Saturday, August 7, 2010
Scotee and Kate
Promotional images from Scottee's Cognitive (2010)
Well now, it has been a busy old week of buying handbags and drinking rose martinis on roof terraces around London, but fear not lover, I've been bearing witness to art in the interim. As part of the RVT's Hot August Fringe performance protagonist Scottee presented a new one-on-one installation occurrence called "Cognitive", in which the (singular) audience member is invited into a recreation of Scottee's teenage unconscious, lovingly (and rather minimally) staged in the upstairs bedroom of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern itself.
Stills from a performance of Cognitive.
The room has something of a dream quality to it, painted as it is entirely white, with accents of looped white handwriting (the kind of text junior school children call "joined up" writing") sharpied on the walls. Being apparently alone in the room before the performance begins is both a calm and sinister moment. In the corner is a bare white bed, stripped and without linens. Scottee emerges, part chyrsalis, part amorphous Croenenburg shape shifter, from the folds of the somewhat grubby duvet, to the mellow sounds of the Mamas and The Papas, the first of several nostalgic musical pieces which soundtrack the performance. The image, in its off-whiteness, is reminiscent of both Tracey Emin's "My Bed" and Benjamin Smoke's "Clean White Bed"; although this is a piece ostensibly about childhood reverie, there is no rose tinting, nothing of Bachelard about the poetics of this space. Instead what we have is a very intimate, strangely hallucinatory, unsanitized (though specifically shaped) exploration of that indescribable area, the waking dream. But it is also a thoroughly emotive examination of performance itself.
My Bed, Tracey Emin (1999)
The lone audience member watches Scottee in a mirror, for the most part the performance happens behind the viewer, giving the room an uncanny, psychologically dysphoric atmosphere, a sense of watching yourself being chased through a nightmare. And of course the audience member is actually , literally watching herself because her face is actually present in the mirror that presents the performance. The whole set up is one of dislocation, genuinely hypnotic, almost akin to the startled and confused rush to locate oneself felt upon the first encounter with that famous floating face behind the barmaid's head, in Manet's Bar at the Follie Berge.
Bar at the Follie Bergere, Edouard Manet (1882)
Cognitive requires the audience member to participate, not in a demanding or pressured way, but rather the intimacy of the situation, and the directness of Scottee's requests for secrets and white lies obliges one. There is a moment in the piece when Scottee and the audience member, sat next to each other, join together to stare at themselves and try to make themselves cry, all to the strains of Nina Simone singing "I love you Porgy." If it sounds a little sentimental, it is, but it's beautifully affecting, and this participant most certainly welled up. I was left with the feeling that I had vacated my body for a little while, it felt as though I'd finally succeeded in astral projection. It also made me muse on the meaning of performance. Who is the performer? When are they the performer? How does it change the performance when one performer (myself for example) becomes the audience? Performance is a nebulous thing, there are some qualifications as to what can be considered a work of art, and the extent of what is performance has some limits but, to quote Saki, "The trouble is that the limits are not always in the same place."
Likewise Kate Pelling's new video piece The Proxy Hypothesis takes a rather psychological slant on the topic of performing and perfromers and where the line between the two is drawn. Ms Pelling is, like Scottee, an omnipresence at the RVT, hosting the door, showing work, feeding back on the work of others, generally being a community participant. For this new work she has chosen five of the RVT's most loved performers, Ophelia Bitz, Fancy Chance, Nathan Evans, Michael Twaits and David Hoyle, and placed them individually, alone in a room with a camera and a microphone. Guess what they talk about? Themselves, and brilliantly.
David Hoyle in a still from Kate Pelling's The Proxy Hypothesis (2010)
They dissect their egos, their personae, their racial make-up and their roles as artists, often with great pathos. Burlesque dancer Fancy Chance exploring her status as a Korean-American is sweetly straight forward in her observations, and the near silence of cabaret chanteuse Ophelia Bitz, after discussing her on-stage/off-stage dichotomy, is disarmingly intimate. A lot of the magical introspection is down to Kate's smart editing, which leaves the viewer with the isolated performer for just long enough to start to feel their squirming boredom, but then jumps to moments of revelation and campy showing off, before it becomes tedious, and then back again for more awkward huffing, stammering, a bit of raving, a bit more tense silence and the occasional profound hiccup of genius, such as David Hoyle announcing: "When I'm not possessed I can feel very much like an empty husk, there's really no point to my existence, other than when I'm onstage."
Both The Proxy Hypothesis and Cognitive do strange and wonderful things to the notion of performer and performance. They are both intimate looks at the psychological processes that an artist works through when creating for the public's consumption and both of them fill us in on certain aspects of the performers backstory. In isolating her performers (all of whom come on camera as "themselves", somewhat if not entirely removed from their stage persona) in a room, alone with everybody so to speak, Kate Pelling creates a sort of mad house on camera, forcing her performers to stare into themselves and forcing us to watch them do so. And there is no escape, because the video is mesmerizing and deeply entrancing. It's a coincidental replication of the experience one has staring into the mirror and watching Scottee perform (alongside one) in his bedroom during Cognitive.
It's a probing, there's something most definitely existential about it, but charmingly cracked, quirkily dream like, undeiably druggy about both pieces, sort of like watching someone trip too hard and running to their bedroom and talk to the walls for hours, whilst you do your best to babysit them, from a safe distance. Of course, the unanswered question is, "can a performer ever not be a performer?" Is it in their DNA? Even when requested to come to a video shoot with no prepared material, without make-up, can a performer ever stop mugging? Will they always have an anecdote up their sleeves or a clever way to word a thought? The performers in Kate's video never quite seem sure if they are giving a performance, or just talking, or rather what's the difference, and the confusion leaks out into the realm of the audience too. Of course, if this isn't a performance are the audience actually just voyeurs? The meaning of what is performed changes what it means to view. Likewise when a performer is required to sit quietly through another artist's work(during which they are presented with their own reflection) can that performer ever lose their sense of performing? Perhaps I was performing the role of Engaged Audience Member #1 during Cognitive.
Can a person (any person, performer or politican) ever shake off the weight of being, the knowledge that they're always performing themselves? Can we ever just be? I think it's fair to say that living on fault lines of body/work, male/female, acknowledged artist/DSS payments makes a person more aware that they are performing at all times, that it's inescapable, I suppose the trick is not to let it drive you totally mad. If you have less of an awareness of yourself, if you believe that the body you are in, the clothes you are in, the life you are in are purely natural, unremarkable, and fixed then perhaps you are freed (somewhat) by that in-ness from regarding yourself, critically, from the outside, examining your existence once removed. I'm not entirely sure that this is a good thing to lack this strain of objectivity, though it maybe an easier thing, I've never really believed that ignorance is bliss. But I do think that it is one of the decided differences between people who perform (in situations framed as performances) and people who don't. And the attended body drama is just a bonus.
Nathan Evan's in a still from The Proxy Hypothesis
You can see Kate Pelling's The Proxy Hypothesis at her website http://www.katepelling.com/ whilst Cognitive by Scottee will return for more showings this Fall. See http://scottee.co.uk/ for more.