Good afternoon, and welcome to the Town Hall Courthouse, here in Berwick, and to this event tied in with Dancing Borders, the film and performance piece by Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich that forms part of Stagings, which is the artists films strand of the 2010 Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival.
My name’s Neil Cooper, and I’m a writer and critic about theatre, music and art for The Herald newspaper, Map magazine and The List magazine, all of which are based in Scotland, and my work with those publications and with different artforms I think being the reason why I’m here today.
Before I introduce the panel, I just want to go through the procedures of the afternoon and introduce a few ideas and connections about it that have been thrown up in my mind since I came on board.
Once I’ve introduced the panel, each of them will talk for a few minutes, introducing their ideas about things relating to Stagings which may open things up for discussion later.
After the first two members of the panel have spoken, there’ll be a short break, so people can have a think about some of the things that have been raised.
After that we’ll reconvene, and the other members of the panel will speak, after which I’ll ask each of the panel some questions before we open things out to the floor.
After that, who knows, but we’ll be aiming to finish up – to adjourn - at about four O clock, but before we do I’ll ask each of the panel to try and sum up, after which I’ll try and gather all that up into some kind of cohesive mush to finish with, then we can adjourn and if anyone wants to we can continue the discussion in a more informal manner.
To introduce each of the panelists –
Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich are the creators of Dancing Borders, a film based on a performance of the same name, which forms part of Stagings, and who are the reason why we’re all here today.
Laura McLean-Ferris is a writer, whose work has appeared in Art Review, the Guardian, the Independent and Art Monthly.
Henna-Rikka Halonen is a Finnish artist working in Britain, and whose film The Bath-house, a restaging of Mayakovsky’s Constructivist play at Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Pool performed by members of Edinburgh Diving Club, is being shown at Stagings. Henna is a recent recipient of the Berwick Gymnasium Fellowship.
Neil Mulholland is head of the MFA course at the School of Art in Edinburgh and an art historian. Neil recently curated the An Uncoo Site event at Edinburgh Art Festival.
Before I hand over to Zoe and Neil, by way of introduction I’d just like to offer some of my own responses, which may or may not be pertinent.
The idea behind Stagings, I think, is to show work that is performance-based in the broadest sense, and which both document events and become works in their own right themselves, and which in the main seem to have some kind of social engagement to their practice. The phrase ‘conflict resolution’ is also mentioned in the programme.
The starting point for this discussion is Dancing Borders, the film made by Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich – both of whom are on today’s panel - for Stagings, and which is based on a performance commissioned for Sideshow, which was the inaugural Berwick immersive theatre festival in August.
Both the performance and the film of Dancing Borders drew on some of the battles that have taken place in Berwick throughout history, and translated that into dramatic spectacle through the use of dance.
So Dancing Borders is a kind of historical re-enactment, but is more an impressionistic reinvention of events rather than a re-enactment per se, and which subverts the gestures and iconography of war into something more peaceful and utopian.
So while the dancers take these military maneuvres and transform them into something creative and artistic, equally when the cannons fire pink balloons, rather than something aggressive or destructive, they become these weapons of happiness.
It’s more of a version of events or a remix if you like.
Dancing Borders is on show in Coxon’s Tower, itself a place steeped in Berwick’s history, and which gives the piece a solid context, as well as investing it with a certain gravitas and weight, so what you end up with – for me, anyway – is the creation of a set of myths taken from history, but which become something new as they’re reinvented for now.
This courthouse as well where we are today is steeped in history, and again gives this event a certain weight and a certain sense of drama because of the context of the space and the sense of ritual in – and this is crucial – a public space it brings with it.
People have been tried here.
People have been sentenced here.
People have even been released here.
Courtroom dramas have been a staple of theatre work since the Greeks, and, most famously in the twentieth century, in the very public third act climax of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play about the Salem witch trials which Miller used as a metaphor for the McCarthyite showtrials of the House UnAmerican Activities committee that Miller himself was brought before.
From the same era, there was the behind the scenes drama of Twelve Angry Men, which shows how what seems to be a cut and dried murder trial that will probably result in the accused being sent to the electric chair.
The Crucible is done a lot, but the version I remember most formed part of a show in the Edinburgh International Festival in 1986.
It was done by the New York-based experimental theatre company, The Wooster Group, who’d grown out of the 1960s counter-culture, and make dramatic collages out of existing works by juxtaposing them with elements of pop culture along with the use of video, film and sound.
The show was called L.S.D. – Just The High Points, and was the final part of a trilogy called The Road To Immortality.
Because this first UK appearance by The Wooster Group was taking place at the Edinburgh International Festival, and was taking place in a theatre in the well-heeled Morningside part of town called the Church Hill Theatre, which most of the year round was where the local amateur dramatics club met, it couldn’t be called L.S.D – Just The High Points.
The title on the official Edinburgh International Festival programme read ‘The Road To Immortality’ – open brackets – ‘Part 2’ – close brackets.
L.S.D. – Just The High Points or The Road To Immortality (Part 2) was in four parts, only two of which I remember.
The first one I remember was a re-enactment of a video the company shot of themselves in the rehearsal room after they’d all taken acid.
While the video itself was relayed on a TV monitor, the company acted out every external tic and response to what happened after taking acid in meticulously observed detail.
Because watching people take drugs is boring, this made watching this re-enactment boring as well, especially as it was sustained for some time.
This also made it fascinating, however, because here was a performance that had observed its source – which was the real-life experience of same people who were making the performance – so meticulously that it was indistinguishable from the video being shown on the TV monitor.
Here as well was a performance that was an external representation of an internal state, which was a hallucinogenic state which had at one time, partly because of the illegality of L.S.D., had been considered revolutionary.
That internal trip that couldn’t possibly be recreated onstage was, by all accounts, an Eden-like wonderland of primary colours and wild psychedelic imaginings where peace and love reigned and everybody could get back to their child within.
At its best, then, the high points of L.S.D. were solely about creating a brave new world, an alternative reality and a parallel universe that possibly resembled and may have included the weapons of happiness pollinating pink balloons in Dancing Borders.
The second part of L.S.D. – Just The High Points was a thinly-disguised recreation of the third-act court-room scene in The Crucible.
I say thinly disguised, because Arthur Miller had turned down The Wooster Group’s request to use the play in their own piece.
So, being resourceful, the company created their own version of a play about a witchcraft trial, in which the character’s names were similar but different to the names of the characters in The Crucible.
The situation too in the Wooster Group’s play was similar but different to The Crucible, in that it involved young girls and slaves giving evidence about how they’d allegedly danced naked in the woods, and about how they end up accusing half the townsfolk of Salem of being witches after they apparently see images of the devil in the form of a bird flying above them in the courtroom rafters.
The big difference in the Wooster Group’s version was that they played out the scenario at double-speed, with constant interruptions from a klaxon that moved them hurriedly on to the next scene, with things becoming more manic as they progressed.
By the time the young women in the play – whether it was The Wooster Group’s or Arthur Miller’s didn’t really matter anymore - allegedly saw this bird in the rafters of the courtroom, things were hysterical, and it seemed to be suggested that the ‘visions’ these young women were having were as equally hallucinogenic as the internal response the company felt on the video and in the recreation of them taking acid.
This externalisation, though, which in part was an appropriated reconstruction of the third act of The Crucible, was no wonderland full of pink weapons of happiness pollinating pink balloons.
This looked suspiciously like a bad trip.
The only time I’ve ever seen Twelve Angry Men onstage – a play made famous and immortalised in Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film version starring Henry Fonda – was in a version at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe a few years ago performed by a cast of well-known comedians.
There was a brief vogue which seems to have fizzled out now whereby comedians who were doing shows in Edinburgh would gather together and take a classic play – usually American, and usually one that had become best known by a film version – just as The Wooster Group had done, and act it straight.
So what became known as The Comedians Company did One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest one year, followed by playwright and performer Eric Bogosian’s play Talk Radio.
The latter was interesting, because Bogosian himself had performed solo in Edinburgh and London in the early 1980s, and had come through a similarly counter-cultural New York arts underground, albeit a post-punk one, as The Wooster Group.
But Twelve Angry Men was a much bigger play, and required a discipline that leant itself more to method acting than to stand-up.
Where stand-up, albeit scripted in part depending on the comedian, is discursive and spontaneous, Twelve Angry Men required the comedians to repeat the same actions at every performance and to never deviate from the script.
To a greater or lesser degree, the comedians succeeded, but several things became apparent.
First of all, that they had all seen the film of Twelve Angry Men, and modeled their moves and delivery on that.
Secondly, that they didn’t fully possess the acting ability to be able to achieve this.
Thirdly, that even though they didn’t fully possesses the acting ability to achieve this, neither could they fall back on making a joke to cover it up.
Fourthly, that the audience was largely made up of comedy fans who’d come along to see Bill Bailey, Mike McShane, Phil Nicholl and other members of the cast who they’d seen doing stand-up.
Fifthly, that some of that audience had also seen the film of Twelve Angry Men.
Sixthly, that whatever the appeal of this mixed marriage between serious drama and stand-up comedy, the film of Twelve Angry Men was always going to be better than a bunch of comedians trying to recreate it.
There are other things that Dancing Borders and the prospect of this discussion made me think of.
In terms of socially-engaged art, which may or may not be participatory art and may or may not be community art by any other name, it suggested that things have come full circle, artistically, politically and socially, and that there is more of a willingness – a need even – for cross art-form collaboration.
In 1970, Joseph Beuys performed an action on Rannoch Moor in Scotland in the run-up to the now legendary Strategy Get Arts exhibition of contemporary German work at Edinburgh College of Art.
Along with the novelist Heinrich Boll, Beuys was instrumental in the early days of the German Green Party, and in co-founding the international Free University network, which advocated a form of self-determination that was counter to the existing educational system, and which was thinking on similar lines to educationalists such as Brazilian radical Paulo Frere.
In Britain during the 1960s, community activism and the arts were becoming similarly co-existent, with the likes of Albert Hunt starting what came to be called Bradford Theatre Group while a teacher at Bradford College of Art, while poet, painter and art teacher Jeff Nuttall co-founded performance art troupe The People Show.
Both these groups took art onto the streets in public spaces, and were born of an anarchic idealism that was about creating worlds of their own that looked a little bit like messier versions of Wonderland that stemmed from a Surrealist and Dada tradition by way of 1960s Happenings.
The title of Albert Hunt’s memoir of the period, Hopes For Great Happenings, said it all.
Prior to The People Show, Jeff Nuttall had been involved in something called Project Sigma, which aimed to be an international information exchange which involved the likes of William Burroughs, and which the novelist Alexander Trocchi aimed to be an ‘invisible insurrection of a million minds.’
A few years later, in the north of England, John Fox’s company, Welfare State International, made great happenings of their own by way of big architectural interventions that would involve the community in creating a spectacle of their own design and a world that was a little bit different than the norm.
In the 1980s in Glasgow, there was a network called the Free University of Glasgow, which was made up of a loose alliance of artists, activists and academics, which, based on the Joseph Beuys model, aimed to explore ideas and thoughts that the more formal academies discarded.
The highlight of that was the Self-Determination and Power event, which took place in Glasgow in 1990, and, counter to the city’s official status as European City of Culture, brought Noam Chomsky to Scotland to give a talk.
Over two days of discussion, the Self-Determination and Power event also found Hamish Henderson, the poet and founder of the School of Scottish Studies, giving a sturdy rendition of his unofficial Scottish national anthem, Freedom Come All Ye.
In 1988, Angus Farquhar’s Test Department band, who later morphed into the site-specific environment-based art and performance company NVA, reconstituted the ancient pagan ritual of the Beltane Fire.
This took place on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, opposite the Scottish Office, and involved a procession involving a May Queen and her followers, as well as symbolically blue, green and red painted performers in attendance.
As the May Queen, who for the first few years was performed by dancer and choreographer Liz Rankin, and her followers danced their way around the hill in a synchronised procession towards the pillars of the hill’s folly, several thousand people followed on, blowing whistles and beating drums in participatory abandon.
This was a re-enactment with a purpose, however.
At the time the UK Conservative government had introduced the Criminal Justice Bill in an attempt to outlaw the unlicensed raves that had grown out of club culture, and which allied hedonism and hippy idealism in part through a new drug called Ecstacy which was said to make people love each other as they danced all night in the spirit of communal creative expression and abandonment.
What this had done was enable the smiley-happy dancers to protest using the form of social engagement they knew best, and to effectively become politicised by default.
The revival of the Beltane Fire was a model of that politicised dissent, and took ritual, spectacle and performative art-forms into a public space to create a brand new set of myths based on those acquired from ideas of the past.
While Angus Farquhar and NVA are no longer involved, The Beltane Fire still happens on Calton Hill every Mayday.
At the CCA in Glasgow at the moment, there’s a show by Simon Yuill called Fields, Factories and Borders.
In terms of socially-engaged art, Simon Yuill doesn’t re-enact things, but he does re-contextualise them.
In the early 1990s, a protest against the building of the M77 motorway across local Glasgow woodland that had previously been decreed common land culminated in what became known as Pollok Free State.
This was a camp of tree-houses that built into a sizeable community of environmental activists and local residents who didn’t want to create a new world.
They only wanted to preserve the old one.
Through their protest, and as with the 1980s clubbers faced with the Criminal Justice Bill, the people involved with Pollok Free State were politicised by default.
Yuill’s 2008 film, Given To The People, documented the rise of the protest using video footage shot by the campers.
Fields, Factories and Workshops features three pieces.
One looks at the experiences of crofting communities in the west of Scotland and migrant workers in the north east of Scotland, while a second bases itself around three Bournemouth housing estates built on what was once formerly common ground.
The centerpiece of Yuill’s show, however, takes apart the footage from Given To The People, and presents it with other footage in a full unmediated and unedited experience of Pollok Free State.
This is art in action, which, by being at the frontline of protest and a part of a grassroots community, is as socially engaged as it gets.
In Gdansk in Poland, at the still working shipyard where in 1981 the workers revolt gave rise to the Solidarity trade union movement led by Lech Walesa, the artist Grzegorz Klaman recently had a show called Political Things in a former welding school.
The exhibition was made up of a series of films and installations that looked in different ways at time, space, communal life, history and political economics.
Beyond the gallery space, two offshoots of Political Things occupied other parts of the shipyard.
The first, Lech Walesa’s Workplace, is an installation on the site of Walesa’s actual work space he occupied after he was reinstated by his employers in the midst of the Solidarity protests.
In this unremarkable green and white painted room, the weight of historical significance gives it a cache of heroism that is only undercut by a collage of film footage, which shows Walesa the peoples champion who becomes president and, dazzled by the glamour of office, is shown shaking hands with Margaret Thatcher and the Queen.
The second piece, A Subjective Bus Tour, is an actual tour around the yard in one of three rickety buses.
Depending on who is your guide, you will be told the story of Solidarity from three different points of view; that of a journalist and author of books about Gdansk; that of a courier and former employee in the yard’s construction office; and that of a former worker and trade union activist who participated in the strikes.
Here are three different versions of history that present pictures of three very different worlds.
While it doesn’t quite work in the English translation at the back of the bus, arguments have been known to break out questioning the authority of one guide or another, as collective history is constantly rewritten.
In April 2009, live artist Nic Green presented a large-scale piece called Trilogy at the Behaviour festival of experimental theatre at The Arches in Glasgow.
The aim of Trilogy is to look at ideas of feminism and find out what it means to women today.
The second part of Trilogy is called Town Bloody Hall, after a film by D.A. Pennebaker, who made the documentary of Bob Dylan’s 196??? Tour, Don’t Look Back.
Pennebaker’s film, Town Bloody Hall, documents a conference held in New York Town Hall in 1971, and in which a quartet of radical feminists including Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston??? Presented their ideas at an explosive event chaired bullishly by novelist Norman Mailer.
and forms the second part of what will eventually become ‘Trilogy.’ The third part will culminate in a mass choir of women volunteers singing William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ as they liberate themselves of their clothes, 1960s style, and dance naked.
The original idea for ‘Town Bloody Hall’ was to re-enact the film in full, line by line, gesture by gesture, tic by nervy tic.
Green and her company had already learnt it off by heart before they changed their minds. Once an excerpt is screened during the performance, it’s clear that any live interpretation would have been upstaged at every turn by the sheer bombast of the film’s fly-on-the-wall charisma.
Instead, Green and her cast use Pennebaker’s film as a springboard to explore something deeply personal.
The third part of Trilogy culminated in a mass choir of female volunteers singing William Blake’s Jerusalem as they liberated themselves of their clothes, 1960s style, and danced naked.
In 1984, four years before Beltane was revived in Edinburgh, the UK miner’s strike was at its height, and a very different form of English Civil War was taking place that threatened to bring the country – or the government – to its knees.
The peak of this was what became known as the Battle of Orgreave, in which striking miners and the police force clashed in pitched battles the like of which had rarely been seen on mainland Britain in modern times.
When artist Jeremy Dellar recreated this using a vast number of volunteers, many of whom had taken place in the original battle, it was an acknowledgement of the Battle of Orgreave’s historical significance.
By recreating it and filming it in a similar manner to how historical re-enactment societies recreate conflicts from centuries ago rather than decades ago, and in spirit not unlike film-maker Peter Watkins’s documentary style verite dramatisation of Culloden, Dellar was both preserving the Battle of Orgreave and creating something which we can learn from afresh.
The Battle of Orgreave made me think about the Airfix toy soldiers I used to get when I was a kid, and which came in packets delineated by regiment, and which were in something called HO-OO or Ho-Oo scale.
So you could get packets of WW2 US Marines or WW1 British Infantry who you could pitch up against the WW2 Afrika Korps or the WW2 Japanese Infantry.
There was even the French Foreign Legion and Arabs, or the American Civil War Confederate and Union armies.
And if you bought Airfix accessories, you could recreate the likes of El Alamein and Dunkirk in your living room.
I don’t think they got as far as Korea or Vietnam or the Falklands or Iraq, although the Chapman Brothers went some way to counteracting that with their tellingly titled piece that used toy soldiers as raw material, Hell.
But this made me think that someone should get in touch with Airfix and they could put out a Battle of Orgreave kit, which had striking miners in donkey jackets and policemen with detachable helmets and maybe a little Arthur Scargill in his baseball cap, keeping the faith right up to when Margaret Thatcher crushed the miners and declared the death of Society as we knew it.
And that made me think of re-enacting imagined histories that weren’t such a bad trip.
It made me think specifically of John Schlesinger’s 1960 film of Billy Liar, which starred Tom Courtney as the northern dreamer of Keith Waterhouse’s novel who has three girlfriends on the go and fantasises about becoming a comedy script-writer and moving to London and starting life anew in another world, neither of which look likely.
Billy also fantasises about this imaginary kingdom called Ambrosia, which he’s both president and prime minister of, and which he goes to escape whenever the pressure of the real world’s getting too great.
There’s a scene in the film where Billy and Julie Christie’s character, Liz, who represents this free-spirited ideal that Billy can never really have, be or be part of, are sitting in the park after they’ve been to the local dance-hall, and Billy declares his undying love for her and asks her to marry him.
Liz is the only other person who knows about Ambrosia, and Billy starts blurting out about how, when they’re married, they’ll have a little room where they can go to where they’ll have this fully working model of Ambrosia that’s something like the sort of thing model railway enthusiasts have.
And in this room that’s this metaphorical Ambrosian wonderland, Billy can be prime minister and Liz can be first lady in a private world where they can make anything happen and where no-one else matters except them.
And maybe that’s it, maybe we all need at least a holiday in Ambrosia, where weapons of happiness can fire pink balloons into the air the way they do in Dancing Borders.
Having said all that about idealism and utopia and weapons of happiness, I’m also aware here of the hierarchies that exist in the discussion.
By having me sit in this chair with access to a gavel, I am effectively all powerful.
By having the panel up here as well, with the audience effectively ‘down there’, that creates an us and them divide much as there is in conventional performative forms, whereby there is a ‘stage’ of some form, with an ‘auditorium’ of some form where the audience watch events ‘onstage.’
Perhaps we might want to think – especially if we’re talking about socially-engaged practice – about how that – and indeed this – situation of the performer-audience relationship, might be made more democratic.
I have my own thoughts, but let’s work with what we’ve got.
So Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich might want to talk about Dancing Borders in relation to the rest of their practice.
Laura McLean-Ferris might want to say something about dance as a collaborative artform, and about how creating other worlds relates to magical-realism
After the break, Henna-Rikka Halonen will maybe talk about The Bath House, and the experience of taking an existing Constructivist play and recontextualising it using a diving team as actors.
Finally, Neil Mulholland – who last time I saw was dressed as Thriller era Michael Jackson, who himself attempted to create his own world on a ranch he called Neverland - will maybe say something about how art movements respond to situation and place, and perhaps say something about his ideas of Neo-medievalism as yet another route to Ambrosia.
Originally presented at the Town Hall Court House, Berwick-on-Tweed, as part of Stagings at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival on September 17th 2010