Monday, 28 June 2010
On Saturday 29th May 2010 I performed 'Crawl' as part of 'Look Harder,' an exhibition of site specific and performance art at Alexandra Palace Park. ‘Look Harder’ was organised and curated by Tony Peakall and Judith Brocklehurst of Rekindle Arts, and included art work by Judith Brocklehurst, Tim Flitcroft, Calum F. Kerr, Miyuki Kasahara, Marco, Tony Peakall and Sarah Sparkes, amongst others. Art works and performance were situated in the vicinity of the lake in Alexandra Palace Park. (Click on Look Harder exhibition for more details of the exhibition). This was the second year that the exhibition had taken place; I also participated in the first exhibition, when I created a banner and performed three solo marches carrying it. (Click on over, banner, march, Alexandra Palace, protestation or tags in the sidebar for posts about the banner march and the first exhibition.)
Crawl was proposed as a counterpoint to a march; its antithesis. It was intended to embody a private world of defeat. I envisaged a temporary escape to a different world; different to our usual sensory experiences, to our ordinary measures of temporality, to notions of patience and endurance:
'I will crawl on my hands and knees, my face and fingers in the dust and dirt. Crawling, I will exit the biped world, relinquishing verticality and the customary plane of society. I will move slowly, perhaps painfully, aware of my body’s awkwardness. Conscious of the detail, detritus and texture of my passage, the aromas and acoustics of movement close to the ground, I will crawl a complete circuit of the lake of Alexandra Palace Park. The antithesis of a march, the crawl will embody the private, the broken, the beaten, the small and the slow.'
The invitation to watch my crawl was also extended to visitors to the park who might wish to perform their own crawl; letters suggesting and inviting a crawl, addressed to ‘Dear Visitor,’ were left in the Lakeside Café. (View or download a Crawl letter here
Ruminating on my task to come, I made a short 'manifesto' style note to myself:
Not a march
Antithesis/counterpoint to March
I cannot protest
I have nothing to protest about
I have no power, no agency
I have lost
I am beaten
But I must go on
The prospect of a long crawl – my intended route around the lake had taken me approximately ten or fifteen minutes at marching pace – required some preparation; I did not want to fail at my task, and it felt like a journey into unknown territory, however simple a proposition it might also seem. So after crawling around at home for several nights, learning about the new mode of mobility (or, rather, the very old mode) I decided to undertake a practice crawl in the outdoors. On Friday 28th May 2010 I went to Victoria Park, where I crawled for twelve minutes, from 2.12pm to 2.24pm, starting at the path on the left hand side of the Dogs of Alcibiades statue. I chose the path, which winds through the trees and grass and is surfaced with tarmac, to simulate the conditions in Alexandra Palace Park. On this occasion I was alone, without an audience or an exhibition context, simply a person, crawling. I noted the moment of transition from standing and walking into crawling, the decision to 'enter' the crawl, and felt it as a rupture. The first thing I noticed when I got down on my hands and knees was the temperature of the ground; it was warm to the touch, (though it would become cold later in the crawl.) There were ants and other 'busy-ness' happening on the ground. I was aware that I could not see people immediately around me or approaching close to me, my vision was obscured and altered at this low perspective. As I crawled I repeated to myself that it expresses the defeated, abject, beaten, irrelevant, ignored self. I was therefore particularly surprised that my actions actually garnered immediate and multiple notice, concern and intervention.
A man with a gold tooth approached from behind, where I had not noticed him until he was close, and called out:
'Excuse me, are you alright? Can I help?'
'It's ok,' I replied, 'I'm practicing for a performance.'
'Oh, I thought you might have lost something, thought you were looking for something.'
To him I had appeared to be searching; and a cause for concern.
A young man, amongst a group of other youths, shouted from a distance:
'Are you alright love?'
A man in his forties, with a tiny dog, was suddenly visible. He veered from his path and walked over to me.
' 'Scuse me, are you alright mate? Is anything wrong?'
'No, I'm, practicing for a performance.'
'Ohhh...' (he laughed nervously.) 'I thought something was wrong...I thought I might have to call for an ambulance.'
'Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to worry you, sorry.'
'No, no, as long as you're alright mate. Well, I hope you get...what...you're getting for it! You deserve it!'
These people had obviously been watching for a while, unbeknownst to me.
Before the Crawl performance at Alexandra Palace I described my practice session to a friend. I mentioned my surprise at the concern that had been expressed about my behaviour, given the widely held idea that a person can lie dead in the street in London and people will simply step around them. My friend connected peoples' response to the particular history of Victoria Park, where in recent years a young woman out jogging had been murdered - perhaps that event has left people sensitive to perceived vulnerability, and willing to intervene. I thought too that my appearance, as a 'normally dressed' and not obviously mad, inebriated or unusual person, perhaps made my behaviour less classifiable or dismissable, and therefore I was both more approachable and more concerning.
The following is an account of my performance Crawl.
Beginning the Crawl; Alexandra Palace in the background
At 7pm I left the Lakeside Café, after a preparatory and fortifying cup of tea, and walked out towards the lake and the path which circles it. I turned to my right, dropped to the floor, and began to crawl on my hands and knees. I did not wear gloves or knee pads, and was clad in my everyday clothing, including my bag, the only concession to my new mode of movement being the old pair of trousers I wore, to preserve the knees of my better trousers which might be worse for wear if they underwent the journey. Unfortunately the fly zip of the old trousers was broken and coming loose, and the waist band a little tight, which made me self-conscious and awkward already. There had been rain on and off all day, and immediately before my performance, though it had ceased by the time I began. The ground was wet and cool to the touch. I noticed immediately that my hands became wet from the surface of the path, and the moisture then picked up small pieces of grit, twig, leaf and blossom, which pressed into my palms as I crawled and stuck there. I paused periodically to brush off the debris from my hands.
Voice and sound came from above, at a distance, disembodied. I was at the level of a small child, or a goose. At the early stages of my crawl I was accompanied by a flotilla of small children; I realised later from photographs that they were variously on foot, skateboard and scooter. At the time their voices and presence was vague. One small girl persistently questioned me in the first stretch of the path, crouching to interrogate: 'What are you? What animal are you?' I replied 'I'm a human being.' Dissatisfied with this answer she continued 'But what are you?' Then decided 'You're a tortoise, a slow tortoise.' I disengaged from the conversation and focussed on my crawl.
Girl questioning crawler
Crawling past boats
Girl crouches at crawler
Skateboarder and crawler
On the ground I saw mainly soggy blossoms, and molten green goose shit, in rivulets and clumps. I avoided this, placing my hands carefully, at first, though later I was too tired to do so. There were tiny twigs and specks of gravel, and other more unusual items of nature's detritus - blossoms like dragon's heads and miniature spheres, like little hard, green beads. I wanted to, and did, stop to move aside some of these items, handle them, or pause with them.
Hand hovering over the ground
Looking at twigs; brushing them aside
Picking bits of detritus from my palms
I had asked a friend to photograph the crawl. As I proceeded I was aware, at times, of his presence, by sound and peripheral vision. I had not wanted a photographer's presence to be obtrusive to viewers, to detract from the solitary act. But the quiet rustle and click of his presence was reassuring to me; I was glad of the companionship, of a kind, as in crawl position I was vulnerable and aware of my vulnerability. I could not see people behind me, nor easily turn round. And though I knew I was in the benign environs of a park, enveloped in an art private view, the longer I crawled, and the further from my start, the more I really entered into another realm of being. The loss of my usual auditory and visual clues for others' presence, the disruption to my customary visual plane and spatial relationship to the world, and its replacement with a new one (the assumption of slowness, discomfort, dirt, fragmentary vision, uncertainty, nearness of ground, downward vision, exclusion…), rendered me progressively more distant and alienated from my sense of my public everyday self, created a kind of disorientation and re-orientation. This re-placement of myself was not purely physical or spatial. Crawling took me further back, further away, absented me from normality; it connected me with something usually hidden as a biped, took me somewhere else in myself.
Being watched by group of people beside a tree
Crawling alone and with pigeon
My knees felt cold, wet, then numb. My trouser legs became damper, eventually flapping wetly against my ankles. The pressure was in the wrists, and not primarily upon the knees as I had expected. My shoulders, neck and arms ached. I tried various techniques to relieve the uncustomary points of pressure - modifying the short, careful crawl-steps into elongated ones by stretching my arms out further at each 'step' and allowing my knees to go further ahead with each movement, covering more ground; I tried just taking it slowly; at times I stretched my legs back to ease the stiffness; and towards the end I flexed my toes with each step to ease the cramps. But generally I just crawled slowly and carefully, taking as long as it took.
Pausing, kneeling, looking
Tipping whilst crawling
Crawling on fingertips
Crawler being photographed
Crawling amongst people
I noticed my breathing, which became slow and rhythmical, like yoga breathing. My breath felt like an assistance to the pain, and a source of energy. But also became simply part of a more basic kind of existence; just moving and breathing.
Part way round I started to crawl blind, crawling with my eyes closed. As I crawled I thought about why I was doing this, repeating almost mantra like 'the antithesis of a march, defined against it, embodying the small, private, broken, beaten...' I repeated these thoughts to myself, my stated intentions in the performance. And I inhabited the impulses that had led to its conception: my sense of the abject, the beaten, the broken, the defeated - in myself, in the world. I continued to crawl with eyes closed and a blankness of thought, with a sense of having given in to the crawl. I felt overwhelmed and found myself sobbing, crying, tears on my face escaping from closed eyes. I continued. I reflected that I was carrying on, I was continuing, no matter how hard or slow or painful, and I could continue, at my own pace too. I could no longer hear the clicking of the camera, but I thought my friend must still be there. When I opened my eyes I was alone. I thought my tears were unwitnessed, and wondered did this matter? I felt an uncertainty and ambiguity of where spectacle, performance, witness and my own experience overlapped and interrelated, uncertainty of what was necessary or present, and how. When I discussed the performance afterwards someone said it reminded him of yoga, of meditation, through which one can reach something higher. I thought maybe I reached something lower - something that in me is often close to the surface, but just held back; now it was present and embodied, but transfigured. In that moment of sobbing I realised the broken and beaten in me was also the strength and propulsion and freedom.
Crawling through the area with bushes I felt most alone and defeated, and also relinquished to the crawl
I crawled with my head down and eyes closed for some of the time
I was unaware, or only partially aware, of the people around me.
I did not see these boys, who veered away to avoid me
I crawled through the wooded area
When I had been crawling for some time I heard the voice of a woman walking beside me who said 'Does it hurt? More than it looks?' I replied 'Mmmm, yes' as best I could. 'You're nearly there, you're doing really well, ' she said. I continued, now thoroughly having had enough of it, and longing for the end point, at the completion of the circuit of the lake, back at the beginning. Suddenly I was eye level with a goose, and afraid of it. I detoured to avoid it, and others, but at this stage I was tired and slow and wimpering slightly at the soreness of my knees.
After one hour I arrived at the end, and rose to my feet.
Someone said to me afterwards that 'it makes you stronger, it takes strength.' I reflected that the pain of it felt like a release, escape, expression - expresion in the sense of letting out. A proof of endurance, of what one can take. Not to exaggerate: it was uncomfortable and painful certainly, but bearable, and with no lasting damage - a large red indentation in each knee, and red chafed palms were the only visible imprint - but something of the slowness and strangeness of the journey - the extreme slowness - perhaps took me on a journey beyond the parameters of the lake and the actual discomfort.
As I performed the crawl it felt such an internal, isolated and private experience that I thought its visual aspect might not convey how it felt being in it. The responses of some of the spectators, however, conveyed that the performance had, for them, tallied with my own experience. In the preparation crawl in Victoria Park, the men’s recognition and expressed concern of my being outside the norm, the wrongness and vulnerability of my actions pointed to the severing I felt with the normal world. And after the actual performance in Alexandra Palace one person described it as 'a spectacle of suffering', catching the state I had entered into in executing the crawl, but also the difficulty of watching such a performance. I assumed that being expected to watch/enjoy the ‘spectacle’ passively, and not to intervene, was perhaps compromising. Other people told me that in Mexico and France people undertake something similar, as a kind of prayer, or to obtain something they need. I felt no such sense of a system of redemption or beneficent power that my crawl could activate, but it seems there are many ways to crawl and meanings thereof.
*Note. About three weeks after the crawl I found I had itchy knees and acquired a small red patch of eczema on each knee cap. Perhaps a manifest memory or memento of the Crawl.
All Photos are by Marco.
Review of Look Harder in the Hornsey Journal
Review in Ham and High