Pins and Needles was a performance in two parts that Marc Vaulbert de Chantilly and I did in October 2011 for the exhibition East Pop West / East Pop Red, which was a two-part two-venue exhibition. Pins and Needles, Part 1 – West took place in West London, during the East Pop West exhibition; Pins and Needles, Part 2 – East took place in East London, during the East Pop Red exhibition. We devised the performance in response to the context of the east-west theme of the exhibition.
In preparation for the performances, Marco bought two brass compasses from a shop in West London, the chandlers 'Arthur Beale'. He then bought two boxes of dressmaker's pins from a shop in East London, the haberdasher's 'William Gee'. The compasses would be used to locate the direction of east and west. We would each have a box of pins and take out one pin at a time, place it on the ground, with the sharp pointed end towards the direction indicated by our compass, and continue placing pins to form two lines, running between east and west. We imagined our lines might meet in the middle and overlap, if our measurements were totally accurate; or perhaps our lines might cross or run parallel if our measurements were inaccurate. We expected each performance to take half an hour. For the first performance I would make a line east to west, Marco would make a line west to east. We would reverse the process for the east London performance – I would make a line of pins from west to east, Marco from east to west, and so complete the east-west cycle.
Pins and Needles, Part 1 - West
Saturday 1st October 2011, at 7.30pm approximately, at East Pop West exhibition opening.
Exhibition open from Friday 30th September to Sunday 2nd October 2011, 12 noon - 10pm.
Unit 1, Goldhawk Industrial Estate, Vinery Way (off Brackenbury Road), London, W6 0BE
Pins and Needles, Part 1 – West took place on a green carpeted floor within the exhibition space, on the opening night of the exhibition. We began the performance without any announcement and the audience was whoever chose to watch or notice.
Marco and I each held a compass in the palm of our hand. The compasses were brass, round and chunky, the flat kind used in sailing. We stood opposite each other at a distance of about fifteen feet. Marco used his compass to locate the direction of east, I located the direction of west. When the compass needles had settled we positioned ourselves so that we were exactly aligned with the east-west line. We were facing each other along the line: Marco looked east, I looked to the west. We knelt down, holding our compass in our hand or placing it on the floor.
The needle of my compass jumped around, taking a while to re-settle once I was kneeling on the ground. The small but chunky cardboard box of pins was positioned ready on the floor beside me. Marco and I looked at each other, then began placing pins.
Photo (above) by Anastasia Albertiné Sakoilska
Two photos above by Agata Johnston
I picked up a pin and placed it pointed end towards the west. The pin felt fragile and hard. I took a few pins out of the box and put them on the floor, ready to use. I continued placing pins along a line in the direction indicated, though I could see already that my line would not meet with the line that Marco had begun. The pins jumped a little on the stiff bristles of the very synthetic carpet. I pricked my finger sometimes as I laid them down. The progress of my line was slow, incremental, restricted by the length of the pins and the requirement to be neat and precise, laying them end to end. I was very aware of time - the pins, the process, seemed to track or measure time. The line created afterwards would be a track of time.
My line veered off to the right at first, but then the compass reorientated itself and drew my line back towards the centre and Marco's line. At the halfway point, Marco told me afterwards, his compass went haywire. Was it the titanium in his wrist? It sent the second half of his line off in a different direction to the first half of mine, making a narrow 'fork'. I had passed what would become the divergent point before Marco had put his pins there; he must have found my trail but not me when he reached it. I found that I placed my pins more quickly than Marco, and at the end I had to wait ten minutes for him to finish. After the halfway point, my compass guided my line along exactly the same track as Marco's. I began laying my pins closely alongside his. I saw that my pins were less neat, more higgledy-piggledy, with slight gaps between some of them, or a pin jutting out, though the overall trajectory of the line was precise. We had different styles of line, a different quality: Marco's were careful, neat, end-to-end pins, (though the line 'wobbled off' after half way); my pins were wonky-ish individually, with slightly jumbled jumpy 'pin marks'. The pins on the ground came to feel like 'drawn' pencil-type marks.
I sat kneeling when I'd completed my line, looking to the west, waiting for Marco to finish his line. I was reminded of the moment in our Sun and Moon/Wrapping performance, when I paused, kneeling, at his feet, before I began to unwrap and then 'wake' him. I felt held by the moment of waiting, knowing a cycle was about to be completed. I turned to look over my shoulder periodically until I saw Marco had completed his line. We both rose to our feet and the performance was finished.
Photo (above) by Anastasia Albertiné Sakoilska
Photo (above) by Agata Johnston
When completed, the two lines of pins appeared to have a 'fork in the road'. It gave the sense of a much greater scale – a long road viewed from above, across an expansive terrain, not just a fragile line of pins going nowhere. The metal of the pins caught the light, glistening in places, and the slight meandering of the line was as if produced by an animal. The lines appeared like a snail trail. The scale seemed to change, seemed ambiguous. The action itself felt at once limitless, endless, ongoing, and yet was also predetermined, finite, contained.
Though we had used a compass to take measurements, the appearance of the lines we produced related closely to our bodily actions, and did not have the precision or consistency of a scientific instrument. The performance was a physical drawing, a drawing with the body, which mapped and manifested subtle movements. Whilst attempting our task, moving in particular ways, a kind of dance emerged. The movements repeated, built and refined, rhythmically; our actions related to each other's, to the space and to our sense of time.
Marco and I have collaborated previously on another floor-based performance, Aisle, a crawling performance; I have also made two solo crawling performances, Crawl and Dishclout the Human Duster. Pins and Needles was a performance of repetition, of patiently, silently repeating simple movements, as was our performance Silent Bell Ringing. In our Wrapping: Sun and Moon performance we evoked the cycle of sun and moon/day and night; reversal, ritual and opposites were central to Pins and Needles too. This was the first of our performances that intentionally produced an 'object' from the process, other than the traces of dirt, or wear or hurt that crawling or ringing created (and the large ball of crumpled tin foil produced by unwrapping Marco then tidying up the wrappings in Wrapping: Sun and Moon – which has subsequently become the head of a sculpture by Micalef, made for the William Blake Show at Freedom Press, opening on Thursday 2nd August 2012). Rather than making the performance more fixed or tangible the 'object' produced from it, the 'pin drawing', seemed to emphasize the ephemerality of the performance – the lightness and hard-to-see-ness of the pins suggested something almost or not quite there, easily kickable or missable, (though deadly to bare feet) – and pointed to something that had happened, though not exactly what, and reminded of whatever it was having finished or been and gone.
'The repetition gave me an escape from the upset of seeing you upset', Marco said after the performance. (A minor-in-the-scheme-of-things upsetting event had occurred directly before our performance.) After the performance he said 'I see your point now, I thought about it as I put the pins down. I'd be livid if they did it to me.'
The small, repetitive action of placing the pins, the following of a prescribed method, undertaking a task that could be endless, an action that could be a component in an endlessly repeated process, but which had an arbitrary end transforming it into a cycle, (the exchange of our start positions for our end positions), the sense of attaching to a bigger fact – east to west, of being a human embodiment of, allied to, a scientific tool (the compasses) and concept, created a meditative space, calm and soothing, a hiatus, a ritual: we were detached from ourselves yet focussedly, tangibly, present in our bodies and environment. The 'ritual' could be repeated, acting upon a space, our experience of time and place and our bodies.
The performance was an experiment - through fixed rules and repeated actions there was uncertainty and exploration. (Would the lines meet? Would they cross? How long would it take? How would the pins look?) A woman asked 'Can you tell me what the game is?' during the performance. 'Is this the first time you've done it?' someone asked us afterwards. 'Yes. We didn't rehearse. An experiment, I suppose...'
Afterwards, we picked up all the pins, one-by-one, counting them in. The ground – astroturf – felt dirty – I hadn't noticed laying them out. I lost count of the pins midway, when I got upset about something I was thinking over. I got to 58 before I lost count.
'See a pin and let it lie, You'll want a pin before you die. See a pin and pick it up, All the day you'll have good luck.'
'Never should dropped pins be disregarded..."See a pin and let it lie, Before the evening you will cry." '
'My husband's terrible. If he sees a pin he'll grovel in the gutter to pick it up. He'd go to any length rather than leave it lying.'
Pins and Needles, Part 2 - East
Thursday 13th October 2011, at 6pm approximately, at East Pop Red performance night.
East Pop Red exhibition: opening night on Tuesday 11th October 2011, from 6pm - 9pm; exhibition open from Wednesday 12th October to Tuesday 18th October 2011, from 11am to 8pm.
Red Gallery, 3 Rivington Street, London, EC2A 3DT
Pins and Needles, Part 2 - East took place in Red Gallery, during the performance night of the exhibition. The performance began without announcement, amidst the comings-and-goings in the gallery. We reversed the polarities – I started from the west, looking east, Marco from the east looking west. We would complete a cycle. I thought of circuits, a mirror, inversion. I felt excited, knowing the process, the ritual, and faced with the new surface. I was impatient to begin and be in it. I would lay the pins with confidence.
As I laid the pins I was aware of the world up above and around us, much more so than in the west. I felt like a child playing on the floor, crawling around. I was much more aware of being low, beneath sound and movement, than in west London – maybe we were more vulnerable here, with the hard floor and the busier night. (The floor this time was smooth and hard, wood laminate, rather than the wiry tufts of astroturf.)
I thought of sailing, and tacking. Tacking ships. And tacking garments – first the pinning, then going over the line, in between the pins, with the tacking stitches. A temporary line. A temporary join, seam.
'Are you supposed to be silent?' Alex asked. He laid his i-phone compass on the floor next to mine – they agreed.
Again, Marco was slower and neater – I waited at the end, kneeling, looking east, compass in hand. I thought about waiting.
Afterwards, Marco said 'At times I thought I was making trails of pins. Earlier I'd thought we were making lines of pins, east to west. Now it felt like a trail.' Trailing. Laying a trail.
Marco: 'Like ships that pass in the night, I said to someone. It seemed appropriate – I was pleased – the lines didn't cross – a random direction.'
At the end of the performance there was a moment when the pins started to get scattered and I enjoyed the beginning of randomness and obliteration, letting go of control. But once we quickly began photographing the lines – before they would be destroyed by more unseeing feet and by our own gathering-up and counting-in – I began to feel protective of them. I wanted the ephemeral marks to be indelible, to be mine, seen as me – I wanted to be seen, recorded, undoing the lines, before they were gone. My urge contradicted the ephemerality. My protectiveness of the lines did not allow me to enjoy their obliteration and scattering. Marco said 'I enjoyed watching people trample in them afterwards, I didn't mind', though he'd meticulously counted them in after the first performance.
Marco told me 'After, when we were dancing in Alex's disco, I saw a stray pin on the floor. I went to pick it up; it was between two girls. They laughed. "A pin. We thought you were looking at our shoes." I'm really glad I found that rogue pin. Lost, then found.'
Pins were put into 'Witch's Bottles' to ward off witches, along with hair, nail clippings, or urine. Pins were classified along with bodily cast-offs – inert/dead fragments but still potent. I saw one such bottle at the Pitt Rivers Museum, which had been mistakenly described as having a witch in it by the person from whom its donator had bought it. The witch was thought to be caught inside, so the bottle still offered protection against the witch, but giving it a different kind of power as an object, the potential to do harm if broken or opened. A bottle that needs to be kept safe, not one that will keep you safe. It rattled, I think, when shaken. The witch's bones? Or the pins?
'The old woman suddenly "turned back in a circle", and retraced her steps. Asked why...she replied "I saw a pin on the road with its point towards me, and I could not go near it or go on because of getting bad luck." '
'A large...apple tart, wrapped in a clean white napkin fastened with pins...was handed on board [and] I could see there was something amiss. One man held it, and the captain cautiously took out each pin, and with arm extended to the uttermost, carefully dropped them over the counter into the sea to drown...The captain then slowly, seriously, and solemnly assured me that pins were spiteful witches, and ought never to be brought on board a vessel.'