Performance Artings

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.

A movement sequence from the 20 minute Italian ‘performance art’ version, April 2016.

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.

The complete 20 minute version of the August performance in Venice.

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.

Glynis’ performance (called ‘Mobilé’) involved the three of us holding frames, with more nudes from an earlier version of her show projected onto us.

Borders and Fragmented Identities

My show for the Fragmented Identities exhibition opening in Borders Festival was moved from the Venice Art House to the Ca’ Zanarde at the last minute. The space at Ca’ Zanarde in the gold room upstairs, is much more opulent in style than the minimalistic Venice Art House, and I appreciated performing in it. I had in fact almost lost the will to perform as we had been waiting for hours, had to move from one venue to the other with the considerable suitcase in the piercing heat, and had the disheartening impression that the It’s Liquid organisers, at least those in charge, were not very organised, and nor did they seem to care about the consequences for the artists involved.

Dancing, captured by Glynis Ackermann

I am grateful that Steve encouraged me to go ahead anyway, because I would feel better for it, and I did. There was a very small audience by the time I performed at about 10:30pm, only four hours after the scheduled time. Back at Venice Art House we had been given the choice of remaining at that venue where there was hardly an audience, or walking to Ca’ Zanarde where there was one… but these two venues both had performances scheduled, and Ca’ Zanarde was running late too, so we ended up with very late slots by which time most people had either left, or were just drinking outside rather than watching shows. It was a loyal few that supported each other in solidarity at the end, and they were just enough for me to interact with in the piece.

It was a very different experience with It’s Liquid in April, when I spoke with both Luca Curci and Andrea Chinellati who run it, and was given the chance to rehearse in the space the day before. This time just Luca was there, and we had no communication. There were many more acts and I think the plan for the evening was over-ambitious. Overall I enjoyed my time in Venice and am grateful for the opportunities. Steve recorded my show which is very valuable for me to learn from. For these Venetian performances I created new 20 minute shows and it proves a new discipline. There were lessons in simplification, minimising the importance of language in the show, and reducing the bulk to carry. My previous blog post describes this show in more detail, as I was preparing it.

Here it is!

And here is a lovely shot of some of the sweet folk who stayed with us till the end on the evening of Thursday 4th August.

We are wearing the costumes of artist Alexandra Holownia who was the final performer of the evening. She is 2nd from the left, Steve is in the middle, and Glynis Ackermann is on my right.

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.

Returning to a One Woman show

The 2011 version of Girl in Suitcase was autobiographical, taken directly from experiences of growing up with and looking after my Mother. It was powerful, but I found it difficult to develop as it was literally so close to home. About my Mother’s deteriorating condition, I felt I was almost dancing with death in a manner of speaking, by writing what was and could be happening, and then performing together with fellow actress Jaki Loudon who admirably took on the role of my Mother (the show can be seen here). It can become a case of art affecting life, and the not knowing what is affecting what more, but the possibility of that being in your hands is not desirable, in terms of the creation of art.

with Jaki Loudon at the Mascara Bar, August 2011, taken by David Alexander Murphy

In 2014 I revived my performance, having had almost 3 years break. This time it was a one woman show where I was accompanied by live musicians. It was both autobiographical, and suitably abstract that it didn’t feel overtly revealing. There were two versions – one in Telegraph Hill festival, the other at Hampstead School of Art. The second accentuated the tragic aspect as I myself performed my Mother for some scenes, most gravely a scene from a hospital bed. Jollity was yet maintained by the stage presence of life model and performer friend Ursula, joining me on stage in another scene for naked dancing.

with Ursula at HSoA, taken by David Alexander Murphy

with Roddy & friends at The Telegraph at the Earl of Derby pub

In 2015 I explored ancient Goddesses with my friends, in London and Norwich. And this year I wanted to go solo again. Well almost solo, as my partner Steve joined me for a couple of scenes, so I was well assisted. This change of direction felt right partly because of the complication of attempting to get a few of us all available at the same time for rehearsals, let alone performances; and also because I wanted to travel with the show. Again this would be simpler just with Steve, as I know that all my friends who were involved last year have their own commitments which would inhibit them prioritising this. Steve and I on the other hand, are keen to travel together, and enjoy travelling with a sense of purpose and a means to connecting with a location.

The show was largely rewritten (I think one scene remained from the previous version), and is now all my own words (with some adjustments from Steve who also enjoys writing), after last year’s more collaborative effort. I would still be happy to revisit last year’s and indeed earlier versions, in the right circumstances.

The new structure comprised of two halves; the first focusing on objectification of woman, the second on reclamation of control and agency in woman’s life. These themes were explored in alternating scenes of movement, monologue, life modelling/drawing, body bloodening/painting/rope-binding, many of which involved audience interaction. Steve wrote about this performance very eloquently and comprehensively here, so I don’t have to! I will simply focus on a few areas of particular note to me.

The familiar life model and tutor scene was recast with Steve performing the tutor – his debut as an actor delivering lines. I was freed up from being a man, which I could appreciate more after not having enjoyed the role the last time round, at WOW. He represented the oppressive male in other scenes during the first half also, providing a figure for me to act against, standing for the law, and domestic violence. In the second half his role was reversed as he became submissive. During the bloodening scene in particular, he became recycled!

I feel I ought to explain a little about the recycling scene (which may be seen here), as it could be interpreted as insensitive or offensive. The monologue is me observing my own habits, not necessarily espousing them, upholding them as an ideal. Sometimes I am obsessive in saving things, holding on to them or reusing them, when arguably I would be better off chucking them far sooner. This applies to objects, substances (including menstrual blood), and also as noted, boyfriends! This is in part humorous, though also perhaps a little too painfully honest. Steve certainly found that part rather challenging as we are a relatively new partnership, and it was as if perhaps predicting our demise. He handled the challenge admirably however, embracing the sentiment and volunteering to be (recycled as) my seat as I posed covered in blood. He has always supported and encouraged my tendencies towards menstrual art, I would add even before we were together, he was sending me links to other performers and artists working along similar lines, as well as articles pertaining to the practice (who said courtship was dead?!)

Lovely quick drawings by Rodger, of the Bride scene, recycling poses, and movement pose

What was probably of greater concern was how exes may perceive this somewhat open interpretation of my ways. It could sound mean, “…it has to be beyond broken before I get rid of it…” In response I would say that this angle is but one dramatic take on my behaviour. Life is complicated and there are many layers. I go for fairly long-term relationships, averaging five years in length, and I am at an age now when I can look back and observe patterns repeated several times over. A lot is invested in the relationship, so letting go when things don’t seem to be going so well, is less straight forward. I want to really understand what is at play, and hopefully learn the lesson that is invariably there. I do believe that unless we complete fully segments of our lives, then problem areas will re-emerge in a new form until if and when we learn and are then freed to move on. There is no point running away from a difficult situation; it is better faced and confronted, then there may be progress.

One might hope a situation would be fixed before leaving a partner, but maybe only some elements are. Equally there may be parts in the other that we have recognised will never work for us, as we have tried until we have made things more broken. I think that’s where I was going with that line, but again, the initial inspiration for it may have been a piece of junk shelving unit I found in a skip.

Real blood and its smell are challenging, especially as the audience come right up close to me to paint on my body, over the bloodstains. Then there is the mingling and chatting after the show. I haven’t washed yet, or covered up, and a significant amount of the blood may have been spilt over the stage as well. This is of course the point.

The body painting has long been a ritual of the audience leaving their mark on me before I “die” at the end of the show. They have witnessed me, heard my story, and by this scene towards the finale, may have formed some impression of me to which they can respond artistically if they wish, beyond drawing me. It is also a chance to connect with me physically. There is a sensuality to brushing on skin, an added intimacy which can be pleasurable, if not ticklish or beyond the bounds of comfort. I open myself up to them and place a certain amount of trust in their hands.

The penultimate scene about competitive women, where I address this very delicate subject is naturally garnered from my real life experiences, and is recent material. I have never felt the tension of competitiveness with various women in my field before to such a degree. It is largely unspoken. Steve was uncomfortable with me writing about this let alone performing it, but I pressed him – nothing has felt so triggering of my emotions during the last year, and I don’t believe it’s all in my head. I don’t think I’m alone, and I think there may be a value to sharing this aloud. I don’t think it’s just my issue, and I think it has gotten worse since the Tory government took hold. We really are all competing more – for income, recognition and opportunities, and social media has made that more blatantly apparent than ever. I’m not convinced that men feel this the same way but fully prepared to hear that they are. It may depend what field one is in. Certainly if you make a living from the arts, you are likely to be vulnerable. I personally felt that it would be worse for me not to say such important things in what is my very intimate show, my chance to reveal my true self. I could choose for that just to be a more polished, ‘public’ version of me, but really, what value would there be in that? I celebrate and I bare all of myself, in the same space. It is an exercise in self discovery and revelation.

While men have generally enjoyed privilege for hundreds, thousands of years; we women are still learning how to exercise that. We are finding our feet, and I really enjoyed feeling and playing with mine during the naked dance sequence, letting loose for a few moments of public wildness and abandon! The ultimate movement of liberation.

The above were all taken by

The same scene may be seen here as performed in Venice; and that show was beautifully documented by Steve here.

I think I will discuss the Venice show myself another time. I am just in the process of reworking it for a further performance there coming up in August. It is wonderful the way it is evolving, for a shorter (20 minutes) show, for an international audience, who were not previously known to me. Truly I am currently very drawn towards revisiting the Mother and daughter script, from when playwrighting was more immediate to me than performance art. Creating convincing dialogue seemed easier somehow before social media took off, eating up our attention span, but it is something I enjoyed and would love to get back to.