Monday, 14 February 2011

AISLE Performance

As part of GHost III, an evening of performance and film in St. John's Church, Bethnal Green, Marc Vaulbert de Chantilly and I created AISLE, a ten minute performance resonating with ideas of penance, pilgrimage and ritual. Ghost III took place from 6pm to 10pm on Friday 17th December 2010, organized by Sarah Sparkes and Ricarda Vidal.

View inside St. John's Church, Bethnal Green, looking towards the altar end of the church. Taken during the rehearsal for AISLE - you can just see the blurred crawling figures near the white screen.

The dark pews in the dimly lit church interior for the AISLE performance.

The lights in the church were low, the pews dim, so that their occupants were barely distinguishable. The aisle of the church was comparatively more illuminated, its flattened well-worn pink-red carpet singled out by the lighting as the one route through the church. As the audience mumbled and rustled, after the previous performance ended and whilst waiting for ours to begin, Marco and I made our separate ways from where we had been sitting to the top of the aisle. We knelt down and began to untie our shoe laces. We took off our shoes, and then our socks. Our naked feet indicated the beginning of a ritual, with a sense of awe or respect for the forthcoming actions; coupled with intimations of a dance; and suggestions of insanity and deprivation. Observing shoeless people I notice that they are perceived as the abject, the utterly vulnerable, the insane. On the occasions I’ve removed my shoes in public I’ve been met with concern and consternation. Perhaps looking comfortably hippy-ish or high-heeled exhausted mitigates against this – but as an otherwise-outwardly-normal person shoelessness is a breach of sanity and comprehensibility. In our performance we wanted to evoke the ritual and niceties of religious and other ceremonies where shoe removal is involved - outside a house or a temple, in a newly carpeted home – suggesting reverence, occasion, respect – but to destabilize these ideas during the performance. We wanted to unsettle readings of our rationale, to make interpretation awkward. Bare, naked feet felt liberating, comfortable, practical. It was a route into closeness with the ground and integration with our movements – and a nod to nakedness. Our bare-footedness was carefully planned, yet it went barely noticed at first.

Kneeling to remove shoes at the start of the aisle.

Ghost-blur kneeling to remove shoes.

Starting to crawl.

From our bare-foot-kneeling position we lowered our whole bodies onto the ground and stretched out our arms before us, prostrated. We began to slither-crawl forward. The moment of transition from not-crawling to crawling had the sensation of diving into a swimming pool; of being on a clear and significant threshold - a sensation which was familiar from previous crawl performances. We had done a practice crawl at my studio a few days earlier, where we used the hallway, at the end of a long corridor. The floor is stone, or concrete, and was freezing. We slid side by side on our bellies in the narrow space, negotiating our movements and interactions. The cold slammed into our stomachs, my top riding up so that my belly and midriff were directly in contact with the freezing surface. When we arrived at the church to rehearse on the day of the performance we saw that the aisle was carpeted, and I had a sense of almost-guilt, that the crawl would be so much more comfortable and warm than I had expected and intended. Yet, during that rehearsal we were responded to with the comment ‘You must have done something really awful to have to do that much penance!’ So the resonance of pain and suffering seemed still to be present.

The carpet of the aisle, ant's-eye view. And ghost-blurred crawling figures.

The screen at the end of the aisle, with two 'will o' the wisp' lights, which we are crawling towards. Crawlers'-eye-view.

When we began our AISLE crawl, the audience, attuned perhaps to vertical or louder events, carried on chatting and drinking and glancing around for the first few moments where we silently, subtly moved. Our crawl was a belly-flat-to-the-floor type of crawl, dragging ourselves along with outstretched arms.  We moved towards the altar, slowly, painfully, painstakingly.  Whilst we crawled, from above our heads on the balcony, a choir began to sing a repeated refrain of ‘again and again and again and...’ As each phrase was fading out a solo voice emerged from the opposite balcony to respond with another refrain of ‘again and again and again...’ the single and multiple calls merging, overlapping and pulling each other onwards. The music was mantra-like, enigmatic, ambiguous, but insistent. It was gentle and soothing in the tone of the voices, yet its cyclical and unceasing nature carried an element of threat and desperation, of compulsion and castigation. ‘Again’, a word which was embodied in its performance - an ‘onomatopoeic’ singing. Again, a word which I have repeatedly painted and drawn, on tissues, rizlas, canvas, and which Marco has sung in the lyrics of Rex Nemo songs. A word we have both pondered, and returned to; repetition, repetition, repetition. Again: I think of compulsion, addiction, meditation, repetition, history, pattern, inscription. As the ‘again’ refrain began, eyes were drawn around the church, and to the lit aisle with our crawling bodies, and our presence dawned on the audience.


Crawling heads down.

Crawling head up.

There was silence from the audience as we dragged ourselves forward. Marco pulled himself forward with his fists clenched, his legs a dead weight; tiring, he sighed and groaned at the effort, communicated visually and audibly. His body clad in lighter-coloured clothes than mine, and his accompanying sounds, drew attention to his figure, dominating the dual-crawl. I wore dark clothes, contrasting to Marco’s in colour, but similarly normal everyday type of clothing, baggy trousers and jumper, so that our crawl appeared perhaps spontaneous, part of the everyday world. I crawled differently - silently, smoothly, stretching out my arms and fingers, clawing into the carpet, dragging myself, legs slightly bent to give a little propulsion. I felt lost and contained within the world of crawling, the slithering movement, the sensation of the floor against my stomach, tops of my feet and palms. The visual and stylistic contrast emphasized the difference between the two crawlers – unified in an activity, a purpose, but possibly in competition, or negotiation.

Crawling down the aisle.

Our movements were low to the ground, an inversion or perversion of a conventional procession/perambulation down the aisle. I was aware of the history of processions along the aisle – the routine church services, communions, marriages and funerals that take place there - and of our laying our own ritual over these, our intervention in ritual. As a crawling couple perhaps we prompted thoughts of Adam and Eve, and the serpent, forever crawling and eating the dust – an image of conflated Christian mythology, contorting ideas of sin and shame and temptation into an ambiguous and malleable spectacle. Pilgrimages and penitent journeys which process hand and knee through villages and towns, streets and floors, to end in the church, echoed through the crawl – events of endurance and tradition in some places, but which are unfamiliar in Bethnal Green. Mexican and Polish friends pointed out these histories to me, after previous crawling performances, though the impulse to crawl, for me, came from somewhere internal and unorganized – perhaps informed, osmotically, by centuries of others’ crawls? Our crawl necessitated the audience to suppose their own idea of our purpose. Ahead of us, at the altar end of the aisle there was a large white screen on which two tiny ‘will o’ the wisp’ lights were roaming, flitting, searching. We moved towards these - drawn, beckoned, impelled, seeking, the lights giving a logic and object to our movements. ‘Never underestimate the power of ritual,’ Marco had said to me some time before we made the performance, words which continue to turn over in my mind.

Crawling towards the table-obstacle.

Our crawl had been intended to be, at times, something of a 'battle' - we would verge across each other's path, tussle, barge. This battle would have its climax in our negotiation of an obstacle placed half way down the aisle – a table covered with a heavy velvet cloth, and a film projector mounted on it. The obstacle occupied half the width of the aisle and, we realized in rehearsal, that from our awkward horizontal positions it would be a case of under or around, one at a time. We decided to use the obstacle to further dramatize our struggle. When we were near to the obstacle Marco got ahead of me. I crawled faster and, there not being space for us both to pass through the gap side by side, I began to pull myself onto Marco’s back. I crawled and dragged myself up his legs, across his back, and slightly kicked in order to get over his head and beyond the obstructed bit of the aisle first. It became something of a race. I felt myself pushing my foot back into Marco’s hand or head, ruthlessly, attempting to ‘win’ - at the same time realizing the playful and sexual connotations of this over-body crawl, with its intimacy and familiarity and entwining. Marco’s passive acceptance of my over-crawl unsettled the gendered idea of competitiveness.

Crawling around the obstacle.

Gail crawling beyond the obstacle.

Hood up.

Gail crawls ahead of Marco.

On the other side of the aisle obstacle Marco’s hood fell over his head, concealing his face, making him appear monk-like. We again crawled side by side, the pace increasing as we saw our destination of the altar nearing. The choir’s refrain had continued to repeat, the lights on the screen continued to flit, and our movement and Marco’s groaning continued too. The build up of repetition in movement and sound, its cycle, progress and yet getting-nowhere-ness, created both tension and meditativeness – a sense of expectation and waiting, and also of being lulled, held, suspended...

Arms outstretched.

Crawling towards the light.

Marco elbows Gail.

Nearly at the altar and screen.

At the end of the aisle, by the altar, screen and lights.

...I arrived first by the altar, dragged myself onto it, still on my belly, and crawled off behind the screen. Marco followed, hauling himself up heavily, legs still unused. We concealed ourselves behind the screen, and listened as the choir’s refrain of ‘again and again …’ faded away. There was a pause, as, we presumed, the audience figured out that the performance had ended. Silence of the audience at the end, after their noise at the start. Then some kind applause, and a shout of ‘Again! Again!’ from someone in the audience. Later, we were asked of the time we spent behind the screen, ‘Were you shagging at the altar? I hoped so.’

Crawling round the corner...

...and onto the altar...

...Marco's feet disappearing...

Music performed by members of the Hackney Secular Choir and Kate Kotcheff.

‘Will o’the wisp’ lights by Sarah Sparkes and Ricarda Vidal.

All photos by Matt Rowe, except last two (below), by Sarah Sparkes.

You can see a short film of AISLE by Sarah Sparkes and Helen Bee on YouTube.

There's more about GHost events on the GHost blog...

...and on the GHost facebook page.

You can read about two previous performances I did involving crawling, 'Dishclout: The Human Duster' and Crawl on these earlier posts...

...and my first collaborative performance with Marc Vaulbert de Chantilly, 'Silent Bell Ringing'.

Here's a link to my AGAIN painting in the exhibition 'East End Promise'.

Rex Nemo & the Psychick Selfdefenders + Hackney Secular Singers play Girls Division and Set Your Spirit Free Supernormal Festival, in this YouTube video.

For GHost II, at St John's Church in 2009, I made Crossbones, a short film of the ephemeral memorials at the unconsecrated graveyard...

...and for GHost Hostings, at Senate House in February 2010, the Reverand Marc Vaulbert de Chantilly gave a sermon-performance - you can see a short film of the sermon here