Thursday, 4 November 2010

Dishclout, The Human Duster

My 'Dishclout' costume, before and after the performance on Primrose Hill. Photos by Matthew Cowan. And more photos of the procession, by Mat Webber, can be seen on Flickr.

On Hallowe’en, Sunday 31st October 2010, I took part in ‘The Second Annual Disguised Procession.’ It consisted of a group of disguised and costumed artists, musicians and dancers led by Matthew Cowan. The procession began from the top of Primrose Hill at 4.15 pm, moving through the park and nearby streets to end at Cecil Sharp House and the Hallowe’en Music Fair.

I created my costume for the procession entirely from dusters, dish cloths and dirty rags. I processed, and later performed, as 'Dishclout, The Human Duster'. My garment was inspired by my collected pile of old cleaning cloths, and also by the people I’ve seen on the streets dressed in clothing they’ve cobbled together from scraps, rags, plastic bags and other found remnants. These people can be seen on the streets of London, and elsewhere, often ignored, invisible, detoured around – or moved on. They are a locus for our fears of dirt and the abject. Their clothing is an abhorrent and dejected vestment, which manifests and is expressive and absorbent of the deprivations, resources and particularity of the wearer. These ‘dirty people’ make the fissures of society tangible; they and their clothing live in the cracks: for which they are deplored or ignored. I created a persona and costume which took on the role of ‘the dirty,’ in which I literally took on the dirt – confronted it, absorbed it, carried it – I was a vessel for the absorption of dust, filth and distress. My intention was to ‘be the dirty’, but reveal the dirty as the cleanser, as the necessary or inevitable counterpoint to the clean. I appropriated the name ‘Dishclout,’ an old insult for a female servant, as a character who performed a function, a ritual, of accepting dirt, of taking it, revelling in it, of bearing its burden – and of cleansing – a function on behalf of ‘the clean,’ however separate or incomprehensible they might see me as.

I stitched together dozens of yellow dusters, blue jay cloths, white dish cloths and thick white floor cloths to create a dress-come-coat-come-cloak, of draped, striated, folded and layered pieces. Each stitch was a cross, like a suture, a crossing-out, a kiss, or the most basic element in the sewing-mending-making repertoire. I added a head dress, of the same draped cloths, flowing into my shoulders, hanging about my face like a semi-religous or antique costume. A dust mask across my face completed the disguise and held the head dress in place. The garment had arms like wings, wide and flowing, with feathery ends. It was soft, warm and comforting. I thought of the homeless people I’ve seen in their creations, and the rationale of their construction, the living that caused and allowed such garments to come into being, and wondered how the people thought and felt about wearing their clothing.

The procession-proper did not begin until all the disguised participants reached the top of Primrose Hill. But to reach that point we walked from Cecil Sharp House, through the streets and park to the waiting audience. This was an opportunity to inhabit the clean, soft, flowing garment. I walked in time to the ringing of ‘The Bell Man,’ my arm-wings swooshing beside me as I stepped slowly, and enjoyed the anonymity of my entirely concealing costume. I had already been asked ‘Are you a cleaning monster?’ replying ‘No. I am a human duster.’ The procession included a man dressed in a suit covered in bells, even his face; a woman dressed in dead flowers; a trio of female Morris dancers with a gallows held aloft, upon which several Goth-Barbie Dolls were hung; a Knight/Butcher; and a couple in stately Victorian attire with a platter of Black Pudding carried before them...amongst others.

At the top of Primrose Hill is a small round, flat, summit, tarmacced, and edged with muddy puddles and strips of mud, after the recent rain, before the grass begins again and rolls away down the hill. The view looks over all of London, spectacularly laid out before you, with a sense of air and separateness from the city; a perfect place for the Hallowe’en procession to begin. After a couple of performances by other participants of the procession, I began my performance. I walked to the edge of the tarmacced summit and found the first puddle. I dropped to my knees and crawled straight into it. I crawled through it and out the other side. My knees and hands were immediately wet and dirty. I felt the wetness of the dusters and dish cloths as they began to absorb water and dirt, and cling to my body. I noticed the change in temperature as I was exposed to the substances of dirt, the substances close to the ground. Immediately that I began my performance, as I was told later, all the dogs stopped moving and stared at me, then all the people too - wondering what was going on, what was wrong. I crawled a little along the grass, following the circular edge of the summit, and found the next, and deeper, murkier puddle. I realised before plunging in my hands that the dark colour of this puddle would disguise any shit or sharp objects within it; and surely with all these dogs and people there could be all manner of vile content? I placed my hands in, dragged my legs and the wettening costume with me, and squirmed onto my belly, full front into the dirty water. I dragged myself out of the other side, pulling with my hands.

Moving across the grass, I reached an open area of mud, where I dug in my nails and dragged the heavy weight of myself and the soiled costume through the dirt. A man’s boot protruded near my face, and his voice said ‘Lick my filthy boot, you slime.’ I continued. I saw the hill dropping away, and realised the city vista was now to my right. I continued in my circle, glimpsing only feet and catching scraps of sound. I was isolated from the group of the procession and its audience, not knowing if I was watched, unwanted, unseen, ignored or rejected. I was below the level of eyes and engagement, in my own world.

Half way through my performance I began to feel a sense of the weight of dirt, of my dirt, of others’ dirt. The garment was fulfilling its role; it was mopping up, rubbing down, gathering the dust and dirt. And it hurt me, I felt tired and heavy and drained. Yet I also felt a sense of indulgence, of a kind of filth laden ecstasy. I revelled in the freedom to be dirty, to soak it all up. I rolled over, from my front onto my back and onto my front again. I began to enjoy, or if not enjoy, to accept the dirt. My costume flapped and slapped and dragged and clung to me. It was being transformed by the performing process. Its wearing was fulfilling the Dishclout role. I wondered, who am I? What am I underneath? Am I abject? I paused to adjust the head dress, to brush hair and mud from my eye. It was still a dress, and dirty as I was I wanted to look my best. A pair of feet arrived suddenly in view, handing me a small object and saying ‘You dropped this’: my asthma inhaler, secreted in the waistband of my undergarment I had thought. With that gesture I realised – I am a person, not just a garment.

I continued slithering, then more crawling, and found myself at eye level with a crouching photographer. I was aware of the cameras around me, pointing, looking, capturing, and assumed a level of interest and focus upon my actions. It reinforced my sense of separateness: inside the face-covering garment, the layer of grime and weight of wetness, I was hidden, absent perhaps – only the external, the dirt absorbing dress, was present to the world. I completed a circuit of the muddy perimeter of the top of Primrose Hill, inhabiting every movement of the crawl, drag, slither, flap, tangle, dust and clean. I rose to my feet, the garment soiled and heavy with it, draped and clinging to my body, and walked back into the assembled crowd.

The procession then began from Primrose Hill, downwards to Cecil Sharp House. I wanted to whirl and twirl like a dervish, a dusting machine, in my newly transformed dirt-laden-duster-dress. I restrained myself and walked and swished to the clanging of The Bell Man, stepping slowly with the rest of the procession. I wanted also to walk all the way home in my garment, through the city, unknown and unrecognizable, to see how I was seen or unseen. But the wet, cold and weight of the garment drew me to stay at the procession’s destination, Cecil Sharp House, for warmth, hot water and comfort. When I washed I found mud all over the front of my body, right through to my belly, face and finger nails, despite the covering of the costume. I was loath to relinquish the freedom of ‘Dishclout,’ my anonymity and permission to be in the dirt – but felt too the tiredness and strain of bearing the weight of the dirt, and a strong impulse to be clean.

Dishclout, The Human Duster crawled on her hands and knees before slithering on her belly in the puddles and mud around the top of Primrose Hill.

The Bell Man, a performance by Matthew Cowan, took place at the top of Primrose Hill.

The disguised processioners circuited the summit of Primrose Hill, then walked off down the hill in single file.

Photos by Mat Webber