From ice cream wars to retro-futurism

Edward Scheer writes from Glasgow

Lucy Taylor, Margaret Mills, Mark Minchinton, Natasha Herbert, Still Angela

Lucy Taylor, Margaret Mills, Mark Minchinton, Natasha Herbert, Still Angela

Lucy Taylor, Margaret Mills, Mark Minchinton, Natasha Herbert, Still Angela

In the 80s, Glasgow’s underworld tore itself apart over routes for ice cream vans. Not just because Glaswegians have a mania for the pig fat confectionery but because the routes were ideal cover for drug couriers and distributors. But you get the picture: bad food and violence. Glasgow’s main exports.
New Territories is one of the city’s claims to a cultural singularity of a different kind. Nikki Millican and team woke the city from its mid-winter hibernation with a mix of work from dance and performance art contexts. Millican is a key figure in this scene in Glasgow. At about the same time as the ice cream wars broke out she developed New Moves, a festival of experimental dance. She has also curated the National Review of Live Art (NRLA) for the previous several years. New Territories brings the 2 events together under one umbrella—and boy do you need one of those in a Glasgow winter.

Here are some fragments from one day of NRLA material: a room pulsing with heavy bass electronica as an installation, no dancing allowed (Alistair Macdonald). Documentation of an event exhibited as the event—a room full of papers with all the appeal of a KGB committee meeting (Third Angel). A sensible looking woman painstakingly cutting up Safeway bags and knitting the resulting plastic twine into a straightjacket (Elaine Dwyer). Yes, shopping can be a constraint on your time, but so can neurosis. An Indian woman with her eyes closed speaking a text directly into a microphone (Shamshad Kahn). Simple, personal and powerful performance delivered with a hypnotic pace and tone. This is what live art can be, but too frequently isn’t.

Then came Forced Entertainment. This Sheffield-based performance ensemble have been together for around 15 years but have never made it to Australia though they told me they’d love to come (take note live-art curators!). One of the ground breaking companies of recent British performance they, once again, found a fiendishly clever way to unbuild a performance event in And on the Thousandth Night (based on One Thousand and One Nights of course).

Here’s the scene. The company are onstage wearing red silk capes and paper crowns. One by one they address the audience and start telling stories beginning with “Once upon a time there was a…” They compete, interrupting and stealing each other’s stories over the 6 hours of the piece’s duration. Tim Etchells, the composer of much of their work, says he became interested in the performance potentials of this free narrative mode when having to invent bedtime stories to tell his kids. I liked the one about 2 duelling aeroplanes writing abusive messages to each other in the sky. Amazingly, despite or because of the relaxed mode of address, real conflicts build on stage and the mood in the auditorium shifts in and out of a kind of mild hysteria. I found that, though I knew there was no end to the stories, I listened as if there would be, my desire completing the structure of the event even as it was unravelling before my eyes, proliferating fragments.

The venue for this and the NRLA was The Arches, a series of dusty cavernous spaces under Central Railway Station. Used by clubs and bands more than conventional performance genres, it’s run a bit like Performance Space was at the end of the 90s but the bar and foyer areas are the stuff of designer fetishism: orange dangle bits and moulded plastic furniture. This collision of packaged space and found space mimes the city itself. That is, merchant city, tenement city, housing estates, and the liveliest club scene in the UK.

Right outside the Arches, a skateboarding performance event took place in the futurist abstract landscape New Plaza designed by Toby Patterson, artist and skater. A champion of his city, Patterson said on receipt of this year’s ICA/Becks Futures Arts Prize, “anything that puts Glasgow on the map is good.” More impressive was the collection of skater art videos including Patterson’s which was part of the Intersection program screened at Lighthouse, a contemporary art space in the city. These pieces brilliantly translate the traditions of body art into a contemporary urban context through the twinned technologies of digital video and skateboards. Gliding figures cutting through a variety of bleak urban environments may not be everyone’s idea of performance art—but which is more artistic: a skater passing an art gallery, or a skater wearing a suit of electric lights and zipping through a housing estate at night? Intersection is an intriguing mix of Dali and suburban leisure aesthetics and, believe it or not, there’s already a book on this phenomenon: Skateboarding, Space and the City. Architecture and the Body by Iain Borden (Berg, Oxford).

A short bus trip (I never skate in winter) away from the Arches is Tramway, the venue for much of the dance-theatre component of the festival. Occupying converted tram sheds in a derelict part of Pollockshields in South Glasgow, it’s a strangely pristine space for such a crappy environment. Here Ultima Vez, the Belgian based company of Flemish choreographer Wim Vandekeybus, presented Scratching the Inner Fields. This was a portentous piece that relied too heavily on a text by Peter Verhelst that relied too heavily on the use of the clause “they say that” (whoever ‘they’ are). Passages such as “They say that hunters enjoy chasing after game. That they enjoy the smell of a frightened animal. That they come when the blood flows over their hands. That they smear the blood over themselves”, had me pining for the chirpy discontinuous narrative of Forced Entertainment. The all-female cast did what they could with this cumbersome material. Meanwhile, some intriguing choreographic manoeuvres were playing themselves out. A woman with her hand locked in a casket. The staccato slap of rolled up cauls hitting the stage wetly and then stretched over lights to become membranous shades dividing the space into miniature red light areas. Three performers collapsing with exhaustion, being buried in dirt, then emerging, dirt clinging in patterns to their sweat drenched bodies. But the visceral and apocalyptic images of the piece do not cohere, and the sheer intensity of the staging is the only trace of Vandekeybus’ time with Jan Fabre.

Companhia Paulo Ribeiro of Portugal managed the interplay of the textual and the physical much better in a piece called Sad Europeans—Jouissez Sans Entraves —an effective counterpoint to the chaotic weightiness of the Belgians. This virtuoso dance-theatre piece mixed technical rigour with parodic reframing of technique. The dancers’ development of a movement was followed with a reflection on its construction redolent of Bausch and DV8—but with a quieter, more focussed staging. Ribeiro has the guts to rely exclusively on his own wit and the skills and animal energies of his company.

This piece was a suitable follow-up to Lisa O’Neill’s clever pastiche of Tadashi Suzuki (his technique and his critique of western ballet) in her Fugu San. My students at the University of Glasgow said they thought it was ‘cool’ and that they ‘didn’t know you could do performance like that’ (I think that’s what they said), but that they didn’t get the Suzuki stuff. It’s true to say Suzuki, and Japanese performance more generally, does not play the role in Scottish performance culture it does in Sydney and Brisbane.

They found Cazerine Barry’s Sprung easier to read with its claustrophobic exploration of domestic space suggesting a loss of dimensionality, a similar game played by Station House Opera in Mare’s Nest. This piece has 4 performers working both sides of a large structure comprising decking and a screen with a doorway connecting the 2 sides of the space. The interior of a room is projected onto the screen. In this virtual area we see a variety of images which we are denied in the flesh eg 2 of the performers turning their naked bodies away from us. At one moment, we see a performer on the screen shoving his penis at the doorway just as the real door is slammed. But it’s soon pretty clear that the switching between ontologies is the only game in town.

The idea of technology as performance took on an even more spectacular aspect in the work of Italian company Materiali Resistenti Dance Factory with their Waterwall. The piece consists of members of the company in black rubber suits cut off at the knee negotiating an enormous metal structure which eventually starts gushing water. This is the brainchild of Ivan Manzoni and it is pure retro-Futurist confection: part aqua-aerobics part biomechanics. Imagine 6 Irma Veps abseiling down a metallic waterfall and then sliding off into the audience. Choreography isn’t the right word, but the effort of the performers swinging rhythmically off ropes under the cascading water and maintaining timing and balance was the real achievement of this spectacle.

An image to close. Leaving the Materiali piece I approached the glass exit doors to see the company in street clothes under the eaves with a torrent of rainwater pouring down behind them. Someone should have told them that on the West Coast of Scotland in Winter, dancers should always wear their rubber suits all the way back to the hotel. Oh, and don’t buy the ice cream. Not until it warms up anyway.

New Territories: An International Festival of Live Art, Glasgow, Scotland, February 11 – March 16

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 27

© Edward Scheer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002