Number 43 Watson Crescent in Edinburgh’s Polwarth district probably won’t be here by the time you read this. Having previously housed a courier company, the property was condemned some time ago, and the bull-dozers are due any day. Last week, however, courtesy of Edinburgh conceptual artist Spotov, whose hourly performances of D.M.O.B Club proved to be the best kept secret of the Fringe, the ghosts left-over from its former life as the Edinburgh home of the Royal Antediluvian Order Of Buffaloes gathered in its crumbling club-house for one final fling. Best of all, one by one, we were invited.
The Royal Ante-Diluvian Order Of Buffaloes is a quasi-Masonic order founded by 19th century theatre technicians who felt excluded by the actor-only organisations that left them out in the cold. These days, while still existing world-wide, the once plush rooms that housed their meetings are out of time, deserted, or, in Number 43’s case, quite literally falling down.
When the letter-box of Number 43’s battered red door flaps open on the other side of the road, the naked bulb behind it looks less than inviting. Having already booked an all too rare appointment, however, the secret knock I’ve been instructed to use – which must, as with much of what followed, remain incognito – must be met.
The door opens, and a young girl introduces herself as Poppy, welcoming me into a tiny vestibule made even smaller by a desk on which some arcane metal contraption rests. Invited to sign a disclaimer to declare that all who pass through this place go of their own free will, I’m advised that, as long as I do what I’m asked, no harm will come to me. Then Poppy measures my head, asking me to lean, full face down, into the contraption, which resembles some prototype optical equipment. Either that or an instrument of torture.
Blindfolded, I’m led out of the room to some stairs by strangers, as Poppy’s voice grows increasingly faint. When we stop, a man’s voice tells me with a grandiloquent flourish to kneel, then instructs me to remove the blindfold. I find myself bowed down before some decrepit cistines of a gent’s lavatory, expanded by mirrors which concertina either side of me. Voices off ask me forcefully and at length if I agree with the terms laid down for me, possibly for reasons of insurance, legality and liability in case of my demise. I confirm in the positive, and await my fate.
Of what follows, for similar reasons, all I can reveal is that, over the next 35 minutes – which at times, I admit, blur into one disorientating whole – I’m hooded, bound, restrained, tied up with blankets of the most fragrant colours and run the risk of asphyxiation before being buried alive. Rubble is underfoot and in my eyes. Then, my initiation apparently complete, this strange new world is unveiled to me, and I’m wheeled at speed around a room where games are played in earnest by strange creatures sporting ginger beards and horns.
Most of the sights, sounds and other wondrous mysteries I witness are done so through the odorous haze of my coverings. Whenever my sights are cleared, the thing that lingers in my memory most is the constant presence of a solitary bull’s visage, which looms large wherever I walk.
Given the Order’s theatrical roots, as well as the eternal fascination for secret societies beloved by little boys and grown men who should know better the world over, it’s a thrilling induction. As a satire, pastiche or memorial to a very male rite of passage now ridiculed, D.M.O.B. is at once full-on, terrifying and stimulating in its extremes. Claustrophobics and those cared of the dark, especially when being buried alive, need not apply.
Given that Spotov and her collaborators have previously burrowed their way through rubble-strewn tunnels on the former site of Edinburgh’s now demolished Bongo Club, and has worked in similar found spaces from Scotland’s Arches and St Bride’s Centre to Berlin and beyond, it should come as no surprise.
Because D.M.O.B’s antecedents are many. The memory banks excavate remnants of a Polish company brought to Edinburgh in the late 1980s by Richard Demarco, who buried audiences of one in cages below-ground, with the performance taking place above them. The authorities were timid to such self-expression, alas, and somewhat inevitably shut it down.
Later, Angus Farquhar’s NVA Organisation led tours around the dilapidated top floor of Glasgow’s Central Hotel, where similarly styled emotional and psychological detritus of each room’s occupants were modelled into an after-hours installation. More recently, Ren-Sa took its blindfolded audience in a blacked out Transit van to a secret destination. D.M.OB., I’m exhilarated to say, goes further.
At the end of my journey, I find myself back in the vestibule with Poppy. Given that this alcove is as far as any woman is allowed into the order’s vestiges, and having explained earlier that she is not party to ‘The Mysteries’ as she calls them, she is keen to hear my tale. I recount it as best I can, and am ushered onto the street.
As I walk back into the city, I re-align my senses and attempt to take stock of what has just occurred. Was it a dream? Once the building is demolished, after all, there will be no archive or record of what had just taken place save these scraps of hastily written prose. I wondered too if I been brutalised in any way, and how the experience had changed me.
Two questions, however, concerned me most. After all I’d just willingly put myself through, was I now a member of the And if so, where did I pay my subscriptions? Most of all, though, with the end of an era being marked in such a dramatic fashion, I wondered where, oh where will Edinburgh’s buffalos graze now? If D.M.O.B. should happen again, and you should, by some strange quirk of fate, receive the call, the truth may not be out there, but you heed it at your peril.
The Herald, August 2007