Photographs by Judit Prieto.